Billy put the journal back into his bag, packed up his things, waved goodbye to his cousin, said “peace out, Greggy-boy,” and hopped into his ’98 Nissan Altima.
He drove a little over an hour west to Frederick, in central Maryland, to the nursing home. It was right next door to the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, Frederick’s most popular attraction, and Billy appreciated how both of these places were in the business of preserving old things.
Uncle George had told Billy the night before not to alert her that he was coming to visit as it would only confuse her and that she would end up forgetting the date of his visit and would end up calling Uncle George and asking if Billy was okay and why he was not there with her on that date, at that very time, and Billy played out in his head what she’d be saying—at what time? Now? When? Is he okay? Billy? Who is visiting me again? Instead it was best to simply show up, say between twelve and two, right after lunch, when she would most likely be at her best.
Billy entered the Frederick Nursing Center and told the woman at the front desk that he was here to visit Gracie Chute. The receptionist told Billy to leave his driver’s license at the desk, perhaps in a measure to prevent Billy from escaping with the old lady and wheeling her to freedom. She made him put a sticker on his shirt that said “Guest” with his name below it. This is actually going to be rather useful. Grandma can simply look down at the name tag while talking to you in case she forgets who you are, mid-chat.
The receptionist gave Billy her room number. On the fifth floor, he walked down the hall, which smelled of urine, and found his grandmother’s room. To the left of the door, her name was emblazoned on a gold piece of metallic rectangle. When Billy was working in the mailroom at Cobin-Haskett, he had a similar nameplate with his name inscribed on it, outside and to the left of his workspace. He quit that job to escape nameplates and other meaningless things. His poor grandmother, unable to walk or think for herself, had been locked into her own hackneyed bureaucracy, not that different from the one Billy had recently escaped, and she would be trapped within it until the day she died.
Her bed was neatly made and there were pictures of relatives along the walls, on a bulletin board above her bed, in frames on top of the dresser. She had a faded black and white framed photograph of Alan and George when they were in their late teens or early twenties, looking not that much older than Billy was now. Looking sharp, Dad, looking sharp. There was a picture of Billy and his brother, Peter, as kids with matching outfits, smiling though staring off in different directions. No Grandma though. Billy exited the room and walked back down the hall to a main corridor where orderlies were standing about next to a larger room with a TV blasting and old people situated around it.
There was a table in the corner of the room, and some elders were sitting around it playing what looked to be backgammon. Billy asked one of the orderlies where Gracie Chute was, and she nodded her head to the left at a woman crouched over in a wheelchair facing the other direction at the television. The View was blasting out of the TV and disturbing ear canals, not just Billy’s, he was sure. This was the show of choice for the orderlies, not the residents. Most of them could probably care less about The View—invalids, he thought of them, lost in their own minds, drooling out the sides of their mouths, hunched over and hanging out of their wheelchairs, either to the left or the right, or slightly down. Or their heads would be flapped back as if looking to the sky. Eyes closed or eyes open but glazed over with a yellowy hue. He wondered what was running through their minds. Is it a dead silence or is there still a small reverberating echo that dances through these still bodies?
Billy walked over to his grandmother and crouched on his knees in front of her, blocking her vision of the TV. Her eyes, though, were facing elsewhere, slightly up and to the left. It seemed she didn’t care for The View either.
She was 79 years old, younger than the lot of them there but blended in seamlessly. Just as wrinkled and lost as the others, he thought. How long had it been since Billy last saw her? Years upon years, no doubt. But he just couldn’t remember exactly when the last time was. She was there at home while growing up, and then she wasn’t. Billy kissed her sagging, mildly hairy face. He sat down on the bench next to her.
“Hi!” She was so excited to see him, or, at least, to have a visitor. He could have been anyone and the response would have mostly likely been the same. This unadulterated happiness—why couldn’t that’ve trickled down the goddam family line. Her eyes lowered from Billy’s and checked the name tag: Billy Chute. It clicked—grandson—and she got it.
“I was in the area and wanted to stop by and see you. Make sure everything was all right. See if you needed anything.”
“I’m alright. Same old. I’m feeling much better than I was. If you remember I wasn’t doing so good earlier.” Her voice was high-pitched, and she had developed a lisp because of her dentures.
“I actually never heard anything about it until yesterday. Uncle George told me about it. He said you had an accident coming off the elevator.”
“Oh, George. I’ll kill ‘em. I didn’t have an accident—Shirley pushed me into the door. The elevator door.”
“Shirley? Who’s Shirley? She pushed you into the elevator door?”
“She pushed me right into the elevator door.”
“Well I’m glad you’re feeling better.”
“So wonderful that you came to visit me. Tracy was talking to me about you. I think it’s so wonderful that you came to see me. You kids have so much love in your hearts.”
