I woke up to the wind blowing against the window by my bed. It felt cold like that wind was getting inside too. My bed was now on top of David’s because they were “bunk beds”. I looked over the edge and David’s bed was empty, he was already up. He usually got up before I did.
When David was too big to sleep in the crib anymore dad went up into the attic and brought down all the parts for the other bed like mine. Our room was too small for both beds to be on the floor so dad had to hook mine on top of David’s. Mom was worried I wouldn’t like climbing up to my bed, but I liked it, I liked it A LOT. It felt like I was in a different place, like a submarine or a spaceship, and David couldn’t get up there to bother me.
I knew today was my birthday and was also supposed to be my birthday party out in the park. But mom and dad had been worried about it yesterday, because the “weather report” on the TV said it would be really cold and windy today. Mom got mad at dad when he said that we could tell everyone to dress for the cold weather and have lots of hot coffee for the grownups, and the kids wouldn’t care as long as it wasn’t raining.
Mom had used her fierce voice. She said, “Eric. There is no way in hell that we can ask people to shiver outside on picnic tables in the park with the cold wind howling, no matter how much damn hot coffee we serve!”
Dad said we could do it in the house but mom didn’t like that either. She said she didn’t want to have people come to our house because we didn’t have any furniture in the living room and that was “embarrassing”. Dad said maybe we could call Molly’s mom and see if we could do the party at their house. Mom said even if Molly’s mom would do it, it would be really hard to let everyone know, and what about the kids who were planning to walk to the party without their parents. How would they get to Molly’s house?
They had talked about it for a long time. Dad kept saying it would be okay, but mom kept thinking about something else she was worried about. Mom would get mad about something, and she’d say what was making her mad. But once she said it, she’d feel better. Dad never got mad, but he would ask about things that would make mom mad again.
Finally mom had put her hands behind her head, looked up at the ceiling, blew out air and said, “Okay! We’ll have the party in the house and we’ll make it work somehow.”
They talked about it some more and I talked about it too. I said that all the kids could play in the basement, and they thought that was a good idea. Mom said that Molly’s mom said that they should have a “cocktail party” upstairs in the living room and kitchen and mom said she would make and give people “finger food”, whatever that was, which they wouldn’t need to sit down at a table to eat, or even need plates.
I sat up in bed and saw mom standing in the doorway of my room. It was David’s room too, but I still called it my room, because I was here before David was so I was in charge of it. Mom had a blue baseball cap on, but it didn’t have an “M” on the front for the Michigan team. It had a white “N” and a “Y” right on top of each other. She’d told me that was for the Yankees, her favorite baseball team. She had a yellow pencil sticking out from the top of her ear and this kind of really small book thing in her hand with lots of small pieces of paper in it that she would look at and write on.
“Oh good”, she said, “You’re up.” Then making a big smile, “Happy birthday, sweetie!”
I smiled too and nodded. I was excited that all the kids for the party would come to our house and play in the basement with me. She touched the tip of her thumb to the tip of her tongue and flipped a piece of paper in her tiny book thing.
“I need you to get your clothes on and go down in the basement. Your dad’s job is to clean the whole house while I prep for the party. He was up early and swept and mopped the basement floor and it’s pretty much dry now. Your job is to play with your brother in the basement so he won’t be pestering your dad and I while we get all our jobs done upstairs for the party.”
I didn’t nod or say anything. I used to like playing with my brother when he liked everything that I did, and played with stuff the way I was playing with it. Now he liked to play with the toys sometimes his own way, which messed up how I was playing with them.
“I know he makes you mad sometimes nowadays”, she said, “But I need you to figure that out and be basically his babysitter this morning, like Margie does when she comes over and babysits.”
“By the way”, she said, opening her eyes wide, “Margie said she’s coming to the party, as a guest this time, and will even bring her record player and records so we can have some music!” I liked Margie, because she was a lot older and knew a lot, but she was still a kid like me and not a grownup.
Mom put one hand on her stomach and held the other one out and pretended she was dancing. She looked at me smiling and said, “She even has some Sinatra records. Maybe I can get you to dance with me!” I shook my head.
“Your loss, kiddo”, she said as she went back into the kitchen.
So I put my clothes on then made my own Cheerios and milk in the kitchen before I went downstairs. Mom had two big pots on the stove with steam coming out of them and that celery stuff on a wood board that she was cutting up into pieces.
“I’m making deviled eggs, Coolie”, she said smiling and holding a giant wooden spoon, “And pigs in a blanket. Also celery sticks with peanut butter for the kids.”
Down in the basement David was playing with the Godzilla we got from Margie for Christmas. My brother liked to wreck things, so he liked Godzilla A LOT. He had figured out how to say, “Oh no, Gozilla!”, and then he’d make roaring noises. When he saw me come down the stairs he said to me, “Make some big!” That is, someTHING big so Godzilla could wreck it I figured.
When dad finished cleaning the upstairs he went out to the grocery store. When he came back I could hear mom in the kitchen getting mad at him.
“Eric”, she said, “Why didn’t you get the brand of tomato juice I told you to get? Were they out?”
“No they had it Liz, but this was a lot cheaper”, he said.
“Dammit”, she said, “I know that brand of tomato juice makes for a delicious thick creamy Bloody Mary. That’s why I SPECIFICALLY asked you to buy it. This off-brand stuff, who knows! The cheap vodka is fine, vodka is vodka.”
“Jeez Liz”, dad said, sounding mad now like mom wasn’t being fair, “I’m just trying to save us a little money so you won’t be so stressed out paying the bills!”
Mom took a deep breath and kind of blew out her words. “Oh Eric, Eric, Eric. I wish for just one damn moment money wasn’t such an issue!” She sighed. “Sweetie”, she said to him, “Can I ask you to go back to the A and P and get that brand of tomato juice I wanted.”
“Seems like such a waste of time”, dad said, in a low voice.
“Please?” mom asked.
