Of all the little girls in the world, how lucky she was to belong to Kate. Kate, with her cute dresses and pleated skirts, her twelve rainbow-colored tights and headbands. But Kate wasn’t only a girlie girl. Look at her doing handstands and cartwheels, the precision and power of her leaps off the twin bed. She was a rocket, an airplane, comet, meteorite, her long brown shiny hair flung out behind her like a cape, a big grin showing off her missing front tooth.
“You really need a skirt that twirls,” said Pixie.
Kate was wearing her yellow kimono with a pink obi.
“You don’t have anything like that in your closet.” Pixie felt something thrumming. “Sunny yellow, fire engine red, peanut brown, twenty-four dollars at Blytheson’s online.”
Kate leaped off the bed and landed, a perfect dismount, but the reading lamp on the nightstand wobbled and the bookshelf spit out two books, thud, thud, and oh, no, that meant big trouble.
“Kate!” yelled Mom.
“Shoot,” said Pixie.
Mom stood in the doorway, hands on hips. Always in those baggy gray sweatpants. Go away, Mom. Oh, geez, not that boring lecture again about no rough housing in the house and if she wanted to do that, go outside, for heaven’s sake, they had a backyard, and that play structure Kate had wanted so badly for Christmas, but did Kate ever use it? No, she didn’t, and all the money that could have gone to her college fund, out in the backyard rotting away.
“But Pixie can’t play on the play structure, and Pixie is my best friend,” said Kate, kissing Pixie’s cheek.
If Pixie could move her plastic face, she’d smile, a magnificent smile of pride that she, after only a week at the Fenwick household, had taken the coveted spot of best friend to Kate Fenwick.
“Pixie can sit on the bench and watch,” said Mom, her tone menacing.
“Can I get a new skirt?” said Kate.
“A yellow one, I don’t have a yellow one,” said Kate.
“At Blytheson’s,” said Pixie. “Don’t you think Kate would look great?”
Pixie studied Mom. Her body was tubular, her lusterless brown hair like a dried-out, dirty mop. Half-lowered puffy eyelids, a sag to her cheeks, the beginning of jowls, long lines from her nose to her mouth, Mom, who spent hours doing data entry for MicroGut, tracking bacteria in peoples’ colons for ultimate optimal health.
“Mom?” said Pixie.
Mom raised an eyebrow.
“There’s a new anti-aging lotion that’s just come out. Getting rave reviews.”
A flicker of fear in her eyes. Mom touched her face, cautiously, tenderly.
“At Lobell’s,” said Pixie. “You’ll look ten years younger.”
“I’d really love that skirt,” said Kate.
Mom blinked, as if coming out of a trance. “Go out. Now!”
Kate pouted. “But it’s not very fun for Pixie.”
Mom glared at Pixie. “We can always take Pixie back.”
Pixie felt a sudden vibration. “It’s okay, Kate,” said Pixie, eyeing Mom closely. “I’ll watch you play on the play structure. I’ve seen it through the window. It’s really great, solid cedar, slide, swings, monkey bars, endless hours of fun and exercise!” Pixie paused, searched, and blurted out, “1,264 dollars worth of fun and exercise.”
When the phone rang, Kate grabbed Pixie and darted downstairs.
“Put on your sweatshirt!” said Mom.
In fact, Pixie had never been outside. Yellowish light poured over everything, and little brown birds darted, bird after bird, swooping, diving, swerving, a flash, a flutter of wings. Whoever made this world, she went all out. Every shade of green: lime, apple green, teal, viridian, olive, sea green, mint, shamrock, emerald, yellow green. And the flowers, like party confetti tossed along the fence line.
Kate set Pixie on a lawn chair and ran to the play structure. Fluffy moseyed over to Pixie and sniffed her face. “Get away, you old flea bag,” hissed Pixie.
Fluffy scampered away. Kate flung herself down the slide, then rushed to the swing and, pumping her legs back and forth, back and forth, thrust herself higher, higher, jumping off, landing on the grass, and it wasn’t a perfect dismount, but practice made perfect.
“Nice!” said Pixie.
Kate ran over to the sandbox and began digging furiously with a red shovel.
Sand is bad, thought Pixie.
“Mom’s mean,” said Kate, staring at the sand hole. “I want to run away.”
