Coney Island Creek, Brooklyn. Photo by Nathan Kensinger.

My daughter is asking for ice cream, but I need to listen to what the salesman is saying. The stakes are through the roof (he says), and I myself know that, despite the innocent warmth of the day (or, rather, because of the innocent warmth of the day), there is much to fear.

My daughter stands at my elbow, harassing me, demanding ice cream, and I am reminded of a concert I went to, almost two decades ago, with a boy who didn’t love me. At that concert, there was a girl behind me who had consumed a substance that made her crouch over like an old woman as she stood, making strange high-pitched sounds of joy or terror. This crouched-over girl developed a fascination with the costume I had foolishly decided to wear to the concert. Throughout the performance, which I was not yet sophisticated enough to enjoy, the girl plucked and pulled at the feathers and sequins of my costume. That sensation—the sensation of the crouched-over girl picking at my costume and muttering words I couldn’t make out—haunts me even now.

My daughter pulls at the fabric of my sweatshirt, making small sounds of yearning and anger.

Yet I must listen to the salesman, in the interest of my daughter and her little brother and the man who enabled me to make the two of them. The salesman (he says) has recently been to multiple sales conferences. And this (he says), pulling it down from the horrifying rack, is almost universally believed to be the most effective model. For children, he adds, glancing coolly at my daughter (who is asking, again, for ice cream). She yanks my arm so hard that my purse slips to the concrete floor of the disaster store.

She does not apologize, but she does lift the heavy purse back up, returns it to my forearm. I do not like to go anywhere nowadays without certain provisions, water, and pills, discreet in the pockets of the oversize purse.

My daughter, too, has begun to carry a purse, a yellow pouch with a long strap and a pine tree puffy-painted (by her) on the canvas. At first I thought my husband, during his insomniac wanderings through the apartment, was dipping into the emergency supply of energy bars that I store in my winter boots in my closet. After a few days, I discovered that my daughter was moving the bars, one by one, into her purse. Not to eat, she explained when I confronted her about it. Just to have.

I taught her the word hoard.

Now, in front of the salesman, I say my daughter’s name with performative exasperation in my voice. The truth is, I pretty much understand my daughter like we have the same brain, and I am very rarely exasperated with her. But I do not want the salesman to abandon us because we seem like capricious customers—like a permissive mother and a spoiled child who may, at any instant, decide not to care about the momentousness of the moment.

However, the salesman—who is, it seems, electrified to the point of ecstasy by the fact that his chosen profession is in a field where demand increases by the day—continues to rattle off statistics related to icebergs, the Celsius and Fahrenheit scales, tsunamis, wildfires, earthquakes, superstorms, quicksand.

Quicksand? I echo. Wait, is that a real thing?

In general, I have been trying not to add anything new to my list of fears.

So this, he continues, is what we recommend for humans weighing between thirty and fifty-five pounds. But if you get it with this, he says, see, there’s also the oxygen mask, included, you see here, literally attached—he tugs on the rubber—so that in the event of, say, a strong current or high toxin levels.

He insists that I, too, tug the rubber.

The oxygen mask is intensely bug-eyed.

What’s the, I pause, the price difference?

He stares me down before citing a number that, multiplied by four, brings tears to my eyes.

People go into credit card debt for this kind of thing, he says. Every day, people go into credit card debt. I had a guy just yesterday, this guy says, what’s credit card debt for, anyway? And I thought that that was such a good point.

I look to my daughter, curious to witness her reaction—whether she trusts or mistrusts this person. She is a more realistic judge of character than I, less likely to give someone the benefit of the doubt. Is this man, for instance, trying to save our lives or to make a buck?

My daughter, though, is no longer at her post at my elbow, the point from which she once stood loudly emitting her desire for ice cream.

My daughter, I panic, but the salesman’s affect flattens out, a real child of less interest to him than the flotation devices invented to encase them.

What’s her name? he says, though he has already heard me use it several times. He repeats her name dispassionately as I repeat it passionately, running down immense aisles stocked with tarps, tents, collapsible rafts, water purification systems, freeze-dried food, hand-crank radios, bullets and guns, lumber.

The salesman gets distracted in the lumber section—what the fuck, Chuck, he says into his walkie-talkie, who can steal two-by-fours without getting stopped at the exit?

There’s been a run on lumber all over the city. It’s made headlines. We still have our boards from the last three storms. Presumably my husband and son are well on their way to blocking every sliver of natural light from entering our apartment.

What if she left? Left the store in fury at the lack of ice cream and is now out in the city alone, proud and alone, lost, all of six years to her name?

Kidnappings are up; fewer things are sacred.

I find her in the hunting and fishing aisle, but it is neither the small-edible-mammal traps (SQUIRRELS! RACCOONS! RATS!) nor the rifles that have her attention: she stands before the towering rack of fly-fishing flies, iridescent and glimmering, thousands of colors.

