Friday, February 12, 2016

Party at J's House

Dorcas moved through the living room curiously, looking at the simple but homey furnishings. "Such a lovely idea to have a housewarming party. Your siblings will be here, of course, but it is a small apartment. I hope you weren't planning on too many other friends coming?"

"Oh, you'd be surprised how many people can fit when they're welcome." J's eyes twinkled. 

She wasn't sure what to make of his cryptic statement, and ignored it. As she had been doing for the last 30-some years.

After eyeing the photos and the plants perched on the bookshelf, she peered out onto the balcony. The summer air was mixed with the smell of barbecue and car exhaust.

"Such a quaint balcony. Are those strawberries?"
"Yes, I'm hoping to grow some food out here."
"I thought you had a supermarket down the road? Surely there's no need to play in the dirt when there are more important things to do. Or is it the money?"

She examined her nephew briefly. He didn't seem any skinnier than normal.

"No, no, I have more than enough money," he laughed, and she gave a polite smile. Obviously he didn't have more than enough, if he was living in this tiny place in a shabby neighborhood. 

"Some of the neighbors have this trading thing going. Actually works really well. Free firewood for green beans. A pot of soup for help with setting up a new TV."

"How very... ingenious." If not downright Communist.

"Tell her about your table, son," nudged Joe, wandering into the room from the hall. "Your mother's still napping."

Dorcas ran her hand over the distressed wooden piece. "It's beautiful. I didn't know you were into the shabby-chic look. Wherever did you find it?"

"I made it. I set up a small workshop in the basement."

"He put it together from an old pallet he found in the street!" added his father proudly. "Talent runs in the family."

Dorcas quickly lifts her hand from the surface and dusted it on her skirt.

"Ruth helped me clean it and put the finish on," said J, missing nothing. "And then she found me a new project. When we were on a walk one day with the stroller, and she got to chatting with a Turkish mom. You know how mothers are, always talking babies and strollers." He rolled his eyes in mock boredom. "Anyway, this mom doesn't have a garden. So Ruth suggested that I make a bench for outside the front door so she can sit in the sun with her little one. I'm working on it now."

"I thought you were supposed to be studying?" Here Dorcas was, helping support her nephew through school, and he was wasting his time with foreigners and sawdust. Ridiculous.

"Woodworking relaxes me." He shrugged. "I still attend all my classes, of course. And then woodworking on the weekends or when I'm free. Besides, how can I say no to a cute nagging sister? She's coming tonight, by the way, but won't be here til late." He turned on the radio and started fiddling with the controls. Soon jazz music came gushing out.

"Ruth does have a way of getting what she wants," agreed J's mother, coming into the room. "I wouldn't be surprised if she and Jonathan decide to move to this neighborhood too."

Dorcas shuddered at the thought. Having J live here instead of in one of the nicer suburbs or student halls was bad enough. He was brilliant, if odd, but how would he make his mark on the world if he buried himself in the inner city?

"Oh!" she exclaimed suddenly. "I took the liberty of inviting the mayor's wife. Lovely woman. We sit on a committee for the less privileged. New educational reforms, work subsidies, and all that."

J beamed. "Wonderful! It will be great to have her here."

"Perhaps she can put in a word for you and get you a better... house," she said, glancing at the faded brick walls across the street.

"I'm quite happy here. But -" here he snapped his fingers "- she can talk to Gerda."


"She's a neighbor who has a son with a mental handicap. Bureaucratic delays mean she hasn't been able to get a subsidy for her son. She's retired, and times are hard for everyone."

"Ah, well," Dorcas said uncomfortably, "perhaps we can keep the conversation light? No need to start on gloomy stories."

Just then the doorbell started ringing.

"This is Katja, from down the street. A student in Delft." 
Aunt Dorcas nodded approvingly at the neatly dressed young woman.
"What do you study?"
Katja looked worried. Glanced at her host. He repeated the question slowly, and her face cleared up.
"I... study computers. The science."
"Katja is from Poland, she's been here about three months. She studies fulltime and works evenings in her uncle's shop. One of the top students in her class."
"Oh. How... nice."

"This is Frank. He lives across the street and is renovating his house. He lets me come over and help out sometimes, don't you, buddy? Then we have a drink and he tells me stories from his sailing days." 
Frank gave a smoker’s cough and scratched at his white beard. "We have one of the busiest harbors in the world here, but not many young people take the time to hear an old man tell about the glory days... Your nephew is a credit to you, ma'am." He pulled at the brim of his grubby cap, and Aunt Dorcas found herself smiling.

"Salaam, Abdul! How are things?"  "What's up, J, my man!" "What did you think of that penalty kick, huh?"

"Ben, so glad you could make it! Made any big arrests lately?"  "It's been quiet lately. That new mural by the store - I heard you got the teens to do that instead of graffiti?" "Work in progress. Some of them are quite talented."

"Emilia, this is my aunt. She also is a big fan of that show of yours." "Oh, are you really? Weren't you just crushed when Susan and Rick broke up?" 

"Simon! How's little Elsa? Still got that nasty cough?" "Yes, but she sent you a picture she drew." "Tell her I will hang it right on my fridge!"

By the time the mayor's wife arrived, the small living room was full of people. A few shook hands, unimpressed, and then drifted out to the balcony to smoke. Others clustered in a little circle around Dorcas and Mrs. Engelberg. Dorcas, of course, had been the one to invite the celebrity. She glowed in the reflected glory, at least until the smoky air from the balcony seeped in. It mingled with the smells of strong perfume and less-than-fresh body odor. She excused herself and moved to the other side of the room to open a window. 

J tapped a spoon against his tea glass for attention. The chatter quieted.

"I would like to thank you all for being here tonight," he began. "It makes me happy to share my house -" 

"-and beer!" called someone, lifting a glass.

"-and beer, and soft drinks, and coffee with you all!" corrected J, laughing. "Thank you for being my neighbors, my family, and my friends. I hope that God is good to you this year and that we will all have many more parties together!"

With that, someone turned up the music to just below ear-splitting, and the party started again.

Dorcas edged towards the couch and found a free spot.

"Are you enjoying yourself?" asked Maria. Her eyes twinkled, just like her son's. Her husband seemed equally at ease, drinking his coffee and chatting with someone about roofing problems. 

"Ah, it's certainly an interesting party. Not the guests I would have thought to invite," said Dorcas haltingly.

"No.... J seems to have a talent for looking at the world differently than most of us," agreed Maria.

Dorcas sighed, watching her nephew move easily between mayor's wife and homeless man, foreign and young and old. Hadn't he said that beautiful Lila was a refugee from Armenia? (Where was Armenia, anyway?)

"He seems happy here, at least. But I'm still getting used to that nickname of his. Why do we go to the trouble of giving children beautiful names, only for them to change them? My Samuel came in the other day and...."

Her voice wafted out the window and down into the street, where Ruth was parking her bike. After hoisting little Abigail onto her hip, she moved briskly to the door and searched her pockets. "Forgot his loaner key again," she sighed.

She pushed the doorbell next to the neat tag, "Jesus Benjussaf."

"Hey Ruth, come on up!" rang J's cheerful voice through the intercom.

"I brought the mafia, some hippies, and a teething toddler," she teased. 

"Well, there's always room in my house! Bring 'em up with you."

Smiling, she started climbing towards the light at the top of the stairs.

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