Dead Reckoning

Bara Swain

I dodge a stainless steel medicine cart and a nurse's aide -- "Excuse me!" -- with capped front teeth, silver, and sprint down the corridor. "Ma! Ma!" I cry, as I wrap myself around my mother in an uncharacteristic hot-dog roll embrace.

Ma peels me away.

"Hello, Jean," she calls over my bottled hair to her first-born. "Thank you for coming."

My sibling nods, eyes vacant, a Do Not Disturb sign etched on her brow. "We missed the connecting train," Jean says, "at Newark."

"I forgive you," says Ma. Pat pat pat.

She looks like me - my distant sister, more or less. Here is the more: more frightened, more dandruff, more corrugation in her boxy face.

"Do you want to go to the lounge, Ma?" I ask.

Ma claps her hands. "That's a grand idea!"

Jean balks. She screws her lips and -- "But won't it be too crowded?" -- tugs a coffee-colored tress.

Here is the less: less accommodating, less bone density, less hair.

I squeeze my sister's skinny arm. "I think, Jean, we'll be more comfortable."

Ma, dipping slightly, pilots her I.V. pole starboard. I man the bow, Jean takes the helm and Ma breaks wind. Her pinched face softens and colors and - "Shhh!" I warn my sister - finally relaxes.

The visitor's lounge has two couches, six chairs, a round table, a toaster, a sink and a black and white TV. It has two Wandering Jews. Five, if you include me and my sister and my mother.

Ma looks wistful.

"What are you thinking, Ma?" I ask.

A nurse with rolling thighs washes her hands and hums Love Me Tender. Jean combs her hair.

"Do you want to play Scrabble, Ma?"

Ma tightens the sash on her striped hospital gown. "I want to live," she says.

"Well," I say, "can you play Scrabble and live at the same time?"

The doctor is late.

"He's detained," corrects the nurse.

"But do you expect him soon? My children are here --"

"Open wide."

"-- and I want them to be present when --"

"Wider, please."


The chunky nurse appeals to my sister:

"I need," she says, "your mother's full cooperation if she wants to get well. Do you want your mother to get well?"

Jean gasps. I grasp my sibling's three-inch wrist and draw her - "Uh huh" -- to her feet. We flank our dazzling Ma.

Ma says:

"I want to see the doctor."

"He's detained," says the nurse.

Jean trades in five letters. Ma reads the New York Times . I copy a number from a matchbook cover to my date book. If it's not my boss's cell phone - "Is it my turn already?" - then it must be Federal Express. Or my channel-surfing tarot card reader with the Schenectady accent and Seaman's furniture.

The nurse returns bearing gifts: a carton of juice, a pre-sliced English muffin and a tub of Mazola. "Nathan!" she calls. "Heads up!"

Jean ducks. Ma jerks her I.V. pole with one hand and - "Watch it!" -- shields my face with the other. The carbohydrate sails overhead, followed by the butter alternative and a husky laugh.

The nurse pitches the carton at our table: "Cheers!" -- then sashays to the counter. "Nathan," she says, "you gotta be quicker than that! Or I won't share my lunch with you no more."

The receiving end wiggles his hips. "That don't matter to me, baby. Not so long as I get dessert."

"Somewhere," says Ma, "a village is missing an idiot."

The doctor nods. "And how are you feeling now?"

"Well," says Ma. "I'm still a little short of breath."

"And the pain?"

"Not as terrible."

"Anything else?"

"Well, I still haven't moved my bowels. But I suppose that's ...?"

"The tumor, yes."

"In my abdominal cavity."


Ma sucks her lower lip. "So the liver biopsy was...?"


Still composed: "Is that good, Doctor? Or is that bad."

Stock-still: "It's bad, I'm afraid."

"Why are you afraid, Doctor," my sister says. "Do you have a malignant tumor, too?"

"And I should call Aunt Anita and cousin Matthew. And the library. Write that down."

"But he says there are treatments, Ma."

"Do you think I should call Sebastian? His second wife is pregnant again. Carol or Kirsten or some biblical name."

"Christiana," says Jean.

"That's right. Write her name down, too."

"Ma, we need to get a second opinion."

"Ron can teach my calculus class. I don't know who they'll get for the Promotions Committee. I should call the Dean, too, and the Union, I suppose. And - oh! I need to call my accountant! Write it at the top."

Suddenly: "Ma! Ma!" I cry. "I don't want to live in this world without you!"

"Baby baby baby. Come here, baby."

I press my boxy face against my dazzling mother's frame. She runs her fingers through my yellow tendrils.

"Ma," I choke, "what am I going to do?"

"Just live your life, baby."

Weeping: "But who will keep me safe, Ma? Who will love me?"

She reaches for me - my older sister. Gently gently gently, she pries me from our mother. "I will," says Jean. Pat pat pat.

© Bara Swain

Bara Swain is the recipient of a dozen writing grants for new plays and fiction. Venues for her award-winning plays include the Dubuque Fine Arts National One-Act Play Festival (IA), the Tennessee Williams Ten Minute Play Festival (TN), and the Turnip Theater Festival (NYC). Her prose appears in Long Shot Magazine, Tattoo Highway, Riverbabble, Pulse, and the anthology, Love is Ageless: Stories About Alzheimer's Disease. Bara is the Dorsal Editor at Doorknobs & BodyPaint ( Dead Reckoning was originally published in's inaugural issue in 2002.

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