We were getting ready to go to Molly’s birthday party. She was now five but I was still four. Mom said I was “four and five sixths”, but that was still four. I watched her put that red stuff on her lips and then push them together twice. I thought it made her look kind of silly like a clown. She put the shiny gold thing that had the red stuff inside it back in her “purse”. Grownup men didn’t put that red stuff on THEIR lips, and they didn’t have “purses”, they just put stuff in their pockets.
“Hey Liz”, dad said, “Isn’t Margie supposed to be here to babysit for David.”
“Eric”, mom said, “Don’t you remember I talked to Joan and she said that David was invited too and she had hired Margie instead for the evening to be with the kids, including David.”
“Right. Right”, dad said. He had been downstairs working on his typewriter all day, even though it was the “weekend”. But he also was watching that hockey game on TV where the “United States”, that was the team he wanted to win, was playing the “Soviet Union”, that other place with all the rockets and nuclear bombs. He really got happy whenever the “United States” team did something good, but you could tell that he was always worried. Dad had so many teams that he wanted to win, and got mad if they didn’t. And he also had teams he wanted to lose, like that “Ohio” team. And the “Notre Dame” team, though he said they had a really good song.
Mom looked at me and her eyes got big. “You know what Cloob”, she said, “I’m going to walk over to Molly’s in my stocking feet in those ugly rubber galoshes, and carry my heels over so I can put them on and feel like a real adult at the party and not some frumpy housewife in flats.”
“Flats?” I asked. I didn’t remember hearing that word before for shoes.
“Flat shoes like you and your dad wear”, she said, “When women get dressed up they usually wear shoes with high heels.” I wasn’t sure whether women were supposed to wear different stuff or just wanted to. I know Molly wanted to wear the same clothes as boys, but even Margie, who wasn’t a grownup but just an older kid, said she was a “tomboy”. And some of the older boys said that boys who wanted to wear girls’ clothes were “sissies” or even “queers”. I tried putting mom’s heels on my feet once when she wasn’t home and dad was in the basement, and I had a hard time even standing up.
All four of us put on our snow boots because it was “slushy” outside. Even David, and I helped him buckle them up before buckling up my own. Then mom and dad put on “coats”, and I put on my jacket and helped David put on his. Dad carried Molly’s present that I picked out and helped “wrap”. We went out into the dark, but it wasn’t super cold. Even David was walking and mom asked me if I’d hold his hand and I did. We walked across the street which had the squishy “slush” stuff, but it was okay because we had those boots on.
I rang Molly’s doorbell. I could just tell she would be the one to open the door, and she was. She was wearing one of those dress things. I figured her mom made her wear it.
Molly looked down at the dress and then up at me. “My mom made me wear it”, she said. Then she turned her head and yelled, “Coob is here, and David too!”
I heard lots of grownups talking in the living room, but then Molly’s mom’s voice. “Just Cooper and David?”
“No”, Molly yelled, sounding like she was a little bit mad, “His mom and dad too!”
“Well what do you do when you have guests at the door?” her mom’s voice asked.
“Uh”, said Molly, looking at the floor, “Please come in!” and she pushed open the screen door. She didn’t look happy like it was her birthday.
“Thanks, young lady”, mom said, “And happy birthday!” And then bending her knees so she wasn’t looking down at Molly anymore. “Cooper picked out your gift personally.”
Molly nodded, but still didn’t look at me and said, “You got me the space helmet!”
I nodded. Mom did the laugh through her nose and turned her head to look at me and said, “You told Molly what you were getting her for her birthday? Didn’t you want to surprise her?”
Both Molly and I shook our heads, and mom did the laugh again, stood up and looked at dad. “Those two scare me sometimes!” Dad chuckled.
I looked up at her and asked, “Scare you?”
Mom pushed her lips together and did a little bit of a smile, then said, “Well I’m just kidding. It’s just you two seem to always be thinking the same thing.”
Molly’s mom came up behind Molly and put her hands on Molly’s shoulders. “Are you going to let Cooper and his family come in out of the cold?” Molly nodded. “Come in guys”, her mom said, “You can put your matching galoshes on the towel right over there.”
Then she looked at mom carrying those “heel” shoes. “And Jane, looks like you were determined to wear heels.”
“Yes Joan”, mom said, “At least for a couple hours I want to feel like an adult woman and not a house frau!”
Molly’s mom laughed. “Well I decided to wear flats.”
“That’s fine”, mom said, “For me it’s a matter of principle.”
Molly’s mom laughed again. “Jane”, she said, “I totally understand. And Eric, I didn’t mean to ignore you, and David too”, she looked down at him, “Welcome! We don’t see YOU very often over here!”
David looked up at her and shook his head.
“Come in, all of you”, Molly’s mom said.
We all walked in and mom, dad and I took off our boots and put them on the towel. Molly unbuckled David’s boots and helped pull them off his feet. Then she took him by the hand and walked him into the living room where all the other grownups were. I followed them, feeling a little mad that Molly was looking at David and not at me, and then I saw the really big box that looked like a giant present. Molly saw me looking at it.
“That’s my one birthday present from mom and dad”, she said, still holding David’s hand.
“What is it?” I asked. Molly made her shoulders go up, but didn’t open her mouth. I guess she didn’t know, though she always seemed to know what present I got her before she opened it, even when I didn’t tell her.
There were a bunch of grownups in the living room, some standing up and others sitting on the couches and those big puffy chairs. It sounded like they were all talking at the same time, or when they weren’t talking they were laughing, or drinking that special colored stuff that made them silly. There was a big bowl of it on a table with ice cubes and these round orange things and round green things floating in the red liquid.
