Here’s yet another trunk manuscript from the mid-1980s, from during the time I was also writing Sunburn Lake, Joe Gosh, and the script for the Neuromancer graphic novel (while living in Jersey City and teaching undergraduate fiction workshops at Hofstra University twice a week). It’s my one and only stab at writing for very young readers–the first four chapters of what was intended to be an illustrated children’s book.
The circumstances surrounding this never-completed manuscript–so far as I can recall, it has been nearly 30 years–were these: book packager Byron Preiss had gotten hold of a couple of very nice color illustrations (just who the artist was, I can’t recall) of a young girl navigating dangerously around on her flying bed, and thought they ought to have a story attached to them, a story that he could then sell as a book. He called and asked me if I’d like to take a crack at it, and since my daughters were around 4 and 6 or 5 and 7 at the time, I thought it’d be fun to write a children’s story. I said I’d work up a few chapters and he could take it from there. I don’t know if he couldn’t sell the project, or never tried to, or lost interest in it, or even forgot all about it, but in any event, nothing more came of it.
But just the other day my wife Santa discovered the manuscript while going through boxes of manuscripts and galleys in preparation for clearing out our house as much as possible before we put it on the market. I took a read through the manuscript and liked it; Emily, as described right down to the one eye that closes more than the other eye during smiles and laughter, is clearly based on my older daughter Jessie when she was a little girl; the ballerina in the children’s story-within-a-story is obviously based on my younger daughter Kate, who by then had already declared her intention of becoming both a farmer and a ballerina when she grew up. The dolls named in the story were their actual dolls–I especially remember Pink Doll and New Doll. (Jessie is 34 now, and Kate is 32.)
I’m including here a photograph taken around 1985, of me at my office desk in our Summit Avenue rowhouse, and if you look at the two drawings pinned on the wall directly in front of me and just to the right of the telephone–those are the ones Byron sent me that I used to concoct the story.
EMILY AND THE FLYING BED
On a cold, snowy Wednesday last December, Emily’s door bell rang.
And rang and rang and rang.
“Em?” called Emily’s mother, who was taking a shower upstairs. “Where are you?”
Plopped down on the fuzzy blue living room carpet, that’s where. With her barrettes out and her school shoes off and her ankles crossed.
“Emily! Answer me!”
But Emily didn’t. She couldn’t. Because her mouth was full. Of plain yogurt she’d jazzed up with salted peanuts and shredded coconut. And, oh yes, one good splash of chocolate syrup, from the pump.
“What?” said Emily. Finally.
“What do you mean, what?” said her mother, sounding hoarse. “I’ve been screaming for you! There’s somebody at the door!”
There was? News to Emily. She hadn’t heard the bell. But then, the TV was on. Volume up. Late-afternoon cartoons.
“EMILY! GO SEE WHO’S AT THE DOOR! NOW!”
“All right,” Emily replied. “I’m going.” But she dawdled, waiting for the end of a cereal commercial with a jingle she liked. At last she sped in her white socks down the long hallway to the front door.
She released the dead bolt.
She lifted the latch.
Then she opened the door as wide as the chain lock allowed, about six inches.
Standing on the low brick porch was a small and smiling delivery man in a dark-brown uniform and cap. A parcel in one hand, a clipboard in the other. He had bright-red eyebrows and even brighter red whiskers, and cheek freckles by the hundreds. His ears stuck out. His long nose tapered to a point that looked sharp enough to poke a hole in anything it bumped against. His teeth were straight and white.
When he saw Emily peering at him, his smile grew an inch and he touched a finger politely to his cap. “Print your name here,” he said, passing her the clipboard. Then he took out a crayon–it was Signal Green–from the pocket of his jacket and passed her that, too. “If your name is Emily.”
“It is,” she murmured.
“Then print it where you find an X.”
Emily looked down at the lined sheet of paper on the clipboard.
And saw PATTY on Line One, printed big, very big, in Fire Orange.
MARY ANN on Line Two, in Blue-Green.
TASHA, with the S backwards, on Line Three, in Salmon Pink.
And SHANNON on Line Four, in Magenta.
Finding an X beside Line Five, Emily carefully printed her E, her M, her I, her L, and her Y.
Then she handed the clipboard, along with the crayon, back to the man on the porch.
With a wink and a nod and a second wink, he gave her the parcel, which was long, almost as long as Emily’s arm, but not very heavy. And wrapped with as much tape as a mummy.
“Thank you,” said Emily.
“Oh, don’t thank me,” said the delivery man. “Thank your cousin Samantha.” And with that, he turned around and went down the steps. He cut across the snowy lawn. He stopped to smile at Emily over his shoulder. Then he walked past the HOUSE FOR SALE sign–and suddenly vanished from sight. Just like that! Like your frosty breath in a blowing wind. Gone!
