An unexpected act of violence at a children’s party in the suburbs
By David Rowell
On the morning their son turned three, Ellis Blake and his wife, Sarah, were relieved to wake up to the scattered beams of sunlight coming through their bedroom window. No matter what might go wrong with the birthday party that morning, at least there wouldn’t be rain. For a few minutes they lay in bed whispering about the wonder of their son, George, being three years old, and then about what still needed to be done for the party—or rather, she talked, and he became drowsy again. Talking about the party made her anxious, and she soon untangled herself from the sheets. She told Ellis he didn’t have to get up just yet, but in a few minutes she came back in and changed her mind.
Because it was a child’s birthday party, the events of the day were predictably scripted. There were more decorations to put up, and the tension in the house would peak just before the guests arrived, and then a sense of calm would take hold again before the first knock on the door. The conversations between parents would all be stop-and-start, but the adults knew better than to expect anything more satisfying. The seven children attending would struggle to restrain themselves while George opened his presents, but they would eat their cake with contentment, with only a couple of momentary breakdowns at the sight of pieces being served to others when they hadn’t yet received theirs. In the last stretch of the party they would chase a large inflated ball—twice their height and as wide as four of them side by side—with a remarkable sense of togetherness, as if their very lives were meant for this activity. Finally, everyone would gather around the piñata, and that is when the party would veer from its expected course.
In the days before, the stress of preparing for the party had overtaken Sarah. For the theme, she and George had decided on construction work. Most of the other parties they attended centered around Star Wars or bizarre-looking Japanese anime characters or Dora the Explorer, and eschewing what she saw as crass marketing juggernauts in favor of a theme (The value of hard work! Development!) pleased her. But the night before, as she filled the kitchen with the props she had bought—small orange cones, reels of construction-zone yellow tape, miniature tape measures, plastic construction helmets, and little road signs she had made—she began to cry.
“It looks cheap,” Sarah said to Ellis. “Everything is so flimsy. It’s all going to get torn or fall apart, and I’m going to spend the whole party picking little things off the floor.”
Ellis reached out and balanced one of the small helmets on his head, which he realized—too late—might only aggravate her more.
“Well, just say the theme of the party is what wears away,” he said. “Or it’s about the flimsiness of our society, our pathetic need for material goods.”
“Please don’t talk like you’re on NPR,” she said, then made a mock pouty face to soften her harshness. She was not done with her self-pity, but her rants about her own failures had also taken on a tiresome note of late, even for her. She wiped her cheeks and began pushing all the party items into the corner, and then she and Ellis lumbered upstairs. As she stepped into the shower, she said, “Next year we’ll just rent out a hotel bar.”
When she stepped out, Ellis was wrapping the last of the presents on the bed. He stopped to examine a clear bag containing two plastic fishing poles and little red and blue fish with magnets fixed in their mouths. “Does he even know what fishing is yet?” he asked.
“I think it’s all right,” Sarah said, her tired voice scraping along her throat. “Either way, it’s just a toy. We didn’t teach him about Dian Fossey when we got him that gorilla.”
“I don’t know if that’s exactly parallel,” Ellis said.
She gathered the presents and paper in her arms and put them on the floor. Then she got under the sheets and reached over to turn out the light.
After a couple of minutes passed, Ellis whispered, “I’m still in my clothes.”
Ellis and Sarah had been married seven years. When people asked—at parties or at small dinner get-togethers—how they had come together, Ellis liked to say that he had simply worn her down. Sarah didn’t like how this sounded, and she would playfully scold him when he said it, but she could not deny the truth. He had overwhelmed her with his devotion. All these years later, he still looked at her as if she were a beautiful stranger on a street corner. He was easily forgiving, which she frequently took advantage of, and it occurred to her that if she had married someone who adored her less, she might like herself better.
