Windows

     About two and a half months ago, I was abruptly told via voicemail that my mother was going to have emergency brain surgery. Wednesday night’s social work class—the first one of the semester—had just wrapped-up and after the last of my students exited the building, I headed to my office to grab my satchel, lock-up, and head home.  Per usual, I checked my phone and saw my favorite niece Lauren had called.  “Tio,” she said, “I don’t know if you know this but grandma is having brain surgery in the morning.  Has a couple of blood clots.  Call mom. OK?  I miss you.  Bye, tio.”  

     I chuckled—a bit—at the irony of the situation, as I had ended the class with an exercise that a colleague suggested I try that involved exploring personally held attitudes about specific stages of human development, ranging from birth to old age.  I had students stand against the whiteboard in front of the classroom and share their thoughts, thinking this would be a nice way bond as a cohort.  Things went along smoothly for about five minutes, until all the crying started.  They cried about their childhoodsfathers that left thembullyings in high schooldivorces, and empty nests.  I wanted to strangle Cynthia, my colleague.  One of my older students (probably in her 50s) got up next.  She started to share but then completely broke down.  We were all stunned into death-like silence.  Apart from her crying, it was so quiet in there that you could have heard a blotter of acid being dropped back in the 1960s.  Eventually, she composed herselfapologized, and informed the class that she had just lost her mother a few days prior; her announcement did little to shatter the awkwardness in the room. She talked about how difficult it was to have the tables turned on her and have to watch the people that took care of her all her life deteriorate, requiring her to take care of them, now.  Embarrassed, she wiped her eyes and promptly sat down, surrounded by her very empathetic peers.  As I watched, I remembered the picture of my mother and that I have on my refrigerator door that I see every morning when I grab some rice milk for my cereal: she is on a hideous 1970s couch with perfect hair and makeup with me—shirtless in pajama bottoms, holding a copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar.  We both looked happy.  Overcome with guilt, I threw myself upon the pyre and decided to suffer along with everyone else.  Plus, I knew they would remember this night, during instructor evaluation time.  I took a deep breath, dove right in, and did well until I got to old age, but got through it, somehow.  

     “Class dismissed.” 

     The hospital my mother was in was about an hour away from campus.  It was already after 9:30 PM and I was tired from a long, monotonous day of grading papers and advising students for the upcoming Spring semester; moreover, the evening’s hysterics didn’t help. It’s hard enough holding a space for three hours, lecturing non-stop and engaging students, but when you have twelve grown people crumbling apart before your very eyes it becomes damn near impossible.  I was exhausted. Reinforcements were necessary: I needed caffeine and many, many cigarettes. 

     I stopped by a convenience store on my way to Edinburg to get supplies.  I parked the car and turned off the ignition, preparing to get out when the reality of the situation hit me like a flu: my 85-year-old mother was having brain surgery and there was a very real chance she may not make it.  This wasn’t like one of her falls, which I had already gotten accustomed to by that point, or one of her patented melt-downs that left her husband and anyone within calling distance flustered and unsure of what to do to calm her.  She had been suffering from Alzheimer’s for two or three years, already, and it seemed to be advancing at an exponential rate, especially this past year. She lost her words more than not.  Her short-term memory was unpredictable at best. There were even times when she would attempt to speak but couldn’t; she would just sit there with a look of frustration on her face—still, as a statue—then let out a, “Damn!” and then focus on whatever happened to be on TV at the time, as if nothing had happened.  Things hadn’t been easy and didn’t seem to be letting up any. No, this was very different. 

     I made it to the hospital in record time, hauling-ass at around 85 miles per hour after procuring my fixes.  After driving around parking lots for about fifteen minutes, I finally was able to find a spot and made my way to the Neuro ICU. When I got to her room, I saw frail frame curled up in her hospital-bed, disheveled and confused, surrounded by a concerto of blinking lights and rhythmic beeps that came from the various monitors she was connected to by tubes and multi-colored wires.  Her gown—a yellow so ugly she would have left against medical advice if she were more lucid—was off one shoulder, exposing more skin than I was comfortable with (though her sitter, a squat, older lady of about 60, didn’t seem to be phased in the slightest).  I looked over at the woman—I believe her name was Thelma–who had been there ten hours, already, due to my mother having tried to get out of bed multiple times that day.  “Son,” I quickly blurted in her general direction, attempting to get formalities out of the wayMy mother kept trying to pull her gown from her legs, unaware of how scantily clad she already was.  I pulled it back over her knees and grabbed her hands to try and calm her along with a serenade of rhythmic shooshing. 

     “I thought you said you didn’t have a son, Alda,” the sitter said. 

     Foggy, my mother answered, annoyed, “I don’t.”  She looked at me blankly.  “I have Lisa, my daughter.  I have Katie, her daughter”  She started at her gown, again.  “NoI don’t have a son.” 

     had prepared myself for pretty much anything on the drive up to the hospital, but it still stung. “Wishful thinking, old woman,” I said, looking into her eyes, smiling and rubbing the top  

top of her crepe-papery hand.  

