fiction stories

Two Tickets To Birthday Town

Though his mind is not for rent, don’t put him down as arrogant. He reserves the quiet defense riding out the day’s events. The river.

Tom Sawyer – Rush

I didn’t learn of the place called Birthday Town from google, and I didn’t buy the tickets I gifted Tom Sawyer from amazon, either. I don’t believe in those things. By don’t believe, I’m not saying I think google and amazon are made up things like devils and dragons and the Marvel Universe are made up; I mean I don’t believe it’s a good idea to use them.

FACT: google and amazon and facebook are spying on you, and so is microsoft, but not as bad as the others.

I don’t like to be spied on. My house is a spy free zone. I invited my friend Lola over for a visit once, but I told her she had to leave her phone outside, because that’s how they spy on us––through our phones––but Lola said she needs her phone with her at all times in case she gets a call from a client, so she didn’t come over.

Lola is my friend from the park down the street. She walks dogs for cash. She’s a pro. She can walk up to eight dogs at once, as long as no more than two of them are bully breeds. Lola is the one who told me about Birthday Town. Tom Sawyer and I were at the park at three-thirty in the afternoon, like we are every day, and Lola came by with seven dogs she was walking. It was Thursday, which is Lola’s green day, meaning it’s the day she wears green sandals and paints her toenails green to match. I often want to ask her if she wears green sandals every Thursday on purpose, or if it’s just coincidence, but I never say anything because I worry she’ll think I’m weird for noticing. I feel weird when I talk to Lola, but it’s different than the kind of weird I feel when I talk to anybody else.

Lola said Hi to Tom Sawyer and then Hello Jerry to me. Whenever I see Lola at the park, she always says Hi to Tom Sawyer first, then Hello Jerry to me, just like that.

I told Lola that Tom Sawyer’s birthday was coming up, and she said, I saw an ad for this place called Birthday Town, where it’s like everyone gets to have a birthday, and everyone gets a wish. You should take Tom Sawyer there for his birthday.

I said, That’s dumb. Just because somebody says it’s your birthday, doesn’t make it your birthday. And besides, why would I take Tom Sawyer some place on his birthday where everybody is pretending to have their birthday at the same time?

Lola said, You know, Jerry, it’s not good to call something dumb because dumb is an ableist slur. But I don’t know what she meant by that.

That evening, I looked up Birthday Town through a search engine called DuckDuckGo, which is a search engine that doesn’t spy on you. Their website had a picture at the top, of a blonde girl with her mouth shaped like a zero, blowing out a candle on top of a star-shaped cake. Beneath the picture it said, When you wish upon THIS STAR, your dream really WILL come true!

I thought two things: Birthday Town is in serious danger of being sued by Disney for ripping off their tagline and the wide-eyed girl in the website photo looks a lot like Lola might have looked when she was little.

There’s an old saying––curiosity killed the cat––but I don’t own a cat, so instead curiosity sent me and Tom Sawyer to Birthday Town. The website informed me that two tickets to Birthday Town cost one-hundred-ninety-eight dollars, plus tax, plus a five dollar convenience fee if you want the tickets mailed to you instead of receiving them electronically. I don’t like electronic tickets because they might have spyware attached to them, and besides, the money was not a problem. I make plenty and spend very little. When the tickets arrived three days later, I placed them in a gold envelope, along with a handwritten note.

I gave the envelope to Tom Sawyer on his birthday while he was eating his breakfast. He stared at me with the same droopy expression he always has. I pulled the note from the envelope and read it to him, which of course I had to do, since Tom Sawyer is a pug, and pugs do not read.

My note read:

Dear Tom Sawyer,

For your birthday, I got you something really good. You and I are going to a place called Birthday Town. It is a special place where everyone’s birthday wish can come true. You’re a good friend, Tom Sawyer, and you deserve to have your wish come true. Happy Birthday.

