The Gold Star

FICTION

By G.C. COMPTON

“Alice Rose, Alice Rose, wears her daddy’s shoes and her mommy’s clothes!”

Sung to the tune of a jump-rope song, the words came high-pitched and mocking across the Little Peabrook schoolyard. Again and again they rose, over the clatter of the seesaw and the merry-go-round, above the shrieking swing chains.

And one by one they came: smart-dressed girls and strutting boys, from hopscotch and marble games, from leapfrog and blind man’s bluff—one by one until they were a chorus full 20 strong.

“Red head, red head, 10 cents a cabbage head!”

She had freckles, and hair the color of ripe carrots, and the old wall was as far as she could run. She sat upon the fence of broken stone, this crude boundary between the schoolyard and the creek, between herself and the others, and pretended not to hear.

“Red head, red head … “

She wore a pretty dress, a dress just slightly large and slightly faded but with enormous blue flowers all over and a row of silver buttons down the front. It had cost a whole quarter at the missionary rummage sale and was her favorite dress, a “Sunday dress,” worn to school that day under strict orders from her mother to “keep it clean.” Alice touched the shiny buttons, studied the lovely flowers, but with the words of the jump-rope song still in her ears, the dress was no longer pretty.

With her back to the others, she made great business of trying to catch a grasshopper that lit upon her knee, sneaking from behind with cupped hands to surprise the quick fellow, brown and brittle as the autumn day.

“Alice Rose, Alice Rose, little Miss Potato Nose!”

Shrill laughter pierced the air as the authors of this clever rhyme threw down their rope and skipped off to join a line of Red Rover. There was much pushing and shoving as each team locked hands and faced one another. “Red Rover, Red Rover, send Jenny right over.”

A huge snake doctor, dusty blue with age, hovered briefly on glistening wings, examined the curious tangle of hair, then vanished among the willows and cattails that grew along the creek. Alice hardly noticed, waiting for the bell, for the safety of the classroom. She bore her pain, as always, bravely and without complaint, not because she understood, for she was too young to understand, but because the pain was a part of her, a shameful infirmity, an aching deep inside like a wound that never heals.

It was cold on the wall where Alice sat. There was the bite of winter in the wind gusting down the creek, myriad leaves, gold, brown and yellow tumbling in its wake. She shivered and put her hands into her pockets, the fingers of her right hand closing round a little bundle, a knotted handkerchief that held a solitary coin. In an instant her fear gave way to joy, the pure and simple joy only a child who has a nickel can feel.

Remembering her mother’s warning about untying the knot before she was ready to spend the money, she merely held the bundle, feeling the hardness beneath the cloth and thinking of what she might buy at Fanny’s store at lunchtime. Fanny’s, the little white store on the corner, also called the Campus Inn, was a cornucopia of nickel delights: candy bars and lollipops, peanuts and Cracker Jack, Kool-Aid straws and frosty bottles of soda pop.

And ice cream!

Alice was sure Fanny’s had the best ice cream in the whole wide world: fudgesicles, imps and pushups, red, orange and purple popsicles, and cones in every flavor. Her mind was already made up. When she grew up she would have her own store just like Fanny’s and eat all the ice cream she could hold. Strawberry was her favorite, a nice big corkscrew dip with chips of strawberry and a cute little pig’s tail on top. She always felt grown up and unafraid when she stood with the other children at Fanny’s, impatiently banging the counter with her nickel.

Turning the bundle over and over in her hands, she thought of her mother’s words: “A nickel ain’t something you get every day. Money don’t grow on trees.”

She would only take a peek. With that, she tugged and pulled at the stubborn knot until at last she held the gleaming disc to the October sunlight.

Two mighty Indian chiefs had been on the warpath since the beginning of recess.

Riding low on their ponies, they tore across the playground with great speed. Chief Black Hawk, fierce warrior with strawberry jam on his face, rode past the seesaw and merry-go-round, around the slicky slide and under the monkey bars. In hot pursuit came Chief Red Cloud, defender of the Sioux nation, wielding a deadly stickweed tomahawk.

Chief Black Hawk, his scalp in peril, brought his mount to an abrupt stop before the old stone wall. “Me see’um Pale Face,” said Black Hawk. “Me scalp’um Pale Face.”

The two chiefs, seeing profit in a common cause, smoked a quick and imaginary pipe of peace.

