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J. D. Salinger
1919-2010

   

Birthday Boy

by J. D. Salinger






   
 

            Miss Collins was coming out of his room, having little trouble closing the double doors behind her despite the tray of used luncheon dishes she carries. It seemed to the approaching Ethel that Miss Collins was always coming out of his room.
            “How is he today? Ethel hospital whispered.
            “Oh Mrs. Nicolson!” Miss Collins greeted loudly, as though saluting a relative thought dead 20 years, “Oh, he’s much better.” He was always much better. Miss Collins with a veiny, capable hand raised the cover from the largest plate. “Just had his lunch, ate his chop, the potato, but wouldn’t touch the carrots,” He was always not touching something.
            “Can I go in for a minute?” Ethel asked. “I mean he isn’t asleep?”
            “Sleep?” said Miss Collins, “That Man?”
            Ethel tiptoed into the room. The head of Ray’s bead was cranked up to prop him into a sitting position. Ray sat. His light brown hair was neatly combed, as though by a mother, and the lapels of his polka-dot robe were drawn close to his almost beardless throat.
            He looked at Ethel, the dull expression on his face unaltered. It appeared as though it were his business to be sitting there just so.
            “Ethel’s here. Hello, sweetie.” — this, shutting the inner double door. “My sitting-up sweetie.” She went over to him, bent, and kissed him wetly with an MMmm square on the mouth, a gesture for the like of which Mr. Pierce, at the shop, would have given her an apartment in the 50s. “Happy birthday, darling. Happy, happy, happy, happy birthday.”
            “Thanks. Hey. You’re leaning on my stomach.”
            She sat down in the straight chair to the right of his bed and took his hand in hers.
            “My birthday boy.”
            “Uh.”
            “Why didn’t you eat your carrots? Will you kindly tell me?”
            “Somebody chewed them before they got to me!”
            Ethel giggled, which she did very well.
            “Miss Collins maybe. She looks like she goes around eating people’s carrots. 22 year old birthday boy’s carrots.”
            Ray grunted.
            “Sweetie, you must eat,” Ethel told him.
            He took his hand out of hers and looked out the window to his left. There was the other side of the building to see.
            “Look at me,” Ethel ordered. “22. The man’s catching up to me.” The cowlick at the back of his head was plastered down.
            “Hey, look at me,” Ethel said.
            “Oh for Chrissake.”
            “No Ray. Look at me.”
             He turned to her abruptly, making a wide imitation smile out of his mouth. Ethel giggled. Then Ray let his eyes focus dopily on the foot of his bed.
            “You ought to hear Miss Collins call me ‘Mrs. Nicolson”. It kills me every time.
            “I hate her,” Ray informed in the monotone he was using. “I hate her guts.”
            “She has freckles. Like me.”
            Ray seemed to think that over. Then he flopped a hand offside the bed to squeeze her left.
            “Was your father in today?” Ethel asked him.
            “Yeah. Dropped in to cheer me up. Told me how much money he’s losing this month.”
            “I brought you a book,” Ethel told him. “It’s not your present, though. That hasn’t come yet. But wait’ll you see it. It’s gorgeous. I wish I had one myself.”
            “Yeah. Please don’t give me any wrist watches. I have three wrist watches.”
            “It isn’t a wrist watch. What’d your father five you?”
            “Nothing. He didn’t know it was my birthday. What book you got there?”
            “Didn’t you tell him? I should think his secretary would know!”
            “What book?” Ray said.
            Ethel looked down at the book on her lap.
            “‘Heaven I’m Yours’. Phyllis lent it to me, she raved about it. Want me to read to you?”
            “Is it dirty?”
            “I didn’t ask her,” Ethel said, and flipped through the pages looking for dialogue.
            “Read me one of the dirty parts.”
            “I’ll begin at the beginning.”
            Ethel proceeded to read aloud, which she did neither badly nor well. The first chapter began: Stephen Dwight drew on his immaculate chamois gloves and signaled for a taxi. “Where to, sir?” asked a grubby cabby. “Tower Apartments, as quickly as possible.” Instructed Stephen Dwight in his authoritative, resonant voice.
            “Listen,” Ray interrupted. “You know what you can do with Steven Dwight and his gloves.”
            Ethel pseudo-sighed, and shut the book. “Did you go up on the roof this morning?" She asked.
            “No. Yeah.”
            “You did or you didn’t.”
            “Yeah. They wheeled me next to an old guy who talked my ears off.”
            “What’d he talk about? What was the matter with him?”
            “I don’t know. Gall stones. He has a boy at Yale who looks like me. Only husker. How old am I and what do I do for a living and what’s wrong with me anyhow. Jesus God.”
            “What’d you say? Ethel wanted to know.
            “What the hell’s the difference what I said?”
            “Nobody recognize you? Old Joe Rotogravure.”
            “No. Gimme a cigarette,” Ray said.
            Ethel took a cigarette from a leather case in her handbag, lighted it, careful of lipstick. She got up, sat on the edge of his bed, and put the cig between his lips. He took two very deep drags with his eyes shut’ then he smoked for a while normally, and looked out the window. Finally he turned to her slowly. The mouth didn’t change from the sluggish repose, but the eyes had warmth.
