The Cookie Sun
by James Yates
Miles thought his son’s birthday party looked like a festival for an international dictator. Jack’s birthday gifts were made of plastic, not diamonds or gold, piled up on tabletops, stacked against the wall. Wrapping paper bunched on the floor like tumbleweed, and the decorations–a mix of balloons and Iron Man cutouts–were as excessive as they were gaudy. Jack was first in line for food, punch, and cake, and as the party went on, with ups and downs in its frenetic energy, his sugar high and perceived grandeur never waned. He was even wearing a cape.
Miles grabbed a pack of cigarettes from the top of the microwave and zipped his jacket. There was the sound of clomping feet in the hallway, and Jack brought himself to a halt near the refrigerator.
“Christ, what have I told you a thousand times, Jack?” Without breaking his stern eye contact, Miles did a sleight of hand and slipped the cigarettes into his back pocket. Normally, he’d make mental notes of the situation to share later with Emma: Jack’s embarrassed body language, his mumbles and downward glances in the face of wrong-doing, the little boy’s lower lip quivering in an adorable half-pout.
“No running with this in the house” came the boy’s Pavlovian reply. He lifted his miniature hockey stick with upraised palms and placed it on a kitchen chair like a religious offering. The two looked at each other quietly until Miles nodded, allowing Jack to carry on as normal, minus the stick. He turned around and walked back to the living room. Miles ached to be outside, but went to check and make sure the party hadn’t spiraled out of control in this span of a few minutes. He leaned against the doorway. Emma was bent over, gathering bits of popcorn and cookie crumbs into a trash bag. Her sweater lifted slightly above the small of her back, and he stared like he had years before, when, slightly buzzed, he watched her as she leaned over a pool table to set up a shot and looked back at him, then sank the nine into the corner pocket.
Now she stood up and cricked her neck from side to side. Her ponytail shook like a finger. Her feet crunched through a few yards of massacred gift wrap, she stretched her arms above her head, and blew an erratic strand of hair from her face. Just one of her unintentionally sexy moves. She felt his stare and looked up; he smiled a too-big smile, a politician’s grin. Emma didn’t say anything, and resumed her tidying up.
Three of the kids slopped watercolors on a makeshift grid of dollar store poster boards, the rainbow of liquids sickly running into the newspapers spread underneath, the previously gleaming boards now a collage of Pollock-like dots and squirts, drooping, crestfallen flowers, anatomically overblown ninjas. Jack and his best friend Randy stood by the bay windows, giggling, leaning back and forth. Miles strained to hear what they were discussing until he heard the words “football” and “Sunday.”
He made his way to Emma on tip toes, partly to make sure he didn’t step on an errant finger or toy. He grazed a finger along her elbow, and she pulled her arm to the side.
“Are you back?”
“No, I haven’t gone out yet, gonna go now. I had to talk to Jack. Just wanted to make sure things were under control.”
She touched his chest. Before he could lean in, he felt her digging in the tips of her fingers. “You talked to Jack?”
“Yeah, I–no, no, he was running around like a maniac with that damn hockey stick.” He frowned and turned toward the hallway. “Two minutes, then you can go out.”
She kneeled next to a small table. Miles heard her offer praise to a drawing of an elephant. In the kitchen, he poured a cup of lukewarm coffee and went outside.. A late afternoon chill had picked up considerably. He stood against the side of the house, away from the windows, and lit up. The sky was a dirty gray, even with the sun out, the air hinting at another snowfall. Miles wedged the cup into the untouched snow on the small deck table. The backyard swerved up into a long hill toward the back fence, and the snow looked like a tidal wave ready to wipe out the small collection of snowmen crowded at the edge of the patio. He paced around the perimeter, inhaling, exhaling, adding new paths of footprints. He looked up and was face-to-face with a mouthless, crosseyed snowman who looked like the victim of a terrible accident, earmuffs jammed into the base of its skull. He readjusted them, straightened out the eyes, and traced an indented mouth with his finger. In lieu of a pipe, he pulled a cigarette from the pack and wedged it into the side of the mouth, Bogart-style.
“That snowman looks better.”
Miles turned toward the soft voice. “Randy, what are you doing out here, buddy?”
“I don’t know. I wanted to be outside.”
Miles took a quick, last drag from the cigarette and buried the butt under a clump of snow.
“You shouldn’t smoke. Our teacher told us how bad it is.”
“She’s right, little man. Aren’t you cold?” He brushed off one of the lawn chairs and sat, eye-level with the little boy.
“I got my hat on,” said Randy.
“Yeah, lots. I had two pieces of good cake.”
“Jack’s Mommy is a great baker. Make sure you thank her before you leave, okay?”
