by Michael L. Braverman
Jay had promised he wouldn't say it anymore, so when he did I sat up from the food and stared at him.
"Your mother's dead," he said.
I told him to stop it but he kept on, so we had to fight. We punched each other on the fleshy part of the arms, then Jay grabbed me around the waist, stuck his head into my belly and pushed me around the room like I was a big plant he was moving. I backpedaled, but Jay had a head of steam up and he slammed me into the wall so hard it shook. I Indian-burned his neck so he’d let go, and he fell on the ground and grabbed my ankle.
"Let go, Jay. Come on," I said. He rolled away and sat down with his legs splayed out in front. He pounded on his thigh with his fist, then stuck his hand in his mouth. Giggling, he came after me with spit glistening on his fingers.
"Jesus Jay, stop it, come on now. I'm trying to eat." I was worried it sounded too harsh. I pushed away the cart that held his food tray and clamped my hand on his shoulder. If he started to cry I'd have to hug him and I wasn't ready yet. Usually I could get away with one long hug at the end of the visit. But if we started now he would end up hanging on me for the rest of the day.
"Don't put the spit on me, okay Jay? All right? Just wipe your fingers off."
"Okay," he sang, looking at his fingers. "It’s my lemon pie."
"Our mother,"I said. "Its our mother who's dead. Not just your mother. Do you know what I'm talking about?" Jay rocked back on his haunches and stuck his finger in his mouth again and started to hum.
"Do you remember our mother, Jay?"
"I remember. She cleaned my ears out."
"That's right. Mom loved you and she cleaned your ears with a Q-tip. Do you remember what else?" He stood up and pounded his thigh. He scanned the room as if looking for something, but I knew better. He was frustrated because he couldn't think of anything, and I was sorry I said it. He stared at his long, bony feet, then crouched down and flipped his toes up and down on the floor. The food had gone cold, but I forced myself to eat it so he wouldn't feel any worse. Then I helped him put his socks on.
"Don't," he said.
Dad didn't want to go in yet, so we went to the machines to get coffee and peanut butter crackers. My wife, Christy, stayed behind and talked to Lynette. Things have been better since Dad and Lynette started dating. She has a way of defusing the ugly situations between Dad and me before they really get going. Christy tolerates her a little better than I do. She doesn't seem to mind Lynette's new-age California talk, probably because she's a little bit that way herself. We left them in the waiting room talking about how good their attitudes about everything were. Dad sipped his coffee and told me how Lynette wanted to take a trip across Canada. There was a train that started in Vancouver and ended in the Maritimes, and you could kill a couple weeks riding the thing. There was a domed view car where you could watch the scenery go by. He never could have gotten away with that kind of trip with Mom. She would have wanted Vegas or shopping at the department stores in Chicago. Lynette was different; she was into Indian things, blankets and hammered silver bracelets.
"How is he?" Dad asked. "Same," I said. "Are they feeding him alright?" Dad knew the answer was yes, but he liked to hear it. He likes to talk to me about Jay because its something we have in common, and he thinks it makes us closer. The truth is Jay is always the same, but we come to Indianapolis to see him anyway. Dad and I go through the motions of checking his bathroom, tasting his food, and ordering the attendants around a little bit. It makes us feel better to think we've made some difference in his life.
I like coming to Indianapolis. I like its flat, wide, empty streets, and I like the cleanness and friendliness of the kids who work in the franchise joints. The whole city seems clean. They've put up a lot of new hotels near the hospital and when we come over from Dayton, we always stay in one. Young people fresh from Elkhart or Evansville rush at you from all directions, eager to make your stay at this-or-that Courtyard or Plaza a pleasant one. Most of all, I love the sense of itself the place has. We know we're just Hoosiers, the city seems to say, but Goddamn if we ain't built ourselves a hell of a town.
Jay had moved to Indianapolis after he got out of the navy. It had a pretty substantial freak population then and a couple of righteous head shops. Jay immediately started managing one called The Mandala. It was owned by a Jewish guy whose Dad bankrolled him. Every time I come back I see that guy's name all over the papers and on local TV. He's got a chain of high-end furniture stores.
