Mom, dad and I crossed the street from our house walking through lots of snow, which mom said was “fresh” and also “beautiful”. David had stayed at home with Margie, who was “the babysitter”, and mom had told her that this was the first time she and dad had gone out together without him since he was born. Margie had stayed at our house a couple times to play with me when mom and dad went out to a party or to “play bridge”, whatever that was. I liked bridges too, because you were up high and going over something below, but I wasn’t sure how grownups would play on them. I also liked Margie because, like Aunt Pat, she was bigger and older than I was, but still I could tell she was a kid and not a grownup.
Mom, dad and I all had our black “rubber boots” on over our shoes, with those “buckle” things that made them not fall off. I really liked them because I would put them on with my space helmet to pretend I was a spaceman, or with dad’s army helmet to pretend I was a soldier. Dad liked the boots because they were “practical” and “what we can afford right now”. Mom didn’t like hers because she said they made her “look like a bum”.
Molly’s mom opened the front door and looked down at our feet.
“You three look cute in your matching boots, very practical”, she said.
Mom’s eyes moved all around and she made a funny noise with her mouth kind of like she was coughing. “Yeah, real practical Joan, that’s charitable of you”, she said, not sounding like she really thought that. “I’d kill for a real pair of leather boots!”
Molly’s mom closed her eyes and nodded, then opened them again and looked at mom, putting her hand on mom’s shoulder. “You and Eric have all your priorities just right. Keeping the focus on that last elusive sheepskin, and then your world will transform for the better, I just know it Jane.”
Then she looked at dad and put her hand on his shoulder. “Eric”, she said, “I won’t even ask how the dissertation is progressing.” She laughed.
Dad laughed a little bit too and said, “Well actually, I’ve got a meeting with my committee next week to review and hopefully approve my final outline!”
“Now that’s huge”, Molly’s mom said, “We can celebrate that today along with Molly’s birthday, though you know I’m supremely jealous!”
Dad nodded and wrinkled his nose and we all banged our boots together to knock the snow off, before taking them off and putting them on a towel by the door with other boots and regular shoes. I could even take them off by myself without someone helping me, which was another thing I liked about them.
Suddenly Molly appeared from the living room and came up right in front of me and looked at me like she had to tell me something really important. She was wearing one of those dress things that was open at the bottom.
“Now I’m older than you!” she said, her voice sounding a bit fierce, like she really had to tell me right away. “I’m four and you’re still three.”
I nodded. She was right.
“Molly Wheeler”, her mom said loudly, shaking her head, “What has gotten into you?” Her hands squeezed Molly’s shoulders, and I could see Molly get a puzzled look on her face like she was trying to figure out how to answer that question.
Her mom looked at mom and dad. “She’s gotten some sort of ‘birthday fever’ today, from the moment she first woke up!”
Mom nodded and then looked down at her and said, “Coop’s ALMOST four! He’s three and five sixths actually. Just two more months.”
Molly’s mom was still shaking her head. “I don’t think Erikson has his age ranges quite right. Both Molly and Cooper are totally in the ‘purpose’ phase, which isn’t supposed to start until age five!”
Mom laughed. “Well Joan, Erikson aside, I think they’re both just very bright kids!”
Dad was nodding, and when he saw me looking at him he winked. Then mom looked down at me and made one of her big smiles.
Molly looked up at her mom. “Can Coob and I go?” she asked.
Her mom nodded, and Molly took me by the hand and led me through the top part of her living room where all the grownups were talking to each other holding those funny looking glasses with the clear red liquid in them.
We walked down the stairs to the bottom part of the room where all the other kids were sitting around the big eating table. There was Kenny, Danny and Paul and two other kids that I didn’t know. They were eating this food thing I hadn’t seen before shaped like long triangles that were red and white on top with these brown circles, and it all smelled really good. They all looked at me coming down the stairs holding Molly’s hand.
“So who are you, kid?” said the boy I didn’t know, who looked a couple years older than I was.
“That’s Coob”, said Molly looking at him. Then she turned to me and said, “That’s Ricky. He thinks he’s in charge.”
“I AM in charge”, said Ricky, “Your mom said so.”
“I’m in charge too”, said Danny, “She said we were BOTH in charge cuz we’re older.”
Ricky’s voice was fierce. “How old ARE you?”
“Six”, said Danny.
Ricky paused, thinking, I could tell he was figuring out what to say. “Well that’s too bad cuz I’m seven”, he finally said.
“You’re not seven”, Danny said, shaking his head while he made a funny face.
Ricky got a smile on his face and said, “How do you know? You can’t prove I’m not.”
