Issue 1

Fiction

Don Waters

The Shivering of Leaves


    There's a resuscitation form, another for meds, lists of daily activities and nurses, a lot of nurses. I admit Mom to the nursing home on a Friday, return to our small lawn-dead house and, room-by-room, close all the drapes. A few beers in, I find an ice pick wedged in the back of the utensil drawer beneath a pile of receipts. With enough leverage I force the tip through and strike Formica, piercing a hole through my upturned palm. A dull throb drips to my elbow as I lift my hand, amazed.
    In the emergency room a doctor parts a pink curtain, reveal­ing a grin filled with thin teeth. “Someone slip at the party?” he says.
    As far back as I can remember I've never been in his sort of mood. My hand is blood-wet and heavy, and my pinkie twitches from a wad of ace bandage with a burgundy stain in the middle.
    “There are guns in the house,” I say.
    “Sorry?” The doctor's grin momentarily wilts. He's the ugly type; close-up, under florescent lighting, his pockmarked neck looks like magnified cake. He presses various points on the back of my hand, circling the small hole to gauge my response.
    “How's that feel?” he asks.
    As usual, I can barely feel a thing. “I can't feel anything,” I say.
    “Luckily, no nerve damage,” he says, tapping my hand. 
    “Nothing severed,” he goes on. “The pick passed through without nicking a single bone. Looks like time will heal the wound.” 
    I want to bounce from the table and call him a liar. I want to enlighten him by saying that damage sinks into the skin, it bur­rows into bone, and it lingers. But I don't know if he would understand.
    Instead, the doctor acts the part he's been cast and he scribbles me a love letter. He holds the script out of reach, dangling it as though it's a prize.
    “For when you do feel something,” he says.
    And as always, there's not an answer to the Jim question as I wait in the pharmacy, but something resembling a plan abuts a teetering wall in my mind. There's no easy way to put it: the past few years I've been cataloguing ways to torture my ex-step-father (electric shock, red ants, water-boarding, et cetera) and as a result I've developed the periodic habit of collecting objects in the kitchen and considering their usefulness in the chance it happens. Lost hours, lost wages—finally I lost my job at the site by attending to Mom twenty-four-seven. With the bone-crushing loneliness that now awaits me at home, it seems the right time.
    In the pharmacy, my number scrawls across a digital callboard. Inside the men's room I carry several pills away, and outside the summer's heat is strangulating. Each notch above ninety-eight in­tensifies the smell of the world. My car upholstery reeks of plastic. I merge onto a wide boulevard lined with sagebrush and float home on a chemical wave.
    Drapes, blinds, doors, I shut them all, sealing myself in. Dusk bruises the sky and shadows grow long down the hall. I turn on the TV, the stereo and the air-conditioning, and bury myself in bed.
    Mom's bedroom is across from mine. The single bathroom we shared until five weeks ago. Five weeks ago a cherry burst inside her skull. Mom's knees buckled in the kitchen, the rest of her tipped, and her forehead snapped violently against the counter. I rushed over and witnessed a dark mouth opening above her eyebrows.
    Three specialists dressed in hospital pajamas stood huddled like a team in the I.C.U.'s antiseptic corridor. Down the hall, I stared blankly at my last link to family through a small square window. White pillows unfurled like wings behind Mom's shoulders and stitched across her forehead was the path of a tiny bird.
    Eventually, the captain broke from her team to deliver the news.
    “Cerebral vascular accident,” she said, flipping a page on her clipboard. My stare must have said something. “In other words,” shesaid, “we're looking at a massive stroke.”
    At one point in history, Jim was a cop.
    “Forced by his department into early retirement,” Mom told me. “But he doesn't like talk about it.”
    Mom met him somehow, through someone, when I was ten years old. He lived in Las Vegas ; we were in Reno , and so weekends they'd rendezvous at a midpoint on the map. “Camping in To­nopah,” she'd call out, dragging a sleeping bag out the door.
    Sometime soon after, Jim bore down on us. He sank into the sofa with an ashtray fidgeting on his knee. He was a sad, pow­erful, broken man, and he acted toward those near him in that sad, powerful, broken way by pinning us under punishing thumbs, smearing dirty fingerprints across glasses, walls, our tongues.
    There's little use recalling the hearts Jim punched out of our chests, it's enough just to know that after the marriage, separation and re­straining order, he moved out and directly into a duplex a half-mile away, which remains his largest taunt of all. In his wake he left shat­tered heirloom teacups and a silence so loud it hummed.
    After their divorce, as if in penance, Jim claimed salvation in Jesus Christ. Christmastime he would place gift-wrapped bibles in our mailbox, the attached cards awash in false miracle. Then one season, as I noiselessly presumed, his presents stopped. Mom struggled to find beauty and love again, and in one small way she succeeded. She began to buy and sleep with guns. And around the house I made myself unimportant, quiet as a plant, mesmerized by Mom's wild laugh but terrified of her every decision.
    These days, I've learned to accept that Jim's relocation wasn't because he liked us but because Reno is desert, the town possesses the same amber tints as Las Vegas , and all along he knew deserts were a good place for endings.
    I work my fingers gently with a rubber racquetball but my hand remains useless. I fail, though I try, to make my fingers kiss. 
Under the faucet, the skin around the wound quivers. A yel­low mucous scab has begun to ingest the bandage's gauzy fibers.
    I've never followed orders well, and I don't take the pain­killers as prescribed. By the end of the first week the orange pill bottle is empty. The itch begins under a fingernail and resurfaces as a vague ache in my palm. I swab the prescription bottle for residue and brush it into my tongue. I need a refill, but No Refills says the bottle.
    And, “No refills,” says the nurse behind the emergency room desk. 
My ugly doctor passes through the floor. I call him over and hand him the hollow bottle.
    “I'm beginning to feel something,” I say, lifting my grotesque hand. “Something is there. I need more of what you gave.”
    “It's a schedule two narcotic,” he says. “I suggest non-habit-forming acetaminophen. I certainly don't want to encourage unsafe habits.” 
    Walking through the nursing home it's impossible not to pass through air pockets that taste of gas station toilets, and in the paint­ed-white cinderblock dining room there's a dripping sound.
    Mom's hand, like mine, is deformed; hers is a frozen claw. But it's her face I don't know what to do with. Her drooping cheek looks like someone has laid a hand there, only to rip it down toward hell.
    I flip the feet supports on her chair and maneuver Mom into bed. The head nurse is always telling me I can't do this, help Mom, transfer Mom, that there are licensing and liability issues….
    One slur followed by another, Mom says, “Thanks, Pickle.

