Empty

I smelled like syrup, was my first thought. My second was that my stomach would attack me if I didn’t feed it soon. I could feel the wad of cash in my left pocket, a few George Washington’s protruding out. My feet argued with me as I ran up the stairs to my room to dispose of the cash. Work was productive today.

In mid-shirt-pulling-off my father yells, “Brett, come on, we need to go.”

Go, I’m thinking? Go where? The only place I’m going is right in front of the refrigerator. My mother hasn’t been to the store in a while, so there are probably only eggs and bagels. They don’t stand a chance.

“Go where?” I yell, attempting to carry my voice the length of the house. I stuff the many one dollar bills into a dresser drawer alongside a bag of rubber bands, professional wrestling trading cards and a napkin with a poem I had scribbled on from a previous work day. I flip my shoes off my feet, one shoe flailing up against my bookshelf and another disappearing over the bed.

“To the hospital to see your papa. Come on!”

I pull my syrup-smelling work shirt back over my white undershirt, feeling a bit claustrophobic from the encapsulating filth. I run over to grab the shoe by the bookshelf and hobble over to the other side of the bed to find the other. No point in changing. When my father has that tone in his voice I’ll line up like a soldier ready for duty.

Brittany’s in the room down the hall and I go down to get the inside scoop on this hospital visit. She’s sitting on her bed surrounded by the pinkest walls I’ve ever seen and she’s brushing her dark brown hair. She’s my twin and normally has red hair – she dyed it. I hate it.

“So what’s going on with this hospital thing…is he okay?”

She doesn’t answer me right away, then stops, puts the brush back on her makeup table surrounded by nail polish, her hair straightener (the third one at this point) and a bottle of Vera Wang perfume. She looks up at me with black eye liner around her green eyes and says, “I don’t know. Mom’s already there. It’s probably pretty serious. Why do you still have your Pancake House shirt on? It stinks!”

Lovely isn’t it, I think? I don’t answer her and instead go back down the hallway before my dad gets that impatient look on his face where his eyes squint and his lips form in a sharp point at the middle.

 —–

The car ride to the hospital takes us up the Bypass and then over Route 4. My head swivels to the right, positioning my nose right up against the window, my eyes glazing over and my hand instinctively goes to my rumbling belly. I can’t see it, but I know Frisch’s is a little ways down. I’m tired of Frisch’s because it’s a trademark at the Milam household, but I’d kill for a Swiss Miss and a vanilla Coke to appease my infuriated stomach.

Walking up to the hospital, the wind is creeping up on my footsteps, but thankfully October is still holding on to some of August’s warm summer air. My dad is five steps ahead of my sister and me with a determined stride, perhaps liable to knock any innocent bystanders out of the way.

We walk into the room where I immediately notice the large form of my grandfather on a hospital bed seemingly unconscious. My grandma hangs over the bed with tears streaks on her rosy cheeks, but she tries to mask them with a smile followed by an almost undetectable sniff. My uncle Bobby is over in the corner of the room with a stoic look in his face and my mother with her usual air of “take charge attitude” stands on the other side of the bed. I’m scared to get too close because his skin has a film-like yellow quality to it. I don’t know what to say. So I sit down on a hard, cold chair against the wall.

Even though the situation seems dire, I’m still thinking, when this is over, I’m definitely getting some big hamburger filled with grease, ketchup, mustard and cheese.

Over the next hour, other family members arrive, my older brothers Brandon and Chris, older sisters Cassie and Angie, Aunt Michelle and her kids – along with Angie’s husband Dale.

Chris is still his usual joking self, and he says to me, “Hey, the Unabomber’s here! What are you building in the basement now?”

Everyone laughs, including me, and I don’t answer him back. When I was a kid, I had large glasses and unkempt hair. Then I would have fits of sleepwalking where I’d walk into my mother’s room and hover over her. Once Chris learned about that, he started calling me the “Unabomber” and it has been a running joke for years.

Brandon looks over at me. “He’s done building bombs. He’s got bodies down there instead.”

I decide to answer back this time. “Uh, the basement’s perfect temperature for preserving dead bodies. Besides, you didn’t seem to mind being in those bushes the other night. Here are your binoculars back.”

