Wish I May, Wish I Might

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Carole Mertz


Lost: red bobble hat
Photo Credit: Rachel Beer

Bo sits by the window. He’s tired of looking out on snow, but notices the daylight is extending a bit past five-thirty in the evenings. He takes up his newspaper and, after a coughing spell, reads about the robbery that occurred two nights ago in nearby Schoffsburg. I suppose the sluggards have nothing else to do. Someone should put them to work.

He hears Mrs. Gelber shuffling about in the apartment next door and wonders if she will bring him some supper tonight, which she does occasionally. Once she gets started, she certainly causes a ruckus banging those pots and pans about. But she cooks up a fine stew.

At eighty, Bo, a retired coal miner, is not up to much physical activity, but he returns Mrs. Gelber the favor by carrying her daily garbage bags to the dumpster behind the building. Tonight, after her fine dinner, he collects his own garbage and the two bags she has set outside her door. By the dumpster he meets Estelle, little Maribelle’s mother, and wishes he’d collected the garbage minutes earlier or minutes later.

He nods to Estelle, but she doesn’t speak. Well, then, have it your way! A return greeting might not kill you, though. He smiles to himself.

The next morning, Saturday, March second, Bo sets out for the village at nine-thirty. Snow fell during the night, but Bo tests the sidewalk and with his old boots on, and reassures himself he won’t slip. He waits for his cough to subside, then, cane in hand, begins his slow trek to Bander’s Buffet. Not only does he relish his breakfast there, but he also enjoys reading his newspaper and observing the villagers as they drop in throughout the morning. He chooses the second booth past the cash register, near enough to the door, but not too far from the men’s room.

Bo is comfortable here, where he occasionally stops to talk with neighbors. He doesn’t know that within ten days many of the villagers will not feel as comfortable as they have heretofore. He lingers in his booth till a few minutes past noon. Neither the manager nor the waitresses ever complain about his lengthy visits. Not wanting to annoy other customers, he steps outside or into the bathroom if a too-persistent coughing spell overcomes him. His emphysema hasn’t improved since his retirement, but neither has it worsened, he tells himself.

Midway through his biscuit and creamed chipped beef, Bo watches as Maribelle enters with her schoolmate Azure. Maribelle reaches up and hands the clerk two dollars. “Mama wants the newspaper and she says I can have a chocolate bar, too.” The two girls, not sisters, are thought to be related, for they wear identical knitted caps (another of Mrs. Gelber’s neighborly gestures) and usually appear inseparable.

They’ve surely shared some secrets, Bo muses, wiping some cream off his chin.

“Your mama’s sleeping in, then.” The clerk fishes for a bit of information, the way of folk in small communities, but Maribelle only nods.

She’s as taciturn as her mother, then. But Bo realizes Estelle’s talk is more of the behind-your-back kind of talk. He recalls how she bad-mouthed his dear wife before she died, six years ago. And she’d had no kind words for him either, blaming him for his wife’s death.

“‘You could have at least gotten her into the hospital when she needed it.'” Mrs. Gelber reported Estelle’s gossip to him directly, a week after the funeral. Indeed, I hardly knew what my dear Chip needed then, but one thing the doctor had affirmed to me was keeping her quiet and rested at home would do her more good than a disturbing shuffle to Schoffsburg General. The doctor knew her for years, and I’m sure he knew what was right for her. Old Bo wipes a tear from his eye.

He watches Maribelle and Azure on the sidewalk as they huddle together to unwrap the chocolate. The two girls lean toward each other as Maribelle splits the chocolate wedge in two. The two knitted balls atop their caps bob a bit as the girls bend their heads together—Maribelle’s cap a bright red and Azure’s a mustard color.

*

A red fox hurries across the field, then turns left following the field’s edge. Yards ahead lies the wooded area the fox will enter. Its lair is almost invisible, though Jimmy, who frequently treads off the path that runs through the glade, is aware of its location. He knows to skirt the area giving a wide berth to the animal’s territory. Jimmy calls the fox Flare-Foot. He’s seen the black feet trotting. They make Jimmy think of charcoal, as if the fox has run through fire and the ashes have marked his feet.

Jimmy loves the fox, loves its independence and its know-it-all air. “You’re a loner, all right,” he tells the fox, as he spies the animal from a distance.

The teenager lives with his grandparents on a farm about a mile out from the village. He checks his traps in the stream and reassures himself all is in order, then heads back to the farmhouse. He whistles as he goes, watching his condensed breath rising.