Dad blew air out of HIS mouth but he didn’t say anything. I heard the clinking sound of him grabbing his keys and he went out the side door, banging it closed. I heard the car engine and the tires spinning on the stones in the driveway. I knew he was mad, like that day a long time ago that he spanked me.
Mom said the party was supposed to start after two o’clock. The little hand on the clock on dad’s desk in the basement was not quite at “2” yet when I heard mom open the front door upstairs. I heard Margie’s voice.
“Hi Missus Zale… er uh, Jane”, she said, “I don’t get to call many grownups by their first name.”
Mom chuckled. “Come in dear”, she said, “and you brought your record player. Thanks so much for doing that!” I ran up the stairs into the kitchen.
Margie looked at me and said, “Hey, big guy! Happy birthday! Got ya a present!” She looked around for some place to put the record player. Mom opened the closet by the front door and took out the card table and waved to me to help her set it up, because she had shown me how. Margie put her record player on it and then reached into a big bag under her shoulder and pulled out a small box wrapped in paper that looked like it had those comics on it from the newspaper.
“Turns out we didn’t have any wrapping paper”, she said, “So I improvised with the Sunday funnies.”
“Hey”, mom said, “That works nicely.” Then she laughed through her nose and said, “Seems like we’re all doing a lot of improvising these days.”
“I know you’re not happy having to do the party in the house”, Margie said looking around, “But it’ll be fine! I’ve watched you at Molly’s birthday parties. You’ll be a champion hostess!”
“God I hope so”, mom said, shaking her head and looking around the room with her hands on her hips, “My friend Lennice was sweet enough to show me how to make pigs in a blanket and deviled eggs, finger food since there’ll be nowhere to sit and eat properly. And I’m serving Bloody Marys, at least for the adults. Kids’ll have they’re own finger food, cut up celery sticks with peanut butter and tater tots, and Kool Aid to drink.”
“Sounds great Jane”, Margie said, “I LOVE celery and peanut butter!”
“And since some of the adults won’t know each other”, mom said, “I figure I’ll introduce people to the other people they don’t know, particularly ones who might have something in common they might enjoy talking about.”
“Wow”, said Margie, “That’s a great idea!”
Mom made a noise like something hurt her and breathed out air. “I should have called Joan and reminded her again to bring her percolator and her big plastic jug for the Kool Aid. Probably too late now to call, she’s probably on her way over.”
“I brought records”, Margie said, touching her fingers on the bag under her shoulder.
“Oh good”, mom said, making her biggest smile, “Any Sinatra?”
“Oh yeah”, Margie said, “My folks had some Sinatra albums. But I also brought some records us younger types are listening to. You know, Rock and Roll. Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Elvis, Little Richard. And Motown too. Smokey Robinson, Mary Wells.”
“Elvis I’ve heard of”, mom said, “I haven’t heard much Rock and Roll, but I like anything you can dance to.”
“Oh yeah?” Margie asked, “Then you’ll love Rock and Roll. It’s all about the beat, and dancing.”
“Okay, sounds fun”, mom said, clapping her hands together. Then putting on her biggest smile said, “THANK YOU SO MUCH for bringing your record player and the records. Everyone chipping in makes me not worry so much.”
“I’ll set up on the card table in the corner here”, Margie said, “Then I can help you with anything you need help with in the kitchen.”
“You’re such a sweetheart, dear”, mom said, squeezing Margie’s shoulder.
I went to see what dad was doing. He was on his hands and knees cleaning the toilet. He looked up at me and smiled. His head was sweating a lot.
“What’s up Cloob?” he asked. I shook my head. But since he was working so hard I figured I should say something or it wouldn’t be very nice.
“Margie’s here”, I said, “She brought her record player and records.”
“Good”, he said, stopping working for a minute and wiping his face off with a rag, “Your mom’s just crazy worrying about getting everything just right. I hope that’ll calm her down.” I nodded.
Finally other people started coming to the party. Kids and Grownups.
Kenny came by himself. He gave me his present and looked around at all the grownups, looking worried. He decided he’d go down into the basement right away, even before I was ready to go down there with him.
Then Danny came with his mom. He was holding my present and she had these two big “trays” on top of each other covered with that “aluminum foil” stuff.
She said to mom, “Jane, I decided to make a couple trays of stuffed… stuff, cuz you can never have too much finger food. We’ll need it to soak up the booze. I’ve had your Bloody Marys.” She followed mom into the kitchen.
Danny handed me my present. It was wrapped but not a box and made kind of crunching noises when I held it. “You’ll really like these”, he said.
When the little hand got to the two on the clock, Marybeth came with her sister Hannah. She said to mom, “My grandma says she ‘sends her apologies’, but sends Cooper her best birthday wishes.” She handed me my present. My brother liked it that Hannah came, and he came over and took her hand and they went down in the basement, though Marybeth stayed upstairs.
Marybeth laughed and said, “My little sister likes playing with your little brother, because she gets to be older than he is.”
Paul came with his mom. His mom said to mom, “Well I figured this was the place to be on a cold Sunday afternoon. My husband Dilly makes his apologies. Yada, yada, yada.” Paul walked over to me and asked, “You’re six, right?” I nodded.
“Glad you two could come, Matilda”, mom said, “Coop and Paul are such good buddies.”
“I know”, said Paul’s mom, “Wish I had as much sway over my son as your son does. My Paul just goes on and on about what Cooper does.” Mom laughed. Paul shook his head like he wasn’t happy she said that and said, “Mom!”
“Now that you’re here”, mom said to her, “I want to introduce you to Lennice Ladson, Danny’s mom. I think you’ll get a kick out of her. You two have a similar take on things, and she has quite the sense of humor like you do.”
“Yikes”, said Paul’s mom, “You mean there’s more than just me thinking they’ve sold all us girls a bill of goods?” Mom nodded and had Paul’s mom go into the kitchen where Danny’s mom was.
