Kathleen Langstroth – Little Jean

Kathleen Langstroth lives in Canada where she likes to paste words into short stories. She has been published in The Radvocate where she was runner up in their So Say We All Literary Prize. Online, she is at the new Irish literary wonder, Cold Coffee Stand. She has a recent guest blog at Submittable and was shortlisted for the Fish Short Story Prize. Most of her ghosts live in Ireland.

Little Jean

By Kathleen Langstroth

They will be sorry.
She went up the three rickety back steps of her house. Using her toes, she perches on the ledge of the doorjamb to get as close as possible to the door. Balancing is difficult as her slim compact body seems to want to topple back off the ledge. She pounds as hard as she can under the trying physical situation. She yells with a bit of a rasp, “Let me in!”
This goes on and on until she finally steps back down off of the top step to avoid any further fights with gravity. Here, she can think. Here, she can pick thoughtfully at the aged peeling white paint of the door frame. The flakey debris makes a tiny mosaic on the dark soil beside the steps. Leaning her head against the door, she yells with slightly less conviction, ‘Let me in.” This time an answer comes, ‘Go and play!’ She punctuates her anger and frustration with a good solid kick at the bottom panel of the tired wooden door.
They will be sorry, she thinks again.
In her peripheral vision, she notices her trike which triggers her plan. In blurry seconds, she is pedalling furiously. Her delicate pale blue sundress is made of light cotton, not really suited to cross country treks. The tidy braids on either side of her head see-saw back and forth with her furious strain. The trike is getting a bit small for her so that one knee keeps hitting the handlebar. She shifts her knee aside to avoid another collision but then forgets which results in an awkward bang every third or fourth pedal revolution. However, she will not lose her angry momentum. That’s what brought her this far. In seemingly no time, she is at the end of her quiet street. When she stops and looks back, she can just make out the overgrown bush at the base of her driveway. She is truly far away. She can feel it. This is good, she thinks.
To make a proper beginning for her adventure, she makes her way down the busy main street that runs off her own. She feels vaguely wrong about this. She has never actually been told not to go here, but she suspects it is very much forbidden. This is a tiny thought that can be neatly tucked away and ignored. For the first time, she is past the theatre where she saw “Snow White” with her parents. The movie screen was so big and the witch was so scary. The theatre looks so different in the daylight. She has never traversed this territory. She is an explorer now. She likes this idea very much.
Oh, they will be sorry.
Just keep pedalling and pedalling. She grits her teeth until they hurt, pushes her eyebrows down as tenaciously as possible, bends forward and squeezes the handlebars. The traffic sounds angry right along with her. Everything is so different from her street here. Horns and roaring engines and the scrape of rusted brakes. A screech and skid combination makes her stomp her feet down into the pavement to stop and survey for a moment. Nevermind, nothing important to see. Push ahead. Push ahead. She is panting with determined strain. The problem is that her angriness seems to weaken the further she presses on. Away From Home. This is a new concept that has never occurred before. The shrinking anger is just like the bucket of rain water at her back door. Every time it gets bumped, it loses more and more water until one time its gets knocked over and is decisively emptied without hope of refilling. It lies on its side until someone decides to right it again.
Her speed weakens another notch. Her eyes water against the granular air. She approaches the first large intersection. Having not been schooled in traffic safety, she relies on instinct and follows the other adults closely. By the time she has crossed two large intersections, she is near the top of the Big Hill. Officially Far Away. Her resolve is further undermined as she experiences her first flutter of fear.
As her adrenaline begins to wane, she is interrupted with more practical thoughts, like how she loves her dog and eating yummy warm dinners and sitting with Grandpa, but only a little bit. She pedals a little bit slower now. It is easy to weave around pedestrians when you are in deep thought. They will be coming home now. They will be crying now, she reasons. Mummy will anyway. Daddy will be yelling and telling everyone to do something. They will check the backyard again.
Why do they always have to work anyway? None of her friends’ mothers are gone all day at work. Their Dads work but not their Mums.
They will check her room and look under the bed again. They will yell at the babysitter, Carol. She will cry too. She will admit there was no excuse for leaving me outside so long. Jean thinks Carol just wants to be with her boyfriend or paint her fingernails. They don’t care about me. They will all be very sorry. Mummy and Daddy will fire Carol just like they fired Anita when she took some of the silver spoons from the sideboard.
She doesn’t know what comes after the Big Hill. She stops and fwaps her canvas runners into the gravel along the edge of the sidewalk. Just a bit of a rest and a bit of a think. She is a little bit out of breath and she can’t quite re-enact the sense of absolute injustice that began this journey. Well, not very much. This is very surprising to her. She is certain no one treats her fairly. That pure state that defines the true, impervious nature of justice is being rattled in her head. Her heart is banging hard. She wishes that she wasn’t quite so far away. She looks behind her again and from side to side to side. Where should she go next? There is a woman with a pretty dress staring down at her but the sun is kind of glaring into Jean’s eyes and it’s hard to see properly. The slow summer light rolls in the clouds of urban dust and somehow, as if by magic, she is prodded by little stabs of memory from home. She is apart. The lady is still there. She has stopped and bent way down. She is very close to her face and talks just like her new kindergarten teacher.
-Where is your mother dear?
Jean’s voice is stuck.
-Are you a little bit lost dear?
