99A New Year’s Story
© James J. Doyle, Jr.
Ice clogs the river. In the dark and wind, he fights to stand on a floating chunk. Dirty snow discolors the far banks under stunted trees. Thin branches stretch toward him above the swift current. A sudden impact drops him to his hands and knees. His fingers shine blue with cold. The block tilts and begins to sink. He jerks himself upright and jumps to another icy platform. The uneven top bucks wildly. His feet slip. Loosing his balance, he stares face down at the choppy, spray-flecked waves. As he falls, a faraway call echoes in his ears.
“Breakfast is served.” His mother’s voice carries up the stairs. “Hurry up. I need your help with the things for the party tonight.”
He rolls out of bed and lands with a crack on the floor, his nose buried in the rug.
“Now, Professor,” his mother yells. “Or starve like a monkey on a raft from China.”
She has a way with words, mostly misplaced references to old movies. He hopes the breakfast will not be borrowed from the “Life of Pi.”
Yawning, he stumbles to the closet, pulls on a robe and heads downstairs.
“Happy Birthday, RJ3, the one and only Robert James, the Third. This is New Year’s Eve, your birthday.” She slides the plate under his nose and kisses the top of his head. “You received your birthday present with your Christmas gift.”
“I know,” he sighs. “The same as last year. The same as every year.”
His mother glances up from her cooking. “Don’t diminish the value of a gift. Remember those cute pink bunny pajamas with the feet and the long ears. Aunt Sally gives the best presents.”
“Aunt Sally did not give me those pajamas or any pajamas. That was the movie, ‘The Christmas Story’.” He douses the scrambled eggs with hot sauce. “Aunt Sally gave me the book on quilting.” The eggs are good. “I’m older now, but not that old. Really, quilting?”
“You can write a story about not being old enough yet to quilt.”
“I did.” He bites the toast. “It was rejected.”
“It was rejected eighty-seven times.” He snaps a piece of bacon. “I’m lying.”
“No, you’re not. You’re making up things. That’s what writers do.” She hands him a plate. “More bacon?”
He slips two crisp slices onto another piece of toast and folds the bread to make a sandwich.
“Meet me in the attic.” His mother unties her apron. “When you’ve finished eating and after you’ve dressed.”
* * *
“Was Grandma M really a contortionist?” He sits on a stool and folds a “2017” banner.
“Of sorts.” His mother balances on one foot, handing down decorations with one hand and pushing shoeboxes aside with the other hand.
“Was she on the stage?”
“She and Grandpa were part of the ‘The Sinclair Minstrels.’ It was a vaudevillian troupe. Grandma could sing, dance, balance on a beam, walk a wire — those sorts of things. She was talented and smart, but she never had the opportunity to go college.”
“But you did. You met Dad at college, right.”
“Yes and yes. I met your father in the college library.”
“Were the two of you studying?”
“He was painting the ceiling. It was a part-time job. He’d received his degree and was applying to graduate schools. He needed money for the applications. So, he was painting, and I was studying. That’s when he dropped paint on my book, ‘The Hidden Secrets of Invertebrates.’ I was a biology major.”
“When you told me the story before, you said he spilled the paint on purpose. So he could meet you.”
“Your father was a resourceful man. Why are you asking again?”
“I like to hear it again. What happened next?”
“We got married. He went to graduate school. We had you.”
“Was I a disappointment?”
“You were wonderful.” She switches feet and reaches to another shelf. “The best thing that every happened to us.”
“Why did Dad die?”
“Cancer.” She steps down and gives her son a hug. “His books are good. They’re putting you through college.”
“Do you think I’m Tibetan?”
“Good question.” She rummages through the contents of an old chest. “Why do you ask?”
“I heard that people in Tibet don’t know their parents or their birthdays.”
She tilts her head. “You know both.”
“New Year’s Eve doesn’t really count for a birthday. It’s already taken.”
She hands him the first of the miniature oriental lanterns.
“So,” he continues, the lanterns piling up in his arms. “Since it is a holiday and not a real birthday, maybe I don’t have a birthday. Maybe I am Tibetan.”
