By Mike Chambers

Tom sat in the kitchen before work, sipping his coffee and not reading anything.  He was just looking around at all of the things he’d purchased over the years.  The dark granite counter tops and stainless steel appliances that all of the neighbors had, so Melanie had to have them, too.  Since the refrigerator was only a couple of weeks old, there wasn’t much on the front, just a couple of magnets.

Tom noticed that one of the magnets was holding down a card decorated with balloons on the front.  He pushed back his stool and walked over to it with his coffee cup in his hand.  It was a birthday party invitation for Melanie’s nephew, Travis.  He would be turning eight the next day, the eighth of June, so it was his golden birthday.  On the card it said there would be a root beer keg for the kids, as well as a piñata.  BYOB for the “grown-ups,” it said.

Tom heard his wife coming down the stairs through the kitchen by the foyer.  She was breathing heavily, so Tom knew she had been working out.

Without turning around, and halfway through reading the card, Tom half-shouted, “Hey Mel, when did this card come?  And do I have to go?”

“Last week.  And yes.”

Tom finished reading the card, or what was legible, and returned it back to its spot on the refrigerator.  Melanie walked through the kitchen and put her arms around Tom. Being almost as tall as he was made it easy for her to kiss him on the cheek.  Tom was beginning to go bald at the age of twenty-six.  He thought he would have kids before he went bald.

“You’re not weaseling your way out of this one.  Besides, my brother loves it when you come out,” Melanie said, starting her campaign to get Tom out to Shakopee.

“Your brother’s a barbarian, and he hates me.”

Tom had only seen Melanie’s brother a few times since their marriage.  He was her older brother by two years. Even though they were all adults, he still acted like a high schooler, protecting his little sister from all the jerks he assumed wanted to take advantage of her.  Tom hated the way Charlie still said things like, “You takin’ care of my sister?” or, “You let me know if he ever hurts you, Mel.”

“Your breath stinks like coffee.  Brush your teeth before you leave,” Melanie responded.

He walked out of her embrace, drank the last sip of his coffee and headed upstairs to brush his teeth and go to work.  Pulling out of the driveway, away from his Edina home, Tom began thinking of a strategy to get out of this birthday party.

***

During their lunch break, Tom and two of his colleagues, Bill and Todd, chose to go to Brit’s Pub.  Brit’s was on Nicollet Mall, and they liked to sit on the sidewalk patio and watch people walk by.  It was casual Friday, so they were all wearing basically the same thing: khaki shorts and golf polos.  Tom’s was red, and the guys had been calling him “Tiger” all day.  Bill’s was pink and the jokes were obvious and relentless.  Todd wore yellow, and Tom and Bill couldn’t think of anything funny about yellow.

“Melanie’s dragging me to her nephew’s birthday party tomorrow,” Tom told the group between bites of his fish.

“The bumpkins?” Todd laughed.

Knowing damn well Melanie’s family was a bunch of bumpkins, Bill said, “Didn’t her brother wear a jean jacket to your wedding?”

Todd and Bill laughed, and Tom just shook his head and grabbed for his empty beer glass.  He held it up to the waitress, who was standing near the door in the shade.  She nodded and held up her index finger.  Tom noticed that all of their glasses were empty and held up three fingers.

“You know what I’d do if I were you?” Bill asked Tom.

Tom raised his eyebrows and leaned forward, and Bill said, “Wear a sleeveless shirt and a pair of cut-offs to the party.  Show them you want to be one of the pack.”

The three beers arrived and Tom reached for his wallet to pay the bill.  “You’re welcome for lunch, ya jackass,” he said.

Downtown, everything was within walking distance.  The tall

“Doesn’t that building look like the blunt we just smoked?”

buildings offered the men deep shade, which was a relief on that hot Friday in June.  They glided along, walking easily in their loafers and golf clothes, three financially comfortable men who still felt like teenagers.  Two tall beers always had the same effect on Tom.  Today was the same, and he glided across the cement, loving the city for all its architectural beauty.  With his head in the clouds, the walk back to work seemed short to Tom, and the three men stood in front of the building before he realized they had arrived.

“Tee time at 3:40, Bill?” Todd asked.

“Yeah, think you guys can bolt by three and meet out here?” Bill replied, gesturing to the front of the building.

Tom and Todd said they could, and the three of them went to their respective offices to kill the workday.