Jay started running with a lot of people who were at loose ends while he was working at The Mandala; bikers, career druggies, working-class people still stuck in the seventies. He roomed with a guy named Karl who worked at Delco Remy. Everyone called him "Rambo" because he wore a headband to the plant every
day and worshipped Bruce Springsteen. Karl and Jay went to parties together, bought and sold weed, and generally reveled in the low life. All Jay had to do was make sure he stumbled into the shop to open up by noon. The kid who owned it didn't really care if it made money or not; it was a hobby, a short hiatus between college and the real business his Dad would pick out for him later. The kid liked to hang with Jay and his friends. He supplied weed and coke for the parties, and that bought him into a world that must have seemed very exotic. He liked the South Indy girls a lot; the hardened, defiant, daughters of factory workers and auto shop men. One day in the store he pulled Jay aside and told him he was going to make him a partner. It was just a matter of time. Jay called me at work to tell me the good news. The Mandala was just the first in a chain he and the kid were going to open. They were going to change the sleazy image of head shops and go upscale. Rich people would pay a lot of money for the hand-carved roach clips and fancy incense they would sell. Paraphernalia would be Jay's ticket. The kid's Dad would help, and they'd make tons of money and still be able to party. Jay sounded as happy as I've ever heard him. He'd even give me a job if I wanted it. Of course, he said, Christy would have to get used to the partying.
I went down to the waiting room, and Dad decided he was ready to go in. We all waited for him to ask us to go with him. He never could ask for anything straight out, so he would hint around until we volunteered. He'd do the same thing when he wanted to be absolved as a father. After Jay flipped out, it became a ritual. You'd hear him breathing into the phone after the small talk had been made, and you knew he was creating a space that you were supposed to fill. Dad, I'd say, you OK? I'm fine, he'd say. Its just I always thought I was doing a good job as a father. Its the toughest job there is, and I thought I was doing all right. But, he'd say, with Jay and all, I guess someone could come along and say I didn't do so good after all. Then you'd have to tell him he did fine, he did the best he could. The thing that kills me, he'd say, was where Jay got his liking for the drugs. Your mother was such a classy woman, with her good taste in clothes and furniture and all. You kids were taken to the ballet, and the symphony. Drugs don't make distinctions like that, I'd tell him. Lots of rich kids get into them. Then he would feel better. It wasn't his fault. Drugs were an outside force, an evil agent that came in and ruined his son. Mom couldn't have done anything either, I'd say. No one could.
"So how's he look?" Dad asked as we got into the elevator.
"He looks the same, Dad," I said. "You already asked me."
"Well, I just want to know what's waiting for me." Before I could say anything nasty Christy broke in.
"So, you guys gonna do that trip across Canada, or what? It sounds great." Her voice strained the way it always does when she's trying too hard. Once, she almost died of embarrassment when Dad and I got into it in the middle of the brunch line at Bally's in Las Vegas. Christy and I got him one of those package deals as a Christmas present and we thought at the last minute, what the hell, we'll go too. Our marriage barely survived that little decision.
The elevator door opened and we walked over to the station to sign in. Dad announced grandly that he was here to see his son, Jay Butler. Robert, the ward attendant who was there on Sundays, understood the pose and feigned looking at the signatures as if they really meant something. You know the way, he said. Dad nodded. Yes, he knew the way. Something about the whole scene, Dad's self-important manner, or maybe Robert's acquiescence to it, set me off. The droolers and shakers were out in force as we walked down the hall, and they all pissed me off so bad I thought I was going to scream. Goddamn, I thought, why do these damaged people have to be so active?
