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May 20, 2024

Limbo, Maybe

By Pete McArdle

The semi blew by me, sending a tsunami of rainwater across my windshield so that for a heartbeat, I was blind. When my vision cleared I had drifted to the right, headlights and a blaring horn filled my head, and I jerked the wheel hard to regain my lane as the minivan sped by.

"Pass on the left, you friggin' moron!" I yelled at the van's receding taillights. It was a ghastly black night, the sky was hemorrhaging rain, the wind was pushing my little import around like a cheap paper kite, and my mother was dying. It felt like an old black-and-white movie, a son traveling a thousand miles on a grim stormy night to say so long to his mom.

I've always enjoyed movies; for ninety minutes or so I can empathize with the characters, see how people with souls behave and get a taste of human emotions: love, longing, pride and fulfillment, doubt and despair.

I myself have none of those feelings, I'm either calmly obeying the biological imperative to eat, fuck, and survive, or I'm angry that something's standing in my way. A simple, either-or life.

The car in front of me suddenly jammed on the brakes, so did I, and just as I was about to slam into his bumper, he swerved to the right, getting an earful of horn from yet another driver before careening wildly onto the exit ramp.

"Learn how to drive, asshole!" I spat, my heart trip-hammering in my chest. Yes, I have a lot of anger, it truly is my only other state beside contentment. Still, I reject the Hollywood depiction of sociopaths as cannibalistic head-hunters. I'm a true sociopath, the real deal, the poster boy for antisocial personality. There's a cold empty space where my heart should be. But except when I'm driving, I never think about killing anyone and as long as there's a hamburger or a juicy sirloin available, I'm unlikely to chow down on someone's kidneys.

My poor mom, she was human: a nurse, a wife, a dedicated martyr, and a hypochondriac of the first stripe. She entered into a nasty, contentious relationship with a surly alcoholic that would have made Burton and Taylor blush. Then, instead of consulting a good divorce lawyer, she and my dad tried to fix their marriage by adopting children -- talk about pouring jet fuel on the barbecue! -- and that's where I came in.

I saw my exit for the airport and took it, flipping the bird to the car behind me shining his brights, and I had to smile. It could have worked, adopting children, my folks might have had the singing Trapp family, or the dancing Jacksons, or even the zany Brady Bunch -- with the right kids.

But in keeping with her tragic script, my mom managed to pick out two cute but empty vessels from the thousands of orphans available while my dad sat by, presumably swilling Scotch.

Yes, my adoptive sister, Sandra, is also a sociopath, a sweet, blue-eyed monster who'll melt your heart while she's lifting your wallet. And when caught, she bats her thick eyelashes, cries, and can't tell you why she did what she did, only that she'll never do it again.

What are the odds, do you think, of one couple somehow adopting two antisocial personalities, two people who will never sing, dance, or be zany unless their very survival depends on it? Probably the same odds as surviving a plane crash onto a highway, only to get hit by a cement truck.

But I have to give my mother credit, she could always take a bad situation and make it worse, whether it was her marriage, her health, or her choice of changelings. Mom sure knew how to stir the pot! She'd even managed to pick the worst possible weather to die in, knowing her son hates flying under the best of circumstances. But he'll fly through this frightening storm, all night if he has to, just to say goodbye to his mom. Because that's what sons in movies do.

Somehow arriving at the airport in one piece, I walked across the parking lot toward the futuristic terminal, cold rain pelting my face. And I wondered how anything could take off on such a night but above me, steely-gray birds of prey roared to and fro, their sheer tonnage, perhaps, allowing them to cleave the mean March winds.

I should be crying now, I thought, or at least sniffling, after all, my mom is dying: this is not a drill. But I was alone in the parking lot, no one I knew was watching me, so I didn't bother.

I joined the noisy, jostling throng outside the terminal and as I approached the entrance, an apocalyptic clap of thunder made everyone jump, so I did too. Inside, I patiently wound my way through security -- they confiscated my can of shaving cream, those doughy, red-faced rent-a-cops; I would attend my mother's deathbed unshaven. Then I went through my pre-flight routine: finding my gate, noting the ETD, getting a bite to eat and buying a couple of paperbacks.

I've always had a thing for books, the written word turns me on, probably because it is the most precise yet sterile form of human interaction. Reading, you can get deep inside the head of another person, be privy to their innermost thoughts and deepest fears, yet they're not even in the same room as you, they may not even be alive.

My mom always nourished my thirst for literature, surrounding me with books at an early age and getting me a library card when I was five. She never hugged me, mind you, or anyone else for that matter, but she filled my head with Seuss and Saki, Poe and Lovecraft, Dickens, Twain, Asimov and Steinbeck, and for that I'm most grateful.

