Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsFall 2017  Vol. 16 No. 2
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The Summer Birthdays

Today is Joshua’s birthday. Today is Beth’s birthday. It is Drew’s and Otto’s and Mikey’s, plus Sunny’s, too, all at once, give or take a few minutes. Drew was out first. He acts like it, too, but maybe that’s the power of belief, not birthright. The batting order went like this: Drew, Otto, Beth, Joshua, Mikey, Sunny.

When the sextuplets turned one, they were on the news: new footage plus archival birth clips from their first broadcast. Their parents taped it. Later, Joshua watched the tape over and over, trying to pick himself out.

When the sextuplets turned two and three and entered kindergarten, they were on the news, and when they graduated high school, they were in the paper—not just in the full-page paragraph with everyone, but also their own sidebar with pictures. They were on the news again when they turned 21, montage-style, cut together from different bars because some of them were in college. They couldn’t all go. There was the expense, yes, but also the insufficient variety of colleges—so many, but when they looked closer, only three or four different kinds, unless one of them was cut out for military service, and no one was.

Today, the sextuplets turn thirty without a camera crew or reporters or even their parents, who have left town, retiring to Florida—separately, as it turns out, which the six children could hardly believe for a spectrum of reasons. When they left, Drew bought their house. The rest have their own places, or at least places where they can get mail, in and around town. But Drew’s house remains the center point around which the others orbit, until they are drawn back like a fleet of rockets crashing into a single ocean.

Joshua hides in Mikey’s old room; he has hidden there so often on his return visits to the house that it has begun to feel like his own. He thinks wistfully of the other rooms he may switch to in the future: Beth’s is so clean, the white carpet more inviting than many actual beds, and if he works up the nerve to try Otto’s, it has lots of neat stuff to look at on the wall. Either would buy him a few extra minutes when Drew calls a meeting.

Drew calls meetings. Drew calls a meeting. Drew calls a meeting in the kitchen and Otto goes around the house, all two-and-a-half floors, collecting everyone, which means Joshua and Mikey and Sunny, because Beth is always there when Drew calls.

Drew calls a meeting in Mikey’s room because it’s faster than waiting for Joshua to come out.

“If we’re going to get this party together for tonight, I’m going to need help from everyone,” says Drew. “There are just some odds and ends we need to deal with. Beth, did the second round of invitations go out on Thursday?”

“They did,” says Beth. “I think it’ll be a good turnout. Not too crowded.”

“So if I want to invite someone else . . .” says Joshua.

“Like who?” says Beth.

“Like a friend of mine.”

“Like a friend you didn’t put on your guest list, or the master guest list, when we were finalizing them?”

“Like a friend I don’t know that well and I’m not making a big deal out of inviting to parties or anything.”

“Whatever,” says Beth, “it’s your party.” Technically not a lie.

“We still need someone to get a piñata,” says Drew.

“Joshua,” says Beth.

“What?” says Joshua.

“Yes,” says Drew. “Joshua, we need you to go out to Party City and get the piñata.”

Joshua speaks slowly, carefully, trying to sound logical: “But we are not Hispanic.”

“That,” says Drew, “is some racist shit I do not have time for, Josh. I don’t want to hear that.”

“I just mean,” says Joshua, “that we don’t really need a piñata, because none of us really care about having one, and none of our guests probably do either.”

“I want one,” says Sunny.

“So let’s send Sunny,” says Joshua.

“Sunny and Mikey are busy,” says Drew. “I’ve got them on decorations.” Sunny and Mikey: the last ones out, the babies, minutes younger than the rest, forever paired on the easiest tasks—the coat taking and the dish drying and the frosting tasting. If any of the other sextuplets ever finds anyone who wants to marry them, Sunny and Mikey will be the ring bearers.

“Also, I want to check out the summer sale at Doorbusters,” says Sunny, looking at Mikey. Joshua wishes for someone else to look at, some kind of mild subauthority to clear his requests. The closest he has is Beth. Beth’s not one for rubber stamps.

“Look, I’ll make a run to Stewart’s and pick up some extra soda and ice,” says Joshua.

“And then go by Party City and get the piñata,” says Drew.

