Fiction: Kathleen Carr Foster
This story was originally printed in Slice (www.slicemagazine.org)
“Can I get you a cup of coffee or tea?” Mrs. Hughes put her hand lightly on Chelsea’s back, just above her leather belt, and steered her through the reception area toward the office.
“Do you have hot chocolate?” Chelsea asked.
“Oh, dear. We don’t. I’m so sorry.”
“I’m okay then.”
Mrs. Hughes directed the young woman into the small room with a flourish of her hand. A broad window with a generous ledge ran the length of the outside wall. The shelf held a clear bowl containing the multicolored sea glass she had collected over many years, two spider plants with generations of offspring cascading over the rim of the plastic pot, and a photograph in a broad silver frame, depicting two adults with a child between them, standing in front of the Prado. The carpet was new, but she had layered her own antique Persian over the stiff beige pile. Tidy stacks of folders, papers and photocopied sheets, some with their edges curling, covered the desk and nearly every other available surface.
She motioned toward the triangular grouping of spindle-backed chairs in the center of the office. Chelsea sat down, crossed her legs and then uncrossed them. Mrs. Hughes took a seat as well and opened a manila folder on her lap. Her eyes moved rapidly from side to side, scanning the papers within. She retrieved a pen from the nearby desk. “I’m going to take a few notes as we talk,” she said. “I hope you won’t mind. It will help me remember our conversation later.”
“Okay,” Chelsea said.
“I don’t mean to bring up a difficult subject, but we typically ask both parents to be present at the interview. We hope to get to know the family as a whole. Was Amelia’s father unable to attend?”
“It’s not really a difficult subject — for me anyway,” Chelsea said. “He’s never been a part of her life. In fact, I’m not even sure he knows she was born. What I mean is, I didn’t really know him all that well myself, so, it’s not like I would talk to him about her education. He really doesn’t have anything to do with it.” She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. It hung below her shoulders, brown and glossy, as straight as though it had been ironed on a board. The brows above her wide blue eyes were plucked into a pencil thin line. Her features and limbs—nose, chin, forearms, wrists—were so petite that she looked like a child herself.
“All right, then,” Mrs. Hughes said. “That’s not a problem. Why don’t you tell me a little bit about Amelia? Feel free to boast, now, Chelsea. Many people feel awkward talking about how wonderful their child is but this is your opportunity to toot your own horn, so to speak.”
“Okay.” Chelsea cleared her throat. “Well, I mean, she reads articles in the newspaper, which is unusual for a five year old.”
“I would say so,” Mrs. Hughes said.
“I had to ask my boyfriend to stop bringing the Herald over because she kept asking me what different words mean, and sometimes I didn’t want to tell her about Al-Qaeda and all that.”
“Of course not.”
“Have you ever heard of a child reading like that at five?” Chelsea’s fingers worked the bottom of a strand of hair. She inspected it as she talked, as though looking for split ends.
“Well, there are a few children who begin kindergarten with some reading skills, but that level of ability is unusual.”
“I had to talk to the preschool because they kept asking her to read to the other kids. My point was, once in a while is okay, but it shouldn’t be every day.”
“It’s not like she’s on the payroll.” Chelsea smiled.
“How is she with other children?” Mrs. Hughes made notes on the paper in her folder. Many years ago she had made a chart to assist her with parent interviews. The first block was labeled “Parents’ Attitude toward Child.” In that block she wrote: Mother suggests that child reads at an adult level. Over time she had developed the ability to fill out sections of the chart while tilting the folder in such a way that the most eagle-eyed parent—David and Patricia Malone came to mind, judge and doctor, respectively—could not see what she wrote. In this case, though, there was no reason for concern. Chelsea was looking out the window, which framed a gently sloping lawn and beyond, a fenced-in playground. A thin layer of snow covered the grass. Tracks of footprints crisscrossed one another and came together in a muddy patch in front of the gate. Children were laughing and pushing one another on the colorful climbing structures, which had been purchased with the interest on the Parents’ Annual Fund.
