I couldn’t help believing my mom was dragging me down. I felt like a bad person, thinking a thing like that, but I’d spent the last year bringing her clean underwear in psych wards and convalescent hospitals. She was still young, everyone said. And physically fine. But she wanted to die. It had become my job to convince her not to die, which was exhausting, and didn’t leave me time to make money.
Fiction by Jon Lindsey
Earlier in the day I moved my mom to a new assisted living, but now it was night and I was walking with a friend of mine on a beer run. He was rolling a cigarette, nicotine fingered. I felt loose from the kratom tea he used so he didn’t use heroin. We were stepping over discarded Christmas trees, laying in piles of needles on the sidewalk and I was still thinking about how I’d ditched my mom’s old mattress behind the church, embarrassed of the stains, feeling optimistic about her new start. It was then my friend told me about the thing in his throat.
I could hear it in there, the worry. I wanted to make it better. I hadn’t been a good friend.
“Could be HPV,” I said, cheerfully. For weeks and months, I’d dodged his texts and emails like he was collecting a debt.
“I pray to God,” he said, opening up, letting me in under the icicle lights. I didn’t see anything growing – no nodes or knobs; only what was missing – tonsils and molars.
“Did I tell you my laptop got stolen?” I said, wanting to even us out somehow.
He nodded, knowing.
“My dad had it in the throat,” he said, blowing smoke, swatting it away with his hand before I could walk into the cloud. Which wasn’t necessary. I knew about his dad. I remembered the emails, even if I hadn’t replied. How he’d cared for his old man, dying in a motel by the water. Sharing the fentanyl patches of hospice. Fishing fly larva out of the tracheostomy hole.
“Did it feel like you owed him?” I asked. But I guess my friend couldn’t hear me with the door thing going ding-a-ling.
I followed him into the liquor store, thinking about my mom, wondering about our responsibility to our parents. What do we owe? It seemed to change all the time.
It seemed that nursing his dad had taught my friend self-care. He’d taken out loans and gone back to college. Quit using. His life was looking up.
I couldn’t help believing my mom was dragging me down. I felt like a bad person, thinking a thing like that, but I’d spent the last year bringing her clean underwear in psych wards and convalescent hospitals. She was still young, everyone said. And physically fine. But she wanted to die. It had become my job to convince her not to die, which was exhausting, and didn’t leave me time to make money. I’d started documenting all her craziness for a book. With that at least, I was making progress. I had a goal. It wasn’t all for nothing. Except, now my laptop was stolen and with it, the last year of my life. I hadn’t backed-up anything.
Inside the liquor store, my friend stopped short. He pointed at the cash register. It was unmanned. I surveyed the quiet neon scene, wondering what I had time to grab.
“We closed,” said a voice from inside the racks.
Above the top-shelf candy, I saw the owner’s ponytail. He held a cellphone to his ear. His free hand made a slashing move that spanned his throat.
Another head bobbed up beside him in the snacks, reeling among the Dentyne and Altoids. Older, grand-dadish, gray flyaway hair crammed beneath a ball cap sporting the logo of a beer bar on the peninsula where my dad drinks. Under the hat, he said something that sounded like, “Shud noun, shrimp dicks.”
Outside, a motorcycle, muffler chopped. My foot turned toward the door.
“Nah,” my friend said, dry throated, already cutting for the refrigerators in the back where they protect the beer. “We’re inside.”
I heard in my friend’s voice the charm and surety that some people – women, me – love, but also the jonesing which was just as easy to detest. It had been there since at least the first time, my one and only time, smoking heroin on his bedroom floor.
I caught his t-shirt by the tail, “Let’s get tacos,” I said, believing maybe he needed saving from himself and his selective sobriety.
He laughed, collapsing air through his malformed lung, his mom’s fault for smoking while pregnant. I thought he was laughing at me, but it was reserved for the old man in the hat, bent over, fishing through the pockets of a guy on the floor of the candy aisle, passed out
“What?” the old man said, as the guy on the floor snored low and vulgar. “I’m looking for ID.”
It was the old man’s hat, as much as the familiar way he touched the snorer, that had me thinking of my dad. The photo of my old man that hung in the beer bar on the peninsula, between the pool table and ladies’ room. Shirtless, younger than me, arm hugging a 300 pound tuna like a friend. Like my dad had done the thing a favor, saving it from deep water, hauling it up onto the boat deck to die.
The old man hooked the snorer’s wallet. He walked to the ATM.
The guy on the phone tugged his ponytail, standing in the doorway, watching the street, making the thing ring ding-a-ling.
“IPA, IPA, gay for pay,” my friend said, tat-tat-tatting on the fridge glass with his lighter. “What do feel like?”
“Yo,” I said, alone in the candy aisle with the snorer. “This guy’s purple.” I was anxious for him to snore again. I wondered why no one was doing anything to help. “Hey, he’s fucking blue,” I said, watching him changing, going cold and colorless in the way night falls on everything.
“Called a ambulance fiteen minutes ‘go.” the old man said, punching numbers at random into the money machine.
Finally, longingly, the man on the floor snored, sucking. He was starving for air and slowly detaching from life’s huge tit.
“Sorry,” the police woman had said, standing in my bathroom, staring at the sill of the window smeared with the fingerprints of the person who’d ripped off my laptop. “Chances are, it’s already in some junky’s arm.”
On the floor, on my knees, I held the snorer’s hand. Below the bruised mess in his elbow crease, I searched for a pulse. I found it faint and retreating.
