Franklin was flattered. Fifi knew that a long time ago he had been a songwriter, and some of the children’s songs he and his writing partner had written were still around.
“When we get home I’ll play you one. It’s not finished, but I can play part of it on guitar.”
She seemed to be telling the truth. Even if his 12-year-old daughter had other reasons for wanting to get a last ride on her father’s shoulders, he believed that her songwriting could be a factor; returning to earlier experiences to capture detail was something he had done in his own songwriting days. And if she was having a nostalgic longing for one of their past experiences, he liked that even more. If it was really to test his health, well, it wasn’t unreasonable.
“Everyone always says how lucky I am because my dad’ll do anything in the world to help me become whatever I want, especially something like a songwriter, because you’re really good at it. That’s how I know you’ll let me have a camel ride.”
“You realize you’re much bigger than you used to be.”
“We’ll just go a few feet. Really, since you always say you’d do anything to go back to the days when I rode on your shoulders, let’s just do it. Besides, I hurt my foot yesterday in soccer, so I shouldn’t be walking. . . .”
“I’ll find you a wheelchair . . .”
“I don’t want a wheelchair.”
The “Men’s Room” sign loomed above them.
“This is exactly how kids get molested.”
“I’ll just be a second.”
“That’s all it takes.”
“You’ll be fine.”
“Wait. You know, you always say it’s bad to fib, so it would be weird if you fibbed to me about cancer, right?”
She caught his eyes.
“Right? I mean you’re not going in there just to take medicine, right?”
“That’s right, Fif, I’m not.”
“Okay. But please hurry.”
“Was that so bad?” I asked when I returned.
“No, but listen. You probably don’t have cancer, because you probably would’ve said something by now if you did, but I still would like you to tell me yes or no.”
“It’s a no. But tell me, if it were a yes, how would you feel?”
“Not all terrible, because I know that you’d figure out a way to get better.”
“Fif, you’ve got to know that things don’t always work that way.”
“I know, because a lot of people aren’t as smart as you, but everyone says you’re really, really smart. You’d find some way to get better. Especially ’cause you always tell me not to let anything scare me away from what I wanna do, no matter what. Right?”
She watched him. She was tall enough now to look almost eye-to-eye, making it harder for him to pull away.
“Fifi. Listen. You are a very bright girl, and I know you can’t really believe that I have some special power to beat cancer. . . .”
“Don’t say that.”
“Fif, listen — “
“Please don’t shout at me.”
“I’m not shouting.”
“You almost are.” Her face tightened. “And since I’m only visiting for a week, I’m sad and mad that you’d ruin such a short trip. I thought you were going to make every day perfect — ”
“Oh, Fifi. . . .”
He took a breath and looked around.
The stream of people progressing through the concourse was flowing around them as naturally as water bypassing a rock.
“Just tell me: Are you gonna die? Yes or no?”
“Not for a long, long time. Okay?”
She gasped. “That’s a yes.”
“No, it’s not. It’s a definite no.”
“I know you, and I don’t believe it’s a no. I really don’t. And I really, really wanted it to be a no.”
“Fifi! Listen to me. Yes, you know me pretty well, but you don’t know everything about me, that would be impossible. You may not believe it’s a no, but it is. Unless . . . are you’re thinking about the fact that I’m not going to be around forever?”
“Forget it. Anyway, let’s go, give me a ride to the suitcase thingy.”
“Fifi, just tell me, why all of a sudden a camel ride?”
“It’s really for my song. Honest. I need one more rhyme, and I really think it’ll help.”
He planted a quiet kiss on top of her head.
“Let’s compromise. We’ll do it when we get home, so if I hurt my back at least we’ll have the driving done. For now, how ’bout you just climb up and look around for a second? Okay? Hop on.”
Her weight took him by surprise, and something inside him cracked. It sounded like the snap of a giant knuckle and they knew something was wrong. But things go wrong all the time — branches break and backs crack, and things pause and settle and continue functioning, and Franklin and Fifi settled into a balance, as the past returned in flashes, powerful echoes of a time when they were younger.
“Okay, you can put me down now.”
He steadied and held her tight, and took a step forward.
“It’s okay, don’t bend . . . I can jump down. . . .”
“Write your song.”
“Didn’t you want to try to come up with another rhyme?”
“Not now. . . .”
“When you’re looking over my head . . . anything rhyme with ‘head’?”
“I can’t really think. . . .”
“Try. Red? Bed? Fed?”
“I don’t know.”
“Try listening into my ear, do you hear anything?”
She held his ear. She craned her neck down until they were ear to ear.
“I don’t know.”
“Oh. . . . When I listen in your ear, there are things I hear. Or something like that.”
“That’s pretty good.”
“Is it good enough?”
“I don’t know, but let’s say it is for now.”
“Before I jump down, just tell me yes or no. For now, I mean just for this vacation, tell me if it’s a yes or a no. Yes means you have it and no means you don’t. Please tell me. I mean just for right now.”
“Okay. I promise you, just for right now, it’s a no.”
“Do you really promise?”
“I really promise.”
“Really-steely?” Really-steely was an expression of hers he hadn’t heard since the days of long camel rides, and it took him by surprise.
“Really-steely?” she repeated.
The girl jumped down and pulled her father forward.
Mitch Adler, an SAT/ACT tutor and college adviser in East Hampton, was a contributing editor at National Lampoon and won first prize in an Internet-based science fiction competition. He has previously contributed other Franklin and Fifi stories to The Star.