As she said this, she cupped her hand around Billy’s cheek and stared deeply into his eyes. The moment came and went and Billy felt nothing—no sense of nostalgia, no lump in the throat. Billy did recognize, however, that it was a genuine moment of affection, and it was this that led him to believe that it was an opportune time to pose his question.
“Grandma, can I talk to you about my dad?”
“George? I’ll kill ‘em.” “No, Grandma, George is your other son, my uncle. I’m talking about my father, Alan, your oldest child, Alan. Alan?”
“Alan, what a good boy. He works so hard for his family.”
“Such a handsome man he turned out to be. We have such a beautiful family.”
“Yes, I guess we are an attractive bunch. Thanks to you! We have you to thank for that!”
She gurgled a laugh and seemingly got a kick out of his response.
While enjoying her time basking in this grandson-beauty, pill time came about. An orderly walked around giving patients their own concoctions of body and/or brain numbing formulas. Could be nice when you’re that old. Turn it off. Shut, the motherfucking thing off already.
A flicker suddenly went off in his head again. The tingling returned with forehead sweat and grinding of the teeth. The desire came flooding into his brain like three hundred wood chimes being struck by the same gust of wind that got progressively louder as they got closer to him, the sweet music turning into a steady swelling of sound into a roar of fire alarms, and Billy dropped to his knees and grabbed onto the armrest of his grandmother’s wheelchair.
His grandmother had, in some respects, a similar practice of ritualistic drugging as he had, and in many respects, still sought. It was her routine Billy was seeing that brought him to his knees, even though months had elapsed since his own daily drugging rituals slackened. They were at their most ceremonial during his reign at Cobin-Haskett back in New York.
His workday at Cobin-Haskett would come to an end, at the same time and in the same way as all his other days, with a final mail run through the building at 4:10, back to his desk at 4:45 and promptly out the back doors a few minutes later, unwilling to give them anything more than the eight hours out of his day that he was contractually obligated to work. Billy would ride the N train across Manhattan to Astoria Boulevard. It was a short walk from the train stop to his one-room basement apartment. Upon entrance, there would only be a brief period of relaxation before he would start making his preparations. By half past six, latest, it would all be laid out in front of him on the coffee table, and then he would begin.
On weekdays he would smoke his pot, ingest multicolored opioid tablets, sip his whiskey, roll up his tobacco and smoke that too. His weekend ritual usually involved harder drugs, and toward the end of his last stretch in the city, his MDMA pharma-connect had seemingly disappeared, so he had to satisfy himself with his more accessible substances. He used cocaine, but, as one of his pharma-connects explained, if the South American climate was too cool and there wasn’t enough moisture in the air, which had been happening more and more, the cocoa leaves couldn’t flourish enough for proper benzoylmethyl ecgonine alkaloid extraction leaving them shorthanded, thus making it out of reach for him. It would mean he’d have to resort to breaking up some amphetamines he obtained through simple prescriptions. He was prescribed Adderall but also had easy access to Dexedrine and Ritalin, all of which were solutions Cynthia had found for her stepson’s erratic behavior, and if we were to date it back, it could easily be said that Cynthia had Billy hooked before he reached double digits. Cynthia never considered how easy it would be for this young man in which Billy had now become to get his fingers on these Schedule IIs whenever needed.
Billy had been over-prescribed his whole life. And Alan had been quick to hand-feed him meds of his own, especially late at night when Cynthia was at work. It was at his boarding school, Mission Mountain Prep, where he first tried heroin.
During this ritual, Billy would sometimes bump 20 milligrams up his nose. If he was in a rush to leave the apartment or had plans to go somewhere, he would have upped the dosage to 30 milligrams. There were unidentifiable pills in orange pill bottles with black permanent marker on their labels. The chemical makeup of these were unclear, as his sources informed him they could have been ecstasy, or meth, or an MDA/MDMA variant, or a combination of sorts. That didn’t stop him from taking them. He welcomed the surprising impact and relief.
He would diagram out the properties of his narcotics and their effects into artistic renderings on sticky notes. They were placed on the right side of his coffee table in a rectangular formation, five by seven. On the right side of the coffee table a new collection of sticky notes had amassed which charted out new effects when substances were combined. His last couple of weekends during the stretch consisted of his mystery ecstasy, Adderall, and alcohol, followed by large doses of oxy later in the evening to help with the taper-off:
Amphetamine’s absorption reduced with vitamin C/citric liquids. Less PH balance in stomach, stronger effect. Tums to counteract for maximum possible absorption. Ecstasy, perhaps placebo, but still I’m rolling. Part amph, part meth?
