She says her name is Holiday, but I know she’s lying. I remember her face. It was all over the news for weeks, years even, but of course she doesn’t know that. I briefly consider telling her, saying something like, “Hey, did you know you’re a star?” But that would necessitate bringing up the subject of her death, and I’m not clear if she knows that she’s a ghost, or that almost everyone thinks her parents killed her. That doesn’t seem like the kind of thing any kid should have to hear, so instead I say, “Holiday? That’s a pretty name.”
Her body starts jerking in a strange way as she moves across my bedroom floor, her arms held out, her hands moving to some secret rhythm, and I think she’s re-enacting her death, the way some ghosts do, until I realize that she’s tap-dancing, her blond curls bouncing, that little-miss smile plastered across her face, bright red like she just finished eating a cherry Popsicle. I figured she came to tell me who offed her, but instead she came to dance and tell me lies.
“Why don’t you come here?” I pat beside me on the bed. Just like that she’s gone. Like I’m a pervert or something. Poor dumb kid.
• • • •
That’s all there is until about a week later. This time I’m asleep on the couch and she wakes me up, singing a country western song. She’s wearing a black cowboy hat with a big gold star on the front, a little black-and-red-fringed skirt, a denim shirt with silver buttons, and red tasseled cowboy boots that come about halfway up her calves. She looks pretty cute. She’s singing in the dulcet tone of someone twice her age, and right away I understand the confusion people felt about her, the strange aura of sexuality that comes off her and shouldn’t. When she sees me watching, she waves, her little fingers slightly bent, but she doesn’t miss a beat, even when she winks.
This is so freaking weird I don’t know what to do, so I wait until she’s finished and then I applaud.
She curtsies, holding out the skirt with the tips of her tiny fingers, her perfect blond curls undisturbed by her dance and song.
“So,” I say, “Holiday, right?”
She nods, her red lips smirked.
“You hungry?” I pick up the half-full bag of Doritos on the coffee table in front of the couch and extend it toward her. She shakes her head. “Wanna watch a movie?” I ask. She just stands there, staring at me, squinting slightly, looking like she just might start crying, as though I have awoken her from some dream about Barbie dolls and Christmas and a perfect life, into this reality of being murdered and stuck, for all eternity, at age six, tap-dancing forever. I look through my DVD collection, Kill Bill (1, 2, and 3), Seven Samurais, The Shining, Howard Stern’s Private Parts (severely underrated and underappreciated, by the way), City of Women, My Architect, Wild Weather Caught on Tape (a gift from an old girlfriend), and The Wet Women of California, which, swear to God, I had forgotten all about. None of it exactly seems like the sort of thing to watch with a six-year-old murdered kid, so instead I turn on the TV and settle on the cooking channel, but I guess it wasn’t the right choice because next thing I know, I’m sitting alone watching this chick with a giant smile pouring liquid over hamburger meat. “Hey,” I say to the air, “come back, we don’t have to watch this.” But of course no one answers and no one appears. I pick up one of the DVDs, and put it in, just to get rid of the headache I feel coming on. In two seconds, I’m watching naked big-breasted women dive into the ocean, roll in the sand, and frolic with the waves and each other. I drink my warm beer and start to play with myself until I get the creepy feeling that maybe she’s still in the room. I take my hand out of my pants, flick off the DVD, and turn over, my face pressed against the couch.
The next day I go to the library. There’s a whole shelf devoted just to her. I page through the books and look at all the pictures. Yep, it’s her, all right. I don’t check out the books, just in case she comes back. I don’t want her to see them and get scared or anything. I don’t know why she’s coming to see me, but I want her to come back. When I read about how her father found her, wrapped in a blanket, as though someone was worried she would be cold, but with that rope around her neck, and all the rest, I feel like something inside me wakes up, and it’s not a completely disturbing feeling. I spend the whole day at the library and when I leave I’m tired, and hungry, but before I do anything else, I go to Walmart and buy the boxed collection of Shirley Temple DVDs. They were her favorite. Next time she comes, I’m going to be prepared. Sarah Vehler, who was in my brother’s class in high school, is the checkout girl. She’s gained about five hundred pounds since then and I barely recognize her, but she recognizes me just fine. “I didn’t know you have kids,” she says. What am I supposed to do, tell her I’ve got a ghost? Instead, I just shrug. Maybe that was a mistake. I don’t know. This was all new territory for me. I tried to do what was right.
When Terry, my agent, calls to see how the book is coming along, I tell him it’s just fine. “But hey,” I say, “I’m thinking of going in another direction, sort of.”
