The Cancelled Birthday, by Matthew Dexter

Like nomadic Pericú natives before him, Matthew Dexter survives on a hunter-gatherer subsistence diet of shrimp tacos, smoked marlin, cold beer, and warm sunshine. He lives in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. This story is available in Issue One.


It is the eighth anniversary of the boy’s birth and all he asked for was that nobody would wish him a happy birthday. For weeks he had warned his parents that any congratulatory nonsense was not to be tolerated, and they promised to oblige. The boy saw birthday greetings as verbal graffiti and he wanted no part of it.

When he turned seven, the boy spent hours in the company of friends and family, the centre of their affections. In this mindless absence from his day-to-day affairs—during the convivial festivities of water balloons, piñatas and chocolate ice-cream cake—the boy forgot to feed his saltwater fish. The next morning they were floating, rainbow fins stuck to the tank. The boy requires his birthday this year to be a remembrance of the dead, a day of normalcy.

He jumps out of bed and slides down the banister. Then he remembers the date, the significance of the anniversary. It knocks the wind out of him as his scabby legs buckle on the carpet. He brushes his bruised kneecaps and enters the kitchen, solemn in demeanour. His mother is cooking scrambled eggs and his father is reading The Arizona Daily Star.

“Morning, Charlie.”

They smile and hug him. His mother kisses both cheeks and rubs his shoulders until she realised the bacon is burning. He waits for them to congratulate him on being alive. The boy munches his monotonous birthday breakfast and trudges out to the backyard. He is satisfied and everything is going smoothly.

There will be no presents. In lieu of this, the boy will get double the Christmas gifts; his parents shook on it and the boy has begun drafting his letter to Santa Clause. He knows the fat bearded man isn’t real, but it is a way to make his mother happy and for his father to ascertain how much money the gifts will cost. The boy is happy with this agreement.

He remains outside, stomping fire ants, stoic and remorseful until he’s hungry. The boy feels guilty for forgetting about his fish and wondering if there is a birthday cake hidden in the basement refrigerator as usual.

“What do you want for lunch today, Honey?”

The boy wonders what the fish would have wanted, but then decides to go for hot dogs and macaroni and cheese. It is a compromise that satisfies both parties. The boy smiles at his mother, who winks through the steam of boiling water. She is zipping crimson lips with turquoise fingernails, pretending to throw an invisible key in the sink.

After lunch, when his mother is putting on her bikini to take him to the pool, the boy swaggers downstairs to the basement to pee in the sink and check the fridge for a cake. There is no cake. The boy grimaces at the empty ice trays. This must be a clandestine day for his parents—maintaining his wishes until the privileges of secrecy wash away with chlorine. Certainly, their visceral desire to celebrate and acknowledge the anniversary of their greatest accomplishment must be bursting from their loins?

At the pool, his buddies play along, laughing but refusing to announce the annual rite of passage. His skin wrinkled, the afternoon growing cooler, the boy begins to get tired of thinking about dead fish. After all, they did nothing but swim, shit in the bowl, and eat.

His father meets them at the pool. The boy asks him to do a cannonball and the father complies, borrowing a swimsuit from the lifeguard shack. Wrinkled fingers gripping cowhide steering wheel, the father asks his son where he wants to go for dinner. Sushi being the obvious answer, the boy spits it out before he can indulge other options. He knows the waiters will be bashing dishes with spoons and chopsticks, and sparklers will fill the restaurant with celebratory clapping, and the famous song shall be sung with his name amended to the third verse.

The boy can be patient. Before sunset, he pays a visit to the backyard cemetery with all his favourite pets and leaves some flowers he yanked from the front yard of the old lady with Alzheimer’s who lives next door.

The family showers then piles into the Volvo. It smells of fresh leather and clean bodies—the fusion of shampoo and soap and deodorant. The father allows the boy to choose the radio station and rap music blares from speakers as they cruise the neighbourhood. The boy wishes somebody would jump out and congratulate him for being alive. The back window is rolled down as far as possible and he sticks his head out to look hard at husbands and housewives, in order to hear any distant greetings of the anniversary of his ascent to the world through his mother’s womb. He begins thinking dirty thoughts as they pull onto the expressway.

