It was a speakeasy, a literal speakeasy. Well, not a literal speakeasy—literal speakeasies were run by bootleggers during Prohibition. This was just a pop-up bar run in an empty storespace by local hipsters. But Erica said it was a literal speakeasy, and Hughie wanted to take everything Erica said literally. So he did.
It was Hughie’s birthday. Erica had planned it all. It was all supposed to be a fun experience, and he could see her soaking it in—a literal speakeasy, she kept saying—and having a great time, and that was all that mattered to him.
She leaned over, and before she could say anything, Hughie told her he was fine, then said yes when she asked if he was sure—really, he was fine. It was great to see her having fun. And she said Okay, in that way we say Okay when we’re worried about someone but don’t want to push it, so he told her he loved her, and she said it right back, squeezed his hand under the table. Hughie scanned the room, a room filled with people he wouldn’t know how to talk to, and then leaned over, told her he was glad to be here with her.
Erica had always mentioned how well-adjusted he was despite his upbringing, how wonderfully he was doing, but birthdays were different for Hughie, even now. Something about birthdays seemed especially self-indulgent—even more so than Christmas or Halloween—but Erica loved birthdays in a way that made him wonder if his discomfort would one day get the better of him. Just a little over three months ago, they’d celebrated Erica’s birthday together for the first time—it was the first such celebration Hughie had ever had with anyone he’d cared about. It was a small affair, just a little something to dip his toe into the water, the two of them digging through the longboxes at Golden Apple for old Conan the Barbarian comics, then a small dinner at Café 50s, where they listened to Buddy Holly on the jukebox. She said it was the best birthday ever, and for the rest of the night Hughie wondered if she’d been serious—even though he already knew the answer—and if she was serious, then what good were birthdays anyway? Weren’t these just things they could’ve done on any other day? The things they were doing that day he would have done for her any and every day of the week for the rest of their lives.
When he was in second grade, Alyssa Gasparyan’s mother brought cupcakes to class for her birthday, which meant Hughie sat in the reading cubby in the back of the classroom—a small wooden structure shaped like a gazebo which had been set aside for quiet time—and colored printouts featuring Simba, and Scar, and the monkey shaman who was the reason The Lion King was forbidden in his home—a reason related to the reason he couldn’t enjoy Alyssa Gasparyan’s birthday cupcakes. It was just what he’d always done during birthdays, and Valentine’s Day, and Halloween, and at the time, being excluded from holidays had been neither hurtful nor enjoyable. It was simply school.
As everyone sang and played together in the front of the class, Alyssa’s mother made her way toward Hughie and knelt in front of the reading cubby, stuck her head in. Hughie always remembered her being very pretty, this young mother, with a blond ponytail and fur-lined boots he’d wanted to pet because they reminded him of a rabbit. She’d smiled kindly and asked how he was holding up, and he had no answer, so he shrugged his shoulders and continued coloring a printout of a Richard Scarry fire engine driven by calico firefighters.
Mrs. Jeong then rushed over and asked Alyssa’s mother to come help pour drinks. The young mother patted his hand and told him to stay strong—he had no idea what that meant at the time—and Mrs. Jeong stayed behind to ask him if he was okay, and again he shrugged.
Years later, he’ll remember looking up, seeing his teacher and Alyssa’s mother having a tense conversation, remember Alyssa’s mother turning her head and sadly gazing at him every time her concerns were met with, I know/You’re right/But there’s nothing we can do about that.
Hughie looked around the bar, and was immediately self-conscious of his cornflower blue tie, which matched the lining of his gray suit vest. He looked great—he knew he looked great—but he suddenly felt overdressed. Everyone at his table was overdressed. Why did that matter? It just did—even though everyone at his table looked great and were told so by their server at the seafood restaurant during dinner—it mattered to him. His cheeks puffed out as he pushed air from his lips, and then Erica took his hand from under the table and squeezed it.
Did these people in their gingham shirts and high-waisted jeans know it was his birthday? Did their Patagonia-vested boyfriends know his girlfriend loved birthdays? Did all the Dodger caps and KROQ T-shirts, the Cosby sweaters and Dwight Schrute glasses, the overconfident guy leaning over and close-talking the politely smiling girl leaning away, know Erica kept calling this his first birthday, that the invitations she’d sent her friends—they never felt like his friends, even though they all worked together—even said Come to Hughie’s First Official Birthday? Did they know it made him feel like a baby—that it was hard to stay strong? As he looked around the speakeasy, which wasn’t a literal speakeasy, he wanted to ask every stupid person in his line of sight these stupid questions.