They worked in the Wells Fargo Center, the third tallest building in Minneapolis.  When Tom was a kid, he always thought it looked like a lit cigar at night, and he told his dad that once as they were walking to the parking ramp to drive home from another Twins loss.  He and his dad used to go to Twins games at the Metrodome, in the nineties when the team was a hopeless mess.  The dome was less than half-full every night, so his dad bought them cheap seats, and in the third inning they would move down and sit above the dugout.

When he got older and discovered pot, he used to go downtown with his friends.  They were all athletes at Edina High School, and they weren’t supposed to get high and walk around downtown.  That’s what they did, though.  They weren’t old enough to get into the strip clubs or the bars, but they would stand around outside by the door, daring each other to try and get in.  Tom noticed the Wells Fargo Center then, too.  Once he pointed up at it and said, “Hey guys, doesn’t that building look like the blunt we just smoked?”  They all laughed and agreed, but said that whoever was smoking the skyscraper had let the cherry get too long.  Now he worked there and thought about marijuana and Twins games every morning when he spotted the building from 35W.

Tom loved his job more for the pay and the perks than for the actual work.  The company had a great pool of season tickets at Target Field, five rows up, down the third base line.  Everyone got two tickets a few times a year, and he always took his wife, of course.  He kept a scorecard, and Melanie would watch him and ask a lot of questions.  What does “2B” mean?  How does the numbering of the positions go again?  He loved her for this, the same questions every time.  He knew she didn’t care about the game, but she knew he did.  In late summer, as the sun set behind their seats, she would get cold, and she always forgot to bring her jacket.  He would give her his sweater so she could stare at the skyline in peace while he watched the game and cheered with the rest of the men in the stadium.  All of their wives just admired the scenery of the beautiful new ballpark.

Tom made a nice salary, above six figures and only in his mid-twenties.  Bill and Todd were paid well, too, and they were each members of a different golf course.  Three times a week they played together, on a rotation between their three courses.  None of the three were particularly good golfers.  Tom had an incurable slice, and Bill couldn’t sink a putt outside of two feet.  Todd had a violent hook half the time, probably from over-swinging.  They were the type of golfers who, instead of making adjustments in their swing, would angle their bodies in a way that would allow the ball to slice or hook and still land in the fairway.  Some days, Tom’s ball would slice so much that his feet and shoulders were at a 45-degree angle to the ball.  Despite their mechanical struggles, all three managed to shoot in the mid-eighties.  Life was good.

***

“Have you thought of a way out of tomorrow yet?” Melanie asked him, knowing he’d been trying all day.

They were lying in bed, and it was past midnight.  She was right, he was thinking all day at work, and on the golf course, of a way out of tomorrow’s party.

Tom breathed heavily out of his nose, a half-laugh, half-sigh, and said, “No, no excuse.  Just thought I’d ask you nicely.  Can I stay home?”

“I don’t get what your problem is.  You hate my brother that much?”

He didn’t hate her brother.  He just felt uncomfortable

She looked at the rows of earrings and chose the smallest diamonds she could find.

around him because there wasn’t a topic they could easily talk about.  Tom thought this party must be wiping Charlie out financially, but he was a good dad and wanted his son to have a fun golden birthday.  He was laid off last year from a factory job that was barely paying the bills as it was.  Now he was making a third of what he had made through unemployment checks.  He hadn’t called Melanie asking for money yet, but it had crossed Tom’s mind to bring the subject up.

“Do you think they can afford to throw a party like this?”

“Of course not,” Melanie replied.  “But you know how Charlie is.  Mom and Dad always threw together birthdays for us when we were kids, so he’s going to do the same.”

That made Tom think of his birthdays when he was a kid.  An only child, spoiled with the kind of parties kids remember their whole lives.  But all of his friends had the same kind of birthdays, so it didn’t seem like a big deal to him at the time.  For a moment he lay with his hands behind his head, remembering pony rides and batting cages.

“What did we get for Travis?” Tom asked.

“A Denard Span jersey and a pair of tickets to a game next month.”

“Stitched, or a replica?”

“Stitched.  I wanted us to do something really nice for him.  You know how hard he has it.”

Tom drifted off to sleep, picturing Travis wearing a Denard Span jersey and having the time of his life.

***

The next day Tom woke up earlier than he needed to, or rather his body woke up on its own.  He had the same type of feeling that shy kids get the morning of the first day of school.  Melanie was snoring next to him, completely at peace.  For her it was going to be a fun day.  For him it would be awkward and uncomfortable.

