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The Difference in Green


Joni Koehler

Winner of the 2007 Best Emerging Writer Award




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HISTORY IS A SNARE. IT TWINES AROUND MOTHS, AND MOLECULES, AND MEN LIKE A VINE.   It creeps into fog, rain, pain.   It watches for an opening, and imperceptibly lays a mark.   A leaf of fur curls around a foot, then another leaf, and another.   This is how Big Foot and Wal-Mart got started.

              It is how humans got started. We all have a story, the underside of us that makes us who we are, and running is useless.   Like beating back a tornado with a butterfly wing. Like looking back over your shoulder at your ancestors; mothers and grandmothers entwined in green pulsating thread, clutching bits of bowling shirts and old bags of fritos, wishing, wishing,   you were strong enough to hack free of the throbbing umbilicus of all those mothers.

    Take a baby. Your mother shoots you out, a wet gumball, and you lay, completely one thing.   For the last time in your life, you are one thing.   If only you didn't have to scream.   If you didn't scream, history would not, perhaps, notice.  

            But you do scream, because insanity is inbred, and you need accessories.   The minute you open your mouth, history sees you.   While your attention is on wanting a breast full of milk, history whispers, "This is your mother."

            You look at your mother.   She's tearful, or she's a red- headed laugher.   Maybe she holds you for a second and shoves you back at the nurses with a muffled curse.   History started dealing with your mother the minute she was born, and what can you do about it?    

            While you are suckling at a warm breast, or drinking from a bottle, history says, "This is your father," and again, you have to take whatever you get.  

            Maybe your father is a man with the wind in his smile.   He holds you close for the first time and says, "I will love you until the day I die."   He doesn't believe you will remember, but you do remember.   You remember his face close to yours, and the raisin wrinkled arms that raised you to the sky. And you remember how he tried to keep your mother from giving you that name.

Names are bathed in history, and each person is named according to what history has done to the parents.   Sometimes kids get named for what the parents wish they had done with their own lives.   Star, or Hope, or Bubba have extra expectations to live up to.  

            But if you're lucky, you won't get a cast-off name.   Maybe your mother is too lazy to think of one, and she flings the first name that slithers into her head. Maybe your father, willing to think, wants her to wait.   Wants her to think of a name that will give you a chance at passion, ability to dare.   Your father says, "What does she look like?   How about Amanda?   I think Amanda is a sweet name."  

            Maybe your mother agrees, lamely tupping her head in a vertical direction.   But as soon as your father leaves the room, she rings for her drugs, and they bring her papers and she goes back to her I-don't-care-what-we-call-her name and scrawls "Mary".    You're a baby and your mother has named you Mary, and she has given you this name as a torment in your direction. Now, history has permission to come and talk to you whenever it wants, say whatever it wants.  

            Then, you go home.   There is your father, and you remember the sound of his laughter, like a lock coming untumbled.   And you remember his lower leg, how you loved hanging onto it when he came home smelling of leather and sod.   The low blue of his pant as he swung you on his foot.   And how, on a day like any other, your mother dragged you off of his calming leg and took you to Texas.   Took you away from California, your bedroom of the yellow curtains, where if you listened very hard, you could hear the ocean roaring in to the coast. The cool green of California, dissipating in the window of the hulking airplane.  

            History, knowing you were only a Mary, introduced you to the trailer park.   Your life became cacophonous and unwieldy.   Your steps were mincing, as you learned to negotiate broken toys, lawn chairs and chain smokers named Ray.

            You met a succession of new pant legs. Some of the pants were torn-dirty, greased khaki.   Some of them were black wool with stripes, punctuated by black loafers with tassels.   There were many, many pants for you to look at, but their variety did not interest you.   None of these legs were safe to dangle from.

            History dogged you.   Glimpses into the mirror revealed your mother's eyes, her nose staring back at you.   Her indifference coursed through you when you gazed at your reddened nose, and when you got your period, and when reruns of Bonanza got canceled.

