In the interests of trying to make myself write, I dusted off a few exercises. A few nanos ago I decided I was gonna do one short story a day for November, and every one was going to begin with a fortune cookie fortune and word. I dutifully started them all, but never followed through. So here we go.
You cannot run away from yourself; you’re always right behind you.
(LEARN CHINESE – Chicken. ji ròu)
Gaspard and Carl found the bay in the emergency room easily enough. There were only five of them in the unit, and Maman’s was the only one that was occupied, they could tell from the screaming. The blue-green curtain ruffled and something flew out into the hallway. Carl glanced at Karl and shrugged.
“Je vous voyais prendre les assiettes! Je vais vous le rapport et cracher sur ta carcasse!”
“Ah,” Carl said, “she’s in good form.” It was no secret that Carl wasn’t fond of Maman. Even now his smile was that wan sort of cross between dental pain and the smug satisfaction that comes from being right despite the tragedy of the situation.
Gaspard sighed and watched the billowing curtain as the medics behind it most assuredly tried to tie down his eighty-eight-year-old mother and probably insert a catheter. Some day in the future, they’d have that hypospray like in science fiction shows, and they could just blast her in the neck with an aerosol and knock her out. It was funny how ethics started to erode the louder and more violent someone got.
“Jesus, Gus, get her—ooghf!”
The curtain opened and a nurse poked her head out. “Nancy, call Roger up in—” “—I got it!” came a voice from inside the bay. “Never mind!” The nurse disappeared behind the curtain again, and the room quieted.
“Are you gonna restrain her?” came seconds later.
“Are you gonna reinsert the catheter when she yanks it out?” answered someone. The room fell silent, but there was still noise issuing from it—rustling, the occasional squeak of a shoe on the lino, tubes clacking against hollow metal, and the ever-present beeping of machines. Gaspard figured that if one stayed in the hospital long enough, the beeping noises faded into the background, just like how he no longer heard the chickens clucking when he cleaned out their coops.
Carl shoved his hands into his pockets and whistled under his breath. Gaspard stared at an open box of donuts in the nearby nurse’s station. Most of them were only halves.
The same nurse whose head had appeared earlier drew open the curtains long enough to exit the bay, and turned to them with a little jolt of surprise. “How did you get back here?”
Carl thumbed behind them. “She sent us back, for Marguerite—”
The nurse waved her hands. “No no, not yet, back to the waiting room. She needs an EKG.” She cast about for something, possibly a chart, possibly a magic exit. “You’ll have to wait until the techs are done.”
Gaspard was about to argue, but Carl simply grabbed his arm and began pulling. In reality, Carl was the one with more experience in hospitals. Both of his parents had been in and out of them before they had died, something Gaspard had remembered all too well, though then, he’d been the second fiddle. This time was his first time, and he wasn’t sure what to do, when to argue, when to listen.
Carl waved a pointed finger at two doors. “The cafeteria?”
The nurse didn’t look back at them. “Follow the blue line.”
An hour later they made their way back to the bay, sated with bad coffee and stale Tastycakes extracted from a vending machine that asked for too much and gave too little. They approached the curtain and were met by a short, rumpled man in blue scrubs and a lab coat. He didn’t introduce himself, but when they mentioned that they were here for the lady behind the curtain, he flipped open the chart in his hand.
“She’s sedated,” the doctor, whose nametag read ‘J Jones,’ said. “We had to restrain her in order to place the catheter, and to keep her from pulling her leads off.”
Gaspard frowned. He knew that Maman was slightly senile, but he didn’t understand the fighting. Carl might have made a snide comment or three about her behavior, but for the most part, Maman was a gentle creature.
“I don’t understand why she’s being so…so…”
“Combative?” Dr. Jones suggested. “She’d not quite fully cognitive, right now. She presented with blue lips and rapid breathing, so we’re going to wait until her bloodwork comes back and probably admit her to the CCU for a while.” He shrugged. “Her circulation is poor, and she might not be taking her medicine.” He raised his eyebrows. “She does have assisted living, right?”
Gaspard squirmed. It was one of the things that they fought about quite a bit, the only time he ever saw his mother get so angry she’d thrown something. It had been a pot of geraniums, and he’d cleaned them up, but still. “We’re trying. She’s not too keen on having strangers in the house.”
Carl coughed something under his breath, and Gaspard didn’t even bother to decipher it. It was plain as day what he thought about Maman.
The doctor flipped the chart closed and slid it into a slot on the wall. “Well, like I said, she’s sedated for now. And we probably are going to admit her. Adjust her meds.” He shrugged. “I’d suggest looking into someone who will care for her, at least make sure she’s taking her medication.”
