No matter how many years go by, the relationships between family members are a constantly changing equation.
Although they exchanged ritual news of the weather and the family on the phone regularly, Martin hadn't visited Sarah for nearly three years. Now, standing at the foot of her bed, he wondered if she was pleased to see him. Her expression or, more accurately, the lack of it, revealed nothing.
Sarah was almost ninety. Her parched, furrowed little face was framed by a halo of thin dead wheat, punctuated with clots of lipstick, spiky mascara and long fake eyelashes; a grotesque face which, without its dentures, curled back into itself like a burnt match. His mother's face.
He couldn't quite take in this painted Jazz Age doll all at once, couldn't, for more than an instant, consider her tiny red-speck eyes (a wounded mongoose squinting at the sun, he thought), eyes which in the past had never missed a trick.
Nor did Sarah, gazing at the mute TV set planted in the corner, look at her son. Martin turned toward the set. Displayed was a shadowy black and white image of the lobby's glass-door entrance where, from time to time, some weary, hunched ancient shuffled slowly through the portal.
"What's that on the tube?" he asked.
"The lobby. I watch them come and go," she replied.
"This is how you spend your days?"
"You got something better for me to do?" she said, her eyes never leaving the set.
Definitely an edge there, Martin thought. For three years she had made his excuses for him, embraced the ruse of the loving son. It was, "Darling, I know you want to come, but what can you do? You're so busy." But now that he was here, there was an unmistakable hint of How could you have stayed away so long?
Martin's father had died fourteen years earlier, and Sarah memorialized her husband's death by taking to her bed with a variety of largely imagined ailments which, over time, became real. Her occasional dizziness and light-headedness due, the doctors said, to wildly fluctuating blood pressure eventually became firmly rooted in budding emphysema. Which didn't erode her dedication to unfiltered Camels. Between each cigarette Sarah took deep swills from an oxygen tank.
"Don't worry," she assured her son. "I stub them out good. I won't explode."
"This is no way to live to a hundred, ma," Martin said.
"A hundred? Ninety's ten years too old already. I wish I'd gone at eighty," She meant it.
Martin was sixty-five, an age at which most people have lost their mothers, may already be dead themselves; yet, suddenly, he felt like a child abandoned in a dream, wandering through an unfamiliar landscape aching to find his way home.
Martin and Melinda were talking in the living room while Sarah, pretending to nap, strained to catch her children's words. A futile endeavor; her erratic hearing demanded less distance and more volume.
"Who knows what's she's doing? She's practicing to die." Melinda's bitterness hissed through a narrow slit that echoed with cracking crowns. That tiny mouth, Martin thought, the ruin of her pretty face. Martin--lucky male--tucked his own genetic legacy behind a full beard and moustache.
"She go out?"
"Never," Melinda replied. "Or not any more, not even to my house for holiday dinners."
"Who? They're all sick... or worse. Besides, she doesn't want anyone to see she's grown old."
"You don't like her very much, do you?"
"Oh, please! What do you know?" Melinda said, welcoming the chance to unburden herself. "You breeze in once every three or four years... to what? Pass judgments? You try taking her phone calls ten times a day. You take a turn coming up here twice a week to fill the fridge--not that she eats what I bring--and put on her eyelashes. Her eyelashes! Can you believe that? And what does she do for entertainment? Every other month, like clockwork, she falls down and goes to the hospital."
"She wants to be taken care of."
"A stunning insight."
"What about a home?"
"Oh, sure," Melinda said cynically. "She says she'll jump off the balcony if I even think about it." Then, faltering: "I... couldn't do that to her."
After his sister left, Martin mused about his parents' generation. The last of their kind, he thought, children of immigrants, people of the boroughs drawn in the end to the damp heat and thick, mnemonic air of Florida. What better place to grow old and die? Here is where their youth has fled. Here, just staring at the sea, they conjure up the lost beaches of August--Edgemere or Long Beach or the Jersey shore, the courts of stucco cottages filled with chattering families where, for a few months at least, they escaped the Depression and the war which followed.
Here, sitting on the terrace issuing wheezy tropical sighs, a long-retired grandfather recalls his exuberant six-year-old guiding him home from the train station, watching proudly as he launders his city-soiled body in the sea. An ancient grandmother, briefly alone at poolside before the bridge game begins, remembers herself as a girl lugging unwieldy jugs of juice and sandwich baskets to woolen islands on the sand, weekend picnics at the cool water's edge. Brothers-in-law took pictures. Where are they now, the Harrys, Sams and Daves? Most are dead. And the photographs? Gone. No matter. For the survivors, the images are fixed forever in coils of Florida surf. Theirs for the reminiscence. But access to these memories was not for Sarah, not anymore. Having cut herself off from past and present alike, she lies in bed and watches the lobby.
