By Erin Pringle
There are times on an elevator when a person can imagine that, rather than going down, the elevator is going up, just like the times when spring looks like fall, or winter like summer, and someone in November can imagine the next month is May. But convincing oneself of May during November and staying convinced are two different matters, maybe as different as life and death or as similar—in the way that it’s a compliment to say that the child’s corpse in the coffin looks at peace.
Perhaps the reason the person even imagines that the next month is May instead of December derives from a reason hidden from the person. Perhaps the person imagines this because of escapist coping mechanisms. We’re told that we can never know. And so, instead of worrying about that inability to know, we agree that above all, a person’s mood is as prone to manipulation as the spots on the moon that can become the skull-hollow shadows of the man who resides there.
This shifting from what we’re supposed to know and what we’d like to fancy, defined as imagination in elementary school and madness after, is why our lady in the hospital elevator reviles calendars and mentally squirms every time she must consult the planner in her wallet for when she can make it here to visit her son.
The planner where—after the doctor told her—she (against her better judgment) wrote the date of her son’s expected death just as she had marked his due date when she learned she was pregnant. Just like she knows today she must finally tell him he’s dying, she knows-but-does-not-want-to-know that she will eventually consult the planner to confirm when in the afternoon she must drive to the funeral home and pick out the casket, when this or that relative’s plane will land, and when the visitation or showing, as some call it, will happen.
Her revulsion to calendars has not spun into some obsessive quirk; she simply has her thoughts about calendars, and if the next person to step into the elevator asked her what those thoughts were, she’d simply say, Calendars make it hard to live one day at a time. So there, her nod would say.
Calendars heckle her belief, rather her need to believe, that tomorrow might not happen if she does not deal with today. Because of calendars, May following November is splendid fantasy or corner-rocking madness. And because she is tired and her son is dying and she is, on the most basic level, irritated at herself for buying her first pack of cigarettes in almost eight years, the fact of calendars receives all her helplessness disguised as wrath. Calendars. Damn them. Bradbury should have written a book about burning calendars instead of books.
If every calendar turned into ashes in a cup, she could keep imagining that the elevator she stands in, her hand lightly resting on the railing welded to its wall, is going in the opposite direction of the floor number she pushed.
The seventh floor is lined with rooms full of dying children, and the rooms are lined with their hospital beds like any collection that’s being watched. Seven years ago, one of the children slid from the body of the lady who now stands in the moving elevator, her eyes averted from the glowing orange number in the row of unlit numbers, the number that is two numbers above the maternity floor that death seems to touch just a little more lightly, a little more accidentally, than the rest.
Her seven-year-old baby has not yet told her he knows he’s dying. He will tell her because there are matters to be dealt with, for example, like that he wants to die in his own bed, on his own pillowcase patterned with baseball players mid-pitch and batters sliding into home. But he will never tell her that he knows she already knew but hadn’t told him, and he will never tell her that he knew about his dying for a while but waited to tell her because she can cope only one day at a time.
(One day at a time, she always says—we’ll get through this one day at a time—a phrase she will use without question her whole life, a phrase as useful and helpful as the cigarette that shouldn’t but does make the current events of her life come into slightly clearer focus.)
She can cope with filling her son’s little hospital pitcher with water from the bathroom, she can cope with reading him the cards from his friends and classmates and her friends and their church friends and so on. She can cope with the empathy of strangers because, like her ex-husband says, the empathy of strangers is sympathy on pity’s shoulders beneath a trench coat—disguised as empathy. She can cope with that, but she cannot cope with empathy from her son because she is the mother, after all, and so empathy is her job, in the same way that filling his pitcher with water and reading him greeting cards and trying not to ask him too often how he feels is her job.
And he will not knowingly take that job from her because that would make her feel like a bad mother, if not for those reasons then because she’ll feel like he kept a secret from her that should not be a secret, and that would make her say nice things through sharp teeth just like the times she found out he had a super good time with his father during a weekend visit. When she feels like a bad mother, she becomes a different mother, and he does not want a different mother just like he doesn’t want to die next to a window that does not open and does not overlook his backyard and the sturdy tree where his tire swing hangs.
Realizing his mother’s tendencies and allowing for them does not make the boy a sage or confirm that he has an old soul. And though the poem in the pamphlet at his funeral will say he was an angel who visited earth for seven years before God missed him and greedily called him back to the moon or wherever God sits, like a nurse, to watch the current events, the boy is not an angel and to say this to his mother while she sobs into her knuckles by his grave or empty tire swing is only to make her feel as though she is the greedy one for not wanting him to vanish and that her grief is inhuman rather than basic and honest, a cigarette during a tornado or a glance held away from the floor an elevator travels toward.
He is a boy who knows about his mother’s tendencies and shapes his words to them because he remembers the ordinary round of pitch and catch in the backyard when his father told him he planned to move out. His father told him not to say anything to his mother, though, because he hadn’t told her yet. The boy didn’t ask why he was leaving but why he hadn’t told her, and his father said, You’ll see—it’s kind of like breaking in a mitt.
