Melanie and the Purple People Eaters

A SHORT STORY BY IRVIN FAUST

“HORSEBLEEP?” Horowitz looked into the phone and was positive he could see the thin, frowning teacher. She was even nodding.

“That’s what she said, Mr. Horowitz.”

“Miss Garaminta, are you sure?”

“I’m positive, Mr. Horowitz . . . Mr. Horowitz, if I may, I think our Bunny Development Specialist should chat with her.”

“Who?”

“Our Bunny—”

“Hold it. Just hold it.” He turned away from the phone, took three clearing breaths, returned to the phone, smiled into it. “Not yet, okay? I’ll get back to you, Miss Garaminta.”

“Don’t wait too long,” Miss Garaminta suggested.

“I won’t. Oh, I won’t. I appreciate your concern, I really do.”

“Thank you, Mr. Horowitz. Have a nice day.”

Horowitz looks at his desk, the wall, the clock, the window. He deep-breathes again, wads the latest interoffice nonsense, loops it toward the waste basket. It bounces hard off the wall, drops. “Two points,” he says absently. He goes back to work.

HE PACED THE BEDROOM. COUNTERCLOCKWISE. MARcia put up with it, then removed her sleep mask, sighed. “Walk the other way, will you please? You’ll make us both dizzy.”

He stopped. Looked. “Aren’t you concerned? I am. I’m paying that school goddamn good money. I’m not crazy about everything they do, but if the child’s teacher calls me at work, it has to be about something.”

Marcia said very politely, “Are you assigning blame because I didn’t hover over the phone?”

“Why should anyone interfere with all your projects?” he asked. “Why should they do that?”

“Mel, let us not parry and thrust. I have a terrible day tomorrow.”

“All right.” He balanced firmly. “ ‘Horsebleep’ is not ‘See Jane run.’ ”

“Agreed.”

“Thank you.” He took a step, balanced again. “Marcia, that is all she said.”

“When?”

“Today.”

“Wait. What did she say before ‘horsebleep’?”

He looked down at her, shook his head. “Not a thing. Zero. She was quiet all day, until after recess. That’s when she said it.” He sat down suddenly. He was sweating.

“What triggered it?”

“How the hell do I know?”

“You didn’t ask?”

He got up, began to pace again, stopped again, turned. “Jesus, I was too surprised . . .”

“Oh, for crying out loud.” She rolled over in a neat ball, uncurled, thrust hard into the furry slippers.

“Where are you going?” he said.

“Next door.”

“Wait. Don’t get her up. Wait—”

The door was swinging even as he said it. He stared. The door swung again and Marcia stepped neatly back, Melanie draped on her shoulder. With easy strength she set her down in Mommy’s Chair. Shook her gently. Melanie’s eyes blinked wide.

“Honey,” Marcia said, sitting on the bed, “did you use a sassafras word in school today?”

Melanie blinked. “I don’t know.”

“Reconstruct. Go back in your mind. Think about your day.”

Melanie reconstructed. “I don’t know.”

“Honey, did you say ‘horsebleep’?”

She reconstructed some more. “I think I said that.”

Horowitz asked quietly, “What did Miss Garaminta do to make you say it?”

“Mel?” Marcia smiled up at him. “I don’t think we should assign g-u-i-l-t.”

He shrugged off the spelling lesson and said, “Please let me handle this . . . What did she do, Melanie?”

“I don’t know, Daddy.”

“She must have done or said something.”

“Mel, too much p-r-e-s-s-u-r-e.”

“What, Melanie?”

Melanie’s chin trembled. Marcia folded into the lotus position on the bed. “What he means, Melanie, is this: Could you possibly figure out why you used a sassafras?”

“. . . I don’t know, Mommy.”

Bleep, Horowitz thought.

“All right,” Marcia said, “we are not driving you to the wall; everything is under control. We are not excited and neither are you. If you don’t agree, just tell me.”

“I feel all right, Mommy.”