While strolling back to my gate, I stopped to tie my sneaker. All laced-up, I raised my head and found myself face-to-face with a large German shepherd on a leash, a bomb dog perhaps or just a pooch with a nose for pot. The attached officer was looking away, oblivious to the potential terrorist/drug smuggler at his feet, but the dog and I had a moment of mutual recognition and respect, two simpatico souls seeing the world and each other clearly, without the foggy overlay of emotion.

I've always dug dogs and they dig me, and once again I must credit my mother. She liked to collect strays (in addition to Sandra and me) and our house was always full of romping, barking dogs, their leashes and chew toys underfoot, their water dishes half-empty in the kitchen. Thanks to my mom, I had a lot of friends growing up, they were just somewhat furry, kibble-breathed, and sharp of tooth.

I stroked the shepherd's snout, earning myself a reprimand from the suddenly attentive guard, then headed for my gate where I was surprised to find that my flight was taking off on time, the maelstrom outside notwithstanding. I'd have preferred to fly in better weather but I figured the pilot wanted to live just as much as I did, at least that's what I told myself.

Upon boarding the plane, I was pleased to see that not only was the flight sparsely booked -- so I could sit and read neighbor-free -- but the flight attendant in my section was both solicitous and lushly busting out of her blue uniform.

Women find me easy on the eyes and mistake my reticence for coyness, my emptiness for mystery. By acting as if I could walk away from a woman at a moment's notice -- which I can, at least after I've come -- they're drawn to me like moths to a flame. And sadly, like moths, they get burned. But I need regular sex, just like air, food, and water, and for some reason the universe seems to go out of its way to supply me with it.

Now I can't very well thank mom for that. However, as Rita, the Rubenesque stewardess, leaned over to take my drink order -- "Two of your finest little bottles of Chablis, please" -- I knew she was already eyeing the bait and the sad news of my mom's impending demise would surely set the hook. My mother had dutifully provided me with a warm bed, good books, and canine friends, but this would be the first time she'd helped me get laid. Still, I had three hours of flying time to work on seducing Rita, there was certainly no rush.

Soon I was thirty-thousand feet up in a black moonless murk, drinking bilge water disguised as wine and pondering my own mortality instead of my mom's as gale-force winds slapped the airplane around. I don't fear death, after all I'm dead inside, but I would have hated to have that Chablis be my final beverage. A full-bodied Bordeaux as the engines burned up, or maybe a nice Chardonnay as the landing gear failed to deploy, now that would have been all right. But to crash drinking that sickly-sweet, piss-colored swill would have truly been tragic.

Mom was a martini man herself: vodka dry, straight up and two olives. Sober, she was cold and fatalistic, the voice of doom and disaster. However, one martini later, she'd be oh-so-warm and fuzzy, the life of the party, a real corker. But during her second martini she became progressively maudlin and sentimental, "Your father never wanted kids" and the like, and before she reached the olives, she would usually take to her bed. Dad, well into his fourth or fifth Dewar's by this point, preferred to pass out at the dinner table. Say what you will about their sad damaged kids, we would unfailingly clear the table and do the dishes. No one else was going to.

My dad was already gone, nearly twenty years prior, and looking out the small porthole at rain-streaked nothingness, I remembered the dry yet powerful sensations I felt upon his passing: gratitude, respect, and regret. I didn't cry, I don't really know how to, but after his death I wasn't quite myself for a while. I didn't have much of an appetite, I recall.

My father, though hard-working and a good earner, lived his life in a bottle while I lived mine in a book. They were two lives that couldn't possibly intersect except, perhaps, in a book about bartending. Still, on some intellectual level I missed my dad, and soon enough I would miss my mom. I'd be an orphan again at fifty-five and with scant chance for adoption.

My paperbacks were overly melodramatic and failed to engage me -- as did Rita, the flight attendant, with tales of her recent bridal shower -- and as the cabin air grew stale and the minutes stretched to eons, the dour captain kept pushing our ETA back due to the fierce, bullying headwinds. I was concerned that either my mom might die before I got there, or I might die before I got there. Finally, I slowed my breathing by timing the exhalations and fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

After we arrived ninety minutes late into Orlando, there was no gate available for our flight so we cooled our heels a while longer on the tarmac, watching the palm trees whip back and forth, their fronds slapping the ground like self-mortifying zealots. Apparently I'd just flown through the tail-end of Hurricane Elizabeth, and if she weren't at present mired in a deep coma, Elizabeth, my mom, would have been tickled pink by the delicious irony. Life is out to get you, she'd say to anyone within earshot, and the sooner you realize that, the better. Hurricane Elizabeth, indeed.

