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Exquisite Corpse - A Journal of Letters and Life

From Heron Dance
by Al Masarik ||
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Chapter 12
Hospice came with its catheter and morphine patch. It won't be long now. The bars of the bed became a prison. She'll hurt herself if she continues to walk around in her condition.
     Edith disappeared for a while, left her suitcase, her Sig Sauer, she'd be back. Faces appeared at the door: family. I just want something to remember her by, Butch.
     I was morphined to the gills, I had an inside voice, I had an outside voice: Blanchard and Davis in the old Army backfield, Mr. Inside, Mr. Outside. Sometimes I couldn't tell the difference, I didn't know which was running.
     Why are they coming over now, she's not dead yet. They think I'm going to steal her again. Take anything you want, it's all going in the Goodwill box at the Safeway. Touch her jewelry and I'll blow your fucking head off. It belongs to Janice Joplin now, the jewelry does.
     In my head I heard my mother's voice, only it was me, Butchie, talking like my mother. It's true, Butchie, isn't it, she looks just like Janice Joplin when she comes dancing out of the music box, all those pearls strung around her neck, those pretty flowers in her long hair, her you know what's winking under my blouse, the silk one, she does, she looks just like Janice Joplin.
     And my mother looked like Aunt Vera in the casket. Doesn't Aunt Vera look pretty, Butchie.
     Pearl and Edith in the upstairs hall looking down to where I applauded as they held hands and did a little pirouette for me--my mother wasn't naked, she had her face on, she had her pink angel--and I made my voice a Bert Parks voice, watched the smiles and how they flared across their faces. Those smiles were happy face kid drawings, and there was a wind in there somewhere, a wind and what it did in prairie grass when it caught just a taste, a spark from a passing freight and lit up the horizon, ate what it wanted and moved on.
     All Edith said was she had some business to take care of and she'd be back. She told me, she told Pearl. I said When; Pearl said What about your wedding dress. Edith said she'd be wearing it when she came and she'd be wearing bells on her toes, we'd hear her coming. Pearl said, Like birds, Butchie, she'll sound like birds singing when she comes in her pink wedding dress. And at the door I asked Edith if I could just see them--I'm no class act, Edith, I can't do without a tit to suck, even if it's just with my eyes. And Edith said Yes you are, there's nobody like you, stay off the damn patch, stay alive, I'll be back--she was Pearl, I was Butchie on a wobbly bike in a sea of hop toads--and she pulled up her T-shirt and flashed her tits. I'd been looking into her eyes, her brown eyes the color of wet mud with sun reflected in the wet, I didn't even see them, what was under her biker babe T-shirt. The gesture was enough, and the kiss on the lips goodbye.
     The Hospice nurse ran down the ways it could happen, then looked at me as if she knew. I almost told her: I almost said she lives in her music box now with her pink angel, she's in a better place; I almost said I live in the medicine cabinet, I'm in a better place. What happens when the patch wears out I wanted to know, don't we need a spare, I don't want her in pain. And she said we could only get one patch at a time and Pearl's next patch might be her last. We'll talk about the dosage, it's up to you, you decide.
     It could be like this: it could be like lava, the blood come exploding up out of her lips--no froth, no pink, no tomato soup in the yellow bucket--all the blood left in her tiny body gushing up and out of her like a volcano, it would be horrible, but it would be quick. And it could be a coma. It's the best we can hope for, it won't last long, maybe a week. If it's longer, well, that's when we'll need your permission.
     I smuggled my mother out of the hospital, yes, I did my job. And now she smuggled herself out of the hospital bed prison, naked except for the morphine patch on her arm, the catheter trailing after her an umbilical cord and its bag of piss another dead baby. So skinny she slipped under the bars. I thought I didn't put the bars in right, I thought I messed up the catheter, it's my fault.
     I tried to block her path in the hall. "Mom," I said, "you--"
     "Get out of my way you runt fuck," she said. "Where is she? What'd you do with her? You run her off too?"
     In the bathroom she turned the music box key, she looked in the mirror. "Get this shit off of me, Butchie," she yelled. "What do you think I am? Where's my makeup? You flush it down the toilet, you shit?"
