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Birthday Surprise

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“So how did you celebrate Canada Day when you were growing up?’ Bitty asked, carrying the pie to the table. “Was it like the Fourth of July, with parades and fireworks and red and white bunting everywhere?”

“Sort of,” Jack said. “It wasn’t such a big deal in Montreal, because, y’know, Quebec. A few years ago they made it moving day in Quebec just to screw with the government in Montreal.”

“Moving day?” Bitty asked. “Wait just a second.”

He turned to the counter behind him and picked up a small Candian flag, which he stuck in the middle of the pie.

“Happy Canada Day!”

“Euh, thanks,” Jack said. “Moving day is when everyone’s leases end and their new leases start. So thousands of people are moving on Canada Day. There were always fireworks over the harbor, though. Sometimes we’d go see them if we were in town.”

“Well, then, happy moving day,” Bitty said. “So not much like Madison on the Fourth of July?”

“Bits, nothing is like Madison on the Fourth of July,” Jack said.

“I’m sure the fireworks aren’t as good --”

“I have very fond memories of the fireworks in Madison,” Jack said. “Best fireworks of my life. Are you okay staying here for the Fourth this year?”

Bitty shrugged.

“I guess so,” he said. “The shop’s just getting on its feet, and I can’t really take much time off yet, and that would mean flying down on the morning of the fourth and back the next day. And Mama and Coach said they’d come up to see us for a weekend before school starts down there. We can still go to the fireworks and all here on the Fourth, right?”

“Your parents are coming up?” Jack asked. “Do you know when?”

“Beginning of August,” Bitty said. “Don’t worry, though. I’ll make sure their visit doesn’t conflict with your big birthday celebration.”

“My … what?”

“Your birthday?” Bitty said. “You’re turning 30 a little over a month from today. Don’t tell me you forgot.”

“No, but a big celebration?”

“Oh, no, sweet pea,” Bitty said. “I meant ‘big birthday,’ like turning 30 is a big deal. Not a big celebration for your birthday. I know you don’t like that kind of thing.”

“Oh,” Jack said, looking down at his pie. “Okay. That’s good.”

“Unless you want my parents here for your birthday?” Bitty said. “I was thinking your parents might come, but … I’m sure my folks would be happy to.”

“No,” Jack said. “No, that’s fine.”


“I’m so glad you and Bits decided to do this,” Shitty said, taking another drag on his joint. “You guys aren’t usually around on the Fourth, but the rest of this summer looks crazy for me, and then you have the season coming up. I wouldn’t want it to be too long between visits.”

“Crazy this summer?” Jack said. “What’s up?”

“Work stuff,” Shitty said. “It looks like we’re going to trial against that chemical plant at the end of August, and it’s gonna be like seven days a week getting ready. I already told Lards to prepare for work-widowhood.”

“Yeah?” Jack said. “How’d she take that?”

“I’m not sure,” Shitty said. “You think I’m crazy enough to say shit like that when she’s awake?”

“Haha.”

“No, seriously, she’s leaving next week for a six-week residency at some artist colony in the Berkshires, and then she’s got a show to mount for the gallery at the end of August. I’m not sure she’ll even notice.”

“Come on, Shits,” Jack said. “You know she will.”

“I know,” Shitty said. “It’s just fucking hard sometimes, you know? I mean, it seemed like all the lawyers I knew when I was a kid had lunch and played golf all day. Plenty of time for fucking around. Too late I learned it doesn’t work that way in the public interest sector. And who knew being a successful artist was so time-consuming? How do you and Bits make it work?”

Jack shrugged. It was difficult, with his life consumed by hockey and Bitty’s time taken up more and more by a successful career in -- baking media? Jack wasn’t even sure what to call it, since Bits wasn’t just a baker, just a cookbook author, just an Internet and TV personality. He somehow did all of that, and just this summer had lent his name, personality, and talent to a new shop that sold both baked goods and baking equipment (toys for bakers, Bitty called them) in Providence.

“Remember Bits’ birthday in May?” Jack asked.

“Yeah,” Shitty said. “The big two-five. Remember how you wanted to throw him a surprise party? That was never gonna happen. Like that boy would ever let anyone else control the menu.”

“I guess you're right,” Jack said. “But I like surprising him. Remember Betsy II?”

