Discover something new.

You plan it out almost to the minute. If you leave at 9:55, you’ll get there between 10:20 and 10:25. They’ll start setting up for lunch a few minutes after 11:00 and begin serving sometime between 11:10 and 11:25. The last eight months have taught you that between forty-five minutes and an hour is the ideal duration. Shorter, and the guilt begins to corrode your already meager functionality; longer and you won’t be able to escape the gravitational pull of the grief and you’ll lose the rest of the day. Maybe the next day, too. 

So you time it with care and precision. 

To be sure.

Also, you know if you get to the Rooster Café by 11:35, you’ll be able to get a breakfast burrito with Portuguese sausage and a side of sour cream before the lunch rush takes up all the parking and crowds you out and sends you back up the 405 with an empty stomach.

From the freezer, you retrieve a Hershey Bar and insulate it with three folded paper towels so it won’t start melting by the time you get there.

But on Wednesday, there’s a traffic accident. You know about it miles and miles before you get to the site of the incident because even though you’ve driven the route more than a hundred times at this point, you still Google Map it every trip so you can track each minute. 

On Wednesday, it’s going to take you sixty-two minutes. You look down again. No. Sixty-six minutes. 

Wednesday is turning to shit.

People ask “Why Costa Mesa?” and you tell them it’s really close to your brother’s house. Less than a mile. You could walk there in eleven minutes. You say that like it’s the reason you picked the place. But you visit more than he does. Because you have time. He doesn’t have time. Because he works his ass off so he can pay for it. He pays his fair share and a lot of your fair share, too. Because you have time.

You teach. It’s summer. So you have time. Sure, you really need to be writing the book. You’re not, though. Not really. No matter how hard you try. Every day you sit down with it, you take more out than you put in. So you have time.

You have time.

But there’s an accident on the 405. You’re going to be late. And you feel guilty. Even more guilty than you did for going away to the writers conference last week and missing all those visits. The writers conference, by the way, was terrific and made you feel happier and more hopeful than anything has in a long time, but now that you’re back, you feel worse for feeling better.

And you’re going to be late.

You watch the Google Maps ETA go up a minute, then down three, then back up five and you remember you have to pick up the last (please god let it be the last) form you need to apply for the VA benefit that’s had you backflipping through bureaucratic hoops for months now, and that’s going to take a few extra minutes that you simply do not have today.

You finally park and you take a Lorazepam and walk up to the outside gate and push the buzzer and wait to be let in. You look through the bars of the fence at the tiny garden and the little walking path that winds around and in between the two buildings and is the real reason you chose this place over all the others, no matter how far away from home it is, this little bit of outdoor space, this little bit of sunshine that none of the others had. You take a few deep breaths and wait.

Then the buzz comes and you pull the gate open and go inside and up the little walking path to the office where you have to sign in and write the time. 

11:07.

Shit.

Maybe things are looking up, though, because the business manager has the form in a manila folder all ready for you and it’s in your hand by the time you put the sign-in sheet pen back in the floral-embossed cup on the desk. Down the hall in number twelve, you drop the file on the bed and barely even think about the fact that it’s covered by a crocheted bedspread that you’ve never even seen and not the fleece blanket you bought for Christmas three years ago. And you walk outside across the patio and into the big activity room.

You look to the left and see someone asleep on the couch all the way down by the recliners. You study the shape.

Is it?

Too big.

Not her.

You look the other way and you see her. At the third table. With her back to the window. Where she usually sits for meals. But her place has already been set. Even from where you’re standing you can see the placemat and the silverware and the glass of water. Everybody has them. They’re waiting. They’re all waiting.

11:10. Lunch is coming early today.

Shit. You already feel guilty because it’s been more than a week since you’ve visited. Nine days. That’s the longest you’ve gone without seeing her since she moved here. 

She’s sitting next to an old man you don’t recognize.  He must be new. She reaches over and pats his shoulder, comforting him. 

You try not to think about why there’s always room here for someone new. 

