by Neil McDonald
Junior tried to encourage Leo to join in with the party. He found himself saying things like ‘Ooh, look at that!’ a little too loudly, pointing at garish toys, and all but shoving his son at a bunch of kids he didn’t know.
The other parents snapped pictures on their phones and Junior retreated to the wall as Leo tentatively hovered around a plate with three cookies left on it.
Grab one! Junior thought. Or they’ll be all gone!
“It’s OK,” Junior said, in a voice meant for a much younger child, gesturing to Leo that he could have one of the cookies. The boy remained unconvinced, though he soon grabbed one and ran back to his father’s legs after he noticed a few other kids beginning to inch toward the plate.
Meanwhile, the pictures continued to accumulate, imprinting themselves on each smartphone’s memory, bound at best for a Facebook post or the screensaver of mummy’s work computer. It struck Junior that one day there would be no more physical snapshots and likely few candid photos of he and his son together. Certainly none from today, for who would take them? Junior was not one for selfies, especially in public.
If he appeared in any images from today at all, he would probably just be a headless background figure wearing an old pair of white jeans for some ridiculous reason (“Interesting choice,” Leanne had said to him that morning), and standing beside a four-foot tall cutout of Pink Moon, an Asian cartoon character with whom he was unfamiliar.
Any picture from today that did happen to include his head, however, would capture a man standing in front of some closet doors, looking perfectly cheerful at being in attendance at the three-hour birthday party of a five-year-old girl whose mother he happened to work with.
Around the third time Kendra retreated to Kourtnee’s room with the birthday girl for another timeout – “She’s just over-excited,” a few of the parents were agreeing while trying not to hold eye contact with each other for too long – this dad whose kid Grayden had put on Kourtnee’s princess tiara and clowned around a bit (something that had caused Leo to laugh and Kourtnee to retaliate by kicking Grayden in the shin, thus earning her this latest timeout), picked Grayden up and started giving him a piggy-back ride around the room, much to the kid’s delight. And this Grayden kid’s dad – Dale or Dave, maybe? – got down on his knees with his son still on his back and walked up to the other kids and said, ‘Hello, how are you’ in an overly serious voice just to get them to laugh. Even Leo managed a smile before he turned away shyly. This guy – Dave or Dale – this jovial, goateed man, was the hit of the party.
Junior laughed along with all the other parents, one part relieved at the distraction and two parts destroyed by his own inadequacy as a father. He and Leo didn’t do things like that at home, even when there was nobody around, never mind when surrounded by a group of tense, impatient adults and their sugar-stuffed children. He had never carried Leo on his shoulders. He had never said, ‘Hello, how are you’ in a mock-serious voice just to crack other kids up.
Furthermore, Junior got the impression this was not the only arrow in Dave-Dale’s comedic quiver. He could probably have gone on all day, inventing things Junior had never done or thought of doing, if it weren’t for Kourtnee’s sulky re-entry amid Kendra’s insistence that she apologize to everybody in attendance. Again. So everyone can hear.
By the time they got home after the party, Leo was asleep. He didn’t wake up when Junior lifted him out of the car, or when he laid him down on his big boy bed.
“How was it?” Leanne asked, whispering, as Junior left Leo’s room. She was standing outside their bedroom, had come out to ask about the party.
“Oh, you know. Cake, tears, too many presents.”
“How was Leo?”
“Good,” Junior said in a high voice. “He was shy at first, you know what he’s like. He had a good time, though. On the way home, he said that on his birthday we have to invite Kourtnee to his party.”
Leanne smiled. She looked tired. “Nice jeans.”
“They’re white, you know,” replied Junior.
Leanne went back to their bedroom and Junior went to the kitchen, grabbed a beer and went to the basement to watch TV.
An hour, maybe, and another beer later, Junior heard the footsteps of what he thought was one of the cats on the basement stairs. The sight of his child appearing unexpectedly in the room gave him a kind of shocked chill, and he sat upright on the chair.
“Hey buddy, what’s up?” he asked, recovering.
“Daddy, I can’t sleep,” said Leo.
Junior looked at his son, still in his clothes from the party.
“Come on buddy, let’s get you into your PJs,” said Junior and motioned for Leo to come and be lifted up. Carrying his son back upstairs, Junior said: “Hey, you want to see something?”
“Outside?” asked Leo, happily surprised.
“Yeah, I don’t think you’ve seen these guys before.”
“What guys?” asked Leo, as Junior opened the patio doors and stepped onto the two-inch high deck and then down onto the grass. “Daddy, what guys?”
“These guys up here,” said Junior, and he laid Leo gently down, and pointed up.
“Stars,” said Leo.
“Can you see them all?” asked Junior, lowering himself down to stretch out on the grass. “How many do you think there are?”
“Maybe free hundred,” said Leo excitedly. “Hey, look at that one!”
They lay there for a few minutes. Junior had not shown his son the stars before. This was something Dale-Dave had probably done before with all of his kids, Junior was willing to bet. Probably something they do every night before their evening magic show or whatever, Junior thought.
“Daddy?” said Leo eventually.
“Yes, little man?”
“I have to go bathroom.”
“OK, buddy,” Junior said. “Let’s go inside,” and he slowly got to his feet, his knees cracking, then stooped to pick up his son and carried him back into the house, overwhelmed suddenly by an aching and unknowable guilt.
About the Author:
Neil McDonald lives with his wife and son in Waterloo, Ontario, surrounded by an assortment of black and white cats. His work has appeared or is scheduled to appear in Soft Cartel, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, The Potato Soup Journal, The Flash Fiction Press, and the Story Shack.