“Hey Molly”, said one of the grownup men after he took a big drink of that red stuff, “What do you think is in that big box?” Molly did that thing again with her shoulders but didn’t smile. She was still holding David’s hand and he had been staring at the box but was now looking up at Molly like he wanted to know what she thought too.
“Who’s the little guy?” the man asked her, with a kind of silly look on his face.
“David”, she said, then pointing at me, “His brother.”
The man looked at me and said, “You must be Jane and Eric’s son, I can see the family resemblance.”
Normally I didn’t like talking to grownups I didn’t know, but this one was silly so I thought I might try to ask questions and see what happened. “You can?” I asked.
“Oh yeah”, he said nodding, “You look like your dad. Maybe a little of your mom too. Now she’s the real looker!”
“The real looker?” I asked.
The grownup woman next to him, also drinking that red stuff, did that laugh through her nose and said, “Okay Bill, now dig your way out of that one!” She seemed like she really liked him but was “teasing” him. I was figuring out that was a thing people did when they wanted to be silly. They would say a bad thing about someone but not really mean it. Even kids did that sometimes, though other times they really did mean it.
“Not a problem”, he said to her, putting his hand on her shoulder then looking back at me, “Suffice it to say, your mother is a very charming lady!”
The woman did the laugh through her nose again and then slapped him on the arm. “Shut your trap Bill!” she said. Even though she hit him, he seemed to like it. And she seemed to like that he liked it. They were both pretty silly, and I wondered if they wanted to be “kissy face” with each other.
She looked down at me, smiled, and said, “You seem like a charming young man, and given your mom and dad, I’m not surprised.”
I almost asked, “Not surprised?”, but I heard Molly’s mom’s voice.
“Rachel”, Molly’s mom said, “Are you and Bill behaving yourselves?”
“Well I AM”, the woman said, putting her hand on that Bill guy’s shoulder.
Molly’s mom looked at me and said, “Cooper, this is Rachel. She’s a graduate student studying English literature like your dad. And Bill here is…”. She looked at that Bill guy like she was asking him a question but she didn’t say anything. He nodded but didn’t say anything either. Grownups had these tricky ways of telling each other secret stuff without saying any words.
Molly’s mom said, “He’s now an adjunct professor of psychology. Congratulations Bill, your hard work paid off, though I’m insanely jealous!”
Bill nodded and looked at me. “Nice to meet you Cooper”, he said. Rachel leaned down towards me and said the same thing. I noticed that Molly and mom had taken David down to the dining room where I figured all the other kids were.
Then I heard an older kid’s voice behind me. “What’s going on up here?” It was Ricky. “Molly sent me up here to rescue you”, he said looking at me, “You getting friendly with the grownup team?” Then he looked at Molly’s mom and said, “No offense, Missus W!”
Molly’s mom did a regular laugh with her mouth and shook her head, and then that Bill and Rachel laughed too.
Ricky looked at me and said, “I have this effect on them, especially when they’ve been drinking the grownup kool-aid.”
Rachel started laughing really hard and kind of spit out what she was drinking, which made that Bill guy laugh at her, and Molly’s mom too. Other grownups stopped talking and turned and looked at Rachel, who held a napkin over her mouth and waved her other hand in front of her face.
Ricky looked around at the other grownups, and I could tell he was having fun. He said, “As you were, nothing to see here!” And then, “You might want to catch the rest of the hockey game down in the basement. The U.S. team tied it up in the second period.” He held his fist up in the air and moved it back and forth.
“Go U.S.A.”, he said, “Though I’m actually Italian!”
“You are not, Ricky!” It was Ricky’s sister Jill coming up the stairs from the dining room.
Ricky shook his head and made his eyes look up like he was trying to look at the hair on his head. “Kid sisters”, he said, “What can you do with them?”
Then he looked at her, still shaking his head. “Jill, Jill, Jill”, he said, “You weren’t even alive when I was born. How do you know I wasn’t born in ‘Italia’”. He held his hand up in the air and shook it as he said “Italia”, whatever that was, and all the grownups laughed again, including dad, who I saw across the room. Dad was shaking his head with a big smile on his face, looking really happy.
“You weren’t”, said Jill fiercely, “I just know!”
Molly came up the stairs behind Jill to see what was going on. Ricky saw her and put his hands out in her direction.
“There’s our birthday girl!”, he said, and started to clap his hands. Some of the grownups in the living room looked like they couldn’t figure out what was going on, but some of the others started clapping. And when some of them started clapping, others started too. Even dad did, but Molly’s mom put her hand above her eyes and shook her head.
“Happy birthday Molly”, several of the grownups said.
Molly stared at Ricky with a fierce look on her face, pushing her lips together and wrinkling her nose. “I’m going to kill you Ricky!” she said. All the grownups laughed except for Molly’s mom, who was still shaking her head with her eyes closed.
Ricky made a kind of silly sad face with his eyes and mouth, and put his hand on his chest. “I guess I’ve offended the birthday girl. For that, I’m eternally sorry and beg forgiveness!”
An adult woman appeared on the stairs up from the dining room and put her hands on Jill’s shoulders. She had a fierce look in her eyes and said, “Ricky, what the hell are you doing?” A bunch of the grownups laughed.
“Hey mom”, Ricky said, “Not very well apparently! How’s the hockey game?”
Molly’s dad appeared behind Ricky’s mom. “Joan”, he said, “I heard the commotion and the applause. What’s up?”
“Well”, said Molly’s mom, “If you weren’t watching the hockey game you’d know!”
“I literally just went down for a minute to check the score and see if anyone needed a refresh”, Molly’s dad said. Then he looked at everybody in the living room and said, “We’ve got pizza down here getting cold, help yourselves!”
“Jack”, she said, sounding mad, “That’s for the kids. I made quiche for the adults.”
“Well”, he said, “We bought plenty of pizza, and it’s delicious.”
