My Birthday Celebration I was nine and small for my age, but the canvas pup tent was barely big enough for both of us. We slept in our underwear between two army blankets. My dad was telling me a story about the time he handed out squirt guns to five guys who worked with him in the machine shop. When the foreman wasn’t looking, one would shoot him in the back of the head. When the foreman turned around, another would shoot. And so on. He could never catch them in the act. I was laughing so hard I started to cough and wheeze. The moist night air made matters worse. My dad, as usual, grew impatient with my wheezing. “Stand up, walk around,” he barked. “Maybe that’ll help. You shouldn’t have had that milkshake.” The milkshake had been his idea, a substitute for the cake I didn’t get for my birthday. And this fishing trip to Lake Kegonsa State Park in Wisconsin was in place of the birthday party that was canceled because my father had disappeared for a few days. “Sorry, Junior,” he had said when he finally got back. “Had things to take care of.” That’s what he always said when he returned from what my mother called a bout of boozing. I crawled out of the tent, stood up and took a few cautious, heavy breaths. I recalled how much fun I had with my dad a year earlier on my eighth birthday. We had gone to Wrigley Field to see the Cubs play the Brooklyn Dodgers. In addition to being my birthday, it was the first day of Passover. I knew the prohibition against eating leavened bread. My mother had given us two sheets of matzo wrapped in a napkin. But in the top of the fourth, I begged my father to buy me a hot dog, forbidden bun and all. “Your mother will kill us if she finds out.” “Please, Dad. I won’t tell.” “Okay. Just because it’s your birthday.” I devoured the hot dog and a Coke. “Not a word, right?” “Not a word.” That seemed now to be so long ago, ancient history.
It had been dusk when we first reached the state park. I remembered seeing the tall stand of trees separating us from the lake where we planned to fish in the morning. It was dense and deep green. Now several hours later, with a new moon and a cloudless sky, I saw nothing but black ahead of me. One way lay the lake, cold and full of hungry fish; the other my father’s old Plymouth filled with fishing poles, tackle and the jar of worms I had collected the night before. A bright light from the edge of the clearing clicked on, blinding me. “Daddy,” I yelled in reflex. My father jumped out of the tent and pushed me behind him, both of us still in our underwear. “Get back,” he growled. “What’s going on?” he shouted to the light. “Park ranger. You can’t sleep here.” The light came closer and in a few seconds we could see the uniformed man. “There’s no camping here.” “Look,” my father said, “It’s eleven o’clock. The kid’s got to sleep. Where can we go this time of night?” I was wheezing again. “Junior,” my dad said out of the side of his mouth. “Shaddup.” The ranger looked at my father, a beefy chunk of a man with wild black hair and bulging muscles, and moved his flashlight to my face and then back to my father’s. “I ain’t a travel agent, buddy. Now pack up and be on your way.” My dad was clenching and unclenching his fists and for a second I thought he was going to attack the ranger and beat the shit out of him. I’d seen him do it to bigger guys. But he merely turned to me and whispered, “C’mon.” We dressed and piled the tent and blankets in the back of car. When he was really angry, my father mumbled to himself. Driving out of the preserve, he was mumbling, “asshole,” and “jag-off.” “I should report him,” he said finally. “Making a wheezy kid get up and move in the middle of the night.” Then he hit the steering wheel hard with the heel of his hand. “I shoulda punched him out. The jag-off.” Fifteen minutes south of the preserve we pulled into the parking lot of an all-night bar. “C’mon. I need a drink.” I followed my father into the bar, tucking my shirt in my pants as we walked. “Shot and a beer. Coke for the kid,” my father said to the bartender. “He’s not allowed at the bar,” the bartender said, nodding at me. “Take one of the tables over there.” He pointed to an alcove where there were four tables, two of which were free. “Grab a table, Junior. I’ll be right there.” I took the one closest to the door and watched as my dad downed two shots at the bar before bringing over a third along with the beer and my coke. He sat down. “Now we’re cookin’ with gas.” He was getting the slur in his speech that showed up after he had a few. “Where we going to sleep?” I asked. “Don’t worry your head about that,” he said, ruffling my hair. But I did worry. I always worried. Right now I was worried my father would spend all our money on liquor and we wouldn’t have enough for gas to get us back to Chicago. He had come home plastered one morning six months ago, having spent or lost most of his paycheck and we didn’t have enough for the rent. We’d been evicted twice before and forced to find other places to live. I was afraid it would happen again. Right before we left on this trip, my mother gave me five dollars. “Just in case,” she said. “And don’t tell Daddy.” I knew what she meant by “just in case.” Maybe other kids could go on a fishing trip with their dads, giddy with excitement and with no worries, but I started this trip with the fear that somewhere along the way the money my mother had given me would be necessary. There was a commotion at the far end of the bar. “Look at that old Indian Head slot,” my father said. “Looks like someone hit the jackpot.” He downed the shot and stood up, grabbing his beer. “Wait here.” My father was gone for a long time. I could see him talking to a couple of men and a young woman. He’d say something and the woman would laugh. Then he’d laugh and pat her on the shoulder. He bought her a beer. Then another. After a while, he and the woman came over to the table. “Junior, this is Miss Porter. Miss Porter, this here’s my son. Miss Porter just won twenty-five bucks on that slot over there. Twenty-five bucks! Figure it’s hot, so we’re going back and play some more.” “Hi,” I said almost whispering. Miss Porter was leaning against my dad, playing with a button on his shirt. She was tall and thin and she had long black hair. She seemed as embarrassed to meet me as I was to meet her. “What’s your name?” “Herman.” “Nice,” she said. “You okay, Junior? Need anything? Another Coke?” my dad asked. I told him I was fine and the two of them went back to the Indian Head slot. I counted the number of people in the bar. Thirty-four, thirty-five, something like that. Some drinking alone, some in groups. After a while, I could no longer see my father or Miss Porter. I didn’t know if they had gone somewhere or if the crowd around the slot machine hid them from my view. I was getting tired and put my head on the table. I had a feeling Daddy would lose his money to the Indian Head trying to impress the woman. This made my stomach churn.
