So Much Trouble by Karin Lin-Greenberg
“So Much Trouble,” by Karin Lin-Greenberg, is the winner for Character in the 2018 CRAFT Elements Contest.
Karin Lin-Greenberg’s “So Much Trouble” is a complex and sensitive grief narrative disguised as a simple yet beautiful story, with levels of tension, plenty of humor, and well-drawn, memorable characters. In Katherine, the protagonist, Lin-Greenberg has deployed masterful interiority while exploring a quiet, honest grief. This balanced piece opens strong in scene and voice, then handles time effectively, with seamless transitions in and out of backstory. Setting, dialogue, theme, narrative arc—each of the craft elements we seek when evaluating a story—are used here skillfully, without revealing the writer at work. Katherine’s character development is enhanced by her pitch-perfect interactions with her daughter, Abby, and with a pair of animals.
Lin-Greenberg’s unique supporting characters shine, from the stoic school principal (“Katherine imagined the principal at the dog show with the other trainers, vigorously brushing her dog’s fur before the competition and saying, ‘It’s really not so different, training dogs and training children'”) to acerbic Paige (“holding the back door open while standing on one foot like a flamingo and trying to wipe the mud off her heel”), from mislabeled-Parrothead Louise to Katherine’s nemesis, Gus Gus the squirrel (“a pound of pure evil”).
Both poignant and humorous, “So Much Trouble” explores how and why Katherine hasn’t attended to her grief, or Abby’s grief, as well as she thinks she should. Along the way, Lin-Greenberg gives us a well-executed and earned digression into epistolary form, several strong scenes in which four or more characters contend with each other, and more. This is an imaginative, sad, and funny story that feels real, like we all know Katherine, like we could be Katherine. Please enjoy this fine piece, then treat yourself to the Author’s Note. —CRAFT
Katherine had only intended to spend a few minutes outdoors wiping the birdhouse with vegetable oil, but now, over an hour after she’d started, she stood in the front yard, an oil-drenched wad of paper towels in one hand, the slick plastic bottle of oil in the other. Now the lamp pole had been oiled, the drainpipes had been oiled, all the siding she could reach on the front of the house and garage had been oiled, and even the shutters had been oiled. For good measure, she’d also oiled the bark on the tree from which the birdhouse hung, although it was clear that oiling a tree would not make it too slick for a squirrel to climb. But this did not stop Katherine from imagining squirrels sliding down all these surfaces, slipping dramatically, and plunging to the grass. She pictured the squirrels rubbing their sore rears and telling themselves to stay away from Katherine’s property. She imagined them telling their squirrel friends, “It’s dangerous there!” and scampering off to other houses in the neighborhood.
All this oiling was aimed at keeping one particular squirrel away from her property, especially from the birdhouse she filled daily. This squirrel was plump with crooked whiskers, and was unafraid of her, and no matter how many times she opened the living room window and screamed at him, he returned to gorge himself on food she’d left for the birds. When she screamed, he’d look at her, head tilted, and blink slowly, as if she were the one who was committing the uncouth criminal act. She’d even taken to opening the window and screen and sticking a broom out, batting at the squirrel with the head of the broom, and he’d retreat for a few moments and then return as soon as she withdrew the broom. She’d named her squirrel enemy Gus Gus, after the fat cartoon mouse in Disney’s Cinderella. But the original Gus Gus was a goofy cheese thief who allowed Cinderella to dress him in a too-tight yellow shirt and pointy green hat, and her Gus Gus was a pound of pure evil that stole from her and from the birds.
Katherine walked to the front door, placed the bottle of oil and paper towels on the doormat, and turned the doorknob. But her hands were too slick, and she twisted and twisted, and her hand slid, and the door wouldn’t open. She wiped her right hand on her jeans, leaving a dark grease mark. Then she grabbed the doorknob with a corner of her T-shirt, and that, too, became stained with oil. “This is all your fault, Gus Gus!” she yelled, although he seemed to be nowhere near.
Inside, she saw the blinking green light on her cell phone, which she’d left on the arm of the couch, and the blinking red light on her home answering machine. She picked up her phone and saw that it was 5:30. She dialed voicemail with a greasy finger, and listened to a message from her daughter, Abby.
