HUGO DUBON

The Hanged Man

"That's the point of life, isn't it? Mom said. "A lot of hard lessons."

By Kat Main

12:10 a.m.

“Mom’s breathing funny.”

“She always breathes funny. What’s she doing?”

“Standing in the hall, breathing funny.”

“Fine. I’ll be right over.”

Richmond Road is a maze of craters and shadows, sidewalks too close to the car. Street lights droop from a black sky, white orbs chasing me. If I concentrate, I can follow the white lines to steer the car straight. If I steer in a straight line, the white orbs won’t beam me up to outer space. But maybe outer space is like a resort on one of those travel posters for Tahiti with hammocks where you stretch out, eat coconuts and puff giant reefers. The sidewalk edges closer. I should steer in a straight line.

The apartment door is wide open. I careen up the stairs two at a time and sail through the door. The kitchen table slams into my toe. Fire ignites up my leg, catches in my stomach and coils. Fucking hell. The apartment is hot, stinks. Rotting garbage. Cigarette smoke. Shitty kitty litter. My heart thumps between my ears. My big toe throbs. Fuck. The table looms, rises up beneath my hands and holds me steady. A one and a two and a three. I can breathe. Feel my toe again. Stand again. The table sways and my palms come up sticky with peanut butter and cat hair. I need to wash, but Chester is curled beneath the tap in the sink. Water plops on his wet, furry head. Drip. Like Chinese water torture. Drip. Tell us what you know. Drip. Or the alien orbs will take you. Drip drip. 

“Leah.” Lily, poking me in the back.

“What? Where is she?” 

Lily points down the hall. Chester stays unblinking for more torture while I hobble after Lily.

Mom is leaning against the wall outside the bathroom, arms dangling, head resting against the doorframe. A large wet stain covers the front of her jogging pants. 

“Hey, Mom. How’re you doing?”

Her eyes move in and out of focus. She wheezes, then sees me. “Oops,” she smiles.

“It’s okay. We’ll change your pants. Hold on, grab my arm.” 

We navigate her to the bedroom, and she tumbles to the rumpled mattress on the floor. She sits up, swaying, while Lily grabs one pant cuff and I take hold of the other. 

“Wait, Leah. Her foot’s stuck.”

“Okay. Pull.”

We yank in unison. Mom topples backward, whacks her head on the wall. The sound of a ripe orange dropping from a tree. Thunk. Her body deflates across the bed. She opens one eye, sucks in a raspy breath. “Ow.”

“Jeez, Leah, be careful.”

“Shut up and find another pair of pants.”

“No pants,” Mom says. But it comes out like noah pansh. 

“You need pants, Mom. We have to go to the hospital.”

“No, no hospital.” 

“Well, let’s get your pants on and we’ll go for a drive.”

“No pants.”

“Please, Mom?”

“Okie dokie.”

We half carry, half drag her outside, a droopy bundle of moaning flesh and bones. I slam the car door after her and climb behind the wheel. On the way, Mom tries to light a smoke. Flick flick flick. She drops the lighter. “Just wait, Mom, we’ll be there soon.” Somehow, even though she can’t speak, see straight or control her bladder, she manages to pick up the lighter. Flick flick. The cigarette drops. I get a whiff of burning fabric. 

“Lily! Do something!” 

Lily leans over the backseat, hucks the cigarette out the window and bats the glowing embers from Mom’s jacket. Her elbow lodges in my ear. The car swerves. Horns blare from across the white lines. 

“Jesus, Lily.” 

“Watch where you’re going, Leah.”

Mom coughs, “No hospital.”

“Sure, Mom.”

Foothills Medical Centre. At the triage desk, I give them Mom’s information. “She’s breathing funny and she wet her pants.” 

“Is your mother on any medication?”

I hand the nurse a Safeway bag rattling with pills. Mom’s entire medicine cabinet: Ativan, Haldol, Risperdal, Xanax, Seconal, T3s, Gravol, Contact-C, Zantac, three rolls of Tums, cough syrup and a pink plastic comb with half the teeth missing. 