Don’t ever go away from me!

I didn’t know they had cool things here, she says. Can we buy some?

*

Lately there has been a proliferation of flies in our apartment. Yesterday I came upon my daughter staring at two of them fornicating on the wall of the kitchen. It was very nearly pornographic, and immediately I attempted to distract my daughter, but she was undistractable.

They must be best friends, she said.

When I fetched the fly swatter (imagining the hundreds if not thousands of progeny that would surely result from such vigor), my daughter cried out in protest.

That would end their life, she said matter-of-factly, inarguably.

*

After going into credit card debt, we step out into the innocent warmth of the day.

Ice cream, my daughter reminds me.

We just spent all our money, I say, and more. I heave the gigantic plastic bag down the sidewalk.

Ice cream, she repeats.

I’m crying, and I want her to see that, to acknowledge it and temper her own desires accordingly.

Ice cream, she says, either noticing or not noticing my tears. You promised.

Noticing, I realize, and failing to care.

I don’t think I promised her anything, but the time before we entered the disaster store feels eons ago, and who knows, perhaps I did promise her things on the long bus ride, too preoccupied with the catalogue (flipping pages, comparing prices) to notice what I was saying.

My exasperation is no longer a performance.

Enraged—not only at my daughter, but largely at her—I continue to lurch toward the bus stop, dragging the gigantic plastic bag, the ridiculous yet essential gear.

There! she says triumphantly, pointing at an ice cream parlor across from the bus stop.

Now I remember: I did promise her, when we passed this ice cream parlor on the way to the disaster store.

She stands staunch before the pared-back list of flavors. She is capable of reading some words and not others.

Butter, she can read, but not pecan.

Road, but not rocky.

Chip, but not chocolate.

Bitterly, I give up a few bills for a sugar cone bearing one scoop of mint chocolate chip. The woman behind the counter looks so tired that I worry she’s about to faint, but there’s nothing I can do about it, and I’m tired, too, and though generally I take pride in being a generous tipper, I cannot do it today, not after what has just happened to us.

This ice cream parlor has a chain-link fence enclosing a few round metal tables on the sidewalk. We are the only customers.

My daughter selects the table beside the single planter in the enclosure: a rectangular box cemented into the cement, which bears real dirt and fake flowers.

Cute, my daughter says, plunking down in her chair, nodding to the worn-out flowers.

But it’s not cute; the air smells vaguely of something rotting and the table is sticky, as is the ground, though I have nowhere else to place the gigantic plastic bag other than on the pavement between us.

I sit across from my daughter, joyless.

Defiant, she licks her ice cream, the green too green, almost neon, relishing it.

Angry ice cream, I think, the sounds of the words pairing up in my mind.

The tired woman comes by with a hose, spraying down the sidewalk, the rivulets of water running rudely close to the spot where we are sitting.

Sorry, the woman says without feeling.

I want some kindness, I am desperate for some kindness, coming into me or flowing out from me, but all I manage to do is sit in silence.

My daughter and I, when we are together, talk all the time. Talking to her is one of the few things that makes me feel calm. I ask her how her teacher breaks up the long hours of the school day into this or that activity. I ask her what she thinks about certain problems I’m having at work, and regale her yet again with the tale of the opossum who wandered into our break room at midday, disoriented, shivering, turned upside down by fluorescent lighting and windowless corridors, and how scared we all were to see an actual animal. I tell her what I was like when I was her age, and, at her prodding, I ask her what she might someday tell her own children about her own childhood, though it pains me to try to peek that far into an uncertain future.

The melting green lines her mouth, drips down her chin, but despite this manifested vulnerability, still I do not speak to her.

I punish her with my silence. I withhold the gift of my voice.

The silence grows between us.

But it seems that she does not notice. She continues to consume her ice cream with merry little flicks of her tongue. Her mouth is funny these days, part baby teeth and part blank spaces and part growing-in adult teeth. She lost too many teeth, precociously. The dentist says not to worry.

But I am worried. At her most recent appointment, the doctor asked if we had noticed any signs of puberty.

Of what? I said.

Puberty, he repeated.

She’s six, I said.

We find that more young girls are entering puberty unnaturally early these days, he said.

What? I said, almost speechless.

What? my daughter said, imitating me.

I cannot speak and I cannot speak and my daughter eats her ice cream and still I cannot speak and I wonder when she will notice but still she does not notice, her passion for the ice cream not the least muted by the price she has paid for it (my warmth, my voice, the pleasure of an outing just the two of us, even if it is an outing in the interest of a disturbing purchase).

I stare at the pitiful planter, the fake flowers blowing in the armpit breeze, the echo of a world that is fading. By the time my daughter is my age, there won’t even be fake flowers.

