A guy named Walt who had three pit bulls with him gave me a ride home in his Wagoneer sometime around dawn. He was pretty old, and his dogs were all sweet as fuck. If you like dogs, he said, you should sit in the back. They will sit all over you. So, I did that. I was thinking, I like these dogs, and, these dogs can actually predate on me if they choose to. One of them, Mona, was 115 pounds. How heavy do you think she is, Walt asked me. I said, she is definitely heavier than I am.
Mona had an awesome white patch on her face. She kept doing the dog thing of knocking the head into me and leaning against me to try to provoke some petting. In her case, though, it is not really a question. You will pet her or she will eat you.
Walt dropped me at the corner and Mona gave a little wail when I got out. The other two dogs didn’t care as much. She never likes anyone, Walt said, which is what dog owners always say. Does everyone believe it? I usually do.
My aunt was awake when I came in, or I thought she was, but she was kind of frozen in her chair. It is hard for me to describe it, but her body was really weird and stuck. In my head, I heard a voice I hadn’t heard before, some voice of knowledge say in a slow clear way, she has had a stroke.
I think it was probably just my own voice, but I was so far away at that point, I couldn’t even recognize it.
The ambulance came, and they told me I couldn’t ride in it. They carried her out of the house, which was strange – having these men I don’t know inside our house – and then they wouldn’t let me get into the ambulance. You’re drunk, they said. Sober up. I tried to insist, but they said no, and gave me the address of the hospital. One of them led me away from the ambulance a short distance while the other shut the door, so I couldn’t even jump in.
I don’t know why they wouldn’t let me go along with her, but it was awful.
Essentially, ten seconds passed, and I was standing on the street, it was six a.m. and the ambulance was gone. Some people who had been woken up by the sirens were looking at me out their windows. I felt like a real fuckup.
It happened so fast that I had the thought – just jump in the ambulance, after the ambulance was gone. Then it turned a corner in my head and became, why didn’t you jump in the ambulance?
Then, I felt even worse waiting for the bus, because I stopped being drunk and I stopped being high, and I was just hungry and the bus took forever to come. When it did, it got me part way. I had to wait for another bus. That got me to the hospital.
One thing about hospitals is – it isn’t always clear how to get into them. You can walk around the outside a long way looking for the entrance, and then when you find it there are thirty-foot letters that say, Emergency, or Outpatient.
I wasn’t sure if I should go into the emergency room, but I did, and then I had to wait to talk to the nurse because there were people truly bleeding who were on line in front of me. A little girl was throwing up into her mom’s purse. I’m not kidding. The mom was holding the purse open, and the kid was throwing up into it.
Forty-five minutes later, when I managed to speak to someone, I got hassled about not having any identification, and I solved that by crying.
At that point, there was nothing they could do but take me to her, so they did.
Before we get to what happened when I went to my aunt’s room:
my aunt wrote a book. I didn’t know that she had done that until after she was in the hospital because my aunt is almost always in the house when I am in the house and so I never really get to poke around the way you do when you are alone. And that’s the poking that really counts, because inevitably you find things that lead to other things, and next thing you know you have emptied out someone else’s drawers and are looking at notes they wrote to people who are long dead.
At the bottom of one of the drawers was a book called
Falstaff, the Proper English Gentleman: An Indictment of Culture by Lucy Stanton, D.Phil.
This isn’t really my type of book, so I only looked at it for a little while. I think it is about things that were important to people once, but not really anymore. By the way, it has nothing to do with Shakespeare, if that much wasn’t already obvious.
I also found a letter from her husband. It is on the inside of a paper airplane, which I guess makes sense since they were essentially children together (he died when she was nineteen). The paper airplane is inside of an envelope, some kind of military envelope. I guess he was overseas when he sent it to her, which is weird, because he didn’t die in the army, so he must have been there before he died.
It seems there was a period when they were apart – he was in the army and she was still in school. He would write her letters, she would do the same. This letter was a paper airplane that was inside an envelope. I imagine she took it out and it must have been pretty exciting. No one has ever sent me a letter, certainly not with a sweet paper airplane in it.
So, the letter says on the outside:
just in case the letter doesn’t get all the way to you, I gave it some wings so it could fly the rest of the way.
Which is pretty terrible, but is the kind of thing a guy might write to his sweetheart when he is sitting in a barracks somewhere.
The letter on the inside is just him going on about how pretty she is and how much he misses her, and about the books that she sent him, which he read, and all the things they will do when he gets back. He lists a ton of plans they must have made, and I think it is really sad, because I know for a fact that he died early in that next year, so they must never have gotten to do most of those things.
when I was crying at the hospital, they took me up to her room, and I thought, definitely she isn’t in there, because I could see the bed and it looked empty, but when we got over to it, I could see she was there. With the hospital clothes she just looked really small. She was asleep and the nurse gave a sign that meant – don’t wake your goddamned aunt because she almost died. The nurse was a really fat Puerto Rican guy. We went out into the hall and he turned out to be one of these nurses who knows everything. He even asked me stuff about what my plans for the week were and gave me good advice about not having a guardian around.
Regarding my aunt, he said – she had a stroke. Now, she is asleep. Her condition is stable. We don’t know any more than that yet. There will be a bunch of tests.
If her condition is stable, I said, doesn’t that mean you’ll just release her? We don’t have any money and we have no insurance.
He said somehow the no money no insurance thing wasn’t known at the hospital yet, so I should shut up and see how much care she could get before it got cut off. I gave him an I’ll-keep-mum-soldier-salute, kissed my aunt on the cheek, and headed to the elevator. While I was waiting there, he came and found me. He had a sheet that listed visiting hours, phone numbers, other data.
I dropped the paper and knelt to pick it up. When I got to my feet, he was looking back at me.
She might be really changed, he said. Think about it.
When I was sitting at home by myself, I decided to write a series of descriptions for my aunt. I could bring them in to her at the hospital so she would feel like she knew what was going on outside.
Maybe one would be about the garden, one would be about the house. One could be about my school, one about buses, because I really like them. I don’t know. I kept thinking it was a dumb idea, but it stuck. I was sort of pretending that I would be able to see my aunt again, that I would go back to the hospital and she would be there in her body. But, obviously, there was no guarantee of that. My mom is an example of this – one day she left her body and I have never seen her again.
When I say that, I don’t mean that she actually went somewhere else. What I mean is: the shitty little cells that cluster together to muster up in sum total the person I used to know are now clustering in some inferior way and the person I know cannot ever be found.
My mother isn’t even really in my memory – because it constantly erodes. Everything is falling apart all the time.
People love to say it to you like it counts:
Oh, Lucia, she will live on in your memory.
Sometimes they’ll even touch your arm at the same time like they’ve earned it by saying something poignant.
The whole thing about people living on in memory is a crock of shit. The best you can do is try to remember what you can, and include the memories in your routines. But, sometimes that makes the real memories fade faster.
We’re just running down a fucking slope carrying these little flags, and one by one we get shot and we slump and our little flags are in the mud and no one picks them up. No one is going to keep running with your flag. Lucia, no one cares about your flag. I tell myself that. When you fall down it’s over.
The above is taken from Jesse Ball’s How to Set A Fire and Why, published by Pantheon in the US and the Text Publishing Company in the UK and Australia.
Photograph © cobalt123