Your Best Friend, Jerry

PS – The whole wish come true thing is probably bull crap, so I’m sorry about that, but hopefully we’ll have fun together anyway.

Before leaving for birthday town, I practiced my drums from eight twenty AM until eleven twenty, like I do every day. Playing drums is not a job I get paid for, but I’m very good at it, since I practice so much. If you want to know why I like to play drums so much, I can explain it to you in a way you should understand. Have you ever left the house and realized that some piece of clothing doesn’t fit right? Maybe your pants are too tight in the legs, or the elastic in one of your socks is worn out, and you just know that you’ll be tugging that sock up all day long, or there’s a tag inside the waistband of your underwear that you know is going to rub you raw after a few hours. Do you know that feeling? That’s how I feel all the time, like nothing in the world fits for me. Except when I play drums. When I play my drums, everything fits just right.

I always begin with four rudiments––one for standard rhythm, one for syncopation, one for control, one for speed––then I tune the stereo to my favorite classic rock station, KROD, and play along with whatever songs are on that day. I know KROD’s entire rotation very well. The morning of Tom Sawyer’s birthday, they played Smoke On The Water, When The Levee Breaks, The Real Me, Slow Ride, and the last one before I shut it off was Old Time Rock & Roll by Bob Seger, but I opted not to play along with that one, since I do not consider it a classic rock song.

The last song I practiced was Tom Sawyer by Rush. I always do that one last. I don’t play it over the speakers because I don’t need to; I’ve listened to it so many times, I can hear it in my head just by thinking of it. And I’ve played the drum part so many times, it’s like I can hear the other instruments playing along. Sometimes, I dress Tom Sawyer in a pug-sized leather jacket and put a collar on him with a small bass guitar attached to it, and I pretend he’s Geddy Lee, the lead singer of Rush. He’s never told me so, since he’s a pug and can’t talk, but I think Tom Sawyer likes pretending he’s rock and roll singer. (Tom Sawyer the pug is named after Tom Sawyer the song. I assume you figured that out on your own, unless you’re dumb.)

FACT: Rush is the greatest rock and roll band ever, and their drummer Neil Peart is the best drummer of all time, and Tom Sawyer is the best rock and roll song ever written.

I can match Neil Peart’s drum part perfectly, with one exception: I struggle with the double-kick bass solo two minutes and thirty-five seconds into the song. I’ve never managed to make it sound like it does on the record. I believe I owe this deficiency to improper equipment: I have a double kick pedal rigged to my single Pearl bass drum, which I believe is the problem. I need two separate bass drums to make it sound right.

After finishing practice, I buckled Tom Sawyer into his pet harness in the back seat of my Ford Focus station wagon, which is a very underrated automobile, in my opinion. It is reliable, gets good fuel economy, and has lots of room for my drums in the back. I’ve never actually transported my drums anywhere, but it’s good to know that if I ever get to be in my own rock and roll band, I’ll have a vehicle capable of carrying my gear.

I drove the Focus to the address that was printed on the tickets, which turned out to be fairly close––just one hour and twenty-two minutes away––and I was surprised to find that a sizable portion of the parking lot was occupied by a large roller coaster. A long line of people stood in front of the coaster, waiting to board. The Birthday Town website mentioned nothing about a roller coaster. This frustrated me.

FACT: Roller coasters are dumb, and long lines of people are even more dumb.

Before exiting the car, I took a pair dark glasses from the glove compartment and put them on. The sun was bright that day, but the dark glasses weren’t for keeping the light out. I wore them to hide myself from the spying eyes of all those people in line.

As Tom Sawyer and I approached the entrance, people commented: Look at the little pug! and I love those dogs! and He’s so ugly he’s cute! and Can I pet your pug? and some people tried to pet him without even asking. Tom Sawyer did a good job of cowering behind me, just like I’ve taught him to do, while I stared people down through my dark glasses, which I think made them nervous enough to stay back. I’ve never been in a fight, other than in video games, but I can look intimidating when I want to.