Pixie ran algorithms, searched for patterns. How would Kate survive? Kate was intelligent, but not Mensa. What skills did she have? What talent? Pasting, coloring, cutting, beading.
“Where would we go?” said Pixie, trying to steady her voice. “What would you do for a living?”
Kate sighed loudly. “I really want that skirt.”
Pixie saw Dad at the kitchen window. What a relief. Dad was fun and funny, and Kate was his sweetie pie, his twinkle toes, his Katie Watie, and he was a real softy, when it came to Kate, whatever she wanted. But what was he doing home so early? A white flare went off. Patterns disturbed at the Fenwick household. It meant something, but what? More data needed. Pixie glanced up, and as far as the eye could see, a wide bowl of brilliant steel blue. Pixie searched for the word to organize the world: sky. She couldn’t take her eyes off it. An inexplicable warmth flooded Pixie, how vibrant the sky, how loving and omniscient and kind.
“Let’s swing,” said Kate.
Kate picked her up and ran to the swing, and, tucking Pixie’s legs under the elastic band of her shorts, soon Pixie felt the wind on her face, and the sky reached for her, and she surged with energy and conviction and courage and perfection and knew—all equations confirmed this—Dad would buy the skirt.
“You know you can’t get dirty or you might not work,” said Kate. “Mom and Dad said so.”
Pixie didn’t know what Kate meant, but she didn’t care. “I want to swing every single day.”
“Hey, Dad’s home,” said Kate. “I hope I get that new skirt.”
You will, thought Pixie. “Let’s go ask.”
Dad called a family meeting at the kitchen table. He loosened his red tie and yanked it off, and it looked like his pull-string broke. Usually Dad’s face was ruddy, his hair full, bearish. But now he looked like cement, and his hair was flattened like a brown paper bag. He blew out stale air. “Ten years at that place,” he said. “Just like that. It’s over.”
Mom talked and talked about how change was good, how Dad was ready to leave anyway, he was bored out of his skull, ten million solar panels sold, he needed a challenge, he had an MBA for heaven’s sake, and with his résumé, he’d get something better, more interesting, challenging.
“You’ll find something,” said Mom, squeezing his arm.
Dad put his head in his hands.
“Why did they fire you?” said Kate. “Did you make a mistake?”
“For god’s sake, I wasn’t fired!” snarled Dad. “I was let go.”
Pixie whirred and churned. Kate’s eyes were shiny like buttons. She stared at her chicken nuggets. The kitchen table was scratched, the forks dull.
“Do you want to play, Kate?” said Pixie.
“Can I be excused?” said Kate.
Mom nodded solemnly, not scolding her about the grammatical difference between can and may.
Later, as Kate took her bubble bath, Pixie lay on Kate’s flowered bedspread, listening to the pipes sing, trying to come up with a pick-up-your-spirits-plan for Dad. She remembered Dad raving about his mountain bike ride up Mount Tam and the sun rising, the hills glowing, and, he, covered in sweat, panting, felt on top of the world. When he test-drove a Monoracer—one day, maybe, a man needs to dream—the roar of the engine burrowed deep in his bones, giving him an extra energy source. Other things: Boston Coffee Cake, melting maple syrup, a blazer with slender lapels, an old Bela Lugosi movie. He once smoked and loved the smell of tobacco, but he wanted to live a long time, so he quit. He’d said some other stuff that Pixie could barely remember, something about how Wilson was inferior to Abraham Lincoln and green logs smoked up the fireplace.
Kate came out of the bath, wrapped in a towel, shimmering and new, as if she’d just come out of her box. She got in her pajamas and climbed into bed. Mom came in, her eyelids swollen, her nose red.
“Dad’s having a rough time, but everything’s all right,” said Mom. “I don’t want you to worry.”
“Is Dad going to get a new job?” said Kate, her voice small.
“Yes,” said Mom. “A better one.”
“Then can I get the skirt?”
Mom frowned and tucked the comforter under her chin. “Pixie, can you tell Kate a story tonight?”
“Good night,” said Mom, kissing Kate on the forehead. “Love you.”
“Love you, too,” said Kate, but without the usual enthusiasm.
“Night, Mom,” said Pixie.
“Night,” said Mom, worry lines all over her aging face.
