Prime Number Magazine
is a publication of 
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PO Box 30314,
Winston-Salem NC 27130
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Issue 59, July-September 2014
Prime Number Magazine is a publication of Press 53, PO Box 30314, Winston-Salem, NC 27130
What Brings You Down
by Louise Marburg
Followed by Q&A

Jamison’s mother broke her leg at the movie theater by tripping and falling on a flight of stairs that was illuminated by strips of light so people wouldn’t trip and fall. Jamison’s father wasn’t there. It was Jamison’s aunt who called from the hospital. She was older than Jamison’s mother, but steadier on her feet.

“Have you called Catherine?” he asked her. Catherine was Jamison’s sister.

“No, dear, I thought you would do that.” 

So Jamison called his sister. At forty-three, Catherine had just given birth to her fifth child. It took her a while to come to the phone.

“Well, it was bound to happen sooner or later,” she said. “You’ve seen how much she’s aged.”

“I hadn’t noticed, to tell you the truth.”

“When was the last time you were home?” she said.

“I am home,” Jamison said, looking around his apartment, which was on the top floor of a townhouse in Philadelphia. He had been watching Breaking Bad on Netflix when his aunt called, and almost hadn’t picked up the phone.

“Oh, for God’s sake, Jamie. You know what I mean.”

“Sometime in the recent past. Christmas?”

“That was eight months ago! Well, you better get down there now, or as soon as you can. You know how useless Daddy is.”

“Me? Why not you? I thought daughters were meant to deal with these things.”

“I have a three-week-old infant sucking at my breast,” Catherine said.

Jamison grimaced. “Thank you for that revolting visual.”

“I thought you’d appreciate it. Obviously I can’t go anywhere right now. I wish I were like you, free and easy, able to just turn the key in the door.”

“If that were true, you wouldn’t have birthed that brood of yours.”

“Don’t be mean,” Catherine said. “I was never as smart as you.”

***

Jamison wasn’t exactly free and easy, but he was a writer and set his own schedule. He was single and childless. Though he’d had several books published and regularly wrote articles for magazines, his parents, in particular his father, refused to put to rest their belief that he was always on the lookout for a job.

He drove down to Virginia instead of flying because he wanted the flexibility having his own car would give him. It took half the day to get there. He went straight to the hospital.

“Oh, my sweet boy is here,” his mother said in her public voice. “Do I look like a fright?”

“Not at all,” Jamison said. Someone had given her lipstick and powder. She looked, he thought, like a corpse who’d been made up to appear alive.

“Where is Daddy?” he said.

“Why, at home! Or, no, I think it’s his golf afternoon.”

“And Aunt Puddy?”

“Oh, she went back to Baltimore. She was only meant to be here for the weekend.”

“She might have stayed.” Jamison sat down.

“She had Uncle How to get back to.”

“And Daddy could have given up his game.”

His mother considered this. “It’s easier, frankly, without him. He kept asking the nurses to make him a cup of tea.” She wrung her hands. They were so spotted they were almost totally brown. “They’re letting me go soon. I was hoping you would take me home.”

A social worker came by before his mother was discharged. She wanted to know about home care. Jamison looked at his mother, hoping she would have already thought of a plan.

“Well, there’s Nella,” she said after a moment, referring to the maid. “And Irene.”

“Who is Irene?” Jamison said.

“Oh, she does all sorts of things for Daddy and me, we just couldn’t live without her.”

“What sort of things?” the social worker asked.

“Let’s see. She planted a beautiful perennial border out front. And she drives me to the store. And she helps me pay the bills. You know how terrible I am with those.”

The social worker and Jamison looked at each other. She handed him a card for a nursing service and said, “I think they can send over someone this evening.”

A black woman named Pauline showed up just as Nella was leaving. Physically helping his mother, even tucking her into bed, made something in Jamison’s gut shrivel; he could not wait to get out of her room.

“Where are you going?’ she said drowsily. She had been given a Valium.

“I’ll be right back,” he said, and went outside for a walk.

