Isaiah’s mother lies on her bed, buttressed on a pile of pillows, her head tilted while she watches The Andy Griffith Show. He grins at her and she smiles. It’s a thin smile but still beautiful.
“Ma, do you want me to help you adjust yourself?” he says.
When she responds, her garbled voice reminds him how much the lung cancer has taken from her already. “I’m comfortable.”
He knows she doesn’t want to move. Standing next to her, he rocks from one foot to the other. Mom refused a bath this morning. Maybe she’ll let him fix her hair. He picks up her brush from her bedside table and sits on the bed.
“Ma, let me comb your hair. Matt and Andy are on their way.”
Her hair—the top half white and the bottom half brown—is tangled in the back. She lets Isaiah brush it a few strokes, then raises her hand. He stops. She told him once that everything hurt, even her fingernails, so he stops and kisses her on the forehead.
“Okay,” he says. “Drink some more water?”
She shakes her head.
Standing, he says, “Matt and Andy will want coffee. I have to make coffee.”
Isaiah dashes out of his mother’s bedroom, through the living room, and into the kitchen. He turns toward the counter to find that the pot is filled with coffee. He already made coffee. Good. Matt and Andy will want coffee.
The disparities between Isaiah’s age and his older brothers make him feel like they’re from a different generation. Turning sixty next month, Matt becomes easily annoyed by little things, like Isaiah forgetting to make coffee, not changing burned-out light bulbs, or Mom’s hair being different colors. Well, Isaiah made the coffee.
And, oh shit, he had the building managers change the deadbolt. He lost the key and had to have the lock changed. He needs to give Matt a key, or Matt will have a fit.
Janel moans from his bed in the living room.
Stepping into the room, Isaiah asks, “You okay?”
Janel shakes her head. She opens her mouth, exposing her crumbling, blackened teeth, some missing, some jagged like a mountain range in a swamp. “Are they here yet?”
“No. They’re coming.”
“You don’t have any money?” she says.
“Not until they get here. Dave’s holding it for me. I got you.” Isaiah rocks from side to side. Pulling his government-issued cell phone out of his pocket, he dials his older brother.
Matt answers, “Yeah?”
“I made you coffee. Don’t want it to get cold.”
“We’re picking up breakfast and we’ll be over.”
“Okay. I made coffee. Mom doesn’t want to get a bath today.”
“I’m driving. See you.”
Matt hangs up. The disconnect feels like abandonment. Isaiah redials.
This time Andy answers Matt’s phone. “Hey. What’s up?”
“I got the papers from Social Security just like you told me.”
“I’ll look them over when we get there. How’s Mom?”
“Good. Good. She doesn’t feel up to a bath.” Isaiah doesn’t want his brothers to think he’s neglecting Mom. He’s lived with her his entire life. They judge him because he uses, but he knows what she needs. He cleans her up, makes her bed, washes her clothes, cooks, watches old movies with her, and sometimes they pray.
“Janel’s here. I made coffee.”
He hears Andy say, “Janel’s there.”
In response Matt complains, “Great.”
Isaiah says, “She’s okay.”
“Sure,” Andy says. “Listen, man, I got to go. We’re on our way.” Then he hangs up.
He tells Janel, “My brothers are on the way.”
Janel groans. “I hurt.”
“It’s okay. I’ll get it. Dave’s holding it for me. He knows I’m good for it.”
There’s a Saturday morning crowd at the deli. The tables are packed and the line is long. Andy folds his arms across his chest. Matt insists on buying their breakfast here, and maybe that made sense when their mother could sit down when they arrived at the apartment and eat with them but she can’t any longer. Now this whole deli thing is just a ritual.
Matt stands in line beside Andy. He says, “I think I’ll buy her a piece of quiche and sliced turkey.”
Andy nods. Mom likes sliced turkey, but the thing she loves more than quiche is eggplant parmesan, sitting right there in the refrigerator case. But no harm in letting Matt have his opinions.
When the deli clerk calls their number, Matt orders their sandwiches: extra bacon for himself, no onions for Andy, a piece of quiche, and a pound of sliced turkey.
Andy hands Matt a twenty-dollar bill. He figures it doesn’t cover the cost of gas, tolls, or his sandwich. He’ll offer to drive next month.
Matt says, “Can you keep the kid busy while I talk with Mom?”
