I'M DEAD

Jay Prefontaine

Aunt Rose opens the door and looks at me as if she were expecting someone else, or at least not me dressed in dirty work clothes. She takes care of Mazie but I don’t care what she thinks. I can smell the booze from here. Rose takes my hand in both of hers and shakes, jiggling the fat under her arms where her triceps used to be. She never hugs. “I’m here, Aunt Rose,” I say, opening my arms like a priest inviting everyone to rise.

“Uncle Buster’s in the cellar,” she says.

“How’s Mazie?” I ask. Nobody calls her Crazy Mazie anymore. Aunt Rose doesn’t answer me because she has her eyes on her younger sister coming sideways down the stairs with both hands on the banister. The last time I saw Mazie all her hair had fallen out and her wig was matted in the back. She rarely comes downstairs. Rose will go up and down but Mazie never needs anything. All day long this goes on.

“Hi, Maze,” I say when she finally reaches the bottom. I’ve never called her aunt.

“Hi, ha-nee,” she says like somebody is pinching her tongue. She is stooped, one of her cheeks sucked from the inside. I try not to stare. She shuffles toward me, her arms outstretched.

I’m ashamed I can’t say anything else.

She closes her eyes well before we hug and I do the same. I smell her dying through heavy perfume and hold my breath, staying with the hug. We both know why I’m here. When her hand slips into my back pocket I smile. She’s been doing that since the day in the parking garage when we needed a dime to phone my mom to come pick us up after we’d been robbed at gunpoint. She knelt in front of me and said, “Stick ‘em up!” and with hands raised above my head I laughed and cried at the same time.

She pulls away and motions for me to follow her into the living room. The back of her thin pink and gray checkered bathrobe is crisscrossed with wrinkles.

I haven’t seen Mazie in a bathrobe since the seventh grade when all three families crammed into our cottage on Cape Cod. Mazie had curlers in her hair and slept in her bathrobe on the floor in the living room with my cousin Arthur and me so she wouldn’t wake Uncle Buster. At three a.m. we rose and ate Frosted Flakes in the dark. “Goddamn fish are still sleeping for Christ’s sake,” she said. We laughed. And later after she dropped us off at Ellis Pond she turned the car around in somebody’s front lawn, yelling out the window with a cigarette dangling from her grin that we had better catch her some lunch. Both Arthur and I yelled, “Bye, Crazy Mazie!”

Aunt Rose hands me a tall glass of Coke, smiling like a stewardess. The three of us take our places around the glass coffee table. I sit next to Mazie. Aunt Rose sips her highball, her cigarettes and a bowl of assorted nuts within reach. My mother told me that Aunt Rose has been smoking in the garage so she won’t tease Mazie.

“Aves thum,” Mazie says, motioning to the bowl, trying to be the hostess. She says something else but her words slur into each other. I don’t understand, so I look across the table at Aunt Rose.

“Did your mother give you the paprika?”

“What?” I look at Mazie.

“Paprika, paprika,” Aunt Rose says, glancing at her sister as she speaks. They both seem preoccupied, as if they have a plan, especially Aunt Rose. “I’m making oyster stew for Buster. Told her to send along some paprika.”

Mazie cups her hands over her knees and tries to rock away her desire to speak. “Gethum neka doah,” she says. I just nod. This visit was a mistake. Why put her through this? I glance at Aunt Rose again. “Use your pad, dear,” Rose says to Mazie. Mazie leans over the table with a pencil in her fist. Rose can’t even look at me. When she does, her eyes look right through mine. “You always were the thoughtless one, Teddy-boy.” Mazie tears the page out and hands it to Rose. Then to me she writes: HOW’S MUM?

“Good…good,” I say. I finally take a closer look at her.

The whole side of her jaw is missing; they sawed it out. The scars spread onto her neck like a web. The tumor was a baseball and they cut and cut and still couldn’t get it all.

“I talked to her last night,” Aunt Rose says, crumpling the piece of paper in her fist. “You were working.”

I nod. Mazie refuses to talk on the telephone anymore. She cracks a niggertoe and hands me the heart of it, making it okay for me to eat even though she can’t. I want to thank her but can’t find the words.

