Gender in America

Fiction (Short Stories, Anthology)

  1. Toys
  2. Lady Hoare
  3. Boy Scouts
  4. Girl Scouts
  5. The Belle
  6. The New School
  7. Handball
  8. Kirk and Isla
  9. My Father’s Place
  10. Service
  11. The Late Mister Crimpton
  12. The Women’s Club

Gender in America is a collection of twelve fictitious short stories, in which individual Americans around the country defy the West’s new rules about gender, two decades into the twenty-first century. Some of the individuals succeed. Some don’t. Some learn to defy those rules.

A Lahaska, Pennsylvania toyshop refuses to comply with a woman’s demand it remove a painting portraying boys and girls playing with different toys. Accepting an offer from one out-of-town performer to read books to children divides the administrators of a Mystic, Connecticut library. A Langley, Washington scout leader is thinking of the scouts when he rejects an unmarried middle-aged man without any interest in being a father from being a scoutmaster. A West Virginian girl scout doesn’t accede to being told that girls must pursue careers. When a doting father in Garyville, Louisiana plans to hold a debutante ball for his daughter, he learns who and what he must accommodate.

A newly arrived family in Rhode Island struggles to adapt to being told that people can change their gender. A young female coach in Charlottesville, Virginia contends with the new member of a girls’ handball team. A young man in Annapolis, Maryland discovers something unpalatable about his girlfriend.

A tavern manageress in Sea Bright, New Jersey, interviews a job applicant with more demands about gender than a willingness to work. Not employing her leads, a fortnight later, to activists targeting her tavern.

Confronting a trauma from her childhood leads to a new direction in her relationships for a woman in Long Beach, California. A women’s club at George Washington University only excludes white men from its events, convinced that other men are no less the victims of a white male patriarchy than women are, until the evening they walk together to Georgetown.

Trigger Warning: These stories include characters who some readers might find offensive. They describe events and explore ideas that some readers might find offensive.

1 Toys

Old America was a time of comfortable communities and fond families, when adults and children never shied away from the differences between men and women, boys and girls. They played together and apart, more so together at some stages of life and more so apart at others.

            Two decades into twenty-first century America, communities and families, in any meaningful sense, had become rare. Those that remained had become small, much smaller than they had been. They offered little to Americans looking to feel parts of something bigger than their individual selves.

            To older people who remembered America’s past and to anyone else who knew of it, the dwindling reflections of old America became treasured. Those reflections were never more enchanting than in the towns of rural Pennsylvania. With pale brown and orange leaves shining through the dampening air, there was no better time to be in Lahaska, Bucks County than the fall.

            At Peddler’s Village, windowed dormers protruded from the rooves of buildings, all of them shorter than the trees. It was easy to imagine ghosts quietly looking out, but the clay brick, timber, and stone buildings weren’t as old as they appeared to be. That made them better. The charm of life from centuries past wasn’t lost for modern amenities, or for being a commercial enterprise.

            Wooden boards marked the shops and eating places. Some boards hung ready for the wind, to sway them a little back and forth.

            Denzel Derby’s store wasn’t the only toy store at Peddler’s Village, but it may well have been the oldest. Whether it was the best or not wasn’t for him to judge, but his wife Florence always thought it was, since before she’d become his wife. It had been his father’s store and the only place that Denzel ever worked, but his and Florence’s sons and daughters hadn’t proceeded into the store as he had done. They had worked there some short times growing up, but they’d all grown older and moved away.

            Still, the store remained, Denzel’s grandchildren often said, their favorite place to visit and, of course, their favorite toy store. (They had inspected every toy store in Lahaska and in their hometowns, after all, and so they spoke with some authority.) Grandchildren could not visit often enough for doting grandparents like Denzel and Florence.

            With their slightly pot bellies, whitening hair, and Denzel with his curly moustache, he and Florence had become much like Denzel’s parents had become, decades earlier, before bequeathing the store to them. Far from troubling Denzel, to have become like his father comforted him. Becoming like their parents as they aged once comforted most Americans, but it rarely still did.

