April 14, 2015
In an old neighborhood several miles north of downtown Biloxi, where the houses were small and the magnolias were large, a silver sedan wended down the midday street. Behind the wheel, Rosalie Smoot was worried.
Rosalie worried constantly; it was a requisite for the job of mother. The bison had worried last year about sending Eleanor to a school with a student body that was majority domestic breeds, but everyone agreed St. Gertrude was the best elementary school in southern Mississippi.
Eleanor had quickly made a lot of friends in her first year, but even that made Rosalie worry. In Rosalie’s experience domestic breeds tended to minimize contact with feral species. She worried that they had befriended her daughter only because Rosalie was a professional athlete. Whenever Eleanor brought them home after school, which was often, they seemed distinctly disappointed that a seven-figure contract bought nothing more impressive than a rented three-bedroom house and a Toyota sedan.
Now it seemed her worries had born fruit. An urgent call from Bart had interrupted practice with the team; even if an ankle injury meant she was limited to physical therapy and studying game video, Coach Vanhorn was adamant about punctual attendance at all practices. Rosalie told the coaches and trainers she was leaving early, in a tone that made it clear she was telling them a fact, not asking for permission.
There would be repercussions, but family had to come first.
Bart was in the living room when Rosalie got home.
“What happened?” she asked.
Bart shook his head, “She wouldn’t talk to me. She’s in her room.” Rosalie brushed past him and strode purposefully down the hall.
Eleanor’s bedroom was at the end of the single-story bungalow’s hallway, on the far side of Rosalie’s own. The old wooden door creaked as Rosalie opened it. The walls were pink; whatever else Eleanor was, she was first and foremost a seven-year-old girl, and some things are instinctive. The furnishings were, to say the least, eclectic. It was easy to recognize which pieces Rosalie had picked out and which were Bart’s doing. Rosalie’s years of living hoof-to-mouth had ingrained in her the habit of buying cheap Wallah-Mart pieces made of particle board that swelled up in humid weather and then dissolved; Bart, on the other hand, enjoyed taking Eleanor antiquing when Rosalie was out of town, buying century-old furniture that would last a close approximation of forever. Eleanor’s bed was one such piece, a solid wood four-poster that was originally built for the daughter of some traditional southern gentlefur. It looked grotesquely out of place in this small room. Needless to say, Eleanor loved it, a feeling that had only increased when they found the initials ES already etched into the bottom when they were moving it in.
An ignorant observer might look at the lavish bed and think Eleanor was spoiled, that Rosalie had let her newfound wealth go to her head. But Rosalie Smoot was a firm believer in the crucial distinction between spoiling and indulging. Eleanor needed to have a bed, it was a necessity, and therefore there was no reason for Rosalie not to indulge and get her daughter the best bed she could, one that would last Eleanor her whole life and not be outgrown – especially since Rosalie had never before been able to give Eleanor a proper bed to call her own. What was missing from the room was more subtle: there was no personal computer, no television, no smartphone, no towering shelves of barely-played-with toys, no walk-in closet of unworn clothes – things Rosalie knew no seven-year-old needed, things that many of Eleanor’s private school classmates took for granted. Eleanor was not spoiled, but she was unmistakably well-loved.
Spread across the bed was a Biloxi Voodoo blanket that clashed spectacularly with the pink walls. On top, still in her school uniform, the hem of her dark green plaid jumper splattered with dried mud, was Eleanor.
Eleanor’s face was buried in her pillow but rolled over as she heard her mother cross the room. “Are you mad at me?” the young bison asked, her cheeks stained with the salty tracks of her dried tears.
Rosalie felt herself in danger of breaking down, but she couldn’t let Eleanor know that. “No, Eleanor. I’m not mad. I’m confused. I want to know what happened.”
“Didn’t Sister Bernadette tell you?”
“I’ll talk to your principal later. Right now, I want to hear you tell me. The truth. If you lie to me, I will be mad.”
“You had a fight?”
“They were making fun of Ruth.”
