Acknowledge that Mother isn’t taking her widowhood well, that something besides Father is missing. Take her for a drive along the coast. Listen to the screeching seabirds. Follow Mother’s pointing finger. Watch sun shift behind clouds, the coastline disappear. Shut eyes tight. Picture a great wave approaching. Freeze. Breathe, don’t breathe. Reach for emergency brake.
Call ambulance, AAA, Tony at work. Relay that all is okay, just some bumps, bruises, minor things. Squawk at Mother for thinking in-take staff at hospital are her old neighbors, that the nurse’s aide is her mail carrier. Confer with neurologist. Sign forms for Mother’s MRI, CT and PET scan.
Scan pamphlets on cognitive erosion, Zen meditation. Get an economy rental from Hertz. Stop at bookshop, pick out puzzle books. Leaf through James Jones’ novel From Here To Eternity. Linger over film stills of Frank Sinatra, Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Cliff, grinning. Buy peanut butter biscuits for Tony’s dog, cotton candy grapes for Mother. Add From Here To Eternity to Netflix queue.
Speed back to hospital. Interrogate staff on how Mother fell in hallway, how she fractured her clavicle, chipped her tooth. Throw apocalyptic fit. Rip up bill. Sprinkle pieces across along desk. Recall Father doing similar action over a year ago in parking lot of liquor store, crumbling Consent to Surgery form into a small tight ball, tossing it curbside.
Tell Tony to accept Singapore job offer, that a break might be good. Sublet apartment. Take Tony’s dog, reluctantly. Move in with Mother. Change shipping address for Netflix.
Chastise Mother for adding Fantasia, Angels in the Outfield, The Lost Weekend to queue. Change password. Play From Here To Eternity.
Awaken to find Mother crawling toward T.V., reaching for the screen. Poke pause on remote. Listen closely as Mother explains that she had a brother, Walter, who was killed during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Adjust tone of voice when asking why she’s never shared this before.
Poke around in attic for Walter’s dog tags per Mother’s request. Discover Father’s stash of erotic periodicals, his Penthouse, his High Society, his Leg Show. Imagine squeezing Mother and dog, Sinatra and neurologist into Netflix sleeve, shipping them off to some international facility.
Intercept Mother reading off credit card number to veteran’s charity, donating $5,000. Notice that bottle of vodka hidden behind pints of ice cream is now half empty. Bite tongue. Carry pie-eyed Mother to eroding sofa to watch scene where Deborah Kerr and Lancaster smooch in the surf, her favorite.
Find old family album, but no photos of an uncle. Wonder if he’s just a part of Mother’s mental shrapnel.
Order dog away from bowl of grapes in Mother’s lap. Roll up puzzle book, raise hand high. Turn away in shame when he flinches, scooches closer to Mother.
Drop off Mother at hairdresser’s, take a quick tour of assisted living facility in neighboring town. Turn around and walk out after hearing about high staff turnover, the $13,000 per month living fees.
Take Mother shopping for a cozy cardigan, new slippers. Try Kohl’s, Marshalls, Penny’s as a last resort. Scoff at unhelpful salesfolk after Mother asks where petite section is located. Email boss, beg to work remotely through summer, possibly beyond. End day at Applebee’s, Mother beaming over a triple sundae.
Return to attic. Find Father’s ashes in a cloudy, grainy bag in box marked Travel. Take a moment to recognize that the handwriting is Mother’s. Open bag and run fingers through the pale gray powder. Listen to sprinklers doing their nightwork. Meditate on Montgomery Clift. Try not to go mental. Be Zen. Sit with image of Monty shirtless, sweaty, wet. Sext Tony.
Answer to whatever name Mother calls out: Virginia, Walt, Chip. Marvel over her reciting the Shakespeare she learned as a girl: What’s in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
Wonder how long Netflix lets you have a disc out—months? years? until it becomes a relic?
Dread call from doctor about results of additional tests. Plop ineffective, overpriced pills in between scoops of vanilla bean. Undo jar of butterscotch topping. Raise over bowl, ask whichever god will listen: Tell me when I can stop?
Tell Mother the Sultan of Swoon called, that he’s bought us a whole entire island. Chuckle when she says, Not in the Pacific, let’s hope. Tuck her in with a kiss, a promise, a plan. Put dvd in mailbox, slap flag up.
Break away from queue, follow the voice.
Monty Clift, he’s calling out to me from the sandbar, moonlit, to join him for a skinny dip. And look, Mother and Sinatra are slow dancing on the hotel veranda. And there’s Uncle Walter strolling with the dog along the shoreline, dark waves breaking.
* This piece was the winner of the 2017 Tennessee Williams Festival’s Very Short Fiction Award, judged by Justin Torres.
Joe Caliguire holds a BA in Literature from Bennington College and an MFA in Literary Arts from Brown University. His poetry and short fiction has appeared in the Indiana Review (Finalist for Micro-Fiction 1/2 K Contest, judged by Lydia Davis), Riverbabble Journal (Bloom’s Day Prize), and Mangrove Literary Journal. He is currently working on a collection of stories.1