You remember how only a year ago, she used to put a blanket over you when you fell asleep on the couch waiting for your wife to get home from teaching school. High school. Real school. Not college creative writing like you. Your wife works for a living. But it’s summer and she has time, too. It’s better for you when she’s there at home, the hole doesn’t seem quite so deep, but you worry. About what you make her deal with. You worry. When she’s teaching, the days are harder but at least you have until dinner time to try to get your shit together and then even though you haven’t gotten your shit together, you can put on your best game face for the evening so she won’t have to deal with as much. But it’s summer and she has time, too, so she has to deal with almost as much of you as you do.

You stare across the large activity room at her, sitting there at the table, and wonder if you should just turn around and go. Come back later. But even as you think that, you know it’s a lie. You won’t come back later. You’ll leave and go to the Rooster Café and get a breakfast burrito with Portuguese sausage and a side of sour cream and it will be perfect and that will be just barely enough. Just barely. Then you’ll go home and try it all again tomorrow.

You’ve talked about it. Your therapist said that sometimes it really is okay to leave if she seems engaged with someone else. If she seems happy. Because she doesn’t usually seem happy when you’re visiting. She always seems sad. So sometimes it’s okay. Sure, there’s that little bit right when you get there and she kind of recognizes you and there’s that little hint of a smile, that little flash in her eyes, but it vanishes even more suddenly than it bloomed and the sadness washes over her. You’re not sure why it’s always like that, but you figure she must have some traces of memory of what it was like when she lived with you and your wife. The two relatively good years. The bad year when the decline accelerated so rapidly that you took a leave of absence from teaching to care for her full time until your own health began to decline so rapidly that her doctor told you that you had to do something or you’d die before she did. 

Happens all the time, her doctor said, all the time.

But you’re feeling too much shame because you haven’t seen her for so long. 

Nine days. 

You glance at the med tech inside the door to see if she’s judging you but she just smiles and says hello and points to your mother across the room. Now they’ve seen you so it’s too late to leave because what will they think? They don’t know you’ve talked to your therapist about it and maybe sometimes it’s better if you don’t make her sad. They don’t know.

So you walk across the room and put a hand on her shoulder and lean down and say, “Hi Mom.” It takes a few seconds. It always takes a few seconds, but maybe it’s a few seconds longer today? And then you see it in her eyes. 

She recognizes you.

Kind of.

A little bit.

You pull an empty chair close and sit at her side and she pulls you in for an awkward hug. You adjust the chairs but it’s still clumsy. You don’t want to move hers any more than you have to because she’s set for lunch and you don’t want to distract her from that. So you sit there leaning over and twisting so she can rest her head on your shoulder and it only takes a few minutes for the ungainly posture to make your side hurt, but you don’t move because she’s saying something in your ear that you can’t understand. It’s not like how you usually can’t understand what she’s saying with the recognizable words and phrases that just don’t seem to go together or connect at all to what’s happening.

No.

She’s trying to say words but you can’t understand what they are. You try to remember if it’s been like this before but you don’t think so. Maybe a little bit like this. But not this much like this. No, not this much.

You pretend to understand like you usually pretend to understand but differently. You say what you always say, that you’re here now and you’re going to take care of everything and that she doesn’t need to worry. You know that helps sometimes but you can’t tell if it’s helping now. She reaches out without moving her head and adjusts the spoon on the brown placemat. Then she says something else that you pretend to understand and you say that you’re here now and you’re going to take care of everything and that she doesn’t need to worry.

The twist/lean is making your right side feel like someone is jabbing it with a sharp stick, so you try to adjust yourself in the chair without disturbing her head which is still resting on your shoulder, but you move too much and she looks up at you with a question in her eyes. You’re not sure what the question is but it doesn’t quite look like the question that’s always in her eyes even though you don’t know what that question is either. It’s worse, this question. Maybe she’s having a bad day. But the days are mostly bad so this bad is even worse than the regular bad. Or maybe you’ve been gone so long that now this is the new regular bad and later you’ll remember the old regular bad and think about how much better it was than this new regular bad is now. 

Then she says something that you do understand. 

She says kill me. 

Kill me.

And you think thank god.

Because you understand what she’s saying and she’s been asking you to kill her for months now, so maybe the new regular bad isn’t as bad as it seemed even though it’s still worse than the old regular bad. Maybe it’s better than you thought. Maybe.

Then she says something else you don’t understand so you pretend to understand and you say that you’re here now and you’re going to take care of everything and that she doesn’t need to worry.

