Read The secret hum of a daisy Online

Authors: Tracy Holczer

The secret hum of a daisy (page 5)

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13

Soup and

Mummies

The big spoonhanging overhead made me think of Mama's birds again. She was always taking spoons from the diners she worked in or from flea markets and yard sales to use in her birds.

The front door opened and we were welcomed into the Spoons Souperie by a mummy. A small one. It stood there against the door, tufts of brown hair popping out between its bandages, wearing glasses and holding a giant book.

“It's me, Max,” the mummy said, struggling with a large book calledThe Egyptian Way of Death.

Grandma nudged me toward Max and then took a seat at the Formica counter on a red vinyl stool. Her purse sat beside her.

Jo sat in a booth, eating a bowl of soup, her bag of camera equipment on the floor beside her. She waved me over, looking just as glum as she had in art class.

There were two sides to the diner separated by a wide brick-arched opening. Both sides had high ceilings with huge wooden beams stretching from one side to the other and held evidence of the mill it was once upon a time. Rusted saw blades hung on the faded brick walls, and old photographs of serious-looking men standing on logs as thick as the men were tall, their large mustaches hiding sly smiles maybe, as though they knew something I didn't. It reminded me of the diners Mama had worked in. There'd been Cole's Joint, where you ordered your burger by pointing to the buffalo, ostrich, or deer head festooning the wall. Mulligan's, where Mulligan himself played bass on Friday nights. Jeremy's, which served the hottest chili in the state of California and had the pictures of people's whacked-out faces to prove it.

In the other room were lots of tables and comfy-looking mismatched chairs, where a few people sat working at their laptops or reading by the wood stove. The Souperie was busy on this cold day, with a handful of waitresses. One was elderly, small but sturdy, with hair swept back in a poufy white bun. She bustled from here to there, humming. Her name tag saidLOU.

Archer Lee Hamilton cleared dishes from one of the booths into a big plastic tub, and when he caught sight of me, he smiled a shy smile, then went back to work. Seeing him there flustered me, which I wouldn't have expected.

“The corn chowder is the best,” Max said as I sat across from Jo. He scooted in next to me. A bunch of books were piled on one end of the table, books about hieroglyphics and pharaohs and Egyptian tombs. His red suitcase was propped next to Jo's equipment.

Jo smiled, pulling at the edge of her beret. “He's only eating yellow things at the moment—that's why he's telling you to eat the corn chowder. All the soups are good.”

I picked up a menu, spying on Archer as he hurried from one table to the next. There were seven kinds of soup, and fresh-baked bread. That was it. Max and Jo both had mostly empty bowls in front of them, bread plates piled with crusts.

“I like your hat,” I said.

“Thanks. My uncle brought it back from France. He said every good director needs to wear a beret.”

“Did you find someone to help with the interview?” I said.

“Sure. Archer helped. I just needed to make sure the lighting was set up the right way and that someone watched over the camera while I talked with Lou and Mel. Mel is the cook and Lou is the waitress. They've been married for forty-five years.”

“I told you I could have helped,” Max grumped.

“You knock things over.”

Lou swept by the table to take my order. She had little spindly legs and wore those white rubber-soled shoes you usually saw on a nurse. She had kind eyes and a slight tremor in her writing hand. I ordered matzo ball soup, one of my favorite comfort foods.

“I was sorry to hear about your mama,” she said.

Face by face, I was starting to recognize the people from Mama's funeral. I nodded in thanks.

“Did you know she used to steal my spoons for her art?” She said, proud. I shook my head. “I used to order extra for her. Took me a while to get out of the habit.”

Lou snatched a lacy kerchief out of her apron pocket and dabbed at her eyes before shouting, “Matzo on one!” and hurrying away.

“Thanks, Lou,” Jo called after her. “She's an emotional person. Especially after her and Mel's interview.”

“You interviewed them about the park?” I said.

She nodded. “Your grandma designed the pathways and what kinds of plants would go into the park. How big it would be, that sort of thing. But the town council let anyone sponsor a space and submit design plans if they wanted. Lou and Mel built a tree house for their son, Billy. He was killed in the First Gulf War.”

I found Lou setting a bowl of steaming soup down on a table across the restaurant. She buzzed back to the kitchen. Then my gaze drifted over to Grandma, who had lost her child too. Now they had that awful thing in common.

“When they found out Billy had died, Mel got to making soup every day as a way of coping. They had soup in the freezer and soup in the fridge. They'd take soup to the neighbors, and finally, Lou decided enough was enough and they bought this place.”