    This is her nickname for me.
    Even though Mom is younger than most of the residents, she isn't the saddest in the place. Bewildered eyes drift throughout the home and look shoved into faces accidentally. Spiders could crawl across noses without a twitch, and shaky hands reach out to me whenever I pass. Walls are posted with green construction paper street signs and on the backs of wheelchairs the activity lady has affixed laminated, hand-made State of Nevada license plates with every resident's name, age and room number stenciled into them. Traffic slinks.
    One visit, an old woman who I've seen speaking to door handles steers her wheelchair into my shin, blocking my exit.
    “Right of way,” I say to her.
    Her stringbean finger points to a potted fern next to the door. “Is that your father?” the woman asks. 

    My violent daydreams sharpen with each visit. My fantasies find inspiration from toothless mouths but most of all from Mom's melted-wax face. Ruin is woven into her every gesture. She never remarried; happiness found a way to lock her out. Something delicate and expressive was stolen from her after those years with Jim, and now she's resigned to live among the living dead, unable to walk, trouble with swallowing, and pooling in urine. While, of course, Jim—older by a half-decade, overweight, a smoker—walks, breathes and exists.
    A half-mile from our home, Jim occupies a red brick du­plex mothered by a grouping of oaks, sharing leftovers with a rangy old black and white border collie. I don't know what consumes his mornings, afternoons or nights, but I disapprove of all of it. It's incredible, but it's true: parked in his driveway sits the same model Buick, down to the color, as Mom's. A short time after her purchase, his magically appeared in his driveway.
    Off east I-80, a few hours drive from Reno , an isolated dirt road spills onto a dried lakebed that fans out for miles. I visit in Mom's car, memorize the way in. It's a good place to feel empty. Steep cliffs feed the flat lake bottom with rocks that the wind has the power to move. Each carves a separate groove into the earth. From a distance, squatting on a bluff, I'm a lonely bystander to thousands of rocks with thousands of tails on a slow race toward the horizon. 

    Mom's bed feels right and I relocate rooms. Nights, I raise her blinds for a clean shot of the eastern sky. It's an excellent view with limitless access to long stretches of nothing. Steeled against the headboard, lights off, I watch airplanes and satellites blink inside a blanket of black. I count seconds before the next blink happens but many times it never comes. 

    In Mom's top bureau drawer, shrouded in underwear, there are two Browning nine millimeters, one .45, a small .22 with a blue finished barrel and a twelve inch Bowie knife, sheathed, with the price tag wrapped around its serrated grip. 
    I'm brushing my teeth one morning with the drawer cinched open, absorbed by the guns and the visions they bring, when a sharp pain hits. My arm jolts and a dab of toothpaste lands on one of Mom's bras. 

