Emmalene wanted her daddy to be like everyone else’s. She wanted her daddy to do, to fix her bike chain when it fell off rather than having to grab it on her own and slipping it back on the derailleur. To make money enough so their family didn’t have to live in one room of a boarding house where mommy and daddy slept in the big bed and she and Ricky slept together on a mattress next to the radiator that hissed in winter.
She wanted to feel proud of her daddy, like the boy on The Courtship of Eddie’s Father felt about his daddy. Nick has potential, she heard Mommy say on the phone to Aunt Lisa. A whiz at electronics, he also had a gift for talking his way into any new job he set his sights on. Keeping the job was a different matter. A challenge.
The week before Emmalene’s birthday, Mommy told her they were going to throw a party. Daddy had a job driving a taxi— temporary, she’d heard her say to Aunt Lisa. Cash was trickling in again and since they’d given Ricky a party the year before, it was her turn. Seven is a lucky number.
A few days before her birthday, Emmalene folded paper in fourths and scrawled, Please Come to My Party, 2 p.m., Saturday, June 3 with a fine-tipped Magic Marker. It was mostly dried out and the lettering streaky but she managed to finish each of her invitations leaving them in the mailboxes of a few girls she knew who also lived on Durrell Street as well as two for the ones who lived on Exeter.
Saturday morning, Emmalene woke to Ricky snoring beside her. She stared at the watermarks on the ceiling her stomach gripping a little. A natural worry-wart my Emmalene, Mommy often said and comments on her report cards confirmed the same: Emmalene seems anxious. Excessive tardiness and absences impede her progress. She had been ashamed of the D’s that stood out as though carved from blocks of wood. What’s the problem? Daddy had said. The kid’s smart.
Emmalene had felt her glasses slide down her nose and her cheeks blaze when she heard problem. She had been drawing on a swatch of butcher paper at the table while Daddy was in bed smoking his Camel cigarettes and nursing a bitch of a hangover. Emmalene wondered which colors in her Crayola box would best capture that. On the mornings that she and Ricky couldn’t wake him to drive five miles to school, she liked to draw the tangled sheets. Try as she might, she never could make them look real.
She smoothed her hands along the sheet on her side of the bed. Today was her birthday; things could be nice. Daddy had even left early for his shift at Delaney’s Cab–she could see his side of the bed was empty.
Later that morning, she heard Mommy tell Aunt Lisa it was a good sign.
Her mother paused, twirled the telephone cord around her fingers, listening to her sister.
“He promised he’ll be on time. But you better pick up the cake.”
Because the room where they slept and dreamed was too small for a party, George and Edie, owners of the boarding house, had given them permission to use the large, common kitchen in the very center of the old Victorian. It was up a flight of stairs and smelled strongly of PineSol. Emmalene tripped over a crack in the linoleum and hoped it wasn’t bad luck.
Patricia Lewis, a girl in the neighborhood, had turned 12 last month. Sometimes her mother watched Ricky and Emmalene and they’d been there the day set aside for Patricia’s party. Not one of the guests showed up. Emmalene could still see the china plates, each with a fat little man in the middle that Mrs. Lewis had placed on the tablecloth, the one she’d brought all the way from France after the war. Running late, Mrs. Lewis had said in her thick accent. Emmalene had listened to the record needle scratch along the spent 45 and watched Patricia press her face against the mesh of the screen door and cry. She felt the same grip in her stomach now as then. What if no one came?
She crossed her fingers and ankles and spun once round for good luck. A moment later, Aunt Lisa entered the kitchen carrying a box and wrapped present. She set both on the counter.
She kissed Emmalene on the nose then pulled a bobbie pin from her pocket. While Aunt Lisa fixed a wisp of hair slipping from the French braid, Emmalene lifted the lid of the box from Jeanne’s Bakery. Scent of sugar in the warm kitchen, white frosting smooth as first snow. She wanted the fat yellow rose just above the curved pink “E” for herself.
“Close the box now.”
Aunt Lisa’s heels clicked across the tile to the window. She smacked at the sash and opened it and the cooler air carried the scent of lilacs.
Emmalene watched her mother and aunt twist crepe paper in a diagonal from one side of the room to the other. Where it crossed in the middle, they strung a placard that read, HAPPY BIRTHDAY! and the shiny red letters shuddered in the breeze. Satisfied, they pushed the Formica table against a wall and arranged snack plates and napkins. They set out bowls of potato chips, and Fiddle Faddle, pierced small triangles into cans of Hawaiian Punch with the opener, and scooped black olives from a can for the adults who might stay. Aunt Lisa found ashtrays then helped Mommy spread the vinyl sheet with the donkey along the far wall. Emmalene liked his crooked ears and teeth and wished she could draw so well.