“Jesus, did the octuplets have a piñata at their last party or something?”

“I have no idea what the octuplets did at their last party,” says Drew. “But do you know why I bet everyone in this town loves the octuplets?”

“Because there are fucking eight of them,” says Joshua.

“Because they’re a team,” says Drew, “and watching them, you can tell. You can tell they love each other and they’ll do anything for each other.”

“You can tell that,” says Otto, “it’s true. I saw a couple of them at the gym last week, and I could tell.”

“You can tell they love each other from the gym?” says Joshua.

“I can tell it from the news, too,” says Beth. Joshua knows exactly which moment on the news she’s thinking about. During a segment on the octuplets’ eleventh-grade community service project, just before cutting back to the anchor, there was a shot of two tanned, sweating, smiling octuplets—a guy and a girl—high-fiving, ready for framing, or freeze-framing at least.

“Hey, can we talk about that?” says Mikey, fiddling with a roll of streamers. “We’re turning fucking thirty today, and no one from the local media so much as calls. But I turn on the news this morning, and there’s this whole package on how one of the octuplets got engaged. Not even married, fucking engaged. Engaged at twenty-four. What an achievement. Fucking amazing.”

“Language,” says Beth. “That’s no way to get on the news.”

“Yeah!” says Sunny, and smacks the streamers out of Mikey’s hand. Most of Sunny’s affirmations are used this way, as a prelude to smacking something out of Mikey’s hand.

“OK, the piñata,” says Drew. “Josh, I want a really big one, like kind of ornate and classy, something with craftsmanship.”

“Like the piñatas of yore!” says Sunny, eyes wide, no one sure if she’s kidding around. Joshua wonders if he loves her the best and if this, right now, this possible sarcasm or rapture about piñatas, can really be why.

“I’ll see what they have at Party City,” says Joshua.

“Good,” says Drew, “and take Otto.” Otto says nothing, sits still, muscled arms crossed. He nods at Drew and/or Joshua and/or Beth and/or to himself, and this piñata thing hits Joshua in the chest: he’s not just getting sent on an errand, he’s being watched. Otto is a Secret Service agent trained to protect you until the wire in his ear tells him sorry, destroy Josh, bring home the piñata. Otto has never physically harmed Joshua, but the apprehension Joshua feels around his other older brother seems, to him, vaguely like abuse.

“Stewart’s, Party City, home,” says Beth. “Stop off to see Sarah Sullivan on your own time.”

Beth multitasks like a fiend, an actual fiend—she can set part of her brain off to comb through half-remembered fragments of conversations and incidental information until she figures out how to rearrange them into a plan.

“Who’s Sarah Sullivan?” says Sunny.

“Is that Sully’s sister?” says Mikey.

“Yes,” says Otto. Otto and Sully were Eagle Scouts together.

“What are you doing with Sully’s sister?” says Sunny.

“Nothing,” says Joshua. “Stewart’s, Party City, home. She’s just a friend of mine.” Joshua manages to exaggerate Sarah Sullivan’s presence in his life even when downplaying it: she is barely a friend of his.

“I heard from Sully that she hangs out with one of the octuplets,” says Mikey.

“Which one?” says Beth, while Joshua looks bored, pretends he knows already.

“How should I know? They all look alike.”

“No, they don’t,” says Joshua.

“They’re fucking identical!” says Mikey.

“No, they aren’t,” says Drew. “They don’t even look that much alike. People just assume they are, the way people assume we are.”

“We are,” says Sunny. “We are identical.”

“I’m not getting into this again,” says Drew.

“Stewart’s, Party City, home,” says Joshua, and when he gets up, Otto follows.


Here is a partial list of groups the sextuplets have proven incapable of forming:
—a cappella
—intramural soccer
—acrobatics squad
—dance crew
—model UN
—league soccer
—party-planning service
—ironic Partridge Family cover band

Here is a partial list of reasons for their inability to form said groups, compiled and disputed by the sextuplets as soon as their parents were out of the room:
—lack of team spirit
—lack of athletic ability
—lack of flexibility
—extremely poor soccer skills, like even for a kid
—bad attitude
—this is boring


Joshua and Otto pull into the Stewart’s parking lot, Joshua sitting shotgun in Otto’s Isuzu Trooper. Otto says nothing while he drives, says nothing while they wait for a girl on her cell phone to get into her car and back out of a space right up front, says nothing about the way Joshua holds tight on to the door handle like he’s working up the courage to open up and roll out. Traveling with Otto: not so bad.

