On May 15th of 1987, when I turn the ripe age of seven years old, it’s decided that in order to save money, instead of going to Chuck-E-Cheese or Great America I have to throw my birthday party at our condo on Palm Street with lots of red balloons, a slip-n-slide, and a triple chocolate birthday cake.
I really want a piñata, because I love the idea of being blind-folded, spinning around like a dervish, and striking out for the unknown. If the unknown is the right direction and you hit hard enough then there is a wonderful shower of bubble-gum, blow-pops, lime salts, and coins that spill across the ground and must be fought over and hoarded in pockets, socks, and overfilled hands.
I don’t mention the piñata thing to my mom because I’m worried about being seen with one as one of the only two black girls living in a mostly Latino neighborhood. Worried that Pepsi, one of our neighbors, might be mad and call me a nigger again. They have the market cornered on these things and so I decide that I must come up with something else.
If it’s going to be a house party then there should be plenty of games. There should be games where there are prizes at the end because every kid wants to win something, always. I don’t want to play just any game like red rover or tag, I want it to be mysterious, new, and ingenious, which means I have to make it up. I believe that I am a master of games because I of course have played every game of solitaire in the book of 65 solitaire games my mom gave for Christmas. I also successfully won a few games I made up like find Mr. Bear and hide and seek while playing with my imaginary friend Kimmy, though she wouldn’t be at the party, but my school friends would be.
My solution is a good game of Snail March. To play, someone must be blindfolded and cross a path filled with live snails and marshmallows while attempting get to the other-side without crushing the tiny shells or having a gooey mess of hot melting fluff between their toes.
The first seven year-old to cross the path without maiming an innocent snail wins a whole Hershey’s bar. To a seven year this is a big deal, just like a dollar when the tooth fairy comes is monumental. I lay out the thirty snails I collected the night before and a whole bag of marshmallows on the concrete path in front of my condo and it’s time to go.
Out of the fifteen kids at the party, fourteen of them accept the challenge and one after the other go blind-folded onto the path. Some kids start off believing they can construct a plan.
My friend Jane, another black girl like me but with big fro on her head is first and she tries to tip toe over them. Her first few steps are good, she passes 4, 5, 6 snails and numerous mallows, but on her sixth step she loses her balance and her right foot comes down like a mallet atop one of the shells. The crunching sound of the snail lingers in the air.
“Eew!” she shrieks and she is such a panic that she forgets her strategy and runs across the path as quickly as possibly, leaving more death in her wake. After this, the game really begins.
Some kids open their legs wide like sumo wrestlers in an attempt to step around the scene. Some walk straight lines trying to remember what the path looked like before the blindfold went on. The problem is that the snails are scared and wiggling their way to the nearest bluff of grass. All the movement is making it worse for the kids and treacherous for the snails; if only they knew how to stay still. By the end, there is a mound of white puss squishing between our toes.
We all mutually agree that no one has won, and are ecstatic because my mom has bought enough chocolate for us all to get our own chocolate bars. We are happy as we wash our feet and devour the chocolate before demolishing my triple chocolate birthday cake a few minutes later.
When everyone leaves and the sun is setting, my mom says I have to clean the path where there are still remnants of marshmallow and snail carcasses. I stare fascinated by the scene, a veritable bloodbath. I try to hose down the path, but it’s no use, it gets worse, the remains grow stickier. I revert to using the straight edge of a dustpan to scrape everything off and this is when I really take notice of a single snail. I see his miniature eyes and tiny massacred body and start to cry.
I realize that I’ve ordered the killings of these poor defenseless terrestrial pulmonate gastropod mollusks, well… I didn’t know that name at the time, but what I do know is that it’s not fair that they had no say in the matter. There must be a proper burial even though there’s not much left to bury. In order to soothe me, my mom says,
“Honey, if they didn’t die this way they would have died eating the salt I sprinkled around the yard.” This doesn’t help at all. I am seized by grief as I scrape the heaps of carcasses into a paper bag and scoop out a tiny grave for their burial that my mom attends and says a few words at.
That night in my journal I draw a snail and name him snaily. He becomes my mascot as I grow older even once I’ve forgotten the reason why. I draw him on everything from test papers to posters and sign him as my name is journals. I become dedicated to snail rights and try at any cost to keep my moms salt off the garden.
I think my mom decides it’s all a little too much. The next year she decides I can choose where I want to go for my party. I choose Great America that year and every year after until I’m an angsty teenager and realize that parties are for losers.