The nurse shines a light into Mom’s glassy eyes. “Mrs. Flynn? Hello, Mrs. Flynn. Can you look up here for me, Mrs. Flynn? Mrs. Flynn? Can you hear me? Hello. I’m over here.” Mom’s head flops toward the persistent voice, eyes glazing past the nurse’s face. She giggles. Her eyes roll back. Dry heaves. The nurse checks her pulse and plunks her in a wheelchair. 

“You better keep this.” She tosses me Mom’s tan leather purse as she wheels her through the doors.

We need you to sign some papers,” the doctor explains to his clipboard. “In case we have to run extra tests.” He holds out a blue ballpoint pen, the way you’d hold a mouse by its tail. “Your mother is a very sick lady.” He sounds like one of those doctors on a TV drama, his words slow and filled with pauses. He speaks as if he’s talking to a child. A naughty child. I suddenly think… uh oh. Can he tell I’m stoned? Why did I let Kenny talk me into smoking another bowl? Does the doctor think I’m high and having a good time? Because this is a bad trip. The worst trip. Worse than that time on acid in high school when I got lost in Zellers zigzagging between the racks of clothes, chased by long-sleeved pants and bell-bottom sweaters, round and round, unable to escape. 

“Miss,” the doctor dangles the pen. 

I sign the papers. Blue ink leaks on the page, wiggles across a dotted line. Leah Flynn. When did my name get so many loops? I want to tell the doctor there’s something wrong with his pen. It’s not supposed to have a tail. The doctor takes the pen and paper back, looks at my signature. 

“Is that okay?” I ask. I should tell him Mom’s afraid of mice. That she hates things in dark places. He doesn’t seem like the understanding type.

“We need you to stick around in case there’s more paperwork. We’ll let you know when we have more information.”

2:18 a.m. Lily and her friend play crazy eights, slapping cards on a low, round table that tilts at an angle against the wall. Their cans of grape pop wobble on the higher side. Her friend, whose name I can’t remember, a tall, skinny girl with long frog legs tucked beneath her, is sitting here in this godforsaken hospital at this godforsaken hour, playing cards, telling jokes, keeping my sister amused. What the hell is her name? Megan? Jessica? She took the bus 40 minutes to come and meet my sister.

It’s quiet in the waiting room. A kind of quiet that matches the grey-painted walls. A dozen people scatter the room, slumped across beige chairs, staring vacantly, zoning out to late-night infomercials droning from the TV bolted on the wall. A slow night for disasters. No one talks. Drip drip. The waiting makes me want to shriek, smash the TV, peel the paint off the walls with my fingernails.

Sprawled across one row of chairs sits an entire family cuddled so close everyone is touching. Mother, father, two kids, grandpa, an aunt and uncle. They lean, drape, doze across chairs stuck with gum, dried pop and god knows what else. It must be Grandma they’re waiting for. She’s the missing appendage from the jumbled heap of bodies. They’re probably immigrants. Their clothes have that haphazard Salvation Army look I see on those Christian Network commercials filmed in Africa. The women in lime green blouses, orange skirts and pink paisley headscarves. The men are stuck with the worst choices: passed off button-down shirts that scream women’s department and khakis made for people six inches shorter. The family breathes as one. This is probably how they came to Calgary, clutched together in mismatched clothes, a tight-knit group from Uganda or Zimbabwe. They survived wars, disasters and famine, and now they’re losing Grandma to a slip in the shower or a mangled finger caught in an electric can-opener none of them knows how to use.

Drip drip. Time floats, the walls remain unpeeled, the TV drones on and I notice a faint blue light glowing about the edges of the furniture and faces in the waiting room. Maybe it’s the fluorescent lights. Maybe I’m still stoned. 

“I’m going to call Kenny,” I tell Lily.

She plunks an eight of hearts on the table. “Gotcha!” she claps. Grape pop spills across the table. What’s Her Name struggles to hold the overflowing cards in her hands. It occurs to me that this kid, who’s sitting in this godforsaken hospital at this godforsaken hour, playing crazy eights, is letting my sister win. Something I’ve never done. Stacey? Andrea? Dammit. 

