A Laughing Matter
by Edward Ahern
part 1 of 2
Alan watched the drool sliding from the right side of her mouth. The side of her face whose creases had been gently smoothed out by the stroke. Judith’s right profile was two decades younger than her left. Alan remembered making love to her right profile.
He had pulled a metal and plastic chair next to the bed so he could read to her and wipe away the drool. Alan made a ritual of waiting until the drool had slid down to the corner of her jaw and beaded into an almost drip before blotting up the saliva from the droplet to the corner of her mouth.
Alan opened up The Countess of Dundalk to the dog-eared page and began to read aloud. He tried to give life to the characters but found them impossible to believe in. He settled for putting stress where he guessed it ought to be. Judith had wallowed in romantic melodramas, the more heaving and sighing the better. Alan wondered if this was the female equivalent of soft porn for men.
Judith reacted to nothing, including his reading, but he read aloud anyway. Early in her disability Alan had tried hard for a reaction, anything, eyes, hands, breath, but Judith only endured. Last week he’d bellowed gibberish in a bad German accent, but had only annoyed the roommate who was watching daytime soaps.
The roommate’s name was Georgia. She had once been heavy, but her arms and neck were wattled and flabby, half-inflated balloons shrinking as the fat was leached out. Alan always said hello to her and asked her how she was feeling. Georgia’s response was rarely more than two words, but then she said little more to her infrequent visitors.
Alan disliked her but was unsure why, since he knew almost nothing about her. Georgia was coherent and could talk but generally chose not to do so. She used words as if they cost her a dollar apiece, and verbs cost double.
The day before yesterday had been her birthday, and she had gotten one phone call and no visitors. Georgia’s share of the phone conversation had been less than fifty words. Alan’s eavesdropped remembrance was:
“Yes, eighty-four today.
“About the same.
“No, no better.
“I don’t think so.
The day nurse came in on schedule, at 11 a.m. Samantha always wore green scrubs. Alan had a nostalgic desire for nurses in starched white cap and dress, and white stockings. Samantha always looked like she was dressed for a touch football game.
The nurses at the facility came in two shapes: gaunt and obese. Samantha was emaciated, and smelled of cigarette smoke. Judith, too, was skeletal. Alan had the plumped-out torso and spindly legs and arms of an old man, which he was. He rarely looked at himself in a mirror any more except to shave, but when he did he reaffirmed that his decrepitude was on schedule.
“How’s she doing?’ Samantha would ask.
“The same.” You twit, you’re supposed to tell me.
Alan in turn would ask his every-visit question. “How’s she eating?”
Judith ate small bits of food put to her mouth and had a variety of infrequent, spasmodic bowel movements, Her legs would sometimes twitch, but her eyes did not recognize her motion.
“Not too well.”
For the first few weeks Alan had smuggled in soft desserts and fed small bites of them to Judith. She hadn’t eaten those well either.
“No, pretty much the same.”
The litany, invocation and response, would continue for a few more sentences. They never admitted to each other that his wife would be bonded to a hospital bed until she died.
Samantha read dials and meters and left. Alan put down the tissue and stroked Judith’s hair. Still full and brown, with a few thin streaks of gray.
After an hour or two the room would close in on him. Two hospital beds, two small dressers that served as nightstands, one chair, one small color television, off-beige wall paint. Two small closets with street clothes that had not been worn in months. What little of value that had been brought into the room with Judith had been lost or pilfered. The daytime TV commercials repeated to the point that Alan could recite them. Georgia, who held undisputed control of the remote, never muted the commercials. Alan walked out for his lunch break.
He went downstairs to the ground floor cafeteria for lunch. He drove slowly to the hospital every day, ate lunch in the cafeteria and late in the afternoon drove back home. Alan was no longer comfortable driving after dark.
The cafeteria food varied from day to day but not from week to week. If it was Friday it was fish and fries. He recognized several people and would nod to them, but spoke to no one. He and Judith had grown inward toward each other in recent years. As friends moved away or died they had not been replaced. They had not been joiners or churchgoers and had never waded in the shallow affection by association that support organizations provide.
