by V.J. Hamilton

Jaw clenched, I scour the greasy, sooty grill with all my might. No matter how carefully I grip the steel wool, my knuckles keep getting scuffed and bloody. Another birthday observed, another duty discharged. Maybe tonight my indentured servitude will come to an end. I’m looking for a sign.

The sun drops lower in the hazy sky, staining the clouds and casting long shadows on the remains of the barbecue dinner. Our two boys, young men now, and their girlfriends, have eaten, wished me Happy Birthday Dad! and gone, wriggling off to the real party, at a dance club with DJs dialing up chest-thumping decibels. Patty and I, good old Ma and Pa, stood on the weather-beaten deck, waving like captain and chief mate of a sinking ship while the lucky passengers made off in the lifeboats. 

We turn back to the wooden picnic table, covered with empty platters and vacant bowls. She collects the compostable plates, continually making small noises like ‘oops’ and ‘huh’ to nudge me into conversation. Piling sauce-smeared bowls, I prefer to let the silence of goodbye linger for a while.

The smoke and sizzle from the cookout have drifted away, leaving my eyes reddened and my apron smudged. “World’s Best Chef.” The smell of beer, from the dumped-out dregs of party cups, and of burnt wax, from blown-out birthday candles, mingles with the sandalwood fragrance of the newest girlfriend, Sha-Kari. Patty hums Happy Birthday off-key. It sets my teeth on edge.

She collects the instruments, bumping and knocking them about as she piles them on the Adirondack chair in the corner. We had a little jam session tonight. It was fun, hacking around on guitar and ukuleles, while the girlfriends joined in with djembe and maracas. Patty insisted on setting the beat with her tambourine. Sha-Kari says she’ll bring her mandolin next time.

Homemade music was the best part of the evening. I will bring them inside later, when I don’t have to hear Patty tsk-ing and cussing sotto voce about the clutter.

After I stack the chairs, I must pause a moment to let my racing heart catch up. Nothing to worry about; I’m learning to pace myself. I’ll go to the doctor once the second mortgage is paid off. I stand and look at a far-off yard, where kids play kickball like ours used to do. I listen intently, but all I hear is the mumble of others talking and the drone of distant traffic.

I take down the Happy Birthday banner, fold it neatly along the deep creases, and put it back in the Tupperware tub. The Superman birthday poster is worn and faded but it’s as much a part of family birthdays as cake and candles. Dinner was a mix of teasing and talking. What they are binge-watching, what new restaurants they’ve been discovering, and whether Winnebagos are harmful to the environment. Patty hovered, urging food and more food. They razzed me about my new glasses. ‘Now you’ll see everything that needs fixing,’ the older boy said, ‘starting with that leaky basement toilet.’

‘Hush,’ Patty said, ‘or he won’t wear them.’

‘Oh, I will wear them,’ I said. ‘What is it they say… ‘”The truth can set you free”?’

*       

Patty sighs extravagantly, pauses tidying, and sits at the picnic table with another rye and Coke. Her eyes are glossy and her nose looks damp and pink. Her polyester top is sliding off one shoulder, a look I used to find irresistibly arousing. ‘Why do I make an effort? This old table…’ she says in martyred tones, picking at the run in her pantihose. ‘The Colliers have a lovely set,’ she says, pointing chin-wise toward the neighbors. Their table is glass-topped, legs of wrought iron, like something at a French café.

‘Yeah,’ I say. ‘Lovely.’ I refuse to quarrel over someone else’s furniture.

She stares sullenly across the deck at the Colliers’. They have spent the year adding stuff to their backyard—firepit, hot tub, and patio furniture that’s a damn sight fancier than anything we have inside or out. She has avidly followed every new acquisition. Her hand opens and closes, grasping at imaginary goods. Her eyes slide back to me.

‘You look like an old man with those specs.’ She stares until I take them off and stick them in my pocket.

‘Well.’ She raises her glass in a mock toast. ‘The best party ever,’ she says grandiloquently.

I nod and raise my empty beer glass, pretend to take another sip. Every party we give is ‘the best party ever.’ Just like I am the world’s best chef. Her chin is trembling slightly. She’s reached the maudlin stage. I would hide the rye bottle but that would make it worse.

‘What do you think of his new one? Sha-Kari?’ she says. ‘With all the…tattoos?’

I shrug. ‘Tattoos are pretty common. Some cultures, the Maori—’

‘Oh, cut the crap.’ She rolls her eyes. ‘Those designs will look terrible with a lacy white gown.’

‘Whoa, we just met her,’ I say softly. ‘No talk of nuptials yet, is there?’

