“Exit Seekers” by Tamara Titus

Welcome back to our new series of prizewinning “viral” prose for these days of social distancing. Our staff here at TMR hope that you are all having a good start to the new week. We are kicking off this Tuesday with the 2018 Editors’ Prize winner in fiction, “Exit Seekers” by Tamara Titus. In this piece, Titus’s clever characters learn lessons on friendship and forgiveness, and the struggles of aging. 

Exit Seekers

by Tamara Titus

Even before I open my eyes, I smell smoke. At first I think I’m still dreaming—too many memories of my time under the stars, when everyone smelled like smoke or sweat—but then I see Cecil’s outline over by the open window. He’s sitting in his wheelchair with a blanket over his legs, and I can hear the oxygen machine chugging even as the haze from his cigarette settles around us.

“Cecil,” I whisper. The digital clock on my nightstand reads 2:13, and the hallway outside is quiet.

His head is bowed, and he doesn’t answer. While I watch, the orange tip of his cigarette falls into his lap.

“Cecil!” I hiss, and his head jerks. He mumbles, and I pull my chair over to the bed. When I’m fully awake, I can transfer without assistance, but even then I like to know there’s someone within shouting distance, just in case. I set the brakes and hoist my ass into the seat. Then I settle my left stump onto the pad. It only takes five seconds, but it’s too long. When I look back at Cecil, his nightshirt is already on fire.

Cecil screams, and I press the call button clipped to the bedrail and wheel over to the door in nothing but my undershorts. The corridor outside is empty.

I yell Fire! twice before rolling back into the room and grabbing a couple of hand towels at the sink. Cecil flails with his good hand while I soak the towels. I’m wrapping them around my fists when the bedspread catches, and I have just enough sense to switch off the oxygen before I grab the blanket from Cecil’s lap and press my arms against him.

At some point there is noise behind me—people yelling over the fire alarm. The light comes on, and someone blasts us with a portable fire extinguisher. Cecil howls. I hold up my right hand and squint. My skin is splotchy, and pain moves like lightning across my synapses. “Don’t let them take us to Grady,” I say to the nurse closest to me, but she’s not listening. She wraps a clean towel around my hand and wheels me out the door.

 

When the ambulance pulls up at Grady Hospital, all I can think is it’s a good thing they’ve already shot me full of morphine. Before I moved into Cedar Grove, I spent my share of nights in the ER here. Winter nights, mostly. I lost my foot to frostbite, and they tried hard to talk me into going to a nursing home. But I knew I’d have to clean up, dry out. And I wasn’t ready for that. Not then.

Once we get inside, I can hear the EMTs bringing the staff up to speed. Cecil’s next door in room seven, and I know they’ll work him up first cause he’s bad off. I close my eyes and see the blue print of the dressing gown seared into his flesh. Then my brain misfires, and pain licks me in places I no longer possess. I’m drifting when I hear the one voice I do not want to hear tonight.

“Ben Gibson. I thought you were done being a frequent flyer.”

It’s been almost four years since I broke Dr. Loflin’s nose. I was high on a little bit of everything that night, and I had a seizure in the middle of Briarcliff Road. Apparently, when I woke up in the ER, I woke up swinging. I don’t remember any of it, but I’m sure she does. “A little bird told me you’d been missing me,” I say.

Dr. Loflin pulls up one of those rolling stools and takes a seat beside the gurney. “And a little bird told me you were smoking in bed.”

I’d like to pinch her, grab the tender flesh on the back of her triceps and squeeze like my sister Angie used to do. But I know what that’ll get me, so instead I flip the blanket down and point to my stumps. “I’m a diabetic, not a dumbass.”

“In your case, Mr. Gibson, one diagnosis does not necessarily preclude the other. But I’ll make sure your objection is noted in your chart.” She touches my wrist with one gloved finger. “In the meantime, why don’t you tell me what happened.”

“Cecil set himself on fire, and I was trying to put him out.”

When she lifts the dressing from my hand, I hear her suck in a breath. She scoots closer, and I examine her face while she examines my hand. Whoever fixed her nose did a good job; you can’t even tell it was broken. She’s changed her hairstyle, too. There’s silver at her temples now, fine hairs that almost disappear into her blond bob.

“Are you burned anywhere else?” she asks.

“I don’t think so.”

“Okay,” she says as she rotates my hand. “Okay.”

I can tell by the lack of ill will in her voice that it’s not okay, and for the first time in weeks, I feel a panic attack coming on. It only happens when I’m in close quarters.