When I finally reached the rental car station, the myopic, wedge-faced woman behind the counter informed me that all the compacts and sedans were gone, despite my reservation. It was a muscle car or nothing. I chose a steroidal black Charger with absurdly big tires and went growling off into the now-early morning, a bleary-eyed Terminator tracking his prey. The five-lane interstate was surprisingly busy considering the hour, and chock-full of other Terminators doggedly trying to kill their fellow drivers. I had used up my entire array of scathing, long-chain invective by the time I reached my motel, the aptly-named "Trail's End."

After checking into my room, I realized the motel's name must refer to the plethora of dead cockroaches, and their larger brethren, palmetto bugs, scattered about the place. They should have called it "Roach Motel" but I guess that's what you get for ninety-nine dollars a night. It's not that I'm cheap, mind you, it's just that I don't give a rat's ass about flash and sizzle, outward appearances, or what anyone else thinks. I paint houses for a living, pocketing a good deal of green for my trouble, and I use my money on food, wine, and pussy -- and little else.

I took a quick shower, picked up a cup of coffee at a nearby Denny's, and headed out into the glorious early morn, everything bathed in the kind of golden glow you only get in the Sunshine State. As I drove through the local grid of strip malls, car lots, and super stores, I was keeping an eye out for a sign for St. John's Hospice.

An interesting word, "hospice," seemingly born of hospital and precipice: a hospital on the precipice of death. The word has a certain mystery to it, as does death unless you're one of those devout know-it-all's, and it also conveys a sense of dignity, a dignity I destroyed as I came roaring into the St. John's Hospice parking lot in my amped-up Charger, causing several presumably grief-stricken visitors to hop up onto the sidewalk and glare at me.

I killed the engine, loosing a loud fuel-exhaust fart and further vexing the grieving bystanders, who were discovering once again that looks cannot kill. I sat behind the dark-tinted windows for a minute or two, waiting for the witnesses to disperse. It's not that I gave a shit what any of them thought, it's just that I wished to avoid confrontation, since survival is everything to me.

Finally, I exited the car and approached the hospice entrance, thinking it quite impolite that I'd come empty-handed. But what does one buy for a dying mom, in a coma no less? Perhaps one of those comfy travel pillows they sell at the airport. Or maybe some wind chimes to soothe the troubled soul.

In any event, I stepped through the front door and was stopped dead in my tracks by a tall, slope-shouldered nun sitting at a desk, a glowering distaff Darth Vader. Her cold, reptilian eyes stared past a long narrow nose at me, her entire face pinched tight by white cardboard and a lifetime of chastity.

Nuns always seem to sense what I am, nuns and cops -- it must be in their genes.

"I'm here to see Mrs. McNulty," I said, not bothering to smile.

"And you are?" she said, also dispensing with the phony brio. You can't fool a fooler and she knew it.

"Her son," I said. I was ready to produce I.D. but the old, black-robed bat had already tired of our little dance.

"Room 212," she said and returned to some critically important paperwork, as if I no longer existed.

Walking down the hallway, I had to admit, St. John's Hospice was beautifully appointed, hardwood floors, high ceilings, and sherbety pastel walls with white semi-gloss trim. It occurred to me that such grandeur was wasted on the dying, it must be for the benefit of the visitors and staff. I found Room 212, took a moment to clear my mind, and went in without knocking.

She was alone and shockingly small, lying in peaceful repose on a big hospital bed. Mom's warm brown eyes -- the only thing warm about her -- were closed, and her denture-less mouth and hooked nose gave her a distinctly avian aspect. Leaning close I could tell she was breathing, and her breath smelled sweet from all the morphine coursing through her veins.

I kissed her forehead and said, "Hi, mom, it's me."

There wasn't the slightest movement in her deeply-lined face but who knows what goes on in someone's brain? In a book I'd read about brain injuries, the author recommended that you talk to the comatose, regardless, it causes spikes in their alpha waves or something. So that was my plan: long, one-sided conversations.

There was a leather recliner right next to mom's bed, so I made myself at home in it and stared out the large picture window. Her room looked out onto a modest petunia bed, a large, twinkling lake, and a skyline of saw-palmettos spanning the far shore.

"You picked a nice place, ma," I said. "If you could see, you'd really enjoy the view."

