The Angry Glare of Midnight
Copyright 2016 by Vonne Anton. All rights reserved.
Tomorrow in Phoenix, Arizona
He sat in a little chair in a little room off a large corridor.
He watched his dead mother dying, though that wasn’t exactly a news flash. It was the second time this week. She had actually died over a year ago but her body refused to give up the already lost war. He watched it unravel over the days and weeks and months and years, over and over again.
Wasn’t he the lucky one . . .
Mom: whittled down to ninety pounds, cadaverous skin stretched over bone like blotched paper; her head turned to the other side and staring dully into the corner of the room, perhaps looking into heaven; gray hair wisped with the gentle caress of the air conditioning unit; sticks for arms ending in talons clutched at the cream-colored blanket that covered her body, no more than concealed ashes; her breath clawed its way from her throat, rattling and hoarse, staggered into the room and flittered away, transparent moths, forgotten memories.
Quiet . . . no murmur, no song, no babbling. Just Mom dying again. Wasn’t she the lucky one . . .
He buried his face in his hands and felt the blood pounding his brain.
“How is she?” someone whispered behind him. The door was opening, and a nursing aide was there, an ephemeral shadow of efficiency and objectivity.
“Okay,” he mumbled, something like that.
“Let me check her vitals.” The nursing aide moved to the machinery clustered around the bed. She took Mom’s right wrist in her hand and held it, staring off into a distant place. A flower with falling petals drooped from the end of his mother’s arm: her fingers. Mom swiveled her head to see without seeing.
He watched the aide. She was young and pretty, with Asian eyes, coffee complexion, and long brown hair pulled back into a ponytail that flung itself down her back. Slender, fit, well hidden by the oversized blue uniform they made her wear. Her left-breast tag said, “Krystal”. Krystal looked like a high school student.
She gently replaced Mom’s arm at her side. “Her blood pressure is up to 85/52, pulse up to 53, and her temp is up to 95.4.” Krystal met his gaze and smiled. “She seems to be improving this morning. You must be good for her, Mr. Lockhart.” Her amber eyes crinkled and sparkled when she smiled. “Can I get you anything?”
Manny shook his head, and she evaporated from the room.
Should he have The Talk? What if this wasn’t real? Did we want to have The Talk again, later, if necessary? What if he didn’t have The Talk now, and this really was it? Hell . . .
“Mom,” he began. “I promised you, when Dad died, that you would end up in a nursing home only over my dead body. That was before we knew about Alzheimer’s. We tried to keep you at home as long as we could, but the doctors finally threatened legal action if we didn’t get you into a place where you could have twenty-four hour care. So, here you are, and I couldn’t prevent it, and now . . . ” he stopped to meet her eyes. They were still staring into eternity, as if she didn’t care that he had lied to her so many years ago. In a way, it was better this way, at least for her.
Her throat still rasped with agonized breath.
A tear slipped from his right eye. “You don’t remember it, I know, but it got too dangerous at my place, what with stairs and ovens and the city and . . . ” He remembered the frantic hours searching the neighborhood for her when he got home from work; walking in to smell the oven rings blazing and a forgotten pan boiling itself into smoke; up all night afraid she would creep by his room to get a drink in the kitchen only to take a fatal fall down a steep and forgotten flight of stairs.
“I had to do this. Please forgive me.” She stared away, oblivious to his need for absolution.
Dying. Dying. Maybe finally dying. Would he be glad, sad, or just relieved? Seven years had passed and he didn’t know where her strength came from for another day. But she was enduring, and she was the sick one . . . no self-pity, kid, you’ve got the easy part of this;you only need to watch. Tears flowed as hot lava from his cheeks. No, she had the easy part.
When he looked up again, his mother was staring at him. Her blue eyes were clear and focused, blazing embers from a very old and weary flame, with understanding and recognition, her mouth curled in a joyous smile.
She said, “Don’t cry. They’ll show us the way.”
It was like that: months of incoherent babble punctuated by a few words of lucid clarity from the other universe her weary mind had hidden in.
She turned her head back to her pillows and drifted into tortured sleep, her eyelids beating hearts down to cessation. Her breath gurgled.
