Birthday

By Joel Tomfohr

Jeremy and Tony materialized out of the darkness of night with someone new named Jim. In the strange half-light the man reminded the boy of Grandpa Lenz. They were all three made orange by the bonfire. The boy sat next to his friend Dork, who was funny looking and shorter than him and laughed at everything, especially when he was messed up. And soon all five were drinking schnapps and beer that Jim had bought for them, and sooner still a couple of joints made their way around the warm red and orange fire that licked and kicked and punched at that same darkness from which Jeremy and Tony and now Jim had come. It was as if they had known each other for much longer.

A memory within a memory: today was his birthday. He did not know how old he was. It was a number on his hand. He only understood now, and now, and now.

“How old are you?” Grandma Lenz asked. This was the hardest question of them all. He held up his little hand where the number was. “That’s right,” Grandma Lenz said. She laughed and smiled. “You are five.”

“Lookit this,” Jeremy said. He was loud. They were all close. He nodded at Jim warming himself next to their fall fire. “He’s Jim. Jim, say hi.”

“What are your names?” Jim asked, but they were too high to answer. He looked older than the boy’s father, but younger than his Grandpa Lenz. Pretty soon Grandpa Lenz would no longer be.

How old was he? His birthday was soon. Soon he would be able to drive. Tony said, “Jim, you want some schnapps, you should take it.” Jim took it. There was a bonfire between the boy and the rest of them, but he could see what was happening. Dork gave the boy the joint. He took a long slow pull and he felt his lungs. He pulled harder and now it burned. That was it. Now his head floated just right. He passed the joint down. “Hit that shit, Jim,” Tony said.

Ah yes! He was five and here they were on the morning of his birthday in the kitchen eating place next to the back porch sitting on the vinyl-covered seats that reminded him of gumdrops at the long table and the smell of her and the smell of Grandpa Lenz even when he was not in the room and the golden fall sunlight suffusing their house in Little Wing. “Are you going to play with your older brothers today?”

“Drink that shit up, Jim,” Jeremy commanded. Jim tipped the now almost empty bottle of schnapps.

“Woooh,” he said.

“Again, Jim,” Tony said.

The boy watched Jim look around the circle of the bonfire. The boy looked up into the sky: the autumn wheel of stars. When he tipped his head up the cool air seemed to fall upon his face like the way cool air fell onto his feet in the morning when he opened the fridge for milk. He looked across the fire, and saw Jim’s face. It was stretched and distorted. The liquor and gravity pulled at its edges, pulled it down into a mask of sadness and despair. The boy could see what was happening even though he couldn’t even drive yet.

“Now?” he asked.

“When they come.” He would like that very much. The absence of his mom and dad and three brothers only now occurred to him. It was just the boy and Grandma Lenz and Grandpa Lenz. Outside the window were two brown sparrows in the leafless bush. “Would you like to go outside?” Yes, yes he would. “Tell me. Are we having a conversation or a confrontation?”

He knew the answer to this question. It was always the same with Grandma Lenz. “Conversation,” he sang.

She smiled. “Yes,” she said, very pleased. “You’re so smart.” He felt warm. “Where are your things for going outside?” He went to the closet and found his jacket and his shoes and brought them to her. He put his feet in his shoes and she tied the laces. He put on his brown fall corduroy jacket and she zipped it up. Grandma Lenz only needed a fuzzy, warm sweater to go outside. They left the kitchen table and went to the porch. She stopped in the cool air of it.

“Would you like a ball?”

He would like a ball. She produced the blue and white rubber ball and put it in his arms. He hugged it and it was cool against his warm cheek. She opened the door for him and out he went out and down the cement stairs to the little cement sidewalk that led to the garage, but he went into the wet grass. The air felt cold and crisp on his hands and on his face, but the sunlight was warm. He threw the ball into the air.

“Good throw,” she said, and sat on the cement stairs.

“Hit that shit, Jim,” Tony said, laughing. Jim had it. He hit it. Exhaled. “Do it again.” He did it again and could no longer stand.

“Here.” Jeremy passed the joint to the boy but the boy couldn’t smoke anymore. Dork could always smoke more. Ha ha ha, Dork laughed.

“What’s your problem, Jim?” Jeremy asked. Jim’s head lolled from side to side.

The boy disappeared now.

“Where did you go?” Grandma Lenz asked. He had disappeared into the deep green branches of the pine tree of their backyard with the ball. He loved to play this game where he disappeared from her. It was like he was gone. He watched her walk around the backyard calling his name, calling. “Well,” she said. “I guess I’d better go inside where it’s warm.”

This was when he knew he should come out and so he did. “Grandma Lenz,” he said, holding his ball.

She turned to him. “Oh!” she said. Her hair was curly and black and gray above her ears. “There you are!” She opened her arms to him and he ran to her and threw the ball and fell into her arms and this was the best thing of all.

The boy was back.

“You too fucked up, Jim?” Tony asked. Jim laughed a little.

“It’s not funny, Jim,” Jeremy said.

“But you said I could.”

“Who?” Tony said. “Who said you could?”

“You did. You all did.”

“I didn’t say shit.”

The boy didn’t speak but he watched as Tony and Jeremy surrounded Jim, who looked like his dad and Grandpa Lenz.

“We should fuck him up.”

“What would you do, Jim,” Tony asked, “if we just started to kick your ass right now.”

Dork laughed, but it wasn’t like he always laughed. Jim’s face was scared now.

It was Jeremy’s idea now. “Let’s fucking kill this bum. He’s a fucking bum without a home. What do you say?”

But he couldn’t answer. He had disappeared once again into the autumn wheel of stars whirling overhead.

Tony got right into Jim’s face, but Jim couldn’t move. “We’re going to kill you what do you think of that?”

Jim did not speak.

“He said what do you think of that?”

Jim shook his head.

“Say it, Jim,” Tony said. “Say you don’t want to die.” He pushed Jim over and stood above him so that he blocked him from the light of the bonfire.

The boy could hear Jim crying now, but he was gone.

“Please don’t,” Jim said. “Please don’t kill me.”

“Let’s kill this fucker,” Jeremy said.

“I think we should, what do you say, Dork?”

Dork did not respond.

“I want to go home,” the boy said.

The two older boys laughed. They laughed harder. “Fuckit let’s go.”

The boy stood up and wavered toward the car. The air became cooler the farther he moved from the bonfire. He wanted to go home to go to sleep. There was a thud and now he was in the car. Two, three more thuds and all four boys were in the car now, and they wheeled around one last time and the boy caught a glimpse of Jim who lay like a dog next to the dwindling bonfire, and he thought of his dad and Grandpa Lenz and now Grandma Lenz and the rest of his family scattered like the autumn wheel of stars and maybe just a little bit he too wanted to see what it would be like to kill Jim and let everything go and to disappear for real.


Joel Tomfohr has an MA in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and an MFA from Mills College in Oakland, CA. He has held residencies at the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, Vermont (2013), The Cultural Center in New York Mills, Minnesota (2014), and the Headlands Center for the Arts (2014-2015). Most recently, he was the Emerging Writer in Residence at the Wellstone Center in the Redwoods in Soquel, CA. His fiction has appeared in 580 Split, and sPARKLE & bLINK.