“It IS delicious Missus W”, Ricky said, and then raising his hand up in front of him, “But your quiche, it’s BELLISSIMA”. I remembered from Molly’s party last year that Ricky didn’t even like that “quiche” stuff, but he loved to get silly and say things that weren’t really right.
Molly’s dad looked at Ricky’s mom and asked, “Are you guys Italian?” She shook her head.
“Hey Ricky”, one of the grownup men in the living room said with a loud voice, “Who do you like for President in the fall?”
Other grownups laughed and Ricky smiled. I knew he was having fun being silly with the grownups, who were all silly from drinking that red stuff. He always said some things that weren’t right or were even stupid, but still I liked that he was on our kids team against the grownups, so they didn’t think they could win all the time in talking.
“Well”, Ricky said, and I could see in his eyes he was trying to figure out the most extra best thing to say, “I think I’m a Nixon man, but if I drank enough of that adult kool-aid I might go for that Kennedy guy. I like his hair!”
All the grownups laughed except for Molly’s mom. “What about Humphrey?” she asked.
“Who?” Ricky asked, and again all the grownups, except for Molly’s mom, laughed.
Molly’s mom saw Margie looking through the railing from the dining room below. “Okay”, Molly’s mom said, clapping her hands together twice, “How about we let Cooper and David have some pizza, and the rest of the kids. Then whatever’s left, the rest of you help yourselves!”
“Molly! Cooper! Ricky! Jill!” Margie said, waving her hand for us to come, “Come on down and join the cool kids in the dining room!”
“Can I come too?” asked Rachel, waving her hand in the air, and doing it the way adults did stuff when they were pretending to be kids. All the other grownups laughed, even Molly’s mom this time.
“We’d have to discuss it down here”, Margie said, like she was trying to be silly too, “And bring it to a vote.”
“Shucks”, said Rachel, making her fingers do that clicking noise and making her mouth look like she was sad. Most of the grownups laughed again and she put her hands on that Bill guy’s shoulder, and I could tell they really liked each other, and maybe really did want to be “kissy face”, but I didn’t think they’d do it with other people around. Mom and dad only did that stuff when they thought I wasn’t looking.
Molly’s dad and Ricky’s mom, came up from the stairs into the living room and let Jill, Molly, Ricky and I go down. James, Paul, Kenny and Danny were there with Margie. David was sitting by the table in his special chair with a piece of pizza on his plate and cheese and that red stuff from the pizza all over his fingers and around his mouth. Mom was using a knife to cut his pizza triangle piece into little pieces.
“I can do that Missus Zale”, Margie said, “You should go enjoy the party.”
“Thanks Margie”, mom said, “And please call me Jane.”
“Sure”, Margie said nodding, “At your place I’d always call you ‘Jane’, but I wasn’t sure if here at a party I needed to be more polite.”
“Well then I’d have to call you Miss Stavropoulos”, mom said, looking at Margie with her big eyes and big smile showing all her teeth. Margie did one of those little laughs that grownups called a “chuckle”.
“Yeah okay neat”, she said, “But what about Mister Zale?”
“Well”, mom said, “That’s one thing I can say for my husband. He doesn’t have a formal bone in his body. I’m sure he’d tell you to call him Eric.”
I didn’t get that part about the “bone”, so I figured I’d ask. “Formal bone?”
Mom and Margie both looked at me. “Which word are you wondering about?” mom asked.
If she had just answered my question, I probably would have just listened. But since she asked ME a question, I thought I should try to answer like an older kid like Margie or Ricky so mom would think I could do more older kid stuff by myself.
“Well”, I said, using that word that grownups started talking with a lot, “I think I know what a ‘bone’ is, those hard things inside you, but I don’t know what ‘formal’ is.”
“Dear, it’s one of those many ‘expressions’ we have in our English language that means something a bit different than what the words say”, mom said. “And ‘formal’… how can I define formal?”
“Define?” I asked.
“Explain what it means”, said Margie, then looking at mom, pointing her hand at her and smiling. David stuck little pieces of pizza into his mouth and watched us all talk to each other as he chewed.
Mom put her hand on Margie’s shoulder, looked at her for just a second and said, “Thanks, lady”, then looked back at me. Margie seemed to really like mom saying that to her.
“Formal”, mom said, looking up at the ceiling, nodding her head and pushing her lips together like she was thinking, then looking at Margie. “Coop, you know when your dad and I get really dressed up, dad wears his suit and a tie, I wear my blue dress, panyhose and heels. They call that ‘formal’ clothes.”
“Like when you go to a party?” I asked, trying to show them that I could figure it out.
“Well”, mom said, shaking her head and wrinkling her nose, “That’s a bit different I guess. Yeah we dress up to go to a party and I put on makeup, but it’s not usually that ‘formal’.”
She looked up, nodded her head, then looked down at me and said, “Remember when I took you to the hospital so you could get those vaccine shots?” I nodded.
“Remember the woman that checked us in and told us where to wait, who called me ‘Missus Zale’ and called you ‘Jonathan’.” I nodded again. “Well she was being formal. Proper. Official. Not sure what words you already know.” She looked at Margie again.
“It’s like when someone gets really official”, said Margie, standing up straight and putting her hands on her waist with her elbows out and made a funny expression on her face like she didn’t like you, “And they want to do everything by all these exact rules and they expect you to do the same thing and they aren’t really friendly or care about who you are as long as you behave yourself and act properly.”
That all did not sound very good. I still hadn’t really figured it out and mom and Margie could tell.
“You know Coop”, mom said, “I think you’ve had very little experience with ‘formality’, that is being formal, in your life so far. It’s more of a thing in the adult world.”
