I woke up knowing today was my third birthday. My whole body shivered with excitement. I heard mom and dad in the kitchen talking about my birthday party. Rather than go into the kitchen so they knew I was listening, I stood in the back hallway by the door to the living room where they couldn’t see me and listened. It was always good to know what grownups were really doing, and they said more interesting stuff when they did not know I was listening.
“Liz”, dad’s voice was almost always soft, even when he got mad, “If it rains we can have the party in the living room. The kids can play down in the basement.”
“Eric”, Mom’s voice was louder than his with more feelings in it, “I’m not comfortable entertaining our friends in this house when we don’t have any furniture.”
“Oh it’ll be fine!” Dad was always saying that to mom, but she usually didn’t think so. “We’ve got the kitchen chairs, we can bring the lawn chairs in from the outside, plus the chairs from the basement and the rocking chair from Cloob’s room.”
“Where will people put their drinks and their plates?” I could tell mom was not happy.
“We can move the kitchen table into the living room. Open up the card table and even bring up the white table from the basement.” Dad always thought he had figured it out.
Mom sighed. “I know furniture is not a priority right now. But I’m having trouble asking people to come over and see that we have so little. I don’t want Jonathan to feel impoverished.”
I did not know what “impoverished” was but it didn’t sound good.
“I have another year of graduate school and hopefully just a year after that to complete my dissertation. Then I can get a real teaching job.” His voice was still smooth but it seemed more worried.
“I know. I know. God, I know!” Mom said, “But honestly Eric, I dread sitting down with the bills each month and figuring out which ones can wait til next month to be paid.”
I listened, but did not hear dad say anything back to her. I felt bad for him. I knew mom thought we needed more money, and dad was supposed to get it. But I was okay. They bought me toys to play with. I thought about that tricycle I had seen yesterday in the attic. After they started talking about different stuff, not about my birthday, I finally decided to go into the kitchen. When mom saw me she did a big smile and started singing the happy birthday song. Dad started singing too. It made me feel shy but I was still happy that it was my birthday.
“Are you excited about your party?” she asked, her eyes twinkling. Mom loved parties.
I did too, and it was my birthday. Feeling shy, I just nodded really hard.
Mom made me a bowl of Cheerios for breakfast, putting on extra sugar for my birthday. I told her when to stop adding the milk. After breakfast, she and dad stayed in the kitchen and worked on boiling potatoes in the big pot and then making potato salad. I watched them for a while. They seemed the most happy together when they had something to do together.
I didn’t want to watch anymore, so I went back into my room. I opened my closet door and looked up at the attic hatch in the ceiling. I thought about climbing up and looking again to see if that tricycle was still there. Then I remembered that I hadn’t closed the hatch the right way yesterday when I had heard my dad coming, but now it was back in place. Dad must have seen it and put it back the way it was supposed to be. He must know that I had looked up there. It made me worried thinking dad might know something I did by myself when no one was watching me. My “secret” stuff. I knew they did secret stuff too, that they didn’t tell me about because they were grownups. Molly said her mom and dad did too. But I did not want them to know that I did the same thing.
I played down in the basement all morning. Mom called down to me from the top of the stairs that we were ready to go over to the park for the party. I ran up the stairs like I always did.
“Well”, she said with a smile on her face, clapping her hands together, “Mother nature is giving you her birthday present of a partly cloudy afternoon with no rain in the forecast!” Dad looked happy too, like he was right that it would be okay.
We drove our car over to the park instead of walking. Mom said we didn’t walk because the picnic basket was really heavy with all the food. Even though the park was right there across the street, we had to drive on four different streets to get there. I counted them. They “parked” the car on the fourth street and we walked through the big trees, like that “maple” tree in our backyard only bigger, to where the picnic tables were. Dad carried the picnic basket and mom and I carried the other bags with stuff for the party. Under the trees there also were swings, monkeybars, a seesaw, a slide, and my favorite thing, the merry-go-round. Two girls were swinging on the swings, talking to each other and laughing. Two boys, older than me, were at the merry-go-round, working to try to spin it around really fast before jumping on.
