A skateboard dangles from Seth’s left arm, scuffed grip tape scraping his skin, the filthy wheels still spinning. With his right arm, he unlocks the wooden gate and lets himself in, not bothering to close it behind him. A quick glance around the party reveals no signs of dogs, just shrieking children and tired parents with shirts stretched across bulging bellies.
He sees Kelly mouth the words “Jesus Christ.”
He watches Danielle whisper something viciously to her husband Jack then storm off.
He hears Lisa hiss at Ricky: “You seriously invited Thirst!?”
Someone somewhere mentions “last time,” and the phrase hangs suspended in the air, suffocating the mood like a damp quilt.
Seth navigates his way through the minefield of plastic children’s toys, his eyes focused on the cooler up against the side of the house. He shakes a few male hands, reciprocates some forced, tight-lipped smiles, and nods at the sparse greetings of “Hey, Thirst!”
He doesn’t particularly care for the nickname, but nobody ever asked his opinion. Seth Hurst said fast enough sounds like “Thirst” anyway.
At the cooler, he clears off two nearly-full beers from the lid before opening it and plunging his hand toward the bottom, fishing out an ice-cold can. He twirls the frosty aluminum between his fingers, looking for the ABV. 4.7%. Smirking, he drops the beer back into the ice bath, selecting instead a double IPA, obviously part of a hipster variety pack. 8.2%. Much better.
He cracks open the can on his way toward the recycling bin to deposit the two empty airplane bottles of Devil’s Cut that he polished off during his quick cruise over. He notices Danielle posted up next to the bin, so he turns sharply and walks in the opposite direction. Instinctively, he pats his back pocket, and warmth flows through his chest as he feels the half-pint of bourbon.
“Thirst!” a clap on his back sends a spray of beer foam from his mouth.
Ricky stands beside him, looking out over the hordes of children running and falling, screaming and crying, snotting and slobbering across the backyard. Tucked away toward the fence, a brightly-colored pinata swings lazily from the playset, a donkey with a gaping grin, teeth clean and white, eyes wide open as if holding in a fart. The children’s playset looks like the set to a children’s play: a giant dark wooden pirate ship complete with a climbing wall up its starboard side, thick ropes suspended from the mast, and a brown sliding board curling out from the poop deck like a dog turd. The maudlin donkey dangles from the bowsprit, waiting indifferently for a child to spill its insides out on the ground, its guts surely matching the flamboyance of its exterior.
Seth shakes his head as he remembers pitching the idea to his friends about having an adult party, complete with a bouncy house and pinata. But instead of filling the pinata with candy, he’d said they’d fill it with adult fun: airplane bottles of booze, lottery tickets, loose Black & Milds, bottle openers, condoms.
“Who the hell still uses condoms,” Jack, an overweight father of three, sneers, scratching the bald spot beneath his scally cap.
The idea of celebrating his upcoming 40th birthday by exclusively drinking 40s was also nixed as soon as he opened his mouth. A reference was made to his infamous Thirsty Thirty party, and with it, the conversation ended.
Not surprising, as he couldn’t even round up the troops for Thirsty Thursdays anymore.
“Thirst! I’m surprised you came!” Jack says now, suddenly standing next to him. “I mean, after last time and all…”
Last time. Seth couldn’t remember what the last time was. Or when it was. He could remember the sultry weather that turned the Fritos and generic tortilla chips left out in the bowl limp. He could remember skating home as the sun was setting, that happy hour when the day yields to night. Stopping to buy a six-pack. He could remember arguing with the clerk who told him they were closing and that he wouldn’t sell him beer anyway. Seth couldn’t remember the outcome of the argument. He could remember pissing behind the Dumpster, his urine mixing with the wretched-stinking garbage juice trickling from the drain at the bottom. He could remember standing outside the door to their home, struggling to fit his key into the lock, the metal bent from popping the caps off of bottles at Jack and Danielle’s.
That was back at the old place. Before he lived alone.
Jack and Ricky are talking about how much of a pain in the ass building the playset was but stop awkwardly when Seth looks at them inquisitively, silently trying to recall an invitation to help. Ricky mutters an excuse about checking on the kids or the cake or some bullshit and slinks off. Jack follows.
Seth finishes his beer, crushes the can in his fist, and heads back to the cooler. Besides the lone lightweight pilsner, the only cans left are tall and skinny flavored seltzers. Seth frowns and fishes out a brown bottle, a regular IPA that appears to have been left over from the last time. Using the plastic bottle opener he keeps in his pocket to avoid ruining the key to his new place, he pops open the beer and slips the cap and opener back into his pocket.
With beer in hand, he meanders about the party. Sunlight filters through the sparse leaves still stuck to the crooked branches of the trees. Kids clutch juice boxes and Capri Suns, scampering across the yard screaming and squealing. Adults laugh and sigh and gossip and complain.
“Thirst! Cheers!” Greg clinks bottles with him. His girlfriend (or wife? He can’t remember), Brandy, forces a smile. At least he remembers her name.
“I can’t believe you still skate, man,” Greg offers, an ambiguous smile snaked across his face.
Kelly mutters something to Brandy about driving, or not driving, and the two women separate themselves from the men.
