Gabe squinted against the early morning California sun as he sat on the steps waiting for his Uber, watching cottonball clouds that offered more scenery than relief. Sara had offered to take the morning off to drop him at LAX and seemed a bit wounded when he declined. Though less than last time, and even less than the time before that. She realized a while ago that Gabe’s parents were his own domain, and was settling into that spousal acceptance of the few things he’d never let her understand.
He watched the morning unfold. The school bus stops expand and contract. The mailman in his ridiculous pith helmet. The landscaping trucks like ant hills scattering Mexicans to briskly mow and edge and rake and avoid eye contact with gringos. The sports bra brigade that moved past like a fantasy film strip towards the trail at the end of the cul de sac. Mornings like this he remembered why he came here, why he loved this place. How he had escaped to an 80 degree infinity, a permanent teenage love song.
His ride arrived, a dark blue Accord, twenty something kid his driver. He was friendly if a bit disheveled and smelled of last night’s microbrew. Gabe had agreed to pool to the airport. He preferred to ride alone but the small savings was the convenient excuse that got Sara off to work on time. A few neighborhoods over they found the rest of the fare.
Chuck was the type of guy Gabe resented on sight. A middle aged alpha who probably still went to fraternity meetings, he was wearing the married guy headed to Vegas uniform; crew cut, leather flip flops, a v-neck t-shirt a size too small stretched over his barrel chest. His every move was punctuated by a caffeinated tetany of body and mouth fed by a Starbucks candy bar coffee he occasionally spiked from an airplane sized Grey Goose. Chuck was as those guys always are; friendly, gregarious, curious.
Everything Gabe hated about him was an assumption. How he’d drink too much. How he’d be cavalier with his wife’s trust. How he knew the name of the USC athletic director but not his kid’s vice principal. Gabe ran through his laundry list of past and future transgressions and ended up angry. Angry at Chuck for forcing him to consider himself and angry at himself for not being more like Chuck, comfortable with life’s little cruelties.
Gabe slumped over into a chair at the gate among all the other slumped over west coast refugees returning to Boston or New York or Baltimore. Flights headed east from Los Angeles took on a certain feel. Gabe had noticed this his first trip back home years ago. Flying east was something people had to do. Returning to something they didn’t love for the sake of someone they did. It was like paying taxes on your pot of gold.
Sara never understood or noticed. She’d grown up in Anaheim, and so a trip someplace new was just that. Gabe thought it had to do with her proximity to Disneyland. Curiosity was easy to come by when home was someplace you wanted to come back to. You’re not trapped when you’re happy. And you’re happy when you live across the street from the most magical place on Earth and not a paint factory. Sara’s penchant for exploration was usually enough to keep him out of the orbit of his northeastern ghosts and demons save a confirmation or a wedding reception. She was his best excuse.
Gabe spent the flight in silence. Earbuds in but not playing anything, acting as a forcefield against the chatty Mormon in the middle seat. The five hours passed quickly and he felt himself slip into the fugue state he endured on his trips back home.
The distance in his mindset served him well in crisis, really the only reason he consented to come back anymore, but also frightened him. As the plane landed he watched the shadow of the silver bird on the fast growing macadam and felt his own shadow growing larger, creeping in. His mind too paralyzed to tamp it down, too occupied. He felt the dread of being his father’s son again, and of acting like it.
Gabe had gotten into the habit of telling his brother he’d be arriving an hour before he actually was, so that Mark would be on time to pick him up. That, however, only worked fifty percent of the time, and Gabe had plowed through half a pack of $20 American Spirits from the Hudson News before his brother’s shitbox Nissan raced up the through lane and swerved hard towards the curb, barely missing some snowbirds in their finest Ft. Lauderdale tracksuits.
Mark sprung from the driver’s seat and whipped around the hood, almost Dukes of Hazzard sliding like they used to practice in their grandmother’s driveway, and swallowed his brother in the black hole of his massive body.
“Thank God you’re here bro,” Mark said, his already bloodshot eyes taking on a deeper crimson, “I think this is it, I really do.”
Gabe wiggled and twisted himself out of his brother’s bear hug and picked up his bag, headed for the trunk. “How’s mom?”
“Latch don’t work, put it in the backseat. She’s good I think.”
“Good you think?” Gabe felt a volcano in his gut start to vibrate until a Port Authority cop gave them the siren, the get-the-hell-out-of-here woop, and he remembered where he was, who Mark was, his mantra of resignation, that this is just how it is.
