The Girl Who Remembered the Snow

For my Arlene
 
 
E
mma Passant's earliest memory was of snow.
Someone had bundled her up like an important package. She had on so many layers of coats, sweaters, and scarves that she could barely move. Thick flurries, punctuated by the tall black skeletons of trees, swirled all around her. Great stone houses grew out of the mountains of snow on either side of the sidewalk. Beneath her feet was cold whiteness so deep she could barely lift her legs.
Emma wasn't frightened in the memory, however. Someone was holding her hand, guiding her. She knew it was someone who loved her, someone whom she loved. But who? She couldn't see the person's face. All her life she had been trying to remember who it had been.
Emma wanted to believe that it was one of her parents, but that was impossible. Her mother had died giving birth to her, nearly thirty years ago; her father had died in an auto accident a few months later—a suicide for grief, she had always believed.
Nor had it been her grandfather, her mother's father, who had adopted and raised her.
Emma had asked Jacques Passant about the big snow many times over the years. She must have dreamed it, he had replied in his gentle voice, or perhaps seen it in a movie. Apart from a few freakish dustings, it never snowed in San Francisco. And she had never been out of the city as a child, he said.
But Emma knew her grandfather was wrong. She remembered. She remembered snow.
“Please don't bring it up again, Emma,” Jacques Passant had finally declared in a rare outburst of impatience.
A balding dumpling of a man with rosy cheeks and a twinkle in his eye, Jacques Passant was the kind of person who gave even panhandlers and politicians a sympathetic hearing. For him to turn away from his precious granddaughter in exasperation should have convinced Emma that she was mistaken, should have persuaded her that this was just another product of the overactive imagination that was constantly flooding her mind's eye with incredible images and lifelike fantasies.
But Emma knew what she knew. She remembered snow, and she said so, over and over. The white bedsheets she had pulled over her head as a child before crying herself to sleep had brought back the memory. So had the white rehearsal tights of the chorus of the San Francisco Civic Light Opera in which Emma had danced as a teenager, and the mound of white diplomas at her college graduation. But Jacques Passant had never believed her.
Now even he was gone.
Emma's grandfather had been murdered last week in a remote area of Golden Gate Park. The body might never have been identified had he not dined at Luigi's Restaurant on Fisherman's Wharf the previous June. The police had found a crumpled-up credit-card receipt for the meal in an inside pocket of his raincoat. The mugger who shot him had taken everything else.
Emma had had to go down to the city morgue to make the
identification. She'd then spent a week answering questions from detectives and filling out paperwork, before they finally allowed her to claim the body and have it cremated.
Now only one obligation remained. That was why Emma was here on the Sausalito Ferry this windy mid-November morning.
San Francisco was sunny and bright for a change, after weeks of fog and rain. Emma had taken off her glasses to massage her tired eyes—the past few days had been very difficult. When she looked up, the waves in the choppy bay were just a blurred field of white. That was what had brought the memory of snow back again. For a moment she could actually see the cold and blustery street, feel the loving hand. But whose hand had it been? She couldn't see the person's face.
Emma returned the tortoiseshell eyeglass frames to the bridge of her nose, a nose so long and pointed that she feared it looked as if it had been sharpened in a pencil sharpener. The glorious panorama once again snapped into focus. The blue sky and sundrenched harbor. The Golden Gate Bridge. The city's gleaming towers on the receding shore.
Emma stood at the stern of the ferry. In the black canvas knapsack at her feet was a small cardboard shoe box, neatly wrapped with brown paper and string. She had transferred Jacques Passant's ashes into the box last night. The only problem now was how to get it over the side without causing a fuss.
Emma had just come from the enclosed area of the boat below, where she had gone to make sure no one was near the back windows. She had assumed that all the passengers would have flocked to the bow or up to the top deck by now to gawk at Alcatraz—the notorious former prison was approaching on the port side—but to her dismay there were still five other people in the stern section of the ferry.
The plan had seemed so sensible last night. Now it looked impossibly risky. Emma was at the very end of the boat, next to the ensign—the ship's flag. There were two men and two women
leaning on the Alcatraz-side railing a dozen feet ahead of her, talking together, laughing. Even if one of them didn't happen to glance back and catch her in the act, there was another passenger who might—a man standing on the starboard side dressed in a taupe-colored sport coat.
He must be freezing, Emma thought, crossing her arms in front of her, grateful for the down vest she had had the wits to bring along. The temperature was supposed to go up into the sixties today, but it was still early and it was always a lot colder on the water.
Emma looked down over the rear railing, warming her hands in the pockets of her blue jeans. The waves seemed miles away. There would probably be a noticeable splash when she dropped the box over the side. She could get arrested if someone happened to be looking in her direction when what remained of Jacques Passant hit the spray—there were strict laws against littering the bay, even with one's immediate family. That was why she had decided to use the shoe box, rather than just scatter the ashes where they would float for all to see.
Should she hold off for now and try again when the ferry made its return run from Sausalito? Or wait a few days, until one of the inevitable San Francisco fogs rolled in?
No, thought Emma. Better to get it over with now, before she had a chance to think about it too much. A promise was a promise. If she got caught, she would just say she was insane with grief. That sounded plausible, didn't it? What could they do to her? Make her walk the plank? Obligingly, a mental image of Captain Hook forcing her out above the waters on an ironing board flashed into her mind's eye.
