EXCHANGE OF WORDS
by Gary J. Erwin
We’d recognized the disparities in her speech the third day after hospital admission. “Mouth stick,” she’d murmured one morning during a brief moment of consciousness. She raised her limp hand, then pointed a crooked finger at a tube of lipstick atop a pile of items from her makeup bag that my sisters had dumped onto the bedside table. She cocked her head toward my father, then squinted as he stood next to her with his meaty hand on her shoulder, his blond eyebrows raised in question.
“Here,” she instructed him, her blue eyes bloodshot and glazed, a finger delicately probing her cracked and dry lips. She puffed air into her cheeks to extend her lips outward, an exercise that immediately drained the blood from her face and caused her eyelids to flutter. My father reached across her body but before he could snatch her lipstick, the IV machine chirped, her hand fell heavily to the bed and she’d slipped into another drug- induced sleep. When she inhaled, a gurgling sound gushed from her throat and nose, as if gravel shifted somewhere inside her lungs.
“Red meat, cigarettes, genetics, stress,” her doctor speculated in response to my father’s inquiry concerning the reasons for her unexpected heart problems, given her relatively young age of 42. The doctor leaned over her as she slept and pressed his stethoscope to her chest. “Might be one or a combination of them all,” he continued. “We’ll know more in a week or two. When she’s able, you may want to think about taking some time away go somewhere relaxing.”
With his eyes closed, the doctor turned his head and listened to the ebb of blood as it flowed to and from her heart, over the deposits that had conspired against her the last ten years of her life. It was the eighth examination of my mother he’d conducted within four days. His perplexity in calculating the extent to which her heart had seized up was evident in the scrutiny of his pinched eyes and bouts of silence. In the middle of his first analysis, Mom woke unexpectedly to discover him leaning over her, his brown face inches from her nose.
She shot a fist toward his jaw, her knuckles glancing off his bearded chin.
“Son of a bitch in my clothes,” she garbled, glaring into his startled face.
This was the mother we were accustomed to living with our entire life, a striking contrast to the morning we found her slumped over the clothes dryer in the laundry room after breakfast, her eyes rolled up so that only the whites were visible, a ball of sweat socks clenched in her fist. But sometimes the contradictions were difficult to comprehend and without evidence: before she became ill, she attended to our collective and individual needs carefully, often making three different dishes at dinner for my sisters and me, or scheduling days in which only she and my sisters or I went to lunch together downtown. My family and I sat next to her bed that second day in the hospital with our mouths open, bolstered by the speed and agility she was able to marshal toward the doctor given the gravity of her affliction. Not once in the years prior to her heart condition did she ever display any degree of athleticism.Each time he came into her room after that day, I watched his uneasy gaze shift back and forth behind his wire-rimmed glasses and survey the rise and fall of her chest, an observation I found unsettling. His thick, wiry black beard rose high on his cheeks and obscured his lips, which made it difficult to determine their precise location when he wasn’t speaking. By the fourth day the invisibility of his mouth undermined my confidence in him: when he turned and addressed us, it looked as if his words were issued from two horizontal strips of coarse black hair. My sister Ann and I called him Dr. Hair. One night after our visit, she leaned across the back seat of our car as we silently drove home, cupped her freckled hands around her mouth and whispered in my ear, “When Dr. Hair, eats he probably eats his own hair.”
My father wasn’t impressed with my mother’s doctor either. His trust had always been difficult to gain. He was raised on the west side of Detroit, less than a mile from where the abandoned shell of Tiger Stadium once sat in Cork Town, a borough originally settled by Irish immigrants and second-generation families of Northern European descent. During my father’s youth, old men with leathery skin sold lake trout caught from the Detroit River and pints of home-brewed stout from wood carts freighted with blocks of ice. Mothers and daughters grew potatoes the size of cantaloupes in the rich, dark soil of front yard gardens each summer. Fathers, sons and grandfathers pitched horseshoes in empty lots following their shifts at the Lynch Road assembly plant.
“Don’t know if I can trust that doctor,” he lamented on the way home from the hospital the night before my mother’s release, referring to the doctor’s ethnicity, which I found undeterminable. As a teenager, my father had been mugged by a group of dark- skinned men who’d taken residence in an abandoned brownstone two blocks from his house as he trudged home from school one day. They often lounged on the weed-infested front stoop of the house after sundown, drinking quarts of Schlitz malt liquor and urinating in the overgrown baseball lot next door. My father had sustained two broken ribs and a cracked fingernail before giving up the two dollars in quarters he’d stuffed in his sweat sock to help defer the expense of his family’s laundry bill each month. Sometimes, when he recalled the story to my sisters and I, he unconsciously touched his ribs and let out an exhausted sigh.
