By Michael Cooper
Featured Art: Murol in the Snow by Victor Charreton
The new girl from Vermont said that a woman lived in her shed. The new girl from Vermont brought in a pair of boots to prove it. The boots looked ancient, green suede in a previous incarnation, full suede probably before any of the children in Ms. Gwynn’s class had been born. Now the boots were gray and stiff with duct tape layered up to the edges, leaving only the mossy-looking tips exposed. Terry Wilkins, whom the other children called Terry the Terrible, said it looked as though Sally, the new girl from Vermont, was holding a pair of elf shoes from Middle-earth. The entire class erupted in laughter. Before the show-and-tell session could regress entirely, Ms. Gwynn told the children to quiet down. She told them that they should respect Sally and her story.
The last of the laughter subsided and Sally continued speaking, the shoes nestled in a forearm like pets.
“My father keeps a woman in our shed and these are her shoes.”
Careful to avoid remonstration, the class remained quiet throughout the rest of Sally’s telling. No one asked why the father kept a person in a shed, or how anyone would agree to such confinement. Like many of her students, Ms. Gwynn sat with her arms crossed over her chest. She decided that she would try calling her own father on her lunch break, for his sixty-eighth birthday. She hoped, in fact, to interrupt his birthday lunch.
She used one of the phones in the teacher’s lounge. Six of her coworkers— teachers and office administrators—sat at the rectangular table near the window and she wanted each of them to hear the conversation. The phone at her father’s house rang and rang and just when Ms. Gwynn thought she might reach voicemail, her father answered, his voice tinged with a high lilt suggesting worry.
“It’s me, Dad,” Ms. Gwynn said. “Happy birthday to you.”
Harriet Bixby, a fellow teacher who had a habit of asking Ms. Gwynn how her weekend went every Monday, paused with sandwich raised midway to look toward her. With a scratchy voice, Ms. Gwynn’s father drew a picture of the day he’d been having thus far in the company of his new wife. Homemade mimosas on the beach, Bloody Marys at the Salt Life Food Shack, and now a little afternoon siesta at home. Chewing her sandwich, Harriet Bixby stared. Ms. Gwynn’s father had been recovered for over a decade—doctor’s orders—and hadn’t touched a drink since those two terrible years after Ms. Gwynn’s mother had died so suddenly. Now, Ms. Gwynn’s father announced he was dying. A tumor the size of a walnut had latched onto his spine. It’s okay, he kept saying. It’s fine. The doctors gave him half a year, miracle months, according to one.
“But I’m having a wonderful day,” her father said. “My day is only going to get better, Barb, no matter how often my ungrateful daughter calls me.”
Then the line clicked.
Ms. Gwynn stood listening to silence. From their rare conversations—once a year, if not once every other year—Ms. Gwynn came to expect such grim and dramatic pronouncements, but today her father’s tone had a dull, weary edge. Harriet Bixby looked away and the words just started to flow from Ms. Gwynn. Into the phone’s receiver, Ms. Gwynn spoke of her own day, how a very imaginative girl from Vermont had shared a story about a woman living in her back yard—a shed, of all places. And she told her father who wasn’t really on the line that this new girl from Vermont with her silly stories happened to remind Ms. Gwynn quite a bit about herself at that age, and as soon as the words were there for everyone to hear Ms. Gwynn realized they rang very true. Quite spontaneously, she recollected in detail the time she’d once bent the truth during a show-and-tell session.
“Back when you printed newspapers for a living, yes, you made a phony article especially for my show-and-tell day, just a little joke. I told my class it would be snowing in Florida that weekend. They didn’t believe a word of it until I passed around the article you had printed. One person looked at it and passed it on to the next. The next show-and-teller didn’t even get to speak, that brutish Margaret Stinchcomb. Remember? Throughout the rest of the week, it’s all my class talked about, the snow coming to Florida.”
Ms. Gwynn laughed and looked at her colleagues one more time, and she said she’d see her father soon, especially now he was back in St. Augustine. She told him not to worry—her schedule would allow, and she closed by saying, “Yes, sometimes it really does snow in Florida.”
