Sixth Grade, 1971
from Mermaids in the Basement

by Margaret Brown

Leverick, Minnesota was a plain town. Nothing much happened there and no one wanted anything to happen. The streets and avenues formed a perfect, numbered grid except where Turtle Creek dared to flood. Citizens painted their houses white, mowed their lawns, and used little trimmers to make the grass near the sidewalks straight. But the winds of change arrived, anyway, just as Bob Dylan prophesized that they would. Alis Kelly, the youngest of three sisters, spied the effects of Rolling Stone, The Whole Earth Catalog, and Joni Mitchell’s “Mermaid Café” first in her two older sisters.

“I want to be completely natural,” Camille, the eldest, announced. She was talking to her friend on the phone and did not know that Alis listened. Alis was a hider, and because she preferred closets she often overheard conversations without even trying. “Bras are unnatural. Oh, they won’t even notice, my parents don’t have a clue.

But on the first day of school, when Alis adjusted her new plaid shirt with the white yoke, she heard Sandra, the middle sister, confront Camille in the bathroom: “Camille, you’re going to school without a bra?”

“I don’t want a pushed-up, made-up look,” said Camille, tossing her long chestnut hair behind her shoulders so that she could pluck her eyebrows. “Besides, no one can tell. I’ll wear a sweater,” she added in a louder tone. Alis sneaked a peek at her from the bedroom door.

Everyone can tell. You’re about a 36D.” A taller, more athletic Sandra with a long dark braid blocked the view.

“You’re kidding, right?” Camille said, brushing her waves of hair to improve its shine. She then applied Lip Smackers to her sweetheart lips.

“Mom is going to kill you,” Sandra said.

“Mom will never notice,” Camille said. “She’s too busy cleaning the kitchen.”

“Dad will kill you.”

“Daddy is not here.”

“You are going to be so grounded,” Sandra said, in a much darker voice.

“You are such a nun.” Camille glared at her in the mirror.

Alis saw Sandra’s neck turn bright red, as if this insult had hit home, and she turned with a flip of the dark braid and jabbed a silver sword toward her sister: “You’ll probably have to get married.” Sandra bumped into Alis leaving the bathroom and slammed the bedroom door. Camille slammed the bathroom door in response.

“Young ladies do not slam doors,” Mom called from the kitchen.

You’ll probably have to get married. Alis puzzled over this final stab a long time, as she assumed everyone got married. What other choice was there? Grandma was no longer married (because Grandfather died), and everyone felt sorry for her. Miss Anderson wasn’t married, but there were rumors of a boyfriend, so everyone assumed she would become married some time in the future and leave the school. Everyone in Leverick, Minnesota, was married. The way Camille slammed the bathroom door, Alis knew it was an insult, and an effective one, too—Camille relented and wore a bra to school.

Camille and Sandra had not gotten along well since Camille’s car accident. For almost a year now, Sandra gnawed on Camille’s shortcomings until they became a bone in every situation. According to Sandra’s best friend Debbie’s older sister, Camille made out with her old boyfriend on a Catholic youth group ski trip to Afton Alps last spring. Or so Sandra relayed to Alis, who didn’t understand at first what “making out” meant but luckily didn’t ask. “Of course she dropped him like a hot potato when Mark Nielson asked her out.” Sandra clicked her tongue. Despite Sandra’s tone, none of this seemed particularly shocking once Alis thought it through.

Mark Nielson, whose hazel eyes Camille talked about for a year, looked smaller and more awkward than described when he met Daddy before the Homecoming Dance the previous spring. In her long fairy hair, Camille wore an orchid, matching the lace on the long-sleeved Gunne Sax-like dress her mother made, and the boy’s serious eyes sunk in under his mop of hair as dark as his navy tuxedo. Alis thought the couple looked like something out of Seventeen until she saw the photographs. The series taken by her father showed a gangly boy with bushy overgrown hair, holding hands with a stick-armed, laughing girl. Mark’s expression in the camera held by her father was unmistakable: a deer aware of the hunter and his aim. It was the only time he came to the door, and the one time Alis saw him back out of the driveway with his parents’ Chevrolet sedan. He had Camille home by midnight.

