Astra looked at the container she held in her hand. It had a magnifier on top, and its sides were screen mesh to hold what could be trapped inside without killing it. She said to her mother, Ruth, “Where’s the rest of it?” There was an urgency in her voice.
Her mother’s attention was divided. There was her three year-old, Nataliya, moving among people. There was the man she was having a conversation with. There were friends, and some she did not know, the sun, the backyard. Children splashing in the small wading pool, swinging high on a swing. “What do you mean?” she said.
“Where’s the rest of it?” Astra’s voice, rising. Her mother looked at the container purposefully. She was a biologist.
“I still don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“The rest of it! Where’s the rest of it? ”
“Oh, you mean the tweezers. I don’t know, they’ve been missing for a while. Why don’t you get some dirt or sand and examine it? You won’t need the tweezers, and I’ll bet you find something when you look at it with the magnifier.” Astra took the receptacle back and looked at it doubtfully. She had a nice dress on; she didn’t want to get it dirty. Ruth had been sitting with her twenty minutes, trying to get her to play with children. She finally got up when Matt, the birthday boy’s dad, beckoned to her from across the yard.
The missing tweezers were just one more annoyance for Astra. The kids at the party weren’t really her friends. She knew Bailey, who lived here, who was a year younger than she, but the party wasn’t even for Bailey, but for her little brother, who was Nataliya’s age, and Nataliya didn’t care if she knew anybody or not. They were only here because her dad was really old friends with Bailey’s mother. Now her dad was introducing her to a man he said used to know him when he was a little boy. That was hard to believe. Then the man told her he used to drive her daddy and his daughter—who was Bailey’s mother— home from pre-school! What did that have to do with her? It bothered her to think that her daddy used to be a little boy.
She heard the man ask her dad about his dad. Where did he live now?
Oren looked into empty space before he spoke. “He lives in the Adirondacks. Kind of north central. Not near a town really.”
“Do you go there much?”
Again, Oren hesitated. Finally, he said, “We get up there, maybe two or three times a year.” His voice descended as he spoke, as if making a bed by simply throwing a sheet over it.
“Daddy,” she said. He went near the pool with her and sat down. There were two blonde-haired girls in the pool with Bailey. They were all cupping their hands in the water and tossing it out on the surrounding grass. Sometimes it missed the grass and fell on someone.
“Why don’t you go in?” Oren said.
“I don’t want to,” she said. “I want to sit where you’re sitting.”
The man he had been speaking to looked at him from across the yard. He remembered Oren when he was four, and the man was driving with Oren and his daughter Moth in the back seat.
“My parents were yelling this morning,” Oren said. “My mom threw something at my dad.”
“Oh,” said Moth. They sat and looked all around as the car moved through city streets.
Oren said, “I sure would hate it if God or Jesus died, cause I have a Christian friend who cares a lot for those people. Wouldn’t you?”
“No,” Moth said. “I wouldn’t like Jesus to die. But I don’t like God.”
“Hmmm… But wait! If a wolf is behind you, God or Jesus will save you. Well, God won’t, but Jesus might… Maybe God would too.”
“Oren, if a wolf is behind you, nobody will save you, because a wolf is good, he won’t hurt you.”
“He will eat you,” Oren said.
Oren smiled at his daughter. “To most people I would say that’s not possible. You can’t sit in the place I’m sitting. But there’s one special person I feel differently about. I would make a place for her right here.”
“Matt!” Moth yelled by the picnic table. “He’s choking!” The curly-haired birthday boy was sitting immobile on a bench. He didn’t look especially distressed, but his head was pointing slightly down and his shoulders were hunched, Moth at his side. Matt was there in a moment, patting his back firmly. The birthday boy coughed.
“Obstruction in a windpipe,” Matt said. Everyone went back to what they were doing, which they had barely stopped to begin with.
Matt was telling several people sitting in chairs about the plants he was giving them.
“If you take good care of them, they will become very tall.”
“What did you say they were called?” asked Ruth, who was one of the recipients.
“Amorphophallus Titanum,” said Matt, “Which some people refer to as a stink plant. But that refers to the flower, which doesn’t occur for seven to ten years.”
“How tall does it get?”
“The flower itself can reach ten feet,” Matt said. He cultivated orchids and exotic plants in his basement. His front yard had no grass, but was a riot of native plants, especially sunflowers. When people came to the house in summer, they felt a lightness and joy in the children and flowers.
“Daddy, I want to go,” said Astra.
“Why don’t you get in the water?” Oren said. “You’ll like it. Go ahead. It’s ok, you can just take off your dress.” Astra did as her father suggested. She got in the pool, wearing her polka- dot underpants. Soon she was laughing and giggling and screaming, expressing joy for the first time all day.
There were children on the swing, two on belt swings and Bailey now on the trapeze bar between them, slowly turning upside down. Birthday boy was engineer in an inflatable Thomas the Train Engine, his friend a fireman. Adults were drinking beer and lemonade. Plants having been dispersed, Matt had one left and was taking it back to the basement. Oren came over with a beer.
“Now, what is it I’m supposed to do with this plant?” he said in mock exasperation.
“Ruth will fill you in. It’s low maintenance.”
“Well, if I shrink your penis plant, I’ll be sorry.”
“That’s all right. I’ve given plenty away. I’ve spread the seed. If yours falls on stony ground, it’s ok.”
Moth took a picture on her cell phone of Bailey swinging on the trapeze bar, going even higher than the swings. It did not matter to Bailey that it was not her party. Her swing was carrying her beyond gravity. All winter the snow had lain so heavily, falling early and freezing long and deep. Moth told her father, who had come from far away, “You couldn’t go anywhere if there was a double-parked truck.” And now this.