Post Road Magazine #21


Matthew Di Paoli

Tim had never known worship before his mother got sick. Worship the machine. Worship the ventilator that expanded and contracted her chest. It was as natural as the rain. Her lips quivered with an attempt at speech and he watched them forming w's and r's. All she ever really wanted was water. He wondered what she thought of as she stared into him blankly. He felt her loss much more completely in her presence.

Sometimes his father would ask her if she wanted kisses and she'd nod her head and just as he bent down, she'd open up her mouth wide as if she'd forgotten how, as if it were something foreign and learned and he'd kiss her top lip and bottom and sit back down and say, "It's really a miracle that she's not in any pain. We're just lucky."

Tim was supposed to feel lucky, he knew. "Hallelujah," he thought and he imagined his mother trying to mouth the word and how dry her lips would be afterwards.

When Tim wasn't at the hospital, he was a toy soldier at FAO Schwarz, so sometimes his cheeks would be extra rosy when he came to visit. There was something disheartening about the children who'd come up to him and want to touch his hat or hug him; they had no idea who he was, really. Sometimes when the parents weren't looking, he'd kneel down and talk to them a little.

"You having a good day?" he'd ask. "Yes." "Do you ever pretend you're a Twizzler in a bag of Twizzlers and then hope you get picked first?" "No."

"Well, you should dream bigger, kid."

He was always disappointed in the children he met and sometimes they'd bite him, which was fine, because his guard pants were pretty thick and wooly. One of the "demonstrators" in the store was Kitty. Her job was to entice customers to purchase new whirligigs and whipcords that had no entertainment value beyond the minute she spent demonstrating them. He liked to watch her with anything that flew. She was small and blonde and even though she was abjectly graceful, sometimes things would get caught in her long hair and he'd make sure he was there to extricate them.

Often, during his lunch hour, he'd eat a Snickers and stand around watching her, because her lunch hour was different than his. "There must always be a toy soldier or a demonstrator near the stuffed ostriches at all times," his manager would often remind them. A fair rule, he figured. When Tim got to the hospital after work, his father was there smearing rejuvenating cream on his mother. He wasn't real good at it, so it would clump up on her eyebrows and around the sides of her mouth. He probably hadn't applied cream to anything except athlete's foot his whole life, thought Tim. When his father saw Tim come in, he set down the cream and placed his head square to Mom.

"Tim's here," he said, brushing aside her few strands of hair. "Do you want some kisses?" Apparently, kisses were the currency of extreme unction. In her final days, his father talked to her as if she were a baby or a dog. Tim didn't judge him for it. He was there during the night. He watched her fade away. Maybe she enjoyed being talked to like that now, thought Tim. Maybe it was comforting. In any case, she nodded her head and his father nudged Tim toward the bed.

When he tried to set his head on his mother's chest, Tim's ear pressed against the ventilator, so he kissed her cheek and she tasted like coconuts and his head bobbed mechanically up and down. That thick film of coconut was the only taste or smell left in the room, the only thing that still resembled his mother. He wiped it off his lips when he thought she wasn't looking.

"How's she doing today?" asked Tim as if he couldn't see for himself. "Pretty good today," said Dad. "Did you sleep?" he asked her.

She nodded. She never looked out the window to the left of her bed, which puzzled Tim because it was straight down to the Hudson and he figured he'd stare over there all the time in her place.

"Are you in any pain?" She shook her head.

"How was work? You talk to that girl?" asked his father.

"Kitty? Yeah, well, we didn't talk a lot today, but she knew I was there." He and Kitty had slept together a few times and even saw a French movie together. He liked the way her hair smelled and the way she used her shoulders in situations that didn't require them.

Before she'd gotten really bad, Tim had told his mother about Kitty and it made her so happy that he lied and said they'd been out on Valentine's Day. He wasn't sure he regretted the lie, but he figured, in time, it would become clearer.

When work was over on Tuesdays, he and Kitty would head to a little gelato shop she liked, even though it was still cold. At the table, she held his hand, vaguely aware of his situation and the sterile, metallic images that ran through his mind. Their tradition was to buy a cup of gelato for one another and then try to guess the flavor. She held up her spoon and placed it in his mouth.

"Is that coconut?" he asked.

She leaned over the table and kissed him with her lips closed. "Yeah, I thought I'd try it. You don't like?"

"It's ok. I used to really like coconut."

Kitty sat back in her chair, rubbing her small hands together. "I won't get it anymore."

"Who do you think would win in a fight—a waffle or a pear?" he asked. Tim always tried to change the subject when he felt a moment of death had crept in.

She thought about it for a second as he placed a scoop of rum raisin in her mouth.

"Cinnamon?" "No," he said.

She tried another bite. "In a fair fight, the pear; but waffles are devious creatures. They're like the wrestlers who use a chair when the referee isn't looking."

"You're probably right," he said, prodding the gelato. "I place too much faith in the food pyramid."

Later, when they made love, it felt like family, like she was supposed to be there. Afterwards, when she closed her eyes, he desperately feared losing her. He felt an over-arching sense of doom—even more so than usual after sex.

When Tim got to the hospital the next day, his father was wearing a starchy gray sweater with Tommy Hilfiger jeans that used to be his when he was fourteen. He didn't look like he'd slept much and he was using a green toothbrush-like contraption hooked up to the suction to give her apple juice.

"You'd think in a hospital they'd make sure she wasn't so goddamn thirsty," said Tim, standing over her. She looked up at him with wide, concerned eyes. He imagined she had lots to say with words that were unavailable to her now.

"She's getting her liquids through there." His father pointed to a clear plastic bag filled with a viscous fluid. "This is just because it feels good. Have you been to confession?"

"For what?"

"You know," said his father uncomfortably, "for your sins and whatnot." Tim's mother clamped down on the contraption with her teeth, pulling it further and further into her throat.

"God gave me the old Charleston reach-around first, now it's his turn," said Tim.

"Charleston wraparound?" said his father.

"The kids say it." Though Tim had never heard anyone say it but himself, it didn't ring any less true, he thought. He watched as the machines pumped her full and then empty. He tried to emulate their perfect rhythm.

At the funeral, he thought of Kitty and how she'd never meet her. How the last way his mother ever knew him was as a toy soldier. He imagined standing guard outside the church door as the departed passed by and the mourners came to hug him in his thick, wool pants. And he considered worship for what it really was-the sum of brief and incomĀ­ plete moments we never confess.

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