Scott Atkinson is a journalist in Flint, Michigan where he writes about arts and entertainment. He lives in a suburb outside Flint with his wife and two children and is currently at work on a novel. This is his first fiction publication.
I thought I’d noticed her for the reasons you notice most poor children, particularly the t-shirt. At least two sizes too large, it would be nothing but tatters by the time she was large enough to wear it comfortably. It advertised a summer camp, dated 1996, which I was quite sure later that night no one in her family had ever attended. I wondered if the girl ever thought about the person who had donated it, and whether that person ever thought about who would be wearing the mistake of a souvenir bought in the excitement of a summer now forgotten.
But it wasn’t the shirt. She was alone.
When I approached her she was playing a carnival game. It didn’t seem odd at the time that I stood up from the bench where I’d been sitting and walked over to her. I hadn’t planned on talking to her. I hadn’t planned on anything other than standing by. Standing guard.
The man running the game—it was the kind where you attempt to throw a ping pong ball into one of a thousand glass jars filled with water—was trying to explain to her. “That’s not real money,” I heard him say. “I’m sorry.” He didn’t look sorry.
I handed him a five, expecting change. “You her dad?” he asked. I said nothing. It was enough. The girl didn’t seem to register what had just happened. She shuffled a small stack of papers—cut into small rectangles and green on one side—back into the pocket of a pair of jeans mostly hidden by her shirt.
The man gave me three dollars. He gave her three ping-pong balls.
Make a ball float, you get a fish in a plastic bag.
She missed all three times, as was expected. Her first throw was lazy (how could you not miss with all those jars out there?). Her second two were more calculated, and with each bounce, each ping of plastic against glass, her eyes widened and she stood a little taller on her toes. She thought she had a chance.
I thought that was the end of it and waited for her to look up at me—hopefully say thank you—and I’d say something nice and walk away. But she only stared ahead a few more moments, never so much as glancing at me. I didn’t know what to say so I turned and started to leave. After a few steps, I heard the man explaining to her again. I turned back around and saw her standing, green paper in hand, staring at the goldfish hanging just out of reach as the man talked to some other customers and gave them each three balls. It would be late soon—the moon had long since leapt from the top of a nearby mountain and was making its long arc across the sky—but of course I had nowhere to be. I walked back and paid two more dollars.
The girl said nothing, only took the balls and watched them as they bounced at exciting unexpected angles, sometimes bouncing two or three times before landing in the matted grass on the other side of the counter. Her eyes were wider now, those of a little girl in a face that had until then been almost adult-like: smart enough to pay me no attention, not stupid enough to refuse a free ping-pong ball and the chance to win a little bag of gold. I paid four more dollars. Three balls for her, three for me. I let her throw first and watched as each ball pinged and ponged its way into the grass.
Then it was my turn. I had no better chance of winning, of course—that’s the idea. But old habits die hard, and sometimes a girl just needs her prize at the carnival. When my second ball made its miniscule splash in a jar near the corner, I knew how to play the part of a man who’d done exactly what he’d meant to. I wished she would have looked at me.
The man behind the counter was pleased: eight dollars in exchange for a $1.29 goldfish and a happy carnival-goer. Me, I was a king.
The man behind the counter shouted there was a winner and poured the fish into a plastic bag, a practiced movement he performed as though it was the first fish he’d ever parted with. Then he presented her with her prize, and I forgave all past offenses.
She looked at me before examining the fish, an unconscious effort that surprised both of us before she twisted her head away, suddenly shy and trying to rein in her smile. She dangled her prize in front of her face. Inside the bag, the tiny fish opened and closed his mouth, surprised by nothing. I seemed to have disappeared again, but no longer cared.
It was time to walk away, but first I looked around. “Are you here with your parents, honey?” I asked. I was half afraid she would answer yes, and I would turn to find a burly man taking me for some creep. I wouldn’t blame him and might even let him push me around a little—fathers deserve to protect their daughters. But I was more afraid the girl would answer no, in which case, I would be the one on the lookout for creeps. In fact, I was already on the lookout for them. I looked for them all the time.
She shook her head.
“Where are they?”
Her voice was stronger than I expected, with a southern accent I should have expected. It’s easy to forget where you are when you don’t talk to anybody.
“Did they drop you off?”
Another head shake.
“Do you live nearby?”
A moment’s pause, then a slower shake of her head: not really.
“How did you get here?”
“Walked,” she said.
It was then that I noticed her bare feet on the grass, enough mud wrapping around them from her soles that, without a proper look, gave the impression of shoes. It made me think of an article I’d read about kids from a local church who’d gone to Appalachia—a region I supposed I was now in, though I’d never thought of it that way—to help the poor. When I thought of the poor, I’d thought of inner cities or run-down trailer parks. But they were also strewn throughout the mountains, forgotten. There was a line that had stuck out in my memory, stronger than the descriptions of houses—if they could be called that—with no running water or trash collection. Some of them don’t even have shoes, someone had said. Why that stuck with me, I have no idea. I do not believe in fate or God, though sometimes I wish I could.