Footprints in the snow?
Not a single one.
Emily giggled, because a tingle started at the top of her head and just kept going. Across her shoulders, through her back, out to her fingertips and down to her toes.
Cousin Samantha, she thought. Who’s she?
“He let you sign for it? With a crayon? asked her mother, almost laughing, as she dried her hair with a big yellow bath towel. “A crayon that he gave you?” And then she did laugh.
Which made Emily press her lips together, hard.
Which meant she was mad.
Her mother stopped laughing then, to apologize. “I’m not laughing at you, Em. It’s just…funny.” She sat down next to Emily on Emily’s bed. Emily was opening the parcel. She was trying to, anyway. But there was so much tape, sticky beige tape, to unwind.
It seemed like there was twenty miles of the stuff!
Emily was turning impatient. She breathed a hot-sizzling-oil sound through her closed teeth.
“Can I help, hon?” her mother asked.
“No, thank you very much,” Emily replied, frowning.
Her mother smiled a little. Then she twisted the bath towel around her damp hair and tucked the end. A perfect turban.
The yellow towel matched her yellow quilted robe and her fluffy yellow slippers.
Emily continued to struggle with the tape.
Her mother shrugged. Finally she went and picked up a toy ferry boat from the bedroom floor. She put it on a wall shelf, next to Emily’s magic kit and a box of Emily’s posable rubber dinosaurs.
She found a board-game spinner under the radiator and stuck it right back inside the board-game box.
Then she capped several felt-tip color markers.
And after doing all of that, she said, “It’s probably from your father. He never could wrap a present so it didn’t look a mess. Lumpy and bumpy and always too much tape.”
Emily pressed her lips together again. Even harder than before.
“Don’t say that about Daddy,” she said. “And besides, it’s not from him, so there.”
“How do you know it’s not?”
“I just do,” said Emily and tore off the last strip of tape. She balled it up and shook it off her fingers. It dropped on her pillow with all the rest.
Instead of opening the box right away, though, Emily started counting to fifteen. Silently.
To just stretch out the fun a little bit more.
A little bit longer.
Thirteen. Fourteen. Fourteen-and-a-half.
She lifted the lid from the box and set it aside.
Then she dug through the packing, which was several wadded pages torn from a zoo-animals coloring book.
Finally, she gulped. For joy.
At the same moment that her mother said, “Oh!” In surprise.
A doll. It was a doll. And not a store-doll, either. It was a doll someone had made. Had sewn and stuffed. A doll with yellow hair in two long braids. A doll dressed in a white blouse under a short red jacket, in a brown skirt and a dark-green apron tied behind in a great big fancy bow.
A beautiful doll.
“Isn’t there any card?” said Emily’s mother. “Isn’t there some note?”
No. No, there wasn’t.
Cousin Samantha hadn’t bothered with that.
Emily’s mother had two sisters.
Aunt Noreen and Aunt Carol.
Aunt Carol had no kids.
But Aunt Noreen did. Just one, though. A boy three school-grades older than Emily. Named Brian.
Emily’s father didn’t have any sisters. Or brothers, either.
He was an only child.
Which meant that Emily had no cousins on her father’s side of the family.
Then who was Cousin Samantha?
And where did she live? Did she live nearby? Or far?
Did she have yellow hair? Brown hair? Red hair?
Could she sing? Did she like Cyndi Lauper?
And why did she send that wonderful doll?
Naturally, Emily wondered about all these things.
And just wondering, but wondering very hard, she sat on her folded legs, Indian-fashion, in the center of her bed.
Emily’s bed, by the way, was an antique. Made a long time ago from a reddish-brown wood called mahogany.
Her mother slept in it when she was a girl.
And her mother’s mother, too.
A heavy bed with heavy slats under the hard mattress instead of springs. A carved headboard, a carved footboard plastered with flaky, peeling decals of the sun and the moon, the planets and the stars. Four round corner posts. And a tiny swiveling black wheel, called a caster, at the bottom of each post.
If Emily jumped around on her bed, she make the bed move, because of those casters.
She wasn’t jumping around tonight, though.
Or bouncing up and down and playing trampoline.
She was sitting up straight, perfectly still.
Wondering and thinking.
Thinking and wondering.
With the new doll nestled in the crook of her left arm.
Finally, she got tired of thinking and wondering, wondering and thinking.
Because it wasn’t doing her very much good.
So she decided to do something else.