Mel poured his sorrow into the soup the way Mama had poured hers into her birds. I held the spoon tight in my hand, wishing I could picture Mama in this place, eating soup in one of the booths and slipping spoons into her bag. Being a regular part of everyone's lives, like the hair on their heads or the smiles on their faces.

“Anyway!” Jo said. “What do you think Mrs. Snickels will have us do on the other half of the self-portrait?”

I shrugged. “Hopefully it won't involve a gong.”

She and Max laughed. I smiled. For a brief moment, all the swirling sorrows flew out of reach.

Archer came to the table to drop off my soup, and we had a moment where I felt sure the soup would end up in my lap. Somehow, he managed to right himself, though, and land it on the table with only one small drop leaping out.

“That was a magnificent save,” Jo said.

Archer took a deep bow. “And now for my bread performance.”

He went into the kitchen and came back with a basket of bread, holding it above his head on one hand. He did a clumsy pirouette just before placing it on the table next to my bowl and perfectly covering the small drop of soup that had escaped. He smoothed his bangs off his forehead and we all clapped.

“How many times have I told you, Archer? No ballet in the restaurant!” Lou called from behind the counter. Then she hooted.

“It wasn't ballet,” he called back. “I was square dancing!”

“Well, in that case.”

“You are such a goober,” Jo said.

“Only when I'm nervous.” Archer smiled at me. Before I could say anything back, he scooted away.

I felt the familiar curve of friendship trying to pull me in. It was hard to fight those natural feelings of wanting to settle in, so I let myself rest for a bit. Maybe it was the girlish bra, making me soft.

“What's with the bandages?” I said to Max, poking the bendy straw into my ice water. “Jo says you want to have some kind of entombment party.”

“Class project.” He slid his eyes toward Jo. “Everyone else is doing a mission. But Ms. White said I could build a pyramid.”

“Really?” I said. “And you need to build it in full mummy gear?”

Jo rolled her eyes. “A few weeks ago, we opened this five-year-old jar of apple butter, but it tasted fresh-picked. Tut here figured if he could seal himself up like the apple butter, he'd be preserved in the afterlife.”

“That's what the Egyptians did!” Max exclaimed. “But I need an entombment party with all the fixin's so I can live forever in the afterlife too.”

Max's book,The Egyptian Way of Death, was turned to a particularly interesting page that had to do with brain extraction.

“Can I be the one to slurp your brains out your nose and collect your innards in a pot?” Jo said.

Max spooned up a gelatinous potato from his bowl and thwacked it toward Jo's head. She leaned to the left, and Lou caught it midflight.

“Don't you start a food fight in my restaurant, Max Brannigan,” Lou said.

“I won't!” Max said.

Jo looked murderous. She sat up tall. “You are eight years old. I am twelve. I will not be brought down to your level over a chunk of potato.”

Max calmly foisted another potato at her, and this one landed,splat,under her left eye, leaving a snail trail as it slid down her face.

“You are an imbecile.”

“Don't you meaninvalid?”

Jo wiped at her cheek with a paper napkin. “No, imbecile. I'll be right back, Grace.”

I dug in to my soup. It was the best I'd ever had, spiced with sorrow or not, and I ate like the starving person I was.

Max watched me, and after a while he said, “Egyptians were buried with their wordly possessions so they could take them into the afterlife.” He reached down and pulled his suitcase into the booth. “I don't want to be alone without my stuff.”

“You aren't going to the afterlife anytime soon,” I said.

“No one knows when they're going. I could step off the curb and get hit by a bus or fall out of a tree. And then I wouldn't have my stuff.”

It was true, and I knew it better than anyone. But it seemed weird for a little kid to be thinking like that. “Getting hit by a bus is pretty rare.”

“Jo and my parents won't let me be entombed, though. And that's the most important part.”

I pointed to the long, thin instrument used to pull brains out the nose. “Yes. Because it's weird.”

“Someone's already helping with the sarcophagus and I'm working on the ceremonial speech, but I'll need anointing oils . . .”

Jo slid back into the seat. “You're not still talking about this.”

Max clammed up and I felt sorry for him. For whatever reason, he seemed to think he needed an entombment party. I wasn't sure why Jo and her parents thought it was so terrible since boys could do worse things, but it wasn't any of my business.

“It was nice to see you outside of school, Grace,” Jo said. “Maybe we can hang out. Or ride bikes, and I can show you around. You should see the park.”

