Copyright is held by the author.
Happy Birthday to you . . .
WHAT A stupid, goddamned song.
I looked around the office at the balloons and the treats and the streamers and, God help me, the people. My coworkers were all dressed up, singing and smiling for some gal they hardly even knew — Marian or Mary or Marie or something — a little blonde thing with round cheeks and doughy brown eyeballs. She’d wandered over and introduced herself to me earlier, said her name meant ocean or water or some elemental bullshit, and I’d mumbled that she could go ahead and drown herself using the nearest water cooler for all I cared. She didn’t know how to take that, poor thing thought she’d misheard or misunderstood me. I almost felt guilty when she blinked up at me in a soft-hearted way that reminded me of my youngest daughter, Alfie, who’d made it to college and was too busy with pop culture exams and dorm parties and boys to give her old man a call. Could also be that my baby girl Alfie thought I was an embarrassment of a father. God only knew what my ex-wife had filled the girls’ ears with after our divorce. She probably told them that I drank too much, that I was a lousy provider who’d spent two thirds of the girls’ college money getting us out of a sordid assembly of debts, which was why Sadie and Cassidy were now paying off loans of their own, or that I was a belligerent moron who’d spent the last 15 years at a desk job because of my inability to be a “team player”— which was part of why I was at the office on a Friday evening for a damn intern’s birthday.
My boss, Henry, had told me that if I wanted to climb the ladder and manage teams, I had to show the company that I liked teams and that making an appearance at an office social once in a while might be a good start. I’ll be damned if old Henry’s face hadn’t lit up like a firefly in August when he saw me shuffle in with a giftwrapped bottle of champagne. Never mind that it was “Buy one, get one half off!” day and that I’d strapped the second bottle into the passenger seat of my beat-to-hell 1978 Ford station wagon for me, myself, and I to enjoy later on.
I suppose Henry was a decent enough boss, but he was also a fatso with arrogant, little wire-framed glasses and a rattling baritone. He galloped between the cubicles like a goddamned stallion on steroids. I made a face and snuck a mouthful from the flask I kept hidden in the inner front pocket of my suit jacket just as his deep-throated warbling reached its vulgar climax.
“. . . Happy birthday, dear Maria. Happy birthday to yooooooou!” Henry spread his arms out like he’d just gotten a standing ovation at a Broadway show, and everybody surrounding him and the birthday girl laughed and hollered and popped the champagne I’d brought like they were at their favourite niece’s wedding. I couldn’t believe these assholes. I tilted my flask back against my lips.
“Not a fan of birthday parties?” Some young, lanky guy in a cheap suit came over and stood beside me. Crossing his arms over his chest, he mirrored my apathetic stance. “Me neither.”
I looked him up and down, noticing that he parted his hair to the right like some amateur JFK wannabe at a Fourth of July bash and that his mouth was big and goddamn crooked. “And who the hell are you?”
He grinned with that big, crooked politician mouth of his like the self-satisfied idiot I suspected he was — and Jesus, how old was this kid? Twenty-three? Twenty-four? He held out his hand. “Johnny Valentino. Also a new intern. I just haven’t been acknowledged yet, because my birthday isn’t till next month.”
“That’s real damn cute.”
Realizing that I wasn’t going to shake his hand, he rubbed his palm on his pants and regarded me with a lopsided smirk. “I thought everybody here was supposed to be really friendly — you know, like, offer-to-babysit-your-shih-tzu kind of friendly. That’s what the HR lady said.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t own a shih tzu.”
“Me neither,” he said. “I’m allergic.”
“Look, kid, no offense, but I’m not really big on conversation. And aren’t those things hypoallergenic?”
“Oh, right, yeah, sure.” He dropped the smirk and buried his hands in his pockets, shifting his weight from his heels to the balls of his feet and back again. I waited for him to leave, and after a few minutes of him just standing there with his eyes roving from me to the fluorescent ceiling lights to the floor, I snapped.
“Don’t you know anyone else here?”