It was August and the cicadas were deafening. Within minutes Jamison’s shirt was soaked; sweat dripped from his face to the pavement. How had he withstood this heat growing up? Strangely, he had no memory of it. What he remembered was driving his parents’ car at night, his elbow out the open window, passing the one gay bar he knew of repeatedly, underage and ignorant. He remembered spending hours in the pool at the club, watching the older guys horsing around. He had not been an effeminate boy; he played second base on his high school team. Luckily, he had flown under the radar and was considered a regular kid. But he did not remember a time when he hadn’t known he was gay, and had lived with the knowledge for so long that by the time he came out his parents’ shock actually shocked him.

He dug his cell phone from his pocket and called his sister.

“How is Daddy?” she asked after he told her about their mother. 

“The same.” He’d seen his father watching television in the den but what with getting his mother upstairs and briefing the nurse, he hadn’t thought to say hello.

“The same as what?” 

“God, it’s hot here. Was it this hot when we were kids?”

“I don’t know how hot it is, Jamie, I’m not there.”

He hung up and went back to the house. He wiped his face and neck with some paper towels and went into the den.

“Hi Daddy.”

His father looked up from the evening news. “Jamie!” he said with surprise. “Have a seat! Help yourself to a drink. Nuts?” He held up a cut-glass dish of cashews.

“Not as far as I know.” Jamison laughed. His father frowned. “Nuts,” Jamison said. “It’s a joke. Forget it.”

“What brings you down?” his father asked.

Rainy days, Jamison thought, gay bars. “Mother,” he said. “Aunt Puddy called me. About her fall.”


“Have you been swimming?” his father said, looking at Jamison’s soaking shirt. 

“The thing is, she’s going to need care until her leg heals. Nurses, probably round-the-clock, at least until we see how she does.”

“Nonsense,” his father said. “Nella and Irene can take care of her.”

“Nella is sixty-four, Daddy. She’s not strong enough to help Mother bathe and go up and down the stairs, and somebody has to make the meals. Who is this Irene character?” Why did he call her a “character,” he wondered. It was the sort of thing his father would say. “What is her job here? How often does she come in?”

“Well, I don’t exactly know,” his father said. He pushed his eyeglasses up his nose and returned his attention to Brian Williams. 

Irene showed up the next afternoon, breezing in through the back door wearing a pair of hip-hugging jeans and a tank top that showcased her deep cleavage. An inch of brown roots grew into her long yellow hair. 

“I know who you are!” she said. “You’re Jamison, aren’t you. I’ve seen your picture on Violet’s nightstand. Her and Harry talk about you all the time. How’s the job-hunt going? Tough in this economy, I bet. So, what brings you down?”

Possibly you will, Jamison thought. “Mother broke her leg over the weekend. I came to…” What indeed had he come to do? Wandering the house all morning, unable to settle down to his work or concentrate on the book he was reading, he’d had a desultory chat with the nurse who took over from Pauline, then went outside and was driven back in by the heat. 

“Violet broke her leg? Oh my God! Why didn’t anyone call me?” She rushed upstairs to his mother’s room, leaving him in the hall. “Violet, sweetie!” he could hear her say. She was a loud talker. He couldn’t hear her mother’s voice. “How did this happen? Are you in pain? Are these your pills? Let me help you into a fresh nightie. Oh, you’ve already done that?” She was talking to the nurse now, Jamison guessed. “How many of these is she supposed to have? Are you here for the whole day? That’s what I thought. Let me get you a nice cold glass of tea,” she said to his mother. “Back in a tick.”

She came galloping down the stairs. “Where is poor Harry, in the den?”

“What exactly do you do for my parents?” he said.

“Everything,” she said as she whizzed past him. “Harry!” he heard her say. “Has anyone made you lunch?”

He called his sister. “Who is this woman Irene? Have you heard of her before?”

“She used to be their gardener,” Catherine said. “Then mother lost her license after that fender bender and Irene started driving her to the store. Now she helps them do whatever they can’t manage. She’s become indispensible.”

“Have you met her?” Jamison said.

“At Easter. She’s something else, isn’t she?”

“Mother says she helps her pay the bills.”

“Really. I didn’t know that.” There was a silence between them. “That could be a problem.”

“Well, I can’t stay here forever,” Jamison said. 

“You’ve been there less than twenty-four hours,” Catherine said. “Please just make sure Mother is taken care of, okay? Call the nursing service and set up a firm schedule. I’ll get down there as soon as I can.”