“Isn’t it a nice playground?” prompted Mrs. Hughes. “Does Amelia enjoy playing with other children?”
Chelsea transferred her gaze to Mrs. Hughes’ face. “A lot of smart kids have trouble relating to other kids, I know, but Amelia has a lot of friends. There are tons of kids in our neighborhood, and she’s always out playing in the street.”
“Your application says you live in the city.”
“That’s right. We live in South Boston. It’s not too far.”
“Oh, no. We have a lot of families from the city. In fact, we have a very organized system of carpools to help everyone get in and out.”
“Does anyone ever take the train?” Chelsea tugged at the knot in her silk scarf.
“You certainly could, but it would be a long ride in the morning—train, trolley and bus.”
“I know,” said Chelsea. “We did it today. I don’t drive, actually.”
“I can hardly blame you. Boston is a difficult place to drive in. And parking is even worse.”
“Well, it’s more that I have a clinical phobia about riding in cars. It’s called Amaxophobia. Fear of riding in automobiles.”
“Oh my goodness. How difficult for you. Of course, the train would be fine. Or we would figure something out. Anyhow, why don’t you tell me a little bit about why you think Dighton would be a good fit for Amelia?”
During the pause that followed, Chelsea twisted a thick silver ring around her index finger. She slid it over her knuckle and back down again. The joint was raw and red, as though she repeated this motion often. She leaned toward Mrs. Hughes. “I hardly know what to do with her, if you want to know the truth,” she said. “I look around this place and it’s just beautiful. Amelia would love the art room. She draws all the time.”
Mrs. Hughes nodded slowly, her face a well-practiced mixture of interest and sympathy. “It’s a wonderful program.”
“I can’t believe the papers on the walls of the kindergarten room,” Chelsea continued. “There’s just so much here, woodworking, even. And I just know the kids would be better for her than the kids in our neighborhood.”
“We have a great group of families here.” In the section of her chart labeled “Parents’ Knowledge of Dighton’s Resources and Programs” she wrote: Minimal. Mother demonstrates no specific understanding of school’s curriculum. Cannot articulate what, specifically, makes school good fit. Looking up, she adjusted her glasses and said, “Chelsea, do you have any other questions I could answer for you today?”
Chelsea took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I have one other question,” she said.
“I understand there’s some financial aid available? I’m not sure—I don’t think I could handle the tuition.”
As she listened, Mrs. Hughes, with an almost imperceptible motion of her hand, made a check mark in a tiny box at the bottom of her chart. “We do have a limited amount of aid available,” she said, “and there’s a brochure included in the folder I’m going to give you on your way out.”
Mrs. Hughes stood up. She had read, years ago, in The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, that this was an effective way to indicate the end of a discussion. She was still surprised by how well it worked. Chelsea stood immediately and looked around for her coat.
“It’s in the rack by the entranceway, isn’t it?” Mrs. Hughes smiled gently. She handed Chelsea a folder with the school’s crest embossed on the front. “Take this home and look it over. The remaining forms are due by January 15th, so you’ve got about a week and a half.”
Chelsea clutched the folder with both hands as they walked out of the office.
“If you think of any questions,” Mrs. Hughes said, “or if there’s something you’d like me to know about Amelia that you’ve forgotten to mention, don’t hesitate to call or drop me a note.”
“Great,” Chelsea said.
“Let’s go find Amelia. Oh, here she is now.”
They walked through the sun-filled reception area where a series of brightly painted clay sculptures lined the table behind the sofa. A child ran toward them down the hall, followed by a heavyset woman with a long braid. The child wore striped tights and a denim jumper. Her brown hair was thick and curly. It had been pulled into a ponytail at the nape of her neck, but frizzy pieces had escaped and stuck out on every side.
“Chelsea, this is Susan Talbot, our school psychologist.”
“Hello,” Chelsea said.
How did she do, Susan?” Mrs. Hughes asked.
