The police and social worker nodded and paid no attention to my reaction.
“Mr. Ferguson has been close to the family,” the officer confirmed. “It would make sense that the girl stay with him until we can round up her relatives.”
He turned to Taffy. “Do you know how to contact the rest of her family?”
Taffy scratched his head. “Family?” he said, barely loud enough for anyone else to hear. “She doesn’t have much. Molly’s parents moved out to Arizona not long after Jennie was born, and I don’t think Molly’s spoken to them since. We already tried locating Nate’s folks to attend his funeral, and we had no luck there either. She does have an aunt out in Minneapolis, though.”
“Aunt Lucy?” I interrupted. “All she does is send cards on holidays. I don’t know her.”
“Lucy, eh?” the officer said. “Good old Lucy McMillen. She was something. I remember when she took off. What a spitfire!”
“Well, yeah,” Taffy said. “She was a lot of things. And she’s Lucy Cartwright now. She got married.”
“You don’t happen to know how to reach her, do you?” he asked.
“I’ll call her,” Taffy said.
The social worker took out a notebook. “You don’t suppose I could get her number? Or her husband’s name?” she asked. “They are financially stable, I assume?”
“They’re fine as far as that goes,” Taffy said.
“And her husband’s name?”
“Let me talk to her, okay, Ma’am?” Taffy said. “If I can’t get her down here by tomorrow, I’ll tell you anything you want.”
“Fair enough,” she said.
“You’ll call when Lucy gets here, then?” the officer said.
“Sure thing,” Taffy said. “But I think I better get Jennie back to my place. It’s been quite a morning.”
The “morning” had been harder for Taffy than it was for me, I think, but it was easier for Taffy to say he was helping me deal with my hurt than it was to admit he was handling his own.
I did want to be with Taffy. I barely knew anything about Aunt Lucy, and even less about Mama’s parents out in Arizona.
I had wondered about Aunt Lucy from time to time, and sometimes I thought it might be nice to meet her. But live with her? Up in Minneapolis? The Land of Sin? I wasn’t so sure.
We never seemed to hear much from Aunt Lucy and Uncle Frank, besides the Christmas cards Uncle Frank made on his computer. Mama said he was a Graphic Artist, which meant he did nothing all day but waste precious time drawing pictures with his confounded machine while there were people in this world like my Daddy doing “real work.”
Aunt Lucy wasn’t much better. Mama only mentioned her sister once a year, at Christmastime, and she always gave the sign of the cross when she did. Aunt Lucy was a dance instructor, spending her days contorting her body in all sorts of unnatural positions the Good Lord never intended, but at least she managed to work up a sweat.
Taffy drove me back to his house in town. He had two bedrooms, but he set up the davenport for me since he’d been using the second bedroom to store a freezer full of venison and walleye. He had not cleaned for company, and the only non-frozen food he had was a few cans of pork and beans.
“I could heat them up, if you want,” he offered. “It’s not exactly a breakfast of champions….”
“Mama made breakfast,” I said. “Before….” I stopped. “We can go to the store if you’re hungry,” I said.
Taffy sighed. “Sweetie, I really gotta make these calls. That social worker’s gonna be on me for a progress report. You saw how she was.”
“I can go,” I offered. “It’s only a couple blocks.”
“Are you sure?” he said.
“I could get a couple potatoes, and carrots, and an onion. It wouldn’t be much to carry. I could make venison stew….”
“Now, Jennie, I’m supposed to be taking care of you here, not the other way around.”
“I don’t mind,” I told him. “Besides, I love that stew, and so do you.
I’ve seen Daddy make it a million times. I know I can do it.”
Taffy handed me some money. “Okay, if you’re that insistent, but I want you in and out and back here as quick as you can. You know how gossip is in this town.”
I took the money from his hand. “I’ll be right back,” I told him. I had worried that somebody working at TownMarket would tackle me at the door asking why I wasn’t in school, but they didn’t. I thought maybe they finally figured Mama let me have a whole day off school. She’d still made me go after Daddy died up through the morning of his funeral. She
didn’t see the point in me missing out on a free education any longer than necessary.
It wasn’t long before the aisle began to whisper, and the story of Mama standing in the wheat field with her
housedress ablaze seemed to seep out of walls of canned peas.
“Gloria called me from the hospital out in Mankato,” the voice began.
“Ernest has horrible burns all over his arms and legs-the doctors don’t know if they can save all his toes. She said he tried to pull Molly Halifax out of the burning field and she fought him like some kind of rabid wolf. She reeked of gasoline, must’ve been all over her clothes, through her hair and everything, not to mention those boards she doused and stuck into the ground, nailed together in the shape of a cross, as if the Lord would bless such an action.”
“What’s going to happen to the little girl? Where was she?” the other voice asked.
“That’s the strangest thing. She was right there, at the house. She stood there watching the whole thing from the porch. She screamed, of course, for her Mama, even her dead Daddy, poor thing. It didn’t do any good though. That friend of Nate’s, Dennis Ferguson, went over there, and it sounds like he’s watching out for her until The County can round up family to take the little waif.”
“Well, I think Dennis has spent too many years of his life looking after that family. It’ll do him good once the last of the Halifaxes is out, and he moves on once and for all.”
I started to cry, but I managed to do so quietly, and keep the tears, for the time being, to what I could rub away with the back of my hand. Maybe Taffy never should’ve bothered with us. There weren’t too many people that did. Maybe there were better things he could be doing with his life, but until that moment, I had never considered why he didn’t.
I gathered the stew ingredients and went to the checkout. I heard the two women gossiping by the cereal as the cashier rang up the vegetables. I had hoped to get a box if there was enough money, but I couldn’t bear to go into the aisle to look. I hurried out of the store, barely escaping the gossips around the corner. I imagined they would’ve told me how horrible crazy Mama was, or worse yet stop me with some sugary smile and say they were sorry for my loss. I’d had enough of that in school the past week since Daddy died. I didn’t need to hear it, especially since Taffy was the only one who seemed to mean it.
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