Cornelius’s 136th Birthday Bash
by Will Ejzak
I’ve never blamed my little brother Nate for trying to bring my family to financial ruin. He was only ten, which according to popular wisdom is too early to say he really meant it. Or at least that’s how Mom and Dad rationalized it. They’re not college-educated or anything. Nice people and all; they just don’t know how to think through things. It’s not their fault he turned out to be a little nutjob.
Once you really look into it, though, nothing is ever anyone’s fault. Everyone’s basically the victim of circumstances. What I think it comes down to is: some people are less adaptable than others. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re worse people.
Plus, these people usually die off or can’t procreate because they’re unable to form meaningful relationships, so it all evens out in the end. There’s no point in raising a fuss about it.
Nate was a total slowpoke. (This was maybe the first hint he wasn’t going to make it: slow animals in the wild almost always get eaten, unless they’re turtles or something.) Walks home with him were an unequivocally depressing affair. He didn’t walk so much as trudge, dragging his feet along the sidewalk like a prison inmate. Scrape scrape scrape. Forty-five minutes every day after school listening to those soles grating away against the pavement. And you couldn’t ask him how his day was. That was opening up a whole new can of leeches. He could go on and on about the atrocities committed against him—a single day apparently offered an inexhaustible supply—and there wasn’t a brotherly way to shut him up but I was honestly too tired to care. Maybe if he’d waited to tell me until I’d had my after-school cup of coffee. I’m not an a-hole or anything.
Beyond his complaining, we didn’t have a whole lot to say to each other. It was best to save energy for the long road ahead. Twenty-three silent suburban blocks later, we stumbled in through the back door, seriously pooped. Nate usually went up to his room and cried until he fell asleep—and he snored like a wild hog—so it was best to stay in the basement or put on earplugs for a few hours. Mom and Dad had invested in some expensive heavy-duty plugs for the family, and kept a supply of disposables on the mantel for guests.
It’s not like he didn’t have solid influences. To begin with, there were my parents, a couple of decent, well-groomed people.
And then there was me: not only a brisk walker, but also a formidable student and unswervingly responsible to boot. Nary a homework assignment or filial obligation escaped through my fine sieve. At thirteen, I’d already won Class Hygiene Award five times, and Vanessa Babcock only beat me in fifth grade cause her parents bought her this fancy perfume that smelled really good (her fundamentals were respectable but by no means exceptional, Mom and I agreed). And if anything, my habits had improved since they stopped giving the award.
By contrast: Nate wouldn’t even comb his hair. And you can’t do much with a kid who won’t comb his hair. And if the rumors were true, he barely made it through first period at school before he clunked off to sleep and started snoring his hog snores, which were topped in total grossness only by the sounds he made when he was woken up—sounds more akin to hog strangulation. Needless to say, he wasn’t the toast of the third grade.
I kept telling him if he’d just drink some coffee he might be OK, but he hated the taste and complained that it made his stomach squirmy. He really was just too sensitive and stubborn for his own good.
Our family had the good fortune to own the oldest hamster in Massachusetts: Cornelius, a family heirloom, a birthday present given to my great-great-great grandfather on his seventh birthday. The longevity of the little guy had astounded great-great-great, and seriously perplexed great-great; but by the time he got passed down to my great-grandparents at the ripe age of sixty-five his durability was a matter of course.
And by the time my parents inherited him—when I was still a toddler and Nate was a fetus—a system of care had been well-established: one Fig Newton in the morning; leg- and thigh-massages around midday to stave off arthritis; a hot bath in the late afternoon; a second Fig Newton for dinner; and two stories before bed. This last bit was medically unnecessary, technically speaking, the vet told us, but so thoroughly rooted in family tradition, my parents didn’t feel comfortable abandoning it.
Pretty intensive maintenance for a hamster, admittedly—but considering he was our family’s primary source of income, it wasn’t half bad. For as long as I could remember, people had been paying $11.50 to come in and see old Cornelius. He was well-advertised, and attracted a startling number of tourists from all over the country. CORNELIUS, the MASSACHUSETTS MIRACLE read the jumbo signs on our front lawn; AT 135 YEARS AND COUNTING, this ANCIENT RODENT is the OLDEST ON THE EAST COAST! And they were rarely disappointed. He really looked the part: shriveled and hunched, fur sagging to the floor, ribs distinct and shockingly fragile, more or less dead-looking until you stared long enough to notice his ragged breathing. He’d gone blind more than forty years ago, like Homer, which seemed fitting.
