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The Conch Shell

Published: December 17, 2012

In 1954, a bow with a dozen real arrows was a perfect gift for a 10-year-old boy on his birthday. Five-year-old Wanda Martin trailed her two older brothers across Mrs. Bolivar’s yard toward the patch of woods beyond the vacant lot where the newest east Memphis houses were going up.

“Wait up for Sis,” Denny called out to his younger brother Drew. Neither boy wanted Wanda along, but they knew if they sent her home, she’d go crying to the housekeeper, Lydia, and they’d catch hell.

“Come on, Wanda!” Denny shouted, beckoning her by swinging his arm from the shoulder like a windmill to convey urgency. The little girl had stopped to look at the unfinished shell of a house, fascinated by its size and emptiness. She wondered who might live in it and what color they might paint it.

Denny and Drew stopped to let their tousled baby sister scramble to catch up with them. As usual, she was wearing her Davy Crockett hat, its coonskin tail tangled in her curly, brown hair. Denny took her grimy, dimpled hand and they trudged to a clearing beyond the sycamore trees. “Wanna be William Tell?” he asked slyly.

Drew laughed.

“Who’s that?” Wanda asked.

“They shot an apple off his head with an arrow,” Drew said.

“We don’t got an apple,” she replied.

The boys ended up shooting arrows toward the sky to see whose could go highest. Wanda begged for a turn, which they reluctantly tried to give her, but she wasn’t strong enough to draw the bowstring. A strong west breeze had been blowing all afternoon and when the quiver was empty, they combed the area, but could only turn up seven of the arrows in the dense weeds. It was going on suppertime. They would have to resume their search on the following day.

When the Martin children returned to the shortcut and spotted their neighbor, Mrs. Boliver, their mouths dropped open. She was on her hands and knees, working on her flowerbed with no inkling that five arrows had fallen from the sky and plunged into the lawn around her. Hearts pounding, the children quickly and quietly gathered their arrows and began to sneak away when Mrs. Bolivar called out to them.

“Not so fast, kids!”

They stopped in an agony of dread—making silent bargains with Jesus—as Mrs. Boliver grunted her way to her feet, soiled bra straps dangling down her freckled, jiggling upper arms. She then cut a bunch of blossoming crimson azalea branches. “Take these to your mama,” she said. “I know how she loves them.” …That was it.

The moment the children reached the front porch steps, they heard a familiar Brahms piano concerto wafting through the screen door from the phonograph inside. Their mama had been a piano teacher before she got sick, went to the hospital and came home in an iron lung. For the past two years, she had been confined to the groaning, shell-like cylinder in what used to be the dining room.

Mrs. Martin was a few years shy of 40. She had the same agitated, dimpled face as Wanda. She smiled when she heard the screen door open and saw her children enter the house through the mirror mounted above her head. Denny showed her the azaleas while Drew ran to ask Lydia for a vase.

That night, an early season firefly found its way into Wanda’s bedroom. She lay awake watching its tiny lantern appear and disappear in the blackness near close to the ceiling like tiny flashes of yellow-green lightning until the mechanical rhythm of her mama’s lung on the other side of the wall lulled her to sleep.

Sunday breakfasts never tasted good. Lydia wasn’t there and Mr. Martin couldn’t cook. Nobody brushed Wanda’s hair or properly tied the bow in the back of her dress. After a plate of pancakes that were scorched on the outside and raw in the middle, and overcooked scrambled eggs with bits of shell in them, it was time for the three children to leave for church. Mr. Martin had to stay home to take care of his wife.

Once outside, Wanda put on her Davy Crockett hat. Her brothers objected, but she refused to take it off. “You’re not my boss,” she told them.

“Go ahead, Wanda,” Denny said, “look as goofy as you want, but don’t blame us if you get in trouble with Miss Kathleen.”

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