Today was Saturday and it was my birthday. Mom made eggs and toast for breakfast instead of me just making my own cereal. The four of us sat at the table in the kitchen eating.
“Eric”, mom said, “I don’t know if we’ll be able to do Coop’s party out in the park like we planned. The thermometer says it’s 38 degrees out there, the wind’s blowing, and there’s rain in the forecast for later this afternoon.”
“Liz, it’ll be okay”, Dad said, “It’ll warm up, I’m sure.”
Mom would always be worried, but dad told her not to be worried though he still seemed worried too.
“Well”, she said, “We’ve gotten away with it the last two years, but we have no plan B.” She looked at me and then back at him and said, “We’ll talk about it later.” Mom always said that, and then they would stop talking about it.
“So we’ve got everything?” mom asked, “Hotdogs. Buns. Beans. Condiments. Pop. Coffee. Paper plates and cups and plastic forks. How about charcoal?”
“Dammit”, dad said, putting his face in his hands.
“Eric”, mom said, like she was trying not to be mad but still was, “That was on your list, not mine.”
“I know”, he said, closing his eyes and shaking his head slowly, rubbing his hand over the top of his head. “I’ll run out and get some.”
“So you’ll head over in the car with the food and drinks and all the other stuff and save us a grill and some tables and set up?” she asked.
Dad nodded and smiled and said, “Yep, that’s the plan.”
Mom and dad always seemed the most happy when they were planning something together. On other stuff where they had different ideas I could tell that they’d get mad at each other, even if they didn’t say they were mad.
The door buzzer buzzed. Mom got up from the table and went into the living room and opened the front door.
“Well hello there”, mom said.
I heard Molly’s voice, “Is Coob here?”
Mom said, “He sure is, come in Molly.”
I ran into the living room. Molly was coming in the front door. She was wearing long pants and a dark blue sweatshirt that had the “MICHIGAN” word on it in yellow letters. On her head was a red and white helmet, one of those kind they wore to play football.
She looked at me with a fierce look and said, “I’m going to your party!” I already figured she was, so I was not sure why she was telling me.
The phone on the wall in the kitchen rang and dad answered it. “Jane, it’s uh Joan, for you”, he called out.
Mom put her finger in the air. “Excuse me you two”, she said, and went into the kitchen.
Molly looked at me, her eyes still fierce, but didn’t say anything more.
I heard mom’s voice in the kitchen talking to someone on the phone where you couldn’t hear what the other person was saying, “Hello… hey Joan… yes she is… of course it’s okay… I see…”. I heard her breathe out air. “Okay… I don’t know what to say… of course… no need to apologize… I understand, whatever we can do… we’ll talk later, I’m kind of in the midst of everything here… right… you too… take care… okay… I hope we see you… bye.”
I looked at dad, who I guess had listened to mom talking too, and he looked worried. Mom was quiet now, still in the kitchen with David and not coming out yet.
David walked out of the kitchen, saw Molly, held his hand up in the air and said, “Olly.”
“Hi Davie”, she said, making a smile and not looking so fierce. I couldn’t remember her ever calling him “Davie” before. It was like she was happy to see him after not seeing him for a long time, even though she saw him yesterday. Like she was trying to be happy, but wasn’t really happy.
Mom came out of the kitchen with her hands on top of her head and her lips pushed together and looking like she was thinking what to say.
“Hey Molly”, mom said, looking at her and smiling, “It’s always a pleasure to see you.” Then mom wrinkled her nose as she was thinking, then stopped and said, “Your mom said you wanted to come over to keep Coop and David company while Coop’s dad and I get ready for Coop’s party. That’d be a big help.”
Molly looked at mom and seemed worried. She looked down and nodded but didn’t say anything. I wondered if her mom still didn’t like her dad. I wondered if I should ask her, but not right now with mom and dad around.
“Have you had breakfast?” mom asked her. She nodded. “Well we were just sitting in the kitchen finishing ours, why don’t you join us, maybe have a glass of orange juice.” She nodded again. We all headed back into the kitchen.
Since David still sat in his special highchair, there was an extra regular kitchen chair for Molly to sit on next to me. Mom made a grunting noise as she lifted David up into his chair.
“Mister D you are getting bigger”, she said, “Pretty soon we’ll have to switch you to a regular chair like the rest of us.”
“David’s one and three quarters”, Molly said, smiling at him.
“That’s right”, said mom nodding, “You know your fractions.”
She nodded. “Dad told me about them”, she said, “He’s an engineer.”
“Yes”, said mom, “Your dad and I both like numbers and math.”
“Mom hates numbers”, Molly said, then started drinking her orange juice and looking out the window. Mom and dad looked at each other and both looked worried.
“She does, eh?” mom said nodding, like it was a question but it wasn’t really a question. Molly put down her orange juice and nodded.
“So are you worried about that?” mom asked. Molly nodded again then drank more orange juice.
“Well”, said mom, looking up at the ceiling thinking and pushing her lips together, “That’s a lot to have on your mind. I’m glad you told us about it.”
Molly nodded again and looked at me like she was wondering what I was thinking. I had been eating my scrambled eggs and toast and listening and watching while they were talking. When her eyes looked at mine I nodded too, but I didn’t try to smile or anything.
Mom said, “You know dear, both Eric and I know you’ve always been a really good friend to Coop, and also to David. So anything we can help with or you want to talk about, please let us know, okay?”
“Olly”, David said, reaching a hand out to her.
Molly finished her orange juice and then looked down and put the tip of her thumb in her mouth. I hadn’t seen her do that since when she told me up in her bathroom that her mom didn’t like her dad anymore.
She looked at me again and asked, “Do you want to go outside and play?” I figured that’s what she wanted to do so I nodded.
“I hope you don’t mind having David go with you”, mom said, “Coop’s dad and I have things we need to get done inside for the party.
“Sure”, Molly said, nodding and smiling even, “We can put his jacket and hat on too.”
Molly and I put David’s jacket on and his hat, then I put my jacket on and she and I held his hands and took him through the kitchen and out the side door to the backyard. Molly seemed happier doing all that.