“It doesn’t matter”, said Danny, “However old you are, and you’re not seven, Molly’s mom put us BOTH in charge.”
“So give Coob a slice of pizza then if you’re in charge too”, Ricky said, his voice not so fierce anymore. “You can’t expect me to do everything.“ Then he looked at me and asked, “You want a Coke?”
I nodded. Danny got me a plate and put a piece of pizza on it and handed it to me. Ricky went into the kitchen and I heard clinking and crunching noises and he came back with a shiny black bottle with drops dripping off it, and then used this metal thing to pop the top off. I took a bite of my slice of pizza. It tasted really good.
Ricky looked at me and pointed at Danny. “That’s Danny by the way”, he said.
“Cooper already knows me”, Danny said.
“Huh”, grunted Ricky, “Well I bet you don’t know my sister Jill.”
The girl I didn’t know next to Molly waved her hand. She had long black hair but all tied together like two long ropes. She had on a pink shirt and a pink bow in her hair. She looked into my eyes.
“Is Molly your girlfriend?” she asked.
I didn’t know what to say. I looked at Molly and I could tell that she didn’t either. I had heard that “girlfriend” word before and I knew it was about stuff like kissing and being “in love”, whatever that was, and always thinking about that other person. I actually did do a lot of thinking about Molly, but to say she was my “girlfriend” was not something I could even think about. So I did what seemed safest and I didn’t say anything, though I worried that I should be able to say something, and if I said nothing they might think she was.
“You don’t have a girlfriend until you get older and want to be all kissy face”, Danny said, like he was sure that was true. Both Molly and Jill squeezed their faces like they didn’t like it when they heard “kissy face”.
“Yeah”, said Ricky. He seemed to always want to say something. “You don’t want someone all kissy face following you around.”
Danny nodded. “Believe me you don’t.”
No one seemed to want to say anything more about it and I was happy about that, though I also wondered if Molly might want to talk about it later when no one else was around. So we all ate our pizza and drank our Cokes, and didn’t do any talking for a while. You could hear the loud voices of the grownups just above us in the living room part, particularly the men.
“My colleague figures Pope John is going to use Vatican Two to call an end to the ‘martial law’ of papal infallibility from Vatican One.”
Another man laughing. “Yeah, Pius had to do something about all those commies and socialists who were winning hearts and minds. What’s your take, Eric? You must have studied Pius doing your research on Cardinal Newman.”
Then I heard my dad’s voice. “Well, Newman clashed with Pius over papal infallibility, finding it way too authoritarian for his tastes.”
“My colleagues point exactly. Thanks Eric!” said the first man again.
“Bet none of you know where the Vatican is!” said Ricky, getting our attention and looking each of the rest of us kids in the eye. We all shook our heads except for Danny who frowned, thinking.
“New York?” Danny guessed.
Ricky looked at Danny, smiling. “Not a bad guess Danny my boy, but not the right answer either.”
“Where then?” Danny asked.
“Italiano”, Ricky said waving his hand and using a funny voice like he was singing, “Roma.” Then back to his regular voice. “That’s Rome, Italy to you ‘Mericans.”
“So you’re not ‘Merican?” Danny snapped back.
Ricky made a silly face and his eyes rolled around to look up. “Well ya got me there!” He laughed. Danny and Jill laughed too. Kenny, Paul, Molly and I all looked at each other, like what were these older kids talking about.
Paul with a mouthful of pizza mumbled, “I saw that new rocket take off on TV?”
Molly nodded. “I saw it too. It was great. My dad says it’s the best one in the whole world.”
Ricky blew air out of his closed mouth. “So your dad’s some expert on rockets?”
Molly nodded again. “He’s an…”, she paused, “Enginer.”
Ricky made a funny half smile. “You meant to say ‘engineer’ miss Molly.”
Molly wrinkled her nose and pushed her lips together and gave Ricky a fierce look.
Ricky held up his hands in front of him like he was trying to stop something. “No offence kid. I know it’s your birthday and all. You’re just saying it wrong. “Your dad’s an enginEER.”
Molly turned her fierce look from Ricky to me and the tip of her thumb went between her lips and she bit down on it, which I had not seen her do for a long time. Her eyes were telling me she was mad and wanted Ricky to just go away.
Maybe Ricky figured that out too, because he looked worried all of a sudden, and his eyes moved quickly back and forth looking at different things, finally looking at the box with the pizza. “Here Molly, have another piece of pizza, on the house!” He picked up a piece and dropped it on her plate.
Paul had another mouthful of pizza but continued with his thinking and talking about the rocket. “My dad said it was bigger than the one the Russians got.” I remembered my mom and dad talking about the Russians and my mom hoping that though they were the other team that there wouldn’t be a war.
