Sylvia’s Birthday Party
By Irving A. Greenfield
She would soon be sixty and decided weeks before the event to make a birthday party for herself. Sure, or afraid, that there wouldn’t be too many birthdays in her future she planned this one with meticulous care. The guest list – if it could be called that – wasn’t long. She always had a problem with friends. Being a gregarious person, she could make friends easily, but she never had learned how to keep them. So, the list was necessarily narrowed down to members of her immediate family: her mother, her brother Robert and his wife Anne; their two children, Larry and Donald; and her husband, Martin. There was another sister, Rose, a year younger than herself. But they hadn’t spoken to each other for close to eight maybe ten years. She wasn’t good with numbers unless they were related to the cost of item whether it was for clothing or something for the house – an apartment in Astoria, Queens.
She summoned her brother and mother by telephone, telling each of them that though her birthday fell on the previous Friday, she would have her birthday party on Sunday. “I’ll have chicken soup, roast chicken, meatballs and spaghetti and cookies and an ice-cream cake,” she told Robert, whose response was considerably less than enthusiastic. She had served the same dinner since she’d married Martin thirty years ago. It was in fact Sunday dinner. The only variations were the cookies and the ice-cream cake.
“It’s called for three, but you can come at a quarter to,” she said.
“We’ll be there,” he answered.
Except for roasting the chicken, all of the cooking had been done on Friday and Saturday. All she had to do was heat the food and serve it. But there was still one major task purposefully left undone until Sunday morning. After breakfast and before she dressed for the occasion, she and Martin covered the living room carpeting, the kitchen and bathroom floors with huge strips of Kraft paper that made a crunching-like sounds whenever they were walked on. With that task finished, she set the table and made sure that the chicken in the oven was not overdone.
By two-thirty, Sylvia and Martin were dressed for the occasion. Sylvia was big woman, taller than Martin by at least two inches and taller yet when she wore spiked heeled shoes, which she wore. Yet, she had a sense of style and managed to look well, while Martin, a handsome Latino type, dressed with a casualness of a man secure in the knowledge that anything he’d wear looked good on him.
Originally, Martin was from Portugal, but other snippets of information also put him in Brazil, Canada and Mexico before coming to the United States. His past was opaque. Almost from the time he arrived here, he had worked on the docks as a longshoreman and over the years had moved up to a supervisory position. Unlike Sylvia, who was usually hysterical about something, he was a calm, quiet man.
At ten minutes to three Sylvia saw her brother’s blue car from the window as it pulled up to the curb. “They’re here,” she announced. Behind her, she heard Martin go to the door and open it. But she stayed at the window. Her sister-in-law and her mother carried small boxes, and Larry, her elder nephew carried a bouquet. Robert escorted their mother, who would be ninety in September and had one glass eye and little vision in her other eye resulting from a detached retina.
Sylvia did not like her mother. She may have even hated her; and when her father was alive, she didn’t care for him either. But it was her mother who she blamed for most of her misfortunes including the end of her first marriage when she was nineteen, a botched abortion that followed and so much more. As for her brother, though nine years younger than herself, he seemed older and wiser. He was an electronics engineer and his work made it necessary for him to travel.
When everyone was in the apartment, Sylvia kissed all of them, leaving her mother for last.
Robert, his wife and sons wished her a happy birthday and her mother managed to mumble grumpily, “Sixty years is nothing, wait until you reach my age.”
“Mom, you promised not to start,” Robert said.
His mother didn’t answer and Martin ushered them into the living room and offered them drinks. Though it was late March, the day was very warm. Larry and Robert asked for cokes; Robert, a gin and tonic; and Ann, a white wine on the rocks. His mother-in-law wanted a beer. Osteoporosis had bent her. Her face was crisscrossed with wrinkles and there was a large calcareous mass on her forehead. Beer was her favorite drink; when she was able get it, which wasn’t too often. Her taste for beer went back to the time when her mother owned a saloon on Pike Street in lower Manhattan when she was a girl, not much older than her grandson, Larry. Sylvia was her first born. Robert was her last child. He was an accident. She was forty when she became pregnant with him. He was a difficult child. He loved the streets. At fifteen he ran away from home. But somehow he managed to graduate from college and make something of himself, though she didn’t for a minute believe he worked for the government. If he worked for anyone, more than likely it was the mob. She was convinced of that, but kept her opinion to herself. As for Sylvia, she was born a fool and would die a fool. When she was younger, she was “boy crazy” and a “clothes horse.” She was still a “clothes horse.”
Martin served the drinks, while Sylvia put munchies on the coffee table in front of the couch.
The conversation drifted, touching on the weather, the price of food and other innocuous topics, until Robert, who resembled his father, even to the basso sound of his voice, said, “I’ll be leaving on Wednesday on another business trip. I’ll be away for a month.”
“So where will you be going this time?” his mother asked.
“Africa,” he answered.
“Africa is a big place,” she said. “If something happens to me how will Ann get in touch with you?”
“Nothing is going to happen to you,” he said, after sipping his drink.
“How do you know that?”
“You’re too cranky for anything to happen to you. Certainly God doesn’t want you yet, or he’d have taken you awhile back; and as for the Devil — you’d only give him a headache with your crankiness.”
“Is that the way a son should talk to his mother,” she asked, her eyebrows jiggling up and down.
Robert put his arm around her. “Sure, especially when she becomes too nosey,”
“Ann, you watch him. I hear those African women are sexy as hell. They just give it away.”
Ann laughed. “He’s old enough to say no.”
“All men are yes men when it comes to pussy,” her mother-in-law said.
“Better watch yourself,” Robert said to his mother, “or I’ll have one of those witch doctors cast a spell on you.”
“Not this old bird,” his mother said.