For subsequent dates, Mark Nielson picked Camille up at the A&W Root Beer stand where she worked after school. Alis often saw him drop Camille off at the curb that summer; his happy date dancing to the top of the driveway. Sixth grade, then, would be the year that Alis became aware that she saw things her parents did not see. In fact, even on prom night no one seemed to notice that Mark roared away so quickly that that the tires squealed in protest.

Although it had been more than two years since her Uncle Aidan, who had personal experience with California, visited them, one morning after school started Alis spotted a plastic bag shoved behind the tin sugar canister. “Summer brew,” it said in his scribble, and she looked around to see if anyone noticed her. Summer brew was an herbal tea. The kitchen was empty except for the smiling photograph of John Paul on the calendar. She slipped the plastic bag in her jeans pocket and put it in a shoebox she kept under her bed.

Suddenly possessed with an idea she could not have expressed, she dashed into the basement and found a piece of light purple fabric from which Mom had cut Camille’s prom dress. Using the good scissors, she quickly cut it into a circle. Returning to her bedroom, she carefully placed selected treasures—a very smooth rock shaped like the moon, a flower wilted into a packet that rattled, and a thorny stick with a pointing arm—inside the circle of cloth, then sprinkled them with “summer brew.” She used a bit of red thread to secure them in the fabric with seven knots. When she returned to the kitchen, she rattled Winnie’s leash so the dog would come without a call. He soon banged the door with his tail.

“Alis, don’t take that dog down to that muddy creek,” Mom called from the living room, where she was dusting the furniture with a lemon-scented product.

“I won’t!” She yelled back, aware of her half-lie. She wouldn’t take him to the creek—she let him take her. Winnie saw a squirrel on the shortcut, so she followed like a water-skier out of control. Mrs. Nicholson opened her kitchen window, but Alis just picked up the pace and ran.

After all of Alis’s running, Turtle Creek seemed silent. Still swollen with summer dreams, the brown water carved out a place in the dried cornfields toward the mother of all waters, the Mississippi. Blackbirds on the opposite shore lifted into the air. A white-bellied fish jumped.

The first thing Alis usually did was let go of Winnie’s leash and find a stick to throw for him, so he began to wag his tail. But on that fall day when she almost discovered magic, she made him sit on the bank, and he soon put his head on his paws. She shut her eyes to the smallest possible slit, so all she could see was the shape of the river flowing right to left.

A farm dog barked. An airplane scraped a little line of clouds across the sky. Dreamlike, the swollen river seemed to rise into her head. Without knowing why, she started a nonsensical chant, then she turned, chanted, turned, chanted, turned, chanted. Although the Ancient Ones demanded respect, they did not seem to care that the words came out garbled. Or perhaps they waited so on edge for a proper call that they leaped, like children on a starting line.

The wind stirred as a considerable amount of power lifted with Alis’s left arm and the treasure flew through the air as her fingers released it. The surface of the creek shimmered with images, and Alis stared at them, open-mouthed and confused. Long after she had forgotten the images and even the method she used to conjure them, she would remember feeling tall and powerful.

And then BOOM, the world cracked open, the sky shook, and all the houses reassembled themselves upon their foundations. A sonic boom, Dad had explained it just the night before. It broke the spell and frightened the old ones back to the opposite marshy shore. Only then did Alis realize she was standing in the creek with her blue jeans soaked almost to her waist, while Winnie barked and turned circles on his leash. She walked out, suddenly exhausted and terribly hungry. By the time she got home she could not remember the images that shivered on the surface of the creek, only the strange tingling sensation in her fingers and the way her head felt several stories tall.