As I watched the two boys keep trying to make the merry-go-round go even faster, mom and dad started getting ready for the party. While they did that stuff, I walked over to the merry-go-round. I stood just far enough away so I wouldn’t get in the two older boys’ way as they hung off either side of it until it finally slowed down. They looked at me with red cheeks and excited eyes.
“Can I get on?” I asked. I was still worried about talking to grownups, even mom and dad. But talking to other kids felt easier. Kids just said what they were really thinking and it didn’t make me worry.
They told me to sit in the center and hang on, which I did. They grabbed the metal pipes on each side of the outside circle part and started to run. Everything began to spin around me. I saw mom and dad by the picnic tables, then the lilac bushes far away and my house and our backyard even farther away, then the girls on the swing, then other houses across the street, then back to mom and dad, over and over again. It all didn’t seem real anymore, more like the things I would see sometimes when my eyes were closed, or when I was sleeping and then I woke up.
The only thing that felt real was when I closed my eyes and felt something pulling me away from the middle. If I went where it was pulling me it got stronger and stronger. The only place where it didn’t pull me was right in the middle. I couldn’t figure it out, but it kind of made sense somehow, and that was one of the things that made the merry-go-round so neat. Stay in the center of things and let everything else spin around you. As the thing slowed down the pulling went away and mom and dad, the girls on the swing, my house, and everything else, seemed real again, at least mostly so.
“Again?” one of the boys asked, looking at me with fierce but friendly eyes.
I nodded and off we went again. Back to the spinning pictures and then closing my eyes to feel the realness of that spinning center. Finally the boys didn’t want to do it anymore, looked at the girls still on the swings, and then walked over to the seesaw and got on. No longer going around, I still sat in the middle of the merry-go-round, and when I closed my eyes I felt like I was going around again, though when I opened my eyes I was not. I did it more times until I opened my eyes to see a face I knew looking at me wondering.
It was Molly. She lived across the street with her mom and dad. She looked strange because she was wearing one of those “dress” things like a grownup woman would wear. Not the regular clothes like mine that she usually wore. Her straight light colored hair came down over her ears, unlike my hair which was really short. Other than mom and dad, I had probably spent more time with her than anyone else. She was a kid like me, and we both tried to figure out these strange grownups.
“I saw you going around”, she said, “It looks fun.”
Like a kid, she said what she saw and how she felt about it. Unlike all the thinking I had to do before saying stuff to mom and dad, I felt like I could say everything I was thinking to her. Now that I was talking, I was going to have a lot to talk to her about.
“Two older boys spun me around really fast. It’s strange to see everything spinning around me, like it’s only pictures. I close my eyes and I feel it pulling me away from the middle.” It was the best I could tell her with the words I knew.
Molly looked at me, pushing up her nose and biting her thumb, which she did when she was trying to figure something out. She took it out of her mouth to talk.
“You’re talking”, she said. Her thumb was back between her teeth as I could tell she was thinking about that, but then out again to say more.
“I want to try spinning too!” she said. I figured she would want to try it.
“Okay. Sit in the middle and hold on”, I said. I climbed off the thing and pointed at the center. She climbed on the merry-go-round on her hands and knees, and by the time she got to the center the open part at the bottom of her dress was up around her waist and her underwear showed. Not worried about it, she sat in the center and looked at me.
“So spin it… really fast!” she said.
I tried to do what the older boys did, and pushed on the bars on the edge of the circle, but I was only strong enough to move it slowly.
The two older boys on the seesaw were watching us. They came back over to help.
“You want us to spin you two around?” one of them asked.
Molly and I nodded.
“Well get on in the center”, he said to me, “And hang on!”
I climbed on the bumpy metal surface of the thing and sat in the middle looking at Molly. I grabbed the bars on either side of us just below where she had grabbed those same bars.
“You ready for a wild ride?” the older boy said.