When we got outside and closed the door, Molly said, “Let’s take David to the secret place. He’s never been there before.”
I knew she was talking about that place inside the spruce tree at the end of the driveway. The first time we went in there was the day that mom went to the hospital and David came out of her somehow. We’d gone in there after that. Usually Molly was the one who wanted to, but I liked doing it too, because when we were both in there it felt like we were completely the same, which is what we both liked. Molly went in first and had David crawl in after her. Then I finally went in and sat right next to Molly. She had David sitting on her lap.
“This is my favorite place at your house”, she said, “Even though it’s not really in your house.”
“Yeah?”, I said, kind of wanting her to say more about that.
She nodded and said, “The grownups can’t come in here. It’s kind of like Captain Nemo’s secret base, though he had to blow that up. It’s just for kids.” Then she looked around at David sitting in front of her. “Hey Davie, do you like it too?”
He nodded and said, “Ree”. I think he was trying to say “tree”.
Molly looked over at me and her shoulder touched mine. She said, “What if you and I were a dad and mom and David was our kid who got born out of me.” She smiled and seemed like she was finally feeling happy.
“That would be neat”, I said. I couldn’t remember that we’d ever pretended that before.
“We wouldn’t have to be kissy faced”, she said, “Unless you really wanted to.”
“No”, I said, shaking my head, “We could be regular.” She nodded, happy I said that.
“You’d have to go do working”, she said.
“I know”, I said. She nodded.
“But I would never say you were bad and not like you”, she said.
“I know”, I said again, and she nodded again.
“I wish it was real”, she said, and she lay her head against my shoulder. She had never done anything like that before. It felt kind of like being kissy faced, but it was different and better. I leaned my head against her head, because I’d seen older kids do that when they liked each other.
David turned his head and looked at both of us. “Olly an Coop”, he said. Molly rubbed his hair.
I figured I shouldn’t say anything and we just sat there together, her warm shoulder pressing against mine, her head resting on the top part of my shoulder, her hair against mine. She smelled good. I had never thought about how she smelled before, but I figured she had always smelled good like that. I imagined we were sleeping in the same bed together, like grownup mom and dad, but different. The three of us just sat there for a long time.
Then David tried to stand up and took Molly’s hand and said, “Out”. So we went out and played in the dirt pile with the soldiers I had left outside.
We played Captain Nemo with soldiers, and I went down inside to bring out some boats. We didn’t have Paul’s toy submarine and none of my boats were a good submarine because they all looked too much like regular boats. So we decided we’d play that Captain Nemo was at his secret base with his crew. Molly went down in the basement and made a “giant squid” out of Tinker Toys and we had it attack Captain Nemo’s secret base, and it killed some of his crew. David liked playing with the dirt and making forts though sometimes he would wreck them instead. So we let him do the squid some. I wasn’t sure what you did with people when they were dead, but Molly said you buried them in the ground, so that’s what we did.
We got hungry, but when we went in the kitchen to tell mom she said she was busy getting ready for the party. So she gave us a paper plate with six pieces of bread, the jar of peanut butter and a knife that was one of those “plastic” ones you used for eating outside. She said we shouldn’t let David use the knife, but we should make him a sandwich, and to make sure we closed the jar of peanut butter when we were done with it. When we got back in the backyard with all that stuff, Molly said she would make the sandwiches, but she did it inside the spruce tree, because she said that was our “secret house” and she would be the mom.
So Molly crawled into the spruce tree with the stuff. David watched her from the dirt pile but then got up and walked over to the tree and then crawled in too. I figured I better not go in because there would not be enough room to make the sandwiches. So I worked on making Captain Nemo’s secret base even better until Molly called out, from inside the tree, “Lunch is served!” She and David didn’t come out so I figured I was supposed to go in too. I did but there wasn’t much room, but enough to sit kind of squished and eat the sandwiches Molly made. They had some of those green “needle” things in them, but didn’t taste so bad mixed with the peanut butter.
While we were in our secret tree place, dad came out and was putting some stuff for the party in the car. When he looked in the backyard and didn’t see us, he called out to me.
Inside the tree Molly looked at me with fierce eyes and shook her head, like I shouldn’t tell him where we were. But I told her he’d get worried and then mom would get worried, and then mad, and it would make my birthday party bad. So she nodded and I called out to him that we were with David in the tree and I stuck my hand out so he could see it. He did that “chuckle” thing, waved back and drove off in the car.
When Molly and I finished eating our sandwiches, and David had kind of squeezed his and wrecked the part he hadn’t eaten, we came back out into the yard. Mom came out and said she would change David’s clothes and diaper and then we could all walk over to the park to the party. She looked at Molly and me and our clothes.
“Are your clothes okay for the party?” she asked, “How ‘bout you Molly?”
Molly looked down at her sweatshirt and pants and said, “Mom said I could wear regular clothes this time, but I have to wear the football helmet when I play on the merry-go-round in the park.”
Mom pointed at Molly’s leg and said, “You got some peanut butter on your pant leg.” Molly looked down at her leg, saw it, and tried to rub it with her hand, but it was still kind of there only flatter and bigger.
“You want some help with that?” mom asked. Molly nodded. Mom got a paper towel and kind of squeezed it together and touched it to her tongue and wiped it over and over on that spot on Molly’s pants until it was a darker color like it was wet.
“There”, she said, “That’ll dry in no time. Let’s head out. I’ve got my purse and this last bag of stuff for the party, So someone needs to hold David’s hands when we cross the street. ”
“I can do it”, Molly said. She always liked helping David, and I think that she wanted mom to know that she wasn’t such a little kid anymore. It also seemed like maybe she wanted David to be her brother too, and mom to be her mom.
So Molly and I each held one of David’s hands as we walked across the street and then up the edge part by the lilac bushes and into the park. The sky had gray clouds instead of all the blue, and the wind was blowing.
Mom said, “I just hope we can get this party in before the rain comes. I can feel it out there somewhere.”
