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Alice Baxter’s Birthday Party, May 24, 1962

by Pamela Bradley


Me and Alice Baxter is in the fifth grade together. She is fat and red headed. She lives right in town in back of her mommy’s restaurant. When me and Alice stands next to one another it makes people want to say something about how I am tall and skinny and she is short and fat. Her face always turns bright red when somebody says we look like Mutt and Jeff. Big old Alice got to have a birthday party this year. She turned eleven exactly two months before me and she is proud of that, like she had anything to do with it.

My mommy seemed worried when I got invited to her party. She was worried about what I was gonna take as a present to such a fancy birthday party. My Daddy seemed worried too, cuz he was afraid a what might happen in that house a theirs, like cussing and smoking and drinking. I was worried because I had never gone to a fancy birthday party and I didn’t know quite how to act. I had seen some pictures of birthday parties in story books. There was cake and pin the tail on the donkey games. But I didn’t know if Alice would still be having that kind of party now that she had records of Elvis and Brenda Lee and black pointy toed shoes.

We went to John Schneider’s General Store on Saturday morning before the party, hunting for something I could take as a present for Alice. She just about already had ever thing the store has to offer. John Schneider’s store don’t have nothing for sale like a 331/3 rpm record of Patsy Klein or anybody else. We settled for one a them new kind a stretchy hairbands. John Schneider had an apricot colored one up on a top shelf. He hadn’t even unpacked the hairband box, they was so new. The apricot one was about two inches wide all the way around and stretchy. I liked it but I didn’t know if Alice Baxter would. It seemed a little skimpy to be buyin’ one hairband for a gift but by the time we bought wrapping paper and a bow and a card it come to about four dollars we spent on Alice’s party. My Mommy was glad, after she counted out her money, that there wasn’t lots of fancy birthday parties for me to go to.

I got dressed up to go in my only store-bought dress. It was from the Sears Roebuck Store. It had a full skirt, three quarter sleeves, buttons up the front, a pointy collar and a cloth belt the same color as the dress – sky blue. My Granny Sophie had sent it to me in the mail and I only wore it once for Easter. I put on my Sunday shoes too and watched them get all orange and dusty by the time me and my Mommy walked the dirt road through town to Alice’s house.

When we knocked on Alice’s door, at the side of the restaurant out come a little barking white dog. He looked like he wanted to eat us up. Mommy left me at the door and told me she’d see me about 3:30. I could see Alice through the screen door, just running back and forth, swatting her birthday balloons up in the air. Her Mommy and her Grandma was inside too. They was fussing with the tablecloth and the dishes for the party. Alice yelled, “Come on in! Buster won’t bite. He ain ‘t got no teeth.” Here in Coaltown most people don’t keep their dogs in the house, they think it’s nasty. But if Buster didn’t have no teeth he wasn’t much to worry about.

Other fifth grade girls was right behind me pushing to get in to Alice’s house, Rebecca and Rachel and Suzie and Dorothy Frances. We all was looking each other over to see how ever body dressed up for the party. Pretty much ever body wore their Sunday best. Suzie said,” You look pretty in sky blue! I’d a worn sky blue too if I had any.” I was glad to see that no one of them was wearing a new wide hairband. Maybe Alice would open my present and be the first one of us to get a wide hairband. She’d like that.

Alice showed all of us her room first off. Partly to get away from her Mommy and Grandma who was just giving out too many orders for Alice. They was yelling for her to help them when Alice pulled us all down the hallway and into a pink room with pink walls and a pink bedspread, even the doll on her bed was wearing one a them pink crocheted dressed.

Alice closed the door and whipped up her dress in the front. “Lookie here, what I got for my birthday!” she said, showin’ us her first girdle. It had garters attached on the legs to hold up her stockings and little pink flowers running all over slick white material. Her fat was trying to escape by rolling out over the top of her waistband like bread does in the oven and by oozing out the bottom where the elastic legs got real tight. She was sure proud a that girdle. And the first one of us to have such a thing under her dress! I admired it in a nervous sort a way since I didn’t know if I’d ever want to own such strangling underwear.

Her Mommy called us about then to come outta there and eat some cake and ice cream at the table. They had made Alice a surprise cake. It was pink and about the shape of an Eskimo’s igloo. The igloo part looked like a crocheted skirt of pink frosting. The middle of the cake had a Barbie doll stickin’ out of the cake-skirt from the waist up. She was wearin’ a big pink sun hat and wavin’, “Happy birthday!” over towards Alice.