I nodded. I knew that grownups, what mom called “adults”, had all these strange ways of talking and doing things that were sneaky and tricky, to try to get you or someone else to do something you didn’t want to do, or to try and be in charge. I noticed Ricky was listening to us talk.
“Okay, okay”, Ricky said, “Mister Z doesn’t have a ‘formal bone’ in his body. So tell the kid what the deal is with that, Missus Z, with all due respect!”
Margie did that laugh through her nose and pointed her hand toward Ricky. “There ya go, Ricky’s pretending to be formal.”
“Pretending?” Ricky said, making his eyes really big like he was surprised she said that. Margie did more laughing through her nose.
Mom looked at Ricky with a fierce look at first but it changed to a smile. “I was getting to that young man! It’s just harder to explain than I thought it was going to be!” Ricky nodded.
Mom kept looking at Ricky and her eyes got smaller. “Okay young man”, she said, “You seem to have a take on everything. How would you explain not having a ‘formal bone in your body’?”
“Well”, Ricky said wrinkling his nose, “I’d rather hear what you were going to say Missus Z.”
Mom’s smile got bigger. “Chicken!” she said. Ricky laughed, but I could see that he liked that she said that, even though calling somebody a “chicken” was usually a bad thing to say.
“Okay”, mom said, raising her finger in the air in front of her and moving it back and forth. “Ricky calls me Missus Z. That’s more formal. I don’t, but a lot of adults expect young people to be more ‘formal’ with them and not use their first names but call them Mister or Missus whatever their last name is. Or in Ricky’s case, the first initial of their last name.”
Ricky nodded and smiled but didn’t open his mouth. I think that’s what they called a “grin”.
Mom kept talking. “So Margie thought that at a party like this she should be more ‘formal’ with your dad and I, and call us by our last names. So I prefer not being ‘formal’, being ‘informal’ instead, and have her call me by my first name, Jane.” Margie nodded.
“Now Margie”, mom said, “Was appropriately respectful and polite to ask if your dad wanted to be addressed formally as ‘Mister Zale’ here at a party. And then I wanted to let her know that your dad didn’t care a bit about being formal, so I used the phrase ‘he doesn’t have a formal bone in his body’ to tell her that.”
She looked at Ricky. “Like Ricky doesn’t seem to have a shy bone in his body.”
Ricky grinned again and said, “Well, maybe one Missus Z, but don’t tell anybody!”
Mom laughed. “Your secret is safe with me”, she said, “And Ricky… if it is even possible for you to do so, you are welcome to call me Jane if you like.”
“Got it Missus Z”, he said, his eyes twinkling like he was telling other things to mom but not with words.
Molly’s mom came up behind mom and put a hand on her shoulder. “Jane”, she said, “I just wanted to check in with you since you were spending a lot of time down here with David, to make sure everything was okay. Margie’s been doing her usual great job taking care of all the kids.”
Mom looked at Molly’ mom. “Thanks Joan, everything’s fine. Margie seems to have everything well in hand.” Margie nodded. “We were just all having a good conversation about the meaning of the word ‘formal’.”
“You mean done in accordance with rules of convention or etiquette, suitable for or an official or otherwise important situation or occasion?”, Molly’s mom said.
“Exactly Joan”, mom said, “But in plainer English.”
“Well I’ll leave that to you”, Molly’s mom said smiling, “But once you’re done, come on up so I can introduce you to somebody.” Mom nodded
“Go Missus Zale… I mean Jane”, Margie said.
“Going”, mom said, winking at Margie and following Molly’s mom up the stairs to the living room.
Margie looked at all of us. “Okay”, she said, “Cooper needs a plate, a piece of pizza and a napkin. Danny, can you do the honors?”
“Sure”, Danny said, standing up and walking over to the stack of paper plates.
Jill, who was sitting next to Molly, grabbed for a paper plate and said, “I want to do it! It’s a girl’s job!”
“Jill, Jill, Jill”, her brother Ricky said, slowly shaking his head and making his eyes look up at his hair, “You’re so old-fashioned!”
“I am not”, said Jill, “Boys only cook food outside on the grill. Girls give it to people.”
“Well”, said Ricky, “YOUR MOTHER is… or was… watching a hockey game down in the basement with the guys. Is THAT what girls are supposed to do?”
“She’s YOUR mother too!” Jill said, sounding really mad.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa! Calm down everyone!” Margie said, waving her arms in front of her. “We’re the COOL kids. We make our own rules. We all help out.” She looked at Jill. “I asked Danny to get Cooper a piece of pizza. Can I ask you to get him a Seven-Up from the refrigerator? Do you know how to use a bottle opener?”
Jill nodded and jumped up and ran into the kitchen.
“She never does that when I tell her to do something!” said Ricky.
“That’s cuz you’re her annoying big brother”, said Margie, chuckling.
Ricky put his hand to his chest. “You cut me to the quick!”
“Sure I do”, said Margie, nodding her head and making a big smile. Ricky smiled too.
Molly’s dad came down the stairs from the living room. “How’s everybody doing?” he asked. Then looking at Molly, “How’s my birthday girl?”
Molly just nodded while she was chewing on some pizza.
One of the adult men up in the living room called out, “Jack, Martin says the French nuclear test in Algeria was maybe 60 or 70 kilotons.”
“Wow”, said Molly’s dad, taking a couple pieces of pizza and putting them on a paper plate, “That’s a fairly big yield, right?”
“So France has an ‘A’ bomb Mister W?” said Ricky, then raising his hand in the air, “My Italia is next!”
At the same time Ricky was saying that, Molly’s mom, sounding mad, said from up in the living room, “Jack? Is this appropriate conversation around the kids?”
Molly’s dad blew air out of his mouth and said, “Probably not”, then looking at all of us, “Sorry about that kids!”
