On Birthdays

high angle shot of a person walking alone in the desert
high angle shot of a person walking alone in the desert
Photo by Alex Azabache on Pexels.com

            The first child’s name was Mali. Jen had always wanted to go to Africa, but had been afraid of planes, so she’d named her daughter after an African country. Brad had gone along with it. Most truck drivers didn’t care about Africa.

            “Do you want to make me a popsicle?” asked Brad.

            “You don’t just make a popsicle,” said Jen. She went to the fridge and poured orange juice into a mold. Stuck it above the ice tray.

            Brad stared at his phone. “How about a cruise? We could drive to Florida and sail around the Caribbean.”

            “Did you get a raise?”

            “No.”

            “Get a contract to smuggle drugs?”

            “No.”

            “Make some extra cash by doing hits?” When Brad looked up, she pointed a finger gun at him.

            “You were more fun when we were dating.”

            Jen looked around the kitchen. “Where’s Mali?”

            “Downstairs by the front door. Playing with shoes.”

            “No one plays with shoes,” said Jen.

            “Mali does.” He pocketed his phone. “Let’s go for a walk.”

            They went downstairs. On the floor, there were many shoes. But no Mali.

            The door was open. 

            “Shit,” cried Jen. They spilled onto the porch. As they did, Mali looked up at them. Three-year old Mali. Too short to reach the door handle, or so they thought. Too young to speak, but that’s okay, or so they’d been told. At least she was walking, they said to each other often. At least she has that. 

            The minivan that bore down on Mali didn’t see her. The driver was looking ahead, attentive, careful. Not driving too fast. Glancing in the rearview mirror. Doing everything right.

            Brad ran. Jen slipped and fell. The minivan hit the brakes. But there was no savior out there, no angel. And to be honest, there was no devil, either. Just a person at the wheel. And two parents who’d been in the kitchen planning a vacation they were never going to have. And there was a road, leading from here to there. It would be wrong to suggest that Mali didn’t suffer. How could someone not suffer from something like that, even if it was for just an instant? The van came to a stop, eventually. A door opened. A person got out. They were shaking. Just a human being, after all.

            On the road, two parents were on their hands and knees.

#

            Chad was born in a hospital. Jen had been fond of saying that he was different from their girl – a little bit further to the east. They’d gone home to a house in the suburbs, behind a school. That first night, they’d taken Chad to the school’s park, and sat on top of a slide. They’d told Chad about his sister.

            Brad drove his truck. On the highways, he played music loud. Every few hours, he called home. 

            “Where are you?” Jen would ask.

            “On the road again,” he would joke. “How’s the chump?”

            “Don’t call him that.”

            “It’s an affectionate nickname.”

            “Bring home some lettuce?” 

            “When did we become rabbits?” he laughed. Brad kept his eyes on the road. No detail was too small.

            For her part, Jen let Chad coo on the phone. It was a small noise, hard to hear. She figured it was the vibration that was more important than the sound – a tremor that would reach out over a cell phone signal and nudge the truck. Enough to tell it – and its driver – that it should come back soon. And to bring some lettuce.

            One time, Brad brought home kale. He hadn’t had kale before, but it looked beautiful. He burst into the house at six pm and put his arms around Jen and Chad. They both made strange noises. Almost a vibration that nudged the house back and forth a half inch or so, as though to let everyone know that things were fine.

            “Is that kale?” demanded Jen.

            “It’s kale and beer time!” he said.

            “Neither is good for you!”

            But they settled on beer. That night, the three of them slept in the bed as insects made noises outside. A moon was shining. It was hot. And it was perfect – a perfect evening.

            The next morning, they woke up rested. Dreams had been good. When they’d picked up Chad, though, there’d been nothing left in him. No breath. No heat. Just nothing. He was still a baby. Still a human being. But he had ceased to be, there on a pillow, sleeping between his parents. 

            “Hospital,” said Jen. But Brad couldn’t move, so she ran for her phone. The next eight minutes were hard. An ambulance stopped in front of the house. Paramedics rushed in and pushed the parents aside. They’d done what they could. They’d done everything they’d been taught. But that perfect evening had become the morning of a new day. A different day. 

#

            Jen typed. The office buzzed. People were always better dressed than her.

            At lunch, she met Brad in the food court.

            “We shouldn’t eat Chinese food,” he said. 

            “It’s garbage,” she agreed, sucking on the gristle of a sparerib. “Watch your tie.”

            He pulled away from the container of sweet and sour sauce. “Hate this job,” he said.

            “You’d rather be on the road?”

            “I can only get so much satisfaction selling televisions,” he insisted, though he had brought home a large one just a couple of months ago, at a very reasonable price.

            “Know what tomorrow is?”

            He stuffed a chicken ball in his mouth.

            “I said: do you know what tomorrow is?”

            He looked at her, cheeks full. She opened a bottle of water for him. 

            “We have to take her to the cemetery,” she said.