Stewart’s on a summer Saturday is crowded with people who look like they’re hoping to find a secret sale on fireworks, but will settle for Stewart’s-brand ice cream and Stewart’s-brand cola drink and Stewart’s-brand blue juice (contains no juice, contains plenty of blue). Drew wants Joshua to pick up Stewart’s-brand cola for backup, to start serving halfway through the party after everyone has seen some Coke bottles around, and Stewart’s-brand ice, which is actually some of the best store-brand ice in town, not tasting much at all like hose water.

Joshua and Otto walk into Stewart’s, both aware on some level of the medium likelihood that they will run into someone they went to high school with. For the past twelve years, many of Joshua’s friends have spoken of this possibility with a varying mixture of disgust, disdain, and fear, but Joshua, while never short on any of those feelings in general, has never applied them to this situation. Guys, he says, I see people I went to high school with everywhere, all the time, forever. Five siblings have granted him townie immunity.

Joshua and Otto don’t discuss any of this. Otto just points to the register and says, “Cael,” and walks toward him, head-on, not smiling, but not hesitating either. Cael went to high school with Otto, Mikey, Joshua, Sunny, Drew, and Beth, in about that order. Otto knows him from Scouts, though Cael didn’t stick with it all the way up to Eagle. Around town, they run into each other and talk usually turns to knives or knots.

“Hey Otto,” says Joshua. “Can you give me the car keys? I forgot my wallet.”

Joshua walks out into the parking lot, gets into Otto’s Isuzu, waits for an old man in a Buick to back out, pulls onto South Empire Ave., and drives away.

It’s a few blocks before guilt and fear rush over and paralyze his ability to make a turn. Fixating on his rearview mirror, Joshua drives so far down the main commerce drag that the fast-food signs start to repeat, and he’s distracted for another few miles, looking for a pattern that does not emerge. But eventually the sign counting fades into a dull buzz, and Joshua turns the Isuzu around, thinks about where he is and what to do next, and his head returns to its normal state: panic with the volume turned way down.

The clock on the Isuzu dash glows a faint blue 12:21. D’Agostino’s, the pizzeria where Sarah Sullivan works, will be in the midst of the lunch rush. Joshua taps the steering wheel. For a moment, the only two places on Earth he can think of are D’Agostino’s and Party City. Party City is out, not so much because Joshua despises the very idea that he needs to pick up a piñata that five out of six thirty-year-olds have no interest in breaking, though he does despise it, but because he has already left Otto stranded at Stewart’s. Stranding his brother to run their errand seems disrespectful. Otto will not have talked to Cael in vain.

Joshua pulls into the parking lot of Doorbusters, which sells mostly entertainment electronics, some dishwashers. Gifts. He will buy his siblings gifts for their birthday. Five different gifts.

Here is the scrambled and unattributed birthday list that Joshua comes up with when he tries to figure out who wanted what for their birthday:
—new stainproof pants
—gourmet coffee
—Kershaw Bear Hunter II hunting knife
—skiing stuff
—subscription to one of those steak clubs where they send you steak all the time
—second controller thing for the other videogame thing
— gift certificate

Joshua wonders if USB cables count as surprises and then he sees Damien by the laptops. Damien is head octuplet. He is their Drew, which is how Joshua knows that Damien will catch Joshua’s eye and wave him over; he sees Drew do this to others all the time.

Damien catches Joshua’s eye and waves him over.

Damien has a round, open, genial face, but his smile hovers on it tentatively, and it only takes a second, Joshua has noticed, for the humor to drop out entirely, for him to lose the practiced charade of good nature.

“Buddy!” says Damien, before he says “Joshua,” because “buddy” is easier to remember. “Joshua, buddy, hey,” and then he repeats some more words like that.

