On Herkimer Street in Buffalo in 1974, elementary schoolgirls plod in plastic boots lined with bread bags. The blondes wear white coats with red, poppy patterns. The brown-haired girls wear brown coats with brown stitching. Blondes walk on one side of the road. Brown-haired girls walk on the other. They make their way to school #45. As they walk, birds flutter and sing over the blondes. As they walk, birds squawk and peck at the scalps of the brown-haired girls until they bleed.
In the back of the classroom, the schoolgirls take off their winter gear. The blondes let their coats drop to the floor as giggles float from their rosy faces. They sit like princesses on the edges of little chairs, unzipping their boots. As they take off their boots, blue and red dots of Wonder Bread bags cheerily peek out from the tops of their white boots. The blondes hang their coats on center hooks in the cloak closet. When the blondes place their boots under their coats, mice scamper from the crevices of the walls and squeak at them. Pet me, the mice beg. You are bright and beautiful, the mice say. The blondes pet their little heads with the tips of their pale and plump forefingers.
In the corner of the classroom, brown-haired girls undue the wooden toggles of their sturdy coats. They place the heavy material on desks so that tracked-in slush doesn’t soak into the fabric. The brown-haired girls feel like boys as they yank off their olive-green boots. They feel rough and grubby. They feel like little monsters.
When the brown-haired girls pull off their boots, yellow and black bread bags pop out. The bread bags rise and hang in the air. Kids stop removing outerwear and stare at the bags that float by like blimp flags. On caution-yellow backgrounds, chunky, black letters proclaim BREAD.
The bags circle the room. Kids grow silent. Some kids duck and shiver. Some kids hug. When the bread bags reach the blondes, the blondes guffaw and point.
Welfare bread! The blondes holler as they point to the bags.
Kids near the blondes point and repeat. Welfare bread!
Kids down the line join, so that the room is full of chanting and pointing.
Having made their way around the room, the bread bags hover in front of the brown-haired girls.
The brown-haired girls point at the bags, sweat trickling down their ribs. Welfare bread! They say, voices cracking.
The blondes giggle and cover their mouths. All kids look at the blondes. The brown-haired girls plead with their eyes. The blondes look down and continue to laugh. The others join. Laughter booms through the classroom.
The teacher sweeps into the room, holding books and papers. She stops in her tracks.
What’s this? she asks.
The kids grow silent. The blondes point at the bags. The teacher moves close to the bags. She looks for strings.
Is this some kind of trick? she says. Whose bags are these? she says.
No one answers.
Whose bags are these? She demands.
The blondes look at the brown-haired girls, then look down, then look at the brown-haired girls, then look down again. They do this until the teacher notices.
The teacher marches over to the brown-haired girls.
Are these your bags? The teacher says.
The brown-haired girls raise their gazes to the teacher’s. They look for a glimmer of understanding, for an opening to exit the greatest predicament ever to exist in the history of the world.
The brown-haired girls open their mouths to speak, but nothing comes out.
Do you have something to say? The teacher asks.
The girls cannot answer, and they cannot remain, yet they realize they have nowhere to go, so they walk past the teacher and past the kids, and they stand on their tiptoes, and they grasp the edges of the bread bags, and they plunge their arms inside, and they curl in their legs, and they don’t say goodbye as they disappear because they now know something. They now know more than ever that there really is no point in talking at all.
Thea Swanson holds an MFA in Writing from Pacific University in Oregon. She is the founder and editor of Club Plum Literary Journal, and her flash-fiction collection, Mars, was published by Ravenna Press in 2017. Thea’s work can be found in many journals including Fiction Southeast, Mid-American Review, and Chiron Review. Thea writes daily while riding the bus and ferry. Find her writing at theaswanson.com.
Artwork: Thomas Dodd, Masked