            “Why?” he asked. “Why does she have to go there? What’s a six-year-old kid have to do with a sibling they’ll never know?”

            “Mali’s birthday,” said Jen.

            “And then Chad’s birthday will come,” returned Brad. “And every year, another two days like that. One in May and one in October. What’s the point?”

            “The point is that we’re going,” said Jen. “Twice a year, we remember. The rest of the time, we live for her. That’s all.”

            He leaned back. “You know, every couple I’ve ever met. Every single one of them. The ones with kids. You know what I mean. Not one of them has ever lost a child. Not one. They’re all fine. They have colds, the flu. They have accidents. Some even have cancer. Or disabilities. But they’re all still here. All still alive. What do you think the odds are that we lost two children?”

            “We don’t talk about this, other than on birthdays…”

            “That’s right,” he returned. “We don’t talk about this, other than on birthdays. But how’s it possible that we could be so unlucky?”

            “What are you saying?”

            He was holding the table. “Those two kids don’t grow up. They don’t have first dates. They don’t go to high school. They don’t graduate or get jobs. They don’t make us grandkids. They never get old. They never remember. And they never get to know us, their parents. They never get to understand how much we cared about them, because they left early. I think about how I could get it across to them, how much we cared. I think that would mean something to them.”

            “We don’t talk about it,” said Jen, rising, “other than on birthdays.” He tried to stop her, but she was already gone. Back at the office, she typed. A stack of notes was on the desk, waiting to be transcribed. 

            The phone rang. “Jen, it’s Principal Rogers.”

            “Yes? Is Nia okay?”

            Silence.

            “Principal Rogers. Is Nia okay?” She could hear breathing. She’d met the man – he must have been close to retirement, bald, always wore a suit even though no one cared about an elementary school Principal.

            “Could you come here, please?” he said.

            She hung up.

            A cab took her to the school. Brad was waiting outside. They didn’t look at each other. Didn’t touch each other.

            Through the front doors they went. To the side, the office. Principal Rogers took them to the playground. They walked into the sunshine of late June, just on the cusp of school letting out.

            An ambulance was sitting on the gravel.

            “Where is she?” asked Brad.

            “I’m sorry,” said Principal Rogers. “There was nothing to be done. She fell off a climbing structure. Hit a wooden beam on the way down and broke her neck. There was nothing to be done. Nothing we could do. We called 911 as soon as possible, but nothing could be done.”

            A doctor came to talk to them. So did a grief counsellor. Flowers showed up at their house. And cards, scribbled by little hands, kids who missed their friend Nia. 

            Inside the house, Jen and Brad stayed in the dark. I won’t touch you ever again, thought Brad. Never again. No children. No more. And for her part: I wish I had gone to church more. Studied more. Been better, more pure. I wish I had lived a better life, thought I had been doing just that.

            And both of them thought: at least this one had reached six years on this planet.

            Curtains drawn. Doors closed. A little house with no sounds, no music – no vibrations. There in the sunshine. There under the sun.

#

            “I’m going out,” said Jen, months later.

            She got in a car, sure that she was going to drive into a truck that day. Or maybe a minivan. Or maybe she would just pass out at the wheel. It didn’t matter. 

            She drove. I don’t know where I’m going, she thought. I have no plan. 

            The phone rang. It was Brad, but who was he, really? A man that she’d met at a hockey game, wearing ridiculous face paint. She’d thought: only a good guy would wear face paint like that. He’d bought her fig newtons on their second date. She’d pretended for two months that she didn’t drink, just to see what he’d do. Her friends had loved him, her sisters less so. They’d been married on the top of a hill, as snow came off a mountain and sprayed snowflakes on them in the sunshine.

            When she looked, still alive – still undead – she was at the airport. But I hate flying, she thought to herself. I’m terrified of it.

#

            Brad waited until the next day. But there was no sign of her. Jen was gone. He took a cab to a truck stop on the edge of town, a place he used to go to give the machine a last fill. He sat in the restaurant and ate a burger.

            Where are you? he asked his phone. But it wouldn’t answer. What day is this? he wondered. Could it be a birthday? Could I really have forgotten?

            Outside, he waited for a trucker to take a leak. Then he jumped into the cab of the vehicle and put it into gear. Where are you? he asked, but he wasn’t sure who he was talking to. I’ll find you either way, he thought. The truck hummed. The road whipped by.

#

            In Sudan, Jen found a job as a cleaner. She lived in a small house made of concrete. She tried to remember her life.

            Alcohol was wonderful for a while. But she knew she would have to have something stronger, so she quit it altogether. One day on a dusty road, she saw a school and knocked on the door. What must they have thought, to see this beaten up white lady in her sandals and baseball cap? A week later, she taught her first class in English. The children were ages five to nine. She sat with them, got to know their names. Made sure she could make them smile.

#

            On the west coast, Brad drove truck for a while, up and down a highway along the ocean. He kept his eyes on the road, straight ahead, always straight ahead. He didn’t look at the ocean. Didn’t glance at the desert.