“Good to see you,” says Joshua.

“You checking out the games?”

“I guess. Looking for birthday presents.”

“It’s your birthdays? That’s just terrific. Great to hear. Twenty-eight, right? Twenty-nine?”


“Thirty? No kidding. I didn’t hear about that. Congratulations.”

“You too,” says Joshua. “Someone told me one of you got engaged. Was that you?”

“It was my little sister Trinity. Wedding next winter. It’s gonna be huge, a great time. I was just telling Mikey.”

“Where’d you see Mikey?”

“He’s not here with you?”

“He’s here?”

“Mikey!” says Damien. Then, to no one, “Where is that kid?” He scans the video game aisles and catches Mikey mashing a demo controller. “Mikey!” he says again. “Get over here! Your brother!” Mikey whips his head around as if this is a warning. Joshua thinks he must be thinking of Otto. Mikey spots them, walks over.

“I was just telling your brother what I told you, about Trinity.”

“Oh, yeah, congratulations again,” says Mikey. “I remember when she was just born. When you were all just born, I mean.”

“Yeah,” Drew says. “Channel 9 did a nice follow-up when they heard the good news. They aired the piece the other night.”

“Time flies,” says Mikey.

“Everyone’s getting older,” says Joshua.

“Don’t you know it!” says Damien.

“Is that the expression?” says Joshua.

“He’s calling us old, Josh,” says Mikey.

“Not at all. Just seems like you’d know about getting older,” says Damien.

“He thinks he’s still young and cute, I guess,” says Mikey. “Cause he’s on the news sometimes still.”

“OK, Mikey,” says Joshua.

“No, I’m just saying, let him think he’s still young and cute, that the news calls cause they want to see his tussled blond hair or some shit.”

“Look,” says Damien. “I’m not blind, I’m not dumb, I know this won’t last forever. I know it’s barely hanging on,” and he points his face a little at Joshua, “but I do think about these things, Joshua. I’ve got some work-arounds. One of them could even be a help to you guys.”

“Like you eight fucking off to someone else’s town?” says Mikey. Damien, a believer in birth order even, maybe especially, at its most minute, answers without averting his gaze from Joshua.

“No, something that would really help.”

“Like what?” says Joshua, more on Mikey’s behalf.

“Like maybe we pool our resources.”

“And do what? You may have heard that we’re shit at softball.”

“No teams. I mean a real merger. Like if one of us married one of you. Say if I got together with your sister. We’d be this megafamily. That would get some coverage. And if some babies came out of it, think about that.”

“Which sister?” says Joshua just before he decides he doesn’t want Damien’s babies coming out of either one. “Actually, I’d appreciate it if . . .”

“Think it over. We can meet next week; I’ll show you the business plan I’ve got drawn up.”

“I really don’t think so,” says Joshua.

“I expected a little pushback at first,” says Damien. “But I think you’ll come around once you take a look at the specs. Realistic illustrations. Won’t take no for an answer.”

“Damien, buddy,” says Mikey. “Can I talk to you in private a sec?”

“Sure,” he says, and to Joshua: “Tell Drew to give me a call.”

Mikey leads Damien over to the video game demos on the brightest flat-screen TVs, so when Joshua watches them talk, it sort of looks like they’re saying Blam! Blam! Choochoochoochoochoo blam! Blam whoosh whoosh! So he stops watching. He looks around for Sunny. She must be here someplace, thinking about buying something she has little to no use for, thinking about buying a DVD for a movie she hasn’t seen because she likes the box art.

A minute later, Mikey comes to find Joshua in the cable section.

“I straightened him out,” says Mikey. “But you owe me.”


“Specifically,” says Mikey, “you owe me a nice piñata.”


In grade school, everyone’s parents would bring in cupcakes for their kid’s birthday. At the end of the year there would be one final cupcake party, covering the kids who were born in July and August and would therefore not receive proper school year celebration. The sextuplets, born on July 13, would bring in their mother’s cupcakes, habitually baked in multiples of six. Though the party ostensibly celebrated all of the July and August babies, the clamor of the sextuplets, their buoyant shouting of each other’s names during the birthday song, and the inevitable questions from curious teachers about life in the sextuplet household always overwhelmed the proceedings. The rest of the summer birthdays grew to hate them.