Robert couldn’t say that he loved his mother. Love was something that was missing from the family. Like a pie with one slice gone, and no one knows where it went to. It took him some years of living to learn that it was never there to begin with. But he did respect her. She was sharp. A survivor.
“This is a beautiful chicken,” Sylvia informed them from the kitchen and called Martin to carve the bird.
Larry leaned close to his father and whispered, “She always says that, just like she always has the stupid paper down whenever we come.”
“Think of it as –” He was at a loss for an explanation that would be meaningful to an eleven-year-old, who’d rather be any other place than where he was.
“Mom says she’s nuts,” Donald said, joining the conversation.
“Well, I wouldn’t go that far,” Robert said. “I’d rather leave it as being peculiar.”
“What’s all the whispering about?” his mother asked.
“The boys wanted to know the name of the witch doctor who’d put a spell on you if you got out of hand,” Robert said.
“That’s not his name,” Robert answered.
“Everyone at the dinning room table,” Sylvia called.
Robert helped his mother off of the sofa.
“Has she got that damn paper on the floor?” she asked, as they walked into the dinning room.
“That’s what the boys were whispering about.”
“Well, I don’t have to whisper about it,” she said loudly. “I don’t like walking on paper. It gives me the heebie-jeebies.”
“Oh Ma, don’t start,” Sylvia said. “We’re going sit down and have a lovely dinner.”
“Ma, take it easy. It’s her birthday,” Robert said.
“The hell it is. Her birthday was two days ago,” she shot back. “It’s just damn stupid to celebrate after or even before the day the person was born on.”
“It’s not important,” Robert said, settling her into a chair and taking the one next to it.
Martin brought out a platter with the sliced bird on it, while Sylvia gave everyone a portion of chicken-fricassee.
Dinner went well. The boys particularly like the spaghetti and meatballs, and Ann complimented Sylvia on the fricassee.
“I used more wine than I usually do,” Sylvia said.
“Too rich for my taste,” her mother commented, though she ate all of it and sopped up the gravy with a piece of bread.
When the main course was finished, Sylvia served coffee and brought out the ice-cream cake with HAPPY BIRTHDAY SYLVIA scripted in pink cream across its diameter. Martin put six candles into it and lit them.
“Make wish,” Ann said.
Sylvia, child-like, closed her eyes, puffed up her cheeks and blew across the wavering yellow flames. All of them went out.
Everyone wished her a happy birthday, except her mother. She said, “So she’s another year older, that doesn’t mean that she’s a year smarter.”
“Mom -–” Robert began.
“Don’t mom me,” she answered petulantly. “Sixty is no different from fifty-nine or sixty-one.”
“Okay mom,” Ann said, taking hold of her mother-in-law’s hand. “We made it different because all of us are here to celebrate it.”
“Martin, you cut the cake,” Sylvia said, fighting back tears.
“If I see something I think you’d like, I’ll bring it back for you,” Robert told his sister, hoping to ease her anguish.
“What about bringing something back for me?” his mother asked.
“Maybe a witch-doctor or a sweet pill for a cranky old lady.”
“So you say,” she shot back haughtily.
“A tongue twig,” he said.
That stopped her. She looked at him. What she saw was a gray form hardly distinguishable from the background. “What’s that?” she asked.
“It keeps a sharp tongue from wagging.”
“You made that up.”
“Don’t bet on it.”
After the ice-cream cake, it was time for Sylvia to open her presents; and for that Sylvia said they should go back into the living room.
There were only two gifts. Larry had given her the bouquet when she had kissed him at the door. The flowers were already in a fluted green glass vase and prominently displayed on a small end table next to a high back, black leather chair opposite the sofa.
Sylvia opened her brother and sister-law’s gift first. It was wrapped in silver- paper and sealed with a gold sticker embossed with the name STUBBEN GLASS. The paper gone, the box was a dark purple, hinged affaire and inside of it, surrounded by green velvet was a cut glass octagon etched with various sea creatures.
“Oh it’s beautiful,” Sylvia exclaimed. “Here, Martin, look at it.” And she passed it to him. “I know just the place to put it.” She kissed her brother and sister-in-law and said, “I love things like that.”
Her mother’s gift was also wrapped in a glossy green colored paper. The kinds that people buy after Christmas at half price, which they use to wrap the following year’s gifts.
“My neighbor wrapped it for me,” her mother explained.
The paper was securely fastened with scotch-tape that Sylvia was forced to rip off. “A cigar box,” she exclaimed. “A cigar box!” Bewildered, she looked at Martin.
“Open it,” her mother said.
Sylvia picked up the lid. “Oh my God what have you done to me,” she cried. And she turned the box over. Nails, nuts and bolts, bits of wire and a few stones fell on to the paper covered carpet.
“I gave her what she deserves,” her mother said calmly. “I gave her –-”
“I hate you. You destroy everything. You’ve destroyed my life,” Sylvia screamed and ran into the bedroom.
“Take me home,” Sylvia’s mother said to Robert. “I did what I came to do.”
“You did something terrible,” he answered.
She smiled and her eyebrows jumped rapidly up and down. “She’ll remember her sixtieth birthday party until the day she dies.”
“And what will you remember?” Robert asked.
“Soon, nothing,” she said. “I’ll remember nothing.”
Irving Greenfield’s work has been published in Amarillo Bay, Runaway Parade, Writing Tomorrow, eFictionMag and the Stone Hobo; and in Prime Mincer, The Note and Cooweescoowee (3X) and THE STONE CANOE, electronic edition. In addition to the short stories he has had several novels published. He and his wife live in Manhattan. He has been a sailor, soldier and college professor, playwright and novelist.
He has had nine productions of his work. The most recent was the SCHEMER, at the play Labs in New York. Two of his plays CAMP # 2, and BILLY won awards.