INTERPLAY

Cynthia Hatch

from the zine Tunnelcon I (1990)

 

 

The trees in the park were heavy with new spring foliage. Their lower branches took advantage of the fact that one so tall moved among them, snatching at his strawberry hair, offering pale green samples of their latest product that he brushed away with one hand. His other hand held tightly to hers -- so small, so perfect. She looked up at him with eyes the same color as the tender leaves that fluttered from his hair, and his heart constricted at the expression of adoration he saw there. Her love was unconditional. It overlooked his faults, the many times he'd had to disappoint her. His joy in this knowledge was tempered by a familiar twinge of regret -- regret that these moments alone together were so rare and that the fault was his. It meant so much to her, to both of them, and he was glad he'd set this time aside -- glad, even though he knew he should be playing golf with Sanders and Beal.

 

"Watch me. Watch me, Daddy." She broke away from him, legs in their pink corduroy overalls flying, ponytails bouncing in their matching ribbons. When she reached the top of the slope, she called down to him. "Are you watching, Daddy?" He waved, and she flung herself down on the grass, body stiff, arms tucked close to her sides. He watched in trepidation, as she began to roll down the hill, a blur of pink and white, gathering speed, heedless of the other children playing on the slope. She was so full of life, but so reckless at times. His breath caught at the possibilities: what if one of those great hulking ten-year olds stumbled into her, what if she didn't stop before hitting the concrete sidewalk, or worse -- the street? He hurried to catch the precious projectile, as it neared the base of the hill, kneeling to stand her back on her sneakered feet.

 

"Did you see me, Daddy?" she gasped, breathless.

 

"Yes, I saw you, sweetheart, but you need to be more careful. There are a lot of people here today, and you might have rolled out into the street."

 

"But you caught me, Daddy."

 

"Well, sure I did, but I won't always be there to catch you, so you have to be a big girl and learn to watch out for yourself."

 

The small face took on a thoughtful look, and for a moment he hoped the message had hit home. "I want a hot dog now," she announced.

 

"Are you sure, honey? Aren't you a little bit dizzy? You know, Mommy's going to be mad at me, if I bring you home with a tummy ache."

 

"I want one." Her tone was not quite yet imperious, and, in truth, he found her present tactic harder to resist. She looked at him, eyes sparkling in anticipation, utterly confident that he could grant her every wish. Her belief in him gave him a feeling -- somewhere in the vicinity of his ego -- that even landing an important slippery client couldn't quite equal. How could he be the one to shake that confidence?

 

"Okay, baby," he said and was rewarded by a smile that revealed perfect, pearl-like baby teeth, still intact. As they started off for the concession stand, he shuddered to think what havoc she might wreak with that expression in years to come.

 

They took their hot dogs to a bench, where she sat swinging her legs, chattering about her adventures at pre-school. "Here," she said suddenly, thrusting the half eaten hot dog at him. "You can have the rest." And she was off -- swinging around a lamppost, pursuing the pigeons, making persistent, if futile, leaps in an attempt to grasp the lowest branch of a young sapling. He watched her fondly from the bench, proud of her high spirits and determination, but a little worried too that her tomboy tendencies might have somehow been his doing. That could happen, he'd read, when a father had no son to mold in his image. He wouldn't want to be responsible for squelching her femininity, turning her into one of those odd career women who shunned home and family and died, no doubt, embittered old maids.

 

She came racing back, cheeks glowing, to lay her tiny hands on his knees. "Can we get cotton candy?"

 

"Sweetheart, your tummy must be doing flip-flops by now." He poked at the pink corduroy, and she giggled. "Besides, you didn't finish your lunch."

 

"But Patricia wants some," she asserted, changing strategies.

 

The party in question was sitting on the bench, arms outstretched in what he privately thought was a pose more reminiscent of Frankenstein's monster than a little girl. For most of the morning the doll had traveled tucked under his arms. The pockets of his cashmere cardigan were hopelessly pulled out of shape by the numerous items his daughter had deemed essential to a walk in the park.