“Mom?” he whispered, a lonely echo in an empty room. “Mom?” She didn’t stir. “Please don’t die yet.”
Her throat constricted and a breath escaped. Her chest heaved in another one. “Mom?” She exhaled again, breath caught, inhaled, held, exhaled, gurgle, inhale, heave . . . He changed his mind.
“Mom? Please, Mom . . . Please go to sleep. Don’t worry. I’ll be okay. Sleep now, you hear?” Her shallow breathing was steady now. “You don’t have to wake up if you don’t want to.”
Did he mean for her to die? Was he wishing his beloved mother to die? Could he–dare he–was it fair and right? She had nursed him when a babe, rocked him all night when he was sick and couldn’t breathe himself, soothed his fears, kept him alive, helped him recover and gain strength, encouraged him ever onward, upward, and forward to be the man he was today. God, he was tired.
The man who would sit across from her and wish her dead. A man without the guts to just take her life. It would be so easy now. She wouldn’t even resist. Just ease the door shut, take a pillow, and in the dark, cool room show her how tender and strong his love for her was.
No, not because he hated her. Because he loved her. Alzheimer’s had eaten away her brain, leaving this empty sculpture of a human who merely existed and knew none of her family or friends. A two-dimensional husk, a cartoon living in a cartoon world. Her only holds on reality were the endless pacing of the corridors and sucking pureed food through a straw because she had forgotten how to chew.
No. Not his mother.
He tried to remember that she wasn’t dead yet, and so there was still joy to be found with her. That’s how all the social workers encouraged him with understanding nods and sorrow-filled eyes: think positive remember the good seek the fun make her last months enjoyable for her. There could still be laughs antics dancing; yes, dancing! She had once auditioned to be a Radio City Rockette in New York City when she was but nineteen so many decades ago. She was turned away, and always believed it was because of her Latina heritage. In those bygone days all the Rockette’s were Anglo. A Cuban girl from Miami never had a chance.
She still danced here at the nursing home, but he couldn’t hear her music, he couldn’t keep the beat so she always led and he always smiled and they laughed together and when he left she clung to him clawing like a harridan until a nurse came to take his place and he ran away from the madness. Life was just so damned good!
Damn the merriment. Damn the good life. Damn the social workers. Damn the nurses. Damn Alzheimer’s. Damn his father. Where was he? Why did he get out of all this fun? A stupid heart attack right when things with Mom were getting interesting? How convenient! Sure, drink yourself to death Manuel Lockhart, Senior; the man of the moment the tower of strength who never got mad but never got anything else either and then you left us with this little surprise. You knew Mom was losing it but you didn’t want anyone to know keeping your precious little secrets and your precious mystic control. Only your secret survived you and now no one was in control. No one knew how to be in control. We were never taught, never prepared, never . . . never a lot of things.
All you left us was . . .
The lights in the building flickered. “Beep, beep, beep . . . ” one of her monitors demanded attention.
He darted to the door and stepped into the hallway. Other monitors were complaining at fringes of the nursing home. Some dementia patients stared around themselves confusedly.
Krystal appeared at his elbow and squeezed by him into the room. “Have to re-set it, is all.” She began punching buttons and checking the display. “With our generators, that shouldn’t have happened. Weird, huh?”
He nodded and slid back into his chair. Emergency over. Krystal hustled on to the next beeping monitor down the hallway.
His mother squirmed in her sleep, and her eyes flickered, then opened and fixed on nothing across the room.
All you left me was your name, he thought, corrupted to just “Junior” by the family . . . and love for Mom. And that was enough. It would have to be enough. Who was he to wish for more? What other riches could compare? What other heritage would he trade this moment for?
He laughed to himself. He would trade this moment to have Mom’s personality, her heart and mind back. He needed her to hold him, comfort him, and whisper that everything would be all right son my beautiful little boy don’t worry Junior don’t cry I’m here and everything will be wonderful just you wait and see . . . just like always before. Only he wasn’t Junior anymore. Dad was gone so he was now just Manny Lockhart. When Senior died he took “Junior” with him into the crematorium.
