The Birthday

Dad was carrying a tray of grilled hot dogs across the fresh-cut grass when his knees stiffened and black smoke spewed from his nose. His shoulders lurched forward and his chin swung down and clanged against his chest as more and more black smoke billowed from his open mouth. There was a loud bang and a child’s scream as Dad crashed to the ground face-down, elbows pointed to the sky, his body still locked in the position of a man carrying a tray of hot dogs.

Mom herded the screaming kids into the kitchen and called my Uncle Steve who was there within ten minutes. In the meantime she pushed red candles into my cake and led a cheery chorus of “Happy Birthday” over the bangs that sounded from the backyard.

Uncle Steve came and ate a piece of my vanilla cake with his bare hands. He hugged Mom and leaned down and said Happy Birthday to me.

“Want to help me with your Pop for a moment?” he said.

Mom smiled and hung a cardboard donkey on the pantry door. Uncle Steve held the back door open and I walked through.

Dad was still smoking when we got to him. Sometimes a spark would flash in the air around his head. Uncle Steve gave me a metal box to hold and bent down to peer into Dad’s ear canal.

“Should we touch him?” I said.

“We’re going to have to” said Uncle Steve.

He went to work with his screwdriver, pliers, and some other tools I hadn’t seen before. It was only my tenth birthday. I didn’t know much about tools. I didn’t know much about Uncle Steve either, except that I thought he could probably read minds.

He banged around for a while, tugging at Dad’s arms and wrenching at something under his armpit. Then he leveraged a small instrument down Dad’s throat. He placed his finger between Dad’s teeth, feeling for something. Then he pulled and we heard a loud click.

“Aha!” he said.

Dad wasn’t smoking anymore. Uncle Steve knocked on the back of Dad’s neck, listening for a certain sound. The air around us began to clear. I could hear laughter coming from my house.

“Your Dad is gonna be fine, Nate.”

“What happened?” I said.

“He just overheated. My guess is he forgot to take his coolant this morning.”

I watched him twist a tiny flashlight on and aim it up Dad’s nose. He talked while he worked.

“Listen Nate,” he said. “I’m guessing you’ve never seen your Dad like this before. Don’t worry. In a minute, I’ll be done and he’ll be good as new. You know why I fix him up like this? Because he’d do the same for me, has done the same for me before.”

“How come we don’t take Dad to the doctor?” I said.

“Some people go to the doctor, and some cars go to the mechanic, right? But sometimes, you gotta take a car to the doctor, and a person has to go to the mechanic. You understand?”

I didn’t, so I started picking up the scattered hot dogs to be helpful.

“Sorry pal, I’m not being clear. How can I put it? Most people in this world, your mom, your grandmom, yourself, if you took them apart like, took away the outer layers, you’d be left with sponge and muscle and nerves and fibers, right? You learn about muscles in school?”

I nodded.

“Well, there’s other ways people come assembled. Some people, if you peeled away the outside, you’d just see leaves and roots and bark, you know? Some people are all saltwater and seaweed inside, if you can picture that. And some people like your dad and me, are a bit more on the mechanical side.”

“Okay,” I said.

“I’m almost done here, anyway. Why don’t you grab the rest of those hot dogs and chuck ‘em? We’ll make new ones after I finish up.”

I walked inside and threw the hot dogs in the garbage can. My mom smiled and hugged me. The kids in my house were playing with blindfolds, wandering from room to room. I think they had forgotten the smoking man by that time.

After a few minutes I stopped playing with them. I walked to the kitchen window and looked out in the yard. Uncle Steve and Dad stood together by the old red grill, drinking bottled soda and laughing. Dad caught my eye and waved his hand in the sunlight.

I waved back at him and Uncle Steve. I put my arm down and my elbow clicked, ever so slightly.

Copyright © 2013, Mike McCormick. All rights reserved.