“I want to have a wock.”
“A walk? Not now, honey, it’s raining.”
Phoebe’s voice takes on the rising scream of a diving Stuka. “I want to have a wock!”
“But it’s too–”
”A wock! A white wock!“
“A rock!” I repeat stupidly, “A white rock!”
’Yeah,” she gulps, scrubbing away a faceful of tears and tucking two familiar fingers into her mouth. In the last few months Phoebe had turned into a sparkling and easy-tempered conversationalist. Now, overnight, we are back in the culture of complaint. The answer to every question streaks back at me like a flaming arrow, “Noooooo….”
“Phe-be, I get you wock lata, okay?” Paris says in a coddling voice, looking up from his drawing.
“Okay,” she agrees with a sob, and then picks up a small plastic Dalmatian. With immediate composure, she inquires of Violet, “Are you going to my school?”
Outside, it is pouring with rain. Inside, the children and I are grouped at the dining-room table in a golden halo of Victorian industry: Paris is bent over a large sheet of cardboard, penciling furiously; Molly is doing her homework in careful, curly script; Violet and Phoebe are moving little animals around, and I am dotting the i’s and crossing the final t’s after last night’s Gala Dinner for the children’s school.
There was tremendous build-up to this event, as Swamp readers know. For weeks, heaps of envelopes thumped through our mail slot, each containing a check and a bright orange response sheet explaining who wanted tickets, how many they wanted, what they wanted to eat, and with whom they most wanted to sit. Much of this information was painfully collated by me, who also sent out the tickets, and who later sat for excruciating hours in dour company composing place cards, lists for the caterer, and a seating plan.
“We are picking blueberries and raspberries and strawberries,” Violet narrates quietly, tapping a plastic triceratops on the table. Phoebe’s dog bounces in response. “And blueberries, and strawberries, and blueberries,” says the younger party.
Through all the Gala Night preparations, I was ignorant of a central fact of the evening. I believed it to be a fundraiser for our school’s Parent Teacher Association. As it happens, it was always meant solely to be a fun-filled, carefree, morale-boosting knees-up. Which means I spent countless hours of irreplaceable time carved off from my other responsibilities to facilitate an expensive, vinous gathering of people who see each other every day!
Paris looks up from his cartography. “Twitchy can’t do anything really cool, like breathe fire.”
“I don’t think so.”
“The rabbits in Parisland can,” he says, bending back over the map he’s drawing of the imaginary country in which he now spends his free time. A flock of flying scissors cuts through the sky over a smudgy terrain dotted with serpents and lions and “six types of electric mole.” In Parisland there is also “a dragon the size of Washington D.C. But only one. They’re almost extinct.”
“Is that a dragon?” I ask Violet, nodding inclusively towards her triceratops.
“It’s a dog dressed as a dinosaur,” she explains, as of the blindingly obvious to the blindingly foolish, “And that,” she adds, pointing to Phoebe’s toy, “Is a dinosaur dressed as a dog.”
“That’s not a dog,” Paris interjects scornfully.
“It is!” Violet replies. Turning to her little sister, she says confidingly, “The wine cellar is where the blueberries go to warm up.”
“Look!” says Phoebe gamely, pointing to the piano, “A ghost in the forest!”
“I’ll be the ghost,” Paris immediately volunteers, “Whoooooo….”
“Cut that out,” says Molly, “Paris, that is so annoying.”
“Oh, for goodness’ sake, darling, he just–”
Meanwhile, my husband is upstairs, showering off last night’s Gala atmosphere. Drinks and dinner were amusing enough, as I had stocked our table with the most sharp-witted and amusing of parents. But then came the dread moment when the DJ warmed up his sound system, flicked on his set of whirling multicolored lights, and love-struck teachers hit the floor–
“Ahem,” came an intruding voice, “Excuse me, but we’re going to have a word from the principal.”
And on came the principal. And she was fulsome in her thanks for this lovely event. And she exhorted everyone to continue having the good time they were having. And then, to my alarm, someone handed her an armful of bouquets.
“C’mon, Meg,” my penguin-suited husband coaxed, prying me off the wall to which I had adhered.
“And to Mrs. X, who has chaired this lovely event–” said the principal.
“Let go,” my husband laughed, poking me in the ribs.
“And to Mrs. Gurdon, who did so much to organize this lovely event–” said the principal.
All you really need to know about the Gala Dinner, and all, I am sure, that I will remember, is that the third song the DJ played was Chris de Burgh’s “Lady in Red,” and that the song was requested by a teacher, and that this particular teacher was clad from shoulder to shin in skin-skimming red leather and that during the song, the teacher’s mouth was clamped against that of her fiancee’s, working meaningfully. I feel about that song the way Pauline Kael did about Nixon: I don’t know anyone who doesn’t hate it.
“They’re setting you up to chair it next year,” my husband remarked astutely, as we escaped to the elevator.
“Daddy!” Paris yells, slipping off his chair, taking a running jump, and clamping himself around the midriff of my husband, who has at last come downstairs.
“Daddy, daddy, daddy!” cry Violet and Phoebe, tumbling off their chairs and gripping his legs. Everyone grapples and shouts for a moment, and then Paris rushes off upstairs with the little girls trailing behind him.
“Someone is making money,” my husband remarks, beaming at Molly, who smiles serenely. In a matter of months she has evolved from batter-spattering culinary novice to cakemaker to one of Washington’s leading society hostesses. Twenty-four cupcakes are at this minute cooling on the kitchen counter; next weekend, she’s been hired to make a birthday cake that will feed 30. We are getting deep into concepts of profit and loss, when
Paris bounds back into the room.
“Come see, everyone. We made a basilisk out of clothes hangers!”
Warily, I mount the stairs. Four steps up, I encounter the head of the wiry basilisk. He twines menacingly, one hanger hooked onto the next, up two flights of stairs, up two landings, and his tail ends in the nursery, which is strewn with–
“Oh, Paris, no!” To get the hangers, the children have emptied the little girls’ closet of every single garment–dresses, shirts, and trousers in sizes spanning last year’s 18m to a future 6x–and thrown them all in heaps and tumbles on the floor. Last week I spent ages ironing, and for what, I ask you?
“It’s okay, Mummy,” Paris pants, racing up the stairs after me. “We needed them for the snake. But don’t worry,” he continues, “It’s not only Violet and Phoebe’s hangers–we took some from Molly’s closet too. And mine.”