Recess followed lunch and Sally sat alone as usual. Today, though, Ms. Gwynn didn’t steer other lonely children in her direction. Ms. Gwynn went and sat with the new girl herself. Sally (Taurus Snake, just like Ms. Gwynn) had hair the color of dried oats and it sprouted from her scalp in limp curls as though she’d wandered through the misty morning wearing rollers. Forever petite, Ms. Gwynn squeezed herself into the desk next to Sally’s. The other children watched them closely at first, but then returned to their board games and drawing.
“Usually,” Ms. Gwynn said, “we don’t want children telling tall tales during show and tell.”
The girl’s parents had packed her goat’s milk, an elixir from one of the local dairies, a cobalt-blue goat on the side of the box in profile with little horns and a face set in somber willingness to give its milk to pale children like Sally. Ms. Gwynn asked if the milk was any good.
“It’s just milk,” the girl said.
“Yes, but milk tends to taste either good or bad, no?”
“It doesn’t matter to me.”
“Taste is very important,” Ms. Gwynn said. “And it’s very poor taste to tell stories that aren’t true.”
“It’s all true, I promise,” Sally said, and children looked toward them again.
“Okay,” Ms. Gwynn said. “I believe you.”
The other children continued to talk and play games. Ms. Gwynn crossed her arms over her chest, and soon Sally did, too. Soon the class’s biggest boy and its biggest girl got into a brief spat over a missing black checker, and the girl, Terry Wilkins, pulled back her fist like she might swing, but then she looked back toward Ms. Gwynn and she lowered her arm and pulled the black plastic piece from her back pocket and dropped it on the floor as though it had been there all along. Ms. Gwynn looked toward Sally, who regarded these events, too, her eyebrows raised a half-inch higher than normal. Soon, the big boy and the big girl knelt at the checkerboard like nothing had happened.
“See that?” Ms. Gwynn said. “Let that be today’s lesson.”
Wise people cultivated life lessons the way farmers nurtured trusty egg-laying fowl. Ms. Gwynn’s mother had always said this. On the morning after her tenth birthday, Ms. Gwynn dropped a pail of chickenfeed that scattered in the grass around her feet. The ambulance took her mother’s already cool body from the hen house to the hospital, and the next day Ms. Gwynn picked up every single pellet so she could feed the chickens.
One just had to help herself. One couldn’t rely on anyone. After the funeral, her drunk uncle found a job for her father at a printing press in Savannah. Throughout adolescence, on most nights, she had to guide her father to his bed. Of course, he couldn’t maintain any work, and when she turned sixteen, Ms. Gwynn began working thirty-hour weeks at a pet store across town—this on top of her studies. Still, during these years, she had done everything but beg for her father’s meager showings of love, as though those rare moments might be pieces of confetti she could collect to one day burst in one glorious shower. But as she grew older she learned to see little scraps of paper for what they were: not sequins or diamonds or snow that fell from Florida skies.
Had Sally’s parents thanked her for agreeing to move from Vermont? Did they even know about the school’s weekend trip to Orlando? Ms. Gwynn kept all of her students’ birth dates, home phone numbers, and addresses filed away on index cards in her desk. After the day’s final bells, she retrieved Sally’s contact information. She’d call the girl’s parents to remind them of the importance of healthy socialization.
But as soon as she returned home, Ms. Gwynn called her father again. He answered on second ring with a jolly Hoo-hah.
“You’ve played the dying card so much,” Ms. Gwynn said, “even the grim reaper’s no longer dealing with you.”
“If you’re going to keep calling me, Barbara, I should just put the shotgun barrel in my mouth now.”
“It would be the first time you followed through on your word.”
“I have a few months to live. And then they’ll bury me beside your mother so whenever you visit you’ll be haunted by your ungrateful attitude.”
“I’ll bring her lilies and you a mouthful of spit.”
Now, the earpiece rattled as though her father had covered it with a hand. Muffled talking sounded and then the phone went dead, predictably.