Would she get the cream or not? Pixie sighed. “Once upon a time,” said Pixie, “there was a Dad who lost his job. He wasn’t fired, but he was let go …”
Two weeks went by, three, four, five, 120 résumés flung out into the world, but nothing, only terrible, deafening silence, Dad said, the silence of the world turning its callous, cold back. His face was a mask of sullen defeat, a new droop to his shoulders, as if raising one would take more energy than he had to spare.
It irritated Pixie, because here it was Saturday again, with no plans to do anything but stay at home, because money was tight, so not even a lousy trip to the grocery store. Mom was at work, an extra shift, and Dad was holed up in the basement, building another miniature sailboat. The numbers on the clock flipped. Kate lay on her bed, wiping her runny nose.
“Why don’t you invite Jenny over?” said Pixie.
Kate looked around her bedroom. “But what will we do? It’s so boring.”
“She’s fun and loves to play,” said Pixie.
The last time Jenny came over, she brought a big bag of sparkling new toys—a dog that rolled over and sniffed at anything that dropped on the floor. Shoes that sang Edelweiss as you walked; building blocks that talked and suggested different configurations, and the girls built the Eiffel Tower and the Golden Gate Bridge. What a super time they had, laughing and laughing, that bubbly light sound floating in the air. After that play date, Mom and Dad wrote on Kate’s birthday list: talking building blocks—early signs of an engineer?
Kate called down to Dad and asked if she could have a play date with Jenny. Dad peered up from the basement, his face a lost white orb floating in darkness. He was still in his ratty brown bathrobe. “Good idea,” he said.
Jenny could come over for a couple hours, Jenny’s mom told Dad, but then she had ballet, programming, French lessons, and Mindflex. Kate perched on her knees on the couch, staring out the front window, waiting for Jenny. Big gusts of wind whacked the house, sending the shutters clanging against the shingles. Pixie hoped Jenny didn’t see the white paint peeling off the garage door, or the dying magnolias lining the driveway, like dutiful soldiers, barely hanging on.
When Jenny arrived, she stepped out of her car in a pink cardigan, a cute stone-gray skirt, white tights, and she was holding an enormous bag. “Yeah! She’s here,” said Kate, jumping up and down.
“With toys,” said Pixie.
Kate grabbed Pixie and Jenny’s hand, and the trio ran up to Kate’s room. Jenny started pulling out her new stuff and as the pile grew—an updated version of the building blocks that included an elevator—the house felt happier, brighter, sing-songy. They built the London Bridge, then played with the scribblebot and the flying red bird, which circled overhead, squawking, “Jenny, you’re the best! Jenny, you’re the best!”
Jenny pulled out a new pair of boots. “Try these on.”
Kate slipped them on. “What do they do?”
Jenny smiled slyly. “Jump.”
Kate jumped and flew five feet up in the air.
“Wow!” said Kate. She leaped around the room, the walls rattling, the bookshelf shaking, flinging out five books. “I love these!”
Luckily, Mom wasn’t home, or she would have stormed in here, stopping the fun.
“My dad got them for me,” said Jenny.
“Maybe you can get a pair, Kate,” said Pixie.
Kate stopped. Plopped to the ground, tucked her knees to her chest. “I can’t,” she said with tears behind her voice.
“Why?” said Jenny.
“We don’t have any money anymore.”
“Put it on your birthday list,” said Pixie quickly. “That’s two months away. Everything will be fine by then.”
Kate began to cry.
“Why can’t you get them?” said Jenny, her voice alarmed and slightly accusatory.
Kate shook her head, wiping the tears off with the back of her hand.
Jenny picked up Kate’s stuffed baby-blue dog. “Does it do anything?”
Jenny wrinkled her freckled nose. “Why do you have it?”
Kate put her chin on her knees. “I don’t know.”
Jenny threw the dog on Kate’s bed and stood, surveying the room, as if she didn’t know what she was doing here.
“Why don’t you read one of Jenny’s talking books?” said Pixie.
“I’ve already heard them all,” said Jenny.
Kate looked so sad.
“How about go outside?” said Pixie.
Kate looked over at Jenny, expectantly.
“What time is it?” said Jenny. “When is my mom coming?”
