Storyglossia Issue 10, October 2005.

Paper Swallows

by Rebekah Cotton


The first time you meet Agnes Rose Peterson, you get the feeling that someday she will be a librarian. Or maybe a nun. Never mind that she reads only People magazine and is not Catholic. With her wire-framed glasses and hair pulled back in a thin braid, you can just picture her shushing patrons and strutting purposefully to the reference desk. You can just picture her in a habit, hands clasped tight, kneeling in front the Virgin Mary or hunched over a dog-eared Bible. But then, before you know it, Agnes might take out a lipstick and mirror from her denim purse and, while she is concentrating on the task at hand, you forget all about librarians and nuns and wonder why anyone would choose such a shocking shade of red.

When Agnes was nine years old she changed her name to Una. She liked the fact that people would have to say "ooooh" as part of her name. As in "ooooh, you are such a sweet girl" and "ooooh, you look lovely today." This was an especially welcoming prospect when she imagined Walt McKinney saying her name. (Walt McKinney is a quiet 16-year-old who plays saxophone and wears a baseball cap every day of the year.) It didn't hurt either that her new initials would be U.R.P., which she practiced in front of the bathroom mirror. "U.R.P, Lenny Wright," she might say.

This morning Una wears a long black skirt and pink cardigan, which she prefers to wear buttoned down the back. She stands in front of the full-length mirror and adjusts her skirt so the slit reveals her right leg as she steps forward. She takes two People magazines from her nightstand, placing the one about actors who died tragically in her algebra book and the other, featuring Johnny Depp, in her French book. Both books go into her backpack, and she heads downstairs with backpack and purse over one shoulder.

"Agnes Rose?"

"Hey, mom. I'm late so I'll just skip breakfast."

"Come in here and say goodbye at least. You should eat something, you know."

Una enters the living room, where her mother lies on a couch. She is under a quilt, and all Una can see are her mother's eyes and the top of her head.

"Sorry, honey, I can't get up for you," her mother says. "I think I'm coming down with something. There was a case of flu at work and I don't want to take any chances. Of course I got my shot just last week, so I'm not sure if—"

"Mom, I've got to go."

"Did you pack a lunch? I didn't want to do it myself, sweetie. Germs, you know."

"I'll buy. Don't worry about it." Una kisses her mother on the forehead. "See you later. Get better."

"Honey, your sweater's on backwards."

"Oh, really? Bye, mom."


Una prefers to sit in the back of the classroom. Mrs. Wycliff believes Una is conjugating the verb venir. Mrs. Wycliff thinks Una is a model student and will make a fine librarian one day or maybe a nun, but she would do better to study Latin. Una writes a note to Walt McKinney.

Dear Walt,

I can't wait till next year when we're at the same school. I will save you a seat at lunch, I know you can't stay long but pls come. Rhennie always wants to sit next to me even though I tell her its saved. Write back. Love, U.

Una uses only her first initial for Walt, unless she is mad at him. She folds the letter into an origami swallow and pushes it in the side pocket of her purse, where dozens of other swallows are stored. She applies adobe girl to her lips and puts the lipstick away just as the bell rings.

"Hey, Una. What happened to your mouth?" asks Lenny Wright, who talks louder than necessary. "Forget to wash your face after breakfast? What'd ya eat anyway? Cherry Jell-O?" Lenny laughs and the boy next to him grins and shakes his head.

Una gathers her books and heads toward the door. "Hey," shouts Lenny. "Your shirt's on backwards. Didn't your mom help you get dressed this morning?"

Una sits in the back of math class too, even though she likes this class. She has had this teacher for two years now, and she believes they have an unspoken understanding: Miss Patterson will only call on Una when she knows Una has the correct answer. Una lets her teacher know to call on her when she drops her pencil and gazes at the blackboard. In turn, Una will not talk in class and will do her homework on time. This agreement gives Una a chance to write another letter.

Dear Walt,

I'm in math now. Lenny is such a jerk, but I ignored him just like you said. What are you doing this weekend. Can't wait for lunch. Write back. Love, U.

