The wing where my mother lives has a strong shit smell, stronger than the rest of the nursing home for some reason, and I lightly place one finger under my nose so that I only smell the sharp artificial lemon scent of hand sanitizer. I try to look sort of casually pensive and not like I’m blocking stench, reminding myself that if this were a few centuries ago, everything would smell like shit all the time. Also my mother would be kept in a cage or possibly she would have been accused of witchcraft, so instead of visiting her in a nursing home I would be going to her hanging, which would still smell like shit and without the notes of bleach and meatloaf.
It’s important to keep things in perspective.
I find my mother at a table in the dining room. Lately I’ve been visiting at meal times, that being the only time I can count on her being awake. I pull up a chair next to her and perch on the edge. I stopped sitting all the way back in the nursing home chairs the day I sat in urine. There’s a small man across the table from her wearing a Duck Dynasty t-shirt and an epilepsy helmet, and I tell him hello before turning to my mother to ask how she is feeling, if anything hurts.
“No,” she says. “I’m just tired. So do you have a key to this place?”
“The apartment we’re going to look at. Do you have the key?”
“Is someone going to let us in?”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know you’d want to go tonight. You’ve got a room here just down the hall. I thought maybe you could stay here just for tonight.” I present this as a novelty, an adventure.
“Well, that might be a good idea,” she says. “I am pretty tired.”
My mother is struggling with the zipper of her cardigan, and I reach over and refit the pieces so it zips correctly.
“You’re like my wife,” says Duck Dynasty. “I’ll be fighting and cussing with something, she’ll just reach over and – ” he twiddles his fingers in demonstration. “I used to tell people, I’m the wife, she’s the husband. You ask my kids who you want to cook tonight, they’ll say Dad. My wife doesn’t cook as much. I learned from my mother, my grandmother.”
“Well, that’s an important skill,” I say politely. I turn back to my mother, but turn back when he keeps talking.
“We were married forty-seven years when she died. Half of it legal. Her dad said he never knew a man wanted to take on a woman with one and a half kids. I went to make love and wound up staying forty years.”
“Ah,” I say. “Well.” I consider offering condolences, but the moment has passed.
“My name’s Don,” he says. “Everyone calls me Don. I got twenty nieces and nephews, they call me Don. They say Uncle Don, I know they want something.”
I smile and again turn to my mother.
“So how – “
“My mother didn’t care for my wife,” Don says, and I swivel back around. “Not before we were married. After we were married, she said, Take care of my baby. Because I was the youngest. But she blamed my wife for everything. I say we were both to blame equally. Let me ask you something.” He points a finger at me. “We make love” – I blink, startled – “who gets stuck with the baby? I leave, you get stuck.”
“I suppose that’s – “
“I married a woman with one and a half kids. One day a woman I know from New Mexico calls, talks to my wife. I come home, my wife says, do you know this woman? I say yes. She says, well you got two sons by her. I say, they must be twins, I didn’t know her that long. But whose fault is it? I was in the phone book!” He says this with humor, so I smile again.
“I worked for the carnival for twenty years,” Don is saying. “People ask why I didn’t quit, I tell ‘em ‘Why would I quit? I get to go on the rides free!’ Some nights I make five hundred dollars, I get to keep a hundred of that. But some nights you make nothing.”
“The only thing my mother never taught me, she never taught me about sex.” The last word is whispered behind his hand. I examine a spot on the table and try to think of a way to change the subject. I didn’t sleep well last night, and the bus was crowded, and it’s just not a good day for me to have a conversation about sex education with a retired carny.
“I got married, I learned some that way,” he continues. “My daughter, when she started growing” – he indicates his own chest – “I sat her down, told her, ‘This is what boys will want from you. This is what you need to do.’”
My mother has heard none of this.
“I don’t know where the car is,” she tells me, and I’m relieved to turn back to her.
“You lent it to us,” I say, which is true except that she gave it to us outright when she started having trouble driving. “We can bring it back whenever you like.”
“Well, I don’t suppose I need it now. I just wanted to know where it was.”
“My son – stepson, really, but he calls me his dad, not his stepdad – he and his wife are drug addicts. I told ‘em to come stay with me, they didn’t have nothing. Put them in one bedroom. They shoved a towel under the door. I go outside to the window, they got the window wide open –“ a two-handed gesture “- and they’re – ” he mimes smoking a joint. “I told them, you got money for that, you got money to get your own place. They left, never seent ‘em again. Except at their mother’s funeral.”
“Oh, my,” I say. “That is hard.”
“You spend a hundred dollars on that, you can afford your own place.”
A hundred dollars seems high to me, but of course, I don’t know the amount of weed we’re talking about.
He’s wound down again, and they’ve started serving dinner.
“What is that?” He points at a pool of green on a passing plate. “I don’t want that.”
With Don distracted, I can finally talk to my mother.
“Where is this place?” my mother asks me.
“Not too far away,” I improvise.
“Good. I wouldn’t want to be too far from Napoleon Avenue. That way Mama can visit on the bus.”
“Oh, that’ll be nice.”