“I was there.” She stands and dusts off her shirt and jeans. “You were definitely born on New Year’s Eve. At 7:17 in the evening. I read the hour and minute later on the birth certificate. At the time, I was busy.”
“I guess I’ll have to take your word for it.”
“You can, and you should.” She squeezes both his hands. “Robert James, I love you very much, and we are both very proud of you. Your Dad and me.”
“And watching. Don’t you ever doubt it.”
“I don’t.” He smiles. Her energy, humor and insight are infectious. “Ok, what do we do next?”
“Haul this stuff downstairs, pack the launch vehicle and release the moorings to our hot-air balloon. Around the town in eighty minutes or less, we land in Oz, steal the ruby slippers from Dorothy, click our heels and save the Lilliputians for the party of the year.”
For a biology major, she did have a way with words and movies.
* * *
On the passenger side of the packed car, next to his mother who is driving, he stares out the window. His eyelids droop. He jerks awake and settles back into the seat, his eyes closing. . . .
The teacher stands in front of the class and wrinkles her long nose under the wide-brimmed hat. Dressed in black, she shakes a broomstick in one gnarled hand. The other hand opens and closes, the long sharp fingernails clawing at the air.
“Lost, lost, lost,” she cackles. “All those born on a New Year’s Eve are lost and forgotten. There will be no presents for them.”
Waving the broomstick over his head, the nightmare that used to be sweet Ms. Ivory McWilliams, his spinster second-grade teacher, croaks in a deep gravelly voice. “No presents for them. Only the most horrible sound,” she screeches. “The sound that they, the ones with no real birthday, deserve to hear.”
With that, the threatening vision spins around in a cloud of dust and flying strips of ripped and frayed fabric, raises her fingernails high into the air and scrapes down the hard surface of the blackboard. The hideous sound grates through his skin and penetrates like a hypodermic needle. He squints his eyes, his face contorts, his jaw collapses and his mouth drops open in a grimace of pain and agony.
It was the sound that he, as a child, dreaded most.
The macabre menace reaches her hand. “This is their present,” she hisses. “For those who have no presents.”
The cracked nails poise to strike the board again.
“No!” he screams and covers his ears with his hands. “NO. . . .”
“Robert James! It’s okay. Settle down. It was a dream. You’re okay.” His mother grips his shoulder with one hand. Her other hand holds the steering wheel.
Disoriented, he focuses out the window and finds the turrets and windows of Aunt Sally’s old house. They are parked in the driveway.
“What happened?” He glances at his hands.
“You were mumbling in your sleep. Something about presents. Then you yelled and started thrashing around. I was afraid you’d hurt yourself.”
“I’m alright.” He unhooks his seatbelt. “Sorry. It was just a dream.” He opens the door. “Let’s find out where to put this stuff.”
* * *
The house is already full of decorations.
Setting down a box, he smells lavender and rose water and feels a hand on his shoulder.
“Robert, it is always a joy to find my favorite young man here in out midst.” He turns to receive a reserved and matronly hug from his Aunt Sally. “I am counting on you, Robert James, to be the life of the party. It is your birthday, you know. I hope you liked your Christmas gift. It was for both occasions.”
“I’ll do what I can, Aunt Sally. And yes, thank you for the gift. It was more than adequate.”
“You are such a good lad. Now, I’ll leave you to the decorating.” She pecks him on the cheek. “Ta da, dear boy.”
* * *
“Bizarre, truly bizarre.” He hears the comment from behind his back. “What do you imagine these are?”
He turns to follow a finger pointing to rounded shapes piled high on an antique plate in the middle of a table.
“Freeze-dried dahlia blooms.” Robert sticks out his hand. “It’s good to see you, Uncle Charlie.”
“And you, my boy, and you.”
Their eyes return to the table.
“I think these are a ruse to defy our intellects and trouble our minds.” Uncle Charlie bends closer. “Yes, these are not dried blooms. They are dessicated spiders, monstrous, multi-colored mutations of the common arachnid injected with steroids to promote unusual growth before being starved to death and plated to serve as party favors.” He shakes his head. “Truly, a first, a new first. Aunt Sally has exceeded all expectations for the most unusual New Year’s party favor ever.”
