The doors down the long, stifling hallway stood tall dark, thick, and heavy as a castle’s. Franklin stopped at the next door, got the picture ready he had come to show, and knocked. There was no answer. He cracked the door open. A woman sat with her back to the door, laughing quietly to herself. She sat by the tall old dark window, looking out. Franklin knocked on the door jamb again, and she turned around, still laughing.
She had half a face. One whole side was all sunk in. Franklin thought one word.
Her right eye and the right side of the nose and the right side of her mouth and her right ear were gone, replaced by a smooth expanse of mottled skin. Franklin winced but did not turn away. The woman kept laughing. Once more, he heard himself speak over the laughter.
So, she said—so you’re making the rounds again. What’s up this time? By the way, like I’ve told you a hundred times. I’m not ma’am. I’m Angela. Don’t you remember?
No, I don’t, and I don’t know what you mean about making the rounds—please don’t talk to confuse me, I am confused enough. Here. Look at this picture. I’d just like to know if you’ve seen this woman. She is my Mother. She is lost like I am.
You always ask the same thing, Franklin, Angela giggled. You always claim you’ve never been here, and you always ask the same question about the same picture. Okay, I’ll play your game one more time. Here bring the picture closer. There. Let me see—
What game, this is no game. I don’t understand.
Oh, never mind Franklin. Okay. There you go. I have looked, and no, I have not seen your Mother. There. Just like every other time.
Other time? What other time?
Franklin, level with me. You keep coming back here because you want another look at my rotting face. That’s right, isn’t it?
Yes, you do. You’re probably some social worker. And not a very good one, either. You just want into my head somehow.
No, no. This is not about your head. I just need my Mother. She is lost.
Angela’s eye narrowed a bit, as she seemed somehow to be thinking things over—looking inside herself, somehow. There was silence between them until she spoke.
You know, you’re carrying a hell of a burden, Franklin. Like I am in a way, you are. That’s a hell of a thing. Hey—you want to see something pretty funny?
Come on to the window.
She rose unsteadily and led Franklin to the window outside of which the street below teemed with cars and the sidewalks bustled with people. Franklin didn’t remember there being so many people on the street when he was down there—when he was out there, it seemed he was all alone in some endless ice-cold drizzly fog. But slowly, quietly, Angela began to laugh. She gripped the sill of the wide window and spoke to Franklin in a chortling voice.
Look at them out there, she said. Each one thinks they’re the center of the universe, but each one is just another tiny member of the great big common mob. The world is just a great big mob of people swarming like bugs, Franklin. They walk, and they drive their cars, and they all think they are free to go anywhere they want to, but they really can’t. This one’s on the way to work, that one’s on the way to the random place they call their home, but it’s just their home by chance. They could have just as well landed in a whole other place—here. Let me tell you what kind of thing I’m talking about. It’s just like my brother. He’s married today with a child and a college degree and a good job, and it’s all because—I mean ALL because—he wanted to get drunk on Ripple wine with some friends years and years ago. Had he had different friends or had he disliked wine or had he just decided to stay home that night, he would not have met his future wife, and he would not have met her father who showed him the ad in the paper that advertised a private college that was specializing in students using the GI bill to pay their tuition. And had he not gone there and gotten out of his shithole of a warehouse job into an office job, he would have never climbed the ladder in that office job and ended up on top, making a ton of money in the corporate world, and finally blowing his brains out, from the stress he could see no end.
Franklin gazed at her. He had showed her the picture, she had looked, and spoken—why does she go on and on like this? And she kept on going on, after the pause within which she bored him down stuck to his spot before her, with her single eye.
See, that’s what a liking for wine can do for you—he’d still be alive today if it weren’t for the wine—and did you know that because you’re here talking to me and not off doing something else, the whole course of your life is changed? I think that’s pretty funny. What have I done to you? Or rather, what have you done to yourself by stopping in to talk to me? Look at those cars stopping at the stoplight. Because they made or didn’t make the light, their lives are totally different. It is a very dangerous place out there. That’s why I stay here in my room, have my food delivered, and never go anywhere. It’s because I want my life to be what it’s supposed to be; right here, in this room, until the day I die. It’s like—look here, at these clothes. I’ve worn these clothes for weeks now, weeks. If I change them today, my life will change—so I have to be careful what I do. I just want to live without changing my life with every move I make—I don’t like the idea of there being a million possible futures in front of me—I just want there to be one—after all, it makes no difference, the cancer’s in me, it’ll stay in me no matter what’s next. The thought of a million possible futures all shifting and changing with my every move, makes me want to puke. There’s no solid ground, you know. Not an inch of solid ground. Life’s like trying to get home in five feet of snow in a driving blizzard in the dark.
She stood quietly then, gripping the windowsill, looking out, softly laughing.
Franklin thought she was all done, and he could ease out and leave. He’d just moved a muscle to turn away, but; she spoke, very low, and slow.
And you, Franklin—you keep coming and coming and changing my life over and over again. I resent it. I might die more quickly now, because of you. Oh, I don’t have many years left but I don’t want less than I even have now—and you may have done that to me—or maybe I should be glad you came by because maybe I’ll decide I’m afraid now that I’ll die sooner, and maybe I’ll go to my doctor and find out that there’s some miracle cure for my cancer; some experimental drug he might not have told me about, because I don’t go to the doctor anymore, but you may have made me do it you know. You may have made me live longer by coming back here again. But what will you do to me next time?
I’m going to go now, Angela. Okay?
She turned and waved him away.
Go on, go. Go into the whole different future you’ve made for yourself because you’ve stopped in to see me. The future’s a kaleidoscope. Go on, jump in. The future’s like a wood chipper that might just decide to chew you up, spit you out, and you might as well have never lived. But my life will probably stay the same, who am I to kid myself? You don’t give two shits about where my life ends up. You just care about yours. It’s changed, by every move you make, over and over and over. I’m frozen in place, but you—ah, God bless you, Franklin. Hopefully, your life is changing for the better. Goodbye now, and get out. Go. Get chewed up, spit out.
Angela’s single eye bored into Franklin. The sensation of her eye drilling, drilling, and drilling into him drove him back toward the door and out of the room. He stood in the pitch black hallway. The mothball-like smell made his head spin. Everything she said had made perfect sense. How was he changing his life by every move he was making? It’s no good to know that’s what life’s about. He shook his head and sniffed in the dank smell of the hallway and, forgetting her a bit more with every step he took, he headed toward the clammy mist that would always be everywhere he went on his way from somewhere to whatever was next.