When I was ten, a girl named Nancy Horn lived up the street from us. Our neighborhood was shaped like a lower case n. At least that’s how I picture it now. She lived at the top of the n. We lived at the bottom of the right-hand-side of its leg.
Her parents were friends with my parents which made her my friend when our parents were being friendly. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have known much about Nancy or her brother, Ricky.
My brother got on better with Ricky than I did with Nancy. They were closer in age and their bedrooms looked similar. Rob would play with Ricky sometimes when our parents weren’t visiting with theirs. I had other friends, friends closer to my age, friends who had similar bedrooms, kitchen sets, and plastic food.
Nancy was a plump girl. During backyard BBQs she’d put away several hotdogs or hamburgers. I remember watching her on a few occasions, in awe of how many bunned meat products she could eat. Since my brothers and I were never big eaters, her ability—no, her desire to eat amazed me. We were often threatened with revoked beverage privileges during dinner in order to get us to eat more. And there were times we we were made to drink “fat shakes” because our mother wanted us to gain a little weight. (Oh how I wish I had that problem now.)
One time, there was a neighborhood party at Drew’s house. Drew’s family had a pool. Nancy ate a lot and completely disregarded the half-hour wait time one must adhere to before returning to swim. I watched in envy and horror. I was sure she’d sink and die. That’s what happens to kids who eat and then immediately return to the pool. Everyone knew that, everyone, except for Nancy.
Nancy didn’t have thumb knuckles, either. I know that sounds odd. It looked weirder than it sounds. I assure you. Her thumbs were opposable—she could bend them at the palm. But the knuckle that links one’s thump-tip to one’s bottom knuckle simply was not there. It was just one flesh-covered thumb bone. The strange part was that there weren’t any wrinkles, either, just smooth skin, smooth, unbent skin.
“Nancy is like a monkey!”
That’s what a lot of the neighborhood kids said. But I don’t remember why. But I do know that since then I have linked the monkey saying to her knuckle-less thumbs.
One year, the Horns decided to have a birthday party for Nancy. She wasn’t the most popular girl in the neighborhood, and I’m assuming she wasn’t the most popular girl in school, either. Which could be the only reason why Nancy’s parents decided to invite the entire neighborhood to the event.
I’ve never understood the phenomenon behind inviting an excessive number of people to a child’s birthday party. The cynical side of me, (the side who will probably do the exact same thing if I should ever become a parent), believes that a party like this is thrown for the parent as much as it is for the kid. Perhaps it’s an unconscious attempt at smoothing over the number of times someone in their life flat forgot about theirs. Perhaps the party they throw for their child will prove to be the most amazing party their kid will ever have. All future birthdays consisting of silent telephones, blurry toilet bowls, solo couples’ skate, half-empty restaurant booths sung to the tune of “nothing newer than another wrinkle” won’t matter. Perhaps a party like this is the “Get Out of Jail Free Card” for all future birthdays.
Even at age 10, I felt that this was a little desperate. But I loved ice cream cake from Carvel. And that’s all anyone ever got on their birthday where we grew up. If a party exceeded a certain number, there was always a store-bought cake. After all, there are only so many cupcakes a mother can make. Cake pans only seemed to come in certain sizes.
The party was on a Saturday. It was summertime. I remember this because my birthday in in January. I have always envied those who had summertime birthdays. I used to imagine things like, “If we lived in California or Florida, my birthday would be warm right now.” My birthdays have always taken place indoors.
Everyone showed up. The kids ran around and played. The parents drank beers and ate all things beige. They talked about things like secretaries, shrubbery, ski trips, new airline carriers, nuclear energy, customized vans, and indoor swimming pools.
I was really excited about the cake. I held back on the meat and bun consumption as well as the potato salad because I really, really wanted to have the cake. The chocolate chip crunchies that separate the chocolate from the vanilla were my favorite part. I simply could not wait to sink my face into that cake.
When the cake came and they put trick candles atop, she laughed with glee. Everyone stared and clapped as the candles miraculously turned themselves back on! Genius, was the person who came up with the trick candles. Genius, was the person who came up with a way to make a kid’s birthday even longer. But when this genius thought up the trick candle, he or she wasn’t thinking about Nancy. Nancy was excitable So when the candles relit, she became more, more winded. Spit began to fly from her cheeks. Like one of those cloud graphics seen hanging in a grammar school classroom, her chubby cheeks distributed wind and precipitation onto whatever lay below. In this case, it was a virgin Carvel ice cream cake. This cake was had already been digested by Nancy and she hadn’t even begun to eat it.
No one really touched that giant cake. Nancy dove in as did her parents and her brother, Rich. A few of the other kids came over and had a few pieces. Many of the adult stood back and sipped their beers. Birds could have flown by and pooped on it, no one would have cared. I come from a family who is predominantly grossed out by saliva. My mother used to gag at the sound of percolating juice machines in Hills; the Howleys left cakeless.
Later, I remember something my father said to my mother.
“Did you notice the only person eating that cake was Nancy? After what she put that thing through, no way I was going anywhere near it.”
All I could think about was all those uneaten chocolate crunchies, whose job it was to separate vanilla from chocolate, and how they rode sticky cream down to the green grass below them.