Like introduce her new doll to her other dolls. To her hard plastic dolls and her soft-sculptured dolls. To her rag dolls and her plush dolls, and to her dolls that smelled like oranges and lemons, berries and concord grapes. To her dolls that talked, that slept, that wept, that break danced and roller-skated. To Annie, Holly, Heather, Violet, Pink Doll…
But before she could make any introductions, her mother knocked and came into the bedroom.
“Your father’s on the telephone,” she said. “Would you like to talk to him?”
Whenever Emily’s mother said your father, three deep frown-lines creased her forehead.
That made Emily sad. But it almost made her cheeks feel hot and her stomach cold.
Taking New Doll with her, she hopped off the bed. She hurried downstairs to the living room, where the telephone was. She grabbed the receiver tight in her fist, like it was a war club. And suddenly she wanted to cry.
But she didn’t.
“Daddy?” she said. “Hi.”
“Monkey!” said her father. “It’s so great to hear your voice!”
He always sounded so excited over the phone. And he always talked so loud. Like those funny men on television selling computers and stereos and home appliances at the guaranteed lowest price.
He never sounded that way in person.
In person, when he came to the house on a Saturday and took Emily out for the afternoon, he was always very quiet.
“How are you, Emmy?” he asked her.
“Good,” she said. She closed her eyes and pictured her father sitting in his apartment. That little studio with the little sink and the little stove and the little refrigerator along one short wall.
“How’s school?” he said.
“Good,” she said.
“Still like your teacher?”
“Yes,” she said.
“What did you have for supper?”
Emily had to think. “Spaghetti.”
“Oh, that’s your favorite!” he said.
It wasn’t. Breaded chicken cutlets were, this month. But she said, “Yes” anyway. And then she said, “Good-bye, Daddy.”
“Wait! Don’t hang up!” Her father laughed. It wasn’t a real laugh, though. Emily could tell. “Em? Are you still there?”
“Em? Honey? Mom says you got a present today.”
Emily squeezed New Doll’s hand in hers.
“She called me about it. Your mom did.”
Emily looked around the living room. At the sofa with the cola stains on the cushion. At the empty yogurt cup on the coffee table. At the TV set with the first Christmas cards arranged on top. One was a Snoopy card. She stared at it.
“Em?” said her father. “This doll that came? Your mom thinks I sent it. I guess I wish I did. But I didn’t.”
Emily said, “I knew that.”
“You did?” He sounded disappointed. “Well, maybe it was your grandmother. Either one. Or one of your aunts.”
Emily smiled to herself. And then she smiled at New Doll. “Maybe,” she said.
“Is it a pretty doll?”
“Yes,” said Emily.
“You’ll have to show me, next time I come. Okay?”
“Okay,” said Emily.
Her mother walked into the living room then. She sat down on the sofa. She started flipping through an ad booklet with a picture of lamps on the cover. Her frown-lines were still there.
“Emily, I can’t make it this weekend,” said her father. “But next weekend. We’ll go shopping. You can tell me what you want for Christmas, okay?”
“Okay,” said Emily.
“Think about what you want me to get you for Christmas, okay, Monkey?”
But she wouldn’t have to think about it.
She knew what she wanted from Daddy for Christmas.
It was something that he wouldn’t give her. Or couldn’t. It was that big ugly FOR SALE sign on the front lawn. She wanted him to pull it out of the ground and carry it into the house and give it to her. And then she wanted him to stay for Christmas dinner. And for ever-after, too.
“Emily, I love you,” said her father.
“Okay,” said Emily.
And then she hung up.
Emily washed her face. And neck. And didn’t forget behind her ears.
Then she rinsed out the face cloth. She hung it over the side of the bath tub. She even smoothed out the wrinkles with both hands.
She brushed her teeth.
“Good job,” said her mother, who was standing in the bathroom with her. She had her arms folded, like the hall monitor at school. “Now to bed.”
“Story first,” said Emily.
“Okay,” her mother agreed. “But come on, then. It’s getting late.”
Emily didn’t move, however.
She remained standing where she was, at the sink. She was looking at herself in the mirror on the medicine cabinet.
She was tall enough to do that now.
Just last summer she wasn’t.
She smiled at her reflection. At the reflection of the freckly round-faced girl with lots of wavy yellow hair and pale-blue eyes.
I’m pretty, she thought. Aren’t I?
Her daddy said so. Every time he saw her.
But could Emily believe him? Could she trust him to tell her the truth?
She smiled wider into the mirror.
And noticed that with such a big smile on her face, her left eye closed a tiny bit more than her right eye did.
Was that something she should worry about? Emily couldn’t decide.
Meanwhile, her mother was tsking. “You’re always admiring yourself,” she said.
“Am not!” said Emily, turning away from the mirror. “Am not!”