“Just fine. She was a pleasure.” Susan smiled and looked down at the child, who grinned and shuffled her feet.
“Can we go to McDonald’s?” Amelia said.
A faint color sprang up over Chelsea’s cheekbones. “That’s not very healthy, kiddo.”
“You promised,” the child said, her dark eyes wide and her expression serious.
“What a nice treat that would be,” said Mrs. Hughes. She pulled Chelsea’s coat and gloves off the rack and handed them to her. Through the floor to ceiling windows on either side of the door, she could see a thin, fair-haired couple in matching navy blue pea coats coming up the brick path. A small boy in a red hat and a brown leather jacket ran ahead of them and had almost reached the door. As she shook Chelsea’s hand, Mrs. Hughes struggled to remember their names—the Stantons, maybe? She thought she would look over their application once more before showing them in.
Catherine Hughes lived in a brick front Tudor-style house at the end of cul-de-sac in the rural town of Stow, forty minutes away from the Dighton School. As she pulled off the main road and onto a small lane bordered by split-rail fences and snowy fields on each side, she saw the shapes of lean horses huddled close together for warmth. They stood on fragile legs, stomping and snorting, next to a barn that looked gray in the dusk. She was conscious of the warmth of the car, the coils in the floor of the heavy sedan that heated the leather seats. For a moment, the image of a mother and child waiting for the trolley in the open-air station passed through her mind. She pushed the image aside and turned onto Hemlock Lane, where, on a wooded lot at the very end of the road, warm light spilled from her windows and pooled on the snow-covered lawn.
“Have you heard of Amaxophobia?” Catherine asked her husband, Alan, over supper. They ate side by side at the long granite counter in the middle of the kitchen, which had a cathedral ceiling and two skylights. They had put the kitchen and family room addition on fifteen years ago. Catherine had worked with the architect for weeks, discussing the height and slope of the ceiling, its relationship to the exterior walls, and the best possible placement of the French doors that opened onto the deck.
“What’s that?” asked Alan, lifting his eyes from his plate. Unlike Catherine, who was tall, slender, and quick-motioned, Alan was a broad-shouldered, thick-necked man who ate with slow, deliberate intent and did not like to be distracted from his meal.
“It’s the fear of riding in cars. I met a woman today who is unable to ride in a car. She and her daughter have to take public transportation.”
“She can ride on a train but not in a car?” Alan poured a small amount of Cabernet into his glass.
“That doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it?” asked Catherine. “I think she can ride the bus, too.”
“Where did you encounter this person?”
“She’s applying her daughter. I interviewed her today.” Catherine salted her steak absentmindedly. “She was my first appointment, followed by the Stantons from Weston, whose son takes piano, karate, tennis, and meets with a literacy coach twice a week. He’s four and a half.”
“Sounds like it was quite a day.”
“Typical.” Catherine took a bite of her steak and wrinkled her long nose.
“You always had Sydney involved in a lot of activities,” said Alan.
“When she was little, you took her to lessons, riding, etcetera.”
“That was it. Riding. She loved it. I didn’t push her.”
“And Girl Scouts.”
“Well, Girl Scouts hardly counts as shoving a child onto the fast track.”
“I suppose not,” said Alan.
Outside the French doors, the dusk had settled into true darkness. The bare branches of the oaks and maples creaked and shifted in the wind, and the stand of pine trees at the far edge of the lawn rustled. After they had finished eating, Alan put on his corduroy jacket and took Benny, the chocolate lab, for a walk around the yard. Catherine collected the plates and brought them over to the counter. She scraped the uneaten pieces of food into the sink and loaded the dishwasher. She poured herself a second glass of wine. When Alan returned, with the cold air clinging to him, he gave the dog a biscuit and said, “I want to talk to you about something.”
She turned with the glass still at her lips.
“I think it’s time to sell the house.” He scratched Benny between the ears.
“Sell the house? You can’t be serious.”
“We don’t need to heat three empty bedrooms.”