Fifteen years younger than Matt and twelve years younger than Andy, they’ve called Isaiah “the kid” since before Isaiah was born. Over the years they developed less polite names for him: the disaster, the creature, the junkie, and the idiot.
Andy says, “What are you going to talk to Ma about?”
“I’m going to ask her to let me move her to a skilled nursing facility or an inpatient hospice. Or she could come to my house. Home nurses and hospice won’t go to that building. I can’t come every day, and coming here once a month or even every weekend won’t be enough. And all this traffic, I can’t take it. I’ve been doing this for twenty years. I’ve had my windows smashed a few times. It’s the end now and I need her to be safe.”
Andy shakes his head. “She’s been protecting him for thirty years. She won’t leave her baby.”
As the middle son, Andy’s stuck between his hyper-responsible older brother and his tweaker kid brother. After their mother was diagnosed with lung cancer, Matt’s wife, Sandy, called Andy’s wife, Lorraine, and told her that Matt’s blood pressure was too high. He couldn’t sleep. Sandy heard him praying at night and wandering around the house. She cried over the phone and told Lorraine that she feared all the stress and worry would kill Matt. So, five months ago, Lorraine and Andy discussed the situation, and Andy joined his older brother on his monthly pilgrimages to their mother’s apartment. Andy goes to support Matt, not to visit either Isaiah or their mother. Sometimes people, like Isaiah and his mom, die out from your life long before their actual death.
After they receive their food and return to Matt’s Lexus, Matt hands Andy back his $20, the deli receipt, and a bank envelope of cash. “Take the cost out of this.”
“How much this month?”
“One thousand, four hundred fifty-seven dollars.”
It’s the balance from their father’s state pension, Social Security, and military survivor benefits after Matt uses it to pay their mother’s rent and utilities.
Andy says, “Jesus, Dad would hate that the money he worked his ass off for supports the junkie.” He hears himself repeat the exact phrase every month, and if he doesn’t say it, Matt will. They’re on a hamster wheel, and getting off means abandoning their 86-year-old mother. He shoves the envelope into his pocket.
Matt finds parking across the street from the six-story brick building where Isaiah and their mother live. Andy recognizes the first-floor neighbor walking his shepherd mix on a chain. Whether it’s winter or summer, he’s always dressed in the same olive-green jacket with a bottle of whisky, poorly camouflaged in a small, brown paper bag, sticking out of his jacket pocket. The way he staggers along, Andy suspects that the dog drinks too.
Andy helps Matt unload five large, canvas bags filled with food and provisions Matt bought over the last two weeks. Andy glances inside. It’s the same long list of staples: soap, shampoo, skin moisturizer, toilet paper, dry-mouth spray, cans of soup, a chicken, pork chops, freshly baked bread from the bakery near his home, and their mother’s prescriptions.
Andy grabs three bags. “What the hell’s in this one?” Andy says. “It feels like bricks.”
“I bought her nutrition drinks, Ensure and stuff. I don’t know how much she can eat. They’ll keep, so if she eats the food, great, and if not, she’ll have the drinks.” Andy sees Matt look up at the six-story walk-up. “Won’t even leave for chemo or immunotherapy.”
Andy stops himself from repeating his usual response that if Mom leaves the apartment, she won’t be able to walk back up the stairs. He also doesn’t say that she doesn’t want chemo or immunotherapy. She watched her parents and husband die of cancer and doesn’t want to go through all that. Whether sitting here, driving to his mother’s apartment building, hanging out in Matt’s living room, or barbecuing on Andy’s patio, they have had these same conversations. No matter that he doesn’t speak the words, they’ve been said enough that they echo them. Might as well just listen.
Andy leads Matt up the stairs to the fourth floor. The guy’s overweight and out of shape: too many ice cream sundaes and Snickers. Andy takes a break on the second-floor landing so Matt can rest and catch his breath.
When they reach the door, Isaiah is there, his arms, wrists, and hands twitching, a lesion above his left clavicle peeking through his shirt. Isaiah doesn’t offer to help carry the heavy bags.
Matt says, “How is she doing?”
Isaiah’s skin is tight against his facial bones, shoulders, and arms. The waist of Isaiah’s jeans rests on his hips, the bottoms dragging under his shoes. He looks like he’s starving. “Mom’s resting. She didn’t feel like taking a bath. I made coffee.”
