“Before we go into the store, I just want to go over a couple of things.”
“Okay, but you said since it’s my birthday I could get an animal.”
“Just like last year, right?”
Less than 10 minutes had passed since stepping out of the bus a few blocks from the store that would complete their annual mecca, and now with their feet crunching into fresh snow, the eight-year-old country girl and her father marched through the crisp air toward their destination. In no time, the halogen glow of purple and orange and yellow and green cut through the snow-filled air, providing a beacon to children of all ages who marked off calendar days through seasons as their own awaited day and time inched toward them.
“So I just want to take a moment to make sure we’re in agreement about the shopping plan.”
“We are, I promise.”
“Because I don’t want any tantrums in the store.”
“Daddy, when was the last time I did any tantruming? Because I think it might have been like over six-a-million-fifty years ago.” (“Six-a-million-fifty years ago” was one of the standard units of time young Fifi had devised over the years, and it roughly translated to “a long time ago.”)
“Yes, you’ve been very good, but I know how excited you get when you see the animals. So please, try to remember that, like every year, there’s going to be a lot of new ones that you’ve never seen before, and, if it’s anything like usual, some of the new ones are going to be so lovely that your first impulse is going to be that you’ve got to have it. But by now you know that you really don’t have to have any of them no matter what. Right?”
“You can still have fun. I want you to have fun; maybe they’ll even have the track with the giant ones set up again, so you can ride around. Remember that?”
“Just keep in mind that no matter what, we’re not going to buy a big animal. Just a nice cuddly one to go on your bed with your collection, okay?”
“I know, don’t worry. The really big ones are too big for my room and they’re hard to get home, and the time we got one Mommy said it was a silly waste of money.”
“And she was right, it is a waste. And they’re not even as cute and cuddly as the small ones.”
“Besides, you wouldn’t want to scare any of the others off your bed, because those are the ones you already love, right?”
That bed, with her collection of stuffed animals surrounding her little form under her pink blanket, was everything the father of an eight-year-old girl could dream of, the perfect nightly scene to welcome him as tubby-time gives way to storytime with a collection of happy endings from small books, in a father’s hour of placid perfection, with a perfect moon in a perfect sky glimmering from the cherished mural which completed the room.
They crossed the final street and held hands through mittens as they climbed the steps to approach the store.
“Daddy, don’t worry, you said no super-big animals for my present so we won’t get any super-big animals.”
Something about her words gave him a pang. He had hoped the idea of no super-big ones (i.e., no super-expensive ones) was an idea she would have internalized by now rather than holding on to part of the fantasy of an enormous stuffed animal, making it more of a challenge for him to keep up the impression of magnanimity that he aimed for on birthdays — though it helped that they’d trekked in to the city rather than just picking up a toy at the local mall.
“I just know that you wouldn’t really want to get an animal that would be so big it could scare the ones you have, right? I think it would be a shame to even get one that’s too big to fit on your bed. Wouldn’t it be sad to have to make it sleep by itself all night on the floor?”
She blinked as the store’s doorman welcomed them and they made their way through the entrance and toward the endless jungle of animals.
“And you know what?”
“I know something you don’t know!”
That phrase, along with its unmistakable sing-song rhythm and sweeping pitch as old as the ground beneath them, made Franklin smile and tugged him back through the decades to his own, eight-year-old self, and despite the fact that many of the intervening years before Fifi’s birth were ones he would hate to repeat from his own joyless childhood, Fifi’s refrain of “I know something you don’t know” brought a misplaced nostalgia, an injection of warmth borrowed from someone else’s better childhood.
“Okay, Fifi, what do you know that I don’t know?”
“This: Even if we see an animal that’s so great we want it, like one of those animals that’s as big as six-a-million-nine-dinosaurs, you’ll still say we can’t get it, you’ll still say ‘Fifi, I’m sorry, but it’s a no.’ And you’ll say it even if in your stomach you really wanna say yes.”
“Yup. And you wanna know why?”
“Because you were a little mad last year when me and Mommy brought home that great big bear. Remember, it was so big that the man in the store had to come outside to help us mush it into the car. Remember?”
Franklin remembered. He did think they had made a poor selection without him, and even his wife knew it, or she wouldn’t have taken the trouble to remove the price tag (making it the first and only time that — to his knowledge — she’d stooped to the infamous and shady spousal practice that had previously been beneath them).
