Twangy music played from the neon jukebox in the corner, some old singer cooing about lost loves and homesick hearts. It was a forgotten song that might have topped the charts years ago, but was now just a remnant of a glossier, sweeter past. The music would skip occasionally, reminding him that these were mere echoes of a dead time. A sick smoke draped over the room concealing dampness and spilled liquor.
“I hate this goddamned song,” Mason said, looking at the bartender. He had lifted up his head for this proclamation, the only time he had looked up the entire night from the glasses of liquor he had nursed. There were only a few people in the bar. Some men were crowded around tables after work, guffawing. Some even tried to sing along to the song, contributing to even more laughter.
The night grew more liquid, more brown and misty after each drink. With the haze and the smoke settling over the room, it seemed to him like a dream, and he began to think about the past. He missed his love, he missed the smell of her age, the secrets she had whispered, her voice singing him to sleep.
“What time is it?” he grunted.
The bartender’s skin was tan like worn old leather. His face was rough and loose, and his milky brown eyes were draped by a thick layer of skin. Glistening rows of cheap gin, whiskey and scotch were propped on dark wooden shelves behind him. Despite the bartender’s prayers, most of the expensive liquors on the top shelf had never been moved, and dirt settled around them. He grimaced at the man who had spoken.
“It’s 10 o’ clock,” he said, wiping off the bar with a rag soaked in drinks from clumsy customers, making it dirtier than it already was.
The brown haze that had developed around the room disappeared, and Mason was abruptly brought back from his daydreams. The record began to skip, the ancient muse repeated “Love him ‘til I die” over and over again, and he stood up, holding onto the bar, coughing on his last gulp of whiskey.
“You know you owe me some money, son,” the bartender said, ignoring the emerging horror that had suddenly gripped the man, and handing him his bill.
“Something’s really wrong,” Mason murmured, pulling out a scratched-up phone from his pocket and dialing a number from memory.
After a few rings, his tears began, a sadness coupled with anger. He quickly redialed the number and held the phone reverently at his ear, waiting for her to answer.
“You owe me thirty-five dollars, son,” the bartender said, a little louder this time.
Mason glared at him, darting pupils surrounded by angry blue rings.
The bar was quiet. “Son, thirty-five dollars. I don’t give a damn about your problems, but I do give a damn about my money.”
Rage was welling up inside of him that didn‘t have anything to do with his seven shots of whiskey. Tiny bursts of anger went off inside of his stomach as his excitement grew, and with a punch that cracked the bartender’s rough face, he screamed:
“My name is Mason and I am NOT your son!
He didn’t know his wife. Her face was strained, and the tubes wrapped around her body like a clear plastic cocoon. Her eyes were closed, and it was only the heaving of her chest that reminded him of the life inside.
The room smelled like chemicals. Chemicals to clean the bed Abigail lay on, chemicals to make the white floor gleam, chemicals to make the air smell like lemons. He hated chemicals. A few hours ago, the staff had been restless. They had asked him questions he didn’t know how to answer. They crowded around his wife like feasting dogs circling a carcass. They stuffed tubes down her nose, hurriedly stabbed needles into her veins, moved her body around with jerking, quick motions. He tried to explain to some of the doctors that he had kept her in a nice environment, away from the city and the smoke, but they didn’t seem to care. He had read about pollutants in the air once in a magazine at his dentist’s office, and he thought they would like to know that she wasn’t polluted. Her body was safe, away from all of the toxins. They had tried to explain what had stolen her – he thought they said “stroke” and “brain-dead” a few times, but their lips moved too quickly, and the words on the charts they pushed in front of him blended together until each page became a giant blot, blurred and foreign.
He wasn’t sure what he should be doing amidst the chaos. He shook and eagerly looked to Abigail’s body, begging for direction. They had married young, they had their son when she was only eighteen, and their daughter when she was twenty. He supposed Abigail imagined she was made for better things and resented him. He never really knew because he never asked her. He was afraid of what she might do, if she might hate him even more for asking, for reminding her that she could have been more.
He did not know what to do now that she was silent.