“Pale Face got money,” said Red Cloud. “You scalp’um Pale Face. Me rob’um Pale Face.” Without warning, Red Cloud snatched Alice’s nickel from her hand and began tossing it into the air while Black Hawk began a war dance along the wall, whooping and yelling and waving his tomahawk.

“Gimme my nickel,” Alice pleaded. “Give it back! Please.”

The sudden ringing of the class bell brought an end to the little drama that would surely end in carnage. Delivering a final bloodthirsty war whoop, Black Hawk threw down his tomahawk. Red Cloud tossed the nickel into the air resignedly, caught it with a deft backhand and sent it spinning toward its owner. Alice was still reaching for the precious coin when it struck the wall, bounced crazily, rolled into a crevice and vanished forever.

Leaving behind a life of robbery and mayhem with mutual regret, the two chiefs, walking side by side, re-entered the dull and civilized society of the classroom.

There were 30 students in Miss Brown’s third-grade class. Alice sat in the last seat in the third row, a window seat that caught the morning sunlight in a great puddle of silver. The child, however, was often oblivious to the pretty patterns that played upon her desk, the leafy frescoes, prancing horses and dancing fairies. She was more aware of the sun’s warmth on these chilly fall days.

Rather than running the risk of embarrassing the quiet pupil by calling on her in class, Miss Brown usually let her marks speak for her instead. She was not a star pupil, but an above-average one in every subject—except art. No matter how hard she tried, the poor thing couldn’t draw a straight line with a ruler. Invariably, her trees, which she had patiently colored purple, red and orange, looked like lollipops. Her grass, tall and spiked as a picket fence, was green one day, blue the next. She drew matchstick people with broom straw necks upon which tottered great pumpkin heads. Her grown-ups were taller than the trees and straddled parti-colored houses that seemed to lean in every direction at once.

It was a custom with Miss Brown when grading her students’ work to acknowledge particular levels of achievement by pasting a small colored star in the upper right-hand corner of their papers. A green star represented poor work, and the color alone came to be associated with disapproval, rejection and failure. When a student received the green star he was likely to lose such unscholarly work before he got home. A blue star was better, but nothing a pupil wanted to share with his neighbors. A silver star was an emblem to be proud of when one considered Miss Brown’s strict criteria of excellence; it was something approaching an accolade to be shown to parents and flouted before classmates.

And there was the gold star!

The gold star, the coveted badge of distinction that had become the heart’s desire of every serious student, whether in math, composition or art, meant envy and admiration from classmates, praise and honor from their teacher, and sometimes, from proud parents, a whole nickel or dime to spend on anything from licorice whips to penny balloons!

Alice had earned more than one silver star for her work. She was proud of each of them, but would have been prouder still had they not always appeared on her arithmetic papers or writing lessons. Anybody could get a silver star in those subjects, she told herself. It was always the silver and gold star art that hung on the big bulletin board by the bookcase.

Given her previous failures, the child had abandoned hope of ever receiving the gold star, or even the silver or blue star, for her artwork, yet the desire for that award was never suppressed and often took the form of quiet tears.

Meanwhile, she labored tediously with pencil and crayon, drawing wobbly red houses with yards and gardens abloom with multi-colored and tangled flora, green, and sometimes blue, bulbous trees leaning this way and that under a great grinning sun. She continued to fashion her spindly, matchstick people and grossly deformed animals that towered over the housetops, their heads wreathed in clouds and rainbows round their necks. She painstakingly etched bright caricatures of Buddy, her little brother, and her dog Tag, and handed them in to Miss Brown.

“Is this a dog or a cat?” Miss Brown felt compelled to ask one afternoon as she leaned over Alice’s desk, wrinkling her brow over the latest portrait.

“It’s a moo cow, Miss Brown,” she meekly confessed.

Perhaps it was the kind hand of fate that favored Alice one Friday afternoon when she turned in her art lesson to Miss Brown. She had drawn a picture of a large golden-haired doll she had seen in the window of the Virgie 5 & 10 store. Realizing she could never own such a lovely, exquisite thing, she had decided to draw a picture of the beautiful toy. She took pleasure in knowing that, long after the doll itself had vanished from the window, she would still have its picture. With that, she went to work, pouring her very heart into the effort.