Mom and Dad were on Cornelius duty from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.—letting in guests, giving a short bio, answering questions, and attending to needs—but they couldn’t be expected to tend the business around the clock. And it really was necessary to keep the exhibit open 24 hours a day. It wasn’t so lucrative that we could afford to forego the extra income. So I took the 8 p.m. to 1 a.m. shift, and Nate took over from 1 a.m. to 6 a.m. He was lucky, really. That was far and away the least work-intensive shift: all he had to do was stay awake and answer the door and make sure they left after their allotted twenty minutes. And customers really were few and far between after midnight—usually just a couple before dawn.
The ones who did show, though, were among our stranger guests. We were supposed to look through the peephole before admitting anyone—to make sure they weren’t too weird—but it wasn’t always easy to figure out the threshold, especially after 1 a.m. How do you differentiate between a lunatic who wants to see a hamster in the middle of the night and a mentally stable individual who wants to see a hamster in the middle of the night? So Nate just let them all in, which I can’t really blame him for. But he made some costly errors over the years, and more than a few times—I’m thinking of the guy with the machete now—he was forced to start bellowing, which was the agreed-upon signal for Dad to come running downstairs with the air rifle.
In short: it wasn’t easy. As in every halfway successful family, everyone had to make sacrifices for the good of the team. But it really did work. With the surplus from the year’s income, we might’ve even had enough to take vacations. Though of course that was ultimately out of the question. No one had dared transport Cornelius for at least a decade, and no one could be trusted to take care of him.
Each year on Cornelius’s birthday we hosted the Birthday Bash. Mom and Dad called in the media and they dutifully came with their trucks and anchors and camera-people. Tourists lined up for maybe half a mile down the road, and there was a little parade down the block, and Mom and Dad hired an actor to put on a hamster costume and hobble up and down the line with a bag of candy, greeting the children. It was really something.
If it sounds a little funny, it’s actually not. People will do a lot to witness history, and the Birthday Bash was nothing if not History in the Making. The current record-holder and Oldest Hamster Who Ever Lived, a Dwarf Campbell Russian named Mildred from Oregon, was beginning to visibly decline, and most respectable veterinarians forecasted that the relatively vigorous Cornelius would take the title sometime in the next decade. Suffice to say there was a lot at stake. One year Oprah even came and did a segment. No joke. Capital-O Oprah. Mom and Dad wouldn’t let her hold him—that was totally out of her jurisdiction—but she did get way more time with him than we usually authorized. She was pretty profoundly moved, I think.
To no one’s surprise, Nate usually sat these out. By which I mean he hid in his room until every last visitor had left. This was the most important day of the year for us, and he couldn’t even bother to take part. Like I said, his adaptability was unusually deficient. Party pooper extraordinaire. I think those days made him particularly upset; Mom and I always suspected he was a little jealous that the hamster got so much attention.
To which I say: “You live to be 35 times your life expectancy and maybe Oprah will come see you, too.”
Anyway, his loss. I got to talk to Wolf Blitzer and Diane Sawyer and Anderson Cooper and the next day my face was usually in the papers and I was something of a célébrité in the lunchroom.
This was the year of the 136th Bash, meaning Cornelius would finally surpass long-dead Lily—a Roborovski Dwarf from New Mexico—and take second place in the All-Time Standings. And to think: twenty years ago, most of the scientific community swore Lily’s record unbeatable! I’d never doubted Cornelius, but I couldn’t help feeling a little glimmer of pride. I’d been the one reading him the bedtime stories all these years, after all.
By 3 a.m. on the morning of the Bash, the line of guests stretched down the block, and the family (by which I mean Mom, Dad and me) congregated in the dining room for a quick overview of the day’s proceedings. Mom took a look out the window and said something about how this could be our busiest year yet, judging from the substantial early crowd. Dad ventured the possibility of a fireworks display at the end of the day. Mom vetoed on account of all the news helicopters swarming the air space.
No sooner had she spoken when something behind us yawned.
We spun around and there was Nate, dolled up in his suit and tie, hair combed, like Lazarus himself standing before us. I could’ve sworn it was an apparition. Was I hallucinating in my excitement? But no: there he was, even smiling a little in his sleepy way.
“Christ almighty!” shouted Dad. “It’s Nate himself!”
And it was a real Hallmark moment, hugs all around for the prodigal son.