My mother had always loved trees, plants, and flowers, with their vast multitude of colors, shapes, and textures. She was very visual -- one of the few traits we shared. I had no idea how the hours would pass with my far-away mom, and later, my sister and her half-wit son. But I was lying in a sweet recliner with a truly spectacular view. All I needed was a red-haired nurse with a tight little ass, and I'd be in hospice heaven.

There was a gentle knock on the door -- could my wish be coming true? And so soon? A nurse walked in, M. E. Jones, R.N. on her name tag, and though she would prove to be a real angel, Nurse Jones was short and scrawny, and wore her mousy-brown hair in a bun.

"How'r y'all doin' today?" she squeaked.

Y'all? I considered pulling a Taxi Driver on her---"You talkin' to me? Huh? You talkin' to me?!" -- but I had all day to alienate the woman, there was no need to rush.

"Just fine," I said, and added, "considering the circumstances." Luckily for me, there were tons of films and novels with deathbed scenes, I had a wealth of somber dialogue to choose from. I got up and stood across the bed from the wee nurse.

"How's she doing?" I asked. Nurse Jones had a small sponge on a stick which she was wetting and then using to wipe the inside of my mother's mouth. The act had a very Christ-on-the-Cross feel to it.

"W-e-l-l, her pulse is weak and her respiration's very shallow," she said, "And the morphine drip ain't helpin' any. But every time we back off on the narcotics, she starts screaming with the pain. The way she is, Doc Gaines says it'll be any day now."

The nurse turned her kind eyes to me so I gulped, audibly, and chose a suitable response.

"Well at least she's not suffering," I said and gazed down at my drugged, motionless mom. The whole room smelled of morphine, there was no way she could be hurting. It occurred to me that drifting away on the wings of Morpheus was not a bad way to go, it certainly beat the hell out of throat cancer, or third-degree burns, or being devoured by wild boars, say.

"Can I getcha somethin' to drink?" said Nurse Jones.

My first thought was that she was talking to my mom, but that sponge-on-a-stick was her only refreshment. Then I almost asked for a glass of wine before remembering where I was, and the time, a quarter past nine in the morning.

I said, "Do you have any ginger ale?"

Odd that I should choose that. I was not fond of ginger ale but it was my mom's favorite drink when she was sick. Which was often. In her eighty-six years, she'd certainly had a few nasty ailments and minor surgeries -- who hasn't? Still, if you listened to her, she was constantly ill, the pain was indescribable -- though she gamely tried to paint us a picture -- and the Grim Reaper was surely standing just outside her door, impatiently tapping His bony foot.

Considering the long hours she'd worked as a nurse, for most of her life my mom was either tending the sick or being the sick, and those big-shot doctors, why, they were no help at all, to her or her patients. So when she found she'd come down with the maladie du jour, mom simply nursed herself. She'd head for bed with a tall ginger ale and -- brace yourself -- an onion and mustard sandwich. She drew the blinds, took out her teeth, slathered herself with Ben-Gay and crawled under the covers. The smell was not to be believed.

Yet somehow mom had bounced back from all those diseases, conquering pathogens too numerous to mention and surviving an entire alphabet of illnesses. She'd spent her whole life artfully dodging the Angel of Death and now she was dying of old age. How cliché.

I, myself, don't believe in being sick, there's no payoff in it. I scrupulously avoid doctors, take Advil when I need to, and shake my head at my contemporaries nervously sharing the results of their latest colonoscopies. But illness, real or imagined, was the central, overriding theme of my mom's life, with suffering a close second.

Nurse Jones brought me a big cup of ginger ale with a straw, showed me the buzzer to contact the nurses' station, and said she'd be back in a little while. Before she left, she looked down at my mom, brushed the brittle white hair from her forehead and said, "See ya later, darlin'." Then she beamed at my mother, like a saint on a holy card, and walked whisper-quiet from the room. Must be nice to have a heart, I thought.

As I sipped my soda, I found it very hard to relate to my mom -- she hadn't blinked since I got there and her breathing was almost imperceptible. I kept wondering if she'd passed. I had planned to talk up a storm, share some choice anecdotes, maybe tell a few dirty jokes, but it's hard to find your rhythm when your audience might be dead.

And if the Catholic fairy tales I was told as a kid were true, mom was currently making the transition from human being to pure spirit, shedding her fleshy caterpillar husk for celestial wings. Clearly she was now mostly spirit, and in my experience, you cannot have a decent conversation with a spirit. They're very flighty.

"What is the point of this?" I asked the God of my childhood fairy tales, leaning the recliner further back. "Heck, what's the point of me?"

God had no answer. Or perhaps He was just trying to be polite.

