Long Western Afternoon Fort People.

by Serge Bielanko

We have a tent set up in our house. It came with a tunnel. I got it for my daughter last Christmas when she was almost one, which means I mostly got it for myself because I kind of knew that she wasn't gonna care. It isn't anything nice. It cost twenty bucks at Bed,Bath,and Beyond and I think it's made out of spring roll. Still, it was the first Christmas gift I ever went out and got her and so it has a little meaning for me.

A few weeks ago I went back into the room we set up for Violet to play/hang in and there was the tent all set up. I forgot to tell you that after I let the kid shred off the wrapping paper on Christmas morning, the tent went in a closet, still in the box. Until now. My wife must've set it up. I haven't asked her. Christ, I hope it was her; otherwise some weird-ass freaks are sneaking in this house late at night while I'm curled up tight like a fetal squirrel. Anyways, I went in there and the tent was set up and the tunnel was out in the living room, probably because we don't have all that much furniture and a nice rainbow colored tunnel lying in the middle of the floor...well, it's something.

I went ahead and got in the tent right away. Violet wasn't around. No one was. But, I got in there and squatted down in the tiny space and pulled the flaps shut. The light from the window above was washing through the bright yellow and red and blue panels and so I felt like I was young again for a second. Squatting in hot vinyl and staring at the beams of color on your arm skin, whiffing that new plastic scent, wondering what to do with your free time in such a hidden little cove tucked away from the wide open world: I don't know about you, but all that makes me feel young again. I found myself hoping that my kid might crawl up in there one of these mornings and enjoy herself. That she might come to like the tent, and the tunnel, as magic places away from the dull kitchen and the boring halls.

But I had no idea.


Fast forward here about two weeks. I'll be lowering long slashes of Wal-Mart roast beast lunch meat out over my tilted back head and down my throat with the awkward grace of a sword swallower, when all of the sudden I feel that tiny sweet hand upon mine. I feel the soft fingers all wrapping around a few of my fingers. And I feel the precious tug of her young effort.

I gulp down my factory beef and look below. Violet is holding my hand and leading me.

Oh my.

...What a sensation/what a feeling: the first time your kid comes into a room just to get you. I'm looking for you Pops, her grip says. I'm here for you. To haul your ass back to the playroom, or wherever. I smile inside and ask her where we're going. She doesn't answer or smile gappy teeth or look up at me with Question Mark Eyes. She doesn't say anything. She simply gets a hold of my thumb/turns directions/starts leading me to where she needs me to be.

I offer little resistance, of course. (Being swept off my feet hasn't been all that common for me in this life. No girls ever grabbed me on a Friday after a tough week and said, " Come with me, Bullet Boy!". They never drove me out on the Turnpike to one of those Champagne Glass hot-tubs in the Poconos or Vegas. I guess I never inspired that sort of spark in anyone. No one couldn't wait to get me to the getaway. No one fussed mid-kiss to lock the strange doorknob behind us. No one ever kept me behind any drapes drawn tight through the sunniest parts of some Saturday afternoon. I never answered the door in a towel in a rush/keep the change Pizza-Man /slammed the door in a lusty huff.)

So. If this is my fate, so be it. A New Kind Of Swept Away. If I am to be swept off my proverbial feet by a two year old I never saw coming, well...bring it on, I say. Sure the rules have changed. And the reasons too. But, still, some little heart wants to hold my hand and whisk me off.

We go to the tent, obviously. To the very first holiday gift. To the mega-colored ultra-flammable piece of crap I bought from The Man. We go, hand-in-hand, me towering above my leader, my heart pittering. She is deliberate in guiding me. We aren't distracted by the Dora on the DVD or anything. At the front of the tent, my daughter enters in her own special way; she walks straight into the vinyl above the hole where you go in, until her head bends back enough so that she just falls inside. Me, I smoosh down and sort of roll inside like a tilted meatball. And then, there we are.

Violet looks at me with a big smile and lets go of my thumb. I attack her with a Paddington Bear who is already chillin' there in the fort. She bursts into giggles. I pull in the SpongeBob drum and do some Indian beats, some war chants. Violet sticks her face into the corners of the tent and breathes her breath into them and I can tell she likes it when the thin walls flap and pop as her air moves in and out, the tent sticking to her lips and cheeks then falling away. Max comes in and pokes his head into the side port.

"Wolf!," I cry. Violet is ecstatic and pulls the wolf's ear.

Then I think about Jedediah Smith and Jim Bridger and Kit Carson. The long cold fur trader's winters spent holed up in squat caves of loneliness on the high plains of Wyoming. Then I think about how difficult it must've been just to take a shit when you were snowed in and miserable and three feet away from another tired hungry trapper who was finally seeing you for the tender Cornish Hen that you really are.

Then I stop myself, because to thrust poor Violet into a world of Mountain Man Pretend. I do enough of that in my own time.

So, we sit in the colored air of our tent, me and my kid and Max and then Milo too, their heads tucked in the holes, hoping not to miss whatever awesome shit must be about to go down in there. We all sit there and smile at each other in the late afternoon and I hit the SpongeBob drum with some weak Lakota beats. I tickle Violet with Paddington. And a Tigger The Tiger, too. She laughs and laughs. There's not a lot to do in there, but that doesn't really matter. Every two or three minutes I crawl out and walk away just to see if I'm still wanted, to make sure it isn't all just another damn dream.

And sure as hell, I'm not out in the kitchen fifteen seconds when I hear the little stumblings of her sock feet on the linoleum. I keep my hand way down my side so its easy to find.

A long moment passes. I don't dare peek.

Then, I feel her fingers on mine. Tugging again.

And we roll back towards the fort where we hang in the long western afternoon.