I’ve been on this planet long enough that I have grown used to many things that used to be strange: it’s no longer disconcerting to drive on the right side of the road, instead of on the left, as back in my native Thorgelfayne; I now automatically reach for the left faucet when I want hot water; and I’ve managed to lose most of my Thorgelfaynese accent. I can’t remember the last time that someone asked me if I’m really from Jamaica. However, there is one peculiarly human trait that I cannot grow accustomed to: your ability to get so carried away with an activity that you not only forget why you’re doing it, you even start to work against your original purpose!
Last week I was jolted back to the realization that, however well I may have succeeded in disguising myself as human, my basic nature is still Homelander.
It all started out as a simple birthday party for Sharon. Sharon is Jack’s daughter, and Jack is the manager of the shoe store across the mall from Chau’s pet store, where I work.
It was a night in mid-November, and most of the storekeepers had stayed late after the mall had closed to decorate their stores, ostensibly for a religious holiday in late December, but in actuality to induce their customers to intensify their shopping. Snow doesn’t normally fall in this area until January, but since the holiday is associated with snow, Chau was busily spraying fake snow out of an aerosol can onto the pet shop’s plate glass window. He did a fairly decent job of it; when he was finished the effect was quite convincing. In fact, it brought back fond memories. I was raised in Lakeshore Province, where we never got much snow in the wintertime, but my grandparents lived in the mountains of southern Hekkerma Province. We used to go there in the wintertime because my father, who was raised in Hekkerma, felt that a childhood without snowmen, sleds, and snow fights was no childhood at all. I remember how we’d pull up in their driveway on a snowy night; in fact, I can almost see it now: their living-room window was made up of sixteen or so little panes, and each one collected snow at the bottom, just as in Chau’s simulation.
Well, I am digressing. Chau was painting his simulated snow on the outside of the window, and I was stringing garlands of plastic leaves and colored electric lights on the inside of it.
“My name is Sharon!” came a little voice from below.
I nearly fell from my step-stool! I looked down and saw a little girl who apparently had been watching me for some time. Since the mall was closed to everyone but us employees, we had the door propped open for convenience; she must have just wandered in to look at the puppies.
“Hello, Sharon,” I replied, “How old are you?”
“I’m this many,” she said, holding up four wet fingers. “But in a little while I’m going to be this many!” She bashfully stretched out all five fingers, then plugged them back into her mouth.
“What are you doing here?” I probed gently, “Did you get lost?”
“No! I’m not lost!” she exclaimed in pride, “My daddy is right over there!” She took her right forefinger out of her mouth long enough to point at the shoe store across the mall. I looked in the direction she pointed, and saw Jack sprinting toward me.
“Is that your daddy coming now?” I asked.
“Yes!” she squealed in glee, “That’s my daddy!” Just then Jack came in the door, swooped little Sharon off her feet and threw the bundle of squeals and giggles around in his arms.
“Sharon, you know you aren’t supposed to wander off like that,” he admonished her gently. “You’re supposed to stay with me. This is a big, big place, and you could get lost!”
“I wanted to see the puppies!” Sharon giggled, not taking her father’s warning seriously.
So Jack put his daughter on the floor and let her tell him all about the puppies that we had on display.
I hung up the last of the plastic greenery and stepped down from the step-stool. “I understand that Sharon has a birthday coming up,” I said as I folded up the stool.
“Yes, that’s right,” Jack sighed. “In a couple of weeks she’ll be five. It’s unfortunate that her birthday falls this time of year,” he confided, “because it’s very hard to keep it from getting overshadowed by all this Christmas stuff. It seems to start earlier and earlier every year!”
Of course, since Jack is a retail merchant, he bears partial responsibility for the situation, but I diplomatically didn’t broach that subject. Instead, I sympathized with him.
On Monday, I got the idea of throwing a little birthday party for Sharon and her friends at the pet shop. I had to clear the idea with Chau, of course, since he’s the owner of the shop. Chau thought that would be a lovely idea, and decided to give her with a puppy as a birthday gift. When we presented the idea to Jack, he rejected it at first, but we gradually talked him into it. He finally rationalized that a puppy would not only be a good playmate and companion, it would teach her responsibility besides.
So, it was a deal!
On Tuesday, the lady who runs the ice cream shop heard of our plan, and decided to volunteer her premises as the site of the party. She threw refreshments into the deal, and said that Sharon could invite her entire day-care class as well!
By Wednesday, Sharon was the happiest little girl you’d ever seen! She was beaming, because her special day was going to be a very important occasion. She was the center of everyone’s largesse and attention, and she positively basked in it.
