Today is a special day. He is not sure yet what is going on, but he knows that today is special.
He gurgles some more, looking up at them with his brown eyes, feeling the curiosity, the need to know, burning in his tiny chest like a shrunken furnace.
Mom and Dad put the new blue and white bib on him and move him up to his high chair by the table, right there on the end of the table where Dad normally sits. But Dad isn’t sitting on the end of the table today because today is Sammy’s day. The boy sits there like a king.
Out comes the cake, light blue and white just like the bib. One big candle is already burning on top. As it burns a small trail of smoke tumbles up towards the ceiling. The wax is solid, then liquid, then gas, then up it goes. Rising throughout the process, it is deified before vanishing. Mom and Dad sit in one small silent moment and then, looking at each other, they begin together. It’s a new song for Sammy.
Dad leans over and blows out the candle because the baby doesn’t yet know his part. They all sit there and watch the candle smoke. The tail forms whorls and canyons, intricately insubstantial. Slowly, the wick cools. As the temperature drops smoothly down through the scale, Dad reaches over and puts his hand on the boy’s head. He feels the white, cotton soft hair. Then his hand stops moving. He just lets it lie there, feeling warmth and giving it.
-Today you’ll get your wish.
23 pairs of eyes will all follow the flames, watching them rise and fall like dancers. The warm light will flicker, weave, flash, the logs will pop and sparks will rise. Bonfires are his favorite way to celebrate. The bonfire comes every year after the songs, the cake, the presents, the funny hats and wishes are over and darkness falls.
As the sun drops and ignites the sky, Sammy’s anticipation builds. He can’t take his eyes off of the window.
-Is it time yet?
And then it will be time, when just a moment before it wasn’t. Sammy and his friends, his parents and their friends, everyone, walks out to the pile of dry logs. It looks like a wooden pyramid, a tomb. As if they have entombed the last year of his life to give honor to the new one, to “5”.
Dad doesn’t use gas or lighter fluid; his fires are done the way nature intended. He starts it with a matchbook, the kind you fold backwards to strike.
Slowly the fire builds. From the heart it grows out, laying down coals, whispering smoke up and up, until it’s too high and thin to see.
Around the fire, the light softening their faces, making them appear intimate, they all tell stories to each other. The one fire unifies, consecrates them. Afterwards Sammy’s clothes will reek of the unity. He will have been washed in it.
Mom and Dad put him to bed, but his day isn’t finished yet. After the house has gone quiet he sits up, listens, and then slowly, slowly, pulls back his covers. He moves like a pajama’d specter, with the infinite caution of a child working a secret ritual. He walks over to his small chair, pulls it to the window and stands up on it. Looking out he can still see the embers glowing, dying. He stares out until the black and grey pile has become cool with the last of its heat spent on the ground and the sky and his clothes and hair.
-It died for us.
As he wakes up he feels two things simultaneously. The first is a wrenching confusion located somewhere in his intestines and the second is an overwhelming thirst. He can barely swallow, he is so thirsty.
-Where am I?
The pieces slide together as they always do. He is in his room in the new house.
Get up, drink a couple glasses of water, shower, breakfast, and then sit down and watch the TV.
-You’ll still have your special night tonight, just like we always do.
Mom’s glance lasts a few seconds too long, and then drops.
He just sits and watches, not moving a muscle.
He thinks to himself,
-I’m 12. I’m 12 and the first thing I’m doing is watching TV.
Something about this thought doesn’t sit right, so he turns the TV off and decides to do something new. Walking into his room, picking up an old beaten-up Top Flight notebook and blue ball-point, he sits down. He realizes that he has no idea what he is about to do but inside his chest he can feel something strange, like a pressure building. And then he starts writing:
-Why are birthdays always such a big deal? It’s just another day. I think some part of us misses dancing around fires in a cave somewhere and we just want to take any excuse to sing songs and have a ritual.
That pressure he felt has begun to slacken now and it feels good. He knows that he has to continue. Gradually, his practiced penmanship devolves into that hasty scrawl of the confessional, of the first trembling stretch and flap of just-discovered wings. The rest of the day is a blur of off-white paper and sharp blue lines. There is singing and cake and the bonfire and all the pomp and circumstance of the young prince taking one more measured step towards manhood, but all that is peripheral, incidental. They are things that just happen to be for and about and around him. The reality is that his heart has caught fire and the fire is spreading.
