Choke, p.18

Choke, page 18

 

Choke
 


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  After work, I go visit Denny on the empty block where he’s laid out his rocks, the old Menningtown Country Townhouses block where he’s pasting row on top of row with mortar until he’s already got a wall, and I say, “Hey.”

  And Denny says, “Dude.”

  Denny says, “How’s your mom?”

  And I say I don’t care.

  Denny trowels a layer of gritty gray mud on top of the last row of stones. With the pointed steel end of the trowel, he fusses with the mortar until it’s even. With a stick, he smoothes the joints between rocks he’s already laid.

  A girl’s sitting under an apple tree close enough you can see she’s Cherry Daiquiri from the strip club. A blanket is spread out under her, and she’s lifting white cartons of take-out food from a brown grocery bag and opening each carton.

  Denny starts bedding stones into the new mortar.

  I say, “What are you building?”

  Denny shrugs. He twists a square brown rock deeper into the mortar. With the trowel, he chinks mortar between two stones. Assembling his whole generation of babies into something huge.

  Doesn’t he need to build it on paper, first? I say, don’t you need a plan? There’s permits and inspections you have to get. You have to pay fees. There’s building codes you have to know.

  And Denny says, “How come?”

  He rolls around rocks with his foot, then finds the best one and fits it in place. You don’t need a permit to paint a picture, he says. You don’t need to file a plan to write a book. There’re books that do more damage than he ever could. You don’t need your poem inspected. There’s such a thing as freedom of expression.

  Denny says, “You don’t need a permit to have a baby. So why do you need to buy permission to build a house?”

  And I say, “But what if you build a dangerous, ugly house?”

  And Denny says, “Well, what if you raise a dangerous, ass-holey kid?”

  And I hold my fist up between us and say, “You better not mean me, dude.”

  Denny looks over at Cherry Daiquiri sitting in the grass and says, “Her name’s Beth.”

  “Don’t think for a minute that the city is going to buy your First Amendment logic,” I say.

  And I say, “She’s not really as attractive as you think.”

  With the bottom of his shirt, Denny wipes the sweat off his face. You can see his abs are rippled armor, and he says, “You need to go see her.”

  I can see her from here.

  “Your mom, I mean,” he says.

  She doesn’t know me anymore. She won’t miss me.

  “Not for her,” Denny says. “You need to go complete this for you.”

  Denny, his arms flicker with shadows where his muscles flex. Denny, now his arms stretch the sleeves of his sour T-shirt. His skinny arms look big around. His pinched shoulders spread wide. With every row, he’s having to lift the stones a little higher. With every row, he’s having to be stronger. Denny says, “You want to stay for Chinese food?” He says, “You look a little wasted.”

  I ask, is he living with this Beth girl now?

  I ask if he’s got her pregnant or anything.

  And Denny lugging a big gray rock with both hands at his waist, he shrugs. A month ago, this was a rock the two of us could hardly lift together.

  If he needs it, I tell him I got my mom’s old car running.

  “Go see how your mom is,” Denny says. “Then come and help.”

  Everybody at Colonial Dunsboro says to say hello, I tell him.

  And Denny says, “Don’t lie to me, dude. I’m not the one who needs cheering up.”

  Chapter 35

  Fast-forwarding through the messages on my mom’s answering machine, there’s the same soft voice, hushed and understanding, saying, “Condition is deteriorating … ” Saying, “Critical … ” Saying, “Mother … ” Saying, “Intervene … ”

  I just keep hitting the fast-forward button.

  Still on the shelf for tonight, there’s Colleen Moore, whoever she was. There’s Constance Lloyd, whoever that is. There’s Judy Garland. There’s Eva Braun. What’s left is definitely the second string.

  The voice on the message machine stops and starts.

  “… been calling some of the fertility clinics listed in his mother’s diary… ” it says.

  It’s Paige Marshall.

  I rewind.

