Despite the small army of children waiting behind her (Kay obliviously among them), Simone had been receiving the clown’s favors going on ten minutes now: her lashes fluttered as the inflated salami twisted into yet another doting poodle. Anna could not conceal from herself that she wished evil on the brat.

Ground Round. Simone’s fifth birthday. A trip to Toys “R” Us afterward was in the making. It was supposed to be a light affair, so Anna was on her guard. Not that she disliked celebrations, light affairs, but that light affairs generally excluded conflict. Conflict, for Anna, didn’t have to be a big show. She appreciated subtlety. A friend’s bad evening could set her right.

David and Sarah Winslow were good friends. But Anna would have liked them better if they bickered once in a while. They never nagged one another. And they never nagged their daughter, Simone. Anna would have liked, just once, to see Sarah slap Simone. Catch David rolling his eyes at Sarah. Just once.

Simone was her parents’ child. She’d inherited her mother’s alert, almost sinister beauty. David’s clever unpredictability. Above all, their assured sense of destiny. Simone was already learning French. Kay, Anna and Bruce’s seven-year-old, couldn’t spell her own name.

Anna instinctively searched the faces of the other diners. If the atmosphere were too exuberant, too bubbly, too laughy–if there were perhaps one table of drunk businessmen–then she and her friends could allow for a certain degree of cynicism: they would laugh superciliously. They would bond with happy disdain. If there were no such comforting nuisance, she could usually count on Kay. Kay was chaos in reserve. But if Kay somehow let her down–as she so far had today–Anna might have to create her own troubled atmosphere. The best way, Anna found, was to bring up morbid topics. This always disappointed everyone.

This afternoon the restaurant was permeated by an atmosphere that was altogether mild-mannered. They would be only one of many mild-mannered parties of six.

Anna ate popcorn and watched the house clown engineer another hypertensive poodle until her manhattan arrived. She tried to ignore the fact that Kay was sniffing more popcorn than she was eating. Kay was always sniffing things, like a suspicious cat.

In the fall Simone would be starting at the area’s most prestigious kindergarten. The Winslows had already picked a private high school with a 15-year waiting list. They were trying to help Bruce and Anna: a new “special needs” school where Kay might fit had come to their attention through one of their many contacts. They had discussed it before. Anna and Bruce had seen brochures. They were giving it serious thought. There was a waiting list, but David, with his contacts, now told Anna and Bruce that they could probably get Kay in for the fall semester.

“It’s got a great speech therapy program.” David addressed his comments to Bruce, who recorded each, diligently, on an index card.

Addressing Anna, Sarah said: “Simone’s kindergarten has opera appreciation–isn’t that neat?”

Anna knew Sarah found Kay’s future an unappetizing subject. It was not neat. Sarah watched Simone and Kay at play with what Anna believed was alarm. Alarm, no doubt, that Kay’s dullness would tarnish her brilliant daughter.

What was wrong with Kay, no doctor could say. She was not retarded, she was not autistic, she was not congenitally malformed. Her deficits, however, were not so subtle that Anna and Bruce did not feel the need to solicit the Winslows’ connections.

Kay’s arrival had nearly destroyed Anna and Bruce’s marriage. Anna could only look upon such a feat with admiration. Regardless, whether Kay would go away was now no longer a question.

Simone was pretending she had breasts, and Kay, half afraid of the balloons, imitated uncertainly. Contrary to past experience, Simone had not yet tired of Kay. There had been times when the families got together that Simone had needed to be reintroduced to Kay.

However, when Simone did enjoin Kay as playmate (or victim), Kay usually faded quickly. Then, exhausted (or terrified), Kay would run back to slump against her mother’s arm with that stupefied look that annoyed Bruce so, rolling her eyes at each renewal of laughter that threatened to push the adults’ conversation on indefinitely–a childish reflection of Anna’s own secret longing to go home, and for that small thing, Anna was grateful.

Since they had made their decision, Anna saw something new in Kay’s eyes. A glint of resentment. Did Kay know she was being shipped off? Anna saw something she recognized: a willingness to trade on her misfortunes. With nothing worth trading, however, Kay could only resent.

But this afternoon Kay did not need Anna. Both girls were wildly enjoying themselves. Based on the sort of games Simone invented, Anna felt she knew what kind of teenager Simone would be, and she held the five-year-old accountable for that eventual person. Bruce, good-humoredly, was picking popcorn out of his hair. The game had ended when Anna’s drink had spilled and she’d shouted like a bad mommy. Perhaps if Anna hadn’t been so mean, Kay would have abandoned Simone by now. Bruce had given Anna a nasty look, but following the rules–not in front of the Winslows–he let it go. The girls ran off, fistfuls of popcorn held aloft victoriously.

