By Jon Wesick
It’s a town of trailer parks, shopping malls, and not much else. I exit the interstate, cross the overpass, and pull a U turn to get to the sushi bar. The staff speaks Korean, not Japanese, but the sushi’s not bad. I order a rainbow roll and something else with eel, fried shrimp, and a drizzle of mayo. The green tea tastes of spinach water and the rolls are wide as my wrist. With red tuna and green avocado, the rainbow roll wishes me a Merry Christmas in August. The tradition is my polite way to refuse Karen’s lunch invitation. My mother’s caretaker cooks filet mignon but mom suffered with C. diff for months and I don’t want a stubborn case of diarrhea. With her decades of nursing, Karen has a titanium intestinal tract. I don’t. During the year I worked in a cancer ward, I spent a quarter of my time with one case of crud after another.
After paying, I drive east toward jagged peaks of brown and tan, turn onto a back street, and park on a dirt driveway. The glass door slides open. Annie the dog rushes through the gap and runs barking in circles to announce my arrival. She’s knee high and has curly, blue-gray fur. After a belly rub, she runs inside.
“How was the drive?” Karen asks. She’s in her sixties, has a heart condition, and saved my mother from a nursing home. “Did you stop for sushi?”
“Yeah, I had the Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon roll.”
We pass through a living room that smells of cigarette smoke.
“Jon’s here! Jon’s here!” Annie barks in the back room where mom lies in a bed, she’s hasn’t left in three years.
The stroke left one side of her mouth downturned in a permanent frown. Gravy stains her bib and Concord-grape-colored bruises mottle the arms that stick out of her sack-like nightgown. Despite a valiant effort, the air conditioner struggles against the hundred-ten-degree heat. Honey the cat, perches atop the TV. Sometimes she’ll sit on my lap, her sharp claws puncturing the fabric of my slacks.
“Hi, mom. How’s it going?”
“Okay.” She struggles to get this word out.
“I brought a few stories by Lorrie Moore.” I sit by her bed and began to read.
I don’t know what else to do. Neither of us are nostalgic enough to relive the past so I read stories by my favorite writers – Kelly Link, Jim Shepherd, Aimee Bender, and Ron Carlson. After thirty pages my voice grows hoarse.
I toss a squeaky toy for Annie the dog. When she brings it back, we play tug of war even though Karen asked me to be careful of Annie’s hurt neck. The dog’s injury required laser treatments but even with a Ph.D. in physics I don’t understand how they’re supposed to work. Annie pulls at the toy with such enthusiasm that I don’t hold back. The dog loves it and it makes my mom laugh.
“Hey mom, want me to hire some male strippers for your birthday?”
“Oh, if you want to, Jon,” her voice quavers. My mother will be ninety-four in December. The last few years sucked but she’d lived on her own until age ninety-one.
After finishing another story, I say goodbye. The smell of alcohol fills the car as I dose my hands with sanitizer. I buy a latte at Starbucks, turn on Prairie Home Companion, and get on I-8 going west. Across from the RV park and the last public restroom for miles, dune buggies drive up and down sandy hills. Past irrigation canals that flow through fields of lettuce, miles of sand separated from the road by wire fence surround the highway. I see a cell phone tower wrapped with brown tape and topped with plastic to disguise it as a palm tree.
Past the Chevron station at Ocotillo, white windmills stand like monster robots as I-8 climbs into the hills. Boulders the size of freight cars surround the interstate as if thrown in a giant’s temper tantrum. The radio cuts out in the middle of Guy Noir and I tune to a Mexican station playing mariachi music. It’s either that, top 40, or some preacher’s diatribe. There’s a tower I never stopped at and a cistern of undrinkable water to cool overheated radiators. Across the road on the downgrade, a ramp provides escape for runaway trucks. I once stayed at a desert motel that had hot springs but won’t tonight.
Past Alpine, I-8 widens around El Cajon and fills up with city traffic. The radio is back so I turn to Swamy Sound System and listen to punk rock as I pass shopping centers, SDSU, and a deli I always wanted to try. I thread my way to the right lane to get on I-805 north. By the children’s hospital, I remember driving back from Pamela’s place in City Heights. My wrists were wrecked, I was out of a job, and doubted I’d ever work again. I merge onto I-5 and the last miles drag. Del Mar Heights, Villa del la Valle, Lomas Santa Fe. I take Manchester to the Coast Highway that parallels the Pacific. Even though I’ve lived here for twenty years, life is fickle and I won’t be able to view the best ocean forever. Spending a precious day of rest out of a full-time schedule of eleven-hour work days is tedious but I’m lucky. All I have to do is pay the bills and make like Jay Leno. I don’t know how other caretakers do it. When I reach my mother’s age, there will be no wife or even unworthy children to look after me. I take Tamarack to my apartment complex on Harding, park in space C, and trudge up the stairs, ready for a hot shower and several beers. I’ll never hire the male strippers.
* * *
Jon Wesick is a regional editor of the San Diego Poetry Annual. He’s published hundreds of poems and stories in journals such as the Atlanta Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, New Verse News, Paterson Literary Review, Pearl, Pirene’s Fountain, Slipstream, Space and Time, and Tales of the Talisman. His most recent books are The Shaman in the Library and The Prague Deception. http://jonwesick.com