This story is by Erica Roberts and won an Honorable Mention in our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Erica Roberts was born in Newark, New Jersey. She is an elementary school teacher by day and a fiction writer by night. She loves writing short stories and is working on her first novel. You can find more about her current and future projects on Instagram at @ericaohnowrites.
Marty was slow to wake, slow to rise on the morning of his seventy-fifth birthday. At least, he thought it was morning until he eyed the green 12:06 on his alarm clock. Instinctively, he rolled over and felt for Lori but the bed was empty and neat aside from the crumpled sheets on his side. He groaned into his pillow and listened to the quiet.
The hum of the fan, the rumble of cars a block away, his own inhales and exhales. He could almost feel the quiet house with its thick, cold walls closing in on him. He got up then, with the agility of a man much younger than seventy-five.
His bedroom door swung open on hinges much too loud. Each stair whined and creaked under his bare feet. In the kitchen, he listened to the coffee gurgle as he poured it into Lori’s favorite mug.
Marty walked to the front door and peeked outside. Tiny droplets began to form on the windows. The sky was low today, sitting just above the pine trees lining his property. He could just make out the street in front of his house through the fog, but to the left and right, his neighbors’ homes were completely obscured. He listened for cars and heard nothing.
He slurped the last of his coffee and turned back toward the kitchen.
“AH!” he shrieked.
Lori stood there, her nose an inch or two from his own.
“Jesus, Lori, you scared the living hell out of me.”
Lori smirked. “Happy birthday, honey.” She pecked him on the lips. “What are you doing creeping around here? Why aren’t you dressed?”
Lori rolled her eyes. “For heaven’s sake, Marty, yes! I knew you were sleeping in but I thought by the time you came downstairs you’d be halfway decent.”
Marty smacked his head gently. “Right! I’m sorry, hon, I don’t know how I forgot. Too many beers last night, I guess.” He gave her a small smile.
“Too many beers this month,” she teased, tapping his belly which was getting more and more round these days.
“And too much sugar and cream in this,” Marty said, raising the coffee mug.
“I’ll take this,” she said, reaching for the mug, “and you go get dressed before everybody gets here.”
A car door slammed outside. She paused to listen. “Ah, I can hear Shorty and Horse already.”
Marty cocked his head towards the backdoor and listened to Shorty’s booming, dog-like laugh. He smiled a great, boyish smile. Lori rolled her eyes playfully.
“Go on,” Lori said, and walked past him to the kitchen. He watched her carry the mug with both hands.
I’ll need to wash that later so it’s ready for me tomorrow, he thought.
Marty hurried up the stairs and into his bathroom, washing up quickly. He stepped out of the shower and was toweling his legs when he suddenly stopped.
Was he humming?
Baby, I need your loving. Got to have all your loving.
He hadn’t hummed while showering since . . .
He cut off the thought. He didn’t want to think about that. Not today. This was his day. May Day.
Marty finished drying himself and walked over to the bureau. On the way, he tripped over Lori’s house shoes. He had left them there.
He took a long look in the mirror. He was a handsome man. His face was relatively free of wrinkles. The lines in his forehead were not deep, but the lines around his mouth were.
From years of laughter, he thought.
He looked at his eyes. There was no laughter there. His droopy, sad eyes were the only parts of him that looked seventy-five. They were eyes that had witnessed lots of loss and suffering.
He thought of the people downstairs. People he loved.
Marty smiled then. He listened to the chatter, the door opening and closing, the laughs and greetings floating up the stairs to meet him. He smiled until his smile reached his eyes.
Satisfied, Marty left the bedroom. He was ready to celebrate.
In the half hour he was upstairs, his living room had filled with guests.
“Happy birthday!” they all shouted at him.
“Happy May Day!” he shouted back.
The living room vibrated with laughter. The gloomy look the house had a half hour ago was gone. The sun shone brightly through the windows, bathing his family in warm, pale yellow rays.
Marty walked around, hugging and kissing his family and friends, and wishing many of them a happy birthday.
