Once upon a time a girl named Daphne made a nuisance of herself by running away—after her father had moved out and was maneuvering to take her brother to the other side of the country.
One of Daphne’s failed attempts resulted in a neighborhood alert, with a woman from down the road acing the scavenger hunt. She spotted Daphne in what was left of downtown, outside the Woolworth’s store going out of business. Daphne was collared amid merchandise lying in bins on the street—some marked five dollars and others ten, just like her paternal grandmother had always pegged it.
“You keep running away and they’ll lock you up with the crazies!” the woman scolded, yanking Daphne’s arm and shaking her. “Look at me when I’m talking to you! You want to be in with the crazies—is that what you want?”
It seemed that when Rosemary and David Passerine announced the end of their marriage, they saw the family’s failure to thrive as a public shame, requiring extreme tearing asunder and erasure from all Pennsylvania witnesses. Daphne was eight when they separated and nine when the divorce was finalized—mother taking daughter to western New York and father taking son to northern California.
With the charming, friend-making Rosemary, Daphne had a roughshod life; with the cold, undemonstrative David, Paul got on incredibly well, loved his stepmother and stepbrothers and made lots of friends. The divorce also took Daphne away from her beloved uncle, the Penn State geologist who inspired Paul’s career.
Daphne’s mother didn’t remarry but acquired a longtime companion, an unfriendly but well-established pilot whose early retirement meant a leisurely life. Her father died of a heart attack right after she finished graduate school. Her relationship with his second family was always a sore spot with her mother and eventually transcended some threshold of tolerance, for Daphne’s mother no longer spoke to her.
Settling in San Francisco was a given for Paul. As a geologist, he loved California for all the earth-science reasons but primarily for its size. He called it the IKEA of igneous rock formations. Back then, however, so much of his life was an agonizing mystery. There were letters and postcards but not a lot of calls—he didn’t like to talk on the phone. And of course the expensive visits, but they flew by in a flash, like something seen moving in the woods from a speeding car. Luckily there wasn’t a sister to displace her, but nothing could make her feel less like a stranger.
“Why don’t you bring some friends home once in a while to brighten the place?”
The places in need of brightening seemed endless—one apartment complex after another for datable divorcees and Felix Unger dads and the wives and newborns of Scandinavian hematology residents—anyone in flux, anyone in transit.
“I already told you why you can’t stay in that school for another year.”
It was the job; no one appreciated that Rosemary Passerine had a college degree. She worked as a legal secretary but expected much, much more, so she moved her two-person family like the Empire State were her chessboard, starting in Rochester, looping back round to Jamestown and then advancing steadily westward toward Poughkeepsie.
In Pennsylvania, Daphne’s mother was known as being like that. The scroll of family lore included the time she took Paul in his stroller to see the Beatles play Comiskey Park. She was seven months’ pregnant and drove five hours. This was something of a scandal since they just disappeared, she and the high school girl who sometimes babysat—adult, teenager, toddler, and fetus.
“You want to have school friends over for your birthday—have a little party?”
“If Paul’s not here it’s not a birthday party.”
“What kind of attitude is that? Why can’t you ever make friends, Daphne?”
How could anyone make friends when the management company disallowed the hanging of anything on the walls? When everything you could call “mine” sat in pushed-together cardboard boxes for the twelve months before you went to school somewhere else, an hour’s drive closer to the Atlantic?
Certain adults tried to salve the wound by saying Daphne was “special” to be separated from her brother, but she couldn’t be lied to. She was proud of being a child who couldn’t be fooled. Early on she’d determined that children’s books were written by children, not by adults as the librarians insisted. Children’s books were written by smart children, and even if she’d never be one of these secret book-writing children, she’d never be one of their dupes.
Although Daphne couldn’t be fooled by the Library Association of America, she did have a problem disentangling coincidences from everyday life. She and Paul were born on the same date two years apart, and she initially believed that all children in any family were born on the same date, that her kindergarten classmates whose siblings didn’t share a birth date were defective. Being told that this was “mere coincidence” was not a suitable truth.
That was one of her favorite uncle’s favorite terms of censure—suitable truth. “The truth is the truth, Daphne. There is no suitable truth or unsuitable truth.”
Her happiest memories of him featured no dialogue, only vigilant observation—the kind man being studied as he repaired her broken transistor radio with tiny instruments pulled from a tiny case; the college champion coaching the novice archer so that she’d make the Little Arrows team at the country club where he was a member. It was all in the flex of the back muscle, not pulling but releasing, for the force was already present and accounted for in the stance. He said “the force is in you” years before everyone was wishing it be with you.
But Daphne had neither the stance nor the force to be a Little Arrow. She cried herself sick over this failure and left her bow and its zippered nylon case on the school bus, prompting her Uncle Jack to buy her an even better bow, because “good sportsmanship has no price tag.” He wasn’t a hunter; he didn’t want to kill anything, just to hit the target every time.
He was everything to her at certain times. He gave her words and ideas. “Words have tremendous power, Daphne. With the right ones you can change your world. What if I said I had a crepuscular beetle in a jar and was going to set it free in your room when the lights are out? I don’t think you’d like that. But if I told you I had a firefly or a lighting bug and we could watch it light up your room, I bet you’d be much happier. It’s all a matter of the words you pick and how you put them together—what you say and what you leave out.”
On her eighth birthday he gave her a clear plastic bubble umbrella to help illustrate the beauty of a geodesic dome. She liked to pull it down over her head so that the spokes rested on her crown. That was as far into the umbrella as you could go, and it reminded her of that drawing of the Looking-Glass Alice—a rare book for children that wasn’t written by one—busting out of the house that had become tiny when she grew big. Daphne’s uncle praised the dome’s lightweight lattice of interlocking icosahedrons as she observed the world through the wavy, droplet-dotted plastic. “It sounds like you’re talking very far away.”