No one was even looking in his direction.
Two years after he’d graduated high school, Hughie asked his mother if his father had been refused a blood transfusion. He’d been, at the time, seeing a girl named Jeannie, another lost kid who’d joined the Navy to learn how the real world worked. That morning, Jeannie had told Hughie it was the anniversary of her mother’s death. She told him all about it over omelets in the mess deck. Her mother had died of a stroke because her church had sent their attorney to block the blood transfusion, and by the time the hospital administrators had figured how to treat her, it had been too late. Jeannie cried until a petty officer happened by and demanded to know if Hughie had been hassling her.
Hughie never told her it was his birthday.
He’d called his mother that night to see how she was doing, told her about Jeannie’s mother. He then asked, because he was genuinely curious, if his father had been refused a blood transfusion.
What does had been refused even mean? his mother asked. You make it sound like the doctors didn’t do their jobs.
He told her she knew that wasn’t what he meant. Then they fought—not for very long, but long enough, and that was the last time they spoke, and every year on his birthday, he thought of how his mother had sneered over how the fact he was able to find another disfellowshipped sailor to consort with on such a big ship was Jehovah’s way of reminding him of his transgressions.
Go fuck yourself, he’d said at the time.
But maybe his mother was right. Maybe the fact he’d found another disfellowshipped person in the place he’d gone to escape, that the anniversary of her mother’s death just happened to fall on his birthday—neither of which they would’ve even considered commemorating in the old days—was some cruel joke perpetrated by a being Hughie had spent years convincing himself never existed.
The morning of the speakeasy excursion, while Erica was on the phone planning out the entire evening, Hughie received an Instant Message from Jeannie, someone he’d never really interacted with online. She told him she had no idea his birthday had fallen on the anniversary of her mother’s death, followed by three jumping dots, said she’d wished she’d known, followed by three jumping dots, that maybe celebrating with him would have helped her forget about her troubles for a bit, followed by three jumping dots. Then she told him she had to go, followed by three jumping dots, that the baby was crying, followed by three jumping dots, followed by Happy Birthday, followed by a Birthday Cake emoji, followed by a Raising Hands emoji, followed by a Heart emoji.
And he sat on the couch and watched the local news on Channel 5 because he couldn’t find the remote—Erica didn’t answer when he asked her where it was. It all felt so cruel.
In 1982, Kenner released action figures for 4-LOM, the insectoid bounty hunter from the planet Gand, and Zuckuss, the insectoid protocol droid turned bounty hunter, for their Empire Strikes Back toy line. Years later, the two characters would trade names, as 4-LOM was a more sensible name for a droid—so 4-LOM, the insectoid bounty hunter from the planet Gand, became Zuckuss, and Zuckuss, the insectoid protocol droid turned bounty hunter, was given the more droid-like 4-LOM moniker. All of this was confusing to Star Wars fans, almost as much as it was for non-fans. Was the initial misnaming a simple case of miscommunication? Was it even a misnaming at all? And if it was a mistake, then who chose the name 4-LOM for the alien and Zuckuss for the protocol droid? Outside of the world of Star Wars action figure enthusiasts, why did it matter at all, the two characters being background characters in a 45-second sequence in The Empire Strikes Back. Who honestly gives a shit?
He’ll never remember how the conversation turned to Star Wars, other than he was with a group of IT specialists, and every conversation was like that with them—it wasn’t as if they hadn’t spent the dinner discussing Anne McCaffrey, the Real and Filmation Ghostbusters, Scotty recreating the bridge of the NCC-1701 inside the holodeck of the NCC-1701D—so it made sense the conversation would find its way to Star Wars.