That had pissed his Dad’s family off. Not the cremation; they would have done the same, but they would have done it by the old ways: on a bonfire in the outback wilderness playing their strange music, dancing their mojo, and chanting odd tales in languages and symbols while sparks flew into the night. No, his Dad got a white man’s send off, like the good Catholic his Mom had never really been.
Mom shifted, then turned her head and glared at him, obviously trying to figure out who he was. She smiled again, her eyes warmed and shone again, and she said, “Don’t worry. They’ll show us the way.” Then she drifted back into ruffled, psychotic slumber.
Again? What was this new insanity? Someone was coming to save us, were they?
If only that were possible; if only . . .
The room had two beds in it. Mom was using hers, but her roommate was out wandering the halls of the Secured Unit with the other residents. He was so tired he idly considered crawling into the empty bed for a nap.
Mom’s bed had rails on the sides. They were never pulled up to protect her from falling out onto the hard white tile floor. He had asked for them to be raised earlier in the week, and Krystal had explained that it was illegal for them to do that because the State viewed rails as “physical restraints”, and they were not allowed to use that form of control, not even to keep her from falling out of bed.
“What if there was a fire, Mr. Lockhart? She might not be able to get out fast enough,” Krystal had explained cheerily, smiled cheerily, and flounced cheerily from the room, her ponytail flicking like a horses tail. Apparently that made sense to somebody somewhere. Manny wondered which was more likely: a fire; or a frail, debilitated, weak old woman falling out of bed. That bed had to be dealt with and negotiated every day; fires didn’t, he hoped.
To the left of her bed was a small nightstand with a fluffy, brown teddy bear sitting atop it, beguiling in a large green satin bow tie. Above the nightstand hung one yellowed and grainy photograph in a simple wooden frame: Mom and Dad, in ancient sepia, on the night of their wedding; she in gown and he in a suit, both young and handsome, smiling, holding hands, anticipating a wonderful future where all their dreams would be fulfilled in each other. Fifty years and five children later, Dad was gone and Mom might as well be gone.
What a dream . . . better never to wake up from it.
He hung his head and muttered a weary prayer. He didn’t know if anyone was listening, but he fervently hoped someone would hear and act. When done, he raised his leaden head and gazed through tired, puffy eyes at his mother sleeping tranquilly.
With a sigh he pushed himself up and turned away, out of the room and into the hallway, weaving his way around shuffling elderly bodies.
One old man, his hair wild and uncombed, eyes bloodshot and glaring, right hand shoved down the front of his pants, licked his lips and leered at him. “Chester the Molester” is what Manny nicknamed him. He was harmless, but prone to masturbate in public. Chester followed Manny with his eyes, and bellowed at his retreating back, “Don’t worry, son! They’re gonna’ show us the way!”
Manny turned back, wondering if hope of mysterious salvation was somehow contagious among nursing home patients.
Chester’s glee cackled like merrily crumpling paper.
Manny hurried on, pausing only when he got to the nurse’s station. “Mom is sleeping still,” he told Myrna, the aging head nurse over the Secured Unit. “I’m gonna’ go ahead and take off.”
She smiled, blue eyes glinting through eyeglasses. “Thank you, Manuel. You take such good care of your mother!”
Right. Manny nodded, bolting for the exit. He felt for the asthma inhaler in his pant’s pocket, primed it, and sucked in deeply as it automatically fired off a dose of albuterol. In a few seconds his breathing steadied to normal.
His mind raced ahead to the rest of the day as his fingers fumbled with the security code that would unlock the inner door, and it took three attempts to hear the click of freedom. He never could remember the numbers exactly right. He hurried pulled the door closed behind him to keep wandering residents from escaping, and hustled through further corridors until bursting into bright sunshine in the parking lot.
He had to get back to work, and get his mind on other things. Better things. He had a full schedule with his students and their parents, as he had conferences half the day. Children’s things.
Don’t worry. They’ll show us the way.
God, he missed her.
He kicked his Kawasaki into life, slipped on his helmet, and roared away from the nursing home, letting hot wind whip his memories and his emotions away.