            Then, you find that history has a special surprise for you called high school.   It is a given that you, a Mary, will not fit. Your clothes are Salvation Army afterthoughts; you are defenseless.   You will take to wrapping your hair over your face and wearing a big green jacket that the latest pair of pants left at your trailer.   There is a spent shotgun shell in the pocket. You constantly feel it, and after a while it seems friendly to you, the only friendly thing.  

            History will give you teachers.   They will sit in the lounge and speculate about your lousy life, your wasted potential.    You will have a social studies teacher who was once in the military.   He admires your green jacket, and regards the two seconds of eye contact he made with you as a breakthrough.    As you looked at him for those two seconds you were rolling the word, "Idiot," over in your mind, until the word was a smoother, more rounded form of itself.

            You have an English teacher.   Her heart bleeds down the front of her filmy waif dress, spilling onto the rhinestone butterflies perched in the vees on her pink sandals.   She wants to touch everybody, including you.   She asks you to stay after class a couple of times a week so she can talk to you about her day.   She dodges her eyes around as she speaks, trying to make direct contact with your own evasive orbs.   She's good, but you're better.   To her, it's just a game. You stay when she tells you to, waiting for her to give up.   She will, just like everybody else. On the fourth or fifth try, she says, "I guess you'd like to know why I keep asking you to stay."  

            You say nothing.   You feel around in your pocket for your shell.  

            "I'd like to ask a favor." She smiles.   You are close enough to smell her dress, rinsed in fabric softener and dried outside in the springtime sun.

            You say nothing, but move your chin a half inch away from your chest.

            "It's just that I think you are very smart.   I know it.   But if you don't do some of your work, they are going to move you into the emotionally disturbed classroom. I don't want that to happen, Mary.   Can you find a way to do something?   It doesn't have to be in my class.   Do your history, for God's sake.   He's a jackass."

            You look up through the veil of hair across your face, and for a nanosecond you make contact with a pleading eye.   Then you turn and leave.   That night you do your history.   At the bottom of the paper, you write "For Tulip."

            Tulip is her first name.   She has told the class this during her Friday telling time.   Telling time is the time she has set aside for group sharing, because sharing is good for the soul.   When asked, she tells a story about hippy parents who named her in a fog of love and organically grown produce.   To you, she becomes Tulip. She's a winter flower that inexplicably thrives in the Texas heat.

            The jackass hands back your paper couple of days later.   There is a single word written in red ink on the top right hand corner.   "Good."   The writing is small and straight, regimented in the way of drill sergeants and serial killers. Tulip sprawls all over people's papers in purple, yellow, and green ink, her loopy handwriting at every odd angle known to geometry. You don't know this from experience.   You've seen it on other people's papers.   Not that you care.   The jackass never writes on anyone's papers, so you get your own bitter victory.

            In English class, Tulip teaches about first and third person point of view. You act like you're not listening, but you are. Someone says, "What about second person point of view?"

            She says, "There is a second person point of view, but it is rarely used.   It is too detached, and therefore we will not cover it." Then she says, "Take out your journals.   Here is your topic."   She swooshes the word "Names," onto the blackboard.

            You take out your journal.   For three months, you've been doodling in it.   Once you wrote, "Don't make me do this." In the margin of a page, but you tore the page out while Tulip was in the hall talking to the principal.   You think of the "good" on the other paper.   You write.

            "Suppose your name is Amanda. With a name like that, you could grow up to be someone.   You could be a beauty queen with a rhinestone tiara and a great lopsided ribbon across your chest.   Your mama could be someone who poufs your hair up for you, and sits in the front row smiling while you act like a tree in your elementary school play.            

            Then, suppose your name is Mary.   And you're not named after anyone, not even the mother of Jesus, and you are as common and close as a light bulb. A name is a portent of your own future, and what does that say, Tulip?   A name like that?"

            Next day, Tulip hands back the journals.   You have a note from her in flowery pink writing.   It says, "Since your name is Mary, I guess you're talking about yourself. I have two things to say to you.   1.   Everyone hates his or her name sometimes.   Get over it. 2. Nice second person prose, but you've demonstrated exactly why I don't like to teach it.   You think it's easier to say things if you act like they aren't happening to you?   Well it's not." She hasn't put anything else on the paper, not even a smiley face without the circle for the head.   Not that you care.

