At nearly twelve years old, my daughter Ellie had shown no obvious signs of leaving the fairy world of early childhood behind. On any particular afternoon her room would become the site of dinosaur stampedes, tea parties with the queen, or volcanoes made of pillows. Her pretend games seemed just as vibrant has they had ever been. She would look forward to visits from Santa and the Easter bunny, and we had done the Tooth Fairy ritual down to the last molar. It caused my wife and me no little worry that Ellie might become branded feeble by her peers – a baby in sixth-grader clothing. Even so, we could not find it in our hearts to steer her away from childish practices. In spite of some early signs of puberty, we felt that it would probably make things harder for Ellie if we tried to pry her out of her flowery reality.
My daughter still carried her favorite doll, Beth, nearly everywhere. Beth was not a “baby doll” type, but seemed to be more of a pal for Ellie. It was a bit like having a very quiet second daughter. Responses to questions were often phrased in the first-person plural, like “We’re not very hungry right now; we want to go to the park before lunch.” Ellie would usually bring toys for the doll, and sometimes food. And, like most dolls these days, Beth had accessories. In addition to the usual array of clothes and shoes, there were hats, mittens – even earrings. Beth owned a small travel kit with her own comb, lipstick, and toothbrush. In Beth’s purse were pretend credit cards, an ID, and a surprising variety of other odds and ends.
Ellie and I had finished our chores one Sunday afternoon, and I decided to take her to the movies. As usual, Beth came along. In fact, on this trip, Beth was going to pay her own way. Amongst the sundries in that tiny purse were a small fistful of pretend theater tickets. We arrived at the box office, and while I paid for us real people, my daughter began to chat about the coupon printed on the back of Beth’s ticket: one free popcorn, and a 16 oz. drink.
I presented our two tickets at the door. Behind me, Ellie stepped up saying, “She has one, too!” while brandishing both doll and ticket. Of course, the ticket-taker smiled, accepted the ticket, pretended to tear it and handed it back. There was a brief smile and the slightest nod, and we proceeded on to the snack bar. A long line, as usual, in which I mostly looked around the room for familiar faces while my little girl skipped back and forth between the boundary ropes with Beth.
I must confess that I am a bit of a cheapskate at theaters, or, rather, the prices make me flinch to the point that thirst and hunger seem acceptable alternatives to the expensive snacks on display. I ordered a small box of Raisinets, and a bottled water to share. And then a small voice to my left chimed in: “And a popcorn, and one 16 oz drink. We have a coupon.”
I bit my lip over the next, rather long, moment while my daughter handed the boy behind the counter Beth’s coupon, printed on the back of a pretend movie ticket. The kid looked at it for a full fifteen seconds with brows knit, in obvious confusion. Finally, he seemed to catch on, and said “I’m sorry little girl, but this isn’t for this theater – I can’t accept this coupon.”
I was breathing again. My daughter’s feelings had been spared; she could deal with the minor disappointment of failing to secure the goods with a pretend coupon without having to be embarrassed at the same time. I felt so good that I was about to break down and fork over the loot for a popcorn myself, and maybe even the drink. But, Ellie stopped me.
“Excuse me,” began my child, “but I am sure this coupon is good here. The man by the door accepted this movie ticket just a few minutes ago, right daddy?” She looked quickly up at me, then back to the cashier. “Therefore, I know that the coupon – printed on the same ticket – has to be for this theater. There’s no mistaking that.”
There was a kind of silence-bubble surrounding us now. I’m sure the noises of the busy lobby went on from all sides, but in the air that hung between me, my daughter, Beth, and the boy now leaning forward with his elbows on the counter, there was no sound. I looked closely at her face. My little girl had the innocent-but-serious look of a child who honestly believes in the game she is playing. I knew I needed to extract her from this situation, but how could I do it without publicly trouncing upon her tiny ego?
Before I could act… before anyone could break the spell, she spoke up again. “If you don’t mind,” said my child in her most firm but polite voice, “I think I’d like to speak to the manager.” Before I could protest, the cashier jumped at the opportunity to pass the buck, and bolted for an office door at the far end of the counter.
While the other lanes of hungry moviegoers kept moving on either side of us, my girl and I (girls, I suppose, counting Beth) stood at the register waiting. I could swear that I heard the theme music from Jeopardy playing in the background as the moments ticked by, with me racking my brain for something to say to Ellie. But every time I looked down at her she simply smiled sweetly up at me. I held my tongue. Where was that manager?!
After what seemed like several minutes the boy returned with a man who, from his bearing, was obviously in charge. He strolled right up to the counter and, with hardly a glance at me, spoke to my companion(s). “So, what seems to be the problem, ladies?” He asked, although he had certainly been briefed in detail.
“Well,” began my daughter, “Beth here” (holding up the doll) “has a coupon, but your employee doesn’t seem to recognize it.” She held out the pretend ticket, in all earnestness, with its free popcorn and drink facing the manager. “Beth was allowed into the show with this ticket” (turning it over) “so I am certain it is good at this theater.”
“I see,” said the manager. With a slight frown he held out his hand, and taking the ticket, inspected it. “Of course. My cashier was not aware of this promotional special. No problem. I have your popcorn and drink right here.” And with that, he revealed something he had been carrying, hidden behind the counter in his left hand. It was a tiny plastic bucket of popcorn and an itty bitty drink! The items were apparently accessories from another doll, and were exactly the right size for Beth!
I was watching my daughter as an array of expressions flashed across her face. Her jaw dropped, her eyes opened wide. She recovered almost instantly, but a moment of stunned realization had been clearly displayed. It was the look of someone who’s been caught in the act. Had she been playing the innocent child angle in the hopes of getting free snacks? Had she concocted the whole thing in order to do this? I had to admit, the logic of the accepted theater ticket validating the coupon was a pretty good ploy. Had she simply invented it? And now, the manager had blown the whole caper by calling her bluff!
Regaining her poise, Ellie smiled her sweetest smile, and curtsied while accepting the pretend goodies from the manager. Thanking him, she turned on her heel and led me down the hall to the theater. I resisted the temptation to even ask if she had been working a game on those guys at the counter. She got Beth all set up in a seat, with the doll-sized popcorn and drink, and seemed perfectly content. For the duration of the movie, I put the affair out of mind.
* * *
We were leaving the theater, laughing and comparing notes about our favorite bits of the show we had just seen. My little girl stopped me by the door, and asked me to hold Beth and wait there. I watched her walk across the lobby to the manager’s door, where she knocked and waited. The door opened, and the man we had seen earlier poked his head out. There was a brief exchange, and Ellie came walking back to where I stood.
“What was that?” I asked casually.
“I got to thinking,” Ellie explained while taking Beth from the crook of my arm, “and figured the toy food must have belonged to somebody. I thought I should return it.”
As we broke through the door into the hot summer air, I had an odd moment of realization. My daughter had named her doll “Beth.” Why had I never made the obvious connection before? “Beth” must be short for Ellie’s full name, Elizabeth.