‘You can’t see a thing with those weak old-man eyes, can you?’ With disgust she leaves the deck, goes inside, and returns with a topped-up drink.

I pretend not to see. I pick up a recipe card that has C-G-F-C-G-C-C-G-F pencilled on it. The chord card for the ukuleles to play Marley’s One Love. We have other cards, for oldies like Yellow Submarine and Under the Boardwalk. We even tried a new song, Stupid Love by Lady Gaga. We all loused up—but at different times—so the jam session kind of worked. In the middle of One Love, the final song, I raised my eyes to Patty. Looking for a sign.

It used to be our song. Those early days, tooling around in her VW van, our summer of love. First the fan belt went, then the gasket; the van was insatiable.

Tonight Patty just kept slapping the tambourine and gazing at the Colliers’.

Nada.

‘Did you notice Karla wasn’t drinking?’ she says, drawing me out of my reverie. ‘I hope to god she isn’t you-know-what.’ Her face looks moistly swollen, like a raincloud just before the showers come.

I pull the paper-recycling bin to the table. ‘Wouldn’t be the end of the world.’

‘Spoken just like a man!’

I peel off the “To Dad” stickers and put the used gift-wrap and boxes into the bin. ‘All I mean is that it’s up to them. They’re a little young, but they’re adults.’

‘Kids! Kids!’ she says, her face crimson. ‘They have no idea.’

My heart starts to race again. I breathe deeply. Long pause. Waiting for a sign. The neighbor’s dog starts barking. With extra calmness I say, ‘They haven’t said a thing yet, so…’

She tosses back her drink. ‘God forbid they end up like another pair of young fools I can think of.’

I catch her eye. ‘God forbid.’

I unscrew the clamps holding the Happy Birthday tablecloth to the picnic table. I collect them all, put them in the Tupperware box, too. So many birthday barbecues, never a crooked tablecloth.

When I walk past her, she catches me in her batwing arms, presses me into her spongy softness. ‘Our youngest moved out last month,’ she whispers, squeezing me to her. ‘We are now officially empty nesters.’

‘Happy Empty Nest,’ I say as I gamely return the hug, trying not to breathe in the sour rye-and-Coke breath. It’s just a hug, I remind myself; I shouldn’t expect this will develop into anything more pleasurable. Patty has made it clear she just wants a platonic marriage now. My heart is weary of getting rebuffed.

I recall a quarter-century earlier, when our love was fresh and unformed. We had moved into this almost-new house. Lots of weekends spent building this very deck. We were laying the foundations of family life, I believed, not digging a comfortable rut. The older boy’s birthday was the first we celebrated at this picnic table. Patty’s parents came, bearing armfuls of gifts, but mine did not. Dad was in remand; Mom was in rehab. How ashamed I felt. I ached to build a real future, be the best dad—which meant being there for the boys, every day of their lives. Patty was all smiles and promises.

But I realize now she was just playing house. I was the dad doll. Wearer of the suit, bringer of the cash. So long as I kept her looking good, I was welcome. I craved family so badly that the trade—my soul in exchange for stability—seemed worth it.

Tonight she purses her lips, an approximation of a pretty little pout, and tilts her head. ‘And now the second act…’ Her idea, floated earlier, is to buy a gas-guzzling RV, and spend our retirement years driving around the continent. After an entire work life spent commuting every day, I am sick of the mindless to and fro.

My idea of a second act is what’s sitting there on the Adirondack chair in the corner—my six-string. I want time to write songs, maybe form a small folk group. Or should I just shut up and go along with her infinite loop of RV traveling?

I slide on the specs, scan the deepening indigo of the sky. A sign, there has to be a sign. I pick up the final tray, full of odds and ends, the party detritus. I reach the patio door, a sheet of glass pulled nearly shut, and for a moment I don’t recognize what’s reflected. The stooped body, the newly bespectacled face of the indentured servant. Behind him, her face shines, the glistening mouth open, ready to engulf.

She bustles in behind me. ‘RV shopping tomorrow, honey,’ she says brightly as she passes. No question; a command.

The tray clatters. I step out once more on the deck, feel the cooling breeze. The smoky haze has turned the full moon red. I go to the Adirondack to collect my guitar, the ukes, and percussion. Can’t leave them outside in the heavy dew.

I pick up the six-string. That’s when I see the hairline crack along its neck. Invisible to me before these new lenses. Barely perceptible now. But over time it will ruin the entire guitar.

Not the sign I wanted.

oOo

Short fiction by V.J. Short fiction by V.J. Hamilton has been published in The Antigonish ReviewThe MacGuffin, and STORGY, among others. She won the EVENT Speculative Fiction contest. Most recently, her fiction appears in The Last Line magazine.