The International Writers Magazine:
my girlfriend at the time asked me if I could rent a car and drive
her down to Columbus, Ohio from Toronto to comfort her dying brother,
seen him in ten years. I had never seen Ohio and the prospect of seeing
such a place intrigued me. Howard was staying in a hospice for AIDS
patients. I had never met anyone contaminated with the disease nor felt
any great deal of sympathy for individuals who practiced promiscuous
sex. It was the Arthur Ashes of the world, victims imposed to tainted
blood transfusions that I felt any regret for. So I wasnt sure
how I would react when meeting her brother.
Ohio is a deep yellow and green-hued patchwork of farmland. By the time
we past Cleveland, we drove into a vast pool of ominous black clouds
- the type Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz was swept away on. I heard that
tornados occasionally roamed the state and when the sky emptied its
load, we were tormented by bullets of hail that thrashed down upon us
so heavily we couldnt see the end of the hood. Lynn happened to
be driving at the time, going her usual pace - flat out as though she
had a lead foot on the accelerator. After 45 minutes of this hell, the
sun finally paved our way to Columbus - Ohios largest city.
It is renowned as a lively college town with a spattering of impressive
museums and birthplace of Wendys, White Castle and by the number
of "hogs," the adopted home of Harley Davidson motorcycles.
As the states capital, it is clean with wide boulevards and the
home to the mammoth Ohio State University, all stuck in the middle of
We stayed in a motel close to the picturesque German Village and walking
distance to the core of the college nightlife. At 4:30 p.m., I parked
the car in front of the hospice where I noticed a black man - at least
I think he was black - with splotched facial pigment, shyly peering
from the second floor window. He addressed his attention at my pair
of frozen eyeballs behind the steering wheel and waved. Lynn laughed,
"You havent even stepped inside and already youre a
hit with the fellas." My worst fear materializing. Two volunteer
nurses greeted us warmly while the four residents studied us with guarded
hospitality, standing about like loose farts.
Lynn shot off down the corridor to see her brother in one of the bedrooms,
leaving me standing about not knowing what to say or where to look.
Nonchalantly, I played with a spoon and made small talk to the eating
utensil. My eyes darted from Billy, who I saw by the window revealing
his big, brown teeth, trimmed here and there with an edge of gold, and
skin that reminded me of peeling brown paint off a cream canvas. Jo
Jo, a 260-pound transvestite. Henry, who was confined to a wheelchair
and mumbled interminably, and Tony, a slim black version of Craig Russell,
equipped with flagrantly loud clothing and an ebullient, self-deprecating
flow of dialogue that came out like a machine gun rattle. He howled
and fluttered about like a caged butterfly. The mood seemed like death
was lingering about in a flannel nightgown with curlers. Each resident
loitered aimlessly not knowing what to do with guests who werent
permanent. Tony seemed to thrive at being the center of attention, which
was a welcomed diversion from their prying eyes on me.
Dinner consisted of corn-on-the-cob and lobster. By the time dessert
arrived, everyone seemed relaxed and their personalities more evident.
Jo Jo was a caricature, oscillating from masculine bully to shrieking
queen, gasping exclamations on bent knees like he was being poked in
the groin. The room drifted into a somber silence whenever it was announced
that Howard might join us. By their sullen reaction, Howard seemed to
represent the inevitable future. I had prepared to see a living skeleton
emerge from around the corner, but he never appeared. It was like waiting
for Draculas coffin to open. After dinner, I obliged Lynn by accompanying
her to see her brother. Propped up in his bed with a white sheet reaching
his bony ribs, he was a shell of a young man. One could feel life slowly
ebbing away from his gaunt face. A catheter stuck out of his upper left
chest like it was trapped and desperately wanting to get out.
Howard was lucid with a surprisingly matter-of-fact attitude. He simply
looked anorexic. He talked slowly and methodically. No matter how gloomy
the scenario was, he found something to be witty about. The dancing
queen, would constantly peer in. "Dont let lover boy here
get to you...literally," quipped Tony. "Youve no doubt
met our Diana Ross?" Howard said dryly. "Well, he already
met Billy, the black and white minstrel show," answered Tony tossing
out a loose wrist. "Im awful, but theyd die without
me," he sung, covering up his fear with his own flippancy and bravura.
Lynn sat on the bed looking desolately about the room. There were no
pictures of their parents, just some sentimental trinkets for some semblance
of comfort. As I left Lynn and her brother alone, Howard articulated
how grateful he was that I brought his sister down to see him. Alone
with her brother, she peered down and the dam within her burst. She
hugged him tenderly and then, wiping the tears away, she too left him
alone. I walked downstairs and discovered a chapel. The wallpaper was
a series of snapshots. Faces laughing, smiling, men arm-in-arm. The
dead who still haunted the living. There was a strange, disturbing sensation
in that room. A feeling of finiteness that stealthily crept in and shrouded
the animation of life. For a chapel, the room wasnt comforting
but cast an inescapable horror of isolation.
A week later in Toronto, Lynn received a call from the hospice informing
her that Howard had past away. When she told me, I said it was probably
for the best. Howard seemed to live life to the full. What was the point
of life if it simply meant living in misery? I can now imagine Howards
photo on the chapel wall.
© Clive Branson June 2004
all rights reserved