Reaching into the jacket pocket of his tweed sport coat, Uncle Charlie extracts a dented silver flask.
“A nip of nectar from heaven, nephew, to counter the newly discovered monster denizens of the den?”
“Uncle Charlie, you know I don’t drink.”
“Neither do I, dear lad, neither do I. It’s tea. Don’t tell, now.” He takes a sip and slides the flask back into the pocket. “I have a reputation to uphold, you know. That of the happy carefree and slightly wrinkled uncle who may say or do anything and not be held accountable because of his, ahem – how do we say this? — his weakness.” Uncle Charlie glances at his watch. “Oh, my, the hour of the New Year close approaches and will soon be here in our midst.” Charlie raises his head. “Say, I just remembered it’s your birthday today. Congratulations, young nephew, and how has your day been going?”
“It’s almost gone . . . again.”
“From your tone and body language, I detect disappointment at the placement of your birthday atop the New Year’s holiday. Am I correct in this assessment?”
“You are quite correct, Uncle.” Shoving his hands into his pants, Robert James, the Third, pulls out the empty pockets. “Always a party, nary a gift.”
“I believe I understand your plight.” Uncle Charlie places a hand on his nephew’s shoulder. “Regrets are the stuff of nightmares.”
“You can say that again.”
“Yes, well, the hour is not far off. I hear our noisy clan congregating on the back porch. Let us join them there.” Uncle Charlie takes his nephew’s elbow and edges him toward the rear of the house. “For auld lang syne, my lad, for auld lang syne. Let’s take a cup of kindness yet, for the old long since.”
* * *
“Raise your glasses.” Uncle Charlie wobbles above them on a dining room chair. “It’s almost time. Raise your glasses, raise your glasses.” The room quiets. “And make a lane there, from the kitchen to here.” Uncle Charlie points to an empty round table in front of his nephew. “We have a special treat tonight, when the hour is struck.” He glances at the grandfather clock on the wall. “Here it comes. Ready.”
Robert James feels his mother and Aunt Sally squeeze close beside him.
“NOW!” Uncle Charlie shouts. “FIVE, FOUR, THREE, TWO, ONE!”
With joined voices, relatives and guests raise their voices in loud, raucous, joyful singing.
“HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU. HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU. HAPPY BIRTHDAY ROBERT JA-A-A-A-MES, THE THIRD! HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU.”
The kitchen doors burst open and two laughing cousins heft a large white cake, twenty-one tall candles burning brightly among the freeze-dried peppermint dahlias and the globs of gleaming frosting. Marching through the clapping, whistling and cheering crowd, the cousins wrestle the creation to the tabletop and raise their hands to cheer and shout with the rest.
The procession of the gifts begins.
From behind backs and under feet, presents of all sizes, shapes and wrappings are retrieved, lifted into the air, marched, passed and thrown to fall and pile on, below and around the table and its shining cake and before the wide-eyed honoree.
Uncle Charlie regains his rickety stand and signals the mob to silence.
“Nephew,” Uncle Charlie begins as the room quiets. “It is my honor, with these, your family and friends, to wish you, on this new day, seconds after your birthday, a somewhat belated but very, very, very Happy Birthday!!!!”
The room erupts in a jubilant chorus of hear-hears, you-can-say-that-agains, forever-and-always, hurrahs, hoorays and pass-the-biscuits.
Motioning for restraint, Uncle Charlie turns to his nephew. “If you please, Robert James, a great many back-presents are included in these. I speak for all of us gathered here. Although we have been remiss through the years in the packaging and delivery of our sentiments, we do love and appreciate you very very much.” Tears well in the uncle’s eyes. “We miss your father, my brother, and take great joy in seeing him in you. You are your father’s son and our dear friend. Happy Birthday, dear boy, Happy Birthday.”
Affirming applause and wet eyes fill the room.
