First Memories

My sister Janet had taken me to the hospital for tests, and then we drove across the street to my regular doctor to discuss options. This had been a lingering health problem and it was now time to confront it. Technology now days gave doctors results faster than in the past.

I hated hospitals.

The smell alone could do a person in, let them hang from the confines of the room being placed there in the future, and that smell lingered with me in the car and at the doctor’s office waiting area. Janet skimmed through a magazine with a sexy young celebrity on the cover. They called me back and that was when I was told: “T-cell count out of control.” A mass too close to operate near the brain stem, but chemo might offset the mass and delay the onslaught.  Eventually, if I decide not to do treatment, my immunity would be compromised as the days moseyed on until my last breath. I don’t know when that will be, hell, nobody knows when their last day on this planet is. I’m cool with it. At forty-five, a person should have their life figured out and have lived well enough to enjoy any memories. Janet hummed to a pop song on the radio as we headed to my apartment. She kept saying how we Powells are fighters and I can’t leave her because I’m the only sibling left to poke fun at and reminisce about old Indiana days. “You want something to eat? Chipotle, Applebee’s? My treat, Johnny. I need to pick up Sophie soon, so let’s not be capricious on this decision.”

I clicked her XM radio button and heard a Tom Petty song and it changed my mood. We drove by Panda Express and it sounded good to me, and told Janet: “Panda, you missed the turn.”

“Jesus, okay. Next time, a heads up would be nice.”

She had gotten nervous and banked right on the next turn.

She was still married, which was surprising because Janet could be hard to figure out, hard to get her to agree with any of your conversations about current events or something deep and profound like the death penalty or assisted suicide, or if humans really had free will and if God existed, who then created God?

“I haven’t been here in ages,” she said. “It’s okay.”

We walked inside Panda and I ordered the Kung Pao chicken and Janet ordered grilled Teriyaki with broccoli.

“I should have eaten more of that in my twenties,” I said, nodding at the broccoli on Janet’s plate.

“Why?”

“Chemicals in it supposedly suppress free radicals.”

“Bullshit,” she remarked. “Not saying it isn’t good for you, but please.”

“You remember your first memory,” I asked her. “As a toddler?”

She handed the lady at the end of the line her debit card and pulled a cold fruit drink out of the ice rack.

“I’ve kind of been craving an ice tea,” I said. “So, Janet? First memories?”

“Not sure, Johnny. I think I remember running into a wall one time. I was probably two or three then. What brought this up?”

“Been thinking about Mom and Dad.”

“Yeah. Well, they’re no longer around and that’s how life goes.”

Her voice sounded staggered, guilt-ridden. Janet had been fourteen when I found our mother lying on her side in her bed, her eyes like fogged glass, wide open. She lay unresponsive, the old aqua green rotary phone beside her. Mom had a way of calming people, and Janet referred to her as “pseudo-therapist.” Mother smoked a lot, as most parents did in the late 1970s, and I still remember those gray smoke ovals around her mouth. She and her girlfriend Barbara would hang out on the porch sunbathing, drinking vodka with Dr. Pepper. I would not know what that was until later, of course.

“I remember Dad,” Janet said. “Man, that voice of his! He had the deepest and resounding baritone voice that shook the house when he got agitated at Mom.”

“I know. Scared me shitless.”

“It seems so long ago, almost forty years, and yet so close, those memories.”

She stared out the window and I noticed when I looked that I saw a few brown leaves skitter across the sidewalk, the sky a deep gray and the hint that winter was not too far off.

“Anyway,” I said. “Old mom. I can still see her body shadowed against the wall, getting bigger and bigger as she neared my room. It was my first memory, and I must’ve been younger than two, shaking the crib rails.”

“Wow! You’ve always had a fantastic memory. I wish I had your recall, Johnny.”

“It’s all right. Wish that it could have helped making me money or land a better career.”

I hated sales. As I got older, I began to despise people; the world was becoming packed and crammed with more people every day who drove everywhere and seemingly, like little buggers that chew and poke at you from a distance with their pale angered faces and withered hands hanging out the car windows.

“Well,” Janet said, “in life there’s not much time to do everything. Find one or two things that you enjoy and make the best of it.”

“Yes, I know.”

“They loved us, John. Mom and Dad. They did the best they could.”

Dad’s lips seemed to carry away any remnants of cigarette or cigar smoke; scabby triangles on his hands had healed and looked purple. Dad’s eyes, those huge irises—culminated an authority that you knew when to keep quiet.

