“It’s Joe’s birthday today, isn’t it?” Gramma asked when she walked into our house. It was like our house had become Gramma’s house as well now. I didn’t like that because this was my house and other people were not supposed to be here. I was supposed to be in my house so I didn’t have to be around other people. Gramma came and lived in our house two days a week because we were scared of her doing something she shouldn’t. I didn’t understand how she’d lived in a house for many years and been alright but that now she needed people to take care of her, as if she were a little girl. “I don’t remember what day it is, but that’s the kind of thing you can’t forget. It’s in your gut.”
“Yes, it is,” Mother said.
“I’m think I’m gonna call Joe and wish him a happy birthday.”
“But Mom, we just saw him.”
“Yes, and you told him. And we had cake.”
“Oh my, we did?” Gramma tried to laugh but she looked like she was about to cry. Even though my teachers told me that these things are very different, I think they are very similar and very easy to mistake. “Goodness me, I just can’t trust this memory, now can I?”
Gramma sat down by the window and looked to me. “Cricket, honey, could you get my phone? I want to call your Pop.”
“I don’t think you’re supposed to have the phone.”
“Gracious, why not? It seems like every time I’m at someone’s house, they don’t want me to call my own husband!”
I didn’t say anything because I really didn’t know why she couldn’t call Pop. I knew Pop would get angry at hearing her talk and I guess I would too. I didn’t like phones and I didn’t like people talking to me.
Gramma looked up at the ceiling. “Today’s the twenty third, right?”
“No, it’s the nineteenth.” And I knew I was right, because I was autistic, and autistic people remember numbers well, Mother’s friend from church said.
“I could’ve sworn Joe’s birthday was the twenty third.” Her eyes squinted up a little. Her lips quivered like she peed her pants, like she was not supposed to have to ask this question. “Yes, his birthday’s the twenty third.”
“No, today’s the nineteenth.”
“The days all run together, now don’t they!” Gramma wiped her eyes and smiled. “Well today is your Pop’s birthday, I think. So we should keep our chin up!”
I ran out of the room and closed myself in my room. I know I’m not supposed to scream when Gramma’s in the house, so I pushed my face into a pillow and bit it.
Our house was very small. I liked that it was small when no one was around because it closed in on me and kept me safe and protected. It was like the number 44, wrapping around me and holding me in my proper place. Orange, like the fire in the fireplace that gave you a hug without actually giving you a hug. Which I liked.
But when people were in the house, it suddenly felt small in the bad way. It felt like people were touching me. I don’t like people touching me. My doctor said it’s normal for people like me to feel like that. When people touch me, I feel it all in me. You never know what people will do. Especially Gramma, because Gramma was old and having brain problems. Mother wouldn’t say that, but I knew, because everyone else says it.
My room was safe, except for the wicker of my toy trunk. When I was little, everything was made out of wicker. I did not like wicker, because if you looked at it for too long, the gaps in the weaving looked like ants, and if your eyes watched them long enough, it looked like the ants were moving all across the wicker, as if it was an animal, not a piece of furniture. And once I saw it this way, even if I looked away, it continued to move and it would hurt my eyes and not stop.
As I lay in my room now, I could still hear Gramma and Mother talking, which made it hard for me to draw out my numbers. When you hear people speak, then you see all the colors of their words too, which get mixed up with the numbers and makes things very confusing. There was a stinging yellow every time I tried to close my eyes, so I buried my face in my pillow and tried to hide from all the color, all the voices. Go away, I cried. Please, just go away.
Mother wanted Gramma to watch a movie, but Gramma wanted to call Pop and wish him a happy birthday. A few minutes later, I heard the music of opening credits of Shirley Temple and the sound of Mother’s shoes going up the steps.
I hid my head under the pillow as she opened the door. “Cricket?” she said.
I didn’t answer.
“Cricket,” she repeated. “You need to come down soon. We’re going to go to dinner for Pop’s birthday.” When I said nothing, she walked over to the bed and pulled the pillow off my head. “Cricket. You can’t just hide in your room.”
Why wouldn’t people just go away?
“Tomorrow, you’ll get a day all to yourself.”
I began to cry and scream, my hands over my ears. It didn’t work.
Mother sighed and began to brush my hair with her fingers. I shivered. “This is family,” she said, but I knew that. “You can’t run away from family. It’s rude. Remember what I said about rude things?”
I nodded. I knew about Rude Things.
A half hour later, I was standing downstairs in the hall in my coat, Mother holding onto my wrist as if I were little still. I began to study the rainbow the prism window had splayed on the floor, just in front of my feet. The yellow like 9 was domineering, only hints of red and blue and purple could be found on the fringes.
“You ready to celebrate Pop’s birthday?” Mother asked Gramma, not me.
“My, Cricket, don’t you look lovely!” Gramma grinned her bird-like grin at me. Her thin nose looked like a beak. I wanted to say, Kaw! Kaw! But I didn’t. Making animal noises was a Rude Thing.