            Florence always relegated her time in the store to when her motherly and grandmotherly opportunities weren’t enticing her elsewhere; she never felt essential to the store as much as she felt essential to her family. Her time at work was fun, to be sure, but fun was never as important to Florence as it was to Denzel. Besides, the store was never so busy as to keep Denzel and Florence from hot chocolate, drunk from the souvenir mugs they’d collected from vacations all around America; they’d never felt a reason to visit other countries.

            Back home in the store, a little stress could make Denzel add an extra spoonful of chocolate powder to his mug, or even drink more mugs of hot chocolate than he normally did. Not that the store was every really stressful, but it was his good excuse to take that extra spoonful or fill his mug again.

            When their grandchildren visited, Florence dropped a powdery marshmallow or two in their mugs of hot chocolate, while their adult children were known to take marshmallows for their mugs. Between hot chocolates, they, as much as their children, picked away at more marshmallows, popping them surreptitiously in their mouths.

            The girls all preferred pink marshmallows. The boys all preferred white ones. Even as adults, the women leant towards the pink and the men away from them, although they were all less demanding if their first choice was inconvenient. No marshmallows remained when they left.

            The store was a family business in spirit, if not in legal form, where Denzel and Florence’s grandchildren played as if it were their giant nursery. (It essentially was a nursery, as much for adults as for children.) Their sons and daughters, and even their sons- and daughters-in-law, visiting the store, participated. Denzel and his sons and sons-in-law, especially his sons, carried the heavier boxes and items around the store. Florence and her daughters, daughters-in-law, and granddaughters sorted them. With Denzel and Florence otherwise engaged with their grandchildren, any one of them might serve customers.

            Never was that spirit more on show than when Denzel and Florence’s middle daughter, who’d become quite the artist while tending to her four small children at home in Indiana, painted a picture of her children playing with toys in her parents’ Lahaska store. In her painting, as in reality, her two small sons played with Tonka trucks and racing cars. Her two small daughters nursed dolls, brushing their hair.

            First seeing the painting unveiled in their home, what had been their children’s childhood home, at a special family gathering for Denzel and Florence’s fortieth wedding anniversary, they both stood uncharacteristically still. A rare tear fell from Denzel’s right eye, as he wrapped his arm around his wife. His artist daughter stepped up to hug both of them. It was a lucky man whose work and family lives had melded as seamlessly as Denzel’s had done. That painting of four of his grandchildren, painted by one of his children, assured him that he’d achieved as much success on earth as any man could.

            For a long time, the painting remained in Denzel and Florence’s home, proudly shown to every visitor. Eventually, when all those visitors had seen it, Denzel realized there was a better place to stand it: a place where dozens, hundreds, and even thousands of people would see it, a place more natural to treasure it even than their home. Thus, late in September, Denzel stood the painting on an easel in the window to his store, facing passers-by browsing from outside. Trucks, dolls, and other toys like those in the picture lay on the shelf and floor below it.

            The painting must have stood there for more than a month, attracting only compliments from parents and children seeing it, to the extent any of them remarked upon it, before one little girl, no more than five years of age, stood before Denzel in his store. She was dressed in a dark blue jumper and black slacks. Her dark brown hair might have been short for a girl, but was way too long for a boy. “I think your painting in the window is very mean,” she told Denzel, looking up from her low place towards him.

            Beside her stood a woman, presumably her mother, looking down at her from above. The woman’s face was firm and taut, without even the hint of happiness other adults found inside the store, in the company of their children. Her blue jumper was a slightly paler shade of blue than was her daughter’s jumper, but they were pretty much the same. Her black slacks could have been cut from the same cloth as her daughter’s had been, in the same style. (Their clothes only made them more alike than they already were.) Her perfectly prepared hair of similar length to her daughter’s hair, relative to the sizes of their heads, shone with a monochrome shine. It was probably dyed.