Gabe and Amanda from school came with Gabe’s mom. She said to mom, “We’ve talked on the phone several times, Jane, but it’s so nice to finally meet you in person. At your suggestion I was able to bring Cooper and Gabe’s classmate Amanda too.”
Mom said, “And you too, Evelyn, it’s nice to connect a voice with a face.” Then she looked at Gabe and Amanda and said, “And it’s such a pleasure to meet two of Cooper’s classmates from school.”
Gabe pushed his lips together and nodded like he thought the same thing, but Amanda asked, “Why doesn’t your living room have any furniture?” Gabe made a silly face, shook his head, and looked up at the ceiling.
Mom laughed through her nose just a little bit and said, “Well Amanda, that IS a good question, but I don’t have an easy answer at the moment.”
“Most people have too much furniture”, Amanda said, “So I don’t mind.”
Mom laughed just a little through her nose again and said, “Well it’s a pleasure to meet someone else who speaks her mind.” Amanda nodded like she thought so too and walked over next to me and Gabe.
Mom said to Gabe’s mom, “Come with me into the kitchen. I’d like you to meet Lennice and Matilda. I’ll warn you they’re both characters. Matilda’s son Paul is also a friend of Coop’s and is in a different class at Bach.”
“Oh… okay”, said Gabe’s mom, like she wasn’t sure and might be a little worried. They went into the kitchen and soon I could hear all four of them talking and laughing.
There was a knock at the door. There were no grownups left in the living room because everybody’s mom was in the kitchen and dad was still cleaning the bathroom. All the other kids looked at me.
Amanda said, “Well open the door, it’s your house. I’ll open it if you won’t!”
I figured she was right, because at school she almost always was. So I opened the door and it was Dad’s friends Frank and Walter.
“Happy birthday!” they both said at the same time. Then that Walter guy held out a wrapped present and said, “We brought a gift. Can we come in out of the cold?”
“I don’t know”, said Gabe, who was behind me, “Maybe we should open it first.”
Frank pointed at Gabe, nodded and said, “Good one! It’s sci-fi books, but if I tell you the titles, Walter would have to kill me.” and then to me, “But do let us in, or all your other guests in here will freeze. What’s going on with this wintry weather on your birthday? It’s supposed to be April for god’s sake!”
That Walter guy looked around at all us kids and said, “No grownups? This party’s getting better all the time.”
Mom peeked her head out of the kitchen and said, “Hello guys, welcome. Eric’s working on some issue with the toilet in the bathroom. C’mon in the kitchen and get yourselves a Bloody Mary.”
“A drink, yes”, Frank said, and he wagged his finger at Walter and said, “THAT’S what grownups are good for!” They went into the kitchen.
Ricky even came, with his mom, but not with his little sister, who was Molly’s friend. He always came to Molly’s parties but never had come to mine before. He handed me my present and said, “Not much to do on a cold Sunday, so I decided to check out your soiree.”
Amanda looked at him and said, “What’s a soiree?”
Ricky made a funny look and said, “Ah kids today”, and shook his head. Then he looked around the living room and said, “I just love your furniture!”
“Ricky”, said his mom fiercely, “Behave yourself!”
“For my esteemed parent, I will hold my tongue”, he said, talking like a grown up, which he always liked to do when he wanted to be silly like grownups were sometimes at parties. But then he opened his mouth and put his fingers on his tongue and looked at all us kids. Some of us laughed, but Amanda said, “Gross!”
Molly finally came with her mom and this other grownup man. Molly was carrying this big plastic round thing, and the man was carrying a big silver round thing. Molly’s mom had a present that she gave to me and said, “From Molly.” Mom came out of the kitchen.
“Oh Joan, there you are!” mom said, “You brought the cold-drink jug and the percolator. I was going to call and remind you but I figured it had gotten too late.”
“So sorry I’m late”, Molly’s mom said, “We had a little crisis at home. I’ll tell you about it later. Tell me what I can do to help.”
“And Molly”, mom said, “It still seems strange when I don’t see you everyday. And you must be Laurence?” Mom wiped her hands off on her pant legs and stuck out her hand and shook Molly’s mom’s friend’s hand.
“Thanks for the invitation”, he said, still holding the big round silver thing, “I really appreciate it because I’m new in town. And call me Larry. I’m only Laurence to the people at the university that write my paycheck and hopefully will give me tenure in the not too distant future.” Mom, Molly’s mom and some of the other grownups laughed and nodded, like that made sense though it didn’t to me.
Mom nodded and held up her finger to Molly’s mom. “Can I get you two to get the coffee going, and then we’ll have a proper conversation so I can hear everything that’s new with you two.” Then she looked at Molly, “Molly, the kool-aid jug goes on the folding chair on the landing by the side door. We’ll get that filled in just a minute.
Then there was one more ring of the doorbell. I went and opened the door. I was surprised that it was my teacher and another woman.
“What are you doing here?” I asked. The other woman laughed.
My teacher got down on her knee and moved her face towards mine and said, “Invite me in and I’ll tell you!” I let them come in and closed the door.
Mom stuck her head out of the kitchen again and said, “Oh Hannah, you made it. And you brought your friend… Miranda, right? Was Coop surprised?”
My teacher laughed and said, “Miranda… yes. I think Cooper was completely surprised! Maybe a little TOO surprised.”
Amanda had frowned when she heard mom call her “Hannah”, and finally said, “Her name is Miss Zimmerman!”
“At school, yes”, my teacher said, “Miss Zimmerman. But here people can call me Hannah. I’m a civilian here.”
“What’s a civilian?” Amanda asked.
My teacher shook her head and said, “I should have figured you’d ask that. Let’s see… a civilian is someone who is not in the military, not a soldier. Sometimes being a teacher feels like being a soldier that always has to follow orders, and give orders. But here I’m just a regular person, a civilian, that doesn’t have to follow those orders. Does that make sense?” Amanda pushed her lips together and nodded, but still didn’t look happy that our teacher wasn’t Miss Zimmerman, at least not right now.
