The party is his mother’s idea. Bart’s birthday is October 31, which is one of the three worst birthdays a person can have, along with Christmas and September 11. It was especially soul crushing when Bart was growing up. Nobody wanted to celebrate a birthday when there was free candy to be had on the street just by dressing up and knocking on doors.
Bart agrees to the party, reluctantly, but he lays down some rules. Mitzi is sitting on the end of Bart’s bed in Bart’s room with her pen and her legal pad, ready to plan. Does she notice that the room smells strongly of marijuana smoke? She must, though she doesn’t comment. Bart figures one reason she wants to throw a party is so Bart will get up out of bed. So he will be social, interact, return to the fun-loving idiot he used to be. He has been back from Afghanistan for ten months, and what Mitzi doesn’t seem to understand is that the person Bart used to be…is gone.
“No costumes,” Bart says. “Since you’re all keen to write things down, start with that.”
The corners of Mitzi’s mouth droop. Bart doesn’t want to make his mother any sadder than she already is, but on this he must hold firm. No costumes.
“Write it down,” he says again.
“But…,” Mitzi says.
Bart closes his eyes against his frustration. This is Mitzi, he reminds himself. Once she gets an idea, it’s nearly impossible to reason with her. Bart tries imagining what a costume party thrown by the Quinn family might look like: His brother Patrick can come wearing an orange jumpsuit and handcuffs, since he spent eighteen months in prison for insider trading while Bart was gone. Bart’s brother Kevin can wear a beret and kerchief, and carry a baguette under one arm. Since marrying Isabelle—who was a chambermaid and breakfast cook when Bart left—Kevin has become a regular Charles de Gaulle. Once, when Bart visited Kevin and Isabelle’s new house—there had been talk of Bart moving in with them and serving as a manny to their daughter, Genevieve, and brand-new infant son, KJ, but no, sorry, Bart isn’t good with children—Bart heard Kevin singing in French to his newborn son.
Singing in French!
Ava can come dressed as a femme fatale in a black dress with a plunging neckline, smoking a cigarette in one of those old-fashioned holders, since apparently, she has become quite the temptress in the past three years. She tried to explain the trajectory of her love life to Bart—Nathaniel, then Scott, then Nathaniel and Scott, then she was, ever so briefly, engaged to Nathaniel, then Nathaniel took a job on Block Island, so she was back with Scott. Then Scott got one of the teachers at the high school pregnant, and Ava was left with no one for a matter of months. And somewhere in there—Bart can’t remember, his brain has more holes than Swiss cheese now—she met a third person, Potter Lyons, or maybe it’s Lyons Potter, who is a professor somewhere in New York City, but according to Ava, Potter Lyons or Lyons Potter is not the reason Ava now lives on the Upper East Side of New York and teaches music at a fancy private school where her students include the grandson of Quincy Jones and two of Harrison Ford’s nieces. Ava has grown up. It’s a good thing, a natural thing, Bart realizes—but still, he feels resentful. Who is supposed to hold the family together with Ava gone? Certainly not Bart.
And what about a costume for Bart’s father, Kelley? Kelley has brain cancer, and after enduring fifteen more rounds of chemo and twenty-eight rounds of radiation, he made an executive decision: no more treatment. For a few months it looked like maybe he had beaten back the disease enough to eke out a few more good years. This past summer he was still able to flip the blueberry cornmeal pancakes and serve the guests breakfast with a smile. He and Mitzi were still walking every day from Fat Ladies Beach to Cisco and back again. But then, in mid-September, while Kelley and Bart were watching the University of Tennessee play Ole Miss—Bart’s closest friend in the platoon, Centaur, now dead, had been a huge Vols fan, and Bart had vowed to watch the team since Centaur no longer could—Kelley suffered a seizure and lost sight in his left eye. Now, a mere four weeks later, he is relegated to a wheelchair, and Mitzi has called hospice.
Kelley is beyond the point of dressing up, and that’s the real reason Bart doesn’t want costumes. Kelley is going to die.
When Bart was on the plane home from Iceland, he swore that he would never let anything bother him again. But returning home to news of his father’s cancer had cut Bart out at the knees. Along with profound sadness, he feels cheated. He managed to stay alive and make it home despite untold horrors; it’s not fair that Kelley is now dying. Kelley won’t be around to see Bart get married or have children. He won’t know if Bart makes a success of himself or not. It taps into Bart’s oldest resentment: Bart’s three older siblings have gotten a lot more of Kelley than Bart has. They’ve gotten the best of him, and Bart, the sole child from Kelley’s marriage to Mitzi, has had to make do with what was left over.
Mitzi winds one of her curls around her finger. “What if we compromise?” she asks. “What if I say ‘Costumes optional’? I have an outfit I really want to wear.”
Bart closes his eyes. He envisions some guests wearing costumes and some wearing regular clothes. The party will look like a half-eaten sandwich. He debates giving in to Mitzi just to make her happy and to prove himself a nice, reasonable guy—but he can’t seem to buck his absolute hatred of Halloween.
“No costumes,” he says. “Please, Mom. You can throw the party, I’ll go and try to have a good time. But no costumes.”
Mitzi sighs, then stands to leave the room. “You could use an air freshener in here,” she says.
Bart gives her half a smile, the most he can muster. It’s only after Mitzi walks out, closing the door behind her, that he realizes she didn’t actually concede.