They stand over her for a while, over her bed. The bedroom is dark and the shades are drawn. His grandma made a habit of falling asleep with her arms crossed over her chest, never knowing when it’d be up—expecting to be taken with each sleep was his guess. But the three of them—he, his mother, and his great grandma—stare at the arms by her sides. She didn’t cross them last night, as if she forgot to fall asleep.
Weary from staring for too long, his grandma’s mom tries to rest. She fumbles for the chair, bedside. Confused tears condense before streaming, defeated, down a wrinkled cheek because that cruel realization keeps hitting her, speculation gone, certain that her only daughter is dead. So she’d soon lose her mind—where rebellious neurons undermine even the good memories, where the sturdiest Swedish woman breaks down and flees to live in Myrtle Beach, regarding the sun each day with more and more confusion. On the day her daughter dies, she weeps about it, blames herself as the three of them gawk like sheep, stagnant by the disappearance of wolves.
After too long he goes outside to have a cigarette, eyes of other older folks on the sidewalk, or peering through the curtains and the windows of their convalescent village homes, look glossy at the EMTs hauling one away, telling his family she isn’t just sleeping. He wonders how often the ambulance wails into the parking lot here before it carries off the dead without sound or flashing light. He doesn’t go back to the room with the imprint of grandma on the bed, so mom comes out eventually, stifling tears with her sleeve and not crying from the void her mother left; how now it can’t be filled.
Some days later, months maybe, mom tells him it could have been an overdose because of the sporadic, forgotten-about Morphine patches all over his grandma’s dying skin; seven of them, or eight, he can’t remember.
As a boy, he’s in the hospital one night. He’s walking back to some back room with a technician with a dreamy voice; everything else is blurry. From this night, he learns about needles, winces as the skin and vessel give their delicate pop of resistance. There were six vials that each oozed a separate forty seconds long and he is drained. He returns to the waiting room and his brother’s turn is next. While his brother is being drained and prodded, he asks dad what Hepatitis B is, and why so much blood for one name. Turns out, he and his brother could have Hepatitis too, but dad never tells. Things to do with mom he likes to keep out of—as if the purpose of that hospital visit was some sort of vindictive try at lessening dad’s time with the kids. Dad knows what Hepatitis B is and he knows why they’re stuck in the hospital’s nauseating, clean smell.
He learns again of needles from a couple classmates. As an adolescent, his friend’s brother laid one day limp next to a baggie on the couch. He was just nodding there, eyes closed enough to not flicker when the sun would slide through the crevice of a turquoise set of shades their mom put up. And it was easy, with all that needle knowledge from all those Hepatitis tests; they just coerced him on an off day, to enjoy that pop, the blood out and thrust back in.
Breath through the teeth and the lids close almost all the way.
Sometimes he comes home for laundry. There isn’t a washer-dryer at his place so it’s become an excuse to see mom. About a month ago, during one of his trips home, he asks her how she got it, finally, after thirteen years of wondering. But she doesn’t answer directly, letting him interject a rationale he’s been kept with over the years, “The eighties were pretty free, huh?” somehow it’s easiest to imagine her Hepatitis as an STD.
“You know, you should really come home twice a month instead of every two months to do laundry,” is her suggestion.
As part of his mom’s recovery, she and other members focus on renewal, finding the dirty habits, the stellar people who just seem perfectly destined as dead weights—those hometown barflies—and replacing the dirt with acceptance. And as a result, she likes doing his laundry; ignoring his growing maturity, she calls from the basement, “Even though you have plans tonight, doing your laundry makes it okay that I won’t see you because I’m washing your clothes with love. And I know I’ll get to see you later. You’re still sleeping here right?”
“Yea, I think so.”
“Okay so I’ll leave the door unlocked; your brother isn’t coming home, you can sleep in his bed if you want.”
She just got her twenty-year chip; she says she stopped drinkin’ and druggin’ the year after he was born. But he has a memory of beer and cigarettes and the screened in porch of an apartment they used to live at. She’d smoke and drink at a glass table with only one chair when his brother and he played with things on the porch. There were bugs, sometimes the ones with a pincer on their posterior. Yearning to investigate, slowly with his first finger, his brother once screamed so loud after the pincers locked; it was enough force to send the alcohol and the ashtray tumbling from the table as mom jolted to intercede.