My teacher pointed at the woman who came with her. “And this is my… friend, Miranda. We were roommates in grad school.”
“Hello everybody”, her friend said, making a little wave. The kids waved back. Grownups said “Welcome!”, and hearing them say that, Ricky said, “Welcome” too.
“Adult beverages in the kitchen”, said Ricky, pointing with his thumb, “Mrs. Z’s famous Bloody Marys they say, though I wouldn’t know, because… alas!”
“Okay”, said my teacher, trying not to laugh. She and her friend went into the kitchen where all the other grownups were right now. Right after they came in, those Walter and Frank guys came out with clear plastic glasses with dark red stuff and little green pieces of celery coming out. Walter had two. It wasn’t like that “punch” at the parties at Molly’s house, because you couldn’t see through it. Mom made it with that tomato juice stuff. She let me taste the tomato juice and it was really yucky.
“Well us guys have our ‘adult beverages’”, Walter said, winking at Ricky, “And one for that hard working plumber in the bathroom.” They walked by us into the back hallway.
“Maybe I can help too”, said Molly’s mom’s friend, calling to Walter and Frank as he came out of the kitchen with his own glass of that red “Bloody Mary” stuff, “I’m pretty good with a pipe wrench or a plunger!”
All the grownup women were talking in the kitchen and now the men were talking in the bathroom. Ricky looked in both rooms, came back and said, “Lively bunch… or bunches!”
“We should go down in the basement”, Molly said. The rest of us were still wondering about all the crazy grownups, but finally nodded.
“Which way?” asked Ricky. Molly pointed towards the kitchen.
Ricky made a big smile and said, “Shall we?” and walked into the kitchen saying, “Coming through. As you were. Smoke ‘em if ya got ‘em.” Lots of the grownups laughed and shook their heads, which made Ricky happy, because he was always trying to get people, mostly grownups, to laugh and think he was really smart.
When all of us kids finally got down in the basement, we saw that Marybeth’s sister Hannah and Kenny were both sitting with David under the big white table in the TV part of the basement. They were pretending the table was their house and they were sitting around David’s toy “workbench” pretending it was a kitchen table, and his toy oven was there too with its toy plastic food. They also had the wooden spoons and bowls that mom had let David play with, and were eating pretend soup made from small Lincoln Log and Tinker Toy pieces. All the rest of us stood around the table and looked at them.
Since Danny, Ricky and Marybeth were older than the rest of us, they always wanted to be in charge, and Danny was always worried that Ricky would try to be the only older kid in charge, because that was the way Ricky was, and Danny wanted to be like that too. So I could tell that Danny wanted to say something first.
“So are you guys mom and dad with your kid?” he asked.
Mary Beth and Kenny both shook their heads, but David nodded and said, “Eating soup.”
“We’re not David’s mom and dad!” Hannah said, “I’m his pretend big sister and Kenny is his pretend big brother, but he’s not pretend older than I am!”
“Okay, I see”, said Danny, and I could tell he was trying to figure out something funny to say like Ricky would. Marybeth just shook her head.
“I’ve had every kind of wood soup”, Ricky said, “And it’s much tastier if you add a little plastic.” Gabe, Paul and Amanda laughed. Danny wrinkled his nose like he was mad that he didn’t say something funny like that first. He ran over to my toy shelves and grabbed a dinosaur out of the shoe box they were all in and brought it over and kneeled down by the table and dropped it into the big bowl in the middle of the toy workbench.
“How about adding a little dinosaur meat to your soup?” Danny asked, trying to be funny.
“Yucky”, said Hannah, sticking out her tongue and grabbing the dinosaur out of the bowl and throwing it on the floor.
“Yucky”, said David, like Hannah had.
“Not everybody likes dinosaur soup”, Gabe said, “And the Tyrannosaurus is much tastier than that Triceratops.” He liked to try to say funny things too.
Amanda, Molly and Paul were over looking at my toy shelves pointing at things. “I’ve got Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs, dinosaurs, plastic boats too”, Amanda said, “But I don’t have any soldiers.”
“I don’t either”, Molly said, “Mom won’t let me. It’s not fair!” Amanda nodded.
“It’s because you’re girls”, Paul said. He wasn’t trying to be funny like Danny and Ricky. He never tried to be funny, he just said things that he’d figured out and thought you should know too.
“Rules are rules ladies”, Ricky said, walking over to the toy shelves, “Boys can’t wear dresses and girls can’t play with soldiers.” Molly looked like she was worried about what he was saying.
“Or BE soldiers”, Danny said, since he always wanted to talk when Ricky talked.
“Not that I wouldn’t look good in a long white satin gown”, Ricky said, making a silly face and moving his hips and shoulders back and forth pretending to be a grownup woman. “Better than shooting people”, he said. Danny gave him a funny look.
“I mean I wouldn’t wear one”, Ricky said to Danny, waving his hand, “And I guess I’d shoot somebody if I had to. I’m just teasing the ladies.” Danny nodded like that was okay and even laughed a little. It was interesting that grownup men sometimes call grownup women “girls” when they were being silly, but Ricky called real girls “ladies” to be silly.
“I am NOT a LADY”, Molly said to Ricky fiercely.
“Then what are you?” Gabe asked, coming over to join us, “A gentleman?” He was trying to be funny too. Danny and Ricky laughed a little bit, which made Molly worried and mad. I realized that Gabe and Amanda from school didn’t know Molly or any of my other friends, so Gabe maybe didn’t know what he said would make Molly mad. Or maybe he didn’t care if he made Molly mad because he wanted to be funny like Ricky and have Ricky think he was neat. I got worried that I should be saying something to help Molly because she was my best friend, but I didn’t want Gabe to be mad at me.
Molly WAS mad now at Gabe. She said, “I’m not a lady and I’m not a gentleman”, and thinking some more said, “And I’m also not a Tomboy. I’m a GIRL!”
“OKAY!”, said Ricky, “You’re a girl! Molly’s a girl, Gabe!”