The hard night of travel must have caught up to me because the next thing I knew, I was being awakened by my sister, Sandra. I reflexively patted my wallet: it was still there. You learned to be careful around Sandra.

Gawking over her shoulder was her slack-jawed son, Eddie. The next original thought he had would be the first and at twenty-eight, he'd yet to discover oral hygiene. Although I gave him credit for having a heart, Eddie was otherwise as dumb as mud and highly allergic to work, the product of an amoral mom and a dim redneck dad. His father, who'd long since slunk back to the Everglades, actually had a red neck, I recall.

We made our greetings, I shared a pro forma kiss with my sister -- she reeked of cigarettes -- and an awkward handshake with my nephew. I'd often thought that the boy had no chance; he was uneducated, unmotivated, and unwashed. Hell, he didn't even know how to shake hands.

"What's new, Ed?" I said.

"Nuthin'," he replied. No surprise there. Having exhausted that conversational gambit, I turned to Sandra. "Have you started making funeral arrangements?"

"Yes, everything's all set," she lied. Sandra was a gifted liar, her gaze remained steady and her voice never rose, even as she told you how she'd found a ten-carat diamond ring in the garbage. "They're all set to cremate mom's body when she goes, then they'll ship her ashes to Arlington where she'll be placed right next to dad."

The last part was true, mom and dad had met in the Navy during World War II -- the war setting the tone for their marriage -- and as war veterans they had the right to interment at Arlington National Cemetery. How mom would get there was problematic but that was Sandra's concern, I was heading home tomorrow, I'd just come to say farewell.

Sandra and her son had been sponging off my mom for years. They had lived under her roof -- usually somewhere equidistant between the TV and the fridge -- drunk her booze, borrowed her credit cards, and pawned her jewelry. Mom was constantly bailing them out, both literally and figuratively, and she'd never once turned her back on them, stubbornly defying the advice of her doctors, friends, and son.

My sister had been running the household and handling the finances for several years now as my mom became increasingly senile. God only knows what she'd finagled, misappropriated, or just plain stolen. But amazingly, the bank hadn't foreclosed on the house, the police weren't staking the place out, and the water, electricity, and cable hadn't been shut off. Yet. Nonetheless, I often gave thanks that my family lived thirteen hundred miles away, although another continent would have been even better.

"How are you feeling?" I asked my sister. A heavy smoker all her life, both cigarettes and crack cocaine -- the latter habit having led to several stints in jail -- Sandra moved like a glacier and wheezed like the Little Engine That Couldn't.

"Not so great," she said in her smoker's rasp. "The doctor says it's not emphysema but some kind of genetic lung disease, and that I should think about having Eddie tested." Sandra was good, I had to admit, a complete stranger would have bought that bullshit.

"What are you gonna do about it?" I said.

"For starters, I'm cutting way back on the Marlboros and I've also begun using oxygen at night, I have this thing I stick in my nose."

"Well don't light up near the oxygen tank," I said, "or you and Ed will be the first McNultys in space." I said this knowing she probably fell asleep every night with a lit cigarette in her hand. The only question in my mind was whether she'd burn the house down or blow it up.

Eddie was busy at a table in the corner, applying pencil to paper with a white-knuckle grip. Deep in concentration, he flicked his tongue piercing against his teeth as he worked.

"You may not know this but your nephew's a talented artist," said Sandra, confidentially. "His art teacher says his potential is unlimited."

"Really," I said, wondering if Eddie's teacher was also a victim of the growing crack epidemic. I walked over to the table and looked over Eddie's shoulder at his work. He'd drawn a human skull with a jewel-encrusted dagger half-buried in the cranium and what looked like weeds -- pot maybe? -- growing out of the ear canal. The pencil lines were thick and jagged, the shading dark and scratchy, and somehow the skull seemed to be frowning.

"Nice detail, Ed," I said, scratching my own skull. "I can see where there'd be a big market for this sort of thing."

"Nuhng," said the blossoming young artist, or possibly, "Gluhb," it was hard to tell with the flickering tongue stud.

"I keep telling Eddie to apply to art school," said my sister, "He's so talented he'd probably get a scholarship."

My only response to this stunning flight of fancy was a sudden, overwhelming urge to get a beer and quickly down it. And then another, and another, until my head was finally back on straight. I checked my watch -- it was almost noon in Chicago.

"Where can you get a beer and a burger around here?" I asked Sandra.

"There's a restaurant around the corner, part of a chain, called Honkers. They feature all kinds-a fried food and waitresses wearing these tight, skimpy outfits and high heels."

"I love fried food!" I gushed.

