That is an idea: give someone access to a knife for only five minutes a month, even if they have never done harm with a knife. The knife is available for cutting sausage for spaghetti when visitors visit in the trailer designed to simulate life on the outside. A camera is aimed directly at the home of the knife, a clear plastic box affixed to the wall and outlined in neon green tape. When the knife is removed, a timer begins. If the knife is not back home when the timer goes off, it is justification to throttle the man who was too busy sauteeing to notice, and the meal is ruined.
I’m sitting in bed with the dog beside me when Grandpa Ned calls. I answer while adjusting the dog’s heavy head so it’s less crushing of my thigh. Ned has been drinking Christian Brothers and is doing his arms-up-and-around detail. He slurs into the phone, which I hold away from my ear.
“Let me tell you something,” he says. “I once found a golden worm on the steps of the Georgia Superior Court and I pocketed it.”
He laughs and in the background his nurse Tricia says, “K Ned, calm down.”
Something drops and clangs and he mumbles, “I’ll calm down. I’ll calm all the way down pretty soon.” We both laugh and he says, “Let me tell you something, I love talking to you.”
Within the same month, Ned went to the home and Michael went to prison. My mother took me to lunch and explained very carefully that we were to tell anyone who asked that Michael was in Europe studying religion.
“What religion?” I asked.
“Oh I don’t know,” she waved a hand in the air. “The Apostles.”
“And what about Ned?” I said. I was being aggressive.
“He’s at Mayfair Village,” she said. She lifted a heart of palm from her salad, smelled it, and took a bite. “And if you want to know the truth, it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to him.”
After lunch we went to Marshall’s and picked out some things to send to Ned and Michael. We got Ned a tall tin of mixed nuts and a navy blue sweatshirt. We got Michael four pairs of no-sweat athletic socks and three books, bestsellers, discounted.
Driving home from the store, I heard something like a click come from my mother, and when I looked over, a tear was running down each cheek, cutting two dark lines through her powder.
“Well,” she said, noticing me noticing. She shrugged and dabbed at her face with a crumpled tissue.
“You can cry,” I said.
“So can you.”
The dream begins with Michael and I diving underwater. We’re already below the surface, and we’re moving down. We move down for a long time, my hair straight and smooth behind me, Michael’s legs like flippers ahead of me. We slice through the dense blue easily. When we reach the bottom, we touch it and start swimming back up, but then we notice the distance to the shimmer. We realize how far we are from the surface, and we begin to panic. We look at each other underwater. Michael’s eyes are large and dumb, pure with fear, and I can see his heart through his chest. It is fat and thick and pumping too hard, and I feel angry. My brother’s heart. I want to reach out and calm it. Instead I swim down again so that I am below him, and I grip the bottoms of his wrinkled feet so that I can propel him up. And then the dream ends and I open my eyes to the dark and I have a feeling that we did not make it.
Ned calls to tell me about his new girlfriend. She’s 83 and from Japan and buys him seasonal wreaths to hang on his door. When she arrived at Mayfair Village, she was acting shy. She’d roll out of her room and position herself next to the fireplace and just look around. Ned saw her sitting there one morning and felt a little sad (partially, he admitted, for himself), so he went and said hello and gave her a tour. He took her to the ice cream parlour on the first floor and showed her the calendar and explained each activity.
What does it mean to have a girlfriend at his age? Does his penis still work? When I’m 83, what will happen when I go to the bathroom? Will I use baby powder? Most of my old-age thoughts are about the bathroom. Will my insides move outside so easily that I have to be careful? How often will I wash my hair? Ned uses Irish Spring on his hair, “for volume.”
When Grandma died, Ned sat down in his chair and screamed. I didn’t see it happen but I create the scene in my mind sometimes. The light around the drawn curtains is blue, and the air in the room is tight, like it’s being funneled to a point, and Ned is in his sweats, and his mouth is open. If I think of this when I’m driving I go a little blind.