“Like you, Daphne, the geodesic dome is extremely strong for its weight.”
As she walked beside him on the street under her dome, she realized she both loved and hated being separated from the world. As an adult she wondered if it was true that at the age of eight she was “already a strange child,” as her mother often claimed. When Daphne’s parents announced their plans and Daphne refused to come out of her room, Jack was summoned to talk to her through the folding louvered door of the closet she had braced shut with her legs.
“You’ll only be a few hours away,” he said with the cadence of solitary birdsong.
“I don’t want to live in Rottenchester.”
“They have a planetarium and a world-class orchestra.”
“I’m never going to the Rottenchester Orchestra. I’m going to be stupid girl, a bad student. I’m going to skip school.”
Once she’d been coaxed out with the aid of a frosted Pop Tart, they went for a walk as was their custom, around the pond beyond Willowbrook Circle.
Always trying your best was Jack’s theme, and now he gave it to her like a fireworks finale.
“What’s the name of your imaginary friend?” he asked as if this thought just popped into his head.
“You know I don’t have one of those.”
“I thought all kids had them.”
“Why would I need an imaginary friend when I have you?”
“Well, let’s say that your imaginary friend is a boy named Hansie Smeadle, and Hansie Smeadle is smart and athletic, a pole-vault champion; Hansie Smeadle knows everything you don’t.”
“I don’t like Hansie Smeadle.”
“Ah, but that’s the point. Whenever you’re crying like a baby over something, Daphne, Hansie Smeadle is winning. He’s speaking four languages at the Rottenchester Philharmonic.”
“He has it easy. His parents don’t fight.”
“What do you mean easy? Poor Hansie is an orphan with only a toothbrush, a fork, and a cardboard box to call home. He even has to use his library card to borrow the pole to vault to school with. But he doesn’t cry in his cardboard box and doesn’t run away from it. He knows that all he has to do is learn all he can and wait it out. Outlast adversity, Daphne. Dig in your heels—or better yet, crouch in a ball and wait out the electrical storm. It’ll pass, it always does. Wait it out, Daphne, and the world will adore you.”
Although this had to be good advice for some people, it wouldn’t work for her.
“I don’t want the world to adore me.”
Her uncle squeezed the hand he’d been holding. “Daphne Passerine, you’re a better man than me.”
Where would you ever find a better man than Jack Passerine?
The woman at the everything-must-go Woolworth’s warned Daphne that the world was full of men who were nothing like her uncle. “Bad men, Daphne Passerine. Dangerous men who look for little girls and then there’s terrible stories in the papers.” She shoved Daphne into her car and drove away. “Sit up straight back there so I can see you,” she told the rear-view mirror.
Daphne slid down even farther on the seat.
“Did you hear what I said?”
Now Daphne was lying on her stomach. “Why do you need to see me?” she said, her cheek pressed to the vinyl. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“You watch that smart mouth!”
At home, Daphne’s mother pushed the girl inside the front door and stood alternately thanking and apologizing to the neighbor she barely knew. Then she placed Daphne in a floral upholstered chair, moved the chair to face the sofa, and sat on the sofa with the green Trimline telephone on her lap.
“I’ve got to call your father to tell him you’re OK. Do you realize how much I don’t want to do that?”
“I can talk to him,” said Daphne.
Her mother frowned. “How can we ever trust you not to make this situation all the more awful?”
“I was shopping at the Five and Ten.”
“Oh, so you were shopping, were you? Did you find a new family marked down?”
Daphne could see that her mother was about to cry, but she remained defiant.
“You want to go with him, don’t you? You want to take off to California and live like you’re on a half-hour television show.”
“I don’t want to live on a television show.”
“You want him and not me.”
“I don’t like Dad.”
“Well, you certainly don’t like me.”
“Paul doesn’t like Dad either.”
She shook her head. “Paul’s such a good son.”
“No, he’s not a good son,” argued Daphne. “He wants to live with Uncle Jack.”
“Paul wants to live with Uncle Jack?”
“Yeah, he does. He wants to live in a tent with Uncle Jack.”
“I think it’s you who wants to live in a tent with Uncle Jack.”
“You’ve got to get over that notion, kiddo. Uncle Jack ‘travels light’—no roots.”
“He likes trees,” Daphne argued, “and trees have roots.”
Her mother laughed. “He likes trees and not people.”
“Uncle Jack likes me.”
“Is it so great,” her mother cross-examined, “that he lets you shoot arrows? Is shooting off arrows the be-all and end-all for you?”
Here, for the first time in her young life, Daphne felt sorry for her mother—felt sorry for her mother’s inability to apprehend what was obvious to anyone with eyes. Failing to shoot arrows made Daphne feel like a failure—the archer in her uncle wasn’t the draw.
“Uncle Jack teaches me things.”
Her mother shook her head. “Why do you need to feel so damned smart? Why do you think you have to know so damned much—endless details that don’t even matter? All that stuff is not going to make you a happy girl, Daphne. That’s my advice for you to take or leave.”
Daphne always preferred the leaving to the taking, though she was never able to live in a tent with Uncle Jack. No one, for that matter, was able to live in a tent with Uncle Jack. He never married, never settled down. He lived by himself and died by himself, a decade or so after her family’s implosion, when his two-seater plane went down over an oil field in Calgary, around the time of the Lockerbie crash.
The truth is the truth and coincidence is just coincidence—it doesn’t make you special, doesn’t make your life charmed. You could run away to your suitable truth all you wanted, but this reality was never going to change.