The Birthday Season
I was sitting on the couch watching The Hunting Public on YouTube, totally unarmed, when Pinky entered the room. Jake and Zach were stalking a bedded buck in North Dakota and things were getting intense.
“We got another invite.”
“Huh,” I said, a minuscule gesture of acknowledgment. Jake and Zach were within twenty yards of the bedded buck, which lay unaware of the danger approaching as much as me.
“To Noah’s birthday party.”
“That’s cool,” I said, wondering if I should know a Noah. Zach could see the buck now, which had stood up and was looking around, aware now that something was up, but not having the wind in his favor, unable to smell the danger or see the camouflaged hunters. Zach rose to his knees while drawing back his bow. The buck was trying to process what it was he sensed, but it was too late. Zack let the arrow fling, and there was a victorious “whomp” as the arrow connected with the deer. It ran dead about fifty yards.
“Are you listening to me?”
“Yes, we got an invite to Noah’s birthday party.”
“Well, actually Brad did, but we are invited as well.”
“Swell, when is it?”
“Saturday, September sixteenth, at three p.m. The day before Brad’s party.”
“Doesn’t the world know that’s the opening weekend of bow season?”
“It is?” Pinky said with a look of surprise.
“I’m sure you and the kids will have a great time,” I said with a teasing wink. Pinky smiled back meekly. “I mean, I’ll probably be cleaning up for Brad’s party on Sunday.”
“I figured we’d make it into family time. We could go eat at Chipotle afterward.”
Her words weren’t vicious or belittling, but cut just as sharp as the razor edge of Zach’s single-bevel broadhead into the flesh of that buck. My plans were canceled.
That’s all right, I thought, probably be too hot for me to desire any quality time with my deer stand that weekend. Maybe the doves will have drifted down from up north by then, and I could go shooting in the morning, take a nap, and spend the rest of the afternoon standing with strangers, watching Noah open presents.
“I’m sorry, but who is Noah?”
“Carmen and Rex’s little boy.”
I think my blank expression gave me away. I had no idea who she was talking about.
“They were in the room next to ours when Brad was born.”
A memory flicked, like steel hitting flint in the dark.
“Right, his grandfather was going on an elk hunt that year. Have you seen him since?”
“The grandfather? No. I have met with Carmen at the park a few times so the boys can play. Plus, Carmen had Harper a few months ago.”
Pinky loves babies. She’ll be the old lady who demands to see your baby when you cross paths at the grocery store. I think we’ve had three kids just to appease her baby addiction.
“Oh, thrilling,” I said, wondering if the grandfather got an elk.
September 16th, 3:17 p.m.
We arrived fashionably late, not on purpose; we are just late everywhere. It takes Pinky some time to round up, feed, scrub clean, and cram her ducklings into the car. I help, don’t think I don’t, but I’ll admit, she ramrods the operation. I’m mostly the chauffeur on outings such as this.
Parking at the end of a cul-de-sac, we unbuckled the kids and headed to the house a block away. It wasn’t hard to find. I assumed that people in this neighborhood don’t all have inflatable bounce houses that they randomly put in their front yard.
The atmosphere was more of a block party than a birthday celebration. I kept glancing around, looking for the beer keg as we entered the yard. But what we entered was a sugar-crazed chaos. Kids running here and there, parents trying to chat over the hum of noise caused by their underlings. I’ve seen frat parties that were more orderly.
“Did they invite every kid in the surrounding counties?” I asked Pinky as we entered the front door of the house, bearing gifts.
“They have a lot of friends, William,” Pinky said. Truth be told, I just think they didn’t have the heart to not invite some people. I was familiar with this problem after my eldest son’s first birthday party. We ended up having near two hundred people. I’m not sure I’ve financially recovered from the food bill to feed that many stomachs. It was more of a production than a party.
Not to mention the week-long process of mowing and weed-eating the yard, weeding the flower beds, remulching, cleaning the house top to bottom, decorating with items in the theme of the party, food prep, and cooking. All so everyone could come over and trash the place.
