He’s a bit surprised as he walks into the building. His sister, Julia, never found the time to describe it in their calls. She only talked about how tight things were, how much the medication was costing and how she had nothing to do, and that when she did have something to do, how it was always something unpleasant. They only talked about once a month, but in their last call she started calling it work.
He puts a piece of paper with the directions back into his pocket. He walked here from his hotel, and he doesn’t know the city well. The rain let up before he started, and the last of it was drying in halos off the sidewalk.
The front lobby is cramped, bundles of flyers lie on the floor, and water stains are on the white ceiling tiles. He picks up a flyer for a supermarket that he has in his own town and looks for his sister in the registry. Her name is done in pencil, 524, although he already knew that. He runs his finger over the name and a bit of the pencil rubs off on his finger. She buzzes him in without asking who’s there.
Jason and Julia hadn’t talked for a few years before their mother’s stroke – he can’t quite remember why. Julia is four years younger than Jason, so they didn’t have much of a relationship growing up. And he always hated being introduced with her, Jason and Julia, as if his parents had planned the alliteration as something to show off whenever they had the chance. Jason and Julia. He hated having the same initials.
The button for the elevator is plastic and cool. After pushing it, he moves his fingers over it, feeling out the cold and following two cracks that run parallel across it. The doors open with a shudder.
Inside, a fluorescent light flickers and he thinks about the eulogy he had written for their father. Jason remembers that it had made Julia cry, made his mother cry, even made himself cry. But he had felt bad about it at the time: he thought of it as just words, empty thoughts, only there to bring out tears. He hardly remembers what he felt that day, but it wasn’t grief. He and his father were never really close, although closer than he was with his mother. At the time, he felt he should have done more. That was four years ago, and he’s hardly spoken to anyone since.
Julia called for the first time five months earlier. She told him that their mother had had a stroke, and that she was in the hospital. She asked him when he would be there. He hadn’t known what to say, but it was a few weeks before Christmas and he knew that there was no way he could get out of work. She paused on the line, obviously not expecting this answer, then asked what he was going to do. He said he would send some money. That was how it started. Even then he hadn’t been happy about it, but there was no getting around it. At the end of January she called again and asked if he could send another five-hundred. So, at the start of every month, he sent Julia the money. There had been five months of it – twenty-five hundred dollars now.
He hasn’t bought anything since. He had been doing alright before, but this was buckling him. His shoes, his good work shoes, have a deep crease along the bend of his foot and he’s stopped eating out. He only has two suits he can still wear, and he’s started to hear people talking around the office. He’s come to stop the payments, or at least cut them back.
In the sway of the elevator he takes the same piece of paper from his back pocket, and looks at the address again. Still 524, in his own writing. He’s in his casual clothes; jeans and an old pair of runners. He’s only gotten off the flight a few hours earlier.
He goes over again how to break the news, how to say it. He had thought of some kind of government retirement home – he knows that there has to be something, somewhere to put them. “Nothing fancy,” he’ll say. There must be something. And from what Julia had told him over their calls, their mother wouldn’t know the difference anyway. Jason hopes his sister might see this as a good thing, that she might even be relieved. He thinks they can look into it together. “Nothing fancy,” he’ll say.
The elevator stops at the fifth floor, and when he steps out, he sees a man walking in the hallway and notices that the wallpaper is starting to peel. The carpet of the hallway has threadbare grooves walked into it, and he follows them to 524.
It takes a minute after he knocks until he can hear a rustle behind the door. When it opens, he’s met with a damp smell, something like what he imagines a diaper must smell like. Then there’s his sister. Her brown hair is tied into a ponytail, and he thinks she’s started to get wrinkles under her eyes.
“You’re here,” she says, her green eyes streaked red.
“Hey,” he says slowly, “how have you been?”
Julia walks into the apartment without answering, leaving the door open behind her. Jason stands outside for a moment before entering the living room with light green walls. The carpet is a washed-out red, and from between the nearly drawn curtains of a picture window across from the door, he can see that the sun has already set.
After he steps inside he hears a noise from outside and he shuts the door. Julia comes into the living room, pushing her mother in a wheelchair. As they turn the corner, his mother sees Jason. Her face lights up, and she makes sounds that don’t form words. Jason looks at her, at her face, and feels nauseous. He can see that the face is certainly still hers, he knows that, but details have all been smudged. Her eyes surprise him the most. The fury, the quickness, the intelligence, is all gone. They strike him as dull and exposed.
