I sat in the waiting room reading the Tampa Tribune while my sister Claire talked on her phone. She went on about medical protocols and hospice, and I half listened until I heard something about our mother being denied eggplant. I rested the paper and frowned, intentionally. It would be Claire to do this. I exhaled and crossed my legs, smacking the paper on my lap.
“That was Patty,” she said after getting off the phone. “Her mother died last month, if you remember.”
“I do, I’m sorry,” I said with token empathy. I didn’t know the woman. “Did I hear correctly, that you didn’t let Mom have eggplant?”
“You did,” she said. “She can’t have it.”
“Why the hell not?”
“The salt. And salty is the only way she’ll eat it. We can’t risk her kidneys.”
“She’s going home to die, Claire,” I said.
“They said no salt, so it’s no salt.”
I rested the paper on the chair next to me while she pulled receipts from her purse, pretending to study them. We’d been here before, a battering of the minds and Claire refusing to weigh the scenario. And to sit there perusing receipts.
I drove my rent-a-car from the hospital to my mother’s apartment a couple of hours before she was transferred home. Drowsy folks sat on benches outside of Flamingo Ridge, a four-story white stucco horseshoe several blocks from the bay. They watched me as I parked and got out of the car with that curious focus seniors can have. You can’t always tell if they’re sizing you up or what, but your presence seems an event.
They were two men and a woman. I gave a respectful nod as I passed, sensing their heads turning with my stride.
“Are you Margaret’s boy?”
I stopped, surprised. “Yes,” I said to the woman. “How did you know that?”
“Claire said you might be by. She’s here a lot checking things. A good girl.”
“She’s my hero, that Claire,” I said.
“Are you collecting things?”
“I’m opening up for a bed delivery,” I said. “A hospital bed.”
“Oh?” said one of the men while turning to the woman. She informed him my mother was indeed coming home. “Oh?” he repeated, looking at me.
Off to the side of the bench by ten or so yards was an old man in a wheelchair with an aide standing behind him. He seemed to be getting air, but not really part of the group on the bench. He held a newspaper on his lap and listened to the conversation. I liked that he dressed well in pressed khakis and a sky blue Lacoste polo. A tuft of silver hair glistened under the sun, and I noticed him smiling at the other old man’s astonishment that my mother was indeed coming home. The man in the wheelchair looked at me and we smiled, both seeming to comprehend the matter.
I entered the building remembering what a commodity my mother lived in; a ground level unit. Residents often maneuvered at the first sign of vacancy, causing me to think of them as circling old vultures with human heads, their feathers dropping off in spirals. Smiling at this, I unlocked my mother’s door.
The two-bedroom unit maintained enough soul to launch me backward to Brooklyn and the borough air: warm, still, the old immaculate furniture atop a spotless oval rug. I crossed the living room and opened the windows. The southern waters blew past me, fluttering the pages of a TV Guide.
Black and white photos of relatives who’d died long before my birth hung on a wall. Great relatives, suited and groomed, powdered and bonneted wearing the absolute dress and the serious demeanor of Catholic sacraments. The children stared at me as if under the threat of the belt, their parents as if the lens was the eye of God.
Color photos hung on another wall, and my mother and father changed with the times. They smiled, and so did my two sisters and I because God appeared from under the black cloth a man, telling the new generation to smile and say cheese. I looked at us kids, chili bowl haircuts and plaid, and felt dickish about my Claire is my hero comment to the old woman on the bench.
I was still in high school when Claire was raped at college. It happened in his dorm after a date, which must have meant Claire wanted it to happen and it wasn’t rape at all. She dropped out of college with severe panic attacks and he graduated. Mary, the oldest of the Troika kids, had just touched down at a new physical therapy job in Anaheim. She flew home to support Claire, and after a brief stay flew back to Anaheim oblivious to the leukemia at work inside her. Mary braved another flight home six weeks later, arriving home pale and sweaty. That time, she never made it back to Anaheim.