“That’s okay Mister W, Missus W”, Ricky said, “We kids know that everybody wants the Bomb. Heck, I want one too!” Then he grinned. “I think my sister wants one so she can drop it on me!”
“I do not!” said Jill.
“You shouldn’t joke about that stuff Ricky”, said Danny. James, Molly and Paul all shook their heads like they thought Danny was right.
“Yeah RICKY!” said Jill.
“Mister Wheeler”, said Margie, “Do you know anything about that submarine that went five miles underwater in the Marianas Trench?”
That was interesting. I had just heard some older kids in the park say that there were REAL submarines, not just in Tom Swift books.
“I do”, said Molly’s dad, biting off a piece of pizza and talking while he chewed it, “They actually call it a bathyscaphe, but it looks sort of like a submarine.” He looked at Ricky and said, “They actually built it in your Italy.”
Ricky grinned. “My ‘Italia’ doesn’t have the Bomb… yet. But we have the Bath!”
“Well, they sold it to the U.S., so now we have it”, Molly’s dad said.
There was a roar of voices from the basement. Ricky ran into the kitchen and down the stairs to the basement. Molly’s dad followed him, and then Danny and finally Kenny and Paul too.
“Hey guys, woah!” said Margie holding up her hands. But they all kept going down in the basement, leaving just me, Molly, Jill, James and Margie at the table.
I was thinking of following them, but I looked at Molly and her nose was wrinkled and her lips pushed together. The tip of her thumb went into her mouth. She looked at me and I could tell she was mad. I thought that since I was her best friend I should say something good that she liked.
“I can’t wait for you to open your big present”, I said, smiling at her. She took her thumb out of her mouth and nodded.
“Me too”, said Margie.
“Those boys are all alike”, said Jill, shaking her head.
“Well”, said Margie, “Not ALL alike. Cooper and James are still here!”
“That’s because they want to get kissy face with Molly”, Jill said to Margie. Then Jill looked at me and her nose wrinkled. She looked at me like I was somebody really different than she was, like we were on different teams. I thought of that boy at that nursery school place who wanted to fight a war with the girls.
“They do not!” said Molly. Her voice was fierce. “Coob and James are my best friends!”
“What about me?” asked Jill, turning to look at Molly and sounding worried, “They’re just boys!”
“Hey guys”, said Margie, holding her hands out over the table between the rest of us, “It’s not a competition. You’re all Molly’s friends.”
“They’re just boys!” said Jill, fierce this time, folding her arms over her chest and pulling them against her and pushing her lips together.
Margie looked up at the ceiling and blew air out of her mouth.
Molly’s mom came to the railing of the living room and looked down on us at the table. “How’s it going down here? Where’s the rest of the kids?”
Margie looked up at Molly’s mom and rolled her eyes. “They went downstairs to see what they were cheering about. The big hockey game you know!”
Molly’s mom blew air out of her mouth. “Well”, she said, “Though I’m certainly glad the U.S. and the Soviets are battling it out on a hockey rink rather than a battlefield, that’s not the point of today’s gathering.”
Margie shook her head. “I agree, Missus Wheeler.”
“Dear. Please call me Joan. I hope I never stand on ceremony”, said Molly’s mom. Margie grinned and her head quickly turned to look at me. “Formal bone?” she said, raising her eyebrows.
“What’s that dear?” Molly’s mom asked from above.
“Nothing… sorry”, Margie said nodding, “Joan it is. I didn’t want to presume.”
“Of course dear, you’re a sweetheart”, Molly’s mom said. I could continue to hear grown ups talking to each other behind her, though mostly women’s voices.
Then mom appeared next to her on the railing looking down at us. “Joan, would you like me to go down in the basement and get folks back on the agenda?”
“If you would Jane”, Molly’s mom said, putting her hand on mom’s shoulder, “As hostess I feel a bit constrained.”
“I’M not, and I don’t”, mom said, with a kind of smile on her face but a fierce look in her eyes. Her voice was a little slower, more like singing, when she was drinking that red stuff.
Mom came down the stairs to the dining room, stopped for a moment to bend down and look at Molly’s face and say, “Happy birthday dear!”, then continued into the kitchen and down the stairs to the basement.
Then Molly looked at me and her eyes looked kind of concerned, and I knew she was wondering, “What was that all about?”
I heard mom’s voice from below. “Hey folks. There’s a birthday girl upstairs that wants to blow out the candles, have a piece of cake, and open all those presents in the living room!” I heard a bunch of other voices saying things but sounding farther away.
Mom came back up into the kitchen, looked at me, winked, and headed up the stairs back to the living room. One by one, everybody else came out of the basement stairs, and through the kitchen. The grown ups all said something to Molly as they walked by her and headed up the stairs to the living room.
“Hey birthday girl!”
“Five year old, that’s a big milestone?”
“Your cake looks delicious!”
“Can’t wait to see what that big present of yours is!”
Then Danny and Kenny came back, grabbed pieces of pizza and sat back at the table. Finally the last person was Ricky. He was singing…
Keep movin’, movin’, movin’
Though they’re disapprovin’
Keep them doggies movin’, rawhide
Don’t try to understand ’em
Just rope ’em, throw, and brand ’em
Soon we’ll be livin’ high and wide
Margie heard him singing and nodded her head. “I’m not much for Westerns”, she said, “But that new show has a GREAT theme song!”
“You know Ricky”, said Jill, sounding fierce, “This is not YOUR birthday, it’s Molly’s.”
“Yeah I know that”, Ricky said, “I’m just helping out. Somebody’s got to make these grownups behave. They’ll just keep drinking their special kool-aid, watch the hockey game, and talk talk talk all night.”
“They call it ‘punch’ Ricky”, Danny said, “And it’s got ‘booze’ in it!”