She used to love the telephone, talked to my mother constantly. As a kid whenever I walked through the kitchen my mother handed me the phone, and Mazie would tell me something stupid or funny Buster had done or about her grouchy next door neighbor with all the cats, anything, as long as she made me laugh. I wish I could make her laugh.

“Would’ve just skipped the damn paprika but your mother says no, no. . .”

For the first time in my life I hate Aunt Rose’s guts.

When I hear Uncle Buster coughing in the basement, I wonder if he even knows I’m here. He’s sitting in his recliner in front of a football game, thick Boston Globe in his lap, glass of gin on the end table. Uncle Buster has always spent his Sundays this way but lately he’s down there all the time.

Mazie pushes a plateful of shucked pecans across the table to her sister, who takes one and slides the plate to me.

“Thanks,” I say. I take two and push the plate to Mazie, forgetting that she can’t swallow, that she’s been tube feeding for nearly two months now. But I keep pushing, scraping the plate on glass, pretending to be moving it to a better spot. I think again of that early morning on Cape Cod, Mazie saying in the dark, “Can’t even see these friggin’ flakes,” all of us laughing.

Mazie looks at me and writes: I HATE NUTS ANYWAY. She touches my knee.

Uncle Buster yells from the basement, “Oh, Jesus…Grogan! You ol’ war horse!”

“How does it feel not being able to swallow?” The words are in the air before I can stop them.

Mazie bends over the table and writes.

Aunt Rose stands, almost spilling her highball. She goes to the window and pretends to see something outside.

Mazie pushes the pad toward me: I COULD GO FOR A JUICY STEAK! There are tears welled in her eyes and a croupy gurgle in her chest.

“Let me get you some more Coke, Teddy-boy,” Rose says. I still have half a glass but she takes it from my hand and walks out of the living room.

I slide closer to Mazie. “How long can you not eat for? I thought they said it wouldn’t be for this long.”

Mazie is looking at me. She blinks. She shrugs her shoulders. She looks down at her pad. She doesn’t write anything. The goddamn weight of what’s not being said suffocates me.

“Did you ever tell anyone about my nights in jail?”

In high school I was arrested twice and Mazie bailed me out of the Worcester Police Station both times and never let me pay her back and never mentioned either incident again.

She writes: ONLY BUSTER. She tries to speak, shakes her head, pointing at her throat, frustrated.

“Must be a pain in the ass.”

She nods. “Pay in nee assth,” she says. Then she says, “I cuh uusth ah thiga-ette.” She taps two fingers to her almost puckered lips.

“Me, too, Maze. Me, too.” I don’t smoke in front of family anymore. Too much stress, all things considered. I haven’t heard her say the word cigarette in about two years, after they found the first spec on her right tonsil. She fought quitting for the longest time; my mother suspects she still smokes somehow. My mother says things like, “Hammers those coffin nails into her mouth.”

“You can’t trust them,” Rose says, coming at me with a smirk on her face and glass of soda in her hand, ice cubes rattling.

“Who?” I ask, annoyed.

“Doctors.”

“Why not?”

“Christ, they lied to your grandfather.”

Rose is so full of shit.

Hands on her knees again, Mazie rocks back and forth. She starts to mumble something but stops, staring down through the glass coffee table at my feet.

“He didn’t have any more in him than I do,” Aunt Rose says. She could never in a million years say the C-word.

I sip my Coke and glance at Mazie. I’m expecting her to roll her eyes at me. I want her to wink but she doesn’t. I remember us in a restaurant about two years ago after she’d had a “radical neck” where they take lymph nodes out to test them. Her throat was raw. She laughed some but after a while she put her hand to her neck and said, “Friggin’ throat is killy me. Feels like they used this steak knife to scrape it for Christ’s sake.” She was waving the knife in the air and people in the restaurant stared. Crazy Mazie didn’t care. On the way out, the maitre d’ complimented her dress. Mazie reached up and kissed him smack on the lips, turned to me, and said, “He tongued me!” The guy didn’t know what to say. We laughed all the way to the car.

“They’re all crooked,” Rose says.

“Grampa’s was from smoking,” I say.

Mazie looks out the window.

