I never liked my stepmother but now she’s dying and her surviving children have closed their eyes and she reaches out to me. She puts a fragile hand over mine and unexpectedly I cry.
“How lovely that your roommate is Mrs. W!” I am thrashing about in frigid water like the Liberace-style piano player in the corner with his smiles aplenty, trying to entertain a group of barely breathing patients in an antiseptically clean dining room where flag-themed tablecloths have not yet been replaced.
“She is not my roommate!”
“She’s in the bed next to you.”“
“She is not my roommate!”
I try to imagine what Mrs. W could have possibly done to her. They’d lived next door to each other for decades and I’d never heard anything bad. Perhaps she didn’t have the right education or genes, I don’t know. Age mellows some people while others only revert to inbred feelings of rank and privilege which are useless in the end. So when she mumbles something about the piano player I don’t ask her to repeat. He’s an Asian dude who plays his tunes effortlessly then turns to his two still conscious fans to “name the song.” Delighted they warble the lyrics, slowly and slurred by illness and age. Perhaps it’s this display of slobbering senility that she finds appalling. His songs are mostly patriotic – God Bless America and the Star Spangled Banner but every now and then he throws in a classic like Moon River. Overseeing the group is a cheerful Filipino who sways to the music and cleans dribble off the chins of members of the audience. There’s a sign on the wall reminding the residents of what day it is and what the weather’s like outside, like the sign in the kindergarten where my stepmother taught the children of “riff-raff” (as she called them) for so many years.
The hospital is in the armpit of an armpit, just north of Highway 80 and east of Highway 395, an area crammed with low cost apartments and auto shops. Nothing is green. Just grey and silver – asphalt, concrete and glass. Sparks Nevada has little to recommend it other than the Nugget Casino which isn’t aging well. To me it’ll always be the town where Nancy B got a fine and probation for shooting a man in the back several times, a story which rated a small paragraph on the 47th page of the Reno Gazette. The defense mounted a claim that the dead man had broken down the door and threatened poor Nancy in a drunken rage. Thus she had no choice but to shoot him. But Nancy B is my age and has been fucking crazy since she was a child and so I called a friend who was a prosecutor in Reno.
I don’t know why I even bother. I should accept the rules. The truth is bad manners. Reality’s uncouth. However, I have to admit it gave me joy – great joy – to inform my stepmother that her best friend’s daughter was fucking a young Paiute Indian who’d just jilted her sorry ass. And I said it just that way because I know how she feels about the fword.
And where did you get this disgusting slander? she asks.
Dorothy told me. Good old Dorothy Parker – remember what a sweet girl she was? And so well mannered. Well she’s now a fucking prosecutor and she hangs out with all those nice murderers like Nancy B who dozens of witnesses saw chasing the man who jilted her down the staircase of their apartment building and across the parking lot, firing again and again while laughing.
Well, my stepmother says to me, he didn’t know his place, now did he?
I mean. What can you say to that? Absolutely nothing.
There’s a joke burrowing through my mind like a tapeworm. It’s corny and stupid but it plays over and over in my mind: Reno is so close to Hell you can see Sparks.
Today is TUESDAY
The weather is HOT
The next holiday is LABORDAY
Your meal tonight is MEATLOAF
The movie tonight is THE ROAD TO RIO.
Where are you? You are in HELL.
Now just relax and enjoy it.