Jim didn’t plan on leaving his birthday party. He didn’t even plan on leaving the building, going outside – he saw Barry the Polka Bull walk out the door, and it stayed hanging just open, calling to him. Barry the Polka Bull and his Bovine Bonanza had only just finished playing their set for the birthday boy and his guests, and the crowds of Jim’s friends were now pushing their way to the playground – scrambling, shoving, screaming. Every father was on hunt through the birthday room for the elusive servers, begging for alcohol – every mother was fused to their cell phones, half on their cameras, half on their Facebooks, vying for information and gossip about who the bad kids there were. Every table was laden with half-eaten burgers, stray fries and unfinished sodas. The party was in the full swing of chaos that any birthday boy would thrive in. Not Jim, though. For him, whether he realized it or not, it was the perfect time to slip through the door outside undetected.
Jim was outside now. The cold winter winds were biting against his naked arms now, the sun about exhausted after ages trying to break past the icy clouds. And there he was in front of Jim – Barry the Polka Bull.
Jim’s eyes widened as he stepped out from the door frame, fully engulfed by the winter. A putrid blend of fast food aroma and shit stinks filled the air as Barry leaned up against a dumpster, in all of his bovine greatness. His legs were lined with the most luscious fur, strapped with lederhosen and green pants – his Awesome Accordion was slung on his belt – matted, graying black fur lined his chest, and two proud horns emerged from his head. Jim stared deep into Barry’s two enormous smiling eyes, his smiling cow mouth, the hole in his neck that was hardly noticeable to the four-year-old’s eyes. The cow did nothing to acknowledge him. He had his arms jammed into his pockets, navigating through them with his hoof-hands.
“Barry!” Jim shouted.
The cow whirled around to face the boy, shrieking in a much lower voice than what he had sung in.
Jim only shouted. “It’s me!” he said, as though to a best friend. “It’s my birthday today!”
A pause lingered through the shipping area before Barry uttered an “Oh,” and slid a half-exposed box of Marlboros back into his pocket, returning to his fluffy, bubbly cartoon voice. “The party is inside, John!” the cow said, mouth unmoving. “You don’t want to miss it! Why don’t you go back in?”
“I-I-” John’s smile kept widening. “I wanted to meet you!”
“Everyone inside is having so much fun! I know you don’t want to miss-”
Jim ran up to his cow hero, wrapping his arms around his waist in an enormous, warm hug. “I love you, Barry!” he shouted into the matted fur.
“Oh, God,” Barry said, the cartoon voice fading away again.
“Do you want to play with us?” Jim looked back up into the eyes of his cow hero, smile stretching from ear to ear.
“You should go back!” Barry said, hand still hugging the Marlboro box. “I’ll meet you in there in a second, alright?”
“Can you come now?” Jim asked. “You are such a good singer and I want all of my friends to meet you and I want to play with you because I am your friend.”
Barry chuckled, mouth still unmoving. “You are my friend, huh?”
“Yeah,” Jim nodded. “And you love to play with us.”
Barry chuckled again, leaning back against the dumpster. “You aren’t going back in, are you?”
Jim smiled, shaking his head.
“My God . . .” Barry muttered again in the raspy voice. “You’ve got to go back inside to play now. You have to.”
“Because you only have so much time to play!”
“Because the party will end soon!”
“Because it will.”
Jim snickered. “Why?”
“God . . .” Barry’s voice was becoming tense, mouth still unmoving. “Because.”
“Come in and play with us!”
“Not now!” Barry said. “I will come inside in a second!”
“Why not now?”
Barry took a heavy breath, his glossy painted eyes still beaming with a false joy. “I just need to take a breath.”
Jim waited just long enough for Barry the Polka Bull to take one lone breath. “Okay,” the boy said, hugging the cow’s leg again. “Let’s go!”
“You need to go back inside by yourself for now,” Barry said. “Give me some more time.”
“Because you only have so much time to play!” Barry said again.
“Because!” Barry was shouting now. “It won’t be long before you are stuck in a filthy cow suit singing stupid songs to snot-nosed kids!”
Jim’s face melted into a frown, and his arms unlatched from Barry’s legs. His eyebrows arched up, tied in a knot.
“You’d better start playing now!” Barry kept shouting. “You never know when you’re going to have to stop!”
Jim began to back away as Barry stood off of the dumpster, towering high above the boy.
“There is no greater lesson that I can teach you,” Barry the Polka Bull said, “than this: someday, you’ll start walking through a field of shit, one that you will be wading through for the rest of your life, and then you’ll have to learn how to scrape it off your shoes so you can get a whole new coat the next day! Play now while you can, or-”
“Jim!” a woman’s voice rang through the shipping area. “There you are!”
Jim turned around, tears streaming down his burning red-hot cheeks, to see his mother at the doorway to the party room, shooting the most twisted, vengeful glare she could muster at Barry the Polka Bull.
Barry reached one hand up to wave at the both of them, just as if nothing had happened – the other was back in his pocket, fishing for the Marlboro cigarettes. Jim’s mother swooped down and slung him over her shoulder, storming back inside with him. Jim kept his tear-flooded eyes on Barry as he was carried away. All he could see was the mats in the fur, the holes ripped into the horns. All he could see was the tattered prop accordion, all he could see was the lying painted eyes that smiled far too brightly, the stitched-on smile that stretched too wide.
All Jim could see as he was dragged back into his birthday party was a costume that he never wanted to wear.