     I disconnected the catheter while she rummaged through the medicine cabinet. Bottles, tins, brushes and ointments fell into the sink. I could smell perfume and baby powder, I could smell piss, I could smell something sweet and familiar I didn't have a name for. She grabbed what she could carry and went out the door and into the hall.
     I trailed after her and that strange tilting walk she had now that made her head seem too big for her body, seem like it might slide off and roll away. "Hey, Mom," I called to her, "you look like the Leaning Tower of Pisa." She slammed the bedroom door shut, and the music box tune played out in the bathroom.
     No, not Bert Parks when Edith and Pearl came out from the bathroom and paraded for me; There she is, Miss America, no, not that. I was a baggy pants comedian at 11th and Arch up in Philly, the old Troc Burlesque. Downstairs I sat in my father's chair, a mustard-colored recliner--it had a dark stain, a halo, a blossom where his head had rested so many years. I had my beer, I had my cheddar cheese goldfish. At the Troc we sat way in the back, wanted to be invisible, Jimmie and Turk and I--we had a sack of beer at our feet, popcorn in our hands to show we weren't doing what we wanted to do. It was way easier than buying booze; they didn't even check our fake ID's. Nothing in there but boys and silent old men, the baggy pants guys' jokes so lame the audience would howl for the girls to come back on stage. This is serious shit, this tits-and-ass business, get those assholes off the fucking stage the boos and catcalls said. And now that's what I'd become, a baggy pants comedian in death's every-house-is-the-same-when-I-come-calling amphitheater.
     Some big names at the Troc: Gypsy Rose Lee, Blaze Starr, Tempest Storm, Virginia Ding Dong Bell, Candy Barr, Lily St. Cyr. They shut down the speedway because of all the fights in the stands. A drive-in movie went up just north of where the cars had raced in circles. Boys in school talked about the movies we couldn't see and what went on in cars. There was a monster movie night on the weekend, but most of the time they showed dirty movies. Sometimes I watched from the stands in the abandoned speedway. Lily St. Cyr was all bubbly in a black and white bathtub, aiming soapy legs at the moon and looking right at me. I could smell the river those nights my parents thought I was at a Boy Scout meeting, a ripe and rotting smell that gagged me at first: my mother's cat when she had kittens, crab garbage in summertime, the blood thing my mother left in the toilet, Sam's pen when I didn't clean it and my mother had another reason to yell at me.
     I hadn't seen Edith Patrick since second grade, since the boys had beaten me up, since she transferred to public school. When I saw her again she was in the swampy area outside the speedway, where the boys had ganged up on me. I'd graduated from my Red Ryder BB gun to the air rifle, a pellet gun. The thing about a pellet gun is the more you pump it the more powerful it is, the better it kills. They were illegal in Delaware. It came in the mail, so did the tiny hourglass-shaped pellets. I shot everything with it: blue birds, cardinals, black birds, even pigeons and crows.
     Edith had grown some and her long blonde hair was braided and caught sunlight, almost like the chrome on the old Buick my dad washed every weekend. I saw that hair and thought about my mother and her stories about hillbillies, how they were dirty and didn't take care of their kids. Someone took as much time braiding Edith's hair as my mother did crocheting those stupid poodles she used to cover whiskey bottles, or those pink covers she put on the toilet seat.
     She had a baseball bat in her hands, not a real bat, not a Louisville Slugger. It was a wiffle ball bat; it was small, skinny, silly looking. Edith stood there staring at the ground, not moving at all, her light blue summer dress puffing with wind, scarecrow-like. A great blue heron, that's what she reminded me of, the way it would stand so still looking down into the water. We saw them when we fished the Delaware, my dad pointed them out to me. Every time was like the first time, like it was a miracle to see such a thing as a great blue heron. He tapped me on the shoulder, he whispered, almost like we were in church. Look at that heron, Butchie, watch it do its dance. And I looked and looked--five minutes? ten?--but the heron didn't move an inch, stood there like it wasn't even alive.
