"Honey, could you take Danny around while I shop? Keep him amused?"
So. That was it. Keep my nephew amused.
I knew there was a reason my mother wanted me to take her to the mall. It wasn't that she couldn't drive, although she didn't like it. And it wasn't that she needed me, her own personal homo, to help her pick out a fabulous outfit to wear to Mass next Sunday. And it wasn't that she so enjoyed my scintillating company she couldn't stand to leave me at home.
Nope. It was all about babysitting.
Frankly, I couldn't blame her. The woman had her hands full with me and my sisters for years, and she'd been wrangling grandchildren -- Anne Marie's one and Marianne's three -- ever since the twins realized that dumping the brats at Nana's was not only easy, but free.
Danny seemed to spend more time at my parents' house than he did at home in those days. Anne Marie worked hard, but she also played hard. And a six-year-old with big eyes and even bigger ears cramped her style in a really big way.
And now I was being roped into the dump-and-drop thing.
I almost said no, but I couldn't do it. Danny stared up at me with his melancholy, knowing eyes. I understood exactly how he felt. The surprise baby. The unwanted kid. The drag on the system. Always being passed from hand to hand. And realizing all too well what was happening.
"Sure." I held out my hand and Danny took it. Grasped it hard, his little fingers slightly sticky.
My mother smiled at us. "Good. You boys have fun. I'll meet you at the Food Court in..." She checked her watch. "An hour and a half?"
That seemed like a long time, but what the hell? "Okay. We'll see you then."
Mom hustled off before I could change my mind.
"Come on, Danny Boy," I said. "Let's check out the territory."
He nodded and immediately began pulling me along, down towards the far end of the main wing.
"Where are we going?" I asked. Because he seemed to have a specific plan.
"Here!" he cried, coming to a halt in front of a storefront that was awash with pink.
"Oh, no!" It was the Princess Parade Store.
"Yes!" he insisted. "Please? Uncle Shea? Please!" The kid was almost in tears.
My sister had ranted about Danny's obsession with this store at the time it opened, just before Christmas last year. It's a chain connected with a cable cartoon show called 'The Princess Parade.' Danny watched the show compulsively, along with every little girl between the ages of three and seven. The Princesses, done in cheap half-assed animation that would make Walt Disney weep, have adventures. They fly through the air. They defeat villains. They all have beautiful hair and elaborate costumes that never get dirty. They are painted in a multitude of eye-jarring colors. They each have an animal friend. And they each represent a different ethnicity, making them not only mind-bogglingly artificial, but politically correct.
Needless to say, the Princess Parade Store is not a place you'll find a typical red-blooded, truck-loving, baseball-playing, All American Boy. But it was the place Danny wanted to go more than anywhere else.
Even I, in my formative years as a gay boy, had never desired to be caught dead in anything so anti-butch as this girly-girly store.
No wonder my mother wanted to pass off this problem to me. Anne Marie had forbidden any Princess products after the fiasco involving Danny's 'Little Mermaid' toys last Christmas and the old man's reaction to them. But Danny wouldn't be denied. He just kept the Mermaid stuff out of his grandfather's sight. And now before us was an entire store full of landmines.
"Please?" He pleaded. His hand was squeezing mine tightly. "Uncle Shea? Can we go inside?"
Who was I to police this kid's desire? What did he have in his life to make him happy? Not that much. A father who wouldn't admit to it. A mother who couldn't be bothered half the time. A grandmother who did her best, but who was more than a little scatterbrained. And a grandfather who was, to put it bluntly, a bitter, homophobic old bastard. I knew that well enough. And I'd suffered for it myself.
"Sure, Danny. Why the hell not?"
"Why the hell not?" Danny repeated gleefully.
"Jesus!" I breathed. "Don't say that! Especially not to Nana. Okay?"
"I won't," he said solemnly. "Can we go in now?"
We went in.
It was a pink nightmare, like being inside a shaken bottle of Pepto Bismal. Pink walls. Pink carpeting. All the salesgirls in shades of pink. And the walls lined with pink costumes to match those of the Queen of the Princess Parade, Penelope the Pink Princess, a pink-tressed harridan who rode a pink swan. The other princesses in their various colors were also displayed, but Penelope in all her pink glory was front and center.
