fiction stories

Best Birthday Card Ever

I turn forty one today. For the second year in a row, I’ve crafted myself a birthday present in the form of a story, written from the POV of a character who shares my same birthday. Most of my characters are loosely based on people I know in real life. Give this a read. See if you recognize yourself.

 
Today is my birthday, but nobody gives a damn because I’m not on Facebook. 
 I’ve worked in the same office for nine years now. That’s nine Julys and nine birthdays. It’s been a custom for as long as I’ve been with the company that Irene from graphics brings a grocery store cake to the office whenever someone has a birthday. The cakes are never very good –– the grocery down the street has a mediocre bakery –– but these are mediocre times, and if someone from work is willing to take the time to stop and pick up a mediocre birthday cake coated with five pounds of whipped frosting, I’d say that’s special enough. Nine years, though, and I’ve never gotten a cake. 

 It’s nearly lunchtime. Were I anyone besides me, now would be the time someone would be luring me into the break room, where those five pounds of whipped frosting would be aglow beneath an entire box of rainbow candles. It won’t happen, though. Dan in human resources always says, “The best indicator of future behavior is past behavior.” I’ve witnessed the past behavior of these co-workers of mine for nearly a decade now, and I know what to expect. Nothing. Just another boring day for the unappreciated company controller. 

 These people see me laboring every day, crunching numbers into spreadsheets, and I swear they must think it’s my idea of a good time. It isn’t. I just sort of ended up here. And it occurs to me now, on my ninth birthday working at Sterling Plastics, my thirty-eighth on Earth, that everybody here has gotten so used to seeing me at my computer pecking away at spreadsheets, I’ve become a spreadsheet to them. I’m no longer Larry Green, human being who happens to work in accounting. I’m just accounting.

 They say in just a few decades, up to eighty percent of the jobs we have today will be replaced by computers. It doesn’t take a crystal ball to predict that mine will be one of those jobs to get sucked into the cold vacuum of automation, but I’ll tell you something: it won’t matter at all to the remaining twenty percent. In fact, I think it will be a relief. It’ll be much more comfortable for them when accounting doesn’t have eyeballs.

  Rick from sales peeks over my cubicle wall. I look up from my computer to see his round, bespectacled face looking down at me. His hairy forearm is slung over the fabric divider, and he’s gripping a white mug with black lettering that reads, I Turn Coffee Into Sales. 

 “Oh, hey, ummmm, Larry?” His voice goes upward in tone when he speaks my name, I guess because he’s not used to referring to me as ‘Larry’. It’s as though he’s asking permission to address me so personally. I’ve heard him use the same tone of voice when activating the automated assistant on his iPhone — ‘Hey Siri?’.

 “What can I do for you, Rick?” I ask.

 “Yeah, ummmm, there’s a thing in the break room,” he says. “Might be worth checking out, you know?”

 I hesitate several seconds, certain at first I’ve misheard him. ‘A thing in the break room.’ What the hell could that be about? I mentally scan nine years of workplace memories, creating a list of group gatherings that happen in the break room. I come up with only two.

 Last year, a couple of the IT guys challenged one another to an egg roll eating contest. Half the office gathered in the break room to witness this ill-conceived battle of intestinal fortitude. The contest ended in a draw when they ran through the substantial load of egg rolls they’d brought to the party. Turns out, the consumption of large quantities of deep fried cabbage wreaks havoc on a person’s digestive system. The rest of the day proved torturous for any souls unfortunate enough to share a floor with those two. Following this incident, the company officially forbade eating contests during work hours. 

 That leaves only one thing worth summoning groups of people to the break room: birthday cake. Again, I rifle through my memory, thinking specifically of birthdays that are near this date. Today, July 8th, there is only me. The cake can’t be for me. (The best indicator of future behavior is past behavior.) But today is Friday. Any birthdays this weekend? No. In fact, the next closest birthday is Janice’s –– the receptionist –– but her’s isn’t until July 15th, one whole week from today.