Marybeth shook her head and blew air out of her mouth and said, “Molly can’t be a ‘gentleman’ because you have to be a MAN to be a ‘gentleMAN’. Molly’s a girl like Hannah, Amanda and me. Maybe she doesn’t wear dresses like Amanda and I do, but she’s still a girl. So you shouldn’t tease her.”
She always seemed to always do a lot of smart thinking and figuring out what you should do. She WAS older, like Danny and Ricky. They knew more stuff too, and Ricky could figure stuff out to help him say more funny things that would make grownups laugh. But I think she had to figure out a lot more stuff by herself because her mom and dad were always working in some other place far away. Her grandma was kind of like a mom, but she couldn’t do very much, so Marybeth had to do things and figure out things herself. The rest of us wanted to make our own choices, but Marybeth had to, and had to take care of Hannah too. She had too much to worry about to try to be funny like Ricky was and Danny tried to be, at least when Ricky was around.
“Yeah”, said Amanda, “You have to be a grownup to be a lady or a gentleman!” That’s what I figured too.
Paul said, “Molly used to wear dresses to birthday parties.”
“Yeah”, said Molly, “Because mom made me.”
“But apparently she doesn’t anymore”, Ricky said, “So we apologize for teasing you and the world is wonderful again.” Ricky was being silly. I could tell everyone else thought so too. But at least they all stopped talking about Molly.
Kenny finally got up from sitting under the table with Hannah and David to come over to the toy shelves with the rest of us. David looked like he wanted to get up too, but Hannah gave him some more soup, without the dinosaur in it.
We kept talking about that sort of stuff for a while but then no one had anything more to say about it, and we started talking about toys. Which ones we had and which ones we liked best. All the time we talked it was getting noisier upstairs. We heard music playing and grownups talking, though we couldn’t hear the words. Also we could hear lots of footsteps up above us making creaking noises.
Then we heard shoes clomping down the stairs to the basement. It was Margie. She stopped before she got to the bottom and looked at all of us.
“I just came down to check how the birthday boy and all his friends are doing”, she said, “Do you guys have enough Kool Aid? Celery and peanut butter? We’re fresh out of tater tots.”
“Are you the babysitter in charge of the kids?” asked Ricky. He said it like a question, but it sounded like he had already figured out the answer.
She made kind of a mad face but a silly one and put her hands on her hips with her elbows sticking out and said, “Ricky, Ricky, Ricky! Today I’m a regular guest like everybody else.” She didn’t usually talk that silly, but she was up there with all the grownups who liked to be silly at parties. I wondered if drinking those Bloody Marys made you silly like that “punch” stuff did at those parties at Molly’s old house across the street.
“What’s going on up there?” asked Marybeth.
“Well, I put on Sinatra records and everyone liked that, especially your mom”, she said pointing at me. Then pointing at Molly she said, “And she got YOUR mom’s friend to dance with her.”
Margie shook her head and said, “With that forties and fifties Sinatra-y stuff, you need a partner to dance and we’ve got more women up there than men, and guys tend to be shy about dancing anyway unless their wife or girlfriend pesters them.”
But then she waved a finger in the air and said, “But… now that they’ve had some Bloody Mary’s, I’m going to go back up and play some Rock and Roll, maybe a little Motown too, and we’ll see if I can get more of them to move their feet, partner or not!”
“Hey!”, she said, with a big smile on her face, “Hardly any furniture in the living room? Problem? Nope… more room to dance!” And then she looked around at all of us and said, “You guys should come up and try!”
“We’re not all guys!” said Amanda fiercely.
“No you’re not”, said Margie. “That is technically correct!” she said, wagging her finger at Amanda. She looked around the basement and said, “Looks like you could use more celery and peanut butter. I’ll send some down.”
After Margie went back upstairs Ricky looked at all of us and said, “You know, Margie was talking pretty strange. I don’t think she’s been just drinking the Kool Aid!”
Mary Beth looked at Ricky and shook her head and said, “What are you talking about?” I don’t think she knew him, because she hadn’t been to Molly’s birthday parties, which was the only time I usually saw him.
Ricky shook his head and rolled his eyes and said, “Sometimes I don’t even know!”
Because Ricky was talking, Danny wanted to be the one talking, so he said to me, “I bet you’re going to really like the present I got for you!” It made everyone else look at him, which is what he wanted. “It’s something you already have but these are different”, he said.
“You’re not supposed to tell someone what their birthday presents are before they open them”, Amanda said fiercely.
“YEAH Danny”, said Ricky, only pretending to be fierce.
“They’re right”, said Marybeth, and everyone else except Danny and I nodded. I kind of wanted Danny to tell me.
“I wasn’t going to tell him what it IS”, said Danny, “I was just going to tell him that he’d like it.”
“Don’t you buy a birthday present for someone because you think they’d like it?” Gabe asked, “I know he’ll like my present, because he played with it at my house.”
Amanda sucked air into her mouth like she was scared and said, “Gabe! You’re telling!”
“No I’m not!” said Gabe, “I’m just telling him WHY he’ll like it, not WHAT it is.”
“He’ll like mine”, said Molly, “Because he already has some but needs more.”
“Does he already have some but these are different like my present?” asked Danny. Amanda just shook her head and made a funny sound inside her closed mouth.
“Maybe Cooper should tell us if he wants us to tell him stuff about his presents”, Paul said. He’d just been listening to everyone else talking. Everyone else looked at Paul when he said that then looked at me.
I couldn’t remember ever having to say something to a whole bunch of other kids at the same time who were all waiting for me to say it. At school when my teacher asked us questions we were supposed to raise our hands if we knew the answer. I would say the answer to her and all the other kids would hear what I said, but that was different. At school I said things because I KNEW the answer, and it was the teacher asking. Here other KIDS were asking and I DIDN’T know what to answer. I would have to talk to a bunch of people at once. I had done that when I was pretending to be Captain Nemo when we were all playing on the monkey bars in the park, but not when I was not pretending and I was just being me. I wasn’t sure what to say but I wanted to say something. I didn’t want them to think I couldn’t figure out what I liked, because they were other kids, and we told each other what we were really thinking and liking, at least most of the time. A lot of the time we didn’t tell grownups what we were really thinking or liking, but they didn’t tell us what they were really thinking or liking either.
