“They Say It’s Your Birthday”
by Keith Buckley
The call came on the night I turned 55. I’d been home the entire day working, of course, (because I haven’t celebrated my birthday in the last 15 years), practicing the oral argument I would be presenting before the Supreme Court the next month in the cause celebre of J.D. Salinger’s 14 pretermitted children and their challenge of his will. Since all of the toddlers had been born to female enemy combatants now housed at Guantanamo, a win in this case would secure for me the goals I’d dreamed of my entire career– a named professorship of probate law at Harvard and a spot on Nancy Grace as an expert commentator. I loved my woman, but, damn, did Nancy’s squirrel cheeks drive me wild!
Anyway, the phone rang at 6:55 p.m.. I checked the caller I.D.. My stomach turned to water as I immediately recognized the number. Matt Fucking Damon. My own private harbinger of doom. Wasn’t his fault, just a series of ugly coincidences. Whenever Matt called me, it was bad news. Often the worst thing you could imagine.
I affected a light touch. “Matt, you son of a bitch! What’s shaking?”
“Oh, geez, Keith, don’t tell me I’m the first again? How does this always happen? Damn it! Damn!”
“Wrong place, wrong time once more, bro?” I attempted to chuckle, though it probably sounded more like a dry heave.
“Keith, I donâ€™t know how else to do this, so I’ll just give it to you straight. She’s gone.”
“Who, Matt?” I nearly shouted. “Your wife? Your mom? For God’s sake, Matt– tell me it’s not … our agent?!”
“It’s Uma, Keith,” he said, his voice cracking. “Turn on your television, dude! Uma’s dead!”
“No no no no!” I shrieked, grabbing blindly for the remote control. Sure enough, right there on E News, in sans serif bigger than J.Lo’s ass: BREAKING NEWS: UMA THURMAN DEAD AT 41 IN L.A. PLASTIC SURGERY CATASTROPHE! “This can’t be happening!” I screamed. “She was just here last night! We were … we were trying for a son!”
“Wow, and with Uma being brought up Tibetan Buddhist, I bet you were doing that lie on your left side and breathe out your right nostril thing,” he sighed.
“Well, yeah, of course,” I said. “That worked both times for you and Luciana, right?”
“All the way, bro, and it’s really a bitch to concentrate and still get your nut off. But that won’t be a problem for you anymore. I was there when it happened, and I can assure you she’s gone.”
“In L.A.,” I muttered. “How? We were banging our brains out until 1 a.m. and I fell asleep …”
“It was a birthday present, Keith. Tarantino had his private jet waiting for her at O’Hare, and Dr. Vogel’s team had been gearing up for a week to turn her around as quickly as possible. Just in time for your birthday.” He choked again, almost completely breaking down. “She was doing the zygomatic process reduction for you, dude. She knew how you felt about Nancy Grace– you talk in your sleep. Plus, well, she overheard you telling DeNiro at the Christmas Party that Uma’s cheekbones were so sharp you were afraid she’d poke out one of your eyes when the two of you were necking.”
“Oh, fuck me,” I moaned. “What have I done?”
“Don’t beat yourself up, man,” he implored me. “You didn’t know she was standing right behind you!”
“Maybe, but I shouldn’t have said anything to anybody about her looks! She’s had body dysmorphic issues since she was a kid!”
“I heard that,” he admitted, “but I could never process it. I mean, she was, like, beautiful to the power of infinity, and she can’t stand the way she looks, while plug-uglies like you and me-”
“Societal pressures, dude. Sex roles and all that shit. It sucks. I glanced up at the television screen. An ocean of reporters and cameramen were swarming around Vogel’s private clinic as the cops escorted the bruised and bleeding plastic surgeon to a waiting police van. THURMAN’S ALLEGED MURDERER SURRENDERS AFTER BRIEF STRUGGLE! “What the hell?!” I shouted into the phone. “Vogel killed her? Matt– what’s-”
“Keith, he went absolutely apeshit, Matt groaned. “Uma’s flight went off without a hitch, limo met her at LAX, and she got to Vogel’s outpatient facility ahead of schedule. We actually checked in together and clowned around filling out our insurance forms.”
“That’s right– you said you were there. What was the fuck is up with that, dude? You swore up and down you’d never have any work done.”