Jamison called the service, packed his bag and kissed his mother goodbye.

“You’re leaving me?” she said. 

“Cathy will be down soon.”

“How soon?” 

“Very soon.” 

It wasn’t until he reached the interstate that he realized he’d forgotten to say goodbye to his father.

***

Jamison visited some straight friends, a married couple, in Nantucket over Labor Day weekend. Another gay man had been invited as well. The other man’s 
name was James, but everyone called him Jamie.

“That’s funny,” Jamison said. “Jamie is what my family calls me; it was my name growing up.”

“I didn’t know that,” his hostess said. “Why didn’t you keep it?”

“I wanted to be taken seriously in college. I was a very earnest student. I didn’t think Jamie suited me. No offense,” he said to Jamie.

Jamie laughed. He laughed easily, his teeth white against his summer tan. “None taken. I was an absolute slacker in college. I don’t think I grew up until I was about thirty.”

They all laughed at that because he was only thirty-five, and for all his supposed slacking off, was a thoracic surgeon now. Jamison liked him more than he’d liked anyone in years. They took a walk on the empty beach after dinner, letting the waves wash over their feet. Just as Jamie leaned in to kiss Jamison, his breath still sweet from dessert, Jamison’s cell phone rang.

“Is this Mister Jamison?” a strange voice said. “This is Wendy from Ever Care.”

“Ever Care?” Jamison said. “No thank you, whatever it is.”

“Ever Care Nursing,” Wendy said. “I look after your mother, Miss Violet? I am calling to give you my notice. I know how to do my job, Mister Jamison. I won’t be interfered with.”

“How are you being interfered with?” Jamison asked. Jamie crossed his arms and looked out to sea.

“And another thing is I think she is the one taking your mother’s pills. She is accusing us, but I think it’s her and that boyfriend of hers.”

“Who? Which pills? What boyfriend?”

“Anyway, I’m leaving now. I guess Geraldine will be here in the morning.”

“Now as in this minute?” Jamison said. But Wendy had already hung up.

While Jamie sat on the sand, Jamison found Ever Care’s number and asked for an immediate replacement. Then he called his sister’s cell.

“God it’s gorgeous out here!” she said.

“Where is out there?”

“Colorado!” she said. “The J-Bar Ranch. I told you. We’re here for a week.”

“What about the suckling baby?” he asked.

“He’s portable,” his sister said. “The kids are having a ball.”

“Great,” said Jamison. He told her about Wendy’s call. “I have no idea what she’s talking about.”

“Well, you better get down there,” Catherine said.

“Why not you this time?”

“Are you deaf? I’m in Colorado!”

Jamison left Nantucket in the morning, and was in Virginia by late afternoon.

“What’s going on?” he asked his mother, who was sitting up in a wheelchair. She looked tired, and thinner, and paler than before. She wasn’t wearing make-up. A feather of worry tickled his mind.

“Absolutely nothing,” his mother said. “Occasionally I get a visitor.”

“I got a call from a nurse named Wendy who seemed pretty upset.”

“Oh, Wendy,” his mother scoffed. “She was no good.”

“How so?”

“Well, she just wasn’t. I don’t know. Irene didn’t like her. Thank goodness for Irene. She’s been doing everything.”

“Such as?”

“Making sure Nella and the nurses are paid. Going to the bank for Daddy.”

“Are you sure that’s a good idea?”

“You have a better one?” his mother said.

He talked to the nurse on duty.

“I don’t want any trouble,” the nurse said. “But that Miss Irene, she acts like she’s the Queen of Sheba. Your mother is such a lady. But Miss Irene gets all up in your face. She accused me of taking a sweater. A sweater in this heat? I found it in your mother’s bottom drawer.”

“Please don’t quit,” Jamison said.

“Oh, it takes more than that,” she said.

Irene arrived the next morning in Jamison’s father’s Mercedes. It purred into the driveway. She appeared to be listening to the end of a song on the radio before she got out with a bag of groceries.  

“Is that my father’s car?” Jamison said.

“Well, I can’t be expected to use my own car if I’m running all over town.” 

“You kept it overnight.”

“Uh huh.” She handed him the groceries. 

