When Josephina Marguerite Higginbotham was six years old, her mother, Gladys, began reading A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. This is only significant because it was also when Josephina began reading it, since her mother always read books aloud. Her mother read everything aloud, including the morning paper and the directions for warming a microwave dinner. Actually, she did not just read aloud – she read dramatically. In Josephina’s early years, this made Dr. Seuss and Laura Ingalls Wilder come to life, although it tended to make Agatha Christie a little too realistic. However, it did not impress Josephina to hear her mother emote as she read, “Fold back corner to vent, and microwave at high power for three and a half minutes!” It was Josephina’s sixth birthday when her mother, Gladys, began reading the immense novel, and Josephina never forgot her mother’s reading of A Tale of Two Cities. The opening line, “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times,” was somehow imbedded in Josephina’s brain, as if she knew that it was a prophecy especially for her
Now, as an eleven-year-old girl sitting inside a smelly, colorless bus station, Josephina had realized the truth of that prophecy. Her mother was gone, and she would at last be meeting the father who had always been a mystery to her. The only question remaining was, which of these facts was the best of times, and which of them was the worst? The last thing her mother had told her was, “Be sure to try to get to know your father. He really is a good person.” It had sounded to Josephina as if her mother was trying to convince her of her father’s goodness. Josephina wondered if this meant her father was not good or if it just meant that her mother didn’t really remember the man after more than eleven years of separation. After all, her mother had never really said much about him. In all her eleven years, Josephina could only remember one real conversation about her father. It had taken place when Josephina was only five, when she and her mother were driving to a new apartment. It had also been one of the only times they had owned a car. Watching people come and go in the bus station, Josephina replayed the conversation in her mind.
“Mama, do you remember my father?” Josephina had asked as they drove on a two-lane road.
“What made you think of him?” Gladys’ eyes had remained steadily focused on the road.
“Well, I was just wondering. I mean, Jamia has a dad that lives with her. Maria’s dad doesn’t live with her, but she goes to visit him. I was just wondering about my father.”
“Your father…” Gladys had let the phrase die as she continued to drive. She drove in silence for a long time, which was very unusual. Josephina’s mother was almost always talking. After several minutes, Josephina began to wonder if her mother would ever answer the question. Or maybe she didn’t know the answer. Maybe Gladys wasn’t answering the question because she couldn’tanswer the question.
“Do you even know who he is?” In her five year-old naiveté, Josephina asked the question without realizing its connotation.
“Of course I know who he is, Josephina! What do you think I am!”
“I think you’re my mama.”
“Oh, I am sorry, Jo. I just meant that I do remember him. I was trying to think about what I could tell you. Let’s see. I remember him being very tall, and I remember him telling me on our first date that he never dated women like me.”
“What does that mean?”
“I suppose it means he didn’t date women who were interesting. Some men don’t like women who are interesting. They like women who are quiet and predictable.”
“So my father thought you were loud and not pre – predica – what was that word?”
Gladys laughed. “Predictable. It means you know what to expect from someone. And, yes, I suppose he thought I was loud and unpredictable. He was probably right, don’t you think?”
“Well, you are loud sometimes. I don’t know about the other one.”
“Well, compared to lots of people, I am definitely not predictable. But I think that was one of the things that your father liked. At least in the beginning. We were only together a few months. And then he left, and then you were born.”
“Didn’t he want to wait for me to be born?”
Gladys sighed and paused again. “Well, Jo, he didn’t know you were coming. He got a new job in another state, and I couldn’t bear to tell him about you. I was afraid he might feel as if he had to stay, and I didn’t really want him to.”
“But what about if I wanted him to?”
Josephina’s mother had driven for a long time after that. This time, Josephina was a little bit afraid to ask again. It seemed as if her mother was upset.
“Josephina, it isn’t that I didn’t think about what you wanted. But you weren’t here yet, and your father and I were very different. I just didn’t know what to do. And we have done alright, haven’t we?”
“Is that all you wanted to know?”