     She laughed, apparently remembering some things about us.  After scanning my face more, a light turned on. My baby! Anthony!  Where were you? I’ve been waiting! 

     “Teaching, mom. It’s Wednesday.  I just found out about this an hour ago.”  I squeezed her hands, noticing how pale she was.  I didn’t remember her skin being so white.  “You OK?”  My eyes began to sting and water. 

     Seeing the tears start to well up in my eyes, she said, “You love me” with a pitying look upon her face.  “No…you don’t love me.  You like me, but you don’t love me.” She turned her head away, perhaps distracted by a fly or a moving figure on the TV screen—maybe one of those crazy hallucinations she has from time to time. 

     “Well, not right now I don’t.”  Again, she laughed. “I love you, mom…I do,” I assured, using the tank-top under my maroon dress shirt, as a tissue, to mop up a burgeoning flood of tears and snot.  In an attempt to cut through the pall in the room, tried to lighten things up by telling her about the picture on my refrigerator that I had looked at that morning—not really knowing what else to say—but it didn’t seem to register. 

     The next hour or so was spent keeping her calmkeeping her covered, dodging heart-breaking pleas to take her home.  To make things worse, she would, intermittently, talk in word salad: random words strung together in nonsensical sentences.  For a stretch that seemed to go on forever, she talked nonstop and said absolutely nothing. Other times she would snap out it and speak only Spanish, talking to her father, who had died thirty-five years prior, repeating over and over, again, “Ayudamepapi! Ayudame!  (Help me, Daddy! Help me!).” I just stood there, crying, wishing he would and feeling bad that I didn’t feel bad about thinking it. 

     At some point, her lucidity seemed to return some, so I took advantage of the moment and asked if she was scared about going into surgery in the morning, but she was oblivious to all that business.  “They’re doing a procedure, mom.  In and out.  Easy.”  I smiled, hopinwhat might be the last conversation I had with her wouldn’t be a lie.   

     “Not with my hair looking like this, I’m not!”  (If you knew my mother, you would know this was a really good sign).  

     “It looks fine, I laughed, but as soon as things started to look more optimistic, the pleading and agitation returnedAll I could do was stand there with tears, staining my cheeks, and think about everything that could possibly go wrong in the next few hours. When she finally calmed down, she turned to me and looked at me with a suspicious look I hadn’t seen since my early 20s. 

     “What do you want?” she demanded. 

     “Cocaine,” I said.  She didn’t laugh, but—honestly—it didn’t necessarily sound like a bad idea at the time. 

     “No, you want something.  What is it?” She turned away from me with a stare that peeled off my skin like duct-tape, leaving me feel—for a moment—utterly raw. I thought about my phone and how much I hated it. 

     Midnight had come and gone, and she showed no signs of tiring.  I was physically and mentally spent.  I thought about her. The surgery.  The “what ifs.”  I fought back tears—when I could–holding her hands the whole time, never letting go.  Then, suddenly, her restlessness subsided, as quickly as it came. She turned to me, again, and just looked at me.  That frustrated look I knew so well had resurfaced. She wanted to talk but couldn’t.  Our eyes locked and in that moment, I saw her, the mother on the couch with perfect hair and make-up, and—through all my artifice and bullshit—she saw me, shirtless little boy in pajama bottoms, holding a copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar and for a few seconds we were both happy, again.

# # #


From Indelible Fingerprints [Alien Buddha Press]; originally published by Down in the Dirt.


 

Todesregel Isle (Part V)

Villavic sat upon a large flat stone before the crackling fire, his lean body hunched, chin upon his entwined and roughened fingers, knuckles rough as sand. The rock-sitter’s tatterdemalion companions told him their tales; of their lives and loves and losses and how they were swept into the scouring-purge for mechanical heresy. After they had finished the waif came up to Villavic and laid her head upon his lap and closed her eyes. He ran his fingers through her hair and watched the light play across the cave walls like Togalu Gombeyaata. When the wind died down and the snow stopped half the travelers moved from the cave carrying their sacks of flour as their stomachs ached with hunger and the sky darked with encroaching thunderheads. Led by Gunter, the forging party endeavoured to find any clean-looking water-source beyond the marsh which shrouded the outer bounds of the forest like a giant moat.  Their quest came to an end after eight days trudging through snapping ferns and ruddy shrubs through the discovery of a small river that cut in a wide arc to the northeast of the cave. They fanned out over the silt-strewn and rocky ground of the beach in search of food. Desire and pain subsuming their somas as they rutted through the melting snow and filth, skittering over the crackling earth-skin like pale and malformed crabs. Some licking the stones. Others consuming the moss and lichen, where eft and vole eschewed those looming, odd-angling shadows and slipped out of all sight. Failing to find anything  else to eat, other than bitter leaves and poisonous berries, they mixed the flour with water and ate it with great rapidity. Shortly thereafter came fits of pain, aches of the stomach, inflammations of the lung. Dysentery and other ailments. Another snow storm blew in and forced the forgers to scurry into a small burrow that looked to have been vacated by a family of deer. Within the week, half the men had died and when Gunter returned to the cave only five followed with him and they ragged and sickly. They found the cave barren save a large lizard which raised up its head and blinked and then scurried off into the abyssal lower dark. Gunter swore and collapsed against the cold, stone entrance, crying and moaning like a wounded animal.