One day Karl's girlfriend Wendy showed up with some cool pills she got off a guy. The guy just came back from Oakland, Wendy said, and he hung with some very connected biker types who turned him on to some new synthetics. Like the Xtasy we get here, she said, only better. The guy told her that, out in California, these genius gear-head chemists from Silicon Valley mix them up in their bathtubs. Everybody goes to work fucked up out there, the guy said, that's how they design all those computers. Karl and Jay and Wendy thought that sounded pretty neat, and they dropped a couple each. It was incredible. The three of them ended up in a big ball on the floor, touching each other. Nothing sexual, just the feel of fingers on skin that was the most intense pleasure they'd ever felt. Wendy combed Jay's hair with a bristle brush, and he thought he'd die from the sensation he got off of it. After a couple hours, she and Karl went off to fuck, and Jay smoked a huge bong of sensimilla to come down. Then he called Fort Wayne at seven in the morning and told Dad held like to get together more often.
Christy went to the ladies room, and the rest of us went in to see Jay. Christy always started a visit like this, and I didn't really blame her. She'd spend as much time in there as she could, and then come breezing into his room with a distracted attitude, like she was late for a casual lunch. Being the literalist she was, she'd bend down and babytalk to Jay. She was with me when Doctor Giritlian told us that his brain was fried, that he had the intellectual capacity of a five year old. The particular combination of chemicals he'd ingested had an inhibiting effect on certain enzymes in the neocortex. Doctor Giritlian didn't know what to think when they first brought him in. He was in full seizure, and Karl was so whacked he couldn't tell anyone what had happened. Two days later he said something about "designer drugs." Giritlian had read about them, but never expected to see any cases in Indianapolis. He figured most of his drug trauma work would be routine, people gouging out their eyeballs while binging on angel dust or meth. He had to call out to California to find out what was going on. The seizures, although they could still recur, pretty much went away after a year. It was hard to see him strapped to the bed during those times; it was easier now, like having a senile parent. At least it was something you could adjust to.
Giritlian said Jay would never be able to understand the emotional content of conversations, but he was wrong. Jay knew when someone was pitying him, although he couldn't express it as such. He'd just start to cry. He knew that Dad and I, and Christy and Lynette, were important. He would remember things in bits and pieces. He'd talk about Mom, or a bike or a birthday that he remembered. Often he'd combine them in his mind with people and places from his later life, a sort of permanent dream sequence. Occasionally, he'd look at you and you'd swear you saw a flash of understanding in his pulpy, blue eyes. Like somewhere inside there was the real Jay, and he was just waiting for a good time to come out. Unlike people with Alzheimer's, Jay's condition would never change. He wouldn't get any worse, or very much better. Giritlian told us of a case in California where the girl couldn't even feed herself, or do her toilet. We were lucky, he said. We at least had part of Jay.
Wendy's friend had a steady pipeline, and she and Karl and Jay and whoever Jay was seeing pretty much got high all the time. This was in 1988 and 1989, before all the publicity on designers came out. I think they would have stopped if they had known. The word that got out on the drug grapevine in California, that this was some bad shit, took a long time to get to Indianapolis. Wendy's friend probably wasn't very careful about who he was buying from. There was no way to tell which batch did Jay in. Some guy in Berkeley could have gotten high while he was making it, and put God knows what in it. I've never been a big druggie myself. Too chicken when I was young, and now that I'm thirty-six, I've got other things to worry about. Christy's so prissy about the whole subject though, that sometimes I exaggerate my wild college days just to mess with her. She's from Ann Arbor, a professor's daughter, and sometimes the whole idea of our family just makes her nuts. She hates Dad's house in Fort Wayne, the fact that he's got bowling and golf trophies up. She doesn't understand why I'm satisfied with my job. She thinks being an administrator for the school district is somehow beneath my talents. Before she met Jay, I don't think she knew anyone who had ever been in the service.
Dad's face fossilized into a smile as he sat on the chair by the window. He didn't know how to act around Jay, none of us did, and we got through each visit as best we could. Jay was being quiet; he had horsed around with me and now wanted to sit on the bed and look at his feet. He had already taken his socks off.
