March 15, 1997
Here is Celia, running like a rabbit through the sunlight, on a day so perfectly pitched between winter and spring that she can feel streamers of warm air in the wind. The grass looks willowy and tender, and she very much wants to take off her shoes and flatten it beneath her feet, but her mom told her that if she went pounding around barefoot outside she might catch something. She is afraid of catching something. When she was six she caught the flu, and when she was five she caught the chicken pox. She stops by the pond and looks into the water, creased by the breeze. There is a cluster of minnows swimming just beneath the surface, and when she tries to touch one they scatter away in a spray of silver V's. Suddenly she thinks of a new jingle: Little silver minnows with their little silver finnows. It is a good day.
She has three favorite toys: her dollhouse, her ring collection, and her stuffed giraffe, Franklin, but they are all in her bedroom. Here in the yard there is only her scooter and the top half of a Barbie doll. The bottom half of the Barbie doll was washed away last week during a thunderstorm, when she and her parents had to walk through the house lighting tall white candles with matches as long as magicians' wands. It has been five days since it rained (one, two, three, four, five-she can count as high as one hundred), but the ground is still spongy in places. She leaves a deliberate curve of footprints across the backyard, stretching from the deck to the maple trees. She has known ever since she woke up this morning that something important was going to happen-something enormous-and though she does not yet know what it is, she can feel herself slowly falling toward it. It is like the dreamlike fall of a diver from a high board. Her fingers and toes are tingling. She does not need her toys.
She can see her dad through the kitchen window, escorting a man and woman past the pantry and the staircase and the wood-burning stove. I am her dad, and when I pass into the living room, she loses sight of me. In the pocket of her dress she finds a red rubber ball that she bought from the gum machine at the grocery store. Once a week her mom gives her a quarter to load into the gum machine, and though she always hopes for a plastic ring to add to her ring collection, usually she ends up cranking out a bracelet or a toy watch or something. She throws the ball as high as she can and it lands on the roof, drumming back down with a wonderful resiny thumping noise. Then she chases it across the grass and throws it once more, this time so high that it almost hits the chimney. She could listen to the sound it makes again and again, a hundred or a thousand times, but the fifth time she throws it, the ball lodges clunkily in the metal gutter. A great boat of a cloud drifts by. A dog barks across the street.
In one of the elm trees behind the house is a cocoon she has been watching all winter long, and though she has only touched it once or twice, as gently as she could, and with her littlest finger, when she looks for it she discovers that it has already split open. She is afraid to look inside. She can almost picture the body of the butterfly, motionless, folded into a papery kink. But the cocoon, it turns out, is empty, stuffed with a sticky gray floss that comes off on her fingers.
This means that the butterfly has flown away. Either that or been eaten.
She hasn't seen any butterflies swaying through the flowers yet this year, but she believes just the same, or decides to believe, that it has flown away.
Soon she is climbing onto the fragment of stone wall in the side yard of the house. The wall is almost as high as her waist, and she boosts herself onto it effortlessly. She can remember when she was little and had to scrabble to the top using both her hands and all her muscles. Her dad walks by the living room window and winks at her. She is tightrope-walking along the wall, her arms outstretched like wings, and just before he turns away, her hair is caught in the brilliance of the sunlight. He can see every individual thread. In less than a minute, now, the enormous thing she has been expecting all morning will carry her off like a wave. She watches a maple leaf, the last of the winter, go spinning delicately to the ground. She hears a car driving down the road, knuckles of asphalt popping in its wheel wells.
In her head she feels a rising sensation, like a halo of electricity traveling up a ring of conductors.
Three. Two. One.
It is the same day, two hours earlier, and I am looking through the closets and drawers in the house, weeding out items for our annual yard sale. A turtleneck sweater with a rippled weave. A letter opener in the shape of a sword. The yard sale is scheduled for next Saturday, the fourth weekend in March, as it was last year and the year before. We will, as it happens, postpone it this year and never reschedule it, and much later, after everything has changed, I will find a box labeled yard sale 1997 in the storage room, filled with all these forgotten objects, but I do not yet know this.
We have just come from the living room into the kitchen when Celia asks, "You're not going to give away the vegetable plates, are you?" She has been following me around the house all morning.
The vegetable plates are a set of eight plastic dishes with drawings of different vegetables on them-potatoes and carrots and the like. They all wear smiles on their faces, and Celia has an odd affection for them, as if they were pets. She has never explained it to me. "Not if you want us to keep them," I tell her. "And we're not giving anything away. We're selling things. It's a yard sale. Like the time we got Franklin, remember?"
And with that she's off, dancing around the room and waving her fingers like a baton: Frank-lin. Meet my Frank-lin. He's a giraffe like you've never seen. She has been doing this ever since she woke up-inventing jingles, one after the other.
"Honey, why don't you go look through your stuff? See if there's anything up there you want to get rid of."
"I looked yesterday and there wasn't any. But okay, Dad." She races upstairs, singing a new song, and when she rounds the corner, her voice dissolves away.
I have been Daddy to Celia for more than six years. It was her second word, right after Mommy and right before meatball (mee-bah), and it is only in the last few months that she has taken to calling me Dad. One syllable. Quick as a breath. She says it earnestly, almost primly, with a note of perfect self-command in her voice, and I can see that she is proud to be seven years old. There is never the same sloppy devotion in Dad that there was in Daddy, the same landslide of joy or sadness, but hearing it can still send me skipping forward through the rest of my day. And sometimes-this is my secret, and I keep it even from her-when I lay my hand on her forehead to test for a fever, or when I wake her from one of her cavernous midday naps, I will become Daddy again, for only a few minutes, until she takes possession of herself again.