“Mom? Are you there? I’m calling you from the front office at school. Chess Club ended at 4:00. Are you coming to get me?” This kept happening—Katherine kept getting distracted and forgetting ordinary things, losing track of where she should be and what she should be doing.
There was another message from Abby fifteen minutes later telling her the front office staff was about to go home, and they were going to move her to the principal’s office. And then there were three messages on the answering machine, two from one of the administrators and one from the principal at 5:15. The principal said, “I looked through Abby’s file to see if you had provided an emergency contact, but you left the spot blank. I plan to stay until 6:00, so I’ll just keep Abby in my office with me until then. Abby has assured me you’ve been prone to distraction lately, and I should not worry yet. I trust you’ll call as soon as you get this message.”
Katherine didn’t like the principal’s imperious tone, as if she were talking to a delinquent student who’d just pelted a teacher with a water balloon. And of course there was no emergency contact. Her husband, Stuart, had died a year ago, and Katherine had moved upstate eight months ago, and she had no friends upstate, no one who could pick up her daughter in case of emergency.
Katherine ran up the stairs to grab her purse and keys, and as she ran back down the stairs she smoothed her hair with her hands, but then realized she was rubbing oil through her hair. There was no time to shower or change. She called the principal, apologized profusely, said she’d been held up at work, stuck in a meeting she couldn’t leave. She said she’d be at the school in fifteen minutes. She drove twenty miles over the speed limit all the way to Abby’s school, the oil on her hands greasing the steering wheel.
After Katherine pushed through the front doors of the elementary school, she slowed to a walk, remembering the long-ago rule about not running in the hallways. But it was silly for her to walk so slowly; she was an adult and could move at whatever pace she wished. It wasn’t as if she would now get detention. She jogged toward the principal’s office and knocked. No one answered, so she opened the door to find the administrative coordinator’s empty desk in the waiting area. “Hello?” she called out.
“In here,” said a voice from inside a room through another door.
Katherine stepped through the second doorway and saw Abby swinging her legs in a leather chair near the principal’s desk. She looked unscathed by Katherine’s abandonment. In fact, she looked better than unscathed—she looked happy. Katherine wasn’t sure what was making Abby happy, but she’d take it.
The principal, a woman with a pinched face, silver bob, and bifocals, had unfolded a large map of New York State on her desk and was pointing at something on the map. Abby’s teacher, Ms. Sprout, whom Katherine had met on back to school night, hunched over the desk to look at the map. She wore a pink backpack and looked like a student herself.
“I’m so sorry,” Katherine said.
The principal, Ms. Sprout, and Abby all looked up and stared at Katherine.
“What happened to you?” said Abby.
“I thought you were in a meeting,” the principal said.
“What kind of work do you do?” said Ms. Sprout.
Katherine worked as a grant writer in the development office of Albany Med, but she briefly contemplated saying she was a baker, and something had gone awry at the bakery and that was why she was covered in oil. Instead, she said, “I’m so sorry I’m so late. It won’t happen again.”
After staring at Katherine for a few more seconds, the principal said, “Would you be willing to chaperone a field trip for Abby’s class?”
Katherine knew she was in no position to say no. “Of course,” she said. “I’d love to.”
The principal nodded but continued to stare at Katherine, as if Katherine’s response had not been the correct one. Katherine tried to hold eye contact, but she could not, and her eyes landed on a small tuft of white fur that clung to the sleeve of the principal’s blazer. Katherine imagined this woman training dogs with the same stern look she was giving Katherine, withholding treats from them unless they behaved impeccably. She could picture the principal, wearing the dark blue suit she was currently wearing, at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, walking an absurd dog—one with fur that covered its eyes and a bow in the middle of its head—with quick, springy steps. Katherine imagined the principal at the dog show with the other trainers, vigorously brushing her dog’s fur before the competition and saying, “It’s really not so different, training dogs and training children.”
“Abby has made a miracle happen,” said Ms. Sprout. “The class is going to be able to take a field trip to visit Fiona Fluffernut!”