Our father, Buddy (Theodore) Troika, did not live to bury Mary or support Claire. He flat-lined under the paddles in the back of an ambulance, and they wheeled him, his police uniform torn open, straight to the morgue. With Claire gone to pieces, Mary pale and sick, me tight and seething, we converged in the Brooklyn house a family of repeated shock, and our father taken just when we most needed him. Margaret Troika patched our days by cooking, and it didn’t matter to her if the food was sparsely eaten. She cooked for us, for her dead husband, for her sense of reality.
Two young men wheeled the heavy bed into the building. To their delight, the old bed was already gone, donated by Claire to a homeless veterans association in Tampa. They checked the bed’s adjustability and I tipped them twenty dollars as we walked outside. The residents on the bench watched the delivery truck drive away. I watched it, too, and then noticed the silhouette of the old man in the wheelchair sitting by a third story window, that thick tuft of silver hair on his forehead. His focus remained on the empty space where the delivery truck had been. Any bravery I held toward a singular life collapsed at the mere sight of this very same man now looking so alone, and I realized a nascent fear. The idea of gaining freedom through divorce lost its romance at the sight of this old man by the window taking in the trials of an ailing neighbor. I turned away from him with a vague sense of wanting to run from what cannot be escaped.
Back inside I lay on the new bed and played with the adjustments, finally bringing myself up and closing my eyes. The last thing I remembered was the man in the window and trying to imagine his years and who he was.
“Don’t you want to take your shoes off?”
I opened my eyes within those first moments of befuddled vulnerability after waking. Claire pulled sheets off a shelf in the closet. A half hour had passed. She turned around holding the neat stack and I readied myself to rise, then dropped back again. “I’m realizing I’m tired,” I said.
Claire held her sheets, and like many other moments, it bothered me that she wasn’t married. She’d let her raven hair drop past her shoulders and down her back, an obsidian mane growing out of equally dark eyes. “You’re like a vampire with the no aging thing.”
“It’s called no man-stress,” she said. “I sell it as bottles of advice.”
“Yea? Did you sell some to Kerri?” I asked. She smiled at this quip to my fading marriage. “Well get ready for some man-stress,” I said, getting off the bed “I’m going to the store.”
I kissed her forehead and headed for the bathroom. “An eggplant store.”
The things the mind will hold for you until needed. Somehow I remembered that my mother never bought large eggplants. She bought two smaller ones for their tenderness. I dumped what other fresh ingredients I needed into the basket, and headed for the salt. No different than chocolates, Margaret treasured her salt out of Claire’s line of sight, but it would please Claire if I forgot to buy it and then had to search the apartment.
I beat my mother’s arrival home by ten minutes and waited for Act Two at Flamingo Ridge. Eyes appeared in windows and bodies milled around and sat on benches. Claire and I greeted our mother outside the ambulance as the techs extended the wheel frame of her carrier. She took my fingers as they started wheeling her to the entrance and said, “Glad you’re here,” without smile or frown. I saw that her flesh had diminished in the six months since my last visit. With the shades drawn, the hollows of her cheeks appeared like shadowy holes. The techs stopped while Claire activated the front doors. “I didn’t want to die in that hospital,” our mother added.
Years earlier I would have averted this with a trite comment about bootstrap survival. “I understand,” I said. “The menu is yours.”
I watched them transfer my mother’s potato chip body into the new bed that Claire left in my upright position. A Saturday afternoon baseball game played out on her television, and one of the techs, a blond ponytailed young woman, wanted to switch it for her. “Don’t,” I said. “It’s her Mets, she’s a masochist.”
I walked the techs to the door before entering the galley kitchen to slice the eggplant.
“Obstinacy at work,” Claire said from the kitchen entry. “You don’t even know if she’ll want it anymore.”
“She’ll want it,” I said. “And to that point, let me paint a picture for you.” I exchanged the drainage rack for a cutting board on the counter. “A twenty-five year old on the edge of life or death, you don’t screw with. An eighty-eight year old in the oncology ward with no chance of survival…you make that person happy.”
“It could cause her undue complications,” she said.
“If she eats three pounds of it, Claire.” An eggplant thudded under my hand on the cutting board. “You’re the undue complication. How much do you think she’s going to eat? She wants the taste.”
“Feeling guilty, Ted?” she asked.
I might have expected this shard. “No,” I answered. “Just don’t treat this with the same caution you do your relationships.”
