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The Conch Shell

Published: December 17, 2012

“Watcha doin’, Miss Lydia?” Wanda asked.

“Pressing your daddy’s shirts. Want to keep me company awhile?”

Wanda nodded and Lydia picked her up and set her on top of the washing machine.

“Miss Lydia, how come you never stay for dinner?”

“I have to go home and make dinner for my own family. Besides, y’all eat in your kitchen, so there’d be no place for me to sit.”

“You could have Mama’s chair,” Wanda suggested. “She doesn’t need it.”

Lydia didn’t answer.

Whenever Wanda’s father said he had to go back to his office at night, Mrs. Boliver came over. Wanda heard his car keys jingling as she lay in bed.

“Daddy?” she called out.

“Yes, Peanut,” he said, appearing in her bedroom doorway.

“Why do you have to work so much?”

“Because my boss is tough.”

“Who’s your boss?”

“Mr. McKee down at the Cotton Exchange.”

“When I grow up, I’m going to be a boss.”

Her father laughed and Wanda disguised her embarrassment about not knowing why she was funny.

“You’re a mess, Peanut,” he said, smiling. “Now go to sleep. Mrs. Bolivar will stay until I get back, and when you wake up in the morning, Lydia will be here.” She hugged her father’s neck as hard as she could. He smelled like spicy aftershave.

A few nights later, during supper, Mr. Martin announced he was taking them to Gulf Shores for a fishing rodeo.

“Lydia too?” Wanda asked.

“No. Lydia will come over every day like usual to take care of your mama and Mrs. Boliver will come at night.”

“Gee, Daddy,” Denny said. “It would be great if Mama could come. Don’t you think we could, I don’t know … rent a big truck or something?”

“Son, there’d be no place to plug in the lung in a truck.”

“What if we rigged up a car battery? I read an article in Popular Mechanics about how some people did that during a storm.”

“Can’t take the chance. We’ll take pictures of the trip and show her.”

Wanda was intrigued by the mention of taking pictures. She had looked through the family photo albums and the only pictures taken of her were when she was very tiny—before her mama had gotten sick.

A week later, the three children and their father were in the shiny, maroon Oldsmobile, speeding down through Mississippi. From time to time, Wanda stood up on the back seat to look for the water. “Easy, Peanut,” her father said. “We have a long way to go.”

When they finally got there, the motel was even better than she had imagined. It was near the beach and had a swimming pool. Mr. Martin told the boys they could go swimming as long as they made sure Wanda stayed in the kiddy pool. He was going for a drink in the lounge.
Forty-five minutes later, their father sat at a poolside table talking to a smiling, freckled lady with short, red hair and dangly earrings.

“Wanda,” he called, “Come and meet Miss Peggy.”

Wanda got out of the water, giving the woman a reticent look.

“Hello, Wanda,” the woman said. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”

“Miss Peggy works at the bank downtown. I ran into her in the lounge. She’s offered to help out since Lydia isn’t here.”

Something in her father’s voice made it sound like he was trying too hard. But in the days that followed, Miss Peggy turned out to be good company after all. She even let the children bury her in the sand.

“We have to get pictures for Mama,” Denny reminded their father. Mr. Martin took out the camera and lined up the children for snapshots.

“What about Miss Peggy?” Wanda asked.

“Miss Peggy is camera shy,” her father said.

“That’s right,” she said, smiling a little too broadly. “I am.”

After lunch, the boys went out into the water, while Mr. Martin, Miss Peggy and Wanda lounged on the blankets beneath the colorful umbrella. Soon, the rhythm of the waves lulled them to sleep.

Half an hour later, Wanda woke up. She dug in the sand for a while, but grew bored. The camera looked interesting, so she took a picture. Miss Peggy looked pretty and she wasn’t camera shy since she was asleep.

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