Henry Simpson – The Great Snorting Wooly Mammoth

27As I left the courthouse, I saw Donna struggling along the sidewalk with a leather satchel and handbag on one arm and unslung backpack on the opposite shoulder. I caught up with her and offered my help. She stopped, tipped a shoulder, and slid the backpack into my hand. It felt like a load of rocks.
“You need a pack mule,” I said. “Or at least a jackass.”
“A jackass?” Donna said. “You’ll do.”
“What’s in here?”
“About ten percent of the evidentiary documents in a fraud prosecution, this year’s Ponzi gambit. I’m assisting, so I get to haul the freight. Give me a homicide any day.” She stretched and adjusted her shoulders and back, then smiled amiably. “I appreciate your help, Joe. My car’s parked in the lot on the next block. Do you mind?”
“I’m at your service, if I can get that far.”
Tall palms lined sidewalks on both sides of the street, their fronds catching sunlight and rustling in the breeze. Donna began walking. “My, Joe, aren’t you in a good mood today?”
“Why not? It’s nice and sunny, and I’m walking with someone I like.”
She glanced at me; our eyes met briefly.
“How’s Flora?” I said.
“Like any bright, inquisitive fourteen-year-old girl.”
“Trouble, eh?”
Donna laughed.
We stopped at a street corner for the traffic light to change. Lunch-hour pedestrians crowded around us.
The light changed and people lurched into the street, almost into the path of a meter maid’s scooter, then halted dead, knocking two women to the sidewalk. They slowly got to their feet.
“Shit,” I said loudly. “Slow down, people. It’s a nice day.”
We crossed the street and walked to Donna’s car. She opened the trunk and stowed her baggage. She slammed the lid shut and walked to the door.
“What have you been up to, Joe?”
“Not much. I went golfing last week.”
“How’d that go?”
“Not as well as I’d hoped.”
“My father golfed when he was in the Foreign Service. Said it’s a good way to get to know people. After he retired, he never golfed again.”
“My father’s retired. Still golfs.”
“That’s nice.”
“He came to visit me about a month ago and sort of moved in.”
She laughed. “You mean, he’s a permanent house guest.”
“It’s turned out that way.”
“Perhaps you should give him a hint, you know, something to force him to exit your premises.”
“What do you suggest?”
“Enlist a strong woman to take charge of your household. It sounds like you’re a wuss where daddy’s concerned.”
“Believe me, Donna, my old man is no one’s daddy.”
She opened the car door and got in, then lowered the window and looked up at me. “Joe, this is as good a time as any. We need to talk about something very important. It concerns you, me, and Flora.”
The way she said the words sent a shiver through me and then a shot of adrenaline.
“Get in the fucking car, Joe.”
I thought she was returning to the office to drop off her court materials or perhaps taking us somewhere for lunch, but instead of heading downtown she went in the opposite direction. We passed the park, made a right turn, and stopped in front of her Victorian. She grabbed her door handle and looked at me. “Come along, Joe. I want to introduce you to my pet.”
“What about lunch?” I said.
“That can wait. Be nice, or he’s liable to have you for lunch.”
What the hell?
I followed her through the front door into the living room. My eyes searched it, particularly on the furniture and beneath. I expected to see a pair of cat’s eyes peering at me from some hidden place.
She sat in a chair. I eased into another, facing her across a coffee table.
I shook my head. “I don’t see it. Must be very small, or hiding. Nocturnal? Eccentrics keep bats for pets. Where is it, up behind the curtains, sleeping through the day?”
“Maybe you’ll see it better after we talk, Joe. We must sort out something we’ve ignored for too long. It’s what I’ve referred to as my ‘pet.’ Actually, it’s also yours. I wish I could give it to you so you could take it home and get it out of my living room, but it’s not that simple. Some people would call a pet like ours the elephant no one chooses to see. In our case, I think of it more as the great snorting wooly mammoth that follows me around, stinking everything up.”
She leaned forward, looking me in the eyes. “Tell me, Joe. Do you have the slightest inkling?”
I shook my head. “Please tell me what the hell you’re talking about, Donna.”
“That would make it too easy. After all you’ve put me through because of your seeming inability to see an inch beyond your nose, you must figure it out for yourself. I’ll give you a few hints. Ready?”
“Dr. Gentry has called me several times trying to arrange a meeting. He and Mrs. Gentry have got it into their heads that Flora is their granddaughter. They claim they got the information from you.”
“I told them what Max told me, that you and he were Flora’s parents. I caveated—is that a word?—that I could not guarantee it as fact.”
“Oh, shit!” she said softly. “That explains why they won’t leave me alone. Joe, seriously now—did you believe Max?”
“He seemed to believe; I didn’t know.”
She went to the fireplace mantel, took down a picture of Flora, and handed it to me. “Have you ever examined her closely, Joe? Check her facial structure, the contours of her ears, particularly the lobes. That little cleft in her chin. The shape and color of her eyes. Do those features look familiar at all? Consider personality traits. Inquisitive. Somewhat secretive. A loner never quite able to fit in socially. Who’s that sound like?”
“Negatory,” as my old man would say. “Well, Donna, this sure opens a new chapter.”
“I always knew. I just assumed you knew already. I was curious about your disinterest in her, but got past it. Men are often like that; you know, unfeeling pricks. I never thought you were stupid. Boy, was I wrong. You didn’t realize she was half you, did you?”
Her eyes bored into me, but I could think of nothing to say.
“Joe, we need to sort this out now. Work that into your consciousness and accept it.”
“What do you want from me?”