“I don’t know” I said, but that didn’t sound right because I DID know but it was hard to say. So I tried, and said, “I like to know what I’m getting so I can think about how much I’m going to like it and what I’m going to play with it before I get to open it.”
“Me too”, said Paul, Danny, Gabe and Marybeth.
“I always figure out what my presents are before I open them”, said Molly, “Specially the ones Coob gets me.”
“Not me”, said Amanda, “It’s a present and you’re supposed to be surprised.” Kenny nodded and said, “Yeah.”
“That’s what my mom always says”, said Ricky, “But she hides my presents in this cupboard up high that she doesn’t think I know about. But I do, and I try to look at them before she can wrap them. Grownups think they can fool me, but they can only fool themselves.” He laughed. Danny and Marybeth, the other older kids, did too. Gabe looked at them laughing and tried to laugh too.
As we talked we heard the music get louder upstairs. It was that “Rock and Roll” music that Margie liked. Like that Chuck Berry guy that she showed me on TV when she tried to show me how to do Rock and Roll dancing. We could hear feet banging on the floor above us. Then we heard a bunch of grownups up there laughing and clapping their hands and saying stuff like “Bravo.”
Later two laughing grownups came clomping down the basement stairs. It was my teacher and her friend.
“HERE they all are”, she said, sounding like other silly grownups at a party, “The birthday boy and all his comrades. We’ve all been having such fun upstairs, talking and dancing, but we have to leave, so we’ll miss the cake and presents, but I wanted to give my…”, she paused thinking, “My friend Miranda the chance to meet you, and Gabe and Amanda too.”
“Well no adult beverages down here”, Ricky said, changing into that silly way he talked to grownups, “so you’re safe.”
“Yes”, she said, trying not to be silly and looking at me, “Your mom makes some great Bloody Marys. Adult beverages indeed! I probably drank a bit too much, but Mir can drive home.” Her friend did a quiet silly laugh.
Then my teacher looked at all us kids and said to her friend, “So I’m Cooper, Gabe and Amanda’s first grade teacher at Bach, Hannah Zimmerman.” She pointed at each of us as she said our names.
My friends all nodded, but Amanda said, “Two of them aren’t guys!”
“Right!” said our teacher, pointing her finger at Amanada. Then she looked at her friend and said, “See, she’s the one that always calls me on things like that. Doesn’t miss a trick!”
From over by the shelves where she and David were now playing with Tinker Toys, Marybeth’s sister said, “MY name’s Hannah”, like two people couldn’t have the same name.
“Oh wow”, said my teacher, “Another Hannah. Well, Hannah, like Cooper, I have a nickname that my friends call me, it’s ‘Hanny’. So you can be ‘Hannah’ and I’ll be ‘Hanny’, okay?” Marybeth’s sister wrinkled her nose thinking, but nodded. Everyone else stopped talking, not sure what to say next.
“The rest of you other guys… and gals”, she said, “I presume are Cooper’s other friends. A couple of you I recognize from Bach.”
“I’m Danny. And I’m in Missus Rodney’s class”, said Danny.
“Third grade”, said my teacher, nodding, “How do you like her?”
“She’s okay”, Danny said, like he didn’t want to say what he really felt in front of another grownup teacher.
“I hear that a lot”, she said, nodding slowly and making her eyes smaller, like she was thinking and even worrying about something.
“I’m Marybeth. I’m in Missus Larkin’s class”, said Marybeth, “Fourth grade”, like that was better than Danny in third.
“Kenny and I are in Missus Blumenthal’s class”, Paul said. Then looking down like he thought that wasn’t good, “Just kindergarten. We didn’t skip it like Cooper did.”
My teacher nodded but didn’t say anything. Then she looked at Molly and Ricky.
“I would have gone to Bach”, said Molly, “But we moved, so I go to Burns Park instead.”
“I love that classic school building”, my teacher said, “And to have a school in a nice big park like that is perfect. Better than our little playground” Then she looked at Ricky.
“And I attend Eberwhite”, said Ricky, “We’re next to a woods AND a park. My grade level… I’m not at liberty to say.” He shook his head, making a pretend face like he wished he could say but he couldn’t. But I knew he was in third grade like Danny, but probably didn’t want Marybeth to know she was more than he was.
“I haven’t been in your school”, she said, “But Mir and I have walked through your playground, Ross Park AND the woods. Very nice. If we had a woods like that next to Bach I’d take my students out there every day.”
“Anyway”, said my teacher, clapping her hands together, “Miranda and I have to go, so HAPPY BIRTHDAY Cooper. I’m so sorry we won’t get to see you open our presents but we think you’ll like what we got you.” She looked at her friend who nodded at me. “You’re familiar with them but I won’t tell you what they are.”
“Happy birthday”, said her friend, “It was nice to meet you Cooper, and to meet all your friends too.” The two of them then clomped back up the stairs.
“See”, said Amanda to the rest of us, “You’re not supposed to tell!”
“So Cooper”, said Ricky, talking like he was in charge of all of us, “You have a nickname?”
Yeah, COOPER”, said Danny, “THAT’S his nickname!” Most of the other kids laughed.
Ricky shook his head and his eyes looked up without making his head go up and said, “I need a drink!”
“The Kool Aid’s up there!” said Kenny, pointing at the big plastic jug at the top of the stairs.
“I try not to drink too much Kool-aid”, Ricky said, wrinkling his nose and shaking his head but just a tiny bit.
We went back to talking about toys for a while. We all liked talking about that.
“You know”, said Marybeth, “I think the grownups forgot about us and are having their own party up there.”