Rosalie felt a frisson of relief. The bison knew her daughter would not have acted out without reason. She also felt a tinge of sadness; Eleanor’s classmate Ruth Wisplight was a salamander, the only amphibian at St. Gertrude’s. Certainly there were a lot of them in this part of the world, but they all lived in the swamps, in poverty; that was the way it always had been, and most Mississippians were content to let it stay that way. It wasn’t uncommon to hear the slur ‘skinbreather’ dropped in casual conversation without a second thought. St. Gertrude’s was expensive; Rosalie had never felt it polite to ask how the Wisplights could afford it.
Eleanor went on. “They stole her pad and when she tried to get it back they shoved her in the mud. McCormic said she belonged there.”
Rosalie felt her sadness deepen; C. McCormic Arvillard was a purebred Chartreux cat. Eleanor had actually invited her over a few times; McCormic was one of the ones who always seemed most disdainful of the simplicity of the Smoots’ living arrangements. Rosalie still had a hard time trusting domestics, but she never wanted to tell her daughter who she could and could not be friends with.
The young bison continued, “…and McCormic said because Ruth wouldn’t say not it was true.”
“Why wouldn’t Ruth…?”
“She doesn’t talk.” It dawned on Rosalie that in all the times Ruth had been to the house, she had never heard the salamander say a word; Rosalie had always assumed the girl was just shy. Eleanor carried on, anxious to get the whole story out. “I told Madison to stop. That I would tell Mrs. Spurlock. They kept laughing and Ruth was crying and I went to help Ruth up but McCormic pushed me back and… and…”
“And you hit her.”
“Just once! And she fell over and everyone else ran away and Mrs. Spurlock came and… and McCormic told her I had beat her up! And that I had knocked over Ruth! She lied!” Eleanor’s voice was breaking. “Nobody ever asked me what happened, or Ruth!” The young bison couldn’t go on.
Rosalie held her daughter close to her side. She didn’t feel like crying; she felt angry.
“Why did she lie? McCormic is my best friend!” Eleanor whimpered. “And so is Ruth! And I want them to be friends too! Why… why can’t…?” She wiped her eyes on the sleeve of her crisp white blouse.
“Eleanor, sweetheart… Friends don’t treat friends that way.”
“It’s not fair. Ruth is really smart, and nice, and no one likes her. They tease her and make fun of her, for no reason. It’s not fair.”
“No. No, it isn’t.”
Neither of them spoke for a moment.
“Maybe…” Rosalie expressed the doubt she had been feeling for the last two years, “Maybe we should consider another school. Maybe St. Gertrude’s isn’t right for you.”
“No! Mom, you can’t!” Eleanor’s eyes went wide, her sudden vehemence surprising Rosalie. “All my friends are there. Ruth is there. If I leave, who will watch out for Ruth?” She looked as though she might start crying again.
Rosalie pulled her daughter close again. “I’m sorry. Please forgive me. I didn’t realize… I won’t mention it again.”
“You won’t make me leave?”
Rosalie hesitated. Given her choice of career, how could she make a promise like that? She could only rub her hand up and down her daughter’s back as she did her best not to let her uncertainty show. This seemed to be reassuring enough for Eleanor right now. The pair sat in silence for a while on the magnificent bed, Rosalie thinking what to tell her daughter.
“I don’t think you should hang out with McCormic anymore.”
“She betrayed your friendship. You can’t trust her.”
“We’re supposed to forgive. That’s what Jesus says.”
The perils of a Catholic education, Rosalie thought to herself. Out loud, she said, “If forgiveness is earned. The burden is on McCormic now to earn back your friendship. If she apologizes, truly apologizes, you may forgive her, but I don’t want you to forget. Understand?”
“Yes, Mom,” Eleanor looked sad, but sincere.
“Also, you’re grounded for this weekend.”
“I know why you did it. And I can’t say I wouldn’t have done the same thing. But hitting is wrong. You know that. I’ve told you that.”
Eleanor nodded morosely.
“Actions have consequences. Even if done for the right reasons. And if anyone ever – ever – won’t listen to your side of the story again, don’t stop until they do listen.”
Silence reigned again in the pink-walled room.
“What’s a ‘bastard’?”
Rosalie’s heart skipped a beat. “Where did you hear that?”
“When… when I was trying to help Ruth… McCormic called me a bastard.”
Rosalie made it a policy to never lie to Eleanor. Eleanor knew the truth about her birth, to an extent, and why her father was not a part of her life. That didn’t mean it was easy. “Well… It means a person who doesn’t have a dad.”