I pretend to hand him back his binoculars. He takes them and says, “Where is Uncle Chris at? I need a razor blade.” Chris, my dad’s brother, created these string of suicide jokes that my brother and I find hilarious.

“Why go with a razor when you can do pills? I’m sure they have a stockpile of every variety here.” My dad’s giving Brandon and me that look again. No more jokes.

My grandfather is moved to ICU eventually and we all wait in a room filled with chairs and the aroma of coffee. They also have hot tea and while that won’t do much for my hunger, I’m thinking it is something.

So I’m making some, not really sure what I’m doing, even this seems too futuristic for me and Michelle says, “Don’t forget to add sugar.”

She hands me two sugar packets and I dump that in there feeling a bit like a mad scientist hopefully creating something worthwhile. With steam curling up out of the Styrofoam cup, I take a sip forgetting that it’s boiling hot. I almost drop the cup as I back away from the table.

I sit down defeated, still holding the cup, but refusing to drink it. Not only did it burn me, but it tastes like crap. Everyone’s engaged in conversations, at times, fits of laughter over a story, as usual Chris the purveyor of those. Brandon talks to my dad about football, something to do with the Cowboys and how they’ll be sure to win the Super Bowl this year.

My mother, having been the liaison between our group and the ICU crowd, comes back to us and says, “It’s time.”

We all get up and squeeze into the tiny room. A female chaplain comes in and I whisper to my brother, “What’s a chaplain?” I know exactly what a chaplain is, but I need to make conversation with someone.

“You don’t know what a chaplain is?” He says it in that tone that suggests he finally has something over me in the brains department. I won’t crush his moment.

“Does it matter? I plan on stalking her after we get out of here.” He rolls his eyes and walks over to the corner of the room.

The chaplain gets us in a circle to hold hands and say something about Beach, my grandpa. I’m holding my sister’s hand and we’re both sweating profusely. At the moment, with the aroma of that hospital cleaning smell battling the smell of my syrupy shirt, I’m thinking I need to say something. I have a way with words so everyone thinks I should say something. But I’m too scared. I don’t know why.

“He was the smartest man I ever knew.” That’s what I want to say. I can feel it at the back of my mouth, just waiting. I remain silent. We say a quick prayer and commence to waiting again.

The heart monitor suddenly begins beeping like a car alarm. A nurse resets it.

“Sorry about that. It does that sometimes.”

She leaves and a collective sigh washes over the room. Someone brings in apple juice, grape juice and cookies. The cookies normally would have looked scrumptious to me, but instead they look like alien life forms. I chug the grape juice.

We each walk up to my grandfather now to say our last goodbye because we collectively sense the end is near. Brandon, someone I usually regard as rock solid, begins wailing in the corner…the most horrible sound I’ve ever heard. It’s as if a dog had been hit by a car and was lying by the side of the road whining in agony. Dale drops to his knees with his hands over his head. Chris has to leave the room. I clutch my sister’s sweaty hand and look into her eyes.

The line on the heart monitor goes flat. A small blip and then flat again. The beeping is real this time and it seems to scream forever.

As we pour out of the hospital like survivors of the apocalypse, with smiles that serve only as a mask, a general consensus has gone up: we’re going to the International House of Pancakes. This seems like the most absurd idea to me. Eat? At a time like this? Shouldn’t we be doing something else, anything else?

As I walk into IHOP, I notice a girl with a tight red shirt over large breasts. The shirt is tucked in just right so that you get a good look at her from behind. She has eyes like Charlize Theron: piercing and direct. She glances at me and I look at my feet. I feel guilty.

I order the scrambled eggs with bacon and a side of pancakes. I nibble on a few of the pancakes, but I’m not hungry anymore.

This is a picture of my grandfather a few years before he got terribly ill. He’s working in his office (which is located at his house) and even though I’d like to remember him for this picture – him doing something he loved – I can’t help but remember him through the above story.
This is a picture of my grandfather a few years before he got terribly ill. He’s working in his office (which is located at his house) and even though I’d like to remember him for this picture – him doing something he loved – I can’t help but remember him through the above story.

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