A Birthday Party
In late October, Byrd received an invitation to Matthew Slaver’s birthday party, which was surprising because he hardly knew Matthew at all. His father owned the run-down trailer park next to the cemetery, in the middle of town, a convenient arrangement because when there was a fire in one of the trailers, the renters didn’t have far to go for burial. The trailers were all packed together on a dusty lot, without a yard for the kids to play on or even a strip of grass. Sterling Slaver rented to the poor at high prices, and they paid because they didn’t have anywhere else to go. And heaven help anyone who dared to complain.
Matthew’s family didn’t call him Matt; for some bizarre reason they called him Knavely. He was a year older than Byrd, but Byrd hardly knew him because Knavely didn’t go to school. Instead, he mostly wandered around the outskirts of town, with an emaciated swagger, cussing and carrying a loaded .44 that he would occasionally pull out to blast a cactus or some other offending bit of nature. His skin was unwholesome, his eyes curiously remote, and he wore a preposterous ten-gallon cowboy hat over shoulder-length, oily blond hair. Byrd had never been to his house but decided to go to the birthday party anyway, out of sheer morbid curiosity.
The party was on Sunday morning, and Byrd set out early to walk the two miles to the Slavers’ house. October was the best time of year in New Mexico. The days had a lingering softness because of the lowering sun and it was a balm just to be alive, to smell autumn’s air and see the broad lavender mountains towering over the valley. The scrub oaks near the summit were already bronzed by the frost.
Coyote, tried to follow him; but Byrd shooed her home and she went back very reluctantly, with her tail between her legs, as if to say, “How could you make me stay home on such a perfect day?” But Byrd knew that the Slavers owned several Great Danes, and he didn’t want her fighting with them. Like most wild animals, she was a remarkably vicious fighter, more than a match for a domesticated dog of any breed.
Before he had gotten far down the road, he saw a cloud of black smoke rising from a hill in the direction he was heading, and he heard the wail of sirens. A deputy sheriff’s car sped toward him, heading in the direction of the cloud of smoke, and it was followed closely by a fire engine. Byrd jumped out of the way as the deputy’s car flew past, at far too great a speed to make the oncoming turn, and careened into an irrigation ditch, blocking the way for the fire truck. Then both vehicles just sat there with their sirens wailing. The driver of the fire truck glared out the window at the deputy in disbelief and then jumped out, cursing, and tried to push the car out of the ditch. All the while, the deputy, who had also gotten out, just stood there staring dejected, at the tire that was spinning freely.
Byrd walked over to the deputy to ask him if there was a house on fire up the hill.
“No, that’s the sheriff’s car burning,” he said.
“The sheriff’s car’s on fire?”
“Yes!” the deputy said, immediately losing patience. “Now get out of here, and don’t ask me any more questions! We have work to do!”
Byrd wondered if this was the kind of work they did all the time, and if so, he hoped he would never have to call them for help.
Walking further up the road, he came across the burning car. It was engulfed in flames, and a foul-smelling inky-black plume of smoke rose from it, hundreds of feet into the air. Byrd could feel the heat from a distance. The sheriff was standing about fifty yards away from the car, twirling a key ring in his hand, round and round, and the look on his face wasn’t angry, just sad, perhaps. Byrd was dying to ask him what had happened but decided he’d better not ask any more questions and just kept on walking.
The road led up a sharp incline, and he passed the irrigation reservoir with its deep undergrowth of willows. The smell of mud, and watercress, was strong and triggered the memory of finding the praying mantis.
On the top of the hill, the land opened up into a plateau, a rocky highland with patches of soil. Several hippies were working there, building ghastly structures out of junked cars. These structures were an assemblage of triangular metal scraps, colored mostly green, silver, and orange-red, interlocked to form outlandish metal domes, like something from The War of the Worlds, out of place in the muted colors of the desert. With shapes that were somehow supposed to be more “organic,” and car parts that were “recycled,” they were thought to embody some vision of a better future; and yet they were simply appalling! Byrd’s heart fell at this vision of mechanical utopia, created with the best intentions, and he felt another stab of disillusionment.
