It’s my birthday, and for most of the day, I stay in bed.
It’s hot. I sweat. At some point, I turn on a fan. There’s garbage on the ground. Bags of potato chips, bottles of soda, melting ice cream.
Mom shuffles around in the kitchen. I can hear her. The water runs. The stove clicks. Eventually, the kettle whistles.
For dinner, we eat chicken and boiled vegetables. The cats rub against my legs. I figure they want some chicken, so I let them lick my fingers.
That day, Mom delivered the Eucharist to the sick and infirmed. She’s what’s called a “eucharistic minister.” She tells me about it.
She says, “Mrs. Ramsey came along today.”
Mrs. Ramsey lives in the neighborhood, and I hear she’s an old bitch.
Mom says, “She’s an old bitch, isn’t she?”
I’ve only met her a few times, so I can’t say one way or the other.
“Well, she is,” Mom says. “She’s an old bitch.”
After dinner, she presents a cake. She says, “Here you go. Happy birthday.”
The cake is white and made of ice cream. We eat it, then we go to bed.
The next day, I work at the garden. I’m watering the tomatoes when I catch sight of myself in a puddle of water.
I’m old and fat. My best years are gone. I’ve loved no one, accomplished nothing.
I wonder what people see when they look at me.
Do they see someone brimming with potential? Or do they see a man who is old and fat, who has loved no one and accomplished nothing?
I figure they see the latter, and I figure they’re right.
That night, I take a walk.
My mom and I live in the suburbs. There are long stretches of darkness between the streetlights. I can hear a door slamming, children shouting in the distance.
I think about the future. My mother’s death. I hate to say it, but I’m looking forward to it. The money, the freedom, the peace and quiet.
In my mind, I’m delivering an elegant eulogy at her funeral when somebody says hello.
It’s Mrs. Ramsey. She’s standing at her mailbox. She looks surprised to see me.
I’m embarrassed by my thoughts; they often embarrass me. I wonder if Mrs. Ramsey can hear them. I think, If you can hear my thoughts, say something about funerals.
She says, “Getting a little exercise, are we?”
I think about it. “Yeah.”
“How’s your mom doing?”
“She’s quite a lady, you know.”
“Yeah,” I say. “Quite a lady.”
“And how are you? Still helping out at the garden?”
The night is warm. Cicadas buzz in the trees.
I say, “It’s good to see you, Mrs. Ramsey, but I should get on with my walk.”
At the end of the block, I turn back and think, I know you can hear me, you old bitch.
My eyes narrow.
I think, If you can hear me, open your blinds and look at me.
I stand there for a while looking at her blinds. Then I head home.
The next day, I eat some breakfast and leave for the garden. I volunteer there on Thursdays and Fridays.
It was Mom’s idea.
It’s a small place with raised beds. A wagon wheel hangs near the front entrance. I don’t like it. I don’t know why.
I get there early and get to work on another row of clogged sprinklers. I’m leaning over them when suddenly they come alive.
The garden manager is walking by. Her name is Chloe. She’s old and fat like me, but there’s something about her face. She tries to move out of the way, but the water sprays across her chest.
“Fuck,” I say. “That was so stupid.”
I rush to her and hand her a handkerchief.
“It’s alright,” Chloe says. “I wear these old shirts for a reason.”
“No,” I say, “I’m such an idiot.” I try to convince her. I should have seen her, I should have turned the water off, I shouldn’t be so careless, etc.
I’m making a good case, but eventually, Chloe puts a hand on my chest and says, “Chris, it’s okay. Mistakes happen.”
Her words are gentle, sincere.
I wonder if I love her.
I say, “It was my birthday on Wednesday.”
“Happy birthday,” she says.
I get back to work, but I can’t stop thinking about her. It’s her tongue. I wonder if it’s rough like a cat’s tongue. I hope so. I think I’d like that.
A few hours later, Richard arrives.
Besides Chloe, Richard is the garden’s only employee.
Sometimes, we talk. Sports, TV—that sort of thing. Every so often, he invites me for drinks, but I always make up an excuse.
The Mets beat the Braves last night. Richard adds the word “handily.” The final score was 6 to 1. We talk about it for a while, but before long, there’s nothing left to say.