The pay phones are across from the TV, and I dig into my pockets. Forty cents. I use 35 to call Kenny. He picks up on the fifth ring.

“Hey,” I say.

“Hey.”

“What are you doing?”

Kenny yawns. “Watching TV.”

“I’m at the hospital.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“Want to come and keep me company?”

“Seriously? I’m in the middle of X-Men.”

The tall Ugandan man picks up his kid and lays him across his shoulder. The boy pops a dark thumb between pink lips and snuggles into his daddy who is dressed in women’s clothes.

“Never mind.”

“Cool. You wanna come over after? We can play Wolverine and Marvel Girl?”

“I don’t know.” I dump the receiver, dinging the plastic against its silver cradle. Across the room, Lily is laughing at her friend holding all the cards, wiping pop from the table. She’s fine. Just as fine as the Ugandan family mashed together in their disgusting display of human solidarity. 

 For the next 20 minutes I pace in front of the emergency room doors, annoying the receptionist because every third or fourth pass I set off the motion sensor. Each time the doors whoosh open, she has to look up in case it’s an emergency. Whoosh. Twisted up bodies from a car accident. Whoosh. Someone with a chopped-off leg. Whoosh. A woman with turnip-coloured skin moaning noah hospeedal. Whoosh. 

The receptionist finally yells, “Would you please sit down!”

3:27 a.m.

“Is Kenny coming?” Lily asks.

“He can’t.”

“Why not? What’s he doing?” 

“Mind your beeswax and play your game. Jessica’s waiting.” I nod at the frog-legged girl humming and twirling her hair as though she has nothing better to do than sit on hard plastic chairs in the middle of the night and play crazy eights.  

“That’s Amanda.”

“Right, Amanda. Sorry. Listen, Lily. I think it’s going to be awhile. Maybe you should go home.” Lily’s ponytail sags loose on the side of her head. Purple crescent moons stretch beneath her eyes.

“Yeah, okay.”

“You going to be all right? Going home alone?” I try to straighten her hair and tug the ponytail back in place. The elastic catches and pulls. 

“Quit it! I’ll be fine. I have Amanda.”

“Really? You tried to microwave your shoes last week.”

“They were wet.”

“Well, don’t try cooking anything just in case.”

“I won’t, Leah.” 

“And don’t flush the toilet if it’s already plugged.”

“Yeah, I knooooow.”

The girls climb into a Mayfair cab, their sneakers sliding across mustard vinyl seats when I remember I have no money. The cabbie adjusts his mirror and clicks on his radio. High-pitched wailing seeps from the speakers on his dash. I rummage through Mom’s purse. Three dollars.

“Killarney, please. LAMDA House, across from the Rec Centre.” 

Lily and I stare as Amanda yanks a crisp twenty from her knapsack and flashes the driver a pearly smile like she’s been hustling cabs in New York all her life. The cabbie punches the meter and jams the car into gear. 

“Bye!” Lily hauls the door shut as they roll away. 

“Don’t let the cat out!” I holler, but the windows are up, their two blond heads already bent together and touching in the backseat.

The receptionist frowns when I whoosh back into the waiting room. I give her what I hope is a good imitation of Amanda’s cabbie-winning smile. She shakes her head and resumes clicking at her computer. I drop into one of the plastic chairs and look around. It’s just me, the Ugandans and some rig pig with a bloody hand leaking down his overalls and into his boot. His face is clenched and sweaty. I try to guess how many litres of blood are in his pants, how close he is to dying. Then I remember: we’re in a hospital. They won’t let him bleed to death. Besides, he has his girlfriend here. It must be his girlfriend because she’s pressed next to him, filing her nails, but on the opposite side of his messy hand so he doesn’t drip on her white stretchy tights. She’s a nice girlfriend to wait with him, even if her thighs are fat.

A dozen people scatter the waiting room, slumped across beige chairs. A slow night for disasters.

