“Why didn’t you answer me when I called?” my daughter wanted to know. She was holding a blackboard eraser.
“Why are you holding a blackboard eraser?”
“You’d be surprised the things people try to kill themselves with. Are you surprised it’s not a pencil?”
“I knew you would be.”
That was just the other day. But a long time ago I took my daughter every Saturday to lunch in Times Square, and afterwards we’d see a Western movie. We saw the great football player, Slingin’ Sammy Baugh, in a series of short films called King of the Texas Rangers. My daughter loved his cowboy hat, his belt, his gun and his rumpled cowboy vest. She thought Sammy Baugh was handsome. I told her that Sammy Baugh was a great football player and she couldn’t understand how Sammy Baugh was alive now and a great football player and also a Texas Ranger so long a time ago that he would have to be dead now. I told her not to worry, that when she was a bigger girl she’d understand. I have begun to suspect it would have been better not to have said that.
I saw a movie with her called The White Feather. She didn’t understand why the hero, Errol Flynn, got so quiet after he received a white feather in the mail, and why the feather completely changed his whole life, making him leave his girlfriend and go to India and do all kinds of dangerous, frightening things. And she didn’t understand why Errol’s father was also so disappointed that his son got that white feather. I explained to my little girl that Errol Flynn’s friends thought that he was a coward who was afraid to fight. I told my little girl that a coward was someone who was afraid of something or someone. And I have begun to suspect that it would have been better not have said that too, because she instantly branded herself a coward for being afraid of an eight- year-old boy who had bullied her for two years and who she was afraid to fight. I’ve tried to think that it was good for her to know that she wasn’t the only person who felt afraid of other people, that Errol Flynn felt the same way, that he, too, didn’t want to fight. But I knew it also made her feel more helpless, because she was not in a position to go to India or take some other helpful and earth-shaking step to prove she wasn’t a coward and to get rid of that terrible word being attached to you so that your friends wouldn’t talk to you any more and sent you white feathers. No, she didn’t have the resources to subdue her fear like Errol Flynn did. And I knew she could see that Errol seemed so happy even though he was a coward, and that maybe he just wanted to go to India.