In my memory my sister’s ninth birthday is always almost over. The pre-made burger patties have been grilled, the supermarket cake cut, the glut of white frosting smeared on paper plates. The three aunts up from the city have smoked their cigarettes, have told the stories of the dead grandparents, of weekend childhood abandonment for Temple Bazaars, Atlantic City. The dance to Debbie Gibson’s “Electric Youth” has been invented and performed. The games of TV tag have been played, the show names—Wonder Years, Who’s the Boss?, Growing Pains—screamed into the hot afternoon. Our father has unfurled the Slip n’ Slide. We have coursed the lemony strip on our stomachs, the girls in pink bathing suits, me in too-big lacrosse shorts I think make me look tough. “Marky, pull your pants up,” our mother shouts. Our father announces the last game, says, “Pairs, please, ladies and gentlemen.” The grass, high and thick with summer, sticks to our legs.
And it would be a lie to say that we were happier then than we are now. I can see how the aunts sit facing each other, curled away from my father, their baby brother, who they always forget to call. I can see how our mother fishes the cooler for the last beer, her hand coming up full and numb, how she drinks it too fast, pats her newly-permed hair which our father has repeatedly made fun of. I can see how our father’s shoulders sag as he walks into the house for the pink carton, our ringmaster, our tired stand-up comedian who we think of as tireless, who is thinking, How many has she had? or Does she have the car keys? or When are all these people leaving?, not knowing yet that, in a year’s time, he will fall in love with someone else and be the one leaving.
And I can see how, standing in the yard, my sister has her arms crossed over the chest of her bathing suit, looks down at her thick, soccer girl thighs, which she will whittle to spindles at sixteen for her first boyfriend. In another moment I will throw an egg to her, too hard. The yoke will spill over her small hands and she will cry, will run into her room, into the hard, blue agate of her sadness, and I will not know how to follow her. I still don’t.
In another moment, a warm wind will blow the paper plates across the lawn, send them flying into the pachysandra like a flock of startled birds. Our parents will chase them down with black garbage bags, angrily, not looking at each other. I know the argument that comes later, the way their accusations—Why didn’t you? Why couldn’t you? Where were you?—will crack the house open. In the morning crows will stab at the yard’s slick places, the eggshells highway-cross-white against black beaks. There will be a rotten smell.
For the moment though, in my memory, my lying, longing memory, there are only the rich smells of charcoal and wet grass. The aunts’ laughter spirals up into the darkening trees. The pairs move closer together. My father places the egg in my cupped hands, says, “Careful.” It is exquisitely cold, a tiny space ship, a miniature planet. My sister looks at me fiercely, says, “Gentle,” and I am floating it toward her. It hangs between us, in the blue-gold light, round, whole, opaque, blessed, its casing so smooth and so thin.
Notes from Guest Reader Shasta Grant
This story is a master class in writing about a memory. Meagan Cass’s writing plunges us right into the summer of 1989 with a bittersweet nostalgia that never tips over into sentimentality. On the surface, this is a story about Marky remembering playing backyard games on his sister’s ninth birthday but it’s so much more than that: it’s about love and loss and family and the ways in which we fail each other, despite our best intentions. I fall more in love with ‘Egg Toss, 1989’ every time I read it.