“Fiona Fluffernut?” Katherine said.
“The most famous squirrel in the world?” said Ms. Sprout. “You know?”
Katherine had no idea what Ms. Sprout was talking about, and the last thing she needed was a field trip to see a squirrel.
“Normally, I wouldn’t approve of a field trip to someone’s house, but Abby was in communication with Louise Warner, and Louise agreed that since it’s Women’s History Month, Fiona could be dressed as important women in history,” said the principal.
“Who’s Louise?” said Katherine.
Ms. Sprout sighed. “Fiona’s mother.”
“Is Louise a squirrel as well?” said Katherine.
“Mom,” Abby said, “Louise is a lady. Fiona is a squirrel. Louise dresses her up in different costumes every week and there’s a website where Louise posts pictures. I’ve told you about Fiona before.”
“Right,” said Katherine. “Of course.” Maybe Abby had told her about this squirrel—the name sounded vaguely familiar—but she had a hard time paying attention nowadays. She knew there were plenty of things Abby told her that had slipped right out of her mind.
“Do you want to tell your mom about your email?” said Ms. Sprout.
Abby shook her head and looked down into her lap.
“But it was your email that made Louise agree to let the class go see Fiona! She’s never had a class visit before.”
Abby shook her head again. Her legs had stopped swinging, and she sunk into the chair.
Ms. Sprout seemed completely oblivious to Abby’s discomfort and forged forward. “I asked all the students in my class to write an essay about something that made them happy. And Abby wrote about Fiona Fluffernut and how much she loved looking at the website and seeing all of Fiona’s costumes. I shouldn’t say this, but it was the best essay in the class.”
The principal coughed—clearly a fake cough meant to alert Ms. Sprout to her misstep. The principal’s glare was now turned toward the teacher, and Katherine felt grateful that Ms. Sprout had committed the latest faux pas.
“And so I encouraged Abby to write an email to Louise telling her how much she enjoyed Fiona,” said Ms. Sprout.
Katherine could see what was happening: in trying to impress the principal, Ms. Sprout was too oblivious to see how much all this praise embarrassed Abby. It made Katherine proud to learn of Abby’s good work, even if Abby was so modest that hearing what a great writer she was embarrassed her.
“Let’s show your mom the email,” Ms. Sprout said, pulling an iPad out of her backpack.
“No,” said Abby, “we don’t need to.”
“We should all get going, shouldn’t we? It’s nearly six,” said the principal, but Ms. Sprout put the iPad in Katherine’s hands.
“I supervised her email writing and made sure I was included on all the communications in case anything sketchy happened,” said Ms. Sprout. “I don’t normally encourage students to email adults, but this seemed productive.”
“You don’t have to read it, Mom,” Abby said. Her voice sounded small.
“That’s okay,” said Ms. Sprout. “You should be proud of what a wonderful and convincing email you wrote. Not many seven-year-olds can write as well as you do!”
Katherine held the iPad and read the screen:
Dear Mrs. Warner,
My name is Abigail and I’m in second grade at Stonehill Elementary School and am in Ms. Sprout’s class. I love Fiona Fluffernut. I look at FionaFluffernut.com every day to see Fiona’s costumes. My favorite costume was when Fiona was dressed as the Statue of Liberty. Fiona makes me happy. I am sad a lot because my dad died last year. My mom is sad a lot too and she dislikes squirrels, but I think she would like Fiona if she met her. Thank you for taking pictures of Fiona. I love them.
Katherine swallowed hard. Why had Abby written about Katherine’s sadness? She felt betrayed that Ms. Sprout and the principal—and this Louise Warner—had been let into this part of her and her daughter’s life, which she tried to keep secreted away.
“She wrote it all by herself,” said Ms. Sprout. “The only thing I helped her with was the word ‘dislike’ because she’d initially written ‘hate,’ and we don’t use that word in our classroom. Look, Louise wrote back to Abby.”