    The wound is red and weepy, like a cried-out eye, and it's hot to the touch. It doesn't help that I've been working in the garage and blackening the doctor's bandage with oil stains.
    “You're infected,” the doctor tells me. He doesn't look happy to see me. Pink streaks decorate his tired eyes and he appears to be in a rush. He writes orders for two more scripts—painkillers, antibiotics. And like before, he holds them from me.
    “Follow directions this time,” he says. 

    On the kitchen counter, next to my toolbox, I gather pliers, duct tape, stereo wire, screwdrivers, a long coil of coaxial cable, a soldering iron, three-inch nails and a mallet. I rearrange their order but grow increasingly frustrated. The items refuse to fit into a gen­eral plan. The method lives outside me, blurrily present, buried in my blind spot. 

    Jim likes Good Times.
    Good Times smells like plywood and ashtrays. It's located in a strip mall boxed in by a hair salon and a burrito joint. I've got­ten drunk there many desperate nights, and both Jim and I know the bartender, Terri. When you order from Terri, she places a bottle on the counter and next to it a tall glass, not a shot glass, and invites your pour.
    On more than one occasion, I've recognized Jim and Jim has recognized me. During these times we keep glued to our seats for the remainder of our drinks, or I'll pop up for a round of darts and across the room there will be a flinch, or vice versa. For me the re­sponse is out of fear and, I admit, a small measure of fascination. It's the same for him, too, I suppose. Everything since he last knew me has elongated, fattened with muscle, and grown tired of waiting for memory to fade.

* * *

    Vicodin draws out sparkles hidden on the corners of the china cabinet, and I'm drinking when I place the call. It's late, past midnight , I guess. I've been up thinking about a night with fists when the hazel drained from Mom's eyes and she slashed at Jim's throat with a shard of bathroom mirror he'd punched into hundreds of pieces.
    “Hello?”
    “Is this Jim?”
    “That's right. This is Jim.”
    “You were a son of a bitch,” I say, and I hang up. 

    I can't recall, a few years ago perhaps, Mom phoned from the employee lounge at the Shop-N-Save. 
    “What are you doing there?” I asked. 
    “He's here,” she said in a low whisper. “Jim saw me from the other end of the aisle and he started walking. A nice girl let me use the phone in the back.” Her tense breathing came in bursts. I calculated the number of years since their divorce: nineteen. She was still afraid; Jim still prowled.
    “Just leave the store,” I said.

    “I can't, Pickle,” she said. “Listen, I want you to open the top drawer of my bureau. I want you to get in your car—”

    The line went silent. I cradled the phone and a tremor began in my knee. Hours later, Mom left the employee lounge under the supervision of the manager, who assured Mom he'd escort her to the Buick, make sure her tires found the road just fine. 

* * *

    Four, five pills a night I begin to idle in front of Jim's house, lis­tening to the shivering leaves. Not long after Mom's transfer to the nursing home, I follow him to the dog park. With a slight limp Jim shuffles around his Buick, opens the back door, and his dog tumbles out. The pathway winks at me, crushed glass mixed in the cement, and I trail the worn-out pair as far as the fence line.
    Jim sits on a bench, crosses his legs, and wraps a black leash around his hands, binding them. I expect his hands are more like brittle twigs than the solid branches I remember from my childhood throat.
    Eventually, Jim looks over, and nods. It feels like betrayal, but I nod back and we share a moment of excruciating intimacy. In those brief few seconds I want to feel overcome, crushed by ten­derness, but instead I stand as always: dry, everything inside eroded to pebbles.
    For a while we watch his slow dog creep around the brush, sniffing. Jim's glasses have grown thicker and his midsection rounder, and he moves unrushed, as though wanting to consume as much time as possible. Still, he owns the same pinched face, the same acne pits at his temples, and his thinning white hair looks like a puffed dandelion before a storm. He's tall, and he walks like a tall man, stooped, stooping to pick up dog shit.

