Happy Birthday, Arnold
by Elliot Richard Dorfman
“Oh, Pop, you’re so darn old-fashioned. Nobody wears such a fancy shirt to dinner anymore. Just once, I’d like to see you come down in a colorful sporty pullover.”
Arnold shook his head. How many times had he asked his son not to criticize him in front of Robert and Carey, his teenaged grandchildren? Now, he was in for it.
“Yeah, old man,” Carey chimed in, “why don’t you brush off the cobwebs. When was the last time you bought some stylish jeans, or even combed your hair?”
“What hair?” interjected Robert.
Arnold’s daughter-in-law, Evelyn, turned her head, trying not to laugh.
Humiliation was the price Arnold Winters had to pay after giving up his own house and moving in with his son when Marian, his wife, had died after a brief illness two years ago.
Such humiliation, however, was not new. Even his late wife had constantly ridiculed him throughout their forty-four years of marriage
At one time, he had been able to get some relief when he went to work, but last year he had sold his pharmacy when a real estate company offered him a generous sum for the building.
Arnold silently got up from the table and went upstairs to his bedroom.
“Hey, Pop, why are you leaving? You haven’t eaten your desert,” Charley shouted after him.
Robert snickered. “Ah, leave him alone. He’s just a creaky old klutz.”
Arnold entered his room and turned on the radio. He needed to hear some pleasant music to calm his nerves. Crumpet, his little white dog, was comfortably sleeping across the bed.
Suddenly, Carey barged into his room, never bothering to knock.
“What’s going on, old man? Don’t you get bored listening to that music?” He shut the radio off without asking permission. “Gee, it smells like you got mothballs in here.”
Crumpet woke up and growled at Carey.
“Why don’t you get rid of that stupid dog, Gramps? He looks like one of those ugly white rats.”
Arnold began losing his temper. “Carey, get out of my room.”
“Why don’t you try and make me?” his grandson challenged him. “Think you got the nerve?”
Crumpet, sensing that his master was getting upset, began barking.
“Get your mutt to shut up or one of these days I’ll silence him permanently,” Carey warned, sauntering out of the room and slamming the door closed.
Sighing, Arnold turned the radio back on and sat in his armchair. The dog jumped onto his lap and licked his face.
Arnold’s eyes filled with tears. “I don’t deserve this treatment, Crumpet. I wish someone could help me.”
He felt a light touch on his shoulders. Turning, he was surprised to see a tall white-haired man with the lightest blue eyes he had ever seen. The figure looked like someone from a futuristic sci-fi movie. Crumpet ran back to the bed but didn’t seem scared at all.
“Hello, Arnold, I’m here to help you. ”
“Who are you?” Arnold nervously asked.
The figure spoke in a voice that sounded like a fine musical instrument. “I’m Justin, a sociologist from the future. I returned to your town to do some research. Able to invisibly observe people’s private lives, I became aware of your dilemma. Seeing how unhappy you are, I have decided to intercede and help you.”
“I must be having a hallucination,” Arnold said out loud. “I hope I’m not losing my mind.”
“No, your mind is fine,” Justin replied.
“It’s too late for any help.”
“Oh, come on, don’t be so pessimistic. It’s time you got something back. You’ve helped so many others throughout your life.”
“It’s nothing special.”
“You certainly are modest. I’ve gone over your life very carefully. I was impressed by your generosity. A good example is what you did for Mrs. Pratt. Remember the Christmas Eve when she came to your pharmacy to get medicine for one of her seven children? She didn’t have enough money to pay for it. Not only did you give it to her for free, but ripped up any other bills she owed you.
“Why not? After all, it was Christmas Eve.”
“Then there was the time that you were the only person to visit a lonely cousin after an operation. You gave her a great deal of comfort.”
“Your good deeds go on and on. After all you’ve done, you deserve a much happier life, and I’m going to see that it happens.”
“Thanks, but just how do you plan to do that?”
“We will return to when you first asked your wife out. Perhaps some important changes can be made that will improve your life.
Arnold shook his head. “I’m not so sure I want to do that. It may change too many things.”
“But it will change things for the better.”
“Can Crumpet come too?”
Justin smiled. “Absolutely. Now, let’s go. There is much to be done.”
There was a flash of light. Arnold was returned to an August morning in 1961. Crumpet, who was on a leash, began sniffing the sidewalk. Arnold noticed his youthful reflection starring back at him from a mirror standing on display outside the corner gift store, a place that would be long gone by the twenty-first century.