Katherine scrolled down and saw the reply:
Thank you for writing! I love hearing from Fans of Fiona (FOF)! If you email me your mailing address and shirt size, I’ll send you a FOF T-shirt featuring Fiona dressed as Betsy Ross! (Do you know who Betsy Ross is? If not, look her up, and then think about her every time you see an American flag!) I’m so sorry to hear about your father. I know how hard it can be to lose someone. I know it’s a tough time now, but things will get better. Would you and the rest of Ms. Sprout’s class like to visit Fiona? Maybe you can bring your mom too. Once she meets Fiona, she’ll know how much love squirrels have to give. Thank you for writing!
All my best,
Why hadn’t Abby told her anything about these emails? Katherine handed the iPad back to Ms. Sprout; she’d left greasy fingerprints all over the screen.
“I’m actually glad to have run into you here because I wanted to check with you before giving Louise your home address so she can send the T-shirt. And, look, Louise lives only forty-five minutes from here, so we can totally fit a field trip into the school day.” Ms. Sprout plunked her pointer finger down on the map on the principal’s desk.
“We’ll be in touch with details about chaperoning the field trip,” said the principal.
“Isn’t this all super exciting?” Ms. Sprout said, slipping the greasy iPad into her backpack.
“Super exciting,” echoed Katherine, although nothing at all about any of it was super or exciting.
“Are you mad?” Abby said when they were in the car heading home.
“I’m not mad.”
“Your eyebrows look mad.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t go around telling people I’m sad.”
“But you look sad all the time,” said Abby. “It’s not a secret.”
Katherine had thought she’d done a good job—at least in front of Abby—of not showing how devastated she’d been by Stuart’s death, of continuing to move forward, of pretending that things were just fine.
“Should I dress up when we go to Mrs. Warner’s house to see Fiona?”
Katherine refrained from saying, We’re just going to see a squirrel. You can probably wear a garbage bag. Instead, she said, “Would you like to dress up?”
“Can I wear the dress I wore to Dad’s birthday party last year?”
Katherine and Abby had shopped together for the dress for Stuart’s surprise forty-fifth birthday party. The dress was blue with yellow flowers. There were a dozen pictures on Katherine’s phone of Stuart and Abby dancing at the party, Stuart in a navy suit with a yellow pocket square, Abby in the dress that matched his suit perfectly. Sometimes, late at night, after Abby was asleep, Katherine allowed herself to scroll through those pictures, to remember how happy they’d all been that day. Stuart had died a week after the party, collapsing suddenly while playing basketball with partners from his law firm. Katherine never wanted to see that dress again, the flowers on it garishly celebratory. Why hadn’t she given it away when she’d packed Abby’s clothes for the move?
“Of course you can wear it,” Katherine said, trying to make her voice sound steady and neither angry nor sad. She drove home with her eyes focused closely on the road, her hands sliding around the steering wheel, slick and slippery with oil.
Two weeks later, twenty-five second graders gathered in Louise Warner’s home to watch a squirrel photo shoot. Fiona Fluffernut was dressed as Joan of Arc in a suit of armor. She rode sidesaddle on a small white stuffed horse, and Louise attempted to get Fiona to hold a sword the size of a toothpick. Katherine looked at Abby, who seemed absolutely entranced by Louise and the squirrel, and felt a surge of irritation. Why did her daughter love squirrels so much?
Louise wore faded jeans and an oversized Hawaiian shirt. Her white hair was held back by a plastic headband, which reminded Katherine of the headbands she and her classmates had worn in elementary school. As Louise curled Fiona’s small paw around the sword, she told the class about Joan of Arc’s bravery in leading the French Army to victory over the English. She talked about Joan of Arc’s mystical visions and how she cut her long hair off and dressed as a boy.
“I can’t with this,” whispered Paige Simmons, the other parent chaperone on the trip. Her whisper was loud enough for Louise to hear and look up. Ms. Sprout also glanced over at Paige. Katherine had met Paige at the first and only PTA meeting she’d attended in September at Abby’s new school. They’d only spoken for a few minutes before Katherine was certain they had nothing in common and would never be friends. Paige was one of the mothers who seemed to know everything about the school and was friends with all the other parents who drove expensive new cars and lived in mansions. Paige’s husband worked in finance and spent each week in Manhattan, only coming upstate for the weekends. Paige did not work. Today, she wore an excessive amount of brightly colored jewelry and high heels, as if she were attending a dressy dinner party.