But I’m probably wrong about that. I’m working on not being overly dramatic. I could be wrong.

When I glance up from the fake flowers to check on my daughter, to see how much of the angry ice cream she has eaten—hoping that soon we can go home to make sure the windows are fully covered in boards, to make sure my son hasn’t missed me too much—she is gone, again.

I cannot see her anywhere, not within the chain-link enclosure nor on the sidewalk outside it. The only hint is the chain-link gate moving slightly on its hinges. And the tired woman, regarding me, sticking her thumb in the direction of the traffic light at the corner, indicating (I can only assume) that my daughter is to the left of that traffic light.

Speak! I want to scream at the tired woman, my rage finding new, ironic focus.

I exit the enclosure as quickly as possible, but I refuse to leave the gigantic bag of priceless merchandise behind. I drag it to the corner and, yes, there she is, walking away from me, a quarter of the way down the block in the wrong direction, her ice cream in one hand and her yellow purse, its weight of emergency bars, flapping hard against her torso.

I call her name. She doesn’t look back. She just speeds up.

The ice cream sags and melts in her hand as she rushes away from me.

Wait! Wait!

But she is already at the next corner, turning left. By the time I achieve the corner she is halfway down the block. Something surges through me then, something fiercer than fierce, and I recognize it as the force that will enable me to survive the next few decades—if I do, indeed, manage to survive. Despite the ridiculous bag, I run terrifically fast; it is just a few superhuman strides until I reach my daughter and encircle her with that force.

What are you doing?

You were being so mean.

I wasn’t being mean. I was just being quiet.

But we both know I’m lying.

You have to talk to me, she says.

She has green ice cream all over her, like a baby. Like when she was a baby and we could still get avocados.

Finish your ice cream, I say, so we can get on the bus.

I don’t care about my ice cream, she says, flinging it to the pavement.

Oh, I say, looking at it.

There needs to be an apology, I say, and at first I think I’m saying it to her, commanding her, but when her eyes meet mine, my cruelty comes crashing down on me.

For the past two years, there has been a black plastic bag stuck in the uppermost branch of the single tree we can see from our apartment.

I kneel down before her and hold her, her boniness and her purse of provisions.

You’re not fun at all, she says.

She does not hug me back, but neither does she run away.

I’m scared, she says, of the people in that big bag.

Her tears are very quiet.

The devices, it’s true, do look sort of like people. People-shaped objects.

I swear that I will talk to her forever and ever and ever.

*

On the way home, we pass Christmas trees stacked like corpses, waiting to be bought.

Are those trees alive? my daughter asks.

Not exactly.

Can we buy one?

We can’t buy anything.

It used to be that we would buy a Christmas tree, and for the first few nights it was in the apartment, my dreams would fill with forests, until the tree died further and the pine scent faded.

*

When we get home, my daughter rescues things from the recycling bin. Out of a toilet paper roll and a plastic salad container and tape, my daughter crafts an alien helmet. This alien is searching for NASA. On the toilet paper roll, the alien has written in Sharpie the three questions she has for NASA:

(1) What is the seas color
(2) What is it like, when a tree groos
(3) Do pelpole sing songs

*

My son takes a break from passing nails to my husband to say, casually: Mommy, sometimes I dream that you and I are falling out of a window.

*

After dinner, I come upon my daughter in the bathroom, smiling to herself in the shadowy mirror. The bathroom is dim, the window boarded, the apartment lit only by candles, which my husband is already insisting that we ration. In the bedroom, my husband and son are wrestling gleefully on the bed, playing with the four flotation devices, laughing at the bug-eyed masks, not yet scared.

Charmed to find my daughter regarding her reflection with such mirth, I say, the words springing out of me, though in general I try not to speak to her in such a girly way: What you doing, smiling at your cute self in the mirror?

No, my daughter replies, the smile moving off her lips but still in her eyes, I’m not cute. I’m just a regular girl.

Not unkindly, though, just saying it.

*

I don’t know what exactly my daughter was thinking then, or what she is thinking when, hours later, during the storm, she comes to me where I am—crouching on the floor, sorting through a bag of old batteries, testing each in the flashlight, trying to find one with some life left in it—and leans her spine against mine, vertebrae to vertebrae, so that I, for an instant, get to bear her entire weight atop my own.

Helen Phillips

Helen Phillips’s fifth book, The Need, is forthcoming in July 2019. Her collection Some Possible Solutions received the 2017 John Gardner Fiction Book Award. Her novel The Beautiful Bureaucrat, a New York Times Notable Book of 2015, was a finalist for the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Her collection And Yet They Were Happy was named a Notable Book by the Story Prize. She is the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award and the Italo Calvino Prize. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, the New York Times, and Tin House, and on Selected Shorts. She is an associate professor at Brooklyn College.

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