Sarah had worked as a literary agent, but by the time George was born, she and Ellis had agreed that she would be the one to stay home with him. Ellis made his living as a ghost writer, working with celebrities who were in the twilight of their careers or public figures whose names had briefly dominated national news because of some scandal. The money was reasonably good, and he and Sarah had little in the way of financial struggles, but these projects also had left Ellis little time for his own writing. But now he had his first book, or believed that he did. For the last six months he had been researching an obscure baseball figure named Darryl Deans, an outfielder for the Kansas City Royals who, at 34 years old, over a three-game series against the Chicago White Sox in 1972, hit nine home runs—a major league record. Before that series he had never hit more than 12 in a season, and he played for two more years for three other teams, hitting five more for the rest of his career. Ellis was convinced that he could make this a riveting story about brief athletic genius, about the damaging nature of fame and obscurity in the sports world. Deans would be dead by the end of the ’70s from choking on a bottle cap (in his proposal Ellis had called this “both a terrible tragedy and an oddly fitting end to one of the most mysterious figures who ever donned a major league uniform.”) Since Ellis had tracked down plenty of teammates, broadcasters, managers, and coaches, he was convinced he could write the book, but Ellis’s editor, Tate Templeton, who still looked all of 20 years old and chewed on straws when they met, hadn’t yet committed to it. In their last meeting, after Ellis had passionately described the phone conversation he had with Deans’s first wife, Tate popped a fresh straw in his mouth and looked up at the roof of the drab Chinese restaurant they were sitting in.
“I want to like this,” he said. “I mean, it’s you. Come on. But here’s the thing, and I’m just going to say this, and don’t take it the wrong way because you know I think you’re great: it may just be that you’re better as a ghost.”
That morning, Ellis and Sarah tiptoed downstairs and began to wrap strands of yellow tape with “Work Zone” printed on one side around the kitchen. When George eventually called out from his bed, they both rushed up the stairs, their giddiness reawakened, and climbed into his small bed, kissing him and telling him the story of the day he was born.
The guests were due at three, and the grandparents came over early that morning, certain that they were needed—or at least the grandmothers were certain. The grandfathers were like pieces of furniture for such occasions; they just needed to be in the right room at the right time. When the two elderly men slipped off their coats and situated themselves in the two easy chairs in the den, one of them called out, “Let us know how we can help,” and hoped no one would.
Much to Sarah’s astonishment, Ellis had scheduled an interview at noon that he promised would keep him away from the house for no more than an hour and a half. He had tracked down Deans’s first hitting coach in the minors, Dusty Lavar, who was now in a nursing home two towns over. “The son wants to meet first before he introduces me, and apparently the son is rarely around,” Ellis had explained to Sarah in various attempts that week. “I’ll just meet him, he’ll see that I’m a good guy, and after that I should be able to visit all I need to, without the son. I will not let George down. Or you.”
Until leaving for the nursing home, it was Ellis’s job to keep George occupied, as Sarah and her mother and mother-in-law finished the preparations. While counting out paper plates and cups, Sarah’s mother tried to recall Sarah’s third birthday, but she was also preoccupied with what three-year olds might swallow.
“Could they get this tape measure in their mouths?” she asked, holding one up.
“No,” Sarah said without looking over.
“Well, I don’t know,” she said. “Children can do lots of things you’re sure they can’t.”
“That boy’s not three years old,” Sarah’s father called from the other room. “He’s 13. Look at him.”
“I’m three years old!” George insisted. He was on the floor with Ellis, lining up his farm animals.
“You might be 30,” the other grandfather said back.
“No!” George said.
“Don’t upset him, now,” Ellis’s mother called out. “Don’t antagonize him.”
“Come here, you,” Ellis’s father said to George. “I haven’t even seen you yet. What did I come here for if I can’t even get a good look at you?”
The McIntyre Home was a long, red-brick building with fresh trim and a handsome, hand-painted sign out front that read, “We never stop caring.” Ellis sat on a bench, alternately staring at his watch and studying two women in walkers move up and down the walkway, as if warming up for a race.
Dusty Lavar’s son was late, and when 15 more minutes passed, Ellis stepped inside the building, where what smelled like formaldehyde and body odor immediately sent him into a coughing fit.
“Can I help you?” the woman at the front desk asked in a nonchalant voice. She was used to first-time visitors reacting to the air with some mild shock.
