The American Family Johnson Throws a Birthday
Ernie’s nephew, Fritz, received his party invitation by way of email while hauling a truckload of scratch-n-dent candies to a backcountry cattle ranch two weeks in advance. The cows loved the candies, the misshapen chews and the gummy worms and the stale marshmallows and the rainbow jimmies.
Out in the fields the cows would exchange glances as if to say, “Did you know we’ve been eating corn and grass this whole time, like idiots? Did you know about the delicious candies?”
Fritz’s truck read the email invitation to him:
My Dearest Nephew. I have been bringing it to the hole as a sys admin for too many years now. Please join me in celebration of my 40th biological year for cake and slam-dunk news. Love, Uncle Ernie.
“Slam-dunk news,” Fritz repeated in his mind, sucking a fruit drop. He had already finished all his nougats and taffies.
Ernie’s sister (Fritz’s mother), Julia, received her invitation while on a layover in Cleveland.
A flight attendant, Julia dreamt not of foreign lands but of setting world records. Once, before 9/11, she hopped into the cockpit of a 747 during refueling and taxied the beast out for spin. She had only made it up to a leisurely five miles per hour before the pilot she seduced woke from a stupor and took back control. No one was injured, so he took the heat from the higher-ups and got off with a suspension in exchange for Julia getting him off a few more times.
If she could just ever prove herself with the land-speed plane record, Julia thought, she was sure she would catch the eye of the Blue Angels and be drafted to produce a new Blue Angels ground show, something she would pitch as lighter fare closer to eye-level for the kids in the audience. Just a big plane, sort of driving around, she imagined. A bus with wings, is how she thought of it. They could set up little orange traffic cones and have her rev up the turbines and slalom around the obstacle course. Maybe there could be a storyline to make it more exciting, too, like halfway through the act the P.A. might announce that if her plane went under 120 miles per hour, it would explode. She had seen something like that in a movie once. Secretly, and mostly in her mind, she was working on a screenplay reboot of that same movie that she called, “Really Fast Land Plane.”
On her deathbed, she would lament how they never gave her a chance to really open it up. “I never got the chance to just pop the clutch and let it rip,” she would say.
Ernie’s wife, Greta, a former school janitor, had been out of town for the past year to work in an Alaskan coal mine — just for a change of scenery, she had said — but Ernie was convinced she had left because she never respected his profession. Greta had told him at the altar twenty-three years ago to the day (they married on his birthday because, Ernie said, he had never lived before he met her), “Do what you want with the computer machines, with their whistles and their whizzes and their pops and their zips, and your World Wide Webs, but don’t expect me go along with it.” She knew about the Singularity, she said. She had seen about it on TV. She knew what was coming.
The Birthday Boy
Ernie had invited Greta to his party by way of the United States Postal Service, in care of the Alaskan Coal Mining Company, LTD.
He would use the occasion, his fortieth birthday (sparsely attended) to announce his career change. No longer would he expend his labor in his lucrative position as a network systems engineer, he would say; he was to start as a professional basketball player almost immediately. He had accepted the position of scorekeeper and occasional tag-team player for the opposing team against a national touring basketball exhibition stunt squad.
An unintended consequence, Ernie began waking nightly from uneasy dreams filled with childhood taunts and the whirring admonishments of the languished disc drives he had loved and scorned.
The Cake Smuggler
Even after twenty-six years, Fritz lived almost exclusively suffocated by tight white underwear, except in the shower or bath or occasional swim. His penis had never been approached by any wandering palms or orifices, even accidentally. The anxiety of this situation, vis-a-vis cultural pressure (real or imagined) and social expectation (real or imagined), had weighed heavily on his decision to spend more time with cows: The only questions Fritz received from the cows were those he imagined and which usually involved whether they could have more candies.
Fritz had once, however, a dozen or so years prior, sandwiched the shaft of his penis between a duo of freshly baked, oversized cake balls, just to see how it might feel. It felt mostly hot and he immediately lost a terrific erection, but after the experience he would often find himself dreaming of the balls, just, everywhere: in his mouth, on his lips, grabbing them and rubbing them all over his chest and arms and neck, clapping them between all of his cheeks and crevices. He just couldn’t shake it.
