Laying the Foundations
By Hana Korneti
Andrea and I were sitting in an old ice cream place, having cake and lemonade. We were almost the only fools out in that heat, and I'm usually no fool, see. It was supposed to rain that noon, I checked the forecast and all. We were shielded from the sun by big sun umbrellas from one of those beer brands that no longer exist, but left every other business and household in the country with a sun umbrella before officially disappearing. Andrea dropped some very unpleasant news halfway through my piece of cake.
“Bobby says they won't play your birthday tonight.”
“Wudduya mean, he says they won't play?”
She was so casual about it, I wanted to knock over her lemonade. She replied casually between slurps.
“He says they decided if they ever wanna be taken seriously they can't go playing kid's birthday parties.”
“Him and his band.”
Dead silence followed. As I was grinding my teeth over how snobbish some people are, some kid on a bench near us opened a bag of chips. The cracking of the packet broke the silence. Then the kid started eating those chips, and that was loud too, and I could hear every crunch of the chips in his mouth, and I couldn't decide what was annoying me more, his crunching or Andrea's casual attitude. Then she started slurping the damn lemonade again, although there was nothing but ice left at the bottom, and I made up my mind.
“He's your damn brother! Do something about it. He can't just go deciding not to play on the day of.”
“Wudduya want me to do, Mattie? I tried to convince him, he says they can't go playing twelve-year old's birthday parties if they wanna get serious about it.”
“I'm turning thirteen!”
“I know, I know, I'm just tellin' you what he said.”
I sat back in my seat, glaring at her. She had finished her cake and was now eyeing mine. She always does that. Stares at my piece of cake in unmasked desperation, hoping I can't finish it and will offer it to her. Well not this time, buddy. Not this time.
“You gonna finish that?”
“Yes, I am!” I lied. I'd actually lost my appetite, but I’d be damned if I'd give her my cake this time.
“Oh, yea, sorry. Hey, did you get your dress fitted?” What an attempt to change the topic. Little did she know, she was making it worse.
“The tailor got sick.”
“It's alright though, I didn't care about it so much.” Although, I thought, it seems to have been an omen for a lousy day and I did care a little… I normally don't, birthdays are a laugh, but this time was different. Andrea made up some excuse to go as she discovered that I was not about to get any more pleasant, and gave me an overly-sweet-head-tilted-to-one-side “See ya tonight!” which I chose to interpret as an apology for her big snobby lousy brother. Once she turned her back, I had the waitress pack the rest of the cake. It's no good throwing away food, my mom is nuts about it.
I started walking with no aim in mind, and soon realised I had walked to Matt's house. He's called Matthew, and I'm called Matilda, and they used to call us both Mattie, but that was confusing, so they started calling him Matt instead. Matt would make me feel better, I thought. He's the smartest kid around.
I tapped on their kitchen window.
A sweaty forehead appeared at the window. Matt's mom's beautiful face emerged. Beautiful, despite motherly concern adding worry lines on her forehead.
“Who's that? That you, Mattie? Matt's in the shed, dear.”
“Hiya, aunt Christine! How are ya?”
“Alright, sweetheart, trying to fix the antenna, always getting broken.”
“Right... take it easy, then! Matt’s in the shed?”
“In the shed! Ask him if he's hungry!”
“Right, right, will do!”
“Are you hungry?”
“No, thanks, just had something to eat.”
“You be good, now!”
I walked over to the shed, which Matt had recently converted into a book club. Before knocking on the door, I read over, for the hundredth time, the sign that had been nailed onto it. I always got a kick out of reading the sign. This is what it said:
To interested parties:
Any and all are welcome. The book club is devoted to reading books and then talking about them, and diversity of brains and hearts is encouraged. However, the book list is set. I am only opened to shy, unobtrusive suggestions. If I feel pressured at any time by anyone to add or subtract a book I do not wish to I will be rude and unpleasant. It's my book club. If you don't like the book list, go start your own damn book club.
It was signed Matthew Oliver Downing, and underneath, scribbled in different coloured ink (a menacing kind of red), You know who you are. Boy, you don't wanna be on Matt's red-inked list.
It is thanks to Matt though that I had started using the word “damn” recently, to my gran's horror. It suited him pretty well, and I think it suited me too. I knocked.
“Open up, dummy!”
I always called him something like “knuckle-head” or “dummy,” but it was only in order to bridge the age gap. He was two years older than me. He opened the door with a Walkman in one hand, and headphones tilted on his head so one ear was uncovered.
“Hiya, Mattie, how's tricks?” Matt does that. Tries to use old-timey lingo. Apparently, “how’s tricks,” an originally rude phrase, was adopted by the cool kids of the 30s and 40s, and basically means “what’s up?”
“Nothing good, buddy, I’ve had it up to here!”
I barged in and told him about the tailor getting sick, and then about Bobby and his lousy band, and about Andrea's too-cool-about-it attitude.
“What do you care? You don't usually give much of a damn about birthdays. Your folks make a riot of it anyways.”
