, October 2021

Through the keyhole inside the coat closet, Angus watched his mother drape the long folding table with a Happy Birthday! crepe paper tablecloth. He’d told her over and over that he didn’t want a party, but she would say, “Of course you’re going to have a party,” and got madder every time he brought it up. She was short-tempered when preparing for one of her parties, especially the grownup ones, which were nearly every weekend. She’d even gotten a Carvel ice cream cake, Happy 4th Birthday Angus! in her blue icing cursive, after he’d told her a million times that he hated Carvel cakes, and she’d say, “Don’t be silly, all kids love Carvel cakes.”

After the table had been set with cone hats, paper plates, plastic cups, goodie bags, and several salad bowls filled with M&Ms, she went into the kitchen. He listened to her light a cigarette and exhale, then snuck out of the closet and ascended the stairs, avoiding the creaky parts, two floors to the attic. Slowly, he opened the little door to the crawl space and slipped in, closing it behind him.

The steep slanting roof created several nooks, one of which was hidden behind a collapsed stack of boxes and currently impossible for adults to access. It was July and this was the hottest space in the house, yet he enclosed himself in the tent he’d made from old blankets. During grownup parties at night, he’d camp out until the last guests left, usually when the sky was getting light.

The doorbell rang. He heard his mother explain to everyone who arrived, “The birthday boy is being rude, but he’ll probably come down in a few minutes to open his presents.” This made him smile. The doorbell rang over and over, 30 kids in all, and one time it was the pizza delivery guy. Guests were directed to sit in one of the metal folding chairs surrounding the table and given a pizza slice and choice of Coca-Cola, Hawaiian Punch, orange Hi-C, Yoo-Hoo, or milk.

The kids were loud. They sang-screamed “Happy Birthday to You” and blew out the candles. He put his fingers in his ears, but he could hear everything. He again cursed God for not creating a better way to block sound.

His mother eventually came up and stuck her head into the crawl space. She asked nicely for him to come downstairs, but, within a minute, was hurling threats of presents being returned and early bedtimes for a week or more. She slammed the little door, breaking the bottom hinge, and stomped down the stairs. He smiled again. She couldn’t get to him. She would never get to him.

After an hour, he began to feel weak and nauseous. Sweat soaked, he emerged from the crawl space into the cooler air of the main attic room and opened the window. Three stories below, separating their property from the neighbor’s, a rusted chain-link fence with the links twisted into sharp points at the top. Directly below, a concrete walkway. Beyond the fence, a strip of grass, then an asphalt driveway. He’d have to jump outward to clear the fence, but he was sure he could do it, and was also sure that he’d only be a little hurt if he landed on the grass. ▪