“Well, sure, kind of, I guess.” He shrugged.
“Okay, so go talk to them.”
“I’m talking to you.”
“I just told you, I’m not big on conversation.”
“I’m dating the birthday girl, Maria — only casually, though. She made me come here, even though I really hate birthdays. On my 14th birthday, my mom got really drunk, and —”
“Didn’t you hear me? I don’t wanna talk!”
“Right. Sorry. I just thought . . . You know, never mind.” His shoulders slouched; he made to leave, and I made the biggest damned mistake of my life.
“Oh, hell, wait. What’d your mom do after she got all drunk?”
Valentino grinned. “Well, Dad — he was having an affair with a mysterious lady at the time, see — made Mom crazy sometimes, so while I was at a friend’s place, Mom was all by herself at the house and went a little wild on the Pepsi and Bacardi then climbed into her car and came to pick me up, which, I’ll add, was embarrassing. Anyway, on the way home she drove us nose-first into a ditch. Busted my lip on the dash. Had to get a bunch of tiny stitches. Happy birthday to me.”
“Jesus, kid, that’s not the kind of thing you share with a stranger.”
“I have this rule,” he said. “If you’ve been talking to someone for more than three minutes or so, you’re not strangers anymore.”
“Damned stupid rule if you ask me.” I brought my flask up to my lips, and Valentino’s indigo firework eyes lit up.
“What’d you bring?”
“Whiskey, and it’s mine. Go drink some champagne.”
Valentino stayed where he was, watching me down three or four more swigs.
“Oh, God help me,” I grumbled, before handing over the last sip.
By the time I recovered from my weekend hangover, Valentino had somehow crawled his way into my life. On Monday morning he showed up at my cubicle with two coffees and a bag of chips, and planted his ass on the corner of my desk before chatting away for the better part of three hours.
I finally slammed shut the file I’d been reviewing. “Don’t you have any work you oughta do?”
He smiled lazily, before finishing off the chips and dropping crumbs all over my work. “Well, sure, kind of, I guess.”
“Well, go do it then!”
“Nobody’s come around to reprimand me yet.”
“I’m reprimanding you. Get out of my workspace. You’re making it smell like cheap cologne.”
“Hey, the ladies love my cologne.”
“Do I look anything like a lady to you?”
“You know, you should get in touch with your lady side — plan a spa day, set up a book club, or something. I heard stuff like that is healthy.”
“Jesus, kid, does your head ever stay on one track?”
“Not really.” He shrugged. “Maria broke up with me over the weekend, by the way. Said I was a jerk at her birthday party ’cause I hung out with you the whole time.” He fixed me with a serious look.
I leaned back in my seat, astounded. “Well, whose damn fault is that? I didn’t want you around me.”
“No one usually does,” he laughed, and I felt a bit unsettled by how casually he acted.
“Well, Maria maybe woulda wanted you around. But then you screwed it up by hanging out with an old drunk, when what you should have been doing was sneaking champagne kisses.”
Valentino waived a hand and hopped off my desk. “Ah, it’s all good, don’t beat yourself up over it.”
“Now, why in God’s good name would I beat my—”
“She had lousy taste in music anyway — Hey! What kind of stuff do you listen to?”
“God almighty. I don’t listen to any kind of stuff.”
“Come on, there’s gotta be something.”
“I hate music.”
“Don’t shit me, old man.” He slapped me on the back. “Everybody likes music.”
I hunched over my keyboard, making a show of checking emails, even though I hated goddamned computers, demons of the goddamned future. “Some people prefer silence,” I said. “Absolute silence.”
“Well, I like most music — old stuff, especially, though. The Rolling Stones, Queen, Ben E. King—man, do you like ‘Stand by Me?’ Everybody likes that one.”
“How about you try standing away from me? I have actual work to do, in case you hadn’t noticed.”
He flashed a schoolboy grin and started tapping his hands on the sides of his legs. “When the night has come and the land is dark . . .”
“Christ almighty!” I stood up from my chair and looked around the office.