“Fine. Pat pat, hug hug. Now, let’s all put it out of our heads and go to sleep. Let it all float away. Go inside with Daddy, Melanie.”

“All right, Mommy.”

Horowitz opened his mouth, but Marcia shook him off. She sank back, adjusted her sleep mask. He hesitated, then gathered up the wide-awake Melanie and walked back into the yellow and blue bedroom. He walked her up and down for five minutes, felt her grow heavy and quiet. Then he eased her down under the electric blanket. He kissed her forehead, tucked her in, straightened up.

She opened her eyes, smiled up at him, and said, “Daddy, is Ed Kranepool over the hill?”

In the kitchen, after the peanut butter sandwich, he clasps both hands as if he is praying in shul. Then he lowers the hands in precise steps. Looks over his left shoulder, then back. Then wheels and whips toward first base. The runner is caught leaning; he’s out by four feet . . .

“MR. HOROWITZ,” MISS GARAMINTA SAID WITH quiet gravity, “I assure you that is what she said.”

“Please repeat it,” Horowitz said. “I have paper and pencil.”

Her voice was very professional. “She said, quote, ‘It’s like kissing your sister,’ unquote.”

“. . . Is that all she said?”

“Yes. That one phrase, all day. Mr. Horowitz, the context was somewhat bizarre.”

“What. . . was . . . the . . . context?”

“Well,” said the professionally concerned voice, “I had just asked her to pick up the visible boy in one hand and the visible girl in the other . . .”

“Yes?”

“And, well, she said it.”

“She didn’t say ‘horsebleep’?”

“Oh, no, that was last Tuesday. She really hasn’t communicated since then. Verbally. Until this. Mr. Horowitz, may I ask . . . would it have any . . . familial context?”

Speak English, he screamed silently at the wall. “I don’t think so,” he said calmly.

“There is a male sibling.”

“She has a brother. Dan. He’s a year and a half.”

“That’s a darling age. I hate to sound even remotely alarmist, Mr. Horowitz . . .”

What bleep. “Yes, go ahead?”

“I was just wondering if there might be a hint of confused sexuality . . . Mr. Horowitz?”

“No way.”

“I was just wondering.”

“NO WAY.”

“I have to be candid with you about my perceptions.”

He stopped twisting his ankle. “I appreciate that, Miss Garaminta, I really do. But it’s laughable. She was flirting with her grandfather when she was eight days old. No way, Miss Garaminta.”

“Well, as I said, I do have to live with my conscience . . .”

“Absolutely. I live with my conscience eight hours a day on my job. It isn’t easy.”

“Thank you, Mr. Horowitz.”

“I’ll be in touch, Miss Garaminta.”

He swings from the heels. The ball screams in agony as it flies over the left-field wall. He walks out of the washroom feeling stronger if not better.

THE NEXT DAY THEY HAD A THREE-WAY CONFERENCE: Horowitz, Marcia, Miss Garaminta. Horowitz listened, nodded, made good eye contact. Especially when Miss Garaminta said, “It’s a bit hard to believe that she verbalizes a good deal at home.”

“Believe me,” Horowitz nodded, “she has a splendid vocabulary for her age. Sometimes we can’t shut her up.”

“Not that we’re in the habit of trying,” Marcia murmured.

“Well,” Miss Garaminta said, “I simply have to tell you that she’s very limited here. And then there’s her choice of subject . . . horses . . .”

“Kids.” Horowitz smiled, shrugged. “I was hung up on Hotpoint refrigerators. I thought that was crazy. Ice cubes. Hotpoint . . .”

“I don’t see the analogy,” Marcia said.

Miss Garaminta said quickly: “It’s merely that the horse thing is rather odd in a developmental sense.” “Really?” Marcia said.

“How’s that?” Horowitz said, leaning in a little.

“Well, it’s generally girls who are pubeing who are into horses. This is unusually early.”

“She walked very young,” Marcia murmured.

“Great coordination,” said Horowitz.

