Party

by Emily Fridlund Read author interview September 15, 2007
story art

This year, Olive’s boss hosted the party. There were pigs-in-a-blanket and folding chairs in clusters of three on his lawn. All that afternoon—Memorial Day, barely past spring—no one sat in the chairs. The legs sank in the soft ground, the seats a few inches above the lawn, and Perry kept making midget jokes. Olive’s boss shaped hamburger patties by the grill. He molded them so carefully it was like he was making something permanent, something to fire in a kiln and set out for display. The burgers, perfect and miniature, were speared with fringed toothpicks. “Fuck and please!” Perry exclaimed. “This party is for the little people!”

Everyone from work was dressed in sandals and shorts, and they laughed loudly at convenient jokes, half-nude and bewildered. Lionel from Sales tried to start a game of badminton and ended up bumping the birdie into the grill. Olive’s boss lifted it out with tongs. The plastic crown was crumpled up around the ball, wadded and glossy, like something just born. Someone yelled, “Get Lionel a toothpick and napkin! His dinner’s ready!”

***

Olive does not always enjoy the people from work, but they are the people available. For a long time, she considered her boss the best one because he read hard cover books without the jackets on, stacking them up around his file cabinets. He had a quote on his computer screen that said, “There Are No Events But Thoughts.”

Her boss has hair so blond it’s almost white, and it’s thinning in places so you can see his skull. You can see the veins trapped between the bone and skin, moving when he talks. Once, Olive saw him in the creek behind her office space, wading. She never thought of that. She hardly even knew it was a creek, that line of scrubby trees just past the dumpsters. She watched him, a shoe in each hand, stepping over rocks and logs as if absorbed in some essential task: exploration, survival. He climbed up to the parking lot, brushed the gravel from his feet, and ate a sandwich from a brown bag on the picnic table.

After that, Olive let her hip touch his desk on her way to the fax machine. She wore knee-high nylons under her skirt. At home, she practiced rolling the nylons down her legs, making little brown donuts that could be slipped into her shoes and carried safely over water.

One time in the coffee room, she offered him half her packet of sugar. She accidentally dumped all the crystals into his Styrofoam cup, so she just shook the pink packet over her own drink, pretending. She was excited. She said, “How was the water?”

“Water?”

She leaned in closer. “I saw you during lunch. In the creek out back.”

“My word!” A blue vein grew like a stem up the center of her boss’s forehead. “There’s a creek around here? Wouldn’t you know it!”

***

At the Memorial Day Party, someone plucked blades of crabgrass from around the garden stones, blowing at the grass between two thumbs. The noise was annoying and otherworldly. A squirrel slipped off a telephone wire. It landed dully on the patio, lay broken and stunned for an instant, then righted itself and ran headfirst into Lionel’s leg. Perry said, “Lionel! Now you can use a squirrel instead of a birdie!” But no one laughed because Lionel raised his racket up and brought it down on the squirrel’s head.

Later, the boss’s two daughters came out of the house dressed head to toe in their mother’s lingerie. They were six and seven, and lacy bras swung from their chests like complicated rigging. One was wearing pink tights with toes blackened from the dirt. The other had a silk robe with velvet roses. They’d come out to say good-night to the guests. When the girls saw the squirrel, they got down on their knees and wept. The older one took off her bra, her ribs showing like some gnarled claw, and placed the squirrel in one large, padded cup. She set the other cup over the first, making an egg of it.

“Aren’t you pretty?” all the guests asked, their drinks tipping in their hands. They were distracted by their own jokes, by a debate over Asian sales, and so paid little attention to the children at their feet.

“Look at them!” Perry said to Olive. “Six-year-olds in heat!”

And the one in tights, overhearing, evidently pleased, tipped open the bra to show the squirrel nestled inside.

About the Author:

Emily Fridlund grew up in the Twin Cities and received her M.F.A. in fiction from Washington University in Saint Louis in 2004. She has published work in Boston Review, New Orleans Review, Quick Fiction, The Portland Review, The Great River Review, and Beloit Poetry Journal. After teaching writing for a year in Dalian, China, she returned to the United States and currently lives in New Jersey.