“Where would we live?”
“What about something in the city? A condominium, something near restaurants, the theater. You’d love that.”
“I would not. It’s an apartment, with neighbors living all around you. Also, where would Sydney stay if she comes back to visit with the baby?”
“Catherine.” Alan watched her face carefully, his blue eyes squinting with concern.
“Eventually, she’s going to come to visit.” Catherine ran the water in the sink.
“I don’t think we can just put our lives on hold, waiting for that to happen.”
“Unlike you, I’m not willing to give the whole thing up for lost. I’m not going to just forget her.”
“I’m not suggesting that we forget her. I’m just trying to be practical. We could get a two-bedroom condominium, in case she has a change of heart.”
“Could we talk about this in March, after the acceptance letters go out and I’m not so busy?”
“All right,” Alan said, “in March.”
Dear Mrs. Hughes,
You said that I should write if I thought of anything else I wanted to say. I don’t usually do well in interviews, and even though this was an interview about Amelia, I kind of felt like I was in the hot seat! Well, now that I’m home, I thought of a few things I wish I said in your office. Amelia’s a really great kid. She’s the best. She puts up with so much. It’s almost like she’s a little grown-up. I really rely on her. My mother does too. My mother’s a bit of a shut-in, and I’m in the habit of leaving Amelia with her a lot. It gives my mom some company and it’s someone to watch Amelia when I’m out and about. My upstairs neighbors watch Amelia a lot too. Their names are Anne and Bob MacDonald, if you need some sort of personal reference for our family. I don’t know what I’d do without them. I like to take yoga in the evenings, and my boyfriend Tom and I like to go out together when we can. Although I’m raising Amelia on my own, I’ve really taken that saying about how “it takes a village” to heart. I mean, you have to get out there and rely on other people to help. Anyways, Amelia is very flexible and used to spending time with other people. She’s a very serious kid too, and surprises me with the things she says. She seems to remember the different apartments we’ve lived in and the people who lived with us even though she’s so young. I certainly don’t remember anything before the age of five. Of course, there wasn’t really much worth remembering! Maybe that had something to do with it. That’s part of why I want so much more for Amelia. I really thought your school had such a positive vibe. Thanks a lot for meeting with me the other day.
Catherine folded the pink paper along the crease and slid it back into the matching envelope. She tossed it into the metal wastebasket next to her desk and then thought better of it. She reminded her staff frequently that all correspondence with a family, no matter how foolish, desperate, or self-important, should be placed in the file. Telephone calls should be noted in the log. She retrieved the envelope, pulled open her F drawer and found the Flaherty file between Fessenden and Foley. As Catherine slipped the envelope into the front of the hanging folder, she noticed a loose-leaf sheet filled with Susan Talbot’s tight, angular printing. Catherine pulled the file out of the drawer and spread it on top of the other folders. Susan had attached the sheet to her standard printout.
Addendum to Cognitive Profile for Amelia Flaherty
As indicated in the attached profile, Amelia shows a high level of cognitive ability. She completed the puzzles and matching exercises with ease. Her figure drawing is advanced; she produced a fully articulated figure with neck, ears and fingers. I do see this level of ability in, perhaps, five percent of the children I screen. However, I feel compelled to move beyond the standard metrics and note for the record that this child possesses an extraordinary level of intelligence. You might recall the poster on my wall depicting several verses of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet. At one point during our session I noticed that she was looking over my shoulder. I asked her what she was looking at.
“Your poster,” she replied, “why does it say ‘Your children are not your children’?”
“Do you like my poster?” I asked.
“What does it mean?”
“It means that a child can grow up to be anyone she wants to be,” I said.
“I like that,” she said.
Of course, I was interested to see if she was truly reading the words or had simply recognized the poster from somewhere else. To my surprise, she was able to read fluently each of the books I pulled from the library shelves, even the Magic Treehouse series, targeted toward ages 9-12. In my opinion, this child’s intellectual ability and maturity (she has a certain gravitas) would be a true asset to our school. The child seems happy, healthy and well-adjusted.