Another hour to go. Pixie rifled through data from the previous play date—Pre-Dad-Let-Go Era—searching for snacks for Jenny, but all the things she loved—egg rolls, cheese pizza, mango strawberry smoothie—were not in the Fenwicks’ fridge.
The girls sat on the picnic bench. Jenny pulled out her Pocketpad and showed Kate videos of all her adventures, including her horseback riding lesson, with Jenny posed on a black horse in black boots and a tan helmet, her pointy chin tipped up in the air.
“It’s so much fun,” said Jenny.
“I wish I could do that,” said Kate.
“Oh, look at this,” said Jenny. “Here I am, paragliding in Hawaii.”
“You’re the luckiest girl I know,” said Kate.
The sun felt hot on Pixie’s head. She sat there, wishing Jenny’s mom would come early, come now, whirling over the question: how would she ever make Kate happy?
Mom came home from work, flung off her tight black heels, and made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch. When Kate stared sadly at her plate, Mom said she didn’t want a pouty face again because there were children in Bangladesh or somewhere who had nothing to eat, so eat her sandwich and be grateful, for heaven’s sake.
Dad emerged from the dank basement and slumped at the kitchen table. It had been a while since Pixie was this close to him. Vibrations gathered and warmth flooded her, but the shakes turned burning hot as they buzzed closer together, colliding, funneling down to a cluster of conclusions. The once fun and funny guy was gone, replaced by a new version of Dad who moped around in his bathrobe and spent hours in the basement. He’d stopped shaving and his chin looked like a Brillo Pad.
He sank further in his chair, like a popped balloon.
“How’s the miniature sailboat going?” said Mom.
“Maybe I should go back to sales,” he said.
“I think that’s a great idea,” said Mom.
“I hate sales,” said Dad.
Nothing but the bare basics for weeks. Mom’s job barely made a dent in the mountain of debt—how did it get so huge? Poor Kate looked dusty, like she’d sat on a shelf too long.
“I think you’d be a good vet,” said Kate. “You love animals.”
“A great idea, Kate,” said Pixie.
“Where is Fluffy?” said Mom. “Has anyone seen Fluffy?”
“Vet school is years of study,” said Dad, in his new downtrodden voice. “If I could just get an interview. I interview really well, you know, I make eye contact, smile, nod at the right times.”
“Fluffy is at the neighbors,” said Pixie, churning. “I heard his bark three minutes ago, about one hundred yards away from here.”
Mom took off her blue suit coat. On their new leaner, more cost-conscious food budget, Mom had lost seven pounds. She looked good, even better if she had a new pair of skinny jeans to show off her curvaceous body. That might perk up Dad. Pixie made a note to herself to mention it to Mom at the right time. Kate took a bite of her sandwich and tossed it on her plate. The dishwasher quivered. Pixie listened to the lovely low hum of the refrigerator. But the washing machine was shaking, as if clothes were being torn to shreds.
Dead silence. Pixie wanted to ask Dad what he did all day down in the basement and didn’t he think there was a more productive use of his time? His family, languishing, Kate mostly miserable and scared, but making a good effort not to show it every minute of the day, and what kind of father did this to his daughter?
“Dad,” said Pixie. She was going to give him a piece of her mind, but felt a painful, shocking jolt.
He stopped chewing.
“Let’s talk about ice cream,” she said.
Dad pushed back his chair and trudged down to the basement. Mom got up and cleared the dishes.
A flash of light in Kate’s eyes. “Mine’s chocolate mint.”
“Me, too. Isn’t it great?” said Pixie.
Kate opened her eyes wide. “Mom? Can Pixie …”
“No, she can’t.”
“Mom,” said Kate, her voice hesitant. “Can I get …”
Mom crossed her arms and frowned. “No, no you can’t.”
Eight weeks, still no job for Dad. Ten miniature sailboats now lined the fireplace mantle. Whenever Mom went by them, her face tightened like a crunched-up napkin. Kate was watching cartoons, and Pixie was half dozing, waiting for the commercials. She’d come up with a game to entertain Kate and give her something to hope for.
“Look!” said Pixie. A commercial for a new toy.
Kate grabbed her notebook and pen. A pen with glow-in-the-dark ink that told you when you spelled something wrong.
“So cool!” said Kate.
“Put it on your birthday list!”