“I’m here to see Dusty Lavar, really, but I was supposed to meet his son out front first. I don’t guess he’s with Mr. Lavar now.”
The woman, who was built like a washing machine, shook her head and yawned. “No, we haven’t seen him today.” Ellis could see a series of tube-shaped pencil marks on a word-search puzzle in front of her.
He glanced at his watch and imagined Sarah glancing at hers.
“Okay,” Ellis said and went back out to wait some more. The women with walkers were moving more deliberately now, their thin gowns blowing in the breeze against their legs, which were veined with as much color as George’s finger paintings stuck to the refrigerator. Ten minutes later Ellis went back inside and said, “Maybe I’ll just go back and say hello to Mr. Lavar, if that’s all right.”
“You need me to show you the way?” the woman said without looking up from her puzzle.
“I would.” With some effort she got to her feet and led Ellis down the long hall, then turned into the last room, knocking on the door but not waiting for an answer. “How are you today, Mr. Lavar?”
Ellis remained in the doorway. Dusty Lavar was sitting in his hospital bed, his thin neck craning toward a transistor radio on his bedside table, which didn’t seem to be on. His face was the color of walnuts and almost completely hidden by a pair of thick-rimmed glasses tilted diagonally across the bridge of his nose. He wore a pajama top buttoned at the throat, and a thin blanket was pulled up to his chest.
“You have a visitor,” she said and motioned for Ellis to walk in.
“Hello, Mr. Lavar,” Ellis said. “I’m Ellis Blake. I was going to meet your son here today; he said it would be all right if I could talk to you a little bit about your baseball days. He said he was going to talk to you about it, make sure that was okay. I know he’s not here yet, but would that be all right? To talk to you just a little bit.”
“Baseball,” Dusty said at last in an airy voice.
“Yes, sir,” Ellis said. The receptionist was on her way back to her desk. “I know all about your time in baseball—or I should say, I’ve learned a lot about your time. I certainly don’t know everything. I know you played in the major leagues for quite a while, played for St. Louis, Boston, Detroit.”
Dusty smiled faintly, and Ellis could see the face cave in where his teeth once were.
After a moment, Ellis said, “Do you like talking about baseball, Mr. Lavar?”
Dusty’s bony fingers came out from the blanket and touched his chin. He began sliding toward his radio again.
Ellis tried to keep his mouth upturned. “Do you remember much about your days playing baseball?” he asked, aware of how loudly he was speaking. “Playing, coaching. I know you were a hitting coach for a number of years, and that’s one of the things I was hoping I could talk to you about.”
Dusty began to chomp on his bottom lip, his eyes watery and fixed on Ellis.
“How do,” Dusty said. And then his eyes closed. Ellis looked away for a time, then occasionally peered back at him, wondering if those eyes would open again anytime soon.
The children invited to the party belonged to mothers from Sarah’s mothers group, which she had been attending since George was a year old. They were all members of a progressive Episcopalian church and led by the young music director’s brash wife, who complained to the group that her husband wasn’t exciting and had few clues about her sexual needs. At first the catty tone of the group left Sarah uneasy, but now it was the event she looked forward to most each week, and she became sullen if she had to miss it for a sudden appointment with the pediatrician or if George had been weepy all morning, and she knew the church nursery would not keep him in such a state.
Most of the mothers were in their mid- to late-30s, and many of them had given up their law careers or their low-paying social work jobs, sacrifices for which they had not fully forgiven themselves—or their husbands. Sometimes there was a guest speaker who might talk about the plight of Africa or parenting in the digital age, or perhaps a local author would come and discuss her book, but the group better enjoyed the sessions that were open-ended, when any of them could talk about what was going on in her life. There was a great comfort in the shared knowledge that these were demanding years—this period of listening to their husbands grouse about their work while the mothers coordinated their days around play dates and potty training and naps and the schedules of house cleaners and painters and landscape crews; of not having enough time to go the gym and watching their bodies gradually thicken. They coined a phrase for this time—the PIDS: Pretend It Doesn’t Suck. And this was one more way they coped.
Ellis got back to the house 25 minutes before the party was to begin, and when he found Sarah in the kitchen, he was relieved to find her looking almost serene. The decorations were all in place, and she was talking to the two grandmothers.