They are greeted at the sushi restaurant with Japanese hospitality. The boy is confident he can see a glimmer of recognition of the significance of the occasion on their waiter’s face. The hostess winks at him. That must mean something, right? Could be code for birthday boy?

His father goes to the bathroom and the boy is sure he is speaking with the manager, informing the kitchen about the glory of the evening. This is going to be something for the ages. Pastry chefs have probably wasted all afternoon baking a cake, his father being able to anticipate the restaurant of choice from logical deductive reasoning and paternal clairvoyance. This explains the empty basement refrigerator.

His mother excuses herself as the chef stands at their table flipping shrimp toward their faces. She must be checking on the cake, counting the candles, making sure everything is perfect. The sushi is wonderful. The boy begins cursing his gut for holding so much fish. He hates himself for making stupid decisions, for exerting so much effort cancelling his birthday. How the hell could they take him seriously after last night when he sprinted around the living room with his favourite rocket ship underpants on his head for the better part of an hour?

They should have known he was going to miss his birthday—the accustomed connection between the number and the recognition from individuals who are seldom so friendly. A world without birthdays is no special place. No hangover is too menacing to be conquered with slices of leftover cake and ice-cream from the basement refrigerator.

The room explodes with jubilation from a parade of waiters worshipping a flaming cake. The procession picks up busboys and servers as they waddle toward the boy’s table. The boy is counting candles. He can taste the coconut frosting.

The waiters do not look him in the eye. Their faces are an illuminated orange. The boy is certain they are following instructions from his parents. They are orgiastic. This is a fine way to remember the fish, the confusion of the previous birthday and all its ensuing sadness. The percussion of dishes and spoons and chopsticks in the air and the parade passes the boy’s table searching for its final crescendo. They serenade a freckled girl with verses, sparklers so close they are bouncing off the sharp edges of the boy’s well-polished table.

What the hell has the world come to that his table is being bombarded with sparks and his left ear is ringing because the sushi chef is smashing plates with such festive energy? The lights flicker. The entire dining section and bar is clapping, laughing—even his parents. When the wrong name is sung, they wave their arms as if conducting an orchestra, their green tongues in the air curled against the roof of their mouths as if tempting the boy to fill in the blanks. Their symphony lacking sympathy, the boy stares at them blindly.

The song finishes and both ears are ringing. The waiter delivers the check and the boy’s father pulls out his crummy wallet. The boy excuses himself to the bathroom, where he spies on the kitchen and eyes the sweaty chefs with curious speculation. Roman Emperor Valentinian I died of apoplexy when German ambassadors did not pay him sufficient deference; must the Happy Day Sushi Factory suffer the same fate?

The boy is ushered into the Volvo. His mother suggests Dairy Queen for dessert. The boy holds hope but the teenage employees are tired, eager to drive home and get stoned. They sculpt waffle cones with vanilla, mint chocolate chip and rainbow sprinkles as if decorating a Christmas tree. The manager comes out and works the register. There are no metallic balloons hovering with helium. There is nobody hiding in the bathroom ready to jump out from behind the urinal. The boy ducks beneath the stall to see if one of his buddies is standing on the toilet seat. He is too discouraged to eat his ice-cream.

On the way home the boy promises never to mess with occasions which once brought him such joy. Holidays are common, but birthdays are the comet that collided with the planet where our souls drift when the body dies. The boy slumps over in the booth, his parents exhaustedly sharing a banana split sundae.

The boy falls asleep in the cumulonimbus leather of the back seat. He is woken by the familiar melody of tires on the pebbles at the end of the driveway. The house is dark and the boy is headed to bed. He doesn’t stop to wander and wonder if the living room ceiling is full of balloons, their strings hanging in the air just out of reach.

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