A year of my life was on that laptop, stolen by a junky like this guy. I wanted to stand up and walk away. I wished there was nothing I could do. What is required of me here? I wanted to know. And I waited for the answer for what seemed a lifetime, wishing anyone would say.
Before she was an addict – before she wanted to die, but maybe not – my mom was a nurse. Her uniform was white and so were her shoes. She worked on the sixth floor, in ICU, caring for people with incurable diseases. My parents never married, and my dad lived with girlfriends, or in his office, so when I was a kid and my mom couldn’t find a sitter, I often slept in the hospital. In the night, she would wake me whispering, “Sweetheart,” if a new patient needed my bed.
Later in life, she would malinger, staging falls, faking illnesses, drinking lactulose to give herself the shits, so she’d wind up dehydrated, hooked up to intravenous fluids in the hospital, a patient this time, a recipient of care, rather than a giver.
“Yo, wake up!” I said, loudly, callously slapping the man on the floor. “Hey, buddy!”
“I don’t think you want to touch him,” my friend said, hovering in the candy aisle, holding a twelve pack, ready to go anywhere else. “You know, lawsuits.” My friend and his contradictions never stopped being amazing. Always first in the car to buckle his seat belt, always first to key bump a baggie of detergent someone said was crank.
“You there, buddy?” I yelled, rolling Buddy onto his side to open his airway.
“You’re gonna get bit,” my friend said, watching me push a finger through Buddy’s lips, past fucked teeth, depressing the pornographic tongue clogging his throat. It was half-assed CPR, but I wasn’t ready for the intimacy of giving Buddy rescue breaths, on the chance that during mouth-to-mouth he’d vomit inside me.
I unzipped Buddy’s jeans. “Get me ice,” I said to my friend, because I’d recently read Cherry.
I waited with Buddy, imagining his shock when he woke to a five pound bag of ice cushioning his testicles.
My friend returned with a small cup from the soda fountain.
“It’s not enough,” I said, even as I dumped the ice into Buddy’s boxer shorts.
“Put it up his ass, right?” my friend said with the confidence of life experience.
Down at the cup’s bottom a few cubes clung to the rim. Really, hardly any. I didn’t want the responsibility of touching them. Beside Buddy, I felt small. It was the same way each time I passed that photo of my father with his trophy tuna. Small in the face of what was required to kill something so large.
The wet spot spread in Buddy’s crotch as I performed chest compressions. Down–and– down–and–down. I beat on Buddy like I could push back heaven as it came over his face. And then the sirens were coming up the street and the liquor store strobed with color. And I could feel the paramedics tapping me on the shoulder as if waking me. And I stumbled away knowing Buddy was in better hands, but not sure I was done.
They were still working on Buddy with the resuscitator while my friend paid for the beer.
“Can we get a free ice cream?” he asked, at the checkout. “You know, for saving him.”
The clerk with the pony tail thought it over. “What flavor?” He scooped out rocky road. He gestured at me.
I was watching the paramedics roll Buddy onto a stretcher. “Same,” I said.
I took one scoop. I wasn’t going to eat it. Outside I dropped it in the trash. I only wanted the trophy.
A few nights later, I met up with my same friend at a show. It was a noise show, so we were on the patio, drinking tequila out of a water bottle while inside the club, performers made noises on laptops that were inhumane and inconsiderate.
My friend had got the results of his biopsy. The mass was precancerous. Which was good. They would cut it out of his throat. He was happy. I was happy.
“I’m quitting,” my friend said, waving away his cigarette smoke, conscious of the second chance he’d been gifted. I myself couldn’t tell whether to believe him. It didn’t matter, I was still feeling like a hero, telling anyone who would listen that I had saved a life. Except, everyone was inside the venue. There was no one around, just me and my friend.
We got to talking about our old bandmates, sharing stories we’d heard, hearsay. About the drummer who’d broken his elbow, high, falling off a fire escape, and got born again. The guitar player who had his colon resected, and was always almost homeless, but still posted soy food photos of his wellness journey. The other guitar player, the one who only played power chords, how he’d got stopped one night by the police with his OD’d girlfriend dead in the trunk. Why hadn’t he been locked up longer? We decided he’d ratted. That this was why he moved to the desert, grooming chihuahuas. I was sorry that each of them had second lives they were living without me.
The next week, at the assisted living, my mom slashed her wrists. The nurse coming off the graveyard shift caught her, bleeding, but my mom hid her veins. The nurse didn’t know where all the blood in the toilet had come from. “Don’t worry, sweetheart,” the nurse said, panicking. “Don’t worry. I’m going to get help.”
Alone in the room, my mom crossed to the sixth floor window, leaving a trail on the tile in droplets of blood. Leaving handprints on the sill, as she opened the blinds to see the empty apology of the sun, rising, promising resurrection.
At night, before I fall asleep, or before I wake, I see her. She is working one leg through the open window. She is crawling out onto the ledge. She glares back over her shoulder, at the door. Am I there? I feel I am. She stares – past the IKEA furniture I assembled, the new mattress I hauled up the elevator, the pictures of us I put in frames – she looks scared, but not with weakness or the pain I imagined. The fear is knowing. But I don’t. Why doesn’t she come inside? Why am I not enough to bring her back?
Below, in the parking lot, a nurse is locking her car as she comes on the day shift. Rain is in the forecast and wind blows through the palm trees. She looks to the sky, the window. Coffee spills on her clean white shoes. She breathes. It isn’t nothing: breathing.
Jon Lindsey lives in Los Angeles. His writing can be found in Hobart, Faded Out, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and Fanzine.