“Yeah, I mean, you know how she is, she’s tough.” Mark shrugged, then his voice went soft, “What are we gonna do about dad, Gabe?”
“Fuck man, c’mon.”
“I’m only trying to be realistic. I think we need to focus on mom, you said yourself this is probably it.” Gabe held up the pack of Spirits. “Cool for me to smoke?”
Mark shook his head with a grin. “You’re so full of shit, yeah go ahead. Sara know you’re smoking again?”
“I only smoke when I’m here, Mark, and no, so if you don’t mind, maybe don’t put that on Facebook. I know that’s difficult for you.”
Mark’s voice went up an octave. “First of all, why you gotta be a dick, I’m letting you smoke in my car and I just got it detailed.”
“You detailed a 15-year-old car with an I heart MILFs sticker on the back?”
“Hey fuck you, Gabe, and second of all, are we that horrible that you only need to smoke here?”
Gabe caught his words in his throat and hesitated long enough to avoid telling the truth. “I got a father about to die, a mother with cancer … I’m sorry I shouldn’t be taking it out on you, tell me how you’ve been doin?”
“It’s cool bro, I know it’s hard. I’m good.”
Mark relished being able to talk about himself to someone who might believe him. But Gabe couldn’t help seeing everything his brother said floating above them as if it was in a comic book thought bubble punctuated in quotes and italics. He had gotten a new job and if he could just borrow some money until things were a little more stable.
The rest of the ride to the hospital was like being sold a timeshare, and by the time they got there, Gabe would have offered him a grand just to shut up. So he promised him three. He knew the money would find the bottom of a bong or a liquor store till within a few weeks, but it was the only thing he could bring himself to offer his little brother.
He sure as hell wasn’t bringing him back home with him, though that idea had been floated by their mother too many times to count. How he admires you so much, how he’d maybe try a little harder, how he just needs to get away from these people. Her worry for Mark, only Mark, always Mark digging into Gabe in just the wrong way, hollowing him out and leaving him hungry for something primal.
They found their mother in the waiting room at the ICU, holding some sticky intercom handset, asking strangers for permission to say goodbye. Gabe walked right past her, not recognizing her. She’d become one of those cancer women, swaddled like Bedouins in long sleeves and scarves. Their features sharp like carrion birds without the soft frame of a middle aged bob.
It wasn’t until he had sat down and taken in the room, the mauve and the taupe, the peeling laminate on cheap plywood, the month-old magazines, the grimy trays stacked up, the smell of hospital food, all grilled and boiled slop, that he realized the skeleton in the corner was his mother. When had she gotten so bad? He wanted to yell at his brother but saw no point to that. But Christ, Gabe thought, Christ his fucking father, your wife gets lung cancer so you stroke out, the prick really couldn’t do something for someone else, could he?
Gabe jumped up and went over to his mother. Someone had finally answered the intercom and while she talked he gave her a quick side hug and a peck on the cheek.
She hung up. “Hello Gabriel.”
“Hey ma, how are you?”
“I’ve decided to turn the life support off; I was just waiting until you got here.”
“Wow, okay, well, what’s the situation exactly?”
“I just told you, now this is going to be very difficult for Mark, so you need to be there for him.’
“Ma, how are you feeling?”
“Your father is dying, Gabriel, how do you think I feel?”
Gabe exhaled, exasperated already. “Can I go in?”
“Yes, he’ll be happy to see you.”
Gabe went through the double doors and found his father frail for the first time in his memory. Shrunk down by the tubes and the tape and the bulky bed frame, rails like a crib, helpless in, helpless out.
He didn’t know what to do. Gabe was never good in these situations, and even unconscious, his father somehow made things worse. He tried to stumble through a ventilator conversation, leaning over the bed, touching his forehead, cued by movie memories more than sentiment. “So Sara’s teaching first grade now.” CHHH tick tick, California is good, CHHH tick tick, Giants looked solid this year, CHHH tick tick. I’m glad you’re going to die, CHHH tick tick.
An hour later his father was dead. He stayed in the hall and listened to his brother coyote howl with an animal grief Gabe almost admired and never had. Nurses pried Mark off their father’s corpse as he tried to breathe life back into him in hail Mary denial. His mother followed the tumult out of the room, looking like a heifer must when the farmer takes her calf to the veal box. Pupils wide, full of death and helplessness. Gabe went outside to smoke.
