My Dad wasnít out of the apartment for more than a few minutes when the buzzer sounded from the front lobby announcing the first guests arrival. The Lady of the House harumphed a few times as she came back out of the kitchen to answer the summons. Hearing who was downstairs, she appropriately buzzed them in and then turned to Roberta and me.
"You kids canít be there," she said. "That room is for the grown-ups."
She was taking off her apron as she said it. I slid down off the couch onto the floor beneath the coffee table in a peculiar set of moves I had developed over the years. My little sister tried to imitate me, but she couldnít quite get it and she found herself stuck under the table which had a long cross-beam that connected the legs on either end of the table.
"Help me," she squealed and that really set Her off.
"I told you kids not to be playing in that room. Doesnít anyone in this house listen to me any more?" She really sounded angry, so I turned around and pulled my sister along, releasing her, I thought, from under the beam.
"Hurry up!" She shouted at us. "Company will be here any minute."
That was when Roberta decided to sit up slightly, as if doing that would make the guests arrive sooner and she could see them before being banished to her room. Her forehead connected to the cross-beam of the table, hitting it hard enough to be heard. She screamed from the suddenness of it, not so much the pain, and reached out to touch her head. Doing that caused the table to pitch forward just enough for everything on it to spill onto the floor between me and Robertaís feet.
"Ohmigod!" She shouted, then repeated as a loud hiss, what they call a stage-whisper. She did that because the doorbell had just chimed. The guests were here. "Pick that all up and get out of there!" She wasnít sounding even the slightest bit pleasant now.
Roberta had emerged, unscarred, from her journey beneath the coffee table and she turned and quickly helped me retrieve everything that had fallen. We put back onto the table two small bowls, two ashtrays, a platter with a picture of Niagara Falls on it along with an antimacassar that my grandmother had made when she "still had the fingers for it" as she liked to say. I know we didnít get everything back in the exact right place, but we had gotten it all on top of the table before She answered the door.
We heard the exclamations of delight as She greeted, then hugged or kissed her first guests. There were four of them. I knew one or two, I think, but not everybody. Roberta and I tip-toed by them, ignoring them, and headed back to our rooms. As we did the buzzer sounded again announcing the next wave of the ten. I was glad, actually, to get out of their way. I was never fond of the manner in which adults greet young kids, tousling, tickling, pinching and pushing us.
Over the next few minutes we could hear Her greeting guests. We were, lovingly, forgotten for the time and I could read and do homework alone in my room while Robert and Jackie did theirs, I guess. Our doors were closed, but not shut. Open a crack so we could hear Her if She summoned us, we went on with our work.
The party was growing unusually loud. She and her ten guests were laughing, joking and doing whatever adults did in those days, when Dad returned with the cake. At least that was what I assumed he was coming home with when I heard Her call out his name. He responded with his normal, low-voiced greetings. He was never a very passionate man in a social situation, not until the conversation got around to politics or the Yankees. Then I heard Her ask him the question: "whereís the cake?"
"Oh," he said, "I didnít get it."
I heard her say "Excuse us a moment," and then I heard the crowd sounds dim. She brought him into the kitchen, and waited until the ten guests were talking again before she spoke to my Dad. The kitchen has a door that opened into my room, so I could hear them well, even though they kept their voices to a minimum.
"What do you mean you didnít get it?"
"Well, I looked at it and it wasnít what you ordered."
"So, what did you do then?" She sounded shrill even at a near-whisper.
"I asked them to fix it, but they wouldnít."
"What do you mean, they wouldnít?"
"I showed them what you handed me and they said it was too much trouble and that I should take it as it was."
"And what did you do?"
"I said I couldnít. I told them youíd be too upset over the mistakes."
"Bill, I paid for it in advance. I want my cake."
"There is no cake."
"Of course thereís cake."
"There isnít, June. Mr. Mullens got very angry about it. He showed me what you wrote down for him to put on the cake and..." He paused. I could hear her moving closer to him, could feel the intensity of her staring eyes even though I wasnít in the room.
"Yes? Go on."
"June, it wasnít the same message you wrote down for me. It was different and what he had in his hand is what he had on the cake."
"What was different?"
"The name. It was a different name."
"Let me see." She was holding out her hand, I knew, in that way she had, her elbow crooked but held in to her side, the palm of her hand flat and extended. Dad must have given her something, for I heard her gasp.
"Thatís right, Bill. Thatís what I asked for."
"Oh. Really?" There was another pause. "Well, this is what you just gave me. And you told me to be sure they gave me the right cake."
I heard another gasp. She didnít speak. She didnít even breathe.
"Juney? Itís a cake. Just a cake. Weíll be fine without the cake." He had a made a pronouncement this time. Now it would be her turn to accept it.
"Itís her birthday, Bill. She expects it." Another pronouncement. "Go back and get the cake." Iíd been wrong in assessing how this would go, but I was a kid and I guess that was okay.
"I canít. I told you. There is no cake."
"If he has this name on the cake, Bill, thatís fine. What I wrote down for you was the wrong name. I was angry at you and I had a careless moment."
"But there is no cake, June. When I insisted that you had given me this as the name, he got furious and junked it right into that big black bin he has outside the back door of his shop. There is no cake."
"Ohmigod," She muttered.
Thereís the unmistakable sound of someone standing up very straight and tall, erect and stiff. I heard Her moving into that position. I heard Her feet slipping along the galley kitchen floor as she headed out of that space, back to where Her ten guests were waiting. I heard Dad follow Her, a few steps behind.
"Well, everybody, I have some sad news," She started. "Dinner is almost ready, but the lovely cake I ordered wonít be here." She must have turned next to her guest of honor. "I wanted a special treat, darling, but due to circumstances outside of my control thereíll be nothing there for you. So sorry."
After a momentís silence, the party chatter began again and, once again, one of her declarations, her pronouncements, was accepted by everybody without so much as a whimper. In my room, listening to all this, all I could think of was how she managed an awkward situation that wouldnít have been awkward if she hadnít made her announcement. No one would have been the wiser; no one would have even noticed the lack of a cake. Even so, she just had to make something out of, order everyone to accept her situation and forgive her. I knew, of course, that she blamed my Dad. And I knew that accepted the blame, somehow.
She served dinner to us in our rooms, then she served her ten guests, her dinner for twelve. As I ate mine in the silence of my room I hoped that someday Iíd be able to face my problems, big or small, with a declaration, or a pronouncement that would be accepted without question: "Nothing there for you, so sorry," Iíd say and everyone would consent to that statement without question.
"Nothing there for you." A watch-cry for my future. A gift from Her. A gift to me. "Nothing there for you."