Soon after that day, however, Alis’s sixth grade teacher sent home a note that made her feel very small. So small, in fact, Alis “lost” the note instead of giving it to her mother. A stern but exhausted man with glasses, Mr. Peterson had noticed her reading a book instead of listening. She did keep a horse book by Marguerite Henry in her desk. On the first day, Mr. Peterson asked everyone who had Norwegian ancestors to raise their hands. Everyone did except Alis and David Pinsky, who everybody knew went to the synagogue in Rochester. Then Mr. Peterson asked everyone who was Lutheran, same results. He immediately launched into a long story with maps about the brave Norwegian pioneers who founded Leverick in the snow, and Alis, who could not see the board from her desk because she refused to wear her glasses, thought this was an ideal opportunity for Brighty of the Grand Canyon. Mr. Peterson did not. The next time this happened, she wanted to explain that she just needed to read the section where the horse in Born to Trot finishes the race with only tape holding his leg together. Mr. Peterson thought otherwise. The third time she was caught, the note followed. She saw no reason to bother Mom with this, because Alis was sure she would never read in class again.

In math class the following week, though, she found she could work the problems on the board because she could see them with her head next to the chalky surface, but she had to feign confusion when the teacher called on her from her seat. In science, which she loved, they did small experiments and wrote up the results. No problem. Reading was of course not a struggle, but social studies with Mr. Peterson’s long treatises on Knute Somethingson and Hans Somethingsen made Marguerite Henry ever more tantalizing. Mustang, Wild Spirit of the West ended with an opportunity for every girl to adopt a horse so that mustangs wouldn’t be sold to dog food factories. When Mr. Peterson asked her if she was reading, she said “no,” because she had started to write the author about how she could have a wild mustang from the roundup in her backyard in Minnesota. She was writing, not reading. This time, Mr. Peterson phoned her mother.

Mom, who still did not know that Camille did not wear a bra and Sandra had tried out for the guitar choir at church, was concerned that not only did Alis not wear her glasses but she also had not seen them since they were picked up months ago. When it was discovered that the glasses “accidentally” had been broken, Mom did the worst—she told Dad. After listening to a long session about money not growing on trees and allowances that would be deducted, the price of gasoline, and the student protestors at the University of Minnesota, Alis went back to the eye doctor and received a newer, stronger prescription, but at least got to pick out a frame that she liked.

She would never forget the day she came home with the new and better glasses. The world, which Alis had previously experienced as a private and mysterious place, pulsing with enchantment, sprouted significance wherever she looked. At first she blinked at the overwhelming detail, all of which or none of which might be important. Trees, which she had thought of in the autumn as lovable lemon and cherry lollypops, turned out to have individual branches and individual leaves on every single tiny little branch of the entire trunk. She felt overcome with the sudden appearance of all these leaves.

To make matters worse, everything she encountered had this level of detail: a significant patch of orange on a bird now made it a “towhee” instead of a robin; the lifted eyebrows of a stranger might mean he was making fun of her; and the sidewalk loomed full of dirt and debris where once it had seemed like a clear straight path. Their home had two little chimney-like pipes Mom said were “vents.” “Yes, sweetie,” her mother smiled, “they’ve always been there.” In bed that night, a little prick point of light caught Alis’s eye, and, pulling back the yellow curtains that hung over her bed, she leaned into the window. Stars. Stars were…in truth, little prick points of light, and there were more than one or two of them, and some of them came in color. A dipper full of them had been dumped over the neighbor boys’ gray roof, and they blinked at her for as far as she could see. The detail seemed excessive, extravagant and exhausting, but in the morning she would want more.

She reached for her new glasses on the nightstand right away, a gesture that would last a lifetime. Without her comfortable blur or even a chance to comb her hair, she marched into the bathroom. Then, washing her hands, she startled herself in the mirror, a girl in glasses. Her reflection showed bits of brownish hair, striking out on their own in several directions. A funny little chin, with an expression separate from her mouth. Most dramatic, however, were the severe dark octagonal glasses…not pretty. She noticed a little belly that puffed over her pajamas, and a comical assortment of half-healed bruises and scabby scratches on her arms. Definitely not pretty.

