World Penguin Day April 25th
by James Bates
On his way to Larry's birthday party, Tim stopped at a Quick-Trip for a twelve pack of Miller. On his way to pay for it he passed a toy section and that's when he first heard Pete. Of course he didn't know it was Pete at the time. What he heard was a faint, "Squeak, squeak." He looked. There in a toy bin was a four inch tall, black and white soft rubber penguin with a yellow beak and yellow feet. It's dark, shinny eyes seemed to plead, "Please take me home." He picked it up and squeezed it and the little penguin squeaked. Too cute! How could Tim resist? He felt a connection right away and thought Larry would as well. So he paid for his purchases and continued on his way, happily squeezing the little penguin, squeaking it the rest of the way to St. Paul.
The party, Larry's thirtieth, was in full swing by the time Tim arrived.
"Hey, man," Larry slurred coming up and giving his friend a hug. "Thought you'd never get here."
Behind him Tim saw Karen shaking her head. She looked pissed. She didn't like it when her husband drank to excess.
Tim understood, he had a little trouble over indulging himself sometimes. But today was special, he reasoned, you were only thirty once. Plus, he and Ann were on the outs so it was a night he was especially looking forward to, unwinding with his best friend. He handed over the gas station plastic bag. "Here you go, buddy. Happy birthday."
"Hey, pal, I'm touched," Larry joked. Then he opened the bag and took out the penguin. He squeaked it once. Then again. Then again and again and again, "Squeak, squeak, squeak!"
For many it was annoying but not for Larry. His eyes lit up. "I love him," he said, immediately assigning the penguin a male gender. He pulled Tim to him and hugged him tight. "Best present ever." And this was coming from a guy who'd just opened a new CD player from his brother. He turned and yelled, "Hey, everyone, look what Tim gave me." He held the penguin high in the air and started squeezing it. There was something about the little penguin's squeaky voice that was enduring to both Larry and Tim. Even Karen smiled. "His name's going to be Pete," Larry announced, squeaking the penguin some more. "Pete the penguin."
And that's how it started.
Nearly every Saturday night for the next couple of years Larry and Karen and Tim would get together. They'd have a few beers and talk over the their work week at their respective jobs. Tim worked at a hardware store, Larry was an assistant professor of history at the University of Minnesota and Karen was a secretary for an insurance company. Pete was always with them. "He's part of the group," Larry said early on, giving him a squeak. Pete had a stately yet easy going demeanor. He was non-judgmental and easy to care for, only requiring the occasional bit of fish for food. Most importantly, he had a calming effect and always put folks in a good mood.
Karen grew to love Pete and made little outfits for him to wear: A cowboy hat and chaps for Cowboy Pete. A red cape and black mask for Super Hero Pete. A surf board and knee length trunks for Surfer Dude Pete. And many others. Pete came to occupy a place of honor near wherever they sat, being squeaked whenever someone was in the mood, which was a usually quite often, especially after a few beers.
Larry created a narrative he called, The Story of Pete. "Pete was born in the Arctic and fell in love with Paula, the most beautiful penguin within a thousand miles of the Arctic Circle. During a violent storm she got lost at sea and Pete began searching the world high and low for her. His search was thwarted, however, when a huge wave smashed him upon the rocky shoreline of Lake Superior during a winter blizzard. He was airlifted to recovery at the University of Minnesota Avian Recovery Center where he was to be destined for the local zoo. But he escaped and ended up in a toy bin in a gas station in western St. Paul. That's Tim found him, rescued him, and gave him to Larry." (Which got Tim to thinking the "squeak, squeak" he heard that day might actually have been, "Please. Help me.")
Tim loved listening to The Story of Pete, and over that first year Pete's life became real to them all, right down to Pete developing a craving for Swenson's Gourmet canned sardines. By the time Larry's thirty-first birthday rolled around he had adopted the little penguin, becoming his father. Karen became his mother and Tim, of course, became Pete's uncle.
For seven years all was well with the four of them until Life intervened. Larry was offered a teaching job at the University of Madison. Karen's mother was in poor health and lived nearby in the town of Pardyville, so after very little deliberation the couple decided to move to Wisconsin.
"We'll stay in touch, buddy," Larry told Tim, giving him a farewell hug just after his thirty-seventh birthday, "That's what email and Facebook is for."
"Sounds good," Tim said. He and Larry had been friends since grade school and he was confident their friendship would survive.
So was Pete."Squeak, squeak!" said the little penguin.
But, over time, they drifted apart. Larry became head of the history department and he and Karen adopted a child from Korea. Then another one. Karen's mom moved in with them, and their lives become increasingly busy and complex. Tim's wife divorced him. They shared custody of their two kids and Tim devoted his time to being a better father. He quit drinking and became manager of the hardware store. A few more years went by and eventually the friends lost touch.
So imagine Tim 's surprise when out of the blue he got a friend request on Facebook. It was from Pete the penguin. Tim had to laugh because it was accompanied by a picture of Pete wearing a tie-dye tee shirt and red headband. "Hippy-Dippy Pete wants to become your friend," the caption read.
In an instant, all the memories of his friendship with Larry and Karen came flooding back; warm memories of nights spent together hanging out and talking; times of companionship and good will with Pete calmly standing nearby keeping them company. It'd been too long. Tim immediately confirmed the request. Within minutes Pete sent a message: "My mom is giving a fiftieth birthday party next month for my dad. It's going to be a surprise and she would very much like it if you would attend. It would mean the world to all of us."
Tim didn't have to think. He replied right back, "I'll be there."
And that's what put him on the road that day, driving to Madison to see his friends, friends he hadn't seen for over ten years. What would their reunion be like? He didn't party anymore. He'd never met their kids. Larry and Karen and he were different people from what they'd been when they were thirty and Pete the penguin had first entered their lives. It could be a disaster.
Or could it?
The more he thought about it, the more he thought, naw, no way. As friends went the three of them had something special, and Tim's overwhelming feeling was that their friendship could withstand the test of time. It had to. They had Pete the penguin as their glue. And if that sounded like a weird thing to say, and if other people didn't get it, well, too bad. As far as Nate was concerned it only meant those people had never met a penguin quite like Pete, because if they had he was convinced they'd be singing a different tune. Or squeaking one, for that matter.
Speaking of Pete, Nate almost forgot. Outside of Madison he pulled into a grocery store and roamed the isles until he found what he was looking for: a can of sardines, Swenson's Gourmet, of course. They were a gift for Pete. It was the least he could do for the little guy for bringing the friends back together. Then he remembered to pick up another can. He'd almost forgot. He'd heard a rumor that Pete had found his old girlfriend, Paula, and she might be at the party. It wouldn't hurt to have some extra food on hand for the happy couple, just to be on the safe side. When it came to penguins Nate knew one thing for sure, you could never have too many sardines.
He paid his bill, got in his car and continued on to Larry and Karen's home. He couldn't wait to get there. He could already hear Pete's enthusiastic voice, greeting him, "Squeak, squeak, squeak!"
And that's all it took to make him smile.
About the author
Jim lives in a small town twenty miles west of Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is an avid bird watcher and penguins are among his favorite bird species. His stories have appeared in CafeLit, The Writers' Cafe Magazine, A Million Ways, Cabinet of Heed and Paragraph Planet. You can also check out his blog to see more: www.theviewfromlonglake.wordpress.com.