* * *

    Mondays and Wednesdays and Fridays I visit Mom, usu­ally weekends as well. Mom befriends the activity lady, Janice, and when Mom isn't busy wheeling after Janice we watch afternoon talk shows, play blackjack, sit.
    But there's boredom in her stare, a look of sterility. On one occasion, I sneak in her .45, laced into my belt, and I lift my T-shirt to show it off. I know immediately I've struck the right note because the side of her face that works hardens in surprise and her eye flashes to white.
    It's difficult to imagine how it must feel confined in her chair, seeing how it cuts her body into thirds. For safety reasons I don't understand, there's a raised hump near the entrance of her doorway, and wheeling from her room to the hall is a trial of will. One afternoon, I watch as she tries to propel herself over the hump. Her wheels rock back and forth, back and forth, until a breath of guilt enters as I see her wheels stop.
    Brushing a hand through my hair, I study Mom through a vivid opiate mist. A frayed purple bathrobe ends at her knees and warm sunlight cuts through the curtains, illuminating her dry scaly legs. Time and air and warmth unwrap her. Dead skin peels back and reveals dots of pink flesh, like a baby's, just underneath.
    I pull Mom's Buick into a free space at the strip mall. Jim's dog suffers in the rear of his car, struggling for breaths. I curl a fin­ger through the cracked window and stroke the dog's coarse nose. His eyes are milky, blinded by age, and for a moment I imagine that the poor thing probably misses gazing at clouds.
    Jim sits alone, hunched over a beer, inspecting himself in the mirror behind the bar. A fine line of smoke rises from his cigarette and then writhes as he exhales into its path.
    “Two glasses,” I say to Terri. She produces them along with a bottle. I drag over a stool.
    “I'm sitting next to you,” I say, and he knows.
    Whiskey bites the back of my throat, and before Jim has the chance to touch his glass I tip it over the lip of the bar. Liquor floods his lap. A little surprised, I guess, he looks down at his crotch as I unzip my jacket pocket, tickling Mom's Browning.
    Jim lifts his eyes from the gun and says, “Hold on. Let me finish my drink.”
    He walks bow-legged, pinching his wet jeans, and follows me outside. I ask if he'd like the dog along and Jim says, “Sure.”
    The dog hops from one Buick and into another and I ask Jim if he wants the wheel, since he knows this make of car so well.
    “No, that's okay,” he says. 
    It was that time in life, I guess, and I'd developed an obses­sion for obliterating my brain with drugs in the basement with friends. One particular winter night—we were maybe fourteen—Edgar, Ronnie and I sat cross-legged in the mildewed darkness, examining each other's pulsating faces, when a sound snapped at us. We watched a pair of snakeskin boots pass by a window high on the wall.
    After racing upstairs, we swung open the front door and discovered a memento left by Jim. Propped against the railing was a long-forgotten Sears portrait of our two-year-long fam­ily. Cold air bit into my lips and my friend's faces gave off the soft glow of streetlamp halos. In my state, Edgar's eyes melted down his cheeks in strings. Edgar lifted the gold-framed portrait and, in his state, howled at the razored-out faces. There were other times, of course—the slashed tires, the clipped phone lines. And once, on a high school raid of Mom's closet for spare cash, I uncovered shoe­boxes filled with clip-outs from Hustler exploding with genitalia and strange threats Jim had been mailing all along.

    “A match against a house.”
    “Scissors on a vein.” And so on.
    We drive east into the desert on I-80. Finally, the wound has shown signs of healing. It's a tender mass of fluid and skin, and driv­ing with the hand is difficult. With my fingertip, I caress the soft pit in the middle. I'm surprised to find a heartbeat in it.
    Jim's lungs, when he coughs, sound like sticks breaking.

    “Whatever happened to that case,” Jim says, “your case I read about in the newspaper?” 
After all these years, after decades of silence, and of all things, Jim wants to know about Christie, a girl I once knew, and for Chris­tie I ended up in Sacramento, hot-wired an eighteen-wheeler, and drove it back to town and parked it in front of her apartment. The girl liked candy, it was Valentine's Day, and I delivered her forty feet of it.
    I keep it short. “Probation,” I tell him.

    We soon discover there aren't many more words between us out here, and the long drive eats away the afternoon. We hit dirt road, the toolbox rattles in the trunk, and at one point Jim pops the glove compartment and he sees Mom's .45 bouncing on the car's registration and insurance papers. He quickly closes it.
    The road dips into the dry lakebed, and I kill the engine. Jim opens the back door and lets his dog roam the hot dead earth. In the trunk, I find an alloy rim and fill it with water from a bottle. Jim gently scoots his dog toward it.
    “He's been a good friend,” Jim says, kicking his boot heel against a large rock. I follow its groove across the hard-crust basin. Its trail disappears at a cliff.
    “Dogs are nice for things like that,” I say.
    Together we survey the desolate terrain. I know what must be done.
    “You know all that, what happened years ago,” Jim says. “I don't want any more horror.”
    “Well, now,” I say. Mom's Browning slips snugly into my pocket. I also know what I could never do.
    “Stand over there,” I say to Jim. When he's far enough from the car, I brace the door and slam it on my wrecked hand. It's not what I want: I hit wrist. And I can tell at once it's not enough for him to understand.
    Jim's neck tenses to wire and his hands go up. “Wait,” he says.

    I don't. With my hand bracing the hinge, I slam the door again and the sting shoots deep into my lungs.
    The more intense the pain, the more astonishing everything becomes. Wind cries through my ears. Out of the corner of my wa­tering eye, I see a rock budge—I think it moves. Jim wraps his arms around his chest, crumbles into a ball, and for the first time I realize we are surrounded. On all sides, everywhere we look, mountains grind to dust.