On the second day with her new glasses, Alis went down to Turtle Creek with Winnie, but she couldn’t stay long. The earth was ripped where bulldozers had built a new foundation for the bridge, and the creek oozed through the mud, pushing mud and sticks toward the Mississippi. A lot of the leaves were brown. As her mother had said for years, people threw their cigarette butts and beer cans out the car window at the Turtle Creek bridge as they entered the city limits. It was “trashy,” just as Mom said.

Alis walked Winnie home and counted how many times he lifted his leg without actually peeing. Eleven times. Her glasses also caused her to see things that were more difficult to forget than Winnie’s ubiquitous dry-peeing. Her mother’s hands, full of veins, rubbing themselves raw with kitchen work. A colony of sinister pock marks on her father’s cheek. In the hallway, she noticed the freckles on Sandra’s neck and the now very obviously braless Camille. The world had become less magical and more mysterious at the same time.

The kitchen, a place once filled with strong aromas, now seemed loaded with detailed packaging and a knife that had fallen between the dishwasher and the counter. She got on her hands and knees to pry it out of the crack.

“Honey, those frozen potatoes don’t need salt, pepper, or oil,” Dad said to Mom from behind the newspaper. “You just bake ’em.”

“I’ve made fried potatoes since I was in high school,” Mom sighed, fishing the package out of the trash to read the instructions. She lined a clean cookie sheet with the frozen food.

“Anyway, Camille has always been so concerned about her appearance,” Mom said, turning on the oven. “She hasn’t been wearing any makeup, and…” she said. Daddy turned the page of the paper, and Mom raised her eyebrows. “I think it makes her look a little…rough.”

“Girls wear too much makeup these days, anyway,” said Daddy. “I’ve never liked a made-up look.”

“I think she might also not be—” Mom looked at her husband, and Alis, trying to sneak in the pantry to grab the last of the Space Food Sticks, stopped to hear how her mother would bring up the subject of Camille’s jiggly breasts. Instead Mom put the potatoes in the oven and looked at a box on the counter: Chocolate Bundt Cake Mix. “What is ‘imitation’ chocolate flavor?” she wondered aloud. “Why don’t they just use chocolate?”

Another eye-opener in sixth grade came with the new Confraternity of Christian Education (CCD) textbook, Alive as He Promised. Until her new glasses and this colorful book, Alis had dreaded Wednesday afternoons. Filled with photographs and illustrations, Alive as He Promised was not your typical CCD book with catechism and Bible verses. To her great surprise, Alis read about how the Olympic rings from Ancient Greece meant universal brotherhood, and Mrs. Martin Luther King, a black lady whose husband was killed, wanted her children to be thought of as beautiful. She read about Pierre in Switzerland, Najoo in India, Hassen in Egypt, and Natasha in Moscow. Natasha belonged to something called Young Pioneers and was “proud of it.” The book seemed a good bit more interesting than the usual Love Jesus and Praise Mary stuff.

During the classes, Father Dan patiently answered the students’ questions about the new word, ecumenicalism, and how the children were Catholic but in the same world as Norwegian Lutherans. Yes, Mrs. Martin Luther King was actually Baptist. But all the religions of the world needed to get along in order for Jesus to be successful. The class nodded at this obvious truth. And the calm and patient Father Dan seemed unfazed when Jeffrey Johanson’s father pulled him out of the class because the Young Pioneers turned out to be a communist organization. Alis was not stupid. She understood that the Young Pioneers were fine for Natasha, but she had no interest in joining. She also understood that it was better to read the new CCD book only under the covers or in the closet with a flashlight. Young Pioneers could not be found in The Book of Knowledge, the set of encyclopedias next to the closet.