Her hair frizzed, forming a strange reddish halo of strands above, jutting out awkwardly, making her face seem even more petite and mousey than it already was. Her clothes were too big, and her eyes were large, perpetually astonished. Her shirt was bright red, her nametag misspelled and sideways over her right breast: “Virjinia.”
She stood in the doorway, her mouth agape, staring at her mother. She stood still against the flurry of movement from the hospital hall.
“Hey, Virginia,” Burt said, attempting comfort. “Why don’t you come in?”
He smiled awkwardly at his only daughter, but when he realized she was still fixated on the body of Abigail, his smile disappeared, replaced by a furrowed brow, his eyes concerned.
Virginia continued to stare, tears creeping down her cheeks. She walked over to the bed of her mother, the haunted shell of a body taunting, promising that indeed there was life inside, but Virginia couldn’t be a part of it.
She brushed away her mother’s stray wisps of hair from her face and then cupped her cheek.
Her father moved forward to place a comforting hand on Virginia’s shoulder. Though he saw his daughter almost every day, he felt this was an opportunity to show her that he and she were feeling the same thing. His eyes grew watery when he looked again to Abigail, and finally made contact with Virginia’s sweater, the sad and broken circle of this family he had made burned in the pit of his stomach.
Virginia whirled around, the glow of empathy gone entirely.
“Damn it, Burt, what the hell did you do to her?”
He recoiled but chose to remain silent, sitting once more, giving her a slight shrug, that, to her, showed his lack of caring.
“I knew I shouldn’t have left her with you, the doctors said this could happen.”
She turned to her mother once more, straightening Abigail’s hospital gown and tucking her under layers of thin white blankets.
“Where’s Mason, did you call him?” she asked in an irritated tone. Her father shrugged once more before grabbing a magazine.
“Jesus Christ, Burt, I know we have no idea where he is, but he has a cell phone – you could have called his cell phone.”
Her father silently condemned himself, “But the cell phones,” - he began.
“They do not microwave your brain. Don’t be stupid.”
“It’s a slow process,” he whispered, barely audible in his defense. He put the magazine closer to his face, pretending to strain his eyes.
An animal cry from outside of the room made both Burt and Virginia suddenly aware of the chaos of the hospital. Mason stumbled into the room, crashed down on his knees and wept. He reached for her while on the floor, his face ruined with red and rage. Two orderlies came into the room in response to the howl. Mason formed his hands into fists at the sound of their footsteps and rose from the floor. He turned and swung at the men, more primal screams erupted from his throat. Virginia rushed to her mother’s body, guarding it from her brother, and Burt sat still, his face buried in the magazine, reading the article headline over and over until it became nothing.
Posters of half-naked women lined the walls, teasing and winking. A thick layer of dust had formed on every surface in the small room surrounded by wooden paneling. Mason lay on his bed, though his feet hung over the footboard. He knew he should be comforted by the reminders of his youth; twenty years had passed since he had returned to it. But without his mother there, his old furniture and posters just made him sick, and he thought about the record skipping in the bar last night, the singer desperately repeating her vow. She had always loved him the most, hadn’t she told him that in private? He had always been her jewel, her treasure. He had broken her heart when he had left home at the age of eighteen, but she always called at 9:00 pm, and he would always answer. No matter how many times he was arrested, no matter how often he would answer the phone drunk, he knew he was her precious son, her sweet, her reason for life. She told him that. He wondered if a broken heart could make someone’s brain broken, could make someone that old end up in a hospital bed, crumbling. They had to turn her over so that she didn’t get bed sores, like chicken that had to be flipped in the frying pan so it didn’t get overcooked.
He heard the creak of his bedroom door, and Virginia marched in, hands stuffed with paper. “Mason, I’m sorry no one called you,” she announced.
Virginia stood, waiting for reassurance. She was nothing like their mother. Mason shook his head in response, sat up in bed and tried to keep his food down; though he couldn’t remember the last time he had eaten anything. Virginia left the room without any further apologetic attempt, and Mason put his hand over his mouth and closed his eyes, trying to recall details from last night. He remembered screaming when he saw his mother, his love, lost under bed sheets and illness, and Virginia hunched over her, trying to be her great protector. He knew she wanted their mother all to herself, something she had never been allowed before. He snorted in disgust.
Fine, she could have her. She could have the empty carcass.
