Heart Medicine

Marjorie Kemper

I am reading I, The Jury in the backseat of Stan’s Pontiac, I am scrunched down low in the seat so that even when I lift my eyes from the page I cannot see out the window. All this to say that my mother can force me on this so-called family vacation but she can’t make me look at scenery. She cannot make me enjoy myself.

“Brian,” my new almost-stepdad says, “we’re coming up on the Continental Divide.”

I sink further into the seat. I turn a page.

“Brian,” my mother says, “I wish you’d look at this vista.”

She uses the word “vista” to describe about anything that can be seen out the car window with the naked eye. But it’s also code for “Sit up and put down that book before I smack you.”

I put down the book. I sit up.

 “What are we looking at now? How does this Continental Divide manifest itself, Stan? Exactly?”

“Brian,” my mother warns.

We pass a green-and-white sign which proclaims: Continental Divide.

“Wow,” I say. I lie back down.

I put the open book over my face and pretend to be asleep. My mother lights another cigarette. The smoke drifts into the backseat. My eyes water.
At home my mother is anti-vista. She keeps the drapes drawn across the one outside Stan Liebling’s living room window—a vista that includes downtown Los Angeles, and on a clear day (which we haven’t had yet), the Pacific Ocean. We moved in a month ago, but Mom’s never so much as stepped outside, she hasn’t even been out on the balcony. She’s found an expensive new word for this. Agoraphobia. But it’s an old problem, it predates her engagement to Stan, it predates having a vista to look at. Used to be she’d just pull the covers over her head on the sofa bed. We didn’t have a Greek name for it then. Since it got its new name it seems to be getting worse. Right up to the day we left on this trip she sent me to the store at the bottom of Stan’s hill for anything she had to have—mainly cigarettes and Coca-Colas and Hershey bars. I’ve developed calf muscles like a rickshaw driver’s. She wrote notes for me to give to the storekeeper. “Please sell my son Brian Stevens a pack of Parliaments.” I hardly needed those. Mr. Cho Park regularly sells me beer and condoms, he isn’t exactly squeamish about cigarettes.

So given my mother’s recent bout of agoraphobia, this family vacation took me by surprise. I hadn’t thought there was a chance in hell of Stan blasting Mom out of the apartment. Not with TNT. But here we are rolling along on I-40. As long as she’s inside the car she’s okay. It’s the sofa bed all over again. Only on wheels.

We stop in Santa Fe. A Ramada Inn. One room. Two huge beds. One all for me. It would seem that a family vacation comes at the price of a family’s sex life. Maybe that’s why they’re called vacations. Maybe that’s why my mother agreed to it. In any event, I’m thinking that nobody’s going to be getting off tonight.

Stan takes a shower before we go down for dinner. While he’s in the shower, my mother sits by the window and smokes. Sex doesn’t seem to be much of a pastime for these two, probably this room arrangement doesn’t bother them. I’m the only one in the family with a sex life. Unless Stan is getting some on the side. Which I doubt. My girlfriend lives at the bottom of the hill, near Cho Park’s store. She’s a year ahead of me at King Junior High. Her name is Tara. She lives in one of those court apartments where the old ladies sweep the sidewalk in front of their doors about nine hours a day. Her mom’s a hostess at the IHOP. Their apartment smells like maple syrup.

“I wish Los Angeles was like this,” my mother says.

“Like what? Overpriced?”

“No, that we had ordinances to keep people from building eyesores. I’ve been reading in this,” she waves a Santa Fe Days & Nights tourist guide, “how here every new building has to conform to the city’s Southwest heritage style. In a word, adobe. Everything! Even 7-Elevens.”

Stan comes out of the bathroom and parades around naked—he combs his thinning hair in front of the mirror, he whistles, he roots around in his suitcase. Mom flips the pages of Santa Fe Days & Nights. She says, “I already hung up your good clothes, Stan.” She doesn’t look at him.
But I look at him. I’m still trying to figure out why he does this. With a tiny dick like his, you’d think he’d change in the bathroom; you’d think he’d wear shorts in the shower! But no, he waltzes around naked every chance he gets. The man’s loaded with confidence, and I can’t figure out why. He’s not good-looking, he doesn’t make big money, his first wife left him, and he’s about to marry my mom. What’s he so damn pleased about?