“Listen, Irene, I got a call from the nurse who quit the other evening.”

Irene sighed. “She isn’t the first one I’ve had to let go.”

“But she quit.”

“Well, that’s her story. You know how they are.”

“The nurses?” Jamison said.

Blacks,” Irene said, silently mouthing the word. 

Jamison didn’t know what to say to that. Nothing seemed like the best idea. “What’s this about pills? Was she talking about Mother’s Valium?”

“I had to refill the bottle twice last week.”

“And you think the nurses are stealing them.”

“They sell them downtown.”

“Really? How do you know that?”

She looked at him as if he were clueless. “Common knowledge, Jamie. That’s what they do.”

Out of the whole conversation, what bothered him most was that she called him Jamie instead of Jamison.

***

He went to his father.

“Daddy, Mother says Irene goes to the bank for you. Does she have your PIN for the ATM?”

“Of course she does,” his father said. “How else is she going to get the cash?”

“I think you should change your PIN and use the ATM yourself.”

“Why would I do that?”

“Because we don’t know Irene all that well, and you’ve given her access to your account. She might take money for herself.”

“She is only allowed two hundred dollars each time,” his father said. 

“Well, but…are you there when she takes it out?”

“Now, what would be the point of that? If I were there I could do it myself.”

“That’s my point, Daddy. I think you should do it yourself.”

“Don’t have to,” he said. “I have Irene.”

Later that night, he looked in on his mother. She lay under a light blanket, the bulk of her cast looking like a hidden animal. She seemed to be sleeping deeply, but then she opened her eyes.

“Come and sit next to my bed, darling.” 

Jamison sat down. “Listen, Mother, I want to talk to you about Irene.”

I know it,” she said in a matter-of-fact voice, the voice Jamison thought of as really hers. “She is as trashy as she can be. But she’s amusing and she’s willing, and we need someone to help us. Who cares if she pockets a few Valium or takes fifty dollars.”

“I do,” he said. “I don’t like it at all. That kind of dishonesty doesn’t have limits. And she bothers the nurses. She’s bigoted.”

“In a month this cast will come off and I won’t need any nurses. I know Irene, I know what she’s capable of. She’s trash, but she’s not a criminal.”

“I’m surprised you’re letting yourself be taken advantage of, Mother. You’re too smart for that.”

“I’m not being taken advantage of. I know perfectly well what she’s doing.”

***

When Jamison got back to Philadelphia, he reconnected with Jamie and they started seeing each other regularly. He got another call from a nurse named Helen who threatened to quit but was persuaded to stay on. It was his sister’s turn to go to Virginia.

“I can’t,” she said. “I have mastitis.”

“You’re making that up,” Jamison said. “I have never, ever heard of it.”

“Well, you wouldn’t have,” Catherine said. “It’s an infection of the breast, and it’s very painful. Women get it from nursing.”

“That is really unfair,” Jamison said. “I’m seeing someone now.”

“What is this, Rock, Paper, Scissors? I’ll go down the next time, I swear.”

When Jamison got to Virginia he was surprised to be told that his mother was in the hospital. He drove to the hospital and found her alone in a double room, looking two sizes too small for her bed. Her cast had been removed.

“Grim, aren’t they?” she said. “Hospital rooms.”

“I’ll have some flowers sent over right away,” Jamison said. “Why are you here? Nella didn’t seem to know.” 

“The leg is not healing,” she said. “They’re deciding whether to put a pin in the bone, which may or may not be successful, I’m told. I don’t know.” She looked out the window. “This is getting rather tiresome.”

Jamison was at a loss. It was tiresome. He tried to think of something happy to say.

“I think I’m in love.”

His mother turned back to him and smiled. “I’m so glad.”

“Yes, well. With a man.”

“I assumed so. You’re still gay, aren’t you?”

“I thought you were in denial about that.”

“I was, it’s true. For quite a long while I thought you were mistaken. It’s like being told someone you love is leaving you – you hold out hope that they’ll change their mind.”

“Has someone you love ever left you?” Jamison said.

“Oh, yes. When I was twenty-one I was in love with a musician, a jazz pianist. My parents were scandalized. I would have married him. I would have done anything for him.”

“Why did he leave you?”