     That heron is playing a game with the fish
, he said. See its belly, the heron's got a blue and white belly, pale blue like the sky. A fish swims by, Butchie, it's feeling good to be alive the fish is, just like you and me. That fish is thinking, Ah blue sky puffy white clouds I'm so glad to be a fish today. What the fish sees is the heron's belly and that's where it ends up. Watch now and you'll see. And even from our distance I thought I could see the heron's dark eye widen, the split second change as it stared down into the water, and then the head like a spear shooting down and coming up with its fish.
     Edith heard me before she saw me. She looked up from the mud and stared at me with that studying look I remembered from school. And then--like there was nothing unusual about seeing me there--she raised one hand to her mouth, put a finger to her lips and gave me the shh, be quiet sign.
     For what seemed like an eternity, I stood there looking at Edith Patrick and she stood there looking down at the mud, poking around in it with her bat. She still had that pug nose and I wondered if it ran all the time. I remembered the handkerchief I gave her, I remembered seeing her at mass with nothing but a handkerchief pinned to her hair. Without thinking about it, I started walking across the mud to her. I held my air rifle up like I'd seen them do in the movies, and I thought of something from Bible History, one of the apostles walking across water to get to Jesus and then thinking about it and sinking. And that's exactly what I did soon as I realized I was walking in a place of snakes and snappers and who knows what else. I sunk up to my knees, and when Edith Patrick looked up from the ground and saw me like that I must have looked like half a kid, half a boy, some circus freak walking on stumpy legs across the mud to see what she was doing. She didn't laugh--I'd never seen her laugh--but there was a lightness to her skinny body, maybe the breeze in her dress, something that went with laughing but wasn't laughing itself, almost as if she took delight in seeing me like that, up to my knees in old Christiana mud, thought it was funny but would never laugh at me, just because that's the way she was.
     She stopped what she was doing and walked across the mud, without sinking, to where I was stuck. I saw her close up, how her hair was parted perfectly straight down the middle and there were freckles on her nose and cheeks. She didn't look like a Pekinese anymore, even with the pug nose. At that exact moment I thought Edith Patrick wasn't so bad to look at. Not pretty, not a cheerleader, but not so bad really.
     Edith looked at my rifle and said, "Whatdya want this for?" I used my shoulder sling and she held out the wiffle ball bat to me. "Here," she said, "grab holt of it." Her command sounded like the name of some center or linebacker for the Philadelphia Eagles, somebody with a name like Charlie Grabholtavich or something.
     I grabbed the bat and pulled as hard as I could, kicking my feet to get clear of the mud. "Don't move your feet," she said, "you'll get worse stuck. Just hold tight, I'll pull you out."
     And when she did, I was amazed at how strong she was. We stood there holding the bat, looking at each other. I was weak in the knees from struggling in the mud, and we were so close I could smell the Juicy Fruit she was chewing. Edith's eyes were fierce, a dark brown color--I thought of the heron again--and she looked right at me, something I wasn't used to with girls. Then slowly her eyes moved down the length of my body, took in everything: my red James Dean jacket, my white T-shirt and Wrangler jeans, my mud-covered argyle socks. My shoes were still in the mud. It was stupid to be wearing them, my penny loafers, but I wore them everywhere, even in the woods. I didn't expect to be walking in swamp mud when I left the house that day.
     Edith poked around in the mud with her bat but couldn't find them. I asked her why she didn't reach her hand down there and she looked at me like I was crazy. Then she said, "You have pennies in 'em or dimes?" I had no idea how she knew I was wearing penny loafers--was I in uniform or something? I told her dimes and she said, "Too bad, we coulda got a soda."
     I cleaned up in the bathroom, decided I'd wait for the Hospice nurse to hook up the catheter--where were my old rubber sheets when I needed them? Maybe Edith would be back, she'd know what to do. Dear St. Anthony, I said to the music box, please help me find my Edith, please help me find my Butchie. Never once did St. Anthony help me find the baseball we lost, a foul ball that disappeared into the tall grass around the pond, our after dinner game, even my dad hunting the ball. Dear Saint Anthony, he repeated after me, again and again, and then, Butchie, is Saint Anthony any good with mosquitoes?