Of course I didn't love anything, it was simply not in my makeup. But I did feel very strongly about tight, skimpy outfits and high heels.

I spent the next hour watching the minute hand lollygag its way around the clock on the wall, like a disgruntled civil servant with seniority. In that time, Nurse Jones stopped by to check on mom, Sandra stepped out to smoke at least five times (good thing she was cutting back), Eddie drew a topless woman engulfed in flames, and my mother continued to . . . well, continue.

At ten to noon, I jumped to my feet, startling two of the three family members present, and proclaimed rather loudly, "Good drink, good meat, good God, let's eat!" I was pretty sure that came from a Stephen King story but I wasn't certain. Before we left, I leaned down and said, "Mom, can we bring you back something?"

There might have been the slightest rustling noise from her general vicinity.

"Excuse me?" I said, leaning closer, "I didn't quite get that." I listened and nodded.

"Sure, ma," I said, straightening up. "No problem."

As Sandra rolled her big, blue eyes and Eddie practiced his mouth-breathing, I imagined a locker room full of nubile bleached-blondes in their push-up bras and thongs, chatting animatedly as they squeezed into their skimpy Honkers uniforms. We left.


Lacey, the waitress, flashing bottle-blond bangs and pert natural tits, introduced herself and Luann, a trainee whose flaxen locks were wonderfully authentic but whose bulbous jugs seemed bogus. They asked us what we wanted to drink, brought us a big foamy pitcher of beer, and said they'd be back in a few minutes to take our lunch order.

In the movies, the family of the dying matriarch would invariably be huddled over a small table in a dark Irish bar, cursing and railing against the terrible unfairness of it all, while a hard, driving rain marked time against the windowpane.

But as my mom lay dying not a half mile away, Sandra, Ed, and I were sipping beer in a room full of rednecks, shit-kickers, and NASCAR memorabilia. I was imagining all the different positions I might try with the two young waitresses, Sandra was obviously glad to be out to lunch, and Eddie, God bless him, was merely out-to-lunch.

It was a perfect sun-drenched day, a good day to die, as the Sioux might say.

We'd just poured our second round of beers when Lacey and Luann reappeared and there was no doubt about it, Luann's boobs were fake, they pointed a good ten degrees above the horizon and one of them listed slightly to the left. Sandra and I gave Lacey our lunch orders while Luann looked on, undoubtedly marveling at the way Lacey could take down our orders, snap her gum, and shake her ass, and all at the same time.

"And what would you like, handsome?" Lacey asked Eddie.

Eddie grinned shyly, showing calcified plaque from the late Pleistocene era, and consulted his menu which was still unopened. The front cover of the menu featured the house specialty, a hamburger the size of a baby's head. Eddie stared at the cover for several seconds, then looked up at me and said, "Hmmbgrr."

"Don't tell me, tell the pretty lady," I said. "And enunciate." The boy was hopeless, I wondered if he even knew how to chew. He mumbled his lunch order to Lacey who scribbled in her pad, snapped her gum and said, "You want French fries, waffle fries, fried rice, onion rings, cole slaw, or double-baked potato?"

Eddie looked at me in a daze, clearly overwhelmed by the dizzying array of gustatory possibilities.

"Walk on the wild side, Ed," I advised.

"Frnch frzz," he mumbled, staring intently at his placemat. Absolutely amazing, I thought. Old as I am, I was practically glued to Lacey's come-hither tits and Luann's lush, blowjob lips, while the twenty-eight-year-old male at the table seemed entranced by the advertising on his placemat. If it weren't for Eddie's hideous taste in clothes, I'd have sworn he was gay.

The young ladies left to put in our order and I followed their round, bouncing buns all the way across the room, one eye to an ass, the ocular muscles working independently. Luann glanced back, saw me staring and smiled, always a good sign. Still, they were young enough to be my daughters -- if I'd been foolish enough to bring more sociopaths into the world.

This called for a straightforward approach. When the check eventually came I would pay with a hundred dollar bill and write on the back of the check: Tonight? 918-774-5669. Either way, keep the change. I like to keep it simple.

"What are you gonna do after mom dies?" I asked my sister.

"Well, there's a little bit of life insurance money coming, the house is completely paid off, and I'm eligible for Social Security Disability. I think I'll just stay in the house, with Eddie."

I almost choked on my beer, Sandra was that good. The girl always had fresh fiction on tap, and she could pour you a tall one any hour of the day. The only things remotely true were that she was definitely worthy of a disability check -- she could barely draw breath -- and that her lazy, soap-averse son would be around to help her spend it.