“That was sweet,” Shitty said. “And the proposal at Faber, too, you romantic son of a gun.”

“Who told him about the surprise party in May?”

“Uh --”

“Was it you?”

“No.”

“Was it Lardo?”

“Um, she maybe told him not to make plans for that day? Because he was telling her he wanted to plan an overnight getaway because it was the only time it would work with your schedule?” Shitty said. “He took it from there. My understanding is that you caved under questioning.”

“Yeah,” Jack said. “I guess I did.”

“But don’t worry, brah,” Shitty said. “If I heard about a plan for a surprise party for you, I would totally warn you. I know you’re not into that.”

“Euh, okay?” Jack said. “But --”

“I got your back, brah,” Shitty said, giving Jack an exaggerated wink and nod just as Bitty and Lardo pushed open the sliding door and carried trays of drinks and snacks to the terrace.

“So what did we miss?” Bitty said. “Fireworks haven’t started yet, have they?”

“Nope,” Shitty said. “You’re just in time.”


“Jack?” Bitty asked, looking up from his laptop. “Do you know where you want to go for your birthday dinner?”

“Birthday dinner?” Jack said. “We’re not having it here?”

“Well, since I know you don’t like parties, and thirty is kind of a big deal, I thought maybe we should go out.”

“Who said I don’t like parties?” Jack said, pausing the tape of the last game of the Stanley Cup final.

“Please, sweetpea,” Bitty said. “I used to have to beg to get you to show your face at a kegster, and your mama’s told the story about you hiding under the bed to get out of going to that banquet more than a dozen times.”

“I was six,” Jack said.

“I know, sugar, and you haven’t changed a bit,” Bitty said. Then his eyes dropped to Jack’s chest, and lower, and Jack suddenly felt warm. “Except in the obvious ways. I was thinking Hemenway’s for seafood or maybe Waterman Grille or Al Forno with your parents. But it might make more sense to go the night before. Hemenway’s at least is closed on Mondays. Then on the night of your actual birthday, we can eat at home. Steaks on the grill, maybe? Do you want to invite your parents for that, too, or have it be just the two of us?”

Jack wanted to protest that he could want a party even if he didn’t want the debauchery of a kegster, and he shouldn’t be judged by his six-year-old self not wanting to go to a stuffy banquet (even if he still didn’t like stuffy banquets). But the moment seemed to have passed, and really, what Bitty was planning was fine.

Maybe he would get a surprise party for his fortieth, when he wasn’t playing and his friends’ careers were more stable and everyone had more time.

“Any of them are good, but Papa really likes Al Forno,” Jack said. “And I guess they can come on Monday for dinner, as long as they leave early.”

“Now, Jack, that’s not very hospitable of you,” Bitty said with a smirk. “I almost think you have plans. Maybe once I finish making this reservation you can give me a preview.”

He pecked at the keyboard for a few more moments and then closed the laptop.

“Ready when you are, Mr. Zimmermann.”

Jack clicked off the TV and followed Bitty to the bedroom.


“Maman?”

Jack had put off this call until Bitty left for the market.

It wasn’t like his husband was a busybody or nosy. It was just that, what with Jack’s schedule, and the wedding, and Bitty’s career, they were still in the condo Jack bought for himself in Providence when he signed. It wasn’t really small -- it probably had almost as much square footage as the Haus, and only two of them living there -- but it was mostly open-plan and Bitty would know if Jack was hiding in the office to call his parents. Which he was supposed to have done two weeks ago.

“Jacky!” his mother said. “It’s been ages. I saw those pictures you posted from your beach excursion last weekend. It looked like the two of you had fun. But I didn’t know you got a dog.”

“We didn’t?”

“But Bitty --”

“Was playing with a dog in a lot of the pictures?” Jack said.

The dog had run up to their picnic blanket when they moved off the beach proper, into the shady park, for lunch. Jack wasn’t sure exactly what kind it was. It was black and brown, like he thought of a German shepherd being, but much smaller, with long, skinny legs, a pointy nose and floppy ears.

Bitty had immediately started cooing over and petting the creature, despite Jack pointing out that they didn’t know who it belonged to, if it belonged to anyone, where it had been, if it was friendly.