“We’re all going to die here. We’re all going to die.”

The Barkeep looked to the giant of the man, curled fetal at the cavern’s maw-like threshold, rocking like a fitful child and shook his head sadly. For a long while words escaped him and then he mustered the syllables that slow frothed from his starved and insensate brain.

“Maybe. You don’t know to a certainty. Ain’t no use cawing bout it.”

“They’re all dead. They’re all dead.”

“We don’t know where Villavic’s group went but I don’t see any bodies. Don’t see any blood. Here or outside. Unlikely they’re dead. Villavic’s sharp and Derrick is right capable of defending the gals. I knew him slight. Before the purge.”

The three young men who accompanied them conversed amongst themselves and when The Barkeep turned to them they fell silent. They looked worried.

The Keep didn’t like the look in their eyes. Greedy and feral. They had been those who had kept to the outer edges of the crowd when all the prisoners had landed and been freed. They’d always kept to themselves and seldom spoken. He wondered if they were brothers. Their features bespoke as much.

Garth, the evident leader of the youthful trio began babbling as Gunter continued to moan.

“What are we going to do? We… We’ll starve if we kept at it. If we don’t do something. You saw… saw what happened to those that drank from the river. Died. Shit themselves to death. Water. Its poison. This whole fucking island is poisoned.”

Suddenly there came a hideous cry and following it a rusted machete. Gareth screamed and dropped to his knees as the brand sliced into his skull and continued to scream as its wielder withdrew the weapon and then brought it down again and again and again.

Todesregel Isle (Part IIII)

Gunter’s wrathful howls briefly filled up the ambit of the creaking, frost-laden wood where the bodies of the dead lay like flowers from some other world of mescaline dream, swiftly swallowed by a snowstorms ceaseless churning as the survivors of the wael made for the cave, found it and huddled about in the middling-dark, scratching about for a fire. Villavic proved most proficient in the construction of a blaze and was consequently looked upon as a momentary savior as a light blossomed beneath his deft and dirtied hands, stiff-moving against the chill. The waif hunched beside him like a lost dog, her wide, coffee-grass eyes fixed upon the flames and her hands upon her knees. Even Gunter was momentarily bewitched by Villavic’s sorcerous generation and ceased his cursing and watched a while until Villavic asked Derrick to free the pugilist from his shackles. Derrick did so and Gunter thanked Villavic and asked why such solemnity afixed all faces and where to the rest of the party had gotten. Villavic suspected the boxer already knew but set himself down beside his small, smoldering fire and explained.

“They’re dead.”

“All?”

“All but those here.”

“Fuck.”

“Had you been successful in routing the women from the cave, they’d have died,” Villavic gestured to the waif, “She would have died. Do you understand, Mr. Gunter?”

“Aye. I think I might have gone a little mad.”

Villavic stifled a laugh, “Only a little?”

“Aye. I’m sorry.”

For a while, all were silent and contemplative as the wind ranged between the branches of the trees like the tortured souls of all those that had died there’neath. The barkeep, who sat opposite Villavic, finally broke the silence, his voice low and hushed and filled with the uneven trembling of fear.

“I can’t stop thinkin’ bout that skull. Out there. In the marsh.”

“What do ya think coulda done something like that?” Derrick asked to no one in particular, his eyes fastened to the fire. The barkeep shrugged. The crone spoke up then, emerging from the shadows at the far edge of the dancing light, “This place is cursed.”

“Ah, hell, woman, stop saying that.” The barkeep ejected with frustration. Villavic noticed a rising tension in the group, now but thirty in number, a paralyzing sense of uncertainty and terror. The old woman’s arcane pronouncements would only act as a stimulant. He thought it was prudent to intervene. No survival without general purpose and no general purpose without general knowledge.

“Alright, settle down, now. We’ve a bad enough spot of it without working ourselves up any further.”

The young woman, Ericka, turned towards Villavic where he sat in the middle of the cavern, beside the fire on an odd-shaped rock liken to a throne and there was venom in her eyes and tongue alike.

“My husband is dead.”

“He is. Losing your focus and letting your emotions overtake you will only increase the likelihood that you will join him. I have known many a couple and, given this knowledge, I can induce that he would, were he still with us, want you to survive. Don’t you?”

The woman feel into silent weeping as Villavic rose, stretched and took stock of the back of the cave, opposite the entrance, where the flour had been stashed. Then he removed from a hidden inner pocket in his jacket a small, leather-bound journal and a mechanical pen and set himself backdown upon his rock.

“Tell me your names.”

“Why?” Inquired the barkeep.

“Because, if we all die, it would be helpful for whoever finds us to know, all the better to circumvent a unmarked grave.”