STANDING in the narrow hallway outside his room, I reach for the doorknob and hesitate before turning it. The melodic rhymes of Hans Christian Andersen drift through the cracks in the molding of the door frame. The little hallway is dark, and the light from the overhead fixture in his room strikes my eyes like a direct blow from the beam of a flashlight. As I inch the door open, he looks up from his Lincoln Log creation and flashes a smile of delighted recognition. ``Hi,'' he says as he picks up an orange and white Matchbox Lamborghini that I gave him. ``Come look at my thing.'' He motions toward a towering architectural marvel in the center of the room. He is four.
``Can you play with me?'' His tone is beseeching, but he does not whine. I follow his gaze, which jumps from me to the light fixture, then to the car in his hand.
``I don't really have time,'' I say with as much intonation as I can muster. ``I've gotta go to the airport pretty soon.'' The smile fades and the glitter in the corners of his eyes disappears. He looks down at the cars lined up in front of him, his fingers lightly stroking the top of each one. He sits perfectly still, Indian-style on the plush green carpet, mouth half-open, his lower lip protruding, exposing his bottom teeth. I sit down beside him.
``But, . . .'' he starts to say, but stops with a frustrated sigh. ``It seems like you're always GO-ing.'' His face crumbles into a full frown. He looks up at me, his eyes shining with tears now. ``I mean . . . do you really want to go to France?''
``I think so,'' I say flatly, wondering for the first time whether I really do.
``How long are you going to stay there? For 20 days?''
``Probably for about nine months.''
``How many days is that?''
``A lot of days,'' I say, turning away.
``Why?'' he asks. I realize that this is the first time he has said ``why'' in the conversation, because he is in the middle of that stage that children go through when they ask ``why'' to everything and everyone. I don't have any answers for a four-year-old brother.
``You look like you're sad,'' he continues. ``Just stay here and play!'' I stare in silence for a minute at the round face I will not see for such a long time, and which will be so different when I return.
``Why don't you make me something really neat with your Legos?'' I suggest. He raises his head, chin thrust forward, and starts to utter a cry, and then stops. A little finger then darts into the corner of his mouth and all expression runs away from his face.
`` 'Kay,'' he says, taking the finger from his mouth and wiping it on the front of his overalls. He gets up a little awkwardly and walks toward the closet in the corner. The hole in the left elbow of his red turtleneck reveals yesterday's wound suffered in a Big-wheel race. He rattles the box of Legos into the center of the room. The box is heavy, and he has to tug at each corner individually and keep switching off; his whole frame tightens and strains with each little tug, his straight blond hair flying about his head with each motion.
He plunks himself down in front of the box and digs in with both hands, eyeing the plastic pieces with a faint half smile. He turns to me, his eyes shining, and asks in his familiar chirp, ``What d'ya want me to make?''
Before I can move my lips, he lets out a little gasp and covers his mouth with both hands, eyes wide open.
``What time is it?'' he asks, without removing his hands from his face.
``Four,'' I say, wondering why he could possibly want to know.
``No way!'' he exclaims, scrambling to his feet. ``Adlai,'' he says emphatically, ``Sesame's on!''
``I've gotta go now,'' I say as he runs toward the door. He stops, turns, and comes over to me.
``Can you turn off the record?'' he asks. Our eyes are for once at the same level, me sitting on the floor, him standing beside me, belly stuck out, hands in pockets. We remain silent for a minute or two, eyeing each other.
I put out my hand, palm open. Seeing it, he removes his right hand from the pocket of his overalls, raises it about his head, and brings it down as hard as he can on top of mine. Then with a giggle, he turns and races through the doorway and I hear him running down the hall to the kitchen.