Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday, dear Arthur
Happy birthday to you
A smattering of clapping crackled across the lunch hall. The table seemed to be abnormally long, the rows of patients on either side staring at him like eyeless saints in their marble uniforms. Elsewhere in the hospital an air conditioning unit hummed, blasting them with dry, freezing air. Patients chattered with each other. And there was Arthur, slumped at the head of the table feeling less like a man of honor and more like a bad little boy on display to the class. His head swam and pulsed. It was as if he had just woken up there.
“Blow out your candle.”
Arthur slowly turned his head over his shoulder. There was a female nurse in blue scrubs smiling down at him, a thin black woman that he may have seen before. On the other side, a large male whose mouth was expressionless line. Down in front of him was a chocolate cupcake with a single candle. A hand emerged from his peripheral and lit it with a lighter. He blew it out with great effort.
“Go ahead. You can eat it now.”
Arthur lifted his heavy hand, his naked arm icy cold in his white shirt, and slowly reached for the cupcake. Through half-lidded eyes the cake was a darkened blur surrounded by white. He grabbed it like you’d grab a can of soda, slow and oafish and uncoordinated, and crushed it in his hand until it crumbled and oozed out the paper base, frosting and cake and candle top spilling onto the white table, then pressed the fistful into his mouth, chewing the wrapper like a cow with a cud until it fell onto his lap.
In a soft and not entirely unpleasant voice the nurse asked, “What do you want for your birthday, Arthur?”
Her breath was soft and warm against the shell of his ear, heating the tacky sweat on his scalp, and deep inside him in a dark pit somewhere he wished she’d put his hand on his shoulder or touch him anywhere.
“I want to go home,” he slurred through the mud mess of chocolate, fingers sticky filthy, tongue a flopping fat worm in his mouth.
“In a few days,” she said.
The other patients stared at him motionless in the peripheral of his vision like statues, the sounds of them running into each other like water over rocks. The cake tasted like nothing and felt like an enormous wad of gum in his mouth that he couldn’t swallow. His white pants were peppered with chocolate crumbs.
“I want to go home,” he repeated.
Arthur swallowed. It was like swallowing a handful of dirt. Somebody was wiping his filthy mouth with a napkin. His hand crushed the remaining cupcake again, taking the candle with it, and he shoved it in his face and chewed, eyes looking, rolling, anywhere, the wax candle crushing and splintering between his teeth. The nurses behind him loomed like gargoyles cloaked in shadow.
The world was enveloped in a soft blanket of shadow that he could not resist. Slipping into the relief of darkness, Arthur landed face-first onto the table, chocolate frosting smearing onto his cheek and into his tangle of dark hair. Laughter bubbled dully around him. When he awoke he would have hard crumbs in his nose and a bruise on his head, sore and not unfamiliar, but that would not be for many hours.
Arthur spent the rest of his 31st birthday asleep in his cot.
“Will that be all, sir?”
Arthur blinked, snapping back to reality. The cashier was looking at him with a still but impatient expression. The blue notebook sat lonely on the conveyer belt. He briefly wondered how long he’d been standing there.
A beat, and then, with even less patience, “One dollar, please.”
Even through the overall numbness in his body Arthur felt a pang of embarrassment. “Oh, yeah. Sorry.” Reaching for his wallet he offered, “My therapist told me I should get one of these. For writing down my thoughts and feelings. Just ‘cause, you know, it can be hard to—“
Her hand jutted out, notebook in a plastic bag. “Have a good day, sir.”
It was so light it felt like almost nothing in his hand. A crinkled yellow smiley face on the bag grinned THANK YOU!
Inside his apartment, his mother was asleep on her chair in the living room despite the raucous music and popping of gunshots coming from the Western on the TV. Arthur flipped through the channels a few times, finally landing on a showing of The Sound of Music, and lit a cigarette as he sat down at his desk. Something about the blank journal was daunting. His leg bounced as he took a drag and opened it.
My name is Arthur Fleck and this my therapy journal. I am supposed to right my
thoughts and feelings here.
He tried to conjure something else, to remember what his own feelings were, but he came up frustratingly empty-handed. Everything he thought and felt was smothered beneath layers and layers of total numbness, his head waterlogged and stupid. He felt both totally empty and totally full at the same time, full of cotton and nothing else. He could hardly even remember the previous day.
Today I saw two men fighting outside the BP I think they were homeless. They
were punching each other over and over. They were still there when I
Arthur extinguished his cigarette in the ash tray and immediately lit another one. His dark hair hung limply in the peripheral of his vision. Behind him, his mother snored softly and regularly to the chorus of ‘Do-Re-Mi’. He added,
I hope no body was hurt.
Another few minutes of staring at the lined pages passed until Arthur gave up and closed the notebook. Something churned and creaked achingly inside him, moaning as if from far away, so far he couldn’t hear anything but the distant echo of it. He would write it in the book if he knew what it was. Arthur exhaled, a line of smoke escaping him, tapping his middle finger on the desk in time with the bouncing of his leg.
Behind him, his mother honked a startled snore. “Happy, what is that noise?”
“It’s just me, Ma, sorry.” He flattened his hand on the desk and stopped bouncing his leg. Turning towards her, he could see her opening her eyes, squinting against the soft beam of yellow light that came in through the blinds and fell upon her face. A knitted blanket almost as old as Arthur was draped over her torso, making her look as small as a child. He smiled at her and jested, “You gonna sleep all day again?”
“I’m old,” she said somewhat defensively, pulling her white arms out from under the blanket. “When you’re old you can sleep as much as you want.”
“I think Teddy Roosevelt was killing rhinos into his 50s.”
“Bah!” She dismissed him with a wave of her hand. After fishing around for the remote in the chair for a moment, she clicked the channel off The Sound of Music and onto the local news station.
Crushing his cigarette butt into the ash tray, Arthur cautioned, “You shouldn’t be watching that stuff all day, Ma, it’ll rot your brain.” He rose and walked into the kitchenette to pour himself some cold leftover coffee from that morning, glancing at her over the counter. The light from the sun made her blue eyes look almost white, as if she was blind. When she didn’t answer, he asked, “How are your hips feeling? Did you do any walking today?”
Not taking her eyes off the television, she said, “Only to the bathroom and back. I tried to get out to the elevator to check the mail but I got a spasm and that was enough for me.”
“I can get the mail. It’s finally starting to get warm out again, we should go into the city park soon.” He sat down on the adjacent couch, coffee in one hand and cigarette in the other. She finally looked at him and he smiled softly at her.
“You have to eat more than just coffee, you know,” she admonished. “You filled out so nicely in the hospital.”
He didn’t know what to say so he took a drag on his cigarette. Arthur couldn’t tell if he felt hungry at all or if the twisting pain in his stomach was something else. The coffee had a slight mildewed taste so he put the cup on the table in front of him.
The two of them fell into their usual comfortable silence, first watching the news for a time then switching over to a black and white film. By the time the sunlight had become an annoying glare on the television screen, Arthur wasn’t paying attention; he had receded to some quiet place inside himself where his emotions used to be. Where there used to be total virulent chaos that tossed him to and fro, that spilled out of him in tears and wailing, now there was nothing but endless abyss that he struggled against like a drowning swimmer in a black sea, in a black night. On the television, a man and a woman embraced and he spun her around as they kissed, her thin heels cutting a circle in the air. The scene danced off Arthur’s eyes like a reflection in a pond.
After his mother went to bed for the night, Arthur sat down at his desk again and opened the notebook. Slowly and almost cautiously, as if afraid someone might see him do it, he wrote,
I am so lonely.