“Yeah, yeah”, said Ricky, “ Of course it’s got ‘booze’ in it!”
Margie blew air out of her nose and said, “Ricky. Do you even know what ‘booze’ is?”
“Sure”, said Ricky, doing that grownup laugh through his nose.
“Well then explain what it is to all your friends here”, said Margie, waving her hand across the table.
Ricky wrinkled his nose and looked at Margie and Danny. “They’re too young to understand”, he said.
“You don’t even know Ricky!” said Jill.
“Yeah Ricky”, said Danny, chuckling.
Ricky made a strange face by twisting his mouth. “Hey”, he said, “I can’t know EVERYTHING! Geez!”
“My mom and dad put vodka in the punch at their parties”, Paul said.
“Okay, okay”, said Margie, waving her hands, “Paul’s got it actually. ‘Booze’ is liquor, which has alcohol in it. The punch has gin or whisky or most likely vodka in it.” She pointed at Paul who smiled like he had won the game.
“Kids aren’t supposed to drink it”, said Kenny.
“Why not?” I asked. I had just been watching them all talk but I was really interested.
“Because it will rot your brain”, Danny said, looking at me and shaking his head and making his eyes look up.
“Well not ‘rot’ exactly”, said Margie, “But Danny’s basically right. It’s not good for kids.”
“It must be good for grownups”, said Jill, “Cuz they drink it all the time!”
“Good one sis”, said Ricky, “I taught her everything she knows!”
“You did not!” said Jill.
“Well”, said Margie, making a funny face and looking up at the ceiling, “It’s not always good for them either. They have to watch how much they drink.”
“They get drunk”, said Kenny, “That’s what mom says. That’s why she and dad don’t come to parties at Molly’s house.”
“Margie dear”, said Molly’s mom from the railing above us, “Have the kids had enough to eat? Should we do the cake?”
Margie nodded. “I definitely think we should do the cake, uh, Joan.”
“Will you help me in the kitchen dear”, said Molly’s mom, coming down the stairs from the living room.
“Sure will”, Margie said, and she and Molly’s mom went into the kitchen.
Ricky walked over by where Molly was sitting on the end of the big table by the kitchen door and said, “Hey birthday girl. You’re pretty quiet. What do you think that big present up in the living room is?”
Molly raised her shoulders like she didn’t know but didn’t say anything. She hadn’t done any talking in a long time. She looked like she was thinking about something that I couldn’t figure out. Not like she was mad, but it was her birthday and she didn’t seem to be liking it very much. She looked at me and wrinkled her nose. I really wondered what she was thinking but I couldn’t figure it out. If no one else was around she’d probably tell me, but not here with everybody.
Molly’s mom and Margie came out of the kitchen holding the birthday cake with five candles on top that were burning. Margie started singing the birthday song and then Molly’s mom. Us kids around the table started singing too. Ricky jumped up, turned to look up at the grownups in the living room, and raising his hands in the air said, “Everyone!” and they started singing too and coming to the railing looking down at us at the table. Molly’s dad came down the stairs from the living room and stood behind Molly next to Molly’s mom and put his hand on Molly’s shoulders.
I looked at Molly and she was making a smile, but like it was hard for her to do. I didn’t usually worry about her, because she was always just the same way, but now she seemed different. When she saw me looking at her, the smile on her face went away, but then she put it back again when she looked at other people. I didn’t worry about other kids, because most of the time they told you if there was something bad. Grownups most of the time didn’t tell you if there was something bad, unless it was something bad that you did. I don’t think grownups told other grownups bad stuff either. And there was a lot of bad stuff I didn’t tell mom and dad, and I figured other kids were like that with their moms and dads, and other grownups too. That’s why I figured so many grownups seemed worried a lot, because nobody would tell them when things were bad.
So since grownups probably figured out that people didn’t tell them bad stuff, even when there was bad stuff, that’s why they were always asking people, “Are you okay?”, and then maybe, “Are you sure you’re okay?” Would Molly tell me if there was bad stuff when she got a chance when other people weren’t around? Or did I maybe have to ask her, “Are you okay?” And even if she said she was okay, did I have to ask again, “Are you sure you’re okay?”
We finished singing happy birthday and now Molly was supposed to blow out the candles on her cake. That was always the next thing at birthdays.
“Make a wish young lady”, her dad said, “And then blow out the candles.” Molly nodded, but didn’t blow them out right away. She looked at me again, like she wasn’t sure what to wish for. Or maybe what she wanted to wish for wasn’t what you were supposed to wish for. She was still looking at me and still not blowing them out, like she wanted to know what I was thinking first.
Her dad started to look worried, and looked up at all the grownups looking down from the living room and said, “Well, it must be a really big wish!” Then looking down at Molly he said, “Don’t tell us or it won’t come true!”
Molly was still looking at me but I still couldn’t figure out what she was thinking. So I just did that thing where I made my eyes open more and I raised up my shoulders, like I didn’t know what she should do. Her eyes got fierce and her lips pushed together and she finally blew out the candles really hard, the fire shooting away from her as it disappeared. She didn’t look at me anymore. All the adults and Ricky were clapping. Danny started clapping too because Ricky was. Jill, Paul and Kenny started clapping. Even David, who looked around at everybody, tried to clap. But since Molly didn’t clap, I didn’t either, since we wanted to be the same. James also didn’t clap.
Margie started cutting up the cake and putting pieces on all of us kids’ paper plates. Then on these tiny paper plates, the same pink color, giving them to Molly’s mom and dad to take to the other grownups. Ricky came around the table to help give pieces of cake to the grownups. But Danny then stood up in front of him to be the older kid that helped first. Ricky wrinkled his nose but didn’t say anything.