“Stan, do you think you could put something on?”

“As soon as I find something to put on, I’ll put it on.”

Mom gets up and gets his clothes from the closet and the bureau and lays them on the bed.

* * *
In the restaurant we sit in a booth, my mother in the middle, so that both Stan and I can get the benefit of her secondhand smoke. He lights her cigarettes, one after the other, he does this at home too, where there’s nobody but me to see him do it. He orders a beer. My mother and I have Cokes. We’re still trying to make a good impression. I’d kill for a beer. At home Tara and I put away a six-pack every afternoon. Since I’m having to do without sex, you’d think at least I could get a beer. But no. My mother’s scrabbling in her purse for one of her pills. “Heart medicine” we’re calling it. Everybody at this table is self-medicating like crazy. Except me. I’m supposed to be high on life. My mother’s always telling me how when she was my age she was high on life. Her big boast is that she couldn’t wait to get up in the mornings. She’s lying. “Tomorrow I thought we’d go up to Taos and see the Indian village,” Stan announces, draining his beer and holding up a finger for the waitress to bring him another. “I’d like that,” my mother says. “Won’t that be fun, Brian?” “Loads,” I say. I’m doing the puzzle on the back of the child’s menu the smart-ass waitress gave me. This whole trip is like a bad dream.
* * *
The next day we traipse around the so-called Indian village. What it is is a venue for cheap-ass Indian arts and crafts. Right off the bat my mother buys this huge water jar which Stan’s stuck lugging around all afternoon. He’s sweated through his striped polo shirt. He’s a big sweater. Why he wanted to vacation in the desert is a total mystery to me. I’m carrying my book. “Why not leave that in the car?” my mother asked when we got out. “I might need it,” I said. “Need it for what?” So I’m not stuck listening to you all day—I don’t say this, but she hears me anyway. When you’ve lived with someone for years, in apartments barely big enough to open out a sofa bed, you don’t have to say anything anymore. The other person’s thoughts are just part of the clutter—like their empty barbecue potato chip bags and brimming ashtrays and the clothes draped over the furniture. My mother buys a pair of cheap earrings and Stan surprises her by buying an expensive necklace to go with them. He puts it around her neck right there. “Oh, thank you, Stan. It’s beautiful. Isn’t it beautiful, Brian?” “Beautiful,” I say. I’m buying Tara some glass beads. They’re cheap, but they’re flashy. Like Tara. “Who are those for?” my mother wants to know. “A girl I know.” “A girl you know where?” “At home. A girl I know at home that you don’t know, what is it with you? Do you think you know everybody I know?” “I want to know all your little friends,” she says. I put the package with the beads in my pocket. While my mother and I hassle, Stan’s found some shade and parked it. I watch him out of the corner of my eye. He’s mopping at his big red forehead with a handkerchief. He’s holding the water jar between his legs. Who knew there were still men who went around with white handkerchiefs the size of pillowcases in their pockets? Where did she find this guy? When we get back to the motel Stan says he wants to take a nap, so my mother and I go out by the pool. I swim and she lies in the sun. She can take any amount of heat, what she can’t take is the cold. She loves heat. She’s a goddamn lizard. I mess around with some other kids down at the deep end of the pool for a while, and when I come back she’s gone. A little later I decide I’ve had enough and go back to the room. But surprise! The door’s locked. I walk over to the adobe minimart on the corner and con a longhair with tattoos all over his scrawny chest into buying me a Colt 45. I drink it around back. Behind a Dumpster. The Dumpster’s surrounded on three sides by guess what? An adobe wall!
* * *