“Yea, but this time it's different, people will be coming and...”
“...and I had specific stuff in mind, see...”
“And your dad can get you a different band in a second...”
My dad was a musician. He was kind of a big deal, locally.
“Yea, but I thought he might like Bobby's band.”
“Who, your dad?”
“No, dummy, Jimmy Albright!” That shouldn't have slipped out.
“Jimmy? Who the hell is... oh, I know!”
“You know nothing!”
“Jimmy, Jimmy your dad's work buddy's son, or somethin'. The one you like.”
“I don't like... where do you get off... and what if I do?!” Matt smiled.
“Cool it Mattie, it's alright if you do. He's got ten years on you, though.”
Jimmy was at least ten years older than me. He was the coolest though. We had real good talks, you know, about movies and martial arts and parents and all. And he had the nicest long brown hair. And we went to the zoo together once. It was a real treat, that one.
“So what if he does? I'm laying the foundations. In ten years it won't matter a damn if he's got ten years on me.”
“You are a real piece of work, you know that?”
We spent the rest of the early afternoon listening to the new tapes Matt had bought on his Walkman. I made him eat my left-over cake. I left feeling better.
After I got home, my mom made a big fuss about having gotten me a new dress, and my dad figured out the whole band business. I'm not gonna let it go for a while though, anyway. It'll be a few trips to the ice cream shop before Andrea gets to eat half my piece of cake again. The dress had a silly ribbon on the back, but we figured that out too with a pair of scissors. The guests arrived, music was played, fun was had by all.
“Why do you keep glancing at the gate, Mattie?” Matt was standing behind me with a glass of punch in his hand and a smirk on his otherwise honest, pale face.
But just as I said that, Jimmy Albright arrived with his father, my dad's friend. My dad was tipsy already, considering his frequent visits to the adult's drink table, and nearly knocked Matt over on his way to hugging Jimmy and his dad. He came back to apologise to Matt, and I stole the moment, running over to greet them.
“Hiya, Jimmy! Mr. Albright.”
“Mattie, look at you! Thirteen already!” said Mr. Albright, shoving a wrapped gift in my hand. It felt like a vinyl. You know, musicians.
“Thirteen? Have I not seen you in a year, Mattie? I don't think I'd even recognise you in the street, if it weren't for those smiling eyes of yours.”
That was Jimmy, that was always charming Jimmy. What a damn fine thing to say. Then we chatted about age for a bit.
“You do you, Mattie,” he said seriously, “and take it easy, enjoy being young, kiddo!” He calls me kiddo. He'll get out of the habit in time. Then we chatted about presents, and then he told me about his trip to Iceland, and we chatted about music, and the band which was playing, and I told him about Bobby the snob, and then he invited me to dance. And then my palms became real sweaty and I was embarrassed and thought he'd let go. But not Jimmy, he's class, he didn't even seem to notice. I didn't babble any longer, and did my best to be a graceful thirteen year old. Sherry came by and asked Jimmy for a dance, and he said only if Miss Mattie would have it, and I smiled and said sure, Sherry is a sweetheart, and then I watched them for a while.
But somehow a short hour had passed, in which I had forgotten every other kid at my birthday party, and Jimmy was saying he had to go.
“You know, you get older, you gotta do stuff all the time. It was wonderful though, Mattie, I wouldn't have missed it for the world.”
“Well, what do you gotta do?”
“Late meeting at a bar. You know you’re in the right profession when you can have a meeting at a bar.”
“Well... I can come with! Dad wouldn't mind. I'd like to go to a bar.”
“But it's your birthday!” He said with a surprised smile.
“Yea but, you see, everyone is having fun, they won't notice I'm gone.”
“Of course they will, Mattie, look here: that boy has been trying to steal a dance from you for a while now. And your friend with the blue scarf – that one – she said there's something she wants to show you on the other side of the garden.”
“Oh.” I hadn't heard or noticed much.
“Look, I'll cut you a deal. Now you enjoy your birthday, and have fun with your friends, and the very day you turn eighteen I'll take you to a bar. Promise.”
“How about sixteen?”
“Hm… How about seventeen?”
I looked up at him, unable not to smile. But just as I was about to reply, my at-this-point-a-little-drunk-but-merry dad put his hand on my shoulder.
“Mattie, you wonderful child, we've been talking about stuff over there, and I gotta say something. Don't be one of those kids that write mean memoirs about their famous parents when they grow up, baby. I mean really don't be.”
“Relax dad, you're not that famous.”
“Good, darling, good, get it all out of your system now.”
But just as I turned away from my dad to say bye to Jimmy, he had already gone out the garden gate. So I ran over to Matt and Sherry and started chattering about the party and the food and the parents.
Well you know, I'm really just laying the foundations anyway.
Hana Korneti is a writer with several short story publications, who is trying to figure out if her diplomas would be best put to use to lever the desk, block the sun in the library, or be shredded in a performance art piece. She is based either in Istanbul or in Skopje (she is insistently vague on the matter).