“Nothing. If I had wanted something, I would have demanded it by now. You might want something from me.”
“What would that be?”
“Let me ask you a question, Joe. What’s your impression of Flora?”
“She’s a peach.”
Donna smiled. “Did you get any satisfaction trying to help her out?”
I laughed. “I did, but look at the trouble it caused.”
She suddenly dropped into my lap, leaned close, and kissed me on the cheek. She sat up, holding a palm to her ear. “Did you hear that?”
“A great, snorting wooly mammoth just left the premises.”
Flora appeared in my office doorway later that afternoon. She was wearing school clothes as she bounced in, toting an overloaded backpack she jettisoned as she dropped into a chair. “Hey, Mr. Costa,” she said.
“Hey, Flora,” I said.
“Donna said you have something for me.”
“Did she say what it was?”
“No. She said you’d tell me.”
“Tell you?”
Flora shrugged.
“One moment,” I said.
I took my cell to the window and punched in Donna’s office number. It rang several times and switched to a recorded message. I tried her cell number. She answered immediately.
“This is Joe,” I said softly.
“I know your voice. You don’t have to announce yourself like a stranger. What do you want? Quickly, I’m in a meeting.”
“Flora’s here.”
A pause. “How nice. I’m sure she’s safe.”
“She said you told her—I don’t know what you said—but she seems to expect something from me.”
“We all do, Joe.”
“Knock it off, Donna. Tell me what’s up or I’ll haul her over there and deliver her into your fucking meeting.”
“Tell her, Joe. That’s all. Don’t call back unless it’s done.” Her line went dead.
How naive of me. I had assumed Donna would enlighten Flora. Wrong. She had kept the secret from her all those years. Why should it be different now? I had not anticipated such ruthlessness, not even from an Assistant DA.
Think fast, Costa—how to tell Flora? Make up a story about a couple who had met, years ago, separated, and . . . what an awful thought.
“What’s up?” Flora said cheerfully.
I coughed and gagged, then cleared my throat. “Max was not your father.”
She blinked. “Okay.” She paused. “That’s okay, I guess. No big deal. He was kind of a strange character anyway.” Another pause. “But he sure was a swell guitar player and singer.”
“Yeah,” I said, nodding.
“Wow. Well, thanks, Mr. Costa. I asked you to find out, and you did. How much do I owe you?”
I laughed. “Never mind. I’ll put it on your tab. Someday I might ask you for a favor.”
“Like in the Mafia.”
“Are you Italian?”
“On my father’s side.”
“I’m half, too. Wait, I take that back. I’m half of half Brazilian, and who knows what that is? They’re all so mixed up down there—Portuguese, African, Indian, Mestizo, whatever.” She hesitated, eyes wandering, mind working. “Who is? My father, I mean. When you were finding out who isn’t, did you find out who is?”
“Me,” I said. “I am.”
She blinked. “Really?”
“Oh, wow. That’s cool. I mean awesome. I don’t know what to say.”
She moved her chair closer, settled her elbows on the desk, and cradled her chin in upturned palms. She stared at me, eyes like cameras capturing a picture. Suddenly, she sat upright. “How do you know you’re my father?”
“Donna told me.”
“Recently—a few days ago.”
“You didn’t know before that?”
I hesitated. “No.”
“I don’t understand. How could that be?”
I shook my head. “Ask your mother to explain. On second thought, don’t ask her. In twenty years might be a better time. Better yet, wait until she’s on her deathbed, in a mood to make amends with everyone before kicking off into the great beyond.”
“You’re weird, Mr. Costa. I’m asking you.”
“My memories are hazy, Flora. Understand?”
“All the partying, drugs and alcohol. Is that it?”
“You’re lucky, I guess. Max wasn’t. You survived.” She stared at me with puzzlement. “I believe there may be something seriously wrong with you, Mr. Costa. Try to hold yourself together.”
“Thank you, Flora. That’s good advice. I definitely will.”
“How do you feel about having me for your daughter?”
“I’m delighted. It makes me happy.”
“You don’t have any other kids, do you?”
“Are you absolutely sure? After all, you didn’t know about me. You’ve probably had affairs. Maybe there are some other little bastards out there.”
“No, Flora. I swear to it. You’re the only one.”
“The only little . . .”
“Don’t joke about it.”
“Can you play the guitar?”
“Rhythm backup.”
“Do you have any special talents that I might inherit?”
She huffed. “That’s all?”
“I’m kind to animals.”
“There must be more than that.”
“Not for me to say.”
“What should I call you?”
“That’s a difficult one.”
“What do you call your father?”
“Jack, pops, old man, and several other things. Some are inappropriate for you.”
“That’s fine.”
“You know, I had suspicions about you and Donna, the way you looked at each other. It was so obvious. Do you know how obvious it was?”
“Apparently not.”
“You’re a sad case. Me, too. We’ll get along real well.”
She jumped out of her chair and donned her backpack. I walked her out to the balcony. We embraced and I kissed the back of the neck. She exuded an aroma of schoolgirl sweat, more spice than eau de cologne, completely genuine.
Back in the office, I called Donna. She answered with a brief, authoritative “What!”
“It’s done,” I said.
I heard her inhale and exhale. “This weekend, Joe, in Oakland. My parents want to meet you. Can you join us?”
“It all depends. Why?”
“Don’t worry. They’ve given up expecting anything as far as my love life is concerned. They won’t prod you, poke you, or ask embarrassing questions. You might even have fun.”
“As long as Flora’s there,” I said.
“I’ll pick you up Saturday morning about eight.”

The story is adapted from material in the author’s novel, Some Kind of Genius (Newgame, © 2013).
Henry Simpson is the author of several novels, two short story collections, many book reviews, and occasional pieces in literary journals. His most recent novel is Golden Girl (Newgame, 2017). Amazon fiction

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