Mother checked her watch again, doing her best not to let her daughter see her eyes directly. At eight years old, Izzy already knew what that look meant. As they both sat at the picnic table waiting, the tall trees around Pritchard Park were lithe in a warm mid-afternoon breeze. Izzy watched a brochure gliding along the edge of the grassy lot they’d staked out for her birthday party. She chased after it.
Mother adjusted her halter where it dug into the roll of skin under her arm. She too was fidgety, tapping her pinky finger on the plastic table cover. She pressed the creases that remained from being inside the package. She adjusted her thick-framed glasses that weighed on the oily bridge of her nose. She watched balloons bounce against each other. She checked the tape along the border of the picnic table that kept the strands of crepe paper in place. With another breeze, she brushed back strings of her straight hair that she never had a chance to wash that morning. She wished she wasn’t in such a rush when they left the apartment; she’d forgotten her cigarettes on the kitchen counter.
Izzy returned to the table, showing the brochure to her mother. On the weathered cover was the image of Jesus floating above an apocalyptic landscape. Underneath him was the phrase I am coming soon … I am the Alpha and Omega. Mother took the brochure, folded it and pressed her palm on it. When she looked at Izzy, they smiled at each other. Izzy walked away again, preoccupied, humming to herself.
Mother removed her hand. The brochure unfolded itself. She was bothered that her daughter would see such an image on her birthday. She watched Izzy dance in the grass reassuring herself that Izzy wasn’t bothered. She hid the brochure in a bag with wrappers and other trash and continued watching her daughter dance. She noticed the trepidation in Izzy’s movements. Izzy lacked the expression that other girls had: full body motions, arms swinging confidently, legs airborne. Izzy seemed to censure herself, stopping her arms halfway, her feet never leaving the grass. Alone at the table waiting, mother didn’t need to censure her disappointment behind a smile. She too remained expressionless. Izzy reminded her of herself as a child, never knowing her father. Even as Mother wanted more for Izzy by giving her a birthday party, she knew it only veiled an underlying disappointment for both of them.
Mother felt the warmth of the sun on her shoulders and closed her eyes briefly. For a moment she took in a deep breath and listened to birds and cicadas, rustling leaves, and cars moving in and out of the parking lot in the distance. She caught the smell of burning lighter fluid from a grill nearby, and then the smell of the latex balloons taped to the table. She opened her eyes and looked at her worn hands. She clenched them then opened them several times, assuring them an afternoon of rest from the routine of her assembly line work at the local medical device plant. She wanted to enjoy her day with Izzy before her third shift later in the evening.
Izzy had stopped dancing and was watching a family in the next lot. Parents were moving fully around a picnic table and smoking grill. Children were chasing each other and yelling. Mother watched Izzy. She knew she couldn’t stop Izzy from thinking what Mother tried to mask. Mother let her watch the family as she pulled a rolled poster from a bag under the table, grabbed her masking tape and walked to a nearby maple, her flip-flops clacking with every step. She pressed the top of the poster against the bark and tore a piece of tape from the roll. She secured it, tore another piece and placed it on the bottom.
Mother inspected the homemade poster and ran her eyes across the words: Happy 8th Birthday Izzy! In the sunlight she could see the gaps without color inside the letters. She thought that she should have done a better job coloring for the sake of Izzy’s friends and their mothers. She reinforced the poster on the tree trunk with several more pieces of tape before another breeze blew. By then, Izzy had come back to the table. She held an invitation in her hand that she’d pulled from Mother’s bag. Mother knew that Izzy was silently asking herself the difference between the time on the invitation and the present. Izzy knew there was a gap. Mother walked back to the table worried that Izzy might already know. There would always be colorless gaps.
As they both sat again and waited, a wasp hovered above Izzy’s birthday cake. Izzy yelped and stood from the table as Mother swung her hand. Another wasp then hovered. Izzy extended her arm to Mother. Mother grabbed the invitation from her hand and swiped at them. The latecomer disappeared as Mother saw the other wasp lodged in the frosting. She scooped it out with the invitation and crushed it inside. Izzy returned to the table and sat. She saw Mother’s displeasure. Izzy knew what time and money Mother had sacrificed for her birthday party.
Mother forgot to smile because she sensed that what she wanted so much wasn’t going to happen. She couldn’t decide how much longer they would wait. She relied on the thought that Izzy still had hope, but wondered if Izzy had already learned to veil her disappointment. Was Izzy’s hope intended for Mother’s sake? Mother wondered if Izzy would blame herself. She listened to Izzy humming to herself again. They both sat at the table waiting.
Izzy watched Mother reach in the bag and place a package on the table. Izzy looked at Mother who nodded back. She smiled and grabbed the package from the table. She held it for a moment, wondering what it could be. Mother smiled. Izzy pulled at the wrapping delicately until it lay open and flat on her lap. She raised a picture frame to the table and stared at the photo of her and Mother smiling. Mother wanted Izzy to open it in the presence of her friends. She wanted it to remind her of the day Mother threw her a birthday party. Instead, Mother wondered if it would be a bitter reminder of the day they were forgotten.
Izzy placed the picture on the table and meticulously ran her finger along the frame. Mother was angry at herself. She knew Izzy was disappointed. She could have found a nice summer top, or a stuffed animal for Izzy. It was too late. Mother could only find some consolation in the fact that none of the invited were there to see Izzy open the gift after all. They sat idly, waiting.
A late afternoon gust caught them by surprise and sent napkins and paper plates flying off of the table along with two balloons, a strip of crepe paper, and the invitation containing the dead wasp. The loosened birthday poster fell to the ground. As Mother shuffled to retrieve it, Izzy leapt and chased after the debris. Mother scorned while Izzy laughed.
Hearing Izzy, Mother sighed. She wanted the laughter to be real, not as comfort. She wanted to turn and see Izzy both smiling again and for the first time. She wanted Izzy to stop feeling the need to comfort Mother for the failed day. Mother wanted the last ninety minutes to do all over again.
Mother picked up the poster and turned back. Izzy returned to the table with hands full of paper. She looked closer at Izzy’s face. She couldn’t stop projecting disappointment into Izzy’s thoughts even as Izzy busily stuffed trash in the bag. Mother walked back to the table and rolled up the poster. She realized that if they stayed, they would be waiting indefinitely. There would be no Coming. The beginning and the end would be the same. Along the grass in the distance, the wind blew the forgotten invitation under lithe trees unnoticed.
Ruben Guzman is author of the novel The Fountain In Forsyth Park as well as numerous poems and short stories, which appear on his blog literophanes. Ruben earned his MA/MFA from Chapman University and is a Registrar at Irvine Valley College in Irvine, California. You can follow his work at: http://literophanes.com