Joan Sledge: The Birthday Party by Barry B. Wright

The Family Within the Green Door

III

Damn my brother! Until our little talk, breaking up with Joan had never crossed my mind. Unfortunately for me, that possibility has managed to weasel itself into my daily thoughts. Now it’s stuck in place with Crazy glue. I thought the summer was filled with promise. In a way, I guess, I still do. Except now it’s tainted. Damn him anyway!  Caught in a conundrum to tell her or not, I finally decided on the latter. I had convinced myself that all this nasty stuff needed to play itself out.

Joan and I continued to spend our afternoons together. In my mind forever was still part of our equation. Often I brought my F.W. Woolworth guitar. My parents bought it for me three years ago. Though I wasn’t very good, Joan insisted on me playing and singing Honey Comb and Dream, her two favorites. She howled when I sang Hound Dog. I welcomed her laughter; it was contagious. We continued to share our dreams. I pretended to capture hers and to lock them in my heart. Gleefully, she giggled every time I did it. The lilt of her voice and the sweet scent of her perfume continued to affect me in ways I have never felt before. Oh, how we kissed.

Our time together melted away too quickly. And, with it, so did my concerns about breaking up.

Joan’s home was different from the others in the neighborhood. It was the only one with a green door and a small green window beside it. Beyond the door I was told there was an anteroom. I guess it made sense since her dad ran his clinic from the home. Sadly, I had heard that the community didn’t think much of him as a doctor. They said he had lost his marbles, had become queer in the head, since his wife’s untimely death. Except for the Duffy family, a family of twelve, his practice was non-existent.  But, I liked him. He and Joan had come out a couple of evenings to watch me play ball. Though my team got trounced on both occasions, her dad always had a kind, supportive word or two to share. For me, that made him a double thumbs up sort of guy.

Except for those two occasions and, I must say, I found this strange, she was never allowed out in the evening. She made it plain that it wasn’t a topic she cared to discuss. Wisely, I guess, I did not pursue it. Sometimes, it’s best not to know the answer. Still, it continued to tweak my curiosity.

Standing at her door, I took in a deep breath and knocked. Until today, sitting on the swing chair with her on the back patio is the closest I had come to being inside her home. I felt nervous and self-conscious. Why I felt this way, I do not know. The guitar slung over my shoulder suddenly felt awkward and heavy. Precariously, I shifted the position of both gift and guitar and waited.

The pleasantness of her father’s smile welcomed me at the door. Normally his eyes were awash with playfulness and wisdom but today I discerned a hint of sadness. A steely proud man whatever the problem, he elicited the bearing of a military officer and the demeanor of an English country gentleman. Proud, strong and fair, his words were soft, reassuring and precise. He took my gift and pointed me along the grey hued hallway toward a room at the end. The living room and what I took to be his office because of the amply filled floor to ceiling bookcases were both heavily curtained. Layered in shadows and pockets of darkness, they offered no welcoming threshold. Though I could not account for it, the pores of this old house oozed with sadness. I felt like I was an interloper in a history that I could not possibly understand; yet its tentacles reached out for me.

Sunlight and dancing dust particles flooded out from the room at the end of the hall. My pace quickened. That’s where Joan waited.

She kissed me full on the lips. I felt my face flush with embarrassment when I realized that her father had entered with me.

“Um, happy birthday,” I exhaled, words stumbling out awkwardly.

Her father snickered as he placed my gift on the dining room table.

Her face beamed. “Oh, good, you did remember to bring your guitar. See, dad, I told you he wouldn’t forget.”

I don’t know why she asked me to bring it. She knew I wasn’t very good. “Where can I put it so that it will be safe?” I asked, scanning the room for a secure location.

“Let me,” her father volunteered. “When you’re ready I’ll bring it to you.”

Taking the guitar from me, he examined it. Glancing at me in astonishment, he said: “I’m looking forward to hearing you play.”  I must have looked dumbfounded because he continued. “Don’t be so humble. It’s okay to be a prodigy. Joan never told me how accomplished you must be.” Positioning his fingers on the struts he played a few chords. And he took in a deep breath. “A Martin D-45…my, my…this is a rock star among guitars. You must feel privileged to own such a guitar?”

Mouth agape, not knowing what to say, I nodded.

“Be assured, it will be placed in a safe location, promise.”

My askance glance at Joan when he left must have said it all because she began to giggle.

“Do you have any idea what that was all about?”

Shaking her head and shrugging she took my hand. “It must be something special.”

“What makes you say that?”

“The way he was handling it—kid gloves and all that like a newborn baby. Well is it?”

“Is it what?”

“Special?”

“Nah, it’s just an old guitar of my dad’s. That’s all.”

My overly casual treatment of the subject belied a growing uneasiness. Grounded two weeks for the broken window was still very fresh in my mind. It sucked. And I did not want a repeat. I would have asked my dad except he was out of town on business. I had no way to reach him. Still… I could have cleared it with mom. “Anyway, who’s coming?”  I asked, trying to divert my decision..

Her reluctance to readily answer my query surprised me.

Tugging my hand she led me out into the hallway toward the kitchen.

Was this a diversionary tactic? Anyway, what was the big deal about who was coming?

“Close your eyes. Don’t open until I tell you,” she instructed.

I smacked my head against the door frame. “Gee, Joan”

“I’m sorry,” came her quick reply as she more judiciously maneuvered me into the kitchen. “You can open them now.”

Vigorously rubbing my head, my eyes followed the direction of her extended index finger to the middle of the kitchen table. On it was strawberry shortcake decked out with fourteen unlit birthday candles.

Strawberry shortcake was my numero uno of desserts. But it wasn’t hers. Hers was chocolate cake—double chocolate to be exact.

Was I about to walk the plank? And this was her way to help soften the plunge?

“Ah…I’m a little loss with what’s going on.” My index finger couldn’t resist scraping some cream with a large strawberry on it and inserting it into my mouth.

She slapped my hand. “Shame on you! Others are to eat that. And take that sheepish grin off your face. It won’t help you.”

Obtaining a knife from the drawer, she smoothed out the location of my infraction.

“There, that’s better,” she said, eyeing me out of the corner of her eye. Several seconds passed before she spoke. “We need to talk.There’s something you need to know.”

“There is?”

She bit hard on her lower lip. I’ve got to know her well enough to know that that was not a good sign.

“You first,” I managed to say. I could tell by the question mark on her face that my reply had momentarily readjusted her trend of thought. Not known to her, I had decided that this was as good a time as any to discuss what was troubling me.

If she had had a pet, right then a there I would have sworn she was about to tell me it had died. Huge gobs of tears filled her eyes.

Whatever it was she was about to say, in that moment it was lost forever.

Following her stare into the space behind me, I came face to face with my nemesis, Chris Brannon.