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It made perfect sense to me that my sister’s 40th birthday would fall on Friday the 13th.
It’s not that I was worried about Friday the 13th (this is not exactly a Jewish superstition after all) but I wasn’t exactly surprised when it started raining early that evening and the rain turned into a full-scale thunderstorm by the time we hit the road.
We, by the way, consisted of me and my Ecuadorian driver Peter. Peter drives a wholesale fish van for a living. I hired him and the fish van to drive me to my sister’s birthday bash in this far off place called Keansburg New Jersey.
Between the rain, the Friday night rush hour traffic and the fact that Peter, as it turned out, has a terrible fear of changing lanes in the rain, our one-hour drive took a little under three hours.
That’s a long way to go when you can’t inhale through your nose. A ride in a fish delivery van is probably the closest I will come, (hopefully) to rolling in a bed of rotting salmon. For most of the ride I fought an overwhelming urge to cover my entire body in lemon juice.
“What’s your sister like?” Peter asked trying to make conversation so I wouldn’t notice that he’d passed up yet another chance for me to go the bathroom because he was afraid to change lanes.
“She has a weak bladder like me!” I answered glaring at him.
“Oh, oh, sorry…there was a car coming. I saw it’s lights!”
“Those were the damn lights from the McDonald’s you drove past Peterrrrrrr!”
We were practically there, when I finally grabbed the wheel and forced Peter to turn into a fried chicken joint. There was a little girl walking towards the bathroom. I literally jumped in front of her.
“Sorry kid but this is bigger than you.”
Back on the road, I decided to warn Peter about the party that not only was he driving me too, but that I’d decided he was going to attend as well. I told myself it was to be kind to him. Why make him go all that way and then sit outside? But the truth was I wanted the protection. One never knew what could happen at a party my sister might throw.
I tried to explain the situation in the most diplomatic way possible.
“My sister is nuts.”
“No I mean she’s really wacked. She may dance on the table or try to die your hair. Trust me she’s way out there.”
Peter is one of the few people I’ve met who has managed to get thru his entire life, completely un-affected by everything around him. He’s homeless at the moment and rents half a bedroom in Spanish Harlem for 80 bucks a week.
“Better than the street. A lot of people I know are on the street,” he says smiling.
He drives the fish fan from 6 AM: until 2:00 in the afternoon hauling hundreds of pounds of raw fish without a break and is paid a rate only slightly higher than minimum wage.
“At least I’m working. Lotta people I know don’t have a job,” he says smiling.
He’s always smiling.
When we finally pulled off 35 and into Keansburg, I felt like we’d driven into Coney Island after a nuclear war. There were roller coasters and water slides, all kinds of kiddy rides, but everything was dark. There wasn’t a person or a light on the strip. I guessed things closed up here by fall. By December, it felt like we were driving into a Clint Eastwood movie.
I kept expecting some lone troublemaker to step out in front of us.
“Go ahead make my day.”
A police car in front of us slowed down. Forcing us to slow down. He seemed to be looking at us in his rear view mirror. Then he turned off and another police car pulled up in front of us. He drove slowly for a while checking us out too, then he pulled off, as if to say, “We’re watching you.”
I guessed they didn’t get a lot of big blue vans with New York license plates driving thru town.
I knew we found the right place when we pulled up to a house filled with the kind of birthday decorations you might hang for a 5 year old’s party.
My sister has always had a little girl’s sense of esthetic. To this day, she sends me tiny stuffed animals on any occasion requiring a gift.
I saw her in the window. One could not mistake my sister even from a distance; pineapple blonde hair, tight jeans, fuchsia blush, pink frost lipstick. She ran about nervously hanging streamers and taping balloons to the walls. She seemed smaller than I remembered her.
Sis was relieved to see me when I walked in. Half her guests had canceled when it started to rain and they lived locally. She was fairly convinced I wouldn’t brave the weather all the way from Manhattan.
I thought I caught a touch of sadness in her eyes, but then she quickly adjusted her mood to full scale party girl. “Hey dudes…this is my sister!” she screamed. “Doo! Come over here and give these balloons a blow job!”
My sister, by the way, calls me Doo, short for Doody. Not sure why.
“ Um. This is Peter.”
“Hellooo Peter start blowing!”
I’d brought two nice bottles of wine with me and was more than willing to drink both of them to recoup from my hell ride.
I turned to the father of the house, a guy who looked exactly like a non-Hispanic Tony Orlando with a beer belly.
“Do you drink wine?” I asked.
“All the time,’ he chuckled.
“Well good then you’ll have a corkscrew.”
