Birthday

Jesse Ball

 
 

My name is Emilia. I am ten years old. I would have been ten years old yesterday, but that’s when they found Grandma, so I will be ten years old tomorrow or the next day, I expect. That’s what my dad told me.

Today we went to the house where the old woman lived. Why did we go? Dad said we had to look things over. So we got there in the car and went inside. Then there was the house and a bunch of things no one wanted and a dog, Loopa, and my mom and my dad and me. We spread out immediately. I went upstairs.

I did that because when she was still around you weren’t allowed to go upstairs. She didn’t say so, but if you got near the bottom of the stairs she would come over and be near you until you stopped. She was a very smelly woman and drank a lot from a bottle she kept in the cupboard. My father would sometimes drink from it too.

I became afraid as soon as I got to the top of the stairs, but it was stupid because there’s nothing up there. A dirty bedroom with a mattress and some sheets with sailboats on them. A bureau with broken jewelry. Some piles of dresses and a hat or two. It smelled like mothballs.

By one of the piles of clothes there was a grate. I went by it and listened. I could hear my parents talking in the kitchen.

—Was it just her arm?

—No, some of her face too.

—Uggh. Get that dog away from me.

—Go on you, shoo, SHOO, go on.

I could hear the dog grumble and then I heard it on the stairs. It came into the room. It was a big German Shepherd. When it got by me, it lay down.

What are they talking about, I said. What did you do?

The dog rolled over a bit and rolled back, then sat up again. It yawned and looked plaintively at me.

What did you do?

The dog sniffed at the air and blinked. It looked away towards the window. 

I buried my head in its fur.

A voice came—one I hadn’t heard before. I held absolutely still and listened. It sounded like it was coming from far away, but then it was right there in my ear.

—You’re going around in the house and you see the woman who feeds you and she’s asleep on the floor and you try to wake her up and that’s the first night and she won’t wake up which sometimes happens and then the next day you try to wake her up and then the next day you try to wake her up. You’re licking and licking at her face and her hands and curling against her. She won’t wake up. And so it happens that…

—Emilia!

My father came into the room.

—Didn’t you hear us yelling for you?

—No. I was just sitting here. This place is a dump.

—Yeah, I guess I was a bad son. Don’t be up here alone with the dog. 

He looked at Loopa. She wagged her tail.

—Why?

—No reason, just come down. Your mother wants you to.

—Okay.

I examined Loopa and she looked like a dog, nothing remarkable. So I went downstairs.

My mother had put on a yellow rain poncho. I don’t know why. She had tried in the car to get me to put one on too.

—Let’s have some lunch before we go, my mother said. There are all these lunchmeats here in the refrigerator. So many kinds. It must be every kind of lunchmeat in here. I can’t believe it. There’s even the one with raisins in it. Do they still make that? Bologna with raisins?

—I’ll have that, said my father.

—I don’t want any.

—Well you have to have something, dear, just to honor your grandmother.

Loopa came downstairs, crossed the room, and sat under the table at my feet.

—I’ll just have some of the red one with mustard.

—The pepperoni?

—That’s fine.

—Okay, one pepperoni sandwich coming up. And some raisin loaf for Dad, and what for me? What for me?

My mom rummaged around in the shelves looking for something. Rummaging pisses my father off, and I could see he was getting antsy.

—What is it, hon?

—Just looking for the mustard. Must be somewhere.

Loopa shifted at my feet and I reached down to pet her, but instead, I found myself holding my grandmother’s hand.

The mustard is under the sink, said my grandmother’s voice.

—The mustard is under the sink, I said.

—Under the sink? Can’t be.

My dad popped open the door, and there were all the condiments in a row.

—A strange person, he said. No question about that.

My grandmother’s grip on my hand tightened. I could feel the nails of her hand.

—What happened to her? I asked.

—She was just old.

—Her heart probably stopped working.

—Maybe she had cancer too.

—We’ll never know.

My mom brought over a plate of sandwiches. Forget three, she had made at least nine sandwiches. I couldn’t figure out which was supposed to be mine. I bit into one and it tasted like shit, so I didn’t eat anymore.

I looked around the room. The walls were yellowed and drab. The curtains hung like skin over the windows. It was a horrible place.

—But what happened to her when they found her? Was it right here?

—Oh no, it wasn’t here, said my mom, in a way that meant, yes, it was right here.

My dad butted in.

—They took her somewhere and probably later on today they’ll burn her into ash and put the ash in a vase and probably tomorrow or the next day we’ll put the vase in a hole in the ground in the cemetery.

I felt a horror rise in me.

—But what about my birthday. 

I started to cry.

Loopa nuzzled my leg. I could feel a tongue licking my calf. It didn’t feel rough like a dog tongue.

I pushed Loopa’s head away, but it came right back. I grabbed at her neck behind her ears, but it felt like a human neck, a thin little human neck. I was afraid to look down. I just tried to use both hands to pull her head off my leg, but my Grandma’s neck was strong. She fought back and got her tongue on my calf where it had been. She returned to the licking with gusto, long wet licks along my leg. I let go and gripped the chair.

—Your father’s joking. We will have a great birthday for you, don’t worry. But for now we have to decide what to do with this dog.

I ran my hand through my grandmother’s hair.

—She’s a good dog, I said.

—She is NOT a good dog, said my mom.

—It wasn’t her fault, said my dad. A thing like that.

—Doesn’t matter. This little fucker is going to be put down.

—Put down?

—Your mother is suggesting we hit the dog in the head with a shovel. It doesn’t have anywhere to go, after all. There’s no one to take care of it.

—But we could take Loopa. We could have her at our house.

—No way, said my mom. No fucking way we take that dog.

—It’s my birthday, I said. Loopa’s my birthday present.

My father nodded.

—I think that’s fair, he said. Think carefully. Is that what you want?

She crouched at my feet, old, withered, naked, looking desperately up. I had never seen her without clothes before. She clutched at my leg with her hands and made a pleading noise in her atrophied throat. Her eyes were completely dark. Just like all the other eyes in the world there was nothing to see in them, nothing at all.

—We’ll kill the bastard, I said. 

My mom clapped her hands. 

It really was up to me.

—We’ll kill the bastard some other day, I said. We’ll kill the ­bastard, I said. We’ll kill the bastard some other day.

And so on. I couldn’t decide. I couldn’t decide what to do. It was all too funny. A birthday present for me—to choose about this.

I tried to picture what my grandma looked like the last time I saw her, standing in the driveway in a turquoise housecoat smoking a cigarette with a cigarette holder, getting ready to shout some incomprehensible thing at us as we drove away.

And now she was opening and closing her mouth, a mouth with no teeth in it.

Looking at her, I really felt like a birthday girl.

—Come on, Loopa, I said, come on. Show us a trick.


Jesse Ball’s absurd works have been translated into many languages.

Image: Queensland State Archives, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.