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LAce Posted Monday, February 18th, 2013
After the Party
Leah Browning

After Eileen’s party was over, all the other girls’ parents picked them up, one by one, until Eileen and I were the only two girls left on her expansive green lawn. It was just after lunch. Her parents had brought a long table outside for the bowls of carrots and black olives and chips, the platters of homemade pizza, and the chocolate cake with thick chocolate icing and big pink icing roses. There were real roses, too: a dozen of them in a cut glass vase with a pink satin ribbon tied in a bow.

Eileen and I sat on the grass waiting for my parents until her mother came outside to clear off the table. She told Eileen that since it was her birthday, she didn’t have to help clean up. It wasn’t my birthday, but she didn’t ask me to help, either.

We went into the back yard to find Eileen’s dog, who had been tied up during the party. One of the other girls was allergic. We loosened the rope from his collar and rubbed under his ears.

When we returned to the front yard, all that was left of the party were big bunches of balloons tied to the trees. I looked hopefully in both directions, but there was no sign of my parents’ car.

Eileen’s father had returned to his armchair in the basement, where he read thick books and smoked a pipe. He was the only father I knew who wore a tweed suit jacket at home, on a Saturday. Her mother had disappeared somewhere in the house. There was a mountain of presents in the corner of Eileen’s bedroom. The dog followed us in and examined them with interest.

My mother always bought two or three books and wrapped them in paper she’d pressed flat and saved from presents other people had given to me or my sisters. Eileen’s mother had already thrown all of the gift wrap in the trash, and the books I had brought were buried underneath the dolls and toys and board games.

Again, we wound our way through the house, out to the front yard and the still-empty street, and back to the kitchen. Eileen’s mother was standing at the sink, wearing a red apron and washing dishes with a long-handled brush. She glanced up and smiled at us. No one looked at the clock or seemed bothered that I was still there, and I didn’t want to call it to their attention.

The vase of pink roses was on the kitchen counter next to the telephone. Eileen’s mother didn’t object when Eileen handed me a paper grocery sack from a kitchen cabinet and carried the vase outside. We sat down on the front steps and started pulling the petals off the roses and putting them into the paper sack. I was still looking up every time a car passed by, but there was something very satisfying about our work.

We left the vase with the stems and leaves on the steps and walked over to one of the trees. Eileen gave me the paper sack and shinnied up the tree. “Hand it here,” she said, and I did.

“Now close your eyes and pretend you’re a queen,” she said, and I closed my eyes and imagined that I was an only child, like Eileen, with a mountain of presents and a father who smoked a pipe and as much chocolate cake as I could eat. The rose petals fell on my face like the lightest spring rain.

When the bag was empty, Eileen climbed down from the tree and we chased each other across the grass until my parents finally arrived.

It was two hours past the end of the party. My mother’s face was ashen, and she apologized again and again to Eileen’s mother. My grandmother had fallen and broken her hip, and they’d been at the hospital, an hour away. I climbed across my sisters’ skinned knees to the middle of the back seat. In the front, my baby sister was flushed and crying.

I was afraid, suddenly, that Eileen would tell other kids at school something about me. But I knew that she wouldn’t.

That night, when she was shampooing our hair, my mother found a petal in the bathwater and lifted it out, studying it curiously as though it were a relic from a time too distant to remember.

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