Spring/Summer 1998, Volume 15.2
Brian Evenson (Phd), U of Washington) teaches creative writing and critical theory at Oklahoma State University. He has published several books including Altmann's Tongue (Knopf, 1994), The Din of Celestial Birds (Wordcraft, 1997), and Prophets and Brothers (Rodent Press, 1997).
My mother is always telling me to turn off the television, or as she now calls it the "Tree-vay" because since her stroke something has gone wrong with language in her throat and lips. It is a difficult time for her. Nothing comes out like she wants. Mostly she rishels she was dread in bullied, though on her worst days she cannot manage to wish even that. Most of the time I wish she was dead and buried too, though sometimes I remember to be her son and to love her a little. Not too often, because the stroke went wrong not only in her throat and lips but in her brain too, which makes her mostly unlovable. Mostly she doesn't care for anybody's feelings but her own, and sometimes not even those.
"Burn up the tree-vay!" she is always shouting, even when the television is not on. She means she wants it off. She says "up" but that is the stroke lodged in her throat and if you turn the television up she starts stamping against her wheelchair and throwing her head about like it's Stroke No. 2. She shouts "Burn up! Burn up!" She will keep shouting it until you turn it off or wheel her out into the garage.
We have cable television. She does not want it but that is too bad because I am not getting rid of it. Mostly I am using it to watch something other than crap, and maybe that is what bothers her. I am always watching CNN or Public Television or, most of all, Court TV. I am doing what is called "expanding my horizons." With Court TV, I am learning the ins and outs of the legal system. I am going to be a lawyer someday, once my mother is dead and the insurance pays me for her body, so mostly I watch trials. What I watch most of all is what everybody calls "The Trial of the Century." I have all of the trial of the century on VCR tape and can watch anytime, all except for day 234 tape 2—because once when I would not burn up the tree-vay my mother got into the tapes and picked the ribbon of that tape out with her non-paralyzed hand and chewed it up in her mouth. Before the stroke, she would not put anything but food in her mouth, that is how much she has changed. The tape will not even play now. I have advertised in the Wooden Nickel for some justice-loving soul to come forward with a duplicate tape in exchange for my everlasting gratitude, but nobody has. She would ruin all the tapes if she could. I have to watch my mother every minute. It is like living with an animal or a baby, or maybe worse.
My mother does not understand the legal process. Before language lodged in her throat she was always saying stupid things like "Everybody knows the football has-been did it" or even "Who cares if the police tampered? He still did it" or "Mark my words, that cut came from when he stabbed the hell out of them." She never was a reasoning mind like I myself. That is why instead of going into law and making lots of money she just cleaned people's houses all her life. Even now, when I watch the trial tapes, she still says the crap that a person who doesn't know anything but housecleaning would say. But because of the problem with language I can't understand her and I stop listening. That maddens her so she starts yelling, "Burn it up! Burn it up!" and before she knows it she is cooling off in the garage.
The doctor says she will never get language again and it will only get worse. In the meantime, God knows, I am gaining a legal education. She is getting worse, but me, I am just getting better and better.
My mother still thinks he is guilty. But he is not guilty in the eyes of the law—the trial of the century proved it. He has been exonerated (cleared), and cannot be guilty.
That is what is called legalistic thinking. I am learning not to let my feelings get the best of me. If you do, it is called "bias." My mother is so full of "bias" that she has it dripping out of her ears. But I am not biased: the law says "not guilty" so I say, "All right by me, law."
"He's filthy, filthy!" my mother says.
It is no use talking to her about anything at all. She is no longer a nice person and she is not pleasant to look at. Since I am what is called her primary provider, I have to do almost everything for her and there are some pretty awful things to be done. I have seen more of my mother's body than a son should ever have to see. If I let my feelings about her get in the way, I could not stand it, so it is a good thing I am free of bias. That way, nothing sticks to me.