One corner of the cafeteria was farthest from the food line and usually unfrequented. It was where Alan ate. Another man, who Alan vaguely remembered seeing on Judith’s floor, approached the table. Although he wore khaki slacks and an open-collared shirt, he seemed almost uniformed, like a monk stepping out in his one set of drab civilian clothes.
“All right if I join you?”
Alan tried to find a response that would make the man go away without antagonizing him. He couldn’t. “Okay.”
The man sat down, not directly across from Alan but one seat over, leaving space. He was tall, very tall, and spindly skinny, but with ropy, defined muscles. He filled his side of the table with projecting elbows. He looked to be of Alan’s vintage, older even. He was smiling.
“I’ve seen you up on the third floor. Is that your wife you’re visiting?”
“Yes.” Alan turned his body slightly away from the man, trying to create a conversational barrier. It didn’t work.
The stranger spoke again, his voice more bass than tenor. “I visit the third floor every so often. How long have you been coming?”
“A year and a half.”
“If she’s been here that long she must be a vegetable.”
Alan coughed back a go-to-hell response, and instead rasped, “I beg your pardon?”
The man kept smiling. “Don’t take it the wrong way. I’m very direct. Saves time. When I go by I’ve never seen her move or speak, or get up to go to the bathroom. No way to know if she’s still there. Happens a lot.”
Alan stared rigidly at the man without speaking. The man had layered age lines. What had from a distance seemed like a fairly smooth complexion was a matte finish of crisscrossing wrinkles, one on top of another. He’s a lot older than me, Alan thought.
The man leaned his wrinkles forward, smiling. “Call me Mort.”
Alan enjoyed considering “Go to hell” but instead only muttered, “Alan.”
“Alan, it helps me sometimes to talk to people. When we’re both here would you mind if we had lunch together?”
Alan shrugged. Saying no was impolite, saying yes left him open to intrusion. The lie slid out easily. “I don’t eat here that often, but if you happen to see me, it’s okay, I guess.”
“Excellent. I don’t think I’ll bore you.”
Mort’s smile lines were furrows plowed through the wrinkles. His expression was more amused than cheerful. Alan doubted he had the sense to be sad. He finished eating quickly and went back up to Judith’s room.
The television seemed more intrusive than usual. Alan read more loudly to try and overwhelm the commercials for medicines that treated but did not cure arthritis and migraine headaches, and depression and sexual inadequacy. All the medications had potential side effects that sounded worse than the ailments.
Alan’s departure varied with the onset of dusk. That day he left at 4:30 pm, after lightly kissing Judith’s forehead. He took back roads to and from their condominium and found himself favoring right turns rather than left. He stopped at a supermarket for a take-home chicken. Alan had never been comfortable cooking, and Judith had been so good at it.
The condo had the dead air of marginal occupation. They had had no children, had never had a pet. Alan had always wanted a dog, but Judith had allergies. The smattering of mail was one bill and two circulars from companies who mass-mailed to everyone, without bothering to determine that Alan had quit buying anything except food and medicine. No one wrote letters any more, he thought, only e-mails. Alan wondered if cursive writing would disappear in his remaining lifetime.
He sat quietly after eating his dinner out of the plastic delivery container. He had never liked Judith’s taste in novels and was read out from the day’s monologue. Prime-time television had degenerated into reality shows that were grotesquely unreal.
He watched the dark wrap around the street lights and drifted over to the desktop PC. He read the one non-spam e-mail and started playing poker with the computer. He had set the competitive level low enough that he almost always won. Alan had never played poker in a casino.
At 9:30 he went into their bedroom. Judith’s cosmetics and clothing and costume jewelry lay where she had left them months ago. During his infrequent cleanings Alan would pick up her things, dust the furniture, and replace the items in their random, permanent locations.
Copyright © 2011 by Edward Ahern