|Publisher:||Baker Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.50(d)|
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Playing by Heart
By Anne Mateer
Bethany HouseCopyright © 2014 D'Ann Mateer
All rights reserved.
"Mr.—" I glanced down at my seating chart, heart drumming in my ears. My third week in front of a college classroom filled with male students. Three weeks of looking past their disdain. Three weeks holding my ground by sheer force of will.
I could do this. For myself. For my father.
"Mr. Graham, could you please tell us about the concept of linear combination?"
Mr. Graham stretched out his legs and glanced at his classmates on either side. His lips twisted into a smirk as he twirled his pencil through his fingers. "I could explain it, but are you certain you grasp its complexities?"
I sucked in a breath, my back snapping as straight as a loblolly pine, my cheeks stinging hot. Not a new slur, to be sure, but no student had yet dared be insolent to my face.
The air in the classroom stilled, anticipation hanging as heavy as a chartreuse sky over the Oklahoma plains in springtime. My body tensed, waiting to see if others would add their opinions. I didn't know how to answer. I'd worked hard to get to this place, harder than I'd ever worked in my life. I couldn't crumble now.
I pressed a hand to my churning stomach. The committee had chosen me, Miss Lula Bowman, as the recipient of the Donally Mathematics Award. I received tuition to pursue my graduate degree as well as a stipend for teaching a first-year mathematics course. I'd weathered stronger gales than Mr. Graham to reach this place.
Arching my eyebrows, I tried to peer down my nose at the boy-man, wishing I had a pair of spectacles to complete the look. "I'm perfectly capable of understanding it, thank you. Let's hope you have the same capacity."
Mr. Graham's disdain didn't slacken. Instead, his mouth curved into a slow smile as his eyes raked down the length of me. "You aren't so bad looking, Miss Bowman. Couldn't you find a man that would have you?"
My lungs expanded as far as my corset would allow, hands fisting and loosening with each angry breath. I pulled up to my full height—wishing it were more than five feet two inches—and tipped my chin toward the ceiling, hoping to add a bit more stature. "I don't know why you are attending college, Mr. Graham, but I assume the others are here to learn. If you impede that process, I will take up your behavior with the dean. Are we clear?"
But even as the words left my mouth, I trembled, knowing I had no real recourse. To admit I couldn't manage the class would be the same as admitting failure. No, I had to handle Mr. Graham on my own, using the same granite resolve I had with my older brothers and sisters when they'd insisted college was a waste of time and money.
"I will thank you to respect my position as a scholar even if you can't reconcile it with my gender, Mr. Graham. Women are capable of more accomplishments than a pretty song on the piano or a tasty meal to fill your belly. You'd do well to remember that."
* * *
The pine table, littered with scribbled pages and mathematics journals, wavered. The pencil dropped from my fingers, rolled off the edge, and clattered to the floor. I rubbed my eyes and sucked in the still, hot air of an Indian summer, temperatures far too warm for the last week of September. I reached for a book and fanned it in front of my face as I considered once more my latest calculations, the ones that refused to be solved.
A line of moisture rolled down the back of my neck, plastering an escaped strand of hair to my skin. I set it free, then blew out a long breath, attempting to make my own bit of breeze.
I groaned into the silence, replaying my altercation with Mr. Graham earlier in the day. He'd been quiet during the rest of the class, but I suspected he'd continue to be trouble, and he knew I knew it.
My elbows thumped to the table. I cradled my head in my hands and stared again at the equation that mocked me while voices buzzed through the hallway. A door closed in the distance. The clacking of shoes against the wooden floor grew louder. I sat up straight. The door opened.
Professor Clayton's white head appeared first, and then the rest of the rumpled man emerged. The corners of my mouth pulled upward in amusement. Ever since Mrs. Clayton's passing two years ago, the professor didn't seem to notice the niceties of life, only the unflinching surety of numbers.
"Ah, Miss Bowman. I'd hoped to find you here." He switched a clutch of papers from one arm to the other as he surveyed the jumble of materials in front of me. I reached across the table and cleared a corner. He let his burden slap to the surface, then riffled through the top few pages until he pulled one free from the stack. His deep blue eyes brightened. "And how is the first female recipient of the Donally Mathematics Award faring this day?"
The male students of our college don't think a female intellect suitable to the rigors of mathematics. But I couldn't tell Professor Clayton that.
"Quite well, thank you, sir."
One white eyebrow quirked. "I've heard something to the contrary, my dear." He waited a moment. I didn't confirm or deny it. Only held his gaze until he sighed. "But then I knew I could count on you to prove the Donally committee wasn't mistaken in their choice."
"Yes, sir," I whispered, staring at the table, at the page with the unfinished equation. After six years of alternating work and college classes, I could finally do both at the same time, in the same place, thanks to the award. I refused to let swaggering young men of eighteen or nineteen ruin all I'd earned.
Professor Clayton peered at the paper in front of me. "Trouble with that one?"
I nodded, shame spreading heat into my cheeks.
"Work the problem again, Miss Bowman. You almost have the correct answer." He crossed the room to his desk.
I twisted in my chair. "But how can I fix it when I can't figure out where I've gone wrong?"
He blinked at me as if I'd asked him a question about the latest fashions, not mathematics. I started to repeat myself, but his hand rose to stop my words. "When all else fails, start again at the beginning." He returned to shuffling papers.