There were kids playing in the park. I could see some girls on the swings and girls and boys on the monkey bars. There were a bunch of kids playing baseball at the baseball place over to the right of us. They all were wearing orange t-shirts and black caps, so I figured they were a regular team and not just kids playing together. And then I saw a grownup with them, and he also had an orange shirt and black cap, so he was probably their “coach”.
As we got to the middle part of the park I saw dad waving to us. He was in the tree part where the picnic tables were. I could see a giant box wrapped up in blue and green present paper. I figured that had to be my bicycle. I felt really excited. I looked at Molly and could tell that she was looking at it and was really excited too.
There was a grownup woman sitting next to dad and a man sitting across from him on the picnic table. That man turned to look at us and it looked like Molly’s dad. Molly let go of David’s hand and started to run toward the picnic table.
“Olly”, David said, pointing at her running away from us and still holding my hand. He wanted me and him to run too, but I didn’t want to. This felt like something that was just about Molly and her dad, and if David and I ran over too we might mess it up. There was some bad thing happening with her mom and dad and I couldn’t figure it out. Molly had said that her mom didn’t like her dad anymore, but they were a mom and dad so I didn’t know what that meant.
I got mad at Kenny when he told mom and dad that I accidentally broke a part of the battleship model his dad made for him, and I told him I didn’t like him anymore and wouldn’t talk to him. But then a few days later I talked to him again. And mom and dad got mad at each other, mostly mom at dad, and wouldn’t talk to each other for a while. But this seemed worse, like it wasn’t going to get better even after a while.
I could see now that Molly was giving her dad a hug for a long time. By the time mom, David and I got there, she was sitting next to him on the picnic table with dad and that grownup woman sitting across from them.
With his hand on Molly’s shoulder, her dad turned towards us and said, “There’s the man of the hour. Happy birthday Coop!” I always got a little worried when grownups said stuff like that to me, pretending I was special because that was what you were supposed to do on someone’s birthday. So I just nodded but didn’t say anything.
“And there’s David looking grown up”, he said. That was another thing grownups always said, because I guess they thought being grown up was better than being a kid. David nodded.
“Hey there Jane”, he said to mom.
“Jack”, mom said, “Wasn’t sure you were going to be able to make it. Thanks for contributing to Coop’s gift.”
“Of course”, he said, “Happy to. Molly insisted.” He chuckled and rubbed her hair.
The woman sitting across from him next to dad stood up and reached out her hand towards mom. “Jane. I’m Matilda, Paul’s mom. It’s a pleasure to finally meet you. We enjoy your son’s visits.” Mom reached out and shook her hand.
“And this must be David”, she said, pointing a hand at him.
“Mus be”, said David. Paul’s mom laughed through her nose.
“Oh and here’s something toward the big gift”, she said, handing mom a white envelope thing.
“Thanks so much Matilda”, mom said, “Good to finally meet you as well. Paul’s such a bright kid with quite an imagination. He and Coop will figure out how to transform the world someday.”
“Yeah”, Paul’s mom said chuckling, “If they don’t blow it up in the meantime!”
Mom nodded but her nose wrinkled like she didn’t like that, but she didn’t say anything and just did her big smile. “So I see you’ve met my husband Eric and Molly’s dad Jack?”
“I HAVE”, Paul’s mom said, making kind of a silly face, “We’ve had quite the discussion about engineering and literature. Eric says you’re a tennis player. He said you won some tournaments back East.”
Mom made a sad face and said, “I did actually, but now it’s more WERE than ARE.”
“I hit the ball occasionally with my girlfriends over in the park”, she said, “You should join us sometime, maybe give us some pointers.”
Mom nodded, her lips also pushed together, laughing through her nose and then shaking her head and saying, “I’m out of practice.”
Paul’s mom laughed through her nose too and said, “Tell me about it!” “It’s a good week when I get out even once to hit a few balls with the girls. The rest of the time it’s wifey and mommy duty.”
Then she looked at me and into my eyes and said, “Forgive me young man for talking ‘girl talk’ at your birthday party!”
I didn’t know what to say, or what “girl talk” was. Because I was a boy, should there only be “boy talk”, whatever that was, when I was around? Did women talk about very different stuff when there were no men or boys around? Did girls do that too? I thought about asking Paul’s mom what “girl talk” was, but I was worried that she might think I was a “sissy” for even wanting to know, and mom and dad might worry I might be too. I figured I’d ask Molly about it all when it was just her and I, because she would never think I was a “sissy”.
“Paul’s over on the monkeybars”, his mom said pointing, “You and Molly might want to join him.” Then she looked at dad and Molly’s dad and chuckled. “You two guys might want to join them too, or fuss with the barbecue, rather than listen to us hens cluck!”
It was interesting that Molly’s dad nodded his head, smiled and chuckled like what she said was funny and he was happy to still listen. But dad got kind of shy, though he ended up doing the same kind of nod, smile and chuckle like Molly’s dad, though he seemed kind of worried about it. I couldn’t quite figure dad out sometimes. Molly seemed happy right now to sit next to her dad, who had put his arm around her shoulders.
Paul’s mom patted the top of the picnic table in front of her and said, “So the guys here seem to be leaning toward Nixon this fall, but your hubby said you were big Jack Kennedy fan.” She looked at dad and then Molly’s dad, nodded her head and said, “I think Jane and Joan made good choices in their fellas, but that Jack Kennedy just makes a girl’s heart go pitter patter.” She put her hand on her chest and patted it really fast.
Mom nodded and grinned and said, “He certainly has that something. But I feel like he’s the kind of man who can make things happen. Really lead.”
Paul’s mom made a silly face and said, “Make things happen indeed!” like that was funny and the other grownups would think so too. Dad and Molly’s dad chuckled. I couldn’t figure it out though it sounded like “kissy face” stuff.
Mom made one of those smiles she did before she said something that she really wanted to say. “So Matilda”, she said, “Is there something incompatible about having charisma and even sex appeal and being an effective leader?”