Isaiah’s voice sounds like sandpaper rubbing against his vocal cords. Is that the only thing the kid can think to say? She doesn’t want a bath and he made coffee? How did Matt stand this all these years?
Andy follows Matt and Isaiah into the living room. The apartment is hot and has a stale, musty smell. Isaiah’s clothes and belongings lie piled on the two stained, frayed-arm chairs. Janel lies under a blue sheet, curled in a fetal position with her back toward them. No one speaks to her.
Matt walks directly to the kitchen. He places the bags on the table and starts unloading groceries. Isaiah, his movements frenetic, maneuvers around Matt, who is taller and broader. Isaiah opens the refrigerator, which is vacant except for a quart of milk and a dozen cans of beer. He gathers the groceries faster than Matt can unpack them, shoving eggs, chicken, pork chops, and fruit onto the empty shelves.
“What’s that?” Isaiah says.
“Quiche for Mom,” Matt says, “and turkey.”
“Oh good, good, she likes that.” Even when standing still, Isaiah’s body shivers and then twitches.
While Matt folds the bags, Andy brings their sandwiches to the table. “Isaiah,” Andy says, “after we eat breakfast, I’ll help you with the Social Security papers.”
“Sure. Sure,” Isaiah says.
Matt sits down.
Isaiah says, “I made coffee.”
Andy stands up, takes two mugs out of the cabinet, and brings them and the coffeepot to the table.
“Janel’s here,” Isaiah says. “She might have the flu, but she’s staying away from Mom.”
Even after all these years, Andy would like to slap Isaiah on the side of his head, wake him up, and tell him to stop doing drugs.
“I thought Janel went to rehab,” Matt says.
“Oh, yeah, yeah. She’s just visiting. I’ll check on her.” Isaiah steps into the living room while Matt and Andy eat their sandwiches.
Matt smirks, shakes his head, then turns serious. “You’ll keep him with you so I can talk with Mom?”
Isaiah returns, stands beside Matt, and grins, his front teeth brown stubs. “Hey, Mom says I can have two hundred now. She and I will work it out.”
“Two hundred what?” Andy asks. Damn if he’s giving the creature that much money.
“Two hundred dollars. She and I will work it out.”
Matt fingers his coffee mug, lifts it to his lips, and drinks. He says, “You can only spend three hundred fifty dollars a week. You know that. That’s all there is.”
Andy imagines seeing speech bubbles in the air, like a script that repeats and repeats. Matt said this last month, the month before that, and the month before that. And no matter how much money they give or don’t give Isaiah, the kid will be calling for more by next week.
“Isaiah, let us finish eating,” Andy says and takes a bite of his sandwich.
Isaiah interlocks his fingers, blinks, his head bobs back and forth, and he leaves the room.
“Why’d you do this for twenty years?” Andy says. It’s a stupid question. He knows the answer.
Matt says, “I didn’t want Mom made homeless by the junkie.”
“Doing all this gave him a home too.” He feels an impulse to tell Matt, you’re as codependent as Mom, but he holds back. Instead, Andy says something he said twenty-eight years ago—the time Mom drove two days to bust Isaiah out of rehab because he was crying—something Andy always says: “Mom gave up her good sons to protect the bad one.”
“I know, man. Just stop. Let me eat.”
After he finishes his sandwich, Matt opens the refrigerator. In the past he’s found a variety of rancid meat, moldy rice, and rotten fruit. He has to inspect the fridge and clean it almost every time he comes. Then he places the pork chops in the freezer, cuts the chicken in half, freezes one half, and leaves the other in the refrigerator. He does the same to the chopped meat.
“Look at all this beer,” he says.
“It’s an amphetamine chaser,” Andy says.
“I’m going to slice the Italian bread and freeze it.” Matt remembers his mother in the kitchen cooking meals: meatballs and spaghetti, fried fish, meatloaf and gravy, and roast beef or pot roast on Sundays. He still makes that pot roast and brings her some when he does. It’s not the most he can do, shopping and making sure to budget her money to pay the bills; it’s all she’ll allow.
“Hey, remember that Christmas the kid stole the prime rib to trade for drugs?” Matt says.
“Yup,” Andy says. “I thought Dad was going to kill him.”