“I guess so.” In reality, Josephina had been bursting with questions, but her mother seemed to want the conversation to end. Josephina never asked again.
Something made Josephina look up from her suitcase. There were people milling through the station. Some were looking at their tickets or schedules. Some were talking to each other. Some were typing on laptop computers and talking on cell phones. As she looked to the left, Josephina saw a very tall man standing alone. He looked nervous, fiddling with the buttons on his overcoat and coughing. Their eyes met, and he began walking toward her. Josephina instinctively grabbed her suitcase and backpack.
“Josephina?” The man asked as he stood in front of her.
“Yes, I’m Josephina.” Her mouth felt very dry, and her heart began pounding almost painfully hard.
“It me, Robert – ah – your father. Is this all of yours? I mean, do you have any other luggage?”
“No,” Josephina answered. She wondered if she should hug him or shake his hand, but instead she tightened her grasp on her bags, grateful that her hands were full.
“Um, well, my car is illegally parked. Let’s go ahead.” He reached for her heavy suitcase, but Josephina didn’t let go.
“Are you sure you’re my father?”
Robert studied her face for a moment, as if he were looking for confirmation in one of her features. “Yes, I am.” Josephina wondered if he had seen himself somewhere in her face. He took her suitcase, and they began walking toward the door.
Robert’s car was parked directly under a yellow sign that read, “For unloading only.” There was a small slip of paper under his windshield.
“I think you have a ticket,” Josephina said. Her father took the paper and furrowed his brow as he read it. She wondered if he would be annoyed with her for causing him to get a ticket. He folded it twice and put it in his pocket.
“Yes, well…. We can put your suitcase in the trunk.”
Her father’s car was a dark blue, and it looked very shiny and very new. When he popped the trunk open, his golf clubs were sitting in the trunk, along with a tennis racquet. He pushed them toward the back and placed Josephina’s suitcase in the trunk. “Do you want to hold your backpack or put it back here?”
“I guess I’ll hold it,” Josephina answered. The trunk slammed shut, and they both got into the car.
They inched through the slow-moving cars around the station. Once they were on the interstate, Robert began driving faster. He pushed a button on the steering wheel and took his foot off the gas, but the car kept going. Josephina looked at the speedometer and at her father’s foot. He caught her eye and smiled.
“That’s cruise control. The car will keep going this speed as long as the cruise is on. That way my foot won’t get tired.” Josephina nodded and wondered how tired someone’s foot could get from just driving. She and her mother had walked almost everywhere. As if reading her mind, her father said, “I guess your mother didn’t have a car. She always liked to walk.”
“Yeah, she did.” Josephina replied, even though it wasn’t really a question. She looked out the window and watched the trees blur together. There seemed to be millions of trees. They just kept coming one after the other and meshing together as her father raced down the interstate with the cruise control on and his right foot resting against the hump in between the front two seats. Occasionally there would be a break in the trees, where a farmer had cultivated a field or created a man-made pond. They weren’t far from the city, but all of the trees and fields and fake ponds made it seem as if they were driving through the middle of nowhere. If Gladys had been driving, she would have been pointing out dozens of tiny details in the trees and grass and on the waters. She would have driven more slowly so that the trees were not so blurred. Josephina would have been able to see each tree as it passed.
“Do you want to stop here to get some dinner? Josephina, are you alright?” Her father’s voice broke into her thoughts.
Josephina didn’t understand why he had asked her if she was all right until she reached up to brush a stray hair from her cheek. It was wet. She had been crying and didn’t realize it. That was why the trees had been so blurred. She nodded, and her father exited and drove down the off-ramp. They rode in silence until they reached the Waffle House parking lot. Robert turned off the car and faced Josephina.
“Josephina, I know you don’t even know me. I’m sorry about that. I’m not like you mother, I know. But I will try. I promise.” He looked nervous again, and he coughed.
“It’s okay. I’m tired. I know,” Josephina answered, and she turned to open her door.