“There he is,” Ellis’s mother said. “In time for his son’s party.”
“It was never in doubt,” he said and worked up the nerve to kiss Sarah on the lips, which she allowed, though her lips remained pressed together.
“Never,” Sarah said in a tone intended to be playful, but his shoulders went up just the same.
As the first of the mothers began knocking on the front door, the grandfathers got to their feet and greeted them, saying to their children, “Tell me your name,” and “I see you brought me a gift,” and generally causing them to hide behind their mothers’ legs. Only one husband came along with his wife—Allen Wellton—which did not surprise Ellis. Allen seemed to never have a choice in these matters.
The mothers made the predictable fuss over how the house was decorated, though Sarah thought she could detect some effort in their remarks. The kitchen soon became crowded, and Ellis spotted Allen in the doorway of the screened-in porch, where some children were serving each other plastic food and feigning the motions of a cooking staff under duress.
“I see you have slipped naturally into the wallflower role for the party,” Ellis said, and clapped his hand on Allen’s shoulder.
Allen sipped from a too-small paper cup and regarded the jubilant commotion in the kitchen. “A good showing from the mothers’ group,” he whispered. Then he looked over again to consider their proximity. “The original witches’ coven.”
“Whoa,” Ellis said. “How do you mean?”
“Well, they’re all perfectly friendly,” Allen said, “but together they’re like a lynch mob when it comes to the husbands. Individually, I like them, but as a group, they have that pack mentality. They’re killers.”
“Do you know Bailey Shields? Hannah’s father? Does George play with her? He’s Lisa’s husband. Anyway, I don’t know if Sarah tells you about these things, but they were going through a rough time for a while. Bailey had an affair. I don’t know how long it lasted, and it might have been just a one-time thing. But he got caught. They didn’t get divorced, though. They were trying to work it out. But Lisa talked a lot about what they were going through at the mothers group, which, you know, is fine. That’s what they’re for, I guess. But I ran into him not all that long ago, and we got to talking, and he was telling me a few things, and he said he was convinced that the mothers group was harassing him. He said he got five or six calls a day at work, and the person on the other end would never say a thing. They’d just sit there on the other end and breathe. He said this went on for weeks.”
“Why would he think that was someone from the mothers’ group?” Ellis said. “If you’ve had an affair, seems like there could maybe be a few people who could create problems for you. Maybe it was the woman he had an affair with. Or maybe she had a husband. Isn’t that kind of weird to think it was someone from the mothers’ group?”
“No, he thought it was all of them,” Allen said, and looked over his shoulder once more. “Doing it together. And I believe him. Wendy says Sarah doesn’t talk much in the group, and you’re one of the ones who comes off best. But they’re like that. They’re a pack of wolves. Apparently they think I’m a jerk because I have to work late. But I don’t screw around, so they’re at least civil to me.”
In the kitchen the children pounded little hammers against some heavy cardboard boxes Sarah had painted to resemble workbenches. Sarah’s mother was leading the activity and was frustrated that her husband wasn’t there with the camera. “I don’t know how I’m going to get up from this floor,” she told one of the children.
After a few games, Sarah announced that it was time to open presents. Everyone huddled around as she whispered to George to say thank you each time and not to say, “I already have this,” if he did. Then she kissed his forehead. Ellis aimed the video camera, and the mothers delivered perfect versions of oooohs and aaaahs as each present was revealed.
Next it was time to have the cake, which Sarah had ordered this year; the cake was shaped like the head of a screw, but this was not obvious to everyone. Sarah liked to bake, though she could not convince herself of any real success she had ever had. Most of the mothers insisted on splitting their pieces with each other, but that proved to be too confusing, so they ate and complained, as they did at every birthday party, that they could not eat anything for the rest of the day.
Afterward, Sarah led all the children outside. It was Ellis’s job to interest them in the big Earth ball he had taken to a gas station to inflate the night before. On the way home it had already become smaller, and Sarah sent him back out to try it again. One of the attendants from the garage had noticed his troubles, and helped him secure the plastic stopper inside the hole, his oil-stained finger holding the ball steady.