“. . . and the moon is the only light we’ll see — come on, I know you know the words.”
“Will you shut your damned fool mouth? People are staring!”
“So what! So you’re going to give me an ulcer, that’s what!”
“Take it easy,” he laughed. “Wanna ditch this place and grab some lunch?”
Valentino and I fell into a kind of arrangement. He’d bring coffee and junk food and fool around in my cubicle all morning while I tried to work, then we’d go to this kitschy diner down the street for lunch, and he’d fumble with his change while I paid the waitress with an actual credit card.
“You should get one of these,” I told him one afternoon, holding up my credit card so that it caught the hazy light coming in through the diner’s splotchy windows. “Build your credit rating. God knows I wish I’d been smarter about money when I was your age.”
“Yeah, I’ll keep it in mind,” he said, fidgeting. “Hey, do you like turkey? And, like, cranberry sauce and all that kind of stuff?”
“What in the hell would you ask me that for?”
He shrugged. “I was just wondering if you liked Thanksgiving.”
“You’re unreal, kid. Yeah, I like Thanksgiving. I may be divorced, but I’m a family man. Thanksgiving’s one of the only times my daughters come around.” I couldn’t help but smile a bit as I thought about Sadie and Cassidy with their big, crazy purses and own-the-world attitudes, and my baby girl, Alfie, with her otter brown eyes and rowdy laugh. In all my life I’d never heard a girl laugh so much. Ellen and I had never quite been able to discipline her; we’d just let her enjoy life, and even though her old man and big sisters were brash and unapologetic, Alfie had turned out damn polite. “You’d love my daughters,” I said, wiping salad dressing off the corners of my mouth and tossing my napkin onto my empty plate. “Heartbreakers, every one of them.”
“Well . . .” Valentino rubbed the back of his neck. “Maybe I could meet them . . . at Thanksgiving dinner? Your place?” He glanced nervously at me, and I gaped, feeling my blood go hot.
“Oh, no, no, no — hell no. I only see my daughters two, maybe three, times a year, kid. No offence, but I want it to be just me and them. Go visit your alcoholic mother.”
“She lives all the way on the other side of the country.”
“So book a plane ticket.”
“I hate flying,” he mumbled.
“Well, do you love your mother?”
“So book a plane ticket.”
“I said, no.”
“I haven’t even called Mom in, like, seven years,” he lamented.
I stood up so angrily that the back of my legs almost knocked over my chair. “What the hell kind of kid never calls his parents?”
Valentino looked out the window, his dark blue eyes far away from me as he muttered some incomprehensible nonsense.
I leaned forward, hands flat on the off-balance table, pressing little granules of the sugar Valentino had spilled all over the damned place into my heavy palms. “I’m, sorry, what? Speak up if you want me to listen.”
Valentino kept staring out the window. “Dad took off with some hooker when I was 17 — haven’t seen him since — and Mom became a mean drunk. Busted my lip a second time with the back of her hand.” He turned back to me. “I don’t need that shit.”
I sat back down. “Jesus, kid.”
“I’m not half bad at baking, you know.” His smirk was back again, all wayward as usual, but his eyes were all soft. “I could bring an angel food cake or something.”
“Nobody will want to eat any angel food bullshit.”
Valentino’s shoulders sagged, making him look like an older, desperate man.
“Alfie likes sweet potato pie,” I heard myself grumble.
I watched the youth tumble back into Valentino’s expression. He flashed me his widest grin and reached across the table to shake my damned hand. “Sir, sweet potato pie, it is!”
The girls spilled into the house like an overturned bag of flashy, multicoloured marbles. They laughed and hugged and teased one another, and they all squealed, “Happy Thanksgiving, Daddy!” as they each planted a kiss on one of my shaved cheeks. The discordant blend of their animated voices was my favourite sound in the world.
“Sugar. Pumpkin. Darlin’.” I greeted each one in turn, while Valentino made himself scarce, wandering around in my kitchen, poking at the turkey, probably, and picking out plates to set the table. We heard him drop something and swear. Sadie looked at me balefully and said, “Oh, Daddy, really?”