Soon I hear her running back downstairs, leaping the last three steps.
"I like all my stuff," she says. "I don't have to give anything away, do I?"
"You don't have to, no," I say, "but I think you could do without-oh, say, your dollhouse."
"My dollhouse!" Her mouth opens in a circle-if a bee were to fly out, she could not look more surprised.
"That or your ring collection," I say. "You hardly ever play with those anymore."
She realizes I must be kidding, and she tests a smile. She begins another song, Rings and things the mailman brings, but stops short when she sees Janet.
Janet is my wife, her mother. She stands in the kitchen doorway gathering the tails of her wool muffler into her coat. "I'm off, kids," she says, tucking her clarinet case beneath her arm. On Saturdays she has Community Orchestra rehearsal, and she doesn't come back until two o'clock.
"It doesn't look that cold outside. Are you sure you want to wrap yourself up like that?"
"It'll be freezing in the Assembly Hall. Trust me. The priest over there likes to run the air conditioner even in January."
"All right," I say. "It's your sauna," and I kiss her goodbye.
She slips her hand into Celia's hair, making a spidery motion with her fingers. "You two take care of each other," she says. And I say, "We always do."
After she leaves, Celia and I return to our inventory of the kitchen, piling our yard-sale items into the same cardboard box I will one day find powdered with gray dust in the corner of the storage room. A Crock-Pot with a handle that has come unpinned on one side. A green ceramic saltcellar. An apron reading PLEASE DON'T FEED THE ANIMALS. Celia runs off to see what cartoons are on television, but comes back less than a minute later with the remote control in her hand. "Nothing but superheroes," she says. "I hate superheroes." Then she sings: They can fly, through the sky, like a big pizza pie.
I have finished sifting through the kitchen cabinets and ask her if she is ready for a break. "An ice cream break?" she says.
"We're out of ice cream, I think, but . . ."
When I open the freezer door, the cold comes sliding out in a single white sheet. You could almost imagine it dropping to the floor and shattering. I take a twin-pop from the popsicle box and line it up along the edge of the kitchen counter by the crease, knocking it into two halves with the heel of my palm. I give one half to Celia, and she shaves a curl of ice from it with her front teeth. The ice loses color as it lifts from the mass of the popsicle. This is something she likes to do: scrape popsicles down to the stick with her two front teeth. She takes a bite and asks, "So what room's next?"
I can feel the first throbs of a headache coming on, an edgeless few seconds of pain that vanishes almost as soon as it appears. Goddamn. I still have the library, the morning room, and the guest room to look through. "Next we go upstairs," I tell her. "We'll probably try the library first, and then-"
She belts out another jingle: Oh, it's the books, books, books, books, books-and my head gives a second twinge. A feather of plaster, as white as a snowflake, falls from the ceiling onto her shoulder. I brush it away.
"Tell you what, honey," I say. "Why don't you go play outside for a while?"
This time it happens differently. In my imagination it is always the same day-the sky is clear, the wind is fresh, and it happens again-but the details are never quite the same. Celia is running through the yard, chasing a speck of something that is glittering like a cinder in the sunlight. She can't quite see what it is-a housefly? A dandelion seed? All at once, it rises vertically in the wind and floats away over the roof of the house. She quits the chase. She wants to kick off her shoes and let the grass thread through her toes, feel the thin flexible edges bite ever so softly into her skin, but she does not. Instead she plays with the top half of her Barbie doll (the other half is missing) and throws her ball into the air and pokes at the minnows in the pond.
When she hears the sound of barking in the street, she thinks that it is Todd Paul Taulbee walking his two Irish setters. Todd Paul Taulbee is a friend of her dad's. He likes to fish in the pond behind their house, and he always lets her toss sticks to his dogs, who leap into the air and barrel after them, returning them to her in their slobbery black lips. She hurries into the front yard to pet the dogs and say hello, but as she rounds the corner she sees that it is not Todd Paul Taulbee after all. It is a tall, flat-haired man who stands in the street holding a sausage-shaped dog by the leash and staring at the house next door. His white-brown coat bulges enormously over his thin legs, which makes him look something like a mushroom.
Celia is not supposed to cross the street by herself, so she stops at the curb, calling, "What are you looking at?"
The man swings his head around, and his eyes run slowly down her face. It feels as though someone has cracked an egg over her head. "I'm friends with the girl who lives in that house," he says, pointing. "Do you know if she's home today?"
"You must be thinking of Beth Doyle. She moved away last year with her mom and dad."
"Beth Doyle, that's right." The man tugs on the leash and meets her at the curb, his dog pattering along at his feet.
"Why is your dog shaped like that?" Celia asks.
"That's just the way they come. They're called dachshunds." He stoops down to his ankles, massaging the dog's skull so that his lips are pulled back over his teeth. "His name's Teeter. You can stroke him if you want to."
When she bends over to pet him, the dog gives a bark and licks the back of her hand. His tongue feels smooth and flat, like wet paper, and his breath smells like glue. "Yuck," she says.
The man laughs-a thin, wheezing sound. "Lick him back. That's what I always do."
She can feel her mouth stretching into a grin. "No, you don't."
"No," he admits, and he winks at her. "I don't." A plastic bag, tangled in the hatching of a tree branch, balloons momentarily in the wind. She sees the hazy shape of her dad moving past the arched window of her bedroom, but he does not notice her. "What did you say your name was?" the man asks.