“Class,” Miss Brown said, holding Alice’s drawing for all to see. “This is how a doll should look. Very good, Alice Rose!”

The drawing was returned to its creator with a silver star gleaming in the upper right-hand corner. That evening no one got a chance to scoff at Alice, to taunt her with their cruel rhymes, and that day it would not have mattered. It was not the joy of receiving the silver star that sent her flying homeward down the railroad track almost before the last bell had stopped ringing. It was tomorrow’s promise of gold.

~~~

It was less than a month before Thanksgiving. In the spirit of the holiday, Miss Brown had decorated the classroom with artwork from her students. There were a dozen drawings of the Mayflower above the blackboard, some of which portrayed the little ship as a gallant and seaworthy clipper. Others, perhaps closer to the facts, showed her as little more than a leaky canoe ready to spill her passengers into the Atlantic and forever change the course of history. There were pictures of fat pilgrims in black frocks and funny hats, and half-naked Indians seated at the white man’s table with scalps dangling from their belts. True, there were no nascent Michelangelos or Van Goghs, but it was a colorful frieze, to say the least, arranged in descending order of artistic excellence. Alice’s green-star impression of a big Tom turkey hung near the end, looking like a wounded buzzard.

With the same enthusiasm given the art display, Miss Brown plied her students with a rudimentary history of America’s first settlement.

“Class,” said their teacher, pointing with her yardstick to the picture of a big ship that said Mayflour just beneath the gunwale. “By now we should know the first settlers came to America on a ship named the Mayflower. Who can tell us the name of that first settlement?”

Several hands went into the air, but, as was her habit, Miss Brown called on the unsuspecting. “Johnny Bruce?”

“Uh, I think it’s the name of a car.”

“What kind of car?” Miss Brown asked hopefully.

“Oldsmobile,” the scholar replied, to the jeers of his classmates.

“That’s enough, class! Amanda Sue?”

“Plymouth,” a little girl near the back said, blushing with pride.

“Very good! Roy Lee, if you’ve been paying attention, you should be able to tell the class the name of the friendly Indian who taught the first settlers how to raise corn and other crops for food.”

“That’s an easy’un, Miss Brown,” said Roy eagerly. “His name was Tonto.”

Roy’s friend Herman gouged the young historian in the ribs with his pencil. “You big, dummy!” he whispered, though loud enough for the whole class to hear. “That’s the Lone Ranger’s sidekick. He helps him catch bad guys. He don’t know nothin’ about raisin’ beans and taters.”

Alice sat with her head down, idly retracing with her pencil the deeply entrenched initials and the awkwardly carved hearts and arrows that defaced her desk, hoping Miss Brown would overlook her. She had known the answer to every question. Every single one.

“I have one more question,” said Miss Brown, scanning the faces, looking for just the right person. “Why did the first settlers come to America? What were they searching for? Alice?”

All eyes were on Alice. She almost froze in the silence of the room.

“Freedom,” she said, the word barely audible over the giggling of her classmates.

~~~

It was a chilly Monday morning in late October, and Miss Brown was late for class. When she failed to greet her students with her cheerful and customary “Good morning!” they knew something was wrong. Stragglers at the windows and steam heaters quickly found their seats. Books were opened. Many had already heard the news.

None of the pupils had ever seen a teacher cry before, but they saw Miss Brown’s tears before she could hide them with her handkerchief.

“Class,” she said hoarsely, “I’m afraid I have some bad news to share this morning. It is about our little friend Alice Rose. You might have heard. Alice was in a bad accident at her home this weekend. I’m told she was standing too close to a fireplace when her—when her dress caught fire. Her doctors—” Miss Brown cleared her throat. “The doctors don’t think she will be coming to school anymore this year.”

The words were met by blank stares from nearly everyone in the classroom, followed by a sudden and unprecedented interest in their Alice and Jerry readers.

A few of the boys, however, to whom school was cruel and unusual punishment, privately envied poor Alice. No more school for the whole year! Andy Thacker leaned forward and whispered boastfully to Dougie Harris, “I once stayed home two whole weeks with the bad measles.”

“That’s nothin,’ I laid out a month in first grade. Had chicken pox, measles and scarlet fever all at one time!”

“You didn’t neither!”

“Did, too!”

“How come you ain’t dead then?”

“Boys!”

