The mother swept quickly through the crosswalk, like a duck on a pond, trailing her daughter behind her. She hooked her thumbs under the straps of her backpack, felt the ache lift away, then settle again on her shoulders. What seemed necessary had become a burden: a Thermos of iced water, coloring books, borrowed binoculars, a stuffed unicorn. A day that had to be perfect.
The girl, who was almost five, clutched a sheet of yellow paper.
"Give the man your ticket, honey," the mother said, ushering her daughter toward an open booth. The girl slipped the paper under the glass and blinked her blue eyes up at a large man behind it. He frowned, studied the paper. He held it to the light, squinting from different angles. Then he set it down, folded his hands, and looked at the child gravely.
"Well. This is a real special ticket, young lady. Looks like you've earned yourself a baseball game."
The mother had learned of the library's summer reading program in mid-June. On her next day off, they rode the bus across town, to sign up and collect their reading log. The librarian pressed a sheet of dinosaur stickers in the little girl's palm, and pointed to the squares on the reading log. "Each book is worth a sticker," she said. "And each sticker is worth a gift."
They boarded the bus every week thereafter, criss-crossing the city to claim a jigsaw puzzle, or a plastic toy bear. On the ride back, in the stifling summer heat, often the girl would fall asleep in her mother's lap, arms curled around a stack of books. And at night the mother watched her daughter's plump mouth push out slow motion syllables, shaping sounds from a new story.
The final prize was a voucher for a Major League game, admission for one child "and guest", two sodas and a popcorn; things the mother could not afford. She raised her daughter alone, after turning a bruised cheek and swollen belly away from the boy who had imparted both. Until then, her reality had been like the bruises, striking hard and bright, but fading fast into something merely ugly, tolerable. It was the sonogram image of the baby curled in her womb, growing brighter and guiding her away, that stamped permanence in her heart.
She ached at their poverty, longing to give her child more: trips to the zoo, a princess canopy bed, a backyard. How could a daughter flourish under the burden of a mother's failures? Everything she offered was second hand. Everything, but not today.
The man slid their tickets under the glass. He winked at the girl and told her to keep reading.
They joined the swell of fans headed toward the entrance. The crowd inched along, which made the mother anxious, but suited the little girl. Back and forth, her ponytail flipped.
Steam curled up from a hot dog stand, salty and thick.
A round man boomed like a microphone: "Get your programs here!"
They were near the entrance when the mother felt a tug on her arm; her daughter stared wide eyed beyond the crowd, bouncing, pointing toward the street. "Mommy!" she cried, stretching away like taffy.
The mother looked and saw the street musician, fifty yards off. "Honey, no. We're almost inside. We'll miss the starting pitch!"
But the girl was determined, and the mother allowed herself to be led away.
They skirted droves of latecomers, adorned in bright ball caps and clutching flags. Some glanced at the musician warily, as if they had seen him many times, on their way to many ball games, and did not appreciate his presence there. His skin looked unnatural, bronzed by the sun, matching hair twisted into dreadlocks. His long fingers cradled the saxophone like a lover.
The girl stood before the musician, silent, unmoving. Her mother watched her as the glare of sun softened into an orange glow. She thought about one of the books they'd chosen from the library, a book about birds, with the loveliest images: a ruby-throated hummingbird hovering lightly over a daisy, a pair of eagles tracing a path of clouds over rolling hills, a penguin poised erect on a vast sheet of ice.
"Can you see how the penguin is different from other birds?" she had asked. She pointed to his wings, pressed against his body in useless appeal. "His body is too heavy for his wings to lift him. Penguins are birds that can't fly."
Her daughter stared at the picture and said, "They fly in the water."
From the stadium, a low hum began, swelling into a roar that signaled the start of the ball game. The mother again reached for her daughter's hand, and they walked back together, the soft city jazz blowing after them.