Catherine read the report through quickly, her eyes leaping from line to line. When she reached the end, she went back to the beginning and read the report again slowly. She put the papers back in order, reassembled the folder, and went to the staff room to make herself a cup of tea.
Several weeks later, Catherine stopped at O’Neil’s Bakery on the way to work to pick up pastries for her staff, who were stretched thin reviewing applications. The bakery was located near the center of town, where two rows of shops faced one another across the main commercial thoroughfare. A foot of snow lay on the flat roofs of the stores and clung even to the shingles on the steeple of the Congregational church.
From the curved glass case she chose apple and raspberry turnovers, twisted cinnamon sticks and blueberry muffins. The teenage girl behind the counter packaged the items in a white box and fastened it with twine pulled from an overhead dispenser. A bell above the door tinkled as Catherine left the shop. Her galoshes splashed in ankle-deep puddles of watery slush as she stepped onto the sidewalk.
She had never before noticed the store next to O’Neil’s; however, the display in the front window suddenly caught her eye: a series of ivory colored dresses dotted with purple lilacs hanging in order from small to smallest. She went into the shop and wandered through the even racks, looking at tiny pairs of seersucker overalls, miniature red bowties, delicate pink dresses with ruffled sleeves, pairs of patent leather maryjanes and black and white saddle shoes. She examined polka-dot keepsake boxes, plush ducks and rabbits, and a basket filled with knit caps fashioned to look like the top of a strawberry.
“May I help you?”
Catherine looked up to see a red-haired, freckled young woman behind the counter. She was pregnant and wore a pale green shirt with a satin ribbon encircling her rib-cage just above her protruding belly.
“No, just browsing, thank you.”
“Shopping for someone special?” The young woman came around the side of the counter and adjusted a display of pearl bracelets beside the register.
Catherine’s heartbeat quickened. “Yes, actually,” she said, “for my daughter.”
“Well, for my grandchild, I mean. My daughter’s child.”
“Isn’t that sweet. Boy or girl?”
Catherine hesitated, forcing her face to relax, reminding herself that that this woman did not know her. “A girl.”
“Sixteen months—no, eighteen. Eighteen months.”
“It does go quickly, doesn’t it?”
“Yes, it does.”
“She must be adorable.”
“I haven’t seen much of her, actually. My daughter lives in Ireland.”
“So far away? Well, we’d be happy to send something.”
“I think I’ll just buy one of these hats for now.” Catherine put her bakery box on the counter and pulled one of the strawberry caps out of the basket. “Just this.”
“Do you think that will fit her? You said eighteen months.”
“I think so. Yes. I’m sure it will fit.”
Dear Mrs. Hughes,
I’ve thought of a few more things about Amelia. I want to be sure you have all the information you need when you’re making your decision. You must be looking at so many kids. She really has a lot of energy. She bombs around our apartment during the day, making circles around the kitchen. She has such a strong imagination. She pretends she’s walking a dog or flying a kite, dragging stuff around. My boyfriend, Benjamin, installed a little swing in her room—screwed it right into the ceiling. She loves it and can already pump on her own. It’s a good thing she has it. It’s getting harder for me to take her out to play in the park at the end of the block. I have both myrmecophobia, which is the fear of ants and traumatophobia (fear of injury), and they have been getting worse in recent weeks. Sometimes Anne and Bob, upstairs, take her, but they are going to Florida for a month and I’m afraid she’ll be inside much of the time. Thank God, she has preschool three days a week. I don’t want her watching too much TV. I figure most of the kids at your school don’t watch a lot of TV. It’s supposed to be unhealthy. I don’t have a lot of other options, though. So I do the best I can. Anyhow, the point of this letter is only to stress what an athletic child Amelia is. Let me know if you need any other information.