Sarah had redirected the conversation and Bruce was politely absorbing details about the stables at Simone’s new school. Everyone else was perfectly happy, agreeable, enlightened. When Anna noticed that the busboy had a large, rather gruesome mole growing out of his otherwise clean jawline, she was quick to exploit it. She hunched forward to share, on the sly, that something immensely funny was within range (“Don’t look now…”), but at the moment the bemoled busboy passed, David, Sarah and Bruce were discussing Sarah’s uncle (as a lifelong horseman he knew something about stables) who was recovering from throat cancer. Had Anna been paying attention she’d have realized the conversation had already turned satisfactorily morbid.

“Gawd, is that a clitoris on that kid’s chin?” Anna tried to deliver the observation like she imagined David Winslow might have cheerfully delivered the same. Unlike David, Anna had not found the appropriate–and to her always elusive–point of entry. Sarah beckoned the waitress to say they would be wanting the birthday cake brought out soon. Anna’s comment was tactfully dodged.

When they heard a rapping noise, the adults turned in unison. It was Simone and Kay, outside, on the front lawn of the restaurant. Surprise! They ran away from the window full speed and then tilted, hands first, onto the lawn. With the large restaurant sign for backdrop, it looked obscenely like a television commercial. Simone wheeled as nimbly as if her arms and legs were fixed spokes. Anna recoiled at the flash of panties. Kay followed, her poor imitation of a cartwheel more like a drunk impersonating a tumbleweed. Jumping up from her frumpish roll, she bowed to the parking lot.

By the time Kay relocated the window that contained her parents, Simone was already pressed to the glass, looking mischievously from adult to adult to see how her after-dinner hijinks had come off. Kay waddled up and stood on tiptoe. Next to Simone, she looked like a bullfrog, yet she was clearly overjoyed to have been in on the fun. Anna forced a smile and wiggled her fingers at Kay. Bruce applauded with David and Sarah. David and Sarah laughed. The girls’ hysterical laughter (even muted) was contagious. Bruce laughed idiotically. What, Anna thought, was so funny? Was there something inherently funny about cartwheels? She felt her refusal to laugh tighten her stomach. She wondered if her disappointment showed. Disappointment that Kay had gone along with Simone’s stunt. Disappointment that she had, at least for the day, lost Kay.

“Tell them to come in,” Anna said, too sharply. Certainly the threatening blur of traffic behind the girls concerned David and Sarah too? David beckoned the girls, pantomiming the arrival of cake. The girls vanished.

The adults resumed their conversation as if nothing had happened. Anna was chagrined. The disruption had not wiped away her cruel and obviously self-serving comment about the busboy’s clitty mole. Her comment no longer hung in the air per se; it had fallen to the checkered tablecloth where her friends, her husband, absently brushed to remove the annoying crumbs.

Anna hoped the conversation would return to the uncle’s throat cancer, but it turned to more mundane fare: property taxes, vacations, birth control. It oppressed Anna like a tourniquet. She could not excuse herself to go to the bathroom because it would be the second time in half an hour. The others were so immortally content their bladders anchored them to their seats. How similar boredom and humiliation were. She wanted to go home directly and start a fight with her husband. How dare he allow David Winslow to dictate their daughter’s future? Even though it wasn’t true. So what? Bruce could sleep on the couch. Then she could watch TV in bed alone. Still, she wouldn’t be the one to say it was time to go. They still had cake.

Hearing her husband comment on the pill, how it wasn’t for the “absent-minded,” Anna felt the jab. Bruce believed Kay had been the result of Anna’s neglect. The Winslows did not hear the jab. Bruce’s lightheartedness was so obnoxious she was tempted to say something small and devastating: how, for example, the doctors had not ruled out fetal alcohol syndrome. This sort of self-deprecatory comment always hurt Bruce more than herself. The wounds of complicity. This afternoon there was no excuse for his high spirits but high spirits. Still, she said: “Haven’t you had enough to drink?”

To which she knew he would and he did reply: “I’m drinking Coke, Anna.”

She shrugged. She knew he wasn’t drinking–had selfishly quit drinking without her.

“Here comes the cake,” Sarah said. “Where’s Simone and Kay?”

The girls still hadn’t come back.

“Maybe they’re in the bathroom,” David said.

“Maybe they’re letting the air out of our tires,” said Bruce, lavishly rewarded with laughter from the Winslows. Anna was embarrassed by so much humor squandered on the girls. Anna was certain that if it had been her joke instead of Bruce’s she wouldn’t have gotten the same laugh. She could almost hear Bruce say: “Anna, why would Kay and Simone ever do anything like that?” But it had been Bruce’s joke.

“I’ll go see where the girls are,” Anna said.

