“She was the prettiest Hell I had ever been in; I didn’t mind burning at all.” — Matt Baker
The summer I turned eighteen, I felt the weight of the world come crashing down on me: accumulated nights of falling asleep in the oversize chair next to Momma’s hospital bed, days of trying to keep my focus on college credit classes, and hours of attempting to maintain the old farmhouse my momma cherished.
People try not to look too long at the only child of a dying person. They want to pity them or comfort them but in truth, those people don’t actually know them. There’s always an invisible fence line hugging a perimeter of alienism around the child. I detested the hovering, false whine of the church ladies who brought me casseroles and sent their sons to help with the lawn I tried so hard to keep up with. As much as I wanted to be appreciative and gracious, I didn’t need protecting or keeping; I was still a child but not a child in the way I should’ve been.
My ever-elusive father had disappeared in and out of my life so many times, I barely remembered his face at that point. Didn’t want to remember it really. He’d fled about two years prior; he’d said he couldn’t handle the pressure or the pain of watching someone he “loved” die in front of him.
That particular summer there were very few things which brought me happiness: Momma’s rare smiles, the neighbor’s dog having puppies in our back lawn, and the day my granddad flew in from Wyoming to visit. Mostly though, the days leeched together much like the muggy evenings I spent on the porch reading book after book.
Momma’s condition had worsened, yet she pushed me to go be home as much as I possibly could. I think she liked smelling the cut grass and laundry soap on me when I came in after a night at the house. She’d ask about her flowers and if I’d filled the bird feeders. Her eyes would light up when I told her about the particular puppy I’d grown fond of from the neighbor’s litter.
She wore out fast though. Most days she barely made it a few hours awake before I’d leave her to rest. I’d wander the hall, walking the sixteen steps to the soda machine and grab a bag of chips or chocolate bar. I got to know all the nurses and even some of the doctors. Long term patients, as well as recurring ones, and their families would strike up conversations with me when I passed their doorways.
My momma was popular there; she painted on her good days and it seemed one of her canvases could be found in almost every room on her floor. The ladies loved her southern charm and openness, full of tips on how to keep your skin clear and grow the best tomatoes. The men loved to flirt with her because she still carried herself with a giggle and a wink.
Those days were growing few and far between but I held onto them with white knuckles and no breath.
I met Crane Montgomery on one of those good days.
I was stretched out at a table in the rec room, fiddling with an impossibly hard thousand piece puzzle while Momma painted only a few feet from me. She’d chosen to paint the beach and, when I’d glanced up to see her progress, I noticed her attention was fixed on a nonexistent point in the middle of the wall. Her eyebrows were knotted hard into her forehead, somehow making her look younger in its sternness.
“Blue, could you do me a favor and go grab me a bottle of water?”
“Sure, Momma,” I said, doing my best to disguise the confusion in my voice as I stood.
“I’m not losing my mind, I just need to see water,” she smiled, finally turning her gaze from the wall to me. Her face had relaxed in a matter of seconds, her brown eyes warm and unconcerned. “Does that make any sense?”
Of course it did to me. Eighteen years of programming and watching her artistic rages take over, I’d learned sometimes she just needed things other people didn’t. She’d break glass just to see how it caught the sunlight. We’d toss rocks into the lake for hours just so she could memorize the ripples. Vases of fresh flowers had covered every table and dresser in the house when I was younger because she liked to feel the petals against her fingertips.
She was eccentric and giddy about things people rarely took the time to notice. I fostered this trait even as she slipped away from me because I loved those tiny moments of weirdness. Her weirdness was my favorite part.
This brings me to Crane.
The soda machine on Momma’s floor loved quarters. It would eat them up greedily and spit back out your beverage of choice, cold as ice.
What it hated, however, were paper bills. It would frequently shriek and put off a particularly hot odor when you inserted one. I noticed in that moment, in my haste to beat the morning heat, I’d fled the house without my daily change and had on me in my back pocket only a handful of crumpled one dollar bills.
I knew it wouldn’t work. At best, it would make a scene and the maintenance man (fondly known as Fat Ass Frank to everyone except Frank himself) would be called up and he’d grumble at me because ‘I knew better’ and he ‘didn’t get paid enough for this’ and Momma would lose her edge because it took me too long to retrieve her muse.
The ding of the elevator had me turning on my feet so fast I almost tripped, glancing up to see a tall figure in a military uniform go the opposite way. It took me only two seconds to make my decision:
“Hey,” I called. “You wouldn’t by chance have any quarters on you?”
(March 1 Prompt: Contemporary)
© 2016 Pearl Bayou – All Rights Reserved.