Miss Garaminta acknowledged with a shrug, then said, “I’m sure that’s all true. I simply raise the possibility that it’s more than one of those things . . .”

The room was pregnantly quiet.

Miss Garaminta finally said, “Perhaps she should see our Bunny man.”

“I hate to be so negative,” Horowitz said, “but suppose we give her a chance.” He smiled. “Maybe next week it’ll be the stock market.”

Marcia said, “What’s your point?”

“My point is, this week, it’s horses, next week it could be AT&T.”

“If I may,” Miss Garaminta said. “That could be overly simplistic.”

“I agree,” Marcia said briskly. “Let’s give your man a try.”

“Just an informal chat, Mr. Horowitz.”

Horowitz looked at her and she nodded encouragement. He looked at Marcia.

“Why don’t we ask Melanie?” Marcia said.

He thought that over. Miss Garaminta watched him. “All right. Fair enough. But I’ll ask her.”

“Go right ahead,” said Marcia.

He got up and walked next door. Melanie was stroking the shmoo in the shiny Concorde jacket instead of punching him.

“Hi, poops.”

“Hello, Daddy.”

“Would you like to walk inside and answer a question?”

“Sure.”

“Positive?”

“Uh huh.”

“Okay, we walk.”

He took her hand and they walked inside and he sat her down beside him. Everyone was quiet. Horowitz looked down at Melanie, who sat with her hands folded and her toes pointing in.

“Would you like to talk to a nice guy?” he said.

Melanie looked up at him.

“His name is Mr. Sitkin. He’s the Bunny Development person.”

Marcia said, “He could be very relaxing to talk to.”

Miss Garaminta said, “He understands your age group.”

Melanie continued to look at her father. He patted her shoulder and she nodded.

“Superstiff,” she said with a shrug.

MILTON SITKIN HAD THREE FRAMED DIPLOMAS ON his wall and wore a beige turtleneck. “It’s a rather unusual situation, Mr. Horowitz,” he said.

Horowitz kept tightly quiet.

“I’ve had three conferences with her, including intake.”

Horowitz remained quiet.

“I’ll come right out with it . . . Here it is . . . I think we’re dealing with some form of glossolalia.”

Horowitz finally said, “Come on.”

“I’ve consulted the literature,” Sitkin said, “to confirm my initial impression. I think that’s what it is.”

Horowitz tried a tiny smile. “You mean religious double-talk?” He tried a tiny wink. “We don’t even talk religion with her.” He smiled and winked. “We’re orthodox atheists.”

“I see,” Sitkin said without changing his face. “Nevertheless, I feel we’re dealing with some form of tongues.” He bent over a spiral-bound notebook. “I quote: ‘A dollar bill is the glue.’ ” He raised his head.

“Are you sure that she said ‘a dollar bill’?” Horowitz said.

“In my notes I have the article.”

“. . . Could it have been plain ‘dollar bill’?”

“It’s possible. I use a bastardized Gregg. In any case, it’s a pretty sophisticated statement for a five-year-old. Unless, as I suspect, we go back in time . . . Can we brainstorm this?”

“Sure.”

“Was your family hit hard economically at some point? Say, the great Depression?”

“Well. . . my grandfather lost everything in 1930. But I never discussed that with Melanie.”

“Then she knows nothing of that trauma?”

“How could she?”

“Of course. How could she?”

“Look, Mr. Sitkin, she’s part of a group, right? Kids discuss money, right? With me it was dimes, with them it’s dollar bills.”

“Of course . . . Mr. Horowitz, how about this: ‘You need the mow to get an oh.’ ”

“How do you spell ‘mow’?”

“Why?”

“Well it could be . . . say, m.o.”

“Or M-o-e. Is there a Moe in your family?”

“No.”

“Moses?”

“NO.”

“I see.”

They waited. Then Sitkin said, “I’ll tell you my professional position. Regardless of how fascinating the tongues thing may be, it rates nowhere in the taxonomy of cognitive functions.”

