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Gauche

By Katherine Ha

Gauche: 1) Lacking social polish; tactless. 2) French, awkward, left-handed. 3) Old French, to turn aside, walk clumsily; of Germanic origin.

The scissors hurt, contorting my four-year-old knuckles into backward shapes and directions. That was bad, but the worst part was that I had a vision for this project, and it wasn’t happening. The paper just wouldn’t cut. It slid through the blades, turned sideways, created jagged edges. I raised my hand.

“Mr. Rochefort, my scissors are broken.”

“They are? Let me see.”

He walked to me in brown loafers and corduroy slacks. The rest of the students had already cut out their crudely drawn parakeets and were coloring them. He picked up my scissors, clipping neatly around the tail of my bird.

“They seem to be working fine, Kathy. Let’s see what you’re doing.”

I picked up the scissors and began where he left off, tongue stuck out the left side of my mouth. The paper began to fray and wrinkle.

“Ah. I see the problem,” he said, walking to his desk. He opened drawer after drawer, muttering, “They’re in here somewhere.”

The other kids were gluing bright feathers and sequins to their treasures. My desk was uncomfortable.

“Aha! Here they are!” He held aloft a pair of scissors unlike anything I had ever seen: A rusty, bizarre tool with four navy blue finger holes, two on each side. He walked them over to me, smiling.

Everyone forgot about their now bright birds and stared as he handed me the strange object with the word LEFTY stamped into the blades.

Quietly, I finished my bird, but all of the good feathers were already taken.


II

"A left-handed toast is tantamount to a curse." *

“Grandma Sally is going to baby-sit you today.”

Kim was happy, and went to tidy up her room, because Grandma Sally liked things neat. My stomach had turned to lead.

“Can I go to Connie’s house and play then?” I asked.

Color rushed to my mother’s face. “What a horrible thing to say! Your grandmother will not be around forever, and you should appreciate the time you have with her. She loves you very much, you know.”

There wasn’t much I could say to that, so I went to my room and began carefully tucking my crayons, markers, and coloring books under my bed. I shoved them into the deepest, most shadowed corner I could find. The snow outside was unrelenting.

“I’ll only be gone a couple of hours. Mind your grandmother.” Mom kissed us all briefly before leaving.

Grandma adjusted her glasses and sat on the brown plaid couch, listening to stories about school and what we wanted for Christmas, three days away. We discussed whether The A-Team was ruining generations of young minds. Then came the moment for which I have never forgiven my sister.

“Grandma, let’s write letters to Santa!” she yelled happily.

“What a great idea, Kimberly. Where are your paper and pencils?”

Kim scampered off to get them.  I squirmed. She went to the kitchen table and set up. First came the notebook paper and envelopes, then two pencils and the Scooby Doo sharpener she had gotten for her last birthday, and, finally, the Sears Christmas Catalog. Opening to the toy section, she began listing.

“Aren’t you going to write a letter to Santa, Katherine?” Grandma asked.

I looked down at the brown shag carpeting and shook my head once.

“Why not? Weren’t you a good girl this year?”

I shook it again, and felt the first tear roll down my cheek. My fate was set, and I wasn’t getting presents this year because I couldn’t write the letter. Kim was now on the Easy Bake Oven, page 147.

“Well, write him a letter anyway. Maybe he’ll decide you were good enough.”

Reluctantly I sat down and picked up the pencil, not wanting to begin, but wanting even less to explain why I wouldn’t. I began to write. I had only listed three items (art set, page 157, Barbie Dream House, page 200, purple bean bag chair, page 100) when Grandma saw the problem.

“Kimberly, bring me my sewing bag, please.” Grandma took the pencil from my left hand and secured that wrist to the back of the chair with the red yarn that Kim had retrieved.

“You’ll thank me for this later. It’s the hand the devil uses. Now write with the right hand. They call it that for a reason.”

I held the pencil awkwardly, wobbly letters blurring beneath tears I wouldn’t let fall. I only had time to add one more item to my list (new scissors with 2 finger holes) before the front door opened and my mother strolled in, arms full of holiday packages.

“Hi girls! Did you have fun with your Gran…What the hell?”

She stormed over and untied me, then grabbed her mother’s arm. She dragged Grandma behind her and out into the garage, slamming the door.


III

"It is the right hand that gives the blessing and makes the sign of the cross.”

Pastor Larry Freundt was a studious man, well liked, but quiet in the way that men of the cloth sometimes are. He took the responsibility of seventh grade catechism seriously, and approached it each week in his best gray cardigan. Most days he displayed inexhaustible patience for his flock, but this was not one of those days.