“This is so stupid,” said Paige.
“Joan of Arc is an interesting choice,” Katherine said.
Paige looked at Katherine with a blank expression.
“Because she was burned at the stake,” Katherine said. “Do you think she’ll tell that part of the story to the kids? If so, I’ll be doing a lot of explaining over dinner.”
“I was just talking about the effort to get out here, and for what? A squirrel? Emily looks bored,” Paige said, gesturing to her own daughter, who was picking glittery purple polish off her fingernails.
Now Louise coaxed Fiona to hold the sword over her head. Katherine stared at Fiona’s beady eyes. The squirrel stared back at Katherine with a smug look. Katherine imagined striding up to Fiona, extending her pointer finger, and toppling her off the horse. She imagined the children aghast, but Paige cheering loudly from the back of the room. “Kids,” Katherine would say, “she’s wearing armor. She’ll be fine!”
Behind Fiona, there was a large photo featuring hundreds of male soldiers on horses. There were also a few plastic horses of varying sizes in front of the background photo. “Stay,” Louise urged. “Be a good girl, Fiona!” Louise scuttled behind a camera that had been set up on a tripod near her Joan of Arc tableau, and she took a quick succession of photos. Several boys in the class cheered for Fiona, who got startled and dropped the sword. It rolled to the floor. Katherine was pleased to see that it was Abby who picked up the sword, which she returned to Louise. Louise pulled an unshelled peanut out of her pocket and handed it to Fiona, who clutched it to her armored chest and began to work on breaking through the shell with her front teeth.
“I can look out my living room window pretty much any damn day and see a squirrel,” said Paige. “And look at Louise. Does she know she’s in the middle of nowhere, New York, not at a Jimmy Buffet concert? What is up with that shirt?”
Maybe Louise was making a fashion statement. Or maybe she was just ahead of the curve, and by the next spring Paige and others who considered themselves on top of the latest fashion trends would all be wearing oversized Hawaiian shirts that they’d paid hundreds of dollars for. Louise reminded Katherine of the students she used to pass outside of FIT on her way to her job at St. Vincent’s. These students wanted to be fashion designers, and they used their own bodies as canvasses, dressing in clothing that seemed more artwork than practical outerwear. Maybe long ago Louise had wanted to be a fashion designer, but she’d never succeeded. Maybe she’d realized if she couldn’t make it in the competitive world of haute couture, she could be the top designer in the world for squirrels.
“I like her shirt,” Katherine said.
Paige scrunched her face.
Louise was still talking about Joan of Arc, but the students seemed more interested in Fiona’s shredding of the peanut shell. Shards of shell rained down by the stuffed horse’s feet.
“Do you think the squirrel has rabies?” Paige said.
“We’d be able to see symptoms of rabies,” said Katherine. “Fiona is clearly non-rabid.” She paused a moment and said, “And quite smart,” because she thought it might irk Paige to hear this. And then she added, “I’ve heard squirrels have the IQ of an intelligent seven-year-old human child,” but this was something she’d just made up.
“I can’t believe you’re defending that squirrel,” Paige said. “It’s a stupid rodent who literally works for peanuts.”
Katherine couldn’t believe she was defending a squirrel either, in light of her altercations with Gus Gus. Squirrels were pests, and it was hard to believe someone would keep one as a pet. There were far better options for pets, although Katherine didn’t want a pet of any kind, whether it was a squirrel or something properly domesticated. After they’d moved into the house upstate, Abby had begged for a pet. “We have more room now,” she’d said. “I’ll take good care of it. A dog or a cat. You can choose.”