MISES HYOOS MY MOM IS RITIG A LETER AND IM RITIG 1 TOO. I LIK YUR SCOOL. I LIK IT BETER THEN HEER. IM BRAV. UPSTARS BOB HAS A LAWD VOYS. I LIK YR PLAYGRD WHEN I CUM THERE IL DO BLOKS AGAN. YR FREND AMELIA
Catherine took Susan Talbot to lunch one afternoon at the end of February. Susan had been surprised by the invitation; Catherine saw the confusion in her plump face when the woman looked up from her cluttered table. After Susan put on her galoshes and wrapped a heavy shawl around her shoulders, the women walked together to Catherine’s car, talking about the drizzle, the recent staff meeting, and the middle-school boy who had written a series of hate-filled notes to himself and attempted to blame them on another child.
Susan suggested a sandwich shop not far from school. Catherine had never been to this particular deli. In fact, she had never paid any attention to it at all. It was pressed between a nail salon and a real estate office, and although the interior received very little natural light, the mural on the wall above their table depicted a pleasant country scene that, with some imagination, reminded Catherine of Umbria.
“This is such a nice idea, Catherine. I’m not sure why we’ve never done this before.” The women faced one another across a small, square table covered with a plaid oilcloth. An empty Perrier bottle held three listless gerbera daisies.
“I’ve often thought of it,” Catherine said, “but I’m usually so busy. Recently, though, I’ve been thinking that it’s important to look up from my desk once in a while.” She decided on a tuna fish sandwich and put down her menu.
“Especially at this time of year,” Susan said, when all the applications are coming in. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Are the numbers up?”
“They’re way up, which surprised me, given the business with the head of school this fall. Once that made the papers, I thought we’d be slow.”
“But there’s no change?” Susan sipped her Diet Pepsi.
“Well, we’re up, as I said. This might be our biggest year since 1998 or 1999. I can’t recall when you started at Dighton. 2002?”
“That’s right. I was at Brearley, in New York, before that.”
“That’s a wonderful school.”
“The parents in New York are a different species altogether.”
“They aren’t always easy here, either.”
“Oh, God, I’m sure they aren’t. Do you have any real horror stories?”
Catherine stirred her tea. “All the stories you might expect. Parents who offer to make big donations if we’ll accept their child; parents who insist their child reads Shakespeare; parents who name-drop, you can imagine.” She paused. “Sometimes they write several follow-up letters.”
“What a nuisance. But doesn’t the school want wealthy families?”
“We want the ones who know better than to mention their income in the interview.”
“Do you object to a parent telling you that their child is bright?”
“Susan, the only person I listen to on the subject of a child’s intelligence is you. I look at your report and nothing else.”
Susan smiled, and her heavy face was suddenly younger and brighter. “I’m flattered.”
The waitress brought their sandwiches to the table. Catherine struggled to open the small bag of Lay’s potato chips that came with her lunch. “Speaking of your profiles,” she said.
“Yes?” The chip bag opened with a pop.
“I realize we don’t typically discuss this sort of thing until the full committee meeting, but as we’re talking—”
Susan raised one eyebrow.
“I was struck by your note about Amelia Flaherty.” Catherine chewed her sandwich slowly and looked down at her hands.
“God in heaven, that child was something else.”
“Really?” Catherine looked up.
“I’ve never seen anything like it in all my years of doing this. Almost eerie. Were her parents unbearable on the subject of their prodigy?”
“It’s just the mother and, oddly enough, no. Not really.”
Susan blew on the chowder in her spoon. “You’re kidding.”
“To tell you the truth, I’m a little—”
“It’s probably nothing, but it crossed my mind that the mother was a little, I don’t know, off.”
“You mean, emotionally? That’s a shame, with such an extraordinary child.”
“Oh, who can say, in a brief visit? She was nervous. In any event, is your son happy at Yale? He’s a sophomore?”
“A junior, actually. He loves it. Wants to be a doctor. The years are flying by. But you know how that is. How’s Sydney?”
“Do you hear from her often?”
