A Word in Edgewise ~ Peter McMillan
The fluorescent lights must have grown dim to his unblinking eyes. His body hadn't been moved or turned in ... well, these charts couldn't be trusted. Since the IV diet had been imposed, the custodial care seemed to have slackened off. It got easier to be forgotten. The machinery monitoring his body was his only company.
But one day it summoned the family. Everyone gathered around. Layered voices—loud, garrulous, cloying—came together in a twangy, raspy dissonance, punctuated by coughing spasms incited by rival perfumes. The shapes of family hovered over the bed, and the staff stood back, waiting.
"Daddy, I know you can hear me but is there anything you'd like to say. Just squeeze my hand, okay? That'll be good enough for me. Daddy, this is goodbye. Not just 'bye' but really and truly goodbye. It's very important to me, Daddy, that you know I've, uh, we've done everything that could be done. You know I'd never do anything but what was best for—"
"Terrell, you never was a big talker. Matter of fact, I don’t recollect when I last heard you string two words together. But that ain't neither here nor there, cause I think you know what your little girl here is tryin to say. That she loves you, and for that matter, I think I speak for everybody here when I say we all do. I know, I know. Ya'll quit making faces. I'm talkin to Terrell. Anyhow, we didn't often see eye to eye, did we Terrell, but—and I ain't sure I ever said this to you—I did look up to you when we was growin up—"
"Lester, just keep quiet for once. This ain't neither the time nor the place for you to start eulogizing. Phony eulogizing at that, truth be told. Gotta be center stage though, don't you? And always flappin that yap of yours. That's what Terrell would've told you to your face if he'd had any gumption. But I have enough for him and me, and now, time like this, I say we don't need your long-winded—"
"Just tryin to be nice, Sis."
"Oh, I wish we could just get this over with. I've gotta be downtown in half an hour and traffic's gonna be murder. So, what else do we have to do here? I mean we're not gonna make funeral arrangements yet, are we? And the will ... well, that better not come up til after next week, because Giancarlo and I will be in Cancún—"
"I heard ole J.C. was with some new young thing. That you, darlin? You better work fast, kitten, 'cause he's not gonna get out from under this one, and there ain't gonna be much left for you. But why am I telling you? It ain't like you're one to be a day late and a dollar short, including today, ain't that right honey?"
"Shut up! Just SHUT UP, okay! You have no business speaking to me like that … and on a day like today."
"And here you are—the both of you—just waitin for the old man to kick off. I'm sure he—well, maybe not him, but his dear departed wife, may she rest in peace—would've had a few choice words for you two right about—"
"Uncle Lester, despite your silly platitudes, you want the same thing I want … the same thing we all want. Besides, you're not one to act high and mighty, you old lecher. That's right! Uncle Lester, you're a lecherous old fool. There! If anybody didn't know it before, they do now. It was the summer I finished high school. In your backyard swimming pool. Aunt Edna was drunk like always. I still remember the look on your face when I kicked you in the crotch. That comes from my momma's side. Served you right, you creep. You oughta be locked up, you perv—"
"Lester! Is that true? A child! And your own kin! My niece, too, and her momma, a saint of a woman, except for that temper of hers. She'd have flayed you good fashion, like I've a mind to do right this minute. Good god, man! What were you—"
"Shhh. I think I heard him say something. Listen."
"Come on, he hasn't said anything in months, what's he gonna say?"
"I heard something, too. Sounded like 'Oh'"
"Pain, that's what it is. He still feels pain. Poor, poor Daddy!"
"Sooner we do this the—"
"No, not yet. I wanna hear. It's something else, not—"
"Yep, could be a word. Could be 'no' or 'know,' or 'Joe.' But that don't make no sense. Do we know a Joe? I know a lot of Johns. What about—"
"He's sayin 'go.' He's tellin us it's time for him to—"
"No. The old man's tryin to tell us to 'go.' Whaddya know about that! Ole Terrell. Finally—"
"Well, I never—"
"And that might just be why—"
Peter McMillan, whose roots are in the Deep South, is a freelance writer and ESL instructor who lives with his wife and two flat-coated retrievers on the northwest shore of Lake Ontario.
Plaza ~ Christina Murphy
Goldfish circle in the plaza fountain, their mouths open for offerings. We are circling, too—the you and I of a former life, now returning to the place we spent our honeymoon—this tropical hotel with its plastic trees and plastic fruit—pineapples mostly—hanging in artificial splendor above the goldfish.
I put a quarter on my thumb and flick it into the turquoise water flowing gently over a sunset scene in the tiles.
“Make a wish,” I say, and you comply.
It would be nice if you were smiling, but you look bitter, perhaps angry, and the quarter slides off a goldfish’s back and floats lazily toward the tiles.
“Can we get a drink?” you say.
“If you want one.”
“I do. Hurry up.”
In the bar, I order the featured drink, half a coconut filled with crushed ice, rum, orange slices, and a too-red maraschino cherry.
“You want one?”
“No, too childish,” you say.
“Always a criticism, huh?”
“I guess so,” you say.
I watch small red lines leak from the cherry and stain the milky white coconut flesh.
The bartender’s wearing a Hawaiian shirt and a red lei. There’s something terribly sad about fake tropical settings. Everything is trying too hard to be real.
You take a deep breath. “I was wrong,” you say. “I do want a divorce. I shouldn’t have let you bring me here.”
I want to tell you something, but I feel like one of the goldfish, my mouth opening toward what will be only a bitter metallic taste, and I’ll be caught up in the emptiness, the humiliation again.
“To the tropics,” I say, lifting my drink for a toast, but managing only to spill pink coconut juice down my new shirt of beach scenes and orange-gold sunsets.
Christina Murphy's fiction appears in a range of journals and anthologies and has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.