Sandra and I shared memories of our mom, two or three of them pleasant, until our food arrived and then we attacked it like senior citizens at an early-bird buffet. Turns out Eddie did know how to chew -- and swallow too! -- so I stopped worrying that I'd have to perform the Heimlich on him and concentrated on my fried chicken with biscuits and gravy.

Not only was my food delicious, but the two waitresses were extremely attentive, they kept topping off my beer and giving me all kinds of face-time. Either they were wide open to some serious frolicking later on or I reminded them of a favorite uncle. Who knows, maybe they were wide open to frolicking with their favorite uncle, this was the deep South after all.

When we'd finished our lunch, I left a C-note and my message of hope with the check, and we hurried out of there without saying goodbye. I was anxious to get back to my mom -- I didn't want to have to tell people "I was in Honkers when she died" -- and I needed to make a quick pit stop at the liquor store next door.

Soon enough, we were back on the road and I let the Charger stretch its legs a little, ripping through the gears, squealing around corners, and leaving a little rubber after a red light. I was just turning into the St. John's parking lot when I saw the flashing lights in my rear-view mirror.

"Fuck me," I muttered. A nun and a cop on the same day. I knew that somewhere Mom's spirit was smiling. I parked where I had earlier in the day and waited for the policeman to mosey up to my window.

"What's the big hurry, bub?" said the cop, showing an impressive mastery of the banal and cliché.

"We were rushing back from lunch to be with our mother," I said solemnly. "She's dying."

"Yeah, well there's a lotta that goin' around," said the cop, obviously a stand-up comic in his free time.

"I'd imagine there must be, officer," I said, "after all, this is Florida. The average age must be, what, seventy-eight?"

The big cop's face went hard, his eyes became slits, and he was reaching for something -- his ticket book? his cuffs? his gun? -- when Nurse Jones appeared at his elbow.

"Is there a problem here, officer?" she said, just as sweet as pecan pie with whipped cream. "'Cause these folks need to be with their momma, she's not gonna last much longer."

The cop looked down at the tiny nurse, looked at the sign by the front entrance of St. John's, and then his face turned beet-red. This staunch protector of Florida's highways and byways had caught himself a lead-footed, wise-ass Yankee, and a pure-blooded sociopath as well -- cops can tell -- and it was against everything he held holy not to nail my balls to the station house wall and watch me squirm.

But it's tough to stand up to an angel, even a mousy, ninety-eight pound one.

"No, there's no problem, ma'am," he said to Nurse Jones, all the joy gone out of his voice. "I was just warnin' this fella here to take it easy." The big-bellied cop stared deep into my eyes, past my mid-brain to my hind-brain, and out the back of my head. I'm sure he was hoping and praying for me to open my big mouth and make his day. But I didn't, my finely-honed sense of self-preservation had kicked in and told me to zip it, zip it good. Sighing, the cop favored me with his best Dirty Harry sneer, turned on his heel, and stalked away.

"Didja have a n-i-ce lunch?" said Nurse Jones as we walked inside together. "Where'dja go?"

"Some seafood joint," I grumbled, still angry at myself for attracting the law.

Back in Room 212, mom was exactly as we left her and still breathing, though barely. My sister settled in with her gossip rags ("Mel Gibson Had Affair with Alien Sez Ex"), Eddie stretched out in the recliner, a dab of ketchup on his chin, and I plopped myself down in an overstuffed armchair in the corner, next to a small bookshelf. I grabbed the nearest book and read the title: "Going Home to God" by the Reverend Titus B. Small. Although it probably contained no good sex scenes, I decided to give the book a try.

Reverend Titus -- what could possibly be the familiar for Titus? -- explained in his book that when we die, our souls return to the heaven from whence they came, sort of like those old trail horses that can't wait to get back to the barn. The entire time we're here on earth, said the good Reverend, we yearn only to be close to God, and upon death we get our wish.

I found this news disturbing since I'd spent my entire life trying to return, not to heaven, but to the womb -- face-first if you catch my drift. I have no desire to be close to God, I'd much prefer a raven-haired gymnast with nymphomaniac tendencies and a well-stocked wine cellar. There's no baseball in heaven, no trees, no Beaujolais or oysters on the half-shell. And according to the Reverend Small, no dogs. To such a heaven, I respectfully say "Fuck that!"

I don't know where I'll go when I die, perhaps I'll take a nice long nap or come back as a cockroach in some cheap motel. Perhaps I'll do the limbo in Limbo, who knows? But wherever I end up, it's highly unlikely I'll run into ol' Titus.