The hippies working on the domes were laughing uproariously, and marijuana smoke drifted from the direction where they were standing. As he walked, the sun grew hotter, and his boots kicked up pink clouds of dust on the road. It was another mile to the Slavers’ house, and he began to wish he had brought some water.
Long before he could see the house, it announced its presence with a gradually increasing stream of junked cars beside the road. There were patches of spilt oil on the ground, and car parts lay scattered everywhere, and the closer he got, the more debris there was, until it was a veritable sea of wreckage. Byrd thought that some people do this to lay claim to a piece of land, in much the same way as a dog lays claim to a fire hydrant.
The house, vast and brown and one-storied and ugly, was almost lost in the sea of junked cars and garbage. Byrd picked his way through, sidestepping crankcases filled with grease, buckets half full of used antifreeze, and assorted, unrecognizable relics of the industrial age, until he found the door. The moment he knocked, there was a thunderous barking of Great Danes from somewhere inside.
The door opened just a crack, and a woman’s voice asked, “Who is it?”
“It’s Byrd Keane. I was invited to Knavely’s party.”
The door opened slowly, and an obese woman in her midfifties wearing a shabby gray nightgown let him in.
“I’m Knavely’s mother, Mary—”
Before she could say anything more, she was interrupted—first by the dogs barking again and then by a booming voice shouting over an intercom system, “Mary, bring me my breakfast!”
“Excuse me,” she said. “That’s Sterling. He wants his breakfast. You’re early, but there’s already a few kids at the pool. I’ll show you.”
Byrd followed her through a labyrinth that left him half expecting to encounter a Minotaur. The house was filled with all kinds of trash—busted furniture, plastic beach balls, broken electric razors, bits of smashed phonograph albums, tangled wads of yarn, piles of old dog food, long stretches of unraveled toilet paper, and God knows what all.
“Knavely’s in here,” she said, opening one of the myriad doors. “He hasn’t gone down to the pool yet.”
“Knavely! Byrd Keane’s here . . .”
Byrd peered hesitantly into Knavely’s room. The floor was obliterated by dirty car parts, discarded candy wrappers, and piles of smelly clothes and dishes. Knavely was lying on the bed with his penis stuck in a Coca-Cola bottle, desperately trying to get it out.
“Oh, Knavely, not again!” his mother said wearily. “We’ll have to call the doctor again, and Sterling will be furious. You know how he hates that doctor!”
Then she turned back to Byrd. “Go on down to the pool and tell everybody Knavely’s going to be late, okay?”
She said this matter-of-factly, as if Knavely getting his penis stuck in a Coke bottle was an everyday occurrence.
“There’s plenty to eat. Make yourself at home!” she added.
Byrd didn’t feel at all hungry. He walked toward the splashing sounds and the echoed shouts and finally found his way to the indoor pool.
It was an impressive pool, with a glass ceiling that would have let in the sunlight if it hadn’t been covered with dirt. All kinds of things were floating in the pool, mostly candy wrappers, but also plastic bread bags, cigarette butts, prescription medicine bottles, and whatnot. There was a big folding table on one side of the pool, with bags of Doritos, potato chips, candy bars, potato chip dip, and great mounds of cherry Jell-O. Also, disconcertingly, there were dozens of iced bottles of Coca-Cola. In the middle of the table was a huge cake with chocolate frosting and the words “Happy Birthday, Knavely” in lime green. Byrd didn’t know any of the kids that had arrived so far, except Peter Jorgenson. Peter was so blond that his hair was actually white. He was a sneaky and nervous little rat in a minor sort of way, and Byrd didn’t like him, but he liked Peter’s older brother Dale and sometimes went to the Jorgensons’ house to play on their pool table.
“Mary! I said bring me my breakfast!” the words came spitting over the intercom again like the voice of a spoiled windup doll.