When I lifted my head, things had become quieter and, counting the bartender, there were only seven people left in the bar. My father was sitting next to me. “I found a place for us to stay, Junior. You get to sleep in the back seat of the Plymouth—I put everything but the blankets in the trunk—and Miss Porter said I could sleep on her living room floor.” I mumbled an objection, but my father said, “That’s the way it’s going to be. Let’s go.” We parked in an alley behind a three-story apartment building. “I don’t like this, Dad. Why do I have to stay here alone?” “Because it’s the safest and most comfortable place. I’ll be sleeping on a hard floor. You get to stretch out on the cushy seats. And the locks on this car are safer than the locks on any house. I’ll leave the keys with you. If something bothers you, just honk the horn and I’ll be down in a flash. You’ll be fine.” He kissed me on the head. “Just keep the doors locked and don’t open them for anyone but me. Got it?” “Yeah, I guess.” I pulled both army blankets over me and shut my eyes. My dad was right about it being comfortable and I began to relax. Maybe everything would work out. Tomorrow we’d be at the lake, fishing. As I lay there I remembered the cost of another women my father befriended. It must have been a year and a half ago. My father had said, “Take a ride with me, Junior. I’ve got to pick up something.” We had the same old Plymouth, one of the few pre-War cars still around. Dad was good with cars and kept this one running smooth. I didn’t know where we were headed, but pretty soon my father pulled into the parking lot of the bank. “I’m in some trouble,” he said. “There’s this woman at the bar down on Kedzie? She’s making trouble for me, trying to hold me up. Making up some cockamamie story about her and me and promises she claims I made. Only thing I ever did was dance with her. She’s looking for a handout.” He put his hand on my knee. “You’ve got over five hundred in your college savings account. I need it to make this woman go away. It’ll be a loan and by the time you graduate high school it’ll all be there. I’ll pay it all back.” “That’s my college money.” “I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t really need it, Junior. What did I say? Didn’t I tell you it’s just a loan? His right hand was on my knee and the fingers of his left hand were drumming on the steering wheel. What choice did I have? “Yeah, but you got to promise on your word of honor you’ll pay it all back.” “Damn it, Junior, I already told you I would.” I started crying. “Quit your bellyaching,” my father said, and when I couldn’t, he slapped me. “Sign,” he said, shoving the withdrawal slip into my hand. I signed the slip and got out of the car, slamming the door behind me. I walked aimlessly around the neighborhood for about an hour before heading home. Telling my mother would just get her in trouble. So I became an accomplice to my father’s larceny just as my mother had become an accomplice to his drinking. I knew the money would never be repaid. I knew the anger that boiled inside my father would never abate and that he’d never stop drinking. I wondered how my mother and I would get along if he ever left us for good.
I was startled by the barking of a dog in the yard across from the apartment building. After twenty minutes or so the dog fell quiet and I nodded off. I didn’t know how long I was asleep when a banging on the window awakened me. It was still dark. My father, in a loud whisper, was saying, “Junior, Junior. Open the frigging door.” I let him in. He grabbed the keys from me, gunned the motor and we drove off in a hurry. Over and over my father kept murmuring, “Son of a bitch. Son of a frigging bitch.” “Where are your shoes?” I asked. “I used one of ‘em to beat the bejesus out of this guy and I didn’t want to take the time to look for the other one. Son of a bitch took my wallet. Must have slipped it to Miss Porter. Couldn’t find it anywhere.” “What are you talking about, Dad?” “Miss Porter. Turns out she had a boyfriend. Showed up unannounced at about two-thirty. Got the wrong idea when he saw me asleep on the floor. We got in a fight. Jaggy almost killed me.” “Why was he mad at you?” “That’s just it, Junior. I don’t know. Comes in, finds me sleeping on the floor of the living room—just like I told you—and goes berserk.” My dad had slowed down to about twenty on the state highway. He tended to go real slow when he’d been drinking, which I always thought was a good thing. But he was drifting back and forth across the yellow line when the cop pulled us over. “Not a word about Miss Porter or her boyfriend. Understand?” “Yeah,” I said, but I really didn’t. Before my father rolled down his window to talk with the policeman, I gave him the five dollars. He looked at me strange, but took the money. My dad told the officer his wallet had been stolen, that he was left with just five bucks. The officer asked him to step out of the car and noticed he wasn’t wearing shoes. “Took my wallet and my shoes,” my father explained. “Brown alligators.” They put my dad in a jail cell until the next morning when he could appear before the judge on a drunk driving charge. I got a cot in the sheriff’s office. They notified my mother and she came up by bus the next morning with a pair of shoes and my dad’s army discharge papers to prove he was who he said he was. The fine wiped out our savings and on the ride home my mother didn’t talk much to my dad. He promised her one more time that he’d stop drinking, that he’d straighten out his life. The fishing pole and tackle were stored in the trunk along with the jar of dead worms. I sat in the back seat crying softly and wondering how long would it be before the next time.