Lynette bustled around the room. She put the new T-shirts and underwear she and Dad brought in his bureau. Christy watched Springer on television. TV was always on in there. In the private rooms, the day rooms; it was the great narcotic for psych wards and nursing homes. Springer had a program about men who have more than one wife. Christy made a joke about one guy who seemed pretty spry for keeping two wives going for fifteen years. Then they went to a commercial and I saw the kid who used to own The Mandala. Elegance at a price, he said, that's what we offer you here at Interiors 2000. He had a deal on a whole bedroom set, nine hundred bucks. Jay looked up at the sound of his voice, but I don't know if he knew who it was.
Dad said, "Isn't that Spencer what's-his-name?" I didn't want to get into the whole subject, so I pretended to play with the Gameboy we had bought for Jay.
"Kirk," Dad said to me again, irritated that he'd been ignored. "Kirk, isn't that Spencer what's-his-name? The guy who owned the store. That's him, right?"
"That's him," I said.
"Will you look at that," Dad said. Lynette looked at the TV. "He must have done pretty well with that store if he's got these furniture places now. Six locations. Jeez, he must be doing well." Dad was a great admirer of success. He believed successful people earned it with their pluck and hard work. I didn't want to argue with him in front of everybody, so I shut up.
Jay got up and shambled into his bathroom, and we all felt relief to have him away from us. Lynette asked Dad what he felt like for dinner, and he said maybe the Sizzler. Christy flinched; dinner with me and Dad was bad enough, and having it at Sizzler was worse. She decided to confine herself to Lynette. She could always block out unpleasant things, and I saw her rev up to engage Lynette in some metaphysical talk that might take them away from the place they were in. Jay came out of the bathroom and he smelled terrible. Dad went gray, and Christy broke off her conversation and stood staring out the window. Lynette started to cry. I ran out of the room to get Robert.
Robert wasn't at the nurses station; nobody was. I went back into the room and Jay was sitting on his bed playing with his feet. Nobody said anything. Everybody knew what had to be done, and we all looked at the floor hoping for a volunteer. It felt like the little room was about to fall in on us. The stench was awful, and finally Dad spoke.
"Christ," he said. "Jesus H. mother-loving Christ." The sound of his voice made me feel peculiar inside, like I always got when I couldn't decide if I wanted to crush his skull or wrap him in my arms.
"You'd think that damn Robert would come," he said.
"No one's there, Dad," I said. Lynette was quietly sniffling. She was proud of her ability to be emotional, and enjoyed reprimanding us Butlers for not being like her. She told me once that Dad loved us all so much, he was afraid to start saying so because he wouldn't be able to stop. Sitting in Jay's room, teary-eyed, she looked like she had come to the end of a sad movie.
"Well, Dad," I said, pushing it, "somebody's got to do something."
Christy looked at me with the purest hatred. Nobody moved until, finally, she went over to the bed and led Jay into the bathroom. I loved her then, so completely that the thought of it, everything that it meant, made me feel loose and queasy. I sat back in my chair, trying to swallow the feeling, but the sound of Christy's soothing voice in the bathroom wouldn't let me. I heard her tell Jay to take off his pants, and then I heard the scraping of the toilet tissue on his ass. The thought of Christy in there, doing work that Dad or I should have been doing, made me struggle for breath. I went over and stood by the bathroom door. I wanted to be close to her, to help her, but I couldn't. I just stood there, listening to her wipe my older brother's ass. Jay realized he had done something wrong, and I heard him start to cry. "It's okay Jay," Christy said, "you just forgot."