“You don’t know if this dog is friendly?” Bitty had been incredulous. It was pretty ridiculous, given that the dog was more or less washing Bitty’s face with its tongue while Bitty giggled. “And she has a collar. And a tag. Stand still, girl.”

Bitty had still been trying to read the tag, and Jack was still taking pictures, when a teenage girl ran up, a leash in her hand.

“There you are, Eleanor! I’m so sorry! She just jumped out of the car and took off as soon as I opened the door. Eleanor, come!”

“No worries,” Bitty had said, holding the dog while her person clipped the leash to her collar. “We’re always happy to visit with a friendly puppy.”

Jack had been thinking about adopting a dog ever since, if only to see Bitty giggle so much. A dog that could go on runs with him, and keep Bitty company when Jack had to be gone … it might be a good idea. But it wasn’t something to surprise Bitty with. If they adopted a dog, it had to be a joint decision.

“That was just a dog that got loose and came to visit,” Jack said. “Although now that you mention it, I wonder if Bitty might like to have a dog around. I’ll have to ask him.”

“Judging from those pictures, I’m pretty certain he’ll approve,” Alicia said. “Now, did you need to talk about something?”

“Euh, the plans for my birthday?” Jack said. “Bitty wants to take you and Papa to Al Forno on the second, and then cook dinner here on the third.”

“Bitty wants to?” Alicia said. “What about you?”

“I’m not sure why we need to do both,” Jack admitted. “Either would be fine with me. But he seemed set on going out to celebrate because it’s my thirtieth, and a lot of restaurants are closed on Monday. And he was equally set on celebrating on the day of. But he has to work early the next day, so it’ll be an early dinner.”

“You never did like a lot of fuss,” his mother said, not calling him on what he thought was an obvious … not untruth, exactly, Maybe more of a manipulation? “Grumpypants. Of course your father and I will be there for both.”

“I don’t mind fuss,” Jack said.

“Jack, mon coeur, when have you enjoyed people getting together to focus on you?”

“They had a birthday dinner for me at the Haus,” Jack said. “Before my senior year. Bitty made a pie and everything.”

“Were you part of the planning for this dinner?” Alicia said. “Did you even know about it?”

“It just sort of … happened,” Jack said. “But it was nice.”

“Jack, dear, was that the first time Bitty made a pie especially for you?” his mother asked. “Forgive me, but that might have more to do with your fond memories.”


“Jack, what kind of pie do you want for your birthday?”

Bitty was sauntering between the farmer’s market booths while Jack trailed along, watching Bitty more than looking at the produce.

“Pie?” Jack asked. “Don’t most people get cake for their birthdays?”

“Do you even know me?” Bitty asked, then turned to examine at a table full of cherries.

Jack accompanied Bitty to the farmer’s market almost every Saturday in the summer. It was an errand, sure, but some weeks it was also the closest they got to a date.

Bitty would probably scoff at that. What did they need with dates, now they were an old married couple? Neither of their schedules permitted a regular date night most of the time, anyway. But in the summer, at least, they had Saturday mornings at the market.

“If you know me, you know what kind of pie I want,” Jack said.

“Maple-crusted apple,” Bitty confirmed, then shook his head sadly. “Have you seen these cherries, Jack? Or the blueberries? There will even be decent peaches up here by the beginning of August. Apples won’t be in season for another six weeks or so.”

It was a familiar argument with no heat in it.

Jack shrugged.

“I like what I like,” he said. “And there are always apples available. You know you’ll make it for me. And something else for whoever wants it.”

“See, you do know me,” Bitty said. He stopped in front of the booth with honey soap but paid it no mind. “Jack, are we becoming old and boring?”

“We always were old and boring,” Jack said. “From the beginning of time.”

“First, speak for yourself, old man,” Bitty said. “Second, I’m not sure whether that was a chirp or flirting. Don’t you know you had me at ‘Eat more protein’?”

“That’s not what you said then.”

“Hush,” Bitty said. “I mean, you don’t have to have the same thing for your birthday every year. Branch out a bit. Maybe a pear tart?”

“I wanted to do something different for your birthday, but then everyone went and told you,” Jack said.

“I’m sorry, sweetpea,” Bitty said. “I would have gone along with it and pretended it was a surprise, but I had to get out of other plans somehow. And people did want to eat. Good food.”

“By which you mean your food,” Jack said.