She wears the new necklace and earrings when we go out to dinner that evening. We go to a real restaurant, not the coffee shop in the motel; Stan asked the desk clerk to recommend some place “nice.” Thanks to this ordinance my mother’s such a fan of, you can’t tell a nice place from a 7-Eleven because everything looks like a damn Taco Bell—until, that is, you’re inside and get a load of the prices. When my mother sees these she digs in her purse. She needs more heart medicine to get her through a dinner that’s going to cost what we used to pay for rent. When we ever paid it. She keeps smiling. “Let’s have a real drink,” Stan says. “Let’s!” I say. Stan laughs. My mother gives me a look and says, “I’m never sure what to order, Stan. Could you order for me?” Stan orders a couple of margaritas. I get another Coke. Stan lifts his glass and proposes a toast: “To my new little family,” he says. Mom’s hand is shaking when she touches her glass to his and the margarita slops on the table, “Family,” she echoes. I grimace. “Are you having a good time, Brian?” Stan asks me when our food arrives. He’s even more amiable when he’s eating. “Sure,” I say, because sometimes I feel sorry for this clown. He has no idea what he’s getting himself into with my mother. For instance, he doesn’t know better than to encourage her to have a “real drink.” Her real drink of choice is the plastic half-gallon of vodka from Thrifty’s. Of course, so far she’s been on her best behavior. “I thought tomorrow we’d head for the Grand Canyon. I’m going to make reservations tonight. We still have a couple of days before we need to be back. Have you been to the Grand Canyon before, Brian?” I shake my head. “Miranda?” “No, but I’ve wanted to see it my whole life.” The famous acraphobic-agoraphobic tours the Grand Canyon. That’s really going to be something. She knows what I’m thinking of course, and she gives me a look that says: Watch yourself. “Well, you all have a treat in store.” Stan polishes off his margarita and signals the waitress for another. My mother says, “I think I’ll have another too, Stan. To celebrate.” I give her a look this time. Mine says: Don’t blow this for us. She presses her lips into a straight line for a moment before she recovers her smile.
* * *
Stan wants to go to the North Rim, he says it’s less spoiled, less crowded. We say fine. What do we know? But Mom spends half the morning in the bathtub, by which time Stan’s hungry again, so we don’t get away until almost noon, and when we get there it’s really late. This time, no Ramada Inn. Our motel is out an old highway from the junction. It’s ancient, it has detached cottages and no pool. Instead of king-size beds there’s a standard double bed that sags in the middle, with a chenille bedspread, and a daybed scrunched in the corner under a window for me. It’s like staying with relatives who don’t like you. And believe me, I would know. There’s no air- conditioning, but Stan says we won’t need it, because of the altitude. He’s right. It’s getting chilly. There’s a gas wall heater like in all our old apartments in Hollywood. Mom asks Stan to light it, but there’s something wrong with it; the flame stays low, and flickers and hisses. Stan’s down on the floor fiddling with it for about half an hour, sweating like a pig, and he’s got me holding a flashlight on it for him. I can tell from the look on his face that he doesn’t have a clue what he’s doing. Finally Mom says, “It’s not important, Stan. Forget it, darling, just turn it off. I’ll get a sweater.” She plows through her suitcase and comes up with three. “Are you cold, Brian? I think one of these would fit you.” “I’m fine,” I say. It’s not half as cold as it’s been in most of the restaurants we’ve stopped at, but my mother is panicking because the outside temperature has fallen below seventy degrees. She’s phobic about cold too. I don’t even think the Greeks had a name for this one. It’s late, but Stan’s hungry, he hasn’t eaten for almost four hours, so we pile back in the car to find a restaurant. The road back to the junction is pitch-black and all we meet is pickups. It’s the kind of road you see in movies about UFOs. I can feel Mom tensing up. Her head’s starting to quiver on her neck the way it does when she’s getting revved up. Stan says, “What about hamburgers? I could go for a big old burger with everything on it.” He says this like nobody’s ever said it before. “I’m kind of tired of this so-called Southwest cuisine. What do you say to a hamburger, Miranda?” She nods. “Sounds good to me,” I say. My mother lights a cigarette. Her hand is shaking. “What time is it, Brian?” She never wears a watch. She’s always asking the time. I know she’s trying to figure out if enough time has gone by that she can take some more of her medicine. “Not that late,” I tell her. I’m leaning over the front seat and I watch her profile in the