Sometimes, phone conversations just wouldn’t do. Ms. Gwynn didn’t have any problem finding Sally’s house, a brick ranch-style home that sat low to the earth like an alarmed cat about to spring. She had to park along the curb bcause of two cars sitting in the driveway, one a lime-green Volkswagen and the other an ancient-looking blue Dodge sedan with a cracked rear window. At the door, Ms. Gwynn rang the bell several times to no avail, but then caught sight of a pale face behind a pane of frosted glass at the house’s side. The visage ducked back, but Ms. Gwynn recognized to whom it belonged.
“I see you, Sally,” Ms. Gwynn said and glanced once more at the two cars parked in the driveway.
Ms. Gwynn walked around the house’s side and followed the perimeter of a tall picket fence to its gate. In the corner of Sally’s back yard, a shed stood amidst a copse of spiny rose bushes. A nude woman leaned against the frame of its open door. She was about Ms. Gwynn’s age, grayish hair falling to her shoulders, arms hanging limply at her sides, breasts and stomach sagging. She regarded Ms. Gwynn without surprise, dismay, or anger. But with total serenity, it seemed, as though the woman had been expecting Ms. Gwynn all along.
“Hey, hon, someone’s standing back there,” the woman said.
Around the fence’s corner, directly across from the shed, a man stood at an easel, tapping at a canvas with the tip of a paintbrush. He turned his sunburnt face toward Ms. Gwynn.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“I’m Sally’s teacher,” Ms. Gwynn said.
“What has she done?”
“She’s done nothing wrong, per se, but there’s a school trip this weekend.”
“Her mother hasn’t put you up to this, has she?” the man asked.
“I can assure you Sally’s parents haven’t shown their faces at my school.”
The painter regarded Ms. Gwynn with a sort of smirk. In a white bathrobe now, the woman from the shed walked across the yard. She kissed the man on the cheek and said he was Sally’s father and a hell of a father at that. He hushed the woman and she kicked through the tall grass toward the patio. The tail of her robe trailed behind. Every time the woman’s legs emerged from the robe’s folds, Ms. Gwynn noted the raggedy shoes tied to her feet—the same elf shoes Sally had brought to class that very day.
“Well, are you just going to stand there gawking?” Sally’s father asked.
“Come over here and have some tea with us.”
“I really can’t stay for long,” Ms. Gwynn said.
“It doesn’t take long to finish a glass of iced tea.”
So Ms. Gwynn went to the table and accepted the tea, but she caught a whiff of its alcohol and placed the glass back onto the table. The woman called it a long island, a very long island. Sally’s father laughed and apologized. Ms. Gwynn held up her hand to prevent any more of this.
“One only wastes time apologizing,” she said, the words so assured everything in the yard seemed to still and quiet, especially Sally’s father.
“Have you ever had your portrait painted?” he asked.
Sally’s father and the woman sat waiting for Ms. Gwynn’s response. Yes, students scribbled pictures of her sometimes, but she didn’t divulge this. Ms. Gwynn didn’t reveal how she destroyed these drawings at first, but then began collecting them in an old cigar box she’d once used to store her school pencils. A stumpy, bespectacled curmudgeon whose dialogue seemed as grotesque as her physical being: “What do the last two letters in ‘shame’ spell? Yes, shame on you.” or “Good is the nemesis of great.” These crude pictures reminded Ms. Gwynn to stop saying such things. No one should be so predictable. No one’s words should be reduced to a dialogue bubble.
Now, Ms. Gwynn picked up the alcoholic tea and took a draught long enough to let these two know they understood her as well as her students, and especially as well as her father. She set down the glass and got to the point. She had to stop the entire class from laughing at Sally’s show-and-tell tale. Perhaps it wasn’t wise to let a woman walk around in the nude with an impressionable child in their midst. Tomorrow, Sally could bring a check covering the trip’s fees. They’d go to Disneyworld and a few stops along Florida’s East coast, a wax museum, the beaches. The woman in the robe fished a cigarette from her pocket. She lit it and blew a funnel of smoke Ms. Gwynn fanned away.
“I know how to raise a girl,” Sally’s father said. “Don’t you worry.”
As though to punctuate this statement, the blinds at the screen door swayed. Sally’s father and the robed woman had their backs to the window, so they didn’t notice this eavesdropping.