I watch the video tapes. The first time, when the trial was really going on and I didn't know how it was going to turn out, I wrote down notes on the testimonies and on the arguments. I pretended to be whoever was talking, and thought of how I could have said things better. I was also the jury and was thinking it all out, but not making a judgment until the trial was done. The first time when it was done I thought for certain he was guilty and even wrote "guilty" down on a legal pad along with a bunch of reasons for it, reasons like the bloody glove, the cut on his hand, the DNA testin& etc. But then the real jury came back and said he was not guilty, I knew I had made a mistake, because twelve minds are better than one. Now I am watching the tapes more closely and figuring out why he was not guilty after all. I am learning something. I am learning to read the evidence and to know what it means. I am always learning and trying to better myself, and I am doing it too. My mother does not want to learn and does not want to watch the tapes again. She shows it too, which means she spends a lot of time cooling off in the garage. But it is for her own good.
Some days my mother gives up on speech entirely, which means I have some peace. Other days, though, she never stops talking.
"Mard?" she asks. "Min tag felan?"
"By fegs blurt," she says.
"My an lungree," she says.
"Flewed," she asks, and bangs her face against her hand.
I am patient with her. "Mother," I say calmly. "I don't understand a word."
She screws her face up. "Rishels I was dread," she says. "Dread in bullied!" That I understand.
There is no reasoning with her.
I am her primary provider because there is nobody else. My father has been gone for years now and is probably at the bottom of some lake or pond. He was not smart and could never have been a lawyer like I am going to be. He did business with people he should have stayed away from. When she could speak better, my mother spoke about him all the time and told me she did not think much of him. Probably she still doesn't. But it is just bias speaking, because who is she to judge?
She is not happy with anything and sometimes tries to fall out of the wheelchair, or at least she used to until she saw that I wasn't going to pick her up. It is not exactly in my job description. For all I know she likes it on the floor, wriggling her one good side.
"Smelt me!" she cries. "Smelf me!"
"You want me to smell you?" I ask.
She is wavering and shaking, lying on the floor. "No! No!" she says. Words for a change.
I get down and smell her. She does not smell so good.
"Shelf me! Shelve me!" she cries.
If I was not so free of bias or if I had not tape-recorded "The Trial of the Century," I could not stand this life. But now I have a purpose. I am honing my legal skills. I am learning how to take the Law School Admissions Test at home too, and that is going to serve me in good stead.
Near evening I break down and put her back into the chair. "There," I say. "Isn't that better?"
After all, we are all family.
I move her wheelchair closer to the table. I set the bowl right in front of her and sit beside her with my knees rubbing against the wheel's spokes.
"Come on, now," I say. "It's delicious."
She will not take the mush.
To manage her, I have at my beck and call four techniques, all of them learned from what she used to throw at me when I was a child. There is the Airplane, Engine No. 9, the Nose Clamp, the Cheek Gouge. I know how to use them against her, each a forceful increase over the last.
The Airplane is a simple and flighty movement of the spoon, a circling and then a brief straight run into the mouth. When she keeps her mouth closed, there is Engine No. 9, a focused line of energy straight toward the mouth. It is not much better than the Airplane, but more intimidating maybe. The Nose Clamp pinches off her air and that gets her mouth to open long enough for the spoon to dash in. The Cheek Gouge presses the thumb into her back check, pushing back hard until she has to open. That one mostly works, but if you use it too frequently there starts to be a scar.
This time I go straight to the cheek gouge. She opens right up and only bleeds a little.
The day they say the verdict we are watching the television. I have my pencil ready and hanging over the legal pad. The jury comes out and they give their verdict of not guilty and it is like I am in shock. I swear, that is the closest I have come to knowing what it must be like to have a stroke. I am just sitting there with my pencil in hand and I cannot even move. I have something like forty-eight legal pads full of daily notes of the trial. Everything I wrote down told me he was guilty, but he is not guilty, the Law has spoken.
I am never going to become a lawyer this way.
"Filthy!" my mother is yelling. "Filthy! Filthy! Filthy!"
