Wednesday, April 06, 2011

"What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Death?"

By Devin Cholodenko

Although the sky was overcast and grey outside, the light coming through the window seemed bright. It illuminated the chestnut desk, which held the television, and the dull brown carpet next to the armchair where Claire sat, slender and frail.

The television glowed, the only illuminating object in the gloomy room.

On a small dark table beside Claire sat a small glass filled halfway with liquid, amber in color, which she sipped every now and then. She always swallowed slowly.

Sitting at her other side, on the orange faded couch, was Claire’s father, a large rotund bearded man. Every now and then, about twice as often as Claire’s sipping, he leaned forward to the coffee table, a large slab of glass supported by a wooden frame, and sputtered saliva-mashed chewing tobacco into a white paper cup.

The television was louder during commercial breaks. Claire continued the conversation, yelling to overcome both the television’s noise and her father’s poor hearing.

“The doctor gave him two months maybe three, and that was a month ago,” she said to her father.

Although she talked loudly, Claire’s voice was limp with drunkenness and passivity as if she was only watching herself talk, rather than choosing and speaking words.

“It’s a shame. Well what do doctors know anyways? I was watching this program last night that had a guy who the doctors told him he was going to die in a year but he’s been going for ten…miracles can happen,” she mused, uninspired.

“How’s Jackie taking it?” asked Claries father.

“Well John hasn’t been so great to him. Last time he was giving Jackie a hard time about missing that catch at the big game last year. He upset Jackie pretty bad.”

“That was a horrible play,” Claire’s father muttered agreeably.

“But it was a whole year ago.”

“You’re absolutely right Claire. I think Jackie had enough a hard time with it, with not getting invited back on the team this year and all. It’s a hard thing letting your team down. I knew a guy who missed a catch back in—“

“Dad I’m really not in the mood for listening to you relive the glory days of your sports youth…”

“It was only…it was relevant,” he protested.

“This isn’t the time for that.”

“What time is it for then, what do we talk about?”

When the commercials ended, both Claire and her father’s heads moved smoothly to fix on the glowing screen. The light from the window had moved slightly—it now illuminated Claire’s hand, which rested on the armrest of the armchair. Her hand was heavily veined, the blue streaks showing slightly through pale and loose skin.

Footsteps gave them both warning of Jack’s return from school, and yet neither of them moved an inch. Their eyes were stuck to the screen. The front door creaked and Jack entered through the foyer.

“Honey how was school?” Claire asked in a flat voice.

“Good. Hi grandpa,” Jack muttered before going to his room at the other side of the house.

A new set of commercials came on the television.

“Have you told him yet?” Claire’s father muttered under his breath to her.

“No I haven’t,” she said quietly.

“What?” He cupped a wrinkled hand to his ear.

She shook her head at first violently, to communicate with her father, and then slower, to herself. Jack entered the room.

“What’s on TV?” he asked.

“Nothing, just some program.”

Jack sat on the far side of the couch, fiddling with his fingers. He looked like a ghost in the flickering light of the television. A weight loss commercial was playing loudly on the television.

LOOOOSE 20 POUNDS IN JUST 5 DAYS, THAT’S RIGHT, ONLY 5 DAYS, with the top secret PROMAX formula…

After some silence Jack turned to his mother, “Are we going to the hospital to visit Dad today?”

Our secret PROMAX formula maximizes your protein receptors to full capacity, virtually effortless…

“Yes hon,” Claire answered lifelessly.

20 Pounds in just 5 DAYs! Our secret formula will hyper-boost your metabolism. You don’t have to do a thing; weight loss is effortless with the secret PROMAX formula. One easy payment of—

“Is Dad gonna die?”

Side effects may contain headache, nausea, diarrhea, abdominal pain, over productive sweat glands, unwanted facial hair, temporary paralysis…

She answered him quickly, “Honey! Don’t say that! Your father’s going to be absolutely fine. The doctors are just giving him special vitamins that are only at the hospital. They say he’ll be out very soon. Don’t say such things! Don’t be so ridiculous!”

Her voice had changed from limp to sharp, full of derision and life. She lifted herself from the armchair quickly and floated to the kitchen.

Consult a certified physician if you have thoughts of harming yourself or considerations of suicide. Call now to get two PROMAX supplement kits for the price of one! A limited number of customers will receive this incredible offer! Call now the lines are open! Don’t wait and get left behind. 20 Pounds in just 5 days with PROMAX, an easy solution…

In the kitchen Claire began to scrub at an already sparkling stove. Jack’s grandfather muttered inaudibly while he turned the volume of the television slightly down. He looked at Jack for a few seconds and then back to the television.