I don’t think her Granny was too happy to hear what Alice was saying right then. “Lord a mercy, Grandma! I’m done playing with Barbie dolls! Couldn’t you have made me a Elvis cake or something?” Her Granny hung her head like she was gonna cry and her Mommy started wacking off big slices a that pink skirt for us like she was cutting through weeds up at the cemetery. Her mouth got all twisted up and held on tight to her lit cigarette.

Alice told us about a new game we could play at the table while we was eating cake. It was called “telephone.” All we had to do was repeat what we heard the person next to us whisper in our ear. Alice would start first and say something to her right. It was supposed to be funny to hear what happened to the sentence by the time it got all around the circle. Some people whispered all hot and mumbly in your ear so you couldn’t half hear. By the time what ever it was made the circle the last girl yelled out, “I think she said, ‘Alice does the twist with her hands on her tits.”

“All right, girls. That is enough of that game,” Alice’s Mommy said as she cleared away the pink cake and rescued a sticky, naked Barbie from the plate.

Alice yelled back at her to, “Shut up! It is not enough of the telephone game!” and stomped back to her pink room, followed by the rest of us who didn’t know what to do after a fifth grader tells their Mommy to shut up. That wasn’t nothing I ever heard anybody say to their folks. And live to talk about it!

Tisha must a felt sorry for her sister cuz she came in the pink room too, carrying her brightest red lipstick tube, not that it was in style, she told us, but that we needed bright red if we was to practice how to kiss boys using the mirror. Tisha went first, plastering her lips with the slick, red stick and then puckering up to the vanity, telling the mirror all breathy like, “Kiss me.” I guess the idea was that if you did it right you’d leave a perfect set of lips on the mirror and then you’d smear the lipstick to the side when you cocked your head. She said that kissing had to do with each of you turning your heads different ways after a while. Not ever one was ready to practice kissing boys. A few girls tried and the rest of us giggled ourselves to death giving names to the mirror. “Kiss her, Charlie!” and “Oh, Wally!”

That game ended when her Daddy busted in the room to tell Alice happy birthday. I wouldn’t have recognized him. Once her daddy, Bobby Ray, give me and Martha Belle a ride in his jeep over the creek and down the mountain, when we had gone for a very long walk. But today he had the look a somebody who was drinking that old moonshine. His eyes was all bugged out and he was smiling the stuck smile of a halloween mask. “Happy birthday to my baby girl, Alice!” he studdered. Then he tripped on the bed spread and landed face down on her bed. We all scattered away from him hoping he wasn’t dead or nothing.

Alice turned bright red again. It’s easy for a red headed person to turn bright red. She told us it was time to dance in the living room to her new record album. It was just called “Elivs” and had a picture of him on the front with his hair all greased back singing into a microphone. Alice liked his renditions of “Rip it up” and “Long Tall Sally”. We didn’t know nothing about dancing but Tisha did. She showed us some steps. As heavy as she was we couldn’t tell if that was the right way to dance or just Tisha’s heavy stomping around imitation of dancing. It was all new to us.

Her Daddy stumbled out of her room yelling for us to “Cut that noise down!” just as her Grandma appeared in the kitchen door frame warning us that Christian people didn’t dance that way. Then her Mommy come in too through the door that led to the restaurant, wearing a big white apron and carrying another carton of Pepsi Cola. “Let ‘um alone, both a you’uns! How much longer do you think they have to dance and be silly? Why, at least one of ‘um’ll be knocked up by the end of this school year! A little a that Elvis music ain’t gonna make a bit a difference!”

I didn’t know what knocked up was. I sure hoped it wasn’t gonna be me. I didn’t want to be knocked in the head with nothing. But what did that have to do with dancing to Elvis songs? That sure made the party get real quiet. And lucky for us, it was almost three-thirty. Rebecca’s mother knocked on the door about then. They lived the furthest away and their car was running outside. They had to drive way up in the holler to get home.

Alice stomped her feet and demanded that we all stay while she opened her presents. But the problem was that no body else’s Mommy listened to what Alice wanted. We all got picked up about then to go home and Alice was left behind with her fussing people and a pile of unopened presents.

When my Mommy walked me home that day, she asked if I had a good time. I just said that we played pin the tail on the donkey and ate cake. I think she would have been disappointed to hear that what really goes on at parties ain’t like in the story books.

"Alice Baxter’s Birthday Party, May 24, 1962" is one of many creative nonfiction stories written by Pamela Bradley, an East Tennessee native, who is working to complete the coming of age tales of her 1962-63 school year spent in the hills at the home of her great grandmother. Pam writes about life in a small coal mining town.

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© 2003, Pamela Bradley, All Rights Reserved