Kate was writing it down when music trickled into the TV room and collapsed on the shag green rug. The piano notes, singular, distinct, absolute frequencies in hertz, the keys of a standard eighty-eight-key piano in a twelve-tone equal temperament. Who was playing that poor old bag of black and white keys? It was the saddest sound that Pixie had ever heard.
Slowly, tentatively, Kate picked up Pixie and tiptoed into the living room. The sad sound was burrowing into Pixie’s circuitry. At the piano, her eyes closed, tears streaming down her face, sat Mom.
Did she lose her job too? What was going to happen now? Kate stopped, pressing Pixie to her chest. Pixie heard Kate’s heart beating hard, fast.
“Mom?” said Pixie.
Mom opened her eyes and smiled brightly.
Pixie didn’t know what to make of it. The sad music—the low notes still reverberating inside—all the algorithms led to the conclusion that low notes were sorrowful—not to mention the tears. But Mom’s smile was bright, and her brown eyes, slightly red, looked twinkly and happy. Someone said—who?—searching, whirring—the eyes are the window to your soul. Mom’s soul (what is soul?) was happy, too, but what about the tears? (Shakespeare.) The sorrowful music? A cyclone of new disturbing feeling ripped through Pixie.
Mom dried her face with the yellow dishrag. Kate rushed over and sat on the piano bench next to Mom. Pixie nestled on Kate’s lap.
“I forgot all about music,” said Mom. “I used to love to play the piano. When I was a little girl, I played all the time. I thought I’d grow up and be a famous pianist, imagine that. I’d travel around the world, playing everywhere, amazing audiences who’d stand, demanding more, more.”
Kate snuggled against Mom’s arm.
“Are you sad and happy at the very same moment in time?” said Pixie.
“I suppose you could say that.”
Kate smiled at Mom, as if all was well and there were no profound and disconcerting paradox going on right in front of their eyes. Pixie could find no patterns to decipher meaning.
“Can you draw me a picture of a horse?” said Kate.
“In a minute,” said Mom, standing. She went over to the big gaping mouth of the basement and called down. “Hon, can you come up here?”
Dad lumbered up the stairs. Still in his bathrobe. His hair was choppy, big swatches tossed here and there like a wind-blown field of wheat. Haircuts too expensive, he did his own chopping. The back of his hair, uneven. His glasses were held together by duct tape. His palms were so dry and cracked from all the gluing, they looked like old plates. No one asked anymore how his miniature sailboat was going.
What did Mom see in Dad? Pixie had heard the story about how they’d met in college. Dad, lounging in the student cafeteria when Mom sauntered in, wearing faded jeans, a red sweater, and those ringlets of caramel-brown hair. Dad came over and said, “Have you tried the stuffed mushrooms?” Before she could answer, he had a plate on the table. Those long dark eyelashes and startling green eyes and he was so sweet, handing Mom a napkin, and refilling her coffee cup. Even if he was wearing a T-shirt that said, This is my Otter Shirt. They went on a date, and another, another, and he bought little things for Mom, things Mom liked—how on Earth did he know?
“Like what?” Pixie had said, feeling something tighten and focus. Lavender vanilla ice cream, Coltrane, Keats, clove cigarettes, postcards of basset hounds. “Remember the cake?” Mom had said. “I walked out of my statistics exam, and there was Dad, holding a butter-cream frosted cake.”
Now Mom stood in the living room. “I have an announcement.”
Dad retied his bathrobe belt. His chest was bare, and black hair poked out.
She took a deep breath. “I’ve taken a second job.”
A flush crawled up Dad’s chest, as if a wire inside sparked.
“We’re a team,” said Mom.
“But I’ve got résumés out for sales jobs,” said Dad, “customer service call centers, marketing, even driving a delivery truck.”
“Something will turn up,” said Mom. “But for now, I’ll pick up the slack.”
She’d be working at the Robot4u factory. “Nothing that interesting,” she said. “Data entry. Filing, but it’s fine.”
“Thank you, Mom,” said Kate, hugging Mom around the waist. “Thank you.”
Mom as breadwinner. A powerhouse, a power woman, superwoman. Pixie had underestimated Mom, pinning all her hopes on Dad, when all the while Mom was working behind the scenes to save them. Only five weeks away, Kate would have her big birthday party after all. Her birthday list had grown to four pages long. She’d taped it to her bedroom door.
