“Slow Rot” by Bretton Holmes

By that point at 6:32am it was a day like any other. The sun not up outside while the wiry legs of exhausted crickets moved in slow friction as Aldus wondered where they might hide until the sun fell to the other side of the earth again. He wanted to hide as he rolled across the sagging mattress, reached into the blackness and slapped the screeching box on the nightstand. Today was a day supposed to be born of love, had that love been shown in the first place.

He checked his gut. The abdomen sprang to life with a dull glug and he thought of what food at all could possibly be in the kitchen area across the room. The rusted refrigerator door hid a half eaten sandwich, one-third of a Snickers bar, some Ranch dressing in a small plastic lidded cup, and a stale half-drunk Coke. Perhaps love was, after all was said and done, only hunger.

It had been days since he’d left the seeming security of the apartment. The draining thoughts of the day ahead and dealing with the world took more courage than his miniscule provisions could muster. He wondered what the point of it all might be; rising, getting dressed, combing, brushing, driving, living. No one knew, or if they did, they weren’t saying.

He hadn’t been the flash-point of it all. He’d let the sway and continual fall materialize both in his midst and elsewhere again and again for a lifetime. The distance of the slow rot with which she’d cloaked herself was in his mind now dust-laden and cobwebbed, translucent but not forgotten. The trick had taken years of careful diligence. She had withered to mouth and bone; skin taut against sadness, living off of what no one could fathom. Long since shoved back into the darkest recesses of the synapses was the lingering microcosm of adept manipulation, handbags left unattended and recovered, and unpaid electric and water bills he’d had no control over. He there, constant, palms outstretched to the sky with the inane pleading of the disillusioned sycophant. He was born for the task he sought his entire life to cast off and the price had been a hail of castigation from strangers and friends alike.

Looking toward the apocryphal ceiling without a fan, he thought it might be nice to have a woman there with him. With such paltry pantry offered, none would stay as none had. He’d often see them at the laundromat, displaying a freshly cleaned pair of pink panties; waving a flag of some long forgotten courtship before eye contact had become acceptable. All had seen him as soured in some way from which there was no defection. One had gone so far as to require he sit in the center of a pentagram, candles flickering against the darkness of the apartment to solve his burden. The surreal experience was the only time he’d felt close to that one. Aldus remembered more than anything the look in her eyes, uttering magnificent periphrasis as she slunk and grabbled around him in the nude. He’d found himself perplexed and sincerely honored she went to such trouble for him. A week later she was gone.

His mind fought back to the moments in front of him. In relative disgust, he lagged himself toward the sink, and once there peered into the cracked and sullen visage. Raising a finger he slowly and deliberately prodded at the dark patches under his eyes, the bloodshot shining orbs going out of focus briefly. Opening his mouth, he gazed into the dark throaty well in the mirror. No words would come this day. It would be better that way, even though deep down he knew there were enough there for a picture.

Aldus’ younger brother, Ramus, had taken it upon himself to coordinate the raid. He had not been terribly convincing with the news. The day he’d come by the apartment Aldus hadn’t been expecting him but it seldom held any infringement on the daily continuum of odd jobs he found and lost. It had been some time since their last contact, which Ramus regarded in the same manner he regarded his older brother; an obligatory and weary task he bore with acquiescent smiles in the uncomfortable silences between them. There’d been a time, however elapsed and faded that they’d shared something more than the brief meetings. Dark mornings hovered over cereal bowls, both quiet enough to qualify as snipers lest a stepfather awaken in a rash of epithets and fractured crockery. Aldus was sometimes reminded with echoes from deep down in his rumbling gut of a regretful melancholy that neither had been raised with the grit to voice their desire of escape. No, far better it seemed to leave the wide open world closed to their silent ruminations.

Ramus opted to stand on the day of the unannounced visit, perhaps out of some circumspection that were he to sit, the words might lack cogency. Aldus found it a tad dramatic. Ramus passed a toe back and forth across a gritty runnel of the linoleum demarcating the kitchen. He did not look up. Aldus took this as a sign of insecurity and he was right. Ramus didn’t need to say why he was there, but Aldus wasn’t going to make it easy for him. There was no point either way.

Been a long time.
It’s necessary.
Why now.
Because …
You’ve had enough have you?
I think she…has.
You wouldn’t be so convincing.
Aldus had been staring at him the entire time and when Ramus looked up at him he averted his gaze to the window.
Well. When is it.
Week from tomorrow.
So you’ll be there.
Do I have a choice?
There’ll be food.
No choice then. What time.
Two o’clock. Hey…
Thanks. Thank you.

The gratitude was forced but Aldus felt it was coming from a man who’d reached his last few feet. Not with the onset of relief at knowing the journey was almost finished. No, this was something akin to the realization that the last few feet were the most difficult and that the end still hung far away in his mind. He’d been beaten down the path and knew nothing else. Aldus watched him as he walked down the landing, head low, defeated, dragging a huge iron weight behind him unseen. Still on the strings and he knew it. What else could he do? It had been that way for his younger brother as far back as he could remember.

The day would be rough. Ominous and thick humidity seemed to follow these events as he sat down in the small of the balcony gingerly holding the first coffee of the morning. The sweating of the earth rendered the fat from everything. Eventually it would all be withered to bone dust and beetles.