“You know”, said Ricky, “That’s what those adult beverages will do to them.” He seemed like he was kind of liking Marybeth now, even though she was in a bigger grade than he was.
“Let’s sneak upstairs and see what they’re doing”, said Gabe, “Coop, you go first!” I nodded.
I started to quietly step up the stairs like I did sometimes when mom was talking to dad or Molly’s mom in the kitchen or to someone on the phone so they didn’t know I was listening. The others followed me and did the same thing, some saying “shh” to others. Even Hannah and David came too, though David didn’t really know how to be sneaky.
As I got to the landing by the side door I could hear the music louder. A voice was singing though it sounded more like an older kid, and it was hard to tell if it was a boy or a girl.
Just because you’ve become a young man now
There’s still some things that you don’t understand now
Before you ask some girl for her hand now
Keep your freedom for as long as you can now
My mama told me, you better shop around
He or she was singing about holding hands so I figured it WAS an older kid like Margie, and not a grownup. I peeked around the refrigerator. I could see Margie’s back standing just on the other side of the door from the kitchen to the living room by that record player she brought. Her shoulders and bottom were moving side to side and her foot with just a sock on was tapping on the floor like the music. There were two grownups in the middle of the room holding each other’s hand and dancing around the other one. It was Danny’s mom and Molly’s mom’s friend. Both of them had just socks on too, along with a lot of other grownups, who were moving and kind of dancing too, but not with another person.
The other kids were coming up behind me peeking around the fridge either above my head or below it.
“Just as I figured”, whispered Ricky, “Way too much adult beverages, that… what ya call it stuff…”
“Bloody Marys”, whispered Paul.
“Yeah”, whispered Ricky, “I was just going to say that.”
The song ended and all the grownups were clapping. Margie was doing stuff to the record player that I couldn’t see and said, “Okay guys. Here’s another new Motown Song, by Mary Wells.” I heard a scratch noise then the next song started.
The music part was noisy and honking, not like that smoother music in those Frank Sinatra songs or that played in those TV shows and cartoons. And the woman’s voice singing sounded rough and worried, again more like she was an older kid than a grownup…
Well, you know you took my heart
And you broke it apart
Why did our love, baby, yeah, yeah
Have to ever start?
You know you took my love
Threw it away
You gonna want my love someday
Well, a bye-bye, baby
She said “baby”, but I didn’t think she was talking about a real baby. I think it was some kind of nickname for another person that you liked a lot. And I’d heard grownups use that “love” word a lot, when they really liked something. And on those “soap” shows that mom watched on TV they said it when they wanted to get kissy faced. But kids didn’t say it very much, except maybe older boys in the park when they wanted to tease some other boy that he wanted to get kissy faced with some girl. The word just made me worried, and I was glad that since Molly moved to that new house, she and I didn’t play together in the park anymore where some older boys could see us and tease me about her being my “girlfriend” and asking me if I was “in love” with her.
The woman kept singing…
Well, you said that I
Was your only girl
And there was no others, yeah
In this whole wide world
You know you took my love, threw it away
You gonna want my love someday
Well, a bye-bye, baby
I think when you were older and had a real girlfriend, you weren’t supposed to have another girlfriend at the same time. That was really bad. But that “took my love, threw it away” part didn’t make sense. I didn’t think “love” wasn’t a thing, it was just liking something or somebody a lot.
David pushed his way through the other kids saying, “Wanna see”, but not whispering. He saw Margie and ran out into the kitchen towards her saying her name. She turned and saw him and then saw the rest of us behind the refrigerator.
“There they are”, she said, “Checking out the crazy grownups. You guys want to dance?” We all shook our heads.
Except for David, who nodded and put his hands up in front of him as he ran into the living room, making grownups start to laugh. Danny’s mom saw him and grabbed his hands and tried to get him to dance with her.
I heard mom’s loud voice from the other side of the living room. “Looks like the natives are getting restless”, she said, sounding kind of silly, “I think it’s time to have the cake…”
Someone else said, “And eat it too!” All the grownups laughed, though I couldn’t figure out what was funny. I looked at the other kids around me and none of them laughed or looked like they knew either. Not even Ricky, who seemed to know all about grownups and what they were saying.
So dad got the cake, which was on top of the fridge, and mom put the candles on and lit them, and all the kids and the grownups sang happy birthday to me. Even Molly sang it, which was different than my other birthday parties. At all my other parties she didn’t sing it, because I figured she felt that she and I were the same, and to sing to me made me different then her, or something like that. Then mom, Danny’s mom and Molly’s mom cut the cake and gave everybody a piece. It tasted really good because it was chocolate, and David got it all over his face but Hannah wanted to wipe it off, instead of mom or dad doing it.
Then mom put all my presents in the middle of the living room, because she wanted everybody to see me opening them. You can’t really open presents standing up, so I sat down by them. All the other kids sat around me in a circle. Molly didn’t try to sit next to me like she did at my other birthday parties, but just sat in the circle next to Paul, who she also liked a lot. Margie and the grownups kept standing outside our circle. Some of them talked to each other while they watched us. Most of their faces looked happy and kind of silly like grownups got at parties.
It seemed like the most presents I’d ever gotten, but I was worried that so many people were watching me, especially all the grownups. I might do something bad the way I opened them, or what I said or how I looked after I saw what each one was. So I figured if I opened a present from a grownup I’d do what mom always wanted me to do and say thank you. I’d say thank you to dad’s friends, and even to mom and dad. Then they would be proud of me and all the other grownups would think mom and dad were good, because I was saying thank you which pretty much all grownups thought kids should do.
But I didn’t want to say thank you to the other kids, because it was like we were all on the same team. When you’re on a team playing baseball, or football, or fighting a war, you don’t say thank you when someone else on your team helps you, because that’s what you’re all supposed to do all the time.