For years, Katherine and Stuart had told Abby they couldn’t get a pet because of how small the apartment in the city was. But now the issue was that Katherine didn’t know if she had the energy to take care of an animal. It seemed enough to take care of herself and Abby, to wake up every morning and get dressed and send Abby off to school and go to work at a new hospital where everything felt unfamiliar. But one day, when she was in Lowe’s looking for ant traps, she’d seen a bird feeder and had put the feeder and a large sack of birdseed in a shopping cart. On the way home, Katherine stopped at the bookstore and bought a book about identifying birds and a notebook with cartoon swans on the cover that Abby could use to log the birds she saw. Katherine was pleased with her plan; it would bring animals into Abby’s life, and it would not involve Katherine rushing home from work to walk a dog that had been desperate to pee for hours.
That day, when she’d returned home, Katherine had said, “I have a surprise for you in the car.” Abby’s eyes grew wide. When Katherine unloaded the bird feeder from the trunk, Abby said, “Oh, thank you,” but she sounded sad, and Katherine realized her mistake. Abby thought Katherine had hidden a puppy or kitten in the trunk, and the bird feeder was all wrong, a terrible disappointment. But maybe, once the birds arrived, Abby would like it.
The feeder was less popular with birds than Katherine had hoped, and one night when Katherine opened the swan notebook, she saw Abby’s tiny, precise print listing the dates and times of each sighting, and the names of the birds: sparrow, sparrow, sparrow, sparrow, sparrow, blue jay, sparrow, sparrow, sparrow. And so she decided she would lure the most beautiful birds to the feeder—enough with the boring sparrows—and she spent hours on the weekends reading about how to best attract birds to feeders and mixing up recipes involving peanut butter and millet and safflower seeds and sunflower seeds.
While Katherine researched bird feeders on the computer in the home office, Abby would stand by Katherine’s chair and say, “Can we just go to the park and feed the ducks?” But Katherine would shake her head, eyes focused on the screen, and say, “We’re getting birds to come to us.”
And then her bird feeder became a hot spot, but it wasn’t birds who frequented it, it was squirrels that tormented her with their acrobatic feats, skittering across the thinnest tree branches, hanging upside-down and still managing to ingest large fistfuls of her peanut butter concoction. She loathed Gus Gus, spent hours at her desk at work thinking about the squirrel, hating it, wanting to destroy it, researching squirrel traps online. She spent nights looking up ways to prevent squirrels from treating bird feeders as their personal all-you-can-eat buffets, and she made many trips to Lowe’s to purchase squirrel thwarting supplies that always proved to be ineffective.
Now, there was a commotion as Ms. Sprout gathered the class to stand in front of Fiona’s Joan of Arc scene, a great deal of shuffling and figuring out who should stand in the front row and who should stand in the back. The class posed with Fiona and Louise while Ms. Sprout snapped at least a dozen photos.
“She’s totally going to post all those pictures to Facebook,” said Paige. “It’s so annoying how obsessed she is with Fiona. She reposts pretty much everything that gets posted on Fiona’s page.”
“You’re friends with her on Facebook?”
“I’m Facebook friends with every teacher Emily has ever had. You have to like all their posts and tell them what a great job they’re doing. But I’m not sure I’m going to be able to force myself to like these pictures. It would just encourage the squirrel fetish.”
Katherine had deactivated her Facebook account after Stuart’s death. She didn’t know how to handle being a grieving widow in such a public forum, and it seemed best to not make the space of her personal Facebook page available for other people’s comments. It was easiest to simply deactivate her account, to disappear from social media.
“Does anyone have any questions for me about Fiona?” Louise asked, after Ms. Sprout had finished taking pictures of the class with Fiona.
A boy wearing a blue and white checked shirt and thick glasses raised his hand. “Where did you get her?” he asked.
“Well,” said Louise, “she came into my life unexpectedly, but at just the right time.” She explained that after a huge storm, a tree in her backyard needed to be cut down, and the men cutting the tree had found Fiona in it and brought her to Louise, asking her what they should do. Fiona was small and sick. “You want us to destroy it?” the men had asked, and Louise said no, found an empty shoebox and put Fiona inside of it on top of a folded kitchen towel. She was so little that she didn’t even have fur, and at first Louise was uncertain what kind of animal Fiona was. She brought her to the vet, who said the animal was a squirrel, and showed Louise how to feed Fiona with an eyedropper. And since she’d raised her, Fiona had imprinted on her, and Louise couldn’t just set her out in the wild. Louise found Fiona a few weeks after her husband died, and it was nice, Louise said, having Fiona to keep her company and keep her busy. Louise had always liked to take pictures and could sew, and before she retired she’d taught ninth and tenth grade history, so she started dressing Fiona up as historical figures and posting pictures to the Internet.