The folding chairs, stamped “property of Good Shepherd Lutheran,” were arranged in a half circle in the church basement. Seven students and Pastor Larry had Bibles open to the Book of Genesis perched in their laps.

“Why was it a sin?” I asked again. My mother had long since taught me that Because is not an acceptable answer.

“It is not our place to ask why it was a sin, my child, only to understand that it was one.”

A short pause. “But why?” I could not let this rest.

“Adam and Eve knew not to eat the fruit of the tree, but did so anyway. They went against God’s will.”

He would say no more on the subject. Used to being obeyed, he stood and turned to the chalkboard, writing the verses that we needed to memorize before next Wednesday. The other students took out their blue catechism books and wrote the verses carefully and precisely in ink.

My mind whirled, cogs meshing, trying to make sense of the conclusions I was making. I had to be wrong. I had to be sure. I raised my left hand tentatively and Pastor Larry visibly tensed.

“Yes, Kathy?”

“If knowledge is evil,” I inquired, “Why do we still have to learn those verses?”


IV

“Passing or pouring wine with the left hand leads to bad luck.”

The carefully folded note lay in my left palm, crumpled and slightly moist from holding it through the whole game. The basketball team was losing in spectacular fashion, as they always did. It was the fourth quarter. He was late again.

Connie and I sat halfway up the bleachers in our red and gray Varsity jackets. The fluorescent lights of the high school gym were hot, but we never took those jackets off in school. The Boone’s Farm we stole from her father’s liquor stash that afternoon was beginning to wear off. He had better get here soon, I thought.

“I don’t think I can go through with this, Connie.”

“Watching this game? Yeah, it’s bad.” She flipped her Aqua Net coated blonde hair over her shoulder and whistled loudly as the team captain missed another three point shot.

“No. This.” I held up the crumpled, misshapen note. The ring inside it seemed to burn my palm.

“It’s gonna kill him. That’s why he’s not here yet. He knows something is up.”

“So what? He was your first boyfriend. He had to know it wasn’t going to last forever.”

“So says the sophomore who never had a boyfriend,” I muttered.

“High school boys suck. I’m saving myself for one of the Coreys.” She’d seen The Lost Boys forty-seven times. The other side of the gym erupted as their team’s forward made a lay-up from inside the paint. “For him though, I’d reconsider.” Connie had a strict rule to never date a boy from her own school, and as I looked around for Greg, I understood her wisdom.

“I’ve known him since third grade, Con. What the hell am I supposed to say?”

“I told you last night. Tell him that you found someone hotter, and that it was fun while it lasted.” She grinned evilly, never having liked Greg.

“Yeah, that’ll go over well. He’ll stalk me with his dad’s shotgun until he finds out who it is.” The noise of people in the stands grew louder, and so did our voices.

“Then tell him the other truth. You just don’t love him anymore.”

“No, the other truth is that I didn’t want to be the only girl in the eleventh grade to not have a boyfriend, and he’s had a crush on me since middle school.”

The cheerleaders were on the floor now, trying to revive the crowd during the last two minutes of play. I looked around the home-side bleachers. Older couples were already leaving. Parents were packing up young children. Students were making post-game Friday night plans. Two rows behind me and to the left I spotted him, unblinking, flowers from his mother’s garden in his lap, tear marks lining his cheeks.


V

"The Meru people of Kenya believed that the left hand of their holy man [had] such evil power that he had to keep it hidden for the safety of others."

The house was huge, the walls a pristine white. Rich spices and the scent of bleach filled the air. I couldn’t imagine what it would have been like to grow up here.

He held my hand as we walked in. We took off our shoes. “Má, Bố, we’re here!” he yelled. Vietnamese art lined the walls, black wood and mother of pearl against the stark white.

“Hello,” his mother cried happily and offered him an embrace. She was a tiny, black-haired woman, barely reaching my shoulder. She then hugged me warmly, taking my left hand and turning it over carefully. “So you are the woman my son brings to me.” Her accent was slow and silvery, wonderful.

“Má, this is Kathy. She is studying to be a teacher. English and French.”

She studied my palm. “Of course she is. It is all here. I went to a French high school in Vietnam, but you already know this, n’est-ce pas?”

I nodded. She guided us to the white leather couch and I sat down uncomfortably.

Avez-vous faim?” she asked.

Non, merci.” There was no way I could eat just then. She still held my palm. The room was silent for long minutes.

“In what year were you born?” she asked.

“1973.” She leaned closer to my hand and ran her cool finger along the lines. She smiled softly and looked up at us.

“You are 23 then, born in the year of the Ox. Oui, you will do for Quang.”


VI

"Wedding rings [are] worn on the third finger of the left hand... to fend [off] evil associated with the left-hand."