“Wow, I almost forgot how I looked when I was younger. No aches or pains then,” said the elder man to Justin. Arnold took a comb from his pocket and straightened his unruly, thick black hair.
A pretty woman came out of the gift store and dropped her package. Bending down, Arnold handed it to her.
She smiled. “Hi, Arnold. I’ve heard so many good things about you recently.”
The pretty brunette who was standing there was Marian, his late wife. This time, however, he would never get the chance to ask her out. Crumpet broke free from his leash and ran across the street. Arnold rushed to retrieve him. When he got back, Marian, who never had much patience, was gone.
“Whew... I remember what happened before.” He patted the dog on the head. “Thanks, Crumpet. You’ve really helped me dodge that bullet!”
“Okay, Justin said cheerfully. “Now go and find the right woman.”
“But where?” Arnold asked.
“That you must find out yourself,” Justin answered and vanished.
As the church chimes struck twelve, Arnold recollected he had returned on a day he was not at work. Hungry, he headed home to get some lunch. During those years, Arnold still lived with his widowed mother. Mrs. Winters, a widow, was a wonderful woman who sacrificed a great deal for her only son.
Turning onto Elmwood Avenue, Arnold saw the small white Cape Cod house of his youth. His heart beat faster as he anticipated seeing his mother alive again
When his mother opened the front door, Arnold gave her such a hug, she almost fell over.
“What’s all this?” she asked, although happy to get such a hearty welcome.
“Just happy to see you, Mom,” Arnold replied with a breaking voice.
“Well, thank you,” Mrs. Winter said. “Come in and I’ll prepare some lunch.”
Restless, Crumpet began barking.
His mom was taken aback. “And who is this?”
“My dog. I guess he’s hungry.”
When Arnold lived with his mom, he had never had a dog, so he immediately came up with a plausible answer. “I was passing the animal shelter and decided to take a look in. We really took to each other as soon as I saw him. I’ve named him Crumpet.”
Mrs. Winter shrugged. “Okay. You’re old enough to know what you’re doing.”
“Mom, I have to get him some food at the pet store. I’ll be right back.”
The only pet store in town was owned by Dalton McDonald. Dalton supposedly had as much knowledge about animals as any veterinarian in the region.
Arnold walked into the spacious and immaculate store. He took a bag of premium dog food from the shelf. A pretty brunette was at the counter.
“Hi Arnold. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen you.”
It was Rebecca McDonald, Dalton’s older daughter. Arnold blushed. In high school he had a big crush on her but was too shy to ask her out. The two began talking. After twenty minutes, he gathered enough confidence and asked Rebecca to see a movie with him that evening. Without hesitation, she accepted.
The date went well, and Arnold began seeing Rebecca often. He liked her easy-going manner. She was sweet and sensitive, always praising Arnold and making him feel important. Crumpet took to her right away, which hadn’t been the case with Marian. Never did Arnold realize a woman could make a man so happy. Finally, he understood what true love meant.
As the weeks turned to months, Arnold forgot most of the emotional hurt he had endured in his future life. The following spring, the happy couple got married, and a year later, he became the proud father of a son named Eddie.
A week after Eddie’s birth, Justin returned at midnight while Arnold was sleeping. Crumpet, who was lying near the bed, woke up.
Justin patted the dog’s head. “Well, it’s time for you and your master to return to the present now that everything is corrected. But before going, I will make sure Arnold is given a lifetime of wonderful memories to remember.”
* * *
When Arnold awoke from his nap, he felt refreshed. He shut off the radio when he heard a soft knock at his door. He knew his son, Eddie, and his two grandsons, Shawn and Ben, had planned something special. It was easy to tell by the excitement they had unsuccessfully tried to hold back during dinner.
“Dad, can you please come to the dinning room? We need you to fix the table’s legs. They’ve gotten unsteady.”
Arnold chuckled. What a lame excuse, he thought. “Sure,” he called out, “I’ll be right there.”
The dinning room was dark as he walked in, followed by his loyal dog. Suddenly the lights came on.
“Happy birthday!” shouted his son and grandchildren. His wife, Rebecca, and daughter-in-law, Ellen, came in from the kitchen carrying a beautiful frosted cake with candles on it.
Crumpet, sensing the happy mood, began barking and jumping around.
Arnold hugged all of them. “Thank you. I am very fortunate to have such a wonderful family.”
“Yes, Happy Birthday,” said the invisible Justin and left. Any recollection of this beneficent future sociologist was now completely wiped away from Arnold’s mind.
Copyright © 2009 by Elliot Richard Dorfman