II. Engine No. 9
She is purple and her hands are all clenched up and she is angry at me. I know what she wants, but fuck her anyway. I am busy with the trial of the century, watching it again so I can come up with the right verdict.
"Burn it up!" she yells. "Burn it up!"
I sit and ignore her and when she keeps yelling I rewind a little and turn up the volume. She does not take a hint. She keeps yelling, screaming. "You're asking for the garage," I say.
Usually this will shut her up, but today no. She keeps stammering her wrong sounds. Her face is growing darker and her fingers seem like they are trying to push through her wrists. The VCR is paused and I am on my way over to wheel her into the garage, but she is already pitching out of her wheelchair.
"Get up," I say, though I know she can't. A little humor never hurt anyone.
I brush her with one foot but she does not seem to feel it. Then I notice that her eyes have rolled back into her head and her lips are losing color. I know what it means because I have seen it before. We are in the middle of Stroke No. 2.
I unbutton her blouse and find there is a heartbeat but it is going in all different directions and keeps getting stuck. I get on the telephone with 911, but first have to turn off the VCR because it ruins a tape to leave it paused. So maybe it takes me a minute— I'm still pretty quick, though. "My mother is having a stroke," I tell them and give them the address and they tell me to hold on, it will be okay, help is coming.
I get off the line and feel for my mother's heart but cannot find it. I breathe into her but that does not help either, so I start hitting her on the chest with my fists like I've seen on TV, trying to trick the heart into starting again. The heart is too sneaky an organ for that. I am still hitting her and can hear her ribs creaking when suddenly the room is full of emergency folks and they are pushing what look like small steel cymbals against her chest and making her body jerk around. It is the only time I have ever seen her have rhythm. They keep that up for a while and she suddenly starts breathing again.
I take the ride with them to the hospital. They look her over for a while then wheel her into a room and hook her up to all sorts of monitors and leave me alone with her. I watch the readouts on the machines but what the hell do I know—I am going to be a lawyer, not a doctor. I sit with my feet flat to the floor, trying to look alert and responsible in case somebody comes in, but before I know it I am asleep.
There is a doctor when I wake up, then a nurse. They tell me I might as well go down to the cafeteria and get something to eat, so I do. Only I never liked hospital food, so I have to go out and find a family restaurant and sit down to a plate of all-you-can-eat spaghetti. I don't get out often, so when I do I like to live it up. But when I am done I see I have sauce on my shirt. I have to drive home and put it in the wash right away or else it will stain. Then I figure once home I might as well take a shower. My mother will be much happier if she opens her eyes on a clean son instead of a dirty one. When I am done, I come out in my towel and he down for just a minute.
When I wake up again, it is the next day.
By the time I get back to the hospital, my mother's eyes are open and she is propped at an angle in the bed and the doctor is there pushing his stethoscope bell against her heart. When he sees me, he takes off the stethoscope and coils it up and leaves it on the bed. He has me by the arm and before I know it I'm out in the hall.
I am glad you came back," the doctor says.
"Sure," I say. "She's my mother."
I don't mean to alarm you," he says. "Under the circumstances she's doing remarkably well. But there's more than a little damage."
"What kind of damage?"
"She's mostly paralyzed," he said. I imagine it will be permanent."
"She was already mostly paralyzed," I say.
"Neck down?" he asks.
Maybe it is wrong, but the first thing I think is that now she'll have a tough time destroying my video tapes. I wouldn't have to worry so much about my things. It is like going from having a child or a cat or a dog in the house to just having a goldfish, I am thinking.
"There's another thing," he says.
"What other thing?"
"Her speech," he says. "It has deteriorated."
"It was bad before."
"How bad was it?"
I tell him about it, about the way her throat and lips disrespect language. He shakes his head.
"It's worse than that," he says, patting me on the shoulder. "Much worse."
She stays in the hospital a week or so and then I strap her into the wheelchair and bring her home. The week without her is heaven. I can sit around and watch TV all the time, and I can do it naked if I want. Not that I do: it would not be professional.