Time passes. We work.
I’m still thinking about Chloe. I ask Richard if he ever thinks about Chloe.
“Chloe?” Richard says. “In what way?”
“You know, do you ever think about her?”
Richard smiles. He says, “Your birthday was on Wednesday. Happy birthday.”
I’m surprised. It shows.
Richard says, “I put it on my calendar last year.” He holds up his phone. “I didn’t want to forget again.”
I don’t know what to say. Richard asks if I had a good birthday.
“It was okay,” I say. “Ate some cake.”
The garden closes early on Fridays. Chloe is standing by the gate when she says, “Hey Richard, I need to pick Jaimie up from school. Do you mind locking up?”
Richard is working on the other side of the garden. He waves and says, “Don’t you worry about it, Chloe. Chris and I can take things from here.”
Chloe looks at me and nods.
Richard is locking the front gate when I point at the wagon wheel and say, “I don’t like that thing.”
He says, “The wagon wheel? Why not?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “I just don’t, I guess.”
Out in the parking lot, Richard asks if I’d want to watch the game today. There are scattered clouds above us, a storm on the horizon.
“Let me buy you a beer,” he says. “For your birthday.”
I look at Richard’s face. It’s gentle, sincere.
“Alright,” I say.
We exchange numbers and agree on a place to meet. Richard smiles and says, “See you soon.”
Then he gets in his truck and drives away.
At home, I take a shower and change my clothes.
Mom is sitting in the living room. She’s in her recliner watching television.
On TV, two doctors are performing an operation. One of them makes an incision and pulls a ruptured implant from a woman’s breast. Having lost its shape, it falls apart in his hands.
“You should really get ready,” Mom says. “We’re leaving in a few minutes.”
“I have an appointment with the ENT.”
“I can’t today. I’m watching the game with Richard.”
“Richard?” Her eyes narrow. Her head turns. “You don’t like Richard.”
“We have plans.”
“I need you with me. You hear the doctors better than me.”
On the TV, the doctors have finished up. They are examining the woman’s breasts. Her naked torso is exposed between a pair of surgical sheets.
I point at the TV. “I hate these guys.”
“That woman survived cancer,” Mom says. “They’re doing this work for free.”
“Richard and I have plans.”
“You can watch the game with Richard this weekend.”
I start to panic. “You don’t know what this means to me!”
She turns and looks at me. “What it means to you? Does it mean more than my health?”
I think about it. “No, of course not.”
“No? Then why can’t you wait a day or two?”
I bring a hand to my face and rub my temples.
Then a thought occurs. I stand and leave.
I get into the car and turn it on. I watch the door to see if Mom will follow.
I think about myself. A man in his fifties fighting with his mom.
Outside, a storm is rolling in. Gray clouds gather above me. A warm breeze blows. Somewhere, a dog barks.
I text Richard and say, “Sorry but I have to take my mom to an appointment. Another time.”
Richard texts back. “Sure thing. Happy birthday anyway.”
I turn off the car and walk back inside. I sit on the couch.
One of the cats rubs against my legs. I kick it away.
Mom smiles. She says, “You can see your friend this weekend.”
“Yeah,” I say, but I know I won’t.
I think about myself. I’m 54. Almost as old as Dad. He was only 59 when he died of a pulmonary embolism.
On our way to the doctor, I ask Mom if she remembers Dad’s 54th birthday.
“His 54th birthday?” She thinks about it. “I remember his 57th birthday. That was the year he got food poisoning. Do you remember that? He wouldn’t shut up about it.”
I nod, but I’m not listening.
We’re driving through the neighborhood. We pass houses, lawns, mailboxes. Trees stand tall, forming a thin canopy above the road, and I lean forward to look at them.
I picture a great wheel floating in space. And then my body. The air has evacuated my lungs. The blood vessels in my eyes have burst. My saliva has boiled away. My skin is burnt. My legs and arms are broken. My throat is cut. My broken body has been braided between the wooden spokes of the wheel. It turns slowly through space, and I with it, and it comforts me to think that one day I’ll die and soon be forgotten.