     Pearl was meat to the Hospice nurse and I didn't want to see her like that. She never got the makeup right till Edith started helping her. How could she--all those drugs, all those cancer cells. And now I imagined those cancer cells all ganging up on one side of her body, I saw them shifting and huddling together, giving her that tilt when she walked. Was she giving them such a hard time they were trying to get out of her body? Is that what they mean when they say fight it no matter what? Cancer cells like rats bunched up on a sinking ship. Cancer cells with Cagney--like voices: Hey you guys let's make a run for it, this old broad's crazy, let's break out of her elbow here, we got places to be, fuck this shit.
     I knew she was done when ten or fifteen minutes went by and I didn't hear the damn tune. I'd walk upstairs and find her slumped on the toilet: pearled and rouged and lipsticked, mascaraed; old bones and old skin, tan from the radiation, silky to the touch. I'd look at the music box when I went up there those times, when it was quiet, when my mother was an exhausted dancer in her dressing room, a heap on the toilet, the dance done. Pink flowers were smiling on the made-in-Japan music box as a pink and brown hummingbird drilled them with its golden needle. I brought no roses, I brought no poetry, and yes you can get used to just about anything, even the knowing it, knowing you've gotten used to it.
     But that first time I saw her like that, naked and collapsed on the toilet, skinny legs curled over the bowl, ass down in the blue water, I thought: Shit, she's going to fall into the fucking toilet, she's going to get sucked down into the sewers of suburbia; worse, she'll get stuck like that and I won't be able to get her out, I'll have to call for help, I'll have to explain the makeup, the whore look, the lipstick nipples. Oh pardon me, Mr. Fireman with your hook and ladder, yes, please do extricate my mother there from the toilet, she's the skinny dame right there, right, you're right, she's beginning to look like a fucking Ethiopian, but dig it, man, check out those nipples. How'd you like to have had your first suck on those babies, man.
     I gave her hell that first time, I woke her in my panic, said, Mom, Mom, what are you doing. She didn't know who I was, she didn't know I was her Butchie. Those bug eyes widened and as I scooped her up I saw it, I knew it was my fault, I'd forgotten to put the toilet seat down, I could've killed her.
     All the way back to the bed blue water dripped from her ass onto the carpet. She's already dead, I thought, nothing to do but let her go. And then I was really into it, saving her like that, puffed up with it the priests would say, the hero feeling: this is the way I save my mother, save my mother.
     Her eyes looked like raccoon eyes. She'd gotten carried away with the mascara that first time I went up there. Had she been crying? Did she try to wash it off and smear it? And she'd done her breasts, too. I don't know what she used, but they were smudged like her eyes. Ashes, it looked like her breasts were dusted with ashes, covered with the dark powder of crushed moths. I thought of when I was a kid and we'd trick or treat in blackface, rub burnt cork all over our white faces and go door to door. I get it, Jimmie's dad said when he answered the bell, niggers, right.
     And she'd lipsticked her nipples, they looked like boats bobbing on a dark sea. I could hear my mother's voice, that go ahead Butchie you know better than I do who am I anyway I'm only your mother. And then putting the nipple in my mouth, I saw her putting the nipple in my mouth, to shut me up.
     Thumbs, they were as big as my thumbs, my mother's nipples were as big as my thumbs. And a purplish-red color, like raspberries. Hair down there between her legs: a thick patch of it--who'd've thought; brown, light brown, even blond spots here and there (radiation?). And the old ass still hard, not fallen. (Your father's ass has fallen, Butchie, she said on the phone, I said Where'd it go and she said You! You know what I mean.) The old ass jutting out bubble-like-from what? her exercise bike? The first bait you get and the last you lose--who was it said that? A girlfriend as I admired her ass? Some character in a book? And my mother's not gone yet. Bait for what now? Cancer you fuck, come and get me big boy, dog me you fuck you, ride me ass on home you shit you.
