On my eighth birthday, there was a St. Patty's Day party at school. In truth, it was less a party than it was me walking around the second-graders' classroom and placing store-bought cupcakes on everyone's desks. “But the other dads all bake stuff,” I'd complained, knowing my father's reply would include something about how he had to work. Ever since he quit making beds and got a real job with the civil engineering department, he never had time to do the things he used to.
On our morning commute, we stopped at Biff's Bakery. Once we were back on the Jolly Trolley, my father held the big white box on his lap until we got to school. Because we were on the upper deck, the light coming through the Jolley's solar panels bounced off the box and burned my eyes. At my stop, he stood, kissed me on the forehead, and said, “Can you carry this yourself?”
“Happy birthday, Miss Penny Primrose,” he said. “Try and learn something useful.”
“Like what?” I asked, climbing down the steps one foot at a time because I couldn't see around the box.
He considered until I was safely on the ground. When I turned and looked up at him, he scratched his head and chin like a chimpanzee. I had no idea what he might say, but this was all the fun. Past answers had been as random as: “Like whether the first flowering plants were produced during the Cenozoic, Mesozoic, or Paleozoic eras,” and, “Like if crustal formation occurs due to seafloor spreading, subduction, hot spots, all of the above, or none of the above,” and even, “Like who wrote, ‘To see a world in a grain of sand / And a heaven in a wild flower / Hold infinity in the palm of your hand / And eternity in an hour…'”
Carney—the cafeteria worker who spooned mashed potatoes or macaroni salad onto our lunch plates, and the person I went to with all my father's challenges—actually knew the answer to the last. When I got home and reported “‘Orgies of Innocence,' by Billy Blake,” my father's eyes bulged like Bugs Bunny's, and he laughed. “O.K., Billy's Orgies it is.”
“Well?” I demanded from the sidewalk, my toes peeking off the curb.
“Like something of your own choosing,” he said. “You're old enough now to start challenging yourself with your own questions.”
“Like will I ever get ballet lessons?” I hollered, as the Jolly's doors swung closed.
The cupcakes, an assortment of chocolate, yellow cake, and strawberry, were all decorated with tiny, multicolored candy 8's. I thought one of my classmates would wish me a happy birthday, but none did. Heather Hart, my best friend, would have, but her family had moved to Guam the previous summer. If anyone else had said so much as “Thanks for the cupcake,” or, “I like chocolate frosting,” or even, “Happy St. Patty's Day,” I would have invited her or him to come with me and my parents to Colonel Crazy's Fun House.
Instead, my mother and I went alone.
My father was supposed to go with us, but he failed to come home in time to leave for our reservation. After calling and getting no answer, my mother decided we would allow him an extra ten minutes to apologetically arrive. These she used to consider which of her jackets best matched the silk, purple pantsuit she was wearing and had batiked herself. She pulled jacket after jacket from the closet, still fastened around their hangers, and halfheartedly held them against her elevated thigh. I walked over to her in a straight line—toe-ball-heel, toe-ball-heel—sucking a frozen Sully's lime-pop, and when I reached her, I pulled it from my mouth with a loud slurp and said, “That one,” pointing at my father's Lacoste windbreaker.
“Really?” She regarded it with the same disdain as she had the dead mouse she removed a month previous from the set tub in our basement.
“It's wicked cool,” I said, trying out a phrase I'd overheard a sixth grader use.
In our front entranceway, my mother sized me up. I sucked off the last of my popsicle and crunched it between my molars. She made a face and quickly slipped the Irish knit hoodie she'd made me for Christmas the year before from a hanger. When I wiggled into it, she zipped me up from behind. She was so close I smelled Sully's tomato juice on her breath. “We're just going to have to leave without him,” she said, “and we're going to have a great time, me and you, kiddo, right?”
I would have answered, but in her enthusiasm, she'd caught the underside of my chin in the zipper's teeth. She took my silence for a fervent “You bet!” and pushed me into the back seat of her car with my present.
“Open it,” she said, eyeing me in the rearview as she drove past a traffic controller waving for her to stop. She had not put on my father's jacket, had, in fact, not worn one of her own, either. “Go on,” she urged, “what are you waiting for?”