Most people stopped talking while they ate their piece of cake. James started eating his but Molly didn’t start eating hers, so I waited too.
“Dear?”, Molly’s mom asked, “Aren’t you going to eat your cake?” Molly nodded, but pushed her lips together, and started eating her cake, so I did too.
From up in the living room that Bill guy said, “So Molly, we’ve got a pool going up here on what this big box has got in it. We’re all dying for you to open it!”
“Well for GOD’S sake Bill”, Molly’s mom said, “Keep those guesses to yourselves until she does!” And then said, “And I’ll be back up there at some point to make the case for Humphrey over Jack Kennedy. I think it’s pretty compelling!”
“Well”, said Bill, “I think Ricky captured Humphrey’s problem!”
“Whose problem?” asked Ricky, grinning.
“Exactly”, said Bill, chuckling, “And you’ll have to get through Jane too, she’s a big fan of our boy Jack!”
“Okay, okay”, said Molly’s mom, waving her hands in the air, “Jane and I will have it out a little later, but we’re getting way off agenda here. This is our daughter’s fifth birthday party!”
Then she looked down at Molly who was chewing on a big bite of cake. “Dear, are you ready to open your presents?”
Molly nodded, swallowed, and grabbed the small rest of her piece of cake and pushed it into her mouth.
“Dear, remember to use your…”, Molly’s mom said, then waving her hand in front of her said, “Nevermind. Go up and open your presents.”
All of us kids followed Molly and went up the stairs into the living room to join the grownups around the couch in the middle of the room with the big present behind it, and all the other smaller presents, including mine, on top of it. I stood next to Molly on one side and James was on the other side. I could tell Jill wanted to stand next to her but James and I had gotten their first. Molly’s mom and dad came up the stairs with Margie behind them.
One of the grownups said, “Now Molly, just because the smaller presents are on top of the big one, doesn’t mean you have to open them first.” Some of the other grownups laughed. Ricky laughed too, pretending like he was a grownup.
Molly looked at me and she smiled. She walked over and took the present I had gotten for her.
“Who’s it from?” Ricky and Margie asked at the same time.
“Hey Ricky”, Margie said, “I got this. Molly’s mom asked me to take notes!”
“Well okay”, said Ricky, making a pretend sad face.
“Unless you want to take over for me”, Margie said, holding out the pencil and paper.
“Not me”, Ricky said, “I’m just a kid!”
“Since when!”, said Margie.
Ricky smiled. “Ya got me!”, he said.
Jill was standing right behind Molly and asked her, “What do you think it is?”
“It’s a space helmet from Coob”, Molly said, and then started ripping the wrapping paper off the space helmet box.
Jill looked at me. “You’re not supposed to tell her! It’s supposed to be a surprise!”, she said.
I shook my head. “I didn’t tell her. She just figured it out.”
“Hey Molly”, Bill said, “Do you know what all your presents are before you open them? That parapsychology guy at Duke will want to study you!” Some of the grownups laughed.
Molly shook her head. “I only know Coob’s presents”, she said.
“He’ll want to study both of you then!”, said Bill. More grownups laughed. Ricky did too, but I could tell he didn’t know what he was laughing about. He was just still pretending he was one of the grownups, and they were laughing.
So Molly opened all her smaller presents, and Margie wrote down what they were and who gave them to her. There was only the giant box left in the middle of the room behind the couch.
“Way to gin up the excitement Molly!”, one of the grownups said, and others laughed.
“Still no guess what it is?”, asked Rachel, “I mean you know it’s bigger than a breadbox.”
Molly looked at her, wrinkled her nose, and asked, “A what?”
“You know”, said Rachel, “Or maybe you don’t. It’s a thing some people have on their kitchen counter to keep bread in. Not sure why actually, since bread’s usually in a sealed bag. I guess some people want bread right there on the counter instead of on a shelf, but don’t want to see it.” Kids and some grownups looked at her like they didn’t know why she was saying all that.
She waved her hands in front of her face. “I’ll stop talking now! Too much of Ricky’s ‘adult kool-aid’”
“Hey lady”, said Ricky, “I didn’t make the stuff. That was mister and missus W. I just called it ‘kool-aid’ because it looks like the popular kid’s drink.”
“Probably gots a lot of vodka in it”, said Paul, “That’s what my mom and dad put in theirs!”
“Yeah”, said Danny, “My mom always uses vodka because she says you can’t taste it!”
“Did I tell you that?” asked Danny’s mom who was talking to my mom over in the corner of the room. Danny nodded.
“Twice”, he said. Some of the adults laughed. I could tell Danny liked that he could make the adults laugh like Ricky could.
“It makes it easier to get drunk”, said Kenny.
“You know folks”, Molly’s mom said, moving in between everyone talking and raising up her hands, “This is a very interesting discussion and would make a great basis for a study around the generational transmission of attitudes on alcohol consumption, but one young woman I’m sure wants to finish opening her presents!”
“Mom!”, said Molly fiercely, wrinkling her nose. Ricky and some of the adults laughed, and then Danny started laughing too.
“EVERYONE wants Molly to finish!”, said Bill, and just about everybody, even most of the kids laughed. Molly went up to the giant present and started to tear the wrapping paper off of it. The box had a picture of a bicycle on it.
Just about everybody made some kind of sound or said a word like “wow” or “ahh”.
“Happy birthday young lady”, said Molly’s dad. Molly’s mom looked at her, nodded and smiled. Molly just stared at the big box.
“I haven’t had a chance to put it together yet”, said Molly’s dad, “But I promise to have it ready to ride by the end of the day tomorrow!”
Molly put her hands on the box and moved them along the top of it. She turned her head to look at me and looked really worried.