That is the precise moment when her burning anger utterly vanishes and she begins to sob. She is a bit surprised by the strange sounds coming out of her. She doesn’t know what to do now as her mind has been wiped clean of any ideas for further action. There is only fear and perhaps a bit of regret and even a chunk of guilt thrown in. But she is totally unaware of those secret parts of her mind. She doesn’t even answer the lady because it’s really hard to talk when you cry and you can’t even see very much with all that sun and all the tears and the cars are so noisy. She can only wipe her snotty nose with her bare arm before the lady has a chance to find a hankie in her bag. She wishes she was home.
I sit on the couch listening to the heated discussion, becoming more invisible by the minute. I am not getting in the middle of all this mess. They aren’t interested in my opinion anyway. Ray is losing his temper now. He better watch that. That is never good for your heart. When I was his age, I had better control of my temper. Look at me now. I’m ninety-two and fit as a fiddle. I just miss my May. I didn’t mind looking after her. It was everyone else that kept saying how relieved I must be. That is what happens with your health. Even if you are lucky enough to have it, your good health only means that you are likely to lose someone important to you that didn’t have the same lucky genes as you. Then you are on your own.
-But where could she have gone? (mostly directed to herself rather than anyone in the room) Sandra’s voice is quivery and loud, combining her fear and anger.
-I don’t know, do I? She could be anywhere, probably out there playing with one of her friends. Ray flails his arms as he speaks but now he just flops into his worn armchair and lights a cigarette.
-I bet she’ll come back on her own. (I throw in.)
My daughter turns in my direction with a ‘what could you possibly know about it’ withered look and decides not to answer me at all.
-I’m going up to the McCormack’s. They will know. Jean would never go anywhere without Susan. (already walking to the door)
-Why don’t you just call them? (Ray is tired)
-Because I want to see if she is there or out on the street with another friend. We aren’t going to find her if we just sit here! If I can’t find her, we’ll go in the car.
Ray doesn’t have a comeback for this. Satisfied that she has adjourned the meeting, Sandra turns to grab the front door handle and exits quickly.
-It’s Carol’s fault… (Ray is mumbling when the door whams)
The room is full of Ray’s brooding silence, drifting smoke and the loud snuffles from the dog, Rex. Rex is also wondering where Jean disappeared to. Dogs seem to have the most dependable loyalty and determination. Very important qualities, I have always thought. However, Rex can’t very well take care of Jean if he is inside and she is locked outside! It’s a good thing they got rid of Carol right away. That girl wasn’t interested in babysitting. She was interested in being a teenager which I believe is a full time job these days.
Jean is a good little kid, smart too. Shame her parents don’t see her much or take much notice when they are home. It’s all about careers now. Who ever heard of a mother working away from her home and child! I suppose this is meant to be the ‘modern’ thing to do in 1938. I think it’s crazy. Careers and bills and blood pressure. Jean will be alright. Only three and she already has sense. I’m certain she hasn’t wandered off too far.
The lady helps her off the trike and gives her a little hug. It reassures Jean but only a tiny bit. Standing up and looking around, the lady has apparently made a quick decision.
-Let’s go get some help.
There is a paid parking lot with an attendant in a hermetic booth. At this precise moment, that attendant is indulging in what must be described as an argument with a man who enjoys communicating at high volume just as much as the attendant. It is possible that they are partial to this type of exchange, loud though it is. They notice the lady approaching with a young girl in one hand and a tricycle in the other. They cease their exchange as they watch her approach.
-Do you have a phone? (she wants to know before she even gets to the booth)
-No lady. It’s just a booth.
-I need to call the police. This girl is lost.
The small girl feels smaller each minute and the mention of police indicates trouble ahead. She isn’t sure what kind but she knows this isn’t going to be a good thing. Her tears are dripping slowly and they are burning now too. Regret stings even when you are three or maybe especially when you are three.
The woman who had started digging in her purse, has just found a handkerchief. She begins dabbing at the girl’s eyes and decisively wiping her nose.
-Now, that’s better, isn’t it?
And then the whole look of the world shifts for Jean, the intrepid cyclist, as she sees her Dad driving the car around the corner with her Mum in the passenger seat. As they pull up to the parking attendant and his visitors, all heads turn to follow Jean’s pointing finger. She smiles slightly but her watery eyes and dirt-smeared face exposes the nature of her recent trauma.
Ray and Sandra are out of the car quickly. Sandra takes Jean’s small damp hand as she somewhat abruptly pulls her daughter away from the woman who hasn’t decided what to say and then doesn’t get a chance to say anyway.
-Thanks for watching her. (This is Sandra’s message to conclude this experience forever, for all involved, whoever they may be. She turns away to move back to the car)
Ray says nothing and gets back into the car. The whole scenario is blurry for everyone involved and is over so swiftly that there isn’t time for awkward silence or a discussion on parenting or the behavior of young children today or even a noisy scene. Jean is swept away in the family car back towards the safety of home. Still nothing is said in the car as they traverse Jean’s epic journey in reverse which totalled four large city blocks. They are back home in no time. Jean scuttles into the house ahead of her parents, bounds into the living room to hug her delighted Rex first. Then with a reassuring ruffle of fur, she runs off to her Grandpa who waits for her on the couch. She hops up onto his awaiting knee.
-You alright now, Jean?
She just nods her head with a slight quivery smile and nestles into his neck. Ray and Sandra watch the connected pair as they come in and close the door, relieved. No need to say anything. Jean is asleep.



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