Only the Dead Can Say They've Made It

by JAMES VALVIS

Let’s face it: we’re going to die. It doesn’t matter what we do. We’re walking corpses. We’re ashes that haven’t burned yet. You can kick and moan about it or shout at the top of your lungs. You can eat right and exercise. Doesn’t matter. We’re a feast for worms, as someone now dead once said.

There’s no way out of it. No Fountain of Youth. Well, there is, but it’s a cheesy tourist trap in Saint Augustine, Florida. You have to pay 20 bucks to get in, and when you do there’s a pool of water you’re not allowed to touch. There’s a bunch of statues of Ponce De Leon looking regal. He’s the guy who found the Fountain of Youth, or thought he did, and he’s been dead hundreds of years now. I never ventured inside the Fountain of Youth. I drove along the outside and decided twenty smackers was too much to pay. I’d have paid every cent and then some if I thought it was going to add even ten minutes to my life. But it wouldn’t. You’d just come out twenty dollars poorer and a half-hour older.

Besides, by then, I knew all about death.

When I was seventeen I worked in a hospital pushing a large metal cart around and picking up the trash. There were two kinds of trash bags. One was black bagged, which was garden variety trash, and the other was red bagged, which had all the infectious and contaminated garbage in it. Needles went in those red bags, dirty diapers. I had to wear rubber gloves and I had to wear a mask. I got paid $5.40 an hour, which wasn’t bad back then.

My mother worked in the same hospital. She was a housekeeper, a janitor, what they called an “environmental service person,” meaning she changed sheets and emptied bed pans. She worked in the intensive care unit. People died left and right in ICU. It was an every day thing.

At lunch one day, I met my mother and she told me all about the latest corpse. “That nineteen year old kid they brought in yesterday, from the car accident,” my mother said. “He’s dead.”

“I’m trying to eat, Mom.”

“I walked in. I had to roll the bed. And his mouth was open, eyes open, everything open. Deader than that burger you’re eating.”

I set the burger down, looked at her.

She went on, “I called the nurse and told her. She took one look at him, shrugged, and went to go tell somebody. Did you wash your hands?”

“With Ajax.”

“You know what I did?”

I pushed my food away. I’d been working at the hospital for five months and I’d lost thirty pounds. I had no appetite. I was sensitive back then. Eating was murder, pure and simple. Something had to die so you could live. I couldn’t justify it. I figured even a tomato has rights.

“No, Mom,” I said. “What did you do?”

“I kissed him.”

“What?”

“You heard me. I kissed him. I waited until the nurse was gone, and then I kissed him.”

“That’s sick, Mom,” I said. “That’s gross.”

“Not really. It’s not like I stuck my tongue in his mouth.” She puffed on her cigarette. “It was more a peck than a kiss. It was perfectly natural. Like a good-bye kiss.” I didn’t want to hear any of this. “Oh, don’t give me that look. Tell me you’ve never been curious what it’s like to kiss a dead person.”

“Jesus Christ,” I said.

“He’s the first man I kissed since your father.”

“Sure, replace a deadbeat with the dead.”

“You’ve got your father’s temper.”

There was no denying it. My mother had grown stranger since my father left. I’d come home from school and she would be cleaning the oven, naked from the waist down. Or she’d be skinny dipping in our pool, if skinny is the word for it. There was no fence around our house and the whole world could see. I’d run outside and throw a towel at her and run back inside. Behind me, I’d hear her laughing. She never once used the towel.

In the evenings I’d hear her vibrator. It made a distinctive sound, like a muffled blender. Our walls were paper thin. It amazed me how long the sound went on. Hours and hours of it. I laid in my bed in the dark with my stomach growling. I tried to think of other things. I thought of baseball and video games. I thought about horseshoes and hamburgers. And I thought about my father.

My father, a Polish and Hungarian mix, had taken off with an Indian woman named Polly. My mother called her Pockahontas--"pock” because her face had boils--and she called my father Sitting Bullshit. Pockahontas and Sitting Bullshit were living together with Pockahontas’ four bastard kids in an apartment complex where my father had taken a job as Maintenance Supervisor. I hardly ever saw him anymore. The only time he visited, he wore a long ponytail and war paint under his eyes and he was drunk. He sat across the table from me, my mother hiding in her room, and after a ten minutes of silence he raised his right hand and said, “How.”

“I’m out of here,” I said.

“You are the white interloper,” my father yelled after me. “Just like your mother!”

I was helping to pay the bills with my salary, but I still managed to save enough money to buy a stereo. A cheap model, poor speakers, almost no bass, I put it next to the wall that was adjacent to my mother’s room. I wasn’t interested in music. I didn’t care what kind of music was playing. Disco, Rock & Roll, Opera, Heavy Metal, Classical, Rap, it was all the same to me. It was all good music so long as it erased that awful vibrator’s whine and the grunts of my mother’s loneliness.

