Hooter didn't want any surprises for his birthday. He'd made that clear to everybody from Aunt Pinkie, to cousin Charlie, to his runnin-buddies, to his new girlfriend, Claire.
If anyone asked him what he wanted for his birthday, he'd growl, “What I'd really like is for people to leave me alone about my birthday.”
Whenever any of them would ask him how he planned to celebrate the beginning of his fifth decade on earth, he'd just scowl and say, “It's just a number and just another day.” Then he'd quickly change the subject.
But it was plain to all who knew him that hitting 40 made Hooter madder than a badger with a toothache.
“Never knew you had so much vanity,” scolded Aunt Pinky. “The fact that you're still alive is living proof that angels are at work on this earth even if their selection is questionable. Every day you've got on this earth is an honor. You best be thankful for what you have, rather than whine about what you don't, young man.”
“I said it didn't bother me,” grumped Hooter. “What bothers me is everybody making a big deal out of it, then wondering why it irritates me.”
Aunt Pinky ignored him. “I'm almost twice as old as you are and you don't hear me complaining about the fact.”
Even little Bugsy, Claire's five-year-old daughter, was puzzled by the way the usually laid back Mr. Hooter was reacting to mentions of his birth.
“I like birthdays,” Bugsy had announced. “There's cake and ice cream, stuff to unwrap, and last year I even had bloons that floated in the air. You reckon you'll get to have bloons?”
“You should enjoy your birthdays,” said Hooter. “For adults it's different, though. It's just another day. Some folks like to celebrate and make a big deal out of it, and some others would just as soon not bother with it.” He emphasized the last while giving Bugsy's mom the evil eye.
Hooter had an idea. “Tell you what, Bugsy, let's go ahead and start planning your next birthday party.”
“But why's it different for growed-ups?” pressed Bugsy. “You were born, too, weren't ya?”
“Well, then why don't you want to have a party? Mama says the day I was born was the happiest day of her life and that's why we have a party every year.” Bugsy suddenly wrinkled up her forehead in concern: “Don't you have anybody happy you were born?”
Hooter smiled. “That's not the point, exactly…”
Claire interrupted with a smile, “But that's exactly the point, Hooter. Bugsy is absolutely right. You not wanting to celebrate your birthday doesn't mean some of the people happy that you were born don't want to celebrate—like Bugsy and me, for instance…no matter how ancient you might think you are, Methuselah.”
“Mama, who's Methuselah?”
“It's just an expression, bug-bug,” said Hooter with a smile. “Your mama just basically said that I was older than dirt. Still and all, there's some of us that would a lot rather go to a birthday party for someone than have one ourselves.”
“Then, far be it from us to interfere with your celebration,” said Claire.
“When was dirt born?” wondered Bugsy.
The Gift that Keeps on Giving
Hooter has his wish. Finally, folks quit bugging him about his birthday. Even Bugsy quit asking him why growed-ups and kids celebrated birthdays differently. In fact, everyone avoided the subject so completely that when Hooter's birthday finally did roll around, he plumb forgot about it. It wasn't until he hurried into Charlie's shop—responding to an urgent call from his cousin to come give him a hand, quick—that Hooter remembered.
Just as Hooter crossed from the sunlight into the shadowy interior there was a small explosion, then the sound of breaking glass that made him hit the deck and holler, “Charlie! Duck!”
As he scooted into a crab-crawl position to scout his cousin, the overhead light came on, some firecrackers went off, and Hooter was staring up into the faces of all his friends shouting, “Happy Birthday!”
Multi-colored streamers were anchored to the tin roof and swayed in the breeze. Glittery confetti was drifting through the air. Robert Earl Keene was blasting from the shop stereo. A table was piled high with packages. Aunt Pinky's best punch bowl was sparkling and filled to the brim. All his friends were holding up punch glasses or bottles of Pearl as they saluted his 40 years.
Hooter was speechless for a moment. Still crouched down, he spied a disgusted looking Charlie: “I thought you were in a jam. What in the world was that explosion?”
“That,” said Charlie, looking up at his broken skylight “was just one more of Izzie's plans working a whole lot better than the actual reality.”
Izzy held up a potato gun and grinned sheepishly. “I got caught up in the excitement,” he said. “It did a good job of spreading the glitter, but…” Hooter and the rest interrupted the explanation with peals of laughter. Even cousin Charlie had to giggle.
“You didn't think we'd let this day pass without a celebration, did you?” said Peetie Womac, grinning from ear to ear as he presented Hooter with a frosty bottle of beer and a 5-can roll of Copenhagen, both wrapped in red bows.
“Yeah,” said Lonnie, sticking out his hand, while drilling a straw bale with a jet stream of Mail Pouch. “At your age, who knows how many more times we'll get to celebrate it.”
Amid the congratulations, the warmth of family and friends, the music and the sounds of folks having fun, Hooter forgot that he should remind everyone that he didn't want them to make a big deal out of his birthday.
“See there,” said Claire, wrapping an arm around him, “It's not so bad, is it?”
“Yeah,” chimed in Bugsy, “There's cake and everything.” She handed Hooter a torn and jagged piece of orange rubber with a string attached. “Oh yeah. I brought you a bloon. It went off, though.” Then she wandered away, with her mama close behind and Hooter shouting over the crowd, “Thanks, Bugsy!”
“Hey Hooter?” shouted Izzy, holding up the potato gun. “Bet you can't knock a bottle off Charlie's hood ornament.”
Mischief sparked in Hooter's eyes, as he saw the blood leaving Charlie's face: “Bet I can…”
“Oh no you don't,” hollered Charlie, elbowing his way through the crowd and running after them.
As Aunt Pinky watched Hooter head out the shop door to continue their decades-long game of tag she leaned over and whispered to Claire: “You know, the pity of all of his birthday nonsense this year is that if his mama hadn't lied to him all those years ago, we could have avoided all of his whining now, or at least got through earlier.”
“What do you mean?” wondered Claire.
“Seein's how your sweet on that boy, you best know, but don't ever breathe a word to him.” Aunt Pinky, made it more a question than a statement. Claire nodded.
“You see,” said Pinky, taking a long draw of punch. “Hooter was little for his age, so when he was five his mama decided to not let him start school until he was six. Then, right before he would have started when he was six is when his folks got in a storm and had to move over here from Mississippi. What with the late start and all of the new kids, his mama figured she'd give him some time to adjust. Next thing you know, he's seven and headed to Kindergarten. But, Hooter never knew that. You know, from the day he was born, that boy has always wanted to make everything a race. There's no telling what he might have done if one of us had told him the truth. Like I say, he was little for his age, no one around here knew any different, so his mama just never told him. That's one reason he remembers so much about his 4th birthday. I reckon I'm the only one left who knows. Now you do, too.”
“You mean…” started Claire
“Yep, he was really six when he thought he was four.”
“Yep, he's no more 40 years old today than Jesse Jackson is a mute midget. Best as I can recall he'd be 42; and here he is getting all bent out of shape over something that happened two years ago. Ain't that a caution?”