“Shoot,” Terry says.
I stumble around a bit and even though he’s thousands of miles away, I know he’s chewing his nicotine gum faster and faster until finally he says, “Listen, just give it to me in a sentence, all right?”
“I wanna write about—” and I say her name.
For a long time she was everyone’s little girl. The whole country followed her story and wanted vengeance for what was done to her, but now, hardly anyone even remembers her name.
“Oh, wait, the little Miss America kid, right? What’s she got to do with anything? Did your parents know her parents or something?”
“Well, not exactly, but—”
“Don’t blow this, okay? Memoir writing isn’t what it used to be, all right? Just stick to the facts, make sure it’s all documented.”
“Stick to your own story. You got enough there to keep you busy, right?”
“But Terry,” I say, “when I think about her, I mean, don’t you think what happened to her was a real travesty?”
“Travesty? Right. Of course it was. But what happened to you was a real travesty too, wasn’t it? Your whole family torn apart by false accusations, your father dying in prison for something he didn’t do. That’s the travesty you know. That’s the one you can write about.”
“I just think—”
“Okay, I know what’s happening here. Something in your mind, in your subconscious is trying to distract you from writing this, am I right? Huh?”
“I guess,” I say, glancing at my computer.
“Tell you what, why don’t you just take a couple of days? Give yourself a break. Watch movies. Take walks in the park. Get laid. Take some time off, is what I’m saying, not weeks or anything, but you know, take a few days, then you can come back to this all refreshed, okay?”
“Okay,” I say.
“Who cares if you’re a few days late, right?”
“Just forget about the kid,” he says. “She’s not your story.”
We say good-bye and I walk over to the computer and click on the file. I stare at the blank screen, certain that if I could just come up with the title, I could probably sail through the whole thing. But the title is elusive. Instead I take Terry’s advice and watch a movie, several in fact. Shirley Temple in black and white, highly, highly underrated. I don’t even know when she appears. But suddenly we are sitting on the couch, laughing. It feels so good to laugh like that I decide not to say anything. I don’t want to scare her off. I don’t know when she left. I fell asleep and when I woke up, she was gone.
The next day I sit staring at the screen on my computer for two hours. I know it sounds like an exaggeration, but I timed it. I try several titles. My Father’s Rules. I Am Not His Son. Rising Above the Prison He Resides In. Last Chance. You get the picture, right? Crap. I click off the computer and take Terry’s advice. I go to the park.
They are so young. So perfect, with their perfect skin and little teeth and they are dirty, and bratty, and crying, and laughing and completely absorbed by the sand in the sandbox, or the need to traverse the bars, dangling above the dangerous ground, holding tight, and it’s obvious it hurts, but they are determined, stubborn, wild, beautiful. I could watch them for hours, but instead I just watch for a little while; I know too well what the grownups will think about someone like me, a young man, all alone, watching children play. I turn away, hunched against the sudden cold, walking slowly, soon no longer able to hear the laughter and the sound of their voices, shouting names, or shouting nonsense.
God, how I envy them.
• • • •
When I get home, my brother is standing on my porch, hunched into his jacket, his hands in his pockets. “Hey,” he says.
“Hey,” I say. “What’s up?”
He shrugs, glances at my door and then gives me that pretend smile of his.
“I don’t have any,” I say.
“What? Oh, that hurts, bro,” he says. “I’m sincerely hurt. I just thought, you know, I’d stop by.”
I nod, but I do it with a smirk so that he knows I know the truth, even if we are going to play this game. I take the key out of my pocket and let us into the house.
“Christ,” he says.
“Don’t you ever clean up after yourself? Mom would shit if she saw this.”
“Well, she’s not going to see it, all right? We both know that. What do you want?”
He shrugs, but he’s casing the joint. I’m a writer. I notice these things. “Man, I’m just so hurt, bro,” he says. “What, you think I only come when—”
“Yeah,” I say. “Yeah, I do.”
We stand there, staring at each other, then he shrugs and walks into my living room, sits on the couch, I’m only half paying attention. He picks up the remote control. “Wait,” I say, but it’s too late, Shirley Temple is dancing across the screen, all dimples and innocence.
I don’t know what to do so I just stand there.
He’s laughing so hard, he’s bent over at the waist, and I start laughing too, and that’s when he jumps up and grabs me by the collar and pushes me against the wall.
“I should fucking kill you,” he says.
“It’s not like that. I’m doing some research.”
“I’m not the one,” I say, only ’cause I’m desperate, only ’cause he’s got this look in his eyes like he might really kill me.
He pushes me harder into the wall. He leans against me. “What did you say?”