That next morning Burt made breakfast, runny eggs with salt and butter, and pieces of stale toast. Virginia and Abigail had always done the shopping and cooking. His children sat at the table. Mason poked at the food with a fork, hair and clothing tousled from sleep. Virginia had pushed her plate aside, placing a stack of paper on the dark wooden table. The papers varied in shape, size, and color, and like a bird’s plumage speckled with ink, she splayed them out.
Virginia beamed, humming, pen in hand as she worked through the stack. She glanced up nonchalantly.
“The doctor said that we’ll have to pull the plug. You both probably figured this out. I think we should all stand around her today, say our goodbyes, and then we can take her off life support.” She paused, waiting for Mason to start yelling or for her father to walk away, but both sat at the table, listening intently. She had rehearsed this many times last night, but had never figured out how to transition into this next part.
“So, what time should we … when do you want to?”
She left the sentence hanging, limp and dead in the air. She didn’t want to ask “When would be the most comfortable time to kill our mother?”
“I’ll get some clothes on,” said Mason gruffly, putting his plate in the sink, grabbing his silent father’s half-finished plate of food.
Burt thought he should tell his son he hadn’t finished his breakfast before the rest of the food went down the garbage disposal. The remnants whirred down the drain as water rushed through, washing them down. The sink roared and Mason turned off the disposal and began to get ready.
Virginia, Mason and Burt held hands around Abigail. They were not religious, but Virginia had insisted. She had seen it once in a Lifetime movie, and the image of the family clasping hands around the dying body had stuck with her.
There were a few awkward moments of silence, and Mason had to walk away. He clenched his fists, better prepared to physically fight his sorrow than swallow it.
Burt kept his daughter’s hand grasped, relishing her touch. He tried to stare at something besides his wife. His eyes darted from his daughter to his son to the blank television, but always ended stuck on her body in the bed. This would be the last time he could watch her live. He was caught between his daughter’s show of affection and his own desperate urge to collapse where he stood.
Virginia had a speech prepared. She had her store’s shirt on, her name still wrong.
“Dear Mom,” Virginia began, looking at her mother in the bed, her body seemed smaller since last time she visited. She tried to grin at Mason and Burt. Neither one of them made eye contact. She used her free hand to grasp her mother’s limp, cold one.
“You were a wonderful mo” –
“Shut up!” Mason growled, shaking both Virginia and Burt’s hands from his own in disgust.
“I don’t under” –
“She’s a piece of meat, Virginia. She can’t love you right now, no more than she did when she was living.”
Virginia began to unravel. He had ruined her speech. She wasn’t moving or even thinking, but mother was listening and judging.
“Well, where the hell were you?” asked Virginia defensively. “It was me, it was me that took care of her, I took her to the doctor, and I was the one who helped her in the garden, who made food, who did the shopping. I have been with her for years and I could have gone just like you did, Mason. I could have left her alone, but I didn’t, and I never got a ‘thank you’ or a special phone call every night because I was there, I was always there!”
“Nobody asked you to do that, Virginia” said Mason, grabbing his jacket. Nine o’ clock was approaching, and he suddenly understood that his mother’s gift had become a nightly curse.
“I know, but I did it. And I deserve to make a speech.”
“You can make the speech to Dad. She isn’t listening.”
Virginia stared at her brother as he left the hospital room with no further goodbyes.
Suddenly the speech wasn’t right. It made her feel sick and fake and they needed her at the store.
“I’ll see you at home, Burt,” she said before grabbing her purse – a brown old bag, holey and worn - and leaving the room.
Everyone had left and he was alone with his wife.
They had unplugged all of the machines that had whirred and buzzed and the lights had stopped blinking. His son was circling; his daughter was staying in one place, weighty and apparent.
He looked at Abigail’s face, dark circles growing around her eyes. Death was settling in. He felt envious.
She would never be forced to inhale cigarette smoke or exhaust fumes or eat animals that were fed medication. She would never worry about the ingredients in household cleaners or the radiation that came from cell phones, bouncing around, splitting everything that made her human into the tiniest pieces.
Elizabeth Silverman is a pre-med student at Oakland University studying biology and psychology. Her passions are biochemistry and creative writing.