A blonde toddler with his arms tucked inside his overalls blocked the way to the hostess's station. The man next to him, dressed in work boots and a flannel coat, met my eyes with the look of an exhausted cattle wrangler who'd wearied of minding his calf. Grabbing the back of the kid's overalls, he slumped forward and pulled him from my path.

My old friend Glen had invited me to his twins' birthday dinner at The Bugaboo Creek Steakhouse, otherwise I would've never darkened their faux rustic door. In my limited experience, family friendly restaurants were openly hostile to any adult hoping to simply sit down to a civilized meal. Glen claimed parenting was rewarding in ways that I never would've guessed which almost had to be true. He did so with a broad smile that seemed plastic to me as though he was no longer permitted to take his own life seriously. His dreams of personal fulfillment and aspirations of individual glory had been cast aside for the betterment of his family.

In our student days, which now seemed as distant as our unplanned futures once were, Glen had been a promising sculptor, marrying animal and human forms to create myths all his own. There was once something godlike about him, the mounds of clay meant for his hands alone. At the end of our senior year, he won a prestigious fellowship which allowed him to study in Germany for the summer. Shamefully, I was so jealous that I never visited him there, thinking, incorrectly, that the fellowship should have been mine for a series of decidedly mediocre abstract paintings.

I'd pleaded that I was too busy to visit him which was partially true. That summer, I had worked furiously, even scraping together some money to rent a small studio just off campus. And though I always felt that I was on the verge of a breakthrough, I was really just laboring through a brighter colored, more overworked form of mediocrity. Still the competition served us both well in those days, pushing each to exceed his pronounced limitations in the search for new forms and ideas.

Not long after graduation, the force that had been driving us towards something meaningful waned, leaving us stranded in lives we never wanted. I hadn't dared pick up a paintbrush in years. Even the sight of one was painful, reminding me of my youthful illusions and how far I'd strayed from them. And while Glen claimed his children provided the most incredible sculpting medium ever conceived, his devolution from god to mortal was clear. He no longer shaped the clay but merely struggled to keep a handle on it.

"How're you doing tonight?" I asked the hostess, having finally muscled my way through the waiting area to her lectern, an absurd linocut of fake wood.

"Good evening sir, how many in your party?" She tried to hand me a box of crayons but I waived them away.

"I'm here for a birthday bash. I think it's under Rosen, Glen Rosen."

"Yes," she said. "You'll be back in the Elk Lodge Room. I don't think anyone else is here."

"No, I expect the party'll arrive in separate minivans. A caravan of Caravans, if you will."

She smiled at me nervously as though I could have possibly been any more dangerous than the waiting area full of hungry children. One tantrum thrower was all it would take to pitch the whole group into rowdy, unhappy chaos. Then, she'd wish I was still standing in front of her, blocking her view and trying to flirt with her in my not entirely competent fashion.

"I'll just wait at the bar."

A blonde woman two-fisting glasses of white wine with the zeal of an escaped convict who knew her time on the outside was going to be short sat next to an empty stool. She finished one glass by turning it upside down. The last drops missed her mouth, landing on the front of her blouse. After smiling dementedly at the tiny stains, she took a considerable gulp from the other glass. There was a carelessness to her that seemed almost joyful when she began to sway a bit to the Eagles' "I Can't Tell You Why," drifting weakly from the speakers above the bar.

"It's like a zoo back there," I said, pulling out the stool next to her.

"It's so nice to just get away for a few minutes," she replied, dabbing at her blouse with a tattered napkin.

"Tell me about it."

"How many did you leave back there?" she asked, now sipping from her glass more decorously.

"You mean kids?"

"No, she snorted. —Wounded Marines...yes kids."

"I don't. I'm single. I mean...I don't...."

"Randy, we're here. Randy....," Glen called, his voice easily carrying over the din of the waiting area. "Come on over, say hi to the family."

"Your dad's calling," the woman said, snorting some more.

Sandra held Cory's hand while Glen minded Abe. I'd been told that the boys had picked the restaurant themselves which I supposed could've been true but still failed to impress me. Really, how many different places could two four year-olds possibly know about? Abe, who was chubby in the way that told me he was going to struggle with his weight just like his dad, broke away and raced over to me.

"We're going to get balloons," he announced, his face positively stupid with excitement.

Another couple and their children had been invited because, apparently, when you have the chance to double the number of little shrieking time bombs set to go off at the slightest provocation, you've got to take it. I'd met Alex and Alexa a couple of times before. They were one of those corporate couples whose idea of social interaction involved taking turns subtly bragging about how busy and important their jobs were.