Molly and I looked at each other and were both excited. “Wild ride” I thought, that sounded really neat. We both nodded and looked at each other again. I could tell she was thinking the same thing I was. “What’s about to happen to us?”
The boys stood at opposite sides of the merry-go-round and started to push. When they were running really hard, they jumped on and the thing spun around with Molly and I sitting in the center looking at each other. Molly moved her hands to hold on better and I felt the bottom of her hands touch the top of mine. As we looked at each other again, heads just a couple feet apart, our hands touching made it feel even more like we were hooked together. As everything spun behind her, I watched her hold her body still and I saw her eyes looking behind me at all that same spinning stuff too. Then she closed her eyes.
“I feel it pulling me!” she said. I could see her letting her head and the top part of her body being pulled away from the middle, then the hard work as she pulled herself back.
It was like I stopped thinking and just watched as I saw my mom and dad and hers at the picnic tables, then our houses far away across the baseball fields, the girls on the swing now watching us. It all turned into just pictures, only Molly was real. It seemed like she and I were part of the same thing. I didn’t want it to end.
But it did. The merry-go-round slowed down. But then I was thinking that though something was ending, something new could be starting. As we still looked at each other, now just slowly turning, I could tell she had thought the same thing.
“That was fun!”, she said.
She said it, but it was the same thing I was thinking and about to say. It was the only thing you could say! And we both knew we had to do it more to figure out the different things we were seeing and feeling.
“Again?” one of the older boys asked.
Molly and I looked into each other’s eyes. I could tell she was excited like I was to have this adventure to see and feel new things.
“Again!” Molly yelled out, her eyes flaring with fierceness, “faster this time!”. I liked that she wanted it faster, and that she was looking at me when she said it.
“Okay then”, called out one of the boys. I could hear in his voice that this was just what he was hoping we would say, maybe even what the two of them knew we were going to say. They started pushing again, making lots of noises to tell us that they were trying to go super fast, smashing each foot into the ground, as they made it spin faster than the first time. Finally they let go this time, and watched us whirl around, both of them I could tell feeling really good they were helping us littler kids have this “wild” ride.
“Wow!” We actually both said it this time, and at the same time.
Still spinning fast but not as fast as it had been, I felt like I wanted to try to stand up, while still hanging on to the bars. Molly watched me and started doing the same thing. We looked at each other fiercely, like we could do anything. The thing slowed more and Molly let go of the bars, took a step toward the edge, but looked like she couldn’t figure out how to stand up straight and it was pulling her more than she thought it would and she went off the merry-go-round. She tried to stay on her feet, but when they hit the ground, she fell face first into the dirt.
The older boys grabbed the bars and stopped the thing spinning. I jumped off and felt like I couldn’t stand up straight either, like it looked like Molly had. But I was able to stay on my feet as I ran over to her. She sat up. There was dirt in her hair and both knees and one elbow were scraped pink, quickly changing to red. Her dress was covered in dirt.
She looked at me as her mom ran over yelling, “Molly, oh my god!”. You could hear the fear in her mom’s voice, like Molly had been hurt bad. As I saw the thinking in Molly’s eyes, I could tell that at first she thought she was okay, just surprised. But what her mom said made her scared, that maybe she was not okay, and only then started to cry. Now all the grownups came and stood around us, like they were in charge now. The two older boys stood back, next to each other, worried.
“We’re sorry”, one said, “We didn’t think she’d try to do that!”
Molly’s mom nodded at them and then just looked at Molly.
Mom was behind me and put a hand on my right shoulder, patting my left shoulder with the other one. I stood there and didn’t say anything, wanting to say something to make Molly feel better, but feeling scared to, with all the grownups watching. Molly’s mom and dad rubbed their hands on her dress to try to get the dirt off. Then they looked at her arms and legs to make sure they were okay, and looked closely at the scrapes on her knees and elbow. Molly looked at me with sad red eyes, sniffling, as the tears rolled down over her now pink cheeks.
I could see Molly’s mom worried about what the other grownups were thinking about Molly.
