Birthday Present (part one)

"I'm counting to ten." Hampstead knew he was on a crazy roll now. "Then I'm tossing this bomb at you, kid. I'm going to get messed up a lot but you're going to be dead."

The kid's jaw dropped -- fear? stupidity? His purple-shadowed, mascaraed eyes stretched wide in sudden confusion, desperation. Funny, Hampstead thought, knowing I'll most likely be dead in ten seconds, give or take. You gotta be joking, old boy? . . . At least I'm here to watch, and watch myself watching . . . Cap O oblivion! . . . I can dig it . . . one great marriage . . . four kids . . . seven grandchildren . . . so-so career . . . one textbook . . . three or four traffic tickets . . . class B tennis damn near forty years . . . beat the chairman of the English Department, Times crossword puzzle race, '75 faculty blowout, while the Dean of Men dallied my ex in the visiting scholar suite . . . for both of us a career climax! That a real gun the kid has or a Toys R Us fake? Best err on the side of . . . "Fuck that shit, mister," the kid yelled.

- - -

Just an hour earlier in heavy freeway traffic Hampstead had headed toward his daughter's house, scene of a birthday party for one of his multitudinous granddaughters. The one being lionized today was seven. Because she lived within reasonable commuting distance, he had never missed a birthday party of this child -- Gretchen -- six of them so far, by simple arithmetic. (Evelyn, his wife, conveniently, had a meeting of a community political-action group tonight. But she was not one of Gretchen's progenitors.) He detested birthday parties, whether his or anyone else's, unless they reeked with sardonic depreciation. His view had to do with, as he not infrequently put it, the factitious nature of time and the suffocating numerology with which people tortured themselves throughout life. The entire millennium nonsense an example of that. Why does one have to be labeled a seven-year-old, after all? Gretchen, for example, had the emotional development of a four-year-old and the shrewd malevolence of a late-thirties hussy. Why can't she just be Gretchen Hibler, child? Millions of men who say, Jesus, I'm forty. Over the jumping hill. How long can I attract a broad by a glance across a room and a clenched jaw? Christ, I need a new wardrobe. Propecia. A new tallywhacker. A BMW convertible (do they still make those?), red, with a CD changer and a bunch of Christopher Parkening make-out disks. Or Satie. "Bolero" old hat. But nothing compared to women. Woman hits forty and dies a little inside. Ballgame's almost over. Beautiful women, elegant, charming, vivacious, depilitorized. Don't realize they work like wine. Oh, my Savior, yet forty?! Youth, for the luvva . . . what's more boring than a know-it-all kid? Nobody really interesting till they hit forty. But on and on it goes. This little baby can make it to sixty in eight seconds. Group calls itself Nine Inch Nails, with anatomically aggrandizing disingenuousness. Charlie's hauling down six figures and he's only twenty-three. Congress Extends Retirement Age to Sixty-Seven for Full Social Security. We quantify ourselves. We commodify ourselves.

Hampstead, not incidentally, was sixty-seven. And still, yes, a working man, productive member of society. Had been six-two as a young man. Six-foot, one-half-inch at his last annual physical. Incredible Shrinking Man. Reasonably fit, could still mow his largish lawn with a manual mower and cut down large unwanted trees with a handsaw, although he suffered for the latter the next day. Hair almost gone on top but still more dark-brown than gray. He had worn a short beard -- quite gray now -- for several years after he realized that without one he was starting to look like an old lady. With his beard a girl friend of his youngest daughter had said he looked like Sean Connery! That is, the Sean Connery of Red October. Child, tres Valley Girl, was given to hyperbole, he knew, while treasuring the remark. Walked erectly, except on days following heavy yard work or too much tennis or racquetball or from one of those sudden back-muscle pulls that appear in the lives of old men like quantum particles visiting from a parallel universe. He was an industrial physicist and adjunct state-college professor, bush league in both categories, he knew, and while he could afford to retire modestly, he was fearful of, as the annuity ads put it, "outliving his money," as well as the uselessness he imputed to those who did no remunerative work.

Man's role was to bring order out of chaos. Birthday parties seemed to move in opposite directions in several dimensions. They were bacchanals of material excess, except for the very poor, showering people with glittering junk, "fashions," technological gimcracks. They led recipients to believe they deserved praise and esteem for doing absolutely nothing but being there, vide Woody Allen's crack. They encouraged competition for love, on both sides of the giving equation, for the most unlaudable reasons.