“You’re right, Fifi, absolutely right. At the time, I thought it was too big, much too big for your room, and I was right, wasn’t I? I mean, did you really like having to leave it in the playroom all by itself?”
“No, but this year’s different.”
“How’s it different?”
“I think this year’s a teeny-tiny bit different because of the boy on TV. Remember him, the boy in the green hat?”
With the impact of a baseball bat swung with follow-through, Fifi’s words hit her father in his stomach.
The boy in the green hat.
Of course he remembered the boy in the green hat. He hated that his daughter remembered the boy, and he wondered how much of a mark the story would leave on her psyche.
It had shocked parents — first locally, when a boy from their town had disappeared, and then throughout the country as the story made the national news. It occurred at night, through an open window, while his parents slept soundly down the hall. Miraculously, the child was spotted two days later eating in a small pizzeria with a man who was being sought for petty crimes. The tale had a happy ending — as less than one in a million of such tales do. But every thinking parent within 3,000 miles of the event was forever affected. The goodnight hugs became snugger, lasted longer, and meant more. And for weeks, parents invested unprecedented amounts upgrading locks and alarms, and adopting puppies guaranteed to grow into large dogs.
“Fifi, first of all, I don’t want you to worry about that boy. Mommy and I told you, there was a mix-up and he got lost for a little while and now he’s home safe and everybody’s happy again, okay? But that’s what happens when you climb out of bed after we tuck you in and you hear the grownup news on TV instead of sleeping. It’s not good to hear things that are not meant for your ears, remember we talked about this?”
“I don’t do it anymore.”
“And I don’t see a connection between the boy who got lost and the size of the animal we decide on. What does one thing have to do with the other?”
“You promise you won’t be mad?”
“Why would I be mad?”
“Because I listened to the whole story on TV, and I know he didn’t really get lost, I know someone borrowed him, like almost stole him.”
“Still, Fif, I really don’t see the connect — ”
“Well, I’ve been thinking, if the animal we get is small, and a bad person climbs in my window, all I’ll be able to do is shout, and you and mommy won’t hear me because you guys sleep like crazy. . . .”
“So you know how you’re so good at fixing and making things?”
“So if we got a really big animal, bigger than me, you could cut it open and empty it and make a door that locks with belcro.”
“Okay, Velcro, and you make it so it closes, and if I ever hear anybody jumping in my window before I can get you and Mommy, I could just tiptoe right inside the animal and close the Velcro door and hide until the bad man gives up and goes to other houses to find new kids to borrow to have pizza with —- ”
“It could work. Right? Daddy, right?”
She was clever. “You have some imagination! But don’t you think that’s a little far-fetched?”
“Well, maybe a little, but you always say you love me, and you and Mommy are always trying to hug and kiss me like crazy, so I think even if it is a teeny bit far-fetched, if there’s even a tiny chance that it could happen, then you would want it, because like you once said to Mommy when you were telling her how much you didn’t want me to ever take off my floaties when we’re at the beach, if there’s even a tiny chance that doing something could prevent something bad from happening to me, you’d be mad at yourself forever if you didn’t do it. I think if you let me or Mommy or anybody else in the world even try to talk you out of doing this with the giant animal so I can be safe inside, and something bad happens to me, you might be mad at yourself forever and ever.”
“And that’s a long time to be mad at yourself. I think it would be weird if something happens and you think, ‘Oh, Fifi’s gone and that’s sad, but at least I saved some money by buying her just a small animal,’ and it would be more weird if you bought me a small animal just to prove to Mommy you really could stick to the plan. Right?”
Franklin nodded. Just a short while before, he’d been savoring the once-a-year experience of spending an entire, luxurious day with his daughter devoted to the world of plush animals and her selection process that involved eliminating candidates one by one until a single lucky one remained to be boxed up for its journey to a new life. And now he was pulled into a boy’s green hat and kidnap and parental neglect and Velcro projects with marital stress. . . .
He took a deep breath and looked at the girl. She’d grown a lot since her last birthday, and he knew that she would not have any tantrums in the store, which is no small feat with the stress of so many wonderful plush animals competing for her attention, and he told himself not to take anything for granted; he knew how lucky he was to have a daughter like Fifi. He also knew how lucky they both were that they were here now, together, and that they were only one block away from a store that carries Velcro.
Mitch L. Adler is an S.A.T. tutor and college application coach in East Hampton and Southampton. He has contributed previously to The Star.