light from the dash and the glowing coal of her cigarette. My mother is a beautiful woman. Well, she used to be beautiful; when I was little we couldn’t walk home from the grocery store without at least two good-looking men begging to carry her groceries. But to be truthful, not so much anymore. “Stan,” I say, “when was the last time you were here?” “Long time, Brian. I was just a kid.” I struggle with this image; I try to picture Stan the Boy but I’m getting nothing. It’s like this man behind the wheel was born with change and big white handkerchiefs stuffed in his pockets. Like he was always tall and overweight. Always sweating. Finally we get back to the junction. There aren’t any fast-food places, just a bar called Smokey’s that advertises “famous” barbeque sandwiches on a sign in the window. There are a couple of pickups parked out front. “Looks like Smokey’s is it,” Stan says. He’s going to roll with it. “Are you sure it’s open, Stan? It looks closed,” my mother says, and I know she’s hoping it is, because Smokey’s is exactly the sort of place she hates. She likes “nice”; and if that’s not happening, and it isn’t unless someone else is paying, she likes predictable. What she doesn’t like is a place that looks like it’s full of people she doesn’t know who know one another. She actually likes McDonald’s because it’s completely predictable, and nobody knows anybody. From her point of view, the perfect setup. “Sit tight,” Stan says, opening his door. “I’ll check it out.” I could tell from the way Mom’s neck was shaking a minute ago that she’s having one of what we call her “spells.” It’s all connected—her headaches, her shakes, being afraid to go outside, being afraid of heights, the dark, the cold, strangers, and lots, lots more. At first they thought it was epilepsy. She took pills for that for a while, but she got worse instead of better, we ended up in the ER one night, and the doctor who saw her said it wasn’t epilepsy and that the pills she’d been taking had poisoned her. He loaded her up with tranquilizers instead. She’s been taking her “heart medicine” ever since. But it can only do so much, plus lately prescriptions have been hard to get, and even harder to get refilled. Recently I’ve been supplementing Mom’s supply by ripping off Tara’s mom’s stash. The Maple Syrup Queen has got some wicked nerves too. Whatever it is that’s wrong with Mom, Stan doesn’t know about it yet. Or much else about us really. And since we’re still in the honeymoon stage with Stan—actually pre-honeymoon stage, his divorce isn’t final—we’ve been hoping to keep it that way a little longer. I’m along on this trip strictly for backup, to draw Stan’s attention away from Mom when she’s having one of her spells and keep him busy until the next dose of heart medicine kicks in. I’m the bird that flies away from its nest to trick the fox. The plain truth is that my mother, Miranda Stevens, is mainly marrying the goofy Stan Liebling for his Blue Cross. Once they’re married and she’s covered she means to see a specialist and get to the bottom of these famous spells of hers. “Take another damn Valium,” I say, “I guess it won’t kill you. But for Christ’s sake, don’t drink.” Stan comes out on the porch and waves us in. He’s smiling. We sit down in a booth. The cowboys at the bar stare at us like we just got off a spaceship. Mom starts off with a margarita, then when I catch her eye she switches to beer. Beer is Mom’s idea of not drinking.
* * *
The next morning we drive to the old lodge on the canyon’s rim and have breakfast outside on the terrace. Mom sits hunched over her coffee cup, her eyes on the tablecloth. The Grand Canyon is way more vista than she can handle. Her eyes are all pupil. I don’t think she slept at all last night. Every time Stan’s famous snore woke me up she was sitting up in bed, smoking. “My, isn’t this charming?” she says, lifting her eyes to Stan’s collar button, afraid to look any higher for fear of glimpsing the famous vista. Stan keeps getting up from the table and striding around the terrace to see the view from different angles. He’s pleased as punch. You’d think he’d personally dug the damn thing. He comes back to the table when the waiter brings our breakfast. “What did I tell you?” he says triumphantly. “Awesome,” I say. “It is, isn’t it? You know, they have this deal where you can go down to the bottom on mules.” “Imagine,” my mother whispers, adding another