3rd Place Winner: 2006 Curios Fiction Contest
The hospital lounge smelled like menthol. It seemed to be leaking out of the woman standing next to me, who had a little boy wrapped around her neck like a monkey, wheezing and snorting and pulling on her hair. A few paper snowflakes hung from the ceiling panels, twitching in a draft, spinning like mobiles over a crib.
But that minty medicine smell—it reminded me of how Uncle Jerry used to walk around sucking cough drops like they were candy, clicking them against his teeth, pulling a new one out of the roll he kept in his back pocket whenever the current lozenge dissolved. He was like a chain-smoker of cough drops.
“You know those have benzocaine in them,” my sister told him once.
“Yes, they do. You’re only supposed to eat them when you’re sick.”
Uncle Jerry had his skeptical look—eyes squinty, eyebrows creasing his forehead.
“That true, Danny?” he said to me.
I shrugged. I didn’t know what benzocaine was. I still don’t, actually.
After that I remember buying him a pack of Altoids. Uncle Jerry made a point of chucking them one by one to the squirrels out by the patio, who sniffed the white nuggets, flicked their tails, and bounced back over to steal the peanuts from the blue jays.
“Squirrels won’t even eat that garbage,” Uncle Jerry told me afterwards. “You give me garbage, Daniel. Garbage.”
“Sorry,” I said.
“I won’t eat nothing a squirrel won’t eat.”
“Will they eat cough drops?”
“You bet they eat cough drops,” Uncle Jerry said, and that was that.
I tried to shake the memory away. The menthol woman and her monkey-boy had moved over, and the lady at the reception counter had a phone squeezed between her shoulder and ear. She was rubbing her hands together and blowing on them. When she hung up, I said, “Can you tell me what room Jerry Montaigne is in?”
“Are you a relative?”
It was early, before sunrise, but I felt like I’d already had eight cups of coffee. When the phone rang that morning, it had woken me up, and I almost didn’t answer, thinking it was my friend Eric calling because his girlfriend kicked him out again and he needed bus fare to get to Indiana. But the phone has a way of sounding different when something’s really wrong. It rings with this urgency, this monotone scream, an angry song too shrill to ignore. Each trill drives a nail into your chest. You just know it’s going to be bad even before you pick up the receiver.
And then Mom’s voice. Stroke. Uncle Jerry. Stroke. Ambulance came. Hospital. Meet us there. And suddenly I was awake, eyes peeled wide in the darkness, staring into the predawn shadows of my bedroom.
When I found the room number the receptionist gave me, it no longer smelled like menthol—just sterile, with that plastic band-aid odor. I paused by the door and looked through the glass.
Samantha was sitting on a chair in the corner, chewing on one of her fingernails. I’d just seen her at Thanksgiving but somehow she looked a lot older now. Like our mom. They had the same profile, except my sister’s chin jutted out a little farther, her nose more pronounced.
I reached for the door handle. But then I saw the hospital bed. Saw the tubes. Saw this man, shrunken and shriveled, buried in the sheets like a climber caught in an avalanche. The white swallowed him. Tumor white. Bone white. He looked withered like the pickled pig fetus my high school biology teacher kept in a jar on his desk as a paperweight.
I took my hand off the knob and crossed my arms in front of me.
I could barely see Uncle Jerry’s head, but something seemed wrong. The hair. Most of the time he had a mad-scientist mane that made it look like he’d stuck his finger in a power outlet. My mother said that to him one time and then said it to me five other times, as if it were my fault. Mom thought this was serious business with the hair.
“You’ll never be respectable if you go around looking like that,” she said to him once. I think it was when we were barbecuing for the Fourth of July, and Uncle Jerry was flipping burgers. He’d mussed up his hair more and pretended to squirt ketchup at her.
And now here he was, with his graying hair all matted down and tame, like a zoo tiger whipped and beaten to docility. I felt someone tap my shoulder. I turned around to see a nurse.