I stared at the page, at the scrawled numbers that refused to cooperate. Could Mr. Graham be right? What if I didn't have it in me to understand?
No. If I gave in, if I quit, I'd prove my daddy's belief in me wrong. And prove the naysayers right. The ones who said "Fruity Lu" Bowman would never amount to more than a flibbertigibbet, a pretty little hummingbird who could never alight on one thing for more than a moment.
My jaw tightened. I would not return to that reputation. Ever. I would finish what I'd started, no matter how difficult the task. Picking up my pencil from the floor, I flipped the paper over and copied the equation once more. Daddy and Professor Clayton believed in my ability to succeed in academia, so I did, too.
A grueling twenty minutes later, I handed my page to Professor Clayton. He grinned, set it aside.
Outwardly, I stood unfazed, fingers loosely clasped, but inside I rejoiced.
"Go on with you now," Professor Clayton said gently, jerking his head toward the door. "We've both plenty to do again tomorrow."
I glanced at the clock on the wall. Nearly five. Mrs. McInnish would scold if I came late to the supper table once more this week. I gathered a mathematics journal with my textbooks before darting to the door. Then I stopped. Turned. Professor Clayton's head bent low, drawing his neat script closer to his aging eyes. I scurried back and planted a kiss on his cheek.
He looked up, eyes wide with surprise, then returned to his work. Out on the dusty street, I no longer noticed the oppressive heat. Professor Clayton's approval had turned the world as fresh and new as spring.
* * *
"Miss Bowman? That you?" The lilt of a Scottish accent carried through the screen door as I raced up the steps.
"It is, Mrs. Mclnnish. I'll wash up and be right there!" I swooped up the stairs to my room, tossed my books on the bed, and splashed warm water over my face and neck before straightening the collar of my plain shirtwaist. The looking glass revealed a messy topknot, but I had no time to set my hair to rights. Back down the stairs I ran. I slid into my chair at the dining table just as Mrs. McInnish swept through the kitchen door with a bowl of green beans. I glanced at the three other boarders as I spread my napkin in my lap.
Mrs. McInnish said a blessing, and we all began to spoon food onto our plates. Conversation bubbled like soup on a hot stove: Miss Thompson regaling us with stories about her music students, Miss Readdy complaining about the girl she'd hired to help at the millinery, and Miss Frank giggling over the romantic gestures of her latest beau. I forked food into my mouth and kept silent. I'd learned quickly that none of these girls were interested in the world of mathematics.
My room at Mrs. McInnish's served its purpose, but not in the company it afforded. Long ago I'd decided I had no time for young women engaged in less than serious pursuits. Which meant, of course, that I had few female friends. Or friends of any gender, for that matter. I dabbed at the corner of my mouth with my napkin, anxious to be away from the table and engrossed again in mathematical theories and practical problems. Numbers remained constant in a way other things did not.
The telephone rang. Mrs. McInnish frowned and hopped up from her seat, wondering aloud who would interrupt supper. A moment later, she returned. "Someone wanting to speak with you, Miss Bowman."
All eyes turned to me. My stomach sank toward the floor. "Are you certain they asked for me?"
"Certain as the day is long. Hurry up now. Susie said the call's come through from Dunn. That's to the west, isn't it?"
Dunn, Oklahoma. My heart flopped in my chest and my legs turned to lead.
I hadn't heard from my family in months. Only my sister Jewel's occasional newsy letters filled the gap created when Daddy's stroke left him unable to write. And come to think of it, I hadn't had one of those letters since late August. My breath caught in my chest. Had something happened to Daddy?
Mrs. McInnish pulled at my chair. I forced myself to stand, to jerk my way into the kitchen, where the telephone box hung on the wall. I pressed the receiver to my ear and spoke into the mouthpiece protruding like a nose beneath the two bells that looked like eyes. "This is Miss Bowman."
"Lula." My name came as quiet as a breath across the line. "Lula, I need you."
"Jewel? Is that you?"
The rhythm of crying. My fingers gripped the earpiece more tightly. "What is it, Jewel?"
My whole body tensed. Davy? Her husband?
"What do you mean, gone?"
She hiccuped a sob. "The funeral's Saturday."
Davy Wyatt, always so full of life and laughter, dead? How could it be?
"I need you, Lula. The kids need you. Please come home."
Fear rose in my throat, threatening to choke me. All my life, I'd been in the way. The littlest sister. The baby. And yet it was Jewel who took me in when Mama passed, who helped me afford that first year of college. In spite of her infernal matchmaking schemes, I knew she loved me. And now she needed me. She needed me. "Of course I'll come."
"Tomorrow?" She sounded so frail, so fragile.
I swallowed hard, praying for strength. "Tonight."
"Thank you." The line went silent, at least until Susie, the operator, squawked in my ear. I hung up, stumbled into the dining room, and fell back into my chair.
"What is it?" Miss Frank leaned closer, her face as pale as mine felt.
"My sister's husband has died. I have to go to her." New strength surged through my limbs. I rose. "I have to catch the train. Tonight."
Questions followed me up the stairs, but I had no answers. I brushed aside my satchel, filled a suitcase with a few clothes, then scrawled a quick note to Professor Clayton, telling him I'd return by the beginning of next week. I knew he'd understand. I only hoped the college administration would be as obliging.
Excerpted from Playing by Heart by Anne Mateer. Copyright © 2014 D'Ann Mateer. Excerpted by permission of Bethany House.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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