“I’ll tell you my position as a parent. I happen to think Melanie is a pretty bright kid.”

“No argument.” Sitkin smiled. “Mr. Horowitz, I’m just bending over backward to play it safe. I could get one helluva monograph out of this, but she is my top priority.”

“That makes two of us.”

“Then we’re all together. Frankly, I think Dr. Bimway should have a talk with her.”

“Who’s he?”

“Our consulting psychologist.”

“I thought you were.”

“I’m the man in the trenches. We have to take it upstairs.”

Horowitz examined the diplomas. Returned to Sitkin. “I want to put that on hold for now. I’d like to discuss it with my wife.”

“Of course. I wouldn’t wait too long, though.”

“We won’t.”

“Fine. To loosen up our chemistry a little, can I tell you what she said when I said good-bye?”

“Sure, you can tell me.”

Sitkin returned to the notebook, flipped a page.

“That child said: ‘It is not over till it’s over.’ ” He peeled off his glasses and sat back. “Mr. Horowitz, that is positively Kierkegaardian.”

“IT IS NOT EST HORSEMANURE,” MARCIA SAID WITH her hands on her hips. “I did not say ‘horsemanure,’” Horowitz corrected mildly.

“Don’t think for one moment I don’t know what ‘horsebleep’ means,” Marcia said.

“All right,” he said. “I still don’t want any est horsebleep. Sitkin was enough.” He met her eyes.

“It is not est. I have told you a hundred times. Here’s a hundred and one. It is a transpersonal approach to counseling.”

“Fine. Perfect. Only let’s deal with her in a more constructive way.”

“And how will we do that? In front of the TV? This whole thing boils down to that, you know. Your cockamamie jockmanure, or bleep, or whatever you call it.”

“I don’t happen to buy that,” he said calmly.

“No? Dollar Bill? Glue? Don’t think I don’t know. Your precious Bradley. Bill Precious Bradley.”

“Senator Bradley.”

“Don’t get off the hook. Did his father’s glue buy his Senate seat?”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“‘Dollar Bill is the glue.’ You told her that.”

“His father was a banker. He didn’t even go to Princeton on a scholarship.”

“Who gives a bleep?”

“Lots of people. As for glue, it so happens Bradley was the glue that held the Knicks together.”

Marcia sat down hard. “Christ.”

“Well, he was.”

“Christ.”

“Stop saying that.”

She looked him over. “Maybe,” she said, “you’d prefer ‘You need the mo to get an O.’”

“I’d much prefer that. It happens to be a pretty damn good rule of life: You need the momentum to get an ovation.”

“Will you please stop? You are giving me a headache.”

“I’d say you were giving it to yourself.”

“God. Give me strength. Or some of those aspirins your Nolan Ryan eats.”

“It so happens that Nolan Ryan does not eat aspirins. He throws them. Aspirin tablets, to be precise.”

“God.”

“And kindly leave Nolan Ryan out of it. He has his own troubles; with all that magnificent smoke, he’s barely above .500 lifetime.”

She waited a good thirty seconds. “You should both eat it.”

He waited, planned out the voice modulation, the spacing of the words. When he was completely ready, he said, “I thank you kindly. However, Melanie is still not going to your guru. Her karma remains intact. So does her mantra. And do not lay any est guilt on me.”

“It is not est. You are so simplistic and negative I wouldn’t believe it if I didn’t hear it. But I did.”

“Oh, you did.”

“Mel, I’m getting tired. I want only one thing. I want that child to re-acquire her energy awareness.”

“Give her some sugar.”

“Christ.”

“Come on, Marcia,” he said, trying a smile, “loosen up.”

“I will loosen up,” she said with total severity, “when the child gets the strength to surmount aspirin tablets, Dollar Bill, and the rest of your illicit world.”

He leaped out of the lounger.

“Illicit? Illicit? I’ll let you in on something, lady. My illicit world happens to be cathartic and therapeutic and maybe you just ought to try it.”

