The traffic was bad and the air conditioner in his sagging car was broken. His suit was a crumpled mess in the back seat. Rings were growing on his tight black t-shirt where his roundness folded on itself. A hot wind blew in from the sea over the lines of cars on the bridge. He positioned himself in his seat so the rays of sun couldn’t touch his pale skin.
A bumper sticker on the car in front of him read: My Goddess Gave Birth to Your God. His eyes kept being drawn back to it. He spun the dial of his AM radio looking for something inspirational, but found only oldies or static. Finally, the rows of cars started to move and he checked the time. He reassured himself that visiting hours didn’t end for another two hours. He pushed his head out the window to see if the end was near. Two teenage girls in bikinis leaned out the window of the car next to him. One waved and screamed, “A clown! I love clowns!”
The car jerked to a stop, causing her to grab her laughing friend for support. “Do a trick for me! Give me a balloon or some candy!”
He ignored her and pulled forward out of sight. Slowly, the other line began moving while his came to a stop. As the girls approached, he rolled up the window.
“Mary, stop the car!”
The car stopped beside his once more. The car behind them honked.
“C’mon! Just do one thing. I’ll give you something in return!”
She grasped the buckle on the front of her top and turned back to her girlfriends in a fit of laughter. Her friend yanked her back into the car. “My god Jess, you are so pathetic. You’ll probably give him a heart-attack.”
The girl was still squealing inside the car when he pulled forward and off the bridge. A gas station appeared ahead. He dipped off the road and raced down the shoulder, past the line of cars. He parked at the station and retrieved the key for the washroom.
The mirror in the washroom was dirty and warped, compressing his face in the middle. He unclogged some paper towels from the dispenser, wet them and began trying to wipe the remaining make-up from his face. His mother’s voice rang in his head as he cleaned himself. “Don’t worry about those silly girls, Pauly. We both know what will become of them. He knows. We know where we’re going and that’s all you have to worry about.”
He threw the wad of reddened paper into the bin and checked his face in the mirror one last time. It was hard to tell if his face was red from the make-up or from how hard he’d been wiping. He stood for a minute under the fan before returning the key and dumping himself back in the car.
After he took his exit from the highway, the traffic waned, then disappeared as he made his way to more rural roads. It was a bit cooler in the country, the trees seemed to absorb some of the hot wind. The road wound over and around hills, through small islands of forest among fields of wheat and corn. When he came upon the large old farm house, he breathed a deep breath in preparation and checked his watch again.
There were other cars in the gravel drive-way and he parked next to a rusted truck with a different colour passenger-side door. When he got out of the car, he could hear a low, steady moan coming from inside the house and then some yelling and foul language. He took his bible from the dash along with a few chocolates he’d saved from a thank you card he’d received in the mail. The chocolate oozed from the tinfoil wrapping.
He knocked three times on the back door until someone answered. The door creaked open to the round face of Mrs. Lewitt. “Oh, Mr. Daniels. I wasn’t sure you’d come. Your mother’s just around in the living room.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Lewitt.”
He entered the small entryway to a smell that he had never gotten used to. The odour was layered, with disinfectant at the bottom and decay on the surface. The smell of death was warm and stifling, spread through the house in the same way as fresh baked bread.
In the dimly lit kitchen, two old men sat next to each other at a large dining table, but stared straight ahead. They wore suits, one with a bow-tie, the other an open collar. An old woman sat with a younger woman on a small loveseat talking quietly. They seemed as though they’d just finished crying.
He walked to the doorway on the other side of the room and found himself in a sunny room with half a dozen chairs in a circle facing inwards. There were posters of puppies and kittens on the walls. On the far side of this room, a door led to the living room. Three small figures sat hunched in soft chairs in front of the TV. One half of the drapes were closed and a young woman in plain, relaxed clothing stood changing the channels on the television. “What would you ladies like to watch now? The fishing show or the show on the vacuum cleaner? I don’t think we should watch the wrestling.”
