Miller, Remarque, and The Maltese Falcon by Vincent Barry

Hubert moves his ex's mother into a care home and reflects on how our collected experiences deteriorate; by Vincent Barry.

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Del Río - Rachel's new board and care home. 'S where I was this morning till eleven, with Caron, the Russian, although "Caron" sounds Greek to me. Whatever, he's gonna handle the move. Me, I'm driving home and thinking of Miles Archer and tuned to NPR when -

Rachel? Oh, she's my ex's mother. Just turned ninety-five and well into the territory of the enemy. Long since breached its outer wall, so to say. Senility... Okay, "dementia," as early-on my then-partner used to correct me insistently as a toothache.

"Not senility, Hubert," like that - like a rasped Charlotte Haze, then reminding for good measure, her long-fingered hands on large, loosely hung hips, "not even 'senile dementia'!"

"Whatever, my love," I'd concede, like the nymphet-obsessed Professor Humbert, mentally subjoining, Marcescent, nonetheless, knowing full well, She'll change her tune soon enough. She did. Now, apart, we agree. Rachel needs to move.

For the past six years or so we've had Rachel in one of those so-called senior living, fancy-schmancy places just across the river. You know, "Large courtyards, gardens and fountains, tranquil setting, spacious common areas for social gatherings and entertainment - and just blocks away from Harmony Hopewell Hospital!" Ah! the lure of the brochure...

I call the place "Down But Not Out," which, of course, pisses off my ex. She gives me the look of a nun's reproof that says: "Rachel is not down, she's just -" "What?" I break in. "Resting against the ropes?"

I visit every Sunday.

We walk and talk and watch tennis - her love, not mine - on a big flat screen SONY. Borg and Connors, Evert and King - the Tennis Channel knows its market.

One Sunday, when Rachel could still use the remote, we watched "The Battle of the Sexes." Y'know, Billie Jean King and Bobbie Riggs? If memory serves, decades later King explained why she, at 29, defeated the male chauvinist Riggs, who was 55 at the time: She respected him, she said... Hmm, never underestimate your enemy. Words to live by - die by, too.

"Promise to come back," from Rachel, haltingly and invariably, in the parking lot when I am leaving and she can still totter.

"Try to keep me away," and she smiles as I go my way, grateful for that most inestimable gift. Who said it - of pretense? "We have to pretend. If we don't we're lost." Doesn't matter, whoever, cut to the quick like a dagger. Whoever, knew that without the ability to pretend, to laugh really, there are only skeletons and death's-heads.

"Today," I say one Sunday of Rachel to my ex, "I looked back and watched her hobble back, the back of her feebly waved deep-veined waxen hand knotted at the joints making my nerves twitch and strain as though -" Like a traffic cop she stops me with upraised long-fingered, unringed hand, leaving me to muse about tarrying beyond the years of toil and trouble. Is it worth all the struggle? What when life becomes no more than an exercise of breathing?

"Bleak" and "gloomy," she scolds, and "funereal" for good measure... "Stygian," my retort.

"All I know," she continues of my visits, "Mom keeps saying, 'That husband of yours! That husband of yours!'" Rachel's not good with names anymore, and we never told her we'd split. "'He sits right here'" - pointing here so theatrically to a vacant, stuff-bottomed chair, that I can almost see the senescent line of Rachel's back - "'and we have so much fun!'"

"'M glad it helps," I muster like weak tea, and add with a touch of asperity, "'S no big deal."

Of Rachel's well-meant flummery: Credit it to the precaution I take before my excursions over to Harmony Hopewell's hospitable neighbor.

A Pressed Juicery bottle with the motto: "Get back to your roots." For its aloe vera and water I substitute vodka - always "The City's" SKYY - and a shot of tonic, always Canada Dry. Back to my roots...

So armed, it's not so bad, going over - though, grantcha, a tad tiring to view, time after time, pictures of Fred - that's Rachel's second husband - that, and the family photos that seem to multiply like rabbits and substitute for words, before, their image fading, they leave silence our only conversation... that and the thwack! bwap! of "History as it's making!"

The worst part is traversing the long, close-smelling corridor to the apartment, which happens to be number thirty-three. I mention that, the room number, only because, arriving abuzz, outside the door, after a loud revolting ding dong, I go to my go-to conversational icebreaker: "Thirty-three is a sacred number. God's name appears thirty-three times in the opening chapter of Genesis. Jesus died at age thirty-three."

Like that, but this last time, right before the move, with something inchoately whizzing around in my head - or some inchoate thing whizzing... Anyway, my blooming, buzzing head aside, Rachel, for her part, listens, as always, on the other side with, I imagine, as always, no answering light in the crags and straths of her wizened face, her jaws working on a word. It is finally, the breakthrough word, spoken gingerly, always, "Thachew?"