 

"She's hungry, Daddy. She's starving."

 

He briefly regretted throwing the remains of the hot dog in the trash; it might have been used to placate the ravenous and demanding Patricia. A swift review of his considerable legal knowledge produced no precedent that might help him hold his own against this surprise witness, and a moment later he found himself back at the concession stand.

 

"Can me and Patricia both have one?" There was definite mischief dancing in those green eyes now.

 

"No, you can't," he said firmly. "The two of you will have to share." She accepted the verdict without comment, her face disappearing behind a cloud of pink sugar, and he scored himself a point for parental authority. Clearly, she did not, as her mother often teased, have him wrapped around her dainty little finger.

 

They returned to the bench where she pinched off tiny gobs of the confection, offering them to her doll before popping them into her own mouth. An elderly couple approached, and the woman paused to exclaim, "My, aren't you a pretty little girl?"

 

The object of this unsolicited praise seemed to sense the question was rhetorical. She didn't answer, but smiled sweetly, her big eyes blinking in the intense sunlight.

 

"You're just as adorable as the President's little daughter, and what a lovely doll! Does she have a name?"

 

"Uh-huh, Patricia. She's a Madame Alexander."

 

Her father took her pleasure in the compliment, as well as the announcement of Patricia's social status, as sure signs of entrenched femininity; and he grinned when she suddenly leaped up, pulling him after her. "Come on, Daddy. Let's play like the boys do."

 

*****

 

He had been walking for some time now, and with every step his irritation grew, as he realized just how far up they'd gone. His worst fears were confirmed, when he rounded a bend to see them huddled together, a ladder of brilliant sunshine playing across their heads from the opening above. Perhaps it was the fact that they were so engrossed -- even the younger boy had not sensed his approach, or perhaps it was the rush of mixed emotions that rose in his throat at the sight of that same child's hair gleaming like golden fire in the sun. Whatever the reason, he hesitated, drawing back into the shadows. They didn't appear likely to move from the spot where the light had pinned them -- two contrasting butterflies -- and the slant of it told him they couldn't be seen through the grate above. He would give himself a moment to get his fear-inspired anger under control before he captured them both.

 

"Just cause I'm the one who found it," Devin was saying, "doesn't mean we can't share. You want the bottle cap or the cigarette box?" His brother was eyeing him speculatively, his eyes particularly crystalline in the light. It wasn't so much an accusatory look, Devin thought, as one that seemed to see right through him to places he didn't much like to examine himself. "Here, you can have both of them," he said generously.

 

Vincent accepted the treasures in silence and set to work crumbling the cork liner from the bottle cap with one sharp nail. He knew he'd been the first to spot the intriguing gifts from above, knew also that he could have reached them before his brother did, if he hadn't been brought up short, immobilized by the sight of that astonishing ray of light. What's more, Devin knew it too. Something inside the younger boy was still shaken by that confusing jolt of fear and joy; he felt less willing than usual to defer to Devin's big brother tactics.

 

"Look, Vincent, a dime and a penny. You can have the penny. See, it's bigger."

 

Vincent abandoned the bottle cap to scratch at the dirt encrusted penny. "Did you read Father's book about coin collections?"

 

"Uh-uh." Devin held the dime up, admiring the way it sparkled in the light. "Why would I? We never have any coins."

 

"It said," Vincent continued placidly, "that old coins, even pennies, may be very valuable." He sensed he had his brother's full attention now.

 

"How valuable?" Devin asked eagerly.

 

"I don't know -- a thousand cents?"

 

"Jeeze, Vincent. Is that one old? Can you see the date?"

 

"Very old -- 1953."

 

"That's ancient! What do you think it's worth?"

 

Somehow the sight of his older brother, looking at him trustingly for the answers, hanging on his every word, didn't give Vincent the pleasure he'd thought it might, and he was suddenly ashamed of manipulating him. How to explain the feelings that had thudded through him when he saw the sunlight, loved it, and knew its magic was meant for everyone who chose to revel in it, everyone but himself? Something in him had risen up against the injustice of it, and he had turned that on his brother, who was, after all, only being Devin.