“What’s important is that Sally find a place among her peers,” Ms. Gwynn said, loud enough for the girl to hear. “She needs to take part in the trip.”
“She hasn’t mentioned anything to me about this trip,” her father said.
“Yes, but how often do you two truly speak?” Ms. Gwynn asked.
Before anyone could say anything else, Ms. Gwynn stood and thanked them for the tea. The robed woman pulled at her collar and said a perfectly good evening had been spoiled, to which Ms. Gwynn replied, “Imagine how perfect an evening it is for a lonely girl holed up in a house.” At the fence’s gate, Ms. Gwynn turned and told them she’d find her own way out to her car.
The next morning, the sun not having yet burnt the fog from the roads, the children stood in four rows of twenty to thirty. Two silver buses idled at the loop, their lower compartments already packed with suitcases and carryalls. Ms. Gwynn called each student’s name, and today she allowed them to shout here with extra gusto. Better to drain the mischief from their systems now than during the five-hour bus ride.
Sally wasn’t among the children. The girl’s absence didn’t surprise Ms. Gwynn. Naturally, such a free-spirited parent would overlook the significance of some opportunities. But just as Ms. Gwynn finished calling the last name in her line, the lime-green Volkswagen pulled up to the bus loop. Harriet Bixby bent at the passenger’s-side door, telling the driver this lane was for buses only. The door opened and Sally’s pale legs swung out. With check in hand, the girl trotted to the end of Ms. Gwynn’s line, where the other children distanced themselves from her by a step or two.
“Welcome aboard, Sally,” Ms. Gwynn said, the girl glancing at the receding Volkswagen. “I’m glad you’ve made it.”
Sally chose a seat in the very front of the bus. Ms. Gwynn made a concerted effort to sit just across the aisle and she even told Harriet, the other adult chaperone, she should have the window seat. The drive to Orlando was a straight shot on 95, the bus driver said, the land flat and monotonous. Sally fell asleep even before they reached the Interstate. Harriet droned on about the many experiences she’d had at Disneyworld as both child and adult, and soon they were passing Jacksonville’s long bridges and shiny buildings, many of the children raising their voices in complaint at passing such a grand opportunity. Finally, Sally’s eyes opened and she blinked at the city. Ms. Gwynn took the opportunity to begin describing the many landmarks she remembered from her time in Florida, which included a diner shaped like a coffeepot, a museum in an upsidedown house, and a grocery with an entrance shaped like an alligator’s head. She promised the girl, in certain coastal towns, she could pluck hibiscus and taste salt water on their petals.
Sally brushed bangs from her eyes and watched Ms. Gwynn’s hand. The girl asked why Ms. Gwynn didn’t wear a marriage ring. Harriet leaned forward as though she might reprimand Sally, but Ms. Gwynn held up the same hand that had prompted the girl’s rude question. A few miles passed in silence. Then the child spoke again.
“My dad wants to paint your portrait.”
“Yes,” Ms. Gwynn said and smiled. “But I’m not one to pose nude.”
“They talked about you after you left yesterday. They said you should see a head doctor.”
“Maybe I’ll take you with me for an evaluation, too.”
“Maybe I can help you.”
“Dear,” Ms. Gwynn said. “I’ve had nearly thirty years experience handling children ten times more problematic than you.”
“Why don’t you have any children?”
In the seats directly behind them some of the chattering had ceased. The bus driver’s eyes, through the large rearview mirror, turned to Ms. Gwynn, and of course Harriet watched her, too.
“I know it’s not you asking these rude questions, Sally, but your father and his friend. Let’s talk about more pleasant things now. Have you ever been to Disney?”
But the girl had leaned her head back against the seat again and closed her eyes as though she might have fallen into a sudden, deep sleep. Harriet cleared her throat, and when Ms. Gwynn looked in her direction, shook her head for good measure. Soon, the children began their chatter once more. Ms. Gwynn could sense a question coming from Harriet. The woman just needed to know everything.
“Doesn’t your father live in Florida? I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation yesterday.”
“He does, but this bus is heading toward Orlando, not to visit my father.”
“Maybe you can have him meet us there.”
“Mrs. Bixby,” Ms. Gwynn said. “For the love of the day, would you please mind your own business?”
