P—W  V° 01:04

Chambers (Noon)

by Mai Nardone

My mother tells me that her memory has chambers, see, and valves, and she hooks her thumbs and wings her hands, in and out. The motion is procedural, but it also changes its rhythm. Sometimes, her memory wants to rush.
When I ask her what she means, she points me to her marriage.
Four decades, I say.
She says there’s a lot of good she wants to remember. But she can render in detail the pain of childbirth.
Eighteen hours, I say.
She looks at me. Stop that.
She pops open a capsule of half and half, sips it, and hands me the shell. She has a bowl of them on her bedside table.
Ma, this has curdled.
She smacks her lips.
I dump the bowl into the waste bucket and she looks at me, hurt.
I just want some cream. I want the things I love close to me right now. Can you do that? Can you stay the night?
It’s noon.

But she insists it’s not. In a waiting room are rows of chairs, upholstered and attached in threes. I drag a section into Ma’s room. I tuck my body through the armrest loops, like an assistant settling into a magician’s trick.
Ma’s smiling at me. That’s right. You make yourself comfortable.
When I’m settled she says, Kenny? Will we watch a movie tomorrow?
I tell her yes.
Oh good. Make it something I’ve seen.

The film’s opening credits roll up.
All these people are dead, she says.
It’s true. And the brightness is all the way up, seeming to silhouette the actors—puppets in a shadow show.
Turn it off, she says, midway. I’ve never seen this. Why do you show me movies about unhappy people? I don’t need their unhappiness. I don’t know them.
We’ve seen this together a hundred times.
Ma looks at the window. Insects tap the glass, wanting in. Not a hundred. No, I can’t remember. Did I eat dinner?
Lunch. You ate porridge.
She sucks her lips. Peasant food. Where are we, Kenny? Why am I here?
And it’s like she’s testing me, her sly side-eye, ferreting out mischief. But that’s a boy’s game and I’m older, a man, and they’re testing her. They’re running tests. She fails them. She has failed them all, which is why: It’s a hospice, Ma.
But tomorrow it’s noon and she’s forgotten, and tries again.
Are they watching us? Let’s sneak out.
It’s a hospice, not a prison.
I want to see the place.

The rooms look outward but open inward. Only inward, to a corridor and in the center a courtyard, they call it. I wheel her around the loop.
There are too many chairs. Sit here. Rest here. Over the PA the nurses reminding us of their presence with meal reminders, with pill reminders, with time remaining on the visiting hours. The nurses are a voice in the walls. Not near, but watching: Mr. Porter! Put that down.
Yikes, Ma says, glancing around. But she doesn’t see them. The doctors, also, are not to be found. They are not where they are needed. We know because over the PA: Ward 3, Doctor Liu.
Ward 3, Doctor Liu.
Doctor Liu.

Doctor Liu on day one, apologetically: We are severely understaffed. But still we have our eyes on the residents. (Conspicuously ‘residents’ and not ‘patients’.)
What is this place, Ma asks tomorrow and yesterday, and always at the visiting hour: noon.
They’re watching over you.
Like God, she nods, reassured. Then, Gods?

What is this place?
We make the loop. The courtyard is a lightwell and at noon, only at noon, the residents line up in the open space. The sun passes perfectly overhead, drawing their faces up.
We pass the open doors of other residents. Some wave. Ma eyes them suspiciously.
Immigrants. She points.
And in her sleep she accuses: Babel. Ellis Island. Where are we, Kenny?

I make a mistake bringing a can of coke into the room. When I pop it open, it fizzes over my thumbnail.
I don’t remember the taste of cola, Ma says coyly.
There isn’t a straw.
You don’t trust me to take little sips. Then dip your finger. Just a taste.
I dip my finger.
Run it across my lips. She juts her chin.
Her lips are scabbed and cracked. She chews them at night. She licks up the cola.
Oh, that’s good. Wasn’t that easy? And you don’t have to tell the doctors. They’ll put me in a straitjacket and tube feed me. I hate that.
It’s a hospice, Ma. Not a mental hospital.
I don’t know that word, she says.
But later, when we make the loop, she’s forgotten again. She’s suspicious.
We’re walking in circles, she whispers. No wonder the inhabitants are crazy. This is the kind of place where they still lobotomize people. There! You hear that? They’re paging us. It’s our turn.

The needle goes in. Ma shudders. The medicine goes in.
About three hours, the nurse says, checking the drip.
Another one? Ma reaches like she means to squeeze the bag. It’s red but too black to be blood. When the nurse goes, Ma beckons me, whispers, What’re they pumping into me? Will I remember? She pulls up her blanket, closes her eyes, smacks her lips. She mutters, Ah, it’s sweet sleep. Kenny, they’re pumping me with molasses.

Today she remembers.
What are you doing here, a healthy man like you?
It’s that time of day.
You’re disturbing the peace
. She raises her arm. I remember this room. I’ve slept here before.
It was the first room you had here. But I told them it was too high. We wanted you on a lower floor.
I remember
, she says.
It’s noon and the courtyard below is crowded. Their flaking faces, their petal hair, turned up. Here comes the… But only Jerry can sing and he’s been in a black mood. The residents stand swaying, not singing, taking the sun.
Don’t they look like they’re ready? A hospice, she muses. Where are they, my watchers?
Tell them to come. It’s high noon and I’m ready.

2021 © M.Nardone