He passed a billboard for a shopping mall and suddenly realized he hadn't gotten a present, for which Evelyn had reminded him as he left. Usually she did that well in advance, for the full congeries of offspring, his, hers and theirs. He thought of Gretchen's very retired maternal grandmother. Lord, do not let her be there tonight. So hard to be cosmopolitanly friendly and not give vent to Wagnerian chords in her cheerful, solicitous presence. His memory was never world-class -- certainly not an age factor -- but there were some things a person never forgets, and enough about that. He pulled his '88 Accord into the mall parking lot. The torture began. What does one get for a seven- (six-, five-) year-old who has everything a daughter of the Sheik of Bahrain has and a couple Limited Too tanktops more. A spare bedroom at his daughter's upscale suburban home filled, jammed, overflowing with every toy Mattel, Hasbro, Imaginarium has made for female prepubescents since Bill Clinton took his second oath of office (and forevermore left the White House as a venue of comedy, for which the present occupant has not allowed any slack). So many clothes that the child's mother must keep a list and make sure she wears at least once every garment she has been given (her two grandmothers and one great-grandmother were insanely lavish) and her birthday parties (one for children and one for adults, often immediately following the former) drew as many as forty guests, all of whom had to pony up the price of admission, a present guaranteed, it is fervently hoped, to elicit a whelp of glee from recipient and a chorus of oohs and aahs from the craning audience at the unwrapping ritual, if only for the allotted ten seconds before being hurled into a pile and dutifully noted by mother, faced with the mind-rotting chore of writing forty thank-you notes to which little Gretch would with unceasing complaint hen-scratch her John Hancock and, eventually, reciprocating at forty equally baleful birthday parties.

Hampstead walked into a glaring, merchandise-gorged Kay-Bee toystore, a familiar venue no less nauseous than Sartre's onion. Noisomely cuddly fun creations infested two-thirds of the floor area, cavorting out-of-step with the latest Disney-movie hit song over the too-loud soundtrack, revved up to bring 'em in from the food court across from the splashing, dolphin-merry fountains. Ah, Orpheus, you're gonna love it here in Hades. Grab something quick, Hampstead told himself, and, whatever you do, don't look back! Perhaps something in an action figure from the WWF, one of Western Civ's newer peaks. Gretchen adored, of course, Barbie, that paragon of postmodernism, and only had about seventeen of them, in multiple ethnicities, hairdos and moral codes. No, let the slobs buy Barbie, this was his own flesh and blood -- probably. He examined a big, well-stuffed, impeccably garbed Madame Alexander doll who looked a bit like blonde, blue-eyed Gretchen would have as a character in Little Women, the one that ended up in reform school. The price was embarrassing for a man on the cusp of retirement with money-market rates below one percent, but he decided to cut losses and pop. He asked for a box with a ribbon and bow and signed a card, declining to join the Frequent Buyer Club, although he was no doubt the sort who'd benefit. Heading back toward his car, he knew he'd done exactly what Madame Alexander's fifty-five-and-better focus groups had shown he would. Ah, Marketing. It long ago killed halfway decent popular music, then the motion picture, then literature. Fine arts on the way. Nope, forgot Warhol and Wyeth. It may eventually kill all humanity. Do a pro forma before you conceive another, or decide to abort and try again. What does the bottom line, in say twenty-one years, look like? Will it work as good as long-term-care insurance? Perhaps only life as art will remain. He thought of Tony in Brideshead, Nathan B. Forrest, Lawrence in his burnoose, Neal Cassady, Mother Theresa, Mishima, Kurt Cobain. Afraid Walt Hampstead doesn't make the list. Risk-averse, call it. But then art, like love, is a concept only. Ways of perception. Platonism dead a long time. Terms -- love, i.e. -- that tend to dignify and elevate human necessity, like getting a present for one of your grandchildren so your daughter won't think you're solipsistic.

- - -

Now, in the sin-black street, as perilously life-mocking as outer space, he confronted absolute timelessness. "Fuck that shit, mister," the dark-coated boy suddenly yelled at him. "FUCK IT, Y'HEAR! Toss me your wallet or you're dead right now." The kid was aiming the gun. Behind him, a fingernail moon shone feebly over a double-crossed telephone pole. Hampstead gripped the present with the respect one owed a bomb but his shaking hands were not dissemblance.

- - -

Next week: Part Two.

About the author:

J. C. Frampton lives and writes in Southern California. His stories and efforts at humor can be found online at Pig Iron Malt, Eclectica, Comrades, Sweet Fancy Moses, White Shoe Irregular, Paumanok Review, Aileron, and The Sidewalk's End. His roses, especially the Dolly Partons and the White Lightnin's, are cuter than yours.