On the day before her twelfth birthday, Cora waited for her mother to come home from work. To pass the time, she talked to the crackers in her soup. She sat alone at the kitchen table and chose her favorites carefully. She let them float. The others she bullied with her spoon, holding them under the hot broth until they spread into sog. Once they started to go soft, she announced that their time was up. “Oysterettes, I greet you; and now I will eat you,” she said. She began to cry.
“You dumb things,” she sobbed “answer me!” Last year’s birthday present from her mother—a smiling wooden bear, hand carved in some foreign country—stared at her from the pantry shelf. “Dumb,” she repeated, and pulled off its head.
That night at dinner, Cora’s mother didn’t mention the headless bear or Cora’s birthday. She talked on and on about her job as school librarian and then about the news.
“Did you know some girl in Iowa changed her name to Honey Graham to win first prize in a cookie contest?” Cora asked.
“No, I didn’t,” said her mother.
“That’s news!” said Cora and left the table, heading for her room. She had been thinking all month about what she wanted for her birthday. Her friend Charley had a turtle, and for awhile she thought she would ask her mother to get her one too, but Charley spent a lot of time tracking and catching live bugs in a Band-aid box and she wasn’t sure she was committed enough for that.
She had liked finding the praying mantis. They hadn’t fed it to the turtle—just watched it praying and let it go. Charley spent hours in the park hunting. Mostly, he returned with a few houseflies. Cora had begun turning down his invitations to insect safaris now that it was hot. It was boring to stand around in the bushes watching for signs of a slow-moving beetle. She had better things to do.
Charley never bought Cora a birthday present in a store. He just picked out something he thought she would like from what was already in his house. Other than the turtle, the only thing she really liked these days was a twin set of tiny dolls made out of bullets—one balancing a jug on her head, the other lifting her lead skirt. They were heavy when Cora held them in her hand. Charley said they were made from the bullets that had killed his father. One had been shot into his leg; the other had pierced his heart.
Cora didn’t know if she believed Charley, but she wished whatever the reasons had been that made her own father leave when she was a baby could be made into dull little pellets, solid like that, so she could touch them and feel their weight.
Cora pulled off her clothes and put on her pajamas, though it was still much too early to go to sleep. Most kids had parties for their birthdays but her mother didn’t like parties and neither did Charley, so there was no one to invite.
Every birthday it was the same. She waited for her father to show up. Not that she would recognize him if he did. Her mother hadn’t saved any photographs, though she had saved a few mementos.
On the wall near her desk, Cora had hung several old ties, a colorful group including some with corny patterns of barnyard animals—pigs and horses and cows. And then there was his bamboo birdcage. Her mother said he had never kept a bird in it . He had just liked the way it looked. Cora had once discovered a slip of paper with his name scrawled across it wedged between the slats: Nikos Pavlides. She had folded it into a tiny square and hidden it deep in her jewelry box, inside the velvet pouch where she kept her good luck thunderbird pin from Teepee Town and her birthstone ring. She took it out now and studied the tight shape and slant of his signature.
He could have at least written her a letter before he disappeared. She was only a few cells at the time, but he must have known she would get bigger and be able to read someday. Why hadn’t he thought to leave her a message to be opened on her twelfth birthday?
The third and last souvenir of her dad dangled from a hook above her pillow. It was an odd bunch of broken stuff he had put together as a joke just before he left—a pair of motorcycle goggles with one lens missing, a plastic watch with a mermaid that swam clockwise but didn’t swim anymore, a gold pencil sharpener, and a miniature ceramic dog that could pop out of its kennel but was now stuck half in and half out—all tied to a leather thong. On windy nights, the thing did a monotonous dance, casting dim shadows onto the ceiling. There was no dance tonight.
Cora sat up and looked out the window. The round globe of her bedside lamp appeared in the pane, a ghost of itself. Before she learned about reflections in glass, she thought there was a whole world hovering somewhere between the inside of her room and the park outside. She thought her father lived in that place and was watching her at night.
If he hadn’t moved by now, her dad lived in Greece. He had gone there for what was supposed to have been a brief visit and been drafted into the army. Before his term of service was over, he had decided not to return.
Cora yawned and slid down under the covers. Her mother said her dad was crazy but Cora didn’t believe her. Sometimes, Cora thought her mother was the crazy one. One time Cora woke at three in the morning to find her mother busy at the kitchen table, pasting news clippings into a scrapbook. The headlines were all about rescues. A woman lost for days on the slopes of a four thousand foot mountain in Oregon kept herself alive by eating berries. An old man found in a toolshed had been held there against his will for seven years. Her mother had worn no robe that night. Shivering in her nylon nightgown, her long breasts had looked to Cora like twin sad faces, veiled in lace.
“Do we need to be rescued?” Cora had asked.
Cora wrapped the sheet tightly around herself until, lying rigidly on her back, her arms at her sides, she felt like a sewing needle in a half-finished hem. Traffic rumbled past. She counted the reflections of truck windows traveling across the wall and across her father’s neckties. She wondered drowsily if her father was listening to trucks go past his window or if he lived in a city at all. She wondered if he still wore ties with animals on them and if he missed his birdcage. She wondered what he would have given her for her birthday, and if he knew it was her birthday tomorrow, or if he had forgotten the date long ago.