“It looks like you’re getting something on Greenland, there,” Ellis had pointed out quietly.
Now he was running alongside the ball, shouting, “Who’s going to inherit the Earth?” and as the children chased him their shrieks drifted through the tops of the trees. When he finally left them to play on their own and stepped onto the deck, one of the mothers said, “Our house is filled with battery-operated toys, and all children really need is something that rolls.”
The children ran around for a time, but they eventually became winded and unsure what to do with themselves. They were well gorged. They could still taste the cake in their mouths, and they would not have put up a protest if their mothers had gathered them up right then and put them in their car seats.
By the tallest oak tree in the yard a piñata fashioned as a baseball hung from the lowest limb. It was the one prop Sarah had put Ellis in charge to buy, and she was disappointed by what he had found.
“They don’t make them in the shape of a hammer or a drill,” he had explained, but it was clear that Sarah believed she would have found exactly what she wanted had she taken care of this herself—a piñata drill, a piñata chainsaw. Sarah was further embarrassed that they didn’t have anything with which to strike the piñata but Ellis’s old wood softball bat. For years Ellis had played in a weekend league, stopping only when George was born, but to Ellis’s lament he had proven to be a better fielder than a hitter. As a third baseman he was considered by his teammates to have a respectable arm, but as a hitter he had always been average. He tended to hit downward, which meant he rarely delivered more than hard groundouts to second or short.
These days he kept the bat under his bed in case there was ever an intruder. At night, if his toes brushed against it as he was getting into bed, he would spend his last waking minutes imagining a confrontation with an intruder. Ellis liked the idea of discovering an intruder armed with a knife or a crowbar (never a gun) who had slipped through the basement window, knocking his arm away with the bat, then swinging it once—fiercely—and connecting with the side of the man’s head. Ellis was not a violent man, and had no temper to speak of, but the notion of surprising everyone with his strength—especially Sarah—was an enjoyable one. He could imagine the whole story being written up in the Metro section of the local paper, with calls coming in from everyone he knew, asking how in the world did he do it.
Sarah had wanted a wiffle ball bat for the piñata—to her mind, the softball bat was too grown-up, too dangerous—but none of the stores had them in stock this time of year, and Ellis assured her that a plastic wiffle bat would be ineffective. And she didn’t like the idea of taking a saw to one of her good pine brooms.
For the last time that day Sarah called out to get the children’s attention. “Who knows what we call this?” she said, gesturing to the piñata, and she could feel the strain in her voice, in the muscles around her mouth, and tried not to look at anyone but the children.
“A baseball,” one boy called out.
“Well, that’s right, it is a baseball,” she said. “But if it’s a baseball filled with candy and goodies, what do we call that?”
“The final act,” one of the mothers shouted, and a laughter rang out too loud to be convincing.
“This is a piñata,” Sarah said, “and we’re going to see if we can break it open for everyone by swinging really hard. Everyone gets a turn, and you have to make sure no one is around when you swing, so no one gets hurt. She scanned the group for Ellis. “You’re in charge. It’s the Man Show now.”
Ellis took the bat from Sarah. “OK, the birthday boy is going to swing first, then everyone gets a turn. All right, George’s the birthday boy, so he’s the first big hitter. Come on up, George.”
George was trying to put his finger in a girl’s ear until one of the grandmothers put her arms around him and helped him to the front of the line. George let the heavy bat rest on his shoulders and stepped up to the piñata, eyeing it with little interest. Then he dragged the bat lazily through the air, bumping it against the cardboard baseball. On cue, the adults gave an encouraging cheer.
“Let’s say one more time,” Ellis said. “Come on George, let’s see you really hit it this time.” George had never shown much desire to hit anything.
George puckered his mouth and swung the bat again, more determined, this time glancing it off the side. He was relieved to hand the bat to his father and take his place in the back of the line.
The results from the other children were not much different. One boy who knew how to hold the bat straight delivered an impressive blow to the middle, which made a small dent but did not open the thick cardboard exterior. He shrugged with the resignation of an old golf hack and offered the bat back to Ellis. And on it went until the children’s attention began to waver, and the mothers could no longer take interest in how their children did when it was their turn.