  “Hello, this is Dr. Marshall,” she says. “I need to talk to Victor Mancini. Please tell Mr. Mancini that I’ve been calling some of the fertility clinics listed in his mother’s diary, and they all seem to be legitimate. Even the doctors are real.” She says, “The oddest part is that they get very upset when I ask them about Ida Mancini.”

  She says, “This is looking like something more than just Mrs. Mancini’s fantasy.”

  A voice in the background says, “Paige?”

  A man’s voice.

  “Listen,” she says. “My husband’s here, so would Victor Mancini please visit me at St. Anthony’s Care Center as soon as possible.”

  The man’s voice says, “Paige? What are you up to? Why are you whispering—”

  And the line goes dead.

  Chapter 36

  So Saturday means visiting my mom.

  In the lobby of St. Anthony’s, talking to the front desk girl, I tell her I’m Victor Mancini and I’m here to see my mom, Ida Mancini.

  I say, “Unless, I mean, unless she’s dead.”

  The front desk girl gives me that look, the one where you tuck your chin down and look at the person you feel so, so sorry for. You tilt your face down so your eyes have to look up at the person. That look of submission. Lift your eyebrows into your hairline as you look up. It’s that look of infinite pity. Squash your mouth down into a frowny face, and you’ll know the exact way the front desk girl is looking at me.

  And she says, “Of course your mother is still with us.”

  And I say, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I kind of wish she wasn’t.”

  Her face forgets for a second how sorry she is, and her lips pull back to show her teeth. The way to make most women break eye contact is to run your tongue around your lips. The ones who don’t look away, for serious, bingo.

  Just go back, she tells me. Mrs. Mancini is still on the first floor.

  It’s Miss Mancini, I tell her. My mom’s not married, unless you count me in that creepy Oedipal way.

  I ask if Paige Marshall is here.

  “Of course she is,” the front desk girl says, now with her face turned a little away from me, looking at me out the corner of her eye. The look of distrust.

  Beyond the security doors, all the crazy old Irmas and Lavernes, the Violets and Olives start their slow migration of walkers and wheelchairs coming my way. All the chronic undressers. All the dumped grannies and squirrels with their pockets full of chewed food, the ones who forget how to swallow, their lungs full of food and drink.

  All of them, smiling at me. Beaming. They’re all wearing those plastic bracelets that keep the doors locked, but they still look better than I feel.

  In the dayroom, the smell of roses and lemons and pine. The loud little world begging for attention from inside the television. The shattered jigsaw puzzles. Nobody’s moved my mom up to the third floor yet, the death floor, and in her room Paige Marshall’s sitting in a tweed recliner, reading her clipboard with her glasses on, and when she sees me says, “Look at you.” She says, “Your mother isn’t the only one who could use a stomach tube.”

  I say I got her message.

  My mom is. She’s just in bed. She’s just asleep is all, her stomach just a bloated little mound under the covers. Her bones are the only thing left in her arms and hands. Her head sunk in her pillow, she squeezes her eyes shut. The corners of her jaw swell as her teeth clench for a moment, and she brings her whole face together to swallow.

  Her eyes fall open, and she stretches her green-gray fingers at me, in a creepy underwater way, a slow-motion swimming stroke, tremblin
g the way light does at the bottom of a swimming pool, when you’re little and staying overnight in some motel just off some highway. The plastic bracelet hangs around her wrist, and she says, “Fred.”

  She swallows again, her whole face bunching with the effort, and says, “Fred Hastings.” Her eyes roll to one side and she smiles at Paige. “Tammy,” she says. “Fred and Tammy Hastings.”

  Her old defense attorney and his wife.

  All my notes for being Fred Hastings are at home. If I drive a Ford or a Dodge, I can’t remember. How many kids I’m supposed to have. What color did we finally paint the dining room. I can’t remember a single detail about how I’m supposed to live my life.

  Paige still sitting in the recliner, I step close to her and put a hand on her lab coat shoulder and say, “How are you feeling, Mrs. Mancini?”

  Her terrible green-gray hand comes up level and rocks from side to side, the universal sign language for so-so. With her eyes closed, she smiles and says, “I was hoping you’d be Victor.”