I get really sharp about my trial notes, too. I am honing my skills, learning how to be a lawyer at the very top of his class. Maybe I can test out of the first year of law school or maybe they will just hand me the diploma.
Then my mother is home. She is not so vocal as before. She cannot throw herself out of her chair like she used to because now she is basically just a head with none of the rest of her body working, She is not even trying to make words anymore. I mostly ignore her, except that when she goes to the bathroom on herself or is hungry she makes these yelps which I can't understand and which I try to get her to stop. She will not stop until I have changed her or fed her. I will be writing things about the trial of the century and suddenly she starts to yelp and before I know it I have lost my thoughts. I have to tear the page off the legal pad. It is a hell of a time. I can put her in the garage, but I can only do that so many times a day or she starts to get sick, and then she is even more trouble. She is ruining everything.
The media is still talking about the case. There are all sorts of books as well. People are saying that maybe it was a "race issue" and that if the jury had been white there would have been a better verdict. Everybody has written the true story, making accusations, telling things that maybe are right and maybe are not.
But I let it all glance off me. I am a legal eagle, as they say, and I know all that matters is that the Law says not guilty, so he is not guilty. You have to respect the Law. If you don't respect the Law, why should you respect anything?
Sometimes I sit at my mother's bed-side at night and watch her sleep, and that is when I no longer think of her as an animal. That is when she is worse than an animal, wheezing and moaning, her throat filling up. If she is going to strangle I wish she would hurry up about it.
When I think she is asleep, I read to her from my legal pads, from the analyses of each testimony, each examination and cross-examination. It is like I am presenting something to the court.
When she is asleep, she is another person. She lies stiff on the bed, eyes closed. Except for the sounds from her, it is easy to imagine her dead.
III. The Nose Clamp
There is going to be another trial, the announcer says, a civil trial: Wrongful Death. "America is not satisfied," somebody in a tank-top says to the camera. But he is not America: he is only white trash.
The law is satisfied. It has spoken. There is no need for a new trial. To have one is to "make a travesty" of justice (Channel 34) and "to be racist" (Channel 59). How I see it, the law had cleared him so he is innocent. All the rest is just harassment, etc. Maybe it is "legal by today's standards" (Channel 2) but that does not make it so right. They already had a trial, didn't they?
I tell all this to my mother as I feed her. She starts quivering and moaning. She can't do much but she does manage to get her jaw locked shut and will not open it.
I am a fair man. I ask her please why won't she open her mouth? I tell her that if she doesn't eat, she will become completely screwed up. She is hurting only herself, I say. But still she won't open her mouth.
I leave her in the chair and turn on the TV. There is more about the civil trial. Some people say yes and some say no. I am with those who respect the law and say a civil trial is a bad idea. Once is enough.
I watch until the news broadcast is over, then turn on a videotape from the first trial, the trial of the century. It is a good tape, the tape in which he tries on the gloves and they don't fit. How can he be the killer if the gloves don't fit? It is riveting non-stop courtroom drama. Perry Mason can't beat that.
When the tape ends, the sunlight is gone. I turn off the television, then sit in the dark. I yawn and stretch, feel my way into the kitchen for a glass of milk.
When I open the refrigerator, I see in its light my mother, still strapped to her chair at the table, the food still in front of her.
I sit beside her and spoon up some mush and hold it near her lips. She watches the spoon but will not open her mouth.
There is only so much a man should have to bear. I turn off the light. I go to bed.
I wake slowly, my back and neck aching. I am even having dreams about the civil trial—that is how serious a lawyer-in-training I am. When I tell that to the people at the law school, they will let me in for sure.
I turn the water on hot and stand bent beneath it, feeling it run over my back. I stay bent until the heat runs out then soap up quickly and rinse off. I haven't always taken a shower every day, but watching the trial of the century I figured out that you probably have to do that if you are a lawyer. If you are not really clean, you will have zero credibility. It is letting me acquire "a professional mind set."