“I like to think I have a reputation to uphold,” Bitty said, stopping to examine some melons. “Truthfully, I kind of wish I hadn’t found out. You give good surprises.”

“Yeah?”

“Come on, you moose. You know I would have married you after you bought me Betsy II,” Bitty said. “Too bad parties aren’t your thing. Could you imagine a party with all your mom’s A-list friends and your hockey uncles, plus your team and Kent and all? It would be the talk of Providence.”

Jack shuddered.

“Definitely not my thing,” he said.

“I know, sweetpea,” Bitty said. “Besides, celebrating on our own has its advantages. Catch.”

He tossed Jack an eggplant with a smirk

Jack groaned. “Really, Bits?”

“Sorry,” Bitty said. “That was bad. I have what I need. Ready to head home?”


Jack was set up and sitting at his computer, half-listening to Bitty going on about whether his deadlines for the next cookbook were remotely reasonable, when the call from Tater came through.

“Zimmboni!” The image of Tater on the screen waved.

“Hey, Tater,” Jack said.

“Is that little B?”

Tater’s face moved, like he was trying to see around Jack.

“Yeah, Bitty’s here,” Jack said, waving a hand to get his husband’s attention. “You want to say hi?”

Bitty leaned over his shoulder.

“Hey, Tater! You look good. How’s the family?” he asked.

“Everyone is good,” Tater said. “My mother and my sister Tatiana want to visit this year, so they can meet the baker I’m always talking about.”

“I’d be honored and delighted,” Bitty said. “Don’t forget those recipes you wanted me to try, alright? We can work on them together. You translate and I bake.”

“You speak better Russian you think!” Tater said.

“That’s what you think,” Bitty said. “I have to go to the shop. ПοКа!”

“Bye, Bits,” Jack said. “So, Tater, how’s the conditioning? You keeping up with it?”

“Of course,” Tater said. “Russian training every day.”

“And Russian home cooking every night?”

“Of course,” Tater agreed, grinning.

“How’s everything else?” Jack said. “When are you heading back?”

“Not long now,” Tater said. “No plane ticket yet, but early August, probably. We have dinner then, yes? To celebrate you becoming an old man.”

“Uh, we can have dinner,” Jack said. “But it doesn’t have to be for my birthday. Just to celebrate getting ready for a new season is enough.”

“Why don’t you celebrate?” Tater said. “I hear from Marty, Snowy, Thirdy, all the guys, that Jack is having a big birthday and didn’t invite them to the party. I say, ‘You know Jack. He probably isn’t even having a party.’ And they say, ‘You’re right, Tater. Jack hates parties.’”

“I don’t hate parties,” Jack said.

“You were not at Marty’s daughter’s party,” Tater countered.

“That was a kid birthday,” Jack said. “And Bitty had to go to New York for work that day, so I went with him.”

“Right,” Tater said. “But Bitty would be here for your party.”

“I’m not having a party,” Jack said.

“But you could if you want,” Tater said. “So you don’t want. So why do you hate parties?”

Jack ignored the question in favor of saying, “Just let me know when you're coming in, and I’ll pick you up at the airport if you want,” Jack said. “As long as you shut up about the party.”

“What party?”


Jack put on the new blue suit that Maman and Bitty had agreed (insisted, more like) that he should buy. He hesitated over the tie: stripes? paisley? miniature hockey sticks that Papa would find amusing?

No. If he couldn’t be sentimental on his birthday, when could he be? He picked up his pale blue tie, the one Bits told him brought out his eyes on his graduation day, and slid it around his neck.

Bitty was already ready, he knew, in a charcoal grey suit that he got from Jack’s tailor. Getting to see Bitty all dressed up almost made it worth it to Jack to put on a suit on a Sunday in the summer. Well, that and the look that Bitty gave Jack when he emerged from the bedroom.

“You always did clean up nice,” Bitty said. He picked up two boxes of baked goods -- a pie in one, and a couple of kinds of cookies in the other.

“You’re taking food to a restaurant?”

“No, of course not,” Bitty said. “The cookies are for Lauren downstairs. She has a shower to go to and she wanted to bring something. They’re shaped like … you know.”

“Babies?”

“No, a bridal shower,” Bitty said. “A lingerie shower.”

