I’m at an office birthday party when my phone jitters in my jeans. Casual Friday. I haven’t had any cake yet, so I don’t check my phone right away. I wait for my slice, patiently, watching each plate get passed to each coworker before I get mine—last, always last—red velvet cake with white cream cheese frosting, a plastic fork plunged, tines first, into the soft red sponge.
Along with the cake, the boss is passing out free tickets to The World of Coca-Cola, a short walk from our office building. Rewards for meeting our quarterly goals. “Good job. Excellence breeds excellence.” Some people get two tickets, some three or four, some none. “It’s really something else,” the boss says to me. “If you’ve never been. Quite an experience.”
I take my single ticket and my slice of cake. “Happy birthday, Teresa,” I say cheerfully as I exit the break room.
The birthday girl doesn’t look up from her Styrofoam cup of Diet Cherry Coke.
I take the cake to my cube and pull out my phone. The text is from a number I don’t know, but it’s not just a text, but a text and a picture of a baby, a cute blue-eyed baby girl with a red bow askew on her head. The baby is on her stomach on a red and white checkered picnic blanket spread over some short cut grass, using all her tiny baby muscles to lift up her neck. A spot of drool shines from the corner of her puckered baby mouth. This is all clearly a mistake.
The text: hey daddy
But I don’t want it to be. A mistake.
The baby is adorable, and I wish she really was mine, I was really hers, and this was a picture my wife took, my beautiful blue-eyed wife and my beautiful blue-eyed baby. We’re at a picnic. My wife’s toes peek through the blades of grass, long and slender toes, with nails painted the color of strawberry ice cream. And lots of other people are here with us at this picnic too, present with their own toes, family, sisters, friends, grandparents. And there I am, off camera, by the grill, flipping burgers and rolling hot dogs while the family oohs and coohs over the baby. My wife stands there with her hands turned backwards at her waist, pushing her hips out like she used to when she was pregnant with our daughter. My wife wears a sundress, the one I bought her on our honeymoon to the Bahamas, and she turns her head over her tanned shoulder, and looks at me by the grill and says, “Ain’t life sweet.”
I call the number. No answer. I leave a message. “Hi, I got your picture. I’m not sure who you are, but your baby is beautiful. But unless you’re looking for me you probably have the wrong number. Maybe you are looking for me. If you are you can call me back if you need to talk to me. Thanks.”
Teresa’s birthday cake tastes good.
The boss was right. The World of Coca-Cola really is quite an experience, like being inside a peppermint, swirls of red and white everywhere. In the lobby a white polar bear greets me and tries to shake my hand. In the bottling plant robots deliver glass to conveyor belts where each bottle is cleaned and sanitized. The robots keep everything clean. In the tasting room I get to taste Coke products from all over the world to see what other drinks the Japanese might be enjoying. Our tastes aren’t all that different. There’s also a theater where they show a cartoon called Inside the Happiness Factory, all about what happens inside a vending machine once you slide in your money. All these little cartoon people scurry to work to deliver the ice cold Coke to your hand. Each one gives a testimonial about their job, and it’s funny, and it starts me thinking about how this is really an old idea, how we all used to think like this at some point when we were kids. At least I did. I used to think that for all the things that were too complicated to figure out, there were little people inside controlling the machinery. Inside a watch, tiny people move the gears around, synching up time with the heavens, making sure you know where you need to be and when. And inside the TV, little people bring the shows to you, turning the channel when you want it, shining out all the bright colors that make up what you see. A camera, a car, a computer are all filled with little people, working together, making things go. And even inside the telephone, a crowd of them wait with tiny hammers to clang on a bell whenever someone wants to talk to you. You stop thinking this way eventually, about most things.