Looks Like Death

Fiction
William Locke Hauser


jalexartis/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

We are driving, my sister and I with our mother, from Washington D.C. to Baltimore, to consult with doctors at Johns Hopkins about our mother’s hemochromatosis. My sister and I are very sad, and our mother is angry. It’s December 2016 and Hillary Clinton has just been elected president, which should make all three of us happy, but we’re still sad and angry from Mom’s predicament.

“I feel awful,” Mom says. “I want to go back.”

“We can’t,” Sis says with an angry shake of her head. I can see in the rearview mirror that her carefully coiffed pageboy is trembling with exasperation. “We’ve got to get you well or die trying.”

“What’s this ‘we’ stuff,” Mom chortles. “I am dying.”

I remain silent, concentrating on the road. My opinion of this expedition falls somewhere between that of the two of them, to wit, I wish Sis would shut up and I wish Mom would either flatly refuse to go or peacefully acquiesce, instead of sitting in the front passenger seat—I’m the driver—and muttering under her breath.

We’re an Army family, or at least we were when Dad was alive, and Mom is currently resident in a home for Army widows in northwest Washington, a converted mansion furnished with satin draperies, 1930s overstuffed furniture, and gold-framed portraits of intrepid generals from World War II. The main building holds the hale and hearty, there’s a wing for those who need “assisted living,” and there’s a basement dormitory for the dying, of which Mom is one. The walls there are decorated with crayon drawings from favorite grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and the odor of urine is pervasive.

There’s also a daily bus to Walter Reed Armed Forces Hospital, where Mom goes every ten days to be bled. If that sounds medieval, it isn’t far from the truth. They say there’s no cure for hemochromatosis—where an excess of red blood cells overloads your liver and kills you very unpleasantly by inches—and no relief from intense pain, except when some phlebotomist nurse draws off a pint or so at a time, and if you’re very old—Mom is now 84—the puncture wounds heal badly or not at all. Gross.

“I’m hungry,” Mom says. She’s not, I know, but she wants to be difficult. I can see her face getting as red as her still-red hair, and her swollen-knuckled hands are wringing one another in her lap.

“No, you’re not,” Sis says.

Now it’s my turn to be angry. “Goddammit, if Mom says she’s hungry, she’s fucking well hungry!”

“What language!” Sis exclaims.

“Well,” Mom retorts, “I am fucking well hungry.”

I turn off at the exit for Baltimore-Washington Airport, and we see a sign with a knife-and-fork symbol, directing us to a roadside diner. It’s a Golden Corral, “all you can eat” of the whole world’s salty sugary fat-fried cuisine.

“Not here!” Sis says.

“Yes here,” Mom says. She’s almost crying. “I want my way. Didn’t I raise you to be obedient?”

Sis refuses to eat anything, and I’m not hungry, but I go through the line and get a small helping each of short ribs, coleslaw, and butter beans. The people in line ahead of me are obese; the people behind are almost as fat, even the littlest kids; and the odor of grease, despite over-airconditioning, is so thick that the very air seems opaque. Mom has grits and red-eye gravy, a harkening back to her Catawba County childhood.

Mom’s still a good-looking woman, despite the ravages of her illness—tall, slender, aquiline nose, long once-expressive hands. Sis must take after our late dad’s father, the one whose portrait hangs in the county courthouse: dark hair, olive skin, and hooded eyes that tell of the clan’s Native American heritage. She emphasizes this by wearing long Indian—Asian-Indian-made, that is—skirts, embroidered blouses, and turquoise bead necklaces. I favor Mom, except for having a dick, which you can’t see of course, and a mustache and beard which you can. I long ago decided I didn’t want to look like a woman, even the woman I love second best after Hallie, who isn’t along because she hates hospitals after what we went through with our son Kevin’s agonizingly drawn out decline.

We get back in the car, my new Jag sedan, which has a comfortable ride despite its racy lines, and despite Mom’s constant shifting in her seat as if she had plunked down her hemorrhoids in a wooden church pew.

“How much longer?” she asks.

“Must you keep asking that?” Sis demands. “Don’t you know this isn’t easy on the rest of us either?”

I look, expecting to see a sour expression, but she looks bland, an adjective which suits the moment because that’s the question she’s posed at least four times since we left the northwest quadrant of the District.