“What did we end up eating?”
“Hamburgers with mac and cheese.”
“Yeah, and string beans or something.”
Matt likes sharing good and bad memories with Andy. In their lives the bad and the good are often conjoined twins.
“Ready?” Andy says, lifting the canvas bag with the nutrition drinks and a second filled with hygiene products, vitamins, and prescriptions.
“Hey.” Andy lifts the bags above his head, arms hard and thick from a life at the gym that would bore Matt to death. “If I wasn’t here, how were you planning to carry this, old man?”
“You’re here.” Matt winks.
Andy grins. “Grab the chairs.”
In their mother’s room Isaiah sits beside Mom on her bed. He holds her hand.
“Hi, Mom,” Matt says, ignoring Isaiah. He walks around the bed to kiss his mother.
“Good morning,” Mom says, smiling.
Matt presses his upper and lower lips together and holds his breath against the heat of the room and Mom’s fetid breath. She smells as if she is rotting and her speech seems forced. Her wheezing sounds worse than last month. She needs oxygen more than ever. He will call her doctor on Monday and insist she gets it, even if he has to pick it up and bring it to her. Isaiah smokes cigarettes and sometimes dope, and there’s a risk of the kid lighting up around the oxygen and causing a disaster. It’s another reason why Mom needs to get out of here.
Matt places the plate of quiche on top of the newspapers, pens, trash, and hairbrush that cover the top of her bedside table. The room is so damn crowded with boxes. After being evicted from a much better apartment because of Isaiah’s behavior, she moved here twenty years ago and never completely unpacked. Boxes are piled two and three deep against the wall behind the television, and Matt dreads the idea that he will have to sort through them when she dies.
Isaiah says, “Mom says to give me the two hundred. She and I will work it out.”
Andy pulls the money envelope out of his jeans pocket and hands it past Isaiah to Matt. “You got the Social Security papers?” Andy says.
“Yeah, sure.” Isaiah’s fingers start to twitch. He steps from one foot to the other.
Matt used to convince Mom to join his family for holiday meals, visit on the weekend, leave the kid for a day and sit in the sunshine in his backyard. That stopped a few years ago. Now Matt and Andy have to come to her.
When she made her choice between a normal life or living with a drug addict who refused treatment, she chose the drug addict. She couldn’t tolerate her baby suffering.
Today she’s still wearing her pajamas. Her toenails are long, some ingrown and chipped. She has long, curly hair growing on her chin and a gray mustache sprouting over her upper lip, and Matt has not been able to find a single hairdresser willing to come to this building to color and cut her hair. He sees the whites of her eyes turning yellow and can’t bear to look closer. She’ll have to do it herself if she wants to give Isaiah her money. Matt sees the craving in Isaiah’s eyes and hands his mother the envelope.
“How much do I have?” she asks Matt.
“About fourteen hundred.”
She holds the envelope out toward Isaiah, who takes it.
“Just two hundred,” Matt says, his anxiety rising, but no sense in arguing. Mom always gives the kid the money.
“Yeah, yeah, two hundred,” Isaiah says.
Matt wants to spit out the words, You going to buy drugs with that? But he doesn’t. He wants to growl, How the hell are you alive? Or, Why the hell are you alive? But he doesn’t. He watches his brother’s fingers stumble through twenty-dollar bills.
After Isaiah gets what he needs, he stuffs the loose bills into his pants pocket, places the envelope in the top drawer of their mother’s bedside stand, then moves out the door so quickly, it appears as if he’s vanished using some magic trick.
Matt looks to Andy, thinking his brother will hiss that Isaiah’s buying drugs, but instead, Andy grabs a kitchen chair and sits down. “You have time to talk with her now, Matt.”
Matt nods but before he can start, their mother says, “What’s that in the bag there?”
“Nutrition drinks,” Matt says.
Mom says, “Pass me one.”
After shaking the plastic bottle and taking off the cap, Matt hands her the drink. “Take a sip. Cancer uses up a lot of energy. Remember when Dad had it and how it drained him? These drinks have protein and vitamins to help you stay strong.”
She brings the bottle to her lips and sips the liquid—some escapes from the corner of her mouth.
“It’s good,” she says.
Matt grabs a tissue from the bedside table and wipes her mouth. “Mom, you need more care. You need more care than any of us can give you here.”