On the way downtown to D’Agostino’s, Joshua stops at goddamned Party City and buys a goddamned piñata and he admits to himself, yes, these things look pretty fun inasmuch as he wants to smash it all over the goddamned parking lot, and maybe stomp the off-brand candy into the asphalt, except for a few Tootsie Rolls, because they’re not off-brand, because no one ever seems to bother knocking them off, and Joshua likes them and could not tell you why.

D’Agostino’s isn’t licensed for seating, just a couple of stand-around tables, which makes loitering easier at first, and then exponentially more difficult as time passes. Joshua has developed a strategy: pretend like this is no big deal, like he comes to D’Agostino’s all the time, like it is his favorite pizza in the world. This strategy involves eating a lot of pizza, although not as much pizza as if D’Agostino’s really was his favorite pizza in the world. He needs Sarah Sullivan to think that he liked the pizza first. Another key component of this strategy is the idea that Sarah Sullivan would think about him at all, on her own, unprompted.

Today, happy birthday, Sarah Sullivan is not behind the counter when Joshua enters D’Agostino’s. She is in front of the counter, in the customer area, not doing anything, doing so little that Joshua can’t tell at first if she sees him right in front of her. Sarah Sullivan has small, tired eyes and a tiny, distant voice, like it can’t make it all the way out of her mouth, like she’s always speaking off-mic. Joshua tries not to lean in too close when she speaks, and misses words here and there. He also misses her smiles, brief and weak, easy to mistake for little grimaces.

He gives her a wave that could be a slow hi or a concerned vision check.

“Hey,” says Sarah Sullivan.

“Hey, how are you?” says Joshua.

Sarah Sullivan moves her head forward slowly and slightly, a sort of nod that crosses “yes” with “this.”

Joshua, less inventive, just plain nods back. And then he says “Hey,” and then he says, “How’s your football arm?” and she looks at him as if to say: who are you again and what are talking about and why are you talking about it to me right now, at this moment of all moments?

Sarah Sullivan’s manager, always thinner than Joshua remembers, with muscled arms and hair growing a little long in the back, comes out from the kitchen and hands a pizza box over the counter. Joshua waits for the look the manager sometimes gives him, the look that says you better treat her right cause she’s like a sister to me, the threatening look that gives Joshua a sense of enormous comfort. But his face is blocks, if not miles, away.

Sarah takes the pizza and holds it up with one hand, something she may have learned, but not mastered, from studying the Mario Brothers-looking man from the store logo. Her shoulder droops as she adjusts her palm.

“Can I get that for you?” says Joshua, looking over to the manager once more as he returns to the kitchen.

“I’m fine,” says Sarah, no indication of where the pizza needs to end up.

“Anyway, hey, what are you doing later?”

“I don’t know. Probably not very much.”

“We’re actually having a little party thing later,” says Joshua, “and you’re welcome to stop by if you want.”

“Maybe,” she says. “I have to go home and feed my lizards.”

The first time Joshua saw Sarah Sullivan, she was throwing a football around a Stewart’s parking lot with her older brother. She could throw, but she wasn’t fast. Her brother, Sully, would throw one where she’d have to run and maybe jump to catch it, and she’d just watch it sail over and flinch if it hit someone’s car. Joshua thinks of that now. He thinks of that most times he sees her.


On the drive home, Joshua spots Otto walking along the shoulder of Pine Ave., a street with lots of lawns but no sidewalks. He taps the Isuzu’s horn and it lets out a low honk, like it’s not getting enough oxygen, as he pulls over next to his brother.

“Are you returning my car?” says Otto.

“Yes,” says Joshua.

“Where’d you get off to?”

“I had errands. Doorbusters. And then Party City. I got the fucking piñata.”

Otto says nothing, out loud or otherwise.

“Sorry,” says Joshua, exhaling. “About leaving you at Stewart’s. Were you OK?”

“Cael gave me a ride downtown. I saw Beth at the deli.”

“Yeah, we’re goddamned everywhere.”