Their son was a little younger than Abe and Corey. He waddled forward and fell over every couple of steps like an overly medicated dwarf. There was something unfinished about him, blob-like as though he still needed to be shaped into a human being. Anyway, he couldn't say my name so I hadn't bothered to learn his. I don't know how much older their daughter Alyssa was, except that she was old enough to walk without falling and had enough personality to remember me.

"You're Randy," she informed as we all followed the hostess to a room off to the side of the main dining area.

Elk heads fitted with sunglasses mounted to the wall and a chandelier fashioned from what was supposed to look like a wagon wheel further enforced the restaurant's attempted outdoor aesthetic. Sandra sat Cory next to Glen, thwarting any plans I had of being a bad influence on my old friend. I only wanted him to myself for a short time. I thought we'd have a few too many and talk like we used to, before he'd exchanged the role of aspiring artist for perspiring father. Instead, I was stuck at the opposite end of the table sitting across from Alyssa.

"You're old. You're too old to be here alone," Alyssa said with a note of certainty as if she knew I didn't really want to be there. "You don't have any babies. You're just Glen's friend."

"I am old but consider Abe and Cory my friends as well. Age shouldn't make a difference where friends are concerned."

"Do you want to be my friend?" Alyssa sounded surprised and even, I suspected, thrilled at that wisdom.

"Sure. Shake on it?" I offered my hand. She shook it and giggled.

"Do you have a cell phone?" she asked.

"Of course, they make all of us adults get one now whether we want to or not."

"Why?"

"I don't know. I just follow orders."

"Well...,"she arched her shoulders and smiled expectantly, "can I see it?"

"Why do you want to see it?"

"I want to see what games are on it."

"I don't have any games on it."

"Well...," she shrugged again, "can I see it any way, since we're friends? My dad lets me play with his all the time."

"Trust me. There's nothing interesting about my phone. No games, no pictures it's just a phone."

"Is Glen's number in your phone?"

"Of course, under G."

"Can I see?" Alyssa asked, thrusting out her open palm in a manner that suggested she rarely had to do anything more to get what she wanted.

"No. I'm sorry. I'm expecting a call."

She slumped in her chair, letting her head droop so that it almost touched the table. Glen and Sandra should've been thrilled they didn't have twin girls. I always heard they mature faster than boys, when it just seemed that little girls became aware of the power of dramatic gestures earlier in life. Having two little actresses of the same age, constantly competing for attention would've been pure hell. I was about to say something to make sure she didn't cry when a kid with buzzed blonde hair wandered through the curtain.

"What are you doing?" he asked.

"Where did you come from?" I countered.

"I'm gonna have ice cream."

He pointed back towards the dining room.

"That's great," I said. "Bet you're looking forward to that."

"I get it cause I finished all my peas."

"Got to eat your veggies."

"I hate peas."

"Go away!" Alyssa shouted. "You're not supposed to be here. This is a private party."

With that, my new friend slunk off but not before showing us his pink velvet nub of a tongue. Her attempt to keep the party exclusive earned Alyssa a corrective from her mother delivered in an unnecessarily loud shout. Alyssa went limp as though she'd been shot and let her head fall all the way onto the table. I always found it odd that parents thought yelling at their kids would help to improve their manners.

"Hey Alyssa," I said and slid my phone across the table. "Here have a look, but you're going to be disappointed. There's nothing fun on my phone. I can't afford the fun stuff."

I asked for it back a few minutes later when the waitress came to take our orders. Alyssa was already bored enough that she didn't protest. At the other end of the table, Glen negotiated with the boys over what they could eat. Sandra had converted him to vegetarianism and now he was charged with passing her teachings on to the boys. Though I would've liked to ask how that lifestyle squared with having their birthday at The Bugaboo Creek Steakhouse, I kept it to myself. The waitress had to be patient as she made her way around the table. Children's orders were corrected and modified as they moved from child to parent. She was forced to repeat each of them several times.

Thankfully, our server sensed the edginess in the room and brought our adult beverages quickly. I hoped that some social lubrication might help Alexa and Sandra ease out of mommy mode. Lamentably, even with an oversized glass of white wine in each of their hands, the competition between them for the title of strictest maternal figure raged on.

"I keep track of everything they eat. So many things have sugar that you just have to watch," Alexa said. "I watch this one too," she said and tilted her head in her husband's direction. Alex frowned behind her and went back to coloring with his son whose technique seemed to chiefly consist of swirling his crayon carelessly over the paper.

"Tell me about it," Sandra said. "You have to watch what they drink too, so much sugar in those juice boxes nowadays."

