|Description||I reluctantly went to that birthday party, not that I had a choice. I was invited, so Mom said I had to go. “I don’t want to go,” I whined, sitting at the round oak kitchen table, my legs too short to touch the floor. “I hate birthday parties,” I muttered. “You don’t hate anything,” Mom said. “Why do I have to go?” I pleaded as my legs were swinging like two pendulums. “Joshua, you were invited, and we already got Frank a gift,” she said, standing by the counter drinking coffee out of a blue mug in one hand and a Moore cigarette dangling in the other. She was wearing jeans and a tank top. Her thick platinum blond hair was pulled back and tied with an Hermes scarf. “Why do I have to go?” I asked again. Dad had walked into the kitchen, it was clear that he had heard the conversation from the dinning room. “Enough,” he said. “Your mother told you you’re going, and you are. Am I clear?” He sat down at the table next to me and picked up the New York Time that was sitting, as it did every morning, on the kitchen table where Dad always sat. I nodded and swirled my spoon into the cereal bowl, defeated. Mom had started to play nervously with the long apple seed neckless she was wearing. She poured coffee into a mug and brought it over to my father. “Let’s not make a big deal out of this Dunning,” she said. He made a grunting noise and started to read the paper. It was hot that day. By eleven that morning the locusts were already screaming, which meant it was only going to get hotter. “Come on Josh,” Mom hollered up the stairs. “It’s time to go!” A feeling of dread washed over me, but I knew it was useless to protest anymore. I slinked down the stairs as Mom waited for me at the bottom holding the wrapped box that contained a set of lawn darts. It was all the rage my mother told me as she placed the present in the back seat. I opened the car door that weighed more than I did and got in the front seat. Mom got in and took off her Buffalo sandals and handed them to me. Mom didn’t like drive with her shoes on in the summer. She opened all the car windows and pulled forward. As we drove down Route 66, Mom reached for the radio knob and gave me an uneasy smile, the best apology she could manage for forcing me to go to the party. She gazed back to the road and we each hung our arm out the window as Neil Diamond sang Song Sung Blue. The sun was terrifically bright, mom and I both pulled down our visors. Every so often as Mom moved the steering wheel, a ray of light would hit her ring. The aquamarine was the size of a large marble and when the sun’s rays hit it in a certain way, the car sparkled with tiny rainbows. Dad gave Mom that ring after they had a fight because he missed the train home once and had to stay overnight. It seemed anytime Dad missed his train home he’d bring home something fancy for Mom. Usually it was jewelry. By the time we got to Frank’s house for the party and pulled into the long, dusty driveway, apprehension was all I felt. I gave a pleading look at Mom as we waited for the Ford Country Squire wagon in front of us to unload. A little girl in a party dress got out with a present wrapped in gold foil and a bow. Mrs. Apple, Frank’s Mom, was standing by the front porch and greeted the girl with a beaming smile. “You are going to have a wonderful time,” Mom told me, trying her best I guess to convince me. She leaned over for a kiss, her left hand out the window - cigarette dangling. I kissed her, took the gaudy wrapped gift. I was sweating and did my best to slide across the blue leather seat as best I could with my sticky, sweaty legs. Mrs. Apple opened the car door. “Hi, Dottie, we are so happy that Joshie could come!” No one ever called me “Joshie.” “Oh, Jean, he’s been excited about it for days,” Mom lied. “We’ll be here at 4 to pick him up.” “Well, no worries if you’re late; I’m sure there will be other kids,” Mrs. Apple told her as she closed the car door for me. “Dunning or I will be here at 4,” my mother repeated. Then she pulled the shift into drive and disappeared in a cloud of dust. Inside party streamers were taped to the walls and ceiling, helium filled balloons were tied to the backs of chairs. I knew Frank from the country club, we both took swim and golf lessons together, but we didn’t go to the same school, so it