To be sure, this quieted Harriet, who quickly looked out of the window at the passing conifers. Why would Ms. Gwynn reveal anything to a stranger, especially in the midst of her students? If she’d ruined her father’s life, then he’d ruined hers first when he’d married his second wife, a foul woman with giant teeth who said Ms. Gwynn should become a nun, for all the merit of her love life. Her father coped through drinking and remarrying. Just after her mother’s death, she discovered contentment while working in the pet store, fish and cats, dogs and rodents all gazing hopefully at her. There was no shame in that sort of contentment.
They’d reach Orlando shortly. Soon, they’d leave this bus and move on with their day.
Ms. Gwynn said, “I feel this is already going very splendidly,” loud enough for everyone to hear, though no one said anything, not at first.
“Amen, sister,” the bus driver said, his eyes on Ms. Gwynn through the rearview mirror once again.
The rest of the day didn’t go so splendidly. Shortly after they arrived at the park, Terry Wilkins stuck her hand in a garbage can and was immediately stung by a yellow jacket. The girl’s face swelled to the size of a ripe cantaloupe. She began hyperventilating. An ambulance rushed the girl to the hospital, Ms. Gwynn holding her uninjured hand during the ride, explaining the many ways in which Terry wasn’t terrible, but rather an irreplaceable part of their class. Several times, Terry tilted her head toward Ms. Gwynn. Tears leaked from the girl’s swollen eyelids. Ms. Gwynn didn’t wipe these away, but patted the child’s head.
By the time Terry was released from the hospital, it was dark. Ms. Gwynn had talked to the girl’s parents, who seemed more concerned about the possibility of having to drive to Orlando, and assured them she could handle the situation just fine. A nurse was kind enough to drive them to the Holiday Inn where the school had reserved their rooms, the two silver buses quiet and still near a flickering streetlamp. At the check-in desk, Ms. Gwynn found the child’s room and her room happened to be adjoined. On the sheet the tired-looking concierge perused, Sally’s name was penciled in among the occupants of Terry’s room, too. Ms. Gwynn walked Terry to her room and the girl thanked her. Ms. Gwynn said, “Save your thanks, Terry. There’s no need for it. If you need me, I’ll be in that room over there.”
In Ms. Gwynn’s room, a note lay folded on the bed, Ms. Gwynn scrawled across its front. It read, Meet us in the hotel lounge. If you’re so inclined, of course . . . Harriet
A push-button phone sat on the table between the room’s two beds. Ms. Gwynn had an urge to tell her father about riding in the ambulance with a hyperventilating girl, to draw with words a picture of Terry’s gratitude as they stood in the buggy Orlando night. He answered after the first ring.
“Barbara, if this is you, I’m not answering this phone for a long while.”
“I don’t want to fight with you any longer.”
Ms. Gwynn repeated this several times, her voice rising to drown out her father’s words, but he just kept talking, saying the many years she’d been ignoring him had poisoned his body with cancer, saying she’d spend the rest of her life alone. The receiver rattled and a woman’s voice came through. Near Ms. Gwynn’s face, the hotel lamp burned bright and for one disorienting beat, she thought the voice belonged to her long-deceased mother.
“You two have to stop this nonsense,” the voice said. This was her father’s new wife, of course.
The line clicked. Perhaps worse, three loud thumps came very close to Ms. Gwynn’s ear, someone from the room next door pounding on the wall. Then the sound of girls giggling. Ms. Gwynn balled a fist and knocked right back, which caused even more laughing, but soon everything went quiet again.
After this, Ms. Gwynn lay in her bed for a long while. She dozed off and when she woke again, the clock read just past midnight. At the window, where Ms. Gwynn parted the musty beige curtains, Orlando proved to be awake still, a few automobiles coasting down the avenue and a few young couples walking along the sidewalks. Near the hotel, a rental car company’s sign glowed dull mustard yellow. Budget. And under this sign, Ms. Gwynn caught sight of Harriet walking slowly toward the room. Quickly, Ms. Gwynn returned to bed and clicked off the bedside lamp. Harriet came in, closing the door behind her quietly and walking straight to the other bed, where she slipped under the starchy covers. Then she spoke, her voice a bit slurred.
