In the bright October morning, Ralph blinked up at the house in front of him, thinking for a moment that he must have taken a wrong turn. He could hardly see the house that had once been his because an enormous red and yellow striped tent sprawled over most of the front lawn. Two monkeys stood like sentinels on either side of the tent's flapping entrance, each holding fistfuls of balloons. Through the opening, Ralph could see a band of six clowns setting up their musical instruments.
"You have got to be kidding me." Ralph squeezed his eyes closed against an impending headache. Vicki was known for excess. Too much makeup, too many presents at Christmas, too much food for family dinners. Once, her spirited belief that more is better had been something Ralph loved about Vicki. Now, though, her obvious lack of restraint revolted him.
In the backseat of the car, Bethany clapped her hands together. "Oh," she said. "A circus tent!" She tapped Ralph on the shoulder, her small fingers like a butterfly. "Can I go, Daddy?"
Ralph nodded and smiled, a feigned happiness for the sake of his daughter. Three weeks ago, Vicki had asked him, in front of Bethany, if they could have her ninth birthday party at "home." The big lawn, she'd said. All of Bethany's friends right there in the neighborhood. Ralph nodded his consent while staring at the crease in his soon-to-be ex-wife's forehead and thinking about how much he hated her.
Now Bethany unfastened her seatbelt and propelled herself out of the car. "Come on!" Her blue and white polka-dot skirt waved liked a flag around her dimpled knees as she ran. Ralph followed his daughter. He heaved himself out of the car and ambled into the tent, the pizza he ate last night lurching around in his paunchy stomach. Bethany turned and granted him only the briefest over-the-shoulder smile as she ran toward the circus.
In the tent's entryway, Ralph pushed streamers out of his face and tried to gain his footing. Vicki sauntered past him wearing a ridiculous white cowgirl hat and carrying a donkey piñata. "The guest of honor has arrived!" She stooped to kiss Bethany. "What do you think of all this?" She gestured wide and the tiny bangles than lined her sleeves jingled. Bethany, her face full of joy, kissed her mother's cheek and ran off to join her friends. Her sand-colored hair streamed out behind her and Ralph thought that he should have at least tried to braid it, like he'd watched Vicki do hundreds of times. How hard would it have been?
Ralph stood against a table piled with dozens of cupcakes. He waited until Vicki sashayed by again. He put his hand out to stop her. "You've outdone yourself," he said.
He'd made his tone intentionally hostile but Vicki simply smiled and squeezed his hand. "Isn't it great?"
Ralph swatted at a loose balloon, wishing he had the audacity to slap Vicki's irreverent happiness right out of her. Then he captured the balloon between his palms, ashamed of himself. He narrowed his eyes at a juggling clown. "You're trying to buy back Bethany's affections," he said.
Ralph noticed Vicki's shoulders stiffen, her painted mouth harden into a thin, unattractive line. "No, Ralph. I'm trying to give our child a fantastic birthday."
"You could have done that with cake and ice cream! You didn't have to rent an entire circus."
Vicki shrugged, thumping the piñata against her thigh. "What's wrong with a grand gesture?"
Ralph shook his head. "This is totally over the top, Vicki, and you know it. You're trying to make Bethany forget how much you hurt us."
"Hurt you, you mean."
The band of clowns started to play a boisterous rendition of "The Farmer in the Dell," forcing Ralph to shout over the noise. "You're the reason Bethany doesn't have an intact family. You're the reason we fell apart."
Vicki shook her cloud of hair. "No, Ralph. You're the one who can't forgive and move on."
"What are you going to do the next time you screw up? Buy her a Porsche?" Ralph threw his hands into the air, knocking a cupcake off the top tier of the three-tiered platter. He watched it fall—white icing splattered into the dirt—and felt a tiny jolt of satisfaction.
Vicki ignored the cupcake and hugged the piñata against her white and gold tasseled vest. "Bethany's having a wonderful time and that's all that matters. If you don't like it, you can just leave."
Ralph watched her saunter across the tent, swinging her hips so that even the juggling clown stopped to watch her. It seemed to Ralph that he was the only one sorry for their broken marriage.
