|The BirthdayPage 1 of 1 |
|It was a particularly pleasant day in April when I rose from my bed, having slept for an outrageous length of time, to find that I had left the window open. Streams of balmy wind and the scent of freshly cut grass had wafted into the room, and I was at once pleased with the world. It was one of those days in which earth knows it's Saturday and all men are granted a sort of momentary reprieve. There is no work to be done on days such as this, save for that done by those to whom any work is a great pleasure; to these men a surprise holiday like this one is to be spent behind the blades of a lawnmower or with their knees on the naked earth with a spade in hand. To their pleasure I owed my own - that wondrous spring scent that arose from the ground outside and sweetened in my nostrils.|
I spent my first waking hours as many a fervent procrastinator might on such a day, wracking my memory for things left undone, so that I might set about precisely to avoid them. And yet, after finishing my second cup of coffee I was thoroughly assured that I simply had no pressing matters that needed attending, and as that hadn't been the case in as long as I could remember, I decided to reward myself by spending the daylight hours in utter indolence.
I sat on the back step with a cheap novel in hand. It was appropriately light material for such an ethereal day, and it scarcely was able to hold my attention against the sky, which seemed to glow a most impossible blueish blue, scarred only by the occasional white jet trails of a tiny plane, flying silent overhead. My eyes would rise from the page at any and every moment, distracted only by the sweetness of a songbird's call or a squirrel's spiraling scurry up the oak tree whose branches swayed overhead.
I had scarcely reached the middle of the first chapter (though at this point I must confess that so meager was my attention I could hardly retain a single detail of the story) when a ruddy old man in a flannel jacket emerged from the house next door. I had never seen him before, but then, I paid little attention to those neighbors who lived in microcosms other than my own. He walked to the middle of his backyard and stopped suddenly, hands on his hips. Pausing for a moment, he turned his squinting gaze from the sun's apex to the toes of his shoes and back again. He did this for several moments, and when at last I had lost interest and returned my eyes to the book, he called to me.
“Hey there, young fella! Could I use your phone?”
I looked across the wire fence at him and paused, then responded, “What?”, which is my habit when I need a moment to think. I wasn't particularly captivated by my activity, but I was relishing in a day beyond captivation of any sort, and the intrusion of a stranger asking a favor was the surest way of wrinkling the surface of the event-less day I had planned.
“I say, Can I use your phone?” He asked again. “Damn 'lectric company turned the power off and all I got is the portable.”
Thinking of no reason to turn down his request and scolding myself for wishing to do so, I invited him in. I rose and entered the house and met him at the front door. He was a slight man, baggy-cheeked and blue-eyed, and though his face was kind it bore the experience of hardship. I handed him the phone and at once he plopped into the chair nearest him, apparently thinking nothing of it. I felt suddenly uncomfortable and unwilling to be seated myself, lest I invade his privacy (God forbid), and yet I was also unwilling to leave him out of my sight in the house. And so I simply meandered for a moment between rooms, pretending to be busy with something, trying not to listen to his side of the conversation but hearing it, nonetheless:
“Cora! Dave. Ellie said the hospital called? Yeah. Oh, my God. Yeah. Ah, Cora, I'm sorry. Yes, I know. I know, I'm sorry. You know I'm here to...you know. Yes, he was. The best. When? Of course. I'll be there. We'll talk about moving his things when you've had some time. God bless you, Cora. I'm sorry. Goodbye, dear.”
He hung up the phone and sat stationary for a moment. Out of the corner of my eye I watched him; he seemed to be transfixed by a single square inch of the carpet. Finally he spoke, as much to the room itself as to me.
“He was the last one, Sam was. Last one in the gang, 'sides me. Good man. Real estate, before he retired. Four kids. Two grandkids. All of 'em cuter than all get out. He was too young. Ancient, maybe, but still younger 'n me. 'Course they were all younger 'n me. Good group, all of 'em. Best I met since Chicago. Guess I'll have to move again. They all keep dyin' off.”
Then he turned and addressed me directly. “When you get to be as old as I am, friends mean more than you'd believe.” I had instinctively poured him a cup of coffee and handed it to him without thinking about it. He accepted it the same way.
“It must be difficult to be the last one,” I said softly.
“Damned difficult. Especially when you're the first one who shoulda gone. Sam was only eighty-nine.”
I paused for a moment, unsure of what to say. Unable to keep my lips from moving, I asked, “How old are you?”
“Hunert 'n forty six,” he exhaled.
I smiled, knowing the joke. But then something in his manner stole the smile from my face. He wasn't just tired of keeping count and spitting out a number. His eyes returned to that same square inch of carpet, where he seemed to be adding up invisible hash marks scrawled on the wall of a cell, counting off his days of imprisonment.
“Do you b'lieve in euthanasia?” he asked, taking a sip from the mug and setting it aside. If there was one topic I didn't wish ever to discuss with an elderly person, this was it.