At Jack’s blank look, Bitty muttered something under his breath and said, “A party where they give the bride-to-be sexy underwear and tell naughty jokes.”

“So the cookies look like underwear?” Jack said, all innocence.

“No, Jack,” Bitty said. “They look like dicks, okay?”

“What about the pie?”

“That’s for your mom and dad,” Bitty said. “We’re supposed to meet them at the hotel. They can drop the pie off in their room and then we’ll go to dinner.”

That meant going inside the hotel, probably. Which meant parking and then retrieving the car, and pleasantries in the hotel lobby, and …

“Are you sure we’ll make our reservation?” Jack asked. “I’d hate to get all dressed up for nothing.”

“Aw, sweetpea, I think I can guarantee that won’t happen,” Bitty said, reaching up to pat Jack’s face and give him a peck on the lips. “Let’s go. I don’t want to be late.”

Jack pulled up at the hotel valet stand, and when he got out, said, “We’ll only be a few minutes. Keep it close, eh?” with a twenty-dollar bill folded into his palm.

“Your folks said they’d meet us down here,” Bitty said, heading into the lobby. His head swiveled and stopped when he caught sight of Jack’s parents at the hotel bar. Both had drinks in front of them. Great. They’d want to finish, and there might be a bill to settle, too.

He followed as Bitty picked his way across the lobby, exchanged a half-hug with his father while his mother swept Bitty into her arms, and then traded places.

“Jack, you look wonderful,” Alicia said, finally letting go and holding him at arm’s length. “You both do. This summer has agreed with you.”

“Thanks, Maman,” Jack said. “You look great too. Um, are you two almost ready to go?”

“The pie, Jack!” Bitty said.

“Oh, and I have something upstairs to show you, Bitty,” Alicia said. “Come up with me and we can leave the pie in the room.”

“Fine,” Bob said. “That’ll give me time to watch the end of this round.”

Jack looked at the TVs above the bar. He couldn’t mean the golf tournament? Who knew what time that would end? But it was that or … competitive cornhole?

“Only a couple more tosses,” Bob confirmed. “If this one pushes that bag in, they’ve got it.”

“You have got to be kidding me,” Jack said.

“Oh, come on, Jack, relax.” Bob said. “It’s fun. Sit down and tell me about your summer.”

“It’s been more Bitty’s summer than mine, with the shop and this new book he’s working on,” Jack said. “He’s been busy.”

“I remember those days,” Bob said. “When I’d finish the season so tired I didn’t know how I’d even haul myself upstairs to the bedroom, and by the time I was ready to face the world again, your mother would be on location on the other side of the world somewhere. I always wondered why our schedules couldn’t align.”

“It wasn’t her fault,” Jack said.

“Of course not,” Bob said. “Any more than it was mine. Hockey season is hockey season, and filming schedules are filming schedules, and cute little shops on streets popular with tourists open during the summer.”

“No, I know,” Jack said. “I wasn’t complaining.”

He stopped at the look his father gave him.

“Okay, I was complaining, but not about Bitty,” Jack said. “Just the way things worked out this summer. I was thinking we could maybe have a party for my birthday this year --”

“You haven’t wanted a birthday party since you were eight!”

“Not a big party,” Jack said. “Just a few people. But Shitty’s in the middle of preparing for a big trial, and Lardo’s off being an artist in residence somewhere, and Tater’s not back yet. Bitty’s too busy to plan anything anyway, and no one would let me plan it.”

“Get it all out, son,” Bob said. “Before your mother and your husband get downstairs. Even if Bitty didn’t plan a party, he did plan this evening for you, and it doesn’t do to feel sorry for yourself on your birthday. Especially when you have someone who thinks the sun rises and sets on you like he does.”

“I know,” Jack said, then caught sight of the time on one of the TVs.

“Oh, no. We’re late for our reservation.”

“We’ll make it.”

“No, we’re late. Already. Maybe I should call them?”

He was picking up his phone when he saw Alicia, carrying a large shopping bag, and Bitty crossing the lobby from the elevator. Bitty was on the phone. Of course he had it handled.

Bitty did not have it handled.

He hadn’t said anything about the reservation to Jack on the way to Al Forno, just squeezed Jack’s hand on the console as they pulled away from the hotel.

“I really hope you enjoy tonight,” Bitty said.