            Her journal topic for the day is cars.   You ignore it and write, "Screw you, foreign flower.   Suppose you live in a trailer park next to the Exxxotica gentlemen's club. Your mom, she dances there, only she's pregnant.   She comes home last week and laughs 'cause the owner, when he found out, thought that would be a turn on for some men to watch a pregnant woman on the pole.   Would you wonder if they kept the pole clean? Would you feel weird hearing the phrase "turn on" coming out of your mother's mouth? Would you? Don't talk to me about getting over it, Tulip. Talk to me when you're fifteen."

            Tulip writes back.   "My mother is round like a lemon, with a moon face and close cut hair.   She tends her garden in a housedress that she won at bingo ten years ago.   I have begged her to throw it out, but she won't listen to me.   She would never dance around a pole, so I won't suppose she does.   That is the problem with second persons.   Second persons want you to put yourself in their place. I'm not a second person, and neither are you.   No one is in your place.  

            Interesting. You slipped into direct address three times, when you said, "Screw you, foreign flower," "don't talk to me about getting over it, Tulip," and "Talk to me when you're fifteen...."     You were angry, and you slipped.   Maybe you should get angry more often.  

            Nice use of vocabulary, by the way.   I was right about your intelligence."

            You slip your journal into your backpack and push out of the desk.   As you walk out of the room, you feel the words "vocabulary," and "intelligent" rolling around in your mouth, pushing the corners of your lips toward the sky.

            Most days, you walk home, to avoid that fat kid on the bus who breathes through his nostrils and constantly licks his lips. But spring has arrived, and the afternoon heat rises in rivulets from the sidewalk.   The word "intelligent" builds your confidence to a level unbefitting one of your station, so you decide to chance the bus. You arrive earlier than usual, and walk into this scene.

            Your mother's babydaddy soundlessly drags your mother across the floor by her hair. You want to say, "Stop!" but there is memory, hacking the nice words out of your brain, replacing them with the thin vapor you sometimes notice in summer darkness. You shrug and go into your bedroom, and there is not one molecule of anger in the air.  

            Later, your mother sits on the edge of your bed and stares out the filmy window.   She says, "It was my fault.   It won't happen again," through the plum colored haze that is her mouth.

            The light streams in through the half-open Venetian blind, and dust filaments dance around her head as she sits for the longest time.   She stands up, and you notice the weight around her middle, the burgeoning of a new child. As she reaches the door, she turns and says, "I made hot dogs.   Want one?"

            You get up and follow her out to the kitchen, and you get a fork out of the drawer and fish two wieners out of the boiling water on the stove.   She has put mustard on two pieces of white bread and you lay the wieners on the bread.   The two of you open the back door and sit on the narrow stoop of the trailer. She takes a couple of bites and chews them.   Then she looks at you and says, "You got nothin' to say?"

            You take a bite of your hot dog and chew it slow, slow.   The neighbor's dog is chained in the back yard next to your stoop.   He growls and then runs to the end of his chain. The chain thunks as he reaches the end of it, he whines, backs up and starts the whole process over.   You chew through three growl, thunk, whine cycles.   Then you look at her and say, "No, I don't have anything to say."

            "Yes, you do.   I can tell. Just say it." She looks off into the distance.   The dog, realizing it can't reach you or your franks, turns its tail to the two of you and begins to kick his hind legs furiously, stirring up a cloud of gray dust.

            You measure. Then you say,"What are you going to do with it?"    

            "With what?"

            "The baby."

            "I'll keep it, of course. I'm happy.   Hey, Mary," she says.   She puts her hand on your outturned chin and pulls your face around to hers. "Look at me, girl.   I'm ecstatic.   Aren't you happy?   We're going to have a new baby around here."

            You put your hand on hers and pull it away from your face.   "How are you going to feed it?   Where's the money coming from?   How are you going to work with a baby?"

            "I took care of you, didn't I?" She takes a breath through distended nostrils, and you can sense the storm rising, her brows building into cloud banks over milky emerald eyes. You say nothing.   "Well," she says again, "I did, didn't I?"