            Denzel bent towards the little girl, as far as his back and legs allowed him. “Mean?” he asked. “The painting isn’t trying to be mean,” he smiled. “It’s trying to make you happy.”

            “I’m not happy,” she insisted, becoming even more forthright, looking up at Denzel. “I’m miserable, and it’s all because of your painting.”

            “Why, my little dear?” asked Denzel.

            “I don’t play with dolls,” she told him. “I play with trucks.”

            “You can still play with trucks,” Denzel told her. “You can play with whatever toys you want to play with,” he continued, before looking up at her mother still looking down at her, “provided your mother doesn’t mind.”

            The mother turned her eyes to Denzel. “My Madison can play with whatever toys she wants to play with,” she told Denzel, as if to say that he should not forget it.

            “We have many trucks you can play with,” Denzel told Madison, keeping his voice tender as he always did, “yellow ones, red ones, wooden ones, metal ones.”

            Still bent towards the girl, he looked up and around at the shelves and floor space filled with what seemed an endless array of toys. From close to her child’s height, they were even more numerous than they were to adults, standing at adult heights.

            Madison persisted. “Why aren’t the girls in your painting playing with trucks?” she asked.

            Denzel looked back at her. “Those girls are two of my granddaughters,” he explained. “They don’t play with trucks that I’ve seen, or that their mother recalled when she painted their picture, I presume, but that doesn’t keep you from playing with trucks.”

            “You shouldn’t have pictures like that,” Madison told him, never wavering from the conviction in her voice. “You should have boys and girls playing with all the toys.”

            Denzel stood up to face her mother. Before he could speak, her mother did. “I’ve raised my child properly,” the woman told him. “I’ve never see paintings like this in Chicago.”

            “I’ve not been to Chicago for a long time,” said Denzel.

            “I’ve not seen paintings like this anywhere,” she told him, “and I’ve been everywhere.”      

            “My daughter painted this for my wife and me,” Denzel explained. “She gave it to us for our fortieth wedding anniversary.”

            “You should ask her to repaint it,” she told him, “or keep it at your home where sensitive children can’t see it.”

            Denzel opened his hands to her. “It is a painting,” he said to her, “for children.”

            “It can be very traumatic for a sensitive girl to see such a painting,” the woman told him. “You should have thought of that. Your daughter should have thought of that.”

            Denzel shook his head, trying to think of something to say. As if it might inspire him, he turned towards the painting, although he couldn’t see it very well from inside the store.

            “And what about the boys?” the woman asked him. “What are you telling boys who don’t want to play with trucks? What are you telling boys who want to play with dolls?”

            “I’m not telling them anything,” answered Denzel. “It’s a painting.”

            Denzel turned and walked away from them, as he’d never before turned and walked from customers who’d not obviously concluded their conversation with him. There were other customers in the store he could have approached, but the cheerfulness that normally overflowed from him was hard to find. Instead, he stood before the shelves of kits to make balsa wood airplanes, only because nobody else stood near him. On one kit was a picture of a small boy with an airplane he’d supposedly made. Denzel turned the box face down, where nobody saw it.

            Madison’s voice interrupted his seclusion. “I want you to remove the painting,” she told him, looking up from her place standing beside him.

            He turned to face her. “No other person has asked me to remove it,” Denzel answered her.

            “I’m not asking.”

            Denzel looked back at her mother scrutinizing him. He looked back at Madison. “There are many, many things in this world that I don’t like,” he told her, “but I can’t just go up to people and demand they change.”

            “I want you to remove the painting,” the girl said again.

            Denzel walked back towards her mother. Madison walked with him. Before Denzel could say anything, Madison told her mother, in a voice as loud as any in the store, “He won’t remove the painting.”

            The mother looked at Denzel. “Madison wants you to remove the painting,” the mother told Denzel.

            “Please, Mrs. …”

            “Ms.,” she corrected him, “Ketteridge.”