A few hours later in his mother’s kitchen an Irish wake had commenced. Neighbors and friends and Budweiser sounding boards from all over town descended. Mark holding court at the kitchen table, his eyes a bottomless spring, but smiling, repeating, “he was so loved.”
Gabe wondered how Mark could only have those memories; of Sunday morning street corners trading dollar bills for polyester poppies; of daybreak parking lots, crushing bags of ice on the pavement, loading coolers for the boat; but not the silent ride to the pier, fearful of a headache and a hangover beating. Mom in the passenger seat, jaw set, daggers straight ahead, bravely ignoring the funk of perfume she’d never wear. How the pride in his heart was reserved for the misty gaze he set upon championship banners and white gloved flag folding.
He found his mother on the patio, wrapped in a parka in spite of the warmth and slow burning a menthol in spite of the tumors. He sat next to her, lit up and for awhile they smoked in silence. Gabe’s mind tore itself apart looking for a way to tell her he was sorry.
Sorry for being in your belly at the wrong time. Sorry for your wedding, a VFW rush job full of folding chairs and serious faces and ill fitting Sears and Roebuck three pieces and supermarket sheet cake. Some napkin back vows that he tossed away with the plastic cutlery, just as soon as the Cutty Sark hit the bloodstream. Sorry that we lived in a place where after just one night, one mistake, we were all that you could ever have. Sorry that I’ll never believe that you love me, only that you love me, but.
His mother spoke first, startling him.
“I’m in remission you know.”
Gabe’s eyes widened and he choked on the smoke.
“That’s great, Ma, Jesus Christ, why didn’t you say so?”
“I guess your father couldn’t’ stand the thought of a few more years with me,” she said with a tight-lipped grin.
“I know this is gonna be hard for you.”
“You don’t have to pity me Gabriel. I’ve lived a good life.”
You don’t need to HAVE LIVED Ma, you can still LIVE. This is amazing news! A real silver lining. Come stay with us for a while, for the winter. Don’t worry about the cold for once.”
“You know I can’t do that.”
“Sure you can.”
“I don’t want to argue.”
“OK, but think about it.”
“I will. You know we’re proud of you, and we love you.”
“I know Ma, thanks.”
Gabe knew that was the best he’d ever get. “You know we’re proud of you, you know we love you.” As if the message needed only to be delivered once. A Hallmark sentiment to be put in the medicine cabinet and dosed as needed. But she did say she’d think about it. Which was probably bullshit but either way it was something.
He was fitful on the ancient couch in his parent’s basement. The cushions scratching his legs like velcro. The earth tone crocheted afghans somehow musty in a clean dry house. He surrendered to a sleepless night around twelve and laid there, at attention in body and gaze, fighting his father’s creeping shadow as it crept over him, into him.
Without another thought he put on some jeans and took the short walk downtown, claimed a stool at a quiet cocktail place and waited patiently for a lonely woman. Their stories were interchangeable, refrigerator poetry of middle class angst. Some wanted to talk about their husbands, others didn’t. Tonight’s did, and Gabe listened, and looked at her the way she wanted to be looked at, complimented the fit of her the too tight Penney’s capris and the fuck me heels found buried in a closet dusty with college half-regrets.
An hour later in a room as tired as the both of them, Gabe watched the back of her neck as he took her. Dye stained skin betrayed a clumsy stab at youthful reclamation. The creeping gray she plucked in the foggy morning mirror forgotten about. He was glad she was using him as much as he was using her.
When he was about to leave the hotel, Gabe’s phone pinged Sara’s notification. It was three, so twelve at home and any solace he might have found in the housewife evaporated. He exhaled as he read, “Know it’s late, hope you’re ok, hope this makes you smile in the morning.” Attached was the sonogram snapshot she had gotten after work today, while he listened to his brother flail at their father’s chest. And as he forwarded the picture on to his mother, hoping it would make her smile in the morning, Gabe thought about his father’s curse, his patrimony. The way they’d shipwreck their wives so that their sons might have something to salvage.
Jason Mangano is an aspiring waiter who writes fiction to make ends meet. He lives in Sayreville with Tara, Zen, and Burlington — two of whom are dogs. He reads at and writes for the Chauncey Shorts writing group in Princeton.