Bethany couldn’t have picked a better day to host her imaginary tea party because Vivian, her guest of honor as well as her mother, was having one hell of a terrible day. It had started that morning, bright and early, when the high school called and informed Vivian that their eldest, Dylan, was being suspended because he had brought a large Rambo knife to class in his backpack. He was lucky he wasn’t being brought up on domestic terrorism charges, the vice principal added. Then Cody, their middle child, had told her over cereal a little later that he wanted to convert to Islam and fight alongside “his brothers” in Syria. Viv tried to explain that they were from Irish descent and had been Catholic for centuries. Cody had gawked at her from under his deep bowl-cut bangs before eventually asking whether Golden Grahams were halal or not. She told him that all breakfast foods were halal, of course, and so were sandwiches, then she handed him his sack lunch and ushered him out the door to the school bus.
She was handling both situations rather well until her debit card was declined at the market, after filling an entire cart with a week’s worth of groceries. She had tried to call her husband Mike several times, but he was stuck in a meeting at work. By the time she had driven to the bank to sort out the problem then back to the market to pay for her groceries, it was well into the early afternoon.
Yes, Vivian relished the idea of putting aside all of her day’s woes to sit in the backyard with her eight year-old daughter and sip some tea with her stuffed-animal friends. It sounded amazing, to be honest. It sounded so amazing that Viv snuck into her bathroom beforehand and took a couple of pulls from a joint she had been saving for her and Mike’s next Netflix Night. She rarely smoked during the daytime hours, having kids and all, but her driving duties were done for the day. And she really wanted to let herself sink in deep to this tea party and fully enjoy the reprieve of being Mom for an hour.
Seated immediately to Vivian’s left at the plastic purple table was Clarence Ca-ca, a plush little penguin dressed in a tuxedo, top-hat and monocle. He was reclining leisurely on one of their old dining room chairs (and the only seat at the tea table of grown-up proportions). Next to Clarence was Miss Lady P’tatey, who was the tiniest guest (as well as the least appropriately dressed) at the table. She had been born a female Barbie doll with long, golden locks but recently transitioned to the person she always knew she was deep down inside: a bald, genderless being adorned with Scotch tape shorts, black ink sunglasses, and a thumbtack glued to his/her forehead, like a unicorn’s horn. Sitting beside Miss Lady P’Tatey was their tea party’s esteemed host and artwork curator, Bethany. She was wearing her rainbow-striped “Fancy Friday” tutu with matching headband, which she always wore backward so the big artificial daisy didn’t poke her in the eye. The final guest at their table was a two-foot-tall plastic robot named Guy Lombardo. And yes, Bethany had named him that all by herself, right after an overnighter at Grandma’s. The red-eyed silver being was sitting un-menacingly between Bethany and Vivian in a wooden baby chair, with his crimped fists politely resting on the placemat in front of him.
“Boy, this is a gas, Beth. Thank you so much for inviting me.”
“We took a vote and everyone really likes you,” Bethany replied. “We’re all so glad you could make it today. We know how busy you are. Clarence Ca-ca here helped me design our invitations. He’s so talented with a crayon.”
“Yes, he is quite gifted. I never could have imagined worms spelling out my name like the way he did it. Mr. Ca-ca, do you have any children at home?” Vivian reached over and tapped the stuffed penguin’s arm.
Bethany finished filling everyone’s petite teacups and eased back into her very petite seat. Her knees were almost at shoulder height. Vivian told herself to remember to add a new, much-bigger chair to her Christmas list this year. She was going to do some permanent damage sitting like that, if not.
“He says no, he doesn’t have children,” Bethany replied. “Mr. Ca-ca is very worldly and just never found the time for children.”
“That’s very common nowadays,” Viv replied. “This is very good tea, honey. Is this from the cupboard?”
“Mom!” Bethany pulled herself out of the chair and violently put her hands on her hips. “We don’t speak of the palace or its affairs or anything about over there during tea time.” She had wiggled her index finger in the general direction of the house. “Tea time is our special time, Mom. Our special time.”
“I’m sorry, you’re right, you told me that earlier. It won’t happen again, honey.We’re in special time now.”
“This tea we’re enjoying is very, very rare,” Bethany said, rubbing her little hand across her cup. “Some say the fairies make this tea especially for my parties. Some say.”
