The toy store on Grand Avenue didn't sell squirt guns. At least not gun-shaped squirt guns. They sold "squirters" shaped like fish, flowers, and whimsical beasts which promised to "spit" water up to twenty five feet. The red plastic triggers were disguised as dogs' tongues and fishes' fins, and the water shot from smiling mouths and petal-fringed stamen.
And maybe that's the problem with America today, Ben thought as he wheeled the grill onto the patio. If your parents get your birthday gifts at the gas station, you'll be armed with squirt guns, cap pistols, and a rubber Bowie knife. But if they shop on Grand Avenue, you'll get a miniature Krups espresso machine, a non-gender-specific doll with doctor's smock and a hard hat, and a twee smiling bear that can spit water some eight yards. He could imagine what sort of world a rubber Bowie knife prepared a kid for; he didn't know what the bear taught.
The menu for this birthday, Leo's fourth, was a change from birthdays past. Ben had made a dozen peanut butter and grape jelly sandwiches, carefully quartered and shorn of crusts. On the picnic table he had two packages of hot dogs--the brand that plumps up on the grill--and white buns. The buns were his sole extravagance--he had mail-ordered them, the square, flat kind of bun that he remembered from his childhood summers in Maine, filled with lobster salad and dripping with butter. "You can't get buns like this in the Midwest," he told Linda when the buns arrived.
Last year, Ben had made enchiladas suiza with a mole sauce. The year before, herbed focaccia bread sandwiches with basil aioli and prosciuto. For Leo's first birthday, attended mainly by co-workers and neighbors, Ben prepared a couscous salad with sun-dried tomatoes and fresh artichoke hearts. The couscous salad had been Linda's idea.But this year's guest list was exclusively children. Leo's fellow inmates at daycare, ages three to six, would neither appreciate nor enjoy prosciuto.
"And what are we supposed to eat?" Linda asked when Ben and Leo came back from the supermarket with the big packages of hot dogs.
Ben shrugged. "Hot dogs, I guess. Leo likes them just fine."
Hot dogs, PBJs, potato chips, a marble sheet cake, vanilla ice cream, grape soda--a cavalcade of refined sugars, bleached flours, and multisyllabic emulsifiers. Ben loved the menu for its bold stance against nature.
While the coals caught fire in the chimney on his grill, Ben unpacked the "squirters". He had bought ten--there would be eight kids in all, including Leo, but Ben anticipated mechanical failures and breakage. He laid them out on the picnic table beside the hot dogs, each one unique: daisy, dolphin, bear, dog, angel fish, clown fish, cat, sunflower, elephant, and giraffe. He had passed over the dragon at the toy store, fearing it was a little bit too threatening.
"What are those?" Linda asked. She had come out on the patio with a stack of blue and yellow paper plates shaped like teddy bears. Like the hot dogs, they had not come from the co-op where he usually shopped.
"They don't look like squirt guns."
"I think that's the point."
"Are you sure that's wise?"
"Why not? I'm going to hang a target on the maple. It'll be fun."
Ben didn't need to look to know that Linda had turned her eyes upward, pursed her lips, and shaken her head. He went around to the side of the house to fill a bucket from the hose.
"I'm going back in," Linda said. "Call if you need me."
Ben waved the hose without looking up. The water made a ringing sound as it splashed into the bucket.
The guests started to trickle in a little before noon, deposited by their parents with a quick kiss and a wave. Ben had met a few of the parents at the daycare's morning drop-off, and saw some around the neighborhood, but he didn't know any well enough to talk to much. Leo knew all the kids, though, and greeted each with a hug and a shout. Ben suspected the hugging, like his love of hot dogs and the occasional cold, was something Leo had picked up at daycare.
Ben decided to keep the organized fun to a minimum. He scattered balls of various sizes and colors around the yard, and let the kids figure out what to do with them on their own. There were some noisemakers--whistles, kazoos, maracas--on the bench by the garden. The squirters were for later, after lunch and cake.
"They look a little under done," Linda said when Ben started moving hot dogs from the grill to a metal plate. The kids had improvised a game that seemed to involve kicking the balls to make them collide in mid-air.
"Kids don't like them charred. At least Leo doesn't. Don't worry, they're pre-cooked--you could eat them raw."
"That's disgusting. Couldn't you at least have got some turkey dogs?"
"Those don't get plump." He tapped his tongs against the finished hot dogs; the pinkish orange skins had small fissures along their lengths, showing lighter pink flesh inside. "How do you want yours?"
"I don't. I'll make something for myself."