Of all the time I’d spent worrying over Claire’s singularity, this is how I came out with it; a recriminatory jibe. She was an icebox standing there. “Well if your salt doesn’t kill her, the shock of you being here might,” she said, and left the entry.
It was a bad thing to say to anyone who struggled to connect, but worse to Claire my sister, the raped Claire. I stood there knife in hand, perfect in my screw-up. I’ve never been good with eggshells.
Claire sat where Margaret took her meals, at a small table to the left outside the kitchen. She pretended to watch television, which was something I’d aced; making women in my life pretend to be doing other things. I wiped my hands with a dishtowel for the comfort of movement. “I’m sorry,” I said. A truckload of mutual awareness waited behind her silence.
I’d called her for support during my marriage breakdown though I deserved little, and yet she couldn’t reach the altar for the mind-fog inside of her.
“I’m a rotten bastard,” I said.
Claire shook her head, but I sensed it was more in refusal to let me play reverse victim. “It’s just that you had an affair on Kerri, right?”
“Right,” I said. She knew I had. Another woman. Seana.
“And that’s been your way?”
“It has,” I said. She nodded.
“Have my two nieces picked up on things?”
“Not the specifics.”
“And how are they?”
“Snotty,” I said. “But well.”
“So do you want to talk about relationships?”
“Not really,” I answered.
Claire nodded again and dropped her rhetorical points. “I am sorry about Seana,” she said. “Did you make the funeral?”
“I did. No one asked who I was.” This time I wasn’t playing reverse victim. The memory of that darkened place of flowers and secrets, the mind blowing nature of Seana at rest in a room of people who didn’t know about us brought a strange agitation to me. I had a ways to go with this.
“It’s not right, to get sick like that.” Claire looked directly at me. “Shouldn’t the payback of enduring acute self awareness be that you don’t suffer?”
“Hah,” I said. “To be self aware is to suffer I think.” I kept folding and unfolding the dishtowel.
“Well what good is it anyway?” Claire stated. “Do you think you could have married her?”
“Maybe you should reverse that question,” I said.
Until then, I viewed the flight from New York, the eggplant, and the head-butting with Claire as a means to an end, that being a dignified coda to our mother’s life. Strangely enough, the eggplant I sliced and placed in hot olive oil was no longer a fencing maneuver against Claire. I wanted the nostalgia of the meal, and the pathos.
I reached back to all the Sundays through all seasons while turning the slices in the crackling oil. Our Brooklyn table hosted blood and non-blood, people running a litany of elations and depressions. Heartbreak, new jobs, miscarriages, marriage, new babies, cheating and divorce. Even rape and death pulled out a chair. It didn’t matter what was decidedly mentioned. What was, was accepted, and Margaret Troika set down her food.
I once had an epiphany, a long fingernail tracing around my temple before entering the impressionist place in the brain. It happened after a shower, and I stared at my body wrapped in a white towel, my damp black hair waiting to be groomed. It had been two years since Claire’s rape and less than that since Mary died. No doubt Claire was out on the sofa with her knees pulled up. She chose the end farthest from the window, her comfort being the artificial light of the television. Staring in the mirror I wondered if night unnerved Claire because the rape happened at night, or maybe it was comforting because she couldn’t see the world she’d withdrawn from, the same one I thrived in with mod clothes and the carnal hopes of a young male. I grasped life’s peculiar kinship with cruelty while standing in that bathroom, and worried about the time slipping away from my sister.
I dated a girl named Nicole long enough that she came by our house for the good part of summer. Conscious of Claire, never dressed for anything other than the end of the sofa, I viewed them in cordial opposition of one another.
Claire is really nice, Nicole would say. I agreed, but never offered anything more, which added to a momentum of curiosity, and people just can’t help themselves.
You know, I was looking at her tonight. She really is a pretty girl.
Is she happy working in a bookstore? There has to be a nice guy for—
Claire was raped at college. My guilt, anger, and rebellion broke through. I drove on, putting the onus on Nicole for pushing me. She looked straight ahead and apologized. How awful. Dirty fucker. How awful. She was right, there, and yet I derived pleasure in shutting her up. It wasn’t her fault, and we faded out by autumn.
