Lloyd Abbott wasn't the richest man in our town, but he had, in his daughters, a vehicle for displaying his wealth that some of the richer men didn't have. And, more unusual in our midwestern community, he had the inclination to do so. And so, at least twice a year, passing by the Abbotts' house on the way to school, we boys would see the striped fabric of a tent stretched out over their grand backyard, and we'd know there was going to be another occasion for social anxiety. One of the Abbott girls was having a birthday, or graduating, or coming out, or going away to college. "Or getting her period," I said once to my brother, but he didn't like that. He didn't much like me at that time, either.
By the time we'd return home at the end of the day, the tent would be up and workmen would be moving under the cheerful colors, setting up tables and chairs, arranging big pots of seasonal flowers. The Abbotts' house was on the main street in town, down four or five blocks from where the commercial section began, in an area of wide lawns and overarching elms. Now all those trees have been cut down because of Dutch elm disease and the area has an exposed, befuddled air. But then it was a grand promenade, nothing like our part of town, where the houses huddled close as if for company; and there probably weren't many people in town who didn't pass by the Abbotts' house once a day or so, on their way to the library for a book, or to Woolworth's for a ball of twine, or to the grocery store or the hardware store. And so everyone knew about and would openly discuss the parties, having to confess whether they'd been invited or not.
My brother Jacey usually had been, and for that reason was madeparticularly miserable on those rare occasions when he wasn't. I was the age of the youngest daughter, Pamela, and so I was later to be added to the usual list. By the time I began to be invited to the events under the big top, I had witnessed enough of the agony which the whimsicality of the list cost my brother to resolve never to let it be that important to me. Often I just didn't go to something I'd been invited to, more than once without bothering to RSVP. And when I did go, . I refused to take it seriously. For instance, sometimes I didn't dress as the occasion required. At one of the earliest parties I attended, when I was about thirteen, I inked sideburns on my cheeks, imagining I looked like my hero of the moment-of several years actually Elvis Presley. When Jacey saw me, he tried to get my mother not to let me go unless I washed my face.
"It'll look worse if I wash it," I said maliciously. "It's India ink. It'll turn gray. It'll look like dirt."
My mother had been reading when we came in to ask her to adjudicate. She kept her finger in the book to mark her place the whole time we talked, and so I knew Jacey didn't have much of a chance. She was just waiting for us to leave.
"What I don't understand, John," my mother said to Jacey--she was the only one who called him by his real name-"is why it should bother you if Doug wants to wear sideburns."
"Mother," Jacey said. He was forever explaining life to her, and she never got it. "This isn't a costume party. No one else is going to be pretending to be someone else. He's supposed to just come in a jacket and tie and dance. And he isn't even wearing a tie."
"And that bothers you?" she asked in her gentle, high-pitchedvoice.
"Of course," he said.
She thought for a moment. "Is it that you're ashamed of him?"
This was hard for Jacey to answer. He knew by my mother's tone that he ought to be above such pettiness. Finally, he said, "It's not that I'm ashamed. I'm just trying to protect him. He's going to be sorry. He looks like such a jerk and he doesn't even know it. He doesn't understand the implications."
There was a moment of silence while we all took this in. Then my mother turned to me. She said, "Do you understand, Doug, that you may be the only person at this party in artificial sidebums?"
"Yeah," I answered. Jacey stirred restlessly, desperately. He could see where this was heading.
"Do you understand, honey, that your sideburns don't look real?" Her voice was unwaveringly gentle, kind.
Well, I had thought they might almost look real, and this news from someone as impartial as my mother was hard to take. But the stakes were high. I nodded. "Yeah," I said.
She pressed it. "That they look, really, as though you'd drawn them on?"
She looked hard at me a moment. Then she turned to Jacey. "Well, darling," she said. "It appears he does understand. So you've really done all you can, and you'd better just go along and try to ignore him." She smiled, as though to try to get him to share a joke. "Just pretend you never saw him before in your life."
Jacey was enraged. I could see he was trembling, but he had boxed himself in with his putative concern for my social welfare. I felt the thrill of knowing I was causing him deep pain.
"Mother," he said, as though the word were a threat. "You don't understand anything." He left the room,slamming the door behind him.