spoon of sugar to her coffee. Sometimes sugar helps. “You don’t have to go all the way to the bottom. They have short tours too. What do you say we sign up for one?” Stan asks. “Oh no, thank you, Stan. I don’t have a very good head for heights. But maybe Brian would like to go.” “What do you say, Brian?” I give my mother a long look. She stares into her coffee cup. “I’ve wanted to do it since I was your age,” Stan says. “What do you think?” I believe him. This desire to ride a mule to the bottom of the Grand Canyon is completely consistent with the blind optimism that’s allowed him to ask my mother to marry him. “It’ll give us a chance to get to know one another a little better,” he says—some good reason! “And give your mom a little rest from the two of us. I think we’ve worn her out.” He looks at my mother with a genuine concern. “Haven’t we, darling?” “Oh no,” she says. “I’m just a little tired from the driving is all.” The riding, she means. “Well, of course you are!” Stan pats her hand. “What do you say, Brian?” “Sure,” I say. “Why not?” “Great! I think I can make arrangements in the lobby. Be right back.” After he charges into the lodge, my mother and I sit and look at one another. “Thanks,” I say. “Listen, Brian, those tours take all damn day. I feel like if I could just get a nap, maybe a bath, I’d be okay again.”
* * *
We get back right at dusk; when we slide off our mules (Daisy and Clem) Stan and I can just barely walk. Stan was wearing his geeky sandals, now he has blisters on his ankles where his pants rode up and his bare skin rubbed against the mule’s sweaty flanks. His ankles are oozing blood. Mom’s supposed to be here to pick us up, but there’s no sign of her and the car’s not in the lot. We limp over to the patio where we ate breakfast, about a million years ago, and sit down. Stan orders two beers and a Coke. Stan shoves one of the beers toward me and says, “Get rid of the Coke and pour this in the cup, so the waiters don’t see.” “Thanks.” I’m so dehydrated I pound the Coke and then pour the beer in the cup. “Mom may have fallen asleep,” I say. “Do you want me to go inside and call the motel?” “No, let’s give her a minute. She’s probably on her way. I hope she doesn’t take the wrong turnoff, I noticed this morning it’s not well marked.” “How are your ankles?” I ask. “Not so good actually, but it was worth it. Did you ever see anything like that?” “No,” I say honestly. Sipping the beer, I’m feeling more cheerful. “Never did.” We’ve definitely “gotten to know one another better.” All day I watched Stan almost fall to his death, and discovered I didn’t really want him to. I ended up rooting for the poor bastard. He didn’t seem to have any grasp on the concept “center of gravity.” His mule was in front of mine, and he was constantly turning in the saddle, leaning out precariously far over the cliff, to point out new vistas to me. “Look at that, Brian,” he’d shout, while his mule struggled to keep them both from falling over the side. “I wish your mom was with us, wouldn’t she love this view?” “Oh yeah. You don’t want to lean so far out, Stan,” I’d say. “It’s not such a good idea.” “Oh, these mules know what they’re doing. We’re all right.” Fortunately his trust in our mules had not been misplaced. Looking out across the canyon now, he said again, “I wish your mom had come with us. She’d have loved it!” “I don’t know, Stan. She really does get dizzy.” “I don’t know if you know how lucky you are to have a mom like yours,” he tells me. “Pretty lucky all right.” “I mean it. She’s just crazy about you. Did you know she wouldn’t even consider coming on this trip without you?” I shake my head. “I’ve gone out with women with kids before. Well, at my age, Brian, most women I go out with have kids, you understand, and I’ll tell you, one thing I’ve noticed, a lot of them, they really downplay that aspect, you know? I was going out with this one gal two months before I even knew she had a kid. Some of them will even lie about it. But your mom? Right away when I met her she was talking about you, and what a great little guy you were.” I stick my nose in my beer. “I like that about her. The way I figure it, if somebody’s going to deny their own flesh and blood how likely is it that they’d stand by me? See what I mean?” “Absolutely,” I say. “What are the chances?” Stan kicks back in his chair. “Will you look at that sunset? Is that right off a calendar or what?” It