She shakes her head and drinks again. She lifts the bottle as if in a toast and says, “It’s good.”
Matt moves from the chair to sit beside Mom on her bed and faces her. “Mommy, we can’t take care of you here. I’m two hours away on a good traffic day and Andy’s three.” Matt conceals the resentment he feels for all the times he found her apartments near his home and the more recent times when he asked her to move with him.
“Isaiah takes care of me. If you’re worried, have hospice come here like they did for Daddy.”
Matt lowers his head. “I tried. Hospice staff don’t want to come here. They have the right to be safe. You know the place is full of addicts.”
She shakes her head. “No, not everyone here uses drugs, and we look out for each other.”
“Matt,” Andy says.
“Give me a minute,” Matt says and takes Mom’s hand. “Mom, Mommy, this is going to get more serious. The pain will get worse; your breathing; your bones; your eyes are starting to turn yellow, and that means the cancer is probably in your liver. Let me take care of you.”
Andy stands up and steps up to the foot of the bed. “Mom, what do you need? I mean, Isaiah can still have your money. Suppose we do that? He can have the apartment and your monthly envelope, but you go to a hospice, nursing home, or Matt’s. Me and Lorraine can come to see you and help out Matt. What do you say? Isaiah can have everything he needs and you come with us.”
Her brow furrows. “I’m okay,” she says. “Don’t worry. My father died at sixty, my mom at sixty-nine, and your dad at sixty-five. My brothers are gone. I’m eighty-six. I’ve outlived them all.”
Matt says, “Aren’t you in pain, Mom?”
She sighs and looks into the distance, appearing as if she sees something past the apartment walls. “Life is sad. I just don’t move that much,” she says.
“Hey, Matt,” Andy says, “come on in the kitchen a sec.”
When Matt doesn’t move, Andy taps him on the shoulder. “Come on, man.”
“Be right back,” Matt says and gently squeezes his mother’s hand before he follows Andy out of the room.
Inside the kitchen Andy leans against the kitchen counter.
“What’s going on?” Matt says. “What do you need help with?”
“I think we should go off script.”
“Think about it. You want Mom out of here, and she won’t leave the kid.” Andy counts, sticking out his thumb. “One, we buy him off. Offer him two, three, five thousand, whatever it takes to get lost.” Andy’s index finger rises beside his thumb. “Or two, we just stop paying the rent. Turn off the utilities.”
“I’m not done.” He holds up his middle finger. “Three, we get him arrested.”
Matt shakes his head. “No, man, that’s crazy. He’s our brother.”
Andy scoffs. “Go off script—”
“What does that mean?”
“It means to stop doing the same damn thing every month or just accept the way things are. The kid’s been with her his whole life. None of this has made sense to us since he was fifteen, and we’d visit Mom and Dad and find the junkie’s glass pipes and burned matches around the house.”
“He ruined her life,” Matt says.
“It’s her choice, man,” Andy says. “She could never leave her baby.”
Matt sits down on the remaining kitchen chair. The small window provides a view of the next building, gray and worn.
Returning to the apartment after having smoked a portion of the meth he bought, Isaiah hears Rob and Laura Petrie’s voices blaring from Mom’s television and his brothers, Matt and Andy, talking in the kitchen. Focused on helping Janel out of bed, he ignores them all.
When he helps Janel sit up, she says, “I hurt.”
He whispers, “I got some for you. But we have to get you out of here.”
“What’s going on?” Andy says, standing in the kitchen doorway, arms folded over his chest.
“Janel’s got to leave, is all,” Isaiah says.
Isaiah feels Andy watching him as he leads his girlfriend to the apartment door.
“Hey,” Andy says.
“You coming back? We need to go over the Social Security papers.”
Andy says, “Your Social Security forms?”
“Oh. Yeah. Yeah, I got them.”
Janel moans. “Come on,” she says.
“When are you coming back?”
“I just got to get her downstairs.”
“Bet you do.”
“I’ll be right back.” Isaiah shakes his head. He says what he means, but his brother looks at him with disapproval. “I’ll be back.”
Isaiah escorts Janel to the stairs, where she grabs the railing and sinks to the floor, sitting on the top stair. She says, “I need it now. It hurts. I can’t walk.” She pulls a wad of tinfoil from her pocket and unwraps a small, glass pipe.