“If you’re not back in five minutes we’ll send a search party,” David said.

She left the laughter behind.

Her first thought was that she would go sit in the car and listen to the radio, but Bruce had the keys. She checked the rest room, the coat check room, the bar, the kitchen, and the smoking section. After failing to find them on her second inspection of the rest room–she even asked a busboy, a different busboy, to check the men’s room–she returned to the bar and watched several minutes of televised golf. She was the only one in the bar. She ordered a shot of Dewar’s and watched another minute of televised golf. Anna did not care for golf. Finally, on her way back to the table, Anna changed her mind and stepped outside for some air. They could eat cake without her.

It was hotter outside. The sun was shining. She had forgotten it was only late afternoon. Seeing the Toys “R” Us fortress on the horizon of the parking lot, Anna wondered whether the children could make such a perilous trek. She was about to step off the curb when Kay barreled into her, wide-eyed, like a rabbit with a wolf on her tail.

Anna clutched Kay and looked behind her, expecting Simone in her predatory mode, chasing Kay with a stick or a booger. She readied herself to grab Simone by the hair, to dislocate a lissome arm, to render the delicious slap. But there was no Simone. Instead came the roar of a goosed engine and the wayward screech of tires. She yanked Kay onto the curb just as the red pickup appeared from around the corner.

She thought–without thinking–Where is Bruce going off like that? Because it looked, at first glance, to be Bruce’s truck. But no, they hadn’t come in the truck. They’d come in the Volvo. Besides, Bruce would never have defaced his truck with a bumper sticker: a detail she discerned in the half instant it took for the vehicle to get to the exit. Only when it slowed for the turn did she see the impertinent little face framed in the passenger window. Anna was oddly unsurprised. Simone stuck out her tongue, then she was gone.

The truck turned left out of the parking lot. Anna watched it run a red light and turn onto the southbound interstate.

Not only was Kay bawling like an infant, she had wet her party dress. Before returning to the table, Anna took her to the women’s room to clean up. So thoroughly had Kay regressed that she succumbed without protest to the baby-changing station. Anna tossed the wet underpants in the trash and pat-dried her daughter’s dress as well as possible with paper towels. Anna felt only irritation that her daughter had been rejected. Kay was not bawling because she was afraid. Kay was bawling because the man had not let her come along. He had promised Simone ice cream. Anna knew this because Kay said as much through bubbles of indignant snot. Kay wanted ice cream too.

When Anna and Kay returned to the table, Bruce, David, and Sarah looked up, all vaguely troubled. A choir of waitresses stood at attention. Anna saw one go ahead and light the five little candles when she saw Anna and Kay enter. Kay was still bawling, but altogether more coherently now about the “ice cream ride.” Somehow, this relaxed the Winslows.

“What’s this ice cream ride?” David said hopefully.

“Where’s Simone?” asked Sarah.

Bruce looked at Kay with the mock sympathy with which adults knowingly patronize the trifles of childhood: cocked head, puckered “sad” lips.

Anna knew that she was now in total control. Chaos was imminent. She held the pin. She could detonate the bomb however she chose, whenever she chose. Likewise, she could choose not to detonate: she could pretend she didn’t know Simone had vanished. She could let it linger. But Anna had never been very good with secrets.

“Simone’s been taken.”

Oh, if she could have it to do all over again. It had seemed sort of clinical. No matter. There were no retakes. From her special vantage, her hands calmly braced on Kay’s shoulders, she watched thought (or something like it) move through her friends’ faces like heavy cream coursing through iced coffee. The reaction was not so much as if she’d detonated a bomb as broken a vial of nerve gas. Once arrived, the look on Sarah’s face registered idiotic shock. What Anna had said was not fully understood, only unprecedented: she might as well have run around the building, tapped on the window, and done cartwheels. David looked suddenly predictable. As sure as she’d earlier known Bruce would say “I’m drinking Coke, Anna,” she knew exactly what David was going to say and how stupid it would sound: “Was it the ice cream man?” Bruce, well, her loving husband, he automatically transferred all responsibility to Anna: he expected her to take control. Anna graciously obliged. She was in her element.

After the police did all they could at the restaurant, the party was directed to the station downtown. They left the Winslows’ car behind. Anna delegated driving to Bruce, who accepted the task gravely, thankfully. Kay sat between her parents in the front seat. Anna turned around to watch over her charges: Sarah and David propped up in the back like dummies. David’s uncertain attempts to make physical contact with his wife visibly repulsed Sarah. They didn’t look so privileged now. They looked like two exhausted travelers whom Anna and her family might have picked up separately, from distantly removed, even hostile, nations.

