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She was arguably the most recognizable woman living in Minnesota. Even children attending the more progressive kindergarten classes knew her face, as well as other parts of her anatomy. Yet few people knew her actual name and even fewer realized that she had been living in Grand Marais for the past thirty-five years, including some of her neighbors. I didn’t know these things myself until a friend sent me up there.
I knocked on her door. And waited. And knocked again. The door was pulled open and there she stood, dressed in jeans and a sweater, both faded with time, and bare feet on the hardwood floor despite the chill in the September air. Seeing her face up close and in person jolted me to the point where I couldn’t speak aloud although my inner voice was screaming, It’s her, it’s her, it’s her.
“Are you McKenzie?” she asked.
“Yes. Yes, I am.”
“Please come in.”
Her home was a small converted church that had been built on a hill overlooking the city’s downtown and Lake Superior beyond. There was an oh-so-artistically carved sign in her front yard that read WYKOFF ART ACADEMY. I soon discovered that she had reserved the ground floor for the art classes she taught and for her own paintings that she sold in a gallery on the main drag. Most of them seemed to have Native American themes. Ojibwa, I guessed, since that was the tribe that lived in the area before the white settlers took over.
She beckoned me to a chair even as she perched on a stool across from it. I found myself looking up at her. There were worse sights.
She stared at me as if she were trying to peek inside my head before she spoke. “It was kind of you to come.”
“Perrin Stewart says nice things about you.”
“She says nice things about you as well.”
“Can I get you anything?”
“No, thank you. I’m fine.”
“I’m going to pour some coffee. Are you sure I can’t offer you anything?”
She slipped off her stool and moved to a corner where a coffeemaker was set on a counter next to a small refrigerator. I seized the opportunity to look around. There were several workbenches and a dozen easels scattered throughout the large room. Most of the easels held canvases, some of them unfinished and some that looked finished to me, but what did I know? Other canvases were resting against the wall between two large windows. I wondered if any of them were hers. There was a white van parked outside that I could see through the windows. I wondered if that was hers, too. Unmarked vans made me nervous.
She returned to the stool and sipped her coffee from a mug adorned with wildflowers. Once again I found myself looking up at her. In the back of my mind I could hear the words my old man often repeated to me while growing up after Mom died of cancer—life is not fair. It’s true of course. Some people get more. More beauty than you see in anyone else in the world. More time with their mothers.
“What do you know about me?” she asked.
“Only what everybody else knows.”
“What does everyone else know?”
“You’re That Wykoff Woman.”
“Yes, my name forever an adjective. Call me Louise. What else?”
“Your face launched a thousand canvases.”
“One hundred and thirty-three. Don’t exaggerate.”
“I was told you’re in trouble.”
“Trouble. Yes. Yes, I’m in trouble and hearing that was apparently enough for you to drive nearly five hours from the Twin Cities to see a woman you’ve never met?”
“Closer to four hours, actually. I have a fast car.”
“I’m wondering if I can trust you.”
“I’ve already broken several traffic laws on your behalf, so … You trust Perrin Stewart at the City of Lakes Art Museum enough to tell her you need help. She trusts me. That’s why I was sent. If you have a better option, I’ll wish you luck, grab a couple of banana cream bismarks at World’s Best Donuts, and be on my way. Later, I’ll tell all of my friends that the Wykoff woman told me to call her Louise.”
“Is that still a big deal after all these years?”
“The paintings don’t age.”
“No, I don’t suppose they do. What exactly did you do for Perrin that she trusts you so much?”
Stewart must have already told her, my inner voice said. If she hadn’t …
“Something went missing from her museum,” I said aloud. “I found the something and brought it back.”
“You know, it was so long ago, I don’t remember.”
Louise leaned forward on the stool, her legs pressed firmly together, both hands clasping the coffee mug and resting it on her lap. Her toes curled over the bottom rung like she was trying to hold on.
“Something I own has gone missing, too,” she said. “I would like it returned—without anyone knowing about it.”
“I can only promise to do my best.”
“You haven’t asked what was stolen.”
“You’ll tell me when you’re ready.”
“I need to tell you a story first.”
“If it’s about Scenes from an Inland Sea, I already know.”
“No, you don’t. Nobody knows. Not even Mary Ann McInnis. But I’ll start with what you do know, McKenzie. With what everyone knows. I’ll start with Randolph McInnis freezing to death in a ditch…”
* * *
Randolph McInnis was revered in Minnesota in the same way we revere Bob Dylan, Charles M. Schulz, Judy Garland, Herb Brooks, Hubert H. Humphrey, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Not many Minnesotans reach international celebrity and when they do we build statutes to them. There’s one of Mary Tyler Moore tossing her hat in the air on the Nicollet Mall even though she’s from Brooklyn Heights, NY, solely because her fictional TV show was set in only slightly less fictional Minneapolis. Not that we have an inferiority complex about these things.
Copyright © 2019 by David Housewright