 Rising from my swivel chair, I feel the warm vinyl cling to the seat of my pants like a clammy hand. The air conditioning works just fine in this place, but the office manager is cold blooded and rules the thermostat with an arctic fist, leaving us warm blooded folks to melt in our cubicles all summer long. I give my sweaty pants a quick shake as I make my way toward the break room, double checking my memory along the way to make sure I haven’t forgotten any other early July birthdays, but I’m sure I haven’t. I’ve always been good with dates, just like I’m good with numbers; everybody says so. I think it’s their way of pointing out that I could have turned out much worse. ‘Sure Larry, you may not be handsome (you’re downright weird and gangly looking, actually), and you’ve got the social grace of a Tazmanian devil with fleas, but hey, you are friggin great with numbers.’    

 I enter the break room, where eight of my coworkers are already gathered, and I’m nonplussed when I find there’s a birthday cake on one of the tables. Irene from graphics is leaned in, inserting candles through the thick layer of whipped frosting. My pulse takes flight, and sweat begins to brew from my forehead. This can’t be happening.

 The best indicator of future behavior is past behavior.  

 Why, after years of indifference, would they suddenly decide to do this? Why this July 8th over all the others?      

 “I bet you thought we’d forget about you,” Irene says without looking up. She’s lighting the candles now, using a red Zippo she keeps in her desk solely for this purpose.  

 The brew of sweat on my head has escalated into a full scale eruption. I’ve always been very good at perspiring, just like I’m good with dates and numbers. I’m glad I wore a white shirt to the office today. Armpit rings are less noticeable with white.

 “Everybody ready?” Irene says, and the group of what is now eleven breaks into the Birthday Song. 

 I eye a stack of napkins on the table beside the birthday cake, and I fight the urge to grab a wad to mop the flowing streams from my face and neck. What was I thinking, wanting this? Standing here, listening to a smattering of tone deaf office workers sing to me, has got to be one of the most awkward experiences of my life. The words of the song reach my ears as if through a long, narrow tunnel.  

 “…Happy Birthday to you. Happy Biiiiirrthday, dear Jaaaaaaaaniiiiice!”

 It occurs to me I should probably say some words of gratitude once they’re done singing, but I’ve always been more of a numbers guy than a words guy, and did they just say ‘Happy Birthday dear Janice?’ What the hell?

 The sweat dries on my forehead in an instant, and now I feel numb. A cute, stocky woman in a green sleeveless dress approaches Irene. “Oh, you are all so thoughtful!” Janice says, wrapping her arms around Irene. With her chin over Irene’s shoulder, I see her wipe a mascara-tinted tear from her cheek. 

 “Well, we knew you were on vacation all next week, so we wanted to do this early. Can’t have our sweet Jan go without her birthday cake this year!” Irene says. 

 I confess I’ve always had a bit of a crush on Janice, and I’ve always thought she looked pretty in that green dress. Suddenly I sort of hate her, and I hate that goddam dress. Doesn’t she know it makes her arms look fat?

 I hear Rick the salesman’s voice to my right. “Hey, ummmm, Larry?”

 “Yes Rick?” I respond without looking his way. 

 “Mind if I cut ahead here and grab a slice? Gotta conference call I need to sneak away for.”

 “Go ahead, Rick. I’m not quite in the mood for cake anyway.”

 “Geez Larry, you okay? You look kinda peaked,” he says to me. 

 By ‘peaked’, I assume Rick means that I look like a total fool, standing here with dried sweat and a dumb expression on my face. 

 “Fine, Rick. I’m fine,” I say, before turning and walking out the door. 

