Deciding on the location of your child’s birthday party demands a keen evaluation of the setting, the atmosphere, the ambiance, the inherent evil and the long term scarring effect on the attendees. Which is why I am baffled as to why someone would decide to have a child’s birthday party at a place that’s best described as a gruesome amalgam of Santa’s Workshop, Frankenstein’s Laboratory , The Island of Dr. Moreau, the set of Saw III and a 19th century trading post on the Oregon Trail.
Yesterday, Jack attended the 5th birthday party of his friend Ethan held at a Build-A-Bear Workshop (formerly doing business under the name Taxidermy Tykes) and if you’ve yet to have the misfortune of patronizing your local Build-A-Bear on a Saturday afternoon at a crowded mall just a week before the Christmas shopping season officially begins I can only hope that my story helps prevent future acts of uncivilized butchery and over-priced costumes and accessories.
My concerns were validated the moment we arrived at the party and had to cross an aggressive PETSA (pronounced Pizza – People for the Ethical Treatment of Stuffed Animals) picket line to enter the shop. The interior of the store proved to be no less hostile. Roaming clans of feral children hoisting their stuffed animals in various stages of completion each led by a Build-A-Bear High Priestess either leading a chant or directing the children though the intricate steps of a ritualistic dance. The walls were lined with parents, most of whom were trying not to make eye contact with the children, some wept, one mother fainted when her son impaled the head of his stuffed pig on a pretzel rod sharpened at both ends. The savagery pulsed, the great hall felt alive, and I grabbed Jack’s hand and moved towards the door, but was stopped by High Priestess Melissa before we could escape.
“Are you here for Ethan’s party?” she purred seductively. I nodded and moved between her and Jack. “You’re late. Go the bins and pick out any animal you want.” The bins were against the far wall and were filled with the empty carcasses of a thousand plush creatures. Jack chose the hide of a triceratops then sprinted madly to join his friends. When I caught up to him the High Priestess Melissa had assembled the tribe into a line and was marching them towards the back of the store.
She formed them into a circle then disappeared for a moment into the darkness of a doorway marked Employees Only then returned to the circle with a bowl of hearts. She explained to the children in a voice like a lullaby that entranced them that each them was to choose two hearts from the bowl. Their eyes glazed over and she continued. They were to choose two hearts, one heart would go in Ethan’s animal and the other would go in their own. She walked into the center of the ring and one by one offered each child their chance to choose their hearts. Just as she reached Jack I saw an expression form on his face, a wild bloodthirsty sneer, and he plunged his hands in the hearts. I called his name to try to break the spell–the heavy, mute spell of the wilderness–that seemed to draw him to its pitiless breast by the awakening of forgotten and brutal instincts, but I knew I’d lost him.
After each child had chosen two hearts they descended on Ethan’s animal, a dog he’d named Lick, and savagely shoved their fists into Lick’s hollow chest cavity depositing 15 hearts deep inside him. The horror! The horror! Each child then returned to their place in the circle and held the other heart while their lifeless sacrifices lay in a heap at their feet. High Priestess Melissa then whipped the group into a frenzy with a ceremony that was a cross between the Chicken Dance, the Time Warp from the Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Hokie Pokie and Lisa Bonet’s voodoo dance in Angel Heart minus the chicken blood. I don’t practice Santeria, I ain’t got no crystal ball but when the children simultaneously plunged their second hearts into their own inanimate creatures at the pinnacle of the ritual I expected there to be sudden silence and then to see paws, hooves and feet twitching.
The tribe was then led to a contraption against the wall, the front of it was made of a glass through which was visible the churning blades of a combine thrashing the white downy substance that would serve as stuffing for the animals. From the front of the machine extended a long silver tube that ended just in front of a stool on which sat the High Priestess Melissa. Each child waited patiently for their turn to impale their animal on the pipe, to fill the insides with the downy substance then to watch the High Priestess stitch up the creature so they could hug it and pet it and name it George, or Lick, or Ninja as Jack had named his Triceratops.
We had reached the end of the ceremony and the children lined up, held their creatures aloft and marched towards the front of the store chanting in unison, “Look at my animal! Look at my animal! Kill the beast! Cut its throat! Spill its blood! Look at my Animal.”
I watched from a distance as Jack stamped his feet in time with the other kids demanding that all the inhabitants of the island, even the nervous parents against the wall, witness and behold his Animal. As they reached the front the light from outside the store seemed to break the spell on the children and as their maniacal grins turned to uncomplicated smiles Jack laughed and flung his triceratops towards the sky.
Following its tumbling arc I saw written across the ceiling, “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.” and I wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Ninja.