Inside the restaurant, a stocky woman with too much perfume and hot-pink lipstick seated them at a booth as far away from the smokers as possible, at her father’s request. That was one thing Josephina’s parents had in common, anyhow. Another woman, a thin blond woman with her shirt cut far too low walked up to take their drink orders.
“I’ll have Pepsi,” Josephina said.
The woman gave a quick nod and then turned and smiled at Robert. She bent over slightly and asked, “What about you? What can I get for you?”
Josephina looked at her lap and snorted. When she looked up, her father was fiddling with his menu, and his ears were red.
“I’ll just have coffee, thanks.”
Well, I guess I can see why she was leaning at you, Josephina thought. You are tall, you obviously have money, and you are handsome. I guess that’s what Mama noticed. Without realizing it, Josephina had said the last phrase out loud.
“What did you say?” Her father looked puzzled.
Josephina’s ears were red now as well. “I mean, well, that lady seemed to like you, and I can see why…” There was just no way to explain without embarrassing everyone further.
“Oh, that. She just wants a good tip. Waitresses always do that.” He looked toward the waitresses’ station, and then he began to grin. “Here she comes to take our order. Should I wink at her? Maybe we’ll get a free meal.” His ears turned even redder. Josephina giggled. At least he had some sense of humor.
Robert ordered a cheese omelet, and Josephina ordered a waffle. After all, it was a Waffle House. She and her mother had eaten countless meals at Waffle House. Gladys ordered something different every time, but Josephina always had a waffle. Her father excused himself to go to the restroom, and Josephina opened her backpack.
At the bottom of the backpack, Josephina had carefully wrapped her jacket around a shoebox. It was covered with bits of different colored tissue, and a rainbow shoestring tied it closed. Josephina untied the shoestring and opened the box. It was filled with sketches, photos in small frames, letters, and other odds and ends. Josephina unfolded the top page and smoothed the paper. It was a Pagoda sketched in colored pencil. There were unusual trees and plants, and the pagoda was surrounded by a small stream with a bridge. A tiny facsimile of Josephina and her mother stood on the bridge. Gladys had always said it was foolish to spend money on postcards when she could draw them for free. Under the paper, there was a small frame containing a photograph of the beach at night. Actually, it was just the ocean, stretching for miles with beads of moonlight dancing on the water. It was one of Josephina’s favorite pictures.
“Here you go, sweetheart,” the leaning waitress said, placing an omelet and a waffle on the table. “Is that man your dad? He sure is a nice man.” She left the table and went behind the counter.
How do you know he’s nice? All you did was take his order. I am his daughter, and I don’t even know if he’s nice. Josephina put the sketch and the photo back into the box, re-tied the shoestring, and placed the box at the bottom of her backpack again. Her father came back to the table as she put the first bite of waffle into her mouth.
“Sorry about that. I had to make a call.”
“Who did you call?” Josephina asked without thinking.
“Oh, well, I called my mother – your grandmother. I wanted to let her know what time we would arrive at the house.”
“I thought you lived in an apartment.”
“I do. But I thought we would spend the first night with your grandmother. I’m having the extra room – your room, I mean – painted. Besides, Mom’s the typical Italian grandmother. She can’t wait to see you.”
“Will she cook us spaghetti?” Josephina liked that idea of real spaghetti.
Robert laughed, and shook his head. “Your grandmother hates to cook.”
Josephina wondered how typically Italian she could be if she didn’t like to cook. But then, maybe she was basing her idea of Italians on television and movies. Maybe lots of Italian grandmothers hated cooking.
“My father was the cook in our family. Now he could make spaghetti. And lasagna…I get fat just thinking about it.”
Josephina had a hard time picturing her father fat; he was so tall and lean. She could picture him walking next to her mother, who was also tall. Her head probably fit right on his shoulder. When Josephina was little, she had piled pillows on top of one another until she was tall enough to sit with her head on her mother’s shoulder as they sat on the couch. She tried to picture doing the same thing on her father’s couch. It might take a few more pillows. While he was busy eating his omelet, Josephina studied him. His hair was wavy, and there was no gray anywhere, although that could have been a hair color. His hands were large, but not chubby, with long fingers. His eyes were a very light brown, but his skin was tan, maybe from playing golf outside. His nose was a little bigger than hers, but the shape was similar. He had two freckles on the side of his nose. Josephina wondered if he had looked the same eleven years earlier.