“Are you waiting to get in?” she asked. Her voice should have belonged to a 50’s-diner waitress, someone who sat outside during lunch sucking on cigarettes and complaining about the husband who just left her and her kid who doesn’t shut up crying at night.
I looked back through the glass. I could see my mom now, perched at the edge of the cot, petting Uncle Jerry’s leathery arm as if he were her own child instead of her brother. I imagined myself walking in there to this dried-up man sprouting oxygen tubes and IVs and needles like he was some human pincushion, a medical voodoo doll. I imagined standing over him, watching him trying to breathe. I imagined hearing the chirp of the heart monitor as it measured his life.
“No,” I told the nurse. “Just on my way out.”
In seventh grade we’d had to do reports on someone we admired. I chose Uncle Jerry.
“You’re an idiot,” my sister had said. “Why not do Gandhi?”
“Uncle Jerry is more interesting.”
“Uncle Jerry is a crazy drunk,” she said.
She just laughed and picked her book back up, holding it open at a ninetydegree angle because she hated getting creases on the spine. It was Pride and Prejudice. She was in Honors English and had a lot of books like that.
“You just like him because you’re his favorite,” she said, not looking up at me.
I knew it was true. Usually Samantha was the favorite because she was smarter than I and put the forks on the proper side of the plate when setting the table. She was cultured. She could use the word “adjudicate” and know what it meant. I think that’s why Uncle Jerry didn’t like her very much.
“He’s not a drunk,” I said. I don’t think she was listening. All I remember was interviewing him for the report and hearing him talk about the time he won a doughnut-eating contest and got so sick he couldn’t even look at Cheerios for the next three years because of the shape. And how he made blackberry beer with some of his friends in college before he dropped out and gave some to a cat and the cat got drunk. “You can make beer out of blackberries?” I was writing all this down. It was good material. On the other side of the room, my sister yawned in a way that made it sound like she was angry and not tired, even though she was trying to ignore us so she could finish her book.
“You can make beer out of anything,” Uncle Jerry said. He scratched the back of his neck. “In Russia they make it out of stale bread. There’s some word for it.”
“Kvass,” my sister said.
“No, that’s not it.”
“Kvass?” I said.
“Yes. Yes, that’s the one.” Uncle Jerry patted me on the shoulder.
I always liked to think that he chose his way of living. That he went to bars because he’d already tried out the sober life, the civilized life, the sophisticated life, and decided it wasn’t for him. That he stole hotdogs and Worcestershire sauce out of our kitchen because he could—not because he had to.
And the times he showed up drunk at our doorstep at three in the afternoon, wobbling around like one of those inflatable punchingbag clowns, I always thought it was just for kicks. Just something he did to bug my mom. When we both still lived at home, my sister would stand in the kitchen and click her tongue while I helped Uncle Jerry over to the recliner in the living room so he wouldn’t trip over his feet. And I never understood. It wasn’t a sad thing. It was just Uncle Jerry. Just his life.
When I got home from the hospital, I turned on the TV and crawled onto the couch with a box of Cheez-Its. It’s a Wonderful Life was on. Good movie, but it gets a little old when they play it every day the whole week before Christmas.
It wasn’t long before my cell phone rang.
“Where are you?” My sister. Her voice sounded like the drill they use at the dentist.
“I’m so sorry,” I said. “I was driving and there was this squirrel—and I swerved to miss it, and my car rammed into a tree ... ”
I nodded, then realized she couldn’t see me.
“My car’s such a mess, I can’t make it to the hospital. I’m waiting for the tow truck to get here.”
There was a pause. I wondered if we got cut off. I stuffed a Cheez-It into my mouth.
“Is the squirrel okay?” she said.
I swallowed. “It’s fine.”
“Are you sure? There might be internal bleeding. If it’s injured it won’t survive the winter, so you need to call wildlife control . . .”
“The squirrel is fine,” I said again. “I hit the tree, not the damn squirrel.”
“And I’m not hurt, by the way,” I said. “Thanks for asking.”