              "My father took care of me," you say. "Can't you remember?   He brushed my hair.   He showed me how to tie my shoes.   He did it." You stand up and shove your hands in the back pocket of your jeans.

Your mother looks down, elbows resting on her knees, head in hands. She chuckles.   "Yeah?   Well, where is he now, Mary?   Where?"

            "He's in California," you say.   "Why didn't you just leave me with him?"

            She stands up next to you.   You and she are exactly the same height.   She whistles at the dog.   He turns around and stops kicking.   She tosses the rest of her wiener at him. As she turns to go into the house, she chuckles again.   "Mary, I think you're the one who can't remember."            

            You lay in your bed for the rest of the afternoon, listening as your mother and babydaddy alternately cajole and threaten one another.   As the last ray of sunlight sags below your window, you hear a loud masculine exclamation and the slamming of the front door.   Ten minutes later, you hear your mother leave, to find him, or someone else just like him.  

            You think of your father.   The day he took you to the beach and told you goodbye, set you adrift on a little paper boat out into the green ocean.   How he drove you far along the coastline, the top of his convertible Beetle flung open, even though the sky was an ominous shade of purple and the threat of summer rain rumbled in the distance.   How the two of you sang kiddie songs for hours as the little car whined around the corners, buzzed up the hills toward that distant place only adults know how to find. How you could have sat forever in the little car, never arriving.    The peeling edges of the parking lot he finally pulled into, grass poking through the cracks, like veins of ore peeking through in a mine.   The cool of the sea as you walked hand in hand toward the surf.   The way you sat for hours and hours as the two of you contemplated the murky green of it, the smell of salt, fish, and iron mixed into the memory of him.   Your absolute conviction that magic was there, a magic between you and he, and that one word would break the spell, one sigh, one ragged breath.   How your six-year-old body betrayed you, and a word slipped out.   "Daddy?" you said, and the terrible sadness that welled into his face, the gate your question opened in him.

            How he had tried to lie and say that it was entirely his fault, he just couldn't, "Make your mother happy." How it had nothing to do with you, that he still loved you.   You imagine where he might be today, what he might say if he was around. How you asked yourself a million times if he cried when he told you.   Wishing you could remember if he had cried.   Wishing you could remember why it was that he said he wouldn't be able to come and see you.  

            You think on this for a long time, while the window unit chunks and whines, and the cuckoo clock clunks in the kitchen.   You can hear your own heart beating, feel it in your throat, and then the truth settles on you, like a blanket.   This nice man was not your father.   He was a guy your mother met at the bank, or the grocery store, or while she was working one of her boring jobs during the spells when she decided to be respectable. He was a construction worker, large on heart, good with his hands, the kind that always makes her say she's dying inside.   He was a pair of pants.   Just another pair of pants.

            You get up and pull your army boots on, put on your jacket.   You walk out the back door, past the growl thunk dog, down the driveway and up the caliche lane that inclines to the top of a swell in the land and butts into the access road.   At the end of the lane, you can see the neon lights of Exxxotica. They flash once, pause, flash twice, pause and then shudder rapidly before pausing and beginning the cycle again.   You can see into the back parking lot of the building from where you stand.   The parking lot is hidden from the main road by a series of concrete walls. The fancy cars belong to fancy men who growl, run, and thunk. They think they are hidden, but they are not.   No one is. It's all just a cycle, filaments of history twine around your ankle before you have a chance to feel shocked.

            You walk around on the rise for most of the night, and wish you could cry. You walk to school next morning, arrive an hour late.   You drop the journal into the trashcan on your way in the door.

            Tulip wants to know where the journal is.   You say you lost it.   She asks you to stay after class.   You do.   She says is everything okay?   You say yeah. She says you can talk to me, Mary.   You say I know.   She says did you get any sleep last night?   You say some.   She says did you have breakfast?   You say no.   She says do you want a cracker?   You say okay.   She gives you one and you eat it on the way to the next class.   She asks you if you found your journal every day for a week, and you say no.

            The social studies teacher tries to start a conversation, says "How are you?   Are you okay?"

            "Yeah," you say.  

            "Then do your work." He says.