Two of the women stared blankly at the TV. His mother was the only one paying attention. “The fishing I suppose,” she said. “I don’t have any need for a vacuum. Are you sure the pastor isn’t on?”
“Yes, I’m pretty sure, Mrs. Daniels, he’ll be on tomorrow morning, remember?”
“Yes, yes, darling, I’m sure he will be.”
He walked up behind his mother and put his finger to his lips when the young woman turned to look at him. Bending down beside his mother’s chair, he touched her softly on the shoulder. “Hello, ma.”
She turned and laughed. Her laugh was a small, high wail from deep inside that echoed out of her in bursts. “Who is this funny man?”
“It’s me, Pauly. How are you ma?”
The young nurse began to leave. “Call me if there’s anything I can do.”
His mother covered her mouth to help her stop laughing. Tears welled in her eyes and she tried to breathe. He helped her to sit up so she should get a breath.
“How are you? You look wonderful.”
She reigned herself in and took one last big breath before regaining her composure and straightening her skirt out over her knees.
“It’s good to see you, ma.”
She squinted and closed her eyes.
“How has your week been here?”
She opened one eye to make sure he was still there.
“It’s been nice, have you been outside?”
With this, she brought both hands to her mouth and vibrated with the laughter deep inside.
“I brought you some chocolates.”
She could control it no longer. With her hands in the air, she yelled, “Stop! Stop! I can’t take it anymore!”
The young nurse wheeled the bow-tied gentleman into the room and left him in the corner to see what the commotion was. “Mrs. Daniels, Mr. Daniels, is everything alright?”
“Yes, thank you, my mother is just, uh, happy to see me.”
His mother took a deep breath. “Lizbeth, who is this man? Go get the others, they’ll love him. They have to see this.”
The nurse put her hand on his shoulder as he stood. “She has her good days and bad days Mr. Daniels.”
His mother looked up at him, small and frail in the bulging chair. She noticed his bible. “Oh, I hope you read that.”
“That’s why I brought it, ma.”
“Oh now stop it, be serious.”
“Do you want to read it together?”
She chuckled, “Not if you’re going to be like that.”
“I’m not being silly.”
“You are too, just look at you.”
He turned from her and dipped his head. His eyes were sore from washing his face, the tears stung a little when they came. His mother took his hand and he dropped the chocolates on the floor.
“I’m sorry, love, I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.”
“It’s alright ma.”
He took his hand from her grip and rubbed his face. The melted chocolate smeared onto his cheeks and forehead. “It’s alright.”
He turned to her again. Her thin eyebrows raised as she brought her hand to her smiling mouth. He picked the chocolates up from the floor and placed them on top of the TV.
“Ok ma, I should probably go.”
“Oh yeah, you better go, I don’t know how much more I can stand, my stomach is sore!”
He smiled at her and she waved at him and looked away. Her hair felt like wire on his lips when he bent to kiss her head. “See you next week, I love you very much.”
“Next week? You should come every day, might brighten this place up a bit.”
“Sure, ma, whatever you want.”
“See you soon, funny man.”
As he walked to the door, Mrs. Lewitt caught up with him and followed him out. “Don’t worry too much, Mr. Daniels. She’s comfortable and happy most days. She’s actually the happiest one here.”
They passed the old woman sitting alone on the loveseat looking into her hands.
“I know, Mrs. Lewitt, I appreciate all you’re doing for her. If there’s anything you need from me, just let me know.”
He stepped into the entryway when Mrs. Lewitt stopped him. “Uh, Mr. Daniels.”
She handed him a tissue and motioned that something was on his face. The sweat on his forehead had kept the chocolate moist. When he saw the brown streaks on the tissue, he couldn’t look her in the eyes. He thanked her again quietly and opened the back door.
The rear-view mirror was under the seat when he found it. He scanned it down his face and sighed. He wiped his face clean with his finger and put it into his mouth. Mixed together, the chocolate and salty sweat left a taste that lingered until he got home.