They left the car with the restaurant valet and headed straight into trouble.

“Bittle-Zimmermann, party of four,” Bitty told the maitre d’. “We have reservations.”

The maitre d’ scanned his sheet, made a face, and looked up at Bitty.

“This reservation is for thirty minutes ago,” he said.

“I know,” Bitty said, “And I’m sorry we’re late.”

“Surely half an hour can’t be a problem,” Bob said, trying to shoulder his way into the conversation, folded bill just visible between his fingers. “We promise not to linger. It’s my son’s birthday.”

“Papa!” Jack hissed, tugging at his father’s sleeve like he was eight years old again. “Let Bitty handle it.”

“Yes, Bob,” Alicia said, drawing herself up to full height and looming over the desk. “My son-in-law, Eric Bittle-Zimmermann, has this under control.”

Jack took a moment to be pleased that his mother knew Eric’s name would have more clout than theirs in a restaurant.

“I’m sorry,” the maitre d’ said. “But we gave that table away not five minutes ago. We didn’t think you were going to show up.”

“We can wait for another table,” Bitty said.

“Not tonight,” the maitre d’ said, looking truly regretful. If Bitty had liked the dinner and mentioned it on his vlog, that would have been very good for the restaurant. “We have a large private party coming in. I’m afraid it won’t be possible.”

Bitty’s face fell and Jack’s heart clenched.

“It’s fine, bud,” Jack said. “We have the food for tomorrow at home. We can go make dinner, and then head to the store in the morning. It’s not a big deal.”

“It is a big deal,” Bitty said. “It’s your birthday. I planned this dinner, and it’s my fault it got screwed up. Your mother wanted to show me your present and I got to rambling on … and why can’t I pay more attention? I’m sorry, Jack. I spoiled your birthday dinner.”

“Bitty, it’s okay, really,” Jack said.

“Perhaps next week?” the maitre d’ suggested.

“But then it won’t be Jack’s birthday anymore,” Bitty said.

“Perhaps the gentlemen would take a coupon for their next meal here?” the maitre d’ said. “For the inconvenience.”

“That’s not necessary,” Bitty said. “It was my fault.”

“I insist,” the maitre d’ said.

Jack took the offered envelope and slid it into his jacket pocket.

“Come on, Bits,” he said. “It’s not the end of the world.”

He ducked closer and whispered, “At least we can get out of the suits, eh?”

“Jack!” Bitty said, giggling through his frown. “Your parents are here!”

“Not what I meant, bud,” Jack said, but he grinned, because he’d gotten a laugh from Bitty.

“Need anything before we go home?” Jack asked while they waited for the car. “Or do you want to just pick up dinner on the way?”

“I think we have all the food we need,” Bitty said. “Maybe a bottle of champagne? Shoot, no, it’s just after six.”

“Just after six?” Bob said.

“Rhode Island law,” Jack said. “No packaged liquor after 6 p.m. on Sundays.”

“So unless you want to drop me at home to get started and drive to Attleboro, a champagne toast will have to wait for tomorrow,” Bitty said.

“We don’t need champagne,” Jack said. “Come on, let’s head home.”

Jack drove again, Bitty in the passenger seat next to him, his parents in the back. It was completely normal, and that thought struck him as odd. Here he was, 30 years old tomorrow, married to Eric Bittle, the love of his life. His parents loved Eric, too, and were here to celebrate with them, and in a few weeks he’d be getting ready for training camp for next season. He wished his 18-year-old self could have seen this future. It was better than anything he’d ever expected.

He would have liked to celebrate with Shitty and Lardo, Tater, maybe Marty and Gabby and Thirdy and Carrie, but this was good, too. Better than he had any right to expect.

He stopped at a red light and glanced at Bitty, who was also looking at him, a sly grin on his face.

“What?” Jack said. “Why are you looking at me like that?”

“It’s your birthday,” Bitty said.

“Not until tomorrow,” Jack said.

“You know what I mean.”

Jack took Bitty’s hand in the elevator when they got back to the building and held it for the whole ride up. He was still holding it when he got to the door and opened it.

He dropped it as the crowd shouted “Surprise!”

“What the --”

“Surprise, sweetpea,” Bitty said, reaching up to whisper to him. “You can still change out of your suit if you want.”