“Molly is such a tomboy!” she said.
I didn’t know what a “tomboy” was, but it didn’t sound good, and I felt sad for Molly and mad at Molly’s mom for saying that, and mad at the other grownups who I guess wanted her to say that.
Her mom took Molly’s hand, looked at dad then focused on mom.
“Jane”, she said, “Let me take her home, get her cleaned up, and we’ll be back.”
Mom’s hands still on my shoulders, I looked up and she nodded with lips pushed together and worried eyes.
“Joan”, mom said, “When I was a little girl I was just like Molly. I’d come home at least once a week with some sort of bruise or scrape!” Molly’s mom looked like she felt better that mom had said that. Mom was good at saying stuff that made other grownups feel better.
The other grownup women said things to Molly’s mom to try to make her feel better too. One said, “Molly is such a pretty girl!”
Molly’s mom said, “Thank you”, and rubbed Molly’s head. Molly stood there quietly looking down, as her mom tried to fix her messed up hair. I watched her mom start to walk her home across the baseball field.
Now other kids and grownups were at the party, the kids came over to me. Kenny lived across the street next to Molly, but I didn’t play with him as much. Danny, who was older than me, I played with when my mom took me with her when she would go to their house.
“So what happened to that girl?” Danny asked. He didn’t know Molly.
After seeing Molly’s mom worried about what the other grownups were thinking about Molly, I wasn’t sure what to say to him.
“She fell I guess”, Kenny said, though he wasn’t there at the merry-go-round.
“Yeah!” Danny said, “Girls!” He said it like he thought girls weren’t as good as boys.
“Girls!” said Kenny, thinking he wanted to think the same way as Danny who was older than we were.
I wanted to tell them that I didn’t feel boys were better, but I got worried when older boys talked about girls being different, so I didn’t say anything and just looked down at the ground.
Dad and Molly’s dad were making the corn and the hot dogs on that really hot “grill” thing. Mom was passing out plates and being in charge of things. The other grownups were sitting at one of the two other tables, including Kenny’s mom and Danny’s mom. The other two men were dad’s friends. Kenny, Danny and I were sitting at the other table, which had boxes on it, that I knew were presents for me, on the other end. Just looking at them made me feel excited, and I wondered what was in each. Mom called out to the three of us to come over and get some food.
“Jane!” Danny’s mom said, “You’ve got a bun in the oven. You should let me do that!”
“I’m just getting into my third trimester”, mom said to her, rubbing her big stomach with her hands, “I still have lots of energy.” Mom didn’t used to have a big stomach like that, but she said that was my “little brother” getting ready to come out, though I couldn’t figure out what she was really talking about.
“I wouldn’t disagree that you do, dear”, said Danny’s mom, “But please let me help!”
Mom nodded, and Danny’s mom and Kenny’s mom put the corn and hot dogs on our plates, which they brought over to the table where Kenny, Danny and I were sitting. The three of us ate our food and didn’t say anything. I thought about Molly and why she let go of the merry-go-round bars, and that she was okay really until her mom got scared. I figured I would ask her about it later, now that I was talking.
I could here the grownups talking about my name, though they didn’t think I was listening
“So what are you calling him?” dad’s friend asked, “Johnny?”
“Well…” said dad like he wasn’t sure what to say.
“His name is Jonathan”, mom said, her voice was loud and kind of fierce, “Not Johnny or John. My brother is named John. Our son is Jonathan!”
I didn’t really feel like my name was Jonathan, or John or Johnny. It was one of those nicknames, but it wasn’t “Zuper” either. Mom and dad mostly called me “Clubius” or “Cloob”. Molly called me “Coob”, I think I liked that one best. When grownups asked me my name and I wasn’t talking yet, mom or dad answered for me and said “Jonathan”, but they almost never called me that. Now that I was talking, I wondered what I would say my name was.
