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The International Writers Magazine

Clive Branson

Lynn, 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, Howard.

Lynn hadn’t 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 wasn’t 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 couldn’t 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 - Ohio’s largest city.

It is renowned as a lively college town with a spattering of impressive museums and birthplace of Wendy’s, White Castle and by the number of "hogs," the adopted home of Harley Davidson motorcycles. As the state’s capital, it is clean with wide boulevards and the home to the mammoth Ohio State University, all stuck in the middle of potato land.

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 haven’t even stepped inside and already you’re 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 weren’t 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 Dracula’s 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. "Don’t let lover boy here get to you...literally," quipped Tony. "You’ve 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. "I’m awful, but they’d 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 wasn’t 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 Howard’s photo on the chapel wall.

© Clive Branson June 2004

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