“And that’s all it means. A lot of people will try to tell you it’s a bad thing, that it’s a bad word. But it isn’t. The words people call you only have as much power as you let them have.”
Eleanor furrowed her brow.
Rosalie knew she shouldn’t have been so philosophical. “Anyone ever calls you that again, you just say ‘So what?’”
“But…” Eleanor appeared deep in thought, “But I don’t need a dad. I have you, Mom.”
“Yes. Yes, you do.” Rosalie pulled her daughter close to her side and wrapped her in a hug.
“I understand, yes. I agree that’s fair.”
“I see. Yes, and will McCormic face the same punishment?”
“That’s what I thought.”
“And did you, at any moment, think to ask my daughter WHY she hit McCormic?”
Bart was sitting on his bed, watching FSPN, when he heard his fiancée begin to raise her voice in the living room.
“And just what is that supposed to mean?”
“I see. Because I make a living in contact sports, that means my daughter is automatically violent?”
The hyena could only hear one side of the conversation, but he did not envy Sister Bernadette on the other end of the phone line.
“That’s ‘not what you meant’? Then is it because I’m not a domestic?”
“Is it because she’s a bastard?”
“Why shouldn’t I? It’s what she is. And McCormic Arvillard certainly doesn’t share your delicate sensibilities.”
“Then what, exactly, makes my daughter’s side of the story not worth listening to?”
“And what about Ruth? Did you talk to HER?”
“What do you mean ‘that’s not relevant’? Eleanor struck the other girl because they were bullying Ruth.”
“Yes, bullying. I’ll say it again. McCormic is a bully. If you can’t see it, I can paint you a picture.”
“I can think of several people who might be interested to know St. Gertrude’s policy on the matter.”
“I do not make idle threats, Sister.”
“Thank you. I’m glad we could come to an understanding.”
“Oh, I agree. This is not over.”
“God bless, Sister. Good-bye.”
Bart heard the click of the handset being returned to its cradle and a moment later Rosalie appeared in his doorway. She was shaking with barely suppressed rage. He turned off the TV and scooted over to one side as the bison crossed the room without a word and sat down on the bed beside him. After a moment, she rested her head on his shoulder, though the height difference between them made this slightly awkward.
Bart said nothing, and simply stroked her shaggy warm headfur, knowing she would speak when she was ready.
“Bart?” the bison said quietly.
“I’m here,” the hyena replied.
“Am I a bad parent?”
Bart hadn’t been sure what to expect, but it hadn’t been that. He looked at her in surprise. “Rosalie, sweetliver, how could you even ask that? Eleanor loves you. Your world revolves around her. You call nearly every day when you’re away.”
“Eleanor’s been suspended for one day. She hit another girl. Hard enough to knock her over.”
“That doesn’t mean you—“
“She could have been expelled. Sister Bernadette backed down when I told her she didn’t have the whole story, but… I should have been there for her. I should have done more. I should have taught… made it clear… I don’t even know what I should have done. I /want/ to be there for her. I mean, I’m never home anymore. I travel, I train, I… Is this a cry for attention? Are there other signs I’ve missed?”
Bart let her get it out.
“I want her to be strong, and independent, and to stand up for herself, but I don’t want her to fight words with her fists. I want her to /have/ a childhood. I want her to have friends, to be liked. To grow up not having to go to sleep at night hungry… to know she’s loved… to have a better… everything… everything I never…”
The bison looked up at her fiancée. She was always so confident and mature, it was rare that Bart was ever reminded of how young she really was, but it struck him now.
“You don’t have to do everything alone. Not anymore.”
“Bart… You don’t understand. The first five years… we were inseparable. Even when I was working 80 hours a week, wherever I was, she was there too. Now… now, you – and don’t get me wrong, knowing that there’s someone there every day when she gets home from school – but, now, you see more of her than I do… it’s… it’s…”
“Are… do you think I’m trying to steal her from you?”
Rosalie couldn’t meet his gaze.
“Rosalie… what you and Eleanor have, that bond, I could never… I love you, and I love her – I couldn’t love her more if she were my own – but what I love more than anything is seeing you two together… the sum is greater.”