“Zip it, Sis,” I say, and though she relaxes in her seat, the tight sourness of her expression never loosens.

We leave the interstate and find ourselves in Baltimore’s potholed streets, past houses with incongruous marble stoops—there’s a story behind that feature, which our dad used to tell but I’ve forgotten—and the GPS leads us to the Cancer Ward annex. Hemochromatosis apparently isn’t a cancer, or so one of the specialists at Walter Reed told us, but it might as well be, with rogue cells crowding out the productive and clogging the channels, but hematology and cancer are traditionally housed in the same wing of major hospitals. I mean, if proliferating red corpuscles aren’t malignant, I can hardly imagine a more apt use of the adjective.

Dr. Azam is occupied with an extended surgical procedure, we’re told, and we’re asked to make our way to the cafeteria because the waiting room is too full with other backed-up patients, some of whom are absolutely ghastly-looking and falling out of their Eames chairs. I grab a magazine as we exit, and to my dismay discover on the way down the hall that it’s Golf, a game that I played as a teenager but have since discovered distracts me from the pleasures of a walk, if indeed the course lets you walk instead of electric-cart rolling along an asphalt path.

“Cup of coffee?” I ask Mom. “Or tea?” She disdains to answer.

It’s past lunchtime, and the cafeteria is empty except for two waitress-cashiers, who ignore us as we wait to pay.

“Can we get a little service here?” Sis calls out.

“We’re on our break,” one of the women answers.

“Then is there someone else?”

A shake of the head. “She’s in the can.”

“Fuck it,” Sis says, and leads the way to a table.

“Fuck it,” echoes Mom.

I sip my cup of coffee, which tastes awful, conjuring up visions of arrest for not paying, but no one comes. A third waitress joins the other two, and their conversation continues, with arm-wavings and exclamations of “You don’t say!” and “I’da told her…” and “You think I didn’t?”

Finally we are summoned. Dr. Azam is young, courtly, and precise of speech. “There is nothing to be done, “Mrs. _____. No cure, no therapy, no…”

“But we were told…” Sis begins.

“Leave it,” Mom barks. “Leave it!” She rises and leads the way out of the doctor’s little side office, glancing as she goes at his framed diplomas and testimonials. “Thank you, Doctor. We won’t be back.”

“But you may,” he sputters, “if you’re referred again.” His round face bespeaks sincerity, and his plump little hands steeple piously.

“I said we won’t,” Mom answers, turning back in the doorway. “W-O-N-apostrophe-T won’t.”

We get back in the car, drive to the exit of the parking lot and discover that we have neglected—“You were supposed to take care of that!” Sis says to me—to get our parking ticket validated by a machine in the entry hall, so I have to feed my AmEx card into the gate for a $25 charge. So we’re disgruntledly on our way.

“I want some oysters,” Mom says. “Stop for oysters.”

“You can’t get oysters on the interstate, you silly old…” Sis begins, and then swallows her words with a stricken look.

Mom and I both ignore the cruelty. “We’ll drive down to the harbor area,” I say. “I know a place that has crab cakes that’ll bring tears to your eyes, and I’ll warrant their oysters ain’t too shabby either.”

The restaurant, a low-slung weathered-wood shanty decorated with anchors and fishnets and with the fiberglass sculpture of a killer whale projecting from the shingled roof, has a poster board by the door that says:

EAT FISH, LIVE LONGER
EAT CRABS, PLAY LONGER
EAT OYSTERS, LAST LONGER

It’s past 2:00 p.m. and the place is empty. We choose a booth in a reasonably well-lit corner, and Mom consumes, with Sis and me helping, a dozen raw plus a huge basket of fried. She leans back in the booth and emits a most-unladylike belch. “Your father always used to say that that’s the way to show appreciation for a really good meal.”

And she leans forward and says, “Did I ever tell you the story about your dad and me and the bad oysters in New Orleans?”

“Be careful,” Sis says, playful for the first time today, “It’s against the Napoleonic Code to criticize New Orleans cuisine.”