I stepped on the yellow light, trying to crush it with the tip of my shoe, but it covered my shoe. My shoe was now yellow and I shook my foot in the air, trying to get it off. But I knew it was light and it wouldn’t come off that easily.
“Cricket.” Mother squeezed my wrist. “What do you say?”
If I tilted my position, there was more purple that came through the window. Purple always makes me think of 8 because that’s the color 8 wears. 8, you can do it, I thought to myself. 8, you have to beat 9 or things will be even worse here.
Mother squeezed my wrist again.
I shook my hand to try to escape her grasp but she held firm. Gramma, still grinning said, “Well what’re we standin’ around for? I wanna see my husband!”
My chair at Aunt Maude’s house had a dark blue seat cushion, almost purple. I sat down with relief.
Mother wasn’t trying to hold onto my wrist anymore. We were at a table. But sometimes Mother would shoot me looks that looked like anger, or what I was told anger looked like, if anger was a face. I didn’t know what she was angry about, except maybe me not talking to Gramma, but if anyone should be angry, it should have been me. She was trying to make me talk and stay with people. I was tired. I tried to show her my Tired Face, but she didn’t seem to notice it. This is why I didn’t understand faces. They never work. No one does anything about faces. They’re just faces.
“Happy birthday, Dad!” Aunt Maude said and lit candles on the table.
“I guess you don’t get any younger, no matter how hard you try.” Pop sat at the head of the table and laughed. It sounded more like he was coughing up something. Pop folded his hands on the table like he was waiting for something to come and hit him over the head.
There were no presents for Pop. No packages wrapped up. I didn’t understand. Birthdays are supposed to consist of: presents, cake, and a piñata. This is what makes birthdays different from other days. But Pop didn’t have these things. He had a blue checkered table cloth.
Aunt Maude pulled out blue plates like an older, more mature version of 5, who is sky blue. Maybe 55. She laid them in front of us with light cream napkins like 100. This makes 155. There were two forks, one spoon, and a knife. Forks are green because of R (7×2=14), Spoon is pink because of P (6), and Knife is deep blue because of F (55). This makes 230, which was brown red and ivory like the wall paper trim Aunt Maude had installed in the dining room. As much as I disliked Aunt Maude, I felt safe in her house.
“…So Dad, how old are you again?”
I looked down over to Gramma’s hands. On her ring finger, she had two silver rings running into each other. One had a simple crystal on top and the other was plain. The rings looked like sisters, the way they were so closely intertwined and so similar in appearance and make. They looked big around Gramma’s fingers, which were wrinkled and thin like old microwavable hotdogs.
Gramma noticed me looking at her fingers, frowned, and slid her fingers under the table. When she slid her rings off, I watched them shine against the table cloth. She cupped her hand over them so I could no longer see them.
“Haha, we don’t talk about that. I’m not sure I even remember.”
“76!” I screamed.
The table fell quiet except for the movement of some silverware back into place.
“He’s 76,” I said again, this time softer. “It’s not as good of a number as 75, but it’s alright.”
Uncle Ben coughed. Mother looked at me with her Angry Face again, only there was less of a concentration of Angry to it and more of Tired, as if she’d found a way to combine the face she’d given me earlier with the one I’d given back to her. This startled me and made me look back onto the table and put my hands over my ears. I wanted to count the numbers in the room, again.
“You know Dad, I heard a train story the other day.”
“Oh, now did you, Ben?”
Aunt Maude started passing around the food plates. There were orange sweet potatoes with marshmallow topping (410), corn and pepper pasta (932), bread (12), and pork (341). 1695. Oh, and butter (10). 1705. Much better. 1705 is turquoise and royal blue, the color of water. I thought about this number, as if I was putting it in my mouth and swishing it around, running my tongue over the shape of it. It tasted calming and a little sweet.
“Shh, don’t tell him that story.”
“Why not, love?”
“There’s children present!”
I was the only child present. But I didn’t correct Aunt Maude.
“Aw, it’s not that bad.”
I cut into my pork and stabbed it with my fork. I held the chunk above my plate. I hated the taste of pork. It was too stringy.
“Well Dad, you know those train tracks off in Odenton?”
Pop nodded, slowly attempting to chew on the stringy pork. “Thought they shut those down ages ago.”
“They did, but the other day, they used them again for a town celebration.”
“Oh, is that so?” Pop grinned.
I hated the taste of pork. It was too red and pink. I started eating sweet potatoes instead.
Uncle Ben nodded. “Unfortunately, it didn’t get to be much of a celebration. They had the train signal working and everything, but I guess some of the residents weren’t used to it. So when it turned yellow, someone thought they could beat the light and raced through—”
I cringed. I hate pork. It smells bad. It got in the sweet potatoes.
“And unfortunately for him, the bars dropped down before he could do much about it. His car was trapped in the middle of the train tracks.”
Pop shook his head. “You should never try to race through that. It’s very dangerous. That’s why they have the lights.”