Shirley Collins, a pale little girl with enormous blue eyes and brown pigtails raised her hand timidly. “Miss Brown,” she said softly, her eyes betraying her excitement. “I would like to make Alice Rose a get-well card, if that’s all right.”

“Of course, Shirley. That is a very good idea—for all of us.”

“I can make a beau-ti-ful get-well,” Nancy Anderson bragged, not bothering to raise her hand.

“I can, too!”

“Me, too!”

“I’m gonna draw flowers on mine.”

As one moving in a dream, Miss Brown made her way to the end of the blackboard, walking beneath the gallery of fat pilgrims, lean Indians, ripe corn and pumpkins. Standing at last under the drawing of a grotesquely shaped Tom turkey, she bowed her head. “Shirley,” she said, “would you please lead us in the Lord’s Prayer?”

~~~

Alice’s room was the simple and practical room of an aging country hospital, but she found it immense and frightening with its high ceiling, bare tiled walls and harsh white lights. In the days that passed, she slept fitfully, waking at odd hours, a tormented bundle of gauze and cotton. In an hour that seemed neither day nor night, she saw the ghostly figures of the doctors making their rounds, talking in whispers, using strange words. She thought she saw her father sitting solemnly by her bedside in his work clothes, and her older brothers, Charles and Jack, bringing her candy. Only Buddy was missing, who was too young to come to the hospital, but she was sure he had sent her a bag of cats-eye marbles, including his favorite taw.

Her mother seemed always by her side, speaking soft and soothing words, brushing back her hair, her cool hand on her brow. The pain was always there, at times cruel and unrelenting and made bearable only by the nurse’s dreaded needle. It was usually her mother who asked the nurse for something “to make my baby sleep.” And sleep would come at last—merciful, dark and dreamless.

Alice awoke one morning, feeling better. Her mother had just opened the curtains, leaving the two of them blinking, not at the sun, but at the sight of a tree that overflowed the window like the landscape of some overzealous artist. It was a majestic white oak, a tree with branches spreading upward and outward, its red-gold leaves iridescent in the sunlight, its twigs laden with gold-crowned acorns. Alice watched as a fat gray squirrel leaped into view with an acorn in its mouth, peering inside with bright alert eyes, then scampering away as though it were caught stealing. She wished she were back at her desk in Miss Brown’s classroom. She would draw this tree, this big shiny happy tree. With her new crayons she would color in some birds, and maybe a squirrel or two, and show it to Miss Brown.

“It’s pretty as a picture,” her mother said. “Pretty as a picture.”

“You have a visitor, Alice,” the friendly nurse informed her one evening.

Seeing a smiling Miss Brown standing in the doorway, she was too surprised for words. Miss Brown, her teacher!

“I told you she was corning back.” There was pride in her mother’s voice, pride in having a schoolteacher visit her daughter. “She didn’t believe me when I told her you’d been here once already,” she said to Miss Brown. “She remembers seeing you, but thought it was all a dream.”

Conspicuous with a large shopping bag, Miss Brown approached Alice’s bed, trying to ignore the bandages that made her student look like a little mummy.

“Are you ready for a surprise?” she said cheerfully. “The class has sent you a little something, but the nurse says you’re not to get too excited. I think we’ll be all right, don’t you?” With that, she took a large brown package from her shopping bag and slowly emptied its contents onto the table by Alice’s bed.

Get-well cards! There must have been 50 in all. Little Alice’s wide eyes estimated at least a thousand. They made a bright, multi-colored mound on the table.

“Are they really mine? All of them?”

“Every one,” said Miss Brown. “Some of the students wanted to send you more than one. They said it would make you get well faster. Some of them are from pupils in the other grades. That big one there is from Mr. Moore.”

Mr. Moore, the principal, sending her a card! She could hardly believe it.

“I brought you some books to read, and some pencils, crayons and paper, in case you get bored—and the class sent you something else.” The teacher pulled another package from her shopping bag, a long rectangular one wrapped in bright blue paper with a large pink bow on top. “It’s from me, too,” Miss Brown explained, helping her with the ribbon. “It’s from all of us.”

Alice squealed with delight when she saw it. “A doll! A real doll!” It was the same doll she had seen in the dime-store window, the same lovable, adorable baby doll she had drawn in art class, the blue-eyed, golden-haired doll that won her the silver star!

“Look Mommy! Look at her pretty green dress.”

Her mother laughed. “That’s a yellow dress, honey.” She turned to Miss Brown. “She never could tell one color from another, hardly.”

Miss Brown started to laugh, too. Instead, she seemed taken suddenly by the gilded splendor of the big white oak framed in Alice’s window. “I declare,” she said. “I do declare!”

As her doctor had predicted, Alice would have “good days and bad.” There were days when her mother would call for the nurse more often than she was allowed to come, and days when Alice would sit up in bed and ask for her books and crayons. Her treasured assortment of get-wells had grown to overwhelming numbers. She never tired of reading and re-reading all the names and tediously scrawled messages in crayon. She still found it hard to believe they were all intended for her. Those silly intonations, “Alice Rose, Alice Rose … ” seemed ever so far away, like something she had dreamed.

One of her favorite cards had a drawing of an outrageously large yellow cat that Alice insisted was green. It came from Johnny Johnson, the handsomest boy in third grade. She kept it at the top of the stack, always within reach. Her doll, which she had named Mandy, was always on her pillow. She was a silent comforter when the pain grew worse, her constant companion during those times when her mother had to be away to attend to the rest of the family. Mandy slept when she slept and seemed to share her very dreams—dreams that, of late, were troubled ones.

Autumn would come early and stay late, the first frost arriving in mid-November.

Peabrook could look for an early winter and a late spring. The grand old oak outside Alice’s window was among the last trees to lose its leaves, but at last the handsome giant posed bony and spectral, bared to the northers that sent the smoke of the season’s first fires swirling about the chimney tops. Alice would wake in feverish awareness of her mother, always near, and the shadowy figures of her father and older brothers. She thought she remembered the vague image of Miss Brown standing in the doorway—and could it be a dream?—the curious cherubic face of her baby brother. She was home again, it was getting dark, and everyone was there.

“I want Mandy,” she whispered, “Mommy, where is my dolly?”