At the far end of the house, in his remote bedroom, Sterling Slaver lay in bed flicking his intercom on and off in frustration. If Mary didn’t bring any food soon, he would have to get up and get it himself, and that thought made him very angry. Sweating profusely from the exertion, he reached over to a jar of amphetamines on his nightstand and swallowed two with water. Then, cursing to himself, he hefted his three hundred and eighty six pounds onto his feet and lumbered to the kitchen where Mary was standing in front of the counter, making him bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwiches, with root beer, and a large bowl of vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce.
“What the hell’s the matter? I called four times!” he said.
“Oh, Knavely did it again!”
“About fifteen minutes ago.”
“Well, why didn’t you just call the doctor and then make me some food? I’ve been waiting a half hour! I had to get up and come in here myself! Why is it we got a kid who can’t keep his dick out of a Coke bottle anyway?”
“Well, he doesn’t take after my side,” Mary said.
“That’s true, the guys in your family couldn’t get it up to save their ass.”
“Yeah, but when they did, at least they needed something bigger than a Coke bottle.”
“Like what, I don’t wanna know.”
Sterling took a large bite out of his sandwich, fished a piece of bacon rind out of his mouth, and threw it in the direction of the garbage, where it landed on the floor. Before sitting down at the table, he gave the chair a suspicious glance, as if pondering whether it would support his weight. Then he sat down and polished off the sandwich, the ice cream, and the root beer without pausing to come up for air. It was the work of perhaps three minutes. Then he started on another sandwich.
“We got any more root beer?”
“Oh, here’s the doctor,” Mary said. “That was fast.”
“Let me know if he gives you any lip. The last time he was here he was smirking, and he was trying to hide it, but I could tell, and I don’t like sarcasm. If he gets sarcastic, lemme know, and I’ll kick his little Jew ass. I don’t give a shit if he’s a doctor or what! He reminds me of those smart-ass hippies down the road. Oh well, they’re ripe for the fucking! Love, baby! Peace, man . . . Love my ass! You can tell they haven’t been on this planet very long!” Sterling broke into hysterical laughter that ended in a coughing fit.
Mary let the doctor in, and there did indeed appear to be a barely perceptible smirk on his face as he stood in the doorway.
“So I hear you have another little problem,” the doctor said.
Sterling suddenly withered, remembering that the doctor had control over some of his prescription medicines, which, along with his illegal drugs, he needed to just get through the day. So he swallowed his resentment and sat there, flushed and sweating.
“He’s right in here,” Mary said.
“It’s a good thing I was on call. You might have had some difficulty in taking him to the emergency room like that.”
Ten minutes later, he came out of Knavely’s bedroom, still wearing that barely perceptible smirk that drove Sterling crazy.
“I can find my own way out, I think,” the doctor said. “Don’t ask me if your insurance will cover it. I still haven’t gotten the report from the first time. It’ll probably be out of pocket.”
Sterling just nodded.
“Hey,” Knavely said, as he came out of his room, “let’s open the presents!”
He ensconced himself in a chair at the poolside and yelled, “Mary, bring me my presents!”
All the presents were brought and stacked at his feet in their glossy red, green, and blue wrappings; and he tore them open rapidly, one after another.
“I already have this!” he said. “This is a piece of shit! I had one better than this two years ago! Oh, this is nice!”
Some of the torn paper ended up in the pool, and it floated a long time before finally sinking. When Knavely was finished opening the presents, he screamed, tore at his dirty-blond hair, cried, and pounded his chair; and his vacant eyes grew red and wild. After his mother promised to get him the other things that he had demanded, everyone gathered around the table to eat. Byrd put some Doritos, potato chips, and dip on his plate and made his way back into the kitchen for a glass of water.
“There’s Coke on the table, and it’s cold,” Sterling said.
“No thanks, I don’t want any right now.”
Byrd felt embarrassed, and he wanted to go home.
“What’s the matter with Coke?” Sterling said. “Don’t you like Coke?”
“I just don’t feel like having any right now, thanks,” Byrd said.
Sterling looked at him suspiciously.
“What the hell’s the matter with Coke? Coke is all-American! You don’t like Coke? What are you, some kind of weirdo?”Copyright 2008 Brent Hightower