“Fran, get over here.” I grabbed Pete’s hand before his chubby fingers scooped more. “Your son is playing in the kitty litter again!”
He was heavier than expected. Amazingly, he didn’t flinch or wiggle as I carried him, arm’s length, into the kitchen and plopped him onto a chair. His grainy hands smoothed with two swipes of wet paper towel. What was taking Fran so long? I opened the cabinet underneath the sink while keeping an eye on Pete and dropped the paper towel in the waste basket. No Fran yet. I paced to the refrigerator and back again to the kitchen counter.
Pete’s big eyes followed me. “Don’t touch anything.” I said as an afterthought. I stared at him as I passed and wondered, what was going on in that head of his? Those giant calf-like eyes glided left then right with my pacing. His face showed no expression. What could a little kid like that be thinking? My mind journeyed back in time.
There it was. The sandbox. I stopped pacing. I saw it, unchanged by the years. Exactly as it looked back then, wooden cover and all.
That sandbox lid opened memories. The warmth of the sun back then and the color of my dress. Pale pink. I smiled, seeing in my mind, how my anklet socks curled at the top with a tiny pink line swirling the edges.
And I remembered the bottom porch step of the big white house on the corner. How it gleamed white and its wonderful warmth in the afternoon sun. I remembered the sound of my mother’s soft knocks at the screen door and I saw a hazy face of my first friend.
“This is Karli,” my mother had told me, pulling gently at my wrist, lifting my arm and tugging all the way to my socket until I’d stood. Her fingers guided my shoulders toward the girl who’d clattered down the steps. “Why don’t you and Karli play in the yard?”
I’d stared at Karli. Probably in the same way Pete was staring now, at me.
Like little homing pigeons Karli and I headed to the swing-set where we swooped back and forth through the air and touched our toes to the sky. Dizzy, from our game of who could kick a cloud, I collapsed, not having kicked one cloud, exhausted, onto the wooden cover of the sandbox. Karli plunked next to me. We giggled in long spurts, swatted passing flies, and chattered about what next to play.
I returned to the swings and the top of that sandbox every day for over a week.
Then, one bright afternoon, I rounded the corner of Karli’s house and headed toward the swings. I jerked to a stop at the same time my mouth gaped open. Against a backdrop of crystalline sky and sparkling noontime sun the sandbox lay open. Its wooden lid had been tilted against the swing-set’s dark blue poles and not four feet away, inside the sandbox, was the most glistening, magical mound of white I’d ever seen. Not even Cinderella’s gown glittered with such brilliance.
I sifted white sand in my hands. Light bounced from its tiny pebbles. It flowed through my fingers with soft silky sensations against the skin. My eyes closed. I breathed in the scent of sun and smiled. My shoes slipped off with a quick kick on each heel and soon my toes dug deep into cooler sand below. It was glorious. I didn’t join Karli on the swings that day. I didn’t come up with a single idea of what to play. I didn’t budge.
As I lay in bed that night I imagined its white ghostly beauty under the moon. I dreamt of that sand.
I rushed back to Karli’s yard the next day, legs spinning like The Roadrunner in Saturday morning cartoons. But the dream was gone, the lid back on.
For days I begged Karli, please, have someone lift the cover off the sandbox.
And then, one day, again there was white sand glinting with sunshine! I sank into its softness, scooping warm sand, and poured glittery handfuls over my knees. Karli balanced on the sandbox and slapped at her legs.
“There's too many flies out today,” Karli said, kicking at another one. I happily sifted shining sand.
Strange, how clear it is in my mind, even now. The blue of the sky, the billowy white of passing clouds, the smell of sun on grass and the buzzing sound of unseen things, the worn wood creak of the sandbox, the light against pearled sand, and the unblemished bounce of my young heart.
“I know what to play,” Karli had said after a long silence. “We’ll take turns skipping around the sandbox and when a fly comes by we have to throw sand at it. That’s the rule.”
It sounded fun. And we stayed at the sandbox.
“I’ll go first,” Karli said, cupping sand. She skipped around twice before a grainy blast hit my shoulder.
I shrieked to my feet. “Did you get it?” She clapped yes with her hands.
Karli settled like a cat on a cushion into the white mound. Legs tucked under she laid her palms flat on the sand. We both giggled as I skipped. I couldn’t believe my luck! A fat low-flying suspect showed up. The biggest fly I’d ever seen. It hovered in front of Karli. I had to be fast so I flung the white sand as hard as I could throw.
Karli covered her face and wailed. Cries hiccupped out of her.
“But, the rule was…” I was confused. I’d hit the fly.
Karli screeched for her mom.
“What’s happened? Is anything wrong?” It startled me for a moment to see Fran in front of me, leaning in close to my face.
I quickly turned to wipe the corner of my eye. “Oh, hi, Fran - no. Nothing. Feels like sand in my eye.”
Fran lifted Pete off the chair. “Sweetie, get a toy to play with in the car.”
When he returned Fran lifted the toy from Pete’s hand.
“Oh dear, where’s his head?” she smiled and held up a headless action figure. “We’ll glue it back on later, okay sweetie?” she said, placing the toy on the counter. “They sure don’t make things like they used to,” Fran laughed and shook her head. “That’s the third one this week.” She patted Pete on the back. “Go on, honey, pick another one.”
I felt a sudden tinge of sadness.
Not for me. I never saw Karli again. Or that beautiful sand. I’d figured out, years later, that her mother wouldn’t let her play with me again. But that wasn’t it.
I felt sad for Pete. For his memories. Would they be of headless molded-plastic monster chunks and a white tiled kitchen? In Pete’s world there was no back yard. The sun came in only through a window and his version of a sandbox was piled high with kitty litter.
Pete ran back to Fran with a purple and orange faced monster peeking out from folded fingers. A cat slunk into the kitchen behind him. It sauntered to a spot of sunlight on the tiled floor and settled back on its haunches with a wide yawn.
I felt better somehow. At least Pete had a playmate. It was a beautiful cat. Velvety black except for a spot of white on its nose and splashes over every paw. It watched from a distance.
“Let’s go,” Fran said, scooping up Pete in her arms. “Ugh! You’re getting so big!” She kissed his face. “They don’t make little boys like they used to!”
We stepped into the apartment building’s hallway and I mentioned we should stop at the park before going to the mall. Fran nodded agreement and turned to close the door. Pete struggled in her arms and pointed to the kitchen.
“Snowshoes!” he cried out.
“No, honey, the cat stays behind.”