Katherine looked at Louise’s skinny arms waving around as she told the story; the short sleeves of the too-big Hawaiian shirt hung loosely to her elbows. Katherine was certain now the shirt had belonged to Louise’s husband, that it was one of those things one hangs on to, even though its original owner is gone. Katherine had plenty of objects that once belonged to Stuart. She’d packed them in cardboard boxes and brought them to a new home, and she couldn’t bear to part with any of it, even though these things no longer had any practical use in her life.
A few more children asked about what Fiona ate (nuts, beans, seeds, fruits, and vegetables) and where she slept (in a doll’s bed inside a shoebox in the living room) and how old she was (four). When there were no more questions, Louise said, “Why don’t you all go outside for a few minutes and take a snack break, and when you come back, Fiona will transform into another important woman in history.” She began to take the armor off Fiona.
Ms. Sprout and Paige and Katherine ushered the kids outside. Paige’s heels sank into the soil in Louise’s backyard, and she loudly declared that she wasn’t moving, that she was standing just where she was, and that no one better try to run out of the yard because she wasn’t chasing after anyone. So Katherine walked through the backyard, went around the side of the house then across the front yard, climbed into the bus, and hauled out a cooler filled with water bottles and cheese and crackers, and distributed them to the children. As she worked, she looked at Paige, who was now typing furiously on her phone, and at Ms. Sprout, who was taking pictures of the kids on her phone. No one offered to help Katherine.
She handed Abby a Ziploc bag filled with cheese and crackers. Abby stood alone, looking up at the leaves on a tree. She wore the dress she’d worn at Stuart’s birthday party. Seeing Abby standing there alone in such a celebratory outfit made Katherine unbearably sad. Katherine wanted to tell Abby to go talk to the other kids, to boast about how she was the one who had inspired this field trip. She wanted everyone to see that Abby was smart and kind and empathetic and resilient. She wanted, desperately, for Abby to be happy.
Katherine had thought moving away from the city would make things better, would offer her and Abby a fresh start, but she’d moved them away from friends and community, had pulled Abby away from her school and her friends, taken her away from the playgrounds she’d gone to her entire life and the bodega where Stuart bought Abby an egg and cheese on a roll every Saturday morning while allowing Katherine to sleep in. She’d taken Abby away from the public library down the street from their apartment where the librarian always set aside books about castles for Abby because she knew Stuart had promised Abby that one day they’d go to Europe and see as many castles as they could. Every day Katherine wondered whether moving upstate—to a place where she had no emergency contact—had been a mistake.
“Look how much smaller that squirrel is than Gus Gus,” Abby said, pointing to a squirrel that scampered across a branch above their heads.
“Most squirrels are smaller than Gus Gus,” said Katherine. “He’s practically the size of a raccoon.”
Abby giggled. “He’s not that big.”
“She’s ready for round two,” Paige said, waving the kids back into the house. Paige held the back door open while standing on one foot like a flamingo and trying to wipe the mud off her heel.
Katherine unfurled a large garbage bag and collected empty water bottles and plastic bags and napkins and then, once all the kids had returned to Louise’s studio, she cinched the bag and tied a tight knot at the top. She would not allow any of the squirrels marauding around the backyard to dip into the bag for an easy snack of uneaten crackers and cheese.
Inside, a new background had been swapped out for the scenery that had accompanied the Joan of Arc photo shoot. This time there was a red velvet curtain pulled back to reveal the cutout photographs of four robed Supreme Court justices sitting and four more standing up. A dark wooden chair sat on the right, empty. Katherine surveyed the justices. She realized which important woman in history Fiona Fluffernut would next be appearing as: Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
“This background is much less interesting than the last one,” said Paige. “It’s just people hanging around.” She folded her arms across her chest and leaned against a wall.