4:42 a.m. Sitting here doing nothing is worse than deciding what to buy at 7-Eleven when you have a serious case of the munchies. Let’s see, I’ll have a latte with an angiogram, please. No wait—scratch the ruptured ulcer: too messy. I’ll take two Ding Dongs, a bag of Doritos and a quick stomach pump to go. My stomach gurgles. 

I slide the zipper back on Mom’s purse. Inside, there is a pack of hand-rolled cigarettes, strawberry lip balm, a deck of tarot cards, snotty balled-up tissues and played scratch cards all swimming in loose tobacco, pennies and sticky white Mentos. 

I brush tobacco from one of the mints and pop it in my mouth, pick up the tarot cards and study the card on the bottom of the deck. The Hanged Man. He hangs upside down from one leg tied to a tree post. A wide yellow halo frames his head. I’ve seen this card a thousand times.

“The Hanged Man,” my mother says, “is not about life or death. It’s about hanging in there when times are tough.” She taps his halo. “See his face? He’s not sad. He’s not suffering. He’s happy.” 

“Because the world is upside down?”

Mom laughs, a rough throaty sound. She is just learning the tarot cards. I’m still in elementary school, eight years before the speck of my sister sprouts in her uterus. Mom practises readings on me to memorize the cards. She flips the next one. A grey tower on a rocky cliff. Lightning slashes across the sky and sets the tower on fire. Two bodies tumble into darkness below. I don’t like my future. “Am I going to die?” 

“Don’t be silly.” Mom’s fingers grip my ear and tug. “The Tower is what happens when people don’t see life for what it is. Too many high hopes and you’ll fall lickety splat from your fantasy world. And that’s the point of life, isn’t it? A lot of hard lessons.” 

The falling figures on the card remind me of what happens in Snow White. After the wicked queen tricks Snow White with the poison apple, the dwarves chase her over a cliff. She screams Waaaaahh all the way down. At the bottom, the vultures eat her up.

“But good people can have happy endings, right?” I ask Mom.

“Sure, baby. Sure.”

Drip drip. My eyelids droop. Come on, orbs, take me to Tahiti.

6:31 a.m. They wake me. 

“She’s stable,” the doctor says. I shuffle next to him down the hall.

Mom lies slack and pale beneath the flickering light on the wall. She doesn’t move when I say her name. I check her over to see what they’ve done with their poking and prodding. She’s got an IV, a bruise already blooming around the needle in her hand. A white identification band on her wrist. A tinge of grey around her lips. She looks pretty good.

The doctor hovers behind me. He should be leaving now, walking out the door but he’s not walking, not leaving. “We have her test results,” he says, TV drama voice, pause. “People don’t get in her condition by accident.” 

It’s six o’clock in the morning. What the hell does he want me to say? He pokes the pen in and out of the clipboard, a long thin mouse tail darting under the metal clasp.

“She hates mice,” I say.

The doctor slips the clipboard under his arm, tucks the pen in the pocket of his white starchy coat. “Go home. Get some rest. We’ll keep her for a couple days.” 

Whoosh. Broad day slaps my face when I teeter out of the hospital. The drive home is a blur of traffic lights, stop signs, whizzing dotted lines and crosswalks. The car smells like burnt polyester. I trip up the stairs and put my key in Mom’s door. Amanda and Lily are passed out on the living room floor, rag dolls buried in a pile of blankets. Lily’s legs disappear beneath the coffee table. Her skin is hot and sweaty when I squeeze her shoulder.

“Hey.”

“How’s Mom?”

“She’s sleeping. I’ll take you to see her later if you want.”

“Okay.”

The couch is delicious: a dirty lumpy heaven. Lily and Amanda have the cushions so I press a bath towel over my face. No sun. No starchy uniforms. No plastic chairs. Just familiar couch springs and a semblance of dusk beneath terry cloth. Chester tiptoes across my belly, his paws sinking, lifting, pressing. He makes three turns and curls into my armpit. He stinks like peanut butter and shitty kitty litter. #

Kat Main, born and raised in Ontario, now lives in Calgary. She is currently working on her first novel.

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