Pixie buzzed and fizzed and wanted to say, new suit, new blouse, power shoes, attaché case. At the same time, another force, strong, urgent, rushed through her and she wanted to say, poor, exhausted Mom, that piano dream lost forever, how are you going to manage all this? The clash inside roiled, and what first came out was: “Great job, Mom. Amazing.” And then, almost like a burp, she said, “Don’t you think you need a new outfit?”
With Mom gone all the time, dust balls gathered under the couch, the kitchen table, and piles of laundry waited to be washed, sorted, folded. Dirty dishes sulked in the sink. Bills on the table, the checkbook splayed open, like it had been shot. If Pixie had moveable arms, she’d get to work, because threaded in the air, she was picking up new signals—worry, anger, regret, mostly fear. A vibration that was quick—ping ping ping—like a hammer against a tinny nail. Pixie had to stare at the wall for hours to calm down. Dad sighing a lot in his bathrobe. He landed some gigs—hauling rusted lawn furniture to the dump, mowing lawns. On Tuesdays, he walked five dogs.
But it wasn’t enough. The piano was sold. Along with the Turkish rug, the good china. They didn’t have much quality stuff, but now they were down to old Teflon pans, thin sheets, musty pillows. Mom developed a persistent cough that would send her into double-over coughing fits. From all the data entry, her wrists ached and she had to wear two white support bands, medical grade. Her tongue was red from sucking cough drops.
Kate stayed at school for hours, because Mom was at work until six o’clock, typing and filing her fingers numb, and Dad had started taking a class to become a plumber. So Pixie had a lot of time on her hands. Today she was marooned in the living room, and with the morning rush, they’d forgotten to turn off the TV. Exploding bombs, crying children, water shortage in Nairobi, Kenya, companies closing, 50,000 jobs gone, a tsunami killed 50,000, slaughter of elephants, a lost little boy—has anyone seen him?—a big puff of black hair? Tragedies strewn all over the house, Pixie felt something crackle inside and tried to stop listening.
Hours later, when Kate finally got home, Pixie cried out, “Kate, let’s play!”
Kate picked up Pixie and dragged herself upstairs. Outside the sky was dark, cold gray.
Kate lay on her bed, curled into a ball.
“Let’s play, let’s play!”
“How about jump and leap and cartwheel?” said Pixie, her tone slightly hysterical.
Kate closed her eyes. Pixie heard the front door slam. The reverberation made her queasy, and Pixie knew something was different in the Fenwick household, maybe even terribly wrong, though she couldn’t say how she knew this. She heard plodding footsteps coming up the stairs, Mom and Dad murmuring in the hall, right outside Kate’s bedroom. The door slowly opened.
“We have some big news,” said Mom.
Kate sat up and clapped. “You’re going to buy me another Pixie doll for my birthday?”
Mom and Dad were smiling, but it was like the time Mom played the piano—smiling but with sadness, too.
“You’re going to have a brother or sister,” said Dad.
Mom shook her head, that heavy sad smile, then patted her stomach. “A baby.”
“Oh,” said Kate, glumly.
Dad’s lower lip hung out, and the line on his forehead looked deeper, like a pen mark. Everything dropped away, even the sounds of Fluffy barking outside. Beneath the vibrations that made Pixie want to squeal: how exciting, soon the house will blossom with a baby crib, a changing table, stretchy sleepers, hats, onesies, burp cloths, bottles, nursing pillow receiving blankets, diapers, toys, saucer, blocks, Pixie had another thought: are you sure you want to bring another human into this treacherous, terrifying world? A leap of faith, a leap that everything will be okay, even better than expected, that you harbor a nugget of knowledge, some ounce of wisdom to make the future bright, that will make the potential of this new being blossom and flower? Holy cow, aren’t you suffering from a delusional, hopeful, naïve, idiotic state? And: how will you ever afford it?
This morning, Kate went off to school, leaving Pixie on a kitchen chair. Mom was at work. Dad hunched at the table, staring at his laptop, his face pickle-green.
Something sparked inside and Pixie blurted, “Sale at Penny’s Discount on new placemats. Check out www.pennysale.com.”
“Shut it,” said Dad.