I was worried too. I saw all the bigger kids riding their bicycles. They could go so much faster than us smaller kids on our tricycles. Molly would now be like a bigger kid and we wouldn’t be able to ride together anymore, or maybe she wouldn’t want to.
The grownups started talking to each other again and not us kids anymore. Most of the kids went back down the stairs with Margie to the table to eat more cake. Molly pulled her mom’s arm and told her she needed to go to the bathroom.
Molly’s mom looked down on her and said, “You don’t need to tell me dear, you can just go up to the bathroom if you need to go!” Molly nodded, looked at me, and then ran to the stairs by the front door and then ran up them. She liked to run up and down stairs just like I did.
I knew from the way she looked at me that she wanted to tell me something when no one else was around. So I waited until no one was looking at me and I walked in a sneaking way toward the stairs and then ran up them. I ran down to the bathroom door which was at the end of the hall across from the five stairs up to the door to Molly’s bedroom in the top part of the house. The bathroom door was closed and I could hear her in there.
Finally she opened the door and moved her hand like grownups did when they wanted you to go over to them. So I came into the bathroom with her and she closed the door. It felt strange to be in there with her, another kid. Usually kids went to the bathroom by themselves, or maybe with their mom or dad if they were really little like David.
She looked at me, not smiling, and said, “I’m older than you again, and if I ride a bicycle we’re going to be different.”
“I know”, I said.
“You need to get your mom and dad to get you one too”, she said, “So we can do the same things again.”
“I know”, I said, nodding. She nodded too. But then I remembered that she’d looked worried even before she opened her presents.
“Was that what you were worried about when they sang happy birthday?”, I asked.
She looked at me and shook her head. She wrinkled her nose and even put the end of her thumb in her mouth and her eyes looked at other things in the room but not me.
“I promise I won’t tell anybody!”, I said. Still looking worried, she finally looked at me.
“You really really promise?”, she asked.
I nodded my head up and down really hard and said, “I do!”
She looked down at the floor. “Mom doesn’t like dad anymore!”, she said, her eyes coming back up to look at mine, looking very worried, her thumb going back in her mouth.
“Did she tell you?” I asked.
She shook her head. “I just know”, she said. I nodded. Molly just knew a lot of things.
I thought about my mom and dad and if they liked each other. Sometimes mom got mad at dad and would yell at him. Sometimes dad got mad at mom but he wouldn’t say anything and pretend he wasn’t mad, even though he was. But other times they were nice to each other and a few times they were even kissy face. Older kids would say that if a man and a woman liked each other, they’d get kissy face, then they’d get married. There was that song kids sang about two people who got kissy face. They’d sing the two names then…
…sitting in a tree
First comes love
Then comes marriage
Then comes baby in a baby carriage
Sometimes they’d use kids’ names in that song to tease them, so they could laugh about it.
“Does your dad like your mom?”, I asked. Maybe just one of them had to like the other one, but not both.
She wrinkled her nose and lifted her shoulders. “I don’t know. He used to”, she said.
“Do they get kissy face?”, I asked.
Her nose still wrinkled, she pushed her lips together. “They used to”, she said, “And they’d close the door to their bedroom and do secret stuff at night, but then open it back up when they were done.”
Mom and dad did stuff like that too, but I’d never thought about what they were doing. Molly was better at figuring things out, probably because she was older, or maybe because she was a girl, or maybe just because she was Molly.
She looked down and said, “I’ll always like you Coob. Will you always like me?”
I nodded, but then figured I should say it to make it extra. “I always will”, I said.
She nodded and smiled but still didn’t look at me. “I thought so”, she said.
Then she started to cry. She was quiet but still crying. I could remember her crying before, but I couldn’t remember when. I remembered crying when that “horse fly” thing landed on my hand and bit me. It hurt so much I got scared that something really bad was going to happen to me and I’d never get better. Mom knocked it off my hand with hers and it stopped hurting, but I was still scared so I still cried. She patted her hand on my shoulder and said it was a pretty scary thing but it was going to be okay. I felt better and stopped crying. I wondered if I should say that to Molly.
She just looked down and cried quietly and I felt so sad like I wanted to cry too, so instead I said it and hoped it would work. “I guess that’s pretty scary” I said, “But it’ll be okay I guess.” I patted her on the shoulder. Her shoulder felt warm, and that felt really good.
She nodded, still looking down, and rubbed her hands in her eyes. I remembered that mom gave me a hug after that, but I figured I better not give Molly a hug because that was what people did when they got kissy face. If Molly and I got kissy face that might wreck everything.
I thought about the party downstairs. Would some grownup come up looking for us and find both of us in the bathroom and think we were doing something really bad?
Molly finally looked at me and said, “We better go back down stairs before mom or dad comes up to find us, or somebody else has to go to the bathroom.”
“Yeah”, I said nodding, “We better”.
She rubbed her eyes on the sleeves of her dress and stood up. “You go first”, she said, “Then i’ll wait then go so they don’t know we went to the bathroom together.” I nodded.
As I opened the door to go out she said, “Remember, you can’t tell anyone, not even your mom and dad!”
I nodded again and said, “I remember”, and I went out in the hall to the stairs and then down the stairs to the living room where all the grownups were still talking. I saw mom talking to someone and she saw me, and it looked like she did some thinking about me for a second but then went back to talking to that other grownup.
I walked through all the grownups talking and then back down the other stairs to where the other kids were around the table talking. Margie was in the kitchen doing stuff. Ricky saw me and looked interested.
“You were gone a while”, he said, sort of like he wanted me to tell him why, even though he didn’t ask.
“I had to go to the bathroom”, I said. He nodded.
“Where’s Molly?” he asked.
“She had to go to the bathroom too”, I said.
He kind of looked like he had figured out that something else happened, but then decided not to say anything. “Girls take longer than boys” he said, nodding his head.