Father came to wish me a happy birthday. I told him that Chien-Ling found news of an FDA-approved drug that reversed the effects of Alzheimer’s, so Mother would soon get well. He was glad to hear it. Then I woke up.
She sings incessantly every waking moment. She has long since ceased to recognize faces. There is no knowing whether she is suffering. Never a whiner in her full, she gives no sign of complaining on this slide. Her erosion is a lot to envy. Five years ago being scorched into slow extinction seemed the worst lot available to man. All love meant then was wanting to assume it upon oneself. That old longing is back in force. How can she consume this degradation? Why must it remain hers alone? This privacy of laggard death is beguiling. It is worth reaching for. It will not elude your grasp forever.
He lies in bed recovering from a cold.
He is holding a watch. He gave it away as a gift twenty-four years ago. Now he has it back. Its plastic crystal is melted away. Its face is scorched.
He shakes the watch. The self-winding rotor turns and ratchets. The watch starts ticking.
The phone rings. The voice is instantly recognizable. It resumes a conversation long since broken off.
— Who is this?
The voice carries on.
— Who is this?
Its rhythm remains unabated.
— Is that you?
The connection breaks up. The line is silent.
It still goes on.
His father is asleep in his bed. He lies on his side, plump, naked, curled up in a fetal position.
Michael walks into his parents’ bedroom. He has the Sunday paper. He is about to tell Isaak of the mobile home that he bought for their transcontinental cruise.
A leg sticks out from under the pillow. He tries to awaken his father, to find out what’s going on. Pinky is hiding beneath the headboard. She grins at Michael. Isaak’s head is nestled in her crotch. It doesn’t budge. They both exist somewhere else. Michael wills himself awake.
― Thank you for taking me to Father’s grave.
― It’s my pleasure, Mother. Continue reading yohrzeit
― Thank you for visiting.
― It’s my pleasure, Mother.
― Where are we going?
― To a restaurant.
― Are you working?
― Yes, I am working.
― Do you have a job?
― No. I don’t have a job and I’m not getting paid.
― Why not?
― I haven’t had a job for 21 years, Mother.
― How did you manage?
― I worked as a consultant. Then I went back to school. Then Erin and I had our own company. We employed people. Then I worked on my own. I had several clients.
― What happened?
― The company ended up in a lawsuit. I still have clients, but I am no longer taking any work from them, for the time being.
― Why not?
― I don’t have the time. I must write.
― How will we manage?
― We have money.
― Are your lawsuits finished?
― Some are.
― What about the rest?
― I am still being sued for defamation by WebEx.
― Because I stated that Min Zhu raped his daughter Erin and used his company, WebEx, to cover up his child rape.
― Isn’t it true?
― Yes. That’s why they will lose.
― Why did you say it?
― Because he threatened my life.
― How so?
― Do you remember going to court with me nearly two years ago?
― Do you remember why we went?
― You were carrying a gun. You got arrested.
― Do you remember what happened?
― What happened?
― I got acquitted. Don’t you remember the look on the prosecutor’s face?
― She was very disappointed.
― Do you remember why I got acquitted?
― Because you were in fear of your life.
― Do you understand now why I said these things about Min Zhu?
― Yes. But don’t you want this to be finished?
― I do. So do the Zhus. In fact, they have tried to drop their lawsuit.
― Why didn’t they?
― Because I wouldn’t let them get away with malicious prosecution.
― What do you want?
― I want them to apologize. If they don’t apologize, they will be shamed to no end.
― Why do you want them to apologize?
― I refuse to live my life with a scintilla of concern about their threats.
― Will they apologize?
― No. Please eat your dinner and drink your wine.
― It’s too much for me. Do you remember Father?
― Yes, I do.
― Why did he die?
― There was a fire in your apartment. He tried to put it out. He was naked. He got burned.
― How did the fire start?
― We are not sure.
― Did I start it?
― It’s not your fault, Mother. You are not responsible.
― I carried him out in my arms.
― Yes, you did. I saw the bruises on your arms.
― Why did Father lose his job?
― He chose bad business partners. It runs in the family.
― Did he do anything wrong? Father never did anything wrong.
― He worked with crooks. He got accused by association. There was no evidence of his wrongdoing. The plaintiffs withdrew their claims.
― So why did he get fired?
― He got disciplined because his partner failed to get them licensed. His department found out about it and fired him for working on the side without asking their permission.
― Was that all? The State fired Father for moonlighting?
― He had worked for the State for twenty years. He was making a lot of money. The State is running a budget deficit. They can hire two junior analysts with his salary.
― Did he do anything wrong? I always trusted Father.
― He chose bad company. That was enough.
― Have you heard from Erin?
― Erin and I haven’t spoken for years. You must mean Rachel?
― I’m no longer talking to Rachel.
― Is it because of me?
― No. It’s because of me.
― Are you seeing any other women?
― I’d rather not talk about that.
― Why can’t we live together?
― We would drive each other crazy. I must be able to work. We are paying our friends to take care of you for now.
― Am I driving you crazy now?
― I’ll manage.
― We don’t have to see each other if I am disturbing you.
― I like seeing you. I’m sorry I don’t have much to say. I’m saving it for writing.
― What are you writing about?
― Are you writing about Father?
― Will you be able to publish your writings?
― No doubt.
― Can you show them to me?
― Some day.
― Have you shown them to anyone else?
― Did they like them?
― What did they say?
― They always say the same thing. They’ve been saying that for decades. That’s not what counts.
― It means a lot to me.
― It’s not that important. Good night, Mother.
― Good night.
Michael’s mother Maria has Alzheimer’s. She was widowed on March 1st by an apartment fire of mysterious origin. The fire started right next to her couch. Instead of alerting Michael’s father Isaak, Maria repaired to the bedroom. She laid in bed by his side reading her book. Meanwhile, the fire was smoldering and gathering force. Her husband spent eighteen days on life support in a burn unit. Michael spent most of that time living and sleeping next to his deathbed.
Michael sleeps furtively, in snatches. After briefly falling asleep in the reclining chair, he dreams of his father. Isaak’s face is smooth. His skin glows. He wants to stay, but he must be going. Nothing Michael can say or do will change that.
Edvard Munch, By the Deathbed, 1895, oil on canvas, 90x120cm
Michael dreams of his mother. He is riding his motorcycle down Sunset Blvd at night to pick up Maria. She has once again wandered away to Beverly Hills. Instead of finding her on the agreed upon streetcorner, he comes across a paddy wagon. Maria’s voice comes from the back. The constables act like a couple. Michael asks them to release his mother into his custody. They refuse. Michael gets the male officer in a headlock. He draws his gun. The female opens the container at gunpoint. His mother is inside. She rests in a white cardboard box. She has shrunk to the size of a wizened doll. Her lips are moving. Michael hears nothing.
Edvard Munch, Night in Saint Cloud, 1890, oil on canvas, 64.5x54cm