  Paige shrugs my hand off her shoulder.

  And I say, “I thought you liked me better.”

  I say, “Nobody likes Victor very much.”

  My mother stretches her fingers toward Paige and says, “Do you love him?”

  Paige looks at me.

  “Fred, here,” my mom says, “do you love him?”

  Paige starts clicking and unclicking her ballpoint pen, fast. Not looking at me, looking at the clipboard in her lap, she says, “I do.”

  And my mom smiles. And stretching her fingers toward me, she says, “And do you love her?”

  Maybe the way a porcupine thinks about its stinking stick, if you’d call that love.

  Maybe the way a dolphin loves the smooth sides of its pool.

  And I say, “I guess.”

  My mom tucks her chin into her neck sideways, eyeballing me, and says, “Fred.”

  And I say, “Okay, yes.” I say, “I love her.”

  She brings her terrible green-gray fingers back to rest on her mounded belly and says, “You two are so lucky.” She closes her eyes and says, “Victor isn’t very good at loving people.”

  She says, “What I’m most afraid of is, after I’m gone, there will be no one left in the entire world who’ll love Victor.”

  These frigging old people. These human ruins.

  Love is bullshit. Emotion is bullshit. I am a rock. A jerk. I’m an uncaring asshole and proud of it.

  What would Jesus NOT do?

  If it comes down to a choice between being unloved and being vulnerable and sensitive and emotional, then you can just keep your love.

  If what I just said about loving Paige was a lie or a vow, I don’t know. But it was a trick. This is just heaps more chick bullshit. There is no human soul, and I am absolutely for sure seriously not going to fucking cry.

  My mom, her eyes stay closed, and her chest inflates and deflates in long, deep cycles.

  Breathe in. Breathe out. Imagine a heavy weight pressing your body, settling your head and arms, deeper and deeper.

  And she’s asleep.

  Paige stands up from the recliner and nods her head toward the door, and I follow her out into the hallway.

  She looks around and says, “You want to go to the chapel?”

  I’m not really in the mood.

  “To talk,” she says.

  I say, okay. Walking with her, I say, “Thanks for back there. For lying, I mean.”

  And Paige says, “Who says I was lying?”

  Does that mean she loves me? That’s impossible.

  “Okay,” she says. “Maybe I fibbed a little. I like you. Some.”

  Breathe in. Breathe out.

  In the chapel, Paige shuts the door behind us and says, “Feel,” and takes my hand to hold it against her flat stomach. “I checked my temperature. It’s not my time anymore.”

  With the load already building up behind whatever in my guts, I tell her, “Yeah?” I say, “Well, I may have beat you to it.”

  Tanya and her rubber butt toys.

  Paige turns and walks away from me, slow, and still turned away she says, “I don’t know how to talk to you about this.”

  The sun through the stained-glass window, a whole wall in a hundred shades of gold. The blond wood cross. Symbols. The altar and the Communion rail, it’s all here. Paige goes to sit on one of the benches, a pew, and she sighs. Her one hand grips the top of her clipboard, and her other lifts some clipped papers to show something red underneath them.

  My mom’s diary.

  She hands the diary to me and says, “You can check the facts yourself. In fact, I recommend you do so. If only for your own peace of mind.”

  I take the book, and it’s still gibberish inside. Okay, Italian gibberish.

  And Paige says, “The only good thing is there’s no absolute assurance that the genetic material they used was from the actual historic figure.”

  Everything else checks out, she says. The dates, the clinics, the specialists. Even the church people she talked to have insisted the material stolen, the tissue the clinic cultured, was the only authenticated foreskin. She says this has opened a giant political can of worms in Rome.

  “The only other good thing,” she says, “is I didn’t tell anybody who you were.”

  Jesus Christ, I say.

  “No, I mean who you are now,” she says.

  And I say, “No, I was just swearing.”

  How this feels is like I just got back the results on a bad biopsy. I say, “So what does this mean?”