“Yeah”, said Danny, finally finding his chance to talk again, “What do they call that place where they are?”
Ricky looked at Danny, shook his head and did that half smile again. “Uh… Russia.”
Danny shook his head and looked like he was thinking. “No that other place… ‘so’ something.”
I remembered, and wanted to help Danny. “Soviet Union”, I said.
“Yeah them”, Danny said nodding.
Ricky looked at me and frowned. Then it looked like he tried to smile but couldn’t quite do it. “Yeah, of course”, he said, “the Soviet Union. They used to be Russia until they became commies.”
“Yeah”, said Danny, “But we can beat them now because we got a better rocket.”
Ricky blew air out of his nose. “Their rockets are still good enough to blow the crap out of all of us”, he said.
“But maybe we’ll blow the crap out of them first”, Danny replied.
Ricky tilted his head up and looked at the ceiling. We all looked at him like he was ready to say something important.
At that moment Molly’s mom came down the stairs from the top part of the living room. “Are you kids doing all right? Can I get anyone anything?” She put her hands on Molly’s shoulders and looked at the rest of us.
Ricky looked back and smiled his biggest smile. “We’re okay missus W. The pizza is really good.”
Molly’s mom smiled back at him. “I’m so glad”, she said, “We got it from Dominick’s. Molly’s dad had to drive all the way to Ypsi to pick them up.”
She patted Molly’s shoulder and looked down at her. “You like it, dear?” she asked. Molly looked up at her chewing a mouthful of pizza.
“You don’t need to answer with your mouth full”, Molly’s mom said, “Looks like you like it!” Then looking again at the rest of us. “Molly’s so glad you could all come to celebrate her FOURTH birthday.”
“Hey”, said Ricky, “Good pizza. Good company. Count me in!” He seemed to like talking to grownups pretending like he was one of them.
Molly’s mom then blew air out of her nose and started to laugh without opening her mouth but then stopped. “Oh Ricky, you are quite the comedian!” she said, patting Molly once more on the shoulder before turning and heading into the kitchen.
Ricky watched her carefully then leaned forward toward the rest of us and spoke in a quieter voice than his regular one, his eyes glancing toward the kitchen a couple times while he spoke. “You know what it’s like to get blown up by a nucular bomb don’t you? You see this flash of light brighter than the sun, and if you look at it it will fry your eyes out.” He shrugged his shoulders and waved his hands around but kept his voice quiet. “But who cares, you’re probably dead anyway!”
Molly’s mom came out of the kitchen with a big shiny silver plate with square food things on it. We all got quiet and looked at her.
“What ya serving missus W?” Ricky asked.
“It’s called ‘quiche’ Ricky”, she said, “Want to try some?”
“Try”, said Ricky, with his half smile again, “I can’t get enough of the stuff!”
Molly’s mom shook her head and started to laugh again without opening her mouth. She held the plate close to him and he picked one of the squares off of it.
“Thanks”, he said.
She moved the plate toward the rest of us. “Anybody else want to try?” she asked. The rest of us immediately shook our heads.
“Okay.” She laughed out loud this time and then walked up the stairs to the top part of the living room carrying the plate.
“You really eat that stuff?” Danny said, making a face.
Ricky laughed. “Nah”, he said, “But hey, what the heck!” He carefully took a small bite of it and made a face like he didn’t like it. Then he said, “Delicious”, but it didn’t sound like he really meant it. He took the thing into the kitchen and we all watched him drop it in the trash can.
As I watched Ricky in the kitchen I was thinking how really interesting he was. He was a kid like us but he knew a lot of things and he didn’t let grownups bother him. I wanted to be like him, never worried, always knowing what to say next. He came back and sat down in his chair and looked at each of us.
“So what were we talking about?” he asked.
“Nucular bombs”, said Kenny, talking for the first time since I had been there. He seemed to want to talk more about it. Though my mom and dad had talked about the Soviet Union, that new guy in charge of it and trying not to have a war, they hadn’t talked about this whole bomb thing.
“Ah yes”, said Ricky, “Frying your eyes out.”
“But if you have a basement and you go down there, you’re safe, right?” Kenny said, but like he wasn’t really sure that was true.
“Well maybe for a little while”, Danny said, “Until the radiation comes!” Ricky nodded and Kenny got quiet again, and I could tell that he was worried and thinking.
“What’s radiation?” Molly asked. I didn’t know either.
“You don’t want to know”, said Ricky.
Jill spoke in a loud voice. “She asked you Ricky, so I think she wants to know.”