Louise held up an undressed Fiona in her open palm. She’s nude, thought Katherine, she’s nude in front of the children, and then she shook her head. Nude was the appropriate state of being for a squirrel. Why, after half an hour of seeing a squirrel in a suit of armor, would she think squirrels needed to be fully dressed?
“I’ve heard there’s someone here who doesn’t like squirrels very much,” Louise said. “And Fiona and I would like to help change this person’s mind.”
The children looked around at each other, and Katherine looked at the children, still thinking about Fiona’s nudity.
“Mom,” Abby whispered. “Mom, it’s you.”
“Me?” said Katherine.
“Would you please assist me with the robing of our esteemed Supreme Court Justice?” Louise said to Katherine.
“You’re going to get rabies,” whispered Paige.
Katherine ignored Paige and made her way to the front of the room. Louise deposited Fiona in her hands. The squirrel was lighter than she’d expected.
Louise held up a tiny black robe with a white ruffled collar. “I used an old doily to make the collar,” she said.
Katherine stared at the minuscule robe, and she wondered how Louise was able to sew something so small with such accurate details. Did she use a sewing machine? Did she sew each stitch by hand? Did Louise have to measure Fiona’s body with a miniature measuring tape to ensure the clothes she made fit perfectly?
Katherine imagined a case heard before the Supreme Court, Katherine v. Gus Gus. “Gus Gus is just trying to survive, Katherine,” she imagined tiny Ruth Bader Ginsburg Fluffernut, dressed in her robe, saying to her. “Surely, Katherine, you can understand what it’s like to try to carry on in adverse times.”
And Katherine would respond, “Of course you would side with the squirrel since you, yourself, are a squirrel, Your Honor.”
“Mom,” Abby said. “The robe?”
Katherine realized everyone was waiting silently for her to dress Fiona.
“Please, Mom, pay attention.” Abby’s ears and neck had grown pink, a sign of both frustration and embarrassment.
“Can I have an assistant?” Katherine asked.
“If you can assure me that the assistant is responsible and gentle,” said Louise.
Ms. Sprout was still snapping pictures. Paige stared at Katherine, phone held up, ready to document the moment Katherine acquired rabies. All the children flung their hands up, pleading “Me, me, me!” Katherine pointed at Abby, who made her way to where Katherine stood, and there were cries of “No fair!” and “She’s her mom!” Katherine lifted a finger to stroke Fiona’s fur. It was soft and smooth. She wondered whether Louise bathed Fiona, whether she used conditioner on her fur. She wondered if Gus Gus felt this soft.
Katherine lowered Fiona into Abby’s open palms. Louise handed the robe to Katherine. Katherine reached for Fiona and tried to push both paws in the sleeves at the same time, but Fiona squirmed. Katherine was afraid of hurting Fiona if she grabbed her too hard, if she twisted her limbs so she could pull the sleeves on. She looked at her daughter’s hands cupping Fiona, thought of Gus Gus ransacking the birdhouse, and wondered how an animal this small, this soft, with such tiny paws could cause so much trouble.
“Stay still, Fiona,” Abby said. She stroked Fiona’s side with her thumb, and this seemed to calm the squirrel.
“Here,” said Louise, “let me show you.” She took Katherine’s hands in hers, then helped Katherine slip the tiny robe on Fiona, one paw at a time.
“Let’s settle her in the chair,” said Louise, and Abby reached up and placed Fiona on the empty wooden chair. Louise handed a tiny gavel to Abby, who put it in Fiona’s paw.
Fiona adjusted herself on the seat, as if to sit up straighter and in a more dignified fashion, and then she wobbled, and Katherine, who was watching closely, caught Fiona before she could fall.
KARIN LIN-GREENBERG’s story collection, Faulty Predictions, won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Recently, her stories have been published in Boulevard, Colorado Review, Memorious, New Ohio Review, Shenandoah, and the Chicago Tribune, where she was a finalist for the Nelson Algren Award. She lives and teaches creative writing in upstate New York. Learn more at karinlingreenberg.com