Robert James squeezes in next to his uncle, who steps down and hugs his nephew. Mounting the chair, Robert James, the Third, surveys the room and takes a deep breath.
“I know today I am not Tibetan.” He sees the furrowed brows and hears the weak giggles. “Let me explain. I learned that Tibetans don’t know their own birthdays, and I was complaining to Mom, earlier today, because no one seemed to remember mine. Now, I have to apologize to each of you, and I will, because, after tonight, I will always know I DO have a birthday and I AM NOT from Tibet. You, my large, loud, crazy, fun family, have given me a birthday celebration I will never forget. You are the best presents ever. Thank you.”
Loud clapping, feet stomping and hoots of joy shake the porch and the house and the surrounding yard.
With that, Robert James, the Third, steps down and moves through the crowd to hug every person and shake every hand.
* * *
“We’re home.” His mother’s voice opens his eyes to the familiar driveway and the outline of their house. “You slept the whole way.” A question lifts the corners of her mouth. “There was a smile on your face?”
“It was a dream.” RJ3 explains. “It was night and I was in a rowboat on a lake close to a tree-lined shore. It’s odd, but I can remember everything. Everything.”
“I picked this up at the lodge store.” Dad turns on his flashlight and illuminates the lure on the seat. “It’s the newest swivel. Red and black. It looks like a dragon fly. They say the walleyes are really hitting this one. Here, hand me your pole.”
He cuts the line, lets the old leader drop into the tackle box and ties on the new lure.
“There, that should do it. Throw it over the side. I’ll row. We’ll troll and see what happens.”
“Don’t you want to fish?”
“Not tonight. This is your night. Besides, I need the exercise.”
I listen to the swoosh of the oars through the water, watch the dark shadows on the shore and keep a finger on the line. I feel the tug and turn of the swivel in the water.
The fish has hit!
With both hands, I jerk the pole up and set the hook.
“Now let him have some line, son. Let him run. When he turns and you feel slack, reel in, hold for a second and then give him more line. Reel, release. Reel, release. Let him tire himself out.”
I loose all sense of time.
I lock, lift, release, wait, reel and repeat, over and over. . . .
My arms cramp and my legs ache.
“He’s coming up alongside.” I hear the excitement in Dad’s voice. He has the flashlight pointed into the water. “There! Do you see him?”
It is the biggest fish I had ever seen. Huge eyes reflect the light as the fish pivots and shoots off into the dark water.
“Let him run. He’s tired. It won’t be long. Bring him back slow.”
I am a robot, somehow doing what I need to do, doing what Dad says to do.
“You’ve got him. Hold the pole up. Hold it up. He’s almost here.”
Dad splashes the net into the water, bends down and lifts.
“I’ve got him.”
With both hands, Dad pulls at the handle of the net, tightens his shoulders and falls back into the boat, the net and wildly flipping fish following him.
Puffing and grinning, Dad sits on one bench as I face him from the other.
Between us on the floor of the boat, the monster walleye quivers in the night air.
“We need to get this one back to the holding tank. He’s too big to put on a leader. He’d pull us. Which is good. He’s strong enough to make the trip.”
“What will happen to him?” I ask.
“Fish and Game will take him to the state hatchery. He’ll make a fine breeder. Of course, we’ll have to take a picture of you two first.”
“For the papers and the record books. I believe you just caught a trophy walleye.”
Dad extends his hand to me over the fish.
“Congratulations, son, you are a true fisherman and a fine young man. I am very proud of you.”
“That’s when I woke up.”
His Mom nods here head. “That was a very good dream.”
“It was. Not a nightmare at all.” Robert James, the Third, pauses in thought. “It appears things have changed for me. I’m not from Tibet. I have a real birthday. And now, I’m a trophy fisherman.”
“With a mother and father who are very proud of him.”
“You speak well, biology mom of the movies.”
“I know my son well, as his father does.”
“Thank you. Thank you, very much. This is a night to remember.”
“It is, for us all, a birthday and a new year to remember. Here, give me a hug. You are a good storyteller. Happy New Year.”
Happy New Year