“I don't know,” I drawled blandly. “I believe that life is sacred, but I also think that unnecessary suffering shouldn't be prolonged...I suppose I'd have to say it would have to be approached very much on a case-by-case basis.”
“Yeah,” he said, scratching at the gray scruff around his chin. “S'pose there's a case where someone lived too long already?”
“I don't really think you can live too long. You die when you're meant to.”
“Well, what if you defied the natural order of things?”
“How's that?” I asked, perplexed.
“Do you b'lieve in wishes?”
I collapsed on the couch next to him, now weary of his presence, yet firmly certain of my duty to placate him. The peaceful spring had darkened in my mind, and though I could still hear the drone of the lawnmower down the street, I found it suddenly irritating rather than serene.
“I think that's sort of magical thinking, don't you?” I answered.
“Oh, pennies in a well and blowin' dandy lions, that's all B.S. But my mama always tole me that birthday wishes come true, and that's a fact. Today's my birthday.”
“Oh, happy birthday!” I exclaimed, forgetting myself. Then, soberly I added, “God, I'm sorry.”
“Don't be. I've had a hunert 'n thirty-six exter years to my life. I was born with a heart defect. I wasn't meant to live long, everybody knew that. When I was nine doctor tole my mama 'n me I was gonna die within six months. I turned ten two weeks later. Mama brought out a big birthday cake 'n said make a wish. So I wished I wouldn't die. And then I puffed out my chest real big and blew at that candle like the Big Bad Wolf, almost hard enough to blow the cake offa the table. And it went out. And I didn't die. Two years later doctor sez it's impossible. Mama sez doctors don't know nothin'. S'pose you help me celebrate my birthday?”
“Oh...I...how? I mean, I'd love to. I don't have any cake or anything, though.”
“S'alright. I got it ri' chere.” With a strange smile he withdrew from his jacket a crumpled brown paper bag. From the bag he pulled something covered in cellophane and unwrapped it. It was a single piece of yellow cake with chocolate frosting. Mashed down in the center was a black-wicked white candle.
“Same one. I kept it the whole time. Never could bring myself to eat the thing, for some reason.”
“'The same'... You mean, the same cake from when you turned ten? You don't really want to eat that, do you?”
“Just humor an old grievin' man, wouldja?”
He handed me the piece of cake, which was as dry as a sea sponge that had been left out in the sun for, well, a hundred and thirty-six years, and twice as hard. My stomach turned as I imagined him trying to devour it, but I knew there was almost no chance he would even be able to cut into it. Still, I walked to the kitchen and placed it on a plate alongside a fork. With some effort I was able to pull the little candle up from the core of the cake like some pastry version of the sword in the stone, and I retrieved the matches from the cabinet over the stove. The little candle had, indeed, been lit once, long ago. A tiny dribbling of translucent wax had made its way onto the now-rigid chocolate frosting. The phosphorous head of the match sparked against the box, and I raised it to the wick of the candle, watching the blackened nub of that tiny fiber resist and curl, finally acquiescing and accepting the flame. The wishing candle, re-lit.
With my voice quavering I sang as I walked slowly back into the living room where my guest waited: “Happy birthday, to you--”
I stopped. The plate might have fallen to the floor then, I cannot say for sure, for my arms had gone numb along with my senses. Above the thin oily wisp of rising candle-smoke I saw him, still seated, and most certainly at peace. His shirt had been ripped open to expose his bare chest, which his gnarled hand was still clutching. His half-opened blue eyes retained a fleeting glimmer, seeing through that glass darkly, now clearly and clearer still as the invisible heat of his last breath rose from his lips.
Above his resting head, the blue sky stretched beyond the window. Against its surface was a single white jet trail, streaking silently toward the sun.
*To anyone with the time and ability, I'd like some critical feedback on this one, because I'm not sure if it works. My original idea was that of a man who has been plagued with the knowledge that every time he makes a birthday wish and blows out the candles the wish will come true, and is eventually faced with the choice of re-lighting the candles, thereby voiding the wishes and changing everything that happened after each wish took place. ( Honestly, the similarity to the premise of Liar Liar didn't occur to me until after writing this.) Let me know what you think.*
Posted: 6/6/2010 3:45:57 AM
|No, I'd definitely never try to stretch this to a novel. It's a small idea and as such I think it works as a short story. I'm just not certain how clear the ending was, that is, the connection between the re-lighting of the candle and the cancellation of an old wish.|
I prefer the short story, particularly because I'm too fickle when it comes to my own ideas. Ideally, I'll finish a story around the same time I'm tired of it, which is frequently in one sitting. This would make writing a novel even more difficult for me than it is for most, but that isn't to say I haven't tried. I still am trying, in some respects.
Thanks for the feedback. I'm uploading the first two parts of another, very different story called Dead Air now, if you want to check it out.