As it happened, they took purchase with the gentleman sitting next to him, who swiveled marginally in his direction with a somewhat wary look. Before replying, he held up a finger to the bartender, not bothering to make eye contact, assured his request would be carried out.
“How so?” His voice rasped and slurred.
The first, not wholly prepared for a response, considered as he took a pull from his soda pop. “Well,” said he, “it’s not so much the phrase itself as the whole celebration, isn’t it? None of us made the decision to be born. That choice was really made by two other people - and, in some cases, more.”
Taking another pull, he continued, “One might as well congratulate this bottle for its existence.” He held it up. “We don’t do that, of course. We congratulate the person who made the bottle. We may admire the creation-”
“You admire that bottle?” The second interrupted.
The first paused and examined the object in question. “Most wouldn’t. Most would just use it until it no longer served its purpose and then toss it. Sometimes, though, I like to take notice. You could call it admiration, I guess.”
A lowball appeared before the man’s newfound companion. It was exchanged for a small handful of bills; a wordless encounter. The man raised the glass to his mouth, took a sip and lowered it, his tongue sliding along his lips to catch the remnants. He rubbed his bewhiskered jaw.
“So you’re saying we should celebrate the parents on someone’s birthday?” he asked.
“They did the work, didn’t they?”
“S’pose.” He gave a gruff laugh. “Though, I don’t reckon many of them mind the work.”
“Maybe not the start,” said the first, “but the birthing...there’s a reason they call it labor.”
“Mmm, that’s a truth.” His glassy eyes took on a faraway look. “Probably not many mothers get the credit for that. We’ve got the easy job.”
“You have kids?”
The man grunted. “More’n I know what to do with.”
“You celebrate the birthdays?”
“As big as we can,” said the man with a wide, yellow grin.
“They’re not things. They’re not bottles or art or furniture. They’re folks. They’re alive. If we can’t celebrate living, what the hell are we doing?” He held up a hand as the first man started to speak. “Now, I see your point. That they didn’t choose to come into this world, but they’re here. They were born. And I love every single one of them. I want them to know I’m glad they’re here. I think celebrating a person - telling them we’re happy they’re part of our lives - is maybe one of the best things we’ve come up with on this Earth. ‘Happy birthday’ is simple, yeh, but it means something. Wishing someone a good day, a special day, it’s...I don’t know...” He trailed off into his drink.
The first man was silent as he finished his own. Then he said, “What about strangers?”
The lowball was placed back on the bar, only a thin layer of liquid on the bottom now. “What about ‘em?”
“You’re glad they’re alive? You wish them a happy birthday?”
The man’s hand returned to his chin. “Yeh. I am. I do.”
“Makes ‘em feel good. Shows someone’s paying attention.” He held up a shaking hand, one finger outstretched. “Getting older’s not easy. Staying alive. Surviving. Thriving. That’s...well, that’s something.” His eyes refocused. “When’s your birthday, anyway? S’today, isn’t it?”
The first man grinned ruefully.
“Yeh, you had that look about you. Pondering the world. Look, man, just be. You’re here. You made it. Have a drink. In fact, next one’s on me.” He finished off the lowball.
“I don’t drink alcohol.”
“Whatever you’re drinking, it’s on me.”
“You don’t have to do that.”
“Already done.” He signaled the bartender with two fingers, gesturing to the both of them. “We’ll toast to another year around the sun.”
“That’s kind of you,” said the first.
The second smiled again, echoing his companion’s earlier words: “I like to take notice.”