“Oh, yes, at least once a week. She’s doing well, nothing new.”
Dear Mrs. Hughes,
I’ve probably given you more information that you really wanted at this point. I just have to mention one other thing about Amelia that maybe you weren’t aware of when we visited the school. She is a very, very ill child. She is covered with germs from head to toe. It’s a difficult situation, as you can imagine. I try to keep the house clean, and I try to keep her indoors, which I had been doing anyway on account of my various conditions, but it’s not easy. I really think your school would be good for her. I’m afraid Amelia’s condition is actually my fault. I haven’t really done the best job. That’s why I want a good education for her. I want her to have all the things I never had myself. My boyfriend, Jeremy, says that all the parents you meet want that for their children. He’s really trying to help us. He’s been great over the past few days. I hope he can provide Amelia with a stable male influence. Anyways, I look forward to hearing from you.
Catherine didn’t see the package right away. She came up the steps from the garage and hung her coat in the hall closet, next to Alan’s golf bag and the snowboard Sydney had used for a season. The house smelled of garlic and the warm, sweet scent of wood burning in the fireplace. When she reached the kitchen, she saw Alan poking at something in a large frying pan. He wore white shorts and a navy blue tee-shirt, and he still had his sweatband across his forehead. He glanced up and smiled. “I got back from squash later than I expected, so I’m just starting the stir-fry.”
“It smells good. Did we get any mail?”
Alan stirred the meat with a spatula. After a long pause he said, “It’s beside the newspaper.”
She put down her keys on the Boston Globe and surveyed the stack of catalogs and envelopes. They were perched on a box wrapped in brown paper. She flipped through the pile quickly—Frontgate, LL Bean, Plow and Hearth, Herrington—and set it aside. Once the label on the small carton was visible, she recognized her own handwriting. Her careful letters, penned in black magic marker, had been crossed out line by line. In compact script Sydney had written “Return to Sender.” Catherine ran her hands over the letters as though they were Braille.
“I almost threw it away,” Alan said, “so you wouldn’t have to see it.”
“It’s better that you didn’t.”
“At least you know the address was correct.”
She took a box of crackers from the cabinet. “Let’s have some of the port wine cheese before dinner.”
He turned off the gas under the stir-fry pan. “Catherine.” He touched her arm and she sank into his chest.
“I did what I thought was right,” she said. “I tried to look out for her. I shouldn’t have said anything against him but I wanted her to know what I thought. I just wanted her to go slowly before making such a big decision.” She breathed in the faint reek of perspiration on his tee-shirt.
“What did you send her?”
“A little hat for the baby.”
“She’ll come around.”
“God, what’s the use. Let’s just sell the house and move into the city.”
“She’ll come around.”
I don’t normally correspond with families personally before the Admissions Committee makes decisions, but I decided to make an exception in this case. I must say, I was alarmed by your most recent letter. I can tell that you are a very caring and devoted mother; however, from what you write it sounds as though you are really struggling with some difficult issues. I urge you to consider talking to a counselor or social worker to get some support and assistance. I really enjoyed meeting you and Amelia, and I’m sorry to think of how much you must both be suffering.
I don’t want you to think that you’re the only mother who struggles. I have faced some difficult issues with my own daughter. I didn’t always agree with the choices she made and, perhaps, I was too strict, too opinionated. When she needed me most, I wasn’t there. As a result, she will no longer speak to me. She’s shut me out entirely. I’ve never even seen my granddaughter. What I mean to say, I suppose, is that I hope you are able to look after Amelia and give her what she needs. That’s much more important that any school admission, or anything else, for that matter.
Finally, I should let you know that because of my level of concern about some of the things you mentioned in your letter, I feel obligated to notify the State Office for Children. In fact, I’m required by law to do so, as an educator. I really do want to be sure you are connected with resources that can help you. Be assured, this situation will not affect our consideration of Amelia’s candidacy for admission to Dighton. Please let me know if there is anything else I can do for you.
