I sleep and I wake; I wake and I sleep. I am not sure entirely which is which. When I sleep I remember so much. Images rush into the forefront of my mind. And yet I do not know if they are my images or not. They could be.
There is a pink robe swirling. She speaks my language and feeds me. Sometimes hand to mouth. Sometimes I suck on metal.
“It is spring,” I am told. “Would you like some fresh air?”
I get some fresh air. I smell the most delicious floral smells—a warm wash of petals and I don’t even know what they are called. It is a cloud. The petals form around it.
I stare into the whiteness. There are flecks of paint and it so reminds me of something. Is this de ja vu? The whiteness has a purpose, but I just can’t recall it.
I have a sudden urge for apples, for playing cards and listening.
The pink robe swirls. The room is empty. I listen to my breathing. I am good at breathing. I excel at respiring. These things mean something. I’m not sure what.
Who is this individual crying in front of me? He has a bowl of—what are those? Colorful “orbs”—is that the word? Yellow and green and orange things. What do I want with these? I’m no spring chicken here. I’m a good egg though. People always said I was one. I come from a legacy of good eggs.
“I just, I just don’t know,” he’s saying. “It’s tough.”
“You should stop with the blubbering. Be prideful,” I say.
He can’t look at me. This is the sign of weakness. And I can tell by the way in which he holds himself, he’s short and insecure. He lets life drag him around rather than the other way.
The lady in pink comes. She has one arm draped over the short man and she’s speaking softly to them.
It’s not polite to whisper.
“Turn on the television,” I say. “It’s very cold in here.” The short man leaves the bowl of color on the tray next to the other things. The lady in pink reaches over to the black thingie with buttons and presses it and the television comes on like a miracle from heaven. Finally, some peace around here. What does a woman need to do?
“I’m so sorry, Mrs. Blackburn,” the lady in pink says.
“It’s okay. I’m just….emotional. Lost the store today.”
The short man stammers out and I hope he stammers for good. I cannot abide such weakness.
The walls are all a dull white—don’t they have any sense of aesthetics here? It’s white outside from that stuff falling and it’s white inside. Overkill if you ask me.
The red maple leaves distract me. They blaze in the sunshine outside the window of this place. At some points the window almost seems to be on fire. At times the effect is almost threatening. At other times the fire tells me what I need to know: it is happening.
He sits in front of me. He is such a kind son and I tell him so. He holds my hand for a moment, which is nice. I know he brings what’s-her-name sometimes, but not this time. I forget—he told me there was a reason why she couldn’t visit. He holds out some fruit and I take it and thank him.
“These things look delicious,” I say. “You know I love the green ones.”
“Yes. Yes. You’re welcome, mother.” His eyes seem vaguely misty. “You’ve always loved apples.”
“And what are these yellow things?”
“Funny word. ‘Banana.’ Isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is.”
He tells me something about his stare, that it’s in a big trouble. He says it’s going under and there’s not much he can do about it.
“Nobody buys books.”
“Used? What kind of store is it exactly?”
“A bookstore. A used bookstore.” He tells me that he had to carry board games and stuffed animals and even video games recently and that these items now account for more than half his revenue.
“Are the animals really stuffed?”
“They aren’t real animals, mother.”
“Oh, they aren’t?”
“No. Can we change the subject, please?”
He cuts an apple up for me and I eat it. He starts to inquire about my stool, but he knows I don’t want to think about what’s coming out one end while I’m tending to the other. It’s not supper talk.
I watch the fire in the tree.
We sit for a while and take it all in. He holds my hand again.
The nurse lets him out soon enough. Her pink robe—what is it called?—really stands out around here.
The air vibrates. I can see it vibrate. The vibrations ripple through the heavy green leaves and the air is pregnant with things to come. Is that thunder?
Joel is late, which is unusual. This concerns me because usually if Joel is late this means it will be a bad day for him, an “off day.” Joel loathes lateness, in himself most of all.
I fall asleep waiting. A hand presses my shoulder—Angela, the nurse. Her uniform is a bright reminder of where I am: a cotton carnation.
Joel sits next to me. I can see pity in his eyes—which I don’t like. Someone else used to express this. Names slip most easily. Dr. Oswald says the slipping will only increase. The white pills help prop me up. For now they do.