            “Get the hell of this bed, Collins.”
            “Nope.”
            “Get off or get in.”
            “Nope.”
             “Let’s see here a minute.”
            “No. Somebody might come in. Ray.”
            “Nobody’ll come in.”
            “Yes. Leggo.”
            There was a long kiss, and passion a very remote part of it. Then Ethel broke, and returned to the straight chair. Ray had begun to cry during the kiss. The wobbly of his lips had been her cue.
            “Ray” Ethel said from the chair. “Ray, who do you think I saw today?”
            What he tried to answer sounded like “…give a goddamn who you saw.”
            "Helen Masterson.” Ethel was leaning far forward, “She came in to look at a dress. Smothered in mink. Phyllis was at the door when she came in. Said Masterson went right up to Pierce and asked for me to show her the blue job in Vogue — the one I showed you? Do you remember?”
            Ray was jamming his hands through his hair, as thought the pressure of his fingers could do away with it all.
            “So I had to show it to her. What do you think was the first thing she said to me? But immediately. ‘How’s Ray?’ I said you were fine. The she asked me when we were going to be married. I said as soon as you got back from Chicago.”
            Every time he inhaled, his lower lip got jerked in, making a thhhtttt sound.
            “I don’t know why I said Chicago, except it was the furthest place I could think of except California and that was too far.”
            Ray was wiping his wet face with a comer of the pillow.
            “She bought the blue job and two others. One gorgeous one.”
            Ethel got up, walked to the window and stood with her back to him. There was that thhhtttt sound behind her. Finally it subsided, as if he had got control of his lip, and only the jerking of his throat was audible.
            “Ethel—”
            “What?”—not turning.
            “C’mere.”
            “I’m all right here.”
            “No, c’mere.”
            “I’m all right here. I’m counting bricks.”
            “Ethel. Listen. Get me a drop. That’s all I want. Just a lousy drop. Ethel. For Chrissake.”
            “I thought you weren’t going to do that.”
            “But listen. All I want is a drop. I only wanna test myself. That’s all. Ethel. You know goddamn well a lousy drop won’t hurt me any. Ethel. Turn your lousy face around here!
            She turned. “I can’t Ray. You know I can’t. Why do you ask me.”
            “You can! You know goddamn well you can. You can bring me a lousy drop. That’s all I want. On у word of honor. Don’t you want me to test myself? Don’t you want me to get better? Look at me!”
            “Please. You’re going to be on the floor in a minute.” She went over to him, and he got her by the forearm.
            “Ethel. Lover. Please. One stinking lousy drop. Listen. I’ve got an angle. Wait’ll you hear. You can put it in a toilet water bottle. And leave it in this goddamn table. Nobody’ll know the difference. I can test myself. Hear?”
            “I hear.”
            “But will you? Will you do it? Lover?”
            “Noooo! Please.” She yanked her arm free from him. There was no grip in his hand.
            He slammed his mussed head back into the pillow, thinned the mouth that wobbled at the kiss, narrowed his eyes. There was trouble breathing.
            “All right,” he told her, breathy. “You bitch.”
            Ethel was back at the window.
            “You love me. Oh, you love me! You love me like hell, you love me. What a liar. What a lousy little liar you are. Listen. Go on. Beat it. Get the hell out of here. Come on. You heard me. Get the hell out of here.” 
            The both heard someone rap on the door. Dr. Stone came in looking small and sanitary.
            “Well!” said Dr. Stone. “What’s this? Visitors?” A smile for Ethel.
            “I was just leaving,” Ethel told the doctor. She crossed to pick up Phyllis’s book, smoothing her skirt as she moved.
            “And how’s this big goldbrick today?” Asked Dr. Stone. “How do you feel son?”
            For answer, Ray turned over on his side.
            “I’ll see you tomorrow, Ray.” Ethel said.
            Ray had most of his face in the pillow. “If you come back here I’ll kill you. Get out.”
            “Whoa!” said Dr. Stone. “Whoa, there! Whoa, there, Bessie.”
            Dr. Stone lent a hand at the double doors, and walked down the corridor at Ethel’s side.
            “I think well flush his kidneys this afternoon.” Dr Stone told her.
            “Yes,” Ethel said.
            “The human body’s like any machine, you know. Must be kept clean.”
            “Yes,” Ethel repeated.
            Dr. Stone’s nose made a brief snorty sound, doing away with some sort of obstruction in his nasal passages.
            “It’s his birthday,” Ethel said.
            “Well!” said Dr. Stone. “I didn’t know that!”
            “He’s 22.”
            Then because the elevator was there, and people were standing in it, there was nothing for Ethel to do but get in.
            “Goodbye,” Ethel said.
            “Goodbye!” Said Dr. Stone, taking his pince-nez from his nose.
            The elevator descended with a draft, chilling Ethel in all the damp spots.

 
           

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