“Sadie, sugar, we discussed this on the phone already. I promise that he’s tolerable.” Another thud came from the kitchen. “Well, mostly tolerable.”
“I think it’s nice Daddy invited a friend,” Alfie said. Cassidy, meanwhile, was playing with her damned cell phone.
“Cassidy, pumpkin, come on now. You know how your old man feels about that technology stuff. Gonna give us all brain cancer someday.”
“Mom’s texting me,” she said, and I surrendered the battle.
I walked toward the kitchen and called at Valentino to get his ass into the living room and say hi to the girls.
If my daughters inherited anything from me, it was their appetites. The turkey and sides disappeared in a fraction of the time it had taken to prepare them all, though I can’t say that I minded one bit. The girls were full and happy, and so was I.
Partway into dessert, Alfie smiled and said, “I love sweet potato pie.”
Valentino straightened in his seat, before launching into some hare-brained tirade about early colonial days cuisine and his belief in needing just the right amount of cinnamon.
“Don’t encourage him,” I advised my youngest.
“He probably bought the pie at Safeway,” Sadie snorted, and Alfie shot her big sister a reproachful look.
Valentino laughed and said, “Now wouldn’t that be something? Wouldn’t that be something?—Hey, do any of you ever watch old episodes of Star Trek? The original series, not the Picard garbage. Anyway, ever notice that Captain Kirk is always saying dramatic lines twice?”
“What do you mean by that?” Alfie said. Then, more theatrically, “What do you mean by that?”
Valentino’s whole damned face lit up, and Alfie laughed long and loud. Sadie and I stared at them with matched bewilderment. Cassidy was still playing on her damned phone, I noticed, so I leaned over to talk to her.
“Cassidy, pumpkin, I know your mom is ‘texting,’ but do you think maybe you could put her on hold until after dessert?”
“Mom doesn’t do ‘hold,’ Dad,” she said. “She wants to know when we’ll be going over to her place.”
I flexed my fists under the table. “Tell her you’ll head over once hogs fly above the house she wrangled out of the divorce and Fox News announces the resurrection of Christ, our savior, and Jesus takes a look at modern-day society and weeps.”
Cassidy finally looked up from the phone, mouth hanging open, and Sadie shook her head, coming to her sister’s defense. “God, Daddy. Don’t be so belligerent.”
“Did you learn that word from your mother?”
“Oh my God, I’m in my 30s now, Dad! Even though I didn’t get to do a master’s degree, because someone emptied my college fund when I was a kid, I still managed to graduate with a half-decent vocabulary, thanks.”
“Sadie!” Alfie whispered, sounding as shaken as I suddenly felt.
Valentino, playing with his cutlery, cleared his throat. “You know, we should plan a Star Trek marathon. A big father/daughter/random guy, get-to-know-you Trekkie thing. It’ll be great. We can talk, have some popcorn. I’ll bring an angel food cake—”
Sadie pushed herself away from the table and stormed into the coat room, railing about how much I frustrated her, and Cassidy wasn’t far behind. I followed them, yelling nonsense and waving my arms around to emphasize how frustrated I sometimes felt, and before I knew it, both girls were out the door and in Sadie’s car. So much for Thanksgiving with my three girls.
I stood on the front step, feeling helpless as I watched their angry faces materialize under the intermittent glow of a calm blue light each time Cassidy got a new text message on her cell phone.
A few minutes later, Alfie’s soft hand was on my shoulder. She gave it a squeeze and leaned up on her tiptoes to kiss me on the cheek. “Thanks for dinner, Daddy. See you at Christmas?”
“Yeah.” I tried to smile. “Christmas.”
“Sure, darlin’. Maybe sooner. You call me anytime, all right?”
She gave my cheek another kiss, smiled, then made her way down the steps and got into the back of Sadie’s car. As the little red Volkswagen finally tore away, I could make out Alfie’s shadow wave a little farewell that was supposed to keep me sane until the next time I saw her. Christmas. Maybe sooner.