"It is," I always assure her, "me."

"Some say," I keep on, dandling my foolish head from side to side as she cracks the door open, "we will exist eternally in a state of being at the age of thirty-three." Then a pause till I detect, in their shimmering dot reflection, a humorous puckering of red-rimmed hollow eyes, before I add, "Of course, pure surmise."

There follows a noisy silence before, from Rachel, as if cued, a solemn requiescat in pace, only in English: "Rest his soul." To which I respond, as always, like an altar boy at a Mass for the dead - no, no, more like The Armed Man of "A Mass for Peace" - "Who's that, Rachel?" and from her, antiphonally, "Jesus." Then a respectful pause, as if for the deceased, before entering room thirty-three, careful to shut the door quietly behind me, as my mother would have me do were she -

But let us not dwell on what is past, albeit not gone beyond grief. Agreed? Good.

Once inside I let - what? auto - auto - what's that high-priced word once memorized in the dim past of youth for some standardized test or other? Ah! Yes, auto-auto, yes, it was that ages ago committed-to-memory Greek-rooted barbarism "autoscheadiasm" that I then let carry us along, Rachel and me, like the flotsam on the hushing river that secretes no secrets in its flow, for an hour or so before we take our walk...

She passes her arm through mine and clings to it like lagan to a buoy, a blue-veined bony hand now and again tightening its hold, above us the dull growl of thunder gathering behind a bank of serried clouds. We pause before birds of paradise... garden sage... bougainvillea, gold and orange, purple and blue... Just as advertised... All the while, that-that, well, that inchoate something nags... And as I - much like her devoted swain Lou did Grace along the always turned on boardwalk of Atlantic City - as I Grandisonize Rachel back to room thirty-three, I make a mental note to tell my ex of - of what? Hmm, of what I'm not certain... except that the time has come for a change.

Then COVID struck and Rach went into lockdown at $9K a month, and I didn't see her again until the move to $6K a month.

- A voice breaks into my revolving thoughts, shilling a book on "death talk" as our "last taboo," I think, because, y'see, the voice is noisy and harshed, and Sam Spade is on my mind.

"Multi-source interference," Enrique calls it, and advises a new antenna.

"Ooo really?"

I prefer sputtering rage and a good thwack, especially at this cackling crackling, 'cuz, y'see, as it would be, we were just discussing it, Caron and me, the so-called last taboo - that, and that I used to teach it, way back when Kubler-Ross used to preach it, "the last taboo."

Anyway, Caron says, outta the blue, of breaking a taboo, "It's a good thing." How so? I naturally want to know. "They're hangovers," he says.

"Taboos are?"

He nods, "The products of diseased minds."

"Whose minds?"

"Fearsome people," he says, stirred, then flaming, "cowards, imposing the guise of morality and religion upon us!"

Well, that just, y'know, blows me away 'cuz, y'know, I know my Henry Miller, and say as much. "You know your Henry Miller," I say.

"My god!" he goes reverently with folded hands, and adds with bowed head, like a priest over a chalice, "The Rosy Crucifixion."

Irony... How's that for irony?

No? Okay, how about this then - irony while multi-tasking.

Rachel's obituary. At the very moment I'm tuned to NPR and the last taboo, and thinking vaguely 'bout Caron, Henry and Sam, I'm mentally drafting Rachel's obituary.

Ah! "'Thick,'" you now say, of the irony? Then agreed, we can proceed with the so-called last taboo, with so much hoodoo.

As of it, the obit? - oh well, that's a work in progress, isn't it?

Suffice to say, my spark's Remarque's remark of death notices.

"A quintessential homemaker and mother, an unselfish and self-sacrificing grandmother, loved and mourned by -" etcetera and so on till, well, all are made aware that a wingless angel has left us without our ever having been aware - something of the sort of Remarque's retort backed up, of course, by Fauré's "Critique of Jean Racine," which, I don't know why, but always leaves me feeling - agleam.

Worry - it throws a big shadow over small things, the Swedes say. I'm not a Swede, but I'll take their word for it, assuming, of course, they're from the north.

Worry - caring for her mother the past - how long now? - worry has worn down the once confident, level-browed and guileless face to a long, pale wraith of - well, worry.

Stew and stress, bother and fear, trace on pale boney forehead... compress mouth... bracket its corners with crow's feet... extinguish the lingering light of girlhood leaving... well, Mother.