“Awww, this is gonna sound really stupid, man. I can’t. It’s just … too embarrassing.”
“Don’t be an idiot, Matt,” I snarled. “Somebody’s bound to have noticed you were on the scene when Uma died. You need to start getting your story straight no matter what, and I’d better be in on it because the press is going to be in my grille any second! I made every effort to tone down the lecturing but, hell– actors. You could never tell where their heads were sometimes.
“You’re right, Keith,” he said. “You’re always right, you little fucker. I was in to get … a neutical.”
“A neutical. A testicular implant.”
Whoa, dude. TMI. Long pause there. “Oh, okay,” I mumbled. “I, uhhhh, I didn’t know you were, like a uniballer, man. Sorry if I-”
“No, it’s nothing like that,” he quickly interrupted. “I was, well, I was getting a third one installed.”
“Look, you’re not out here, Keith, okay?” he said, now mildly annoyed. “You don’t have to keep up with all the trends. There’s a lot of fucking pressure in the business, you know?”
“Sure, but … three balls?” I wondered aloud.
“Okay, so Clooney got a third ball installed, and Pitt got a third ball installed, and Soderbergh got a third ball installed, so, yeah, you can see where this is going.”
“George, Brad, and Steven?” I asked. “Anyone else?”
“Uhhhh, George said Marty Scorsese and Leo were thinking about it …”
“Jesus, Matt, how many times are you going to fall for this kind of crap?” I said. “First there were the tattoos, then the body piercings, then the anal bleaching, and now this? If Clooney and Pitt decided to get colostomies so they could hang Gucci receiving bags off of their stomas, would you do it too?”
“Dude, that’s gross!” he said, laughing in spite of himself. “Gucci colostomy bags. You’re a dangerously sick shit, you know that?”
“Well, it’s just one step away from a third ball as far as I’m concerned.”
“Hey– fuck you!”
“Fuck you up the ass!”
“Fuck you up the ass with Affleck’s three inch dick!”
He broke down laughing. “Okay, you win. A third ball’s pretty dumb.”
“Now we’re getting somewhere,”I said. “Anyway– so about Vogel?”
“Right, right, right,” he said reluctantly. “Well, dig this. Vogel’s got his team together, Uma’s been all through pre-op, she’s prepped, high as a fucking kite for a few minutes, and then totally out. Wow … “ He pondered that for a moment. “Thank God she decided to do a general. She told me at check-in she was actually thinking about a local just in case she’d conceived … last night …”
I bit down hard on my right thumb, an old habit, to stop myself from flying to pieces. “Get it together, Matt,” I said, coaxing him on. “She was out, so she never knew what happened, which was …?”
“Okay, I’m frosty again, man,” he said. “So the surgery goes exactly according to plans. Vogel makes his incisions at the nasolabial folds, works the bone chisel across both zygomatic bones smooth as Sinatra, and takes his time, y’know, shucking and jiving around all the nerves because, hey, Uma’s facial expressions are an industry standard. That takes almost two hours, and then-”
“Wait a minute, Matt. I understand you were there today, but how do you know so freakin’ much about the procedure? With the technical lingo and everything? You ain’t the one with a medical background.”
He paused again. “This is just between the two of us?”
“You have to ask?” I said not a little too indignantly. “I don’t tell tales, Matt. You know that.”
“You’re true-blue, man,” he agreed. “There’s this nurse, in Vogel’s clinic.”
“Say no more.”
“You get the picture?”
“We are copacetic.”
“Coolio. So the major wetworks are finished, and all Vogel’s got left to do is shoot some collagen into the cheek pads that sit on top of the bone he’s hacked off because Uma doesn’t want to come home looking like a corpse and– Oh, shit! That was pretty fucking thoughtless!”
“Keep it together, dude.”
“Yeah … yeah,” he whispered. “So, he’s got like this pneumatic injector device hooked up to a container of collagen. And all during the surgery, he’s been listening to his favorite tunes on a CD. He’s right in the middle of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, which that nurse tells me he really grooves on for the end of a procedure and closing, when all of a sudden, there’s a Captain Beefheart tune playing at full blast!”
“Which one?” I demand.
“Huh? What the fuck does it matter?”
“Which one, Matt?”
“Skeleton Makes Good from Ice Cream For Crow. Why?”
“Later,” I told him. “What happened next?”