 

Even when Devin took advantage of him, which Vincent understood to be the time-honored right of older brothers, he could sense that something in the older boy felt ashamed of that. Poor Devin seemed so often to be wrestling with conflicting feelings, and now Vincent cast about for a way to make things right again. "I believe it is worth. . . ten cents."

 

"Oh." Devin looked momentarily crestfallen, then rocked back on his heels, brightening. "Hey, that's good then. We're even."

 

"Yes, we're even. What is this?" A lightly furred hand picked through the refuse, coming up with a piece of pale blue plastic molded into the shape of a peculiarly rigid ribbon.

 

"It's a barrette. Girls wear them in their hair. Look at this, Vincent, a key! This could open a door to a castle or a real spooky place or --"

 

"A door above," Vincent interrupted cautiously.

 

"Maybe not. No, that's probably why someone dropped it down here, so they could come back later and find the door -- somewhere below."

 

"There aren't many doors below."

 

Devin had expected this. It was just one of the many strange things about his brother. Before Vincent could allow himself to believe in some fantastic scheme, he always seemed to come up with reasons against it, as if he was a grownup and not just a little kid. But once he got past that, nobody could make their adventures more magical than Vincent. Father was always saving how Vincent couldn't go above, but surely that would change. It was going to be a very long time before they were grown up, and something would happen by then to make it all right. It had to. Devin wasn't sure why, but he had the feeling he could go out searching for all the fantastic places in the world and somehow just miss finding them -- a wrong turn here, an overlooked pathway there. He was just as sure that Vincent would see them all, that the enchanted places would reveal themselves eagerly to his brother's gentle blue eyes. But that was a long time away. This was now, and there was a quest to undertake. "That's just it, Vincent. There could be a secret door that nobody down here has ever found. It might even lead into a forest or something, someplace that wouldn't be above, so you could go. We can start looking this afternoon. Maybe it's somewhere in the maze. We can--"

 

"All right, that will be quite enough. No one is going anywhere today -- least of all to the maze." Both boys leapt to their feet, as Father descended upon them. "Vincent, gather up those things immediately, if you intend to keep them." He started to turn his wrath on his older son, but double-taked back to the younger. "Did you comb your hair this morning?" He squinted at the golden cloud that at close range appeared rife with tangles.

 

A sidelong glance from the oddly elfin face, and the careful answer: "Possibly."

 

"Possibly? But certainly not probably. You will regret that, my boy, if we're forced to resort to the scissors."

 

"Hey, Vincent, you want to try the barrette?" Devin had hoped to relieve the tension with this witty remark, but the dangerous blue fire that instantly kindled in his brother's eyes gave him second thoughts. "Aw, Father, if we waited for him to comb through that stuff, we'd never get to go anywhere."

 

"And 'anywhere' includes taking your brother this far from our home? To a place where someone could peer down into the grate and see him?" Father was rigid with anger now, one hand firmly clamped at the nape of Devin's neck, his temper perversely exacerbated by the fact that the face looking up at him was so like the one that lived in the mirrors of his boyhood home.

 

"He wanted to come."

 

"Of course he wanted to come, but you are older. It is your responsibility to look out for him."

 

Devin felt a familiar surge of resentment. Why was it that Vincent could do practically everything better than the big kids, but when it came to responsibility Father acted like he was some baby. It was a wonder he didn't hate the kid. Most of Father's displeasure that so often targeted Devin seemed to have Vincent at its source, but how could he hate him? It was Vincent who loved him, Vincent who trusted him. They got along fine when Father wasn't around. Sometimes Devin felt like two different people -- the one that Father saw who couldn't seem to do anything right, and the practically perfect one that he knew he was in his little brother's eyes. Which was the real Devin? He wondered if he'd ever know.

 

"You will both spend the remainder of the day in your chamber. Vincent? Where are you?"

