by Robert Lewis
I walked into the coffee shop, shaking off the driving rain that had been falling for what felt like days. I saw an empty seat at the far end of the dull gray linoleum counter and went over to sit down.
The waitress came over and held out a menu for me, but I waved it off."Big cup of coffee, please, and leave room for the cream."
She nodded and left, but was back in a short minute with the coffee. She practically shoved it at me as she put it down on the counter, some of it sloshing over the side of the cup. She then tossed the check down next to it, right in the puddle of spilled coffee, and sauntered off. I watched her retreating back as she went down to the other end of the counter, like she couldn't get far enough away from me. I pulled out my pint of Cutty, and poured some of it into the cup until the coffee was at the lip, not giving a shit who saw me. An amoeba-shaped slick formed on the surface as the alcohol and brew met. It was pretty. I suddenly felt eyes on me, and looked around the coffee shop. It was a guy on my right that was gazing at me, and doing so with a lot of poorly disguised disdain. When I returned his stare, he went back to his paper, like his message had been delivered and he needn't bother anymore. He wore a business suit that looked like every other business suit I've ever seen. Would've cost me a week's pay, if I'd been working. I knew the expression on the man's face, because I had seen it before, many times: It was the expression of a man who saw nothing but a piece-of-shit drunk.
And he was right.
I focused back on my coffee, my thoughts turning to my mother. That was why I had come in here; to try to think, and get it all straight in my head. That was why I was in this little town, way in the northern part of Washington.
My mother was dying. Of Alzheimer's. Her brain was freezing up, like a piece of wrapped up meat in the freezer. On top of that, it was also shrinking, like a grape shrinks into a raisin. Her body, in an incredible move for survival, was sending spinal fluid up her spinal column, into her brain cavity to compensate for the space between cranium and brain.
We are truly a wondrous creature, us mammals.
She had no short-term memory anymore. I thought back to what was going to be a typical conversation from now on between the two of us:
"Why don't you move up here? I would love to have you here," she said. She was sitting in her big easy chair, which made her small frame look even smaller, like that of a child's. She was only five feet tall, on a good day, and maybe 115 pounds, with a shock of hair that used to be a vibrant natural red, but was now a rusty gray.
"I'm living in L.A.," I told her, "to try to get a screenwriting career going, mom. I have to be there."
Outside, I heard a bird crying out mournfully. My heart would've made the same sound if it could.
"Why do you have to be there," she asked.
"Because I want to be a screenwriter, mom."
"And where is that?"
She turned to look at the TV, then picked up the remote and began to channel surf. I wondered if Alzheimer's made it more difficult to watch TV, or made it better? I mean, there were no re-runs anymore, right? Everything fresh, everyday. No, it was probably not like that at all. It was a huge, ugly monster that ate away at your life, bit by bit, morsel by morsel. I could see it in her eyes as she struggled to remember something, or the right words.
"I would love it if you could move up here. We could be closer," she said, her eyes following the rapidly changing channels, like there was a code in those flashing images that only she could decipher.
"Where do you live?"
And so on...
I took a sip of my coffee, then added some more Cutty. I checked my watch, the last thing I owned that I could pawn. It was only ten in the morning. I laughed softly, thinking that I was starting late today.
"Why can't you live here," she asked me again. She was still watching the TV, eating Chinese food with her fingers. There was rice sticking to the sides of her mouth, and to the front of her shirt. Her brain no longer had any boundaries where utensils were concerned.The cold, Washington rain beat on the windows of the little room where she was staying. A home for the aged is where she had ended up. I tried not to look at her eat, keeping my gaze on the rain as it hit the glass.
"You know why, I have to be in L.A. to work on my career. I want to be screenwriter."
"Oh. How's that going?"
She wiped her hands on her sleeve.
"Do you think I ask too much of your sister? She's doing so much already. I don't want her to think I'm asking for too much. Am I?"
"She's fine, mom. No worries. Just relax. We'll take care of you."
She flipped the channel again. I realized that this must be what it's like, in her head. Channels, always flipping.
"I wish you could be up here. I miss you."
My fists clenched tightly around the warm cup as I thought about her, and about me, and about how shitty a son I had been. I wished that it had been different, but knew deep inside that wishing it didn't mean shit, because you can't change anything, not ever.
It was the soft sound of fluttering wings that drew me out of my thoughts, and made me look around. My eyes traveled over the diner, and then I found it: There was a small bird, trapped inside, up in the corner. It would rocket around for a moment, bouncing off the windows, then go back to the corner where it came from, to rest on a tiny ledge.I took a sip of my drink, wanting to ignore it. I didn't want to think about how scared it must be. More scared than I probably have ever been, and that's saying something. I watched as a short, squat busboy got a broom and began to beat at the little bird to get it towards the door. That's good, I thought, beat it to death to get it to leave, you stupid fuck.
I don't know why, but I found myself getting up off the stool, and walking over to the corner, swaying slightly. I hadn't eaten anything in a couple of days. Drinking was the only thing that I did now. Blackness tried to swallow me as I walked, but I fought it off, and it eventually cleared.
I went up to the young busboy. His dark eyes gazed at me with derision, like I was just another old drunk, the type he had to kick out of here every other day. I grabbed the broom out of his hands, and tossed it to the ground. This startled him, and he backed away. Maybe I looked dangerous. Deep inside, I hoped I did.
I climbed quietly up on the booth seat, moving slowly. The bird was still as stone. For a moment I thought it was dead, but then it opened its eyes and looked at me. They were so black and shiny, they could've been polished marble. Its glossy feathers were also black, as were the legs. I could see its soft breast beating like a stopwatch. Time slowed down then, and I barely moved with each passing second. I brought my hand up next to the little ledge where it was. I then waited for a moment, trying to keep still and hoping that it didn't take off again. I gently caught the bird in my hand, cupping my other hand over it. It didn't move, but just rested there, maybe happy for the warmth.
I got down off the booth seat, and walked back to my coffee. I drained it, oblivious of the stares from the other patrons.
Then I walked out into the rain, keeping the little bird cupped in my hands, until I could find someplace safe to leave it. I was toying with the idea of keeping it for a while, but knew that I couldn't. I had nothing to offer it.
About the author:
Robert is a writer living in San Francisco with his wife, too many cats, and not enough Valium. He writes screenplays (has sold one), short fiction (has also been published in Shotgun Mouth), and is working on a novel (which he's still beating his head against the wall over). He credits his love of writing from the years he lived under the Santa Monica pier after being kicked out of his parents' house, and had nothing but paper bags and old ball point pens for friends.