Members Only (1957)

You are seven years old again. Mom’s going through your closet and trying to find a dress for you to wear to the Christmas party at the Nile Country Club. It’s supposed to be a special party for children.

You don’t even know what a country club is, but your friend Julie invited you to go to one with her family. Julie and you are both in the Songbirds reading group at school, while most of the boys are in the Squirrels. You’re also in the Blue Birds together. The Blue Birds is sort of a club, but not really. Anyone can join, except for boys.

Dad’s driven us past the country club gates many times on our way to the real country in Puyallup where we visit the great aunts and uncles on their farms. Aunt Myrtle and Uncle Hector have Easter egg hunts with eggs that come from their own chickens, not the kind that come from the store. And Aunt Hazel and Uncle Mack have cows right outside the back door — smelly cows no one much likes. Each time we go to Puyallup we pass the stinky pulp mills in Tacoma where we hold our noses and say, pee-ew, we must be in Pee-ew-allup. And then we all laugh like it’s the first time we heard it. We hardly ever go see Aunt Ivy, because she’s a crabby old maid who doesn’t much like children.

One time Dad drove us past the farm house were he grew up in Roy, and we got to see the upstairs sleeping porch where his Grandma McCloud told him and his brothers bedtime stories about his Grandpa being a Texas Ranger, and fighting in the Indian uprisings, and having a bullet in his leg. Dad always ends the story by saying, “And Granddad took that bullet to his grave.” He says there was a lot of scalping in those stories, but when we ask him to tell them to us he just says he can’t remember, or Mom says she’s already heard that one.

Mom pulls your yellow dotted Swiss Easter dress out of the closet and says it will have to do. But it’s Christmas, you say. It’s snowing outside. Mom says, “It doesn’t matter. You can wear your coat.” What you don’t say is it’s not your favorite dress, or favorite color. You learned your lesson on that one when you tried to get out of wearing it to Cousin Sally’s wedding. The dotted Swiss scratches and it gives you a rash. Plus Mom made one exactly like it for your sister, Rosie, like you were twins, which you are not. It’s Mom’s favorite dress, and she picked her favorite color, yellow. She says you need to learn to appreciate all the nice things she does for you.

You put the dress on. It has puffy sleeves with elastic bands that dig into your arms, like the way she sometimes grabs your arms when you’re not nice. She ties the big floppy bow in back, and already it’s starting to itch. While you’re putting on your white anklets and black patent leather shoes, she reminds you to be nice and polite at the party. She says manners are very important at a country club. Don’t forget: If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.

Dad says one time he and Mom got to go to a country club in Tacoma back when they were in high school because Mom got picked as the prettiest girl in the whole county, and they called her the sweetheart of something-or-other. Mom smiles when Dad says that. Once she showed you her scrapbook with newspaper pictures of her and her princesses sitting on the lawn. Uncle John wouldn’t let Dad borrow his car, so they had to go to the country club dance on a city bus. “It’s not really the entrance you want to make,” Dad says, laughing. And then Dad got Mom home after the buses stopped running, and he had to walk all night long just to get home before the chickens woke up.

You look out the picture window at a shiny black car coming up your driveway. Already you’re learning to appreciate the fact that you don’t have to go to the country club on a bus. You slip on your coat and head out the front door, but Mom tells you to button all those buttons first. Mom and Dad say, “Have a nice time,” and Mom reminds you again not to forget your manners. “Be nice,” she says.

The snow’s the kind that barely sticks, and it’s making tiny white dots on the lawn like the dotted Swiss of your Easter dress that you’re hiding under your buttoned up school coat. You hope it sticks and sticks until after New Years and you won’t have to go back to school.

You get in the back seat with Julie and see a red velvet dress peaking out from under her coat. Suddenly you feel shy.

Her father drives to the country club, and the guard waves the car in past the gate. This is the moment you’ve been waiting for. You can barely see out the back window, but you stretch your neck to peek out at the huge green lawns covered in lacy white snow and the shrubs that are starting to look like frosted cupcakes. Julie’s mother says, “Aren’t the grounds lovely?” You have never heard your mother say either of these words, grounds or lovely, but you nod your head, because they are. They’ve got colored Christmas lights on just about everything in sight, and this world on the other side of the gates is more beautiful than anything you’ve ever seen. You think you’re in another country.

The car climbs up and over huge speed bumps and even though Julie’s father slows down some, you and Julie fly up off the backseat, and each time you bounce up you look at each other and giggle.

Now you’re pulling up to the country club house, which looks like a stone castle out of Grimm’s fairy tales, the kind that are full of witches. The building is bigger than your school, and it’s covered with greenery and more colored lights — red and gold and green, and even orange and blue ones. A teenage boy in a red uniform appears and opens the car doors for everyone. You think maybe you saw this in a movie once on TV with Jimmy Stewart. You’re going to marry Jimmy Stewart.

You follow Julie’s parents up the front steps where another man all in red opens the giant front doors, and Christmas music pours into the frosty air. Someone’s playing the piano and people are singing, I saw Momma kissing Santa Claus. You stick right by Julie.

In the center of the room is the tallest Christmas tree you’ve ever seen. It glitters with tons of tinsel, big glass balls, colored lights, and candy canes. You have to bend your neck all the way back just to see the star on top. Next to it is a red carpet that leads right up to Santa Claus himself sitting on a golden throne. And underneath the tree are more dolls and red fire trucks than you can count. The dolls all have blonde hair and blue eyes, and some are sitting on the fire trucks. They’re wearing green or red satin dresses. Julie whispers in your ear that every kid will get a present from Santa later on, and you can hardly believe you’re going to get such a nice gift.