I looked up at the rear view mirror. Silver light from passing cars drifted across my father’s rutted face as we drove, illuminating the gray half moons of skin that had begun to sag beneath his eyes since her admission. As I gazed into the mirror at his tired face, I began to think of all the trips we took in his car. Unlike my mother, my father enjoyed driving and found the low drone of tires against pavement soothing to his life consumed by us, work and mom’s sickness. Once, maybe two months before she got sick, we drove through the forests and hills of the upper peninsula on our way to a campground late at night and I sat in front between them while Mom slept. For half an hour I listened to the hiss of air through my sisters’ noses as they lay passed out in back. Then I leaned toward my father, cupped my hand around his ear and whispered, “Punch it!”
“Shhh,” he hissed, shooting a glance at my mother, who slept in the passenger seat with her head pushed up against the headrest. “Not so loud—wait a few more miles.”
I nodded, then turned to look out the window. I could see the chiseled layers of orange, gray and brown rock and dusty sediment that had taken hundreds of years to form into the precise sequences of crust as our headlights flooded the roadside, impressed with the geographical accumulation of history that marked this part of the state. Land like this had never existed in the woods and around the lakes of the town where I grew up, which sat in a small valley some thirty miles west of Detroit. I peered at my father, his smooth face lit by the green glow of the speedometer. He shot me a glance and winked. He was an experienced travel strategist and I trusted his judgement completely. To avoid waking my sisters and mother on these trips, he often let our 1969 Charger coast over rough spots in the road or else he carefully swerved the car to the soft shoulder to avoid potholes. Once, he pulled over late at night, twisted a half piece of tissue into a thin spiral and delicately threaded it into mom’s ear to muffle the engine’s drone. Then we sped off in a flurry of chewed up rock and gravel. But within four miles mom woke up, her petite body sensing the increase in velocity at which our car moved. She stared at my father; her eyes narrowed to slits.
His head shifted nervously between the road and Mom. “What?” he asked.
She patted her nest of blond hair, scrunching it back into place. “You know what,” she said in an even voice, the twist of tissue sticking out of her ear. “Back it down.”
She plucked the tissue from her ear, her squint still fixed on my father who stared straight ahead as the car slowed to a lower speed.
But now as we drove home from the hospital, his concern for her health and the ability of her doctor to make the right diagnoses distracted him. We’d already gone on a trip, but still mom got sick. After a few minutes, my father fidgeted in his seat, yawned, then shook his head a few times, as if trying to prevent himself from further comment regarding a strange doctor’s potential for an incorrect diagnosis.
My sisters and I didn’t know what to think. We were still disoriented by the suddenness with which her heart had seized up like a car engine that lacked enough oil. During visiting hours, we sat quietly beside Mom’s bed, studying the clear plastic tubes plugged into her arms, through which transparent liquids flowed from the IV bag. On occasion she awoke and peered at us with a blank, inconsolable stare we’d never seen before, one that seemed to question who we were and what had happened as her vacant eyes quickly roamed the room’s perimeter. A glass vase filled with long stem roses, daisies and baby’s breath sat on the window-side table where my sisters attempted to arrange the remaining components of Mom’s makeup bag on our first visit: an aluminum tin of pink rouge placed at the center of the tabletop, fenced in by silver tubes of red, orange and mauve lipstick.
The scent of rubbing alcohol and sweat consumed the air, a combination that made my nose twinge and my eyes water each time I inhaled. Bolted to the wall opposite her bed sat a short row of blue plastic chairs with straight and uncomfortable backs. Above them hummed a 20-inch Zenith black and white television, attached by two metallic support beams that extended from the ceiling like silver arms holding out a gift. Everything—the flat, clinical musings of the doctor, the exhausted expressions on the faces of my father and sisters, the sterile environment in which she suffered, the sense of weightlessness I felt while standing next to Mom’s bed, listening to the electronic bleat of the heart monitor on the stand beside her—everything felt staged, as if I observed the room from behind a plate glass window.
She suffered from a congenital heart condition characterized by an untraceable and sudden increase in the heart’s rhythm, brought on by moments of intense nervousness or anxiety. Based on the doctor’s estimate, eighty percent of her mental faculties were expected to return, representing a substantial recovery given the deficit of oxygen her brain and heart had endured. But our doubts regarding his prognosis grew following her homecoming. Words with precise, unwavering meanings gained new relevance when delivered from Mom’s lipstick-painted mouth. The word look became gook; blew had transgressed into spew; car was labeled lard, an exchange that invoked chuckles from my sisters and I when Mom and Dad weren’t looking. She’d forgotten my name, an unanticipated consequence that extended beyond the question of my identity as her son. A hospital psychiatrist informed us that this was something we should expect.
Still, the contrasts between who she was and who she’d become were sudden and indecipherable in spite of the biological explanations and linguistic consequences. Before her illness, she’d attained a level of artistry in the use of swear words unparalleled by other mothers in our neighborhood, even those with large and untenable families who lived at the end of our street. Growing up, I often believed she was the author of many unchristian phrases. Her skill in verbally manipulating the behavior of my sisters and I was as equally daunting as her ability in restraining us with a tight squeeze of her hand on the fleshy part of our upper arms whenever we acted up in public. She was a small, delicate-looking woman prone to moments of controlled fierceness, and we always avoided confrontation with her . Out of habit, we’d adhered to this policy well into her first stay at home, when it was clear that her mind and memory had diminished beyond repair.