You say that you’re here now and—

They wheel in the cart from the kitchen with all the bowls and the big pot of soup. Is that a pot? You don’t think it’s a pot but you don’t know what to call it. It’s big and metal and looks kind of like a bucket and there’s a lid on it so maybe it is just a pot? Is it a tureen? What the fuck even is a tureen?

She says something else you don’t understand and you say that you’re here and everything’s going to be okay and it’s time for lunch. You say look over there and she turns her head but you can tell she can’t see that far, and even though the hospice nurse said you shouldn’t take her anymore for the eye injections to treat her macular degeneration, you think you should have kept going but then you remember that last time and how scared she was and how much she cried and that even though she’d been getting the treatments for ten years, she didn’t have any idea of what was going on and even the doctor said maybe to let it go.

And then they’re serving the soup to the people at the next table and they’re close enough that she can tell what’s happening and they put her bowl of chicken noodle on the table in front of her and she gives you one last distracted look and you take your arm from around her shoulders and she leans in and picks up her spoon and starts eating and it’s almost like you’re not even there anymore.

You say goodbye and that you’ll be back soon and she slurps her soup out of the spoon and you get up and push the chair you were sitting in back under the next table and walk outside into the sun.

It’s hot. 

Was it this hot when you got here? 

It feels too hot to even be outside.

You walk past the tiny garden on the little walking path. The flowers are beginning to wilt. Maybe they need more water or fertilizer or—

And then they’re buzzing you out and you’re in the parking lot getting into your car and turning the air conditioning up a few notches and it’s 11:25. You were only there for fifteen minutes and you ask yourself what kind of a shitty person visits their mother for fifteen minutes after more than a week away and you look in the rearview mirror and back out of your parking spot and try to think about how good that breakfast burrito with Portuguese sausage and a side of sour cream at the Rooster Café is going to be and you hit two green lights in a row and it seems like you get there in no time at all and then you’re making the last left turn and you see it.

The little parking lot is full.

The street is packed with cars.

There’s no place to park. 

You turn left into the little lot and stop with the back bumper of your car barely out of the traffic and you wait. You try to look inside and see if it looks like anyone is finishing and you watch two guys get up and walk out the door and you think it’s going to be okay, everything is going to be okay, but then they just keep walking. Past all the cars in the lot. Past all the cars in the street. And then around the corner and out of sight.

There’s no place for you.

That’s okay, though, because you can wait. You have time. You can wait as long as—

Someone behind you honks.

You look in the mirror and see a woman in an Audi raising her hands palm up above the steering wheel.

You pull through the parking lot and back out onto the street and she sits where you just were. So you drive up the street again and make a u-turn. Then you drive to the other end of the block and make another u-turn and you’re not sure how many times you’ve done it when you see a big Chevy SUV pull out of a space in the lot and the woman in the Audi pull into it. You smack the center console so hard it feels like you’ve broken two fingers. 

After several more laps up and down the block, you see the line at the Rooster Café stretching out the door and you wonder where they’re coming from and where they parked or did they all just walk?

And you know it’s too late. 

Fuck.

The lunch rush is here. 

Even if you parked a mile away and walked back, there wouldn’t be any place to sit and it would be so crowded that you can’t even let yourself imagine it. 

11:55.

You give up.

Head back toward the freeway.

It’s not the first time.

Won’t be the last.

You’ll have time for more burritos. 

Time for all the burritos you’ll ever want.

But before you get to the 405, you feel your stomach begin to seize and your chest tightens. You pull into the little shopping center on the corner with the ramen place and the Japanese restaurant and the other Japanese restaurant. You park and you squeeze the steering wheel as hard as you can because if you let go, you know you won’t be able to stop the shaking. 

You breathe and you breathe and you breathe. 

When you can, after minutes that feel like hours, you take another Lorazepam and you breathe.

And you breathe and you breathe.

And you breathe.

Because you have time.

Tyler Dilts Tyler Dilts is the author of five novels, including the Edgar Award-nominated "Come Twilight" (Thomas & Mercer) and, most recently, "Mercy Dogs" (Thomas & Mercer).

Read More

More from Issue 3: Summer 2021

Conversations

In a Place of Sanctuary, I Found Myself: A Conversation with Shin Yu Pai

by Abbie Reese

Fiction

No Refills

by Diane Lefer