  Paige shrugs. “When you think about it, nothing,” she says. She nods toward the diary in my hand and says, “Unless you want to ruin your life, I’d recommend you burn that.”

  I ask, how does this affect us, her and me?

  “We shouldn’t see each other anymore,” she says, “if that’s what you mean.”

  I ask, she doesn’t believe this junk, does she?

  And Paige says, “I’ve seen you with the patients here, the way they’re all at peace after they talk to you.” Sitting there, she leans forward with her elbows on her knees and her chin in her hands, and she says, “I just can’t take the chance that your mother is right. Not everybody I talked to in Italy could be delusional. I mean, what if you’re really the beautiful and divine son of God?”

  The blessed and perfect mortal manifestation of God.

  A belch rumbles up from my blockage, and the taste in my mouth is acid.

  “Morning sickness” isn’t the right term, but it’s the first term that comes to mind.

  “So what you’re saying is you only sleep with mortals?” I say.

  And Paige leaning forward, she gives me that pity look, the one the front desk girl does so well with her chin tucked to her chest, her eyebrows lifted into her hairline, and she says, “I’m so sorry I butted in. I promise you, I won’t tell a soul.”

  And what about my mom?

  Paige sighs and shrugs. “That’s easy. She’s delusional. Nobody would believe her.”

  No, I meant, will she die soon?

  “Probably,” Paige says, “unless there’s a miracle.”

  Chapter 37

  Ursula stops to catch her breath and looks up at me. She shakes the fingers of her one hand and squeezes the wrist with her other hand and says, “If you were a churn, we’d have butter a half hour ago.”

  I go, sorry.

  She spits in her hand and makes a fist around my dog and says, “This sure isn’t like you.”

  Anymore, I won’t even pretend to know what I’m like.

  For sure this is just another slow day in 1734, so we’re flopped in a pile of hay in the stable. Me with my arms crossed behind my head, Ursula is curled up against me. We don’t move very much or the dry hay pokes us through our clothes. We both look up into the rafters, the wood beams and woven underside of the thatched roof. Spiders dangle down on their strands of web.

  Ursula starts yanking and says, “You see Denny on television?”


  When?

  “Last night.”

  What for?

  Ursula shakes her head, “Building something. People are complaining. People think it’s some kind of church, and he won’t say what kind.”

  It’s pathetic how we can’t live with the things we can’t understand. How we need everything labeled and explained and deconstructed. Even if it’s for sure unexplainable. Even God.

  “Defused” isn’t the right word, but it’s the first word that comes to mind.

  It’s not a church, I say. I throw my cravat back over one shoulder and pull the front of my shirt out of my pants.

  And Ursula says, “They think it’s a church on TV.”

  With the fingertips of one hand, I press around my navel, the umbilicus, but digital palpation is inconclusive. I tap and listen for changes in sound that might indicate a solid mass, but pre-cussing is inconclusive.

  The big trapdoor muscle that keeps the shit inside you, doctors call that the rectal shelf, and after you shove something above that shelf, no way is it coming out without a lot of help. In hospital emergency rooms, they call this kind of help colorectal foreign bodies management.

  To Ursula, I say, could she put her ear against my bare stomach and tell me if she hears anything.

  “Denny never was very together,” she says, and leans in to press her warm ear against my belly button. Navel. Umbilicus, doctors would call it.

  A typical patient presenting colorectal foreign bodies is a male in his forties or fifties. The foreign body is almost always what the doctors call self-administered.

  And Ursula says, “What am I listening for?”

  Positive bowel sounds.

  “Gurgles, squeaks, rumbles, anything,” I say. Anything that indicates I’ll have a bowel movement someday, and the stool isn’t just packing up behind some obstruction.

  As a clinical entity, the occurrence of colorectal foreign bodies rises dramatically every year. There are reports of foreign bodies that stayed in place for years without perforating the bowel or causing significant health complications. Even if Ursula hears something, it won’t be conclusive. Really this would take an abdominal roentgenogram and proctosigmoidoscopy.

 
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