I do not know why my grandparents decided that what Howard really wanted was a collection of plastic toy soldiers. I suspect, though, that it was our grandfather’s doing. Our mother’s father, Pop Pop took great pride in Howard’s many accomplishments and saved every clipping and photo of every performance Howard was ever involved in. He indulged us both with summer trips to matinee performances at Painters Mill Music Fair where you could see bus and truck companies of every musical known to man and Mitzi Gaynor starring in just about anything at all.
Nevertheless, our grandfather wanted Howard to be more of, “a real boy,” so when my brother was about nine, he was the recipient of a full complement of plastic cowboys, Indians and cavalry. Using all his theatrical skill, Howard leapt up to embrace Nana and Pop Pop while exclaiming that the molded warriors were just what he had been hoping for.
That was in December and the plastic figures promptly disappeared into Howard’s room, presumably to wait out the winter for warmer fighting weather.
The soldiers had the right idea, it turned out to be a cold winter and by February we’d enjoyed quite a few snow days from school.
One of the last storms of the month wasn’t bad enough to keep Dad home from the warehouse, though, or Mom from her new part time job pitching World Books to whoever would listen. But it was bad enough for Baltimore County to once more close down the schools, though.
“There are tuna sandwiches in the fridge,” Mom told us as she shrugged on her winter coat. “And Aunt Gilda is home if you need anything.” We called the Jewish adults on Flannery Lane aunt and uncle. The gentiles next door were Mr. and Mrs.
We slept in late, played outside in the snow with the other kids on the block and ate our sandwiches. By late afternoon, though, there wasn’t much left to do except watch Make Room For Daddy reruns that we’d already seen.
“I’m going to go upstairs for a while,” Howard said.
I followed Howard pretty much everywhere I could in those days, so I get up to go with him.
“No, you stay down here”.
“I’ve got to do something in my room,” he said, already halfway up the stairs.
Sulking, I grabbed my bag of Jacks and headed to the kitchen. It was the only room in the house not covered in utilitarian gray carpet so it was the only room where the little red jacks ball would bounce properly. Sitting cross-legged on the cold floor, I tossed the jacks and bounced the ball, scooping up a handful of Jacks before the ball hit the floor again. I heard chairs being dragged around Howard’s room, then silence. I was once more working my way through tensies when Howard called to me to come upstairs.
The upstairs hallway was dark except for a dim light under Howard’s bedroom door. I knocked and Howard slowly opened the door, gesturing for me to enter. He had covered his blond hair with a turban improvised from one of Mom’s best, monogrammed bath towels. Had the towel not been monogrammed, he would have looked like a genie. As it was, he had a giant letter “A” on his head. Howard put his finger to his mouth, demanding silence. His room’s bright overhead light was off and he had draped a yellow-flowered pillowcase over his bedside lamp, which now cast a soft, amber glow. The flexible neck of his desk light pointed away from us, shining on the wall and making shadows of a tableaux of toy soldiers on his desk. Howard had painted the soldiers yellow and glued glitter over them. Some wore capes made of tissue.
Howard took my hand as he led me into the room. “This is a magical land,” he said, you may now make a wish”
I closed my eyes and did as he said.
Howard got on his knees and lifted up the edge of his bedspread. Underneath the bed was a cushion of white cotton Christmas snow with a group of painted plastic figures carefully balanced on it. Other figures hung from the slats of his bed and looked like they were flying. Howard pointed a flashlight on each individual character as he whispered to me,
“This is the land of the fairies,” he said. “Over there, that’s Tink, she’s just been to see her friend, Peter. She had to save him from drinking the poisoned cider and she’s very tired. See how her wings are wrapped around her?”
I didn’t see at all but I told him I did. Then I noticed a little figure glowing in the flashlight’s glare, wrapped in one of Nana’s embroidered handkerchiefs. With relief, I realized that was what he wanted me to see.
Howard pointed out a group set apart from the others – the Indian characters from the Cowboys and Indians set. “That’s Tiger Lily and her tribe,” he said. “She’s waiting for Peter to come back from the Darling’s house so he can tell her about London.” He had painted Tiger Lily’s dress orange and the arrow in her hand purple.
Tiger Lily stood on a glistening lake made from a handful of Mom’s bracelets pooled into a shiny pile around a hand mirror. That was my favorite part.
He never spoke above a whisper but I heard every word. I wanted to move in, to stay forever in this place, with Tink and Tiger Lily and Howard whispering.
But then Howard took my hand again, “You must never tell anyone about this place,” he said as he led me to the door.