“Well,” Mom says, “It was at the Commander’s Palace of all places. We’d been to an excruciatingly boring conference on management of Episcopal parish endowments—your dad was the parish warden back then—the zydeco music at the welcoming reception was appropriately deafening and your dad and I showed that stuffy crowd a thing or two about how to get down and dirty, but the appetizers were skimpy and the dancing had worked up a huge appetite. So we taxied to the Commander’s Palace and they said they were full and we didn’t have a reservation, but then your dad spotted some old friends from the board of trustees at his old boarding school, and they were obviously regulars, and next thing you know we had the best table in the house, under the branches of that magnificent old live oak, and I had all the oysters I could eat, and they were the best I’d ever had. Until…”

“I can almost guess,” Sis says. “You didn’t get sick on the airplane, did you?” Her tone implies that we haven’t heard the story before, which is not the case, but she is too polite to say so outright, and I also pretend to be astonished.

“Sick?” Mom says. “There weren’t enough sick bags on the plane to hold all the barf.”

“Mom, we’re eating!” Sis exclaims.

“No, we’re not,” Mom says. “We’re done.” She rises abruptly, and before I can reach out to steady her, she’s on her way out the door.

“Mom,” I call after her, “you don’t know where the car is parked.”

“I’ll ask the valet, and he’ll give me the keys, and I can start it and get the air conditioning going so the car will be comfortable when you and Sis get there.”

“But I have the claim check!”

“And I have an old lady’s privilege of getting my way. He won’t dare not fetch the car for me.”

Back through the city, which by now is clogged with rush-hour traffic. As we pass through a depressed neighborhood, locals peer into the car, and Mom mutters, “Looks like drug gangs, so make sure the windows are locked.”

I survey the passing and standing-watching parade, and see no evidence of drug gangs. The crowds are young and old, black and white and Asian and Hispanic, working class folks wending their weary way, “leaving the world to darkness and to me.” Then we get stopped by a house fire—red ladder trucks, hoses stretched across the street, forlorn occupants standing in despair and hoping for permission to reenter and rescue their meager possessions. The street is awash with water, and the gutters are emptying frothily. A kid comes up to the passenger window and taps on the glass. Mom presses the down button, and asks, “What do you want?”

“Close it!” Sis barks from the rear. “These people have knives.”

“I don’t have no knife, lady,” the kid says. It’s a little girl, her hair in intricate braids. “I’m selling Girl Scout cookies. We’ve got peanut butters, s’mores, and thin mints. Five dollars a carton, or eight dollars for two.”

“In original packaging?” Sis demands.

“Shut up, Sis,” I say.

“Shut up, Sis,” Mom echoes, and to the little girl, “We’ll take two s’mores, please.”

Cookies are passed in and ten dollars out. “Keep the change, darling,” Mom says, and I can see the sour-pickle expression on Sis’s face at the largesse. I never cease to wonder at her parsimony, financial and emotional, despite having been raised in an environment of outgoing generosity.

There’s a backup getting onto the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, and there’s obviously going to be another onto the Beltway, so I take a detour over to U.S. 1 to kill a little time at Behnke’s Nursery.

“Why are we stopping here?” Sis demands. “None of us has a garden anymore, what with Mom at Knollwood, me in midtown Manhattan, and you on Capitol Hill.”

“This used to be Mom’s favorite stopover,” I answer. “Still is, right, Mom?”

“Still is,” Mom echoes. She strains to turn her head toward the back seat, countering Sis’s glower with a sunny smile.

It’s hard for Mom to maneuver her walker on the gravel paths, and she eventually yields to necessity, switching to an electric-motored buggy. “Whee!” she exclaims, outdistancing Sis and me, slowing down when she herself becomes apprehensive. We tour the rose beds first, with Mom leaning precariously out of the cart to read labels with her AARP magnifier, of which she must have a dozen because that silly organization keeps sending her recruitment letters that offer one as a “free gift.” “That’s redundant,” she says. “A gift is always free, unless it undertakes a moral obligation, which I certainly don’t feel toward a bunch of patronizing do-gooders.”

And then to the houseplants, which I don’t have any of in my little flat, and I’ll bet if Sis has any in her 38th & Park terrace apartment, they’re tended by her and Geoffrey’s Filipina housekeeper with strict instructions not to let the children touch. We look at hen-and-chicks, snake plants, aspidistra (I recall an unheralded George Orwell novel, worth rereading), and a philodendron that stretches all the way across the ceiling of the check-out shed that would give me bad dreams to have in the house.

“I’ll have that snake plant there,” Mom says.

“It’s too big for your room at the residence,” Sis says. “And your roommate will complain.”