“Do your parents know you’re here?” I asked. She said nothing, only looked at me.
“I think I should probably get you home,” I said. It was hard to tell if she was scared or disappointed. I thought about calling the police. “Why don’t we get some ice cream,” I said. “Then I can take you home.”
Again, she said nothing, and I realized that the situation was somewhat delicate. Should she run off, who was I to run after her and…what? Grab her by the arm? Let her scream until the police hauled me off?
“Would you like some ice cream?” I tried to sound official, as though I was in charge of something. Merely being an adult did not seem to be enough for either of us.
She nodded, even smiled, and I led the way, though I stayed beside her. She smiled again when we entered the ice cream shop, located on one of the streets blocked off for the carnival. A wave of air conditioning and humming fluorescent light washed over us as we walked in from the humid summer night.
She walked to the counter and peered in at the flavors, one hand smudging the glass while the other drooped with the weight of her prize. I offered to carry it. She stared at me a moment before handing it off and returning to the ice cream. . “Do you have a favorite?” I asked. She shook her head. I ordered a double chocolate on a waffle cone. All little girls love chocolate and waffle cones. I ordered Superman.
The cashier told us the price. “She’ll be paying,” I said. I looked down toward the girl and gestured toward the cashier, a middle-aged woman with a suntan and, I hoped, a sense of subtlety. The girl pulled the stack of green papers from her pocket. “Just one,” I told her gently, and she handed the woman a bill. I held up a twenty behind the girl’s head and flashed it at the woman, who was already smiling at the girl and taking her money. She even put it in the till, on top of the large bills.
I paid and told her to keep the change, though she needed no bribing. Mothers are easier to spot when you know what to look for, and they never lose their instincts either.
We sat across from each other in a booth. Her legs dangled from knobby knees.
“What’s your name?”
“Margie,” she said. “What’s your name?”
She smiled. “That’s a funny name.”
“I know,” I said, and smiled in return. “That’s a lot of money you’ve got there.”
She nodded enthusiastically. Chocolate already covered the corners of her mouth. There was also a dot on her nose, but it was not my place to wipe it away.
“Where did you get it all?”
“All by yourself?”
A lazy nod, an enormous lick of ice cream.
“Was it hard?”
“No. Mamma said making money’s hard, but it’s easy for me. But now I’m almost out of green. I use green for grass and trees.”
“I always thought trees were hard to make. You must be pretty good.”
She nodded, focused on finishing the first scoop of chocolate.
“Can I see it?”
She gave me a skeptical stare, then pulled the wad from her pocket with sticky hands. She set the bills on the table. They were uneven rectangles of cut paper, painted on one side with watercolors. She’d covered the basics. There was a face painted in the middle of each and numbers in the corners. The bill on top was a seven.
“You did a very good job,” I said. I knew how to say this.
Between us, the fish darted back and forth, his world now turned sideways.
“What are you going to name him?” I nodded toward the fish.
“Margie,” she said. “She’s a girl.”
We finished our ice cream and I asked if she had to go to the bathroom, where I waited outside, convincing myself I was being a good Samaritan. The cashier saw me waiting as she walked by and asked me what my daughter’s name was.
“Anne,” I said, without even thinking.
I took Margie the girl outside and held Margie the fish for her, swinging the bag gently as I took long slow steps to match her march-like pace. I told her where my car was and that we should probably get her home. She followed obediently, and I found a part of myself not wanting her to, wanting instead for her to kick and scream “stranger!” and run into a nearby crowd. I wondered then if this is how it had been. I’d tried to recreate the moment many times in my head, watching and constantly editing different versions of the same movie. A little girl wanders off, she meets a stranger, she is never seen again. I don’t think of the news stories or even my divorce—that seemed to happen on its own, anyway, without me—I only wonder what he said, how she reacted, what lesson I should have taught her that would have changed everything. Some people say I torture myself; they say not to think about it. But what they don’t understand is that there are some things I don’t think about. I don’t think about where she is. I don’t think about what she looks like now. I don’t think about what she’s doing that exact moment or wonder if she’s thinking of me. Not when I can help it.
I caught Margie looking at the rides as we passed and continued walking. So obedient. I checked my watch.
“I suppose we have time for one ride. Don’t you think?” I said.
She looked up at me and nodded.
“Which one do you want?”