“Am I like before? What I was?” she asked me at the dinner table a year after her return. I didn’t know how to respond. The five of us sat silent a few moments, surprised at her ability to make this abrupt, unexpected assessment, our heads bowed as we gazed at our watery mashed potatoes and blood-red roast beef that she’d spent four hours preparing. I wanted to remind her of my real name then, but I quickly realized that this was not the right time.
“You’re more like it every day,” Dad declared, quickly rescuing me from having to supply an answer. I watched his wide, hairy hand hover toward the center of the table to stir the potatoes. A thick layer of milky water had bubbled to the surface. Using the tip of his butter knife, he gently carved a canal from one edge of the potatoes to the center and watched as the soft, lumpy pile absorbed the liquid, clearly intrigued by the saturation process taking place before his eyes. Then he smiled and traced her hand with his pinky. “Good meal, hon.”
But her speech and memory didn’t improve. Once, almost two years after her initial ailment, Mom withdrew a cigarette from the pack she kept tucked in the breast pocket of her blue painting robe as we sat in the family room watching a Clint Eastwood movie. Then she carefully leaned forward, extended her hand and reached for her lighter that rested on the coffee table in front of the couch. But her trembling fingers accidentally knocked it to the floor.
She sat back and sighed, suddenly exhausted from expending what little energy she had, her cigarette still nestled between the index and middle fingers of her left hand. She pointed the butt end at the lighter. “Ann,” she whispered, “pick that damn thing up and put it on the fuckis.”
I turned around, glanced at her, then returned to watching television, caught off guard by this word, particularly since it was the first time, she incorrectly used a swear word in everyday conversation.
“What’d you say, Mom?” Sara asked. She sat Indian style beside Mom on our black leather couch, the bangs of her blond hair pushed in front of her eyes.
“The fuckis,” she whispered again. “Put that on the fuckis.”
Sara flicked her hair out of the way and squinted at her. “You mean the table?”
“Yes, yes,” Mom repeated. She jabbed her cigarette at the table, then at the lighter once more as her frustration began to grow. “Put it on there. I need it.”
“You heard her,” Ann said, clenching a hand over her mouth to restrain the smile that crept across her thin red lips. “Put it on the fuckis.”
I sat on the floor with my back against the couch next to Sara’s feet. “What’s a fuckis?” I’d asked, trying to sound sincere.
Sara jabbed me between my ribs with her big toe, sending a rift of pain through my side.
“Adam, you didn’t hear that,” she hissed. “Don’t let Dad hear you say that. He’ll kick your scrawny ass.” She jabbed me once more for emphasis.
“Would someone please put my Bic on the fuckis?” Mom asked again, oblivious to our conversation. I turned to look at her. A blue vein pulsed at the corner of her left eye, a physical imperfection I’d never seen before. I stretched a foot across the red carpet of our family room, squeezed the lighter between my toes, then brought it forward and tossed it over my shoulder back onto the coffee table, where it skittered across the top and nearly fell off the other side.
“Thank you, Kevin,” Mom said. I started to turn toward her but caught the glare of Sara’s dark brown eyes and thought better of it.
Sara gently touched Mom’s arm. “You mean Adam, right mom?” she asked, the nail of her big toe grazing my ribs.
Mom nodded. She plugged the cigarette into her mouth, lit it, and sucked until the ember glowed and smoke uncurled in front of her face. “Kevin, go find me an ashtray.”
Sara reached for my hand as I stood up, but I took a step away from her. “Adam,” she whispered as I turned toward the kitchen.
Fuckis, I murmured, trying to remind myself to write this new word down in the notebook I’d kept since my mother’s return. At one time I believed the collection of her words might some day help identify the differences between this new version of who she’d become compared to who she once was. But no matter how hard I studied the different words and their disjointed spellings; I could never account for the changes that resulted from her illness.
I slunk to the sink, where I used a steak knife to chisel out the butts that had been glued to the plastic ashtray by some noxious yellow substance, my head heavy with the uncertainty of who she believed I was. Kevin isn’t such a bad name, I tried to convince myself, feeling my fingers clean and rub my mother’s ashtray, waiting for the fuzzy reflection of my face to appear on the dark plastic surface.
About the Author:
My name is Gary James Erwin and my stories, essays, literary criticism and science journalism have appeared in many literary journals, reviews and publications, including Red Cedar Review, The Sun, Pebble Lake Review, The MacGuffin, Driftwood Review, Michigan Avenue, Technology Century, and Sante Fe Literary Review among others. I have received two Pushcart Prize nominations and had a story anthologized in The PrePress Awards Volume II: Michigan Voices. In September 2019, Adelaide Books of New York will bring out my collection of thematically-linked short stories, Trail Crossing Sixteen Counties, of which the story I have submitted is a part. I live with my wife, kids and critters on three acres in the woods of Clarkston, Michigan, and am the associate vice president of Marketing & Communications at University of Detroit Mercy in Detroit.