Flash Fiction by Susan E. Wagner
Years ago, we got permission to take Gabe downstairs to the hospital lobby, to see his brother and grandparents, and to eat French fries with chocolate milk at McDonald’s. He didn’t smile or laugh, but he did hold the red sports car his brother gave him. He drank some milk but didn’t eat. The pain, I guess.
The lobby looks nothing like it looked back then. The seats are updated, the colors new. They serve breakfast all day. People around me chatter in Spanish and what sounds like Russian. I sip coffee with milk, my journal on the table. The lunch rush is over.
When Gabe was older, he took a job as a cook here. He liked flipping burgers. No job worries when he got home, he’d say. He made enough money for an apartment he shared with a friend. He lost that job. And the next one.
The little girl at the table in front of me turns around to watch me sip coffee as I pretend to write. I smile and she turns shy and squats down in the bench seat. She wears a pink Disney princess shirt, and her dark hair is pulled back with plastic barrettes in different colors. Someone hands her a French fry. I wish she were my granddaughter. She looks like my son’s last wife.
I had planned to write about gratitude, something to remind me of the goodness I still have in my life, since Gabe’s death. I don’t know how to begin. I sip again. The girl looks at me and this time she waves her half-eaten fry at me with a small smile. I grin, but my heart’s not in it. I want it to be.
Those days in the hospital were long ago. I was grateful at the time that Gabe could do something normal to remind him of life and of the laughter of people who love you. Maybe it helped us more than him. We needed to know it would end. We had eighteen days before that meal, eighteen days of visits as if to a grave. I stayed every night at first, but after a week the doctor sent me home. Rest, he said. I get plenty of that now.
The little princess leaves and now I can see straight out to the street where parked cars remind me of the lines of Matchbox cars the boys played with. Gabe slept with some on his pillow in the hospital. The nurses gathered them onto his tray table at night. He just wanted them nearby. Too sick and then too depressed to do more.
As an adult, each time he lost a job he would tell us it was all fine, that he’d get another. He did too. He’d spend every penny. No rainy days ahead for him he’d tell us.
I notice it’s started to rain outside and then turn back to my journal. I write the word gratitude on the sheet in front of me again.
I try to focus on the now I live, on the trees that grow on my street, the little park in front of my building. There’s a dog run I can see from my window. Some days I watch dogs of all sizes run around. I should get a dog. A chance to interact with people like my therapist suggests. Plus, dogs love you and I need that.
Gabe got married. Three times. Each wife thinking herself lucky. We, his family, would joke that anyone named after an angel got chased by the devil. Watch out! They always laughed. Until they didn’t.
Once, I stopped at the church two blocks over and went into a meeting for families of drug addicts. Nar-Anon they call it. I went for a while. It didn’t help. I didn’t have the worries other people had. Gabe didn’t ask for money or steal from me. He didn’t get violent or get high at work — when he worked. When he didn’t, the wives supported him. They thought the drugs he took were for ADD and anxiety. No. I tried to talk to him but all he’d say was Ma, don’t worry. Don’t worry, Ma. That’s what he said as a kid too.
The day we took two-year-old Gabe home from the hospital, it rained the whole drive. We carried him to his bed where he spent the rest of the day. Slept that night with his brother by him. They were attached for a long time after. He got better. I was beyond grateful for that.
I begin to list things I’m grateful for now. Grandsons. Granddaughter. A strong heart. Less arthritis pains. I list family members by name, including Gabe’s. I hesitate at wife number three, though one and two are listed. I liked them all. I add wife three. Cross her out. Write her in again. Bite my lip. Cross her out. I can’t help it.
She saved me that day. I know that. I know I should be grateful. But seeing her shoot my addict son in front of me isn’t something to be grateful for. Why did he attack me? I don’t know. He was angry, incoherent. Smashed my kitchen. Grabbed a butcher’s knife. He would have killed me. He tried. I spent two weeks in the same hospital – this hospital — where he died on the operating table from her gunshot wounds.
Wife three knows more than I do. Fine. I don’t really need more details. I write her name again. And his. Again.
Susan Wagner is the author of Unmuted: Voices on the Edge, a collection of hybrid poetry on mental illness and families. She has taught professional and creative writing and is an editor with The Pearl S. Buck Writing Center. She will graduate with an MFA in Creative Writing in May 2021. Her poem, “The ER” was recently selected for Unique Minds: Creative Voices at Princeton University.