We found out later that Uncle Bill had apologized profusely and assured us that Giant Publishing was making a giant mistake. He knew that, and we knew that, but it didn't make it any better.

He called back later that day to tell us he had called one of his friends at Pretty-Darn-Big Publishers. The editor there was really excited and Bill was sending the manuscript over right away.

I guess we were fortunate that Pretty-Darn-Big's marketing guys shot the book down a little faster than Giant had. After two weeks of "It can't miss!" "It's a sure winner!" and "Trust me!" we had our second rejection.

Uncle Bill called someone he knew at Sort-of-Big Publishing. Right off the bat they weren't interested.

I answered the phone one of the times he called; he sounded almost as depressed about this as we were. As he didn't have any other real contacts he suggested we send the manuscript to an agent he knew. The agent would take 15% of whatever we were offered, but it's pretty much impossible to place anything without an agent, and this guy was good. The best, in fact. He'd negotiated several million dollar contracts. At this point what did we have to lose?

Actually, we had a lot to lose. Money was getting even tighter these days, as you can imagine with four employees. I felt really bad when Dad had to cut them down to part time. And

Mom and Dad were spending much less time with the books. Instead, they were putting in tons of overtime at their jobs, trying to keep our heads above water.

We didn't hear anything from the agent for a while.

Meanwhile, Mike turned 30. Birthdays are pretty big with my family. For months we had planned to throw Mike a surprise party. It seemed especially important now that he was a part of the family. But with the way things were going -- or, rather, weren't going -- it was kind of hard to muster up enthusiasm. Still, it was good we had a party to plan, because we needed something at that point to keep us going.

Everyone was there -- Maggie, Lizzy, our hired help. Mike was surprised; we all tried to be cheery and happy. It was a pleasant enough Thursday evening. It would have been great if only things had been going the way they were supposed to be going.

I must admit though, I was kind of embarrassed at one point.

Things were moving along smoothly, we had dip and chips and vegetables and plenty to drink, or sort of.

"Sure, I'll have a diet ginger ale," Veronica smiled as Suzie took everyone's drink orders.

"Uh, sorry, we don't have ginger ale."

Veronica went through a whole list of choices, and each time Suzie shook her head.

"I want a Monkey!" Elizabeth called out.

Maggie smiled. "They only have Monkey Cola at the Adams' house," she shrugged to Veronica.

It's true. The only thing you'll ever find in my house to drink is Monkey Cola. Of course, we've got Diet Monkey, Monkey-Free, Diet Monkey Free, Orange Monkey, Barrel of Monkeys (five times the caffeine, ten times the sugar), we've even got Hot Monkey powder, which is great around a campfire on a cool night. But that's about it.

You see, a long time ago we were the Monkey Cola Poster Family. I'm sure you saw our picture. It was everywhere for at least a month. But that was a long time ago -- our brief claim to fame. Mike had sent in a composition for one of those contests about "Why our family loves Monkey Cola," and we won. We got to meet all the Monkey Cola stars, and of course, we won a lifetime supply of Monkey Colas.

Presidents have come and gone, the Cola wars have grown into full-out battles, but every month, come rain or shine, through all the good times and bad, our friendly neighborhood Monkey Cola truck delivers a fresh supply of fine Monkey Cola products.

In the old days we only drank just plain old Monkey Cola. But at last count there were 17 different Monkey Cola products to choose from. Why would anyone need more of a choice than that? But you can't please everyone, I suppose.

"May I have some water?" Veronica pleaded.

"Actually, the coolers are all empty and the plumbing's not working today," Dad sighed.

I guess that wasn't the only embarrassing moment, come to think of it. There is the Adams Family cake cutting tradition...

I'm sure all families have their little traditions that they follow for special occasions. My family does all the normal birthday stuff, but after the candles are blown out (we all knew what Mike wished for, of course -- at least we thought we knew, but you never know with Mike), our cake cutting tradition begins.

Maggie giggled as it started.