“I hate them,” Rose says, as if I haven’t spoken. “Always will.”

“He even admitted it,” I say.

“Every last one of them, I hate them all.”

“Who, Aunt Rose?” I say. “Who do you hate?”

Mazie is looking at her sister now as if they have a secret.

“Dogs, cats, balloons, sex, and the whole damned medical profession,” Rose says, forcing a giggle. She picks up her drink.

Mazie chimes in with a fake chuckle followed by a deep wheezy inhaling. She doesn’t think Rose is funny. Rose takes a long satisfying swig like she’s been waiting all week to utter that line.

“Dogs smell and carry fleas that lay eggs in my rugs. Cats… you ask your mother or your Aunt Mazie why I hate cats.”

Mazie gawks at her older sister like she’s saying something worth listening to.

“Can’t stand the sound of a balloon deflating,” Aunt Rose says. “Just can’t.”

I sip my Coke and wish Uncle Buster would call me downstairs. Mazie’s neck looks fine on her left side but she has lost so much weight I hardly recognize her. I want to scream and jack Aunt Rose in the face.

“When you talk to your mother,” she says, pulling herself off the couch, “tell her I’m not even taking the oysters out of the freezer till I have the paprika. No sense,” she says, walking down the hallway toward the bathroom. Mazie and I look at each another.

“Aunt Rose,” I say, shaking my head. I feel like such a wimp saying that. I want to say, “This fucking woman is torturing you! You’re better off alone!”

Mazie bends to the table and writes: HOW ARE THINGS?

“Well, I’m not bankrupt yet.”

“Ahm pwoud uv you.” Mazie rubs the top of my hand. The room is chilly.
I can barely understand her. I want to sand her voice down to a fine touch and paint it glossy white so her words will flow smoothly and sound like the woman I grew up with.

“I still have the cards you used to send me.” I am referring to the long narrow dirty joke cards I used to find in my mailbox at Assumption. She’d get a kick out of how I’d write her back detailing how I spent her money. After I drank myself out of college just about the only thing in my life that didn’t change were those cards.

She slides over and leans into me and I smell her. I hug around her bony shoulders and feel ribs between my fingers. I can’t speak or remember what I was going to say. Her hair is a crew cut but as soft as feathers against my cheek. She couldn’t wait to grow her own hair back. I touch the top of her head, caress down to the back of her neck. I think as long as I have her against me like this she can’t die.

“I still can’t believe you kissed that maitre d’.” I’m remembering her spontaneity, how fully she lived every moment. “Remember what you told me about my girlfriend that night? ‘Sit down with her and get at what’s really wrong.’ And you said that if I couldn’t be honest with her then I shouldn’t bother with any of it.” As I finish my sentence Mazie is speaking into my shoulder, sobbing slurred speech, something about me and my mother and Florida. The more she cries the less I understand. She shakes her head into my shoulder and chest.

“I want to talk, really. Tell me.”

Her head lifts as if she is about to speak.

Aunt Rose shouts down the hallway, “Goddamit, if I had that paprika soup’d be finished by now.”

Mazie slips away to her original spot on the couch.

Rose stops in front of us and puts her hands on her hips. “Just wish I had that soup done so I wouldn’t have to worry.” Her grin is torturous.
I announce that I have to go to the bathroom. As I’m walking by the basement stairs I yell “Hey, you got a final score on that game yet?”

“Heyyy, Ted,” Buster shouts. “C’mere.”

I’m not halfway down when the heat hits me. Leaning out of his recliner, Uncle Buster shakes my hand, big puffy palm and sausage fingers. No drink for me, I tell him. Got a coke upstairs. His large bald head is the color of a boiled lobster. The TV is off. The woodstove’s belly is open, the luminous orange innards nearly pulling me into a trance and I hear us all when we were kids—me, my sisters, my cousins—yelling and racing around from one side of the basement to the other. We wanted to play forever.

“Grogan start?” I ask.

“Shoulder operations, knees like corkscrews, neck brace, doesn’t matter. He gets the job done. You can’t put the man down.”

