Starfish

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I sign the papers with a transparent pen. The kind where you can see the ink disappearing. Has to be blue ink. They’re fussy about things like that. The lilac tree outside the window is an explosion of purple pedals mixed with soft green leaves. I look at my mother next to me. Somewhere in the last year she has shrunk. Her body, her face, even her smile. The room smells like smoke. Every room my mother enters smells like smoke. The doctor asks her a few questions. She answers with a voice strangled by sixty years of black puffs. The doctor studies me as she answers. We both know she’s not well. The voice, well that’s the least of it.  If it was only the voice, that would be easy. Easy to fix, easy to ignore. He hands her three prescriptions and winks at me as we leave. I shake his hand and slip the pen in my pocket.

           The hallway is long and tiled. Faded yellow squares outlined with pea soup green borders. The nurses are cloaked in white. The patient’s faces are washed out. My mother is polite to each of them as we pass. She’s always polite. The air outside is warmer than it’s been in a long time. It smells new, clean. My brother is waiting for us in his car. I nod to him, in a way that he understands we’ll talk about it later.  My brother’s car is faded. Years of sun have sucked out the color, leaving it a bland, dull blue. The door squeaks as I open it for my mother. She sits in the front. Always has. The road is stuffed with cars and each block takes forever. I see he is annoyed by the smell of smoke in his car. He hates the smell of smoke. My mother plays with the handle on her bag, while her leg bounces up and down. She eyes the cigarette lighter and then looks out the window. Not happening. Not in my brother’s car. Even though it’s faded.

           It’s so hot the air burns my throat. We pull up to the hospital. The plants are wilted from the scorching sun. As we step outside a cicada is on the ground buzzing furiously, but can only spin in a circle. His wings don’t work anymore, even though he was born only a few weeks ago. We are hit in the face by frozen air as the automatic doors open. The receptionist mumbles something when I give her our name. My mother smiles and finds a seat in the corner. I glimpse out the window and notice the cicada isn’t moving anymore.

           The doctor is black. Not really black, but so tan he looks black. I thought doctors knew better than to sit in the sun. He asks how I’m doing. I’m flattered. I can hear my mother’s breathing next to me. Of course I don’t tell him what she’s been doing. Not in front of her, I can’t. The late night calls, telling me one thing and doing another, leaving without saying where she is going. I can’t tell him any of this. Not now. His cologne is strong. Polo I think. I recognize it from the department stores, when painted ladies come rushing up, spraying a dozen different fragrances in your face. My mother signs papers and hands me the pen. This one is red and silver. Metallic red.  I sign under her name and the doctor asks her some questions. I don’t bother listening. It’s the same thing over and over. I focus on a photo near his desk. There are two young girls holding kittens. One is orange.  The other is a calico.

           We leave the office, and I ask my mother if she would like a kitten. She tells me she has a cat already. She reminds me we need to pick up cat food on the way home. I feel sorry for her. I guess she would like to think she has a cat. I agree to go to the grocery mart with her. We can give the food to the strays. When we checkout, my mother looks in her pocketbook for something to sign the receipt with. Carrying the bags towards the door, I realize we forgot it. I ask the sales clerk, and she hands me a skinny blue one. I shake my head and point to her drawer. In between six ordinary ones, you couldn’t miss the shiny red pen.

           The crunching sound under our feet sounds particularly loud. The wind whips a few dry leaves around my face. I check my mother’s jacket to make sure it’s closed. The bus let’s us off three blocks from the hospital. My brother couldn’t take us today. He’s sick. A sore throat or something. Mom doesn’t say anything but I think he has it too. They say it’s hereditary. But they never say exactly what “it” is. I tuck my hands in my sweater and count the cracks in the sidewalk. It makes the trip go faster.

           We have to wait to enter the hospital because an ambulance and two cop cars are blocking the doors. Someone whispers the word, “suicide”. I call my brother. When he answers, I hang up.

           The doctor is reading a magazine when we walk in. He places it face down, which makes me think it’s not a medical journal. He smiles at me and pulls out the chair for my mother. She asks to use the restroom. When she leaves, I slip him a list of all the things she is doing. I decide not to mention anything about my brother.  I notice the pen on his blotter is wood. Real wood. I’ve never seen anything like it. He sees me staring at it and shows it to me. He says his father makes them by hand.

           My mother comes back and the doctor has the regular forms for us to sign. I show her the pen. She smiles. It’s sad, she doesn’t understand. A real wooden pen. Does she think you can get that anywhere?

           Outside it’s dark already. My mother says its four-thirty. Her watch must have stopped. We walk to the bus stop. I’m pissed at my brother, it’s only a sore throat. The wind is biting us. My mother is cold. I put my arm around her and we stand in the dark, waiting for the bus, in the cold. A man passes and inquires about the time. My mother tells him. He doesn’t seem to realize it’s wrong. He asks if we have a pen he could borrow. My mother looks at me. I shake my head. He walks away towards the hospital. She wouldn’t understand. It’s real wood.

           Outside the white is so brilliant, it hurts my eyes. The air is frigid and tiny pieces of icy snow hit my face. Each one feels like a sharp needle. My boots aren’t high enough, and the snow falls in my socks. The doctor’s office is decorated with snowflakes. I’m guessing he didn’t do that. My mother looks upset. I search the doctor’s face for some explanation, but he is busy reading. Outside, the lilac tree is bare, its bark sits dark against the glistening hills in the distance. An empty nest rests on a thin branch, barely hanging on against the whistling wind.

           My mother whispers the medicine isn’t working. The doctor nods and writes a few notes. I have been telling him all along it wasn’t working. A nurse knocks softly on the door. She is holding a white jacket with long sleeves and a dozen strings. It looks familiar but I can’t remember from where. Another knock. It’s my brother. He never comes to the doctor’s office. My mother’s eyes are red. I think it’s good he’s here. The doctor tells him the hospital will help. My brother pulls out his checkered handkerchief and blows his nose.  He helps my mother up, leans over, and squeezes my shoulder. He knows how hard it’s been. He leads my mother out the door. I stand up to follow. The nurse steps in front of me and blocks the doorway. I tell her I need to leave. There is something I don’t like about the jacket. Maybe the color. She looks over my shoulder at the doctor. Outside the window, I see my brother helping my mother into the car. I raise my voice and tell the nurse to move. The doctor touches my back, and as I turn around, he slides a pen out of his shirt pocket. It’s onyx. The long sleek body is outlined with bright silver trim. He hands it to me. It’s different than any I’ve ever touched. Lighter, smoother, longer. On the end is a tiny starfish. I sit down on the couch. It’s the prettiest damn pen I’ve ever seen.