The living room housed two people. They didn’t use the bedrooms. Duane, the son, always fell asleep in the Lazy Boy with a TV dinner, a Coca Cola, and the reek of stale, generic cigarette smoke clinging to him. A TV tray stationed next to him held the remotes and empty soda cans.
Mama wasn’t really Mama any more. She couldn’t do much except accept the actions of others, mostly Duane’s, who managed the living room pretty well. Sure, there was an uncomfortable clutter; too much trash, too much stuff. Some would say the whole living room was rubbish except for the new hospital bed Mama never left.
There was the stack of new adult diapers to put under her bottom when she had a BM, and there were oxygen tanks, but Mama always pulled the tube away from her nose. Duane, good son that he was, wasn’t gonna have her hands tied to the bedrails like they did at Memphis Mercy Hospital . Duane didn’t use the oxygen. The expensive-looking oxygen tanks just collected dust along with her wheelchair, the top of the TV and the figurines on the knick-knack shelf. The whole house was theirs to use, but they preferred the simple living room. Truth was that the living room’s medical equipment was creeping into the dining room.
Duane talked to her when he stole a smoke on the front porch. “I’m right here, Mama.”
He might mix a can of SpaghettiOs in the blender and scoop pureed tidbits into her wrinkly mouth. “Please, Mama, eat.”
Duane didn’t work. He spent some time in West Tennessee State Penitentiary. All he had was Mama. No one wanted anything from Duane, except Mama. He made Mama’s government check work for both of them. They eked by.
Marcia Utterback came by from the homecare agency to give Mama a sponge bath on Wednesdays at 3:00 p.m. Duane would usually use this time to run to the market or hang in the yard or garage to keep the dog out of Marcia’s hair.
Whenever Duane used the buttons on the fancy new hospital bed to get Mama to sit up, she’d move her neck about, open her eyes wide and say, “I’m hungry.” Duane learned after a while that she wasn’t always hungry when she said that.
When he looked deep into Mama’s eyes, he could see the little, tiny white Frisbees in both of them. Cataracts are what they were. Some days Mama would ramble on about a little baby boy who was lost in a forest. Other days her wrinkles, more wrinkles than anyone could count on her wee face, would crumble into a picture of pain; someone you just had to pity. Sometimes around the third of the month, Duane would feed her half teaspoons of praline ice cream. Her face seemed to lose wrinkles on those days. Praline ice cream was something to look forward to for sure.
So it went for Duane and Mama.
It was the heart of a Saturday night and Duane was changing channels. An intense pain struck his arm and rode an accelerator of torture into his chest. He couldn’t change the channel any more. He couldn’t get up to get an aspirin. Maybe it would pass. He looked at Mama. She was in a nice sleep. “Mama, I love you.”
He looked for some miracle of help from her, but she just rested. When he used his voice, it hurt. He didn’t know where the cordless phone was. The TV was locked on C-SPAN. Dennis Kucinich, presidential candidate, talked to a crowd in Ames , Iowa , about the need for national health insurance.
A cold spirit wrapped a tightening band of death around Duane. It whipped up a cold dusty air over Mama, and Duane’s spirit exited out of the chimney’s open flue. A small bookend with a little boy on a pony fell off the mantle onto the hard slabs at the foot of the fireplace. The ceramic boy broke free from the pony and ended up beside a dust bunny.
Mama just laid there. She didn’t know her Duane had breathed his last whiff from the living room. She probably felt cold, even more so when she made a mess under the blanket. She just laid there at the mercy of anyone who might come by.
Mama’s thoughts danced without music. There were those reoccurring memories of that baby lost in the forest, cold and wet and helpless. Please, somebody help that child. ‘I’m hungry’ thoughts mixed in with the baby, the forest, hopeful desperation, and a vision of fishing with her daddy in a little blue boat a million years ago. She worried about not being able to pay for this or that and was anxious about being tossed out on the street.
That baby kept coming back like the chorus of a song. She bit into a slice of cold orange; juice was everywhere on her chin, a nice sensation worth a smile. She could see her toddler son through the eyehole of a camera as he sat on a pony with a cowboy grin. She danced with Lawrence Welk in a studio in Hollywood . He kissed her cheek. An image of holding a spatula over a hot pan of lively, sizzling bacon and eggs came to her and a teapot whistled. She felt the phenomenal hug she used to feel when she’d fall asleep on her man’s deep, thick chest. Wind splashed her face like a wave of comfort as she stood on the riverbank and watched a shooting star shimming through the sky.
But, when the little boy screamed for help, Mama’s eyelids reopened.
Outside the living room, life went on. Bees enjoyed her old flowerbed. A neighbor’s lawn mover drowned out the sound of Duane’s dog scratching at the back door. A newspaper slapped the front step on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. A whippoorwill sang his early evening serenade. Mitt Romney was on C-SPAN talking about faith.
No one really knows if it was a good spirit or an evil spirit that took away her valuables; her sight, her hearing, her walking and her sense of reason, all of them robbed from her one by one. Now that spirit took her baby, too.
She was in a living room where nothing mattered anymore. Her hands were full of BM, and she spread it around like it was finger paint. She knew enough to know if she slept again the lost little boy would be back and no one’s ever heard his calls for help. Three days of tears in the living room.
It's Wednesday at 3:20 p.m. , and Marcia Utterback is running late. Marcia is surprised the front door is unlocked. She enters the living room. She sees Duane’s blue and purple face and emits a squelched scream. Mama lies in disarray in the soaked hospital bed.
Marcia runs outside and dials 911 on her cell phone.
Now tearful, Marcia staggers back in through unearthly odors and clutter into the living room. She puts on latex gloves and starts cleaning Mama. The ambulance attendants swoop up Mama onto a clean gurney and take her away from the living room forever.
Gary Doherty has a Master’s degree in social work. He has been employed with the State of Illinois for the past 20 years as a guardian for disabled adults. He is involved with the Red Herring Fiction group in Urbana, IL. His work has appeared both online and in print and he has participated in public readings of both non-fiction and fiction pieces at local coffee shops, churches and bars.
“I enjoy a theme of down and out persons living out their simple lives. I like to add humor and sensitivity to my stories.”