by Michael Reiss
The house is festooned with lovely colorful birthday decorations – streamers banners, HAPPY BIRTHDAY, HENRY!, balloons, and other similar strikingly colorful paper and plastic products. Two piles of party hats sit on the dining room table, which is set for 16 people. The cat strolls disinterestedly under the table and rubs the back of her head lasciviously on the leg of a chair.
Agnes and Henry sit next to each other one person apart on the couch. They wear party hats, elastic pressing into their chins. Their party hats are securely attached. Both Agnes and Henry are impassive and sit very calmly, barely breathing. Henry’s cheek twitches upward slightly and he turns his head stiffly toward Agnes on his left. “This will be fun. This will be lots of fun. Yes?”
“Of course, Henry. This will be fun.”
The cat steps carefully over their feet, as she passes her masters on the couch.
“What time are the guests due to arrive, honey?”
“Yes, I told them to arrive at 1 p.m., Henry.” Henry looks at the window facing him, almost pensive and almost confused. Then he looks back at Agnes, slowly.
“What time is it now, my darling?”
“It is 7 o’clock p.m., Henry. Yes.”
“Hm.” There is air in the room and there is an audible room tone.
The cat walks over to the feeding dish and begins crunching on the rock-hard offerings. A single fly hovers above the cat and circles aimlessly. In quick succession, from above, the fly smells the cat food, the cat, and the cat’s anus, a chapped and crusty thing. As the fly approaches the feline’s anus, the cat whips her tail, missing the fly by a whisker. The fly points his nose upward and flies to the ceiling, stopping there to regroup and to plot another approach. Before the new plan materializes, the fly senses something on the kitchen table. A big hunk of beef sits in its own juice. The beef looks almost fake, having dried for a period of time. The fly lands on the beef and shits.
“Yes, Henry. Honey.”
“My party hat is getting a bit tight.”
“Mm, yes. I think.” Agnes smooths a ruffle in her floral dress and picks off a cat hair.
“Maybe I should take it off.”
“Oh, no, Henry. We are expecting guests.”
“Mm. Oh, yes.”
The fly shits in a line on the beef, enjoying itself thoroughly.
The soft, almost imperceptible room tone continues.
“Yes, Henry. Honey.”
“I cannot feel much in part of my cheek.” Agnes scratches the tip of her nose with her right index finger nail.
“Do you think I should take it off?”
“Oh,” Agnes pauses for a moment. “I don’t know.”
The fly pitters off the beef and jumps into a bowl of hardening yams, miniature marshmallows melted in various indiscriminate spots, and begins defecating again.
“I do not feel well. I feel rather ill. A little under the weather.”
“Oh. That is interesting.” Henry shows mild puzzlement.
“Why?” Agnes says
“Because I feel rather ill. A little under the weather. As well.”
Henry’s facial expression shifts back to stasis.
“Could you please take my party hat off?”
“Please could you remove my …”
“Yes. Please. Darling.”
Agnes and Henry both look at each other for a moment. Agnes breaks the silence.
“But we are expecting guests for your birthday party. Darling.”
“Yes. Yes. But my head does not feel normal.”
“Oh?” She pauses. Henry looks at her in anticipation. “How does it feel normally?” Henry freezes.
“Well…” he starts. Henry’s eyeballs tilt toward the ceiling, stare hoveringly in their sockets at that angle for five seconds of time, the eyeballs becoming aware that they are made of a variety of jelly, then back down to the window in front of him. “Please could I take my party hat off?”
The cat pauses at her bowl, attempts to swallow, and lifts her head back, opening her mouth. She coughs and then hacks, then hacks again and coughs again. Panic begins to set in and she wheezes and wriggles delicately. If she were human, her face would be turning shades of blue.
The fly moves on to the cauliflower.
A pebble of cat-food shoots from the cat’s mouth back into the dish and bounces into the adjoining empty water bowl.
Henry reaches up to his head and touches the party hat with his palm. He peers at Agnes from the corner of his eye. Looking back at the window, Henry draws a deep breath, holds it, then snatches the party hat from his skull, but Henry yanks in the wrong direction and the party hat snaps back and flies errantly off the other side of his head, flying past the somnolent gaze of Agnes. The party hat lands on the yellow carpet and scoots beneath an ostentatious living room chair. The party hat teeters for a moment under the chair, almost remaining upright, then topples onto its side.
“Ahh. Better.” Blood rushes back into Henry’s cheeks.
“We have guests coming.”
“Yes. We do.”
“Yes.” Henry and Agnes exchange a nondescript glance, as they both sit calmly.
“What time is it?”
“It is seven-oh-three pee-em. Henry.”
Henry places his right index finger on the crease of his pants at his knee and follows the crease meticulously and slowly up to where it disappears, somewhere between his hip and his crotch.
Michael Reiss has been writing for 30 years and has also worked in the film industry. He lives in Rochester and has a weekly radio show on WAYO.”