“Here,” he says. He places a mini ziplock bag with three tiny, blue-white rocks in her hand.
“Not enough,” she says.
“All there is,” he says.
“Hey, Isaiah, can we talk with you?” Matt calls from down the hall.
“Yeah. Yeah,” Isaiah shouts back to Matt. His raspy voice echoes in the hallway. Before Isaiah joins his brothers, he says to Janel, “You can’t stay here. Go outside.” Then he jogs over to Matt and Andy, who stand together outside the apartment door.
Matt says, “What are you doing? Drug deals in the hallway?”
Isaiah shakes his head. “No.” Although his mouth is dry, speeding feels normal, happy. Matt and Andy should be leaving soon. He asks, “What’s going on?”
“Look, man,” Matt says, “Mom’s dying. She’s got maybe two months left. Maybe less. We can’t get a hospice up here. They can’t make the nurses come to buildings like this.”
Andy purses his lips. “You know what he means. Buildings and apartments full of drug users. She will need medications and oxygen and people to care for her.”
“I take care of her.” Isaiah’s fingers writhe as if trying to escape his hands.
“She’s taken care of you all these years,” Matt says, “and now you need to help us take care of her. You need to tell her to get the care she needs.”
In the darkness of the hallway, Matt stops talking and focuses on something behind Isaiah. Beside Matt, Andy rolls his eyes.
Isaiah turns to see what has drawn his brothers’ attention. It’s the glow of light as Janel heats the meth in the pipe’s bowl.
Isaiah steps away, roaring at Janel, “Hey, hey, take that somewhere else. Go on.”
Janel looks angry but she stands and disappears down the stairs.
Returning to his brothers, Isaiah says, “It’s okay. She’s gone.”
Matt says, “Mom needs to get out of here and get the care she needs.”
Isaiah shakes his head. “She doesn’t want to leave. I take care of her.”
“Come on, man,” Andy says. “This place is a damn drug den.”
“I know you saw Janel, but I don’t do drugs here.”
“You’re high right now,” Andy says.
“I don’t take anything around Mom.”
“Do you hear yourself?” Andy asks.
“Look,” Matt says, “I want you to help us get her to move out of here. I can pay you. Give you money.”
“What?” Isaiah rocks from side to side. “I just can’t satisfy you.”
“What?” Matt says.
“I clean her up. I combed her hair. I gave her soup. I cleaned the kitchen for you. I made your coffee.”
Andy says, “Do you actually think that’s what we want from you?”
“What do you want from me?”
Andy shakes his head. “Go to rehab—”
“Right,” Andy says. “Then tell Mom you can’t take it anymore, and you want her to move to Matt’s.”
Isaiah leans against the apartment door and rocks softly back and forth, then forward and back.
“Let’s discuss this,” Matt says. “You can keep the apartment. I don’t know what you’ll do after she dies, but I’ll pay for you to live here while she’s alive.”
Isaiah looks at his brothers’ faces, first Matt, then Andy. Matt’s saying all kinds of shit. And Andy’s just angry. Isaiah reaches behind him and grasps the doorknob. “I take care of Mom every day.” Isaiah presses his back against the door, turns the knob, and opens the door just enough to slip inside. Then he locks the deadbolt.
He hears his brothers cursing, then their efforts to fit Matt’s old key into the new lock. They bang on the door, then they hammer it with their fists.
He hears Andy say, “Okay? What next? Want to call the cops?”
Matt says, “No. The cops won’t do anything and will just upset Mom.” Isaiah can picture Matt, a fat, older man, trying to control everything, patch everything, make it all right.
Isaiah’s phone starts buzzing. Silencing the ring, he shoves the phone into his pocket. There’s no more yelling or banging from the hall. His nerves vibrate like taut threads. He’s not sure what his brothers’ next move will be.
In his mother’s room he sits down on her bed.
Mom says, “Where’s Matt and Andy?”
“They had to leave.”
“Hum. Didn’t say goodbye?” She coughs and wheezes.
“They’ll call later,” Isaiah says. “Want to watch a movie?”
“Would you like me to reposition you, or are you still more comfortable not moving?”
“Not moving,” she says. She told him once that everything hurt, even her fingernails.
“It’s okay, Mom,” he says. Then Isaiah leans over and kisses her forehead.