“He was Jewish. He wanted a Jewish wife.”

“You were heartbroken.”

“I thought I’d die.” Her eyes swam even still at the memory. Jamison pretended to be interested in the ceiling. When he looked at her again, she was composed, her hands clasped in her tiny lap. 

“I never knew about that,” he said.

“Well, you don’t tell your children that their father was your second choice.”

“No, I suppose not.” He wanted to ask if she loved his father, but realized that she would say yes regardless of how she felt. 

The hospital nurse brought in a tray that had a plate of brown meat under gravy on it and some slimy-looking green beans. He watched his mother eat. Then she laid her head back on the starched white pillow and fell asleep.

When he got back to the house he found a strange man sitting with Irene in the kitchen. He wore plaster-splattered jeans and a sleeveless undershirt that showed off his muscled arms.  

“Hello, I’m Jamison,” Jamison said, extending his hand. 

“Hey,” the man said, ignoring Jamison’s hand. Not even looking at Jamison, in fact.

Irene smiled brightly and said, “Bobby, this is Violet and Harry’s son! Bobby’s been helping patch those leaks in the roof. You been over to the hospital to see your mom?” 

“What leaks in the roof?” Jamison could see his father in the den watching the television news. “Has my father had dinner yet?” he asked.

“We just called out for a pizza,” she said.

“Pizza!” Jamison said.

“Oh yeah, Harry loves pizza,” Bobby said 

“I’m no cook,” Irene said apologetically. 

Jamison went into the den. “Hi, Daddy.” 

His father looked up. “Jamie! My goodness! What brings you down?“

“Daddy, do you like pizza?”

“Never had it,” his father said.

Jamison turned and went back to the kitchen. “Get out,” he said.

Irene looked at him as if he were talking to someone else. “Get what out?”

“Yourself. Get out. You and your boyfriend. I don’t want to see you here again. And leave the keys to the Mercedes here. Take your own fucking car.” He had never spoken to anyone with such force and determination. He realized he was shaking. Bobby looked at him with mild interest. Irene’s face became an angry mask.

“You can’t tell me what to do. You’re not the boss of me. Who’s going to take care of Violet and Harry? Not you.” She sneered. “You don’t give enough of a shit about them to come down here more than once a year.”

“Actually, I do give a shit about them, and I am here now.” He picked up her purse, heavy as a suitcase, and held it out to her. It occurred to him that she probably had something in there that she’d taken from his mother, but whatever it was, she could have it. He would be glad to replace both it and her.

He watched them leave the kitchen, and heard the front door slam. He knew she’d be back tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that, but he would be there to send her away; he would be there indefinitely. After a while, he made his father a ham sandwich and brought it to him in the den.

His father sat where he always did, in a reclining chair turned toward the TV. The sofa where Jamison sat sagged sadly under his weight.

“Daddy,” he said. “Mother is unwell. Her leg isn’t healing. I spoke to her doctor. He told her they might be able to put a pin in it, then maybe the bone will fuse. But truthfully the problem is her circulation; her leg is not getting enough blood.”

His father looked hard at him as he spoke. Jamison had trouble controlling his face, keeping his chin from trembling. “What they think is they will have to amputate her leg, Daddy. Mother doesn’t know about it yet. Her doctor will speak to her tomorrow.” He was about to suggest that he and his father should be there when the doctor told his mother. His father cleared his throat.

“I wonder if you could –“

“Anything,” Jamison said.

He held out his glass. “Bourbon on the rocks. A splash of water.”

Jamison made the drink and went back to the sofa. His father shook his head at something on the TV. “That Gingrich,” he said. “What a character.”

Later, Jamison sat out on the patio drinking gin and tonic. It was cooler now, summer was ending, though the crickets kept up their clamor. A high breeze rattled the dry poplar leaves, and the air seemed to carry a brewing storm, but as the night wore on it came to nothing, and by two o’clock all was calm. He finished his drink and took a walk down his parents’ road, then turned onto the street where his friend Paul lived when they were twelve and in Little League together. He passed Paul’s house and turned at the next left. He could have walked this route in his sleep.

He pulled out his phone, pressed speed dial for Jamie’s number, and was surprised when Jamie answered.

“The phone is right by my bed,” Jamie said. “I’m on call tonight.” 