            Denzel looked at her, her rigid face, her punishing eyes amidst black eyeliner. He looked back at Madison, looking back at him with her mother’s eyes. Crouching down, a little closer to her than he normally crouched, he addressed her. “I am sorry, Madison,” he told her. “I am sorry if, for all the things for which I’m sure you’ve asked in your short sensitive life, even demanded, nobody has ever once refused you.”

            The mother answered for Madison. “You are a rude, mean, little man,” she told Denzel.

            Standing up to face her, Denzel kept his gentle voice. “I have never entered a shop and demanded the shopkeeper change anything to accommodate me,” he told her.

            “Don’t you ever think of anyone but yourself?”

            Denzel looked as much at the girl as the mother. “Can I show you some toys?” he asked them both. “I can show you trucks, and cars, and dolls…”

            “Do you listen to anyone but yourself?” Ms. Ketteridge asked Denzel.

            He looked around the store, at other parents and children, grandparents perhaps, quietly examining the toys. If they spoke it was only to each other, politely.

            “If I can get you anything,” Denzel told Ms. Ketteridge and her daughter, “I would be very pleased to do so. If not, then excuse me please. I have other customers.”

            Denzel left them to approach those customers. Talking with another mother and her young daughter, this little girl holding a doll, Madison interrupted them. “Have you seen the painting in the window?” Madison asked the other little girl. “It’s horrible.”

            The girl looked up at her mother. “Mommy?” she asked.

            Madison took the doll from the other girl’s hand. She dragged the doll behind her and dropped it to the floor.

            Madison’s mother was soon there, confronting that girl’s mother. “Do you want stores telling you what toys your children must play with?” Ms. Ketteridge asked the girl’s mother. “Do you want this man telling you what toys you must buy boys and what toys you must buy girls?”

            Denzel answered both mothers, but really the mother whose name he didn’t know. “I’m not telling any child what toys he or she must play with,” he told them.

            The woman looked hurriedly back at Denzel. She looked back at her daughter.

            “I’m not telling any parents what toys they must buy their sons or buy their daughters,” Denzel continued. “It’s just a painting: a nice painting, people say.”

            The second woman took her daughter by the hand. “We should go,” she told her, leading her from the store.

            Denzel watched her leave, before tiredly picking up the doll that Madison had dropped on the floor and returning it to a shelf. Looking back around the store, he saw that Madison and her mother had bailed up a couple with two children, looking at some toys.

            With Denzel approaching them, but not yet reaching them, the two children put down the toys they’d been holding. The parents began walking to the door.

            “May I help you?” asked Denzel.

            They didn’t answer him. They continued walking from the store.

            Denzel turned back to Ms. Ketteridge. “Can’t you let the boys be boys and the girls be girls?” he asked her. “Let them like what they like and not like what they don’t, whatever you or any painting has to say?”

            “You let me raise my child without brainwashing her,” demanded Ms. Ketteridge. “You don’t have to show that revolting painting.”

            “You don’t have to look at it,” said Denzel, constantly finding new expressions he’d never before needed. “You don’t have to be in our store.”

            Through his lifetime in that store, Denzel had never asked anyone to leave. Even when the shop was due to close for the day, he and Florence kept it open until the last customer departed of his or her will.

            Madison and her mother didn’t leave. Her mother led them to other customers in the store.

            Denzel retreated to the counter where he made his sales, although he wasn’t certain he would make any more while Madison and her mother remained. Into a small chair behind the counter, Denzel slumped.

            Beyond the counter, he heard the commotion of objects moved and falling. Denzel stood up to see Madison’s mother standing at the window display, knocking over the easel as she picked up the painting by Denzel’s daughter. A customer standing nearby also watched.

            Denzel hurried around the counter towards the window, where Ms. Ketteridge held the painting with both her hands, struggling to carry it, her handbag hanging twisted from her shoulder. Her legs and feet had scattered the toys once neatly on the floor.

            “This is my shop,” Denzel told her, as he’d never before felt the need to tell anyone. “This is my painting.”