“Uh, no”, she said, turning her head to look at dad and Molly’s dad again and saying, “Wow, she’s good!” Then she looked at mom. “Jane, you should be the one running for President. You got my vote!”
Mom smiled and nodded and said, “Right. Maybe I’ll think about running in the next election.” But I could tell that she liked it.
Paul had run down from the monkeybars to where we were at the picnic tables. He looked at me and Molly and said, “What are you guys doing? I can’t run the submarine by myself!”
David grabbed my hand and said, “Go!”
I stood up from sitting and looked at Molly. Her dad looked at me, puffed out his cheeks and blew air out of his mouth.
“Jane, Eric, I’ve gotta go take care of some business”, he said, then looked at Paul’s mom, “Matilda, it was a pleasure to see you again. Paul’s a super kid.” She pushed her lips together and nodded.
Then he looked down at Molly and said, “Sweetie, I’ll see you soon. We’ll do more practice on your bicycle, okay?” Molly nodded, but I could tell she was sad, she even put the tip of her thumb in her mouth.
“And remember that your mom wants you to wear that football helmet when you go on the merry-go-round”, he said.
“But I don’t want to”, she said to him, “Nobody else wears one.”
“Well you know your mom”, he said, “She wants things her way.” He looked at all the rest of us with a sad look in his eyes, “Have a good party you all, I know Coop will enjoy his present.”
“And thanks for chipping in on it Jack”, mom said. She looked sad too. I knew something bad was happening with Molly’s mom and dad but the grownups weren’t talking about it.
Molly’s dad stood up and started walking away from us, and then Molly got up and ran after him. When she got to him he turned around, went down on one knee and said something to her. I saw her shoulders go down and her head look down at the ground, thumb in her mouth again. He stood up and walked away from her.
“Go Olly”, David said, pulling on my hand.
So David and I walked over to where she was standing watching him walk away and David followed me. I didn’t say anything, but tried to do the same thing she was doing, and watched him walk over to, get into his little car, and then drive off. David watched too. I could tell she knew I was next to her but she didn’t look at me.
“My mom’s STUPID”, she said, looking at the ground. David looked worried and looked at me. I couldn’t think of anything to say so I looked at the ground too, like she was doing.
“Captain Nemo should sink her”, she said, and turned and ran towards the monkey bars where Paul had gone back to.
“Go Olly”, David said again, and he and I ran after her, but more slowly because he couldn’t run very fast yet.
When we got to the monkey bars Paul was up at the very top part, the control room of the submarine. “I want to be Captain Nemo”, he said.
Molly shook her head as she climbed on the monkey bars up to the top part by Paul. “I’M Captain Nemo”, she said, looking at him with a fierce look in her eyes.
“But…” he said, then seeing how mad she was, decided that it was okay. He looked at me like he was wondering what was happening with Molly. I lifted my shoulders and shook my head. He climbed down out of the top part to where I was below. Molly stood at the very top middle part of the monkey bars and looked out. David looked up and pointed at her.
“Turn on the engine and get ready to sink every ship”, she said.
“Yes Captain”, we both said and looked at each other.
“Engines full speed ahead Captain”, Paul said, pretending to push buttons and turn wheels.
Danny walked up from the picnic tables. “What are you playing?” he asked.
“Captain Nemo”, I said.
“Who’s Captain Nemo?” he asked.
“Molly is”, Paul said.
“Girls can’t be Captain Nemo”, he said.
Molly looked down at him. “I’m not a girl!” she said fiercely.
Danny put his hands on his hips and looked up at her. “Then what ARE you?” he asked.
“Captain Nemo!” she said.
I could tell Danny was thinking, then he looked at Paul and me like he couldn’t figure out what was going on. We both shook our heads like we didn’t know what was going on either.
“Captain”, I said, looking up at Molly, “He wants to come aboard. We need more crew if we’re going to sink all those ships.” The Captain didn’t look at us, but nodded.
I looked at Paul. “Crew guy, open the hatch and let him on board”, I said.
“It’s ‘crewman’, not ‘crew guy’”, James said as he turned the pretend wheel thing and opened the pretend door.
Danny ducked his head and climbed into the monkey bars. “I’ll be in charge of the galley”, he said.
“What’s ‘the galley’?” I asked.
“It’s like a kitchen on a ship”, Paul said.
“No”, said Danny shaking his head and wrinkling his nose, “It’s totally different than a kitchen. It’s where you make the food on a ship, or a submarine. Totally different.” Paul looked at me and shook his head and moved his shoulders up and down but didn’t say anything.
“Turn on the engine”, said the Captain from above, “We gotta get those ships.”
“Working on it”, said James, not looking up at her but turning more pretend wheels and pulling down other pretend things.
David figured out how to climb up so he had his feet on the lowest bar and his hands holding the bar above it. He seemed happy he could do that and just watched everybody else when they talked.
Two girls I didn’t know came up to the monkey bars. “Can we play too?” asked the older one. The younger one nodded.
“Sure”, I said, “We’re playing Captain Nemo and his submarine.” Then looking at James, “Crewman, let them on board!”
“Not girls!” said Danny, like girls had “cooties” and if they played with us it would wreck things.
The younger girl pointed to Molly up in the top part of the monkey bars which was the control room of the submarine. The older girl looked up at her too.
“She looks like a girl”, the older one said to Danny. Then she looked at him and tilted her head. “You’re Danny, right? We’re in Missus Kelsey’s class at Bach. I’m Marybeth.”
“Oh yeah”, Danny said, “You’re that girl that likes to play kickball.”
“Yeah”, she said, “So what?”
“Nothing”, said Danny, shaking his head really fast, “Just sayin’… you’re not bad.”
“I know”, she said, “I’m pretty good. So can my sister and I play?”
“Sure”, said Danny, like he kind of liked her now because she did sports stuff. I did the pretend hatch opening thing and the two of them climbed into the monkey bars submarine.
“Who’s Captain Nemo?” she asked.
“Well”, said Danny, “He’s kind of a badguy, but he has this really neat submarine.”