“Like a home,” Carl said, glancing pointedly at Gaspard.
The doctor waved a hand. “Whatever is convenient for you.” Then he paused, looking past them at something, eyes unfocused, as if he had remembered something unpleasant.
“Your mother,” Dr. Jones began, and then paused. He tilted his head sideways and reached up to scratch his neck a little, and then glanced at the curtained area. “She—I don’t know what…it’s not my place.” And then he shrugged. “You can see her. You sister is in there with her, I think.” And then he scuttled away, but not before reaching into the nurse’s station and grabbing half a donut.
Carl and Gaspard glanced at leach other, shrugged, and then approached the curtain. Should they knock? How did one knock on a piece of material? Gaspard settled for shaking the material up and down and saying, “Knock knock!” and waiting three seconds before pulling the curtain open just enough to slip in.
The bed was angled towards them, with the foot right in front. Maman was small and skeletal on the bed, tubes and wires attached to places, snaking through the blankets like mystery plugs.
The most startling things weren’t the bright yellow bag of piss hanging from the side rail, or the orange IV fluids pumping in to Maman’s arm, but the thick leather restraints that anchored her wrists to the frame of the bed.
Laure was already there, fully made up, hair and nails immaculate, yoga pants hugging her ass in that Mommy & Me way. Gaspard wondered who was watching the kids until he remembered that she had an au pair.
“She’s not awake,” Laure said, her lips pursed. Gaspard didn’t precisely dislike his sister, but she did have the tendency to make him feel as if he was five. He did have eyes. They saw Maman, right there in the bed, eyes closed, breathing. Her white hair had come undone from the standard crown of braids she kept it in. Maybe that was because they had brought her in the middle of the night, when her hair was down.
“Oh, she looks horrible,” Carl said, cutting to the chase. Laure’s lips tightened further, as if they could squeeze together enough to implode and leave nothing behind.
“She’s had a rough night,” Laure told them, as if they hadn’t been here for over an hour waiting, and she had gotten there later. She gave them the accusing glare that daughters were allowed to give brothers when matters of parental care were at hand in their society.
“They’re going to admit her,” Gaspard said, hoping that they could have a conversation about what to do with Maman. Carl had been arguing for assisted living for a while, and Gaspard was beginning to agree. There was a distinct possibility that to get Maman in there, they’d have to assume power of attorney, and that was something he would prefer Laure to have. Daughters were better at this, right? If his time came, he wanted Clara making decisions for him, and not Robert. That might have been because Robert was a junior congressman, and Clara was a kindergarten teacher, though.
Laure sighed. “They said she kicked a doctor in the groin.” Her nails clicked on the railing and the charm bracelet on her wrist jangled when she reached out to smooth some hair from Maman’s forehead. Maman, for her part was silent on the subject. All subjects, actually.
Gaspard shifted from one foot to the other. Now that Maman was stable, and they were all in the room, it was as if the evening had come to an end, and his job here was done. A whole case of hurry up and wait had led to this moment, where he was apparently just supposed to stand there and stare at his mother’s sleeping form. Were they waiting for more doctors? Were they waiting for a bed to free up in the CCU? It was difficult to tell.
“Do you want to stay and we’ll come back?” Carl suggested. “We can bring you stuff.” Something in Maman’s visage must have softened him, because usually he and Laure had a tense relationship. They had for thirty years. Nothing turned civility into sympathy like a sick parent.
Laure shrugged. Gaspard noticed for the first time that she looked tired. The makeup wasn’t doing enough to hide the dark circles under her eyes, and the set of her frown had drawn out wrinkles in her cheeks that he wasn’t used to seeing.
“I suppose,” she said. “I’ll call you when she gets settled.” Laure met Gaspard’s eyes, and exchanged the promise of impending conversations. “Tell Clara I’ll try to make the shower, if I can, but I’m sorry.”
Gaspard nodded. This was one of those things that was more important than Clara’s bridal shower. She would understand. She was good like that.
“One thing,” Laure said as they turned to leave. “Have you ever seen this?” Laure asked, pulling aside the bed gown to show them Maman’s hip. Carl put a hand in front of his face.
“Oh, I don’t want to see that,” he groaned, eyes shut.
“You idiot,” Laure grumbled. She reached over Maman and pulled his hand away. “It’s on her leg, asshole.”
Carl bitched and closed his eyes. Laure rolled hers. But Gaspard just stared at the small expanse of skin Laure had carefully laid bare without revealing anything titillating.
Right there, high on her hip, old and faded, spread the bent arms of the swastika, tattooed on her skin like a spindly birthmark.
“Holy shit,” Carl said. Gaspard couldn’t have agreed more.