            “This is my child,” replied Ms. Ketteridge, holding the painting close to her with the back of the painting visible and her body obscuring the artwork. “I’m keeping this awful painting until you’ve made your wretched little toyshop suitable for sensitive children.”

            The door to the shop opened. Denzel turned to see Florence returning; she’d been elsewhere doing something. Her eyes agog, looking around at the mayhem, the door closed behind her. “Denzel?” she asked her husband.

            “If this is your husband,” Ms. Ketteridge answered Florence, “you should teach him one or two things about equality.” Ms. Ketteridge turned back to Denzel. “We are staying at the Golden Plough Inn this evening. In the morning, we will return here. If we find there are no toys designated particularly to boys or girls but are offered to all children, equally, then I will return this appalling painting to you, provided you keep it in whatever creepy little home you occupy.”

            Denzel wearily shook his head, not refusing her as much as trying to comprehend her. “Why not simply buy your daughter a truck?” he asked her.

            “And leave here with you thinking this painting is acceptable? Never!”

            Holding the painting against her chest with both her arms, Ms. Ketteridge stormed towards the door, her daughter following. Florence stepped back and out of their way.

            “Madison, darling,” said Ms. Ketteridge, “the door…”

            Her daughter hurried around her to the door, which she opened. Denzel and Florence watched them leave with Denzel and Florence’s painting, the door closing behind them.

            The customer who’d watched the commotion and must have heard every word in argument, walked quickly to the door. Without facing Denzel or Florence, he opened the door and left. The door closed again.

            With only two of them left in the shop, Florence stepped closer to her husband. He told her every detail of his experience with Ms. Ketteridge and her daughter.

            “We could call the police,” said Florence.

            “No, Mother,” answered Denzel, shaking his head, as he’d learnt to say in front of their children decades earlier and occasionally said again. “This is still meant to be a toy store: a happy place.”

            Denzel knelt down on the floor, where he stood neatly upright every doll and toy that Ms. Ketteridge had knocked over. He tidied the shelves so the view from outside through the window was neat again, with even the easel standing properly erect, but without a painting on it.

            A woman entered the store, with presumably her daughter. More customers soon followed, some buying things, some not, as happened. A little muted from her normal chirpiness, Florence spoke and smiled with them. She completed their purchases, while Denzel inspected every sign and display in the store, every shelf and space, for anything that suggested boys played with the toys Denzel had only ever seen boys play with, or that girls played with the toys that Denzel had only ever seen girls play with.

            Teddy bears were all right. Boys and girls played with teddy bears. Adults bought teddy bears.

            Each time Denzel found a colorful cardboard box picturing the toy inside it, with a child of the only gender that he’d seen playing with that toy, or even examining it in the store, Denzel hid the box behind other boxes. Where there were no other boxes to conceal them, he stowed them in a cupboard, to bring out again the next day after Ms. Ketteridge and her daughter left.

            As he checked, Denzel mulled over the realization that Ms. Ketteridge and her daughter hadn’t bought anything. They’d never appeared like they would buy anything. They’d never looked at any toys, in so far as he had seen, or asked about any toy in particular. Their only interest had been the painting, it seemed. Perhaps they saw it through the window and entered the store because of it, without ever any interest in the trucks or other toys for sale?

            There’d never been a government or other inspector as daunting as the one, or two, due to revisit Denzel and Florence’s toyshop the next morning. Cleanliness and safety, so immaculate in the store and throughout Peddler’s Village, were of no consequence to Ms. Ketteridge. Not only were her rules stricter than other rules governing a toyshop, but she was more zealous than mere government officials in enforcing them.

            No number of mugs of hot chocolate or extra spoonsful of chocolate powder calmed Denzel that day. When he had the chance, he slipped away and bought Florence and him a packet of marshmallows. He knew he shouldn’t, without their grandchildren visiting, but he felt he needed something sugary to alleviate his thoughts of Ms. Ketteridge.

            Without Ms. Ketteridge watching, Florence ate the pink marshmallows. Denzel ate the white ones.