It is a good idea to get used to wearing a suit, too, but the only suits in the house are my father's. They are too big for me and not in style anymore. If you wore one to court, you would be laughed out. The jury would not be on your side.
I get dressed in regular clothes and go in to get my mother. I am surprised when she is not in her bed. She has not fallen out onto the floor either. I look in the closets, but she is not there.
I find her at the dining room table, her eyes dully flickering, the bowl of mush still on the table before her, the mush on the spoon gone hard and crusted. Her lips are blue and when I touch her I feel her flesh smooth and slightly chill. I take the throw rug off the floor and wrap it around her shoulders. It is the least a son can do.
Taking the bowl to the sink, I mix a little water into it, beat it until the mush breaks into clots and it is perfectly good again. I carry the bowl back to the table.
"How agreeable are we this morning?" I ask.
She just gives off this dim lowing, like a distant cow. I just smile and nod.
I try to feed her, but she keeps her mouth dosed. I do Airplane and Engine No. 9, but she is having none of it. I move to the Nose Clamp, but she breathes without separating her teeth, her lips bubbling and sucking.
I put the mush down where she can see it and go into the other room. The television comes on and the announcer tells me the status of the civil trial. It is not going well for the defendant. He is denying doing anything at all. A respondent comes on. "Double-jeopardy" he calls the trial. "It is no good to try a man twice," he says. Then it switches back to the announcer who takes the other side, the side against the Law.
In the kitchen my mother is still strapped to the chair. I sit down across from her, take the spoon again.
"Will you eat?" I ask.
She just looks through me with pale, rheumy eyes.
"You have to eat sometime," I say. "You can't live on air." She used to tell me crap like that all the time.
I go out, watch the report. It is double jeopardy, all right, it should be against the Law. Nobody should have to suffer through this. Somebody ought to do something.
I am an expert on law and justice—fast becoming one, anyway. I have a great respect for the Constitution and for our Founding Fathers and want to save the law and make it right again. I would do something myself if I could think what to do.
I switch off the set and return to my mother. I hold the spoon to her lips, but she will not open her mouth. She is a stubborn son of a bitch. I try Airplane and Engine No. 9 but I just get oatmeal spread all over her face. I surprise her with the Nose Clamp and she opens wide enough for me to force a spoonful in. But she quickly pushes it back out with her tongue.
I wish she was dread in bullied. I really do.
Near evening I unstrap her from the chair and carry her into the bathroom. I put her on a towel on the floor and unbutton her nightgown until her body is bare.
Her body is thin, the skin loose, without flesh underneath. Her diaper is mostly dry, not soaked through yet anyway. It will not hurt her to wear them through the night.
I remove the washcloth from where it is twisted and stiff and dry around the tub's spigot. I run water over it until it softens then rub soap into it, begin to rub the cloth along her body. In about three passes I give it up and put her in the tub. I turn the water on and then the shower. I let the water run over her until the mirror starts to steam, then I turn the shower off and open the curtain.
Her skin is blotched red—she is wide awake now. She is clean.
I take her out and leave her on the towel until she is mostly dry, then get her dressed. In the TV room I prop her into a comer of the couch. I turn the channels until I find somebody respectable talking about the civil suit, then go to fetch her mush.
When she sees it, she sets her teeth together. I sit down next to her as if I hadn't noticed.
"There's a cargo plane full of oatmeal asking for clearance to land," I say. When she does not open, we go on.
Who's that rolling down the line?
Engine, Engine No. 9.
The Nose Clamp gets her to part her lips but not her teeth.
I slip my fingers into her mouth, past the lips, my fingertips rubbing against her slick teeth. She keeps them closed. Taking my fingers out, I wipe them on the throw rug that is heaped around her shoulders. I push my thumb and forefinger hard, behind her cheeks, sinking them into the muscle of the jaw. I push harder until I feel her jaw loosen slightly, then force the spoon into her mouth. I pressure her tongue down with it, pour the mush into the back of her throat until she is half-gagging, half-swallowing.