“Grandma?” Vivian asked.
“I think you mean Madam Grandma of Blue House. She said she never told you this, but she knows the fairies around here very, very well. That’s how I know this is true fairy tea. And it’s sistangably harvested.”
“Oh, I know her secret, honey.” Vivian replied. “I’ve known it for years. I just never let Grandma know that I knew.” It was midway during this last sentence when Viv realized she was definitely more stoned than she had originally planned to be. The words strung together the way they were—incorporating every tense of the word ‘know’ in one single statement—didn’t seem to make any sense to her, even as it was dribbling out of her mouth. It’s amazing how two little puffs during the daytime do not equate potency-wise to the same two little puffs at night. But then Vivian remembered that she was talking to an eight-year-old at a tea party surrounded by a stuffed animal, a disfigured Barbie doll and a robot, and it didn’t really matter if she made any sense at all.
“I’m glad you knew. We should always be honest with each other at tea parties, Mom. Everyone around me here is so important to me. Like Guy Lombardo here…” Bethany placed her hand over his little gray one on the table. She stared lovingly into his red rectangular eyes. “He recently told me he has arthritis and the cancer. He’s been taking Embezza for the pain. Side effects may include loss of appetite, so I’m keeping an eye on him. Life is so very precious.”
“You guys really open up out here.”
Bethany then turned to her right and ran her thumb over Miss Lady P’Tatey’s poorly shaved scalp. “And my good friend Miss Lady P’Tatey here suffers from very serious depression. Sometimes she doesn’t even leave my bedroom for days at a time.She talked to her doctor about Zyrtana, for mild to severe depression. Side effects may include blood on her stool, so that’s why I put paper towels down. But she’s still very, very sad all the time.”
“That’s terrible, honey,” Viv said to Bethany, then she corrected herself by turning to Miss Lady P’Tatey. “Just terrible. I’m glad she’s done—I’m glad you’ve done your research on medications, though, Miss P’Tatey. Speaking of depression, I had this idea, an idea I’d like to run by you guys.”
“That would be lovely!” Bethany said with genuine excitement. She angled Miss Lady P’Tatey’s chair so it better faced Vivian. “She’s been talking to me about what’s right for her, but I don’t have any answers. All I can recommend is rest and plenty of fairy tea.”
“It’s not really a…cure or anything, just a funny idea I had in the car this morning,” Vivian replied. “But what if you…You know how a lot of songs say ‘blues’ this and ‘blues’ that? Like ‘My baby got the blues la la la.’ What if you switched out the word ‘blues’ and replaced it with ‘depression.’ Call a spade a spade, you know. If you’re going to sing about being sad, you should at least be honest about it and call it depression. It would change everything. My baby’s got the depression la la la.”
Bethany leaned closer to Miss Lady P’Tatey and nodded to something the doll told her. “She says she’s very interested in your idea. Could you explain a little more for her? She doesn’t know what the blues is.”
“Well, I suppose it’s just the word they used for being sad back in olden days. But nowadays they’d call it depression. Words evolve. The English language evolves…it learns. Like, a long time ago the word ‘negro’ was okay to call a darker-skinned person, like your friend Gina from school. Then that became a really bad word to say. So it changed to the word ‘colored,’ back when Grandma was about your age. Then that became a bad word to say a few years later, so it switched then to just ‘black person.’ Then everyone finally settled on ‘African-American.’ But it’s still okay to say ‘a person of color,’ I think—but definitely not ‘colored.’ I think that’s right. Let’s just forget this. Forget that whole last chunk of what I said. What I’m trying to spit out is that some words grow up and change for the better. They evolve. And so should the word ‘blues.’ Depression is a serious issue, and to make light of it is a huge disservice to the mental health community. Like Daddy and his friends.”
Bethany casually reached across the table and turned all her guests’ heads to look at Vivian. They sat there silently, waiting, staring, even the living one. Vivian realized she was going to have to elaborate on the subject, though she had the good sense to bring it back down to an eight-year-old level. She stalled with a little sip from her little cup first to think of how best to explain it.