“Then I saw Ernie from Scouts, and we got some sandwiches. Then I started to head back to the house.”

“OK, well, I’m headed there now,” says Joshua.

“Sounds good.”

“Are you getting in?”

“I’m good to walk,” says Otto, and then opens the driver’s side door and gets in anyway, looking into the back and sizing up the piñata as Joshua moves over to the passenger’s seat.


When Otto and Joshua get home, the house is decorated, balloons tied to the mailbox at the end of the driveway, streamers hanging from the porch roof like dead vines, a sign reading CONGRATULATIONS hanging over the doorway. Drew, Beth, Mikey, and Sunny stand on the porch steps, facing out. Joshua rolls his eyes at the cameraless photo op, which delays him noticing the octuplets planted on the lawn, Damien out front, arms crossed. Otto pulls into the driveway and leaves the Isuzu, Joshua trailing behind and using his brother as sort of a shield or maybe ventriloquist’s dummy when he asks:

“What’s up here?”

“I already explained it to the rest,” says Damien. “But we’re here to settle this once and for all.”

Joshua looks at Mikey. Mikey does not look back at Joshua.

Here is a list of lies Mikey told when taking care of Damien and the octuplets at Doorbusters:
—We will fuck you up.
—We’ll take you all on.
—You’ll never know what hit you.
—I’m a fucking monster when I’m angry, like the Hulk but worse.
—You will never find us.

“We’re bullets in a gun, motherfucker,” says Mikey.

“Language,” says Beth.

“Eight on six,” says Damien. “This is war.”

“One day someone’s gonna have nine kids and you’re gonna be straight fucked,” says Drew, getting into it.

“Language,” says Beth.

“Right now, though,” says Damien, “it’s eight on six.”

“Seriously, those nine little babies are gonna come out of one womb, roll over to your shitty house on Court Street, and fuck you all up,” says Mikey.

Beth gives up.

Sunny giggles.

Joshua thinks about the piñata, sitting in the back seat of the Isuzu in the hot sun. For the first time all day, he cares if it gets ruined.

Otto has moved to the second step of the porch, which everyone probably realizes is a strategic move without being able to identify the actual strategy.

Drew keeps looking at doors: house, car, neighbors’.

The octuplets stand in a line, mostly blond, the boys with muscles, the girls in tank tops. This family could play soccer. This family could sing. This family could go to the moon.

“Well?” says Damien.

Then the octuplets turn around. In the street, a green hatchback pulls over, not all the way, just off to the side of the middle of the road. When the driver climbs over her passenger seat and rolls down the window and sticks her head out, Joshua swells with victory. Sarah Sullivan has come over. They need to somehow get the octuplets the fuck off the lawn and start the party before her brother calls or her lizards need to be fed again.

As Joshua raises his hand to give Sarah Sullivan a gesture somewhere between “Hey, you!” and “Would you get a load of these jokers?” she looks at the octuplets and calls out.

“Samuel,” she says, “what the hell? Where have you been?”

Joshua realizes at this moment that the best course of action is to punch Samuel right in the face. This means he has to remember the deal with punching. He also has to guess which one Samuel is.

Still, he has his marching orders. Joshua emerges from behind Otto, sprints over to the front steps, and high-fives Beth, though she’s confused, so it’s more like a shove in the hand. Then he runs up to the line of octuplets, finds the second-handsomest male, and punches him in the side of the head.

It hurts: the octuplet grabs his head with his hands, one on top of the other, and screams something that sounds like MOTHERFUCKING, and Joshua’s knuckles hurt, like he rapped on a door too hard. Damien shakes his head.

Joshua backs away. He backs up and up until he’s on the steps with the others. From the steps, he can’t make out Sarah Sullivan in the street. A wall of octuplets has formed as the punched one takes his hands off his head, shakes them like he’s tossing away a cigarette, and stands straight up again.

Damien steps forward and says “Any last words?” because he already used up “Well?”

Drew doesn’t answer. Otto doesn’t answer. Beth, Joshua, Mikey, and Sunny don’t answer. They stand on the steps, silent, waiting. Waiting for someone to notice, or call the cops, or throw another punch, or turn up for the party.  

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