Josephina only ate half of her waffle. Her father finished it, and they left the restaurant and the leaning waitress behind. They were on the interstate, when Josephina realized she had left her backpack. She almost started crying, and she looked around behind her, as if the backpack might be flying through the air, trying to catch up.
“What’s wrong?” Her father asked.
“We have to go back. I left my backpack. We have to get it.”
Her father looked at the digital clock on the dashboard. “Did it have something important in it?”
“Yes.” Josephina was surprised at how firm she sounded. Her father was surprised too. He drove across the median and headed back toward the Waffle House. As soon as the car stopped, Josephina threw the door open and hurried inside. Her father sprinted after her.
“I left my back – “ Josephina stopped short. The leaning waitress had the backpack behind the counter and had opened it. Josephina’s eyes blurred again, and she walked behind the counter and scooped up the backpack. She startled the waitress.
“Oh! You’re here, sweetheart. I was just looking to see if there was a name, or a phone number…”
I just bet you were. “It’s mine. It doesn’t have our number. Thanks” Josephina took the backpack and walked away from the waitress, who looked a little miffed. The waitress tried to catch her father’s eye, but both Josephina and her father had already left the restaurant. In a few minutes they were back on the interstate.
During the last hour of their trip, Josephina and her father talked very little. Josephina tried to count the trees for a while, but it soon became to dark to see clearly. Her father’s cell phone bleeped, and he began talking with some about a meeting at the university. He taught English at the University in Paynesville. Actually, he was head of the English Department. He had moved to Paynesville eleven years earlier to teach American Literature. Josephina leaned back and closed her eyes as he talked. She tried to sleep, but her mind kept drifting about.
“Jo, come on, let’s go! We’ll be late if you don’t hurry!” Josephina’s mother was jingling her apartment keys impatiently. They were going to a play in the park, and Josephina could hardly wait. She pulled on her shoes and ran to join her mother at the door.
“Mama, what is the name of this play?”
“It’s Shakespeare, Jo. It’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. You’ll love it. It’s like a fairy tale. Let’s hurry; it’s a ten block walk to the park.”
Because her mother was always running late, they had to run the last two blocks. People were already seated on blankets and lawn chairs by the time they reached the park. A makeshift stage had been constructed from old boards, and curtains painted with trees hung behind the stage. The actors were peeking around the curtains, surveying the crowd. One of them, dressed as a fairy, came out and clapped her hands three times.
“Welcome to everyone! We hope that you enjoy the first production of the Ashland Park Community Theater. We are ready to begin.”
The play mesmerized Josephina, although she did not understand all of the dialogue. The words seemed strange and beautiful, as poetry usually does, and the characters were well played by the amateur actors. Josephina watched as if in a trance, except for a brief moment here and there when a baby would cry or a stray toddler waddled in front of the stage. She looked over during one of these moments and saw that her mother was sitting with her eyes closed. Josephina thought she was asleep. Then her mother opened her eyes and smiled at Josephina. She leaned over and whispered in Josephina’s ear, “Aren’t the words just like music?” After the play, Gladys had talked with the actors while Josephina played with the smaller children. It had been a perfect day.
The car began to slow, and Josephina opened her eyes as they exited the interstate again. This time, they drove into a residential area with old but well-tended houses that stood in rows close to the street. They pulled into the driveway of a gray brick house with dark blue shutters. There was one tree in the front yard and some slightly overgrown bushes hiding most of the front windows. As soon as they were out of the car, a tall woman opened the door and walked out onto the small porch.
“At last, at last, my son brings me a granddaughter,” she said. She gave Josephina’s father a peck on the cheek, and then she turn to Josephina. “And may I have a hug from my granddaughter?” Josephina nodded, and the woman hugged her tightly for a long moment. Josephina wanted to wriggle free, but she sensed that her grandmother would be hurt, so she stood very still.