            Between the requirements of customers, entering and leaving, Denzel and Florence checked and rechecked every visible corner of the store. They studied every shelf, wall, and floor space for anything Ms. Ketteridge and her daughter might have missed that morning but might detect the next: a picture of a boy with a toy car; an image of a girl with ponytails in her hair. Denzel stood outside to look over the shopfront and timber board inviting shoppers. When he was satisfied that everything would satisfy Ms. Ketteridge and her daughter, he and Florence checked again.

            In the morning, instead of their usually slow breakfasts at their kitchen table, Denzel and Florence hurried from their home: Denzel’s hair uncombed, the dew still on the grass. He and Florence arrived early in the store, much earlier than they normally arrived and indeed, much earlier than most keepers arrived at Peddler’s Village. Without thought of neatness, cleanliness, or fun, but with thought only of anything that might distinguish boys from girls in any way, Denzel again surveyed his family store. Everything ought to be fine, he thought, but wasn’t certain. He rechecked again.

            Being there anyway, Denzel opened the store early, releasing the door bolts and turning the small sign to ‘Open.’ So early in the day, Peddler’s Village was quiet.

            Slowly, the morning warmed. Other storekeepers came, customers came. With every opening of their door, Denzel and Florence looked to see if Ms. Ketteridge and her daughter appeared. They didn’t.

            Before departing the preceding day, they’d not set a time to come and Denzel hadn’t thought to ask, although any answer Ms. Ketteridge gave would be unlikely to bind her. Being late, and every minute later in the morning or, Denzel feared, the afternoon, was more time to frighten him.

            Without the hostage painting in Ms. Ketteridge’s possession, Denzel would gladly have never seen her and her daughter again, as he’d never before thought of even the most difficult customers. Ms. Ketteridge and her daughter hadn’t even been customers.

            Late in the morning, they finally arrived. Ms. Ketteridge and her daughter again wore blue jumpers almost matching above dark slacks, but different jumpers and slacks to those they’d worn the previous day. In one hand, Ms. Ketteridge carried a large shopping bag from the Pewter Plus store nearby. She and her daughter were not carrying Denzel and Florence’s painting.

            “Ms. Ketteridge,” said Denzel, in the minimum of a greeting, “Madison.”

            Without a word to Denzel, Florence, or each other, Ms. Ketteridge and her daughter slowly inspected the store. Sometimes, Ms. Ketteridge placed her shopping bag on the floor beside her legs to examine something on a shelf with both her hands. Most of the time, she needed only her eyes; her shopping bag remained in her hand. They checked every image they could as another person might check the shelves for dust; there was no dust in Denzel and Florence’s store.

            Ms. Ketteridge paused at the shelves of dolls, without disturbing them. She presumably left them there to be bought for boys, although none would be.

            She paused at the shelves of toy cars, trucks, and other vehicles, without disturbing them. Another chance for her to buy a toy truck for her daughter, she passed.

            Denzel watched both of them, but more so Ms. Ketteridge. He followed them from a distance, in as much as there could be any distance in his store. Florence tended to the customers and, when customers did not require her, also watched them, but more so Madison.

            Any time Ms. Ketteridge or her daughter paused too long anywhere, Denzel’s breathing slowed. He tried to study what she studied, searching for what she searched, until she stepped along. Denzel breathed freely again.

            When she’d inspected every spot around the store, some spots two or three times, Ms. Ketteridge approached Denzel. Florence approached them, keeping a small distance away. Madison stood beside her mother. “I’ll bring you back your painting,” Ms. Ketteridge told Denzel, loud enough for Florence to hear. Before Denzel could feel relief, she spoke again. “Whenever I’m near Lahaska, as I am from time to time, I’ll pop by to check that everything is in order.”

            The boxes he’d hidden that morning would come out again that afternoon, thought Denzel. Once sold, he would be reticent to order more.

            Ms. Ketteridge continued. “I don’t want you slipping back into bad habits,” she explained.

            “Does your daughter ever not get what she wants?” asked Denzel.

