Monday’s knock came at 5 pm, just as my apartment approached the temperature necessary to roast a suckling pig. Not the best time for a guest. And I have to say, young Shaherazade’s caramel face and bright eyes were about the last thing I expected to see when I opened my door, her grin, large and genuine, beaming up at me, belied by the worry lines etched like an old woman’s in her 12 year-old forehead.
“Welcome, welcome,” I said, motioning her inside.
She hesitated for a long moment. I could see the synapses firing behind those intelligent eyes, trying to judge an awkward situation.
“Would you like some of my homemade iced tea?” I coaxed. “It’s sweet, and I put fresh mint in it.”
“She nodded and stepped in, wiping her brow with the back of her hand, and looking curiously around my apartment. “I would like that. Thank you Ms. Applegate.”
“We could drink it out back, in the shade,” I said. “I was just planning to escape there, anyway.”
“Thank you, Ma’am.” She had strolled boldly over to my bookcase, and was reading the titles, examining the nicknacks on the shelf.
“I would prefer it if you called me Susie, Shaherazade.”
“My Mama wouldn’t like it if I called you that. She says it’s not proper etiquette for a child to address an adult by their first name.”
“Out here in the West,” I said, “we have different rules.”
As soon as I said it, I felt a twinge of self-reproach. Does a responsible adult undermine parental authority? Anyway, it was out, and I couldn’t help adding with a wink, “it can be between you and I, when we are alone together. Besides, you’re practically grown, aren’t you?”
“I don’t know, Ms. Applegate.” The hesitation again.
“Susie,” I corrected.
“Okay, Susie.” No hesitation this time, the grin returned. I could feel her palpable relief in saying it, as if not being struck down by thundering retribution was the unexpected outcome.
Then, I handed her a tall iced-tea, and gestured toward the door, only to be confounded by another hesitation, as she stood motionless, pleading.
“Will it be private?” She practically whispered.
“No one ever uses the yard, except me,” I said. This is true. The Arratola’s live across town, and I’m their only renter, so the back yard pretty much belongs to me.
I could see that Shaherazade had something heavy weighing on her mind. But I decided not to push. I don’t know anyone who has been through as much tragedy as this little girl.
After we sat at the picnic table, in the shade of the Arratola’s English elm, I asked how her parents were, and her brothers and sisters. Nancy had a tooth pulled, she reported, and it bled for most of the day. Her daddy, Hugo, was getting some work sorting the recycling out at Brad’s Pit. Her mama, thoughâ€¦Shaherazade worried about her mama.
“She’s obsessed with finding out about Uncle Charlie,” Shaherazade said. “It’s gonna be no good, Ms. Applegate, when she finds out about Uncle Charlie.”
“What do you mean, Shaherazade? Who’s Uncle Charlie?”
“That’s Mama’s uncle. The last anyone in the family heard from him, he was here, in Germaine. It was years ago, long before I was born.”
Charles Sevigny LaFontaine. The jazz musician. Then I remembered the ad I saw in the classifieds, to which I hadn’t paid much attention, except for some passing curiosity.
“You see,” said Shaherazade, “that’s why Mama wanted to come to this place, â€˜cause this was the last place the family heard from Uncle Charlie. When Mama saw Germaine on the list of places that would take folks in, she pointed her finger at the map and said, that’s where we’re going, Germaine, Oregon. Now we’ll never go home.”
“I don’t understand, Shaherazade,” I said.
“You see,” she said. “You don’t know Mama.”
“Well, when Mama has her mind set on something, nothing can move her. She is going to keep at this until she has looked under every last sagebrush in Wilbur County. And, you know what, Ms. Applegate….”
“Susie,” I interjected.
“Yeah, Susie, you know what? I think some of those sagebrushes got ugly things under them.”
Although I knew she wasn’t telling me everything she knew, I could see Shaherazade’s fear, and my heart went out to her. It occurs to me just now, as I write this, that yesterday was the anniversary of Katrina’s intersection with the gulf coast, when a little girl’s life was blasted out from under her. She can’t see any way back to Biloxi, to her friends and school, and the only environment in which she once felt safe. I can tell her that it no longer exists, but I think, at some level of awareness, she knows that. And the grieving process takes time.
Before we parted, Shaherazade, in her precocious manner, looked me straight in the eye and made a bold request. “Ms. Applegate…I mean, Susie, could you use someone to help you out now and then? I’m real good at looking things up at the library. And I can help do sorting and filing and type things up for you. I can even do things around the house if you need. And maybe you could teach me about being a reporter.”
I was truly flattered. “But Shaherazade, I couldn’t pay you anything. I work for free, myself.”
“That’s okay,” she said, pleading at me with those intense eyes. “You would be my teacher, and I could be like an apprentice or something.”
How could I refuse? Maybe I could even give her a tiny stipend when I sell a magazine article.
“All right,” I said, “but no housework. This is strictly an educational deal. Can you start after school next Wednesday?”
I could see the excitement light up her face. “Thank you, Ms. Applegate. Thank you, thank you. You won’t be disappointed.”
And now, my readers, I have a new role: Susie Applegate, mentor to a bright twelve-year old. There is something very satisfying about the thought. Not a chance I’ll be disappointed.