A Secret Meadow.The words from Mama's postcard came back to me. If anyone might know where it was, it would be Jo. But I had to think through what I might say. Maybe draw a bubble map of ideas that wouldn't sound so strange and pick the best one.

“Hey! Maybe you can spend the night! We can stay up and watch old movies all night and eat cheese corn. It's my favorite thing to do.”

Grandma waved me over as Jo prattled on about some old actors named Cary Grant and Debra Kerr, and was it pronounced Kerr or Car, and what kind of cheese corn did I like, orange or white, and to practice taking deep breaths in preparation for the life-altering movie that wasAn Affair to Remember.

“Maybe,” I said. “I'm still unpacking.”

“You must have a lot of stuff,” she said.

I almost laughed at that. Max gave me a salute, and I went over to meet Grandma, who was wrapping a wool scarf around her neck.

“Miranda!” Lou called from the kitchen. “Can you take a delivery down to the sheriff?”

Grandma seemed resistant as she fidgeted with her scarf, but Lou wasn't taking no for an answer. She made a beeline for us and practically shoved the bag into Grandma's arms.

They exchanged a look I couldn't figure out, then Grandma headed for the door.

“You come back, Grace. Anytime,” Lou said, and handed me a paper napkin. On it, I recognized Archer's sketching from art class. Only this time it was a drawing of himself, a soup ladle in his hand like a mighty sword, the other hand pouring a glass of water over his own head. I looked around but couldn't see him anywhere.

“He's hiding,” she said. “I'm sure he'll question me for the next twenty minutes about your reaction.”

I tried to smooth my face so she couldn't see what I was feeling. Which I wasn't even sure about myself. My feelings were getting hard to keep straight, as they had a mind of their own. Hooligans were what they were. Hooligans running around inside, making a general mess of things so that I didn't much know if I was coming or going.

“Tell him thank you,” I said as I stuffed the napkin in my pocket.

14

A Solitary

Bird

Sheriff Bergum's officewas one room with two jail cells at the far end, exactly like the Wild West movies I'd watched with Lacey on Movie Fridays. I half expected someone named Old Smokey to be lounging on one of the cots, drunk and singing about his mother, but the cells were empty. The cots new.

He sat at the front desk, pondering a game of Scrabble he had set up on an old-fashioned TV tray. When he saw it was Grandma, he stood up suddenly, the tray almost falling over. Once he got the tray settled, he ran a hand over his bald head like he was smoothing invisible hair.

Grandma set the soup on the desk. “I see you've been cheating again.”

“I'm playing against myself. As long as we both follow the rules I make up, I figure it's fine. However, if you were to play, then I'd follow the rules to a perfect T.” Sheriff Bergum laid down a series of tiles that spelledWINDORF. “That's a type of salad, in case you were wondering. My favorite, as a matter of fact.”

“I'm sure you mean Waldorf.”

“Perhaps if I had some real Windorf salad, I might remember how to spell it.”

My eyes drifted around the room and landed on a short file cabinet next to the desk with a single mint-colored origami crane peeking out from behind a gathering of picture frames.

As they went on and on about manure and weather and other boring nonsense, I tried to think. I wasn't crazy enough to believe Mama was leaving me treasure-hunt clues and origami directly, but I believed she was behind it somehow, the way wind will set a sail in a certain direction. The idea of Sheriff Bergum being the sail, taking the time to fold origami cranes with his sausage fingers and leave them for me, was plain unacceptable. He looked like the type of person who might need his chin to fold things.

Sheriff Bergum noticed me looking toward the picture frames and handed me one. “That's me and your grandpa when we played football together in high school. Your grandpa was the one who came up with my nickname. We were young boys when he started calling me ‘Hamburger,' and ‘Ham' just stuck.”

“People actually call you Ham?”

“Only my friends.” And then he winked at me.

He put the picture back and took another one. It looked like Mama as a teenager with Grandpa. They were both in a tree, laughing.

“Not the best way to go birding, as climbing trees tends to scare them away, but we sure had some fun.”

“You used to go birding too?”

“I did. Still do. Your grandmother put in a whole section of the park for bird watchers. There's nesting boxes and feeders. We get out there with nesting materials in the spring so they can build their homes. It's a relaxing lunchtime break. You should head over with me sometime. More birds come every day.”

He put the photo back and I looked over the rest of the pictures. Children. Grandchildren. An old wedding photo of a young Sheriff Bergum and a very pretty girl. I wondered if it was possible to know a person based on the pictures they surrounded themselves with.