He’s never heard her story, he’s never gone to a meeting, but mom says alcoholism is a gene, that it runs in the family—“Definitely your father’s side too.” In recovery, the stories you hear are of a lifetime of longing, a failure to fit in. At meetings, speakers are unguarded, sharing their strife and grief with an audience of only first name bases.
One weekend, he wakes up on mom’s couch, the buzzer of the dryer as an alarm. The stairs to the basement groan as if still sleeping. With each step his headache worsens and in bits he remembers why—last night was a birthday, a good friend’s first legal drink, the night, the local bars, and a worsening flurry molested their temperaments from hot to cold, arriving at the warmth of being fuzzy; the night tried to settle into its slumber, but they kept drinking to forget about it. The basement floor is too cold for thinking. He tip-toes drunkenly to the carpet in front of the dryer to fold his clothes that are still warm and slightly starchy. The washing machine chimes through his ear and he gathers the soapy jeans and shirts to fall into the dryer for another cycle. The stairs groan again in protest and he falls back to the couch for sleep.
After breakfast, some hours later, he’s well into his homework for the day. Mom turns off the television, the New Age music she likes to listen to when she reads. She sighs a little bit. “I wanted to tell you something. I think that, a lot of the times, the reason I’m so protective of you and your brother is because it’s hard for me to think anyone can enjoy themselves without drugs or alcohol.”
He nods, digesting.
“And I remember you asking the last time I saw you, about why I have Hepatitis. Well, the reason I have Hepatitis is because I used to be an intravenous drug user,” words like vinegar in the rooibos tea she’d just brewed. His straight face ponders, but she knows he’d never judge her. Initially, no words form a response on his part, and the swaying rocking chair is the only thing that tries to lurch toward her. They let their tea grow cool.
“Wait. But not like heroin or anything, right?”
“Yea no, it was never heroin.”
He wonders what mom shares at meetings, what she tells the rows, the columns of on-lookers. She goes to conventions sometimes, whole weekends devoted to helping her journey through sobriety, listens to stories of trying to put a finger on the hurt, trying to identify that trigger and that need to be altered.
From what he’s gathered, the hurt started early on, some time between her father leaving and her mother’s nightly couple of tumblers of scotch. It could have started when the screaming violence became too much to stay for…when mother’s little helper grew up—replaced by pharmaceuticals. So she left, started filling in the gap with anything better than home.
Self-destructing until there was hardly any left to kill, she found God.
She found a husband and a father for her sons until that too began to fall apart. But she found a church to bring up her kids the right way and fought with them each Sunday to get them to go. Until her boys became adults, she thought she’d raised them well.
Near dusk, through a musty summer sunset, he’s finally to his apartment—home; where everything is in one place and missing clothes and homework doesn’t happen anymore like times when dad refused to drive to mom’s to get a backpack. The stairs escalate, the clean laundry overflowing and falling off the basket into the humidity as he climbs. He’s inside, folding and stuffing clothes into his dresser drawers. Rain starts to hit the pavement, lightly at first like a tear or two, then thunder as the clouds outpour. With the windows open and all his clothes away, he lays naked on the bed, placing a finger on a hurt of his own—in search of the vein.
The rain is inescapable, battering the sills and the roof. His cat prowls beside the bed, playing predator with the dust bunnies in the corner and sliding on the wood floor. The rain moves closer, nearly inside his ear and it feels about to enter his mouth to drown him. Whirling to a halt, the motor in the fridge ceases and clicks off. There’s a drip from a faucet, from somewhere, and the noise ripples through the empty apartment like a waterfall that’s pumped its final drop. He bears confusion, thoughts of death, his great grandma’s tears yearning for a memory that doesn’t hurt on the way out, the beach. He pretends he’s on a beach that’s cool and dry and lapping the shores every so often, lying in bed with a band around his arm, limbs limp, eyes staring out to open sea. In the darkening bedroom he forgets to fall asleep and the light all passes by.
Michael Lacy is a senior at Central Connecticut State University, an English major with minors in Creative Writing (poetry) and Descriptive Linguistics. His infatuation with language and writing is what spurs a need for stimulation. He believes that, as Homo sapiens, it is one’s sole responsibility to positively impact all that he or she is able. He worries the end of enlightened thought, the degradation that is post-modernism, and hate-driven ignorance. Notwithstanding that which he fears, his passions—university, the arts, and critical conversation—overwhelm the staggering anxiety that surrounds this world. He seeks experience from any veins available.