“On a scale of one to ten, how bad is your hand hurting now?”

My palm is puckered, all bright red and weeping. “At least an eight.”

She stands and presses a button on the wall. “Not for long,” she says. Then a nurse steps in and hands her a syringe, and it’s Dr. Loflin’s turn to make my world go black.

 

When I get back to Cedar Grove the next afternoon, I notice right away that Cecil’s things are gone. The big picture frame that said family. His wall calendar, his clothes. I’m lying in bed staring at my hand, which is wrapped so thick it looks like an oven mitt, when Marianne taps on the open door.

“Knock, knock,” she says, and she waits.

Marianne looks a little like Liv Tyler, only with brown eyes, and she’s wearing a dress that falls to the floor. It suits her frame—it softens her elbows and hips—but I withhold the compliment. Her smile is too tense.

I nod at the chair by the bed. “Is Cecil dead?” I ask as soon as she sits down.

“No.” She glances at the empty side of the closet. “But they’re going to keep him at Grady for a while. He needs skin grafts.”

“I take it I’m in for a new roommate?”

Marianne pulls the tray table over to her and sets a folder on it. Normally we discuss my care in her office, which is really just a windowless closet at the end of the West Unit hallway. The folder is bad news.

“Cecil’s daughters have filed a grievance with the state licensing agency. They want to know how their father, who is wheelchair-bound and partially paralyzed, could have gained access to cigarettes that they did not provide.” She folds her hands in her lap, and I wonder for the thousandth time how she can do this. How she can come to work, day after day, with people who are batshit crazy, and not wind up that way herself?

“Maybe he lifted them,” I say.

“Ben.” She peers at me over her glasses. A strand of hair slips across her shoulder and rests against the side of her breast.

“I shared a smoke with him twice out in the courtyard. That’s it. Both times I gave him one, and he smoked the whole thing outside.”

Marianne opens the folder. “We’re instituting a new smoking policy.”

I don’t move, but the room does. It shrinks around us like something out of Alice in Wonderland.

“From now on, your cigarettes will stay in my office. You can smoke three times a day, but only with supervision. I need you to pick one time in the morning and a couple in the afternoon.” She pulls a form from the folder and turns it around so I can see it. “On the weekends, you’ll have to get the shift supervisor,” she says as she sets a pen on the table.

“I’m grandfathered,” I say. Smoking is the one vice they let me keep. I had to give up booze and drugs, but they promised I could keep smoking as long as I lived at Cedar Grove. It’s written in my resident contract.

“That hasn’t changed,” Marianne says.

“Right. I’m just restricted to three a day, with you as a babysitter.”

She pulls something else from the folder. “Maybe you could tell me what this is,” she says, and as soon as I see the handwriting, I feel my sugar spike. She’s got my list. Normally I keep it on me at all times, but at night I stick it in the Bible in my nightstand.

She points to Rose Green’s name and reads aloud: “Wears Mardi Gras beads and a bad wig. Always has lipstick on her teeth. BSC.” Marianne looks at me. “What’s BSC?”

Keeping tabs on the people here is how I stay sane. It’s how I stay separate from them. I pick up the pen with my good hand. “Batshit crazy,” I say.

“That’s not how we refer to our residents with dementia.”

“Tell that to the CNAs.” Cedar Grove has a politically correct term for everything. When somebody falls out of his chair and busts his head it’s a bad outcome. And the nut jobs who try to escape are exit seekers.

I push the release form away and turn to the last page of my list, to the newest admissions. Under Cecil Carter it says Emphysema. Stroke. I add the word moron in all caps.

Marianne closes the folder and leaves the form on the table between us. “I’m sorry about your hand, Ben. Angie said she’d be in tomorrow to check on you.” She delivers that bomb so smoothly, it’s like she’s opening the cargo doors of a C-130 from an altitude of twenty-five thousand feet.

I tuck my list into my shirt pocket and press the nurse call button. “Do me a favor, Marianne. Come back when you have good news.”

 

Cecil’s departure means I have a room to myself until they get another male admission. There’s a lot to be said for privacy, especially in this place, and I briefly consider masturbating. But I’m right-handed, and the pain is stronger than my desire to get off. That night, my hand wakes me up at three am, and I watch National Geographic and Pawn Stars until I can’t stand it anymore. Then I hit the call button and ask the nurse for more pain meds.

“You’re not due for another dose until seven. I can bring you a couple of ibuprofen,” she says.