Molly and her mom finally came back. Molly was now wearing regular clothes like me, with a bandaid on her elbow. Her mom got her a plate of food and pointed at the table where Danny, Kenny and I were sitting. I could see that Molly didn’t want to sit with us, but her mom kept telling her to and she finally came over. I figured that it wasn’t because Molly did not want to sit with me or the other kids, but that she didn’t want to talk about falling down. She came over and sat next to me without saying anything.
But Danny did want to talk about it. “So what happened to you on the merry-go-round?” he asked.
Molly looked fierce, putting her thumb in her mouth and biting it. She moved her shoulders up and down and took her thumb out and said, “I fell.”
“Are you okay?” he asked. He didn’t ask it like a grownup would. Not like he was going to do something about it if she said no.
Molly nodded and stuck the end of her hotdog into her mouth, and seemed happy that that kept her from having to say anything else. All four of us ate and didn’t talk. I was happy to have her back and sitting next to me.
When we finished eating, Danny’s mom came over and took our plates. Then all the grownups sang happy birthday to me. Danny was singing too and really loud. Kenny sang to, I think because Danny was singing and he wanted to be like Danny. I looked at Molly and she smiled like they were singing the song to her too.
The song ended with mom carrying my birthday cake towards me so everyone could see it, with three candles that had fire on top. I remembered Molly’s birthday, when she was three. Her cake was different but it also had three candles. I remembered her blowing them out, so I figured I was supposed to blow them out since it was my party this time. Mom put the cake down in front of me. It was all white with blue words on it. I knew that first word “Happy”, since mom had shown it to me in some of the books she read to me where she pointed at the words when she read them. And I knew that the last word was my real name, “Jonathan”. The word in between starting with the “B” I figured had to be “Birthday”.
“Now make a wish before you blow out the candles!” Mom said to me, looking into my eyes with hers like she was trying to figure out what my wish would be. I didn’t remember this part from Molly’s birthday. I got worried that all the grownups were waiting for me to say what my wish was, and then what would I say now that I was talking. I thought about the tricycle, maybe that would be the wish. But then if I said that was my wish, would mom and dad figure out that I looked in the attic and saw it there. Would they think I was bad for doing that? I tried to think of a different wish to say.
I was so happy when mom said, “Now don’t tell anyone your wish or it may not come true!” Not worried anymore, I thought about the bicycle and blew out the candles with the biggest breath I could make. Danny and all the grownups cheered and clapped. Kenny and Molly did what the grownups were doing and clapped too.
Mom asked me if I wanted to open my presents. Even before I could say anything, Danny said, “He definitely wants to!” All the grownups laughed.
I was mad at Danny for saying that, but didn’t say anything. I didn’t like that he was thinking he knew how I felt and was talking for me, even though I did want to open my presents. When I wasn’t talking yet, I had to let other people, mostly mom and dad, say what they figured I was thinking or feeling, though sometimes I still didn’t like it.
But I stopped worrying about it when I got to open my presents. I loved holding each box in my hands, with that special paper stuff all around it so I couldn’t see what it was, feeling how heavy it was, and wondering what it might be before tearing the paper off. I didn’t care that others were watching me, even all the grownups.
The first present I opened was from Kenny and his mom. It was a box of Lincoln Logs, with a picture of a fort on it. Kenny’s mom said, “Kenny told us you already have Lincoln logs, but you can never have too many!” That was true, and I was excited and nodded really hard.
Mom said, “Thank you Kenny and Missus Novak.” Kenny’s mom nodded her head but just once.
The next present was from dad’s two friends, Frank and Walter. It was six books, all the same size and wrapped together.
Walter said, “It’s the latest series of Tom Swift books. Frank and I know you’re probably not reading quite yet, but we made your dad promise to read them to you. And we have verified that your dad’s reading skills are sufficient for the task.” Frank, Molly’s dad, and dad all laughed.
The book on top had a picture on the cover of a rocket ship shooting up from the ground below with a big window in it with a boy in a gold suit looking out. Each of the others had something like that – jet plane, submarine, rocket ship – with the same boy either inside it or next to it. The pictures, and the stories each picture made me think about, were very exciting.