For two hours, Ralph stood just inside the entryway of the tent, watching his daughter enjoy herself and wishing that he were home—in his new two-bedroom apartment—working on a crossword puzzle or reading parts of the newspaper aloud to Bethany. He found a little red and white striped chair and squeezed into it. It was so short that his body slumped onto his knees and his breath felt pinched right out of him. Ralph watched the party-goers and wondered if there had ever been a time when he hadn't felt overwhelmed by his glittering, unbalanced wife.
The afternoon ticked by and it was just a little after three when, swinging her cowgirl hat above her head, Vicki skipped over to Bethany and grabbed her hand. "Come on! The clowns are starting a limbo contest."
Ralph extracted himself from the tiny red chair and elbowed his way through the limboing guests until he reached Vicki. "I'm going to wait in the car. Tell Bethany to come out when she's ready to go home."
Vicki shrugged and he wasn't even sure if she heard him.
Ralph turned to leave but he didn't go to his car. Instead, struck by an idea and an intense longing to be done with this party, he slid around to the backside of the tent until he reached the stake furthest from the opening. Squatting down, he unwound the tie. Ralph moved to his left and loosened the next tie, and the next, and the next. The tent sagged immediately. Ralph smiled. End of party, he told himself as he jogged back to his car. No one would get hurt. It was, after all, only a canvas tent, more than half of which was still standing. When he reached his car he turned, grinning like one of those circus monkeys, feeling full-up with long-denied satisfaction. And then he stopped. The tent was on fire.
A sliver of flame—nothing more than a special effect, really—was alight at the edge of the fallen canvas. And then, before Ralph could let go of the car door handle, the flame traveled and grew and within seconds the tent side closest to Ralph was completely ablaze. Ralph clasped his hands over his mouth and screamed, then thrust his hands away and screamed again, "Bethany!"
He stumbled forward across the lawn, seeing but not seeing the yellow and red clown carrying a howling monkey, a jumpsuited juggler rolling on the lawn, the sparkly silver of his pant leg charred to a brown-black, the white-haired bugle player flapping the hem of her skirt as she ran. A rainbow of balloons escaped into the sky. An abandoned drum rolled down a slope of lawn. Errant musical notes sounded here and there over the cacophony of voices.
Ralph ran, holding his breath until his lungs burned and then, when he couldn't stand it any longer, he gasped in a breath. Smoke filled his lungs and he coughed until he doubled over and then, airless, he felt his body hit the packed-down grass he used to mow. He struggled uselessly to get to his feet, or to at least draw a decent breath, but he found that he lacked the strength to do either.
In the weeks and months and years that followed that afternoon, Ralph often dreamt of the agonizing time between the glimmer of flame and the moment when Bethany emerged, whole and intact, from the tent. In his nightmares, people burned and rolled on the lawn and in the streets. In reality, everyone made it out in time, shaken but mostly unscathed. But Ralph's nightmares never let him forget what could have happened.
After the fire department left, Ralph and Vicki put Bethany to bed on the pull out couch in the living room, because she wanted to be near them. They sat on lawn chairs in the driveway and stared at the charred remains of the tent.
Vicki took a long sip of her beer. "Bethany could have died."
"I know," Ralph said. The fire chief had explained that when the tent collapsed, the canvas sagged onto one of the buffet's warming trays and it had ignited instantly.
Vicki pressed the bottle of beer against her forehead. "I saw the guys from the tent company set the whole thing up. I can't believe it could have just collapsed."
She had driven him to it but there was no one but himself to blame for the actual act. On his tongue he felt the prickle of almost telling her—just to see the shocked look on her face, just to let her know that he was capable of such a thing. He resisted the impulse—out of shame, out of fear, but also knowing that there is some power in being underestimated.
Ralph scraped the toe of his sneaker against the driveway, trying to come up with the right thing to say, some words that would not betray him. "We shouldn't think about what could have happened."
"We could have lost our daughter." Vicki's sobs were sudden and heavy and wet and Ralph watched the way her body shook, thinking about how it was that you could know and not know a person so well at the exact same moment.
"I'm sorry," Ralph said.
"Why?" Vicki blew her nose into a wad of tissues. "It's not your fault."
"I mean I'm sorry that it happened." The fact that he could get away with it felt like both a victory and a defeat. Ralph picked up a piece of red balloon, charred at the edges. "It's just a good thing no one was hurt," he said.
Copyright 2011 Meredith Corporation.