Julia discovered the magic of cakes before Fritz was alive but after his father left. A pound cake was her first because it was easy to remember, just sugar, eggs, flour and butter, a pound of each. The rest of the cakes were mostly the same, but with other sugars or flours, whipped eggs or no yolks, different shapes or sizes. Add vanilla or berries or chocolates or fudge. Add yeast or baking powder. At the end there was always something to share. That was the whole point, after all, Julia thought. To have enough of something to share.
She had tried to teach her brother to bake, too, which he appreciated, and would attempt for family holidays.
Where Greta had actually been living for the past year was in a shed on the far corner of Ernie’s property, with the exception of a three-month stint shacked up in an RV two towns over with a man who had first told her he was a hedge fund manager but in actuality was just a man who owned an RV. Each day he would leave for work while Greta scrubbed the RV, interior and exterior, but he would really just go for long walks, smoking cigarette butts he found discarded along the road.
Greta had never intended to be a janitor. When she started in the school system, her plan, first of all, was just to get in. “Take any open position,” she thought. “It doesn’t matter what. Just get your foot in the door. Then, work hard. Be friendly. Complete your tasks with excellence. You will be noticed. Recognition will be bestowed on you. But of course remember your place. Do not be overeager. You are lucky to be here, after all. And finally, with patience, one fine day someone will call in sick or maybe die even, if they are so called, and no substitutes would be found, and one of the vice principals will run out of his office, hands flailing, worried about the potentiality of a classroom full of young minds exploring the curriculum without a proper guide. Into the wilderness of the hallways he would cry, ‘Bring me that janitor who scrubs the toilets to an unbelievable shine, who waxes the floors and polishes the knobs and erases the boards with an effervescent effulgence! Whose incorrigible will refreshes all who walk these doldrums! Find me that savior of sanitation, that troubadour of tidiness, that expert of EPA-registered chemical erudition! Find me that woman to water these young minds that they might bloom! And your reward will be greater than all the gold and all the silver in all the land!’”
And Greta, she imagined herself, would walk out of the restroom, mop in hand, tear in eye, and erupt: I AM WHO YOU CALL. And the vice principal would usher her into the aching classroom and show her how computers worked, because with so much at stake she would finally agree that she should learn, and she would be off to the races.
“This is linear algebra,” she imagined saying, and then the children scribbling wildly, struggling to keep up with her lesson but absorbing it completely, little light bulbs exploding in their eyes. She imagined that by the end of the day the superintendent would hand her a $50,000 bonus check and a plaque that read: TEACHER OF THE YEAR.
Greta arrived at Ernie’s party covered in black dust. It was “from the mine,” she claimed, talking with a drawl she said she picked up in Alaska.
“Well butter my butt!” she went on. “When I heard about the party I dropped my pickaxe and took the first flight in.”
Of course, Greta had been aware that Ernie’s birthday was coming, and therefore their anniversary, and she knew there would be cake, because Johnson parties always had cake. She loved cake (if not the man who baked it), so she covered herself in black dust and rang the bell and hoped she could find a way to once again move back into the main house.
The party (mostly Fritz and Julia) erupted upon Greta’s arrival with toasts of great joy and toasts of great congratulation and toasts of great whimsy. They had been worried about Ernie, alone. And there was, of course, a cake, shaped and decorated like a smooshed basketball.
With all the guests arrived, Fritz especially was looking forward to having the cake gone and eaten.
And how the Johnsons talked about basketball, basketball, basketball, and inevitably how Greta’s first romantic liaison had been with her high school basketball coach, or rather a man who said he was the high school basketball coach, a tale she always recounted with braggadocio and desperate pandering eyes, how he ever-so-gently told her to lay still one night after hours in the gymnasium while he removed her clothes and inserted deflated basketballs into her various orifices, and told her how special she truly was as he slowly inflated them, cooing to her, “Who’s my three-point shot? Who’s at the top of my key?,” taking photographs and then inflating just a little bit more, a little bit more, first this one and then that one, then taking more photographs, and then finally covering her with a pyramid of fully inflated basketballs, measured exactly to eight pounds per square inch, and taking more photographs, before leaving her to be found there, and how he was so good to her that day, she said, like nothing she had ever experienced before, and how she was never able to truly enjoy a man ever again.
Greta emphasized the phrase “truly enjoy” as if she was the beneficiary of some secret knowledge, while she stared off into the distance.