The next present was from Danny and his mom, Danny said he had picked it out himself. I ripped off the wrapping paper and the cover of the box had a picture of four smiling boys around a small board that looked like a football field with little figures of football players on it in two different colors. I figured it was a football field because mom and dad had taken me to a game at the Michigan stadium not far from our house. Danny said it was an “Electric Football set”. You turned it on and the players moved all by themselves. It interested me, but Danny said I should probably wait until I got home to open it up and try it, and ask my dad to help.
The last wrapped present was from Molly and her mom and dad. It was a space helmet with a front part that you could see through like a window, and that could be opened and closed. I took it out of the box and put it on my head, looking out through the clear front part at the people around me.
“Jonathan sure looks like he’s ready for what’s coming!” It was my dad’s friend Frank talking. “Just heard that Eisenhower wants us to set up a civilian space agency so we can outdo the Russians.”
I didn’t know who these “Russians” were, and if they were the same thing as the “Soviet Union”, but I figured this was not the right time for me to ask.
“I don’t know if you could pay me enough to sit on top of one of those big rockets”, said dad’s friend Walter, “I watched that Vanguard rocket explode last December at Cape Canaveral.”
Then dad said, “Once they work out the kinks, I’d do it! Poe, Verne, and others have been writing about taking a rocket to the moon since early in the 19th century. And I grew up reading all the pulp science fiction – John Carter and Buck Rogers.”
“Yeah, me too”, said Molly’s dad, “Though I never in a million years thought it could ever come true!”
The grownup women at the party had not been saying anything, but now mom did. When she talked, it sounded like she was in charge, and other people stopped talking and listened.
“I believe”, she said, “That anything we can imagine we can make come true!”
“Really Jane?” asked Walter, “Even time travel?” Like mom didn’t know what she was talking about.
But it didn’t change what mom was thinking, and she said, “Really Walter… even time travel!” She didn’t sound mad but her voice was kind of fierce. Walter sighed and shook his head.
“Honestly,” Danny’s mom said, putting her hand on mom’s shoulder, “I sometimes wonder if Jane hasn’t traveled back in time to our age to get us all off our rear ends!” All the grownups laughed, even Walter.
Mom nodded and grinned, her cheeks got a little red as everyone was looking at her. But I could tell she LIKED IT when everyone was looking at her.
“Lennice”, mom said, “I’ll never confess, but it’s been a heck of a ride!” More laughing from all the grownups. The four of us kids just looked at each other, not sure what they were talking about. Danny rolled his eyes. Strange grownups.
“But Liz”, dad’s voice was always quieter and less fierce than mom’s, always reminding her of something, “There’s one more present.”
“Right!” Mom looked at dad like there were lots of things she was thinking about. She turned and looked at me, still with my new space helmet on my head, her eyes sparkled. “This is for you from your dad and me”, she said.
Dad ran over to our car and opened the back part and took out that red tricycle with black wheels. He carried it over to the picnic tables where we were sitting and put it down in the middle of them. There it was in front of me, the one that I had seen in the attic yesterday, but wasn’t supposed to see until now. I stared at it, feeling everybody looking at me, so I didn’t know what to do next. Unlike my mom, I did not like talking when everyone was looking at me, especially when grownups were looking at me.
“Do you like it sweetie?” mom finally asked.
I nodded, but felt the grownups maybe were thinking I didn’t, thinking I should be more excited and say so. But I had already been thinking about that tricycle for a long time. I looked at mom and didn’t say anything, but nodded again really hard, and then at dad and did the same. I decided I should at least sit on it to show how much I liked it. It was all shiny and new. The seat felt cold and slippery under me. My hands circled around the black handle grips. Plastic had a special feeling to it when it was new. My feet rested on each of the black plastic pedals. I pushed the pedal with my left foot and then with my right and the big wheel in front started to turn and I was moving.
I headed toward the merry-go-round. Molly, Kenny and Danny got up from the table and walked around me. I was happy to just be with other kids and away from the grownups.