“She won’t complain,” Mom says. “She’s dotty. Anything I do is all right with her, because she thinks I’m her beloved sister. Or sometimes her mother. Sometimes even her husband.”

I load the plant onto the back of her buggy, and we head for the check-out.

“That’ll be $17.67 including tax,” the clerk says.

“Oh, no,” Mom says. “That bench of plants had a sign that said ‘SALE’.”

“Yes, ma’am, so it’s marked down from $25.00.”

“But one of the outside leaves is cracked. Look there.”

“Yes, ma’am, that’s why it’s on sale.”

“Never mind my mother,” Sis interjects.

“Never… mind… my… mother,” Mom says. “Did I just now hear that correctly? Surely not.”

“I meant, ‘Thank you for the bother’,” Sis stammers.

I hand the clerk a twenty, mumble “Put the change in that crippled-children’s-fund jar,” and we make our exit.

We’re on the Beltway within minutes, and after the bleakness of strip malls along U.S. 1, the landscape—if you ignore six lanes of traffic—is lush with trees. We pass signs telling of stream valleys now bridged with concrete, and I recall woodland adventures thereabouts from when Dad was in the Pentagon and I used to go camping with my Cub Scout den. The “den mother,” a woman of whom I grew so intensely fond that Mom would bristle when I praised her over the dinner table, was “only a housewife.” That’s what Mom would say, contrasting the lady’s status with her own as a lobbying firm’s legal secretary.

We take the Connecticut Avenue exit, and suddenly we’re in Washington’s elegant Upper Northwest suburbs. Massive houses of brick and stone fronting on the busy avenue, with once-deep lawns now amputated by the addition of lanes. And there’s a brand-new house of garishly modern design, turrets and furbelows, with a circular driveway in the middle of which looms an ornate fountain. Only half the lawn is green, the other half still bare but for stacks of sod. The traffic, already clotted, now slows to a crawl.

There is a bicyclist riding alongside us, sometimes getting a bit ahead, sometimes falling a bit behind. Now he’s passing at a glacial pace, and I can see out of the corner of my eye that he’s old and diminutive, helmetless with a bald head, bony face, and pale shanks showing beneath a billowing white garment instead of the usual road-biker’s colorful jersey. He’s waving his left arm at us, as if to encourage us forward.

“Looks like an angel,” I comment.

“Looks like Death,” Sis counters. “Brrr!”

“No,” says Mom, “he looks like Shorty Morgan. Shorty was my hometown boyfriend before I met your father. You probably met him at that tricentennial we went to, editor of the local paper founded by his granddad and run by his father back when I was a girl. It’s probably under his son now, more than likely. All named Arthur. They always were a close-knit family.”

“Still looks like Death to me,” Sis repeats.

I get distracted by something in traffic, and when I look again, the biker is gone.

We enter the residence’s gate and start up the drive to the main building. “We’re here, Mom,” I announce, but there’s no answer. I pull to a stop, and she is slumped forward in her seat, held in place by the shoulder belt. I set the parking brake, get out, and walk around to the passenger side. There is no pulse. Mom’s gone.

Late that evening, back at the hotel after dealing with the residence’s management and with a funeral director, I say goodnight to Sis and go to my own room, exhausted. I order supper from room service, and while waiting for it to be delivered, on impulse call 411. “Operator, please give me the residence of Mr. Arthur Morgan, on Magnolia Avenue in Newton, North Carolina.”

She reads off the number, and I copy. A recorded voice comes on, offering to ring the number for an additional charge. I push “1” to indicate assent.

“This is the Morgan residence,” a lady answers.

“Sorry for calling so late, but may I speak with Arthur Morgan?” I say. “I’m the son of an old friend.”

“Mr. Arthur Senior?” she asks. “Or Junior?”

“Either one,” I say. “Actually, I know Senior better. Like I said, he’s an old friend of my mother’s.”

“Well, you’ll have to speak with Junior. Mr. Arthur Senior, the one they called Shorty, he died this morning.”

pencilAfter military and business careers, William Locke Hauser is engaged in a third career of  writing fiction. Thirty-four of his short stories and narrative essays have been published, most recently in Stand Magazine, Big Bridge, Shadows & Light, and Rosebud Magazine. He is seeking an agent for a trilogy of novels. Originally from North Carolina, he and his wife live in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, with a summer home in Reston, Virginia. They have two married sons. Email: wlhauser[at]comcast.net