On the small table in the den lay a piece of mail that Pinchik had seen the day before but hadn’t touched. Now he circled the table looking at the envelope as though it were a ticking bomb. The envelope had an odd shape but seemed vaguely familiar. It made Pinchik nervous.
Mrs. Pinchik, watching from the kitchen, said, “That’s from yesterday, that mail. Open it already.”
“I know what it is.”
“What is it?”
“See the funny shape of the envelope?” said Pinchik. “Looks like what? Looks like a walrus. Big things sticking out. See the big things sticking out? That’s a walrus. It’s from Fertig, the big dentist. He’s telling me I should have a checkup on my teeth, I didn’t have one for a long time. Last time I went I ended up with implants. We almost couldn’t go to Florida, that’s how much it cost, the implants from Fertig the big dentist. And he said, ‘Next time Pinchik, you might need root canal, you got stuff in your mouth, doesn’t look so hot.’ ”
“That’s what Fertig said, ‘Doesn’t look so hot?’ ”
“Maybe not exactly, he used dentist talk. Who listens?”
“Most people, they listen. Anyway, you’re wrong. It’s not from Fertig the dentist.”
“You know that from standing over there?”
“I told you. That’s yesterday’s mail. It’s for both of us.”
“It’s a different dentist?”
“It’s not from a dentist. It’s from your niece Lisa.”
Pinchik froze. From his niece! Had a kid maybe a year ago. Sends him something shaped like an animal. Could only be one thing.
Pinchik said to his wife, “Not going. Definitely not going.”
Mrs.Pinchik, anticipating this entire conversation, said, “Not going where? You didn’t open it. You don’t know what it is.”
“I know what it is,” said Pinchik. “She’s inviting us to the kid’s birthday party. Not going.”
“We’ve got to go,” said Mrs. Pinchik. “She’s your niece. It’s Rita’s first birthday. It’s important.”
“Love her. Don’t like children’s parties. Besides, I’m busy that day.”
“You didn’t even open it. You don’t know what day it is. But I know, I already opened it. It’s August 22, in the afternoon. And we have nothing doing that day. I called her and told her.”
“Not going,” said Pinchik, “not going.” He muttered that to himself because he knew he would be going and already pictured himself there and remembered what had happened when his other niece had a birthday party for her Sammy.
The party that Gail had for her son Sammy’s first birthday, Pinchik had also insisted he wasn’t going to, and when he got there he was hoping that the baby was crying and they’d have to leave. But the baby wasn’t crying.
So Pinchik followed his wife as she walked in. And he recognized a lot of people from other birthday parties, like the English couple, he couldn’t remember their names but he remembered that the last time he spoke to them he didn’t understand a word they said. Also there was a couple the husband had a last name it was different from his wife’s, go figure, so he walked in the other direction until he saw he was approaching someone he didn’t like but couldn’t remember why. He stopped dead and just stood there. In every direction was somebody he didn’t know or couldn’t remember their name or couldn’t hear or didn’t like. He stood for several minutes and he hoped people figured he was thinking about something important and didn’t want to be disturbed.
It was warm. No air conditioning. Pinchik was already sweating a little in the suit he wore for weddings, birthday parties, and funerals. He wondered why his cousin, the hotshot real estate guy, couldn’t buy his daughter Gail an air conditioner.
He went straight to a bridge table on which was a dusty bottle of liquor outnumbered by bottle after bottle of Doctor Brown’s cream soda, celery tonic, seltzer, and Diet Coke. The alcohol he recognized as an almost completely filled bottle of Cherry Heering he remembered from the last time he’d been at this house, when he’d asked for a glass of Chivas and his cousin Jay, also the grandfather of the birthday boy, looked at him and said, “We got Cherry Heering. Everybody drinks Cherry Heering now, it’s the in drink, comes from overseas, it’s really tasty. Taste it.” He tasted it. It wasn’t tasty.
Pinchik saw a large chair and sat down in it.
A 5-year-old came over, stared at Pinchik close-up in the face and said, “Wow, you’re old aren’t you? What are you, a hundred years old or something?”
“Yeah,” said Pinchik “Over. I’m over a hundred years old.”
The kid shouted to another kid, “Corey, look at this guy, he’s like over a hundred years old or something.”