“Happy birthday, Aunt Mags! You don’t look a day over fifty.”
Maggie waved a wrinkly hand. She had turned ninety-six a week before.
“You too, sis. Happy birthday! How old are you again? Ninety-five?” Marty turned away from Shirl’s swatting hand.
“Go on away from here!” Shirl said, laughing. “Seventy-five? More like seven and a half!”
“The man of the hour!” Shorty shouted as Marty embraced him. “How’s seventy-five treating you, Mart? Need to borrow my momma’s cane yet? How about Maggie’s Depends?”
Horse clapped Shorty on the back.
“Age mighta taken your hair and your good looks, Shorty, but it can never take your humor,” Marty said, chuckling.
“I would hope not. It’s the only good quality I got left!”
“You got that right,” Marty’s grandson, Ryan, murmured from the couch.
Shorty snatched the kid’s phone and tossed it.
“HEY!” Ryan shrieked.
The men only stopped laughing when Lori announced it was time for cake.
Another tradition of May Day. Cake before food.
Marty clapped his hands. “Alright! Everyone around the table! Go!”
The excited chatter and squeals moved from the living room to the dining room where eleven seats were set up. Eleven giant cupcakes, each with a candle, sat in the middle of the table. Eleven places for the eleven guests with May birthdays.
The kids rushed to the table to grab their favorites. As greedy hands shot across the table, Marty sat at the head and beamed. Next to him, Maggie was waving Shirl’s hand away from her face.
“I can do it, Shirl. I’m ninety-six, not dead,” Maggie fussed.
“I just want to fix the napkin in case you spill.”
“Hey! That one’s mine!” Janine shouted.
“Ouch!” Ryan yelped.
Marty laughed at his daughter slapping her own son’s hand away from a green cupcake.
His granddaughter, Nia, snagged a blue and purple frosted one from right under Horse’s fingers. Nia stuck out her tongue. Horse made a face.
At the other head of the table sat Marty’s son, Floyd. Floyd was hugging his own son, Jude, who was shrinking away from Horse.
Horse, nicknamed for his wild, long black hair that he had since he and Marty were kids, had flipped his eyelids inside out and was grunting.
“Ew,” Nia said, rolling her eyes and scowling in a way only preteens can.
Next to Horse was Shorty. He was exchanging loud, obnoxious jokes across the table with Janine and flicking sprinkles at her.
Lori swatted him. “Stop that,” she said, and Shorty shrank away, whimpering like a puppy.
Marty laughed, then turned to Lori. His sweet Lori, always at his side. He bore his brown eyes into her browner ones and said, “Happy birthday, my love.” She was seventy-five today, too.
Lori lit her candle, then Marty’s.
The family standing on the outskirts of the dining room sang “Happy Birthday” to the eleven seated at the table.
Marty looked around the table again. Maggie hummed with her eyes closed. Shirl bent to pick up Maggie’s napkin. Janine and Shorty were conducting stupidly. Nia hugged Ryan’s neck and sang along. Ryan gave her the death stare. Horse pulled Jude to him and rocked along. Lori patted her knee with the music. Floyd lifted his cupcake to his dad and smiled.
When the singing finished and the applause died down, Lori gave Marty a small smile and said, “Make a wish.”
Marty closed his eyes, smiling, soaking in the love from all the people around him. Maggie’s warm hand closed around his. Lori took his other hand.
“Wish,” Marty said to his family, “in one . . . two . . . three.”
Marty didn’t open his eyes right away. He listened to the intake of breath from around the table. He heard ten different blows from ten different people he loved. He also heard thunder, then rain. It crashed down around him. He added his own whistling blow to the mix.
Maggie and Lori’s hands dropped from his own. There were no whoops or applause.
Marty tasted salt as a single tear slipped into his partly opened mouth.
Sucking in a breath, his smile now completely gone, Marty opened his eyes.
His cupcake, yellow with blue frosting, sat on his plate, the candle still smoking.
He sat at the head of the table.
He lifted his head.
Around him were ten empty seats.