It turned out that the big roller coaster was the way people entered into Birthday Town. When I told one of the attendants that we would rather walk through a normal door than ride their roller coaster, I was told the coaster was the only way in.

I said, That’s dumb! What if a ninety-nine-year-old woman came to your establishment? You mean to tell me you’d make an old woman ride that death machine?

I followed this with a long stare through my dark glasses, which scared the worker enough to admit that they actually do have a handicap entrance, which he said I was qualified to use. Tom Sawyer and I walked into Birthday Town through a normal door, like civilized adults.

I’ve never been to Disneyland, but I know enough about it to know I never want to go there. Birthday Town is a lot like I imagine Disneyland to be, except, instead of It’s A Small World, they have It’s Your Birthday!, which is a slow moving roller coaster that goes through dark tunnels, where creepy animatronic children show the way birthdays are celebrated in different cultures. It was terrifying. Tom Sawyer thought so too. He spent the entire ride hiding his face in my armpit.

After suffering through It’s Your Birthday!, we decided to skip the other rides, including one called Storks, where you’re supposed to ride around in circles on the back of a stork with a baby dangling from its beak. That one seemed like a particularly bad idea, since Tom Sawyer and I both get motion sickness, and besides, I did not want to know if those were real babies dangling from the birds’ beaks.

There were live shows as well. One show was called Famous Birthdays, where they had Birthday Town employees dressed up as famous people who were born on that day. I didn’t recognize any of them, partly because I don’t follow many celebrities––other than comic book movie actors and famous rock and roll musicians––and also because their costumes didn’t seem very good to me. They had a guy dressed as someone named Wolfgang Puck––who is not a hockey player, nor any relation to Mozart––and another dressed as a someone named Kevin Bacon, who is not related to the pork industry in any way.

Eventually we made our way to a place called the Great Birthday Hall, where wishes are supposed to come true. This was the part of our visit to Birthday Town that got weird. I have no rational explanation for the things I witnessed in that place; I can only assume some hallucinogenic drug was to blame, only it couldn’t have been in the food, because I hadn’t eaten anything since arriving there. Yet, I saw things that were impossible.

It worked like this: every guest got their own cake––smaller than a regular cake, larger than a cupcake––shaped like a star, just like the picture on the website. Each cake was served with a single candle. Make a wish, blow out the candle, and I suppose you know the rest. Whatever you wished for was supposed to come true, but everybody knows birthday wishes aren’t real. But they were that day.

It started with a girl sitting across from me, a dumpy kid with stringy brown hair and cheeks so red, she looked like someone had slapped her hard on each side of her face. She wore a pink princess dress with chocolate hand prints on the front of it. I watched the girl close her eyes tight, the way kids do when they are counting in a game of hide and sneak. A moment later, she opened her eyes wide and blew the candle out with a single puff. I caught a whiff of her breath, chocolate mixed with candle wax, and then the impossible happened. The girl became a fairy.

It began with her ears, which grew pointed like Mister Spock’s, and then the wings, which were shiny and white and large enough that the girl could have wrapped her whole body inside of them, only she didn’t use them to wrap herself up. She used the wings to fly. As I watched her lift from the ground, I saw the reflection of a hundred birthday candles in her wings, the promise of a hundred birthday wishes in her smile.

I will not describe every wish I saw come true that day. I must say that some people’s wishes were truly pathetic, and others were so bizarre, I’d rather forget I ever witnessed them. There were other children who became fairies, quite a few princesses as well. I watched one scrawny kid extinguish his birthday candle and immediately explode into the body of what I assumed was some famous professional wrestler. He spent the rest of the afternoon strutting around in a pair of tiny spandex shorts, flexing his muscles in front of people.

A middle-aged man wearing thick, square glasses blew out his birthday candle, and someone who looked just like Scarlett Johansson appeared beside him. She was wearing her Black Widow costume from the Avengers movies. She began kissing his cheek and feeding him bites of birthday cake.