I only saw Pockahontas once. She was in a grocery store with my father and two of her bastard kids. I don’t know where the other two were. Pockahontas had jet black hair and a ragged complexion that was studded with boils, like my mother said, and her skin was paler than I expected. She was dressed like a squaw, or like the movie version of a squaw, from the braids right down to the moccasins.

They were in the cereal aisle and I was walking one way and they were going the other direction. By then I had taken over almost all of the household chores. My mother was as disinterested in cooking and cleaning as I was in eating. In fact, we almost never ate at home anymore. My mother ate at the hospital and I hardly ate at all. But I thought it was important to keep shopping, keep doing the thing that normal people were doing, so once or twice a month I would get on my bike and pedal to the grocery store. I bought food that stayed in the refrigerator for weeks before I got sick of looking at it and threw it away.

If Pockahontas and my father saw me, they gave no indication. They moved like statues, one foot after another, like they were stepping on a Indian burial site. Their faces were long and somber and even the children were silent and behaved like ghosts. My father still wore his war paint and there was a long feather hanging from his headband.

You know what it felt like? It felt like they were in a cult of four. It felt as if they had brainwashed themselves into believing some myth they knew nothing about. And I started wondering if maybe all families weren’t a little like that--like a mini-cult. Secret institutions that nobody outside knew anything about.

I stopped and watched them pass. They didn’t say anything. My father didn’t look at me. His eyes had war paint underneath but his eyes didn’t seem to hold any fight in them. They looked like the eyes of a dead man. No wonder my mother took to kissing corpses.

They walked by and I watched them go. Every few steps, Pockahontas grabbed a food item off the shelf and tossed it into the basket. I watched until they reached the end of the aisle and turned the corner. As soon as they did, I hurried out of there. I didn’t even buy anything. I just dropped my hand basket, left the store, mounted my bike, and started peddling.

A couple of days later my mother kissed the nineteen-year-old in ICU. And the nurse saw her. She hadn’t known it at lunch, but the nurse had come back to get the boy’s chart and saw my mother leaning over the boy’s face, her lips pressed against his blue lips, her eyes shut tight like a virgin on prom night. The curtains had been drawn. My mother had taken off her uniform and was rubbing one hand against the boy’s bandaged head. Her other hand was between her legs. She was mumbling something under her breath about Sitting Bull. The nurse turned around silently, then found her supervisor and told him what she had seen. It was all in the forms--every last lurid detail--and that afternoon my mother was given a copy of the report and her last paycheck.

“I’m not going back, either,” I told my mother in the car on the way home. “What are we going to do?”

“I don’t know.”

“I can’t believe this,” I said. “You need help.”

“Don’t start in. You don’t know how hard it’s been for me. It’s been hard.”

“You’re sick, Mom. You’re a goddamn pervert.”

“Just like your father,” she said. “So judgmental.”

That night, when I heard the vibrator, I turned the music as loud as it would go. It was already late and I was tired. I sat on my bed, smoking a cigarette, wondering what would come next. We had enough to get by for a month, maybe two. Then we were out of luck. And charges were going to be pressed. Hefty charges. Public charges. It was a nightmare.

In the morning, when my mother didn’t get out of bed, I decided to check on her.

Death is everywhere. Death is not uncommon. And when you work around death, it becomes even more meaningless. It becomes just another bodily function, like going to the bathroom and throwing up when you’re sick. And when your life is dung, when you’ve reached the place where you can go no further, death doesn’t carry the same threat it once had. You don’t run all over the world like Ponce De Leon looking for the Fountain of Youth. Death is fine. It can embrace you like a lover, like a young boy who doesn’t throw towels at you when you’re naked or turn the stereo up loud when the echoes of your despair haunt the darkness.

My mother was lying on her bed, her eyes and mouth open. One small blue stream of spittle hung from the corner of her lips. She lay naked from the waist down and her vibrator rested, silent at last, on the next pillow. There was a note written on a tissue box I didn’t bother to read. An empty brown bottle sat overturned on the floor next to the bed. I felt for a pulse, calmly, knowing there was none. There wasn’t.

I sat down next to her. I didn’t cry. I looked at her face, my mother. I touched her cheek. It was cold, rigid. I bent down, closed my eyes, and felt my lips touch hers. They tasted like waxy ice. I kissed her.

Just a peck goodbye, nothing more.

JAMES VALVIS is the author of How to Say Goodbye (Aortic Books, 2011). His writing can be found in Anderbo, Arts & Letters, LA Review, Rattle, River Styx, and is forthcoming in Crab Creek Review, Hanging Loose, Midwest Quarterly, and many others. His poetry has been featured at Verse Daily and the Best American Poetry blog. His fiction has twice been a storySouth Million Writers Notable Story. He lives near Seattle with his wife and daughter.