“Why is he a badguy?” she asked.
“Because he sinks ships”, said Paul, “Because they’re even more bad.”
“Why’s that?” she asked.
“Uh…”, Paul said, having trouble figuring out how to tell her, so I did.
“The ships take stuff from the mines back to the places where they use that stuff to make bombs and shells for canons”, I said, “But Captain Nemo’s submarine tries to sink those ships so they can’t make those bombs to blow up people.”
“But that sounds like they’re goodguys”, she said.
“But they’re not”, Danny said, “The regular goodguys are making the bombs to fight the regular badguys.”
“Yeah”, I said, “Captain Nemo and his crew are more like pirates.”
“Yeah”, said Danny, “We’ve got to get the regular goodbuys AND the badguys, because the regular good guys really aren’t that good.”
“Yeah”, said James, “We’re badguys until we can get all the regular goodbuys, then we can be the even better goodguys.”
“No one likes us, but we have a job to do to make things better”, said Danny.
“It’s no fair”, said Marybeth’s sister.
“It never is”, said Marybeth, then looking up at Molly, “We’re ready to join you, Captain.” Molly nodded. David nodded too.
“Get that engine going”, she said, “Let’s get them.”
Then we saw Kenny walking up from the picnic tables.
“What are you guys doing?” he said.
“Don’t ask questions”, Danny said, “Just get on board. We’re going to sink some ships!”
“Why?” asked Kenny.
“Uh”, said Danny shaking his head, “That’s a question. No questions or we’ll throw you in the brig.”
“What’s ‘the brig’?” asked Kenny.
“It’s a jail on a ship”, said Danny.
“Or on a submarine”, said Paul.
“Open the hatch and let him on board and then close it”, I said, “We’re about to go underwater.”
I looked up at Molly. “I think we’re ready Captain”, I said. Marybeth and her sister had climbed up to the top part of the monkey bars just below Molly who was at the very top. I could see David wanted to climb up to Molly too, but he looked worried he might fall so he stayed where he was.
I pretended to look out with one of those little telescope things that Captain Nemo used in the movie. “Enemy ship dead ahead, Captain!”
“Battlestations”, said Danny.
Marybeth looked down at Danny. “I think the Captain is supposed to say that”, she said.
“She’s right”, said Paul.
Danny held out his hands and shook his head. “Well SOMEONE has to say it!” he said.
Marybeth looked at Molly. “Well?”
Finally Molly, who seemed to be looking at things far away rather than down at us said, “Battlestations!”
“I’m the first mate”, said Marybeth.
“Uh uh”, said Danny, pointing at me, “He’s the first mate cuz it’s his birthday. He should be Captain Nemo but he let Molly do it.”
“Well then I’m the other first mate”, Marybeth said, then looking at Molly, “Full speed ahead?”
“Full speed ahead!” Molly said, nodding.
Marybeth looked down at Danny. “Are we going to shoot torpedoes?”
“Nope”, said Danny, “We don’t have torpedoes. We’re going to ram them. Brace for impact everybody!”
“Shouldn’t the Captain say that?” Marybeth asked Danny.
“Nah”, said Danny, shaking his head, “Anybody can say that.”
Marybeth looked at her younger sister and said, “Brace for impact Hannah.”
Danny made a big crashing noise, and grabbing the bars on either side of him shook his body back and forth. Paul, Kenny, Marybeth, Hannah, Molly and I all grabbed bars and shook our bodies back and forth too.
I remembered the picture from the movie of the ship sinking underwater but still exploding and on fire. “They’re sinking!” I said. Then I looked at everyone else, “Is everybody okay?” I asked, trying to sound like a first mate.
“Check”, said Danny and then Kenny.
“We’re okay up here”, said Marybeth.
“Argh, I’m wounded”, said Paul, “But I’ll be okay.”
Marybeth looked at her sister. “Hannah”, she said, “You can be the doctor. Go down and fix him up.”
Hannah nodded and climbed down to where Paul was and pretended to put stuff on his arm to fix it. David watched like he was trying to figure out what he was doing.
“On a submarine you call them a ‘medic’”, Danny said.
I looked out my pretend telescope again and saw another enemy ship, this one was a warship.
“Enemy ship off there to the right”, I yelled out.
“The right is called ‘starboard’”, Marybeth said, “The left I can’t remember.”
“Port”, said Paul, calling up to her as Hannah continued to fix his wounded arm.
“Is it broken?” asked Danny.
Hannah nodded. “Pretty bad”, she said.
“Just patch him up”, Marybeth said from above.
“Give me some whisky”, Paul said, “To kill the pain.”
Hannah looked around the part of the submarine where Paul was and found the pretend whisky bottle, picked it up, and gave it to Paul, who did a big pretend “swig”.
“Thanks”, he said, handing the pretend bottle back to her.
I looked out my pretend telescope again. “Uh oh”, I said, “This enemy ship has canons Captain!”
“Doesn’t matter”, said Molly, “Let’s get them!”
“Going starboard”, said Marybeth, pretending to turn that big wheel thing.
Danny looked up at her. “Coop should be doing that. It’s his birthday!” he said.
“I know”, she said, “But the wheel is up here and the Captain said to get them and I gotta follow orders.”
And even though one of the cannon shells hit the submarine, and Kenny was almost killed, we were able to wreck that ship and sink it too. And then we sank five more ships after that, though by that time we were all wounded, even the Captain.
When Captain Nemo got wounded, Molly let herself kind of slowly fall down through the monkey bars until she fell onto the sand on the ground under them. It was pretty neat how she did it.
“Olly okay?” asked David, looking worried as he now looked down on her instead of up at her.
I crawled between the bars to where she was in the sand. “Captain, are you all right?” I asked. Molly groaned with her eyes closed.
Marybeth had climbed down from the top part too. “Give her room”, she said, “Let the doctor look at her.”
“Medic”, said Danny.
Hannah sat next to Molly and touched her stomach. “She’s really bad!”