“Damn, it’s cold!” A rhyme enters his mind. “‘The wind flapped loose, the wind was still.'” He lets the rhyme float through his being, trying to warm himself. “‘The wind flapped loose, the wind was still,’ how does it go? ‘…shaken out dead from tree and hill.’ ‘cept Grandma knows the whole thing, I’ve only got the first verse.” He lifts the latch at the gate, hurries along and enters the kitchen end of the old stone building.

*

At three o’clock Bo startles awake following a dream. He sits by the window and tries to peer out. His glasses have fallen into the newspaper in his lap. His dream lingers, something about a bright light flashing onto something black and shiny. Only a dream. He looks out and sees Azure and Maribelle. The two clap their hands together in some kind of ritual. Bo can’t hear them, but he sees their lips moving. They clap so rapidly he knows they’ve done this routine before. Clap—together, clap—across, clap—together, then diagonally across. Bo wishes he could hear them. His head droops and he snoozes again.

A knock wakes him. “Pa, I knocked four times. Are you OK?” Josie, his younger daughter, is at the door carrying two large paper sacks.

“You know my door’s always unlocked. Come in, sweetheart. How’s my gal? Have you seen Jennifer? How’s she doing? Here, set your bags down.” He attempts to stifle a cough but has to give in to its five-minute duration as Josie unwraps the kitchen items and stores the canned goods and frozen packages in their proper places. She and her sister visit their dad on alternate weekends.

“Jennifer’s good, Dad. She told me to remind you to call Dr. Bream to renew your prescription. Has your cough worsened?”

“Nah! ‘Bout the same. How was your shift this morning?”

Josie always drives directly from her early shift at the hospital on Saturdays, picking up Bo’s groceries along the way.

“Same as usual. No rest for the weary feet. How’s it going? Anything new in town?” She’d heard about the robbery that took place at the Schoffsburg Gas ‘n Take-Out a week ago. She waits to see if her dad has any news from the villagers. She doesn’t tell her father about the eight-year-old who was admitted that morning following a sexual molestation. Word about the case spread quickly through the hospital.

“I heard from Ned Nelson at the Mart that they’ve installed a camera scan at the rear door of their store. Since that robbery at the gas station, nobody’s taking any chances. Want chicken paprikash tonight or spaghetti and meatballs, Da’?”

“Oh, let’s have the—” Another coughing spell interrupts Bo, after which he flops into his recliner.

Josie begins the paprikash. “It would be nice if we’d get rid of the snow one of these days. And I think you should start locking your door at night.” She pounds the cutlets, flattens them, and cuts them into bite-sized pieces.

Her father sleeps.

*

A week later, March 18th

On Sunday afternoon, returning from Bander’s Buffet with his newspaper under his arm, Bo passes the two young girls. Maribelle and Azure are holding hands and skipping down the center of the street. As they skip, they shout loudly and in a merry sing-song: “Wish I may, wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight.” They yank their linked hands forward and back.

Wouldn’t their mothers be a wreck if they spied them in the middle of the street! Then again, when have their mothers ever been that watchful of their children? “Here! Step over here,” Bo calls to them. But they are giggling and don’t hear him.

“Wish I may, wish I might.”

Bo walks on down the street. Wonder what I’d wish tonight, if I were wishing. He smiles to himself. Wouldn’t mind having a new set of lungs. He hears a car beep behind him. But now, lost in thought, he shuffles on home, noticing the snow has become slush.

*

Meanwhile, Jimmy is seated at the kitchen table in the farmhouse. His stamp collection is spread before him. He reaches for the magnifying glass, trying to decide where to place the Sri Lankan stamp with its curlicue letters. I wonder what that says? I wonder if I’ll ever go to Sri Lanka?

His grandma places a cup of hot chocolate on the table. “Better set that way over there, Grandma. You know how clumsy I can be.”

“I wouldn’t call a lad who can collect over $3.25 a week on his muskrat skins clumsy.”

Jimmy smiles, pleased that his grandmother recognizes his trapping skills. “I’m lucky Mr. Peters pays me 25 cents each for the pelts.” He reaches for the cocoa. He knows not too many of his classmates would rise at four in the morning to check their traps, but he’s grown used to the chore.

“It’s been a good winter. It’s a wonder old Flare-Foot never wanders by the stream. But he’s too smart for that.”

“Who’s Flare-Foot?”