That party my mother-in-law hung bed sheets in front of my boiled deer-skull collection, fishing poles, and tackle in the garage, calling it unsightly. Unsightly? Well, you might as well cover me up with a bed sheet too.
It was obvious when we walked in the house that Rex didn’t have any boiled deer skulls to cover up. Even with all the birthday furnishings, the house looked like a Hobby Lobby photo shoot. I was remembering now Rex was a golfer; that is, when Carmen wasn’t keeping him busy with HGTV projects.
We found Carmen at HQ command (the kitchen island) and there was the customary greeting of hugs followed by, “It’s so good to see you.”
From the spread, Rex and Carmen had probably taken out a loan to pay for the food. As you recall from reading earlier, this was a family event; we’d go eat at Chipotle after. Three in the afternoon is a weird time to feed people, but heck, it might save me forty bucks.
“William, it’s so nice to see you,” Carmen said, moving in for a hug. Only Pinky calls me William, but I thought better than to reprimand my host.
“You, too. Looks like we’ll eat well.”
“Oh yes, Rex is in the garage, getting the homemade ice cream. He’s almost done with the brats on the grill.”
“Oh, it’s very nice of you to feed us. I didn’t think we were dining here, or I would have worn my sweatpants.”
I felt a sharp jab from Pinky’s elbow in my rib.
“We weren’t but then we decided to. It just means people can stay and visit longer.”
“Well, it’s very nice of you. Anything I can do to help?” Pinky asked.
Then the two women started chatting. The kids had already been swept away into the passing mobs of children, and I could feel my release from any further pleasantries. I slowly drifted away to the back porch, where I could smell the brats on the grill. I was hoping to find Noah’s grandpa, but only found two dudes standing lookout at the grill and they turned to look at me. I didn’t know them. One wore a red Chiefs t-shirt, the other a plain gray shirt tight enough to show every rippling muscle underneath. I was wondering if it was supposed to fit that way or if he’d dressed in the dark and got it mixed up with his wife’s.
“You here for the party?” the one in the Chiefs shirt said.
“I heard it was the place to be,” I said.
“There’s beer in that cooler beside the door,” Mister Tight Shirt said.
“Nothing fancy, just some Michelob Ultra.”
“Of course it is,” I replied, bending over to open the lid on a Yeti cooler bigger than my casket will probably be.
“I’m Chuck,” the Chiefs fan said, sticking out his hand.
“Greg,” said Mister Tight Shirt.
I repeated my name and the routine questions started. Where are you from? Marshfield. And you drove all the way here for a kid’s party? Where do you work? HVAC. Did you go to school for that? Oh, you’re a writer too. Ever been published? No, never heard of that magazine. How many kids? How long you been married? Etc., etc.
Turns out Chuck was a truck driver for UPS and Greg an insurance adjuster in between reps. Our conversation was dying when Rex appeared from inside of the house.
“Those bratwursts should be done,” he said, rushing over to the grill.
“I checked them three minutes ago, bro. I think you’re right,” said Greg, watching Rex raise the lid. The brats simmered and I could see that most of the grill was covered with hot dogs.
“Better get those off there. If everyone’s kids are like mine, they won’t eat them if they are cooked too much,” said Chuck.
“My kids seem to prefer them straight from the fridge,” I said. The joke brought a few snickers. Maybe it was the beer, but I was starting to feel relaxed. Maybe this would be an OK time.
“Good to see you, Will,” Rex injected, and we resumed the regular small talk as he removed the food from the grill.
September 16th, 3:48 p.m.
Following Rex back inside, we helped start spreading the news that dinner would soon be served. When a large majority of everyone had stuffed in the open floor plan connecting the kitchen and living room, Rex blessed the meal. Then we did what Americans do best: overeat. That is, except Greg; I think I saw him in the corner doing push-ups.