The only intact soul in the car now was Anna’s. They had lost the police escort almost immediately, when Bruce failed to follow through a yellow light, but Anna patiently navigated the way to the station. Kay had forgotten about ice cream and leaned against her mother. Anna had to restrain herself from turning on the radio. She caught herself, almost too late, with lips pursed to whistle. She told Bruce to turn on his windshield wipers. It was sprinkling now. How fast the weather had changed. Rain always made her want to whistle.

At the police station they were led into a private room and seated. A sergeant offered to take Kay to the nursery, but Anna said she would be OK here.

During their endless wait, Kay began to contort her hands puppet-wise. By crossing her fingers, she transformed them into two doggies that, with opposable lower jaws, kept up a secretive chat in her small lap. Whatever her daughter’s problems, Anna admired Kay’s ability to amuse herself. Under different circumstances she would have called it to the others’ attention. Instead, when Kay began to absentmindedly gore one doggie’s eye with the other doggie’s snout, Anna patiently but firmly laid her hand over Kay’s. Kay tucked her hands between her knees and offered her mother a dull glance of contrition. Soon, an officer arrived to ask already old questions.

The officer wanted to know the girl’s age. David coldly told the officer–the uniformed stranger in a countless line of uniformed strangers–that today was the girl’s fifth birthday.

The officer asked what Simone had been wearing. With some difficulty, Sarah and David pieced it together. Anna conceded, privately, that the parents were correct. Simone had been wearing exactly what they described.

Then the officer asked: What’s the girl’s hair color?

Hmm. A difficult question for addled, traumatized parents. Not difficult, but important. Blond, or dirty blond? Anna saw the frustration in Sarah’s eyes: it wasn’t that she couldn’t remember the color of her own daughter’s hair, she just wanted to get it right.

“Blond,” David barely whispered. “Curly blond. Shoulder length.”

“Yes,” Sarah whimpered. “Blond.”

And what color were the girl’s eyes?

But Sarah didn’t hear the question. She didn’t hear the question because she was moaning, a dull steady awful moan, and her husband didn’t hear the question either, or didn’t bother to answer because he was trying to make his wife stop the terrible moaning, and he had taken her across the room, where she was bent in half, gaining volume. The police officer and Anna looked at each other with mutual pity. She smiled weakly. He could tell she was the only one with her wits about her, Anna thought. She and the officer had this in common. They held the cards. Anna pictured the insolent little eyes behind the truck window, full of relish for the scene she had left behind: Kay bawling, Anna flustered. The brown, devious, coquettish brown eyes.

“Blue,” Anna said. “Simone’s got blue eyes.”

Now, again, the police wanted to know what each of them had seen, if they’d noticed anybody suspicious inside the restaurant. Sarah mentioned the busboy, who had, in fact, left during the hubbub. Bruce thought the clown was suspicious. David shrugged, tried to touch his wife–did she forgive his hostility?–was rebuked. Somehow, Anna thought that David, in this instant, looked shady. She looked at the police officer. Yes, she could see how the cop also thought David looked shady. His unpredictability was no service to his character in this place.

Since Anna had been the only witness–since Anna had admitted to seeing a vehicle in which she thought she had seen a little girl–even though, naturally, Ground Round was crawling with little girls–the police asked her the most questions.

“I’m not good with cars,” Anna said. Bruce backed her up: she wasn’t good with cars. The police brought in a sketch artist and asked Anna to place herself outside the restaurant.

Easily done.

With eidetic clarity, Anna replayed the brief scene: even though she wasn’t good with cars–it was true–she saw before her, as if the truck had stopped and idled for some time instead of lurching past, the exact same model as her husband’s truck (1998 red Toyota midsize pickup). The police might have suggested the familiarity of the vehicle was one reason Simone had got into the car willingly. But Anna would never know what the police might make of this information. She told them she thought it had been “some kind of sports car. Red. It moved so fast.”

With convincing regret, Anna heard herself tell the sketch artist that she was helpless to conjure the driver–even as she remembered, almost giddily, how the driver had caught her eye, scared because he knew he’d been seen, a middle-aged, gray-haired, more or less handsome man: hawkish nose, sunglasses pushed up on his head–neither could she bring herself to share with the artist how the left rear hubcap was missing, that the truck bore out-of-state plates (Florida: “BUD-D”), that a drip of bird excrement in the shape of a pomegranate was located about an inch above the gas tank, nor that the bumper bore a proud sticker reading: My Son Is an Honor Roll Student at Orange Union Middle School.

Regrettably, she could not even bring herself to declare with certainty that the impish passenger she’d seen was the one in question: the real subject of conflict here, the birthday girl, kneeling on the cab seat, unbelted, innocently fogging the glass with her mocking tongue, her brown, undeserving eyes clearly saying: I’m gonna get some ice cream and none for you.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Archer Prewitt.