is. But I’d maybe enjoy it more if I weren’t starting to get worried about Mom. I’m thinking maybe she took so much heart medicine that she won’t wake up til morning. “I think maybe we should call my mom. She might still be asleep. She sleeps kind of sound.” “Yeah, okay, sure, go ahead. But Brian, don’t make her feel bad about being late. That’s my concern here. I don’t want to put any pressure on her. I want her to enjoy this trip. It’s kind of our honeymoon, really. I won’t be able to get anymore time off when we get married.” I go in and call the motel and ask for our room, but there’s no answer. When I get the desk back I ask the guy to look and see if the car’s there, and he doesn’t want to, but he finally hikes the six steps to the window and comes back to say that the car’s parked in front of the cabin. I hang up. When I get back to Stan he’s got us new beers. “Did you get her?” “No. But the guy said the car was there.” “She’s probably asleep, like you said. Or say, I bet she’s in the tub! She said this morning that was what she wanted to do today, take a long hot bath. Maybe two of them. Brian, your mom can stay in a bathtub longer than anyone I ever knew. You know, before she’d move in with me she wanted to see my bathtub! She said she couldn’t live in a place without a good tub.” Stan’s smiling fondly, remembering this. “Yeah.” One place Mom spent some time in called this hydrotherapy, but if Stan wants to think she’s some movie-star, bubble-bath queen, what’s the harm? I gulp down some beer, but I’m not really thirsty anymore. Stan gets up. He winces and looks down at his ankles. They look pretty bad. I tell him I think maybe we should stop at an emergency room or something, but he laughs. “Who knew?” he asks me. “They should warn you ahead of time about wearing the right kind of shoes, don’t you think?” “Definitely.” “I could do with a long soak in a tub myself. I think we’re both going to be a little saddle sore in the morning, Brian, what do you think?” “Without a doubt,” I say. “But it was worth it.” “So far,” he says cheerfully. “You sit here and finish your beer, I’m going to check inside, maybe there’s another way for us to get back, so we won’t have to wake up Miranda. She needs her rest. Maybe there’s a taxi or something.”
* * *
There is a taxi. It’s not cheap, but then Stan isn’t either. He’s not rich, but he’s not cheap. He keeps joking and trying to keep it light, but I think he’s a little worried about Mom too. It’s pitch-black as we ride back toward our motel. “How come you took a place so far away from everything?” the driver asks Stan. Stan’s sitting in the passenger seat. He thinks he’s showing solidarity with the driver or something, sitting up front, but you can tell it’s just pissing the driver off. I look out the window. I’ve never been anywhere before where it was this dark at night. I’m grateful for the dash lights. “You’ll laugh,” Stan says. To assure this, he starts the ball rolling with a big belly laugh of his own, but the driver doesn’t even crack a smile. “When I was a boy, about the same age as my son there in the backseat...” My son! He’s claiming me to total strangers. “My dad took me here one summer and we stayed at the Juniper Lodge. So when I found out it was still here, I made reservations. Of course, I didn’t remember how far away it was from the Canyon. And I can tell you I was pretty surprised when I saw how run-down it is now, but some things you do for sentiment’s sake. Am I right?” The driver doesn’t jump in, so as his supposed son, I feel obligated to throw in a “Right!” Stan turns around in his seat and beams at me. The air is getting chillier; I roll up my window. We pass through the junction. Smokey’s has the same trucks in the parking lot that were there the night before. I can picture the scene inside exactly—only without us. “The family ate at Smokey’s last night,” Stan confides to the driver. “They build a great burger there. We enjoyed ourselves.” “It closes down in the winter,” the driver says. He seems bitter about it. “Is that right?” When we finally turn into Juniper Lodge the lights are blazing in our cabin and the door and all the windows are wide open. There is an ambulance, doors open, lights flashing, backed up next to the Pontiac. A paramedic is walking back to it. He’s taking his time. The motel owner is standing on the little porch talking to a cop. “Jesus God,” Stan says, and he heaves