“I’ll take Ex-Lax, thank you,” she said sweetly.

“So I’m, simplistic and negative? Let us temporarily assume that, all right? But maybe, just maybe, this world you are rejecting out of hand is the one she prefers.”

“She’s five years old, schmuck.”

“So?”

“Teach her to dance on the head of a pin.”

“That’s an answer?”

“Yes. Here’s another. I’m taking her to Terry Meldencarver.”

“I cannot accept that.”

“You’d better, sonny boy, because I am.”

“The hell you are.”

“The hell I’m not.”

She took Melanie to Terry Meldencarver.

MELDENCARVER LIVED IN AN APARTMENT WITH LOW ceilings and low furniture. He had on a beautiful toupee, which he could wear in the shower, and his nose was very short and thin.

“What do you think?” Marcia said as Melanie sat in the mandala room drawing.

“I’ve seen it before, of course,” he said in his quiet voice. “It’s her oneness.”

Marcia closed her eyes. “He’s shattered her inner space, hasn’t he?” She opened her eyes. He let the question sink in. Then he barely nodded.

“I’d have to agree,” he said gently.

Marcia rocked a few times, caught herself, and said, just as gently, “I’ve had it, Terry.”

“Easy, Marcia.”

“All right, but I have. This is too much. I’m sorry, but it is.”

He didn’t say anything.

“What about her core, Terry?”

“I can’t quite reach it.”

Marcia focused on her quiet hands, then looked up, asked very firmly, “Can you do anything?”

“I’ll certainly have to dissolve blame.”

“Yes . . . Terry, do what. . . you have to do.”

“Of course.”

She examined her hands again, shook her head. “Have you noticed her body language?” she said.

“That’s my business, dear.”

“Oh, I’m sorry . . .”

“That’s perfectly all right. Yes. She’s very skewed.”

“God. I know. Oh, I know. Terry . . . can you . . . restore her center?”

“I’ll certainly give it my best shot.”

Her hands jumped. “God, don’t say that.”

“Why not?”

“That’s the way she talks now.”

He reached over, touched her stiff fingers.

“Mustn’t indulge in panic, Marcia.”

“I know . . .”

“What else do you know?” he said, lifting her chin. She smiled and avoided the toupee and the nose.

“The universe always says yes,” she answered with total repose.

Melvin:
We have a basic problem and we both know it, but I will spell it out because at times like this you lapse into your pseudo-stupidity. Here it is: I cannot and will not permit Melanie to be further trapped by your idiocy. Or to be paralyzed by it. Therefore she (and I) are going to work with Terry Meldencarver, and wipe that infuriating grin off your face. While we do, we will stay with my sister Adele. This includes Daniel. I am asking, telling you, not to interfere. Not now. She must get the chance, ultimately, to choose. For now, therefore, the child must give up your world or she is forever consigned to wondering if Red Holman can win with five schvartzas. This I cannot permit.
Sincerely,
Marcia Singer-Horowitz

He circles Holman and above it writes “SIC(K).” Then he takes his evening walk. At the corner he jabs the lamppost with three violent lefts, smashes it with an overhand right. Refuses to yell.

HE CAME HOME AND ATE A TV DINNER, THEN, WHILE soaking his right hand in hot water and Epsom salts, he turned, with the left, to a cable sports channel and watched the Wolfpack battle the Blue Devils in a dual swim meet. Then he switched to channel 10 for the Rangers and the Islanders, agreeing absolutely with all the Big Whistle had to say. During the breaks in the action, he flipped to channel 9 for the Knicks and the Nets, his head shaking at the condition of the Human Eraser’s knees. During time-outs he clicked to WNYC for the CUNY tournament, where he yearned quietly for the Beavers, Nat, the NIT, the NCAA.

He maintained this routine for seven nights, coming home from work a bit earlier each afternoon so he could plunge into the action of the Boilermakers, the Wolverines, the Redmen, the Spurs, the Whalers, and the Flames, the Iceman and Magic. He also managed to pick up from the South the first optimistic stirrings of Tom Terrific and Louisiana Lightning.