“I saw you at the window. Did you save Terry today?”
Ms. Gwynn didn’t answer immediately. She imagined the girls next door— Sally, especially—with their ears cupped to the walls. Then, her voice low, she answered Harriet’s question. Yes, she’d helped Terry. She helped Terry, but she certainly couldn’t save Terry. People could only save themselves.
“I’ll tell you what,” Harriet said. “If anyone can help a child, it’s you.”
“You’ve been drinking, Mrs. Bixby.”
“Why don’t you just call me Harriet?”
“Should I be ashamed to be professional?”
“You are so professional. I mean, I heard the way you spoke about Sally over the phone the other day. It was like you were speaking about your own daughter.”
“They’re all our sons and daughters.”
At this, Harriet quieted. Ms. Gwynn imagined her colleague drifting off to sleep with this last comment still very much alive in her mind, how the words might shape a night’s worth of dreams or nightmares. With Ms. Gwynn awake and alone in the room, the statement seemed as empty as the memory she’d shared in the teacher’s lounge just yesterday, those words she’d spoken into a dead receiver: Sometimes it snows in Florida. Was it really her fault they hadn’t seen each other in twelve years? If her father were critically ill, if he were to pass suddenly, what distorted image of Ms. Gwynn would cease to exist in his mind at that crucial, dire second? Ms. Gwynn turned to her side and Harriet spoke again, her voice hushed in a whisper as though she might really be speaking in her sleep.
“You should meet with your father tomorrow.”
“Go to bed, Mrs. Bixby.”
For a few minutes, silence ensued, but then the woman spoke again. They had plenty of chaperones and Terry Wilkins wasn’t going to go sticking her hand in any more garbage cans. Ms. Gwynn had to see her father. She just had to see him.
The next morning, gray predawn light seeping through the curtains, Ms. Gwynn waited for the shower’s water to start running and then she called her father again. The phone rang several times and then the line clicked, a sound suggesting her father had picked up the receiver just to let it drop into its cradle again, but then someone spoke, a woman’s voice gentle and patient. She said hello to Ms. Gwynn and introduced herself as Sasha, her father’s wife.
“Third wife,” Ms. Gwynn said.
“Yes,” she said. “Your father wants peace, which is why I’m speaking to you now.”
Ms. Gwynn was about to say her father wasn’t known for being that practical, but in the hotel bathroom, Harriet had begun to sing. Over the running water, her voice came through into the room, a song the children had sung yesterday as the bus exited off of the Interstate into Orlando, the school’s song, which Harriet had prompted by turning in her seat and intoning the first refrains. We aren’t alone, but here together. And all together now, we say, “We are the mighty White Bluff Rams.” As the bus drew to a stop at a red light, Ms. Gwynn and Sally had looked at each other, their mouths unmoving, their hands clasped and still on their laps. Now, Harriet kept her tone low and elegiac, and cleared her throat several times to prevent her voice from cracking.
“Are you still there?” her father’s wife asked.
“I want to see him today,” Ms. Gwynn said.
“I don’t think he’ll be up for that on such short notice, not today.”
“I think he’ll want to see his granddaughter, don’t you?”
The new wife paused. She said he’d never mentioned having a granddaughter and Ms. Gwynn said this was because he’d never known. Now Ms. Gwynn was talking, telling Sasha not to interrupt. If her father wanted to meet this child they’d have to come to downtown St. Augustine at noon. That was all there was to it. Today or never. And as the new wife began to speak again, Ms. Gwynn interrupted with a few last words. She’d be waiting outside of Potter’s Wax Museum, at noon, and that was it—not only did she hang up the phone this time, she lifted the receiver from its cradle and placed it on the nightstand, its droning dial tone adding to Harriet’s warble in the shower.
They reached the wax museum with just ten minutes to spare before noon. A steady drizzle had begun. Ms. Gwynn saw her children off through Potter’s entrance and then found Harriet to say she needed a moment to step outside. A little coffee shop stood across the street. By the time her father arrived, she wanted to have a table secured. She wanted to wave at him and his new wife through the coffee shop’s window. They’d find her dry and comfortable in the coffee shop, a pot of green tea ready on the table, and she wanted her father to pause and say, “Over there, there’s my daughter.” She wanted to be sitting beside the window so when the children finally came out of the museum, she could point them out and say, “There they are, all of them, my children. Not one, but all of them.”