Somehow it never seems like a bad thing when I lie to my sister. Maybe I should’ve felt guilty, but I don’t think she would’ve understood if I tried to explain. But I knew she understood squirrels. She was a PETAmember.
“Are you still at the hospital?” I said.
“The nurse made us leave.”
I started to ask why but then decided I didn’t want to know the answer. There was another pause. I thought I heard Carole King playing in the background, a soft humming woman-voice.
“Still there?” I said.
“Dan, Jerry probably isn’t going to . . .”
“Oh, the tow truck’s here,” I said, and hung up.
The only photo I had of him was one I swiped from an old box in my mom’s garage. To be honest, I hadn’t recognized him at first. It was this old square Polaroid. Jerry was in his twenties, or maybe late teens, arms akimbo, staring to the side of the picture the way super heroes look off into the distance when they sense danger. His eyes were squinted in the sun. I thought he looked like the type of person who would be captain of the football team, or star in a slasher movie where a disgruntled classmate goes and kills all the popular kids. Uncle Jerry would’ve been the stud making out with the head cheerleader on the couch, oblivious to the psycho in a hockey mask sneaking up behind them with a meat cleaver. I wondered when all that went away. When his beer belly came and when his hair started to creep back, leaving him two shiny bald temples, and when women stopped getting close to him because his breath had become a permanent cologne of menthol. I’d put the picture in my sock drawer when I got home. It just seemed like it belonged there.
George Bailey was praying “I want to live again” when my doorbell rang. I wiped the cracker crumbs off my sweater and got up.
“Yeah, your car’s a real mess,” Samantha said. If you’ve ever tasted cranberry sauce before adding in all the sugar, that’s what my sister’s voice was like. Just astringent.
I looked behind her at my Camry sitting in the driveway.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“I’m really sorry.”
She looked at me like she was trying to tear open my soul. Those narrow eyes. It was exactly how Mom looked the time I caught the curtains on fire when I was six.
“Dan, he died right after I called you.”
I stared at her for a minute, studying the bruisecolored crescents under her eyes, her drawn face. It looked like she hadn’t slept in a while. I felt the Christmas light wire digging into the back of my heel where I was stepping on it.
“Did he say anything?” I asked.
“He was unconscious.”
Samantha ran her thumb over the doorframe, lips pressed together in a thin line. Some of her hair escaped her ponytail, blonde wisps encircling her head like sunrays.
“You need new weather stripping,” she said.
A gust of wind came and I pulled my sleeves down over my hands to keep warm. In the distance, a car alarm wailed.
“Do you want to come in?” I said. I kept watching her face. She really did look older. I guess that’s what graduate school does to you.
She shook her head. “I should probably get back home. Mom needs some company.”
“Yeah,” I said.
Silence. It was one of those times when it feels like English just doesn’t have enough words. Samantha tried to wipe the strands of hair out of her face but the breeze kept blowing them back.
“It’d be nice if you came over too. I mean, I think Mom would appreciate it,” she said, drawing her fingers across the doorframe again.
“I will,” I said.
“Just don’t hit any squirrels on your way.”
Samantha started back toward her car but then paused, jingling her keys in one hand. I think she smiled a little. “You know, Uncle Jerry wasn’t so bad.”
“Yeah,” I said. “He wasn’t so bad.”
By the time I returned to the couch, everyone was singing “Auld Lang Syne” and George Bailey was smiling.
It was almost dusk by the time I got to Mom’s house. Standing at the front steps, I fished into my coat pocket and pulled out the pack of cough drops I’d picked up at 7- Eleven. I couldn’t remember what brand Uncle Jerry liked, but I figured Vicks was good enough.
After unwrapping a few lozenges, I popped one into my mouth, tossed the rest behind me, and rang the bell. I could see lights through the distorted glass of the door. The blue glow of the TV.
And as I waited for the thud of footsteps inside, for the click-twist of the bolt lock, I looked back to the grass—just for a moment—at those little globes, beer-bottle brown, gleaming like gems in the halo of the porch light. It was winter, after all. The squirrels were probably hungry.