On the eighth day he got up late, toughened his right hand with witch hazel, then called in sick. He ate a TV lunch, watched the Celtics and the Bullets on the Betamax, locked up, and drove across town to the Green Forest Lower School. He parked in a six-dollar garage and walked down the street to the school. He told the security

guard and the lady at the desk it was a medical emergency.

“I hate to barge into your day like this, Miss Garaminta, but something’s come up and I have to relieve you of your top problem child.”

“You’ve come for Melanie,” Miss Garaminta said.

“Oh, yes.”

“Mr. Horowitz . . . I . . . well . . .”

“Is there a problem concerning my problem?” he said lightly.

“I’m afraid there is . . .”

“Well, we all have problems.” He waited. Then: “I am her father, Miss Garaminta.”

She touched her cheek, her hair, her cheek again; she’d make a good third-base coach, he thought, smiling with support.

“Oh, how I hate these family things,” she said with a thin voice.

He felt a buzz, but said, “It comes with the territory. What family things, Miss Garaminta?”

She stopped with the hand signals.

He said, “You can be very candid with me.”

“I know that. . . All right. . . Mrs. Horowitz gave me firm instructions not to allow anyone to pick up Melanie except Mrs. Horowitz.”

“May I point out that marriage is a fifty-fifty proposition, Miss Garaminta?”

“Oh, I knew this would happen. I knew it. And I’d be caught in the middle. I told that to Dr. Meldencarver.”

“Doctor?”

“Meldencarver. Melanie’s therapist.”

“. . . Pepper-and-salt toupee? Bad nose job?”

“His hair did look too nice. The nose . . . was awfully thin . . .”

“Uh huh. Doctor?”

“That’s what she called him . . .”

His hand ran through his hair. “Miss Garaminta, listen to me. A man who will change his looks will change his credentials. He’s a doctor like I’m the Sultan of Swat.”

“He . . . doesn’t have his doctorate?” she said stiffly.

“Miss Garaminta, I don’t even think he has a B.A. I’m not absolutely sure, but I know this: he is a mister and his major was hotel management.”

She leaned against the receptionist’s desk. He said quickly, “You’ve been candid; now I’ll be candid.”

“. . . Yes?”

“My wife and I are having problems. Serious ones.”

“. . . I inferred that from . . . He studied hotel management?”

“And motel. Miss Garaminta, as a result of these problems, my wife has moved out and taken Melanie . . . Mister Meldencarver is squarely in the picture.”

She stepped away from the desk.

“You do understand what I’m saying?” he said.

“I understand,” she said quietly.

“I’m fighting a stacked deck, Miss Garaminta . . . She’s probably told you things about me. She and the hotel man.”

“. . . She did. He just listened.”

“What did she tell you?”

“That . . . you hit imaginary baseballs.”

“What about voices?” he said evenly.

“No, oh, no, she never mentioned voices.”

He leaned in. “Did your Mr. Sitkin tell you I was a nut?”

“Of course not.”

“What do you think?”

“Why, it never occurred to me . . . A concerned parent . . .”

“Okay. Miss Garaminta, the woman who told you those things, who has really leveled some serious charges, is shacking up with a phony doctor. With phony hair and a phony nose.”

Her eye contact faltered. The receptionist hunched over her Time; the security guard studied his keys.

Horowitz said carefully, “Melanie is smack in the middle. Between those two and her father.”

“. . . That man called himself ‘Doctor’ . . .” Her eyes tightened. She firmed up her thin chest.

“I have always been so ridiculously naive,” she said. “Mr. Horowitz, I’ll get Melanie for you.”

THEY PURRED SOUTH ON THE JERSEY TURNPIKE. HORowitz, Melanie, the warm, cozy car. The dashboard lights glowing and out of the lights the rise and fall of a local high school basketball game. They listened without saying anything until they crossed into Pennsylvania and the game faded.