“You won’t believe where I am standing,” Jamison said. “In front of my old high school.”

“Is it the same as you remember?” Jamie said.

“Yes! Exactly the same.” He looked at the low brick buildings, the portico that ran between them, and could almost hear the bells. He hadn’t been miserable there. “You’d think they would have added another building or something. A different color of paint.”

“How is your mother?” Jamie said. 

He didn’t want to talk about his mother, so he said, “My father is losing – no, correction -- has lost his marbles. I don’t know why I didn’t see it before, but he’s always been self-absorbed. I guess I thought he was just getting more so. But no. He is no longer compos mentis. I see that now. Clear as a bell.”

“Are you drunk?” Jamie said. Jamison could hear the smile in his voice.

“Yes. Very. Deservedly so.”

“I’m sorry about your father.”

“I’m not. Not yet. One sorry at a time.”

***

Jamison’s mother’s doctor was almost as old as she was, but he had a couple of younger doctors with him who appeared to agree with everything he said. Jamison held his mother’s hand while the doctor spoke to her. His mother looked out the window the whole time, until the doctor took the sheet off her leg and pointed his pen at her blackening big toe. Her instep and ankle were a streaky orange-red. Her leg was brown and the flesh scaly to a few inches below her knee; it looked to Jamison like it was made out of wood. The doctor pressed his thumb against her shin to show how the skin didn’t give, and pointed out that the rest of her toes were turning various shades of green.

“Excuse me,” Jamison said. He went to the bathroom and vomited into the toilet as quietly as he could. When he came out of the bathroom, the doctors were gone.

“I don’t blame you,” his mother said. “It’s an awful sight. It deserves to be taken off, I think.”

“No,” Jamison said. “I think they should wait and see.”

“If they wait I might die. I might die anyway. My heart has gotten weak. I knew this was happening. It hasn’t come as a shock. They’re doing it tomorrow.”

“I’ll call Cathy,” he said.

He wept as he told Catherine, and wept after he hung up, the hopeless, helpless tears of a child. He went back to his parents’ house. His father was in the den.

“Jamie!” he said. “Good to see you! What brings you down?”

“Mother’s surgery,” Jamison said, and left the room.

Catherine came that evening with her latest baby.

“Now, he’s the last one, I hope,” their mother said. “Adorable as they all are. Jamie is in love, did you know?”

“No, I didn’t,” Catherine said. She looked at Jamison inquiringly. “He didn’t tell me. How great.”

“It is great,” their mother said with unexpected vehemence. “Everyone should be in love at least once.”

“You were.” Jamison smiled.

“I was indeed.”

Catherine looked from Jamison to their mother. “I am missing something, I can see.”

***

Jamison had a dream that night that his mother was playing the piano. Then Jamie was his mother’s doctor. Then Catherine appeared with a tiny baby who turned into a baseball glove. The next morning, he got up and went to the hospital before the sun had completely risen.

His mother was awake. “Darling, what are you doing here? They’re not coming for me for hours.”

“Couldn’t sleep, funny dreams.” He sat down next to her bed. “I wanted to see you off.”




Louise Marburg is a graduate of the MFA program in fiction at Columbia University’s school of the arts. She has been published in Redbook, River City, and The Crescent Review, and has been a contributor at the Sewanee Writer’s Conference and a member of the community of writers at Squaw Valley. In her former life she was a graphic designer and magazine art director.


Q&A

Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece? 
A: As a straight woman writing about a gay man, I was surprised by how easily and naturally I inhabited Jamison. 

Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: My graduate school advisor, Helen Schulman, told me once, “You gotta give it up,” when writing fiction, and I’ve been giving it up ever since.

Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, William Trevor, Antonya Nelson, and Carol Shields are longtime favorites that immediately come to mind, but there are so many more. I am in love with the short story. It was after reading The Moons of Jupiter that I decided to devote myself to writing fiction.

Q: Describe your writing space for us. Are you someone who finds the muse in a public space such as a café, or in a cave of one’s own? 
A: Honestly, my computer screen is my writing place. I don’t need anything else and I can write anywhere, but I prefer to write at home. I share a loft in New York City with my husband, who is an artist, and we work within sight of each other.