The children swarm our Sony first thing, so I offer them ten dollars to keep the TV off for the next four hours. Steve refuses to go without for anything less than twenty, but you know me. There isn’t a salesman alive I can’t outmaneuver. So eventually, he brings his price down to twelve.
Then, less than five minutes later, I catch the boy red-handed.
“This isn’t a TV,” Steve says. “It’s a DS. Ask anybody.”
Steve goes on to tell me that if I don’t want him playing his DS, I’ll have to promise him another fifteen dollars, and that’s when I lock the miniature idiot box in a drawer. I place the key on the mantle next to your archery trophy. As always, the archer points her golden arrow at your poor porcelain Dutch girl, her arms forever held up in fear.
“You didn’t even let me save my game,” Steve says.
A mechanical voice shrieks from the drawer, but I ignore the cries for help.
“My mom said you were nice,” Steve says.
“I’m hungry,” Fay says.
I grin at the girl. “What do you say we have a picnic at the park?”
“The good one or the bad one?” Steve says.
“The good one.”
But apparently, our park is the bad one, because there are no swings or ducks. Still, the children quiet down after I present them with a banquet of Lunchables and pink lemonade.
Under the shade of our favorite fruitless mulberry, I close my eyes and I take in our little green world. I smell cut grass and that sewage smell that sometimes lurks here on windy days. A siren sighs in the distance, and a woodpecker rat-a-tats his brains out. You know me. I’m no good at sitting still. But some of you rubbed off on me over the years, and here on our bench, I feel almost peaceful.
“Maria and I shared our first kiss here,” I say, to the children, perhaps. Or to the park.
Steve busies himself yanking out handfuls of clover, and Fay hugs her tiny purple backpack.
On the way to the petting zoo, I change my mind. I turn the car around, and before we know it, the children and I are neck-deep in curiosities.
Joe’s Museum still smells like soap and cinnamon.
Fay adores the Clown Room and the Taxidermy Dungeon, and Steve can’t get enough of the oddity jars in the Science Chamber. He informs me that the baby aliens with the big puppy dog eyes aren’t real, probably.
Then, it’s time for the Seashell Center, and I linger in the corner by the aquarium. Only now, the aquarium is a swamp tank, and the fish have grown legs.
I can’t remember which shell I hid the ring in, but I’m sure you do. I hold a pink conk to my ear and I listen to the Mediterranean. “Maria said that these shells are connected to every body of water in the world.”
The children don’t reach for any shells like I expect them to. They’re enchanted by the mudskippers.
Out in the Metal Art Garden, Fay cuts herself on Bugs Bunny’s iron carrot. Joe’s granddaughter, Helena, gives Fay a Band-Aid and a certificate for the gift shop.
Fay doesn’t say a word until we’re all three buckled up in the Taurus. She says, “I want ice cream.”
“I have ice cream at the house,” I say.
“She can only have Rice Dream,” Steve says.
“Mom said I could have three scoops,” Fay says.
“She can only have one,” Steve says.
On the way home, I stop at the hospital, and I cut the engine, and I don’t know why I’m showing them all this, or what I hope to give or to gain.
“This is where Maria passed away,” I say.
I don’t recall our room number, but I’m sure you do.
“I was asleep when it happened,” I say. “I was dreaming about my brother. We were fishing, and I caught a catfish with human teeth. I tried to unhook the monstrosity, but he was biting down hard. I ended up tossing my pole into the ocean. My brother, Robert, wouldn’t stop laughing. I wanted to deck him, but the nurse woke me before I had the chance.”
A woman and a girl embrace in the parking lot. The girl’s wearing a tutu over her jeans, and her smile is infectious, as far as I’m concerned.
After a few moments of silence, Fay cries.
“I don’t want to go in,” she says.
“We’re not going in,” I say.
“Can you turn on the air conditioning?” Steve says.
Back at home, Steve works on his homework, and Fay leads me by the hand into the hallway.
“I’ll show you it,” she whispers.
She opens her tiny purple backpack, and pulls out a Cinderella lunchbox. From the lunchbox, she removes a Ziploc bag that contains glitter, a few pink feathers, and a Rubik's Cube. She hands me the sparkling cube, each side a solid color.
“Wow,” I say. “You must be a very smart young lady.”
“My daddy didn’t help me,” Fay says.
Fay starts to cry. “I’m not lying.”
“How about one more scoop of rice cream?”
Fay grabs the cube, and heads into the kitchen.
Later, Fay falls asleep on the couch, and Steve begs me for his mini-TV. I offer to tell him a secret instead. A secret I’ve never told anyone.
Steve gives me a look like he’s staring at the face of evil, but he says, “What?”
So I say, “This house is haunted by the loveliest ghost you’ll ever meet. Sometimes Maria leaves presents for me right here on the dinner table. Knickknacks and books and coins. Once, she even found my brother’s watch.”
Steve gently touches the tabletop with his index finger.
Minutes later, I’m in the bathroom when Steve starts shouting, “Come here! Come here!”
I rush out without drying my hands.
In the kitchen, I find Steve pointing at the tabletop, at his miniature television.
“I guess she wants you to play Pokémon,” Steve says, and he laughs and laughs.
I don’t understand the joke, but I laugh along with him.
The parents show up about an hour later, and I try to think of something wise to say to the children before they go. But you know me. I’m not the sharpest arrow in the quiver.
So instead of wisdom, I give them each twelve dollars and I tell them they’re the sweetest little neighbors in the world.
© Jeremy C. Shipp 2011
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