     They looked like burning coals in a campfire, my mother's nipples did. They wouldn't go out, they couldn't go out, all night they'd be there, anytime you chose to look. Not even Memorial Day yet, Edith and I drunk in my Uncle Paulie's sleeping bag, Edith hiccuping so loud we heard dogs barking down the beach, cold Rehoboth night the driftwood fire wouldn't go out, the glowing coals in the dunes, the empty shells of horseshoe crabs Edith arranged around the fire a place for wind to hide, spook us through the night. I'd picked her up in a Delaware City bar, nothing but refinery stink, flames eating sky, workers in for a beer and shuffleboard. It had been years, I was in college, I hadn't heard her name in a long time. She was already drunk, leaning up against the bar, some guys huddled around her and laughing at everything she said. Soon as I walked in the door she waved me over, told them I was her brother. The guys melted back into the bar, Edith whispered in my ear, Get me the fuck out of here. Asshole I'm with is in the shitter.
     I had the old man's Ford Fairlane and in the car Edith sat right up next to me. She leaned into me as if to say hello as I backed out of the gravel lot. Then she turned her back to me and kicked off her shoes, put her bare feet out the window.
     Marshland took over as we eased past the belching fire and pastel tanks; redwings flashed their colors from cattails already the size of hot dogs. Edith turned and draped a bare leg over mine, pushed down on my accelerator foot, said it's a V8 right and I said yeah, it can go. It was the middle of the week, no traffic on the two-lane down to the beaches. We can make it in an hour, she said, you won't be sorry.
     I turned and looked at her when she said that, you won't be sorry; I told her I had to have the car back and she laughed, said it was up to me.
     We didn't get to the beach in time for what she wanted to see. The orgy was over, we were too late. The helmet-like shells of the horseshoe crabs were empty, picked clean by thousands of birds. The beach stunk worse than Delaware City and Marcus Hook and Chester combined. All those dead crabs, all those empty shells, and millions of lime colored eggs buried in the sand.
     Edith said it had something to do with the full moon, she couldn't remember if it was just before or just after or during. It's when her hiccups started, when we were walking through all the dead crabs. I told her we used to call them king crabs because they were so big, and she said I didn't know shit, I was just a dumb college boy. Talk about your bitch in heat, these ladies take the cake, they get the brass ring, horniest fuckers this side of Browntown. Broad sashays in with the tide, little surfer girl she's got something so good the boys'll die for just a snootfull. They come riding in on top of her, piggybacking her, a whole fucking basketball team on her like she's a gym floor and you can hear all their shoes squeaking only it's their damn armor, their shells clicking together, some of them so pussy crazy they're fucking each other and she could care less, she's just going about her business twisting the night away. What this girl does is drag her hot ass up the beach, up to the tide line, it's like she's doing chin-ups and that tide line is some kind of bar, she's muscling up and carrying the boys with her, it's a heavy load the girl's got on her back. You can see the claw prints the morning after, they're a regular road map, they'll take you right to her eggs, fucking BBs, no bigger than a booger, zillions of them. It shows how stupid those boycrabs are, old hot pants is digging down into the sand, pussy's got to have that damp going for it. She stays down there while her studs are up top going at each other, trying to fuck what ain't even there no more. You can hear it, the sound those shells make clicking together, it sounds like little boys dueling with pencils, and what happens is the dumb fucks fall off, they get flat on their backs and they stay like that, there ain't no tide coming in to flip them over. They get wrong and they can't get right again, and there's all these birds with like radar or something in their noses, they know thousands of miles away the dumb pricks will be lying there like that, you know like puppies rolled over and looking for a belly rub. Meanwhile the bitch is still moist down in that hole she's dug, she's still moist and she's still hot. Tide comes back and she goes out after more dick, starts the whole business all over again.
     We slept in the dunes up from the beach and its stink--first time I smelled it as a kid I thought oil spill, one of the tankers in the bay heading north with its load of crude. We finished the cherry flavored vodka I'd bought in chicken country, the south of Wilmington not yet to the shore area of Delaware we knew nothing about, nobody did, just passed through, maybe stopped to piss or fuel up, get some beer and ice. Package store in a postage-stamp town, whole town nothing but colored people, Negroes then, blacks in another year or two, the Aunt Jemima-looking clerk not carding me. Have you some fun down there, she said, called me Red Chief.