“Okay, let’s take Johnny Cash, for example. You guys know him, right? Country singer, pompadour, real cool guy… One of his most famous songs is Folsom Prison Blues. It’s about being in prison, and we all know that’s not fun. It’s like being sent to your bedroom for a long, long time. So, being in prison for murder is a bit deeper than having the blues. Your best friend moving away, that’d give you the blues. Grandma forgetting your birthday, that’d give you the blues. But being in prison for life for murdering a man? That would lead to some very serious sadness—we’re talking possible life-ending sadness. So, what I’m saying is, we should go back and retitle his song Folsom Prison Depression. It’s not as catchy sounding, but it’s a more accurate description of the pain he’s suffering.”
“You want to see my new painting?” Bethany asked, suddenly and completely removed from the entire discussion. She squeezed out of her chair and walked over to a shrouded easel positioned on the lawn behind Clarence. “I finished it this morning. It’s from my Unclean Hands period. I call it Your Smile Is My Lunch.”
Bethany yanked off the paper-towel veil from the easel to reveal a stunning construction-paper canvas covered in pink and blue Polock-style splashes of watercolors, with a smiling television at its center. She hovered her upturned palm under her masterpiece and bowed her head to its brilliance. “It just might be the best thing I’ve ever done.”
“That’s absolutely beautiful, honey.”
“Guy Lombardo thinks I should ask you if you might be interested in showcasing it on the refrigerator for a while.”
“Of course, Beth. Your father and I would love that.”
“That’s so good to hear, Mom. I was thinking about maybe $5,000.”
“For the painting?” Vivian shrieked.
“Yes. To own my masterpiece. I know you like it; you just said you really liked it.”
“Five thousand is a little out of our league, honey. How about I buy you some more paints and brushes and let you decide what’s for dinner tonight?”
Bethany whispered into the plastic bolt where Guy Lombardo’s ear would have been if he were human, then she listened to his counsel with a series of nods.
“Anything I want?”
“Just name it.”
“Eggs Benedict and chocolate milk and chocolate cake.”
Vivian rubbed her bottom lip and feigned a bout of serious mental deliberation over the price of the painting. Although Eggs Benedict and chocolate milk and chocolate cake sounded like a perfectly delicious dinner choice, especially with the munchies rapidly approaching, she wanted Bethany to experience what a real business transaction felt like. She wanted her to understand the value and the importance of the piece of artwork she had created; to encourage her to continue painting; and to prepare her for the difficult road ahead as an artist. Vivian looked up into the sky and shook her head, deliberated a little more, then nodded.
“You’ve got yourself a deal.”
“And…” Bethany leaned toward Clarence Ca-ca and put her ear to his mouth. “And Cody and Dylan can’t have any. They get grilled cheese or chicken. And regular milk, not chocolate milk.”
“I’ll tell you what,” Viv haggled her down. “Cody gets to have Eggs Benedict and chocolate milk with you and me, but Dylan doesn’t. Dylan gets a gross salad and cauliflower. And we can all laugh at his yucky food while we eat our delicious dinner.”
A long smile stretched across Bethany’s face, and Vivian knew she had struck a deal for the painting. She realized Dylan would have to be punished more severely for bringing a 12-inch knife to school, which she would definitely discuss with Mike once he got home from work. But the idea of him having to eat salad and vegetables for dinner, while everyone else ate Eggs Benedict and chocolate milk, was just as appealing to Vivian as it was to Bethany. And so would be rubbing it in at every bite.
“Do you want to know what fool thing your brother did at school today?”
“Mom, I really need to get my masterpiece ready for the dinner opening tonight,”she replied. She had already pulled the 11” X 14” painting down from the easel and spread it across the table, and was now fashioning two lasso-style hooks, made from pink yarn and masking tape, in both upper corners. “But why don’t you tell Miss Lady P’Tatey and Clarence Ca-ca. They’d just love to hear some new gossip about Dylan.”
Without hesitation, Vivian turned to the well-dressed penguin and the deformed Barbie doll and proceeded to express her feelings without once questioning the reality of the situation—or lack thereof. She simply wanted to get it off her chest, and the audience was of very little concern to her.
“Well, Bethany’s dipshit older brother got himself arrested at school today. For bringing a weapon to class! Can you believe that?” Vivian refilled her teacup and politely offered the other guests a refill before continuing. “With all this shooting crap happening in schools these days, that genius brings a goddamn knife to class. There goes college, you know? You can’t get into a good college with a weapons charge on your file. Dipshit.”