But then I decided that I wouldn’t say thank you to Paul’s mom, Danny’s mom, Molly’s mom or Gabe’s mom. If I said it to them, and not to Paul, Danny, Molly and Gabe then it would seem like the grownups were the ones that gave me the presents and not the kids. But if I said thank you to Paul, Danny, Molly and Gabe too, then it would be like we weren’t on the same team anymore.
But I DID decide to say thank you to Margie, because she was a lot older and was standing with the grownups. She wasn’t a grownup, but she wasn’t the same kind of kid like the rest of us.
So Margie got me a “transistor” radio. She said because it was a Japanese “Sony” one, it didn’t cost as much as the “Emerson”, which was the American kind. She said you didn’t need to plug it in like a regular radio because it had “batteries”, whatever those were, so you could listen to music wherever you were, even in the backyard or the park. She said there was a “station” I could listen to, “CKLW”, that played the Rock and Roll and Motown songs that she liked and she figured I’d like too. She said dad could show me how to “tune” it to that station, because it was like the regular radio we had in the basement, only smaller.
Danny got me a different kind of soldiers, “Civil War” soldiers. He said that that war was a hundred years ago. The one team was blue and the other was gray. Since they were gray I asked him if they were Germans, but he said they were Americans, “Confederate” Americans. The blue ones were American too, “Union” Americans. That sounded really interesting. I figured I had to go to the library, either my school one or the giant one downtown, to see if there were books I could read about it. I liked being friends with Danny, because he told me about so many things that I didn’t know about yet.
Molly got me more Lincoln Logs, so I could build bigger forts. She always liked to get me more of the toys I already had and played with a lot, like Tinker Toys and Lincoln Logs. She said that the next time she came over we could build a giant fort on the dirt pile in the backyard, but I shouldn’t try to build it until she came to help. I didn’t like it that she didn’t live across the street anymore, and we couldn’t just go over to each other’s house whenever we wanted to play together. Mom had said that I “missed” her, but that didn’t make sense, because when you shoot at something and you don’t hit it, you “miss” it. But I didn’t ask mom about that.
Paul got me another war game, that “Stratego” one that I’d seen in those commercials on TV. He said you were supposed to be eight years old to play it, but he could play it and he was 6 like me. He said there were even bombs that blew you up.
Kenny got me that “Life” game, which I had also seen on TV commercials. He said you drove around the board in this car and you had to decide whether to go to college or not. If you went to college you could get more money, but if you didn’t you could get married and have kids sooner. Either way, you had to get married and have kids.
Mary Beth and Hannah got me a toy submarine that had a clear top part so you could see into the inside. Marybeth said she knew I’d like it because I really liked submarines, and I could play with it in the tub or in the basement. Hannah said that David could play with it too.
Ricky got me a “Girder and Panel Building Set”, so I could make my own buildings and bridges. He said, “Lincoln Logs are old fashioned, and you should keep up with the times”, whatever that meant. When he said that, Molly got mad and said, “No, they’re not!” I didn’t ask him what “old fashioned” meant, because Ricky just said silly stuff to try to get people to laugh, but his present did seem pretty neat.
Gabe got me an “Erector Set”, which I’d seen on another TV commercial. He said I could build my own machines like Tom Swift, or like he did. I think he liked Tom Swift even more than I did, and wanted to be an “inventor” when he got older, which was someone who figured out and made new things.
Amanda got me that “Etch a Sketch” thing. It always looked pretty neat when they showed it on those commercials. It looked like a TV, with those two knobs at the bottom, but it was flat instead of a box. You turned the knobs to draw stuff on the “screen” part. She said if you took a really long time you could draw away all the gray stuff on the screen and see the thing inside the screen that did the drawing.
Dad’s friends, those Frank and Walter guys, got me more Tom Swift books, which was what they always got me when they came to my birthday parties. Just looking at the pictures on the covers got me excited. They said I could probably read them by myself soon. “So you can give your poor old dad a rest”, Frank said, laughing. I said thank you, and I could tell they both liked that, and mom and dad did too, just like I figured.
My teacher and her friend also got me books. They were three books about those “Borrowers” people, those tiny people that lived in regular big people’s houses. My teacher had read one of the books to all us kids in our class. I couldn’t say thank you because they had already gone home. Mom said I should thank her when I went to school on Monday.
And mom and dad got me those wooden trains, like the ones I used to play with at my Play School. I really liked Play School, more than my regular school, but I didn’t tell my teacher because she was really nice and I didn’t want her to get mad at me. Mom said dad had to drive all the way to the factory in New York to get them, because you couldn’t get them in Michigan. “Michigan” was the school that dad went to, but it was also this big place all around the Ann Arbor city where we lived. Dad showed it to me on a map that also had that New York place we had taken the train to. Dad said it looked like a hand, but it didn’t have fingers so I thought it looked like a mitten.
Finally all the people went home. Before they left, all the grownups, and Margie, told mom and dad that it was a really great party. Dad smiled and nodded his head, but I could tell mom was REALLY happy. She had been so worried that it would be bad and she told dad she was sorry for being such a “bundle of nerves”.
I liked my party. I got a lot of neat presents. Toys to make new things, like the building and erector sets. More Lincoln Logs so Molly and I could build bigger forts. Books that I could try reading by myself. And that new radio that I could use to listen to that special “station” that Margie was telling me about.
But the best thing was that most of my friends were there, and we got to talk to each other without the grownups around. We felt like a team, like we were different than the other grownup team. It wasn’t like a war, where the grownups were the badguys like the Germans. And it wasn’t like a baseball game where we were trying to win and “beat” the other team. It was different. It was like we were trying to tell the grownups we WERE another team, and not just new guys on their team.
I couldn’t figure it out exactly, not yet, because I had to think about it more. But those songs those older kids were singing on those records, those Rock and Roll and “Motown” ones, sounded different than the songs dad sang to me or those Sinatra ones that mom liked. I didn’t know the “answer” yet, that’s the thing my teacher always wanted us to say, but I wanted to keep thinking about it, and listening to more of that music on my new radio.