They liked him just fine, her friends—people who were supposedly his friends as well—they were always friendly and did their best to make him feel a part of the group. They’d even gotten to the point where they finally stopped asking him what it was like to grow up the way he had, stopped asking if it was strange celebrating Christmas or Halloween after all these years, stopped making faces whenever he’d shrugged, the faces they were making currently as they learned he’d just watched Star Wars for the first time over Christmas. They couldn’t believe it, that someone in their orbit hadn’t seen Star Wars, and he hoped they wouldn’t hold it against Erica, that she’d knowingly dated someone who’d never seen Star Wars.
The way they’d once held him being a college dropout against her.
The way they’d once held her dating her subordinate against her.
The way they still held the fact they’d chanced upon one another at a bereavement support group four days after she’d hired him against her, that they’d gone out for coffee after support group against her; held the way it turned into drinks after a month, which then turned into ingesting gummies in a parking garage, and then getting kicked out of a matinee showing of The Sisters Brothers because they were busily groping one another the entire second act, against her.
As they asked for his thoughts, as she squeezed his hand under the table, he realized he really had nothing he wanted to say about Star Wars—at least to them. A lot of that had to do with knowing their astonished excitement was adulterated with a sense of pity for a childhood he’d never known, but mostly it had to do with the death of his father, which had nothing and everything to do with what they were talking about.
Erica frowned when Kjersten from Info Security asked Hughie why he said Zuckuss. He told Kjersten he hadn’t, and then Rashaad from the cubicle next to his said, Nope I heard you say Zuckuss too, so he simply told them watching it as an adult was probably a different experience compared to watching it as a child and then shrugged, and they nodded politely, and then pivoted to theories on how Game of Thrones might end.
Last Christmas, Erica gave Hughie what seemed to be an unedited history of the Zuckuss/4-LOM mix-up, and he spent the rest of the night quietly telling her nothing was wrong, that he was fine, even though she claimed he’d muttered something, even though he hadn’t, something about little baggies—followed the next morning by a panic attack in the shower, thinking about how his father would never know Zuckuss was actually 4-LOM, that 4-LOM was actually Zuckuss, even though it really had nothing to do with 4-LOM or Zuckuss, which was why he told Erica nothing was wrong in the first place.
When he was nine years old, his father died in a three-car pile-up on the 405, right off the Carson exit, fifteen minutes away from making it home safely. At the funeral, a friendly elder named Mr. Bland pulled him aside and told him not to worry, that his father was remembered by Jehovah, that his father wasn’t in any pain—he didn’t even know he was dead—that one day, he and his father would be called to the Kingdom of Heaven together.
As Mr. Bland stood up to leave, he handed Hughie a card. He told Hughie it was an ADRT, told him to make sure his mother got it, that she would know what to do. It was a white card, which read Advanced Decision to Refuse Specified Medical Treatment. Hughie stared at the drawing of the plasma bag in a red circle, a red line slashing through it, the words No Blood in bold red. He tucked the ADRT into his jacket pocket, and Mr. Bland patted him on the shoulder, told him he to be a good boy for his mother.
That night, Hughie’s mother called him into her bedroom, opened a box filled with Star Wars toys, told him they were his father’s childhood toys, that they were now Hughie’s if he could play with them in his room and his room only. Each figure had been placed inside an individual baggie—not Ziploc baggies, but the cheap sandwich bags with fold-over flaps. Their names were written on masking tape affixed to the clear plastic—Lando, Chewie, Dengar, Bib Fortuna, and the like—in what was clearly his father’s handwriting, albeit in a child-like scrawl.
Until that Christmas with Erica, this was Star Wars to Hughie: a secret indulgence, a box tucked covertly under his bed he’d pull out every night, tiny action figures he’d remove from baggies like little plastic opiates so he could pretend the droids and Jedi and bounty hunters were a gang of friends hiding out in the mountains or living a life at the sea. He always made sure to send them to a place better than where he was, some place they could roam free, go on adventures freely without being shamefully summoned from their hiding place like some kind of occult ritual.
As he and Erica came down the escalator, Hughie noticed two nervous-looking young boys in white shirts and black ties standing on the Vermont/Beverly Metro platform. He’d seen them before—not these two, exactly, but people like them, all over the city, as if strategically placed in areas where he’d have to reckon with their presence. He was once people like them himself, but not like them at all, and this notion confused him, but only momentarily, long enough for him to name them in his mind, to remind himself who they were and what he wasn’t.
Yep, Erica said. Those boys are Mormons all right.