I rest my burned hand against my stomach and imagine the night sky. Orion in winter, Centaurus in spring.

“How about a smoke break?” I say. “A quick one.”

“I’m sorry, Ben. You know I can’t.” A minute later she brings the ibuprofen in a tiny white paper cup. She watches me swallow it before she steps back into the hall, and when I’m sure she’s gone, I roll over and stare at the empty bed.

Cecil was a good roommate; he just got desperate. Right now he’s probably alone in a third-floor room at Grady, staring at a window he can’t see out of. I tuck my hand to my chest and wonder if he hurts as bad as I do. And if there’s a part of him that would jump from that window if he could.

 

I’m still dozing the next morning when I hear someone settle into the armchair beside me.

“I brought coffee,” Angie says. Waking up to my sister’s voice is a little like waking up naked under a streetlight. When it happens, you know some seriously bad shit has gone down. Angie’s thighs press against the seams of her slacks. Now that she’s pushing fifty, she’s starting to pack on the pounds. She sets the Starbucks cup on the tray table between us.

I take a sip of the coffee, and it’s almost as good as the drugs they’re giving me. She even put real sugar in it.

“Marianne said you had second-degree burns.” She tugs on her earring, a nervous tic she developed when we got sent to foster care. Angie protected me back then.

“That’s what they tell me.”

“She also said your roommate’s daughters are pretty upset.”

I close my eyes and count to ten. I know what she’s thinking. She’s worried somehow she’ll get sued. Angie’s never screwed up in her entire life, and even now, even after I’ve been clean for two years, she still keeps me at arm’s length. “He’s not my roommate anymore.”

“Did you give that man cigarettes, Ben?”

I didn’t, but she won’t believe me. Angie hasn’t believed me since I took her Honda and totaled it when I was fifteen.

“I should have,” I say, and I hold up my bandaged hand. “I’m paying for it anyway, aren’t I?”

 

The West Unit corridor feels a thousand miles long now that I’ve only got one good hand. I tried to talk the physical therapy department into giving me a motorized chair, a hot rod to cruise around in till I heal up, but they said it would allow my upper body strength to degrade.

I pass Ella on the main hall. She’s got one hand on the rail and one hand on the collar of her nightgown. “Bring me a drink of whiskey,” she says, and for the first time in months, an ache comes over me, a need so strong it nearly blisters me inside.

Marcus is loading the vending machines when I get there, and he hands me a 3 Musketeers. “Your friend’s back,” he says.

“I try not to make friends in this place,” I tell him as I hand him my dollar. “Everybody’s got one foot in the grave already.”

Marcus laughs. “Not you.”

We both look down at my stumps. “No, not me.”

“Seriously, though,” Marcus says. “He’s back.”

“Who?” I ask.

“Your roommate. Sparky.”

I’m pretty sure Marcus is the one who bought cigarettes for Cecil, and I’d like nothing more than to lay him out. Unfortunately, I can’t even reach his head. “Where did they put him?”

“Over on South. Right next to the nurses’ station.”

I look down the corridor to my right. South is the dementia ward, a hellhole full of old women who scream and cry at all hours. Rose Green, of the Mardi Gras beads and the bad wig, lives on South. Cecil will never sleep again.

“The Dr Pepper’s been empty for two weeks,” I tell Marcus. “I’m about ready to call the ombudsman.”

He laughs, and when I don’t join in, he quits stocking the drink machine.

“What crawled up your ass?”

“Nothing. Open that door for me,” I tell him, nodding toward the courtyard. When it slams shut behind me, I wheel myself along among the flowers: salvia and snapdragons, bergamot and butterfly bush. Plants I know only because Angie teaches me their names on Sundays when she visits. She could take me out of here if she wanted to, but she’s never offered. She just brings plants and talks to me while she sets them in the dirt.

I stop when I get to the gazebo and tear open the 3 Musketeers bar. That’s when I notice Cecil at the far end of the courtyard, on the patio, where I’m still allowed to smoke. He doesn’t look too bad, considering. His face is swollen, and he’s got bandages on both arms. I take a bite of the candy. The sweetness is excruciating; it reminds me of the phantom pain in my feet. When Cecil sees me, I wheel over to the patio and turn my chair so we’re parallel to each other.

“You know you fucked us both pretty good,” I say. I glance at him, but he’s staring at his hands. They’re wrapped in gauze all the way to his fingertips. “Marianne’s got my cigarettes now. I can only have three a day, and she has to sit with me while I smoke.”