I thought of Pop’s train set down stairs and how he had the controls to start and stop the train and make it go slower or faster. The world on that table revolved around that train, and the train was able to be controlled. As much as 9 might try to take control and manipulate the world, that world was able to be controlled by me, or Pop.
“I agree, especially from what happened to this guy. The impact was so strong that the car was hardly discernable—”
“Does anyone want pumpkin pie?” Aunt Maude offered. “How about you, Cricket? Or would you like some ice cream?”
The train set had all sorts of people in the surrounding area of the station. These people had faces that were neither smiling nor frowning. The people were glued to the table surface so they would stand up straight.
“Oh my!” Pop frowned. “That’s unfortunate. There were injuries then…”
In my head, I saw a train rushing off the tracks, slamming one of the glued people, sending the body all over the train set like a cartoon. There would be an explosion in the background too, and the word KABOOM! Popping out like in the comic books.
“Yes, well the man … they found his body smashed between the train. His face was—”
I broke out laughing. The talking stopped and everyone looked at me.
“Cricket!” Mother said. I stopped laughing and wanted to explain. But laughs are hard to explain. I don’t laugh for the same reasons other people do. I laugh at the times people aren’t supposed to laugh and don’t laugh when people are supposed to laugh.
One time, Mother was reading the story of the crucifixion of Christ while I fingered my chap stick. She said, they hung him on the cross and ran nails into his hands. The people spat at him and made fun of him.
I broke out laughing.
Mother looked up from the book, not so much shocked as disgusted. “Why are you laughing?” she asked.
I held the chap stick up to her. “It says: this hasn’t been tested on animals. Isn’t that silly, to put chap stick on animals?” I laughed again.
It never occurred to me that Mother might think my laughing was at Christ or his crucifixion or anything other than what I was focusing my attention on. This was the hard thing about laughs, that they didn’t say what you were laughing at. They just came out. Like pee.
Mother walked around the table and grabbed my wrist again. She said we were going to the car. I didn’t understand why she was doing that today. She didn’t always do this. She didn’t always treat me like I was so little.
I started breathing faster but I followed her. Somewhere, I could hear 9 laughing. But I knew 9 was laughing at me, and not something else.
The door closed behind us and everyone at the table started talking again. Through the window, I saw Pop’s birthday pie, not a cake. There were seven cheap candles pressed through the crust, being pulled in by blackberry filling. 7 is not the same as 76. The candles were trying to stay up but they couldn’t. They were drowning and couldn’t breathe. I wanted to go back and help them but Mother held onto me. She whispered in my ear, “Let’s go outside real quick, okay?”
“I want to eat my sweet potatoes. They’re orange.”
“Yes, dear. We’ll be right back.”
Mother excused us and walked outside. No one looked up from their plates when we left.
“Cricket, what has gotten into you? You’re a good girl.” It was cold outside. Mother didn’t get our coats. I rubbed my arms but it didn’t help. I was cold.
“You’re a good girl,” I said.
“But you were screaming and doing un-lady like things. You don’t laugh at death. That’s not what people do.”
I wasn’t laughing at death. I was laughing at the figures. How it’s silly for their faces to go in. Flat. KABOOM. Like Wyle Coyote. The idea of something so hard deflating and becoming small, like a balloon.
“But you laughed. You don’t laugh at the table. You don’t scream at the table. You know these things. What’s gotten into you?” Mother leaned closer to me and rubbed my shoulder gently but I pulled away. I looked at the front steps. They were painted maroon, which is like red and brown and purple together, like 328.
“It was silly. A face can’t smash in. It’s too hard.” I knocked on my own skull for good measure. “It doesn’t make sense. It can’t happen.”
Mother sighed and rubbed circles on my back. Under her eyes were dark colors like 8. “Maybe we should just take the rest of the night off. Being with people takes its toll, doesn’t it? We all start doing silly things if we’re tired enough.”
“Oh my sweet potatoes!” I said.
Mother nodded. She didn’t get it.
Mother opened the car door and I looked at her face again, trying to figure out which face she was making. It wasn’t her Angry Face, but closer to her Sad Face, the face she gave when I did something wrong. But not wrong as in bad. Wrong as in Just Not What Other Girls Do. It was the face she made when I didn’t want to wear dresses. Or do Girl Things. It was a face that said I was missing out on something important. Which made me wonder what I was missing out on.
She didn’t go get our jackets. My arms were cold, still.
I looked into the window and Pop was eating a piece of his blackberry pie. It was purple like 8, but it melted and fell over on his fork. It looked like it was sucked out of air, like it was tired. Pop opened his mouth small, the fork had trouble getting in. But he pushed it hard enough that it got in. The blackberry slid down his lip like it couldn’t stay inside his mouth. But he wiped the extra away and it looked like nothing ever leaked out in the first place.
I wondered if death looked something like that.
On the way home, a squirrel ran in front of our car. It was dark and there was a car behind us. Mother did not stop. I told her to stop but she didn’t. Even though the body was small, the whole car bumped over the body. I knew there wasn’t supposed to be a bump there. I looked behind us and saw the squirrel didn’t move.
* * * * *