His wife, a woman with a 1970’s perm, dressed in over-alls, chimed in. “We don’t have no corkscrew. All our wine just screws off.”
I noticed a distinctive beard growing from her chin.
“Got a hammer.” I ask arousing the curiosity of Tony Orlando and …um Dawn.
I used the hammer to pound a butter knife into the cork and after several whacks, I finally succeeded in pushing the cork inside the bottle of wine. I was then able to keep the cork down with a fork handle and pour myself a glass, or shall I say a Styrofoam cup, of wine.
It wasn’t classy, but it worked.
“Wow,” Tony O exclaimed, “ You musta gone to college!”
Sis started putting the food out on the table; a deli platter made by the local grocery store consisting of twirled up slices of cold cuts decorated with roses made out of tomatoes. There were buckets of potato salad and coleslaw, paper plates piled high with knishes and every imaginable kind of bread or roll.
“Wow! This is fancy!” Tony O exclaimed shoving a handful of ham into his mouth.
The biggest star of the birthday buffet, however, were the pilferings from Sis’s latest boyfriend’s latest job. He works for a vending machine company. Sis began to dole out a garbage bag filled with cans of soda, individual bags of chips and cookies, chewing gum, chocolate bars and those orange cracker and peanut butter sandwich concoctions that you never see anywhere but in a vending machine.
The kids were ecstatic.
“Not till after you eat dinner!” their mom screamed.
Seated at the table was Dolores, a pal of my sister’s from beauty school. Dolores wore a pink cashmere sweater and dusted her face with that same kind of scented powder I’d always associated with elderly women. She was quiet and polite, sitting with her hands on her lap until the food was put out. Her eyes never wandered far from her two sons, boys in crew cuts who looked to be 8 and 10 years old. They were playing with Tony O and Dawn’s two platinum hair kids. Dolores had a look in her eyes than can only be described as terror.
One of the platinum kids ran about shirtless and shoeless. His hair was gelled into a Mohawk.
“Check out his hair!” My sister commanded.
“It was for school.” His mother explained.
I wondered what cultural event had occurred in the Keansburg school that prompted a Mohawk hair do, perhaps a production of “Last of the Mohicans.”
“It was for weird hair day!” Tony O bellowed while popping open another beer.
The television was on with the sound off. Peter and Dawn sat on the couch staring at the TV and laughing. On Peter’s lap sat a paper plate piled high with cold cuts and several chocolate bars. He ate the chocolate bars.
Next to the couch was a birdcage. The parrot who’d recently been allowed out of the cage, sat on top of the cage pulling itself from bar to bar with its beak. When the platinum kids got into a violent game of balloon volleyball they accidentally knocked the parrot off the cage. Tony O picked it up from the floor and replaced it on the top of the cage. It seemed dizzy and bewildered and sat still for a long time blinking. When it finally orientated itself it kept looking back at the floor as if it were considering whether or not to jump.
“Get out of there!” Tony O screamed at a tuxedo cat who had crawled up on one of the tables and was grabbing pieces of cheese off the youngest platinum kids plate. She had abandoned her dinner long ago in favor of picking her nose, which she continued to do for the rest of the evening.
The house mutt; a dirty looking brown thing that looked like it had been taken in from a junkyard…yesterday, took turns sitting next to Dolores, Sis and then myself, begging for food. When my sister was done with her plate she gave it to the dog. It was filled with coleslaw and tuna fish. Oddly he seemed to love the Cole slaw.
Tony O picked up the parrot and let it perch on his wrist.
“Polly want a punch in the face?? Polly want a kick in the ass??”
“Stop it!” his wife screamed.
“She loves this fucking bird.” He shrugged.
Another cat, this one skinny and timid looking, peeked its head out from the stairs then ran away.
“The rats were supposed to eat the bird, the cats were supposed to eat the rats and the dog was supposed to eat the cats, “Tony O lamented his master plan gone array. “But they all like each other.”
The doorbell rang. A stocky blonde man with very few teeth walked in. Tony O jumped to hug him. “John. Hey John! This is great. When did you get out of jail?”
“Hey man. Is there a party? Cool.”
John walked past Sis mumbling and went right to the beer. He didn’t introduce himself till he’d downed half of it.
“Burp! How old are you nowwww?” He exclaimed pulling up his t-shirt and scratching his belly.
Peter, clearly on a sugar high from three chocolate bars and two cupcakes began to giggle in a high-pitched voice at the soundless television.
“Wanna see the V?” my sister screeched at Peter.
“ Do you wanna see the V?”