“I’m not the one he liked most,” I say and he lets go as if I’m on fire. For a moment we are just standing there, breathing heavy and staring at each other. I try to make it right. I reach over to touch his shoulder but he jerks away.
He wipes his hand through his hair, licks his lips, and then wipes them with the back of his hand, and his eyes stay cold.
“Come on,” I try again.
He leans toward me, like he would kill me if he could stand to touch me. He speaks, real slow, breathing onion into my face, “But you’re the one who’s grown up to be just like him.”
“It’s fucking research,” I shout. He nods, like, sure, he doesn’t believe me. He walks out of my house, my fucking addict brother, thinking he’s got it all together and that I’m the one falling apart. I lock the door behind him, and when I turn, she’s there, tap-dancing across the kitchen in the outfit that caused all the controversy, the one with the feathers, and the black net stockings. “Oh, hi,” I say. “Did you catch any of that?”
She pirouettes in a furious twirl, a great flurry of tapping feet, and another twirl; I am sincerely amazed and clap until my hands feel raw. She smiles and smiles and then waves her arm, like a magician’s assistant, and that’s when I see the other little girl. She’s taller, her skin is black, her hair in two ponytails high on her head; she’s dressed just like a regular kid, a t-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops. “Hi,” I say. “What’s your name?”
She smiles, but it is a shy smile, her lips closed.
“Her name is Holiday too.”
I nod, puzzling this out.
“And today is her birthday.”
I turn to the girl, who looks up at me with her beautiful black eyes.
Both girls nod solemnly.
“Well, I don’t, let me see what I can find. I wasn’t expecting . . .” I rummage through the kitchen drawers and cabinets, making excuses all the while. “I wish I had known, I’m just so unprepared. A birthday? If I had known, I would have, I mean, balloons and cake . . .” The girls look up at me, bright-eyed. “But I’m sorry, I don’t, this is the best I can. Happy birthday,” I say, and set a plate on the table. In the middle of the plate is a jelly sandwich, and in the center of the sandwich is the stub of a lit candle left over from when I was still trying to impress dates. The whole thing looks pretty lame but the girl claps all the same. She tries valiantly to blow the candle out, and then they both try, and after a while they just look up at me, and I do it for them.
I’m not sure what to do next so I ask them if they want to watch Shirley Temple movies. We go into the living room and sit on the couch and I think they had a good time, though in the morning I discover the jelly sandwich untouched on the plate. It’s stale but I eat it just the same, sitting in front of the computer, searching the Internet sites of missing and murdered children, looking for the birthday girl, but I never do find her.
• • • •
Suddenly it’s like I’m running some kind of day care center for dead kids. She keeps bringing them to me, I don’t know why. We watch Shirley Temple movies, though she’s the one who likes them best, and, I have to admit, she can be pretty bratty about it at times. Actually, they all can be pretty bratty. They’re little kids, what can I say? They fight over which movie to watch, they run up and down the stairs, they jump off the kitchen table and the back of the couch. I recognize some of them. Without asking, I know some of their names. I mean, come on, some of these kids are famous. Others, like the little black girl, I never do figure out. When they’re all around, I sometimes think I’m going to lose it, but when no one comes, when it’s just me, all alone, staring at the computer again, still trying to find the perfect title, the perfect little phrase to describe what happened to my family, I miss their smelly mouths, their waxy ears, their noise, their demands, their little bodies twisted in odd positions of sleep and play, and I miss their laughter, the gorgeous sound of their laughter. Her dancing. I miss her dancing. And I miss her, most of all.
But she says it’s getting boring at my house. She says it’s too noisy. She says she might not come around any more and when I ask her to dance she just shakes her head, no; she doesn’t feel like it. That’s when I say, without thinking about it or anything, why don’t we have a party, and she says, “You mean like a jelly sandwich with a candle stuck in it?” (I told you, she can be bratty.) But I say, no, I mean like a big party, with balloons and party hats and crêpe paper streamers, would you like that? “And a Christmas tree?” she asks. Well, I wasn’t really thinking of that but I can tell she wants one so I say sure. She smiles, “And big red Valentine’s hearts?” I say, all right. “And Easter baskets? And chocolate eggs?” And I say sure, of course, it’ll be a holiday party, an every holiday party, and I don’t say this part, but you know, for all the ones they’ve missed. She gives me a big hug then, her little arms tight around my neck, and she kisses me right on the mouth.