Una presses her lips to the bottom of the note, leaving behind a pink smudge. The class is unusually quiet. She looks up to see twenty pairs of eyes fixed on her. "Well?" asks Miss Patterson, looking at Una. "What is it?"

Una wonders what is what? Is Miss Patterson talking about her note or a math problem? She can't say "what are you talking about?" so instead she says, "I'm sorry, Miss Patterson, I wasn't paying attention."

The other students look at each other with raised eyebrows. Some snicker quietly and one boy whispers loudly, "Uh-oh, now you're in trouble," which sets the class to laughing.

"What were you writing just now, Una? It obviously was not an answer to problem number three."

Of course it wasn't an answer to problem number three, thinks Una. Why are you trying to embarrass me like this? I thought we had an agreement.

"You're right, Miss Patterson. I'm sorry. I won't do it again," says Una. She remembers when Mr. Kellerman took one of her notes and read it to the class. "Dear Walt," it had said. "Where were you at lunch? I missed you. XXOO, Love, U." The kids had enjoyed that one. They snorted loudly and made kissing sounds in the air. Mr. Kellerman had smiled, crumpled up the note, and tossed it in the trash can. Una had tried to shrug her shoulders and smile, but her red lips would not move.

"Well, just be sure it doesn't happen again, Una," says Miss Patterson, hands on hips. Una does not like the way her name sounds just now. It is more like "ooooh, you are in trouble."


Una stands in the lunch line looking anxiously toward the entryway. Students around her talk and laugh. She opens her purse and takes out a tube of lilac shimmer. She holds a compact mirror close to her face and applies the lipstick, pressing her lips together and then blotting the excess on a tissue she keeps handy. She checks her teeth to make sure they are not purple.

"What's up, Una?" asks Lenny Wright, who is also standing in line. "Got a date for lunch?" Lenny elbows the boy next to him and they both laugh. The two girls standing between Lenny and Una exchange knowing looks.

"Actually, I do," says Una. "Maybe you're not as stupid as you look." She puts her makeup away and glances toward the entryway.

"Oh, yeah? Who's your date? Frankenstein?"

Una pauses. "My mistake. You are as stupid as you look." Una gives the lunch worker a dollar and three quarters and slides her tray across the counter. "Hamburger, please," she says, and is handed a plate with a hamburger, French fries, a fruit cup, and a carton of milk.

"Hey, Una," Lenny says. "Better turn your shirt around before your boyfriend sees it. He won't know which side is which."

Una sits at her favorite table, facing the hallway. She eats her hamburger slowly and looks expectantly down the corridor. A tall girl with blotchy skin approaches. "Can I sit here?"

"I'm saving this seat," Una says, pointing to the seat with her backpack.

Rhennie sits down opposite Una. "You saving it for him again?"

"What do you think?"

"Do you need all those ketchups?"

"Go ahead."

Rhennie takes the ketchup packets from Una's tray and squeezes a red mound onto her plate. "Just let me know if you don't want your fruit. I'm half starved. What's he like anyway?"

"He's quiet, sweet," Una says.

"The smart type, huh? Have you done it with him?" Rhennie licks ketchup from her fingers.

Una drops her hamburger to the plate. "What did you say?"

"Just wondering. Geez, don't get so upset."

Una takes a bite from her fruit cup, and gazes down the hall. Rhennie begins eating her friend's French fries, one at a time, then two at a time until Una slaps her hand.

"What I don't get," Rhennie says, "is why I've never met him. Okay, so he's at the high school. I know lots of people there and nobody's ever heard of him."

"So? He's like me. He keeps to himself."

"He's like you? Does he wear lipstick?"

Una clicks her tongue and sighs. "Very funny."

"Hey, what'd you get on the algebra test? Can you believe I didn't do page two? Didn't even know there was a page two, and that bitch won't let me redo the test."

"How could you miss it?"

"It's not my fault. We never have two pages. Did you see Mr. Kellerman's wife at the basketball game? She has this long frizzy hair, no make-up, a see-through blouse. She is a freak. They should not be together."