Ricky shook his head.
“Ricky SAYS Molly doesn’t want to know because HE doesn’t know”, said Danny, acting like he had the right answer.
“Oh Danny, Danny, Danny”, Ricky said, still slowly shaking his head, “She doesn’t want to know because it’s so terrible. But if you want to tell her and ruin her birthday go right ahead.”
“Tell me Ricky!” Molly’s voice was fierce and I could tell she was mad. “If you don’t tell me maybe you should go home.”
“Okay, okay, jeez”, Ricky sputtered, waving his hands around in the air, then leaning toward and looking at Danny he said in a low voice, “She’s not going to like it.”
Ricky looked at Molly. He stopped smiling. “Radiation is this invisible stuff that comes out of the nucular bomb after it blows up and goes all over the place and melts your skin off your bones, and you’re still alive for a while but wish you were dead.”
As I listened I imagined the skin melting off my bones and was really scared. I could see Molly was scared too, the tip of her thumb was back in her mouth and her teeth were biting it hard. But then I could see her being mad get stronger than her being scared.
“They don’t have to blow up THOSE kind of bombs”, she said.
“Who doesn’t?” Ricky replied.
“Those…”, I could tell Molly couldn’t remember the name.
“The Soviet Union”, I added, that was the part that I kept remembering.
“We’re not Commies like they are so they hate our guts”, Ricky said.
“What’s a ‘Commie’?” Molly asked, her voice still fierce.
Ricky blew air out of his nose. “You don’t want to know!”
“I think she does Ricky”, said Jill, “That’s why she’s asking.”
Molly’s dad came down the stairs from the top part of the living room followed by a couple other grownup men. “It’s an RCA CTC seven with just the VHF tuner”, he said to them.
We all got quiet and looked at them.
Her dad stood behind Molly seated at the end of the table and looked at all the rest of us kids. He put his hands on her shoulders.
“So everyone having a good time? How’s the pizza?” he asked.
“It’s great mister W”, Ricky said. Everybody else nodded.
“Good. Good”, Molly’s dad said, now patting Molly on the shoulder, “And how’s my birthday girl?” he asked, looking down at her.
She looked straight up at him and asked, “Dad, what’s a ‘Commie’? Ricky won’t tell me!”
“Whoa”, he replied, “Didn’t expect that question!”
One of the other adult men with him laughed but in a way like he was worried too. And Molly’s dad seemed worried too about what the other men might be thinking.
“The things kids ask”, he said to the other two men, “Feel like we’re on the Art Linkletter show!” All three of them laughed.
Then he looked down again at Molly. “A ‘Commie’ is a communist dear. You know, like the Russians. We can talk about it more later with your mom. I want to show my buddies our new color TV.”
He patted her on the shoulder one last time, then he and the other two men went through the kitchen and down the stairs to the basement. I could tell Molly was not happy with that answer. She gave Ricky another fierce look.
“They’re the new bad guys”, Ricky said, like that ended it.
“Yeah”, said Danny, “Like the Germans used to be.”
I really wanted to join in the talking. “Or pirates”, I said, thinking about Treasure Island.
I thought about all the books my dad had read to me, and how they all had bad guys. Long John Silver was a pirate and the good guy grownups thought he was a bad guy, but he was nice to Jim who was a kid. And the grownups in Tom Sawyer thought Injun Joe was a bad guy but Tom and Huck were both kids and weren’t sure he really was. And Tom Swift was always trying to beat those people from that other place. He was still an older kid so maybe he thought more like the grownups on fighting with people. But he didn’t shoot them or blow them up.
I thought about my grandpa in that World War One and my dad in that World War Two, both against the Germans. And my toy soldiers, where the green ones were the good guy Americans and the gray ones were the bad guy Germans. The gray ones I also pretended were the bad guy pirates. I figured I always had to make the gray soldiers the bad guys or my dad might get mad at me, and I really did not want him to be mad at me, which almost never happened. But when he got mad at someone they might not know he was mad, but he would be, and maybe for a long time. I also didn’t like it when my mom got mad at me, but she would say why she was mad and then not be mad any more, which was better, or at least not as bad.
And it was like men grownups were always talking about fighting wars, old ones and new ones that hadn’t happened yet. But women grownups, at least my mom and Molly’s mom, didn’t talk about war so much. My mom talked about beating other teams in football or baseball, because that’s what you were supposed to try to do. My dad talked about beating other teams too, though he made it sound more like fighting a war against them.