But before you can go inside, Julie’s mother leads you to a coatroom. She calls it the cloakroom like Mrs. Melfresh does at school. When you take your coat off you can see you’re the only girl with a yellow Easter dress on. Julie’s mother says your dress is pretty, even though she’s looking at it kind of funny.

In the big Christmas tree room all the grownups are talking to each other like grownups do, and all the kids are paying them no mind, like kids do. The grownup talk buzzes high above your heads and flies around the room on top of the music.

Julie takes you to the food table where they have platters of cookies and a crystal bowl full of red punch. She whispers that it’s the blood of Christ. Your eyes get big, and you skip the punch. Then she says at her church they have cookies that are the body of Christ. There are no Jesus cookies in sight, so you choose a Santa, an angel, and a reindeer. First you nibble the white frosted pompom off Santa’s hat, and it tastes so good you eat his head off in one bite. Julie laughs and copies you. Next you eat the angel’s wings, and gobble her halo, and then Rudolph’s antler’s one by one. After you lick his red frosting nose off, you say, “Off with his head!” Julie laughs and now you’re the Queen of Hearts, capturing more cookies. In the back of your mind you hear Mom’s voice saying it’s not polite to have eyes bigger than your stomach, but you can’t seem to stop. You chop off more heads until Julie’s mother comes to get you. She takes one look at the pile of headless bodies on your plates and says, “You girls have had quite enough. It’s time for Santa.”

Now you line up with the other children and the piano player starts in with Santa Claus is Coming to Town. An elf in green tights tells all the children to sing along, so you start in singing about being naughty or nice. While you’re waiting your turn, you look at each other trying to decide who the naughty ones are. Each child walks up to Santa alone and comes back with a doll or a fire truck, so you guess they’re all nice. It’s getting closer to your turn, and your dress is starting to itch. Julie’s first and she comes back with a doll wearing a red satin dress that matches her dress. You can see the doll up close now, and it’s the kind that can open and close her eyes. She’s beautiful. You’ve already decided you want a green dress doll, and then you and Julie can play dolls with each other and not get them mixed up. You’re going to name yours Plum, for the little girl in your favorite book, Nancy & Plum. Only your Plum’s going to be a ballerina. You think you can cut her dress off real short and make it into a tutu.

Now it’s your turn. The elf says go ahead and you walk up the red carpet. Everyone’s singing, you better not pout, you better not cry… You try not to, but feel sort of shy with everyone looking. It takes forever to get there, but finally you do. Santa asks, “And what do you want for Christmas, little girl?”

You say, “A doll. A doll in a green dress. Please.” You remember to add the please.

And then he says, “Ho, ho, ho,” the way Santa always does. “I just so happen to have one right here.” He picks up a doll from under the tree and puts her in your arms. She opens her beautiful blue eyes and looks right at you. .

A lady in black high heels and pearls as big as pop beads suddenly hurries out of the crowd. Her shoes go clickity-clackity like the galloping hoofs of a reindeer. You don’t like the look on her face. It’s the same look as the Wicked Witch of the West. She leans down and whispers something in Santa’s ear.

He looks confused for a moment, and then says, “Ho, ho, ho. Santa made a mistake.” He takes the doll away from you, right out of your arms.

And then you remember your manners. “Thank you,” you say, a little too loudly and a little too late. The doll closes her eyes and she’s gone.

Santa plucks a candy cane from the tree. “This is what we have for you, little girl. Merry Christmas!” He pats you on the head. “Ho ho ho.”

You walk down the red carpet in your scratchy yellow Easter dress carrying the candy cane. You don’t even like candy canes, but you know it’s not polite to say so. The lady who whispered in Santa’s ear looks pleased, like maybe he promised her the ruby slippers. You feel yourself blushing when she looks at you, or maybe you’re getting a rash from the dotted Swiss.

Later, when you leave the party you remember to thank Julie’s mother and father as you get in the car. The snow’s coming down harder now and the lawn has turned from dotted Swiss to pure white velvet. It’s quiet inside the car. No one speaks. You hold the candy cane in your lap but it doesn’t do anything except get sticky. You go over the same speed bumps, but this time you and Julie don’t laugh. You both watch the doll in her lap. You watch her shiny blonde curls bob up and down, and her glassy blue eyes open and close, and her long lashes flutter. As the car rises up and over the speed bump and tilts you backwards, her eyes close shut. And when the car falls down the other side, her eyes open wide in surprise. Each time she looks surprised to see nothing but a candy cane in your lap.

You drive out past the gates and turn around for one last look. The sign says Nile Country Club. And below is something else. It’s hard to read through the swirling snow, but you sound it out: M-E-M, mem and B-E-R-S, bers. Members. Members Only. You can read the words. And now you can use them in a sentence.

About Susan Chiavelli

Susan Chiavelli writes fiction, nonfiction and poetry. Her award winning work is forthcoming or has appeared in Miramar, The Packinghouse Review, bosque, The Los Angeles Review, The Louisville Review, New Millennium Writings, Minnetonka Review, Buzz, Rare Feathers, Askew, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of the Chattahoochee Review’s Lamar York Nonfiction Prize for “Death, Another Country,” also named a notable essay by Best American Essays. Susan was raised in Seattle, Washington and lives with her husband, Dennis, in Santa Barbara, California.
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