Joe

The sky remained lifted and sore, with a dreary tone and a somber, miserable hue of gray, mixed and infused into its erratic texture. It funneled into his flared nostrils and pooled out alongside the cylindrical, tapestry-like walls of his limp cigarette. There was a devastating pulsation in the core of these acts, an in-out rhythm, a sing song plastered deep into the wheezing of his lungs, and the beating of his heart, each beat racing, each clinging on to the crisp Canadian air, clean if not for the smog of cars, smokers, and bird shit. All the other cigarettes, like his family, laid in a pile of waste by the NO SMOKING sign that had somehow designated the area to the one spot that loose lipped smokers could rest and waste their lungs.

His ears ignored the sounds of chirping birds and a failing car. His eyes failed to glaze over or to take the view of green hills and black parking spots. There was a long, narrow, winding road that led off to the highway but until then, all you could see were hills and trees. That’s why he picked this place. It was the perfect area to waste away. You could look out the window, push back the heavy drapes, and forget that you weren’t in the Garden of Eden. Before a tear could well and cascade down like a waterfall, over the ledges of his tired, darkened eye lids, he swiped it away with his shoulder. Another threatened to fall, and he swept it away with his sleeve, cleared his throat and spitting smog waste particles by the dead cigarettes. It was time to go in.

The cigarette was limp and it remained limp. It remained tucked away by his lips until he turned towards the building and tossed it to the sick pile. The air changed then from a cold rainy February to a haunting April. A step in and in whooshed the sounds of wheels and beds, wasted chatter, and even the closing and settling of hooks and drapes. The air was only a notch colder than comfortable, if comfortable had its own notch on a scale. The patrons being wheeled about had thin sweaters and shawls draped over their bare shoulders, and the nurses had full body gowns. His fingers followed the light ridges of the walls until he settled them on the front counter of the second Welcome Center.

“Mrs. Rudolf’s room, please.” His voice was as gravely as ever, sounding like a sore throat and a harsh whisper. It was froggy and sounded like pebbles or gravel churning and grinding against one another. Mrs. Rudolf’s room, please. It was said with force and uncomfortable insistence. He did not want to come. The lady’s eyes lit up. Her features were sharp and ugly, strangely alien and yet comforting like the arms of a fat nanny. The ridges on her forehead were well placed, thick and folding and her eyes were of a certain shade of blue that he found alarming and peculiar. It was nearly purple. Periwinkle, he was sure. Like Amy and Jack’s.

“Yes. Josiah right? You look very much like your mother. Would you like me to take you to her room?”

“No. Just tell me the number. It’s been changed.”

And there came that sad look. That pitying expression. It appeared in the way that the sun appeared, slowly and surely, it rose from her lips to her eyes, to the smoothing plane of her forehead that wore the lines still faintly pressed there. It sickened him.

This sort of facility ran in a strange and slow fashion. When the patient’s room was changed, it meant that they were sicker, that their health was declining. And every phrase, every comment about a change in room brought a look upon the person’s face, and a soft “I’m so sorry.”

“The room please.” He insisted, cutting her off at the very moment her lips opened to squeak an apologetic sign of sympathy. She was dying for years. He needn’t sympathy for that, he thought. She told him the room number and he went to track it down, leaving her uncertain and bothered by the desk. He was just as miserable and as unpleasant as his mother. And he looked at her with the same strange yet familiar look. As if he’d seen her before. As if her eyes meant something to him. His voice was cold and distant, though she warmed up to the idea that he was a man who was not used to grieving.

“Josiah.” He heard her voice cracking, creeping along in a slow and sludge like manner, before he stood by her room. It was a ghost, a shell, a shallow shadow compared to the sounds she uttered in his youth. “Josiah, be a good boy and bring mommy a cup of warm milk. With ginger cookies.” He could remember his pudgy hands grappling with the napkin full of cookies and the milk that was too warm, nearly hot and seething, in his fingers. And he remembered settling in front of her room door, opening it slowly so not to alarm her. His father was the one who broke into rooms, who stumbled and made the hinges shudder with each shoulder crashing into wood and steel. He was the one who alarmed. Joe however crept in, like he was now, with a gradual pressing of his palm and shoulder.

“Josiah.” It was a ghost. It was a corpse creeping. It was not the cherry rose voice that he was used to, the bright and harrowing heap, mixed in with a raspy after tone attributed perhaps to a late life of smoking and swallowing factory air. It was a shell now and he could hear it push through like wind whimpering by the crevices of shutters and drapes.

“My son the lawyer.” She laughed. It was almost the same laugh as before when he was young. It once sounded rich and high, almost squeaky and ethereal. As she grew older it had coughs and wheezing bouts attached but he found that endearing at the time. Now it was completely drenched in wheezing and squeaks, only partially bright and rich before being enveloped whole with a fit of dying. “You’ve made a name for yourself haven’t you?” She wheezed, “Too big of a name to see old mum, huh?”

“Been working.” He muttered. “Got a new office in downtown Seattle now-“

“And you’re too busy for your dying mother?”

He stepped into the room fully and closed the door behind him, facing it still for a moment and a sigh before turning to her with opened lips and an incomplete thought. She interrupted before he could voice it.

“Remember when you were a boy? It was May I think. It was after the storms. We stepped outside together. You were dressed for school and I had that ugly shawl your grandmother made me. The one Goose ripped up on the sides, The gray one.” He sat beside her on an uncomfortable wooden chair and nodded. “Remember those black birds? All those pretty birds with red on their wings, dead everywhere? You couldn’t get how a flock of birds could all just fall out the sky like that. You said ‘don’t birds know how to fly?’. And you remember what I said to you? Dead birds don’t fly, you can’t do what you’re able to do when you’re dead. So you have to do it now while you’re here.” She wheezed and coughed. Her arm jolted up suddenly. It rose and was stiff in the air until it fell down over his arm and clamped shut over his wrist. “At least you’re here.”

“My son the lawyer.” She mumbled.

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