Happy Birthday Anyway
by Bill Cheng
The old man checked in at the front desk and decided to have a drink at the lounge. There was a young guy at the piano, doing trills and banging big chords. The old man sat at the bar and watched him sway to the music. The bar man came, took his order and set down a Scotch and soda.
"Bother you for a cigarette?" he asked the bar man.
The bar man brought an ashtray out from underneath the counter and lit the man a cigarette.
He watched the old man's face as he smoked. His eyes were shut and his lips tightened as he dragged. When he exhaled, he sighed and looked very tired. "Very kind, very kind," the old man said. "Quiet tonight."
The bar man shrugged. "No one wants to come out in this weather."
The piano player finished up his playing and the old man clapped a few times. He went up to the bar and sat down next to the old man. He rapped a few times on the counter and said, "Makers, Johnny."
"You're very good," the old man said. He gestured with his cigarette.
"Why thanks. Do you play?"
The old man shook his head. "Maybe a little when I was a boy. But not in ages. I can't even remember what you call it."
The piano player smiled. "I played in New York. People used to pay me." He tapped his glass against the old man's. They both drank. "How do you like this weather?"
"Falling faintly, faintly falling," the old man said. He waved his cigarette like a wand a few times. The bar man, who was wiping the inside of a glass, smiled.
The piano player raised his eyebrows at both of them. "Well," he said. "They say it's going to be over three feet."
"Good to be inside," the old man said. They tapped glasses again and drank.
Three girls entered the lounge, tracking snow. They looked around and then started giggling to each other. The piano player gave the bar man a sideways look. He knuckled the counter and went back to the piano.
The girls ordered up some drinks and the bar man obliged them. They got up and started dancing in their boots. They put their glasses up. The old man watched them. They put their arms around each other's waists and started doing kicks. He let his cigarette burn to a stub and then put it down in the ashtray.
The piano player finished his song and the girls sat around him. They touched his arm. One of them played a few notes and then broke out into laughter. Together, they went back to the table. One of the girls came up to the bar. She sat down next to the the old man and wiggled her finger at the bar man.
"Vodka gimlet," she said.
The old man looked down into his drink. He tried not to pay any attention.
She turned to face him. "You remind me of my grandfather."
"Is that a fact?"
She touched his shoulder and tilted her head a little. "It's the ears, mostly. If your nose stuck out a little more, it'd be a dead match."
"Sounds like a handsome man."
"Do you have any grandchildren?"
She touched her lip. "I wonder does she look like me?"
He laughed and drank some more.
"She's four. She wears pigtails and has problems with her hard consonants."
"Is that so?"
"Repeat after me: the crazy cat went to Tacoma."
"There's no resemblance," he said.
"You're a funny old guy."
He nodded. "I used to be just a funny guy. And then something before that."
"Me and my girlfriends are throwing a party." She looked back at them. They were whispering things into the piano player's ears and laughing. "I hope we're not bothering you."
"That's all right. Everyone's entitled to be young." He thought about what he said and then drank. "What are you celebrating?"
She shrugged and looked at her drink. There were little flakes of something inside the vodka. It could've come from her. Her face started to flush and suddenly she looked very tired. "It's sort of my birthday."
"I was just kidding. I don't know why I said that. Forget it."
"Well, happy birthday anyway." He lifted his glass a few inches and then set it down again.
"At least, it's somebody's birthday somewhere." She turned to the old man and said, "Are you married?"
The old man shook his head. "I used to be."
"What was it like?"
The old man leaned away from the bar a little. "It was very nice." He looked up and rested his eyes on the top shelf of whiskeys. "Yes, all in all, very nice."
"How old were you?"
"Eighteen," he said. "She was twenty."
"An older woman." She laughed and he smiled a little. "How did you meet?"
"We had some friends in common. Pretty soon we started dating."
"Simple as that?"
She touched her forehead and closed her eyes. Her lips twisted together. "Some people are lucky, I guess," she said. "Did you love her?"
"I think so. I'm pretty sure."
"Just pretty sure?"
The old man shrugged deeply. He caught the bar man's eye. He took his glass away and came back with a new one. "How can anyone really say after it's over?"
"What was she like?"
The old man looked at her and frowned. "You ask a lot of questions." He saw that he had stunned her. His face softened and he looked down at the hairs on his fingers. "Miriam was sweet in her way. She was impatient and crazy sometimes and sometimes that craziness and impatience got the best of her." He laughed. "Best of me, too."
"My grandfather had a good marriage. Every Sunday they'd go to the local movie theater and catch the matinée."
She nodded. "The pictures, they called it." She looked down on her knuckles and became quiet for a while. "One day he fell asleep in the middle of a show. He never woke up." The girl looked back at where her friends had been sitting. They and the piano player had disappeared. Their drinks were still at the table. There were a few cigarettes in the ashtray, smoldering. "I have a question." She said the words slowly and spread her fingers out on the bar.
"Do you think when you love someone- really really love them-- you give a piece of yourself to them?"
The old man thought about the question for a while. "In some cases, yes."
"And you can never get that piece back?"
The old man drained his drink and it made him clear his throat. "Sounds like a pretty bad deal."
The girl stared straight ahead. Her nostrils flared a little. "It is."
The old man made his way up to his room. He was feeling a little drunk and kept his arm on the wall. The light hurt his head so he switched it off. He undressed himself and then dialed his daughter's house. When her boyfriend answered, he put the phone back on the hook and sighed.
He ran the bathroom tap for a glass of water. It had a slight metal taste in it but he drank it down anyway. He splashed his face a few times and moved over to the window.
The snow was falling in fat blue clumps. Behind a line of firs, he could see a train speeding through the inky landscape, breathing smoke into the sky. He wondered for a moment what movie the girl's grandfather was watching-- if he'd ever seen it himself. He pried the window open and felt the cold air invade the room. He had to sit down.
About the author:
Bill Cheng, 24, lives in Queens, New York. His short fiction has appeared in the Global City Review, Ballyhoo Stories, the Arabesques Review, and Xelas Magazine.