Birthday Boy

Mike Salisbury

I’m already thinking of excuses when I pull into the Admiral gas station on fumes. I’m two hours late for my son’s birthday party. One minute I was watching the ball game, the next I zonked out. I’ll be lucky if I make it there before he blows out the candles.

On the other side of the pump I see Kay Howerton. Haven’t seen her since high school, back when she was red hot, prettiest girl ever. She’s looking bad-habit skinny now, with hollow eyes and bone-thin arms. You can count her ribs through her tank top. She’s fumbling with the gas cap on a rusted-out Buick.

I get out and look over at her for only for a second, just long enough for her to notice so she glances back at me.

“Hey there,” she says, leaning against the car, hipbone jutting out as she tries to do that lean women do. She gives me the slow grin. That look, it’s the one pretty girls use to get their way. I never dated Kay. Not a chance. Not with my glasses and the crew cut my old man gave me to try and balance out the whole glasses situation.

“How’s it going?” she says.

That’s a good question. Nine years since graduation and I’m still driving the same white Pontiac. I’m broke and living on a buddy’s couch over in Deer Creek Village, aka Divorcee Creek. We’re only separated, my wife and I, nothing official yet, but once you move into Divorcee Creek, it’s inevitable; that’s where marriages go to die. I’ve been there six months trying to figure things out.

“I can’t complain,” I say. “You?”

“Ya know,” she said, laughing.

But I don’t know; I’ve only heard things. A little boy in the back of the Buick rolls down the window. “Mommy, can I get out?” He squeezes his head out the window, grabbing at Kay’s arm. His tiny, fat hand almost wraps around her forearm. She shushes him and slowly tries to tuck his head back through the open window, like pushing a jailbird back between the bars. The backseat is filled with afghan blankets and beer cans. Signs of the times. I heard her boyfriend Lonnie, not sure they ever made anything official, is in Jackson State serving 5-7.

She smiles back at me, as if to say, “Kids.” She has to work to hide her teeth, like a teenager embarrassed about their braces, only some of hers are missing, and the ones that aren’t are coal black.

“How old is he?”

“He’s not mine,” Kay says. She gives me a tight-lipped grin, head tilted to the side. “I’m just watching him for a friend.”

I start pumping my gas. She doesn’t remember me. We were in the same graduating class. We even danced at the senior prom on the River Queen, chugging up and down the Red Cedar, everything smelling like fish, and the sound of Derek Larson puking over the side as he tried explaining to Vice Principal Conn that it was only seasickness. Kay went stag. The dads chaperoning stared at her, as did the rest of us red-blooded boys. She wore a short emerald dress, black high heels. Cut her hair real short like a pixie. Intimidating as hell. But it was me who had the guts to ask her to dance. “Why not,” she’d said. I dried my sweaty palms on my rented tux as I followed Kay out on the dance floor. You’d thought I pulled the sword from the stone the way the rest of those guys were watching us. Jaws dropped. Straight up gawking. They didn’t know my mom knew Kay’s mom. Mom sold Avon. I’d drop it off and sometimes Kay would be there to answer the door.

“Ah, shit,” Kay says, not paying attention, jerking up on the pump handle.

I lean over and look at the total: $10.43. She digs maybe five bucks and some loose change from her jean pockets.

“What am I gonna do?” Her face immediately turns to me. She looks like she’s going to start crying. I hate when women cry, especially the ones that don’t have anything to cry about. My TBD ex-wife, Jamie, is like that. You would’ve thought we were living in the back of a Buick instead of the better side of a duplex.

One of Jaime’s big gripes was how quick I am to help a buddy with a project or lend a hand. You’d think this would be a check mark on the side of pros in her ever-expanding list of cons. I told her, generosity is a good quality to have.

“Generosity killed the cat,” she said.

“I think you mean curiosity,” I corrected.

“You get the point—you’re an asshole,” she said.

When it comes to the kid, she’s a real sweetheart. This birthday is a test. Everything with Jamie is. She says I can’t be a dad unless I show up. And for all the hell she gives me, she’s right. I’m without a doubt a great dad when I’m with him. We do stuff. I tell him things, like it’s not so bad. I let him know that me and his mom are just going through a rough patch, and we’ll all be better for it on the other side.

“Hey, it’s alright,” I say to Kay. “I can spot ya.”

“Could you?” she says.

The kid stares at me from the backseat. He waves. His overalls are too small, giving the impression of muscle, of mass. A husky little cannonball of a kid.

“I got a boy, too,” I say, staring at him. “Little older. Loves dump trucks. I took him over to the quarry one day. He about burst. It’s his birthday today, actually.”

“He’s hungry,” she says, point blank.

I can’t hold back that what-do-you-want-me-to-do-about-it face. I’ve been making that face a lot lately. Jaime has me in a vice, just cranking it tighter and tighter. You think you’ve been squeezed before, but not like this. We’d only been married five years and not once in those couch-lounging-daytime-talk-show years did she show the kind of ambition she’s shown now for busting my balls. Not once. Now I got garnished wages and I’m scraping my dinner out of Chef Boyardee cans. I sat down with a guy from payroll and he explained it all to me. This is what she gets: roughly 85%. And this is what you get: jack shit. He tries to cheer me, says you can’t put a price on freedom. But he’s wrong— it’s about 85% of my take home pay.

Kay tries giving me the lean again like the girls do in the muscle car pin-up posters with their hip-hugger shorts and wet, see-through tops, only Kay is leaning against a Buick with rust spots and a hungry child in the backseat. Her bony frame looks like something you’d pin to a front door for trick-or-treaters come Halloween. She isn’t even wearing any shoes; her toes painted baby-baby red. I stare at her bare feet on the gas-stained pavement.

“I’ll see what I can do.”

