A Wake

By Stephanie Hayes

 

"Sorry for the false alarm, Vera," Leo said, after concluding that the vitals were back up. He worked the nightshift, wore pink scrubs, and green eyeliner. "We really thought this was it."

This was the fifth time in three weeks that Vera had been called in to say goodbye -- yanked from the bliss of weed and cat videos on YouTube -- by a resident practicing the pitch of sympathy. It was two in the morning and her mother was stable. Again. Vera threw her long body into the chair beside the hospital bed. Knees to chest, soft denim against her bony chin.

"Want me to close the door, Vera?" Leo was sanitizing his hands.        

"No thanks, Leo. Leave it open. I'm not staying long."    

By now, all the nurses on the third floor at Brooklyn Methodist knew Vera by name, and spoke frankly to her about the practical matters of her mother’s imminent passing. "Vera, you gonna take your mom's valuables today? Best not to have her wearing jewelry when we transfer. Things go missing, ya know. Especially at the morgue." How do you remove a wedding ring that's been there for over fifty years from a dying woman's finger?

Vera scanned the hollowed out remains of her sleeping mother: a cavernous and abandoned landscape made up of dry skin, protruding bones, and bulging veins. They used to look like each other: two unusually tall women with straight black hair, enormous brown eyes and plump, rosy cheeks paired with pale, thin lips. Most of her is already gone, she thought. What's left? A faint heartbeat inside a long body that no longer moves or smiles. It had been weeks since Vera and her mother had had a lucid conversation. They'd said goodbye a million times, listed their thank-yous and I'm-sorries. There was nothing more to do. Or say. Or think. Just wait. Maybe show some physical affection.

She dropped her feet to the floor, leaned forward in the chair, and rested her head on the hospital bed. One hand was draped over the bony ridges of her mother's knuckles, and the other maintained its grip around the empty Styrofoam cup from the coffee machine in the waiting room. She closed her eyes, knowing she wouldn't be able to sleep. It was a quiet night on the third floor. Only the soft rhythmic hum of circulation pumps could be heard. It would have been a good night to die.

Vera tried to stay completely still, but couldn't resist nervously picking at the Styrofoam cup and tapping her foot on the floor. Tiny tremors rippled through her chest. Her caffeine-buzzed heart kept pounding and fracturing her thoughts. Organize yourself, she thought, and exhaled deeply, her open mouth pressed against the mattress.         

Then, the wracking began, the calculations of Vera's weed-infused insomnia. It was an ever-growing list. Number of days taken off work this month: seven. The consequent cut in salary: 547 dollars. Sick-days left: zero. Days until rent is due: fourteen. Joints smoked in the last twenty-four hours: six. Days until dealer is back in town: four. Days covered with remaining stash: two, if carefully managed. Days since going by Mom's apartment to feed the cats: nine. Number of cats: six? Price of hiring movers to get rid of junk in hoarding mother's apartment: 550 dollars. Cost of relinquishing cats at shelter: forty dollars a cat. Cost of dropping off cats at Greenwood cemetery in the middle of the night: zero dollars. Funeral homes contacted to make arrangements: zero. Months passed since contacting mother's only living relative in Krakow: three. Days since being touched by someone other than a nurse: can't remember. Days since last shower: four. Maybe five. 

Suddenly, sounds of hushed voices in the hallway spilled into the room, interrupting Vera's calculations. She looked up, her vision blurred from the bed's pressure against her eyelids. She blinked aggressively to regain focus. It was a group of men, dressed corporately in various shades of blue and black, standing outside the room across the hall. They were whispering loudly, in Japanese, nodding politely to each other, hovering protectively by the entrance to room 408. Vera leaned over in the chair, hoping to catch a glimpse of the room's occupant, Mrs. Sho. She'd seen the name on the whiteboard outside the room a million times, but never Mrs. Sho herself. She kept her door closed.

"Oh, you're awake!" Leo entered, blocking Vera's view. "Just going to check her blood pressure again, okay Sweetie?"

"Go ahead." Vera leaned back in the chair and slid her feet under the bed. She knew she wouldn’t have to ask. He can never keep his mouth shut.

"Oh my god, the patient in 408," he began.

"Mrs. Sho?"  

"Yes. Poor thing! She just passed away, bless her soul. Like twenty minutes ago." He gestured the sign of the cross over his chest.

"Who are those men? Her family?"

"No, not sure. Some are reporters, I think. But some work for the son. He’s come all the way from Japan. He's, uh, a sumo champion."

"Sumo? Like a sumo wrestler?"

"Yep." Leo took out his phone from his chest pocket and showed Vera a googled image of Altan Sho, Mongolian champion sumo wrestler. "Here," he said and read from screen, "he is the fourth non-Japanese wrestler to be promoted to highest rank in sumo, called yokozuna."

"Is he in there?"

"Yeah, and he's wearing a beautiful dress." Leo outlined the shape of the garment with his hands. "It’s fabulous. He’s a big deal. Hasn't seen his mother since he was a boy. They’re writing an article about it." He fished out a vibrating pager from his pocket. "Shit, gotta go. They’re calling me." He blew a kiss to no one in particular, and left the room.