            During Social Studies, an office aide comes to the door and hands Jackass a note.   "Mary," he says, "This is for you."   He holds it out, a cruel smile on his face as he waits for you to come to the front of the room and get it.  

            "Please come and see me today," it says.   It is from the counselor.

            You stuff the note in your pocket and go back to your seat.   Your class is World Geography, but your teacher is talking about the Civil War, has talked about the war for months, doesn't know about anything else.   He knows the Civil War, but not history.

            You ignore the counselor's summons for two days, until she comes to get you from class.   She has called you in before, to ask probing questions about your mother's chosen occupation, her boyfriends, her clothing, your clothing, your cleanliness, your mood, your silence, your lack of social skills, your eating habits, your bowel habits, your goals for the future.   You have no answer to any of her questions, because she doesn't understand history either.

            Besides, what would you say?   My mom is shit because she can't care about anyone but herself?   She doesn't watch while I floss?    You'd like to say look lady, social services decided I don't need their help years ago, so what's your problem, but you don't bother. She left you alone for as long as she could, and now she has to do something about the "Mary situation" to keep her superiors happy.

            The counselor is a solid woman, broad across the shoulders and hands.   She has tried to make herself more womanly by curling her hair into fluffy ringlets around her head.   She wears a dress to school every day. Her nails are always manicured and painted a garish shade of pink. Today her hands tremble as she lays your file on the table in front of her.  

            "Mary, I tried to get your mother to come here today.   I even went to your house to talk to her.   She said she had to go to work, so we'll just sort this out ourselves, okay?"

            You shrug.

            She says, "I have talked with your teachers, and we have decided it would be best if you took some tests to see if your placement is appropriate."   

            You do nothing, say nothing.   In your mind, the question, the only question is "Even Tulip?   What did Tulip say?"

            She fumbles with the papers, looks through them.   You notice your file is thick.   She takes a deep breath and says, "Mary, is there anything, anything at all that you'd like to tell me?"

            "Like what?" you say.

            "Mary, do you ever think about harming yourself?"   She is staring at you, trying to gauge your reaction.

You look up, but not at her.   "Or set fire to things?" you say.

              "Yeah, like that."

            "Stuff that might hurt the other kids, you mean, like beating up a puppy, something like that?"   You stand up.   Your fists are balled into wads.   You stuff them into your jacket.   

            "Well, I don't know," she says. "That's why we're here talking.   If you were thinking about or doing those things... it's just that we want to do the best thing for you, Mary."

"You want to send me to the crazy class," you say, "Just send me.   I don't care."

            "Now wait a minute," she says.   She pushes her hands flat over the top of your file. "Nobody is trying to say that you're crazy. The class we are thinking of putting you in is just a place where you can get the individualized attention you need.   It might be the right thing, of course, but first you'll talk to a psychologist and take some tests."

            You say, "When?"   You begin to pace back and forth across the room.

            "I've scheduled it for Monday morning.   We just want to do what's best, Mary."

            She looks at you meaningfully while she straightens the stack of papers that lay inside your folder.   Your history is inside that folder, and she has seen it, so she is straightening the folder to put it away.   Put you away.   Later, she can tell herself she tried; really she did, to reach you, what with the meaningful look and all.  

            "Fine," you say.   You leave the room, slamming the door on your way out.   You go into the bathroom, run water over your face, look at yourself in the mirror.   You try to find the insanity there, in your face with the water running over it.   You can see your mother, again, and again, an indelible part of your history.   The cream soda coloring of your hair, the green of your eye, all her.   But you don't have her beauty, her delicate buoyancy.    You don't have charisma.   There is something of you that came from your Father.   The one you don't know, who could have come from Ireland or Tennessee, or the Moon.   Your father could be anyone, really, and he gave you stuff, too. Only half of your history is written.   The rest is a guess

            You blow your nose, and consider what to do next.   You could run away, but that has not worked out well in the past.   You decide there's nothing to do but go back to class. You walk out the bathroom door, passing the main offices on your way to the classrooms.