“Jackabelle!” Shitty was there to claim a hug. He wasn’t dressed in a suit, but he was dressed. Jack probably should thank Lardo for that. And there she was, hanging back, talking to Gabby.

So Marty was here somewhere -- by the pool table, talking to Tater while Snowy lined up a shot. Thirdy was in the corner, deep in conversation with Coach Bittle, and there were Suzanne and Carrie bringing more napkins in from the kitchen.

The island was covered with catering trays from … Al Forno, and Jack could see a maple-crusted apple pie among a selection on the kitchen counter. There was also a cake and some cake pops (for the kids? Were they here?) and it looked like someone (Shitty, probably) had been serving drinks from the bar. There was a bottle of champagne chilling.

Jack’s mother slipped past him to deposit the gift bag on the hall table with the other gifts.

“Happy birthday, Jacky,” she said. “When Bitty said our job was to help distract you, I wasn’t sure we could pull it off. I thought you might insist on leaving for the restaurant too early.”

“You were in on this?” Jack said.

“Everybody was,” Bitty said. “Even the maitre d’ at Al Forno.”

“But the gift certificate …”

“A gift from me to you,” Bitty said. “For when we can have dinner, just the two of us.”

The rest of the evening went by in a blur of conversations and congratulations. Marty and Thirdy’s kids were there, hiding in the guest room, watching gamers play Animal Crossing on YouTube and coloring, but they came out to help blow out his candles.

“What about your trial coming up?” Jack asked Shitty. “And your residency?” he asked Lardo.

“Those are both real,” Lardo said. “But a funny thing about being an artist in residence: They don’t lock you in. And Shits needed a break for a little while.”

Coach Bittle looked tickled to be sharing a room with so many professional athletes, and Suzanne helped Bitty shuttle food and dishes in and out of the kitchen.

“Told you they’d want to celebrate your birthday,” Bitty said. “They flew in this morning and Shitty picked them up at the airport. They were waiting around the corner for us to leave.”

“You do like parties!” Tater boomed at Jack before leaving. “I knew it! But it took your husband to invite me.”

“That’s because it was a surprise, Tater,” Bitty said. “Jack didn’t know.”

Once everyone was gone -- not too late, because it was a Sunday -- Jack helped Bitty stow the leftovers and wash the dishes.

“How’d you know?” he asked Bitty.

“Know what, hon?”

“That I wanted a party,” Jack said. “A surprise party.”

“Jack, sweet pea, you’ve been moping around this house for weeks,” Bitty said. “All woe-is-me because your friends were busy this weekend. Of course you wanted a party. And you wouldn’t have tried to plan a surprise party for me unless you at least didn’t hate the idea.”

“How did you do such a good job planning it?” Jack said. “I really didn’t know.”

“You don’t have a suspicious mind?” Bitty said. ”Now come on. It’s nearly midnight. Let’s get to bed and you can have another birthday surprise.”


Jack groaned when he opened his eyes the next morning. It was late, later than he usually slept anyway. But he’d been up late the night before.

He could hear Bitty in the kitchen, opening drawers and moving plates and cookware around. Coffee was ready, probably.

He got up, dragged a T-shirt over his head and tugged on a pair of shorts, and wandered down the hall.

“Morning, bud,” Jack said.

“Jack, happy birthday!” Bitty said. “Breakfast’s almost ready, and I put all the cards and gifts from last night on the table.”

Jack worked his way through them, shaking his head at Shitty’s selection of boxer briefs emblazoned with the logos of female superheroes and grateful for the small painting from Lardo. There were restaurant gift certificates and a tie from Papa (“You always wear that old blue one!”) and reading glasses from Marty.

Then he opened his mother’s gift. It was a flat box, and it held a red leather leash and collar, along with a gift certificate for adoption fees from the animal shelter.

The enclosed note said, “I think this will be a good gift for both of you, but of course I’m not about to surprise you with a puppy. Take your time deciding which dog to adopt. In the meantime, know that there was also a $10,000 donation in your name to help support all the animals.”

“Bits,” Jack said. “Did you have any plans this morning?”

“Nothing in particular,” Bitty said. “Maybe see my parents at some point. D’you mind if they come for dinner?”

“Of course not,” Jack said. “But do you think we could go to the animal shelter?”