As the day of the party drew closer, Father and Aunt Claire became very quiet—even secretive—about what was going to happen. I’d told them what I wanted for food. No surprises there—yellow cake with chocolate frosting, red Kool-Aid, fresh sweet corn, hamburgers and hot dogs grilled outside (one of Father’s great skills), potato salad. As you can see, I’ve sort of listed things in the order of liking, not in the order of eating.
The party was not going to be on my actual birthday—30 August—because it was on Wednesday that year, and we had already started school. Instead, Father had planned it for Saturday, 2 September. At noon. I didn’t realize until later the significance of the time.
Jane, Matilda, and Elena arrived together, just a few minutes after lunch. I heard someone’s mother at the front door talking with Aunt Claire, who then brought the three girls into the living room. They looked nervous. And I knew why: I’d basically never spoken much to any of them. (I wasn’t rude, just not too talkative.) Not one of them had ever been in our house—in fact, I was surprised they even knew where I lived. I had no idea where their houses were.
They were dressed casually—as Harriet and I were. (She’d been at my house most of the morning, helping out, sneaking fingertips of chocolate icing from the bowl and beaters.) All of us would probably run around outside for a while, something that never interested me too much. But I knew: This is a party. So … get ready to run around …
Father must have heard the arrivals, for he came into the room. I introduced the girls to him, and they all called him “Mr. Stone,” very politely, smiling all the while like … well, like six-year-old girls who don’t know what to do.
“Why don’t you all just wait in here,” suggested my father, “until the food’s ready?” He seemed uncertain what to do a little kids’ party. Which is exactly how I felt. I was starting to wish that I had the mumps. Right now. I reached up to feel my neck … no, no swelling.
When he left, the girls and I stared at one another for a month before they started looking around at all the books. They were surprised at how many we had, the way most adult visitors are, too. The three of them went over to the shelves and began fingering and handling the books as if they were museum artifacts or something. Elena turned to me. “Do you have any about horses?”
We did. Father had books about most everything because you never knew, he said, when you had to write about something in the newspaper. I showed her The Encyclopedia of the Horse, which she carried over to a chair, where she sat happily, ignoring the rest of us, paging through the book.[i] I was starting to like Elena.
Jane was looking at books, too, and finally found a world atlas, a heavy book that she hauled over to another chair to examine. “You probably won’t find Franconia in there,” I told her. Then wondered immediately why I would say something like that. Something discouraging.
“Oh, I know,” she said. “I just like looking at other countries. And the oceans.” I did too, actually. And was starting to like Jane now, too.
Harriet was a big help with Matilda, who read books at school only when she absolutely had to, and soon she and Harriet were chattering away like a couple of frisky birds on a branch. I was grateful.
And I was also grateful that, so far, there was no sign of Blue Boyle. Maybe Harriet was right. Maybe he wouldn’t show up. I knew when I’d seen him at school during the week that he must have gotten the invitation that Father had mailed to his house. But he showed no sign of it. Nothing.
He did nothing but ignore me. Which was the way I liked it. Harriet told me he hadn’t said anything to her, either.
After some slow minutes crept by, Father came back. “Why don’t we head outside now?” he suggested. “It’s about time to start grilling.”
Elena and Jane looked sad. But they both their books down carefully. Harriet and Matilda ran on ahead, eager to get out, like escaping prisoners. But I walked out with Elena and Jane. “Good books?” I asked.
“The best,” said Elena. “The very best.” And Jane added an “Ummmmm.”
I wasn’t really sure what that meant.
Outside, Father had set up a picnic table, and Aunt Claire was there, trying to make sure none of the paper plates and napkins blew away in the gusting breeze. She put dishes and glasses and jars of mustard and ketchup on them the keep them from flying off. It was a nice day, warm and humid, so humid that I was pretty sure it would rain later. Maybe it would storm. Maybe everyone would have to go home early. That sweet possibility sat in my mind like a chocolate chip in a cookie.
Father had started the grill a bit earlier, and it was ready to go, its smoke drifting off down the street. He lifted the lid and plopped on the hot dogs and burgers, which sizzled immediately and sweetened the smoke. The girls, led by Harriet, had fistfuls of potato chips and sat all on one side of the table, leaving no room for me.
I sat down on the other side and looked at them, wondering what in the world we could talk about. Father, partly hidden by swirls of smoke over by the grill, was useless. But Aunt Claire swopped in to help out. She got the girls to say their names. To talk about their families. About what they liked to do. I was in awe.
And then—just at the moment Father was crying out, “The food is ready!”—a pickup truck pulled in the driveway. All heads turned that way. The sun’s glare on the windshield kept us from seeing who it was. The truck just sat there a minute, idling loudly, smoke boiling out from the tailpipe in foul clouds.
And then the passenger door opened. Someone got out, walked around the front of the truck.