 No one seems to notice me as I leave the room. I doubt anyone noticed me arrive in the first place. I spend the remainder of my work (birth)day alone at my desk. Just me and my numbers. At least I’m not sweating anymore. 
*****
 The drive home is a grueling one; Fridays always are like this. Everybody getting out of town for the weekend, I guess. I’m not trying to get out of town. I’m just trying to get home. The latest season of Arrow is on Netflix, and there’s a streaming binge in my future. I have a birthday card from Mom to look forward to, but it won’t be in my mailbox, not today anyway. It’ll show up a week late, like it does every year. Dad was the one who was good with dates, but he’s gone now.

 I finally reach my off ramp. Hitting my right turn signal, I roll through a free red just in time to beat an oncoming snarl of traffic headed East on 54th. Just as I’m about to pat my steering wheel in celebration over my driving prowess, the cabin of my Civic illuminates bright red. My brief confusion over the strange light is chased away when I hear the abbreviated squawk of a patrol car behind me.

 I find a shoulder to pull onto and watch as the snarl of cars weaves its way first around the officer’s car, then mine. They’re all on their way out of town, I guess. Not me, though. I’m staying right here, waiting to get a ticket on my birthday.

 As the officer approaches, I’m already retrieving my registration and proof of insurance from the glove box. I haven’t been pulled over in years, but I always know where my documents are. I’m good with things like that, just like I am with numbers and dates and perspiring. 

 “Little lazy with the brakes back there, don’t you think?” the officer says. He is muscular with a clean-shaven head. He’s wearing sunglasses, even though it’s cloudy today. The tag on his shirt says O’Neil, and it occurs to me that any police officer with big muscles, a shaven skull, and sunglasses on a cloudy day has to be named O’Neil. 

 The rivulets of sweat are back as I say, “Yes, sorry, sir. Just anxious to get home, I guess.”

 “Driving anxious is a dangerous thing, Misterrrr…Green,” O’Neil says, glancing at the name on my driver’s license. 

 “Yes sir, I suppose that’s true,” I respond.

 Officer O’Neil returns to his car to look me up on his computer. He’ll find that my last ticket was four and a half years ago on January twenty fifth. Speeding in a school zone. I’m screwed. Virile cops like O’Neil have no mercy for gangly number crunchers like me who speed through school zones. 

 I snatch a tissue from my center console and wipe moisture from my brow. The thermometer on my dash reads a cool sixty three degrees, but I’m sweating like I’m in Tahiti. Turns out, that’s where Janice is going for her vacation –– Tahiti. She has a new boyfriend with a huge balance of frequent flyer miles. Going on a trip together is the next big step in their relationship. I confess I still have a crush on Janice. And I still think she looks pretty in that green dress. If I were anybody but me, I would have asked her out years ago. I couldn’t afford to take her to Tahiti, but we could go to the Oregon coast together. The coast is always beautiful.

 Officer O’Neil appears in my window. “Mr. Green?” he says, “I’m giving you a warning today. In the future, please be sure to comply with the traffic signals. They are there for a reason.”

 “Uh…oh, thank you sir,” I stammer. 

 “Have a good evening, sir,” he says, handing me a pink carbon paper, and just as I’m rolling up my window, he adds, “Mr. Green?”

 “Yes?”

 “Happy Birthday.”

 I try to say ‘thank you’, but my mouth is dry from shock. O’Neil is already settling back into his patrol car, and as he merges into traffic, his brake lights blur through my watery eyes.

 I peer down at the pink warning slip the officer gave me. It has a couple splotches on it from the sweat on my hands. I decide when I get home, before starting my Netflix binge, I’m going to create a Facebook account, and the first thing I’m going to post is a picture of this warning with the hashtag ‘BestBirthdayCardEver’. 

 Then they’ll know. Everyone will know, and maybe next year I’ll get my damn birthday cake.                       

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1 reply »

  1. Happy Birthday, buddy. I’m no fan of birthdays, especially now that I’m senior citizen old and don’t like to think about it. The fauning and silly swooning over the birthday cake is just too sweet for my taste. I’m quite different from you, but also feel uncomfortable in those – and most- situations. Good break with that cop. Hang in there. Love is just around the corner.

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