His last weekend bender while still under the employ of Cobin-Haskett turned into a longer, duller weekend than most with his narcotics withering within his bloodstream, and by Sunday morning there were still hints of contamination circulating throughout his body, still slightly manipulating his sanity and his sense of right and wrong. Though oh so typical—the climax came and went, the best was gone, and he tumbled back into sobriety. His mind returned from its transformation. It returned from the state it was in before the drugs kicked in and turned him into something different, something of an existence he held of higher value than his unrigged self. On weekends like these, Billy disassembled the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that was his mind to explore new potential identities, to maybe discover what he really wanted to be, what he could be, even if momentarily, to maybe discover how he wanted others to see him—to help him become something else that was better. To jumpstart change.
When sleep eventually would come, his dreams would spoil because of the toxins, but it was during this sleep that his transformation back to normalcy took place. The toxins would be ciphered into his colon for disposal, the influence squeezed out of his head. He would wake and look in the mirror and for a split second he would see what he was and reminisce about what he had turned himself into. But sobriety would come crawling back; it always did. He would look in the mirror and his lips would droop into a shaky frown and his swollen eyes would squint yet again with that unmistakable sadness of self. For the remainder of those Sundays, he would fight the temptation to get up from the couch. He would lose himself in daytime programming and small mid-day amusements such as watching his pet turtle, Speedy, continuously try to climb up the glass wall of his enclosure, only to fall over upon his back and struggle to flip himself back over.
Billy looked up and his grandmother was taking down her pills like a champ, washed them down with some chocolate milk substitute in a Styrofoam cup. Billy picked up the pill cup from her lap with an almost preprogrammed mechanical desire to find something, but alas, it was empty and his early afternoon sobriety rolled on.
Her eyes started to trail and her voice sounded groggy when she called him George and asked him for a cigarette.
“Grandma, it’s me, Billy. When did you start smoking?”
Billy looked up at an orderly who was listening in on their conversation. The orderly’s name tag read: Shirley.
Billy mouthed to her: “cig-ar-ette?”
“Grace, sugar, you don’t smoke,” Shirley said, tapping Grandma on the shoulder.
“I want my cigarettes.”
Shirley just looked at Billy and shook her head with pursed lips. Billy had a vision of Shirley giving Grandma cigarettes on the down-low. Did Shirley make a secret agreement with Grandma that if she behaved and took her pills like a good little girl that she would be rewarded with cigarettes? Or is Grandma making the whole thing up and just forgot that she doesn’t smoke? Her breath didn’t smell of cigarettes. Her room didn’t have the stench of cigarettes. Or is the smell of urine just coating the stench of smoke? Did she used to smoke cigarettes and was just always able to hide the truth from you? Or did she smell the cigarettes on you and some kind of transference occurred? Does she know where she is? Does she know that she is an old woman trapped in a nursing home?
Grandma looked at Billy’s name tag and read the name.
“Hi Grandma.” He kissed her on the cheek.
She placed her hand with its translucent skin on Billy’s cheek as he held his lips to her for a few seconds. Her eyes were closed, and she was relishing in the warmth of his body.
“How’s school, Billy?”
“Grandma, I quit school years ago. I’ve been working in New York City.”
He again felt the need to keep this story going, that he was still in New York, still at Cobin-Haskett, not in the middle of some escape act, or rescue mission, or something else.
“New York City! You have to work real hard, and you have to treat people with respect. People in New York are so rude. You should go back to school. You can never get enough education.”
Since Billy was little, his grandmother had always tried to make education a top priority. His cousin, Greg, took the advice to heart. But Greg never needed any guidance. He was his father’s son, destined to succeed. She played a big part in getting Peter to stay at Tompkins High when he tried to drop out. She was also a big influence on Alan’s decision to send Billy off to boarding school, to Mission Mountain Prep, after a terrible first year at Tompkins High. She did it with the best of intentions, chiefly to protect Billy from his father, but also to try to protect his father from himself. One fell swoop. She had already seen a version of this play out with her husband. And now talking about school was her best icebreaker and her favorite thing to ask when there was nothing else to say.
“I don’t think I’m going to go down that road again for a while. I’m taking the summer off. Maybe find Dad.” And out it came again. It still surprised him to be saying the words. “Yea. I guess…try to retrace his steps since he ran off. Maybe bring him back home to Cynthia.”
Billy looked around the room. Half a dozen of the residents were now encircled around them, placated by their conversation. Perhaps this was more interesting than The View. Their faces looked anesthetized as they had previously, but Billy considered that perhaps underneath the zombie countenance there was a fully functioning and understanding system still in place. Or that perhaps human interaction was generally a better thing to look at than a TV screen.