            “Madison doesn’t tell me what to do,” she answered, starting to leave.

            “Aren’t you going to buy anything?” asked Florence.

            “Not from this store.”

            “Do you have a husband?” Denzel asked her.

            She stopped to turn and face him. “Why would I not have a husband?” she demanded of him, without waiting for his reply. “He’s at his office in Chicago. I needed time for myself.”

            “But you took the time to enter our store,” remarked Denzel, “to spend this time worrying about the painting, with my wife and me.”

            “You should be very glad I did,” Ms. Ketteridge told him. “You should thank me for helping you.”

            She turned and left; her daughter with her. The door closed after them.

            The comfort that Denzel and Florence’s time with her that day and the preceding day would soon end was tempered with the dread for her return, some wintery day. She might not return there until the summer, any summer, but her return would still make that day a wintery day.

            The days Ms. Ketteridge would not return would not be as peaceful as all the days once were, for the thought of her peering through the windows and soon barging through the door would always be there. She might come with loud hailers and sirens, kicking down the door, smashing through the window, or she might again walk in as innocently as she’d walked in the previous day, initially unnoticed. The result would be the same.

            Ms. Ketteridge might return with her daughter, she might not. Her daughter, who’d not said a word that morning that Denzel heard, was strangely unimportant.

            A short time later, Ms. Ketteridge and her daughter in tow returned. Instead of carrying her shopping bag, she carried what was presumably Denzel and Florence’s painting, under a white sheet. “I didn’t want people seeing it,” she explained. “You might return the sheet to the Golden Plough Inn when you’re finished.”

            Denzel reached out his arms to recover his and Florence’s painting. Pulling away the sheet so he could again feast his eyes upon the painting, he saw the painting had been slashed into a dozen shreds within its frame. “No!” he gasped. “What have you done?”

            Florence took hold of one side of the frame. She burst into tears.

            Ms. Ketteridge stood unmoved. “We can’t have you subjecting other children to your painting,” she told them.

            “My daughter’s beautiful painting,” Denzel panted, shaking his head, still looking at the shreds and whatever slices of imagery survived, “her beautiful children: what will she say? What will they say?”

            “Your daughter should have thought of other people when she painted it,” insisted Ms. Ketteridge. “She can paint another picture, more sensitively to other people’s feelings this time.”

            Denzel hugged his daughter’s painting close to his chest like he was hugging his daughter and her children, comforting them, while Florence held her side of the frame, crying. “What will I tell our children,” he asked, without thought as to whether Ms. Ketteridge or her daughter was listening, “our grandchildren?”

            Away from the trauma, apparently unaffected by it, Ms. Ketteridge’s daughter edged close to a shelf of small dolls. Through his despair, Denzel watched her, drawn to her because of what her mother had done, fearful of what she might do.

            Looking momentarily at her mother’s back, while her mother faced Denzel and Florence, the little girl raised her right hand to the shelf. With her arms, she might sweep those small dolls to the floor. With her hands, she might carry them to the door and throw them all outside. Nothing she could do to those dolls could matter aside what her mother had already done to Denzel’s daughter and grandchildren.

            Instead, the little girl slipped a single small doll in her hand. She hid it under her jumper.

            She might have taken the doll to keep another girl from playing with it. Denzel couldn’t know.

            Alternatively, she, Madison, might have taken the doll to play with, hidden less from Denzel and Florence than from her mother. In her bedroom at her home or in a park or other place outside her mother’s watch, she might hold it in her hand as if it were her child. She might caress it like a baby, as some girls did with dolls. For that possibility, however massive or miniscule, Denzel said nothing.

            Ms. Ketteridge turned around, until she faced her daughter. “Come along, Madison,” she said, approaching her daughter stepping back towards her. She took Madison by her hand and turned towards the door outside, her head held high and her long arm dragging her daughter a little higher from the floor behind her, while her daughter’s secret doll remained hidden beneath her jumper. “Let’s see if there’s more respect for people from the bookshop.”