A Birthday's Just Another Story.

The first thing he noticed when he walked through the front door, as always, was the smell. The hallway stretching before him had the odor of age and mildew and sweat mixed ever so slightly with an antiseptic spray. The floors had been mopped, the walls were washed down, and the rooms were clean, even those where grumpy old men sat staring out the window and listening but paying no attention to a talking head on some local news program. But the smell irritated his senses. It always did. It was a smell that never went away.

He knocked softly and eased open the door to room two-thirty-six.

George was sitting in a leather recliner beside the bed.

His hair was gray. His face was furrowed with wrinkles. He had shaved that morning but missed a patch of whiskers just below his left ear. His khakis were pressed. This blue-checked flannel shirt was buttoned all the way to the top. The collar didn’t fit so tight around his neck anymore.

He was smiling. George was always smiling.

He motioned for Kenneth to come on in with a vigorous wave of his arm. His head was bobbing. His smile was almost audible.

“Good morning, George,” the young man said.

The old man reached out and clasped Kenneth’s hand. He still had a firm grip for his age, and the calluses had never quite worn away from his fingers. His were the hands of a working man.

“Happy birthday, George,” Kenneth said.

He placed a small box of doughnuts on the old man’s lap.

“You remembered, didn’t you,” George said.

“I never forget,” Kenneth said.

He sat down on the edge of the bed, but not before turning off the television. The talking head was talking a lot but wasn’t saying anything.

“These birthdays bring back a lot of memories,” the old man said.

“I’m sure they do.”

“I’ve had my share.”

“I know you have.”

“They come around real regular.”

“I know they do.”

“I can still remember my eighteenth birthday as clear as if it was yesterday,” George said. He leaned back and closed his eyes. He sat for a few moments in silence, then continued, “I was working in the oilfield. Brand new job, it was. They called me a roustabout, but I had no idea what a roustabout did except haul pipe up to the rig. So I hauled pipe. And when it was quittin’ time, I quit haulin’ pipe.”

“I guess the pay was good,” Kenneth said.

“Fifty cents a day.”

“Not much.”

“It was good if you could get it. I knew boys walking the streets and goin’ hungry,” George said. “Fifty cents meant I could eat me a burger for supper, rent a cot down at the Tulsa Hotel at night, and have a dime left over to head on down to Mattie’s when I got myself cleaned up.”

“She your girl friend?”

“Who?”

“Mattie.”

The old man grinned. “Naw,” he confessed, “Mattie had a ball room out on the edge of town. Nice place. Had big bands comin’ in all the time.  I even heard Tommy Dorsey there once.”

“Sort of a night club, I guess,” Kenneth said.

“Sort of,” George replied. “Mattie had a trap door on the other side of the dance floor. If you brought your own ice and soft drinks along, you could tap on the top of that trap door, and a nice young black gentleman would stick his head out and sell you a pint of good whiskey.”

“Why did she need a trap door?”

“Mattie had the whiskey,” George said. “She didn’t have a license.”

“The police ever crack down?”

“Not as long as she sold them whiskey for half price.”

George laughed out loud. Kenneth laughed with him.

“You ever visit the trap door?” Kenneth asked.

“No, I didn’t.”

“Too young?”

“Too broke.” George reached in the box and pulled out a doughnut. It was coated with chocolate. He liked the chocolate ones best.

“Mattie had her a line of taxi dancers out by the front door,” the old man said. “Pretty ladies. You could get one to dance with you for a dime.” George reached up and straightened his collar even though it wasn’t crooked. “The faces were always changing.”

“Get married?”

“Probably.” George Shrugged. “Or pregnant. I met me a little redhead one night,” he said. “She could have been your mama.”

George winked.

He turned and stared toward the window. It was gray outside. It looked like rain. The wind was picking up, and a cardinal was perched on the bottom limb of a peach tree beside the birdbath. The leaves were already falling.

Kenneth stood up and straightened his pants. “I have to be going,” he said.

He shook George’s hand and walked toward the door.

The old man’s words stopped him.

“I guess I’ll see you tomorrow,” George said.

Kenneth reached for the doorknob.

“It’s a special day, tomorrow is,” the old man said.

“Every day is,” Kenneth said.

“I have a birthday, you know,” the old man said.

Kenneth nodded.

“If you get here early enough, I’ll tell you about Mattie’s Ballroom,” George said. “You probably never heard of Mattie’s Ballroom. It was quite a place when I was a boy about your age. You might want to hear about the little redhead who could have been your mama.”

Kenneth smiled and winked back. “I won’t forget,” he said.

He walked back down the hallway. The smell wasn’t so bad now. His nostrils had grown accustomed to it. And his thoughts were on a little redhead who might have been somebody’s mama. He wondered if old George had ever been married. George never mentioned a wife, only a redhead and a lady named Mattie who had a ballroom a long time ago.

He would need to remember to bring doughnuts, Kenneth reminded himself. George liked doughnuts on his birthday.

Originally written for The Writer’s Collection under the prompt “A Birthday.”

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