 

The younger boy had caught the flicker of something descending from a gutter above and had moved silently into the shadows to investigate. Now he returned, a sense of wonder on his face. "Look, Father, a piece of sky." He held the object reverently -- a blue rubber ball sprinkled with white stars.

 

"Hey, Vincent, that's neat. Let me see it."

 

"Clearly, it belongs to your brother, Devin. He found it. Yes, it's very nice, Vincent. Now, march -- both of you."

 

"We can play with it together," Vincent offered. Secretly, he thought the object too miraculous for tossing around, but Father had made Devin feel bad again, and it wouldn't have happened if it wasn't for him, for his differentness. The important thing now was to make Devin feel better.

 

"There will be no ball games in your chamber," Father decreed, propelling them both in front of him. "You've tempted fate quite enough today without risking a broken window as well."

 

*****

 

She had tripped, and his heart flew with her. Now he ran, scooping her up, hugging the little body close to his chest. "Are you hurt, sweetheart?"

 

Her lower lip was stuck out ominously, and tears had pooled in her eyes, but she rubbed at them with a chubby fist and shook her head. "Where'd it go, Daddy? Where's my ball?"

 

"Well, I'm not sure, honey. Let's go look." They'd been playing catch, but when she'd fallen, he'd paid no attention to the ball. He didn't see it in the grass and carried her down to the curb, but it was nowhere in sight. "I'm sorry, sweetheart. I don't know where it went."

 

Now the tears spilled over. "It's mine. Somebody took it, and it's mine!"

 

"Honey, if someone found it, they didn't know it was yours. They didn't know it would make my baby so sad, if they took it home with them. Just think -- maybe it was a poor little boy or girl who doesn't have any nice toys at home like you have. Think how happy it will make them to have something to play with too."

 

She considered this sociological argument for a moment, but obviously found it unconvincing.

 

"It's mine," she wailed, small chest heaving with indignant sobs.

 

"I'll tell you what," he said, as he toted her back to the spot where Patricia waited like an elegant zombie in the grass. He handed the doll to his daughter, grateful that it too hadn't vanished.

 

"I'll buy you a brand new one tomorrow. How would that be?"

 

"Just like it?" she sniffed.

 

"Just exactly like it, and you know what else? It seems to me your new fairy tale book has a story in it about another little girl who lost a ball. It was a golden ball, and she was a princess -- just like you -- and her ball fell in a well."

 

"Who found it?" she asked, tears forgotten.

 

"A frog, I think."

 

"A frog?" She wrinkled her small nose in distaste.

 

"Well, I'm sure there's a handsome prince in there somewhere. We'll read it and find out, but first we need to get you home for your nap." He thought he could use a nap himself. It was exhausting -- this business of keeping up with an active child, seeing the world through her mercurial emotions, and exhausting too, the terrible vulnerability that came with loving someone so totally.

 

"Am I gonna marry a prince, Daddy?"

 

"If that's what you want." Whatever she wanted, he resolved that she'd have every opportunity -- financially, socially. He made a mental note to reschedule that golf game with Sanders and Beal, some very lucrative possibilities there. She'd have her pick of the best young men -- the movers and shakers of the future. And what a future it was going to be -- Shepard rocketing into space some 115 miles and landing safely. Lord, he hoped she didn't wind up living on the moon. He tried to visualize her wedding day -- the cathedral massed with flowers, her mother and he proud and tearful -- but when he tried to picture a grown-up edition of the bundle he held in his arms, he succeeded only in producing a taller version, still in pink overalls and ponytails. Well, imagination had never been his strong suit.

 

"I love you, Daddy," she said, fastening her small arms around his neck in a stranglehold. "When I get big, I'm gonna marry you!"

 

He turned his steps toward home, feeling like the luckiest man alive, confident he could guarantee her the happiness she deserved, while far beneath his feet a starry sphere soared recklessly back and forth in an amber glow, like a comet hurrying to keep its appointment in the scheme of things.

 

********

 

Posted for Winterfest Online, January 2005