“Is everything okay?” It was the voice of Danny’s mom, she was holding two paper plates full of hotdogs. She saw Molly lying on the ground with her eyes closed. “Is Molly okay?”
Danny looked at her. “Well”, he said, “For real she’s okay, but for pretend she may be dead soon.”
“You alright dear?” she said to Molly. Molly nodded just a little bit but didn’t open her eyes.
“Just checking sweetie”, said Danny’s mom nodding, “Danny, will you make sure everyone on the crew gets a hotdog once y’all have sorted out the medical emergency? I think there’s enough for everyone. If y’all want mustard or ketchup you’ll just have to come onshore down where we are.”
She looked at Marybeth and Hannah. “I don’t think I’ve met you two young ladies”, she said, waving at them, “I’m Lennice, Danny’s mom.”
“Geez mom”, said Danny, “You don’t have to…”
“It’s always good manners to be polite young man”, she said, “Even if someone’s on their deathbed.”
“I’m Marybeth, I’m in Danny’s class at Bach”, said Marybeth, “And this is my sister Hannah. We were just playing on the swings and they said we could play with them.”
“Well of course”, said Danny’s mom, “More the merrier I’m sure. Help yourselves to a hotdog dears.”
“MOM!” said Danny.
His mom shook her head and blew air out of her nose. “Don’t ‘MOM’ me young man. When I meet someone I always have the courtesy to make introductions, welcome them and share.” Then turning towards Marybeth and Hannah. “Pleased to meet you girls”, she said, and she handed the plates of hotdogs to Danny and turned and walked back down toward the picnic tables.
Danny handed out hotdogs to everyone and they started eating. Marybeth said that David should only have half a hotdog and ripped one in half and gave half to him. There were two and a half hotdogs left, but Molly hadn’t had one yet.
Molly groaned pretending she was really wounded bad, still not opening her eyes. I knew she always liked that kind of stuff, getting blown up or knocked over or getting pretend dead even.
Hannah shook her head. “She’s not good. We have to feed her.” Molly groaned again with eyes still closed but opened her mouth. Hannah took a hotdog from Danny and put the end in Molly’s mouth and she bit some off and started chewing. Even though she was pretending to be wounded really bad, she seemed happier that everybody was all around her and pretending to worry about her.
After a few more bites she said, “I want something to drink.”
“She needs water”, said Hannah.
“No, pop”, said Molly.
“Kenny”, Danny said, “Go down and bring back seven cups and one of those big bottles of pop.”
“Geez”, said Kenny, “Why me?”
“Everyone on the crew has to do their part”, said Danny, “This is your chance to do yours.”
Kenny pushed his mouth together but couldn’t think up something to say that was better than what Danny had just said. “Okay”, he said, and walked down toward the picnic tables.
Molly groaned some more, opening her eyes for a little bit but then closing them again. “Did we sink all the badguy ships?” she asked.
“We did”, I said, “All seven of them. They won’t be able to make any more bombs to blow people up”.
“That’s good”, she said, “More hotdog.” Hannah gave her another bite.
“And you’re all here with me”, Molly said, smiling but eyes still closed and pretending she was wounded.
“Olly okay?” David asked. I tried to look at him and nod that she was because I didn’t want to have to tell him because that would wreck the pretending.
“We’ll stick with you to the end, Captain”, said Marybeth.
“That’s right”, said Danny, “Do you want us to sink you in the sub?”
“No”, Molly groaned. She was really good at pretending. It was almost like she was really wounded. “You should keep going without me. Coob should be the Captain now. There’ll be more of those bad ships to get.”
“Hmm”, said Marybeth, “I’m the first mate.”
“Yeah”, said Danny, “But Coop is the other first mate and it’s HIS birthday party.”
“Hmm”, she said again, “Okay I guess. But when he gets killed I get to be the Captain.”
“Yeah we’ll see”, said Danny, like he didn’t think so but he wasn’t going to tell her yet.
“I’m glad I at least had all of you”, said Molly, “My best crew.” Then she said “goodbye” and opened her mouth up and stuck her tongue out and said “Aaaaaa” and closed her eyes and let her cheek fall into the sand.
“She’s pretty dead now”, said Hannah.
Kenny came back with a big bottle of Seven-Up in one hand and a stack of paper cups in the other.
Hannah looked at him. “It’s too late, she’s dead.”
“But you can give the rest of us some”, said Danny.
We saw Molly’s mom walking towards us carrying Molly’s red football helmet.
“Oh boy”, said Danny, “Kenny what did you say to the grownups?”
“Nothing!” said Danny, looking worried, “Well, not very much.”
Danny blew air out of his mouth and shook his head.
“Hey guys”, said Molly’s mom, “I just wanted to check in with Molly.”
“She’s only pretend dead”, said Danny.
Molly’s mom nodded and looked at Molly lying on the ground with her eyes closed. I could tell she was thinking a lot, maybe wondering if Molly would look at her and say something. I wondered too, but Molly didn’t open her eyes OR talk.
“Well, I just wanted her to know that I’m here”, her mom said, then she looked at me, “Was her dad here earlier?” I nodded.
“Okay good”, she said, nodding her head thinking, “That’s good.” She said it was good but she looked worried.
“I’m glad she’s here with all her friends”, she said. Grownups didn’t usually say stuff like that so I was wondering if it was about what was going on with Molly’s mom and her dad.
Then she held Molly’s red football helmet up. “I brought her this if she needs it for the merry-go-round.” She put the helmet on the ground.
“Oh and Cooper”, she said to me, “Your mom said that they’re ready to serve cake and open presents, including the big one.” She looked at Marybeth and Hannah, did a smile at them and said, “And your new friends are welcome to come down and have a piece of cake too.” She did another smile at me and said, “Happy birthday”. But once she said it she went back to looking worried and thinking and not smiling, and then walked back down to the picnic tables.
I’d forgotten about my big present, the bicycle, because of all the pretending with the other kids, and Molly kind of mad and wanting to be Captain Nemo and then pretending she was dead.
“Mmm”, said Danny, “Birthday cake. Cmon Molly, time to get up!” She still pretended to be dead.