“I’m sorry, Ben,” he says, but on his tongue the words have too many syllables.

“Yeah? Well, at least they didn’t move me to South.” I turn my chair around and tap on the window until one of the CNAs opens the door. Inside, Marcus is closing the drink machine, and when I roll by, I give him the finger.

 

The next morning, Marianne is late. I’ve been sitting on the patio for ten minutes, watching Marcus drill holes in the brick wall, when she finally shows up with her hair still damp. “Morning,” she says, and she hands me a giant gray bib.

“What’s this?”

She puts on her sunglasses and pulls one of the rocking chairs off about ten feet so she won’t catch the brunt of my smoke. “Part of the new regulations,” she says. “It’s fire retardant.”

The bib is heavy. Not as heavy as a flak jacket, but I know I’ll be sweating before I can take two drags. Marianne pulls my Camels and my lighter from the pocket of her dress. “We’re admitting a new resident this afternoon. His name is Gus.”

I take my time lighting up. This is her backassward way of telling me I’m getting a roommate. “Is he a lifer?”

“I hope not. His family wants him home before Thanksgiving.”

I pull smoke into my lungs while Marcus hangs a bright red bag that says Emergency Fire Blanket on the hooks he’s just installed. It’s got a black strap at the bottom that you can pull to release the blanket. I exhale toward the sky. “When are the state inspectors coming?”

Smoke drifts Marianne’s way, and she makes a face. “They won’t tell us. But I’m sure they’ll want to talk with you when they get here.”

I turn the lighter over in my hand. “If you bump me up to four a day, I’ll sing your praises.”

Marianne’s perfectly sculpted eyebrows rise above the top of her sunglasses. “I’ve heard you in choir practice, Ben.” She holds out an ashtray. “Let’s leave the singing to someone else.”

 

After lunch, I figure I’ll take a quick nap before the new guy comes in, but when I get to the end of the hall I hear people talking in my room. They’re not speaking English, and I notice the nameplate by the door says Konstantinos Papadopoulos.

I start to back up in the hallway, but it’s too late. One of the women sitting on the bed has spotted me. “Come in. Please,” she calls. Inside, there’s a kid—seven, maybe eight years old—using my bed as a trampoline, and an old guy in a wheelchair over by the sink. His English isn’t any better than my Greek, so his daughters and granddaughter fill me in. They talk over each other, and the granddaughter keeps grabbing her son by the collar, saying, “Park it, Nick!” It’s all I can do to get out of the room before I hyperventilate.

“Leave the door open,” I tell Marianne when I get to her office.

“Okay.” She smiles calmly, like a veteran teacher on the first day of class.

“There’s seven people in my room right now,” I say. “That’s got to be a code violation.”

“It’s his first day, Ben. Give him time to get settled.”

“I won’t even be able to turn around with all those people in there. Much less take a piss in private. And you know how I feel about tight spaces.”

Marianne folds her hands together. “Yes, I do.”

“It’ll never work. I already need a Klonopin.”

“Well, there’s a private room available,” she says. “Do you want me to talk to Angie about it?”

We both know it’s an extra thirty dollars a day for a private room, and Medicaid won’t pay for it. Angie can afford it, but I’d rather eat broken glass than ask her. “I’ll get someone to pick me up a Powerball ticket,” I say. “But thanks anyway.”

Marianne opens the file cabinet and takes out my cigarettes. “How about we go sit in the courtyard awhile,” she says, “and I’ll walk you back to your room when you’re ready?”

Outside, I chain-smoke three Camels, and Marianne sits by the herb garden, running her hand over the rosemary. She brings her palm up and inhales, and when she sees me watching her, she looks away. “Catnip,” she says, embarrassed. “For people.”

“Careful,” I say. “That stuff will make you crazy.”

“Batshit crazy?” Her smile takes her from pretty to knockout, and just for a second, I imagine touching her nipples. Feeling them harden under my hands.

I want to stay pissed at her. I really do. But I stub out my cigarette and grin.

 

The only time I see Cecil is at dinner. He sits on the other side of the dining hall, and it takes him forever to eat. I nod at him on my way out each night and hold up my bandaged hand in solidarity. But Cecil is no longer my problem.

I’ve got new stressors thanks to Gus and the Greek chorus. People from his church come in and out all day, and his granddaughter shows up every morning to supervise his physical therapy. She brings her son, and while she’s in PT with Gus, the kid wreaks havoc. He’s supposed to stay in the activities room, but the minute she walks out, he’s off climbing the medication carts and pushing buttons on the photocopier behind the nurses’ station. Marcus even busts him eating Klondike bars from the freezer in the staff lounge. “And they think I’m trouble,” I say when he tells me. “That kid’s a Tasmanian devil. On speed.”