~~~

The last bell had rung at Little Peabrook Grade School, the long awaited signal for Thanksgiving break. It was a rowdier than usual troupe that stampeded the homebound yellow busses. There remained only the non-commuters, lingering on the grounds for one more game of marbles, hopscotch or jump rope before taking the dirt road or railroad track to nearby Elwood or Long Fork. The only sound in the building was the subdued swishing of the janitor’s broom in the hall as Miss Brown walked slowly to the back of the classroom—to the last seat, third row from the left. The tiny brown desk was bathed in sunlight. She paused in the room’s disturbing quiet, stood momentarily transfixed, her eyes hot and wet looking westward to the gold-rimmed hills. Bending over the little seat, she retrieved the orderly stack of books and paper, the cloying essence of crayons filling her head. She carried the bundle to her own desk at the front of the room. Opening the top drawer she retrieved a single piece of paper, rolled and secured with a rubber band. From another drawer she removed a tiny paper box—the kind of box that might have held jewels—and crossed to the bulletin board.

The curtains—she must not forget to close the curtains. The paper cardinals and bluebirds on the checkered panes peered curiously at her with their uneven Crayola eyes. Out back, near the old stone wall, a group of little girls had gathered. Miss Brown listened, seeming to hear it for the first time: “Teddy bear, teddy bear … turn around, Teddy bear, teddy bear … touch the ground,” sung high-pitched and joyous above the shrieking swing chains.

The curtains were drawn against the fading evening sunlight. The playground was quiet at last. In the deserted schoolroom, high upon the bulletin board by the bookcase hung the funny, colored drawing of a slightly wobbly red house with a not-so-crooked door, and not-so-crooked windows, a house with a yard and garden a-tangle in many colored blooms. By the house stood a tree, resplendent with red, yellow, blue and purple leaves, its twigs adorned with acorns big as buttercups— a tree whose limbs held birds of every hue and feather, and squirrels both blue and green—a tall and happy tree bending not at all in a striped wind.

As a last and lingering light against the gathering shadows, fastened in the upper right-hand corner of the paper, for all to see, was a gleaming gold star.

G.C. Compton’s prize-winning prose and poetry has been published in numerous literary journals and anthologies. He is a Pike County, Kentucky, writer dedicated to ending mountaintop removal mining.

*Editor’s Note: This story was a finalist in The 2008 New Southerner Literary Contest.


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