Now Ms. Gwynn crossed the street. She fit the hood of her windbreaker around her face, but her shoes splashed right into a gutter clogged with leaves. As she drew closer to the road’s opposite side, a breath caught in her throat. No one sat out on the high deck curving around the coffee shop’s side. In fact, no cars were parked in the spaces fronting the shop. The windows’ blinds drawn, a closed sign hung on the door. Ms. Gwynn retreated back across the street. Her watch read noon exactly, and as soon as she looked up, a white Toyota rounded the street’s curve, two heads behind the windshield, one with white hair that could only belong to her father. She reached the sidewalk and tried to hide her face, but it was too late. Her father was already pointing in her direction. Sasha rolled down her windshield. Her long face chewed vigorously at what must have been gum and her neck was slightly flushed with sunburn.
“Where is she, Barbara?” her father said. “And what in God’s name are you doing dodging traffic on a wet road?”
Ms. Gwynn pointed at the wax museum, and said they’d have to go in there. Predictably, her father grimaced. And as his face contorted, Ms. Gwynn knew she would want nothing to do with that scene either, busloads of odd children lifting their arms to shake the wax figures’ still hands. Sasha pulled the car alongside Ms. Gwynn and said she looked just like her father, who denied the claim without pause.
They parked in Potter’s lot. Sasha exited the car with an umbrella and ran around to the passenger’s side. With his new wife’s help, Ms. Gwynn’s father pulled himself up out of the car.
He stood under the open umbrella. His frail body bent over a glossy wooden cane with a bald eagle’s head for its handle. Sighing, he appraised Ms. Gwynn from shoes to face and closed his eyes. He shook his head, which hung so heavily at an angle the tendons at his neck stood out from the strain. Sasha gripped his shoulder, but still his body leaned as though he might fall against the car at any moment. And for this, and probably nothing else, Ms. Gwynn stepped toward her father.
“Where’s my granddaughter?” he asked, his head straight and his eyes open now.
Ms. Gwynn said she’d like to get coffee or tea before talking about any of that. Her father coughed in his fist, making so much noise over her voice, and when he finally regained his composure he guessed correctly she’d been lying all along. Ms. Gwynn didn’t refute this, only wiped away some of the rain that had collected on the lenses of her glasses.
“I’m never going to speak to you again, Barbara.”
“Don’t say those things,” his new wife said.
Ms. Gwynn pointed to the wax museum again, saying they were all her children, and for a moment her father and Sasha stared, until he said, “Bullshit.” He refused his new wife’s help, yanking his arm from her grasp, and fell into the passenger-side seat with a grimace, never letting go of his cane, as though he might use it to beat away any person who came too close. Shaking rain off of the collapsed umbrella, the new wife trotted around to the driver’s side. Everything else happened so quickly, starting the engine, leaving the parking lot, her father’s head turned in the opposite direction, Sasha waving one last time with an apologetic tip of her hand.
Ms. Gwynn crossed the street fully this time. She sat on a bench against the wall of the vacant coffee shop. The rain continued, but she was under the awning now. She sat for what seemed minutes, watching cars pass—none white Corollas. More than an hour ticked off on her watch. Ms. Gwynn kept wondering how much longer anyone could wander through a wax museum. The building seemed only so big. Eventually, the children came out of the entrance in a single-file line. A few of them spotted Ms. Gwynn where she was sitting. They pointed toward her, and she suppressed the urge to point back. They kept coming out, the children, a never-ending stream, boys and girls in bright rain slickers, many trying to huddle close to the chaperones holding umbrellas. A few of the children began waving and Ms. Gwynn waved back.
Michael Cooper lives in New Orleans, where he teaches creative writing workshops. A Pushcart nominee, his work has appeared in journals such as The Chattahoochee Review, Cimarron Review, and The Southeast Review.
Originally published in NOR 18: Fall 2015