     It was my Uncle Paulie's sleeping bag, government issue from when he was a grunt in the big war; it was still in the trunk of the Fairlane--I drove down for spring break, the last time my dad let me use it. Go ahead, take it, Paulie said, gear shift up your ass will ruin you for life.
     Two in a bag was a tight fit and it was cold with enough stars to light up Edith's face and the bottle we passed. Shivering, Edith dug her arms down into the bag and its quilted warmth. I put the vodka to her lips and she sucked at it; I pulled at the bottle, tasted her lipstick.
     We slept fully clothed except for our shoes and in the night I woke and our bodies were humping, the bag so tight we had to sleep on our sides. I unzipped--I'd been there before, dry docking, dry humping, dry fucking, whatever, it could leave a dick bloody and wounded, sore and scabbed up for a week, it would hurt every time you got hard. I rubbed my cock against Edith's belly, ground into her, and then she was awake and going Whoa, whoa, pardner, I'm an innie all right but I don't need that thing coming out the back of me, I don't need another knob on my spine.
     Edith undid her shorts, I heard the zipper sound and then it stopped and she was giggling and hiccuping. She'd gone to sleep hiccuping, now she was awake and she was hiccuping and giggling too.
     Stuck, that's all she said. There was a commotion in the bag as she wormed free of shorts and panties, and then she was snuggling up against me and kissing me, her tongue fat and juicy in my mouth, moving so fast it seemed plugged in, wired to some starry night dunefuck generator. Then the power cut off and she was hiccuping and laughing again, she was going wait, wait, wait, let's just close our eyes for a while, we ain't goin' nowhere, I bet we can see the stars with our eyes closed.
     And then the hiccups stopping, no more laughing, Edith's breathing a faint whistle in the dark night, her hand on my cock as she slept. I climbed on top, I rammed at her and hit a thigh--so soft, so good feeling--I rammed again and missed again, hit her pubic bone. Then I was home, my first time without a rubber and Edith moving under me, really moving. I'm thinking God she's so wet, this girl really wants it, she's really fucking me, not just letting me do it like some of them. Then she's talking in her sleep, she's going Steve Steve Steve oh Steve yes yes, and I'm thinking what the fuck is this, what is this shit, I'm Mark, Butchie if you want to fuck with me. Steve? And I keep at it anyway, I mean what the hell I'm just a kid-you want Steve, I'll be Steve.
     My Uncle Paulie sniffed the bag when I returned it. I could still smell Edith in the bag, I could still smell us. He said it smelled so good he'd sleep in it himself, he'd be sleeping in the backyard for a while. He winked and popped a jab at me. Paulie had some stories, said he boxed in the army, said he had every kind of woman there was. Slopes were the best, low slung snatch, slanted like their eyes, Charley Chan pussy he called it. Every time you fuck one of them you're a B52 and they're waiting for your load.
     Whatever you do don't forget the jab
, he said, everything offa the jab, get the jab in and everything else will follow.
     I got the jab in, I told him. He sniffed again, fucking inhaled, snorted the bag. Smells like you got the whole damn arsenal in, Butchie.
     It seemed longer than two days Edith was gone. Bed sores appeared on my mother's body, almost overnight: stigmata. That's what I said to the starchy Hospice nurse when she came. Out of nowhere, I said, stigmata, and then, Tony Stigmata, little scatback played for Dave Nelson's Mud Hens back in the fifties, bad case of acne helped him juke tacklers, they didn't want to get that shit on them.
     I can't be here 24 hours a day. Isn't there supposed to be someone else here? Don't you have a live-in nurse? Let me show you how to care for these.

     I didn't want to touch the bed sores, I didn't want to touch my mother's body, not without Edith to guide my hand, to help me. And I told the Hospice nurse--so stiff, so black and white her summer garb became an old 50's nun suit while we talked--told her my live-in was out robbing a bank, you know the one downtown on Market Street with the big mural supposed to be creation, I think, maybe the end of the world, my mother used to take me there and I'd stare at the naked bodies on the wall.