"Rhennie, do you ever shut up?"

"Geez, Una, I'm just trying to make conversation. It's what polite people do, you know?"

"Well, I don't feel polite."

"No kidding." Rhennie wipes her face with a napkin and stands up. "Una, have you ever thought that you might have a problem? Don't you wonder why your boyfriend never shows? I mean, seriously, I'm the only one who ever sits with you at lunch."

"I never asked you to sit here, you know."

"Well, if I didn't, you'd be alone—and please don't tell me you'd have Walt." Rhennie leans close to Una and whispers loudly. "I asked the secretary this morning. She says there's nobody by the name of Walt McKinney at the high school. She looked it up."

"Oh, really?" Una wonders if the lilac shimmer has worn off yet. "Are you saying I just made this person up?" Una's cheeks turn red.

Rhennie picks up her tray and sighs. "See you later, Una," she says. "I've got a class. He'll be here. He's a guy—they're always late."

Una pushes the lunch tray away and reaches for her purse. She pulls out her mirror and fishes through the lipsticks until she finds a tube of haute voltage. She applies the color slowly, methodically and places it back in her purse. Then she takes out her notebook.

Dear Walt,

It was great seeing you at lunch. Does Rhennie drive you nuts too or is it just me. My mother is sick again so maybe you can come by tonight. She'll never notice. Love, U.

Una folds the note into another swallow. She wanted to learn how to make swans—like Johnny Depp makes for his girlfriend—but the only origami birds she could find were swallows and cranes, and the cranes were too complicated. She places the swallow in the side of her purse and hopes Walt will visit tonight.


On the back of the bus, Una takes her arms out of her sleeves and turns her sweater around.


Her mother lies on the couch, just as Una had left her. The only difference is the crumpled tissues that lay scattered on the floor around the couch. The television is tuned to a soap opera, one that Una used to watch with her mother when her name was Agnes.

"Agnes Rose, dear. I am so happy to see you. Don't come too close. I've really got it bad this time. How was school, dear? Can you make me some tea? Chamomile with honey. I am so glad to see you."

"Sure, mom."

"There's a message on the machine. Of course I couldn't get to the phone."

Una walks to the kitchen and fills the kettle with water. It can't be Walt, she thinks. He wouldn't call during school.

"Marge, it's me," says the voice on the answering machine. "I want to talk to Agnes. Her birthday's coming up. I thought I could do something special for her. Agnes, sweetie, call when you can. I thought you'd like to—"

Una pushes the erase button. The tea kettle whistles, but Una does not move. She remembers when Revlon quit making her favorite shade of red and she thinks she should stock up on roses 'n' honey in case the same thing happens again. She will walk to the drugstore first thing in the morning before school.

"Agnes Rose, the tea kettle, dear," her mother calls out.

Una stands up, picks up the spewing kettle and pours the hot water into a teapot over two bags of chamomile. She places a cup, the teapot, honey and a spoon on a tray and takes it to her mother.

"Who called, dear?"

"Oh, just this boy from school." Una places the tray on the coffee table.

"Agnes Rose. You never told me about any boy. What's his name?"

"Walt. Walt McKinney. But I don't feel good, mom. I think I caught your bug. I'm gonna take it easy upstairs for awhile. Let me know if you need something."

Una's mother blows her nose and tosses the tissue on the floor. "Well, take care, dear. Take some vitamin C—will you?—and get to bed early tonight. Thanks for the tea, dear."

Una sits on her bed and writes.

Dear Walt,

Please come. My father wants to see me this weekend. I miss you. XXOO, Love, U.

"Agnes Rose." Her mother's voice sounds small, distant. "I'm sorry to bother you, dear. Could you get me the hot water bottle? Top drawer, upstairs bathroom."

Una carefully folds her letter into the shape of a swallow, presses her red lips to each wing and places the note in the side of her purse. "I'll be right there, mom."


Copyright©2005 Rebekah Cotton