“I will. Did you help make it?”
“No, I came over to put up balloons and get all the games ready.”
Randy stared into the backyard and smiled. His eyes were bright, like he was alone, encased in a glass box with his own thoughts. He giggled.
“What’s so funny, champ?”
“Look at the sun,” said Randy.
Miles pivoted and squinted at the horizon. The gray faded into hues of an early winter sunset, creating the illusion of warmth. “The sun,” Randy continued. “It looks like a cookie, like the snow is milk. It’s dunking.”
“Totally. It’s the biggest cookie in the universe right now.”
Randy considered his hypothesis. “Is the party almost over?”
“Almost. Why don’t we head back inside?”
“Are you giving me a ride home?”
“No, Jack’s Mommy will.”
“You usually drive me home.”
“I know, not today. Maybe next time.”
“Is this because of the wallpaper?” asked Randy.
Miles stood and peered into the back window to see if Emma was in the kitchen. “Wallpaper, buddy? What are you talking about?”
“That day you were in my Mom’s room. She told me you were helping look at the wallpaper.”
Miles swallowed and picked up his cup.
“The wallpaper looks the same,” said Randy.
“My dad’s mad all the time. He keeps pointing in that room and yelling a lot. Maybe he likes the wallpaper the way it is.”
“What about the moon, Randy? Could that be a cookie, too? Like an Oreo when you open it up?”
Emma stood against the screen. “Randy, what are you doing out here? Come inside, it’s too cold out.” She held the door open for him, and looked at Miles. “The others are getting picked up now.”
“Okay, I’ll stay here.”
He lit another cigarette and waited for the all-clear signal. Other parents came into the living room to zip up little coats, to whisper asides to Emma, to make sure gloves were still stowed in pockets, to see if she got a specific e-mail or link that was sent, check it out, it’s got some good information, and you’re not going out there until your boots are on.
The winds picked up, the air grew thinner, and the slight gales kicked up little tornadoes of snow around the deck. Miles remained seated, sipped the remains of his coffee, and braved the cold as an act of penance. Emma tapped on the screen.
“You can come back inside.”
“Okay. Sorry, I didn’t mean to forget about you.”
“Don’t worry about it.” Emma leaned against the doorway.
He slipped past her and kicked snow from his boots on the kitchen mat. She crossed her arms against the chill. “You did a great job today,” he said.
She blinked and nodded. “The kids were great for the most part. You did good, too. Thanks for coming over on short notice.”
“It’s his birthday, for god’s sake.”
She pulled her hands into her sweater, hugged herself, and looked away. “I know. By the way, he wants to come for the ride to Randy’s.”
“When can we talk?”
“Soon. I don’t know, I–soon. I promise.”
In the living room, Jack held up an action figure and waved it from side to side in front of Randy’s face, letting out high-pitched maniacal laughs. Randy playfully shoved him and laughed, too. He looked like an entirely different child. He was no longer somber, but cherubic. His wind-tinged cheeks made him look like an old painting, and as he played with his best friend, he was innocent again, unconcerned with Miles and his mother, engaged with Jack and whatever weird dialogue was being assigning to the toy.
“Boys, let’s go,” said Emma. “Get your coats, meet me at the car.”
“Just a couple more minutes? We were going to look at my football cards.”
Miles pulled back the drapes and looked into the street. It was snowing again. Emma gave the boys options, on the fly suggestions that Miles could never think of on the spot. Within moments, the boys’ resistance became a compromise, as Jack was allowed to bring his football cards for the ride.
Emma held the front door open with her foot and waved Randy outside. Miles kneeled in front of Jack. “Happy birthday, buddy. I love you,” he whispered. He kissed the top of his head and took him into his arms.
“Love you too, Daddy. Will you be here tonight?”
“Not tonight. But you can call me at Uncle Kevin’s.. The number is by the telephone.”
“Randy said you said the moon looked like a cookie.” He giggled.
“I did. I’m silly, right? Go, your Mom’s waiting.”
He stayed on his knees as the door slammed behind Jack. He listened for the gravel crunch of Emma’s wheels pulling out of the driveway, then walked outside and the door behind him. In his car, he turned on the wipers, which sent little wisps of snow dancing and flying up, he could swear they looked like sprinkles. More snow began to fall, and the flakes pummeled the windshield like they were trying to get inside, but gave up and coasted away.
James Yates is an MFA candidate at Roosevelt University and serves as a contributing editor to Longform.org. His fiction has appeared in Hobart, CHEAP POP, Pithead Chapel, Luna Luna, and WhiskeyPaper. Most recently, his work was included in “Baseball,” the inaugural anthology from Hobart Handbooks. He lives in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood and is currently working on a novel.