Before the Sun rises, Sam has already risen. The special day has come again, but Sam hasn’t asked for anything this year but some peace and, of course, the bonfire. His chief concerns now are healing the broken and seeking out the Authentic. Cloistered there in his room, its dark red walls set ablaze by the new sunlight, he does his alchemy. He is an alchemist, he has realized. Performing arcane passes through the air with his hands, drawing symbols, letters, and [expertly placed] punctuation marks he is transmuting reality itself with devastating efficiency into this distilled, pure, imminently legible form. Surely this work will reduce the self-seeking reader to tears. The tears will be painful, but they will bring healing. Sam’s art will heal the soul wounded by the American Dream and its empty pursuit. That is his vision and his destiny. He is more than an artist, musician, and poet; he is an Authentic Being with his finger on the wild pulse of the universe. He can keep an eye on his watch while feeling that pulse and describe it in 7/8 time on a microphone. Or, better still, he can wring from its heady froth some pure glistening prose so sublime that it could bring the most mundane of souls into a dedicated pursuit of life’s headwaters. No, today he would receive no gifts; today he would give a gift. He would give the only gift he knew how to give.
12 hours later, everything was ready. He and a select few were outside around the fire. His father and mother were there, along with his siblings. His small group of friends was there, what few bohemians could be found in a typical Midwestern town. Each guest had also brought a few friends of their own, as the tradition went. The fire was cracking and rustling, nudging the logs toward immolated freedom. The stage was set for his gift; all that was left now was to give it. He took to his feet and without preamble began to declaim in a loud voice.
As he speaks there is a strange ringing that he can hear building inside his ears. He is suddenly conscious of just how loud he has been speaking. Beginning now to stumble over his words, he momentarily reconsiders his choice of venue.
-Too late to stop now,
he thinks to himself and then continues.
He now takes a measured and [he believes] more adult tone. In his mind’s eye the darkened skies are opening and a voice from heaven is ringing out, like at Christ’s baptism. But will the bystanders hear his impassioned argument in favor of a wholehearted pursuit of truth and beauty or will they only be frightened of the thunder, as were the Israelites?
Upon finishing, he heavily resumes his seat with the air of a king who has just issued a weighty judgment.
-It is good to be the king.
his mother hesitantly begins,
-How…nice! Thank you.
He is confused.
He has decided to change his methods.
-If I can’t reach anyone with sincerity, then I will through satire,
He would become a parody of their suburban ethic. He would allow himself to be immersed in their concerns, drown himself in their diversions, become more like them than they were themselves. Someone would understand, turn and be healed. He would do his best impression of them. He would watch Dancing with the Stars, wear khakis, and drink vanilla chai….whatevers.
-For my birthday dinner…
-…I would like to go to T.G.I. Fridays. After that we can go to Showplace and…
here he couldn’t help but shudder
-…watch the new Die Hard. That’s really all I want. Ok.
A few hours later they were all piled in the car. He could barely contain his smirk while walking into the restaurant. The tremendous irony which nobody but he himself seemed to pick up on was indescribably gratifying. It was as if he was the only person wearing clothes in the whole city.
-Thanks, mom and dad!
he said loudly.
It had been a long time since he had written anything that he didn’t immediately email to a colleague. Art, the pursuit of truth and beauty, even the conscious effort behind his crusade to subvert the professional class had all fallen away. The khakis were no longer an ironic coup, they were him. And they were pressed.
He had invented a new tradition, though, one which he performed every day during the drive home. It began very simply. At a stop light he would fix his eyes on some object in the distance and slowly pull in a deep breath. He held his breath and focused completely on that object he was staring at, using his peripheral vision to drive. His pulse would rise gradually until it was thudding heavily behind his ears. Something about that pressure building in his chest felt right. His mind was active, too. He imagined that if he could hold his breath in just a little longer this time his heart and lungs would explode out and paint the inside of his windshield. He would need windshield wipers on the inside but they wouldn’t be there.
He had almost caught his breath when he pulled into his driveway. And then, stepping out of his car, it hit him. It was the smell of wood smoke. Someone on his street, neighborhood committee be damned, was having a bonfire. But he knew that it wasn’t just a bonfire, it was a bonfire today. It was on this day. The memories didn’t flood back; they rose up as gently and silently as smoke. He could see himself at 20, flushed with pride at his new undertaking, his great adventure. Then Sam at 17 rose up and started making some sort of ridiculous speech. He saw himself at 12, rising, feeling the buildup and release of his first inspiration, of his first fumbling attempt at authenticity. And even earlier, younger, less remembered Sam’s were there. They all had that burning heart, that desire to wave their hands and have everything make sense.
He understood then how far he had fallen. It wasn’t the khaki’s, it was him. His heart had just…cooled down. He had lost any sense of urgency. He stood there for a while longer, savoring that smell and the clarity that it had brought. Then he knew what he needed to do.
Walking inside, pulling open drawer after drawer, he gathered up a black Pilot G-2 and some stray engineering paper he hadn’t used since graduating. He didn’t stop to think, he just let his hand move across the paper.
“My life began on my birthday and ever since then that day has been pretty important to me…”
And on and on he wrote, long into the night. It wasn’t very good, but that didn’t matter. It was his.