himself out of the cab and limps up the steps as fast as he can go. I push past him and am trying to get in the door but a cop blocks my way. “Whoa, son. Hold on. You can’t go in there. The room’s still full of gas.” I turn around. Stan is talking to the other cop and the owner. I hear Stan say, “When did you find her?” “About an hour ago. When your son called I got worried she could be sick or something so I went over with my key. Soon as I got on the porch I smelled the gas. I pulled her outside and called the ambulance. But the paramedics were just saying she’d probably been dead an hour by then.” “She!” They mean Mom. Strangers are talking back and forth to each other about my mom and calling her SHE. I am having some trouble getting my breath. Stan reaches out and grabs me by the shoulder and pulls me up against him. My knees are shaking, and I lean into him. “That heater wasn’t working right last night,” Stan tells the cop. “We had to turn it off.” “You should have told me,” the motel owner says. You can see him getting ready to blame this thing on Stan. “You know, maybe she never intended it to light. Did anybody think of that?” “That wasn’t it,” the cop says. “There was a pile of burnt matches on the floor next to it. She thought she’d lit it, that much is obvious,” the cop says. He is giving the motel guy a steady look. The look plainly says he doesn’t like what he’s seeing. There are bursts of static and urgent voices from the police radios. The ambulance driver has shut the doors now, and he leans against them and lights a cigarette, cupping it in his palm. I continue to lean against Stan. It’s cold, and I need the heat that’s radiating from his chest, from his damp shirt. He and the cop talk a while longer, but I don’t listen. Instead I concentrate on Stan’s raspy breathing, it has my complete attention.
* * *
Stan and I are sitting in the emergency waiting room at the hospital where they took Mom. They’ve put her in the hospital morgue until we can figure out what to do next. Stan’s bent over a clipboard filling out forms. He doesn’t know the answer to any of the questions. “I hate to ask,” he apologizes, “but do you happen to know her social security number?” “She didn’t have one.” “She had to have one, son. Everybody has one.” “She didn’t. When people asked for it she made one up. She hardly ever had the kind of jobs you needed one for anyway. She always got paid under the table.” Stan looks up. “What about taxes?” “I don’t think she ever filed any.” “Never?” I shrug. “Insurance?” “She didn’t have any,” I say, and look straight at him. He shakes his head and smiles. “You know, that’s what I always felt about Miranda, that the rules didn’t apply to her. Your mother was in but not of this old world, Brian. God, I loved that about her.” It’s a nice way of putting it. But it seems to me that the rules caught up with Mom with a vengeance. A nurse comes by and tells Stan to be sure to have one of the doctors look at his ankles before he leaves. She says they are likely to get infected if they aren’t treated. “Thank you,” he says, “but I’ve got bigger problems here.” A tear rolls down his cheek. “I know you do, Mr. Liebling, but you don’t need septicemia on top of them. You have to stay strong for your son here.” She looks meaningfully over at me. “This is no time to be selfish.” “No,” Stan says, “you’re right. Where do I go?” “Follow me. You can come with your dad if you want to,” she says over her shoulder to me. I shake my head no. I watch her lead Stan away. He is limping, and walking with his feet wide apart so his ankles won’t rub. I’ve never seen him walking away before. He is the most knock-kneed human being I’ve ever seen. The nurse has hold of his hand. He looks like a hulking, homely child who needs taking care of. I sigh and go back to the form. I make everything up. Which is what Mom would have done. Like when I started school, when she pulled a past for us out of thin air, starting at square one: A father for me, a social security number for her, places of birth and birth dates for the both of us—she never used the same ones twice. She really used to get creative with her mother’s maiden name. That was her favorite blank. I try to fill out these last forms in the same old Stevens/Cortez/Wilson/ Levin/Cumminsky etc. spirit. (Mom liked to mix it up.) I am stuck with the name Miranda Stevens, that’s how Stan knows her, so I keep that, but I