Adapted from an image © Natbar, Dreamstime.com
I awoke in the kitchen midmorning with my face against the dirt-caked tiles.
Uncle Walt. I spoke to Uncle Walt.
With my nose pressed against the floor, I decided to remain lying. The slightest movement or deviation could further corrupt my already fleeting knowledge of him. What had he said?
What had I said?
I breathed heavily, tried to forget my stomach raging in a post-binge state. I moved an arm to center myself, which resulted in a few cans tumbling to the ground and rattling in a white-noise, metallic swirl of sound; the sound of memories soon forgotten.
Uncle Walt, how’ve you been? [Cheerfully, as if Uncle Walt were a common sight]
Boy, I’ve been just fine, just fine Francis. [Sweetly, of course] And how is your mother faring? It’s been too long since I’ve seen her.
Oh, fine, fine. She’s got a new job at Kenning’s.
Does she now? Well good, good. I’m glad Sue’s doing well—
No, was this real? No. Mom worked at Kenning’s after—
I’m volunteering at the library now. I figured—
—a man my age should make some use of himself, y’know?
Oh yeah, I heard. Aunt Nancy told me. I oughta stop by.
“Yeah, yeah, do that kid. I work on—
Fucking lies. He never worked at the fucking library—
—Tuesdays and Thursday, from 2pm ’til close.
Alright. [Checks watch] Oh, Uncle Walt, I’ve gotta run, I’m late again, but I’ll see you at the library, alright?
[Chuckles] You will never be on time for anything. Sue has said that since you were born. Alright boy, see you next Tuesday.
Bye, Uncle Walt. [Walks away]
I didn’t hug him goodbye. . . I always do. I just walked to work, and I knew, for some reason, that I was walking to the C&M Guitar Store, which I quit last year. So strange I remember Walt. . . .
I rose, finally, from the filth-ridden floor and slowly went to the bathroom. Pills. . . the blue ones, the sleeping pills. . . and Advil, I need them both. My head felt burnt-out, like it needed a new filament strung in it because the old one snapped and keeps bouncing around the dusky-grayness. I looked in the medicine cabinet: empty, of course. Mom’s room. . . .
I slowly pushed open the white door, already ajar. My mother stirred in bed and bent her head towards the creaking sound.
“It’s me, Mom.”
She didn’t bother to lift her black eye-mask to check. “You startled me. What was all that racket earlier?”
“Just. . . I dropped some cans. They pick up the recycling tomorrow—”
“You were drinking again, weren’t you? I heard you stumble in last night. Must’ve been 3 A.M. You know I hate it—”
“I know, I know. And I wasn’t. I tripped on one of the chair legs—” I knew she wouldn’t believe it, but she enjoys the illusion, so I made a petty excuse. I couldn’t even remember what had happened the night before, but I knew the subject quickly needed to change. “How are you feeling? Hungry?”
“Fine. In pain. The usual.”
“Did you take your medication today?”
“No,” she said, acerbically, “I didn’t. Someone wasn’t awake to give it to me.”
“Well here,” I said, pressing my palm and twisting the top off of an orange cylinder, putting two tiny white pills on her lips while pocketing a few. “I’ll go get some water.”
“No ice. You know ice gives me the shivers, and a woman in my condition can’t afford—”
“No ice. I know.” I went to the kitchen, avoided the cans, and filled up a glass. I took a long sip, and the flow of water down my throat was meliorating. Then I grabbed with three fingers two circular little pills from my pocket and placed them in my mouth. I drank the rest of the glass, refilled it, then started walking back to the room. I left the bathroom door ajar, and through the tiny slit I glanced at the mirror; I saw one eye, blue and tranquil, looking at me, gently. I stared at this reflection for a moment, and felt the tiny bulges in my pocket: Pills, you fuck. What the fuck are you doing? I closed my eyes and walked into my mother’s room, looking at the yellow, ascending nicotine-stains on the walls. “Here.”
“About time. What’d you do, get this from Russia?”
“Yeah, Dostoyevsky rose from the grave and handed it to me himself.”
“Don’t get smart with me. You think you’re so intelligent with your college degree. Smarter than your mother.” She had always resented me for completing college, something she never quite did. “You try it with three children and two jobs. See how far you make it.”
I ignored this: this was her famous litany spoken from lips that exhaled ashed-air and carbon monoxide. I heard it every time I succeeded academically. I even heard it after my graduation. When I enrolled in college, she began smoking over two packs a day, and when I began graduate school, it became three. I glanced at her, lying blind on top of the bed, placing a cigarette in her mouth like a prisoner of war waiting silently for the unison of shots. I propped open the window on the side of her bed and reluctantly grabbed her red Bic lighter. I flicked the segmented metal wheel and cupped the flame over to her mouth. “You really should keep the window open, and you really should avoid burning the house down.”
“Don’t you tell me what to do, I’m your mother, not some illiterate bum on the street.”
Bums don’t have houses to burn down was my initial thought, but I decided it wasn’t worth fighting over at the moment, she will never change her habits. “So, hungry?”
“No, not hungry.”
“You sure? When’s the last time you ate, Mom?”
“Why don’t you purchase yourself a hearing aid? I said I’m not hungry.”
“Wha?” I said, cupping my right ear and leaning towards her. “Didn’t catch that. . .”
“I told you, stop being a goddamn smartass.”
