Finnegan1 comes home to find that his birthday cake has sat out all night in the rain2, and in fact he had forgotten it was his birthday in the anxiety of his tenure report coming due3, and that his fiancée always likes to make a big something about his and everyone else’s birthday, and the fact that this is his 30th4 which would have been big for her even if he didn’t care and the fact that she threw him a surprise party while he was in his office trying to understand the Kafka hell of his tenure committee5 (he can tell the party happened because his cousin Babyface is on the back porch sleeping off a drunk as he always does after a party), and he has forgotten that his 30th was her ultimatum date for setting a date for marriage (which he has put off and put off)6, and he has forgotten that he promised to be less focused on himself (by which she means work) and more focused on life (by which she means her)7, and he has the sinking suspicion that the doors are locked and barred, so he picks his now half-melted cake off the driveway and takes it to the porch and takes the bottle of rum that somehow Babyface is still clutching, and he has himself a 3 a.m. picnic, knowing that tomorrow, round one of his tenure review will be over, and that means only six more years of this if he’s lucky8, and he thinks maybe she won’t be able to stay in this relationship that long.9
- Finnegan’s mother was an academic specializing in Joyce and demanded that he follow in her footsteps. Why he gave into this is still a source of confusion for him.
- Later, Finnegan will realize that Natalie, his fiancée, has answered his life-long question about “McArthur Park,” which is, “Why would anyone leave a cake out in the rain?”
- Until he had to start working for tenure, Finnegan thought his dissertation defense was hell. His mother has told him to stop complaining. It’s a kind of academic bar mitzvah, which he thinks is cultural appropriation, but he’s not about to stand up to her now. Also, 30 seems rather late for coming of age.
- If his mother infantilizes him, so does Natalie. What grown man wants a birthday party?
- His committee is filled with his mother’s friends, and he’s 93% sure she has asked them to give him hell. That’s a phrase she’d use.
- Maybe Finnegan is a bit of a child. He doesn’t want to be married. He should tell Natalie so she can move on. Not showing up might be the only way that he’s capable of doing so after a lifetime of blind obedience to his mother. Except, should we allow Finnegan to avoid responsibility for his own action by continuing to blame his mother?
- Let’s face it. She’s not perfect either. Who among us is?
- He’s 87% sure that his mother has asked her friends to keep not advancing him so that he can stay in this liminal state of need for the rest of her, if not his, life.
- So Finnegan has found a way to make a decision, by eating rained-upon cake and getting drunk, without making a decision. Natalie will come out in the morning to find him passed out next to Babyface and will leave him without him having to do anything.
is the author of 19 books of poetry and fiction including his latest, Life: Orange to Pear (Bamboo Dart Press, 2020). His poems, stories, and essays are published in hundreds of magazines and journals. His work has appeared on Garrison Keillor’s daily show, The Writer’s Almanac; has been nominated multiple times for the Pushcart Prize; was selected for publication in The Best Small Fictions 2016 (TBSF); and was a semi-finalist for TBSF 2018.
Brantingham is a fiction editor at The Chiron Review and teaches at Mt. San Antonio College, where he coordinates the creative writing program and runs the annual creative writing conference, Culturama. He was the first poet laureate of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. He is writer-in-residence at the dA Center for the Arts in Pomona, California, and co-creator of the San Gabriel Valley Literary Festival and the Valley Poets Reading Series, which has featured poets and writers from around the world.
Author’s website: johnbrantingham.com
⚡ Objects of Curiosity, a collection of Brantingham’s ekphrastic poems (Sasse Museum of Art, 2020)
the Deer, one of his two haibun in KYSO Flash (Issue 8,
Four prose poems in Serving House Journal (Issue 7, Spring 2013), including
A Man Stepping Into a River and
Poem to the Child Who I Almost Adopted