“Vogel went fucking nuts, dude! He started screaming and crying and tearing his clothes off. Somewhere along the line, he jammed the, the, whatsit, the spigot down Uma’s throat and pumped over a quart of collagen into her lungs. The whole scene turned to complete shit, Keith! By the time his scrub team could get things under control, Uma had already coded. She was gone, man. There was … nothing … nothing anyone could do.”
I felt like I was looking down a long, narrow tunnel at the pages of notes I’d been taking ever since I’d picked up the phone. The shapes of the construct were forming, clues sliding into place like tumblers in the locks to the vault at Fort Knox.
“Keith? Keith?” Matt said. “You still there? You okay, man?”
“One more piece of the puzzle,” I murmured. “Did your, ummm, nurse, have any idea why the Beefheart song set Vogel off?”
“Hell, dude– Vogel told the cops himself. Vogel’s dad used to beat the crap out of him, and he was a huge Beefheart fan. He’d put on Troutmask Replica whenever Vogel brought home anything less than an “A” on his report card and wailed away on the poor bastard with a ballbat.
“Matt, get in a safe room ASAP and call Homeland Security!” I barked.
“Do you have a fucking safe room in L.A.?” I yelled.
“Yeah, of course. I’ve got three, but-”
“Get to one of them on the double and contact Homeland Security! This is all a terrorist set-up!”
“Keith, man, I know this is an incredible blow, but-”
“I shit you not, Matt!” I roared. “We are at ground zero for something that’s going to make 9/11 look like Romper Room!”
“Okay, now, Keith, I know how you tend to go to extremes on things-“
“You have no fucking idea of where this is going, Damon! You have got to get to a safe room NOW!”
“That’s it! That’s it!” he shrieked. “I can’t do this anymore!”
“No, man, you don’t get it! It is a set-up, you were right, but-”
Movement in the house. Footsteps on the level above my office. The dogs, prancing all over the place. “Shut the fuck up!” I hissed. “They’re here! They’re after me!”
“Keith, wait a minute-”
“It’s the Salinger case, you idiot!” I tell him. “Those kids and all their al-Qaeda relatives! The CIA’s bringing the hammer down on all of us! Right now! We’re all fucked!”
“No, no, Keith! Stop!”
But it’s too late. They’re here. Swarming my house! How could I have been so stupid? To put Uma, Matt, Dr. Vogel, the son I would never have in harm’s way– all of them sacrificed for my own petty ambitions!
“KEITH! KEITH! You don’t understand!”
I opened the lap drawer of my desk, reached all the way back, and pulled out my grandfather’s Colt M1900.
Footsteps descending the stairs, my private office door opening.
“Keith? Are you in here, baby?” she sang.
Go time. I hurled myself across my desk, ducking down low and brought the Colt up to ready position as I tucked the phone between my left shoulder and ear.
“Matt, these fucking fiends!” I whispered into my phone. “They’ve sent one of Uma’s body doubles after me!”
“NO, KEITH, NOOOOO!”
“I know you hate to celebrate your birthday, sweetie, but I’ve got a card for you!” the counterfeit bitch cooed.
You fucking bastards, I wanted to bellow. Did you honestly think you could catch me off guard while I’m watching a live video feed of my lover’s autopsy?!
“KEEEEEITH! KEEEEEITH!” Matt is jabbering.
“I’ll give you my fuckin’ birthday!” I roared, bringing myself up to my full height.
Without hesitation, I fire all seven rounds into the central approaching mass.
“NOOOOOOOO!” my phone screams.
Even though the cartridge is emptied, I bring the pistol to bear on the prone figure that is twitching, gurgling, spraying blood in every direction. “Why?” the simulacra gasps. “Why?”
“Damon already spilled the beans,’ I triumphantly laugh. ‘Game over, asshole!’
‘Why? Why?’ the pseudo-Uma wheezes and expires.
A voice from the landing.
Matt Damon catatonically repeating ‘This shit cannot be happening … this shit cannot be happening … ‘
The voice, now on the last step, an all-too familiar face leaning into my office. ‘Uhhhh, Keith? It’s Ashton, dude. You’ve been, like, punked.’
Keith Buckley lives in a dimly-lit money pit in Bloomington, Indiana, surrounded by mountains of golden retriever fur, unpublishable pornoviolence, and some of the worst original music ever recorded.