“It’s just… it’s hard for me, Bart, to believe… to share… You’re the one… What if she feels like I don’t love her as much anymore? That my career is more important? I mean, I’m still working 80 hours a week, but it’s finally at something I /want/ to do, and she’s in school now – real school – and, and…”
“I miss her, Bart. I’m scared I’m missing her life.”
“Rosalie… When I picked her up from school today, she didn’t say a word to me the whole way home. You know how much I care about her. And she rejected me. How do you think I felt?”
Rosalie cast her eyes down.
“I didn’t even think about that,” she mumbled.
“You’re not the only one who cares for her, who wants to be there for her, to give her the whole world… Trust me, Eleanor knows how much you love her. And you are here for her, right now. I wish I could ever be half the parent you are… Rosalie, you’re amazing.”
“Shhh. Don’t be.”
They were silent for a moment, Bart stroking the bison’s headfur, Rosalie staring off into space.
“My goal… Why I do this… Ever since Eleanor was born, I’ve promised myself that whatever I did, I would always do what was best for her,” Rosalie didn’t seem to be addressing Bart, merely thinking out loud, “It used to be so easy. Keep her fed. Keep her warm. But now… I don’t know what ‘best’ is anymore.” Her voice was scared, fragile, so unlike the powerful bigfur her teammates and opponents saw on the court.
“I know I can’t – shouldn’t – put down roots anywhere yet. I’m still on my rookie contract. Next year… the offers I get… next year, I could be anywhere. Hell, I could be traded tomorrow. But how can I explain that to her? How can I tell my daughter not to make any friends, not to get attached? I want her to be happy.” Rosalie took a deep breath. “But I want to be happy too, and right now, on the Voodoo, I’m not. Is it wrong for me to want to be on a winning team? To prove myself in the playoffs? To want a championship ring? To lift the Healey Davis?”
“It’s not wrong, Rosalie,” though the bison seemed not to hear him.
“But leaving Biloxi… I mean, the team we have now, I don’t see us winning /anything/… I give everything every game, and still… It’s so /frustrating/… But if we left Biloxi, it would break Eleanor’s heart. She has a home here now. That’s something – she has never had.”
Bart heard the unspoken first person singular clearly. It wasn’t just Eleanor who didn’t want to be uprooted again. “I know,” he said quietly.
“What am I supposed to do?”
“When the time comes… We’ll work it out. Together. I trust your instincts.”
Silence reigned again, the bison and the hyena cuddled side-by-side. After a while, Rosalie reached for the remote and the flickering images of the day’s sports highlights again lit the room, the volume turned down low.
Rosalie’s eyes drifted to the ring on her finger. It was nearly twenty minutes before she spoke up from the depths of silence. “Bart.”
“I should marry you.”
Bart looked at her; her expression was as serious as ever. They had been engaged for more than a year, but Rosalie had never made any mention of taking the next step, and Bart had never brought it up. “I already said I would…”
“I mean now. Well, tomorrow.”
“Really? I mean… why now?”
“Why not now? The courthouse won’t be busy on a Wednesday. And Eleanor has the day off from school. We can do it first thing in the morning.”
“Don’t you have morning practice? And a game?”
“Screw that. Bart. This is /important/.” Her tone was as solid as the diamond she wore.
“I want to marry you, Bart. I—We should have done it a long time ago. I’ve been putting it off, and putting it off—Bart, the thought scared me. How stupid is that? To be scared of— of being— But— Now. You /are/ half the parent I am, and together we’re one whole. Eleanor deserves a father, and I want it to be you. I need it to be you.”
Bart felt tears in his eyes. “Nothing would make me happier, sweetliver.” They kissed softly. “I just have one condition.”
“Courthouse second thing in the morning. First thing, we go out and get you a white dress.”
Rosalie gave a laughing half-snort. “I think it’s a bit late for me to start wearing white.”
“Rosalie. As the groom, I think I know better than anyone if my bride should wear white. You /deserve/ to wear white.”
Now it was Rosalie’s turn to blink back the tears.
“You deserve to be happy.”
Rosalie rarely spoke those three little words to him. She usually assumed Bart knew. She said them now, barely above a whisper, but the sincerity was as loud and clear as a church bell.
“I love you, too, Rosalie.”
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