Martin had always deplored his mother's lies and manipulations, her appalling vanity, the pathetic facade of abundance and culture she constructed for the benefit of others, and maybe, above all, the way she'd always denigrated his father. As a child, he hated her; as an adult, after years of therapy taught him to forgive, he simply didn't like her.
But there was one event, a childhood incident, which he had never forgotten and never forgiven her for. When Martin was five years old, a few months after Melinda was born, Sarah had announced that it was time for his first visit to the dentist. Just a checkup. After a short taxi ride to the office of the family pediatrician, Dr. Shaw drove them to a private hospital on the Grand Concourse not far from their Bronx apartment. Here they were seated in a waiting room. The doctor murmured a few words to Sarah, chucked Martin under the chin, grinned reassuringly, and disappeared through a pair of swinging doors. Uneasy, Martin asked whether Dr. Shaw was a dentist, too.
"Of course he is, darling," Sarah said. "You're not worried, are you? Don't be worried. We'll be home in half an hour."
Fifteen minutes later, two attendants entered the waiting room and approached Martin from either side. Without a word, they closed in on the frightened boy like a pair of giant claws and, suddenly, grabbed him, pulling the child, flailing and screaming, through an open door. From the depths of his terror, Martin caught a momentary glimpse of his mother's face. But, strangely, for the rest of his life, even after years of intensive psychotherapy, he'd never been able to recall her expression at that instant.
In a small operating room, the attendants strapped him to a table. Immobilized, surrounded by masked adults, Martin watched as they placed a noxious, cotton-filled ether strainer over his face; someone told him to count to ten. Martin knew with profound certainty that he was about to die. His last thought before passing into unconsciousness was why his mother wanted him dead. What had he done?
When he awoke, he learned that he'd had his tonsils removed. From that moment on, Martin earned his reputation as a difficult child.
"I think she's waiting for pop to come home from the hospital," Martin said.
"Well, she's in for a big surprise."
The floor-to-ceiling doors of the boardwalk restaurant had been removed, giving diners a view of passersby, the beach, and an enormous orange moon inching slowly out of the sea.
"I don't mean consciously, for God's sake."
"Well, excuse me," Melinda said, studying her menu. Martin's confident psychologizing had been irritating her for fifty years.
"She's filled with remorse."
"Uh huh. About what?"
"Pop, obviously. How she couldn't handle being with him at the end. She couldn't even go to the hospital that last week."
"That was a long time ago."
"So what? Guilt doesn't heal itself. She's waiting for him to come back and forgive her, tell her he understands."
"What do you say we order?" Melinda said.
"I'll have the pompano."
"Fish? You're a meat eater."
"I was. Before I leaked."
"What're you talking about?"
"My aortic valve. It sprung a leak."
"Since when?" Melinda was alarmed.
"I don't know. I found out a couple of weeks ago," Martin said matter-of-factly. "Is the pompano any good here?"
"Martin. What...what does it mean?"
"Not much. It's a slow leak. Congenital. Completely benign. There aren't any real symptoms...except for a slight arrhythmia. I just have to make sure my blood pressure stays normal. The cardiologist says there's a good chance the condition will remain stable. If it doesn't, then it's...Take my heart--please take my heart."
"A transplant?" Melinda's hands began to tremble. She put the menu down.
"Valve replacement. At my age they'd probably give me a porcine valve. Imagine. A pork chop in my chest." Then, noticing her distress: "Melinda, it's a routine operation. The survival rate is ninety something percent. And I'm in excellent health. Honest, sis. Nothing to be upset about."
"Well..." Melinda said, somewhat reassured. "You don't seem very worried."
"I'm scared shitless."
After melinda dropped him off at Sarah's apartment building, Martin stopped at the security desk and waved at the closed circuit TV camera.
"That for your mother?" the guard asked.
"She's not home."
"She's always home," Martin said.
"Uh-uh. They took her away."
"Who took her away?"
The guard shrugged. "The ambulance people. We got an ambulance in the building on twenty-four hour call," he said.
"What happened?" Martin could feel his balky valve refusing to seal, flooding his heart with regurgitated blood.
"I dunno. She looked alive.... But I'm not a doctor."