He lay in bed for an hour, going through scenarios in his head.  Should he ask Charlie if he needed a little money?  What if the present they got for Travis was way better than anything else he got, and everyone noticed?  Meanwhile, Melanie was snoring next to him.

He finally rolled out of bed, making it move enough so his wife would wake up.  She looked at the clock.  It was nine, and the party started at noon.  Tom leaned over and kissed her before walking into the bathroom to shower.

He stood in front of the mirror, debating whether or not to shave.  He decided not to, because stubble made a guy look more down-to-earth, like he didn’t care much about his looks.

After Tom came out, Melanie went into the bathroom to put on her makeup and do her hair.  While she did that, Tom stood in front of the open closet.  Their bedroom was big enough for each of them to have their own walk-in closet.  His was full of dress shirts and an assortment of belts, shoes, and dress pants.  Even his casual clothes would make him stick out in today’s crowd.  Every shirt he owned had a collar, except for his white undershirts.

He got dressed.  Melanie came out of the bathroom and Tom was sitting on the bed wearing an old pair of jean shorts that he found on the floor in the corner of the closet.  They were wrinkled like a brown lunch bag that had been balled up, and then flattened out.  Along with the shorts, he had put on one of his undershirts.

“You’re kidding, right?” Melanie asked.

“What do you mean, ‘am I kidding?’”

“You’re seriously going to leave the house like that?  Where the hell did you find those shorts?”

“In the back of the closet. I’ve been searching for these things for weeks.  You like ‘em?”  He had no idea where the shorts had come from, and he certainly hadn’t been searching for them.  They were the kind of shorts with a loop on the side for a hammer, and on the other side they had a series of small pockets.  He didn’t know what those pockets were for.

“Quit being a smartass and put on some real clothes.  You look like a fool.”

He refused.  “I’m comfortable in this.  It’s not a formal event.”

As stupid as he felt, he knew he would blend in better this way.  When he was in the shower, after he didn’t shave, he thought about what Bill said at lunch the day before.  This was the closest thing he had to cut-offs and a sleeveless shirt.

He went downstairs to have a bowl of cereal. Melanie said she would be down in a minute, after she got dressed.  She decided to keep it simple and put on a pair of white capris and a yellow v-neck.  She opened up her jewelry box, which sat on top of her dresser in the corner of her massive closet.  She looked at the rows of earrings and chose the smallest diamonds she could find, a pair Tom had bought her for their one-month anniversary.

***

They pulled onto Charlie’s street a little after noon.  Both sides of the street were lined with cars, and none of them were particularly new.  Tom noticed the same thing about the houses, mostly one-story houses with weedy lawns and old patio furniture.  They had to park a block away and walk.

Tom was carrying a twelve-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon, and Melanie had Travis’s present held with both hands at her waist.  When they were driving out to Shakopee, Tom remembered that the invitation said, “BYOB,” and he pulled up to a liquor store.  Inside, he instinctively walked into the wine section, because that’s what he and his friends brought to each other’s parties as a gift.  He was looking at the top shelf when he remembered where he was going, so he walked to the other side of the store and started browsing the beer selection.  He heard a country song once where the singer said something about an ice-cold PBR, and from his college days he remembered that was Pabst Blue Ribbon.  He was proud of himself.

Tom had never been to Charlie’s house before, so he hung back and let Melanie take the lead.  She led them to the front sidewalk of an old blue house.  On the tree in the front yard, there was a balloon with an “8” on it.  The front yard had been mowed recently, as the tire marks from the mower were still visible.  A sign on the front door said, “Come around back,” and the two of them walked around the corner of the house, whose wooden siding was in need of a paint job.  The paint on the south-facing side was particularly worn, where the sun roasted it all day.

Melanie knew where to go, around the side of the house and between the garage and the house’s back corner.  She lifted a rusty latch that kept the unfinished wooden fence shut and pushed it open to reveal the party.

She walked through, and Tom hesitated before slowly

He was more drunk when it was time for the piñata, and he even took a couple swings at it himself.

proceeding, looking for a familiar face.  The beer was getting heavy, and he switched it to his left hand.  He would need his right hand to shake Charlie’s anyway.  Looking around the backyard, Tom noticed that poor people seemed to have the best parties.  Almost all of the adults had a can of beer, and most of the men were dressed like him.  The men wore similar shoes to the ones he had on.  The shoes he slipped on when he left the house were the old tennis shoes he wore when he mowed the lawn.  They smelled terrible, because he didn’t wear socks when he mowed the lawn, and the edges were green where they used to be white.  He pictured himself standing in the same spot, wearing what Melanie had called “real clothes,” and was glad he chose to dress down.