I heard grunting sounds from the seat beside me. Tom Sawyer was sniffing his birthday candle, perhaps wondering how to make it go out. He sniffed too hard and got some smoke up his nose, which made him sneeze all over the cake. I think it must have been his slobber that put out the flame. I watched as his cake became a big bowl of butterscotch ripple ice cream. His favorite. It occurred to me then that I could have spared myself this whole experience and just given him a carton of ice cream for his birthday. Like all pugs, Tom Sawyer has bulgy eyes, but in that moment his eyes grew so big I thought they’d fall right out of his head. He buried his face in the bowl, lapping with his long tongue, splattering ice cream all over his dome-shaped head.

A loud crash pulled my attention back to the room. Some guy had wished himself a new Corvette and decided it was a good idea to drive it inside the building. I watched as the bright red sports car crumpled against a metal support beam, its driver slumped over the airbag.

FACT: There should be a federal law disallowing birthday wishes to anybody dumb enough to operate a motor vehicle indoors.

The Great Birthday Hall was pandemonium. Several other guests had wished themselves the power of flight. I even spotted an old man corkscrewing around the room’s perimeter in a Superman outfit. I don’t know if his newfound abilities were isolated to flying, or if he also gained super strength and heat vision; either way, he was the saddest looking Superman I’ve ever seen.

I spotted two other Scarlett Johanssons there––both of them dressed in red carpet gowns rather than Black Widow outfits––both of them doting on pathetic birthday wishers.

I could go on, but I will spare you the more grotesque things I witnessed. I’ll only say I came away from that place with the unquestionable knowledge that the power of wishing is not something humans can be trusted with.

I could endure it no longer. I bent to retrieve Tom Sawyer and found he had finished his entire bowl of butterscotch ripple. As I went to pick him up, I was shocked to see the bowl replenish itself with another heaping portion of ice cream. Tom Sawyer quickly went to work on the refill. My dog had wished himself a bottomless bowl of ice cream. Apparently, pugs are no more trustworthy with their wishes than humans are.

Hey, bro! Someone was calling for my attention. It was the scrawny kid who’d transformed himself into the musclebound wrestler. Funny thing, his voice still sounded like that of a little kid. He probably needed another wish to get his voice to match the body.

Yeah, you, in the shades! He bounced his pectoral muscles with every syllable. Ain’t you gonna blow that out? He was flexing his left bicep, wrist turned, finger pointed at the star-shaped cake in front of me, candle still lit. In the entire room, mine was the only one left burning.

I’d been so anxious to leave, I’d forgotten all about my wish. I told myself it didn’t matter, because I didn’t believe in wishes. I just knew we would all leave Birthday Town knowing we’d been part of a hoax, a grand hallucination, a tragic dream in which we were granted our dearest wish, only to have it fade away like smoke from a birthday candle.

So then, what was the harm in blowing out that candle? Why did I hesitate? Maybe I was afraid of being disappointed. Maybe I would be the one person there who made a wish, and nothing happened. Or worse, maybe I would get my wish and then realize I’d wished for the wrong thing. I scanned my brain, trying to think of what I wanted more than anything. I thought of wishing for a second bass drum so I could perform Neil Peart’s drum solo correctly. But this seemed like a waste. I make plenty of money; if I really wanted a second kick drum, I could just buy one.

I thought about wishing for a private drum lesson with Neil Peart himself, but I worried he might not like me, or worse––I might not like him.

I could have wished to be a drummer in my own rock and roll band with a giant tour bus to drive us all around the country, where we’d play outdoor arenas and festivals, and we would become world famous, just like the Rolling Stones and Fleetwood Mac and Rush. But then I thought of those thousands of fans staring at me from the audience with their spying eyes, holding up their spying cell phones, and I thought of how I don’t like being away from home all that much, and I’d need to bring my dog on tour with me, and Tom Sawyer doesn’t like being away from home any more than I do.