“OK, honey,” Sarah said at last to Ellis. “Better put the thing out of its misery.”
“Are you speaking more generally?” he whispered.
Ellis gripped the bat, pleased with how it looked there. Holding the bat at that moment, his hands curled around the smooth wood, he was surprised to feel so young and strong. Sarah called the children back a few steps as Ellis squared up to the ball, and he heard one of the mothers call out mockingly, “Knock it out, slugger.”
He paid attention to how he spaced his feet, and he followed through with the bat once, slowly, to mark the direction he intended to swing, which caused another to call out, “Uh-oh, someone is getting serious.”
This drew a few hoots, but Ellis was not listening. When he pulled the bat back at last, Ellis felt only vaguely aware of everyone around him. Later, he would be unable to fully recall the force with which he swung, but in that instant he was blissfully aware of the speed at which the bat was slicing through the air. He was aware of the way his biceps connected to his deltoids, the trapezius’s connection to the rotator cuffs in his shoulders, the quiet snap emitting from them. He was also aware of the synapses in his brain, which showed him every pitch he had missed as a boy, standing uncertainly over home plate, and also the faces of the men from the local softball league—a few members of his church, a few neighbors, men who took the same commuter train into the city—and their tight smirks at each other as they moved a little closer infield, preparing themselves for yet another ground ball that Ellis was going to send their way.
When the bat connected to the piñata, Ellis’s arms swung through, across his body. His right toe dug into the ground, and his shoulders rolled backward and sprang forward again. For a moment he was disoriented, as if had just awakened from a dream. As everything in front of him came back into focus, what he realized first was that there was little left of the piñata, a sight that left him startled. The contents—the hard candies and lollipops in their clear wrappings, and all the many crayons he had watched Sarah place inside—were not spilling out. And then the flash that had flickered across his line of sight—a multicolored burst that didn’t fully register—replayed and revealed itself in his mind. He had knocked everything to oblivion.
He had never known a hush so awful. In those seconds afterwards he couldn’t bring himself to look directly into the faces of anyone. He heard himself breaking the silence first. “Huh-oh,” he said quietly, which he might have intended as something of a comic note, but this would not be nearly enough to save him.
“Yikes,” he heard Allen call out.
“Where is all the candy?” George asked.
“It’s out there in the bushes,” one mother said.
“What’s left of it,” said another.
He could not look at Sarah, and could feel the further shame in being so cowardly. He turned the bat over in his hands and held the handle to the ground. Out of the corner of his eye he saw his mother-in-law walking toward the other end of the yard, then bending down to pick something up. “Here’s one,” she called, though even at that distance he could see the candy was broken in pieces in its wrapper.
The children, understanding the thing had now become a treasure hunt, fanned out with a beleaguered sense of duty. Gathering a reasonable portion of treats would require effort, and they were too tired to exert much. The mothers, whom he now glanced at quickly, had their faces arranged in what they thought were subtle looks of being appalled, but what else could he expect? Wasn’t this when they were at their best?
“Not only do I not know my own strength, I guess we’re not even acquainted,” he said to anyone, looking down, but he immediately regretted it. It was more of that forced humor that Sarah disliked so. He spent hours each day writing exactly this kind of bland banter—the kind of sentences that got the autobiographer to say, “Hey I like that. I like that a lot. Can you write more like that?”—and it had become a troublesome reflex. That he could not be directly apologetic in such situations only made Sarah all the more furious.
“I see some pieces,” he heard Sarah say in a bewildered singsong, and he watched her take two little girls over to one of the shrubs, where a bright piece glittered up top.
Ellis knew enough that he was supposed to do the same, to help the children find the remains, but there were no children left needing assistance. He looked worse for just standing there, holding his weapon, and he dropped it on the ground and tried to quickly gather some pieces in his hands. Each crayon he came across in the grass was neatly snapped in two, and since no child would be pleased with a broken crayon, he scooped the bits into his pocket.