After the wedding, the guests left the church. In the quiet of new marriage, the photographer laid our left hands across the altar and placed my flowers near them. We stood still like that while the shots were taken, discussing the angles of stained glass and whether we could skip the reception. Those photos are my favorites from the day, an understated beauty of contrast: Red petals, white linen; smooth, brown hand and simple gold band; calloused, pale fingers and platinum diamond.


VII

If the first sound of a bird in spring comes from your left, it will be an unlucky year.

I didn’t believe it when I first read it, but April really is the cruelest month. It was a month of waiting, wandering, wondering. I wanted to deliver the child, but was afraid of it. The fact that millions of women had done this before didn’t matter: This was my body, my time, and my fears.

The nesting had begun, and I cleaned each surface in the house twice. I reached around impossible corners with my distended belly. Lying down on my back, I cleaned lint and dust from under beds, brought my kneeling cushion in from the garden to clean under tables. It all had to be clean, and I was working against an invisible deadline.

I repacked the hospital bag again each night, folding the clothes first one way then another, but none of them looked right. I would dump the bag on the kitchen table, reorganize its contents, and begin the process: Slippers on bottom, pink rabbit-eared baby outfit next, toothbrush, deodorant, brush, floss, lipstick, Stephen King book, and watch in the outside zippered pouch, not-pregnant clothes next, and then pajamas on top.

One night at 2:27 a.m. after it was all refolded and repacked, I looked at the almost empty wooden tabletop. Something shone there, solid and silver.  It was Quang’s one addition to the packing.

I picked up the coin with my left hand and turned it over, feeling the smooth metal and lines of Saint Anthony. My water broke.


VIII

“An itchy right palm means that you will receive money. An itchy left palm means you will have to give money."

“Fill out these forms,” the receptionist said, handing us a stack of paperwork. She shuffled papers around her desk and stared through her thick glasses at the computer screen. Her eyes never quite met ours. “We’re also going to need proof of income, social security cards, valid state issued identification, and last year’s W2 forms.”

We walked to the only seats left in the maze of gray plastic chairs and sat. Caitlynn was in her car seat at our feet. Her one-month-old eyes quietly scanned the room, finding only gray cubicle walls. The rest of the babies in the room screamed and fussed. Soft music hung over the humid office while everyone filled box after box with information. Quang took half the papers and we began the process of applying for WIC coupons as he hummed to the instrumental version of Borderline.

My hand began to protest after a few minutes and I set my pen down, carefully flexing the cramps from my left palm. The woman behind the desk was repeating in a nasal voice, “Familyserviceswouldyouholdplease? Thankyou!” She pushed heavily on the blinking buttons of her industrial black phone.

The boy to my right abandoned the brother he had been punching, and traced a manic path around the chairs, repeating, “Will you hold please? Will you hold please?” Everyone looked up for a few seconds, but then focused on the next page of paperwork.


IX

“If your right eye twitches you will see a friend; if it's your left eye that twitches you'll see an enemy."

I held the stick away from my body and turned it slowly under the fluorescent lights. I changed the angle, telling myself that maybe the color would change. Maybe it was wrong. The vivid blue remained and its line began to bleed into the white background.

Quang looked at me with dark eyes, waiting to see what I would do. With my left hand, I set the test back down on the counter. Backing up to the edge of the tub, I sat heavily on the porcelain rim.

Caitlynn began to cry loudly in her crib.

We looked at each other and quietly said, “Shit.”


X

“The ancient Zuni tribe considered left-handedness a sign of good luck. They believed the left was the older and wiser."

The smell of burning toast and greasy eggs cut through the early morning of the apartment. The place next to me was empty, turning cold. Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I stretched, listening for signs of life. The commotion coming from the kitchen was loud enough to hear through the closed door.

“Caitlynn, push up the lever on the toaster!”

“Kelsee, do you have the butter and knife ready?”

“Don’t eat that yet—it’s for your mother!”

I sat in the bed, refusing to get up even though my bladder was full. The sounds of pans rattling and giggles fill the air.

Five minutes later, the girls enter the room, eyes dancing bright with surprises, burnt breakfast balancing carefully in their small left hands. They set the feast down on the bedside table.

“Happy Mother’s Day!” they scream, pouncing.

 

*Quotations drawn from the website Anything Left-Handed.

 

Katherine Ha is 31 and grew up in rural Michigan as the only left-handed person in her family. She graduated from Western Michigan University and is currently an English teacher at an alternative high school in Portage, Michigan. Gauche grew out of an assignment she gave her students to write episodic autobiography. She likes to do the same assignments as the students at least once, because it helps her understand any problems they might encounter.


Photo "Kids hand 07" courtesy of Carin Araujo.

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