“I’m thinking maybe fruit will help you,” Joel says.
“Help me with what?”
“What we spoke about—you know, your bowels and all.”
A side effect of the white pills. One of many. Laxatives help, but not enough.
“That would be wonderful,” I say.
His fist clenches and I know why.
“I don’t want to hear it,” I say.
The last time Angela had to call security. Joel is a good son, but his temper still gets the best of him. Just like….it all seems so long ago now. The lake, the pungent aroma of skunk cabbage, the apple trees by the bank.
“Where did we live? I mean, all those years….”
“Oh, God,” Joel says.
“Was it by a lake? I’m thinking it was by a lake, or maybe it was a pond.”
Joel says he showed me the photo album before, that he tried to jog my memory that way. He says he’s working hard.
“It worked, too. You did remember.”
The fan oscillates nicely and I’m sleepy. When I’m drowsy my conversations with Joel seem dreamlike. When I drift off again it’s as if he was a spirit visitor, an apparition from some long forgotten era.
What kind of tree is this?
Angela stands at the doorway, cross-armed and smiling. This seems like a contradiction. She says she’s from Trinidad: I wonder if this is a common mannerism there.
“I believe it is a maple tree, Miss. See those red blossoms?”
I do. The tree is stick and branch and little red buds. The thin sunshine leaks through it into the room where I sit on my bed. I read and sleep. I don’t like television except to block out the noise. Only then does it relax me.
“Your son is coming today, Miss. You have a visitor.”
“My very first visitor!”
I eat lunch—vegetable soup and something hard and crispy. Not a cracker. Bigger than a cracker. What is the word? I wash my face and hands.
Joel arrives with flowers—a cluster of carnations. I kiss his cheek. He is a sweet son. I have so many rich memories, a lifetime’s.
“This is a nice set up,” he says. He crosses his hands on his lap. Edward would sit in this exact position. We would rock on the porch swing and watch the dragonflies zip over the lily pads and upward to God-knows-where and then zip down to the water again. We called it Joel’s Pond. I’m not sure why now. Why ‘Joel’s’? Edward was a watchful man and had a great birding eye. He’d point out the Junco. He’d point out the Grackle. He almost always saw them first, and I loved him for this.
“Yes, it is,” I say.
“You’ll be fine here. They’ll take good care of you.”
“Yes, I think that, also.”
We play cards. Gin rummy—my favorite game. All those years we played at the house. All those blissful years.
“You look content, mother,” Joel says.
“I was just remembering,” I say. “Forgive me, I was lost in thought.”
“That’s great, mom. That’s a wonderful sign.”
We look at photos from the old house. I wonder what ever happened to it. I should know this, should remember. This is one of those missing bits. One of those holes…
The photos are delightful and he laughs and smiles so much. Joel points to a photograph of a young child, but it is not Joel; I can see that.
“Who is that man?”
Joel shakes his head.
“Never mind, mother. It’s okay.”
But I remove the photo from the album and flip it over. On the back: Jacob one year and seven months. All these lost moments….
I have so many questions, most of which I don’t ask. I’m afraid of what I might remember. I’m afraid of what I might blur.
“I need to rest now.”
Joel kisses my forehead and I lie down. The sheets are white and I’m surrounded by white walls. I slip easily into sleep. In my dreams my memories—everything—are right there. Sleep is good. It is a place I want to be. But then I must wake up again and forget.
Nathan Leslie is the author of eight books of short fiction and one novel. His books include Root and Shoot (Texture Press, 2015), Sibs (Aqueous Books, 2014) and The Tall Tale of Tommy Twice (Atticus Books, 2012). Nathan Leslie was editor and founder of Best of the Web (Dzanc Books) for five years he was fiction editor at Pedestal Magazine. Currently Nathan also serves as the interviews editor for Prick of the Spindle and writes a monthly music column for Atticus Review. Nathan Leslie’s work will be included in the forthcoming Best Small Fictions 2016. In addition, he has published his fiction, poetry and nonfiction widely in hundreds of literary magazines such as Shenandoah, North American Review, Cimarron Review, and Boulevard.
Photo by: Ana Prundaru