I slipped off the paper and folded it for recycling.
“It isn't Nikes.”
I opened the shoebox and was surprised to find a pair of real leather ballet slippers that my mother had already sewn the elastic straps into. She must have mail-ordered them since no leather products were sold in Green City. I would have been satisfied with just canvas slippers, so when I felt how soft the leather was, I screamed and bounced around despite my seatbelt. I turned the box upside-down and shook, entranced by a pair of shimmery pink tights, a long-sleeved black leotard, and a gauzy pink wraparound skirt trimmed with satin ribbon at the hem. There were even pastel hairbands, molasses-colored bobby pins, and a crocheted bun cover made from pink and silver-glitter yarn.
“You're letting me take ballet!”
Only the coolest parents in Green City let their daughters take ballet. Most, like my mother, were against it on the grounds that ballet, on principle, demeaned young girls who had no idea what they were getting their bodies into. For years my mother had objected, maintaining that young girls rode horses, played rugrat rugby, joined the sierra rangers. She argued with my father about how ballerinas' feet are molded into unnatural states, said no woman in her right mind would let her daughter study ballet based on the costume alone. If she'd ever seen a more ridiculous getup—namely the stiff tutu and the way it exposed the buttocks—may the Great Creator strike her down.
The Great Creator didn't.
“It's not about what you want,” my father argued. “It's what Penny wants. And she wants ballet lessons.”
Instructors at the Green City School of Ballet, he went on, quoting almost verbatim from the brochures I had supplied him with, were fully aware of the ballerina stigma. In response, they wished to promote the image of the female dancer as muscular, limber, healthy; and to do away with the tradition of ballerinas being lifted, tossed, and thrown about by males. Choreographers at the school were sure to include no moves of this kind. Boys could even study pointe if they wished, and girls could wear loose shorts and T-shirts, or even the black unitard, if they desired.
My mother's reflection beamed at me in the rearview. “Did you or did you not get straight A's on your report card?”
“I did,” I said. “I did!”
I even got an A in Mama Lox-Bleu's “How to Nurture Newborns” class, which was the worst, but not one person anywhere in Green City who was enrolled in a first-through-twelfth-grade class was exempt from taking it and changing diapers and preparing formula and all that. Parents dropped off their newborns at the House of Love every morning and picked them up at night. Some even rented rooms at Mama Lox-Bleu's B&B so they could be nearer. To remove the burden on parents of being their child's sole-responsible caretakers is a necessary community foundation. This was Rule #1 of “How to Nurture Newborns.” Rule #2 was: It takes a village.
“Did I or did I not say you could take ballet lessons if you earned straight A's?”
“You did,” I said.
My mother grinned. “Am I a woman of my word, or what?”
“You are,” I shouted, “you are, you are, you are!”
She pulled off the road and parked in an empty lot. She turned to face me and shivered. Behind her, through the windshield, the sun lit up the fine hairs on her bare upper arms. It caught her dark brown eyes and turned them gold. They looked like the glowing eyes of the stray cat that jumped into my bedroom window at night and yowled on my bed until I stroked her swollen belly. Back in the first grade, Mama Lox-Bleu herself took us on a field trip to Lazy J's Ranch to watch “the reality of life” as a mare gave birth to twin foals. It was bloodier than I had been prepared for. No matter how badly I wanted a kitten, I hoped the cat wasn't planning on giving birth on my bed.
My mother's lower jaw trembled, like her teeth were about to chatter. “Your father is not a bad man, no matter what you might hear. He didn't mean to spoil your birthday. He loves you very much and has a good reason for not being with us right now. You understand this, don't you?”
I nodded, wondering where he was.
She looked at me, lips pursed, then smiled wearily, put the car in drive, and drove out of the parking lot, past another traffic controller who scribbled down our license.
At Colonel Crazy's Fun House, the host at the podium wore green shamrock eyeglasses and a felt leprechaun's hat. “Happy St. Patty's Day,” she said.
“And happy birthday,” my mother said, placing her hands on my shoulders, “to my daughter, Penny, prima ballerina extraordinaire.”