“Jackie do you know what you want to be when you grow up?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well you’ve got to choose something that you can make money at. It doesn’t matter what the job is or if it matters or anything like that. You need to make the bills Jackie. You understand?”

“Yes grandpa.”

“It doesn’t matter. You could do anything…as long as you make money. Be a chiropractor, they make tons of money. Yeah, a chiropractor. Do they need a degree? They make a lot of money. Take out a loan for chiropractor school. You won’t regret it. When you have money you can do things. You might slave through the week and all. But on the weekend, you take your boat out, or anything, you go fishing. You go to the Bahamas. You go to Hawaii. You go to the roller coasters. You understand?

Jack nodded.

“Having money is what matters. It’s magical. It’s just paper, but it can do anything. Anything you want for a piece of paper. It’s magic. Whoever came up with money was a genius. I used to have this 54’ corvette. I saved and saved for that. But it was worth it. Flying around in that beautiful car…I don’t think I ever loved anything more than that car. It had this bright cherry red finish and when you hit the gas it just purred. It was a convertible too. Used to go down to the beach in it. Course I had to sell it when your mother went to college…”

“Mom can you bring me some water?” Jack called into the kitchen.

Claire floated from the kitchen with a glass of water for Jack. She had scrubbed all the surfaces in the kitchen and now she dusted all the surfaces in the television room, although the room didn’t need dusting. It was gloomier now that the sun had gone down. They could only see by the light of the television. Jack took a hurried gulp of the water and set the glass down on the coffee table.


She lunged toward the glass but Jack had already picked it up off the table.

“I’m sorry! I’m sorry!”

“Oh God there’s going to be a ring. There’s going to be a ring!!” Claire shrieked in pain.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know what I was thinking, I’m sorry!” Jack pleaded.

“Why do you do this to me? Why? You know you can’t put a wet glass on wood Jack. Why did you do it? Why?”

“I don’t know, I’m sorry, I forgot.”

“YOU FORGOT?” She ran to the kitchen to get paper towels. She banged the cabinets theatrically. As she dried the tiny ring of water on the wood of the coffee table Jack said, “Mom, I’m so sorry, I don’t know why I did it, I’m sorry, I forgot.”

Claire had regained control, her pensive voice returning.

“Honey, you don’t put water on wood. It’s just not something you do. Please think before you put your glass down.” She spoke soothingly now.

“I will, I will. I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay honey, I don’t think there’s going to be a ring. I got to it quickly enough.” Claire smiled at him.

She returned to the kitchen to throw out the one paper towel she had used and came back to the television room, slumping into her armchair with a sigh. Jack’s grandfather had pretended not to notice the scene which had just taken place. He remained on the couch acting as though nothing had even happened. All three of them stared at the television screen.

Jack turned to his mother. “Mom, do we have to go to the hospital today? Can’t we go another time?”

“No honey, we’re going today, actually we’re going to leave in a few minutes.”

“But Dad’s going to be fine you said so. I’ll see him when he gets out.”

“Yes he’s going to be fine,” she answered swiftly and added, “but we are going to go see him soon. Do you have to get ready? Do you have to go to the bathroom?”

“But I don’t want to see him,” Jack muttered.

“Honey! Don’t say things like that! Why don’t you want to see your father? He’s in the hospital, you have to go see him.”

After several seconds of silence Jack said in a whiny voice, “My stomach hurts. I’m can’t go. I’m sick.”

“Honey, you’ve got to go it’s really important that you go.”

“I can’t go, I’m sick,” Jack whined.

“How about we go to the mall afterwards and I’ll buy you something. Anything you like—under 20 dollars though, I’m not made of money.”

“Can’t we just skip the hospital and go to the mall?”

“No, honey, we can’t do that.” Claire spoke just above a whisper.

“Okay I guess I can go. The stomach ache isn’t too bad,” Jack said softly.

At the mention of the mall Claire’s father got excited and turned to Jackie, “Ok, Jackie, you better think about what you’re gonna get at the mall! Maybe a toy? What are you gonna buy? Try to buy something that lasts.”

Devin Cholodenko is a senior at the University at Albany, SUNY, majoring in Journalism. He will graduate next month.

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