The rest of the afternoon slipped languidly by. Nurse Jones came in to swab mom's mouth and check on her I.V., Sandra read her trashy mags and periodically went outside to fry her few remaining alveoli, and Eddie contemplated his navel, or would have if he knew what "contemplate" meant (or "navel" for that matter). I stared at my mother -- she was as still as a mannequin in Madame Tussaud's -- looked out at the lake, walked the hall, checked my calls, checked the time, cleared my mind, and did it all over again.

As my mother's life slowly ebbed away, I kept waiting for some lightning-strike of insight, a glimpse into the meaning of life or the true nature of our Maker. I hoped for a hint of the holy, a small whiff of the sacred, for my soul to come out of hiding and shout, "Hey, here I am!" I would have settled for a few tears.

But there was nothing, no miracles and no signs, the universe seemed as empty and dry as I felt inside. At one point I fell asleep, and dreamed I was an infant trying to suckle Rita the stewardess's massive rack. But she would have none of it. "They're taken," she said, pushing me away.

I was awakened by my sister, Sandra, she and Eddie had to go. The bloody sub-tropical sun was now tickling the tops of the distant palmettos, and being on parole, Eddie had to be home before dark. I patted my wallet -- old habits die hard -- and gave my hopeless, helpless nephew a hug. Then I kissed Sandra goodbye the way Bogey would have: quick, hard, and unsmiling.

It was good that I did, in three months she'd be dead.

After my sister and her son had departed, I walked down the hall to the nurses' station.

"Excuse me, ma'am," I said to the incredibly-obese black woman sitting behind the desk. She slowly raised her head, as if it took a tremendous effort, and looked at me liked I'd crawled out of the nearby swamp.

"Could I please have one of those sponges-on-a-stick," I said, "for my mother, Mrs. McNulty?"

"Whad'ya wan'it for?" she asked, her bovine gaze putting me in the mood for a fat, juicy steak.

"To wet her mouth," I said, wasting a wealth of choice replies. She looked skeptical, so I added, "It's O.K., I'm a professional house painter."

Faced with such iron-clad logic, the huge, jelly-armed nurse reached into a drawer, grabbed a plastic-wrapped sponge and handed it to me, all without leaving the comfort of her chair. Poor chair, I thought.

Back in my mom's room, the sun was now so low that it turned everything gold, and the lake was afire with a glow all its own. As the air-conditioner sang its low, steady dirge, I turned on a lamp and set out my supplies on the bed stand: a blue plastic cup, the sponge-on-a-stick, and the tiny, airplane-size bottle of vodka I'd bought after lunch. I unwrapped the sponge, emptied the bottle into the cup, and we were ready: it was officially happy hour.

I dipped the sponge in the vodka and gently moistened mom's lips, another dip to wet the insides of her cheeks, and then one for the tongue. I painted her palate, nice and slow, and traced her toothless gum ridges, and the whole time I was swabbing her mouth, I was hoping she'd smile. I thought I heard a smacking sound the third time around, but probably not. When the last drop of vodka was gone, I hid the evidence in my pocket, leaned close to her and said, "One for the road, ma."

Then I kissed her papery cheek and left.

As I walked down the hall, I realized that I would never see my mother again. I knew I should have been racked with grief at this, I should have been trembling and sobbing and churning out tears. But I wasn't, I couldn't, I didn't know how.

A better man might have reconsidered the situation, stopped short and rushed back to his mother's side, there to stay till the bitter end. Kevin Costner certainly would have.

But my mom, God bless her, had lived a long, tumultuous life. She'd survived a World War, a hard-drinking spouse, and having not one but two sociopaths in the house, not to mention a laundry list of ailments, syndromes, spells and disorders. That woman was tough, double-tough, I guess she had to be.

And now she'd seen her last sunrise, smiled her last smile, and drunk her last martini -- extra dry, the way she liked 'em. I'd kissed her cheek and said my goodbyes, there was absolutely no reason to stay.

Besides, I was twenty minutes late for my date with Luann and Lacey, at a honky-tonk just up the road. As I hurried down the deserted hallway, I pictured the two of them waiting for me at the bar, their blue jeans worn yet form-fitting, their nipples trying to poke through tight tank tops, and their long unfettered hair flowing halfway down their backs. My special pussy sense told me I was in, but I could always play the "dying mom" card in a pinch.

She'd understand. She knew what I was.

I was grinning by the time I spied the hospice exit.

A threesome! Can you imagine?

Originally appeared in Diagonal Proof Magazine.

Article © Pete McArdle. All rights reserved.
Published on 2012-11-26
Image(s) © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
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