“Catherine, could you give us a summary of where we stand on kindergarten?” Peter Fisher, Dean of Admissions, sat at the end of an oval table in the conference room. Afternoon light shone through the high windows and hit the varnished surface at a slant.
Catherine flipped through a short stack of papers and removed a paper clip. “Of the twenty-four seats, fourteen are filled by siblings of students currently enrolled. We have four applicants with alumni parents; two of those are significant donors. That has to be taken into account.”
“So, six spots, realistically,” Peter said.
“That’s right.” Catherine nodded. “We’ve prepared the short list.”
Peter took the paper in his stubby fingers. “Jessica Winehouse, Karl Dempsey, Preston Hunnewell, Clarence Jean-Baptiste, Amelia Flaherty, Samantha Jennings. Three and three. Is the elementary group unanimously in favor of these candidates?”
“I have a question.” Susan Talbot looked at Catherine. “Wasn’t there some concern about Amelia Flaherty’s mother?”
Catherine was startled. She hadn’t expected Susan to bring up their conversation.
“Is there?” Peter loosened his tie.
“No.” Catherine felt her forehead grow warm. “I can’t recall anything.”
“I also wonder,” Susan said, “what happened to the letters.” Her watery blue eyes blinked behind her thick glasses.
“Letters?” Peter asked.
“When I looked in the Flaherty file last week, there were several small pink envelopes inside. Yesterday, they were no longer there.”
“I wasn’t aware of any letters,” Catherine said.
Susan blinked rapidly. She pressed her lips together.
“Have any members of the committee had any contact with the Flaherty family that isn’t documented in the file?” Peter asked.
There was silence around the table. Peter cleared his throat. “Catherine?”
“Well,” Peter said, “putting that matter aside for a moment, we will have to turn the Flaherty situation over to Financial Aid anyway. The forms indicate that the mother has very few resources. We’d be making a big commitment.” He ran a hand through his white hair.
“She’s worth it,” Catherine said. “Susan’s report indicates that the child is truly gifted.”
“That’s certainly true,” Susan said, “but I only saw the child.” She frowned slightly and took a sip of coffee.
Catherine checked the address she had written on an index card and pulled the car over in front of a brown two-family. There was a hydrant next to the curb, but she turned off the engine anyway. The shades on the first floor apartment were pulled all the way down. As she stood on the front porch, Catherine could see the name Flaherty written on a piece of silver duct tape stuck to the rusty letter box. She rang the doorbell several times, listening after each ring for footsteps or voices, but she heard nothing. Finally, she rang the other doorbell. After a few seconds, heavy footfalls sounded on the stairs inside. Catherine heard the sound of a chain rattling in its catch. A man in worn dungarees opened the door. He was bald. He looked at her through narrow blue eyes and didn’t say anything.
“Hello,” Catherine said.
The man hitched up his pants.
“I’m looking for Chelsea and Amelia Flaherty. Do you know when they might be home?”
“Home?” he asked. “They’re gone. Moved out a month ago.”
“Oh, no. Did they leave a forwarding address?”
“Did they leave a forwarding address,” the man repeated softly. “No, they did not.”
“That’s such a shame,” Catherine said. She felt lightheaded. “I’m from the Dighton School. We sent an acceptance letter for Amelia, but we haven’t heard a reply.”
The man’s expression softened. “Imagine that,” he said.
“She’s a very bright child.”
“That’s what my wife was always saying to me. My name’s Bob MacDonald.”
“Catherine Hughes.” They shook hands.
“Tough situation,” Bob said. “Great kid, but the mother was crazy. Looney Tunes. She tells my wife a couple of weeks ago that someone’s going to report her to Social Services, take her kid away.”
Catherine’s legs felt numb. “And you’ve no idea where they’ve gone?”
“Nope. Packed up a U-Haul and drove away.”
“And no way at all to reach them?”
“No way that I know. Maybe she’ll be in touch with you.”
“Believe me,” Catherine said, “nothing would make me happier.”