play with the rest of it. For the moment all I feel is amazed. My mother hasn’t died from anything predictable, not cancer, not an overdose of heart medicine—not any of the things I worried about. No, she’s died in Arizona (a state we’ve never lived in, nor even claimed as a place of birth) at the hands of a faulty, lousy wall heater. Guess Mom was right to be so afraid of the cold. This makes me feel really bad because that was the fear I’d kidded her about the most. But if she hadn’t been cold she’d never have turned on the damn heater, if it weren’t for the cold she’d be alive this minute. I look up from the forms and see the nurse leading Stan back to me. His trousers are rolled up and his ankles are bandaged. He has a startled look on his big wide face, and, I really can’t help noticing, he is sweating. “Remind your dad to take one of these pills twice a day until they’re gone. It’s important.” She hands me an envelope of antibiotics. “And he can take these for pain if he needs them.” She hands me another, smaller envelope. “Yes ma’am.” Stan sits down heavily in one of the orange molded plastic chairs. He sticks his feet out in front of him and gazes for a moment at his bandaged ankles. “I guess I need to finish those forms, Brian, so we can get out of here.” “I already did,” I say, and hand him the clipboard. Stan looks at the papers but I can tell he isn’t really seeing them. “Good man,” he says. “Thanks. I’m kind of coming out of shock, I think. I’m feeling kind of funny. How are you holding up, son?” “I don’t know,” I say. “I’m afraid to find out.” He nods. “Me too.”
* * *
We can hardly go back to Juniper Lodge, so first we stop at a 7-Eleven and buy a couple of six-packs of Bud, and then we check into the first motel we see. They put us on the second floor. Right away I open a beer and hand Stan two of his pain pills. “Take two,” I say, “they’re small.” He giggles like this was actually funny. Then I dig around in Mom’s purse (which they’d given back to me at the hospital, along with her clothes, in a plastic bag) for her heart medicine, and we both pop a couple of those. The label says, Take when indicated and I figure, if not now, when? It gives me a kind of shock to have my hand in Mom’s purse. I’d grabbed it when we were leaving the lodge, because Mom never went anywhere without it, and stuck it in the back of the ambulance with her. I don’t know what I was thinking. I come close to losing it when I am scrabbling around at the bottom of her purse, with all its old familiar junk—broken pills and tobacco crumbs, pennies, movie stubs, pens that don’t write, and topless lipsticks. I am remembering all the times I’ve pawed through it when she was asleep, looking for beer money mostly, holding my breath, afraid she’d wake up and catch me. But she can’t catch me now. I look over at Stan and he is hunkered on the bed, his head in his hands, crying. We lie on top of the king-size bed, with our clothes on and our shoes off, and watch CNN. I don’t try to say anything, but when I hear him snuffling I pat his arm. Surprisingly it is rock hard. We lay there cracking beers and staring at CNN the rest of the night. About three in the morning he turns to me and clutches my shoulders, tears streaming down his face. “Do you think she was happy? Do you think she would really have married me?” “Absolutely,” I say. “She was practically ecstatic. I don’t know how many times she said to me, ‘You know, Brian, this is different, this time I’m in love.’” This is a big lie, of course, but one I’m proud of. Mom would be proud too. Anyway I think he believes it, because he finally falls asleep. I get up and turn off the TV and go out on the little balcony and stare down at the street. At least there are normal buildings here. There’s a Taco Bell on the corner, but it’s the only goddamn adobe in sight. And it’s not real. Which is when it occurs to me that I’m not Brian Stevens anymore. I try out the name closest to hand— Liebling. I say it out loud. “Brian Liebling.”
© 2007 University of North Carolina Greensboro


MARJORIE KEMPER grew up in Texas and Louisiana and lives in Southern California. She received first prize in the Deep South Writers’ Conference novel competition in 1996. Her short fiction has previously appeared in The Carolina Quarterly, Louisiana Literature, and New Orleans Review.

Her story “Heart Medicine” received an Honorable Mention from The Greensboro Review.