After saying it out loud, Vivian began to fully comprehend the weight of the trouble her son was in. Although he hadn’t actually been arrested by the police and taken to jail, he was handcuffed to a chair for three hours by school security. And the charge would be put onto his permanent school file, along with the five-day suspension. Vivian gazed upward and shook her head. She couldn’t wait for Dylan to eat that warm, shitty cauliflower while everyone else was sinking their teeth into savory Hollandaise-lathered English muffins.
“Better thank his stars he’s only 17,” she added. She turned to Clarence Ca-ca and tapped the tabletop in front of him with her fingernail the way someone does when a thought is forming. “This is his father’s fault, you know that? Taking him on all those Civil War reenactments…He should be the one talking to him, not me. This is most definitely a Mike thing. But he’s in a session and has to work late again tonight.” Viv had dug her chin into her neck to mimic her husband’s gruff voice. “I wish I had a session to go to!”
“But you had a session with us today, Mom.” Bethany looked up from her painting and said. “We really enjoyed having you here. And you bought some really pretty art. You have a great eye for artwork.”
“Thanks, honey. It’s just your father can be so…removed sometimes. Especially when I need his help. It just makes me sad. It makes me sad to need his help, I think. Maybe I’m just sad because we’re…We don’t see each other a lot lately. Because he’s working so much. And he really is, I don’t question that. I trust him. This is going weird places, honey, I’m going to stop right there. Teatime is happy time, right? No palace talk here. I just…I just feel like Christine McVie after Stevie Nicks joined the band, you know?”
Bethany’s forehead and brow were pinched together, in an attempt to make it appear as if she knew what her mother was talking about. But she had no idea. She was adorable but oblivious.
“No, you have no idea what I’m talking about, do you?” Vivian asked her, and she shook her head. “Christine McVie was the singer in a band called Fleetwood Mac. She had a so-so voice and was sort of pretty. Kind of like that girl Tiffany at your school—the one who gets dropped off in that big red station wagon. Like her. But then this totally beautiful woman named Stevie Nicks joins the band, and she has this amazing voice…like angels singing. She was beyond awesome, and everyone loved her, and Fleetwood Mac became super-famous the very next day. But then everyone just sort of forgot about Christine McVie, even though she was still in the band—practically started the band. She went from being a superstar to a dumpy, plain, background singer, in just one album.”
Bethany looked as if she was still processing half of the story. Vivian had put much more effort into the explanation than she had intended to. Most people clammed up when they got stoned, but with Vivian good pot was like a truth serum.
“That’s what I feel like sometimes, honey.” Viv steered the story back to its destination. “My life just doesn’t seem to sparkle as brightly as it used to. That’s why Mom gets a little sad sometimes.”
Bethany leaned over to Guy Lombardo and listened intently to something he was saying, then she turned back to her mother. “It sounds like it could be more than being sad, Mom. It sounds like you might have mild to severe depression, too. I warned Miss Lady P’Tatey about washing her hands and covering her mouth when she coughs. You should ask your doctor if Zyrtana might be right for you.”
“Mommy is a doctor, honey, and I’m quite sure Zyrtana isn’t right for me. I’m quite sure Zyrtana isn’t right for anybody. Mommy just has a case of the blues—the regular old blues. Like we talked about.”
“Well,” Bethany replied, “that’s really good to hear. Do you want to help me hang my painting then?”
“I really do. You want to help me steam Dylan’s nasty cauliflower?”
“I would love that.”
After the two of them walked to the kitchen to start dinner and hang the painting on the fridge, Miss Lady P’Tatey really opened up about her own feelings of melancholy and despair. Guy Lombardo grew absolutely sick of the one-sided conversation after only a minute or two, and he welcomed the rigid rubber tread of Cody’s front tire across his back when the human boy tried to park his bike by aiming it at the garden shed and pushing as hard as he could. The poor robot tumbled across the grass followed by the chair he was sitting in. It was a despicable sight and completely unprovoked. His tea had flown everywhere. Clarence Ca-ca was forced to watch the whole sad scene go down in what felt like slow-motion. This is why I never had kids, he thought to himself.