On the walk through the dining room, my mother took one look at all the parents with green beer in their mugs and tightened her grip on my shoulders. I think the green beer reminded her of my father because I had been born early in the morning; and after spending the day with me in the newborns center, they checked into Mama Lox-Bleu's B&B and celebrated. My father ordered a bottle of champagne, but because it was St. Patty's Day, room service brought up a growler of green Enchanted Ale. They ended up getting wasted, woke with terrible hangovers, and neither drank green beer ever again.
“It was a one-time occasion,” my father once told me, “in honor of your birth.”
“It was disgusting,” my mother added. “I thought I was drinking pond water.”
Once the host showed us where our table was, my mother excused herself to go to the ladies' room, and she was in there a lot longer than it should have taken her to pee. I got so tired of waiting for her, I left and went to the arcade. When she finally found me at a skeeball machine, the skin around her eyes was pink and puffy like cotton candy. Later, after we shared a veggie calzone and cheese fries, she told our waitress to go ahead and compost our leftovers since we weren't taking them home with us. Then, she let me beat her on our tiebreaking, eleventh game of pinball and led me by the hand to the prize counter where I was one ticket shy of the seventy-five I needed for the pack of fake tattoos I got anyway because the ticket man was in a generous mood.
My mother had a real tattoo of a raven on her left hip which I had never known about until that night. She told me she kept it hidden for two reasons. The first was that ravens were vermin locals referred to as “dumpster chickens.” The second was that it was private anyway. At home, in her bathroom, she helped affix my “lick-em stick-ems” all over my body. We put Foxie Grapes on my left ankle, Joyful Jennie on my right, Mr. Marigold on my left calf, and Humming Howletta on the other. On my arms we put Molly Mumps, Angela Antlers, B.B. Soapsuds, and the Hollywood Lollipops. With a black magic marker, she drew a raven just like hers on my left hip.
“When I was in college,” she said, in a serious voice I didn't recognize, “my pledge sisters and I snuck away from actives one night and got tattoos. It was a rite of passage. There were seven of us, so we called ourselves the Seven Ravens. One of my sisters who was from Canada and whose people were the Kwakwaka'wakw, told us about a secret society called Hamatsa. In the winter, new members are initiated into the society with a dance. Now that you are going to be a dancer, you should know about the mythical man-eating raven.”
She blew on my hip, touched her handiwork with a fingertip, examined it for ruboff, and, once satisfied, shifted from her knees on the floor to her rump on the edge of the sink. “I suppose we fancied ourselves to be man-eaters, but not exactly in the same way. Well, maybe not me, but anyway,” she tilted her head and smiled down at me, softly, like a little girl, “now you are my sister, too.”
I laughed, in part because of the way she was talking and in part because my skin tingled where my tattoos were drying, but also because any idiot knew it was impossible for her to be my mother and my sister. I might have told her so but didn't want to spoil the moment, as it wasn't often she let me stay up past nine.
Still smiling, she spritzed me with her perfume, Daffodil Delight, which she wore so perpetually that I occasionally mistook the scent of daffodils outside or freshly cut in someone's home for her physical presence. It was embarrassing to go for a bike ride and slam the brakes and sometimes hit myself on the crossbar, suddenly thinking my mother was behind me or somewhere nearby.
It was nearly 10:30 when my tattoos dried, and we went downstairs to wait for my father on the couch. When Jay Leno laughed for the third time at his own opening monologue and my father still had not come home, my mother stood and told me to go upstairs and wait for her in their bedroom.
A few minutes later, she joined me wearing a pink paper hat and blowing a yellow-and-blue kazoo to the tune of “Happy Birthday.” In bed, beneath covers and propped up with several pillows each, we shared a long piece of the ice-cream cake which had, at my request, been airbrushed to replicate our only family portrait. She picked at my father's face as I devoured his shoulders, then his belly, and finally his legs, right down to his Bally loafers, which I sometimes wore and attempted to tap dance in, invisible top hat, horizontally-held cane and all, just to make my parents laugh at me when they weren't laughing with each other.