The other kid came over, stared close up into Pinchik’s face and said, “My brother says you’re over a hundred years old. Are you really over a hundred years old? How come, how come, you’re not dead. If you’re over a hundred years old you should be dead.”
Pinchik, never a violent man, had to hold himself back from whacking the kid on top of his head.
Pinchik searched for his wife. She was standing with a group of adults that included his niece, who was holding the birthday baby. They came as a crowd toward Pinchik.
“The baby loves you,” said Lisa. “Look how Sammy’s staring at you.”
As far as Pinchik could tell the baby could care less about him and he was about to say something when Aunt Emily swooped down close to the baby who was now frighteningly near Pinchik’s special occasion suit jacket and said, “How big is the baby? How big is the baby?”
And the baby made a face, which Pinchik interpreted as throw-up time. But then Aunt Emily picked up the baby and went to some other guests and said, “Look at that face. Did you ever see such a face? You could eat it up. Alert? Catches a ball, you could kvell.”
And Pinchik thought that all the people, the men at least, would at that moment love to be home already watching television, or playing solitaire or sleeping. But the birthday cake wasn’t even in sight.
Mrs. Pinchik came over and said, “Pinchik, there’s delicatessen sandwiches in the kitchen, have a sandwich, don’t get coleslaw on your tie. I don’t want you to drink on an empty stomach. And wait till you see that cake. Special cake they brought from a special bakery on the island, it looks terrific.”
At that moment, Holly, a kid who always seemed to be at Lisa’s house, he never figured out why, shouted, “We’re cutting the cake, everybody come and help the baby blow out the candle.” And everybody gathered around the table with the cake while Gail held the baby, who had a strange expression on his face.
Pinchik thought that expression meant, “I wish everybody would get the hell out of here so I could play with my duckie wuckie that goes ‘quack quack.’ ”
But Lisa held the baby facing the single candle, and Holly sneaked in to blow out the candle in case the 1-year-old understood what was happening and wanted to blow it out himself.
Then everybody sang “Happy Birthday” to the baby and they cut the cake. Which Pinchik didn’t like, they had better cake in Brooklyn. In the old days, anyway.
Pinchik went back to his chair holding his cake and fork in one hand, the Cherry Heering in another.
“So how’s it going, Pinchik? ” said Jay. “Some kid, hah? You should have seen him yesterday. Talks like a regular Einstein. Everything is ‘Poppy, Poppy, Poppy.’ Sometimes ‘Nana, Nana, Nana,’ but mostly it’s ‘Poppy Poppy Poppy.’ I’m his favorite. One look at me he’s grinning all over the place. Is that the Cherry Heering you’re drinking? Good stuff, hah? Me, personally I don’t drink, you know that. I have to keep control all the time in case I get an emergency call the oil burner broke in one of my apartment houses.”
Pinchik nodded throughout. Actually he couldn’t hear anything his cousin said because both batteries on his hearing aids went out. But he had watched his lips and when he saw a pause Pinchik would say something like, “Aha!” Or, “Yeah.” Or he’d shake his head in sympathy or he’d smile depending on what he thought Jay was saying.
Mrs. Pinchik appeared again and said, “Pinchik, you’re sitting the whole time. You’re not talking to anyone.” Pinchik said, “This is a long party. It’s longer than usual.”
Mrs. Pinchik said, “We’ve been here a half-hour. We didn’t even open the presents yet. Mingle. Talk to someone.”
Pinchik didn’t mingle. Pinchik didn’t talk to anyone. He sat in the chair for another two hours, sweating. The room in the three-room apartment was now humid, smoky, and uncomfortable because so many people were crowded into it, and more people were coming in constantly.
And that’s the last thing he remembered about last year’s party. Mrs. Pinchik drove them home, Pinchik sleepy from the Cherry Heering.
Now Pinchik looked again at the invitation to this year’s party for the other niece’s kid.
And he went to the phone, called Doctor Fertig the dentist, and told the receptionist, “This is Pinchik. Doctor Fertig said some day I might need root canal somewhere on a tooth on the left side, maybe the right, I forget which. Tell me, you have an afternoon opening for August 22?”
Peter Nord lives in Amagansett and Manhattan. His work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Playboy, Esquire, The New York Times, and The Star. A collection of his stories titled “Pinchik and Other Kvetchers Plus the Official Tennis and Potchky Manuals” will be published this summer.