Birthday Boy

Karl decided to get himself a cake because it was his birthday. He stopped by Safeway after work and went directly to the bakery section. “I’d like to buy a birthday cake,” he said to the woman at the counter.

“Would you like it to say anything?”

“ ‘Happy Birthday, Rob,’ ” he said. “Can I get it with raspberry filling?” Karl hated raspberry filling.

“Sure,” the woman said and smiled.

Karl took his cake and headed to the pet aisle. He selected two dog squeeze toys because he didn’t own a dog. He went to the book and magazine section and picked out a horror novel. God, I hate horror novels, he thought. He found some birthday wrapping paper. He selected the paper he hated most: football paper for a pre-teen boy. The paper was dark green with cartoon pictures of footballs and heavily padded men. He also selected candles. He chose five candles because he turned 22 that day.

On the way to the cash register, he picked out a gift card for Red Lobster from Safeway’s vast selection. There were no Red Lobsters within one hundred miles of his apartment, and he hated Red Lobster with a passion (especially after the incident).

When he got home to his studio apartment, he wrapped the presents amateurishly. He tried to show that he didn’t give a shit about the recipient, that the birthday boy was just fucked. “Fuck you, birthday boy,” he said. On some he wrote “Rob” with a Sharpie marker. On others he wrote “Carl.” He wrote slowly so each present could absorb plenty of Sharpie. One time he had trouble cutting the tape and just stuck a long, twisted ribbon of it onto a package. After that, he would just carelessly cover each present with some wrapping paper torn from the sheet and wrap tape around the whole mess four or five times. For one present, he used the wrapping paper inside out.

He put the cake on a TV tray. He punched the cake in the center with his fist. “Oops,” he said. “I’m such a klutz. It doesn’t matter. Birthday Boy doesn’t matter.” He took out five candles and broke them so they’d be different sizes. He jammed two candles horizontally in the side of the cake and two in the top. The last candle he smashed flat into the icing on top. He lighted all of the candles except for the one buried in icing. Finally, he did the corporate rendition of the happy birthday song: “Happy Happy Birthday, Happy Happy Birthday! Woohoo, Rob!” He jumped and clapped his hands. “Woohoo, Rob!” he repeated.

His cat Shawn slept nearby. “Hey, Shawn, it’s another birthday for me,” he said. “Just like when I was a kid. Sucked as much as when I was a kid.” Shawn opened his eyes and stared at Karl from the blanket on the chair in front of the TV. The apartment was bare except for a chair and a TV on a build-it-yourself stand. Some dirty plates sat next to the chair.

Karl started to open his presents. “Shawn, look, dog toys. Don’t look so worried, buddy, I don’t even have a dog.” He tossed the toys into the trash. “What a crappy wrap job. And what crappy paper. This is the butt-ugliest paper I’ve ever seen. Why would someone buy me this?”

He opened another package. He tore at the crappy little-boy wrapping paper. “Hey, Shawn, someone sure put no care into wrapping these presents. Look, the Sharpie marker bled through to the presents. And my name is spelled wrong. Crap. Red Lobster. I hate Red Lobster.” He took out a lighter and burned the gift card.

He unwrapped the final present, a horror novel. Sharpie marker obscured the cover. “I hate horror novels. This is the crappiest birthday ever, even worse than when I was a kid.”

“Hey, look. The cake is for someone named Rob. Happy fucking birthday, Rob, or Karl or whatever the fuck your name is.” He picked up the cake and hurled it at the refrigerator. It held fast for a moment and then slid to the floor.

“This has been the shittiest birthday ever,” he said. He sat down on the kitchen floor, leaned his head against the cabinets, and fell asleep. Shawn, too, closed his eyes and resumed sleeping now that the festivities were over.

[January 1996]

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