Uncle Buster has spent a thousand years down here. If the game was on right now he wouldn’t even be talking to me. “Who’d they play, Dallas?”
Buster nods slowly at the blank screen. “Beat ‘em, too,” he says.

“I fuckin hate Dallas,” I say, staring at the side of his head.

“So how’s the new business?” He shows me his bloodshot eyes and points to the other chair.

“Good,” I say. I sit. “Spent the day pulling up floorboards in some lady’s kitchen. Fucking termites.”

“Tenacious little fuckers, huh?” Buster says.

“They get in something, it’s a scary bitch to get them out. Ate up everything.” I lean back in my chair. The wooden arms are warm.

Uncle Buster puts a good size piece of lime in his mouth. “She’s not good, Ted.” He chews the lime.

“Lost a lot of weight,” I say.

He nods, looks at his drink. “Fifty-seven pounds,” he says. “But you look good . . . look healthy.”

Lime flashes in his mouth. Then he chews and I taste the tartness. On the other side of him against the wall, the fish tank gurgles. I don’t see any fish, just bubbles rising.


“That tank was full of fish when it was in the living room,” I say. “All different colors.”

My uncle stares at the fish tank too. “I love those fat black ones with the bulbous eyes.” He shakes his head. “Take the dirty pebbles in their mouths, spit them back out clean.”

We watch the bubbles rise in the boiling water.

“Welp,” he says. He spits the rind in his hand and makes a fist. “You get used to it.”

“Looks like you’re moving in down here,” I say. “All this stuff, the good TV.”

“You sure you don’t want a drink?”

“Why not,” I say.

He pulls a bottle of Gordon’s from the floor on the other side of his chair. I go to the bar with his glass and get myself one and fill them both with ice. He pours.

“Her sister wants to take care of her,” he says.

“Rose?” I say loudly.

He takes the thick newspaper off his lap and plops it on the floor, crosses his legs.

“She acts like they’re having a chat in the park up there.” I swig my gin to shut myself up.

“Nothing you can do to change Rose,” he says.

I inspect my drink.

“Glad you came, Ted. Rose’s oyster stew will be worth it.”

“She needs paprika. I was supposed to bring it.” I listen to the fish tank and stare at the dull screen of the TV, expecting voices.

“More she fights, more she suffers,” Uncle Buster says. He drops the lime in his glass.

“I wish I could tell her it’s all right,” I say, and then almost as an afterthought I say, “To let go, you know?”

Uncle Buster swigs his gin, his jaw clenched.

He has given up.

“Don’t go upsetting your aunts, Teddy.”

We sit there in the silence and in the heat and I gaze at the serious expression on the bust of J.F.K. on top of the TV. I think of Mazie laughing, all teeth and swatting me as if to say make it stop. Buster asks me if I want more gin, and I say no. The dark screen of the TV reflects two men in chairs. “I should tell her.”

“Just say goodnight, Ted.”

“Goodnight? What the hell is goodnight?”

“It’s time for your aunt to eat,” he says. “Don’t go making things worse.”

“I’m not,” I say, like a kid.

After a minute, Buster clears his throat. “Hey, Ted, why don’t you go up and say goodnight. Go ahead,” he says. “I’ll be right up.”

Upstairs I take a deep breath of the cooler, thinner air. The living room is empty and I feel like I’m trapped on an island. I see Rose in the kitchen and go to use the upstairs bathroom. I shut and lock the door. Another door adjoining the bathroom to Mazie and Buster’s bedroom is ajar. I tap twice but hear nothing and before I can talk myself out of it I push the door open.

Mazie sits hunched like an old lady on the edge of the bed with her back to me. The shades are drawn and a reading lamp on the nightstand lights the room a creamy brown. She holds a plastic bottle in front of her. A skinny transparent tube connects this bottle to somewhere in her mid-section.

“Sorry,” I say. “I didn’t know you had started.”

She doesn’t move so I walk toward her, waiting for her to halt me. She holds the bottle in one hand; her other hand rests on the bed. When I get close she points to her pad and pencil on the nightstand. I hand them to her. Yellow liquid slides through the tube.

Mazie puts the pad on the bed and writes: ITS OKAY.

I spy, out of the corner of my eye, the tube leading into her stomach.