I am a good son. I am saving her life.
But here is Stroke No. 3, coming round the bend, trying to take her life away from her again.
IV. The Cheek Gouge
My mother is in the hospital and not with me for the end of the civil trial, the verdict of "guilty." When I hear the verdict I weep over the injustice of it. They are wrong, but what can I do? I am only one man.
My mother is brought home in an ambulance, accompanied by a nurse. She cannot speak, cannot manage sounds. The nurse shows me how to use the equipment, how to change the new bed, how to exchange an empty intravenal fluid sack for a full one. The nurse is with me a day and a night and a day. We are just beginning to hit it off when she goes and I am left to face my mother alone.
Before, there were a few things I had to do, but I never had to watch her all the time. Now there are the monitors and filters and other things as well which I am changing every five minutes. When I am sleeping the alarms a, always going off in error, and I get up hoping she is dead. She never is.
There is no time for the law. I am forgetting all I learned from the Trial ,of the Century. I cannot even watch my tapes in peace. It is all my mother's fault.
I give her cough syrup to keep her eyes closed instead of looking at me. I will wake her up to feed her. It is hardly worth the trouble. She isn't really live.
She is sleeping and I am watching public television. There is a program called "The Juicing of the juice" which is about the trial of the century and on the wrongful death civil suit. On it, a man explains that his best friend did not commit the murders, that the whole world is against them, that the wrongful death trial was a joke and his best friend is innocent.
"Can you prove it?" the announcer asks.
"Already the facts prove it," says the other.
The announcer raises an eyebrow. "Who, then, committed the murders?" he asks.
The man turns his head toward the camera, looking directly into it. I swear it is as if he is looking straight at me. He says "There is someone out there watching this broadcast who knows who really committed the murders. I am begging them to come forward."
It is a call to action.
You can give and give, but there is only so much giving you can do before you have to put your foot down. You can-not let people walk over you all your life, and if you do then fuck you.
It is not that I don't love my mother—I do love her. But she can-not make a sound and cannot move her body at all and can move her head only slightly. She gets nothing out of being alive. She will be dead within the year, the doctor tells me. What difference does a few months make?
lt is not far from almost dead to dead. You could say they are the same thing. All I am going to do is get rid of a dead person so as to give a living one a new life. If my mother could talk, I am certain she would tell me to go through with it.
I do not have enough money for Bruno Magli shoes so I buy desert boots instead. It is close enough: if the other details are the same, the police will figure the killer was just wearing a different pair of shoes to throw them off.
I buy a knife. I get copies of the police sketches illustrating Ms Brown's wound distribution and the position of her body, I buy some garbage bags, a brown jumpsuit, a ski mask.
On the table I spread the knife, a hammer, a damp towel, a garbage bag with some rocks at the bottom of it. I am already wearing the desert boots, the jumpsuit, 'the ski mask. I practice rushing into my mother's room, pretending to stab her in the right places as she watches me. I rush out, strip off the ski mask and the coveralls, put them and the knife into the garbage bag. I put the garbage bag into the trunk of the car, drive to the river, mime throwing it in. I return, pretend to strike my head with the hammer.
After a few tries, I can do the whole process in less than eight minutes.
By the time the police come, the hammer will be in the drawer, the knife and all else gone. I will be sitting calmly in my chair, a knot on my forehead where I will claim the real killer struck me with his knife's haft. I will explain in crisp, clear sentences the horror and shock of finding my mother brutally murdered in exactly the same way as the victims from the trial of the century. It will pass as proof that the real killer is still at large and that the man found guilty in the wrongful death trial has been innocent all along. That will make them think twice. That will teach them to respect the law's decision.
Sometimes you have to bend the truth a little to make justice work.
I will co-operate with the police. I will refuse a polygraph test because that is my right, but about everything else I will co-operate. I will wait patiently for justice to be served. Then I will start law school and become a famous lawyer. Through it all, for years and years, I must remember to show a tremendous amount of grief.