Excerpt from Pensée
a 300-page novel-in-progress

Chapter 2 – Mind Pictures – September, 1940

My name is Pansy. That’s it. Nothing in the middle. Plain Pansy Swenson. Where Ma got this name, I do not know. “Hey Pansy, what color are your stinkin’ panties?” the boys at school holler. Pansy in French–Pensée–means “thought.” I have lots of thoughts. I think and I dream and someday I’m going to run away to Paris.

I’m thirteen years old and I live with my two older brothers, Eric the Bad and Morris the Good, and my older sister, Kaari the Saint. She was born on Ma’s birthday, and so has Ma’s name, and sometimes it almost feels like having Ma right here with me. Morris, born just before me, has the name of a neighbor. I’m the last–number eight. “The Baby.” The other four kids have moved on to their own lives, but we four are still stuck on the farm.

Next year, in September of 1941, I will go to Chambers High School. This is Kaari’s second year there. She loves it. Kaari gets all A’s in her home management classes–subjects I’d never take. Morris is in town school for his first year, and he doesn’t have eyes for anything but his numbers. Eric, who never went past eighth grade at the country school, stays on the farm and keeps the place running, when he isn’t interfering in my life.

A long time ago, Ma grew pansies by the back door to the house. She grows pansies now around the cottage near Spruce Park where she lives with my Uncle Leif, who was a bachelor for years and years. He has turned into my stepfather, but I don’t know what to call him, so I don’t say anything to him. I was supposed to live in that cottage, before the biggest disappointment of my life happened, and maybe those flowers, “little faces” Ma calls them, remind her of me.

The four of us, Eric and Kaari and Morris and me, live on this godawful farm ten miles from Chambers, in Rapide (not Rapid–Rapide like the French) County, Minnesota. I hate it here. I hate the dust and the heat and the bugs and the icy cold in the winter and the dirt always. I hate the cows and the pigs and most of all the smells that make me want to puke. The slop pail on the porch, full of peelings and fat chunks and greasy gray vegetable water, brings on a retch when I look at it, and the sour smell from the separator makes my stomach turn every time I walk by. All those red-faced, straw-haired farm boys, with their calloused hands, sicken me, too.

Once Miss Trygg, my country school teacher, came to my side out on the playground. I was standing beneath a cottonwood tree, watching the other kids run around, about to sit down with my book–it was Heidi back then. In Miss Trygg’s graceful white hand were two picture postcards. She said, “A while ago, my friend mailed these to me from Paris. I’m cleaning out my desk and I thought you might like them.” She put those cards in my own snaggily-nailed hand. “Who knows, maybe someday you’ll go to Paris.”

Instead of sitting down with my book, and imagining Heidi’s snow-covered mountains and her sweet old grandfather, I stared at the picture postcards until recess was over.

One has a huge lacy metal structure that soars to the sky. The other is of a huge stone arch. The street is huge, too–wide and clean. I take out my rumpled postcards every day, and I put myself in this city with movie theatres and ballrooms and hotel penthouse suites overlooking green parks. I dream about a man in a tuxedo and me in a long slippery red satin dress going out to dinner and dancing, like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, only it seems like she always wears white. I’m going to wear red every day, along with rose-scented perfume. I’ll put it behind my ears, in back of my knees, and between my two beautifully shaped full breasts (they aren’t much yet, but I’m giving them time).

When I’m not dancing and twirling around, I see myself with walls and walls of my own books. More than anything in the world, even better than going to Saturday matinees at the Rialto, I love to read. Eric says, “It fills your head full of fool notions.”

An old brown overstuffed chair takes up the corner of our front room. When Eric’s not around, I take to that chair, and wrap up in the rainbow afghan that Kaari crocheted, and make it all into a bigger, plusher seat. In my mind, the chair’s a wine red velvet, and on its back is a coverup embroidered with a garden of flowers, every color imaginable. I rest my cheek against the winged arm, and open my book. If I’m lucky, I can spend a good long while curled up and reading in this spot before Eric comes and says, “It’s high time you were out in the kitchen doing something useful.” He plops his fat ass down in the old brown chair and I scurry out to hog-slopping, or egg-gathering.

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