They walked inside, and Josephina looked around the living room. It was not very large, but it was nicely furnished. The couch and two chairs were covered in a matching flower print, and there was an oriental rug under the claw-footed coffee table. There was no television, but there was an old piano and an old Hammond organ in the two far corners. The kitchen was separated by a wide doorway. There were lots of family photographs on the walls behind the table. Josephina began walking toward them, anxious to look at them, but her grandmother directed her toward the hallway instead.
“Let’s put your bags in the guest room. Then we can all sit down for a little while before bed.”
The guest room was like most guest rooms. An old bed, probably left from someone’s childhood, was against the far wall. It had a brass headboard and a striped bedspread. There was a straight-backed chair by a window, and a dresser with a mirror across from the bed. There was a small television on one corner of the dresser, and a large picture of Josephina’s father, sister and parents on the other corner. One framed print hung above the bed, and there was a small bathroom to the left of the bed. Josephina placed her suitcase and backpack on the bed, and she washed her hands in the bathroom. She looked in the mirror over the sink and studied her face carefully. She saw her father in her nose and in the corners of her mouth. She may have had his forehead, although the mass of curls just above her eyes made it hard to tell. The hair was definitely her mother’s, as were the full lips and the dark brown eyes. She was tall like both her parents, a fact that did not always make her happy. She ran her fingers through the back of her hair and walked back down the hall to the kitchen.
When Josephina entered the kitchen, she saw her grandmother and her father sitting together with cups of coffee. Her father was looking at the table, and her grandmother had her hands over her father’s. They both looked up when they heard her.
“Would you like something to drink? I don’t have any Pepsi, but I have some milk and some apple juice.”
“No thanks,” Josephina answered. “I try not to drink too late at night. But thanks.”
Robert cleared his throat and put both hands around his coffee cup. “I thought we would wait until after this weekend to start you in school. It’s a lot to get used to, and from what your mother told me about how smart you are, I don’t think it will hurt for you to miss a few days. Then we can really get settled. Do you have enough school clothes?” Josephina nodded.
“Now, that doesn’t mean we can’t go shopping,” Ylenia broke into the conversation. “After all, all women love shopping. Isn’t that right?” She winked at Josephina.
Josephina smiled but didn’t answer. Actually, she hated shopping. Her mother didn’t like spending a lot of money on clothing, so Josephina had always done most of her shopping at consignment stores.
“We have a Gap and an Old Navy. We can go there for school clothes. And there is a wonderful little shop we can go to for dresses.”
“Why do I need dresses?”
“For mass, of course. Didn’t your mother take you to church?”
Josephina nodded again. Actually, she and her mother had gone to a small Methodist church. The pastor traveled between churches, so they only met every other week. And no one ever wore dresses. Josephina had never been to a Catholic church. She wondered if everyone there wore dresses.
“Your mother didn’t say much about her plans. Do you know where she was going?” Her father asked.
“I don’t know. I just know she couldn’t take me with her. She wanted to, but she couldn’t.”
Ylenia shook her head. “I wonder where someone would go if they could not take their children.” Josephina’s father gave his mother a reproachful look, and then he looked quickly at Josephina to gauge her reaction. Josephina felt her eyes blurring again, so she faked a yawn.
“Oh, goodness,” Ylenia said. “It is getting late. Why don’t we all go to bed? I have a small lamp in the living room that I could move to the guest room, Josephina. Do you need a night light?”
“No, I’m fine. Goodnight,” Josephina said. She stood up and walked to the guest room.
Josephina took off her jeans and slid into bed in her shirt, socks, and underwear. Although she had said she didn’t need a night-light, the room was darker than Josephina was used to. She lay in bed for several minutes, waiting for her eyes to adjust, but the shades were drawn, and her grandmother’s neighborhood was darker than Josephina’s apartment complex had been. She finally turned on the bathroom light and cracked the bathroom door. Then she climbed back into bed and, surprisingly, fell asleep almost immediately.