I buy red, green, orange, and black streamers, balloons that have “Happy Birthday” printed on them, a paper tablecloth with turkeys and pilgrims on it. I get a seventy-five percent discount on the scarecrow, the ceramic pumpkin, and a clown costume, but I have to pay a ridiculous price for the fake Christmas tree already decorated with lights and ornaments. I buy cupcakes, even though I’m not sure any of the dead kids eat, and I buy two kinds of paper plates, one with Barbie on them, and the other with dinosaurs. I get several different kid DVDs (I have to admit even I’m getting a little sick of Shirley Temple) and a CD of Christmas classics.
Sarah Vehler is working again. She is standing there, chewing on a hangnail, and not checking anyone out, but I stand in line behind a woman with two little kids, a boy and a girl. The boy is furiously sucking his thumb, and the girl is begging for candy. The woman, their mother, I assume, is ignoring them, paging through a People magazine. I smile at the little girl, and for just a second she stops asking for candy and stares at me. Her eyes remind me of beach glass. Sarah Vehler calls my name and when I look up, she waves me over. “Don’t you have nothing better to do than stand in line all day?” she says. “Wow, looks like you’re planning a full year of parties. How many kids you got anyway?” I shrug, and to change the subject tell her I like her earrings. I have long since learned that the real way to gain a woman’s trust is to tell her you like her earrings, but Sarah Vehler just looks at me like I said something crazy and of course that’s when I realize she isn’t wearing earrings. I laugh. “I mean last time,” I say. “I remember the ones you had on last time, and I meant to tell you they were real nice.” Then, things only get more ridiculous when she tells me she never wears earrings. “I’m sorry,” I say, grabbing the bags and the box of cupcakes. “I thought it was you, but it must have been someone else.” She just looks at me like she is thinking real hard, and then she says, “I saw your brother the other day and he says you don’t have any kids at all.”
I smile, to be polite, and then tilt my chin, like, you got another customer. She turns, and sees the guy who has a disturbingly blank expression on his face, but when she looks at me again, I shrug, as if to say, too bad we can’t talk.
When I get home, I have to clean the place. I’ve let it go and my mother would shit if she saw it, but she never tries to visit, and doesn’t even call. She’s got her own life now, and doesn’t like to be reminded of the old one, I guess, the one me and my brother are stuck in forever. I pick up beer cans and paper plates and realize this hasn’t exactly been the best environment for children. I freaking hate to clean, but after a while I sort of get into it; I put one of the new DVDs in, I don’t know what it was called but it was bright and noisy and cheerful, it kept me company. I even washed the windows. Then I hung up the streamers, twisting them from the ceiling in the kitchen and the living room, and I set up the tree, and the tablecloth, and the plates, and then I put the clown costume on, and I looked at myself in the mirror. I was wearing a bright red, yellow, blue, and green polka-dotted jumpsuit, giant red shoes that flopped six inches from my toes, a bright red wig, and a red nose. I looked at myself for awhile, trying to figure out who I reminded myself of, and then I flashed back to a birthday party—was it for me or my brother?—my father dressed up like a clown. I grab my phone and call. The answering machine picks up.
“The thing is,” I say, “I mean, come on. Don’t give up on me so fast, okay? It was just a movie. It’s research, all right? Fuck. I mean really, fuck. Look, I didn’t give up on you even with all the drugs and the stealing and shit, right? Right?” It seems like I should say something else, something perfect, but I can’t think what that would be so I hang up and call Terry.
“The thing is,” I say, “I haven’t been completely honest.”
There’s a moments’ pause. A long moment before he says, “Shoot.”
“The thing is,” I say, “what I want to write about isn’t an innocent man.” I wait, but he doesn’t say anything. “The children . . .” She is standing there, in the middle of the living room, staring at the Christmas tree with the strangest expression on her face. She is dressed just like a regular little girl, in little girl pajamas and a bathrobe. I wave at her and point to the phone, signaling that I’ll be winding the call up soon, but her expression doesn’t change; she looks at me with confusion and sorrow.
“What about the kids? What’s your point? Can you just give it to me in a sentence?”
“The children were telling the truth, my father was not an innocent man.”
Terry whistles, long and low. “Fuck,” he says.
“You’re the first person I ever told.”
“Well, this puts us in the crapper without any shit, that’s for sure.”
“What?” She is reaching for the tree, touching it lightly with her fingertips, as though afraid it will disappear.
“Listen, if that’s the case, what we got is just another story about a fucking pedophile. Those are a dime a dozen. The market is saturated with them. It’s not a special story any more, it’s just . . . now wait a second, that kid, you’re not saying he had anything to do with that kid’s murder are you, ’cause if you were saying that, well, then we’d have a story.”