By this time, I had bumped into other men in the same predicament—dragged to a party they never would have attended if it weren’t for their wives. Like freshly weaned bull calves from different herds thrown into a stockade together, we wandered around tentatively introducing ourselves, hoping to find a friendly soul to bond with.
Some of the less brave souls stuck close to their wives, who chatted away with other women they had just met like they had known each other all their lives. Motherhood and childbearing have that effect on women.
I was sticking close to my long-lost buddies Chuck and Greg, who were now discussing the upcoming NFL football season. Most of the discussion centered around the merits of the Kansas City Chiefs.
I played football in high school. These jokers probably didn’t even know they were standing next to the 2003 first team All-Center Ozark Conference outside linebacker. I know football, but as I’ve aged, my interest in organized sports has tanked. I’m not sure why, other than you can’t just be a fan anymore. You must be a FAN. You must know statistics, you must have a fantasy team, block your whole Sunday around what time your team plays.
I’m married, with three kids; I love to hunt. Any spare minute I get, I’m going to hunt or use to get ready to hunt. Not watch some overpaid gladiators play a game.
To say I’m not up to speed with every breaking ESPN highlight or player’s tweet is fair. So what happened next is my fault.
Chuck and Greg were jabbering about the Chiefs and Patrick Mahomes, and not wanting my new friends to think I wasn’t enjoying this convo, I injected this beauty of a stupidity.
“Yeah, Mahomes is a great cornerback.”
The room became noticeably quiet. I’m not sure where my mind was when I made that comment. But even most of the wives held their breath as everyone waited to see me try and recover this fumble.
“That’s a joke. I know he’s the quarterback. What’s his wife’s name, Bethany? [Her name’s Brittany.] See, I’m a jokester.”
All great stand-up comics will tell you a joke is dead when you must explain it to the crowd. Additionally, stand-up comics will tell you they’ve bombed at least one set. Apparently that was happening now to me.
September 16th, 4:37 p.m.
“Cornerback? Is that even a position?” Pinky asked in between fits of hysteria. I set driving hands clenched on the steering wheel. The rest of the party hadn’t gone too well. Chuck and Greg had kind of drifted away from any contact with me. To add to my chagrin, I learned that Noah’s grandpa was in Wyoming on a pronghorn hunt.
“I had a brain fart, OK?”
“Well, maybe next week at Taylor’s birthday party, you can redeem yourself,” Pinky said, dabbing a tissue in the corner of her eyes.
I don’t have much of a poker face with Pinky; my blank expressions always give me away. You’d think since my face is usually in a blank expression, she’d be constantly confused, but no. She knows me like a seasoned hunter knows their weapon.
“You don’t know who Taylor is, do you?”
That got her laughing again.
Later I’d learn that the average birthday date in the United States is September ninth. In fact, the top five birthday dates are in September. I guess that’s what they mean by happy holidays. In a sense, September is the birthday season, not the beginning of hunting season.
A sizable portion of their primary years will be spent hauling your offspring around to birthday parties in September. Time that could be spent otherwise, as, for me, quality time with my deer stand. The conundrum only snowballs as you whelp more pups to where you’re forced to pick and choose which parties you feel most necessary to attend. Only to have one of the kids vomit the morning of the party and nobody has any fun.
“It’s Ben and Christie’s boy,” Pinky said, having gathered her wits.
“Still don’t know who it is.”
“Sure you do, Ben hunts.”
“Hunts what, cheeseburgers?”
“No, same weird stuff you do.”
“Well, good. Maybe we can be weird together.”
© Will Brooks
Will Brooks received his bachelor’s degree from Drury University with a major in creative writing and a minor in business. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in DASH Literary Magazine, Hedge Apple, Hawaii Pacific Review, Pencil Box Press, Ignatian Literary Review, Cobalt Review, Critical Pass Review, Stirring: A Literary Collection, The Penmen Review, and Writer’s Workshop Review. He is a member of the Missouri Writers’ Guild.