© Bruce Louis Dodson
The Birthday Party
That weekend and the days that followed seemed to last forever. I could think of little else beside birthday party. How to act . . . and dress.
“Don’t wear a coat,” Dearie suggested. “Jeans, and a nice shirt . . . maybe a tie. Gives you an option. You can always take it off. You’ll be just fine.”
I left some twenty minutes early, more than eager to see Linda, at the same time wary. Didn’t want to be the first one to arrive, or worse, to be at Jimmy’s Place alone with the sheet metal guys. I stopped at Pat O’Rourke’s, a cocktail lounge with chandeliers and dark red carpeting. They didn’t ask for my I.D. I drank one beer, taking my time, then left and stopped again to fill my tank with leaded high-test, ethyl, twenty-seven cents a gallon.
It was almost eight when I pulled up across the street from Jimmy’s and a gray sky filtered twilight. A cool breeze came off the lake and promised rain. I put the top up, locked the glove compartment, and the car, then crossed the street. The bar looked like a run-down gin joint I supposed blue collar workers kept in business. Two large, round windows looked out from the front, myopic eyes with beer sign corneas.
I stepped through a side door someone had propped open with a chair, into a dismal, Edward Hopper atmosphere, my nose assaulted by the musty smell cigarettes and beer contained by papered walls that had begun to peel in places. Three sheet metal guys surrounded Linda. There were half a dozen men beside myself. Three women sat at one of four Formica tables, perched on mismatched chairs. They watched the scene through cigarette smoke haze illuminated by diffused florescent lighting, wives most likely, who’d been dragged along.
She saw me coming in and broke away from her admirers, came to greet me in a dark blue, low-cut satin sheath dress she had worn to last year’s banquet for homecoming queen. She’d been a runner-up. The fabric fit her top and bottom like a glove I would have loved to put my hand in.
“Dave, you’re late,” she chided.
“Dearie cooked a fancy dinner, so I had to stay and eat.”
“You smell like beer.”
I might have had one . . . over dinner.”
“Umm. Well, I’ve been here since seven, helping Larry do the decorations.” Red and blue crepe-paper streamers had been thumb tacked to the wall in places and balloons hung unenthusiastically beside a string of cut-out letters spelling, Happy Birthday.
Somebody dropped a nickel in a big Rock-Ola juke box—Elvis Presley, “Now and then there’s a fool such as I . . . ”
“Elvis is about to join the army, or get drafted.” I said as some jerk a few years older than myself came up.
“Hey, Linda! Baby! Dance with me.”
“Oh, Larry,” Linda introduced us, “This is Dave.” He had a solid build and slicked down, black hair combed into a duck-tail.
“Hey! It’s good ta see ya. Put’er there.” He tried to crush my hand, a Hoosier trick that didn’t work. He looked a bit like Marlon Brando, open-collared shirt and hairy chest. Not smart enough to hold her interest, I surmised. I hoped. “Let’s see now, you’re the college boy. That right?”
“For nine more months.” I tried to minimize the less than subtle put-down.
“Right! He patted my left shoulder condescendingly. “That’s great. And now, if you’ll excuse us . . .” He swept Linda out onto the floor. His workmates cheered.
“Hoo, hoo! Hey, look at Larry!”
“He’s a ladies’ man,” someone remarked.
I watched him dip her, an elaborate Fred Astaire attempt that almost spilled her bosom from the dress.
“Whoops!” Linda cried, then started laughing as the others cheered. She pulled her top back up.
I thought about the first time we had sex. I had been lucky, at the right place, at the perfect moment. I had given her dog-like devotion, and she’d loved that, but tonight was different. She had become popular again, sought after. I felt awkward, foolish, out of place, and with a desperate need to somehow join the others. It would not be easy to insert myself into the group of guys that gathered at the far end of the bar. I looked around me trying to figure out what I should do. The walls were decorated with a spew of witty posters.
I walked over to a massive, antique bar carved out of solid oak, its surface scarred with years of dents and cigarette burns, spills. A tarnished, brass rail footrest was still bolted to the floor. I took a time-worn, vinyl cushioned stool, dead center of the bar. Seemed like a plan. “I’ll have a Bud.” I waved my hand. Bartender had been chatting with the guys down at the end.
“Coming right up,” he said.
A velvet, Dogs-Play-Poker, painting hung above a mirror reflecting liquor bottles lined along it, and the dance floor just behind me.
I tried hard to focus on it, but could not help watching Larry holding Linda. I acted unconcerned, but felt my stomach tighten as I finished off the beer.
“A Hamm’s beer, and a shot.” Someone had left the group of metal workers and now climbed onto the stool beside me. “Same for this guy, too.” He nodded my direction. “My name’s Ernie.”
“Dave.” I shook his calloused hand.
“The drinks are on the house tonight,” he told me, “courtesy of South Side Sheet Metal. You’re Linda’s friend from school, right?”
“Yeah. I’m working at Chicago & Northwestern for the summer.” I felt overdressed and slid my tie off. All the others were in open-collared shirts and slacks, the women too, except for Linda. She looked sexy as a pin-up picture, nylon stockings and a garter belt discernible through the thin fabric of her dress. I ached for her, and guessed the other men had Linda on their minds as well . . . the women too.
“I’m glad to meet you.” Ernie looked to be some ten years older than myself, a foreman maybe—average sort of guy with crew-cut, dark-brown hair. A thin scar ran from his left wrist up to his elbow, a sheet metal cut, I guessed. “I never got past high school. Must be fun at college. Lots of chicks, huh?”
“Sometimes. Mostly it’s just lots of work, a lot of reading, boring lectures. I’ve got nine months left to go.”
“Then make the best of them, my friend. You’ll find out soon enough what real work is.” He downed his shot. I followed suit, not wanting to be seen as less that manly, if not macho with these guys. My time with Dearie gave me lots of practice with the hard stuff. I could handle it.
“Bartender, bring two more,” said Ernie. When they came he held his glass toward me. “Here’s to college girls.”
I downed the second shot of some unknown cheap whiskey with an awful taste I tried to chase away with beer. The record changed and Julie London sang, “Cry Me a River.” Someone else was holding Linda now, an older guy, bald headed, short, and ugly.
“Al’s wife couldn’t make it.” Ernie saw me watching their reflection in the mirror. “Big Al’s our boss.”
“. . . cry me a river . . .”
Linda laughed, pushing herself back from his embrace. “Now, Al!” she warned him cheerfully.
I cleared my throat and did my best to seem sincerely interested in sheet metal. “I heard you guys are getting lots of work.”
“Good money, if you want a real job. All the larger companies have started getting air conditioning.” The record ended.
“Dance with me.” She had come up behind me. Thank you, Jesus!
Juke box changed to, What’d I Say, Ray Charles. Fast dancing was what we did best, or second best, before she was expelled. I felt uneasy as sheet metal eyes were glued to her erotic movements, like a pack of hungry wolves. Bored wives alternated nasty looks across the dance floor. Linda never had a lot of female friends. I felt her body heat as tiny beads of sweat appeared above her lip, and I remembered her sweet, salty kisses. God, I wanted more of those.
The record ended. I found change to play some slow songs on the juke box, but somebody had her on the floor again before I finished punching buttons, dancing on my nickel. Linda’s body pressed against him, laughing, having a great time. Damn her! I punched Rock Around the Clock to get me back into the game. I guessed my competition couldn’t fast dance . . . maybe Larry. I picked out another slow one, hoping I would be her partner when it played, and walked back to the bar determined not to crowd her. The engagement ring I’d bought on credit waited in my car. Somehow I knew that it would be tonight or never. I could feel it in my bones. What would she say?