I go inside the Admiral and grab a packet of Snoballs, a bag of Doritos, and a two-liter of Faygo Rock & Rye pop. That’s when I remember I still need something for my boy. Maybe a birthday card until I can do better.

For a store that claims to be a “party store,” they sure don’t have much in terms of selection. I think about grabbing him a candy bar, maybe some Skittles. He loves Skittles. They are his favorite. Every time we go to the Sun Theater to catch a movie, he asks for Skittles. It’s more than I got when I was a kid, but it seems like bad timing to try and explain this to him on his own birthday. I’d asked Jaime if she’d put my name on some of the gifts, let the boy know they were from his mom and dad. I’d pay her back first chance I got. I told her this on the phone and she says, “You already owe me.”

“But the kid,” I try and say.

“Don’t play the kid card with me,” she started shouting. “You know it’s his birthday, so do something.”

Like I said, in a vice.

I walk over to the cash register with my arms full and dump it out over the counter.

“Got any birthday cards?”

“Come on,” the clerk, Charles the Chunk, says, like I’m asking for the moon. I’ve gotten to know him like all the other regulars who wander over from Divorcee Creek every morning like zombies in search of sugary gas station lattes or burnt, two-day old coffee. Charles the Chunk is the lord, king and supreme ruler of the Admiral. He’s been stabbed once—only in the bicep, just with a ballpoint pen—and shot at twice, both missing, barely, but he’s never been robbed. That’s his claim to fame and the reason he’s lord, king and supreme ruler. He’s always here, keeps a cot in the back. When I asked him about it he said, “It’s not so bad, really.”

Anytime someone adds “really” when trying to convince you their situation isn’t bad, you know they’re lying.

I check my watch: I’m no-show late for the birthday party. Maybe it’s for the best. This way I can just make an appearance and everyone won’t get nervous about me being there, like Jaime’s mom, who used to always thank me for taking such good care of her little girl and now gives me the stink eye. It took everything I had at Christmas last year not to yell at her: “She’s not my problem anymore, Annette.”

Between the food and the gas, my wallet is empty. Charles the Chunk rolls his eyes and sighs. “That’s not enough.”

“What?”

“This,” he says, pointing to the money on the counter and then moving his finger to the digital display on the register, “Doesn’t add up to that.”

I look at the Doritos, the Faygo, the Snoballs, and the Skittles. I look back outside at Kay sitting on the edge of the hood, the little boy clawing at the passenger window. I think about this situation and what I’d want my boy to do here. I push the Skittles back.

“One born every minute,” Charles the Chunk says, as he rings me up.

“You know her?”

“I know of her.”

“Not the same thing. Mind your own damn business.”

“Your cash, man.”

He’s right, my cash. Which wasn’t mine anymore considering what I owed Jaime. Nothing was mine anymore. It’s an incredibly liberating thing having everything taken away from you. Except 15%.

Probably shouldn’t have left Jaime like I did. It was more of a bluff, a hiatus. I needed to take a break, but I was always planning to come back. She took it a little too personally, in my opinion. Like she was just looking for an opportunity to end it.

I walk back outside and hand Kay the food. She tears the Snoballs open with what’s left of her teeth, tossing the rest of the food through the back window for the kid.

Jamie is never going to believe that I helped someone. She’s gonna put another notch on her list of absentee dad moments. When you’ve only got 15% to work with, you gotta make the most of it.

“You remember prom? That dance?” I say. “I danced with you.”

She stuffs almost the entire Snoball in her mouth, nodding.

“Yeah, good times,” she tries to say, mouth crammed full. But I know she doesn’t. I watch her wolf down the Snoball. Prettiest girl in school, shoeless, flakes of processed coconut sticking to the corners of her mouth. That girl in the emerald dress is gone, a memory. And now here I am, broke, no money left for even a gift, not even a card, standing beside Kay Howerton at the Admiral gas station. It’s only getting later. What am I gonna tell the boy this time?

Kay tries to wipe her mouth but only makes it worse. She’s struggling to get the other Snoball out of the package.

“You wanna go somewhere?” she says, fumbling with the package and looks up at me. “I know a place.”

I think about how long it’s been. Jaime told me before I left, “You’re always thinking but you don’t know. You never land on any truth, just hover.”

Being single always sounds good when you hear stuff like that from your one and only. It’s about options. You think, maybe one day I’ll bump into that girl, we’ll get to talking and one thing will lead to another. But it’s like quitting your job: it feels good at first, and then the bills start coming in. “Reality” is just another word for realizing what you don’t have. I got mailed an invite to my four-year-old son’s birthday party. That’s what 15% feels like.

“Dance with me,” I say, reaching for her hand.

“You’re crazy.”

“C’mon.”

I take Kay’s hand and pull her close to me. I can smell the Snoball on her breath. Her brown hair barely touches the top of her shoulders. I hold her in my arms, gently swaying. There’s barely anything to hold. We are slow dancing right there between the pumps under the gas station lights’ yellow glow. Muzak piping in from the speakers above.

Charles the Chunk stares at us from his perch inside the party store, slowly shaking his head. Even Kay’s little boy is quiet, chomping on chips; the bag of Doritos swallowing his entire arm. There’s no music or chaperones, no Derek Larson ralphing over the edge.

And that’s when I figure out what I’ll tell the boy next time I see him: I’ll tell him about Kay and her little boy and how I helped them. I’ll tell my boy I’m sorry for missing his birthday party, and I’ll tell him being generous isn’t such a bad thing, really.

Author Portrait

A Michigan native, Mike Salisbury's fiction has appeared in Avery Anthology, Black Warrior Review, and Crab Orchard Review, among others. Mike is a recent graduate of the MFA program at Pacific University. He lives and works along the Front Range of the Rockies.

 

View the website of Mike Salisbury