Mom plays the cassette of someone singing happy birthday to me with my name. On Saturday there are cartoons to be had and I am ten. I grow. Tapes are traded for C.D.‘s, M.P.3’s, 401k’s on a long enough time line. Mom can’t sing happy birthday and I grow older.
We celebrate a daughter’s birthday. The wife chooses the cake. She makes it from scratch for us and we put five candles for five years on it and light them. I am alive and lit, a shine of fire from candles are wishes for a daughter to grow strong, willful, compassionate. I am alive and then the room is lit. It dims and she blows on them with lungs, with life. Life is chocolate and three-layered. She turns to me, “Daddy, when are we going to celebrate your birthday?” I tell her I am too old for birthdays and can‘t blow candles out like she can. She laughs. She asks, “What would you want for your birthday?” I say I want her to be happy. She opens presents.
A mother sneaks into a teenager’s bedroom the last time she’ll be allowed without knocking for the rest of a lifetime. Life is this, three women and layered. It is layered in age. She hits play to life, the dog waking downstairs. I am alive and have coffee for the first time. I hit play. I go back and kiss her on the forehead before leaving the house. I am sixteen and going to work.
My little angel turns to me, opening her first present. “Dad, how did you know I wanted a baby doll? Does she have make-up and clothes and stuff like mommy does?” I slide from the table rubbing my hand between my eyes and forehead at the kitchen sink a room away. “Mommy,” I whisper.
The wife cuts the cake. Long days at work and I cannot cut the cake, so my wife cuts the cake. We are behind on a mortgage and single utility and have triple layer chocolate cake for a daughter’s birthday. At night, pillows whisper, 'you know we can’t afford those things.'
But the daughter is happy and turns five once. We age in different ways, in layers. In the mirror that morning, I am awake. There’s a gray hair I pluck from my beard. I hit play, again and again. The bathroom is lit and so am I. It’s what the electric company wants. It is why they are here. While the wife sleeps, the daughter sleeps and I sleep inside them. “This is what I have grown,” I think beside the bed. I pray there. I put on my coat at the door, the shoes for work. They are tied and so am I. I am alive and awake, tying these things. I married Julie and tied, got retirement and college funds and still I tied. Thirty-five, I keep the heat on because sleeping inside the women I know, tied in their hearts and minds in November the world is not as warm, not as caring.
There’s random tragedy somewhere. And it is massive. I hear about it on the radio. I get e-mails from co-workers. I hear friends watching it on the news and ask what kind of tragedy it is. “Tell Angie happy birthday for me,” they say. Through my front door, the tragedy lifts off shoulders. Angie and her cat meet me there. She hugs my leg. “Can I have another birthday?”
“Can’t have too many,” I smile. “If you did, you’d forget each one and forget the meaning of birthdays forever.” There’s a woman I know. There’s a cruelty to the world I know.
“Forever?” she asks.
“Yes, that would be forever,” her grandmother whispers behind me.
Bowen is a culinary student and chef by day, writer by night. His short fiction has been included in Hobart, anthologized by Flash Forward, and appeared here in Everyday Genius previously, among others. He also blogs and runs a chapbook press Burning River out of his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio.