Here’s Hilda with the big blind eyes. She hands me a letter on the landing.
"Can you read this to me?" says Hilda. "Can you say what it says?"
These old ladies, they stream out of their doorways in the mornings, they come stunned-looking to the hallway in their straw shoes. They stand around and wave me over. I’m the only able-bodied homebody here. The Super lives across the river and all the husbands are dead. The old ladies wave me over to do their dirty work. They must think I don’t have any other kind, or maybe they figure I owe it to them to help. Not too long ago my mother was alive here among them, the youngest of the young of them by years. Now it’s just me and the morphine my mother left in the morphine drawer. I haven’t been down to the old streets in months. Once you’ve tasted the bounty of the pharmacy, who wants bad counts and bad people again?
"Tell me what it says," says Hilda.
"Rent is going up," I say, slap her phone bill in my palm. "Forty more bucks a month. Or you’re out."
"Bastards," she says. "To an old blind lady."
"The times we live in," I say.
"We don’t live in any times," says Hilda. "I hope I die soon. Will you read the paper to me?"
"Not today, Hilda."
"Your mother was a saint. She read the paper to me every day."
"How can she be a saint?" I say.
"Not that kind," says Hilda. "Why can’t I just die?"
Hilda has a little fuzzy skull with lots of veinwork. It wouldn’t take very much in the way of force to grant her this wish. It would be an act of mercy, maybe. I could go around to every door, ask who wants the service. I’d be a hero to some, to others just another doper with an old lady peeve. The newspaper Hilda gets delivered would call me evil. The one I buy on the corner would say it’s more complicated than that.
I do lightbulbs for Mrs. Lizzari. She must run her lights all night. They say there’s some kind of minuscule chance the whole thing will explode in your face, so I always turn away on the last twist. Don’t mess with the minuscule, I say.
"Thank you, dear," says Mrs. Lizzari. "I can’t get up on the chair like that anymore."
"No problem," I say.
"Don’t hurt yourself."
There’s some prison flick I saw where the cons rig the lights to fry a stoolie. It’s just a flash, then he falls to his knees, his spine in a volted stutter. It always stuck with me, the way something does when you think it might pertain to you, a lesson to your kind.
"Do you want a cookie?" says Mrs. Lizzari.
"Thanks," I say.
"I brought these to your mother when she was in the hospital."
"No, not these in particular. Cookies."
"I took the bus there by myself. I didn’t see you there."
"I was there."
"Well, not on that particular day."
I get down from the chair, chew my cookie.
"I saw Hilda this morning," I say.
"A sad case," says Mrs. Lizzari. "A sad case of a woman."
"She said she wants to die," I say.
"That’s the oldest one in the book," says Mrs. Lizzari. "That’s older than the book. And I know your mother taught you to keep your mouth shut to be eating a cookie."
My place is still pretty much my mother’s place. I mean I haven’t really moved any stuff around. I put up some postcards from my old girlfriend on the refrigerator, but that’s about it. One of them is of a lobster, reads "Welcome to Idaho." This is the kind of humor that used to tide us over until we were high enough to suck each other off. I’ve taped it up as a testament to what’s not really funny.
It’s a hell of a deal to get a place like this in a city like this for next to nothing. The trade-off is doilies on the arms of the flower-print couch. I tried to take them off, but they were still somehow there, so I had to put them on again. This is why I haven’t moved stuff around. It doesn’t help. Even empty, your mother’s apartment is your mother’s apartment. You just have to adjust.
My old girlfriend came to visit, and I could see she was uneasy. She’d never even known my mother and here were all the family photos in those accordion frames–the trip to Rome, NY, that day in the zoo with the spitting llama, the cousin with custard on his shirt. Here were doilies and cork coasters and sugarless sugar in a crystal bowl. My mother was of the generation that tended to tear up those little pink packets and pour them together. I’m trying to keep tradition alive.
I got my old girlfriend to fuck me in my mother’s bed, but we had to stop when she caught me watching us in my mother’s mirror. It’s a big mahogany-mounted thing with brushes and creams on the bureau beneath it. I could see everything in the mirror, the flush of us, the jimmying, and to keep from coming I tried to make out the labels on my mother’s lotion jars: Cocoa Essence, Hibiscus Morning, Goddess Balm. Then my old girlfriend hopped off of me.
"I can’t," she said. "That mirror. Too spooky."
"Fuck," I said, went to the bureau for some cream.
The old ladies here don’t seem to understand. I may not have a job, but I work. I’m talking about dozens of projects well underway, with serious interest on both coasts, not to mention the midwestern markets. The ideas are tricky, though, so I have to make sure the times are right. That’s assuming Hilda was wrong, that we do, in fact, live in times.
Whatever Mrs. Lizzari thinks, I visited my mother a lot. There just wasn’t much to visit by the time I got on the scene. Lucky for me they had widescreen in the ward lounge. I restricted myself to several hours of television a day. You can get caught up in things, forget why you’re there. You’re supposed to be helping someone die, making it more reasonable with ice cream and gardening magazines. Next thing, you’re glued to some cable premiere, Who Were the Etruscans?, Captains of Vaccine.
The hospital also had an in-house station. My mother’s pain specialist had her own show. The episode on bone disease was great, though I can’t say that Tessa, that was her name, was a natural. She was a little stiff, which I liked when she stood near my mother’s bed in her dark dress with the lab coat on top, saying to my mother, "Let go, let go, let the angels take you now."
It just didn’t work that well on TV.
When my mother started crying out for brands of candy bars they don’t make anymore, we knew we were near the end. We held hands around the bed and Tessa lowered her eyes, started to invoke the celestial escorts again. I could see that my father, my mother’s ex, had joined me in admiring throes apropos Tessa’s ass. My sister caught this, shot me one of those looks she has mastered over the years, the one that says, "You pig, you’re just like your pig father."
Withering, I think they call it, though the word takes on new meaning if you’d seen my mother that day.
It was hard to believe this was the same woman who once sat me down on the flower-print couch, said, "When you were born, they put you in a bubble for a while. It wasn’t my decision. In those days the doctors were gods."
Now they’re just priests, I guess, and my mother is maybe in a paradise of non-carcinogenic sugar substitutes, although her ashes, her cremains, as the undertaker called them, are tucked away in the linen closet. We can’t think of a place to scatter them. Places never had much meaning for my mother. She liked people and things.
Those last days in the hospital Tessa slipped me a pamphlet on grief management. I must have missed that episode on the in-house station. The pamphlet advised the griever to shower frequently and treat himself to a fancy meal. It didn’t mention doilies, but I may have an older edition.
It was also silent on the topic of the morphine drawer. My mother left a lot of dope behind. Also some syringes for the hormone she had to shoot. Her bones were doing a slow rot but she’d be damned if she got a habit. I guess I’m supposed to flush all these pills down the toilet now, but they tend to make my old-lady duties more bearable. Maybe it has something to do with my bubble days, but I’ve always needed something, just to do anything, or even to figure out what I need.
I promised my mother I would straighten out, but she was sort of in a coma. I don’t think it counts.
Today I’m doing Hilda’s dishes. I like to break one each time, so there’s one less to do the next.
"Oooh!" she says. "That sounded like a saucer."
"Close," I say.
"A parfait glass?"
"No, think flatware."
We sit, after, for tea.
"When are you going to get a job?" says Hilda.
"What, are you my mother?"
"Your mother was a saint."
"I have a job," I say. "I’m freelance, self-employed."
"The bums are freelance, too," says Hilda.
"It’s okay," I say, "I don’t expect you to understand. Although, I must say, Mrs. Lizzari has been very supportive."
"She hated your mother," says Hilda.
"I don’t believe that."
"Nobody believes anything anymore," says Hilda. "Why would I make something like that up? By the way, did I tell you already that I want to die?"
"Yeah, you told me. But I don’t believe it."
"Why would I make it up? What’s the point of living? And the rent going up. They want me dead anyway."
"Your rent’s not going up," I say.
"Well, it’s not going down, either," says Hilda. "I’m done here. I can’t even read. I love books and I can’t read them."
"I’ll read to you."
"I don’t think so, dear. I don’t really care for them. But one thing you could do for me is kill me. No one would know."
"I would know."
"You’ve done worse, I can tell by looking at you."
"You’re blind, Hilda."
"I’m not blind to the world."
I’m not blind to it, either. There are all sorts of possibilities out there. You just have to be able to think sideways, is all. You have to know how to predict demand. My ideas are a bit subtle, and they may look funny on paper, but somebody’s bound to bite. I’ve always been far-thinking. I could always listen to Top Forty radio and tell you which song would be a hit. Same thing with the Fall TV lineup. I know what the kids want, too. That’s easy, though. It’s just a crapshoot whether you get the colors and the chemicals right. But the old ladies who want to die, or have their lightbulbs switched, that’s an untapped market. I’m living in a gold mine, or maybe a silver one.
Mrs. Lizzari comes to the door in her brassiere. It’s the old kind, a severe network of clasps and fastenings, which is the new kind, if you pay attention to these things.
"Hey, Mrs. L.," I say. "Can you do me a favor?"
"Can you fill out this consumer research survey I’ve worked up?"
"Oh, I don’t think so."
"It shouldn’t take you long at all."
"No, honey, I’m sorry. I’m on a government roll. I get money. I wouldn’t want to anger anyone."
"No one will mind," I say.
"No, honey. Come back tomorrow. I’ll have some more cookies."
Mrs. Lizzari closes the door before I can get a fix on the smell coming from her rooms. That’s something right there. Old Lady Smell. You could market objects scented with it. A mild version. For the grievers.
Sometimes I take out my mother’s cremains and set them on the dining room table. I keep them just the way the undertaker gave them to me, sealed in a cardboard box, cinched up in a velveteen sack. People like to call them ashes but it feels more like a couple of rocks, especially if you hold the whole thing in your hands, or swing it, as I do, on occasion, bolo-style from the sack cord. I’m still not sure why I do this, but it feels good, standing there in the dining room, windmilling my mother around.
One of these days we’ll decide where to scatter her cremains. People say water is poetic but I think they just secretly like the convenience. Any creek or river has a little God in it. My mother’s old neighborhood would be a good spot, but they bulldozed it for condos years ago. Besides, as I may have mentioned, she never seemed to care where she was, as long as the right people were around. The great sorrow of her life was that they tended not to be, and a sunshot vista, or a sparrow on the windowsill, this was no consolation.
Once she told me the story of the time a minor movie star was leaving a party and motioned her to join him in the elevator. She hesitated. The door shut.
"I was waiting for your father," she said. "He was in the can."
"That guy just wanted to fuck you," I said.
"How do you think anything beautiful begins?"
I’m a little worried about the morphine supply. I’d better get myself a crooked doctor or cancer soon. I’d better get myself a winning business plan or I’ll be twitching the nights away on the flower-print couch.
Hilda hands me something in the hallway.
"Read it," she says.
"It says you’ve died, Hilda. Congratulations."
"It’s just your light bill. You should see Mrs. Lizzari’s."
"She’s afraid of the dark."
"I’m not," says Hilda. "Know what I mean?"
"Listen," I say. "Let me ask you something. Say somebody, a messenger of mercy, maybe, was willing to put his freedom, or even his life, on the line, just to make sure yours ended in as quick and painless a manner possible. Would you be grateful? Would you arrange for payment, even? How bad do you want it, Hilda?"
"You’re a sick boy. Your mother said you were a problem, but I always told her it was a phase."
"I thought it was, too," I say.
Mrs. Lizzari is down on the corner with her walker, her mesh grocery sacks.
"How’re you fixed on light, Mrs. L.?"
"I’m a Broadway star up there!" she says.
Home, I boil some pasta and peas, fire up my mother’s old Fischer radio. The youth of America sing their anthems of youth. Once I knew the words. I troll for soothing locutions, catch a familiar voice.
"Our culture is afraid of death, and considers it something we must wage a battle against. I say, surrender, submit. Go gentle. Terminal means terminal."
It’s Tessa, I realize, even as the host breaks her off.
"Well, I guess you’re saying just lie back and pray the Eastern religions are right about reincarnation."
"No, I’m saying just lie back."
Mrs. Lizzari calls me for a special batch, almond-ginger. When I get there she hands me a small canvas, lighthouse generica, a hammer and nails.
"Over the mantle, dear," she says.
"So, tell me," she says, hoisting her cookie tray, "what made you say those things to Hilda?"
"I was just trying to help."
"We don’t need any help in that department, thank you."
When I leave I still have the hammer in my belt loop. I bang it on Hilda’s door.
"It’s your local service representative," I say, wave the hammer through the chained slit.
"Whenever you’re ready, Hilda. Just let me know. There’s no reason you should suffer."
"Who’s suffering?" she says.
You can hear them in the hallway, their early wheels. Mrs. Lizzari is in her house gown, helping the medics make the corner with their gurney. Hilda is up to her neck in sheet.
"She’s okay, she’s going to be okay," says Mrs. Lizzari. "She’s not so lucky yet."
I nod, duck back inside.
My mother’s windows get no dawn light, but there’s a kind of slow undimming going on in the dining room.
I fetch the sack.
All it takes are the tiniest taps of the hammer to make a good part of my mother real old fashioned dust-to-dust-type dust. I crush a little morphine up and sift it in. I add some water, cook it all down in a spoon, draw it up through a hormone needle, roll my sleeve. I stanch the blood with velveteen.
Now I’m on the flower-print couch.
Now I’m thinking, is that the morphine, or is that my mother?
Something is setting beautiful fires up and down my spine.