On Tuesday I catch Gus’s grandson on his knees in front of the vending machine. He’s got one arm up inside the plastic door, angling for a pack of Oreos, and his face is beet red from the effort.

“It’s a long road to juvie, kid, but you’re off to a great start.”

He pulls his arm out of the machine and walks over to me. “What happened to your legs?” He stares at my stumps.

“Same thing that will happen to your arm if you don’t keep it out of there.”

Cecil rolls out of the therapy room, inching along with his good foot, and I meet him halfway. The kid follows me.

“First you leave,” I tell Cecil, “and now I have to put up with this hellion.” I gesture beside me, but I’m pointing into space. The kid is over by the fire extinguisher, sizing up the glass cabinet.

“Nick!” his mother yells from the door to the PT room. “Don’t touch that.”

“Gus’s grandson,” I tell Cecil.

The kid takes off down the hall, and I follow as fast as I can. When I get to my room, he’s going through Gus’s dresser. “Find anything good?” I ask.

The kid squeezes past my wheelchair, sizing me up as he slinks out the door. He’s wondering if I’ll tell on him. And I’m wondering if I’ll ever have a moment’s peace. I pull the top drawer out of Gus’s nightstand and flip it over on the bed. Taped to the bottom is Cecil’s pack of Marlboros. Right where he left them. I bet Marianne never even thought to look. I tuck the cigarettes into my fanny pack and take out my list. At the bottom, I’ve written Gus Papadopoulos. Fought with Greek resistance in WWII. Hip fracture. Has night terrors.

When I pass the therapy room a few minutes later, I stop and watch Gus through the window. He’s doing weight-bearing exercises while his granddaughter takes notes. The kid is in the corner, pedaling the little device they use for diabetics with foot ulcers. Gus waves, and I give him a thumbs-up. At Cedar Grove, half of the admissions with hip fractures are dead within a year. If nobody tells him that, he’ll be home eating baklava before Christmas.

 

Gus’s family takes him out early on Sunday. I feel like I’ve won the lottery, and I spend the morning watching American Pickers and reading a Carl Hiaasen novel. Angie shows up after church, bearing the Atlanta newspaper. “Coupons,” I say. “Just what I need.”

“You want me to take it back?”

I roll my eyes. “It’s a joke, Angie.”

She sits down on the edge of my bed. “How’s your hand?”

I rotate it for her inspection. “Not bad,” I say. “Another week and I’ll be back to popping wheelies in my chair.”

She shakes her head, but I can tell she’s trying not to smile. “And how’s your roommate?”

I look over at Gus’s wall of pictures. “He’s great, actually. It’s his family I can do without.”

Angie picks at a spot on the bedspread. “Some people actually like their families, Ben.” Her expression is part hurt, part anger. It’s a look she’s perfected: she’s been wearing it since we were kids. “And I meant your old roommate,” she says. “Cecil Carter.”

I’m about to say “He’s alive” when Angie reaches for her earring and presses her thumb to the back, checking it.

“I didn’t give him the cigarettes, Angie.”

“I know you didn’t,” she says softly. “He told Marianne he got them from one of the maintenance guys.”

It’s as close as she’s ever come to saying she’s sorry.

I busy myself with the newspaper, flipping through the sections like I’m looking for something. I want to beg her to take me out of here. Anywhere, even if it’s just around the block. As long as we’re moving and the windows are down.

I set the brake on my chair and slide into it. “Let’s go outside,” I say. “The lantana looks terrible. Maybe you can tell them what to do about it.”

 

I take my last smoke break after dinner, and when I get to my room, Gus is back. With his entire family. There are four people sitting on my bed, and there’s a Dr Pepper and a 3 Musketeers on my tray table. “Who left that?” I ask.

Gus’s granddaughter hands me the candy and soda. “The man with the bandages.”

I back out of the room and head toward South. This time of night it’s deserted, and for once, it’s quiet. Cecil’s got a private room, and I’m thinking he’s a lucky bastard when I find him half out of his chair, clutching the bathroom doorknob. “Cecil?”

The look on his face is pure anguish, and there’s a broad stain across his lap. “Hang on. I’ll get somebody.”

At first I think there’s no one at the nurses’ station, but then I see the guy sitting behind the desk. It’s the second-shift supervisor. The one Marianne has a crush on. “How long has that call light been blinking?” I ask.