She wasted no time and pointed at the swings, the ones that spin and send riders hovering in circles above the crowd. That ride has always made me nervous—I always picture a cable snapping, a child flying—but I couldn’t bring myself to say no and contented myself by remembering it wasn’t my place to. I would pay, but only to be polite. She did, after all, have her own money.
She walked off toward the line with the three dollar bills I’d given her and suddenly we were detached. I was alone again and wondering just what the hell I was doing. I’d been taking my semi-monthly trip to the grocery store—second and fourth Friday evenings—when I saw the carnival lights appear from around a bend. There are no straight roads in the mountains, and anything new takes you by surprise. What was most surprising was the feeling of seeing a carnival I hadn’t known was coming or planned ahead for. I found myself wanting to wander among the families and the noise for a while, just to look around—at what, I didn’t know. The idea behind moving to the mountains was to get away from people. You can’t see very far in the mountains, always hunkered in a valley, hidden in a land of a thousand giant foxholes. And then there I was, standing next to the swings, regretting my decision to stop while knowing from the bottom of my heart that if a cable on those swings did snap I would jump off the edge of a nearby cliff to catch and save her.
“Which one’s yours?” I heard a voice ask. I turned to find a woman standing beside me, so close I was surprised I hadn’t noticed her until then. She was attractive, tall with dark long hair and a tanned face that made me picture her spending hours pulling weeds between tomato plants.
“I’m sorry?” I’d heard her, but I was staring.
“I said, which one’s yours?” she asked again.
“Oh. That one.” I pointed to what could have been any number of children and didn’t allow her time to press for specificity. “How about you?”
“That one,” she said, pointing directly. “Right there.” I watched a young boy float by who had inherited his mother’s hair, grinning ear to ear.
“You have any others?” She said it in a way that made it clear she was more interested in starting conversation than talking about our children. I was interested in neither.
“Just the one,” I said, then added, to my regret, “You?”
“Same. Isn’t it funny how you watch them? I remember thinking that my parents must be bored to tears watching me as a kid.”
“Yeah. It’s funny.”
“What’s her name?”
“Margie,” I said, carefully.
“Mine’s Stephen. How old is Margie?”
“Seven.” This is what I had guessed.
“Stephen is eight. They grow up so fast. Everyone says that, but you never realize how true it is.”
I said nothing. She kept talking.
“So when did you move here? I don’t meet too many other Yankees.”
I hadn’t even thought of her lack of an accent. “Three years ago,” I said.
“Just you and your daughter?”
“Oh, so she’s just visiting daddy.”
I nodded, hoping she would get the hint. I did not want to talk. I thought people could tell this about me.
“Stephen’s a baseball fanatic. What does Margie do?”
“Soccer,” I said. And when the silence grew too uncomfortable even for me, I continued. “She loved it. We had two nets in our old subdivision, our own little field in the back yard. I spray-painted lines and everything.” I still had the line painting apparatus, a contraption you roll along the ground with a special holder for the paint and a trigger on the handle. I kept it in my shed. “Our house was the place to be in the summer. Sometimes they let me play goalie.”
“She doesn’t play anymore?” the woman asked, making me suddenly aware of my use of the past tense.
“Oh. Well. Season’s over,” I said, although I knew damn well that the playoffs hadn’t even started yet.
The ride slowed, and the children gravitated slowly toward the center of the ride, each cable holding fast. I nodded once to the woman and walked toward the exit, putting some space between us as I watched Stephen and the other children run to their parents.
“Thanks,” Margie said when she approached, and I winced at the sound of it, the lone thank you in a sea of children who knew they had the right to these rides, who knew that thanking their parents was akin to saying thank you for paying the heating bill or changing their diapers as a baby.
“You’re welcome,” I said, and led her to my car.
I was afraid Margie might not know how to get to where she lived, but her sense of direction was uncanny. She directed me out of town about a mile and then we turned onto a one-lane road that headed into the mountains. There were small areas here and there to pull off to allow oncoming traffic to pass. She pointed me down one more road and then told me to stop abruptly. We were not in as poor of an area as I’d imagined, but neither was the local real estate market booming. Decades-old mobile homes were scattered along the road, though where we stopped I saw nothing at first. Then I noticed the small, dirt, two-track lane cut into the side of the mountain. A miniature forest of saplings poked through the gravel. I asked her if she wanted me to drive her up and was thankful when she said she could go it alone. For a moment I had an urge to get out of my car and run after her, to snatch her up and to take her somewhere better, somewhere safe. I pictured us going to a hundred more rides at half a dozen more carnivals. I envisioned a thousand more trips to the ice cream shop, watching myself become more obsolete, little more than a chauffeur, as she played with other children and took all kinds of things for granted.
But I only watched her, every step, as she made her way toward the faint porch light up the hill in the distance, her fish catching shards of moonlight between the trees, flashing here and there like a lump of gold.