Vera, still foggy from the weed and the fatigue, stood up and casually paced the room to get a better look at the scene in the hallway. The well-dressed men were somberly gathering their belongings – bags, binders, and umbrellas. Is it raining outside? She looked out the window behind her. Yes, it was raining. Heavily. I'll have to take a cab, she thought. Thatll be between twelve and twenty bucks? She stretched her arms up over her head, reaching as far as she could with her fingertips. Another inch and she would've touched the sprinkler. A sour smell rose from her armpits. Its not easy to keep clean when you're waiting for someone to die. She looked at her mother, who hadn't moved once – except for the recurring quiver in the bottom lip, caused by tiny bursts of outgoing air. Vera dropped her arms and yawned audibly. Get one look at the wrestler, then go home and take a shower. She turned to assess the situation but was immediately met by a pair of small, brown eyes. It was him, the wrestler, standing in her doorway, blocking the light from the corridor. Tall and fat, with long arms hanging to the sides of a chest wider than two regular folks put together. His hair, pulled back into a high bun, was shiny and black – and he was wearing a simple, gray, cotton robe, with a wide belt tied together under his heaving gut. He stood motionless, eyes steady on Vera, with a faint smile on his lips. She returned the smile, equally faint, then pulled back a few strands of oily hair from her face. She crossed her arms for a second, then shoved them down her jean pockets and leaned against the windowsill behind her. Stupid sweatshirt, stupid Birkenstocks! The wrestler took a deep and long breath. His rib cage expanded in all directions: forward, sideways and up, up, up – making him fatter, wider, taller. The bun on his head collapsed under the doorframe.

"Hi," Vera said, which he took as an invitation to dislodge himself from the doorframe and take a small step into the room. Bun restored.

"Hi." He gave her a small nod. They fell into silence, looking inquisitively at each other. My god, the enormity. Pounds and pounds. All you can do is step back and surrender. She’d seen it on TV. 2 minutes and its over.

 

A short man with a green tie popped his head in and briefly engaged the wrestler in what seemed like a logistical conversation. After a few exchanges, he looked up at Vera and said, “Mr. Sho wants to know if you want to be left alone. He understands you are grieving.”  

“Oh, no, I don’t mind.” The man translated quietly to the wrestler while Vera hurriedly dragged one of the chairs and placed it at the foot of the hospital bed. Is this shock?

 “Also,” said the man, “he wants to know if you are hungry. We are going to order pizza.”

“Sure, I’ll have a slice.”

The two men continued their conversation, considering and nodding. Vera began sorting through the questions she would like to ask the wrestler. How much do you weigh? What do you eat? How often do you eat? How much do you train? Have you always been fat? Can I say fat? You are fat. Do you ever wear street clothes? Are you religious? Are you on Facebook? Do you drink alcohol? Are you allowed to have sex? Do you like sex? Would you like to have sex?

"Takai,” he said and pointed at Vera. The man with the tie had left the room and Vera and the wrestler were alone again. 

"I don't understand." She smiled and shook her head. He raised his hand high to indicate her height. His smile widened, revealing a row of tiny upper teeth.

"Yes, I’m very tall." She pointed back at him. "You too." They exchanged a few quiet chuckles, then returned to silence. He looked over at Vera's mother, scanned the shapes that bed sheets make over bones. He took a step closer.

"I am sorry for your loss," she said and moved her hands from her pockets to her heart. Guessing that he didn't understand, she gestured in the direction of room 408, and he gave her an understanding nod. He took another step.

“Altan,” he said and gestured to himself.

“Vera.” She rested her hand on the back of the chair. He made a small bow. 

They circled through this pattern a few rounds – him taking a step into the room, her trying a few words – like “the staff here is great” and “I can’t sleep.” Then there were gestures and nods, a pretending to understand, and finally, a move into silence. The waiting silence. Waiting for Altan to take another step, waiting for the next misunderstanding. Waiting for inspiration. Waiting for death. There are no guidelines for this shit. Anything could happen here.

Between the awkward gestures and misunderstandings, Vera imagined a thousand scenarios and outcomes. She imagined Altan opening his robe and inviting her to be enveloped. She imagined riding him on the yellow linoleum floor, smacking her pelvis against his thick thighs. She imagined holding his head with both her arms while he wept on her chest, mourning his mother’s death – or the fact that he hadn’t see her for years – or whatever else he might suffer from in regard to his mother. She imagined sharing with him the joint that was in her back pocket and asking him to demonstrate the sumo sidekick. She imagined him throat singing. Against her belly. She imagined sharing a pizza with him, proving to him she can pound a slice faster than any professional wrestler. She imagined him giving her grieving advice, imagined asking him to assist her in helping her mother go. She imagined them exchanging emails and numbers, shooting the shit on Skype. She imagined them getting tattoos together – an inner arm portrait of a mother. RIP.            

What Vera didn’t imagine, was the sumo wrestler sitting quietly by her mother’s deathbed, until morning, his body a kind of lush and abundant planet, orbiting the inhospitable bones of her mother’s cancerous body. He waited, quietly and still, his Nike sneakers firmly anchored on the floor. He waited. Not for anything. But with. It was a deep wait, thorough enough to permit Vera to slump back in the chair and give it all her weight. Heavy. She imagined her muscles melting off her bones, something she learned to do in a YouTube yoga class. Imagined them sinking through the chair, and the yellow linoleum floor. Down, past the maternity ward on the second floor, the ER on the first, and through the x-ray machines and wheelchairs in the basement. Deeper. Down through the Brooklyn sewage system – the pipes, the tunnels, the rock. Through the dirt and sludge, and whatever else it is that makes up this planet. Then finally, through thick lava and into the boiling navel of the earth, for a total dissolve. There, tremors melted away, limbs like lead.

Alright, Mom, take your time, Vera thought, before her heavy eyelids finally closed. And for the first time, there in the hospital, in all of those days and weeks of waiting, she dropped down into a deep sleep.