A few minutes later, Valentino came out and stood behind me. He clapped a hand on my shoulder, his hand landing in the same spot Alfie’s had rested before she left. A few nosey neighbours had come out onto their porches to see what all the noise had been about, and Valentino waved at them.
“Sorry about all that,” I said, my voice low and embarrassed.
“Are you kidding? That was the best Thanksgiving I’ve ever had.”
The month that followed was hell. Alfie didn’t call, and neither did Cassidy or Sadie. To top it all off, I’d been passed over for yet another promotion at work. I was real damn tired of my thankless job and my Monday to Friday lunches with Valentino at the tacky diner, and it was starting to show in the haggard reflection I faced each day in the bathroom mirror. The lines on my face and the grey in my hair were exemplifications of my slow decay; it was damned depressing.
“You know what the secret to life is?” Valentino asked me one day after work. We were sitting on my front step, him with his cooler full of cheap beer at his feet and me with my Southern Comfort. I glowered at him when he said, “Positive thinking. I bet you Alfie will call tonight; I bet you any money.”
“What, your pocket change? No thanks, kid, I’ll pass.”
“Because you know you’ll lose, old man.”
“No, because you’re a damned moron.”
“Alfie’s going to call you.”
“Yeah? And what the hell makes you figure that?”
“Well, you know . . .” He scratched at the back of his neck then played with the collar of his shirt. “I’m kind of dating her — in a spontaneous but relaxed kind of way? We really hit it off at Thanksgiving, so I borrowed your address book and gave her a call. I told her today that she should drop you a line.”
“. . .”
“. . .”
“. . .”
“She’s a great—”
I punched Valentino square on the face.
“You busted my lip.” Valentino picked gingerly at the marred fat around his mouth and flopped onto my sofa.
I came out of the kitchen and tossed him an ice-pack. “Yeah, I guess that’s your lot in life.”
He shot me a wounded look.
The phone rang.
Valentino’s eyes lit up. “What did I tell you? Answer it.”
“Probably a damned telemarketer,” I said, but I picked the phone up anyway. “Hello?”
“Hi, Daddy!” I heard Alfie’s honey tone, and my knees almost gave out beneath me. The moron in my living room grinned at me with his big, bloody mouth and gave me a thumbs up.
I let Valentino spend the night on my couch.
Christmastime came, and somehow Valentino convinced me to dress up in a damned Santa suit for the office party, to which he hadn’t shown up. God only knew where the fool was while I hohoho-ed and handed out goddamned candy canes and shook Henry’s hand, even though I still hadn’t gotten my damned promotion yet. I even snuck the intern Maria a little peck on the cheek under the mistletoe, before taking my leave from the office and making my way to a little tree lot on the way home. I picked out a Douglas fir and paid the guy working there an extra 50 bucks to strap it properly to the roof of my car in a show of goodwill. There’d be no visits from any ghosts of Christmas whatever for me.
Once I got home and managed to get my key to turn in the cold lock, I stepped into an oven. My heat had been cranked all the way up, and somebody had been baking.
“Damned fool Valentino,” I grumbled, making my way toward the living room, where I knew he’d been playing with my damned stereo, too, based on the deafening warbles of Ben E. King coming from behind the living room wall. I stalked around the corner and stopped when I caught sight of the holiday eruption; the room was splattered with pine, gold, and red. There were popcorn strings and garlands all over the damned place, and at the centre of it all were Valentino and my baby girl Alfie, their arms wrapped around each other while they swayed to an old song.
“If the sky that we look upon should tumble and fall and the mountain should crumble to the sea, I won’t cry. I won’t cry . . .”
They looked happy and so damned young.
Just as I was about to leave, Valentino caught my eye and winked. I ignored the quick pang that went through me, and I thought, No, I won’t shed a tear. Just as long as you stand, stand by me.
Wherever that Jesus fella was, I wished him a happy birthday, and I thanked the lord for sending my friend Johnny Valentino.