“Nice job, Raging Bull,” Allen said, coming up behind him. He looked into Ellis’s hands, examining the pitiful remains. Allen was feeling very grateful that this had not happened to him, and superior for once.
Ellis offered him a feigned chuckle, then looked again over at Sarah. She was helping George and another boy, and he could hear the false animation in her voice. The rest of the mothers had grown tired of being hunched over, and they stood now, watching the children but unable to listen to them. When Ellis saw the mothers look at each other, he understood what they were conveying without having to speak. Let’s hear it for the psycho husband.
At the end of the party, Sarah and Ellis gathered the bags of treats to hand out: small decorative sacks with mini-tools and construction stickers, Hot Wheels cement trucks. They had not spoken since the piñata, except in rushed reminders here at the door, and she kept turning her body away from him without being obvious. The children lined up to leave. They looked forward to watching the houses roll by from their car seats, and they would let their mothers play their own music for a change, without a thought to protest.
The mothers leaned over and kissed Sarah on the cheek, said they would see her Wednesday at mothers group, and rubbed George’s hair and asked their children, “What do you to say to George and his parents for having you at his birthday party?” and sometimes the children could think to say something and sometimes they could not, and it did not matter much either way to anyone. One mother said to Ellis, “See you, Babe,” but worried that the joke wasn’t clear and quickly added, “See you, Hank Aaron.” Another mother said, “Smashing good time, Ellis,” and lightly jabbed him in the stomach.
When everyone had left, the grandparents let themselves sink into the thick upholstered chairs and the couch and let out deep sighs.
“Well, I think everyone had a good time,” said Sarah’s mother. “They sure are cute, those children.”
George was working a new dump truck in the middle of the room, loading and emptying again a heap of wrapping paper.
“He certainly got some nice things,” Ellis’s mother said. “I don’t know where you’re going to put everything. So many toys.” She and her husband always gave money.
“Sit down a minute and rest,” Sarah’s mother said to Sarah and Ellis, who were standing by the door. But Sarah pretended to be concerned with the wreckage in the kitchen—the smeared paper plates, the cups half-filled with juice, the party streamers and big new gift boxes teetering on the table’s edge.
“I’m going to get some things in order first,” she said.
“I’ll help,” Ellis said, and moved toward the kitchen.
“No, don’t help me,” Sarah said. “Not in here. You can go outside and pick up any last trash, straighten up. That’s something you can do.”
“Sure,” Ellis said in his sad voice. As he walked to the back door he could feel Sarah’s eyes on the back of his head. He could feel her measure the way he walked, the way his shoulders slumped slightly, and he could feel her watching his cowlick bob in the back. He could feel her watching his large ears.
There wasn’t much to pick up outside—the bat, two paper cups, a little hammer, and then part of the shell of the piñata, which he plucked off the limb of the dogwood tree. As he peered inside, he saw a lone crayon, unbroken. Peach.
Already he could imagine the way Sarah would meet the other mothers when they saw each other on Wednesday. They would say, “Oh, we had such a good time,” and Sarah would shake her head, casting her eyes down, and say, “Oh my God, what a disaster. I could have killed Ellis.” They would only pretend for so long that they had no idea what she was talking about, then they would eagerly list their husbands’ long list of public embarrassments.
Through the kitchen window he could see Sarah bob in and out of view. She was, he decided, letting herself be visible without looking at him. He knew that one well enough. She was standing at the sink, her eyes fixed on whatever she was scrubbing. He moved closer to the house, under the window, and continued to study her. If he was someone looking to rob this house, he thought, this is where he would stand. He would watch this woman until she finished what she was doing and wait for the lights to go out, first in this room, and then, eventually, in all the others. And then he’d wait some more before setting to the job at hand.
Sarah’s arms moved back and forth until she reached for something to the side. In that instant, Ellis was certain she had turned her gaze out into the yard, to where he had been standing.
He noticed a wrapper and reached down for it when the phone rang. He heard just the first ring—had she picked it up that quickly? Sarah was no longer visible in the kitchen window. Ellis backed up, scanning the house, but she had moved out of sight.
David Rowell is an editor at The Washington Post and the author of The Train of Small Mercies, published by Putnam.
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