Annabea and Tam had been secretly teaching each other to read and write since the little girl could sit up and hold a crayon. Tam had never learned and was reluctant to subject herself to scorn so she made do as many unlettered adults did. Each morning when chores were done, Tam would take off her apron, smack her broad palms together and say to Bea, “Time for school,” something she had no firsthand experience with.
The two-year-old laboriously stacked three county phone books on the kitchen chair, climbed to her perch and waited with her grubby little fists clutching air while Tam got out the pad of lined newsprint and the cigar box full of pencils and crayons. Tam warned her, “Now don’t be letting other people know about our business here,” as the two of them drew copies of the bold letters from the front page of yesterday's newspaper.
The truth was that Bea had figured out reading and writing on her own while she sat on an apple box in a booth at the airport bar with Murph who was often waiting on a guy. He brought her along with him for breakfast when there was time to kill and to give Tam a break from the child’s incessant energy.
She knew that the marks on the paper packed some kind of charm because Murph looked at them with a fierceness and he often spoke out loud words that were obviously not his own. The marks changed every day and that day it was MOBSTER SLAIN!
The print filled the top half of the page and below it was a black and white photo of a man lying in the gutter, his head oddly misshapen and his juices flowing away from him on the pavement like the oil that leaked out of Murph’s old Ford pickup. He looked over the picture and pronounced,“Sumbitch probably needed killing,” and moved on to more important pages.
Bea still had the view of that picture on the front page while Murph was deep into the box scores and race results. You couldn’t see the man's face, but his left arm was thrown up in a gesture that seemed to say “Surprise!” It looked like fun.
She stood on the booth and leaned across the table and tapped on the paper and said “Zat?” one of her three words, the others being 'No' and 'Why'. Bea was an easy child if you weren’t expecting much and Tam and Murph had no expectations at all when her grandmother dropped her into their lives part time after her parents died. Nell said that Bea didn’t talk because of Hera’s habit of sniffing gasoline when she was pregnant. Murph privately wondered if they dropped her on her head once or twice. None of this mattered. Annabea was his niece.
He peeled off the front page and laid it out on the table like a place mat. He spelled the letters out to Bea, took a pencil stub from behind his ear and gave it to her. This would be good for a quiet hour while she scribbled an endless string of gibberish all over any white space on the newsprint. The marks weren’t quite letters or numbers yet but she was creeping up on it, her nose two inches away from her fist as the markings danced and unfurled along the avenues between print and picture.
Goldy appeared with their food and watched Bea scribble for a moment. She reached out and flicked the back of the newspaper to get Murph’s attention.
“What?” He looked at her over the tops of his little round reading glasses.
“You take this baby to church?” Murph looked at her like she was crazy.
“What the hell for?
“Cause she writing in tongues is what for. The priest needs to see this. She could be taking messages from Jesus.”
He looked across the table at Bea. “Bullshit, woman. More likely she’s taking longhand from the Devil himself.” He laughed, she crossed herself and scowled at him as she clattered their dishes onto the table covering the photo of the dead man with a plate of scrambled eggs. Bea’s nose was chasing her fist and she didn’t stop to pick up her fork. She must have been hot on the trail of some mystery because she broke the pencil point and started to squawk.“Don’t get excited,” said Murph. “Give it here.”
She gave him the pencil and started eating eggs with her left hand, her right opening and closing anxiously as Murph used a pocket knife to bring a clear section of lead out of the greasy, flat carpenter’s pencil. She hopped from one foot to the other until Murph handed the pencil back to her and said, “Now sit down before you fall on your ass again."
Bea put the new point of the pencil down in the exact place where it had broken and resumed her transcription from beyond, but when she got to the right edge of the white space she stopped, turned the paper and began reproducing the bold headline in the last unfilled margin, copying the shapes of the letters precisely, but smaller, to fit the space that was left.
Goldy came back to the table with a pot of coffee and a stack of toast spread with grape jam. “Put that up now Missy and finish your breakfast.” She lifted the page of newsprint like she was holding a rat by the tail and lowered it down in front of Murph’s face. “See what she’s up to now?”
He took the page from her and examined it closely and then looked across the table at Bea. She had a piece of toast in each hand and grape jam all over her face; cheeks full like a chipmunk, her hair sticking out all over her head in ornery curls. Her eyes were as round and gray as quarters today. He said, “Nice work kiddo.”
Bea grinned, stuck out her tongue at Goldy and went back to the business of seeing just how much toast she could put in her mouth before she choked.
“This time next week we’ll have her copying five dollar bills. What say, Queen of the Amazons, wanna be a counterfeiter?” The little girl nodded and laughed spewing chunks of toast over the table. If Murph was laughing it had to be a good thing.