was not a surprise that I didn’t know anyone. I sat on the couch with my present on my lap. Seeing me alone, Mrs. Apple came over and took the gift from me. She took my hand and led me back into the mix. “Now, go and play Joshie and have a good time,” she left me with a group of boys playing “Trouble.” I looked down at my Mickey Mouse watch and could not believe that it had only been ten minutes since I arrived. At lunch I sat at a picnic table covered with a paper tablecloth with large blue letters spelling out happy birthday. We all were wearing cardboard hats; held in place with a thin elastic string that cut into the space between my chin and neck. Mr. Apple brought me a paper plate that matched the tablecloth with a hotdog and Fritos. The hotdog had relish, which I hated, so I took my finger and wiped it off onto the ground. The hotdog had black blisters on it and I did my best to eat around the dark, charred parts. “Attention boys and girls,” Mr. Apple yelled above the din of many child conversations, “it’s time for cake and ice cream!” A few kids clapped before Mrs. Apple came out of the screen porch with a sheet cake lit with seven candles in her hands singing “Happy Birthday.” They made us all line up for a piece of cake which Mr. Apple slicing a handing out. Mrs. Apple was doling out the ice cream. There were two boxes, both were the same, vanilla, chocolate and strawberry ice cream in strips. In our house, we’d get a choice of what we wanted, but Mrs. Apple had peeled away the box and cut the ice cream like bread giving each of us a slice with a stripe of each flavor. I’d never seen anything like this. I went back to my seat with my wedge of cake and gigantic slice of ice cream. I looked at my watch. It was only 1:20. The day was endless. After most of the kids were done, Mr. and Mrs. Apple went around to each picnic table and wrapped everything up in the table cloths and then Mr. Apple would hold the large dark garbage bag and Mrs. Apple would stuff it with the all the trash that was wrapped up in paper table cloths. In no time it was as if there had never been a lunch. “Okay kids,” Mrs. Apple chortled, “Let’s go into the house to open presents and play “Pin the Tail on the Donkey.” Like a flock of chicks we moved as one into the house. We all sat in the family room and watched Frank open his gifts. There were a few frisbees, one glowed in the dark which I thought was cool. The girl who got out of the car ahead of me watched with pride as Frank tore at the foil to discover a Play-Doh kit with all the cutters, molds, tools and four cans of the colorful clay. When Frank opened my gift, the lawn darts, his face lit up. “Oh Man! Lawn Darts! Can we play them now? Can we Mom?” Mrs. Apple’s face was stiff with a fake smile that was trying to mask her surprise and concern. “Not now sweetie, Daddy and I will have to read the directions,” she said taking the box from him. “Oh wow, these are heavy,” she added with a strange look on her face. “Frank did you thank Josh?” “Thanks Josh. I have begged for these for so long, but Mom said that they could kill me,” Frank started only to be cut off my Mrs. Apple mid sentence. “Frank let’s keep going, why don’t you open that one,” she suggested pointing to a box wrapped in red, white and blue paper. “Mrs. Apple,” I asked, “I have to go to the bathroom.” She told me to use the bathroom at the top of the stairs. Walking back to the party, I saw a stack of games on a shelf on the back porch. There was Monopoly, Chutes and Ladders, Candy Land, and the one game I always wanted to play – Operation. Man to pull out the Adam’s apple that was an apple! I opened the box. All the pieces were in the right parts. I picked up the tweezers and touched them to the metal borders you couldn’t touch when taking out the body parts. The nose did not glow. There was no buzzing sound. Disappointment flooded over me. Mr. Apple appeared. “There are no batteries in that game, son,” he said. “But we have some in the barn. You want ’em?” I nodded. “Well, come on then,” he said with a smile. I jumped to my feet and we walked across the dry, gray, dirt driveway. The barn was an an old, low-roofed pig shed of sorts. Mr. Apple walked in, and before I knew it, he came back out and said there were no batteries. Figures, I thought. Seeing my