As much as I wanted to know if this was another of Mr. Flinch's cranes, asking Sheriff Bergum didn't feel like the right thing to do. Sort of like cheating on a test. Somehow I knew Mama didn't want that. Not yet.

“Thanks for the soup, Miranda,” Sheriff Bergum said. He took hold of her hand and kissed it and I had to admit he was a comfortable-looking sort of person. Like his pants didn't bind and his shirt buttons didn't pull and the leather of his belt was just the right kind of soft, which then made me wonder where in the heck he got clothes that big.

He looked my way and I stuffed my hands in my pockets.

After promising to make him a Waldorf salad, Grandma led me back to the truck.

“Do you like Sheriff Bergum?” I said.

“Of course I like him. We've been friends for years.”

“No. Do youlikelike him. Because he likes you.”

Grandma's fingers went all over the cross under her scarf. “Well, it certainly . . . never . . . um.”

“So you do like him.”

Grandma didn't answer. Instead she said, “Oh! Mrs. Greene called after you left.”

“What? Why didn't you tell me earlier?” I said, stopping in the middle of the street.

“Worry tends to push things out of my mind. Then you were eating with your friends.”

“They aren't my friends.”

“Oh, for heaven's sake, Grace. Come out of the street.”

Grudgingly, I followed her into the truck and Granny Smith started right up. Grandma pulled into the light Main Street traffic.

“Well?” I demanded. “Why didn't they answer?”

“It seems Lacey had a sleepover last night, and on the way home this morning, Mrs. Greene got a flat tire and she didn't have her cell phone with her. They felt horrible for missing the call.”

“A sleepover?”

“Apparently.”

Lacey never had sleepovers. We only ever stayed with each other. “Did Mrs. Greene say where she had a sleepover?”

“We didn't get into details. Only that Lacey would call later.”

Lacey had been at a sleepover while I was busy not sleeping in a leaky shed, scared and lonely.

Eventually Grandma came to a squeaky stop in front of the shed. “So you're not really working on the documentary with Jo.”

“No.”

Grandma looked disappointed. “We have to be able to trust each other, Grace.”

I wasn't sure how to trust someone who might kick me out of the house if I made a big enough mistake. Then I thought about the fact that I was trying to make a big enough mistake so she would kick me out of the house, and I confused myself.

When I closed the truck door, she drove to the house, orange mud splattering. Instead of going inside the shed, I walked to the pasture fence and clicked my tongue, calling for Beauty. Her warm nose found its way into my palm, comforting, and I wished for a river-silent room with a warm bed to sleep in.

• • •

I stormed around the shed as I got my chores done, thoughts ping-ponging between Lacey's sleepover and what I'd learned about my father. More than I had ever learned from the one person who could have told me the most.

I'd always understood Mama didn't want to talk about the past because it made her so sad. But now I was starting to get mad. I'd been thrown into a job without the proper tools. Like maybe I was supposed to saw down a tree, only Mama left me with a butter knife and some wishes and dreams to work with. I should have known my father from her. She should have told me more about Grandma. She should have told me about Margery and this town and the good she must have found here so I wouldn't have to start from scratch.

Words poked at me, but I was so mad, I didn't want to reach for them, afraid I might think some foul thing that I wouldn't be able to un-think. The notion of all that made me feel sixteen different kinds of disloyal, so I tried to send my blame back toward Grandma, how none of this would be happening if it weren't for that bus ride so long ago. But it didn't work.

In a huff, I sat down on the sofa and laid out my clues to put myself in a better frame of mind: the unfinished crane from Mama's toolbox and the Threads postcard. Then I took out the stack of Daddy's flyers.

It didn't take me long to notice some had writing on the back. Typewriting. Six pages out of twenty-one.

The writing was an attempt at a poem, the pages covered in fragments and cross-outs. I could see the idea come together, the whole poem typed at the bottom of a blue flyer.

A solitary bird, hollow it flew

Through a haze of months marked by the moon

Come to a meadow, shiny with dew

Where hollow bones sang, and deep inside grew

The secret hum of a daisy in June.

And on a sixth page was a map, in what looked like Mama's careful hand, that actually saidA Secret Meadowjust like the postcard. The map had a squiggly line of river and trees and a trail that led to a meadow with tiny daisies. There weren't any landmarks. It could have been a map to anywhere. But it was a clue!

My mind tried again to put things in orderly lines. But I fought it. I wanted to float on this magic for a while. Mama would have been so proud of me.

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