A curious salesgirl who looked about fifteen came up to us. "Can I help you?"
"Just looking around," I mumbled.
"Are you shopping for your little sister?" she asked Danny, bending down to his level. She obvious knew who her real customers were.
"No!" Danny said firmly, turning up his nose. Then he marched toward the costume wall and began checking out the clothing.
"Well, sir, let me know if you need any help," she said, retreating briskly. Obviously men of any age and orientation were a rarity in the Princess Parade store.
I caught up with Danny as he was reaching for a large Princess Penelope doll.
"What about this one?" I steered him away from the profusion of pink. "Bridget the Green Princess." The doll had long red hair, a dress covered with shamrocks, and a horse the same color as her hair. "She's pretty. Doesn't she look like Mommy?"
Danny sniffed. "No," he pronounced. But he did seem a little more interested in the other Princesses. A little.
I looked to see if there was even one Prince, but alas, males were apparently only born to be villains in the Princess Parade Universe.
I had to admit that the entire concept was a brilliant marketing scheme. There was a Princess covering almost every kind of tiny female consumer. Besides the overwhelming Penelope and the rejected Bridget, there was Lily the Golden Princess (an Asian doll with a dragon), Shakira the Purple Princess (an African doll with a lion), Autumn the Red Princess (a Native American doll with a deer), and Vanessa the Blue Princess (blonde and blue-eyed with a fluffy white cat). But it was obvious they were all secondary to Her Pinkness, Penelope.
"Time for the Princess Dance!" a voice boomed out.
Eight little girls began shrieking and ran to the middle of the store where the oldest salesgirl was lining them up to teach them to dance to the "Princess Parade" theme song.
Of course, Danny raced straight for the chorus line and pushed his way to the center. The woman in charge shrugged and let him stay. He grinned at me in triumph.
"Okay, we all know the song, right?"
"Yeah!" the kids screamed.
"Good." The girl arranged them into a Princess Parade Line and showed them a few simple steps. Then she signaled for the music, the 'Princess Parade Theme Song':
"We are the Princess Parade!
And we are never afraid!
If you are in trouble
We'll come on the double!
Yes, we are the Princess Parade!
What can I say? It wasn't Cole Porter, but Danny didn't care. He was in his element, clapping and spinning and high kicking to his heart's content. And, I have to admit, he was a much better dancer than most of the girls. Much better than me, certainly. The Desmonds aren't particularly noted for their grace and finesse, but my little nephew was a natural.
All the little girls were duly impressed. Which is as it should be. There's nothing like a gay boy to teach a bunch of straight girls how to dance correctly. Even the salesgirls gathered around to watch. When the song ended, they cued it up and played it again. And again. And again.
Finally, enough was enough.
"Danny, we have to go meet Nana. Now!"
"Okay," he shrugged. He stepped out of the Princess Parade Line reluctantly.
"You were very good, honey. And you're as cute as a bug!" the head salesgirl said to Danny. "Come back soon!" She turned to me. "Would you like one of our cards, sir? We do birthday parties and other special occasions."
I tried to imagine the look on my mother's face if I told her I'd arranged a Princess Parade Party for Danny. Then I imagined the look on Danny's face
"Thanks." I pocketed the card. "Do you get a lot of boys in here?" I was curious.
The girl hesitated. "Not really. But your son is welcome any time."
I nodded and took Danny's hand. It was still sticky. All five-year-olds have perpetually sticky hands.
"That was fun," he said as we walked towards the food court. "Those dolls are nice." He paused. "I know I can't have one, but I can look. Right, Uncle Shea? I can look?"
"Yeah, you can look. But..."
"I know," he sighed. "Don't tell Nana. Don't tell Mommy. And 'specially don't tell Grandpa."
Don't ask, don't tell. That was the mantra in our family.
"But I was good!" he added. "Wasn't I good?"
"Yes, Danny," I admitted. "You were very good."
"I know," he grinned.
And he did. And in the end that'll be his salvation, no matter what.