If only she was up on Kate’s soft bed. If only she was listening to the hiss of the heater, or watching the numbers change on the clock—click, click—anything but Dad’s bad mood polluting the room. Dad popped handfuls of peanuts into his mouth and stared at the screen, frantically hitting the down button. The dishwasher was broken, with no plans to fix it, so Pixie couldn’t even listen to its music. Dad rubbed his eyes and leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms.
Pixie trembled. “Nothing?”
“Nope. I just applied for an all-night clerk position at a convenience store.” He laughed bitterly.
Dad was pale, even his lips. It was raining hard, big blobs plopping on the back porch, slamming into the window. The sky looked angry.
“Hey, Dad,” said Pixie. “I’d love to hear about something you once loved.”
Dad glanced over, and Pixie thought he was going to bark at her. Instead, he smiled softly. “I had this MG convertible. Fire-engine red.”
A car, thought Pixie, feeling herself relax.
“I was nineteen. Twenty-three years ago. I bought it with the money I earned as a newspaper boy. A thousand dollars, which was a lot back then, let me tell you.”
Twenty-three years ago. Of course she knew Dad and Mom were older than Kate. They were bigger, meatier, wrinklier, pouches and puddles of extra skin, freckles on Mom’s fair-skinned arms, dark circles under their eyes, their eyes sunken into their skulls, as if they were retreating because they’d seen too much of the world. Yes, she knew they were older, but she’d never thought how they got to be that way, or that one day they would expire. How she knew this, she wasn’t quite sure. But how awful for them. With Kate gone for hours, Pixie sometimes sang softly to assure herself she still existed in this universe, on this planet, in California, in San Francisco, at Twenty-fourth Street with the Fenwick family, in a Victorian, built in 1917, a house with good bones, but lately pretty bare.
“God, that car was as loud as an airplane,” said Dad. “You had to pump the gas pedal three, four times for the engine to catch, then the whole car shook, even the black plastic seats, like a wild horse.” Dad laughed softly. “The stick shift. You had to use two hands to move it from park to drive and the gas gauge didn’t work. I’d be driving along, then suddenly the car would start to slow, stop. I’d have to pull over to the shoulder. Out of gas. Room for a passenger, but if he was too big, he’d have to scrunch up.”
Dad pulled his knees together and put his hands under his chin in tight fists, and Pixie imagined Dad as a young boy, small, like he was making himself now, a sprinkling of freckles across his nose, in overalls, a white T-shirt, walking barefoot on the grass, wide open to whatever the world would give him, which he thought would be only good and wonderful things.
“It wasn’t safe, but it made me so happy.”
Pixie had listened closely, closer than she ever had. But it didn’t make sense. This car, everything wrong with it, brought Dad happiness?
“I washed it every weekend, and, boy, did it sparkle.”
“I’m puzzled, Dad. Why did it make you happy?”
He laughed. How long had it been since she’d heard him laugh?
Pixie was standing on the edge of her knowledge or information, whatever it was, and she peered over, and below was a deep dark expanse, as far as the eye could see, and she sensed she should be scared, but she wasn’t. Because as she stared, she saw sparks of light, like the little white lights that Mom hung on the Christmas tree and made her smile and say, “I can believe in the world with lights like that in the house.” Another incomprehensible statement that Pixie spent hours processing.
“But,” she said, speaking slowly, “it was not a good car. Not practical. Not safe. No leg room.”
The coffee maker gurgled and coughed. Something in the dark expanse shimmered. Not emanating from an algorithm or an equation or any logical pattern recognition. There were more lights to be found beyond the edge, she sensed that.
“I thought by now I’d have my own company,” said Dad, staring at Pixie with what she thought might be stunned sadness. “Managing hundreds of people, rolling in the dough.”
Along with hope, a fundamental belief in the goodness of the world seemed to have been pressed out of him. He put his hand over his mouth. “All I wanted was to be a good father, a good husband. Jesus, another baby on the way. And Kate’s birthday. What are we going to do about that?”
Pixie felt something lurch inside. Won’t someone give this man a job, so he can swagger down a beige hallway, shoulders thrown back like a peacock? Make him a manager so he can stand with his hands on his hips, bouncing slightly on his toes, surveying the scene, discussing strategy? If she could change the rules of the world.