“But I keep forgetting you moved, so I guess it’s not that bad of a trip. Last time you were here you were still living with...”
Danielle interrupts with an announcement that the cake is going to be served. Children scramble toward the house, dropping toys on the lawn and knocking over lawn chairs along the way. Adults slowly shuffle toward the back door. Seth polishes off the beer and grabs another bottle from the cooler. He starts reaching into his back pocket but stops, remembering the talk of “last time.”
He waits until everyone has entered the house before making his way toward the back of the yard, his eyes set on the monstrous pirate ship and the dopey dangling donkey.
Behind the pirate ship playset, on the port side, is a latticed ramp leading up to an enclosed area with a gunport on the starboard side. Seth slowly climbs the ramp and makes himself comfortable in the darkened cabin. Or at least as comfortable as an adult could get in the belly of a children’s playset. He fumbles out a pack of cigarettes from his left pocket and lights one, making sure to blow the smoke out the opening on the port side so no one would spot him. Three drags into his cigarette, he realizes he has nowhere to ash and feels like an absolute asshole doing so inside the cramped cabin. He quickly chugs the rest of his beer, surprised at how much is still left, and ashes his cigarette into the bottle, stifling a hoppy burp.
With a satisfying soft snap like that of a wishbone splitting, he cracks open his back pocket bottle of booze and takes a solid sip. After the previous cooler-chilled beers, the bourbon burns his throat and heats his breath. His head immediately feels lighter, and he floats cautiously, awkwardly, like a week-old dollar store helium balloon hesitatingly hovering above the floor.
He leans back against the wall and smokes. When was the last time he was on a playset? When was the last time he played? When was the last time he was here? He exhales his last drag from his cigarette and drops the stub into his empty bottle. The cherry extinguishes with a pleasant hiss.
His eyes scan the dark interior of the pirate ship and stop when they meet the eyes of the pinata donkey staring blankly at him through a crack in the wood.
“Cheers, party animal!” Seth laughs to himself. He takes another deep pull from the bottle and coughs. “I feel ya, man,” he tells the paper mache party supply. “I used to be the life of the party, just like you.” He sips. “Guess I passed the torch. Now I’m just an ass,” he adds, laughing out loud and bitterly to himself.
Yup, Seth thinks, just a lonely pirate on a suburban booze cruise, sailing the seas of make-believe ease. A boozy buccaneer, at the mercy of the winds and tides, riding those amber waves of fermented grains.
He sighs. It wasn’t always this way. There was a time when the children loved playing with him. The funny uncle, all energy and no discipline. The one with silly faces and wacky dances. Uncle Seth, not Uncle Thirst.
When was the last time the children addressed him?
Back when not just the men talked to him? All of them at that?
Back when he was Seth? Before he was Thirst?
A screen door slams and Seth snaps to attention. Footsteps on wooden stairs followed by a trail of screaming children approach the playset like a herd of Clydesdales. Seth scrambles to his feet, bashing his head on the low ceiling above him. He has to decide what to do. What would the moms say if they found him holed up in a children’s playset, reeking of cigarettes, alone with a bottle of booze?
He could hear Ricky explaining to the rambunctious children the rules of the pinata.
“You gotta whack it HARD, right in the middle. Pretend it’s your worst enemy and really unleash on it.”
Seth slumps back down and hides beneath the gunport. He can see the crowd of children lined up behind Ricky. Parents stand holding cell phones and their breath.
He begins inching his way toward the port side, toward the latticed ramp that would lead him to the back of the ship, hidden from the view of judgmental moms. He’ll circle around the stern, past the brown turd of a sliding board, and join the group, watching from afar, innocent and supportive. As if he belonged. As if it wasn’t just Ricky who had invited him.
Feet first or head first, he tries to decide.
His empty ashtray bottle thuds on the leaf-covered lawn. To his relief, the dull sound of a hollow Wiffle ball bat weakly connecting with the pinata drowns out his clumsy mistake.
Cheers erupt, stunted by Ricky's voice. “Almost! One more hard hit and you got it!” Seth guides a foot onto the latticework of the ramp. He stops when he notices someone’s kid staring at him. He holds a finger up to his lips.
The crowd erupts in cheers.
A child screams.
The sound of the snap lingers in the air, like a damp twig being stepped on beneath a pile of rotting leaves.
The top half of the pinata lies crumpled on the ground, a dented gash split right behind the forelegs. The ass-end dangles from the string, spilling candy onto the ground beneath it. From Seth’s vantage point, it looks like a rainbow fountain spewing up from the weedless lawn.
Thirst dangles there, a pathetic pendulum, his fractured fibula protruding preposterously from his sweat-sheened shin, his outstretched arms scratching the grass beneath him, his ears deaf to the static noise around him. Items rain down from his pants pockets: keys (house, not car), lighter, cigarettes, bottle caps, the two empty airplane bottles, the half-empty half-pint of bourbon.
The children who haven’t noticed scoop up candy spilled from the donkey’s torn-open belly.
Those who have noticed cry, faces buried in their mother’s tasteless shirts.
Suspended upended he feels no pain. He smiles, his face a frown to everyone else. His eyes meet those of the destroyed donkey, soon to be discarded along with the candy wrappers and wrapping paper and paper plates.
And he knows this will be the last time.