“He’s a fox I see now and then. I know where his lair is, but I’ve never seen another fox. Only him.”

Jimmy places the pink stamp on a square and considers gluing it fast.

His grandmother sighs. “You’re a good lad.”

“You think Gramps would let me show him the fox’s spot? He never goes into the woods, does he?”

“Your Grandpa knows every inch of this property, I expect.”

*

Maribelle is in the coal bin. She sobs and rubs her dripping nose on the sleeve of her coat.

Azure puts her arm around her. “Don’t cry, your mom doesn’t really want to hurt you.”

“She does, too. She yelled at me and said I could go to that place—she said ‘You can go to hell, all I care.’ Sometimes I wish I had a daddy. A real daddy at home. Then this wouldn’t happen. I bet he wouldn’t let Mommy beat me.”

Azure says, “Yeah.”

They sit quietly, shivering.

Azure jumps up. “Let’s go for a walk!”

The two girls walk to Featherstone Street and turn up Maple to the warehouse at the edge of the village. The afternoon light begins to weaken. They’re used to walking, but have no idea how far they’ve come. In the fields they look back toward the village. The warehouse is far behind them. When Azure realizes how distant it is, she shakes. “We should go back. Maybe it will be dark soon.”

“I don’t want to go back. I don’t ever want to see Mommy again!”

“I don’t like it here. C’mon. Let’s go back.”

Maribelle walks on. She kicks at stones and puts her hands in her pockets, looking steadily down.

“I’m cold, Maribelle. C’mon!” She begs, but Maribelle walks on. Azure sees the woods in the distance and knows she will never go there in the dark. She begins to cry. She looks at Maribelle, then turns to look at the warehouse, now only dimly visible. After a last look at her friend, she turns and runs home.

*

Bo reads the news of the missing child on Tuesday morning. He doesn’t need the paper to inform him, for the report has already spread throughout the village.

The waitress approaches his booth. “Your regular today, Bo?”

“No, I don’t feel much like eating. Just a black coffee, please.”

Bo reads that an investigator was at Mrs. Randolph’s house on Monday and that she had reported the child missing at eight that morning. Hah! She took her good old time. The newspaper reported: “Nothing from the child’s bedroom was missing or disturbed. Mrs. Randolph said she’d never known the child to stay out past dark.” Well, if she did, Estelle would never have known it, the careless bitch! I never saw the mother walk with the child. Always only Maribelle and Azure, Maribelle and Azure. Wish I may and wish I might. Wait a minute! I wonder if they’ve talked to Azure. Bo is deep in thought when the waitress comes to refill his cup. The reporter had titled the article “The Girl in the Red Snowcap.”

That night Bo calls Josie. By now he needs her advice. Should he talk to the police, or not? And if so, whom should he ask for? “I’m not used to this sort of thing, Josie. Suppose I make a fool of myself.”

“Dad, how about if I come over tomorrow, soon’s I get off work? We can go to the station together.”

The next day she’s at his door by two-thirty. “The newspaper said they’re talking to all the neighbors,” he tells her. “But there’s no mention of Azure and so far nobody’s rung my doorbell, either. Yes, let’s go to the station.”

It snows later that night, the day of the spring equinox. The next day dawns spring-like, with temperatures in the mid-forties.

*

Old Flare-Foot, what are you up to now? Jimmy asks of the darkness. The elements don’t feel so quiet in the woods this morning. Jimmy’s on edge. Before checking his traps, he spies something lying nearby. The snow has drifted toward a tree trunk and is nearly melted. Soggy leaves lie there from the prior season. Jimmy turns his flashlight toward the leaves. There on top lies the object. It’s red. Startled, Jimmy runs back to the house. He’s heard about the girl in the red snowcap.

Jimmy wakes his grandpa and together they drive to Schoffsburg. Officers piece together their various reports into one brief document, brutal in its clarity. Maribelle’s body is found on the same day Jimmy discovers the cap. Weeks later the villagers still talk about how Azure and her family have left town.

Bo sits in Bander’s Buffet, his newspaper spread open. “This is one sad story,” he tells the waitress. They shake their heads.

pencilA retired musician, Carole Mertz writes from Parma, Ohio. This is her first mystery, though she has published essays, short stories, and poetry in With Painted Words, The Conium Review, at Page and Spine, and in various anthologies. She won an honorable mention in the 4th Worldwide Intergenerational Storytelling Contest. Email: carolemertz[at]cox.net