     I didn't know what was coming out of my lips, what was staying inside. She would've looked at me the same no matter what I said, she would've jotted something down in her tiny spiral notebook. How fucking nun--like you are, Ms. Starch, never a smile, this is serious as sin, this death business.
     We tried, I told her we tried, when she first started talking patch. Pearl couldn't swallow the pills anymore, they floated in her mouth, bellied up in saliva and water, the spiked Ensure. Edith and I stood over her, we sang with her, it was my idea, Edith said I had a genius for this kind of thing, I was brilliant.
     Open up, Pearl, sing with us. Everybody knows the bird is the word, the bird bird bird, the bird bird bird. Then we'd all go Papa ooh mow mow, papa ooh mow mow, and Pearl's dry lips opened for my finger and the morphine I pushed in there. I rubbed her Adam's apple, polished it with my hand, Pearl swallowed and Edith said good girl, then to me, good doggie, good doggie. Yes, good doggie, and Pearl's big eyes looked at me like why are you doing this to me, Butchie, why are you killing me, I'm your mother.
     Edith was always careful to have me do it. You should be the one to do it, I'm just here to help, she said. Right, a pink angel ain't nothing but a highway sign. Down the hatch it went.
     But when it wouldn't work anymore, when Pearl wouldn't swallow the pills no matter what Edith and I did, the Hospice nurse was there again.
     The Hospice nurse turned the body over and there it was, my mother's ass looking back at me. This was meat, that's all; this was business. Business is business, that was Sister Hospice Nurse's demeanor. Yeah, right, the inside Butchie said, and de meaner de better, only it's not mean at all is it, it's just business, the fine art of dying, this is her aesthetic distance.
     That's a hemorrhoid, she said, as the two of us studied my mother's asshole. Art gallery stuff it was, too, old Sister Hospice and I with the plastic cups of cheap wine standing in front of God's own masterpiece, the gallery owner nowhere in sight but an elevator music recording telling us so sorry, so sorry, the artist could not be in attendance, if there are any questions--and I knew, I'd seen the artist with my own eyes, I'd seen him Hitchcocking his way through the gallery, it was his signature, that brief appearance, I saw him throw up his hands, not Joe Montana with 49er touchdown arms in the end zone, not that (true, I thought it at first) no, not that, more like I fucked up, what have I done, I'm no artist, I'm outa here.
     I said yeah, right, I told her I knew a hemorrhoid when I saw one, hey I'm no dummy, I've been to college, I've read books, I know all about assholes, ask me anything. She blamed it on me, I said, the hemorrhoid, giving birth to Butchie brought on the hemorrhoid. That's quite common, she said, and I told her how traumatic it was when I was a kid, when I overheard the men laughing at their poker. Butchie tore Pearl a new asshole. Yes, she said, well--and I interrupted, said it looked something like a brain didn't it, positively brain-like. She smiled and I thought it's working, I can make her laugh, I can make her crack a human smile looking at my mother's asshole. Then she gave it to me by the numbers, how to stick my finger in there, how far to go.
     Place the pill on the tip of your finger--wait, make a circular motion first to get her ready. And then Do you want to wear gloves? I told her no, it was my mother, I didn't need gloves to stick my finger up my mother's asshole, she didn't use gloves with me when she gave me an enema.
     Slide it in easy, she said, but not too far, the knuckle is too far, just up to the joint will do the trick, but you have to go up to the joint or it won't work.
     It worked. And when I did it, when I doctored my mother like that she woke up. The whole time she'd been sleeping soundly, snoring into her pillow.
     Now she sighed, she cried out. "Oh, Mark," she said.
     I knew it was too late, there was no 24 hour number I could call and some Hospice robot would show and fix the catheter. The morphine patch would do its job, someone would be there in the morning to clean up the mess she'd make in the bedroom. A handful of Percocet for me, the purple morphine. Hard to tell the difference now, my usual self and whatever I became when I took my vitamins.