            Suddenly you stop. You turn around and go back into the office, and you walk past the startled secretary, back into the counselor's office.   There is another student in her office, sitting in the chair, blubbering about an imagined insult from her best friend's boyfriend.   You tell her to get out.   She does, but not before giving the counselor the look that says, "Shall I call for security on the way out?"

            The counselor tells her it will be okay, and she leaves.   You put your hands on the back of the chair and lean toward the counselor's desk.   You look at the counselor, right directly into her eyes, and you say, "What about Tulip?"

            "Tulip?" she says.

            "Mrs. Beck.   My English teacher."

            "Oh.   What about her?"

            "Does she think I'm crazy?   Does she think I need the tests?"

            "Well, we all made the decision."

            You say, "I asked you a question."

            "You seem upset."   She swivels in her chair and starts thumbing through her files cabinet for you, whom she has already put away.

            "Here's the deal," you say.   "Get her in here right now.   Let her tell me I need to take the tests, and I will."

            "I can't do that."

            "Yes you can," you say.   You keep looking at her, and she keeps looking at you. While you're deadlocked with her, your inner eye can see, over her shoulder, the faces of your mother and her mothers, floating out along the green thread of you.

            She finally looks down.   Her well groomed hands tremble again, a trembling day for her.   She says, "It isn't necessary to call Mrs. Beck.   She didn't agree with the committee."

            You put your hands down, put your head down.   You say, "Thank you."   Then you go back to class.

            When it's time for journals in Tulip's class, she says the topic is color.   She waits until all the others have started, and then walks over and slides a purple spiral notebook onto your desk.   You look up at her and her eyes plead.   

            You open the notebook.   Tulip is still standing over you.   You look back up at her.   She hands you a pencil, and walks back to her desk.   

            You pick up the pencil and write, "Green runs in my family. All the women have green eyes.   Their eyes are all different shades, some flecked with bits of yellow, some dull and hazely, but all of them green. My mother's eyes are the most interesting. They are mercurial and tumultuous; they change hues just like a cloud, or an ocean.   When her eyes are shallow and balmy like the California seas, you'd think she was just a regular mom, toting kids around in a mini-van, buying Polo sweaters for her husband.   They remind me of emeralds sometimes, when she's happy, like lights twinkling over water.   But she is restless, Mom, and when the wind changes, her eyes cloud and clot, like the ocean in Texas, churning for something more.   When her eyes are clouded, there is nothing in the world that can fill her longing, not God, not Man, and not me.   There is always something better around the next corner, something new to try. Still, nothing changes the beautiful green of her, her eyes that love me in their own way.   

            Green is like history, because it's a throbbing, groaning, living thing, and whatever gets put into it shows in all the different shades.     

            Take Texas.   Texas green is geriatric, because by the first of June the sun has sucked all the will out of the grass and the leaves and even the cactus. In Texas, you can look for miles and miles across hills and flat plains, and still all you can see is the hint that green once existed.   You can ride in a car and see the weeds flipping past, like shuffling cards, brittle, brown.

            In California, the green is plumper, more electric.   Alive with possibility.   If you ever fly away from San Francisco in an airplane, you can see millions of blades smiling out at you from the harbor, full of moisture and chlorophyll.

            I used to live in California, with a man who treated me and my mother pretty well.   I guess she liked Texas better.   History plopped me here in Texas, and bounced me there, into the trailer park.   Hank Williams, macaroni and cheese, and spandex two sizes small, but history and destiny are not the same thing. There's California.   Some day, California."





Joni Koehler

I teach eighth grade Language Arts in the rural community of
Lytle, Texas, which is south of San Antonio. I've been married to
the same man for twenty three years. He is nicer than I am. My
daughter and my son are both in college. I am currently working on a graduate degree in Reading and Literacy Instruction. I am a Teacher Consultant for the San Antonio Writing Project and a peer reviewer for Voices From the Middle, a publication of the National Council of Teachers of English. I also write. "The Difference in Green" is my first fiction publication. I published a personal narrative in "Brain, Child" magazine. I'm forty-seven. I feel like my life, the part that belongs to me, is just beginning. In the future I plan to become a literacy coach, lower my BMI, and write an anthropological/ sociological thriller about the grocery store.


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