            Weed was wonderful for a while. But he knew that he would have to have something stronger, so he quit it altogether. One day on a warm night by a pier, he saw lights shining in the sky, with voices full of joy like something he remembered and could almost touch. He started volunteering at the amusement park, helping to maintain the rides. But it wasn’t long before they gave him a job. Toolbox in hand, he spent the days making sure everything was perfect – that every bolt was in the right place, that every belt was tight. That all of it was fine.

#

            Years just pass. They just do. Birthdays come and go. People grow old and fade away. New people come into the world, some fated to have great lives, others fated to have almost no lives at all. We don’t tell enough stories. We just don’t. Each one is important. Each one is a life. But the years – they just pass. 

#

            It’s a little hill. Jen stands on top of it, late at night, under stars. It’s the quietest place in the whole world. She takes a seat on the sand. As she does, she feels a tremor through the land – it’s barely there, hardly noticeable, unless you’ve felt such a thing before and know what it means. She picks up her phone, and it lights up her face. What does someone hiding in the dark think of this lady who sits alone on a hill, she wonders? The tremor continues. The silence remains. She dials a number.

#

            It’s the middle of the day, and Brad is on the Ferris wheel. He’s the only one on the ride. Around and around it goes. He can feel the struts and their tension. At the top of the ride, the ocean opens up. At the bottom, he feels like he’s going to get sucked into the ground. What do people see when they see him? he wonders. This strange man on these rides. 

He remembers a day, a special one. He remembers the things that you should not think about. Ah, those, he says to himself. And the world opens, as it has before, and faces come to him of those he’s been with. And he wonders: how did I get this old? Near the top, there’s a vibration in the structure. Faint, but it’s there. The whole world opens up. And as it does, the vibration gets stronger – it’s a tremor from far away, and long ago, and it’s in his bones right then and there, as his phone rings. 

            He picks up. “Hi,” she says. Her voice is muffled, like she’s in a big place. “Happy birthday,” she continues, as the Ferris wheels heads down for one more loop, just one more turn under the sun.

____________________________________________________________________________

Nightmares.

Dream hard, rage hard.

24 thoughts on “On Birthdays

  1. I have no words…
    Rather, my words will pale in comparison to yours.
    This was beautiful and terrible. Why did you make this so painful? And I wish you had written more. What does he say? And then? And then?

  2. You write some incredible stories and this is pretty near the top of the heap. Just incredible.

    I thought this was incredible:

    Brad ran. Jen slipped and fell. The minivan hit the brakes. But there was no savior out there, no angel. And to be honest, there was no devil, either. Just a person at the wheel. And two parents who’d been in the kitchen planning a vacation they were never going to have. And there was a road, leading from here to there. It would be wrong to suggest that Mali didn’t suffer. How could someone not suffer from something like that, even if it was for just an instant? The van came to a stop, eventually. A door opened. A person got out. They were shaking. Just a human being, after all.

    There is so much packed into that paragraph. And then the thing kept going and it just got so much better and so much more painful and if we don’t feel pain when we read at times, what is the point.

    Thank you for sharing this.

    1. Thanks Mark. Lots of pain in this one, and no magic. I think it was born in a nightmare somewhere. Really appreciate your words, they’re incredibly meaningful to me.

    1. That’s a hard comment to react to… so glad to see those words, Michelle. Thank you for that feedback. Seems this story made readers feel the way I felt when I wrote it.

  3. Trent,
    I don’t understand you saying there is no magic here. It isn’t loud, but it’s intense. It isn’t flashy. It doesn’t need to be. It is far more beautiful in its simplicity. It expands as I read it. I cried through the whole thing and still feel shaken. I want to go back and read it again. How? Thank you so much for writing this story.

    1. Thank you, Sandy. No magic in the sense of there being no literal magic realism. It’s a straightforward story from that sense. Made me highly emotional. Really appreciate the feedback that it did so for you, too.

  4. HOLY SHITBALLS NB!

    I know, I know…I’ve read the comments and they are all so eloquent and refined and well put together, but you know me, I say it as I feel it and reading this masterfully written tale of two parents’ every wish, every hope, every dream, every fear, and worst nightmare, yet still come away from it feeling optimistic is…well, brilliant, incredible, remarkable, and so very YOU.

    You are one of a kind and I am in awe.

    1. Thank you SB! Gutted myself on this one and told myself it had to be optimistic in some way despite all that… all that… Glad to see that I might have succeeded there.

  5. I really hate how your writing leaves me in pieces sometimes. I really love anything at all you write, however. Thank you for posting this..

  6. I hope this world is a simulation…. or a space concoction …or a dream within a dream …..she said to herself as she watched the train of words move like tears or arrows down the page… does it (hurt le)ss (unrelentingly boring bloodfully through skin and bone) if it isn’t really real

    1. Where have you been, Poet? If this world is a simulation, I hope it’s made on a foundation of verse and music, and the images I see when I dream.

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