     She was talking to somebody upstairs. I had no idea what time it was; maybe Edith had come back and walked right by me. I went to the kitchen for a beer and then I went up to see how she was doing.
     The door was open and when I saw pink my heart did a little hop toad leap, only Edith wasn't back. It was Pearl wearing Edith's shirt, Pearl wearing the damn rabbit slippers Edith gave her. She was sitting on the bed, the collapsed bars in back of her--she looked like she'd just broken out and couldn't decide if running away was really what she wanted. At least she wasn't naked.
     She didn't seem to notice when I walked in the door, when I walked over to the chair by the window and sat down.
     It was a cool night, just a few crickets in the backyard, some fireflies doing their ships-lost-at-sea number, that blinking SOS I used to think was so pretty. My grandmother said fireflies were lost souls trying to find their way in the dark. They found their way into mason jars when we were kids and we carried them everywhere at night, stuttering flashlights to show we weren't afraid of the dark. Somebody said you could make a ring out of their light and wear it on your finger. I tried and what I got was a fist of squashed bugs, no light at all.
     I thought I saw something fly out of my mother's mouth, some quick bat-like thing that headed for the door and disappeared. She was talking to Edith, her pink angel was there for her, even if I couldn't see her, even if all I saw was an old woman in a big pink shirt and rabbit slippers, a skinny old woman almost bald now, winged things flying from her lips as she spoke.
     She looked at me and she looked at her dresser and she looked at her feet and she looked at the crucifix on the wall.
     It's all warm and fuzzy in here isn't it. That boy, why are his cheeks so red? Is he smiling at me? Him? I know he hates me. Sometimes he loves me, too. He does. Didn't I nurse him. Gave him everything he wanted. What? What's he doing now? I wish Mark was here. How does he do that? His chair has paws and fur. Is that why he's smiling like that? Thinks he's smart, thinks I don't know. He always did like tricking me, and not always good-natured either. Ornery. He would've been better off being a girl, he would. One of them was a girl, perfect. Dead. Dead perfect. I sat up and baptized her myself. The nurses cried, they did, when they saw me baptize her. That girl's got gumption, one of them said, shaking her head. The colored one. I don't hate them, he's always been after me about that. Who's he think he is, he doesn't go to church. When did he stop? He had his father kneeling down and saying his prayers every night, he did. And he'd make me read that catechism. What was it called? Baltimore something. He stopped when he found that thing down there between his legs, that's when he stopped. Spoiled, that's what's wrong with the boy, I spoiled him. Everyone said so. He was such a good boy, he was. And easy, no problems giving birth, not with that one. Head round like an apple, and those big blue eyes. Green sometimes, weren't they. Red hair, everyone said it would change. Pop didn't like it. No redheads in the family. What'd he say? Gypsy blood? Something. Redheads will bring you bad luck. It didn't change, did it. Strawberry blonde. Would've been a pretty girl.
     What was it his father always said? Don't let him get you down, Pearl, he's just trying to shit on your parade. He did a good job didn't he. Damn cancer. It's worry, that's what it is. What'd I ever do to catch cancer. Mark said they weren't doctors, they were head shrinkers. That's what the boy needed, someone to shrink his head down to normal size. I can't help myself, he told them. Things come out of my mouth and I don't seem to be able to stop them. Think before you say something I'd tell him. Not that boy. Told Sister Elizabeth she was no holier than anyone else, he did. Eighth grade. Expelled. It will be on your record till you die, I told him. He was right, too, about Sister Elizabeth. What'd Mark say about her?
     Thinks he's being cute, thinks I can't see him. What long ears you have, runt fuck. Keep your damn nose still. You? Cuddly? You can't fool me, I'm your mother. Shit fuck. There I go again, I can't help it. He makes me talk like that, he makes me scare people off. What'd I ever do to him. They grow up, Pearl, that's what Mark would say. Not yet, this one's not grown up yet. They're all boys aren't they, men, and so proud of it. And wanting us to love them for it, and we do. Mark let him get away with murder, he did. Because they were the same. Laughed at anything the boy did. What was it he used to say? Pearl, you two just don't understand each other. Better than you think. We do. Understand each other.

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