Jason keeps looking at her in the wheelchair, at the red scarf around her neck, and the heather grey sweat suit she’s wearing. She’s gained weight. His mother moves her hands slowly up and down and gurgles out more indistinguishable syllables. He takes a step back before he realizes what he’s doing.
“Hey… how are you, mom,” he says, but immediately feels that he could have said anything to her.
“She’s happy to see you,” says Julia flatly, “I haven’t seen her this excited.” She wheels her mother to a space beside the couch, and makes a spot between the blankets and pillows and sits down in it. “Well, this is it.”
He looks from his sister to his mother, then around the room for a place to sit. In the corner is a chair he remembers growing up with: steel with a checked plastic cover that’s started to crack since he last saw it. He moves it to the other side of the room and sits down, facing Julia.
“I didn’t think she’d look—” He cuts himself off. “I meant to come sooner.” He looks around the room, “but it’s been so busy since Christmas. Even getting the time to get down here, I had to beg.”
“Yeah.” Julia’s eyebrows jump as she moves her head up and shrugs her shoulders—a gesture he thinks he can remember from when she was a kid. “Well, this is everything,” she says as she motions her hands around the room. “You really couldn’t get here any sooner? You have no idea. No fucking idea.”
He thinks that she hadn’t had a job then, or now, and hadn’t even been going to school. That if anything, this would have given her some structure, but he says, “I was busy, really. I talked it over with my boss. This was the soonest I could get here.”
“Five months. That was the best you could do?”
He fidgets in his chair, but says “Yes.” She shakes her head quietly and makes the same gesture.
His mother breaks the silence with a low moaning sound, but only Jason, wide-eyed, turns to look at her. “Is she hungry?”
“She was fed an hour ago,” says Julia without looking at her mother. She shifts on the couch and stairs at Jason. “What are you here for? Do you want something?”
He almost says it, but he holds back, thinking he should wait for better timing. “I wanted to see her,” he looks at his mother, then at Julia. “I wanted to see you.” He pauses. “It’s been a long time.”
“I know that,” says Julia.
He leans back in his chair and feels a vibration from his pocket. He apologizes, “I’ll turn it off.” She raises her left eyebrow, and he remembers when his mother used to make the same gesture. He thinks they both got that from her.
“Where’s the nurse?” he says taking in the room and remembering how she had talked him into the nurse a few months earlier.
“She left. She’s only here four days a week. And only during the days. I can’t afford anything more than that.”
I, he thinks, outrageous. He purses his lips but doesn’t say anything.
“You’ve left me with everything,” says Julia, “I want you to know that. I’m the only one that’s doing anything and I can’t keep this up forever. You’re going to have to take a turn.”
His own eyebrows raise, and he can feel a rage coming up. “Take a turn. I can’t. You know I can’t. I’ll lose my job. Where will the money come from?” He stops and steadies his breath. “I actually want to talk to you about that.”
“About what, the money?” She shakes her head, and almost laughs. “What’s there to say? She’s still getting dad’s pension, a bit from the government, but it’s hardly anything.” She raises her voice. “It only covers rent, a bit of food. There’s still the nurse, the medication. We’re just getting by.” She stops as her mother scrunches up her face, and begins to cry in sync with Julia’s raising voice. He stares at his mother, and Julia keeps shaking her head.
“Can you get her a glass of water,” says Julia. He gets out his chair and walks out of the living room, followed by the wails of his mother. Deep, unrestrained crying that’s like nothing he’s ever heard.
In the kitchen he opens cupboards looking for the glasses. In one he finds packages of spaghetti, dried soup, cans of pasta sauce, peanut butter, white bread, and some ramen noodles. Another is filled with medication. He picks up a few of the bottles, feels the ridges of the tops, and wonders what they must have cost. Out of the next cupboard he takes a plastic glass and fills it from the tap without checking the temperature with his finger. When he comes back into the living room Julia is looking through a book that Jason can’t make out the title of, and his mother has calmed down. When Juila sees Jason, she takes the glass from him and puts it on a Plexiglas plate that she swings out from her mother’s chair. She sits back down on the couch.
“Can she do that herself?” He looks at the glass of water on the tray. “Can she feed herself?”
“Sometimes,” she says, “but she can drink water.” He’s not convinced, but doesn’t push it. “Look,” she says, “you want to help out, be part of the family? How about you watch her for a little bit. Let me get some air. I need to get a few things.”