Everything is whirling along, and we are carried with it! The universe, an immense merry-go-round, draws with its movement: earth, planet and stars in one great dance. And at its very heart is man entrusted with the world’s progress.

As Alis absorbed this metaphor which turned the known world into an amusement park ride, her sister Sandra made it into the guitar choir but neglected to tell her parents about it until they saw her playing a tambourine at Sunday Mass. Daddy did not want his daughter slapping a goddamn tambourine in God’s house, but he wasn’t going to goddamn say it in front of any baby-faced priest. A son-of-a-bitch turned his back for one moment and the communists were taking over the church. This was a helluva mess— nobody slapped tambourines in his day. After this speech he went out of the house to shovel snow because goddammit the Lord sent him only girls. Mom quietly told a weeping Sandra that probably he would cool down, and no she didn’t need to quit the choir because he would get used to it in the end and she had done nothing wrong. Still, Alis couldn’t help but notice that Mom never mentioned Camille’s braless condition, and Camille’s assertion that Dad would never notice through all the wooly sweaters had so far proved true.

The comfortable blur in which Alis once prospered with mermaids and dragons, tesseracts and wild horses, only returned briefly with the first snowfall. She left her glasses indoors because they frosted outside and steamed when she returned. Playing in the snow became a wonderful white blur.

That winter Leverick had a record twenty-seven inches by Christmas, and Alis and Sandra built a snow horse five feet tall in the front yard. They poured water onto the snow horse so that he would freeze hard, and though he melted slightly and had to be repaired several times, the colt, Pegasus, lasted for more than a month. When they finished, they built a fort with a tunnel entrance, which looked like a topless igloo by the sidewalk. With her comfortable old blur, Alis spent hours in the fort and tunnels, hours in which the troubling developments of bras, tambourines, and Young Pioneers could be forgotten. At Christmastime, the lights Dad put in the front bushes turned the fort into Seaweed City and the young Pegasus into a Kingly Seahorse.

But the below-zero days of January came at last, and Alis could only watch the snow from indoors with her glasses on. There were not enough snow pants, mittens, or scarves to protect children at a wind-chill of minus forty degrees, Mom said. The snow horse looked tiny and alone from the front window, and the singer on Camille’s new album sang a lament: “as each moment has unfurled I’ve been waiting to awaken from these dreams…doctor my eyes.” At a windchill of minus forty, Alis knew that they would wear pants under their dresses to go to school. She imagined that poor Pegasus could sprout wings and escape the front yard before the clear night sky of the late afternoon brought even lower temperatures. Indeed, the next morning he was gone, and though Sandra was angry because the neighbor boys destroyed him, Alis knew he had simply taken to the air and flown.

The strangest eye-opener of sixth grade, however, came from the new sex education curriculum approved by the State Department of Education and signed off on by Mom in a note sent home but not shared with Dad.

As in fifth grade, the boys and girls were separated into different rooms. Mr. Tomlinson from the physical education program led the boys, and a nurse from the health department talked with the girls. Unlike the previous year, when the room was filled with embarrassed giggles and whispers about “sex education,” this year the older and wiser sixth graders knew the drill. They practiced a kind of bored expression on their faces but leaned forward to look at the charts the nurse put in front of the class. Chart One showed a diagram of female anatomy. Ho hum, they had seen this last year. The astounding Chart Two included a diagram of male anatomy. As soon as the nurse put this in front of the class, a surge of furtive whispers and giggles forced the nurse to shush the students into silence. There it stood, five foot square and in color for everyone to see—a poster, of a penis. As the third girl in a family without brothers, Alis had never actually seen a penis before, even as a diagram. She thought it ridiculous and refused to believe that her father had one. Then she quickly shoved away the thought of her father having one. Perhaps men lost them at a certain age.