Her mother smiled and followed Emily out of the bathroom, then along the upstairs hallway to Emily’s bedroom.
New Doll was waiting there. Supported by Emily’s fat pillow, she was sitting up in bed. The blanket and the spread were drawn up to her waist.
Emily climbed under the covers. She arranged herself next to New Doll.
Her mother took out the bedtime book.
It was a long book. More than one hundred pages long.
And not too many pictures, either.
Her father gave it to her last month. A present-for-no-special-occasion. He was always giving her presents-for-no-special-occasion. Every time he saw her.
The book was called Kate the Ballerina in the Lost City of Gold.
All about a little girl who dances “The Nutcracker,” beautifully, when she isn’t off having adventures with her dad, the world’s smartest scientist. But Kate’s dad isn’t only smart. He also knows karate and can ride a wild stallion.
Emily loved the book so far. But then, she loved any story that had a girl for its hero.
Emily’s mother sat down on a chair beside the bed. “We’re up to Chapter Four,” she said, opening the book.
Emily scrunched down. Got comfortable. And listened to her mother read tonight’s chapter in a soft voice.
Kate was following her dad down a dark winding tunnel inside a mountain. Down, down, down they went. Creeping on their hands and knees. Suddenly, bats flew around their heads. One of the bats crashed into Kate’s lantern and broke it. And then it was pitch dark. Kate called out to her dad. But he didn’t answer her…
Emily hugged herself in spooky delight.
She turned and smiled at New Doll.
“Go on,” said Emily to her mother. “Read more.”
But her mother shut the book. “To be continued,” she said. “Tomorrow.”
She put the book away and switched off the light. She sat down on the side of the bed. She ruffled Emily’s hair and kissed her good-night.
Emily said, “And kiss New Doll.”
“New Doll?” said her mother. “Is that what you’re going to call her?”
“Until I find out what her real name is,” Emily replied.
“And how are you going to find that out?”
Emily shrugged in the dark.
Her mother leaned over and kissed New Doll. “I wish I knew who sent you this,” she said. “Don’t you?”
Emily shrugged again.
Then she said, “Mom? Did anybody buy our house today?”
Her mother breathed a sigh. A noisy one. “Not yet,” she said.
“I hope nobody does. Ever,” said Emily.
“We don’t need a whole house anymore, Emmy. Not for just the two of us. Don’t make it hard. And don’t worry. Okay?”
Emily ran her tongue lightly around her lips. Her lips felt dry.
Her mother stood up to leave. “Good-night, hon. Happy dreams.”
“Mom? Mom?” said Emily. “Can you put braids in my hair tomorrow? Like New Doll?”
“Of course,” said her mother. “If you want.”
“I do,” said Emily. “Two long braids. Just like New Doll’s.”
When her mother was gone, she folded her arms behind her head.
She liked to think about things before she fell asleep.
Tonight, she thought about the spelling bee she’d almost won at school. If only she’d spelled Connecticut right! If only she’d remembered about that second “c”!
After she thought about the spelling bee, she thought about the bar of chocolate she’d eaten at recess with the almonds inside that tasted bitter.
Then she thought about the delivery man with the red whiskers. And how he’d just vanished into the air.
And then she thought about her father’s voice on the telephone. And then about how it used to be when her father still lived here in the house.
Before the stupid divorce.
She thought about how he used to cut a pink grapefruit in half with a steak knife. And about how quickly he divided the sections, flicking away the pits with the tip of the knife. She remembered his favorite jelly. Apricot.
And then she didn’t want to think about her father anymore.
Because she was starting to get mad.
So she thought about New Doll, instead.
And gave her a big hug.
When she finally fell asleep, Emily dreamed that she and New Doll were lost in a deep, dark tunnel. Just like Kate the ballerina.
And she felt scared.
But then she heard a voice. A friendly voice. A girl’s voice. And the voice, far off and echoing, said, “This way. Come this way. I need you.”
“But who are you?” said Emily.
“Your cousin Samantha,” said the voice. “Now, come along, Emily. I need you.”
Emily knew she was dreaming and wished that she wasn’t. She wished this was real. She said, “But I can’t see you. I can’t find you. I don’t know where you are.”
“That’s all right,” said Cousin Samantha, off in the gloom. “Your doll knows where I am. That’s why I sent her. She’ll lead you to me. Now, come along, come along, you two. I need to be saved!”
Emily held on tight to New Doll’s hand. Together they began to move through the darkness, slowly.
And Emily realized suddenly that she wasn’t walking. That she was just…moving.
When she woke up in the morning, her hand was clutched tightly around New Doll’s.
And her mahogany bed had rolled half-way across the bedroom floor.
All by itself on its casters.