She sat on a chair, leaned back and opened her legs wide. “There’s my Veeeeeeee!”
I sat on the other couch next to the nose-picking girl and closed my eyes for a minute.
“Heheheheheh! That’s funny!” Peter shouted. He began to look at Sis adoringly.
John picked up the younger of the crew cut boys and began to swing him around by his arm like an airplane. The boy screamed half in fear, half in delight.
Dolores turned white. “Make him stop! Ma ma ma make him stop!”
Dawn took John aside and whispered something in his ear.
“Awww I wasn’t gonna hurt the kid.”
Dejected he turned his sights on me.
“So I heard you’re from the big city.”
“I’ve been there.”
“You sure are different from your sister.”
“I’ve been told.”
Sis put out three birthday cakes, each with candles, the kind you get ready made from the grocery store. I asked her if she wanted to light the candles and she got upset.
“Shhhh! Don’t tell me about it!”
Even though she had purchased the cakes, put the candles in the cakes and placed them on the table she wanted to be surprised when it was time to blow the candles out. I was suddenly overcome with the sadness of the moment. No one wants to throw their own 40th birthday party.
I felt ashamed that I hadn’t thought to buy the cake instead of the wine.
“Happy Birthday to youuuuuuuuu crazy ladyyyyyy!!!
She blew out the candles in one powerful breath that amazed me and seemed to bask in the stardom when we all started snapping her picture. Suddenly she was in the limelight and the moment could not be wasted. Sis proceeded to sing the theme song from “All in the Family” in a near perfect Edith Bunker impersonation.
“Mister we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again……!!!!”
Peter began to clap and giggle furiously.
“She’s funny man. Heheheheheh!”
Tony O opened another beer. “I’m sure the neighbors are gonna think we’re really nuts now.”
As we doled the cake out I noticed the tuxedo cat had climbed up on the table and was now partially sitting on the deli platter and eating from it freely as if it were a giant cat bowl.
“Get the hell off there!” Tony O screamed. “I’m gonna kill that cat!”
“Leave it alone!” his wife screamed.
“Anyone want cold cuts to take home?” Sis asked. Looking at the cat, we all declined.
John leaned against the wall sipping his beer staring at me. “So you like wine huh?”
“Just a little with dinner.”
“I like beer.”
“Hey,” he said as if a light bulb had gone off in his head, “Want some cake?”
“Allergic to wheat.”
“Come on have some cake.”
“Ok just a little.”
With that he pulled his hand from behind his back. Unbeknownst to me it was covered in icing. He leaped forward and smeared his hand in my face. The icing went up my nose, in my hair and in my eye. I stood motionless in shock and fury and glared at him. Then I climbed the stairs to the bathroom to clean myself off.
My first reaction was to kick him hard in the crotch but I didn’t want to ruin my sister’s party. I scrubbed at the greasy icing but despite several attempts could not remove it from the inside of my nose. My sinuses began to burn.
I looked down and saw the skinny timid cat staring at me. When I tried to pet it, it ran away.
“Peter. It’s time to go,” I said as soon as I came downstairs.
“Yeah Peter! My sister chimed in. Get the hell out of here. You’re stinking up the joint.”
“Hehehehhee. She’s so funny man!”
I shook hands with Tony O, Dawn and Dolores.
“Come back on Sunday. We’ll be lying under the house putting in insulation. I’m trying to make a party out of it.” Tony O said.
I hugged Sis and tried to be serious with her for a moment.
“Happy Four O” I said.
“ Oh fisssshhhhhh sticks.” She said, never one to endure a serious moment.
I glared at John for a moment attempting to send deadly venom from my eyeballs and then turned to leave.
“Awww! She’s sore at me.” He whined.
My sister walked out after us and bellowed “Hey Peter…don’t forget to eat at the Y!”
“Peter,” I begged.. “Don’t ask.”
I turned my head back to watch her for a moment as she walked back into the house snapping her fingers to some tune in her head. I had a vision of her when she was a little girl, frail and thin, frightened of everything.
“Who’s gonna help me clean up this shit!” I heard her scream as we climbed into the van. I smiled.
We began the long, rainy ride home. Peter was prepared for the journey with his doggy bag full of soda and chocolate bars.
“Your sister is so down to earth man. I mean like she’s so funny. She’s so sexual man. Like really cool.”
I leaned my head back on the head rest and closed my eyes. “Peter. Do me a favor. Don’t eat anymore sugar tonight.”
“The V…wanna see the V??…heeee she’s so funny man.”
All material © copyright 2001-3, Rossi
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