"I got a little dizzy. I fell down. That's all. I'm fine." Nurtured around the clock, Sarah was happy, the reigning queen of the cardiac unit at Humana Biscayne Hospital. She smiled at everyone, made jokes, ate whatever they put in front of her, asked the doctors about their families, the nurses about their boyfriends. "No boyfriend? What about my son here? He likes them young. His last wife was half his age."
"Ma, please," Martin said, embarrassed.
"They're so good to me here," Sarah said pointedly.
During the week Sarah was in the hospital, the family--Martin, Melinda, her husband, Art, and their two grown children--explored their options and reached an agreement. On the day Sarah returned to the apartment, they gathered to tell her what her future held. Since she could no longer take care of herself and since the family couldn't afford a live-in companion, Sarah would have to enter a nursing home.
"I'd rather die!" Sarah said.
"Ma, it's the nicest place in Florida. There's a waiting list a mile long," Melinda said.
"Good. I'll wait."
Melinda unfolded a colorful brochure depicting the ivy-covered, Spanish colonial buildings and exquisitely manicured grounds of the Miami Home for the Aged and laid it out on Sarah's lap. Sarah swept it to the floor with a rancorous sneer.
"How could you do this to me?"
"If it weren't for the judge--he's on the board--we couldn't even get you in." Melinda worked in the law office of a retired Superior Court judge.
"A home! You want to put me in a goddamn home!" On Sarah's lips the word, usually a synonym for `safety' and `love,' became an obscenity.
"Don't think of it as a home, Ma," Martin said. "Think of it as a fancy hotel with round-the-clock service."
"It's a home!" she shouted. "Old people in wheelchairs and walkers. Droolers staring at the walls...I have nothing to say to these people. It's not for me."
"Well, what is? Huh? Besides driving your daughter crazy, lying here like a half-dead fish and staring at the lobby all day and all night!" Martin said, shocked by the vehemence of his outburst. "Nothing's for you! No one! You're just too good for everyone, for all of mankind! I mean, Jesus, what the hell do you want?"
"I told you. I want to be dead."
"Well, it won't be long."
Sarah raised her eyes and looked at Melinda. "Look at how he talks to his mother."
"I'm speaking for all of us, Ma."
Martin woke in a sweat at four-thirty in the morning, pursued by echoes of a nightmare the substance of which was just beyond his grasp. His chest was pounding violently, like some atonal madman turned loose upon a kettle drum. It was too early for his dose of Toprol, but he took a tab anyhow and, gradually, his heart returned to something resembling a regular beat. After his panic subsided, he began rethinking the events of the afternoon, bewildered not so much by the anger behind his eruption, but by his failure to control it, to conceal it not only from Sarah, but from the rest of the family as well.
As the sky began to lighten, Martin got up, went into the kitchen, and made a pot of decaf. Sarah's bedroom door was slightly ajar and he peeked in to see if she was awake and wanted a cup of coffee.
Martin knew instantly--almost as though he had been expecting it--that she was dead. Propped up on some pillows staring at the mute, flickering TV image of an empty lobby, it appeared as though her entire being had issued a giant sigh and collapsed. She seemed years younger; her skin was smoother, her hair fuller, less patchy, her face, bereft of makeup, almost pretty. She might have looked peaceful were it not for her eyes. Her eyes were filled with limitless pity, as though Sarah were witnessing an event too painful to bear. He had seen this expression before. But...where? When, suddenly, the recollection surfaced, Martin realized with a shudder that this was the expression he had so briefly glimpsed on that horrendous morning sixty years earlier, the profoundly anguished expression of a woman utterly incapable of confronting her son's terror.
He lifted the bedsheet and covered his mother's face, then went to turn off the TV. The lobby was no longer empty. Martin could see a small, graceful figure, who he could have sworn was Sarah, wafting through the open doors. He had an urgent impulse to call out to her. But it was too late, a lifetime too late, to start all over.
Peter Meyerson (email@example.com) spent several years in book and magazine publishing in New York before moving to Los Angeles to write films and TV shows, most notably Welcome Back Kotter, which he created and produced for several seasons. "Not too long ago, realizing I had squandered much of my working life on dreck," says Peter, "I overcame my self-doubt and began writing fiction."
InterText stories written by Peter Meyerson: "Small Miracles are Better Than None" (v7n2), "Closed Circuit" (v7n4), "A Stray Dog in Spain" (v8n3), "Jane" (v8n5).
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 7, Number 4 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1997 Peter Meyerson.