“Uncle Jack’s Surprise,”

Fiction by Kat O’Neill

   Wally was turning 90. I never thought he’d make it past 70 so it was cause for celebration. I blew up the green balloons that I had left over from St. Paddy’s Day and made Jimmy go out and get a cheap cake. News of a party got people talking. Most of the conversation went like this, “Do we have to get him a present?” Followed by, “All right, if we don’t have to get him anything, we’ll come.” And Wally is loved. I can only imagine what they’d be saying if the party was for me.
   I wasn’t sure how much of a surprise to make it. The last thing I wanted was a corpse landing on or anywhere near the cake. It’s a mess to clean up. And it kind of kills the mood. Anyway, blowing up all those balloons really took the wind out of me so I thought I’d go in the back and pass out for a while. I said, “Tom, watch the bar.” He nodded. I was almost in the clear when the door opened and Dave walked in. “Hey Jack,” he yelled, “What’s with the balloons?” “Wally’s turning 90.”
    “Ninety?” responded Dave. “He looks terrible for 90. I thought he was much older than that. Do you think he’ll make it to 105?”
    “Sure,” I responded. “Why not? He can still drink men half his age under the table.” Dave said, “Anyone who makes it to 105 receives a telegram from the Queen.” Tom said, “I am sure you have to live in England to be eligible. I can’t see the Queen sending telegrams all over the world. She’s too busy waving to do that.”
    I said, “Who the hell makes it to 105?” Dave said, “You just said Wally would.”
    “I was kidding. The Queen might as well make the cutoff 120.” Tom laughed. “Actually, Jack,” responded Dave, “I looked it up. In 2012 there were 10,000 people over 105 in the world.” I said, “That can’t be right.” Tom tossed back a handful of bar nuts and then proceeded to cough most of them back up as he said, “I knew a woman who lived to be 112. She smoked Camel non-filters, drank nothing but cheap whiskey, lived on buttered rolls, fried bologna, and meatloaf and rode her bicycle right up to the day she died.”
    “What’d she die of?” asked Dave. “A broken heart. Her boyfriend of 80 years died the week before.”
    “That’s the cutoff here,” said Dave. “Once you turn 80 and every year after that you can get a birthday card from the President. But I’m sure they’re gonna stop that soon. There are like eighty million baby boomers in their 60s. Even if only half of those live to be 80 or more, at three dollars a card, we’re talking $120 million. I don’t think the deficit could handle it.”
    Tom laughed as he said, “Who asks for a card from the President? Nobody. How many cards did President Obama send out last year?”
    “I don’t know,” replied Dave. “Why don’t you go home and look it up?”
     “Why don’t you go home and look it up?”
    “Why don’t you both go home and look it up?” I barked as I poured myself a drink. I could not believe neither of these two guys was impressed with a love story that lasted 80 years. An eighty-year love affair. That’s a beautiful thing. I don’t know if she died from a broken heart or not but it was definitely boredom that did him in.
    Dave put his hand on my arm as he said, “How long do you want to live, Jack?” I took his hand off my arm as I replied, “What time is it now?” Tom laughed as he tapped the bar for a refill. I said, “What the hell are you doing tapping the bar? I’ve got the bottle in my hand.” He said, “I thought you were only pouring yourself a drink.”
    “I run a bar, Tom. If I were only pouring myself a drink I wouldn’t make any money. Wait, I take that back. None of you guys pay anyway so maybe I should just focus on refilling my glass.” Tom shyly slid his empty glass forward. I refilled it. He glanced at the empty nut bowl. I gave him a look that said, “You are chewing on this bar rag before you’re chewing on another free nut.” Tom backed off. Dave hung his head low like he was admiring his old shoes or looking for more spare change on the floor. I knew he’d come up for air sooner or later.
    And before you know it there he was looking longingly at the tap. As I slid a cold one down the bar he said, “So, what’s the theme of this party, Jack?”
    “I told you, surprise.”
    “That’s not really a theme.”
    “Okay. You want a theme? I’ll give you a theme. ‘Winter Wonderland.’ That’s the theme.” Tom spun his cocktail napkin with his index finger as he said, “You know the more I think about it the more I realize I have no interest in making it to 105, even if I could get a telegram from the Queen or 25 cards from the President.”
    “Don’t be too hasty, Tom,” replied Dave, “I read that for every hundred men over 85, there are 237 women. You know the odds can only get better from there.” Tom laughed. I grabbed the bat from under the bar and strongly considered beating myself over the head with it.
    The door opened. In came Wally. I said, “Wally, what are you doing here?” Wally said, “I heard you were throwing a party.”
    “It was supposed to be a surprise. How’d you find out?”
    “I ran into Jimmy on the street and he asked me if I spelled my name with a y or an e.”
    “I knew I shouldn’t have sent Jimmy for the cake.”
    “It’s all right, Jack. I hate surprises.” Wally looked around the bar. “But I really appreciate all the decorating you did. I mean blowing up those five, no wait, six old balloons. I’m touched, Jack. Really, really touched.” Dave and Tom laughed. I said, “I was going to let you take those balloons home, Wally. But now forget it. And by the way, in case you were wondering, it’s a ‘Winter Wonderland’ theme.”
    “Oh yeah. I see the uh, the frost on the windows. And the snow outside. You really went all out, Jack.” Dave and Tom laughed. I tossed the bat and served up Wally’s favorite, Guinness with a shot of Jameson, as I said, “Drink up, my friend, while it’s still on the house, because you know what you’re getting next year? A card from Obama.” And damn if Wally didn’t look thrilled.

   Kat O’Neill is an East Hampton writer whose work includes pieces for the stage, screen, television, and radio. A number of her “Uncle Jack” stories have been previously published by The Star.