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A Laughing Matter

by Edward Ahern

Part 1 appears
in this issue.

The next morning Alan again woke before the 6 a.m. alarm. He was in the facility by eight. He sat between Judith and Georgia in the one chair and began to read. Both women ignored him. Allan in turn badly wanted to avoid his new buddy Mort, and went down to lunch a half hour early. Mort however was at his table within five minutes of Alan’s sitting down.

“Hello, Alan.”

Mort’s permanent smile reminded Alan of the rictus of an idiot.

“Mort, how can you be cheerful in a place like this?”

Mort’s smile impossibly broadened. “What place more appropriate? We’re watching the trees falling in the forest, the embers of dying fires, the softening of fading flowers, etc., etc. Don’t you at least ruefully smile at these?”

Alan’s composure hissed out of him. “What moronic comparisons. This place smells of bleach and stale urine. The patients are comatose or all doped up to reduce chronic pain. Nobody recovers here, they just get prolonged.”

A look of assessment entered Mort’s eyes, but his amused expression was undisturbed. “You trigger your own moods, Alan. Don’t blame this cinder-block aquarium for the elderly. You’ve just been ignoring the dying part of the journey until you were forced to deal with it. Dying is like farting, it just happens.”

“Mort, only an insane man relishes death, everyone wants to keep living.”

“Relish, smellish. Death has the same illogic as life. Can you eat without shitting? Exert without sweating? Breathe in without exhaling? The smells of dying are as distinctive and memorable as those of birth or of sex.

“You read aloud to a woman who may or may not be aware of your effort, and who, if aware, may hate being read books she already knows the endings to.”

Alan said nothing.

“Alan, I have to get up to the fourth floor now, but we’ll talk again tomorrow.”

“I doubt it.”

Mort moved quickly toward the exit, very quickly for an old man. Alan waited a few minutes to settle down, and then also started to leave. He stopped at the cashier’s booth.

“Did you notice that skinny old man I was eating with?”

“Mister, I didn’t notice you, let alone anyone else.”

“He’s skinny, old, maybe in his high seventies or eighties, white, balding but not completely bald, no glasses, which is odd.”

“Mister, except for the ‘no glasses’ you just described most of the men in here, yourself included.”

“Yeah. Okay.”

Alan moved slowly back up to Judith’s room. He was angrier than he could remember being in a long time. He left the book he’d been reading lay and picked up a magazine of Georgia’s.

“Okay if I read this?

“Um.” Always pithy, that Georgia.

The magazine devoted itself to rumors about misbehavior, sexual and otherwise among film and TV actors. Apparently, the worse the alleged behavior the less recognizable the actor could be and still be written about.

Alan envisioned hundreds of publicists in Hollywood dreaming up escapades for their D-list clients and then weighing the downside of hinting that an actor had done designer drugs with deviant monkeys against the upside of face and name recognition.

Alan finished the magazine, picked up Judith’s book with a sense of guilt, and resumed reading aloud. At 4:30 he closed the book and returned home. He ate the leftover chicken from the delivery container for dinner.

Mort kept coming back into focus, like the lyrics of a bad song that he couldn’t shake from his inner ear. Jerk, he thought. Alan had never been good at verbal argument, and rehearsed one or two cutting comments for delivery if he saw Mort again.

The morning routine repeated itself. Alan this time waited until 1:00 pm to go down for lunch. Mort was already at the table. Alan debated sitting elsewhere but decided it would be cowardly to do so.

“Hello, Alan. Sorry that you got the Yankee Pot Roast as well, it’s pretty bad.”

“It usually is. Mort, why is it you’re here every day? You go to different floors; you must not be seeing a relative.”

“No, I’ve got a little one-man business that keeps me busy around here.”

“Which is?”

“Delivery and pick-up service. People need to be brought things; more often I take stuff away with me.”

“Do you have a card?”

“Yeah, sure, but most people are aware of me from word of mouth. Here’s my card.”

Alan glanced at it. Blue-white paper stock verging almost into purple. Mort Azari, Pick Up and Deliveries. A phone number and a web site. He put it in his pants pocket.

“You ever been married, Mort?”

“No, no, I never have.”

“So how are you an expert on what my wife needs? Who are you to tell me to be cheerful about coming here? How can you take some kind of twisted happiness from seeing these dying people?”

Mort’s smile widened. “Good, very good. Feels good to be on your hind legs again, doesn’t it? I don’t think you’re religious, Alan, so I won’t waste time on theology.”

“This is ridiculous. I’m not going to argue theology or anything else with you.”

“Don’t expect you to. You’d lose anyway. Alan, climb out of that pathetic little coffin you’re already building for yourself and consider. The roadway out is the mirror image of the roadway in.”

“So what?”

“Quit wasting your time worrying about a woman with a degenerated mind and a useless body. You’re really just worrying about yourself. The beauty of your decline is that you’re aware of it. Savor what you’re still capable of. Recall fondly what was. Screw the rest, it’s inevitable anyway.”

“How can you say these things to me, you pervert. Who gave you the right?”

“It was a request. From a woman. I do requests.”

Alan lurched upward. “You’re... you’re not normal. Stay away from me. I’m going to report you and your so-called business.”

Alan half-ran to the exit and stopped to ask for the location of the security office. The security guard was from a service. Probably minimum wage. The guard tried hard to convince Alan that he had only had a geriatric spat but finally agreed to come with Alan back to the cafeteria.

Mort wasn’t there. Alan found Mort’s card and showed it. The security guard took no notes, but did take Alan’s phone number and gave him the number of the security service. Alan called the service and got a glorified dispatcher, who had even less concern about Mort than the guard did.

Alan thought of Judith and started back up to her room to check on her. He walked slowly, checking the lobby and third floor for Mort.

Judith was unchanged. Alan sat churning for a half hour and then went over to Georgia. He picked up the TV remote. “Mind if I change the channel?”

Georgia leaned forward, following the path of the remote, and said “Hey” but went silent, shocked. It occurred to Alan that that was the closest he had ever physically been to Georgia.

Alan channel-flipped until he found a show from National Geographic about eared seals. He kept the remote and walked over to Judith’s bed side.

“How’s that?’ he asked loudly.

They watched the seals, and then a show about a coral reef, and Alan went home. He had no food, and walked to a diner four blocks away. It was a quiet Tuesday night. The twelve or so diners were all twenty years younger than Alan and grouped up; he was the only solo. He pictured himself going from booth to booth and saying, “Watch out for Mort.”

After dinner Alan called the phone number on Mort’s card and got a recording. At the beep he started yelling into the phone. “You asshole, I’m going to have you arrested.” He went on line and found the web site. Open space except for the phone number, name and notation “Pickups and Deliveries.” Alan never saw Mort again, although he kept looking.

One day three months later he came into Judith’s room two hours late. He had switched to talking to Judith rather than reading to her, which made his visits briefer.

“Judith, I have to tell you something. I should have told you about it before, but I’ve been dithering about it for two weeks. I’ve been going to the animal shelter looking at dogs. There was one dog there, mongrel, ugly, five or six years old. Probably won’t last more than three or four years more. It was going to be put down unless someone claimed it. I haven’t even named it yet. When you come home I’ll get rid of it, but meanwhile it’s company. I think it sheds, though.”

Copyright © 2011 by Edward Ahern

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