By Thursday, mall management got wind of the idea. They decided it would be much better if the party were held in the center court of the mall, and all the storekeepers’ children could be invited! The ice cream lady took the increased demand for her refreshments in stride, and Chau decided to volunteer two puppies; one for the birthday girl, and one would be a door prize to one of her diminutive guests (subject to prior parental approval, of course.)
On Friday, the jewelry store owner donated a ring, which would serve as a door prize for some lucky parent, on the theory that all those parents would have to be entertained somehow; and the department store manager, thinking ‘what’s a party this time of year without Santa Claus?’ announced that one of his employees would don a red and white suit and fake beard for the occasion.
Over the weekend the whole thing mushroomed even further. In fact, I even remember hearing something about publicity on the radio!
Finally, the big day arrived. Sharon’s fifth birthday was here at last! The band was playing Christmas carols in the center court, and Santa Claus was presiding over his long line of greedy penitents. Hors d’oeuvres were served, and the punch was great. All the kids got ice cream and cake, and balloons sprouted from the crowd like tulips in the spring. It was a huge, festive party! The department store had donated token gifts for each child, and I still remember the hysterical shriek from the woman who won the ring.
I stood at the fringe of the crowd, drinking in the holiday spirit and enjoying the festive music, when Jack walked up to me. “It’s a wonderful party!” I remarked idly.
“Yes, it is, and I can’t thank you enough,” he said somewhat mechanically, looking down sadly at his feet. “Everyone sure went to a lot of trouble, and I really appreciate it.”
“Is something wrong?” I asked, suddenly noticing the tremor in his voice.
“Yes,” he said, vainly trying to conceal a rising panic, “I can’t find Sharon anywhere!”
So we went on a search. We looked through all the kids in line for Santa, but she wasn’t there. We checked out all the kids with ice-cream mustaches, but she wasn’t there either. We ran into Chau.
“What is wrong?” he asked. We told him and he joined our search. We walked the length of the mall twice and couldn’t find her. Finally, the ice cream lady joined our search, volunteering to look in all the ladies’ restrooms, the one place we couldn’t search. We had great hopes, but Sharon didn’t turn up.
Finally, I suggested that we retreat to the pet shop to regroup and plan a more systematic search. Jack, Chau, the ice cream lady, and I marched morosely to the other end of the mall where the pet shop is located, far from the din of the celebration at the other end.
The bell on the door rang as we entered. We compared notes, we retraced our search efforts, we dug up a floor plan of the mall and made theories, but we didn’t make any progress. One thing Jack was sure of, she wouldn’t have left the mall.
“Are you sure of that?” I asked Jack, suspicious of his confidence. After all, who knows what a child would do?
“I am very sure,” he stated. “Sharon has been taught never to cross a street alone, and it’s become second nature to her. The parking lot is just one big street to her, and it completely surrounds the mall. No, she must be inside.”
The ice cream lady was skeptical, and a mild controversy ensued. Chau tried to play the peace-maker.
Just then I noticed that the stockroom door was ajar, and I had the distinct memory of closing it tightly. So while the others argued, I sneaked quietly away. I entered the stockroom and looked around. I didn’t see anything out of the ordinary until I heard a little sob emanating from under our worktable. It was Sharon! I was elated! I cooed at her and comforted her as I scooped her up in my arms, and carried her back to the adults who were still engrossed in their dispute.
“There she is!” Jack exclaimed in obvious relief. I was glad to hand her over to him, because she was getting heavy in my arms. Not to mention wet and sticky. “Where have you been, sweetheart?”
“They all forgot!” she sobbed, “It’s my birthday, but they all forgot!” and then she buried her face into her daddy’s shirt and cried her heart out.
We were all struck with guilt. One of the announcers at the party had announced it as a Christmas party. Well, he was hardly to blame, no one told him different, and there was a Santa Claus there! And so all the well-meaning human adults began to realize that in their enthusiasm to give Sharon a special party, they had hijacked it for an entirely different purpose altogether.
So on the very next day, Sharon had another birthday party with five of her friends in the stockroom of our pet shop. They played some games, ate some cupcakes and ice cream, and Sharon got a puppy! The whole party couldn’t have lasted more than an hour.
“Thank you Bobo,” Sharon said at the end, and ran into my arms to embrace and kiss me with big, wet ice-cream kisses. Why she singled me out for thanks, I don’t know, but Jack explained it by saying that children are often more perceptive than we think. I blushed, but thanks to my complexion, no one could see that.
“It was the best birthday party I ever had!” she said.