"I tell Alyssa everyday, you get one juice box and that's it. So pick a time when you're really thirsty to have it, cause you're not getting another." Alexa laughed the cackle of a woman who enjoyed depriving children of things.

"I limit the boys to two snacks a day. Only one of which they can have while watching TV. God knows it's the only way I can get few minutes peace," Sandra pleaded.

"Alyssa doesn't really like TV," Alexa announced with unmistakable relish. "She's a reader."

"That's wonderful!" Sandra said and gave a quick, slightly disappointed glance at each of her boys. Cory was sucking on the side of his hand, drool shining from his chin. Meanwhile, Abe cut at the table's edge with his butter knife, sawing it up and down with almost mechanical determination.

"Alyssa," Alexa called. "Alyssa," she called again impatiently. "Tell everyone what your favorite book is."

"The Wind in the Willows," Alyssa whispered, before letting her head fall close to the table once more.

"Speak up Alyssa, pick your head up. My god, please don't put your head on the table. We don't do that at home!"

"The Wind in the Willows," Alyssa replied, nearly shouting.

"I love that book!" Sandra said, deftly pinching the knife from Abe's hand.

"What about you Randy?" Alexa asked. "Bet you can't wait to read the Wind in the Willows over and over and over again."

"Oh not Randy," Sandra chuckled.

"I don't know, hun," Glen said, then raised his glass to me. "I don't think Ran would be opposed per se to settling down and starting a family. Would you?" He followed his question with a shallow, bird like sip from his pint.

No, not per se," I said, raising my glass to Glen and taking a huge gulp.

"Do you have a girlfriend may I ask?" Alexa slurred slightly, her face already flushed from only a half of a glass of wine.

"Yes," I lied.

"Don't ask for her name," Sandra purred. "He likes to keep it to himself. Glen says he always has....Right?" she asked, elbowing him in the ribs. "Right Glen?"

"Randy's always been something of a man of mystery."

"Well, I tell ya' Randy," Alexa said, giving me a quick look before pretending to inspect her son's drawing. "Don't believe the hype. You're too old to be mysterious, after a certain age it stops being cool and seems kind of sketchy."

"I think you've had enough wine, Alexa." Her husband pointed a yellow crayon at her nearly empty glass before retreating back to his art.

Our orders arrived just in time to spare the lone childless man further questioning. I found my steak overdone and chewy and the potato cold as a stone. Still I was hungry enough to attack the plate with gusto, forcing huge chunks of steak into my mouth. Then, feeling as though my performance was being momitored, I slowed up a bit and made an effort to show that I was housebroken. When I noticed how one of the birthday boys went about his business, I realized I could've probably gotten away with burying my face in the plate.

Abe's lower jaw moved from front to back as he chewed, his lips hanging slack like a cow chewing its cud. A carrot managed to escape his furious masticating and land on the table.

Undeterred, he picked up crammed it back into his mouth. Thankfully, I was nearly done eating as that scene had done irreparable damage to my appetite.

"He's disgusting," Alyssa said in a sharp whisper, after she had chewed, swallowed and rather elegantly wiped her mouth.

"What?" I asked leaning over the table.

"Abe, the way he mauls his food," she whispered more softly. "My mom says he might be slow."

"Really?"

"He's all excited about a balloon? I know he's only four but please. It's just a balloon, I have tons of better toys at home.

"He was a little over excited that there was going to be balloons. He told me about them as soon as they got here."

"I know. I heard."

After the meal was more or less finished, the waitress burst through the curtain with a clutch of the promised balloons. The front featured different pictures of Shrek smiling that dumb bastard smile of his. Abe was so excited to receive one that a considerable hunk of saliva softened bread fell from his mouth as he reached for it.

Sandra brandished her folded up napkin like a weapon, trying to clean his face. He struggled valiantly, bobbing his head this way and that to avoid her sorties. In the midst of their battle, the balloon got free from his grasp. We all sat in silence as it drifted too high to grab, floated over the table, through the opening in the curtain and out into the dining room.

Once it had sailed out of sight, Abe began bawling, an urgent mournful howl. Before his parents could even attempt to comfort him, Alyssa hopped from her chair and presented him her balloon. When he snatched it and stared at Shrek with an awed expression, his crying suddenly halted. Alyssa took the balloon's cord and tied it around his wrist.

"That was very nice," Alyssa, Sandra gasped. "Abe what do you say?"

"Thank you," he said, a glow of affection lit his eyes as they followed Alyssa back to her seat.

She climbed back into her chair, a conspiratorial smirk on her face. I raised my glass to her and finished my drink.