I would hear Mom say that her hair was in rat tangles. Mom held the phone to her ear in the bedroom for what seemed like hours, the door almost closed but a slight crack of an opening where I could see her. She’d talk to her friends, as if soaking in their problems and felt a need to cajole out respect and to help ease any sudden discomfort in them.

By 1979, Mom had gotten hooked on Darvocet and drank more vodka. The economy had tanked. Dad said it was President Carter’s fault. Everyone argued about money and feared nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Mom abandoned us forever at the age of thirty-eight in June of 1979, and I found her with her eyes open on that summer day while Dad was at work and Janet at the local park swimming pool with friends. I went over to Mr. and Mrs. Steven’s house and they called for an ambulance. Dad’s foggy eyes slowly took on mother’s as the years flittered on after her death, and he began to work less hours and sat on the front porch alone with a beer or wine drink reading the newspaper.

Dad would later follow Mom in 1982, something about a blown aorta because of his high blood pressure and Type-A personality. He was only forty-nine; I’d just turned twelve while Janet was a sophomore in high school, and we would go live with our Aunt Karen and Uncle Mike in Martinsville, Indiana.

I told Janet, rather randomly, as we drove toward my apartment: “It will be impossible to know you are dead. It would totally go against the laws of biology and physics.”

She quickly turned her head at me with one hand on the steering wheel.

“Souls,” she said. “They prevail. Or maybe the brain funnels our memories, twists the images like light bending around matter in space? Eventually, yeah, you are no longer you and time is up. You had your chances.”

I cringed thinking about that hospital, knowing that was where I would live out the rest of my days.

The sky was cloudless and the chill in the air made the bare trees and farmland look like the color of coiled old barb wire. Janet looped her fingers at the ends of her hair. She resembled our mother in many ways but had outlived her. A few more years and I will have caught up to our Dad’s age, but I don’t know if I will catch him, to see the world as he had. I won’t have any children and marry the lady of my life, but that’s okay. I was not big on romance. I’d had a few girlfriends over the years, some good, some not-so great, and some were calm and accepted their flaws and had let life come at them as if there was nothing they could do to change their fate.

“Chemo,” my doctor’s voice rewinding in my head. “Too risky to operate.”

I told Janet that I could move to Oregon and take a special cocktail and drift away with my memories.

She stepped on the brake hard.

“Stop it, John!” she yelled. “You’re going to man up and fight this.”

“What’s there to fight?”

“We Powells are not quitters,” she said, and jabbed at the radio button. “Eventually, like what I’ve been saying, yes, the big rest happens to everyone. I am sorry. Life is a one-way ticket filled with choices and things that are beyond our control.”

“And what is it really, life? Our lives?”

She looked down when thinking. She’d always done this. She stared back at the road. A squirrel darted in front of the car and disappeared behind a tree. Sometimes I couldn’t tell if it was Janet or our mother talking. Maybe Mom was living through her?

“Survival,” she said. “Meaning of life. Trying to earn a living, reproducing. I don’t know. It has different meanings for everyone.”

“True,” I said. “But I’m dying now and this means it’s pretty shitty.”

She dropped me off in front of my apartment unit and it started to rain a little. You could hear it tatter harder against parked cars and the apartment rooftop.

“Let’s Face Chat later,” she said. “Okay? We can discuss your treatments next week. I can take you. I don’t mind waiting. I have PTO build up at work. This won’t be as bad as it seems, John. Isn’t that true with most things? How we conjure up events or appointments more intense than they really are?”

I nodded yes.

“If you call I might answer,” I said.

“It’s going to be okay.”

“I pretend this is a bad roller coaster that I’m on and it will end soon.”

“I gotta run,” she said. “Need to pick up Sophie from Pre-K.”

“Bye, Janet.”

Sophie was Janet’s five-year-old girl. She and Phil had adopted. Janet hasn’t discussed Phil that much and if he’s impotent, but every time I hear Janet call out her daughter’s name, it makes me think about it and then I laugh to myself.

I went inside and turned on the television, the horrid news events and something BREAKING about Donald Trump and his advisors taking military action in the Middle East (after the big attack). I took in a gulp of orange Gatorade and it clinched my thirst and worries of the day. I made a turkey sandwich on wheat and eased into the recliner and flipped through the channels. First memories: I glanced down the hall and I looked for Mom’s shadow, her giant head lingering through the doorway, making sure that I was all right. It had to be her, or maybe I had just dozed off and my brain playing tricks on me.

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