He glances at Cecil’s door. “I have no idea.”

Saliva floods my mouth. “Christ on a fucking cracker. Cecil’s pissed himself because y’all just let him sit there.”

“Language, pal,” the man says. He pages a CNA, and a minute later, an aide comes around the corner, swinging her hips slow and easy. “Twenty-two needs attention,” he tells her.

I’m trying to decide if I should wait for Cecil to get cleaned up when I notice Rose Green at the end of the hall. She’s wearing two strands of Mardi Gras beads—one red, one purple—and when she stops by the door to the parking lot, I hear it click, locking in response to her ankle monitor. “Let me out,” she says, leaning over her walker to push the door handle. She’ll be at it all night.

“Could you have someone bring Cecil down to the main hall?” I ask the supervisor.

“Sure.”

“Tell him I’ve got something for him,” I say, and I pat my fanny pack just to be certain.

 

When the big-hipped girl rolls up with Cecil, I’m finishing off the 3 Musketeers. “Thanks for the present,” I say, and he nods. Then we both go quiet. Cecil stares out the window, and I watch Gus’s grandson ricochet like a pinball from one doorway to another, looking for entertainment. He stops in front of the fire alarm, rocking heel to toe while he reads the instructions.

“Hey, Nick!” I yell, and he jumps like I’ve popped him with a pellet gun. “Come here.” I tell him to push Cecil to the courtyard door, and he licks his lips, considering it. His tongue is purple. “Help us and I won’t tell your mom you’ve been trying to rob the vending machine.”

That gets him. He pushes Cecil and comes back for me. “Now hold the door open. It’s heavy.” Cecil inches his way through, and the kid makes a face when I reach the threshold, his purple tongue snaking out to touch his chin. I put a hand on his shoulder. “You ever pull the fire alarm at school?”

He squirms away. “Nope.”

“I did.” I make a show out of glancing up and down the hall, like I’m about to divulge classified information. “The firemen let me sit in the truck while we waited for my mom to come. I got to work the siren and the electric ladder.”

Outside, the air smells like ozone and scorched concrete. I pull Cecil’s Marlboros from my fanny pack. “I believe these belong to you,” I say.

Cecil looks at me like we’re seventeen and I’ve just handed him the keys to my Camaro. Then his head overrides his heart. “They’ll catch us,” he says.

“And do what? Take away our bingo privileges?” I turn off his oxygen and roll over to the red bag that Marcus screwed into the wall. When I yank the black Velcro strap, a blanket falls into my arms. It feels like steel wool against my skin.

“What’s that?” Cecil asks when I hand it to him.

“A smoking jacket.”

Cecil takes off his nasal cannula. “This is a bad idea,” he says, huffing, as I unfold the blanket and tuck it around him.

“You got a better one?”

Cecil shakes his head.

“Me neither. We can smoke one before they miss us. And I have a feeling they’re about to have their hands full,” I say, pointing inside at Nick. I light two cigarettes, and we smoke, and watch, as the kid swoops up and down the hall with both arms out like an airplane. With each pass, he gets a little closer to the alarm.

“You think he’ll pull it?” Cecil asks.

“God, I hope so.”

The wind kicks up, and everything green bends and bows around us as Cecil takes a drag and taps his cigarette carefully into a plastic ashtray. “Not much left without this,” he says, laboring over each word. He stares at the Marlboro between his bandaged fingers. “What do you miss?”

Bourbon. Barbeque at Fat Matt’s. Lullwater Park in winter. My vision blurs, and I tell myself it’s just a sugar spike. I nod at the long wall of windows. Inside Cedar Grove, Gus’s grandson steps up to the fire alarm.

“Being him,” I say, and we both lift bandaged hands to our ears as the kid reaches out and pulls the lever.

 

 

www.lunahzon.com

Tamara Titus’s short fiction has appeared in Glimmer TrainSou’westerEmrys Journal, and other publications. She is the recipient of a Regional Artist Project Grant from the Arts & Science Council of Charlotte–Mecklenburg, as well as a North Carolina Arts Council fellowship in fiction. She co-edited This is the Way We Say Goodbye (the Feminist Press, 2011), an anthology of women’s essays on caregiving, and in 2013 she received an Honorable Mention from the James Jones Fellowship Contest for her novel-in-progress, Lovely in the Eye. Currently, Tamara spends her time writing and editing, caregiving, and serving on the Charlotte Historic District Commission.