Trying not to laugh, I got up off the bed and grabbed another pill bottle. “I’m taking some Advil.”
“No, head-ache.” I said, grabbing the sleeping pills instead. I pocketed about nine and then closed the bottle. I grabbed her drink and took three. I decided I needed to see Uncle Walt again.
I misjudged the potency of her pills, and the short walk to my room felt like running underwater. The ceiling, the yellowed walls, the grayish tiled floors, they all felt heavy. They were blurring and swaying, and I held on to the cabinet to guide me into the room. The cabinet knob broke off the door as my hand held it for balance, and I felt again inebriated. I fell to the floor, inches from my bed, and let my eyelids kiss as I forced my thoughts to concentrate before I lost consciousness. I am falling asleep. I am falling asleep. Remember. You will be dreaming. Remember. I am falling asleep.
My eyelids parted lips, and I saw the bench. I was talking to Uncle Walt again, except it wasn’t me, it was me in the past dream. I watched myself say the same things, use the same gestures.
—Aunt Nancy told me—
To see yourself is always odd. It wasn’t like a mirror, it was like a movie. Except the scene was real. I mean, as real as a dream can be. I walked closer.
—I oughta stop by.
Yeah, yeah. Do that, kid—
The sight of Uncle Walt paralyzed me. There he was, standing in front of the oak-lacquered bench in Asbury Park. A living dead-man. I had to speak to him.
—I work on Tuesdays and Thursdays—
“Uncle Walt. . . .” As I addressed him, he looked at me. Those grey, adoring eyes, that wrinkled, lovable smile. Could it truly be him?
“Francis?” he said, in disbelief. He looked over at the bench again, but I had disappeared. The other I. Not me-I. “Fr-Francis. . . I was just. . . how did you. . .”
“Sit down, Uncle Walt.” We both sat on the wooden bench in the park, facing the orange- and red-leaved trees. His fear slowly abated as we made small talk.
“Autumn. The trees are so beautiful, but I hate them,” he told me. This was not something I would have ever known him to say. “Look at them. Stripped naked, barren, empty. Alone in the cold with the dried bodies around their roots—”
“Uncle Walt. . .”
“I—I haven’t seen you in so long. . . .”
“It hasn’t been that long. I’m sorry kid, I don’t know what’s kept me busy, but busy’s all I’ve been lately.” He pulled out a cigarette and lit it with a curved palm in front of the flame to protect it from the cool, blowing draft.
“No, I mean—you won’t believe me if I tell you. . .”
“Tell me what?” He chuckled, a warm, soft laugh. Exhaling a puff of smoke, he reminded me of my pre-invalid mother. “What are you, a government agent? An alien? Politician? Please don’t say politician,” he said, laughing heartily.
“It’s. . . I think I’m dreaming right now.”
He laughed again, the same teeth-bearing, lip-curling laugh. “Are you now?”
I decided not to try to convince him that I swallowed some blue pills in order to see him. I would just sound inane. Of course, I am talking to a dead man; a man who is only alive in my dreams. “I need you, Uncle Walt.”
“Sorry?” he said, leaning towards me, believing he was faint of hearing.
“Mom’s. . . dying.”
“What? You said she was fine two minutes ago, she looked fine last time I saw her—what on Earth, Francis—”
“Just trust me, she’s throwing up blood every other morning, she’s pale as the moon. We can’t afford a doctor or even half of the medication she needs. No insurance, you know. . .”
“And you didn’t tell me?”
“We—couldn’t. . . and I am telling you.” You’re dead. You’re fucking dead, just say it. Explain that he missed the radiation therapy and the remission and the false hope because he was in a coffin. In a coffin from his cigarettes, just as mom will be.
“Kid, I don’t know what to say. . .” He looked to the ground in despondence, his eyes dimmed with what seemed like a recognition of complete uselessness.
“And the pills she does afford, I steal,” I blurted, without thinking. Uncle Walt was silent, and kept his eyes on the ground. I felt oddly compelled to finish. “I take them and swallow them, or I sell them and buy alcohol. I can’t take it. I can’t watch my mother die—”
“Because you feel like you’re killing her?” He said, closing his eyes.
I didn’t respond. I leave and drink until I feel nothing and collapse in the kitchen. I’m not around to feed her half the time, and the other half she refuses to eat to spite me for being absent. Goddammit. I have to return to consciousness. . . I know that. I can’t keep running from her. From everything. “Uncle Walt. . .”
“Don’t say anything, kid. Just—go home to her, okay? Give her a kiss for me, alright? I’ll stop by in a few days’ time, okay?” He leaned down and stubbed out his cigarette on the dewy ground.
Yeah. Sure. Fine. Please. I wanted to say anything, but my eyes inundated, and I couldn’t bear to speak. He looked at me and I felt that he understood everything. Everything. I stood up and he hugged me. Tight, like always. Tight, like it would be the last, and he knew it would. Then he walked away towards the nearby winter trees. I want to believe that I would find him by those trees someday, under the branches of flushing foliage and dove-white marigold blooms. I turned away, not wanting to see if he would be swallowed up by the developing fog, or if he would disintegrate into reality. I stood with my back to the bench, slowly turning and glancing down at where he was sitting. I thought of how the warmth of the wood would turn cool in the absence of our bodies.
Wake up. It’s time to wake up.
Copyright © 2008 by Taylor Gorman