He got down on his knees next to where she was lying under the middle of the monkey bars. “I know how to bring dead people back to life”, he said, “Everybody gather around and help me.” All the rest of us got down on our knees like Danny around where Molly was lying. Even David did too.
He gave all the rest of us a sneaky look and a smile, then said very softly, “We just need to TICKLE her.” I could see Molly, eyes still closed, make a little bit of a smile and shake her head just a little bit too.
“Oh yes”, said Danny, “It works every time”, and he stuck his fingers into her side. Everyone else tickled the part of her body they were closest to, even David. Molly started laughing and throwing her arms and feet around and moving her body back and forth. It was a while before she finally told us to stop, and a while after that before we finally did stop.
Then she sat up breathing hard, her face all pink. She looked at all of us and smiled. We all crawled out of the monkey bars and walked down to the picnic tables, Marybeth and Hannah brushing the sand out of Molly’s hair. All eight of us kids sat at the same picnic table. I sat down first in the middle of one side and Molly quickly sat down next to me, because we always liked to be next to each other. I guess Paul liked being next to her too because he sat on the other side of her. And Kenny seemed happy to sit next to me so we were all good. David wanted to sit next to me too, so Molly and I helped him sit between us. Marybeth and her sister Hannah sat next to each other on the other side of the table and Danny sat next to Marybeth on the other side and he seemed happy too, because she was older like he was.
Mom walked over behind dad and put her hands on his shoulders and looked at everybody with her lips together and then made a big smile. “Can I have everybody’s attention!” she said. All the grownups and kids turned to look at her.
“Thanks everyone for being here today”, she said. “I was concerned that it was going to be too cold or even rain during the party. But Mother Nature held off and I thank her for that. But we best move it along because the wind’s picking up and I can smell the rain coming.
“We’re here today to celebrate Coop’s fifth birthday. I don’t know about you, but I think it is a very momentous age. I remember being five. I was ready to start exploring the world around me, my neighborhood, on my own or with a friend. We lived outside Boston then, and my best friend Gertie and I used to go into the woods behind our house and explore the little swamp with all its interesting plants and creatures.”
Mom held her arm out towards Molly and said, “Molly reminded me the other day that I said that ‘bright kids will tell you what they need’, and I truly believe that should guide all parents. Coop and Molly, and the rest of his friends over here are all, in my opinion, bright kids. Someday, not too too long from now, they’ll be running the place, and so I think we do them, and the rest of us a service by giving them as much freedom and independence as possible to explore and broaden their world. What better way to help them develop the skills and wisdom they need to be the leaders of the future!”
She turned and looked at me and did her biggest smile showing all her teeth. “Happy birthday Coop!” she said, her eyes twinkling.
All the grownups clapped. They looked at me and said “happy birthday” as well, raising the cups they were drinking out of. Danny and Marybeth, I guess because they were the older, clapped too.
Mom and Molly’s mom lit the candles on the cake. Mom shook her head and said, “Please, don’t make me start the singing! Eric, would you do the honors?”
Dad nodded and said, “My pleasure”, and started singing the birthday song. All the other grownups started singing, even mom. The other kids started singing too, even Molly this time. Mom brought the cake over to where us kids were sitting and set it down on the picnic table in front of me.
“Make a wish”, Molly said.
I wished to myself that mom and dad would always like each other and that I would learn to ride my new bicycle really quickly. That was two wishes, so I wasn’t sure that would work. I blew the candles out.
Danny’s mom and Paul’s mom handed out pieces of cake to everyone, and Molly’s mom poured all the kids cups of Seven-Up and coffee for the grownups. We all ate our pieces of cake quickly and drank our stuff and didn’t say anything.
Mom looked at me. “Shall we open presents?” she asked.
I nodded. There was the giant box that I figured was my bicycle and one much smaller present on top of it.
“That one on top is from your Uncle John and Aunt Ruth”, mom said, “The big one of course is from your dad and I and everyone here, plus your grandparents and your dad’s friends Walter and Frank.”
The wind was starting to blow harder now, and the sky off by Paul’s house was getting dark gray clouds. I opened the small present on top first. It was a spacesuit for playing like I was in space. There were also these glasses things that Danny said were “space goggles”. Then I opened the big one. It was a box with a picture of a bicycle on the side.
There it was, my bicycle!
Molly’s mom said, “Jack told me he volunteers to help you assemble it, Eric. He said he’d call you later today.”
Dad nodded. “Shouldn’t be too bad”, he said.
I could see the gray clouds going above us.
“So what do you think, Coop?” mom asked. The wind blew some of the paper cups off the table. Others just tipped over and the clear Seven-Up or black coffee spilled out.
I really liked it but didn’t know what to say, since all the grownups were looking at me.
“It’s perfect”, Molly said, looking at me, “And I’ll show you how to ride it, but I still have the training wheels on mine.”
I felt drops of rain blowing in my face.
“Oh boy”, said mom, “Thanks everyone for coming and contributing to the bicycle. It’s what Coop really wanted.”
All the grownups went to work grabbing all the party stuff. Dad and his friend Frank carried the bicycle box down to our car. Mom, Molly’s mom, Danny’s mom, Paul’s mom and Kenny’s mom all grabbed stuff and put it in bags and ran down towards our car. It was really starting to rain now with big drops that banged against your head and your body.
Mom said goodbye to each of the grownups, shaking dad’s friend’s hand, and just taking the hand of the other women but not really shaking it. Danny’s mom gave mom a hug.
She said, “Janie, let’s talk soon, we need to catch up!”
Though she was getting wet she quickly called out the names of each of the kids, nodded at them and said, “Thanks for coming!”
The backseat and part of the front seat of our car was full of party stuff, so mom asked Molly’s mom if she could drive me home with Molly. The rain was falling harder and we were all getting wet. Molly’s mom said she’d also drive those other two girls home that had joined us on the monkey bars. Molly’s mom said Molly and I could sit in the front seat because it was just a short drive home. Marybeth and her sister Hannah sat in the backseat. I thought Molly would get in the front seat first next to her mom but she didn’t, and looked at me like I should go first, so I did. I wondered if she was mad at her mom. She got in after me and pushed herself right next to me. She looked back at Marybeth and Hannah and smiled.