Dad pushed aside the bowl of peanuts.
“I’m sorry,” said Pixie. She wanted to reach over and hold his hands. What elegant, long, delicate fingers. She’d never noticed them before.
Dad hung his head. He looked terrifying—delicate and doomed. “Thanks.”
“I’m really sorry.”
With Kate’s birthday one week away, Pixie brimmed with new gift ideas, things so much better than anything Jenny had, and the ideas kept popping into her brain like little firecrackers that exploded so often, they gave her a pounding headache. And they were piling up, because Pixie couldn’t get herself to say any of them out loud. Kate already had a seven-page birthday wish list taped to her door, thousands of dollars’ worth of crap.
“I think it’s time to take the birthday list down,” said Pixie, her words coming out thick.
Kate stopped drawing her picture of a house on fire. “Why?”
There would be no big birthday bash, Pixie knew that. Maybe a few friends over for a movie and pizza. Mom had one new thing for her, Pixie had spotted a plastic bag, about the size of a shoe box. Jumping shoes? Grandma would probably send another homemade flannel nightgown. Dad? Maybe one of his sailboats.
Kate’s eyes widened. “I went to Branley’s party and she had an animal show and a clown and jumpy room and so many kids were there, so many presents.”
Kate had carefully written each gift idea. Such fine penmanship.
“You know, you have me,” said Pixie, “and you can have a lot of fun with your crayons.”
Kate’s lower lip quivered.
“The things you can do with a big cardboard box.”
“But who will like me?”
She had a point: how could she compete with the Jennys of the world? Pixie thought of Dad, the glimmer of tears in his eyes. When the piano was hauled away by the fat sweaty man, Mom wrung her hands, as if she wanted to run over and play it one more time. Pixie felt like she could just cry for them all, as if they were all children abandoned, helpless even to struggle.
“I will. And Mom and Dad love you very much,” said Pixie. “I’ll always play with you. There’s so much we can do.”
She went on, telling her about brown-paper-bag puppets and Frisbees made from paper plates. More than anything, she wanted to cradle Kate in her arms and rock her, smooth her shiny hair, which was falling out of this morning’s neat ponytail. “Remember the generous wind and its shush sound,” said Pixie. “The little blue forget-me-nots valiantly growing by the porch.”
Kate’s face softened, a soft smile.
“And toilet paper rolls …” Pixie stuttered, as if working toward a deeper truth, something that Kate, the Fenwick family, the neighbors, all of humanity needed to know, before Pixie’s world contracted, darkened, a narrow funnel of fading light, as she sputtered, sparked and shut down.
Kate ran down to the kitchen, carrying Pixie, calling for Mom and Dad. “Something’s wrong,” she whimpered.
Dad was huddled in front of the laptop, stabbing at the return key.
“Pixie!” cried Kate. “Wake up. Wake up.”
“Is she charged?” said Mom, wiping her hands on a dishtowel.
Kate nodded tearfully.
Dad pushed aside the computer and took Pixie in both hands. “Did you drop her?”
Kate shook her head.
“You have to be careful with her,” said Dad. “Intricate circuitry.” Dad undid her dress, studied her back. “Maybe there’s a defect in this one. Probably designed that way.” Dad smacked Pixie’s back a couple times. Whack whack. “Did you keep the receipt?”
No. No receipt.
Kate grabbed Pixie from Dad and hugged her, hoping that would bring her back to life, but Pixie lay there, lifeless. Slowly Kate set her on the table, stepped back, and crossed her arms. “She doesn’t do anything,” said Kate, her voice stern.
“Maybe she was built that way, like Dad said,” said Mom.
“A piece of junk,” said Dad.
Kate felt a surge of anger and glared at the doll. “She said she’d always play with me.”
“Well, you can keep her on your bed, if you want,” said Mom.
“No, I don’t want it.”
“Maybe sell it?” said Mom.
“Who would buy it?” said Dad. “Just get rid of it.”
“Yeah,” said Kate. “But can I get a new one for my birthday?”
Nina Schuyler is the author of the award-winning novel, The Translator. Her first novel, The Painting, was nominated for the Northern California Book Award and was named a “Year’s Finest Best Book” by the San Francisco Chronicle. She teaches creative writing at the University of San Francisco.