945. Death’s Door

You haven’t felt helpless until you’ve stood outside a door marked Ladies–with your soulmate and the man who raised you–waiting to find out if your mother keeled over and died in a truck stop bathroom stall.

I mean, she was probably fine, but…

“I’ll go in,” Ziggy said, after the waiting became too much for him.

“Why you?” I asked.

“Because I’m the only one of us who’ll dare to do it,” he said reasonably. “Look, we haven’t seen a woman go in or out in over five minutes. She’s probably alone in there so I’m not going to freak anyone out by my presence.”

Remo and I eyed each other over the top of Ziggy’s knit-cap covered head. “I suppose.”

“We’ll warn any women who come along that you’re in there,” Remo told him.

Ziggy pushed open the door and called out, “Claire? I’m coming to make sure you’re all right.”

The door swung shut behind him and the helpless feeling swirled back in, like water refilling a toilet bowl.

She had insisted we stop. She had begun to feel nauseous and whether that was because of the chemicals from her treatment or regular old carsickness, who knows. She’d been in the midst of a fight with Remo, that had erupted when she’d tried to tell him how to drive, and you know how annoying a backseat driver can be. I wouldn’t have put it past her to feign illness to win an argument.

But if she wasn’t really ill, she’d been in there an awfully long time.

Remo cursed and pulled his pager out of his coat pocket. It looked and sounded like a battery-powered travel shaver.

“Business?” I asked. We were still in business hours, after all.

He sighed. “Yeah. Melissa’s going to give me the business. I better go call her, quick.”

“The pay phones were over there.” I pointed back toward the door we’d come through from the parking lot.

He hurried off and I went back to staring at the LADIES sign. This was a truck stop in rural Tennessee. I got the feeling very few “ladies” (or gentlemen, for that matter) had ever set foot in that spot.

Come on, Ziggy, I thought. What’s happening in there? I had to trust him. If he needed help or a doctor or something he would’ve come tearing right back out. If he needed me to do something, he would’ve come and said so. He knew I was waiting out here. Therefore I needed to just keep on waiting.

Eventually the door creaked open, and Ziggy emerged with Claire leaning heavily on him. She was just about his size when she wasn’t wearing heels–I think that meant she had shrunk an inch or two.

“Get us a booth?” Ziggy suggested and I ran ahead to the diner-like portion of the truck stop. I waved at the guy behind the counter who took the orders–I hesitate to call him a “waiter”–and he waved me toward whatever table I wanted. It was not crowded at that hour and there was no shortage of places to sit, but I went through my mind where I thought she’d approve of, not too close to the kitchen door, not in the direct sun, etc. etc.

I picked one and the guy brought over a small stack of napkins and some silverware. “How many?”

“Four,” I said, and he left the random pile of silverware and four laminated cardboard menus on the table.

Ziggy and Claire arrived a minute later. He helped her into the booth seat and then slid in next to her.

“Where’s Remo?” she asked, her voice a bit faint.

“He had to call the office,” I lied and instantly felt about as queasy as she had. “He got an urgent page.”


Ziggy waved to the guy who looked more like a truck driver than anything else and asked him to bring some ice water. Claire sipped it carefully after it came. Her face seemed puffy, her eyes a bit red. Mine tended to get bloodshot if I puked hard enough but to me she looked more like she’d been crying.

Not that I would have judged her if she did cry. I mean, come on, terminal cancer and gold-plated shit for a husband? She had plenty to cry about.

I knew better than to mention her appearance. “They’ve got chicken noodle soup on the menu here,” I said. “I think that’s what I’m going to have. What about you, Claire?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I think just water for me.”

“When mine comes you can try it first and if you like it you can take it and I’ll get another one.” I realized that I could see Remo through the window, on a pay phone on the outside of the building.

Claire must have been feeling genuinely unwell because she accepted my suggestion with a quiet nod.

The guy came back to take our order. I asked for the chicken soup, Ziggy said make it two, and he also ordered some kind of french toast variation. I hesitate to say “fancy.” The guy said he’d come back and get Remo’s order later.

I wondered which would make it to the table first, the food or Remo himself.

Remo managed to make it back about the same time the soup came. Ziggy didn’t even pretend the soup was for him. He slid the bowl carefully over to Claire, then moved himself over to sit on my side of the booth and let Remo take the seat next to Claire.

Claire ate the saltines, carefully picking open the cellophane packets and breaking each one in half before daintily putting it in her mouth. When she was finished with all of them, including the ones I gave her from the saucer of my own bowl, she picked up her spoon and started on the broth.

Me, on the other hand, as soon as I started eating, I discovered I was ravenous, and I quickly slurped down the contents of my bowl. Ziggy’s french toast–it had strawberries in a strawberry syrup–arrived in the meanwhile and he gave me half of it.

No one talked during all this, except occasional requests to the guy for water or coffee or more napkins. But when Claire recovered her strength, she started in.

“I’m certain I didn’t teach you to eat like that,” she said.

“He’s a growing boy,” Remo tried.

“Hate to break it to you but this is as big as I’m going to get,” I said. “What’s wrong with the way I eat?”

Claire’s eyes got wide even as her jaw set. This was apparently not what I was supposed to say. Instead of explaining, she fell back on, “You know perfectly well.”

“We’re at a truck stop in the middle of nowhere.” My voice was calm. Come to think of it, I was calm. “I think I’m a lot more familiar with what’s appropriate behavior for a place like this than you are.”

She sputtered. “Well! I–I–I never!” She turned to Remo. “Do you let him talk to you like that?”

“Well, I don’t pick on him so I don’t know,” Remo said. “Nothing wrong with Daron speaking his mind.”

“Hallelujah,” Ziggy added quietly.

“Well, if you all came along just so you could gang up on me,” she started, then seemed to realize if she told us all we could go to hell we might take it seriously and not go with her next time. She closed her eyes and squinched her face up like she’d come up against an unsolvable puzzle and it hurt to think about it.

I felt we’d won, or at least scored a point. But Claire put us back on the defensive soon enough. “Why did you come?”

“We’ve been over this–” Remo started.

“Not you. You two.” She was looking back and forth between me and Ziggy. She was asking like… like a real person. Like her mask was off. Like she really wanted to know.

Ziggy waited for me to answer first. “It’s not enough that I’m here?” I asked.

“It’s rude to answer a question with a question.”

“It’s rude to pick on family members who come to support you.”

She narrowed her eyes at me like she just could not figure me out. “Okay, but I really want to know.”

She was asking for the truth. For real. No way I wasn’t going to give it, then. “I don’t want to be the type of person who’s so awful he’s not there when his mother dies. I know our relationship is terrible but it would have to be a lot worse for me to pretend this isn’t happening.”

“You’d feel guilty,” she pressed.

“Like a complete and utter heel,” I confirmed.

She looked at Remo, almost an accusing look. “He’s just like you.”

“Now, wait a minute–”

But before Remo could voice his protest, Claire had turned her sights on Ziggy. “And you. What about you.”

Ziggy dabbed a bit of strawberry syrup off the corner of his mouth with a folded napkin, and didn’t look up to meet her eyes. His voice was quiet, but perfectly audible. “Me? Well. I’m the awful person who wasn’t there when my mother died.”

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