Michael and I talk on the phone and he wants to know what I’ve been eating for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I feel like a mother bird opening her throat. He switches between a hard voice and a desperate one and it makes me wonder if he’s losing it. I ask him about the voice thing and he starts talking about a book he finished last night. I ask him again and he gets louder about the book, and I realize I’m in the middle of possibly ruining his day.
When we get off the phone I feel insufficient. I look around the kitchen and I am pinned to the ground by the soles of my feet. I look out the window at a dying bush made bright by the sun and it looks fraudulent.
There is nothing I feel like doing, so I go to sleep.
My mother and I pick Ned up at Mayfair Village on a Friday morning. When we arrive, he’s sitting on a white bench outside the front entrance with Tricia.
Tricia whispers something into his ear and goes inside. I help him into the back seat. He smells like Brandy and soap. My mother twists around in her seat and says “Hi Dad” and then “What happened to your hand Dad?” I look down before sliding the van door closed and see a bloody scab.
“Oh I don’t remember,” Ned says.
My mother starts the car and says we can’t dawdle or we’ll miss our window with Michael. No one is dawdling. Ned and I are both buckled in and ready to go.
We spend the first thirty minutes of the drive listening to Ned name off the various people who have died at Mayfair over the past couple of months. His hearing is getting worse and his voice is getting louder. He shouts that each person was a “good man” or a “great gal.” My mother keeps shaking her head. “Ohhh, she was a great gal.” Shake shake shake.
After Ned finishes his report we listen to Christian radio. The host of a popular program that my mother likes is doing a special story about the importance of probiotics. He says that they can help get rid of muffin top and she looks at the radio’s display screen like she’s going to see something there. The host says that Core Grace, a complete probiotic supplement, is only $18.95 for a 30 day supply.
“What’s that?” Ned leans forward in his seat. “What are they talking about?”
My mother turns up the volume. “Hold on Dad I want to hear this.”
The program goes on and on. The host brings on a special guest doctor to discuss stubborn belly fat, and then a customer who had to replace all of her pants. Ned keeps muttering “Well I’ll be damned” in amazement.
We pull into the prison parking lot and my mother drives to the first row of spots with green outlines. Before she turns off the engine, she takes down the number to call to order.
Michael lost trailer privileges this month, so we are back to the usual routine, only this time with Ned. My mother wants to move quickly but Ned is slowing us down. As we make our way up the walkway, she keeps turning around and placings her hands on her hips then dropping them to her sides then placing them on her hips again.
When we get inside, two sets of doors close behind us and my mother rushes to the vending machines to get Michael a chili burger. I take Ned to the sitting area and we claim a small, round table. Ned looks around, squinting. My mother returns with the burger and sits down next to me and removes a small stack of napkins from her clear plastic tote bag. Two children seated at a table behind us begin to argue and a gaunt woman with a long, limp ponytail reprimands them.
I spot Michael right away when the guys start coming through the door. He’s bulked up but his hair is the same: black and tightly trimmed with short, gelled bangs. My mother stands and hugs him and holds out the burger. He laughs and takes it and then I hug him, and then Ned stands and they hug for a long time before we all sit down.
“They said I couldn’t bring you a drink,” Ned says.
“That’s true,” Michael says. “Bastards.” He sucks chili off his thumb and I lean into him. I put my full weight against his arm and shoulder and begin to cry.
“Oh now,” Ned frowns. He pats my back and I see my mother removing more napkins from her bag. She hands one to me and I squish it in my palm. Michael pulls my head to his chest so that he is hugging it and Ned moves his patting to my arm. I can hear my brother’s heart — a whoosh of underwater sounds — and feel Ned’s gentle pats, and I beg their pardon.
Meredith Alling is a writer based in Los Angeles. Her debut collection of short stories, SING THE SONG, is out now from Future Tense Books.
Agam Neiman is a New England-based artist, whose work explores the darker aspects of speculative realism. He studied Political Thought and Intellectual History at NYU and Cambridge, and now trains at the Ingbretson Atelier in New Hampshire. His commissions include cross-media collaborations with musicians, writers, and podcasts. He is to be found working on them most days and nights, within the cavernous interior of a former textile manufacturing plant.