disappointment, he said he was sorry and reached over and tickled my ribs. “I really am sorry, kiddo,” he said. “Now you better run, or I'm gunna get ya,” and we were playing tag just like that. He chased me, and as I made my way toward the house, he cut me off. Then, he tickled me again; the next thing I knew we were both running into the field. “I’m gonna get ya,” he said, laughing. And I was laughing too. I was running along the barbed wire fence. I ran by a big tree, my sneaker caught a tree root, and I fell into the long, deep grass. When I turned over onto my back to get up, Mr. Apple was at my feet on all fours. “Gotcha,” he said, his hand wrapped around my ankle. He pulled me hard across the ground, and my shirt climbed up my back and belly. He was over me. I could smell his breath – sweet and sour at the same time. He grabbed my thigh and slid his hand into my Bermuda shorts touching the elastic leg band of my underwear. That’s when I looked up and saw that blue summer sky. I knew I had to get away. I kept pulling my legs up towards me and pushing against the ground. My sneakers skidded across the grass trying to get away from him. “You’re a pretty little boy,” he said, moving his hand out of my shorts to comb through my hair. I got to my feet by accident, or maybe it was just luck. I climbed up that tree like an angry wet cat: fast, furious, and scared. I turned to face Mr. Apple, my back scraping against a tree trunk; I felt bark crumble and fall into my shorts. He grabbed my knee and pulled me hard, and I slid across a branch. He smiled with his yellow crooked teeth. Something in his eyes made my heart race; so hard I could hear the blood pumping in my ears. I brought my leg close to my chest and kicked at him with all my might. He caught my foot and laughed at me: a menacing laugh. Now he had one hand on my knee, and the other had my sneaker, and he held me. I jumped then – more like fell, but on purpose. I was out of the tree and on the ground in seconds. He stood there looking at me. My fighting back did little but caused something in his face to change. It was scarier. I started to run. The grass with its seedy tops fell fast with each stride I took. I ran back towards the house. Once out of the field, I ran around the barn; in the driveway, I saw Dad. He was leaning against the car wearing khaki pants, a denim shirt, and an ascot. He was talking to Mrs. Apple. I screamed “DAD,” waving my hands like a lunatic. “DAD!” He looked at me quizzically as I raced towards him. He waved, but I kept running as fast as I could. When I reached him, I tossed myself into him. His hand slid down my head and rested on the nape of my neck, and it was only then that I looked back for Mr. Apple. He was nowhere. “Dad, I want to go home.” “Hey, I’m talking with Mrs. Apple,” he said. “Dad, I want to go,” I said again. Like a light switched on, he abruptly stopped the conversation with Mrs. Apple. He opened the driver’s side door and let me slide across. Dad got in and closed the door. “Thank you for coming, Joshie,” Mrs. Apple said, resting her hand on the car door's open window. “Don’t you have something to say to Mrs. Apple?” My father asked. “Thank you, Mrs. Apple,” I whispered. “Alright, Jean, I better get this one home; he looks exhausted,” he said, turning the key and the car’s engine came to life. “Too much fun in all this heat,” Mrs. Apple said with a smile. “You all have a great night.” “You too, Jean, take care,” Dad said, putting the car in gear and slowly driving away. Dad kept looking at me. I had a lump in my throat so big it hurt. Finally, he reached over, picked a piece of bark off my shirt, and flicked it out the window. “It’s too Goddamn hot out there,” he said. All the windows slid up as if by magic, and he turned on the AC. I turned around and looked out the back window as the Apple’s house disappeared into the distance in a cloud of country road dust. “Come over here,” Dad said. “Help me drive.” I scooted over, and he put his arm around me. I put my hand on the wheel next to his. “Are you OK?” he asked. I nodded and kept my eyes on the road. I was safe now. Dad saved me. I wished it was always that way, being safe with Dad. But, well, that’s not our story. ⇒ Website: DecembeardUK.org|
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