After Linda went back inside, Ben assembled the hot dogs and called to the kids. He left the buns raw, except his own, which he patted with butter and let sit on the grill until it was a rich brown. His own hot dog was a little charred on the ends, and he topped it with corn relish. The kids chose ketchup for theirs, and a couple of the more daring dipped into the jar of bright green pickle relish.
Linda came back for the cake and candles. Leo had picked out the cake pattern at the grocery store--a field of dark blue frosting dotted with stars and moons, and a red and black spaceship racing across the middle. Ben clustered the five candles--four plus one to grow on--in the center of the cake, just above the rocket's nose.
"What did you wish for, honey?" Linda asked after Leo blew out the candles.
"I can't tell you," Leo said.
"Oh, you can tell your mom."
"No, I can't. That's the rule."
Rules mattered to Leo. There were rules about wishes, songs, clothes, food, and bedtime; and though the rules often changed Leo was firm that they be enforced. Linda became exasperated sometimes with Leo's legalism--"Can't he lighten up?" she would demand when he complained that the bedtime ritual had been performed out of order--but Ben thought it was probably a healthy stage he would grow past.
"I think it's time for the squirters," Ben announced after most of the cake had disappeared.
Linda was helping three year old Stefania wipe frosting from her face and hands. The little girl even had cake behind her ears. "I'm still not sure it's a good idea."
"Here are the rules," Ben said. Leo's little eyebrows were scrunched with concentration. "First, we don't squirt each other, just the picture on the tree. Second, if you run out of water, bring your squirter to me or Linda. Third, big kids stand at this line" --Ben stood beside a strip of blue masking tape on the patio--"and little kids stand here"--he stepped to another strip a couple feet closer. "And one at a time."
Leo selected his squirter first, the floppy-eared dog, and took his position at the big kids' line. Ben had taped a crayon drawing of a smiling sun to the maple at the patio's edge. He had been a little apprehensive about putting a face on the sun, but a plain yellow disc hadn't seemed cheerful enough. The sun was clearly not human, Ben decided, not really animate at all, and more interesting than a traditional target.
Leo's first two squeezes on the dog's tongue primed the squirter's little pump; the third sent a stream of water arcing to the corner of the picture. His next hit the sun's smiling mouth.
"Good shot!" Ben cheered. "I mean--good job, Leo! Who's next?"
Each guest had a turn; Ben helped the younger kids aim and squeeze the triggers. The one-at-a-time rule was the first to be broken, with impatient big kids squirting over the heads of the little ones. The infractions didn't seem to bother Leo much, so Ben ignored them.
"Time out!" Ben called. "Let me put the target back up!" The tape holding the sun had started to slip, and the target hung precariously by one corner.
While Ben was fixing a fresh piece of tape to the picture, someone broke the most important rule. He felt a stream of cool water hit the back of his neck and run down his shirt. He put his palm against the spot that had been hit and turned, letting the picture slip again. It was Linda who was holding a squirter--Stefania's giraffe--with her feet apart in a shooter's stance.
"Honey, you know the rules," Ben said, chuckling.
Linda let another shot fly; the water nipped his ear.
The next shot hit Ben in the chest. Two more struck his shoulder. The older kids were giggling, and Ben saw one of them point a clown fish at him.
"Give me the gun, honey."
"It's not a gun," she said. She had one eye closed, as if she were sighting a rifle. "It's a spitting giraffe."
Ben stepped closer and took a faceful of water from the giraffe. Linda stood her ground; her face was serious, without hint of a smile. With each step he took toward her she fired. Ben lunged forward and grabbed her wrists, taking more water in his face as he wrestled for the squirter.
"Mommy!" Leo shrieked.
Ben wasn't sure how Linda had fallen; he was almost certain he didn't trip her. But somehow she was on the patio, covering her head, and Ben had a squirter in each hand--the giraffe, almost empty and gurgling as it spit, and the clown fish that the boy had pointed at him. He didn't know how he got the clown fish, either.
"Mommy!" Leo had his hands on Ben's belt, tugging.
"It's okay," Ben said. The giraffe was empty now, and the fish was sputtering, but he kept pumping the triggers. Linda's hair and face were wet, he hoped with water from the squirters and not with tears.
"The rules, Daddy! The rules say no squirting!"
"It's okay." The fish was almost empty. "It's okay." Linda was running back into the house, her hands still covering her head, but Ben didn't follow her. "It's okay."
About the author:
Michael Hartford is a writer and software developer living in Minneapolis with his wife and twin sons, Jack and Peter. His stories have appeared in Eyeshot, Small Spiral Notebook, Failbetter, and Ballyhoo Stories. His story "Sunshine Over Helsinki", published in the Fall 2004 edition of Failbetter, was listed as a "notable story" in the storySouth Million Writers project.