Billy looked back at his grandmother, and she had a confused look, with her turkey gobbler neck and wrinkled-as-raisins skin, and then a frown locked upon her face. Perhaps, “Dad” and “ran off” threw her a curveball. She looked at Billy’s name tag. Then more confusion and fluttering eyes. Quivering lips. Then the waterworks. Suddenly Billy realized that he now had to explain to his grandmother about Alan’s disappearance, running off with just the clothes on his back, as if it were the first time she had heard it.
He wanted to try to get more information out of his grandmother before he left—any new tidbits about his father, clues to his whereabouts; equally important, another part of him wanted to wait until pill time came around again, in case, just in case, he knew he wouldn’t, but he knew he wanted to be there for it, and then when it would happen, perhaps he would watch the scene play out all over again, and feel the pain all over again, because he wanted to feel the pain—but also wanted to pull the drain and wash the pain away.
Gracie talked about “Alan” quite a bit, but the stories, he presumed, weren’t actually about his father. They were blended anecdotes that could have been about numerous individuals all wrapped up into one. When a story sounded like it could have actually been about Alan, one which seemed to fit his character decently well, Billy still couldn’t be sure that it was his father that his grandmother was speaking of. She would break out at points into her stories with other names, and all of a sudden the stories wouldn’t necessarily be about Alan anymore but about her deceased husband, about Peter, about George, about Greg. Family even didn’t stick. Even when they were the names of her own children and grandchildren.
Billy was unable to get the details he most wanted. But when he was leaving, he stopped Shirley in the hallway and asked if his father had happened to come by to see her.
“Oh, yeah, he did. How could I forget. It broke my heart.”
Shirley explained to Billy that Alan came here to tell her something, but it went right through her: “in one ear and out the other,” Shirley said. “She can’t retain the details, not anymore anyway. But I heard him saying goodbye forever to her, like he was never going to see her again or something.”
It wasn’t the first time Billy considered that Alan ran off to kill himself. Maybe Grandma just wasn’t willing to hear that Dad was saying his last goodbye. Her brain wouldn’t allow that piece of information to stick. It would have killed her. So it was a memory she chose to disregard willingly. Or all control had already been lost, was already too far gone, the recent past wiped clean, save for brief flashes like flickering remnants of dreams. Did she actually know her husband was dead, that he had died more than twenty years ago? Did she still consider her family her family or was “family” just another term devoid of meaning—the extinction of day by previous day by previous days, occurring at an exponential rate.
Shortly before speaking with Shirley, when Billy was still sitting in the room with Gracie and she was in the middle of a possibly true possibly not true story, she stopped talking, fell silent, turned away from him, and started weeping again. That was the end of the story she was telling—it was dead even before it started—but now there was a much more poignant story being told through what he was seeing. Billy considered that she was weeping because she knew how much was gone, was acutely aware of her condition in that moment, and that that was the cause of her breakdown. He considered that perhaps she was reliving some terrible day, or some terrible moment, from her past. He considered that she just needed to cry because of how hard it is to bear the reality of the world. He couldn’t quite figure it out—it’s tough to get a straight read on someone with Alzheimer’s—but it made him quite sad because it made him think about how loved ones someday die and how you have to mourn them, and that you have to mourn even those you thought you didn’t love. It made him think about how he could end up like his grandmother too and get sucked into a vortex of having to mourn over and over and over again until forgetting what it even means to mourn. Until forgetting the word “mourn” itself. Until forgetting what any word transcribed to any feeling was. Until there was no feeling at all. And then, maybe, hopefully, peace.
It made him think about his father and about what mourning him would feel like. It made him wonder if his own mourning process had already begun. If it had been transpiring for years. Why do we only mourn the dead? Do we mourn for those that only feel dead to us? Do we mourn for those that we wished were dead?
Billy collected his driver’s license from the front desk. He returned to his car and headed back up east toward Baltimore, made another loop around Dundalk and didn’t stop to see Cynthia for a second time. But seeing the house again made him think of his brother. Peter’ll have answers. He always did. Let’s see what he has to say for himself. No. Just keep driving. Keep driving. Just keep driving in the direction of forward. As his car puttered on, Billy’s eyes kept drawing over to the cooler at the floor of the passenger seat, and finally, swiftly, he opened it and reached in with his right hand while he kept his left on the wheel, and after tossing the towel and a few of the water bottles onto the passenger seat, he shuffled the paraphernalia around until he found the muscle relaxers. He popped open the bottle and poured the pills out into his hand, threw two of them down his throat. He reached into another bottle and removed a plastic bag that had his psilocybin caps. His eyes were darting from the road to the bag to the road and back again. He put a few smallish caps into his mouth and methodically chewed the stale bits down to mush and washed it back.