Greg Rutledge was the guy that raped Claire, and the one I wanted to hurt in so many terrible ways. Even kill. I actually wanted to kill him. I didn’t know if Claire knew I still felt this way. Certainly she knew it when I was a brooding teenager because I said as much. But the years do something—one after another they make you not mention things. What was okay then, the rage-ready teenage boy, must give way to a thoughtful adult. A mask, really. I wanted to pulverize Greg Rutledge with different objects for an extended period of time. I rested the knife and left the kitchen.
Claire read through some of our mother’s mail with an upbeat attentive look. I’d forgotten that she’d started to wear reading glasses. She smiled, knowing I hadn’t seen them.
“Dark rims, nice look.”
“Thanks,” she said, staring at me. I must have looked like I was going to say something because she raised her eyebrows.
“Sometimes I’ve felt a heavy guilt for being with a woman,” I said. “For feeling certain ways.”
“Come again?” She cocked an eyebrow. “Gay?”
I shook my head. “I still think about hurting him,” I said. “I want you to know that.” My eyes fluttered, which they sometimes do when I admit something.
Claire held a serene look through those glasses, her eyes large and reflective. “I go with his karma retribution,” she said. “The reap-what-you-sow thing.”
“Thanks, though. I didn’t know.”
Who really knows where patterns start or to what extent they bleed into the different areas of life. I believed the rape imposed its will on Claire, her reasoning caught inside a mind-tunnel of fear and trepidation. Lord knew I had no right to affect change in my sister or anyone else, but I wasn’t after her in that way. I wanted to hurl a hot stone at her armor, thinking even a slight crack might send her pieces downward as if under a warm sun. It was pie-in-the-sky postulation, I knew, but maybe without being irreverent, I might show Claire that doomsday prophesies were for the doomsayers. We could move on.
Wearing a pair of canary yellow oven mitts, I rested a hot tray of eggplant parmesan on the table in front of Claire. Silver bowls from our youth were now in Tampa and we used them, even the little one with the oregano. “I tried to do a decent sauce,” I said.
“It smells wonderful.”
“If you close your eyes you’ll be in Brooklyn,” I said. “We’ve even got the breeze through the window.”
Claire didn’t reopen her eyes for over a minute. I wondered how far back she traveled, and who she saw. A little smile etched at the corners of her mouth. Through Claire’s expression, I reached a forgotten place of little wisdom but a lot of hope. A place where the salt of our lives was not so potent and time not so layered.
We finished our meal together in the breezy room, and I sat back, happy with the result. Claire watched the little glass salt shaker as I pushed it with my index finger toward her. “She’s not up yet, smarty,” she said.
“Just checking.” We sat there for a little while watching television before taking our plates into the kitchen. I filled a new plate with a healthy portion of eggplant and wrapped it in plastic.
“Where are you going with that?” Claire asked.
“To someone upstairs.”
What did I expect this elderly man to accomplish? No doubt a chord of sympathy struck me at the sight of him alone—the relentless ebb of life as the human body. But I also hadn’t lost the feeling of running from something when I turned away from him, as if mortality had challenged me. That’s not a fair fight for anyone.
Yet maybe it was speaking, not challenging. All the fear of watching Seana pass away, and the carnage our infidelity left in its wake beat like the distant drum of some mysterious tribe I wasn’t sure about. It could kill me or it could nourish me, but either way avoidance was not possible. I saw my life as a beach after a hurricane—the indiscriminate sun breaking on my world with much to clean and learn.
Was this person really my fear in the flesh? God, that’s a lot to put on someone. I half hoped he’d smack me for holding my offering of eggplant parmesan as if it were payment to an oracle. But giving is so often an attempt to complete us in some way.
Outside the benches were empty. The sun dropped away and birds carried on through the dusk, and I looked up to the third floor and counted off the windows.
by Joseph LoGuidice
Joseph LoGuidice’s work has appeared in The Write Place At The Write Time, Toasted Cheese, The Broadkill Review and Wild Violet. He lives in Westchester County, NY, with his wife and two daughters and their cat, Edward Van Halen. www.josephloguidice.com