"I don't know how much more I can take," she says, over and over, exactly, and I mean exactly, as my own mother said years and years ago. Stomach cancer. Brutal, especially back then. Surgery upon surgery. "Bowel obstruction," the euphemism of the day. Unplug? Disconnect?

Cut off? There was, of course, nothing in those days to end the suffering or, I swear, as young as I was I'd have done it. Nothing. So I just stood there, holding a clammy, blotchy hand, and listening to what I later learned was the "death rattle," and vowing over and over again never again to let...

"I don't know how much more I can take," my ex goes, which is exactly what Rachel is telling me over and over again upon a Sunday afternoon between Borg and Connors. And the more her plaintiveness, the more vapid my nostrum, "Now, now," affecting that things aren't so what they are - so death-sough.

In the throes of terminal dementia, Rachel gives up pretending. She takes to howling. She is not going gentle into that good night, as did my mother, whimpering during Last Rites. Me, for my part - all I can do is scribble gibberish in a diary for both, as some nurse then, now, takes leave with a bow.

Of it, "I've seen pain," a sparrow of a woman chirps somewhat boastfully, "and this woman is in pain."

Of its nature or cure she offers no mind before flitting off precocially to, I guess, one of like kind.

Mental anguish, my best guess, but I am neither physician nor ornithologist. I do, however, know something about mental anguish, as, say, when sometimes I howl like a wolf playing Temptation on a kazoo over Baby Blue. A dementia of sorts, Mr. Magoo?

Granted, "What's past... what's past hope... should be passed grief." True, but it is, and it is not, like the the flitting off sparrow of a woman not soon forgot.

Past hope... past grief - what's keeping us from moving on? Seroquel for Rachel. Cobalt blue for me, with its S curve label, its cable car and Golden Gate overlay, with upper loop inscription: "There are no straight paths." 'S my answer to my ex's, Rachel's, my mother's...

This morning my ex texts: "I don't know how much more I can take."

"The dose makes the poison," Caron allows, which makes me think of the snake coiled around the bowl of Hygeia that, y'know, you sometimes still see in some pharmacies or the back of wailing EMT wagons? I like that - poison and care inextricably entwined...

"Small dose," he goes on with a square, finger-tip pinch.

A pinch of what, I wonder ingenuously, then - maybe reading my mind? - he stops me with upturned speaking hand that, frankly, makes me think of a clandestine meeting in a Berlin bolthole.

"The barbitals," he whispers, leaning in, as if, perhaps, of subversive next door neighbors.

He means, I learn, secobarbital and pentobarbital, and, with a smile, nods to my, "Nembutal?" and in a peculiar exaltation of mind's eye I see a familiar grateful, feeble motion of a long-fingered, deep-veined, waxen hand.

'S when I get it.

Now, understand, Caron is no physician, but the thing is he's been caring for people like Rachel for a long time, and he has gathered - what? well, call it local knowledge, and I further gather he has come to fancy himself something of a psychopomp - a Kubler-Ross of sorts?

Oh, of course, K-R was squishy on PAS - physician assisted suicide - though she knew her five stage progression was not inevitable...

Severely limited speech, difficulty swallowing, inability to walk or sit upright without assistance, agitation and restlessness; weeping; shallow breaths; pale, pleading, blank look of no recognition - well, you get the picture, frame after frame, the relentless fixture... So, what stage is that, but the one, having become fools, we cry in? Did I mention the tearful, fearful, "I-want-to-go-home"?

She muttered that on Sundays past, and I, in turn, could only muster a weak, pathetic really, "Don't we all, Rach?"

I didn't know what Rachel was thinking, if anything, but for my part, To where we started, and know the place for the first time. That loud silent thought and a mere nod were, as I say, pathetically, all I could offer at the time. And, to her weak and weeping, "Ma-ma," nothing. All pretense gone.

Some pauses before I serve up to the Russian a muffled conscience bluff, "Not to hasten -"

"Of course, of course," he reassuringly cuts in, hands steepled prayerfully like an obsequious maître d' or a gaunt and large jointed Mr. Sowerberry, and whispers, "just a deep sleep," and I know he means, "the rest that precedes the great rest," 'cuz, y'know, I've read my James...

All the way home I'm tellin' myself, When your partner is under fire you're s'posed to do something about it. Doesn't matter she's your ex. She's your partner, and you're s'posed to do something about it. Probably because I saw The Maltese Falcon for the umpteenth time last night.


  1. A rollicking good read this one! A really strong sense of voice with this one which I enjoyed (echoes of Infinite Jest / One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest - for me). Love the mention of Henry Miller too (being a fan of his myself).

  2. A good juxtapose of lively narrative to balance out a somber theme led me down this story to its fitting conclusion. Nicely done.