FACT: People say all the time, If I could have just one wish…, but they don’t realize one wish is a curse.

There’s a line in the Rush song, Freewill:

If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice

Neil Peart wrote those words. I think he knew that making a choice is hard for people. Looking around the Great Birthday Hall, seeing the aftermath of all those bad wishes come true, it was obvious to me that people don’t really know what they want, even if they think they do.

FACT: If you want to know what a person wants, don’t bother asking him, because he doesn’t know. The closest thing to knowing what you want is to think about the things you regret.

I regret that I’ve never asked Lola why she always wears green sandals on Thursdays, and I regret that I’m too scared to ask her over again, and that it’s okay if she wants to bring her phone.

I regret that I’m different, that my only real friend is a dog, and he’s the only one I can talk to without feeling weird, and he can’t even talk back.

I glanced down at Tom Sawyer. He looked back at me and burped, licking the remnants of the second helping of butterscotch ripple from his nose. His eyes looked sad, like he’d had enough and wanted to go home. When you spend a lot of time imagining what your dog is thinking, you feel like you can hear his thoughts.

I said, Okay, Tom Sawyer. Let’s go home.

Before leaving, I closed my eyes and blew out the birthday candle. I stared at Tom Sawyer a long time, and he stared back at me with those big eyeballs of his. He opened his mouth, almost looked as though he might say something, but instead he vomited ice cream all over the floor of the Great Birthday Hall.

FACT: Even if a dog could speak, it doesn’t mean he’d have anything to say.

Tom Sawyer threw up two more times on the ride home.

Cleaning up the inside of the Focus was a lot of hard work, and the day had gotten hot, so I was very sweaty. After three passes with my cleaning machine, I could still detect the faint aroma of vomit. There is no worse substance to remove from the upholstery of a car than regurgitated butterscotch ripple ice cream.

I decided to take a refreshment break before doing another pass. I was sitting on my front porch with a cold glass of sixty percent lemonade and forty percent iced tea, when I heard a jingling sound coming from down the street. I knew without looking what the sound was: Lola, walking the dogs. I glanced frantically at my watch and saw the time was three twenty six in the afternoon. Tom Sawyer and I were supposed to be at the park at three thirty, just like we are every day. My mind was such a jumble from all the crazy things that happened at Birthday Town and all the dog vomit in my car, I’d completely lost track of time. I do not like it when I lose track of time. It makes my skin feel tight, and my pulse gets so loud I can hear it in my ears.

I ran inside the house to retrieve Tom Sawyer, so we could get to the park in time to catch Lola, but it was too late already. By the time I could get his leash and walk there, Lola would be gone. Besides, Tom Sawyer was passed out sick in his bed. I looked out the window and watched as Lola walked the sidewalk across from my house. The sun was very bright; it made her yellow hair appear to glow, almost like a candle. She was struggling. I could see there were two bully breed dogs among the eight she was walking. That’s a lot of hard work to be doing under such a hot sun. I looked at the pitcher of lemonade-iced tea on my kitchen counter. My heart was beating so loudly in my ears now, it reminded me of Neil Peart’s double kick drums.

I carried a cold glass across the street, those double kick drums thrumming faster and faster in my ears. I’ve only ever spoken to Lola while at the park, and I’ve always had Tom Sawyer with me. I realized then that it would be dumb to offer Lola a refreshing drink while she was trying to walk eight dogs at once, but I kept going anyway.

When Lola saw me, she said something like Oh, hey Jerry!, but the drumming in my ears was too loud for me to hear her clearly. She was sweaty from the hot sun and from the hard work of walking all those dogs. Strands of yellow hair were stuck to her forehead and cheeks. Her sandals were red today. I looked down at the cold glass in my hand, back at Lola.

I said, Hi to the dogs and Hello to Lola, just like that.

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