Jason’s mouth opens, but she’s already off the couch. “No, we need to talk,” he says.
“I won’t be that long,” she says and gathers her purse from off the coffee table.
“What if something happens?”
“It’ll be fine.” She rustles through her purse, puts her hand on something inside of it, then takes it out again. “You have my number, anyway.”
“How long will you be?”
“I’ll be back when I’m back,” she says, and walks out the door before Jason can say anything more. He sits back in his chair for a minute before looking at his mother.
“I don’t know why we’re dragging this all out,” he says quietly, to himself, and lets out a sigh. He looks up at his mother.
“You know how much you’re costing me? Five-hundred dollars. A month. How much do you think I’m making?” He bites his lip.
“Do you understand any of this? Maybe you do. That’s something I worry about.” He leans forward in the chair, elbows on his knees, facing her. “How about this, if you can understand anything I’m saying, lift up your right hand. Just a bit. Let me know you’re there. I saw you lift it up earlier, I know you can do it.”
His mother sits in the wheelchair, hands firmly in her lap, smiling. “Well,” he says, “at least that’s out of the way.”
He gets up and walks towards the picture window. He pulls back the curtain, and the fabric is rough on his fingers. Due to darkness outside and the yellow electric light inside, the window only shows his reflection. He sees himself standing and his mother following him with the whole movement of her head.
“How come you never called me? You know, even during university, it was always me. Christmas, birthdays. Nothing. Do you remember that?” He sighs again. “Of course you don’t. You don’t remember anything.”
His mother’s eyes follow his face, and she’s still wearing the same soft, expressionless mass of happiness she’s been wearing between bouts of crying since he’s gotten there. He turns around and looks at her for a moment. All in extremes, he thinks.
He looks back out the window, close enough not to see the reflection.
“You’re bleeding us, both of us. And you don’t even know it. You don’t know anything.” He has begun to speak more loudly, and now turns around to face his mother, and throws up his hands. “Do you think everyone would do this?”
He falls back into the chair, and pushes his hands against its sides to get himself upright. He looks at her, and his voice is calm. “You should have died, you know. There’s nothing here for you anymore.” He stops and looks at the floor. “I just don’t know what the point of all this is.”
His mother gurgles out sounds that Jason can’t understand. He doesn’t say anything else, but now he’s remembering his father’s funeral again. He thinks back to the empty words and the dry gestures. He thinks that this is the sort of eulogy he should have given. “Nothing,” he mutters. “Just the truth of it.”
He folds one leg over another at the knee, and his mother’s right hand begins to move from her lap and slowly reaches for the glass of water. She grips it, then lifts it in a trembling hand, and some of the water spills onto the tray. He hadn’t thought of how high to fill it. She moves the glass to her mouth, and more water spills onto her chest. When she does get it to her lips, she only takes a small sip before bringing it back to the tray, spilling more on the way back. She sets the glass down on the domes of water that have puddled on the Plexiglas. He puts a hand over his mouth, slowly rubs his whole face, and looks at dark spots blossoming across her sweatshirt and scarf.
He keeps staring at her before he looks around the floor of the room. He takes a T-shirt from the corner and goes to his mother. He picks up the glass and dries the bottom of it before putting the shirt on the tray to soak up the rest of the water. As he lifts it up, his mother places her hand on his. Her hand is clammy and soft and marked with liver spots. He looks at her but can’t say anything. She just keeps the same smile and holds her hand on his, then moves it up his arm, slowly and still with tremors, up to his face where she holds her hand on his cheek. He can feel her shaking.
When she lets go, he takes a step back and sits down with the wet shirt still in his hand and silently runs his fingers through his hair. His mother is still smiling, and they sit like this, looking at each other, until there’s a rustling from outside the door. It opens and Julia walks into the room with two yellow grocery bags in her left hand. She looks at her mother, then at Jason.
“She got water on herself.” He lifts up the T-shirt, “she can’t drink by herself.” He pauses. “I’m sorry,” he says, looking between Julia and his mother. “We should get her cleaned up.”
Julia shifts one of the bags from her right hand to her left. She opens her mouth, but doesn’t say anything at first.
“Are you hungry?” she finally says.
“How about we eat something, and we can talk.”
“I’d like that.”
As Julia walks to the kitchen, Jason realizes he’s still wearing his shoes. He takes them off and follows her into the kitchen, wheeling their mother in front of him.