“Can we play Percy Jackson?”
Ula’s voice rises up, tentative, from the back of the car. Saoirse’s best friend Ania is back east from California. Saoirse and Ania turn 14 this month, and I have them here with me for only a few short days, as they are headed out on a back packing trip in the Adirondacks. I’m clinging to every second I get to be in their company, trying to grasp the growth and maturity that seems to be unfolding at warp speed, wondering how much of the magic of their childhood is ready to fall away.
“I don’t play games like that anymore,” Ania’s levels her answer gently. “I like to sit and talk now. With the real person. Not with someone imaginary.”
I can tell my little ten-year-old, is unsure what to do. Are imaginary games bad? Does this mean that, to play with the bigger kids, she has to let go of them?
Saoirse isn’t with us right now. She was already gone to a week of wilderness camp when Ania’s flight came in. She’ll get back tomorrow. Ula and Ania have to find other ways to connect. There is so much love between this girl and my daughters, I feel I have to keep my big mouth shut. I have to let Ula experience this awkward transition, so that they can discover the next phase of their relationship.
The cafe is hopping when Saoirse arrives the next day. Ania has taken over waitressing, Erin, my sister-in-law, moves aside to turn the espresso bar back over to Saoirse, then takes over managing Ula and the front of the cafe. I try to keep up with the dishes and the food.
The customers stay for an hour past closing. I’m dead on my feet, but we have only one night with all three girls together before the older two head for the trail. After we finish cleaning up, we still have a long night ahead of us, driving to town to get some last minute necessities for their trip, getting everyone showered, assembling their packs..
I just can’t imagine how, with all this, I’m going to be able to cook.
“I think it’s a hot dog night,” I call out as we start to load up the car. Saoirse and Ula fall silent.
“That sounds good,” Ania is always the first one to jump on board with support.
“Yeah, but…” Saoirse broaches the subject carefully. I can tell she needs to explain something to her friend. Is she actually going to say what I think she is? “We don’t actually just boil up hot dogs from the freezer…. We have to steal them.”
I honestly didn’t think this was going to come up tonight. Maybe Saoirse doesn’t know that Ania doesn’t play imaginary games any longer? Surely the two of them have worked that out by now?
My thought was that we’d go to the farm, open the freezer where Dad stores the homemade hot dogs he smokes for the family each summer, grab a bag of them, and then head out on the rest of our errands before going home to have supper.
But Saoirse’s right. . That’s not how we like to do it.
A little back ground might help here. Grammy and Pop Pop are parsimonious with the hot dogs. In order to get a bag, they have a habit of insisting we explain why we should have them: we’re too tired to cook; we have a long night ahead of us; we’re craving the smokey junk foodie-goodness of them, etc. Then, if they assent, a few of them are rationed out.
Understandably, we tired of that game. Instead, we have taken to stealing them. Sometimes we camouflage them with the other products we eat that don’t sell on the farm: the lamb riblets, the chicken hearts. Sometimes we go and get them when we know my parents aren’t home. Lately, Saoirse and Ula have their own preferred method. They have us drop them at the end of the long farm driveway, then they sneak in and execute a hot dog raid, slipping past the border collies and Grammie and Pop Pop’s attention.
No matter which method we use to acquire them, we’ve all observed that stealing hot dogs is infinitely more pleasurable than asking for them outright. It enhances their flavor profile.
Ula is with Saoirse. “That’s right! We can’t just go get them! They wouldn’t taste right!” Bob and I look at each other. He buckles in. I cue up the getaway music. Ania utters an inquisitive “huh?”
“Just keep low, move quietly, and don’t let anyone see you,” Saoirse explains the rules.
We roll to the end of the driveway. Bob puts the car in park, and all three girls roll out the back. Ula and Saoirse shed their shoes, and they all go creeping in. They line up behind the old truck cab that’s grown over with weeds. It’s perfect cover. They send Ula out to scan the area of operation for armored patrol cars (that would be the tractor or the mule, I think). . She does a ninja roll through the goose shit, then belly crawls along the fence until she reaches the driveway and gives the other two the all-clear sign, signaling that the check point (that would be the back porch) is all clear.. At that point, all three girls make a mad dash for the freezer in the garage, procure a single package of hot dogs, then repeat the sequence until they launch themselves into the back seat of the car.
Then it’s my job. With the windows open, I crank the speakers as loud as they go, and the sirens from Natalia Kills’ Problem scream out through the hills of West Fulton. Bob does his best to make the car peel out. It’s probably not very impressive, but we all imagine the screech of the wheels.
“Wait!” Ula screams from the back. “We forgot our shoes!”
So then, of course, we have to back up, and pull in. I stop the music. She jumps out, seizes the shoes, throws herself back in before enemy fire can hit, and I hit the getaway music again.
“That girl is a goddamned problem” screams out the windows as Saoirse and Ania holler at us to “step on it!” Bob puts the pedal down and we hit nearly 40 mph.
Ula reaches under the car seat and pulls out a decapitated Barbie, then a coffee cup, then some old napkins, a grocery bag, followed by a wad of tissues, until she finds what she’s looking for: the cork gun she keeps for emergencies. “Crap!” She leans out the window. “We got black and whites on our tail! I’ll handle ‘em, Dad!” She fires the cork gun, it’s insipid pop pop pop bringing all of us to tears of laughter.
And I think: don’t blink. Don’t sleep. Don’t lose a minute of this. Because this is too amazing: the heat from the road, the smoky smell of Dad’s hot dogs coming through the freezer bag, the laughter of happy girls, the crinkle around Bob’s eyes as he smiles, the smell of over-heated summer bodies. Maybe these girls won’t play Percy Jackson anymore. But a new stage of childhood is unfolding, and imaginary games are still very much a part of it all.