“You can turn it off if you want to,” Horowitz said. She promptly turned it off.

“Where are we going, Daddy?” she said.

He nodded at his headlights picking out the road. “Greensboro. North Carolina.”

“Why, Daddy?”

“The ACC tournament.”

She was quiet, then settled back.

“Big hoops, Daddy?”

“The biggest.” He glanced down, then quickly back. “You haven’t seen pressure till you see this tournament.”

“More than Super Sunday?”

“As much.”

She looked up through the windshield.

“Will the Wolfpack be there?”

“Of course.”

“Daddy?”

“Yes?”

“Who was the leader of the Wolfpack?”

“David Thompson, naturally.”

She smiled at him and they glided through the quiet glow of a small town. When they were clear of it, she said, “Daddy?”

“Yes, hon?”

“If you have David Thompson on your side, what do you have to do?”

“Alley oop.”

She wiggled against her seat belt.

“Daddy?”

“Yes, doll.”

“Why do the Tigers drive you crazy?”

“The slowdown, doll.”

“How do you beat a slowdown, Daddy?”

“With a swarming D, of course.”

She nodded, scrunched back, stared through the windshield. They were quiet in the sweeping circle around Philadelphia. When they were moving through the lights again, into Delaware, she looked up at him.

“Daddy?”

“I’m right here.”

“Daddy, how do you beat a zone?”

“Outside shooting, poops.”

“The ultimate weapon, Daddy?”

“Skyhook.”

“What do you do with four corners, Daddy?”

“Hold a lead.”

“Says who, Daddy?”

“Says the Tarheels.”

“. . . Daddy?”

“I hear you.”

“Who needs desire?”

“Anybody who wants to win, luv.”

She was silent, looked gravely up through the windshield.

“Seat belt all right?” he said.

“Uh huh.”

As Washington loomed, she said, “Daddy?”

“Pit stop?”

“Not yet. . . Daddy, where did Al McGuire have Cousy?” “Heck, in his hip pocket.”

She bounced once, settled back. She was very still, but outside of Richmond she stirred.

“Daddy? Run to daylight?”

He glanced down very briefly.

“Lombardi,” he said.

“Purple People Eaters, Daddy?”

“The Vikings.”

“Shotgun, Daddy?”

“Roger the Dodger.”

“Rockne, Daddy?”

“Go, go, go, go, go.”

“What else, Daddy?”

“Fight, fight, fight, fight, fight.”

“. . . Daddy?”

“Yes, babe?”

“What do you have to tell Mommy, no matter what?” He looked down at her and smiled, then returned to the road. “Eat the darn ball.”

“What else, Daddy?”

“Swallow the apple.”

“What else, Daddy?”

He nodded, tightened his mouth. “It isn’t over till it’s over.”

She sighed.

They crossed into North Carolina and she looked up at him. “Daddy?”

“What, cookie?”

She wriggled against her seat belt.

“Daddy, if Mommy yells and screams, what do you have to do?”

He hitched up his shoulders.

“Daddy, what?”

He rolled his neck.

“Daddy?”

He pushed down on the accelerator, just a whisper.

“What, Daddy?”

“. . . Give her a T,” he said grimly.

“Daddy?”

“Tell her to take five.”

“Daddy?”

“Sit her down for . . . a quarter.”

“Daddy!”

He looked down. She smiled up and nodded. “What, Daddy?”

“KICK. . . BUTT,” he said.

She sighed and said, “I’m going to take a nap now, Daddy.”

She pulled the blanket up to her shoulders and leaned against him. Soon her head dropped against his arm.

He hunkers down over the wheel. He pulls out of the flow, weaves ahead, spots a Ford. He slides in behind it and picks up the slipstream. He feels the gentle pull, knows he is in splendid position. He checks the dashboard. Everything is ready. With concentration, intensity, momentum, and perfect rhythm, they race toward the checkered flag of dawn.