“What else do you have for entertainment?” Aunt Lisa said.
“Not Lou Spencer, that’s for sure.”
The sisters broke into the same staccato laugh.
Daddy had been working at Sanders Associates last year and made enough money so they could hire Lou for Ricky’s party. The mouth the clown had painted on over white grease was a sad bow but after a few beers, Lou got a little mean. When Danny Germaine grabbed the back of his baggy pants and gave them a yank, Lou grabbed the kid’s arm and twisted hard.
“Still, gotta do something else to keep them occupied.”
“Nick will take care of that.”
Aunt Lisa lit a cigarette, took a drag, tilted her head back and blew a stream of smoke straight at the ceiling.
At 2:00, a friend of Ricky’s showed up at the party and set Emmalene’s gift on the counter next to Aunt Lisa’s. Fifteen minutes later, each of the children Emmalene invited had arrived, ribbons in their hair and presents wrapped, all except for Susan Pickett who had the measles. Each of the mothers told Mommy they needed to get a bit of shopping done and they’d be back by 4:00 to pick up their children. Mommy fluttered her fingers— of course, of course, she understood! Emmalene watched her mother pick up a limp, green balloon and place it on the table but didn’t bother when it bobbed off once more.
After the children were finished playing “Pin the Tail on the Donkey” and “Musical Chairs”, Ricky and his friend began stomping each of the balloons scattered along the floor seeing who could pop the most. They laughed in the way boys will whenever they heard one of Emmalene’s friends shriek at the sound.
“We should light the candles and sing,” Aunt Lisa said.
She assisted at a pre-school in town and she liked to keep things running along. Sometimes Mommy called her bossy.
“Not til Nick gets here.”
Aunt Lisa cupped her elbow. The ember of her cigarette glowed, reminding Emmalene of the cinnamon red-hots that burned her tongue if she ate too many.
“You know where he probably is…”
“Don’t even start,” Mommy said.
“It’s almost 3:30.”
Mommy was right, Aunt Lisa should give it a break.
Emmalene pressed a patin leather shoe on a yellow balloon forcing the air to the end so it became lemony thin but it just wouldn’t pop. Mommy poured more Hawaiian Punch for the sweaty children and re-filled the bowl of chips.
“Five more minutes.”
But it wasn’t even that long before Emmalene heard footsteps on the stairs and turned to see her father.
“I thought this was a party!”
Daddy was smiling, his fingers gripping the plastic loops of a six pack. Emmalene ran to him and gave him a hug. He squeezed her back then placed the beer on the table stripping the tab from one. She could smell the murk of it, like the scent of the Merrimack River by the mills.
He took a long pull.
Happy birthday, Baby.”
“Thank you, Daddy.”
“I left your present in the car,” he said, “no time to wrap it.”
He squeezed her chin.
“That tooth ready yet?”
Emmalene pushed at it with her tongue and felt it wiggle.
“Put a string around it and slam the door.”
She wrenched her chin from his hand and squealed.
“Almost missed the party, Nick.”
They both turned to see Aunt Lisa stabbing her cigarette in the ashtray.
He pulled a beer from the plastic loop.
Daddy worked his wrist, swirling the beer in his can.
Aunt Lisa flashed her teeth.
Daddy tipped back the beer, swallowed, put the can aside and opened another.
“Change your mind let me know.”
Ricky was chasing Debbie Delano around the kitchen, their sneakers squeaking along the floor, their shrieks piercing.
Mommy’s forehead crinkled.
“Let’s do the cake.”
“Wait now,” Daddy said. “What do we have here?”
He took up the bag of balloons tucked behind a can of punch.
“No clown this year but that doesn’t mean we can’t have fun!”
Emmalene’s daddy pulled out a blue balloon that was long and skinny, stretched out the mouth, filled it with air, and began twisting it in two. He blew into another balloon, and another, creating sets of legs and tiny ears for a poodle and handed it to Jenny Parker. The children clapped their hands and asked what else he could make—a giraffe, a pig, maybe a pirate sword—of course that request came from Ricky and his friend. Daddy was sweating a little, and the Brylcreem he’d slicked on had given out so his black hair hung in his eyes. He continued stretching, blowing, contorting balloons in so many ways, Emmalene found she was holding her breath, absorbed in a talent she hadn’t known her father possessed and worried that at any moment the balloons would burst in his hands.
But they held.