Marybeth looked at Molly and I could tell she was thinking. “Is he your boyfriend?” she asked.
Molly shook her head and said, “Nope. He’s my BEST friend!”
Marybeth told Molly’s mom where she lived. It was a house just across from the park on that “Hutchins” street. Molly’s mom drove up the driveway.
“I hope your parents aren’t worried about you and your sister”, she said.
“Nah”, Marybeth said shaking her head, “My mom and dad are out of town and our grandma is staying with us.”
“Well she may be worried”, Molly’s mom said, “With the rain and all. Would you like me to come in with you and talk to him?”
“Nah”, Marybeth said, “She’s probably taking a nap!”
Molly’s mom looked a little bit worried and asked, “Did she know you and your sister were in the park?”
Marybeth wrinkled her nose and said, “Sort of.”
Molly’s mom nodded and said, “I’d feel better if I went inside with you and just talked to your grandma.” The rain was falling harder on the front window of the car and banging on the top part of the car above us.
“You’ll get wet!” Marybeth said.
“That’s all right”, Molly’s mom said, “Let’s go.” Then she looked at me and Molly and said, “You two stay here okay?” Molly didn’t say anything but she nodded, so I nodded but didn’t say anything too.
Molly’s mom got out of the car and opened the back door so Marybeth and Hannah could get out. The two girls ran to the front door of the house which had a little roof part over it. Molly’s mom ran after them, but more like a grownup than a kid, looking like she was walking fast rather than really running. I saw Marybeth open the front door and they all went inside the house.
Since Molly and I always wanted to be the same I figured I could ask this question. “Are you mad at your mom?” I asked.
She looked at me with fierce eyes then put the tip of her thumb in her mouth between her teeth but didn’t say anything. I could see in her eyes she was thinking and for a while she looked mad and then for a while she looked sad.
She finally took her thumb out of her mouth and said, “Once your bike is put together I’ll show you how to ride it. Then we both can figure out how to ride without training wheels. Then we’ll be just like big kids.”
When Molly’s mom finally came back to the car she drove us back to my house, and Molly came in with me but her mom went home. Mom and dad were there in the kitchen putting away all the stuff in bags from the party. The big box with my bicycle in it was sitting in the middle of the living room floor. Dad saw Molly and me looking at the big box.
“Molly’s dad said he’d come over tomorrow and help me put it together”, he said.
“I’ll come over too and help”, said Molly, “And then I’ll help teach Coob how to ride it.”
“Sounds good”, said dad, smiling as he took stuff out of the bags, “I’m sure Coop’s really looking forward to it.”
Molly looked at me kind of fierce and nodded like I really should be “looking forward” to it.
“Coolie”, said mom, “We need a picture of you in the space suit your Uncle John and Aunt Ruth sent you. I’m going to send them a thankyou card once we get the picture back, and I’ll want you to write your name on it.” I could tie my shoes and write my name, and other words too.
She gave me the box with the spacesuit and space “goggles”. I looked at mom and dad. I didn’t want to put the suit on while they watched me because that seemed like they told me to do it. Molly looked at me and pushed her lips together trying to think what I was thinking.
“Let’s put it on in the basement”, she said. I nodded and ran to the basement stairs and then down the stairs, Molly running behind me.
I tried to put it on with my shoes on but my feet got stuck. So I took my shoes off and then I could do it. I really liked that Molly watched me as I tied both my shoes, so she saw that I could just like she could. I put my arms in the arms parts of the suit and Molly zipped it all the way up. She gave me the belt thing to put around my waist and hook together. She gave me the glasses and I put those on too. I had my space helmet on my toy shelves so I put that on too. She looked at me, pushing her lips together again thinking.
“You need more stuff”, she said. I nodded.
I went back to my toy shelves and saw the straight wood pieces of train track. They looked like things you’d wear in a space belt, so I stuck one on each side and then showed Molly.
“You need more tubes and stuff”, she said.
I looked at all my toys. I had a plastic chain thing and some cords that kind of looked like tubes. I showed them to her and she nodded.
“That’s good”, she said nodding, “I’ll help you.”
She took the smaller cord and wrapped it around my middle and tied it together in the back. Then she took the bigger cord and put it over my left shoulder and it hung down between my legs. Holding the part over my shoulder, she kneeled down behind me and reached between my legs to grab the other part and then tied the two ends together behind me. I then stuck the chain thing under my belt and then up under the cord over my shoulder.
Molly came around in front of me, put her hands on her hips and looked at me, pushing her lips together again. I closed the front part of my helmet that I could see through but made things kind of dark.
“That’s really good”, she said. She seemed happy to be helping me.
We ran up the stairs back into the kitchen.
Mom and dad looked at me. Mom looked like she was starting to laugh through her nose, but pushed her lips together and just nodded. “Okay then. That’s quite the outfit”, she said.
Dad had the camera he took from a dead German guy during the war. He put it up to his eye, pointed it at me, moved the controls on it and then brought it back down again. “Molly, why don’t you get in the picture too next to Coop”, he said.
Molly wrinkled her nose and didn’t move. “But I don’t have a spacesuit”, she said.
I could see dad thinking, then he saw the football helmet. “Put on your football helmet. It looks like a space helmet so at least you both have helmet’s on. And it will give you both something to remember about today.”
I could see Molly thinking about it, but then she stopped wrinkling her nose, nodded, put the helmet on and stood next to me.
“And Coolie”, mom said, “Can I get you to put your helmet visor up so we can see your face in the space glasses?” I didn’t want to, because with it down I felt more like a real spaceman.
“Yeah Coob”, Molly said, “It’s no good if they don’t know its you.” So I opened my visor.
Dad put the camera up to his eye again, looking at us. He moved the controls and then pushed the button and it made a clicking noise.