I remembered my mom and dad talking about the Russians and that Soviet Union place and if I was supposed to fight in a World War Three against them. But then my mom said that they didn’t have to be bad guys that you had to fight a war against, but could be just another team like the Tigers or the Yankees that you just played a ‘game’ against, instead of a war. You’d try to win, like a war, but it was okay if you lose sometimes as long as you “played your best”, because you could win the next time. And maybe you didn’t like them, but you didn’t need to shoot them or blow them up.
Molly looked at me. “Pirates are different”, she said, “Everybody has to fight pirates.” That made me remember all the times she and I had pretended to fight pirates from her bedroom or in the back of her station wagon.
“Unless you’re another pirate”, said Paul, who had been pretty much eating pizza and just listening, but now looked happy that he had thought to say that.
“Well”, said Danny, “Sometimes pirates fight other pirates.”
“You just can’t trust pirates can you”, said Ricky, laughing, “Pretty much even if you are one.”
“Or commies”, added Kenny.
Molly’s mom came down the stairs from the upper part of the living room. “John Courtney Murray and democratized religion”, she said, wagging her finger in the air, “Hold that thought.”
She looked at all of us. “Everyone okay down here? James you look like you need a napkin.”
“I’ll get it”, Jill said loudly, jumping up and reaching across the table for the pile of napkins.
“We’re good missus W”, said Ricky, “Just lovin’ that pizza.”
Molly’s mom did that laugh again that adults did where they didn’t open their mouth, like they were trying to hold it inside them. She went into the kitchen and then I heard her voice, speaking really loud.
“Jack”, she called, “You and your buddies need to come up for the main event!”
I could hear the three men tromping up the basement stairs talking and laughing. One of them came out of the kitchen, but stopped before climbing the stairs back to the top part of the living room and looked at us kids.
“You guys get pizza down here?” he asked, “All we get up top is quiche! Can you spare a piece?”
“You know”, said Ricky, “If it were up to me, but I don’t make the rules around here.”
The man did that kind of grownup laugh with his mouth closed like he was coughing.
He wagged a finger at Ricky. “Kid you’ll be a kick in grad school.”
“That’s what everyone tells me”, said Ricky, waving a hand at the man and moving his eyes around and looking up.
The man laughed, this time a regular one, opening his mouth. He continued up the stairs. The other man followed but Molly’s dad stayed in the kitchen and I could hear him and Molly’s mom talking quietly but I couldn’t hear the words.
Then I heard Molly’s mom behind me starting to sing…
Happy birthday to you
Some of the grownups up above us started singing and coming over to the railing between them above and us below.
Happy birthday to you
We kids started singing too. I had learned from my own birthday a long time ago and Danny’s birthday since then that everyone was supposed to sing, even the kids. Ricky jumped up and turned toward all the grownups gathering at the railing above, and started waving his hands back and forth in front of him above his head. Some of the grownups laughed as everyone continued to sing.
Happy birthday dear Molly
Happy birthday to you
Then I heard my mom’s voice. She didn’t usually do singing because she said she “couldn’t carry a tune”.
And many more!
All the grownups clapped and a couple laughed at my mom for trying to sing. I looked at Molly but I could tell she didn’t know what to do. Her mom put the pink cake with four little candles with fire on their top parts in front of her.
“Make a wish”, Molly’s mom said, “And blow out the candles.”
Molly looked at the cake and stuck the tip of her thumb between her lips again, thinking. She turned her head and looked at me. I knew there was all kind of thinking going on inside her, behind those fierce eyes. I thought of all those circle “gears” going round inside that new clock I had gotten for Christmas, that you didn’t see in a regular clock, where all you saw were those two hands which were always changing but you could never see move. Molly was changing though you couldn’t see it happening. All us kids were changing. Everything was changing.
Some of us kids were figuring out that grownups in that Soviet Union Russia place might shoot rockets and drop bombs to blow us all up soon, that “World War Three” thing. And even if they didn’t get to blow us up or burn out our eyes, because we were hiding in the basement, maybe we would be melted by radiation instead. And the main plan to make it not happen would be for us to have bigger rockets so we could try to blow them up first. Though some grownups, like my mom and Molly’s mom, thought there was a different way. That we should just be different “teams” playing a “game”, like the Yankees and the Tigers, or Michigan and Indiana, and not “enemies” like the Germans were in World War Two, that you had to shoot or blow up.
I was thinking that was Molly’s wish, to not have that World War Three thing. It was certainly my wish. And I don’t think any of us kids trusted the grownups to fix it. I certainly didn’t.
Then Molly turned back to the cake, took her thumb out of her mouth and blew. I watched the fire part at the top of each candle flutter until it disappeared. All the grownups above clapped again, and so did all us kids down below, even Ricky this time.