Melanie had found Charlie, and Tom walked up to them as they were finishing a long hug.  Charlie let go of his sister and extended his right hand to Tom.

“Good to see ya, Tim,” Charlie said, shoving his right hand into his jeans pocket.  He was one of those guys who wore jeans all year around, even in the summer.  His outfit was complete with a gray tank top that had a large dark sweat stain in the back.  Tom thought of what Bill said at lunch yesterday.

“Um…” Tom muttered.

“Ah, I’m just screwin’ with ya Tommy.”  He winked at Melanie and laughed.  “Let me take that beer for ya.  I’ll put it in the fridge in the garage.”

“Oh, thanks, Charlie,” Tom replied, ripping open the end of the case and grabbing a can before handing it over.  Charlie already had one of his own; otherwise Tom would have offered him one.  He took a few steps toward the garage before he turned and gestured for Tom to follow him.  He followed him into the garage, and Melanie wandered off to visit with the other guests, most of whom were her family.

Inside the garage, Charlie produced two shot glasses and a bottle of whiskey, which he pulled out of the freezer.  He poured two shots, handed one to Tom, and said, simply, “Cheers.” He raised his glass to Tom, and they drank.

He patted Tom on the back with his big hand, and the two of them walked out of the garage and into the blinding sunlight.  Charlie walked over to a couple of men in camouflage hats, and Tom found his wife chatting with a couple of women whose kids were friends with Travis.  She smiled at him, and he stood there making small talk with the group.

Tom felt the cheap whiskey reach his stomach and spread around its empty walls.  He tasted it in the back of his throat and stepped into the cool shade near the garage to lose the temporary nauseousness.

A few minutes later, he was looking around the backyard and saw a couple walk through the gate.  Charlie shook the man’s hand, and the two of them went into the garage and came out less than a minute later, much the same way he and Tom had done.  Tom watched this happen three more times.  Every time a guest arrived, Charlie would invite him into the garage for what Tom assumed was a shot of the same cheap whiskey he had drunk.

This went on all day, and Charlie was drunk when Travis opened his presents.  He was more drunk when it was time for the piñata, and he even took a couple swings at it himself, to “loosen it up for the kids.”  Tom let out a loud laugh at the remark and looked around uncomfortably as nobody else reacted as he had.

By three, all of the guests had left and Travis was playing football in the front yard with a couple of his friends whose parents hadn’t picked them up yet.  Melanie and Tom were sitting in the back yard with Charlie on the patio.

“It was nice of you guys to come,” Charlie told them, with one of Tom’s beers in his hand.  There were only a few left, and Tom only drank three of them.

“You really know how to have a good time, Charlie,” Tom said.  “You put on a nice little shindig here.”  Tom looked at his watch, wondering when it would be appropriate to leave, being that they were the last adult guests and their departure would mean leaving Charlie alone and drunk.

“I’m just glad Travis had a good time.  He seemed to at least,” Charlie replied.  “Oh, that reminds me. I told Travis we’d go on up to Valley Fair after the party.  It seems to be after the party right about now.”

Tom leaned forward in his chair and Melanie lifted her purse from the cement patio, where it rested against her chair.

“Oh, I didn’t mean that you two had to leave this minute. Just letting you know,” Charlie said, noticing the couple’s preparatory gestures.

Melanie looked up at the sky, toward the lowering sun and said, “Well, you guys should try to get out there while the sun is still up.”  She and Tom rose from their chairs.

Charlie stood, too, and hugged his sister.  Tom shook his hand, and they exited by the same gate through which they entered.  On the way down the driveway, toward their car in the street, they each shouted a “Happy birthday” to Travis and waved enthusiastically.

Driving home, a thought occurred to Tom, and he waited a few moments, debating whether or not to bring it up.  He thought he should.

“Hey Mel?”

“Yes, honey?”

“Is Charlie going to drive them to Valley Fair?”

Tom looked over at Melanie and watched her as she looked out the window.  Without looking over at him she said, “Yeah, Tom, I think so.”

And Tom turned the car onto their quiet, shady street.

Mike Chambers graduated from Bemidji State University in 2012 and is now an assistant editor at The Sportsman’s Guide. While at BSU, Mike earned a bachelor of fine arts degree in creative and professional writing, as well as minors in mass communication and electronic writing. He lives in suburban Minneapolis, the location for much of his fiction.