“Are you going to be a team player today?” asked Mom warily.
Nate nodded. “You bet.”
I have to admit, he was irresistibly cute in that rumpled little kid suit-jacket (he’d been storing it under his bed, no doubt). His hygiene was lamentable, but he’d showered and combed his hair and I guess for Nate that was akin to climbing a mountain or something.
And he handled the crowds like a seasoned pro: opening doors, smiling broadly at guests, engaging in outlandish demonstrations of chivalry. He was immediately a huge hit with the media, who were surprised to find out I had a brother, let alone such a charming one. They didn’t seem to mind the hygiene deficiencies. He was a camera magnet, for chrissakes: gazing photogenically at the cage; telling funny family anecdotes; and generally maximizing his cuteness factor until they were clamoring at his feet like puppy dogs.
At 11 o’clock in the morning, Mom and Dad put the exhibit on hold to host a miniature media circus. This was usually when I met Anderson, Diane, and Co., and that day they were there with interest. Even Brian Williams (Mom had a crush on Brian Williams) had shown up this time. And they were all drooling over Nate. I waved at Anderson and he pretended not to notice.
Media Hour revolved around a very important moment: Cornelius was temporarily removed from his cage and held up in the open air for the cameras. Up till this year, I’d always been the one doing the holding. I had soft, unquestionably clean hands. I knew what I was doing.
But I think you see where this is going. Nate was the media’s unanimous choice, so he would hold the hamster. Someone said something about a Time magazine cover. No one seemed to mind that his hands hadn’t been washed for over an hour, or that his hamster-handling skills were amateurish at best. The cage was opened; the room hushed; Cornelius delicately deposited into Nate’s angelically cupped hands.
A camera tentatively clicked.
And then Nate was off, taking a flying leap over the kneeling video-camera man, careening around the corner into the kitchen, and crashing through the back door and into the backyard. A collective horrified gasp stilled the room.
But I knew what to do. I took my own flying leap over the cameraman, sprinted up the stairs two at a time, and retrieved the air rifle from under Mom and Dad’s bed. In another five seconds I was down the stairs and out the back door. He’d gotten out of the yard, but I could hear him running down the alley, shoes scraping against the shabby concrete. His feet dragged even when he ran.
I overtook him easily, four blocks north, in a deserted alleyway. I called out to him, my voice ragged with fury.
“Nate! Stop right there! I’ve got you!”
I guess I didn’t expect him to actually stop. But he did. He stumbled to a halt and leaned over and wheezed and vomited. I winced, wondering if any had gotten on Cornelius. Wondering if Cornelius was even alive. What if Nate had ditched him in a dumpster?
Relieved of his vomit, Nate turned around, chin dribbling with slime. Christ almighty he looked bad. His eyes were hollow and his suit was ruined and he was so damn thin. I pointed the air rifle at him the way I’d seen Dad do it, holding it up at my shoulder.
“Give him to me or you’re toast,” I said.
Nate looked at me blankly. He didn’t seem to be thinking at all. If he had, he might have known that I’d never try to take him down while he was holding Cornelius. Too risky. He had the upper hand.
Instead, he knelt down, sat cross-legged, and gently placed the hamster on the dirty cement.
He was alive, Cornelius. On closer examination, a team of reputable veterinarians determined that he hadn’t been remotely injured in the whole debacle. Though I think we all wondered about the psychological implications. I dropped the rifle, picked him up as gently as I knew how—cradling him between my palms just the way he liked—and walked home.
There was of course an uproar. Which was great for business. But then a curious thing happened: the media started turning against us, saying we “drove him to it,” that we “orchestrated his destruction” and some other overblown dramatic things. They didn’t much bother me, but I felt bad for Mom and Dad. Anderson Cooper started saying some nasty things about them on public television. Little traitor that he is.
This isn’t going to sound all that kind, maybe, or politically correct, but here it is: when Nate was finally taken away and put in foster care, it was like a long-needed amputation. If your leg gets gangrene, you don’t just sit there and watch it fester till it kills you, right? I can’t think of a single doctor who’d recommend that. The organism needs to return to a state of equilibrium.
And what’s a family but a big organism? An organism that lives and grows and adapts with the changing seasons. An organism that functions properly or dies trying. Whose disparate parts come together and support one another to form a beautiful, healthy whole.
Will Ejzak is a high school English teacher. He lives in Chicago with his girlfriend and his Flemish Giant bunny rabbit.