After many days of watching his mother as he never had, he realized she somehow already knew about the ensuing separation by the way she kissed his father a second longer than usual, how her voice was a little higher during arguments and a little lower when she said sweet dreams. Then he woke up in the night to the car reversing out of the driveway and into the street, headlights sweeping across his room, lighting up the chalkboard that covered one wall, the streetlight illuminating the car’s interior for a second. His mother was smiling. He couldn’t see his father’s face, but he imagined it held an expression similar to that day tossing the ball in the backyard.
While his parents drove up and down country roads, he crept around the unlit house, searching with his hands and memory for a place to hide. This time he was not hiding from the creature ready to reach out and do whatever horrible things creatures do to children who don’t wake up in time from nightmares or who don’t pull their feet far enough away from the edge of the bed.
As he edged around his father’s recliner and brushed up against the coat rack, what caused the fright that clutched at his throat and coursed through him like hot pee when he had the flu and what he searched to hide from was the anticipation of the new mother who would return that night inside the same old car in his old mother’s body beside the same old father.
After his father cut the engine and reached—out of habit—across her trembling breast to push her door open, she, this new mother, would untangle the old mother’s feet from the floorboard and walk into the house on the old mother’s zombified legs, her face a zombie’s, and when she took him into her arms, her arms would tighten just a bit more, while her new voice—which was his old mother’s zombified voice—said that she still loves him and that Daddy still loves him and everything will be alright, we’ll just take this one day at a time.
He knew the new mother would make the old mother say this because a couple of his friends had reported similar behaviors and that’s what the actors pretending to be divorcing parents always say in G-rated movies.
He crawled under the footstool where he often balled up when his father watched scary movies in which parents might divorce, but the actors don’t make speeches about it because there are worse things to talk about—the clown that fills sinks with blood or the woman who drowns any children who wander down to the river—but like always, his legs cramped after a while, so he backed out and returned (like the car that held his parents) to his bedroom, shutting the door as his old mother had, tucking himself into bed as she had, and then began waiting for what he still wanted to hide from.
And all that he had imagined came true except that while the new mother’s zombie arms enclosed him, he reached out and patted her hair and said, S’okay, Mom, we’ll get through this one day at a time and then one day it won’t be so bad just like when I busted my knee, right? And when he said that, she pulled back, shaking her head at not only his lack of tears but also how goddamn similar he was to the man moving out in the morning. Then her face changed and she seemed to her son not like the old mom or new mom but the mom from the pictures in the floral albums in the hall closet, who smiled with dark circles under her eyes as she held a baby she said was him not so long ago or far away. One day at a time, she repeated then realized she was repeating herself because he had learned the assurance from her.
Then she thought of their first family car trip when he was three, how he’d called out from the back seat, Are we there yet? and she and her husband looked at each other and busted up because they certainly hadn’t taught him that.
She let out a giggle and said to her son, who still cupped his small hand around the curve of her skull, One day at a time. Well, are we there yet? And they chuckled together, not as adult and child, but as two old friends meeting after many years and falling back into rhythm.
Right now, a lady in an elevator rages at calendars and tries to forget the elevator’s direction—to the seventh floor or to the first floor where she can shake out a cigarette and contemplate how to tell her baby he’s dying—while a boy, not a prophet but a human who has lived for seven years, sits in a hospital bed thinking about how nice it will be to get into his mother’s car and drive home.
The doctors told her he’s dying, but she just needs a little more time to break in the idea—like a baseball mitt, yeah, that’s something he’ll do when he gets home, play a little solitaire catch in bed. And once the idea’s broken in enough, he’ll tell her he knows the score. Then they’ll get in the car, just like his parents got in a car married and returned separated an hour later, and he can die with his regular mom instead of the hospital mom who reads all those cheesy cards and talks to the nurses like they’re gods are idiots and is always running off with his water pitcher that just make him fill the bag of pee beside his bed faster.
Then he can just be himself again and enjoy the rest of his own car ride. And when the car ride is over, well, what a relief it will be to finally get there and meet that silly man in the moon. Besides, he gets carsick pretty easily. Carsick. He giggles to himself, then thinks about how his buddies would bust a gut at his joke, and that makes the giggle too big to hold in.
The girl in the bed beside him turns her pale face and asks what’s funny, so he tells her, and she giggles, and the girl beside her says what’s so damn funny, and so after giggling about the word damn, they tell her and she says, Well, are we there yet? That really sets them off, so soon the whole roomful of kids are repeating are we there yet?! and their laughter fills the room as some kick their beds or slap their foreheads like their parents did before they became hospital parents. This one’s a real side-splitter and soon the nurses hurry in, looking around for the clown that tells the same G-movie jokes every time but isn’t scheduled until later this afternoon.
But there isn’t a clown, and the nurses’ mouths drop open because first they think all the kids are going into hysterical seizures, and to the kids, that’s absolutely hee-lair-ee-us because the nurses never make those faces. One child points at a nurse and says it looks like the grinning teddy bears on her smoke are falling out of her mouth, and it really does, doesn’t it? And so the laughter turns into the happiest tornado and if anyone thinks this can be controlled or stopped, they’re wrong.
Published in The Floating Order, available on Amazon as an e-book.