"No, you cut the cake, Mom," Mike insisted. "You always cut it, don't you. I mean, I haven't been around in a while. But you used to."

"Well, all right, but you guys help me figure this out. How many are we?"

We counted heads. Twelve of them.

"None for me, thanks," Felicia smiled.

"Okay, eleven pieces," Mom said, licking her lips as she analyzed the cake.

The cake was an oval, which presented a dilemma about the best way to approach this. "What do you think, Maggie?" Mom asked.

Mag giggled to herself again and glanced at me. I blushed. "I think cutting it in half is probably a good way to start," she offered.

Suzie leaned over Mom's shoulder. "If you cut it this way and then here, and then this way..." she suggested, slicing the air with her hand.

Mom nodded, and poised the knife in the air, trying to decide where to make the first incision.

Davey got the ruler out.

I looked over at Colby, Felicia, Veronica and Mrs. Fitzenwahler, and I blushed even redder.

Fifteen minutes later there were eleven near-perfect pieces ready to be eaten.

"Okay, whose birthday is first?" Dad asked while he licked his lips and checked one of his watches, calculating the seconds until he would be given his piece, I'm sure.

"You see, we always go by birthday order," I explained to the first-time birthdaypartyers. "The person whose birthday it is always gets first pick, then the person whose birthday is next goes next, and so on." It suddenly seemed pretty silly.

"Aren't all the pieces the same?" Mrs. Fitzenwahler snorted, squinting at the cake with disinterest.

"Well, some people like flowers, and you know the letters on your piece have a lot of significance. Like that one says 'Ha,' and that one says..." They started laughing at me.

"Okay, Mikey, honey, you pick first," Mom said, proud of another perfectly sliced cake. My family was completely oblivious to the cackling laughter. I wanted to hide in my room.

"You pick one for me, Mom," Mike said.

"Okay, whose birthday's next?"

Come to think of it, the party was a nightmare. I couldn't wait till it was over. Finally every one had left. Except Veronica -- her car wouldn't start, and the tow truck was taking forever.

"I've got to pick up my daughter from the babysitter," she explained nervously.

I volunteered right away, but Mom, pretending she hadn't heard, proceeded to volunteer everyone else. Everyone else was busy, and Dad insisted Mom had to help him with a great idea for a birthday card that was missing the right punch line.

I was nervous and excited as I helped Veronica on with her jacket and we walked out the front door together.

"Your daughter is adorable!" she bubbled as I pulled Mom's car out of the driveway. (There's no way I was going to take Dad's car out as Mom suggested!)

"Yeah," I sighed.

We both waved to Mrs. Filburn as she inched along the sidewalk.

"And your wife seems really nice," Veronica added as we drove down the street.

I nodded.

"It must be kind of tough for you. I'm separated too, and I know my husband misses our daughter. I think about getting back together with him a lot, but we're both too proud to rise above all the hurt and just sit down and really talk things over."

I don't know what it was. Maybe we both just needed someone to talk to. And the things she was saying were exactly the kinds of things I was feeling. I couldn't help pouring out my deepest thoughts. In ten short minutes we talked about everything. How tough it is to be single these days. Having to worry about AIDS and how hard it is to meet people...

"But you're so pretty," I protested.

"You're not so bad looking yourself..." she replied.

Neither of us blushed. Somehow neither of us took it as a come-on; it was just two friends encouraging each other.

Her nine year old daughter was really sweet. After we picked her up, Veronica and I hardly said a word, but there was something really nice in the air.

I felt strange inside as I drove away after dropping them off. I could have really fallen for her, like I fell for Maggie. I know I was attracted to her, sexually, and maybe she felt something for me, too. But I knew nothing would ever happen between us. Sure, we'd probably end up being great friends. But I knew she was still very much in love with her husband, and it'd be wrong for something to happen between us.

I felt philosophical as I drove home alone. I'd lost a prospect for love, but maybe I'd gained a friend. I could sure use either one these days. "Oh, Maggie, Maggie," I mumbled as I drove into the night. "Am I ever going to be happy again?"

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