“Can we drive past my old school?” asked Ponytail. Even with the seatbelt fastened, she managed to bounce up and down, craning to look out the window.
Ponytail, who just turned seven, used to live near me. But after her mother was evicted, she was sent to live with her father, several towns away. I manage to see Little Biker Boy, her ten-year-old brother, about once a week: he knows my phone number and calls me whenever anyone will let him use a phone, and he lives with his mother only a few miles away.
But I hadn’t seen Ponytail since Christmas time.
We stopped for pizza, and we went to the store to buy her a birthday present. Then she wanted to buy her mother a Valentine’s gift: she chose a Pepsi, a chocolate bar, and a bag of barbecue-flavored chips. When I asked her about her new school and new home, she seemed wary: she’s not as blunt and straightforward as her brother.
When we left the store, she asked me to drive her past all the landmarks she knew: the brick library, the green railroad bridge, the elementary school, the mini-mart, and the empty trailer where she used to live, just down the road from my house. “I love that school,” she said. “I miss that school. I miss the library. I miss the bridge.”
At my house, we danced to Justin Bieber songs (her choice, not mine), and played store with the toy cash register we’d gotten, plus some real pennies and dimes. She loved being in charge of the cash register. I got assigned the role of customer, and I had to pretend to be a different person every time I walked up to the register.
“I need to buy ginger ale,” I said, picking up little bottles we were playing with. “My son has a stomach virus.”
She already had her hand stretched out to take the pennies from me, but then she pulled it back quickly, with a decisive move. “Your child is sick? Then your stuff is free.”
“I like that policy,” I said.
“I’m the owner,” she said. “Those are my rules.”