“No.” She is petting the tree, and this part really gets to me: She leans in to smell it; even though it is fake, she presses her face real close to the branches and then she realizes I am watching and she looks at me again, but in a new way, like she has something she wants to say, like she needs me. “I gotta go,” I say.
“I mean, even if you think he could have possibly had something to do with it, that we might be able to sell. It gets tricky, ’cause you know all of a sudden everyone’s fact checking the hell out of memoirs, but we might be able to work that angle, you know, not that you really believe he killed her, ’cause everyone knows her parents did it, right, but like you could tie her into your story and the idea that your father was someone like her father, you might have something there, okay? We might be able to sell that.”
She has big eyes, and they are sad, and she wants to tell me something important, maybe she’s going to tell me who did kill her. “Listen, I gotta go,” I say. Terry keeps talking; he’s getting excited now, just the way, all those years ago, everyone got excited about her murder. I click the phone off.
“What is it?” I say, “You can tell me.”
“I wet myself,” she says, in the softest little girl voice.
Sure enough, there’s a wet stain down the front of her pajamas, and a puddle on the rug beneath the Christmas tree. “That’s okay,” I say, even as the dank odor reaches me. “Sometimes that happens. Why don’t you go in the bathroom and take off your clothes. Do you have a way, I mean, I don’t know how this works, do you have some clean clothes with you?”
She shakes her head.
I nod, like, okay, no problem. The phone rings and she looks relieved when I don’t make any move to answer it. Instead I search through the piles of clothes on my bedroom floor until I find a dingy white T-shirt and a brand new pair of boxer shorts, which of course will be huge on her, so I also give her a tie. She looks up at me with confusion when I hand her the stuff. “It’ll be like a costume, for the party. Kind of different from the kind you usually wear, I know. Go in the bathroom, okay, and wash yourself off and take off your wet pajamas and put on the t-shirt, and these shorts, and tie these with this, see, like a belt.”
“Will you wipe me?” she says.
I shouldn’t be surprised by this; I’ve read all about how she still asked people to wipe her, even though she was dressed up like a movie star. “No. You have to do it yourself, okay?”
She shakes her head and starts to cry.
One thing I can’t stand is a crying kid. “Okay,” I say, “Okay, just don’t cry, all right?”
We walk into the bathroom and I help her out of her pajamas. Her skin is white, pure as fresh soap, and she is completely unembarrassed of her nakedness. She smiles when I wipe her, first with toilet paper, and then with a towel dampened with warm water and I just try not to think about anything, about how tiny she is, or how perfect. I help her put the clean t-shirt on and the boxer shorts, which I cinch around her little waist with the tie, and by then she is laughing and I am too and we stand before the mirror to look at ourselves but all I see is me, in the ridiculous clown costume. Where does she keep disappearing to? I call her name, searching through all the rooms, thinking she’s playing some kind of game, but I can’t find her anywhere. The doorbell rings and I run to answer it, laughing because it’s very funny the way she’s hidden outside, but when I open the door, my brother is standing there.
“Oh, fuck,” he says.
“It’s not the way it looks.”
He looks behind me, at the streamers, the table set with Barbie and dinosaur plates, the cupcakes, the Christmas tree. “Fuck,” he says.
“No, wait,” I holler, and when he doesn’t stop I follow him, flopping down the stairs, “Wait,” I say, running after him, though it is difficult in the too-big red shoes, the red wig bouncing down my forehead, “it’s not how it looks.”
He turns, and I smile at him, knowing he’ll understand—after all, we share the same childhood—but instead he looks at me with a horrified expression, as if I am a terrifying ghost, and then he turns his back on me and runs. I don’t try to follow him; instead I walk back to my house. Someone in a passing car shouts something and throws a paper cup of soda at me, but misses. I am surprised by this, it seems to me clowns deserve a little respect; after all, they only exist to make people laugh.
When I get back inside, I shut the door and sit on the couch in front of the TV and watch the cartoon people, who are shaped like balloons. There are no dead children and there are no secrets in a world where everyone is brightly colored and devoid of the vulnerabilities of flesh. In balloon world, all the problems explode or float away. Even though it’s been cold and cloudy for weeks, the sun comes out and fills the room with an explosion of light until I can no longer see the picture on the TV screen. One of the streamers comes loose and dangles over my head, twirling, and I can’t help but think that in spite of what Terry said, there is plenty of shit for the crapper, but it doesn’t matter, because in the distance, I hear the soft hum of a little girl singing. And just like that my mood improves, because I am waiting for the children, and just thinking about them makes me smile.
Spread the word!