The man in the taupe sport coat on the other side of the ferry glanced in Emma's direction, then quickly looked away. The two couples seemed to be wrapped up in conversation, but they could easily look around at any moment.
Captain Hook vanished and a crazy idea suddenly sprang into
Emma's mind. Crazy ideas often sprang into Emma's mind, some of which worked out wonderfully. Like her recipe for apple pandowdy using Scotch whisky, and the dance scholarship she had won to Oakland College by persuading the coach of her high school's football team to write a recommendation for her. And then there were the crazy ideas that hadn't turned out so well—like that three-winged butterfly tattooed on her tush.
Was this a good crazy idea, Emma wondered, or just a crazy crazy idea? There seemed only one way to find out. Leaving her knapsack on the deck by the railing, she walked directly up to the man in the sport coat.
“How do you feel about burial at sea?” Emma asked with as ingenuous a smile as she could manage.
The man looked around behind him, as if to see whether there was anyone else whom she could possibly be addressing. There obviously wasn't. He grinned sheepishly.
“I am still too young, I think,” he said, “to be ready for such a drastic step.”
His voice was deep and velvety. The French accent was noticeable and a surprise. Up close Emma could see that the man's sport jacket was elegant and obviously had been expensive. So was his patterned silk tie. He looked to be in his mid-forties, precisely the kind of older man who usually wouldn't give her a second glance.
“You're French,” she said, running a hand over her straight brown hair, which she kept tied in single thick braid that reached down nearly to her waist.
“I was born in France, yes,” said the Frenchman. “But I live primarily in New York now.”
“How do you stand it?” Emma exclaimed before she could stop herself. “All that dirt. All those nutcases.”
“You have no nutcases in San Francisco?”
“Just lunatics,” replied Emma, gazing meaningfully at her reflection in the glass of the door leading belowdecks.
There was that nose again. Emma hadn't really noticed just
how long and pointed it was until she had given Jimmy Ryan his first kiss behind the Willis Avenue elementary school. Or, rather, had attempted to give him his first kiss. The poor boy had almost lost an eye because of that crazy idea.
“Perhaps you were not properly introduced to New York,” the Frenchman said, apparently undaunted. “It can be very wonderful, provided that the right person shows it to you.”
His own nose was straight and perfectly proportioned. He also possessed a square jaw and soft-looking brown hair currently being attractively tousled by the brisk wind. He was quite tall, maybe six feet two, compared to Emma's five feet six. The sexy crinkle of smile lines around his blue eyes spoke of sophistication, breeding and experience. He was very, very handsome. Emma couldn't believe that the one time in her life she had gotten a man like this to talk to her, she was going to invite him to help her dispose of a body.
“You're a tourist?”
“No. Yes. In a way. I am here on business, but I wanted to see some of your famous San Francisco sights before I left.”
“Alcatraz is coming up on the left,” said Emma hopefully. “You should go up top. You'll get a better view.”
It would make more sense just to get rid of him, she decided. Then she would only have the two couples to worry about. For the first time Emma noticed that they were all blond, the four of them. What was the proper grammatical term for such an assembly? she wondered. A peroxide of blonds?
“I rather like the view here,” said the Frenchman, winking, and grinning at her.
Emma felt her cheeks grow rosy, but grinned back. It had to be a dream. A guy this good-looking had to be gay, didn't he? This was still San Francisco, wasn't it? Why was she dawdling? It was clear that he wasn't going anywhere, and as soon as they passed Alcatraz, other passengers were sure to drift back toward the rear of the boat.
“Actually, I need a favor,” Emma said cautiously. “You don't seem like the kind of guy who would want to get a woman into trouble. Or am I wrong?”
“Depends upon what kind of trouble,” he said, raising an eyebrow, the grin not leaving his rugged face.
“What would you say if I told you I had my grandfather in that bag over there?” said Emma, gesturing to her knapsack by the handrail.
“I would say that he must be a very small grandfather.”
Emma didn't laugh. The man's beautiful smile instantly disappeared.
“Obviously I have not understood,” he said soberly. “Sometimes when I am not sure of what to do, I try to make the joke. Your grandfather, he is dead, isn't he?”
“Yes,” said Emma. “He died last week, and I had him cremated.”
“I am truly sorry. Please forgive me.”
He looked remarkably sincere. All that face and sensitivity to boot. How bad could the guy be? Emma took a deep breath and went for broke.
“Will you help me? I need to drop the box with my grandfather's ashes in it into the Bay.”
“Why?”
“A promise I made, years ago. It's not going to pollute or anything. The whole package is strictly biodegradable. Except, of course, for the brick.”
“The brick?”
“I want to be sure he stays down.”
“Ah,” said the man, acknowledging the cold for the first time by pulling the lapels of his jacket together and shifting his weight from foot to foot. A stiff sea smell of salt and decay wafted up from the water.
“I'll tell them you were just an unwitting dupe if we get caught,” Emma said hopefully, then shrank an inch as she heard
how it came out. She had such a way with words.
“What is it you wish me to do?”
“You'll help me?”
“What man could resist helping a lovely lady to fulfill a promise?”
“All right,” said Emma, taking a deep breath. “When I give the signal, you just throw your arms up in the air and shout ‘I love San Francisco.' That's easy enough, isn't it?”
“I throw my arms in the air,” he repeated carefully, “and I shout ‘I love San Francisco.'”
“As loud as you can.”
“As loud as I can. And why will I do this?”
“Those people on the other side will turn to see what's going on. When they do, I'll drop the box over the side. No one will see me, because they'll all be looking at you.”

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