When the door opened, the mood in the little room hadn't changed. Everybody knew Christy had done a wonderful, awful thing, but only Lynette said thank you. Dad and I sat, thinking of nothing but our own relief. The loathing we have for each other hung in the air, but Christy would have none of it. She had done the deed and now she was in charge; she had earned the right. Lynette tried to help, but Christy was a whirlwind, stacking clothes, dusting, rearranging the cruel little bits of furniture. She got down on her hands and knees and scrubbed the floor in front of Jay's washbasin. Dad, Lynette and I sat paralyzed. I thought about Christy's immaculate Wasp genes, the seething particles of DNA that fueled the strong, straight-backed women as they cooked and cleaned for the settlers. We were pure Midwestern stock, Dad and me and Jay, and I thought those hardfaced men must have been a lot like us. Their small, malicious houses, their discontent with their lot, their chicken-shit bigotry; it was all there in those ashen daguerreotypes we looked at in museums. And beside them, their women; worn-down, clutching the memory of the handsome, witless boys they married long ago.
Christy had changed Jay's shorts and put one of Lynette's new T-shirts on him. She touched me on the shoulder, wanting me to see that everything was taken care of. She petted and cooed over Jay like a puppy. He looked happy. He loved being touched, and I often thought that was the only important thing we did for him. His own body's intricacies of nerve and neuron were nothing to him now but an abstract pleasure source. He smiled like a baby when you stroked his head. Robert came in a few minutes later. He was grave, stately. He took Jay into the bathroom to check him over, and nobody spoke. "It's all right now," he said when he came out. "Just a little accident. Sometimes he forgets what he's doing. I'm glad you folks were here to take care of him."
Dad sat upright and looked at his watch. That was the signal for Lynette to say she was tired, so Dad wouldn't have to end the visit himself. We all got up and busied ourselves with our things; no one wanted to be first out the door. Jay did his usual hugging and clinging and crying. I tried to interest him in the Gameboy, but it wasn't any use. He knew his time was up. Dad put his arms around him, stiffly, and in his eyes I saw one of those gray-faced Midwestern pioneers. I knew at that moment he hated Jay, hated him not for his condition or for his drugs, but for not being smart enough to stick with Spencer, the kid who was going to make him rich selling paraphernalia. Christy saw it too, and hustled me away. Lynette babbled enough goodbyes for all of us, and we walked out of the room.
In the elevator I started wishing they were all dead. I couldn't help it. All I wanted to do was go somewhere else, and start over like I had never known any of these people. I didn't know what to do about Christy. The fact that I'd have to love her for what she did made feel heavy and tired. She and Lynette chattered about exercising. I tried to think about the hotel, and the anxious kids waiting to take care of us. We walked through the lobby in pairs, me and Dad, Lynette and Christy. We went down the big concrete stairs in front of the hospital. The sprinklers hissed on the lawn; night had fallen. We were in the parking lot when we heard Jay. He was running toward us, screaming and smiling.
Your mother's dead, he called out. Lemon pie. Lemon pie, lemon pie, I had lemon pie!
"Oh God," said Lynette.
"Kirk, he'll hurt himself," said Christy.
I moved swiftly. This was stopping something, making a barrier, taming an animal, something a Butler man could handle. I grabbed him as he ran by, his eyes crazy, and the force of him spun me around. But I held on. I petted his head and talked softly, and he smiled and cried and babbled. I couldn't stand to look at his contorted, heavy face, so I held him to my shoulder. Christy came up and, without a word, took the keys from my pocket and went to the car. I didn't know where Lynette was, but Dad was standing nearby, on the edge of a pool of light from the big orange arcs in the parking lot. I could feel his hatred of Jay from where he stood, and I could feel my own disgust rising in my throat. It was divided equally between Dad and Jay, and towards Mom for checking out so early and leaving us like this: three gray-faced men, standing on the black earth of Indiana.
Robert came ambling out of the hospital doors. He came to where I was standing, still holding Jay. "He does get rambunctious," Robert said. He took Jay by the hand and led him away. Jay went quietly. Dad came up and stood beside me, and we watched them go toward the concrete steps. Jay broke Robert's grip and circled around him toward the wet lawn. We thought he was running away again, but he wasn't. He wanted to walk through the grass before he went into the hospital. He clumped and skipped through the wet lawn. Robert waited patiently for him. Jay saw him standing in the light of the doorway and ran up the stairs, his long feet leaving little puddles on every level.
©2001 by Michael L. Braverman