Did I say that out loud? Hughie asked.
Well, you kinda mumbled it.
Hughie stepped off the escalator, and noticed two man-children in Lakers jerseys, soul-patched and pink-faced with adult-onset acne, slurring insults at the young Mormons. The Mormon boys stared straight ahead, pretending not to hear, the taller one’s jumping Adam’s apple revealing more than the boy would ever want to reveal in the face of such cruelty.
Keep walking, Hughie said.
They stopped at the opposite end of the Mormons, the entrance to the back of the train. The two cackling drunks—one wearing a Shaquille O’Neal jersey and the other, Kobe Bryant—stumbled over one another as the entire platform tried to ignore what was going on. Hughie watched the Mormons stare directly at the tracks, their lips moving ever so slightly as they muttered to one another, and he wondered if, then how, he might’ve ended up like those two boys, knocking door to door, their fingertips grasping onto their smiles and dignity as doors closed over and over. Erica touched his arm.
What did you say?
You did it again, that mumbling thing.
No I didn’t.
Yes, you did. You said you never gave her the ADRT or something like that.
If you knew what I said, then why ask?
Erica sighed, and he watched the Mormons. The poor kids had no idea what to do—other than what Hughie’s father used to call not returning evil for evil. And he remembered that day, the day his father died. They were supposed to go together, into Inglewood, to knock on doors, then have donuts, the way they always had. There was even a crushed white bag filled with Randy’s Donuts in the wreckage of his father’s car.
Did I ever tell you that I was supposed to be in the car with my dad when he died?
Oh, babe, I’m so sorry.
He watched Shaq and Kobe—buzzcutted beady-eyed little freaks, a couple of Boomhauers they were—finally get in close enough to yell in the Mormons’ faces, giving off the kind of evil they knew the Mormons were incapable of giving back.
Anyway, I hated going with him, so I pretended to be sick that day. My mom was actually super sick, so it was kind of easy to do. Not that I hated going with him—I loved being with him—it’s just he always looked so tired when he got back in the car, like broken. But then he’d look at me and smile, and things would go back to normal. This was every Saturday.
Well, it sounds like he needed you to make him whole.
Maybe. Well anyway, we’d get donuts on the way home, and he’d tell me stories about being in the Army or the good times with my mom and things like that. We used to pull over and he’d just watch me stuff my face and smile. And looking back, remembering that face, how happy he was, just—sometimes I wonder if he died because I wasn’t there.
I used to do that too, with my mom. But you can’t think that way. He wouldn’t want you to.
I know. But this is how it works, isn’t it? What if, just what if, I was supposed to be the one that died that day?
Then it sounds like he would’ve died anyway.
He took Erica into his arms, rested his cheek on the crown of her head, tried to drown out Shaq and Kobe’s shrill, homophobic slurs. Hughie wondered what might happen if he’d gone to help the Mormons. He wasn’t afraid of what Shaq and Kobe would do to him, because there was nothing they could possibly do to him—he was more afraid of the Mormons’ gratitude, the possibility they might see his intervention as an extension of something more than secular. But what did that matter? If they couldn’t return evil for evil, then shouldn’t someone who wasn’t bound to those rules do it for them? What if it wasn’t even evil he could offer on their behalf, but the threat of evil? What if he could?
These thoughts sounded so stupid to Hughie, understandably so, and no matter how he tried to convince himself all impulsive, off-the-cuff thoughts were stupid, he couldn’t shake the knowledge he cared too much what others thought of him, even himself.
You think it’s possible to believe in God without believing in God? he asked.
I don’t know what that means, exactly, but I’m Jewish. So, yes?
Never mind. I’m just not good at forming thoughts.
Yes you are.
Maybe I’m not good at saying them out loud then.
You’re doing great. It gets easier every day. That’s all.
He kissed her forehead and let her go, smiled and turned around. Kobe’s shrieking laughter echoed through the terminal, as Shaq stood nose to nose with the taller Mormon boy. She told him not to do anything stupid, so he said he wouldn’t. The smaller Mormon boy turned and locked eyes with Hughie but didn’t nod back.
Jeff Chon is the author of Hashtag Good Guy with a Gun. His short story collection, This Is the Afterlife, will be out in December of 2022.