She tears off the page and leaves it turned over on the bed. “Sih don,” she says, patting the bed next to her. I sit. I’m scared. I love her.

She writes: IT SUCKS.

“What sucks?”

THE TUMOR.

“Sorry.”

DON’T BE.

She looks at the bottle in front of her.

“How does it work?”

GRAVITY.

Then she says, “Shlow, vewee shhlow.” She rolls her eyes and tries to smile but turns away instead.

After some silence I say, “You’re not doing too good are you?”

Mazie’s eyes have filled up but she refuses to blink. I’M DEAD.

She lets the pencil slip out of her hand onto the floor. My only move is toget the pencil and as I’m bent over I want to disappear.

Mazie has pulled the tube out of her stomach and is holding it out in front of her. Yellow liquid spills all over the rug. I move closer as she leans forward and slides a bedpan out from under the bed. She drops everything into it. A smaller piece of tubing juts out of her stomach and drips like a spigot.

“Geh ah owull,” Mazie says.

“Towel? Where?”

“Clawzih,” she says.

“Bathroom closet?” I ask.

She nods, still exposed.

“Okay,” I say, feeling lighter now that I’m a few feet away. “One towel coming up.” I watch her expression; it doesn’t change.

I pull the bathroom door closed behind me. It’s when I lean in and reach back over the face cloths to grab a hand towel that I see it in the back corner behind a stack of bath towels: an ashtray. A small golden brown glass ashtray with a half-dozen cigarette butts lying like tiny elbows in a bed of ashes. Next to the ashtray, a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. On the way out I avoid looking at myself in the mirror.

She doesn’t look up at first but as I approach the bed her eyes go straight to what I have in my hands. I hand her the cigs. She guides them into her lap, never taking her eyes off me.

I spread the towel on the rug and step on it a few times. “Let’s have one,” I say and I go over and lock both doors. I tug one of the shades and it flies up out of my hand with a snap. Through the window down in the backyard I am in the pool splashing water onto the deck where Mazie reclines in a bikini trying to enjoy her smoke. I open the window and we disappear. It is dusk.

Mazie is crying openly but softly, the ashtray cupped in her hands, the feeding apparatus at her feet.

I take a cigarette from the pack and light it. I don’t cough like I did in junior high when I used to light them for her when nobody was looking. After watching me for a few drags she picks up the pack and raises it to her mouth. When she lowers the pack, a cigarette dangles from her lips.
Her mouth, more on the side of her face than in the front, has little trouble holding the cigarette while I light it for her. The room fills with smoke. We look at each other without talking and in that moment there’s nobody and nothing here but us. We both grin.

“I love smoking,” I say. Smoke twirls between our faces. “Me too,” she says.

After we finish, Crazy Mazie hides the ashtray in her nightstand drawer. She wraps her robe tightly and stands up straight and tall. She hugs me, kisses me twice on each cheek. I’m worried about squeezing her too tight when I feel it, the hand in my back pocket. She stretches to my ear and whispers, “Hank you.”

As I leave the bedroom I want to make myself turn back for a final look but the thought scares me so I don’t.

The stairwell is filled with a loud whining that comes from the kitchen. In the living room, Buster beams, his cheeks florid with gin. I walk straight up to him and wrap him in a bear hug, pinning both arms to his sides.
“You made it,” I say.

Rose is at the counter with her back to us.

“Goodbye Ted,” Buster says and he twists his neck toward the kitchen.

I kiss his cheek for the first time in my life.

“Find any paprika?” I shout.

Rose switches off the electric beater. Buster and I wait. She finally says, “Beating eggs for a three-layered cake” and turns the small appliance back on.

Outside in the cool air a man walks his dog. He stops on the sidewalk next to my truck. High above, a sliver of moon dangles in the black sky. Traffic hums in the distance. I am walking down the driveway and waiting for him to see me so I can say something important. I pat my pockets for the keys and feel a lump. I pull out Mazie’s half-crumpled pack of cigarettes as the man picks his head up.

“What kind of dog is that?” I ask, and he tells me.



© Jay Prefontaine
"I'm Dead" was previously published in Agora Magazine
and will soon appear in the North Dakota Review.

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