The nurse put forward a third chart, which showed the cell division that resulted in a baby. Alis knew, because she had seen Mrs. Thompson down the street pregnant, that women carried great babies in their bellies, but she had not honestly spent a lot of time thinking about it. When the diagram showed that the baby came out between a woman’s legs, she felt at first like crossing her long legs and then her stomach became a little queasy. Surely not.

When the nurse asked if the girls had any questions, Stephanie Hanson shared that she had three brothers and that penises were disgusting. Heads nodded. Then Terry Anders asked if all girls had babies. No, the nurse said, they have to be married first. They have to be married. But what if they have to get married? Her sister Sandra’s terrible curse came back to her at this moment: a girl who had to get married must be pregnant. But how was this possible? Would going braless cause you to get pregnant? Alis did not dare ask, but the question troubled her the rest of the day.

On Alis’s frigid walk home, the bare trees clung to their roots in desperation. She trudged forward in snow pants, an extra sweater, a heavy coat, mittens, hat, and a scarf wrapped around her head and neck so many times she felt like a stuffed animal. Above air cold enough to freeze boiling water, a nearly cobalt sky taunted her. Clutching unanswered questions to her chest, she leaned into the brutal air. Each step landed on the snow with a squeak, as if she walked on Styrofoam. When she got to the house, she did not object when her mother helped her with her boots as if she were still a kindergartner, and she gratefully ate the warm tomato soup and saltines. It took until suppertime for her to feel her head clear, but the questions still hovered in her chest.

At dinner that evening, Dad seemed absent and tired from a long day at work. Mom served old-fashioned chicken and biscuits with gravy instead of something new out of a box. Sandra stirred her gravy with her spoon, lost in thought. Camille told them all about Mark Nielson’s father, a doctor, and how Dr. Nielson had agreed to buy his son a motorcycle in the spring. Alis couldn’t eat. She began to worry that this motorcycle would have everything to do with activating the curse her sister incurred by not wearing a bra. She looked down at her chest, her buds now held forward by a bra, and then folded her arms across them. No one seemed to notice. She had just about decided not to ask a question, when Sandra announced that she wanted to go out for the swim team. Alis feared for Sandra another explosion from Dad, so she quickly slipped in what had bothering her all day.

“I understand about the sperm and the egg,” Alis said, to no one in particular. “But how does the sperm get to the egg?”

“Jesus Mary and Joseph,” her father said, his chair pulling back from the table so quickly that he almost fell backward. “What the hell is this?”

“Sex Education has come to Leverick, Minnesota. Ha, ha, it’s your turn to do dishes.” Camille laughed, punching Sandra’s arm and dancing out of the kitchen. “How does the sperm get to the egg!”

“Evelyn Kelly.” Dad shoved his chair back and stood.

“I’ll handle this, honey. Just go ahead and watch the news,” Mom suddenly volunteered, leaving the table and loudly scraping gravy into the garbage. Dad appeared happy to be directed. Scrape, scrape. Mom seemed to be doing everyone’s dishes. Alis was left alone at the table with Sandra, who smiled in a fond adult way that made Alis feel like a first grader.

“Come with me, little sister,” she said, motioning, and they walked quickly across the living room to their bedroom. Sandra ceremoniously closed the door to her room, flopping her long braid down her neck. She knelt on the floor and slid a box out from under her bed. It astonished Alis to see that her teenage sister also stored valuables in a shoebox under the bed. “Here we go.” Inside she found a miniature three-volume encyclopedia-looking set. Alis brightened—she had always loved encyclopedias. “I guess it’s your turn. Mom bought these for Camille, who shared them with me in, I guess seventh grade.” Sandra pulled out the third volume. “The school just pushed you ahead a year I guess. The answer you’re looking for is on page sixty-four.”

Margaret Brown is the author of The Wild East: A Biography of the Great Smoky Mountains. She teaches women’s history and recent American history at Brevard College.

About Mermaids in the Basement—My first novel is a coming-of-age story set in the 1970s in the aftermath of Vatican II, the sexual revolution, and the rise of feminism.