It had been a week since Ramus had shown himself and that without even so much as a hello. They were far beyond the pleasantries. Aldus knew he represented everything that his brother didn’t want to be and that somehow, fighting so hard against it ensured he would.

A slight breeze fetched the smell of bacon and eggs from someplace and he felt his stomach rumble again. Cupping the coffee, the early morning breeze wisped against the back of his hand as the palm warmed from the inky hot blackness in the cup. There were those precious few moments in that first sip, still hot and strong, where just about anything was possible, no matter how ridiculous it might otherwise seem. Even the notion that Aldus and Ramus’ mother might finally get the help she needed didn’t appear to be such a farfetched proposition.

The fact of the matter was Aldus resented the action on all counts. The idea of wrenching one’s own existence into some contorted shape, the menace of self-annihilation, only made sense if the person for whom it was intended was willing to do the same in return. He peered at a darkened blue-jay sitting on a fencepost in one of the lower patios of the building across from his, illuminated by a single bulb and thought ‘You’ve got it easier than you know. Your mother eats like a bird and it what she’s supposed to do.’

The thoughts of flying and escape came to him. He could say he got stuck in traffic or had a flat tire. The engine of his car needed tuning, an ignition failure, he couldn’t find gas money, he’d had to go to the emergency room, a serious viral infection that the doctors thought for sure might be fatal in a matter of months with no explanation for its cause. The pretexts raced through his brain and he felt his insipid heart beating with the thoughts of the lies he might come up with to shroud his own cowardice.

The planning he guessed had taken an entire mountain of psychologists, psychiatrists, co-workers, and acquaintances to put together. The logistics of going into a major military offensive didn’t require nearly as much secrecy, planning or ammunition. Not one of them could say what the outcome of the ministration would be. Aldus knew enough about their mother to know that it would be viewed as a grievous attack, no matter how much love was smithied into the needle that burst the bubble. He’d dealt with her longer than anyone, even her current husband. The sixth…or seventh depending on who you asked. Aldus had slowly torn himself away from the tumor in order to survive. It was in the tearing that a cavernous spiracle remained echoing a long low chord of discontent.

Aldus thought back to the last time they’d taken a family trip together. He recalled how he and Ramus had been perplexed that the Mexican border was decided on as a relaxing and refreshing place to be for a few days. When she’d stopped in a drugstore on the other side to get something for her allergies, the reason was clear.

He went over in his mind all the husbands. They were all just carbon copies of each other. These ostensible men marked a queer compendium of locations filled with a trail of figuratively dead friends she’d made and then confused and then ultimately infuriated. The ones that didn’t hang around beyond the first wave of barbed slights were the only ones Aldus had any respect for. They were the healthiest of the people his mother met, but they were few and far between, and happened more by accident than any divine intervention. The others, well, there was always the call two or three days after Thanksgiving or Christmas or a birthday that would come. He would pick up the phone and listen to them and they were always the same. Why hadn’t she called? What had they done to upset her? Was everything okay? They didn’t understand why she hadn’t said hello in the grocery store the other day…’ The questions were always the same and the answers, well, Aldus had been creative with them for a good long time, but as the novelty of telling people she’d gone on an African safari or was looking for an apartment in Paris had worn off, he’d resorted to the truth, that she was somewhere in her house, locked in a closet, eating diet pills and drinking water and starving herself to death. He would often add that as unfortunate as the circumstance was, she would most likely not succeed in much in the same way her marriages ended up. An inability to commit.

Of course, there had been a time when Aldus had wanted to help her. He’d had everything ready to go until just a few hours before the thing was supposed to take place several years prior until her husband at the time, afraid of losing her in the most selfish manner possible, decided that it would be best if he took her to see his shrink, a Rasputin type character with a large house in the hills, a brand new Jaguar in the driveway and no problems of his own to speak of, hence his innate ability for unobstructed objectivity. The stepfather had been seeing him for the last twenty five years, a ringing testimony to the man’s obvious ability. The resulting session sent everyone’s blown cover to the four winds and nearly caused Aldus to lay out the stepfather with a knee to the groin. He’d refrained from dealing the blow to the chap somehow, thinking that whatever punishment that stepfather had coming, it had already arrived in the form of his mother, and thus, Aldus decided to stay out of it from then on.

He knew very well why he’d be in attendance that day. Despite all his brother’s many oversights and ignorance in their relationship, Aldus knew he hadn’t been the World’s Greatest Brother prior to his sobriety, but try as he might their closeness resulted from the understanding that neither of the two would abandon the other no matter what. For a long time it had been them against the world created by their mother, and that was a bond, while silent, couldn’t ever be broken, but it was a very passive and often unsatisfying way to be a sibling.

As Aldus drained the last sip from the cup and went inside the house, he thought about what he should wear to this, the practice run for the funeral. Black would only signify an overt interest in the proceedings and white, well; white might get dirty if someone decided to hurl a jelly donut at him. That was absurd of course; the idea that there would be any food at the thing was just about as crazy as his mother. She was fond of putting out clear canisters of various snack foods, none of which she ever ate. They were merely props.

The drive was too short. The drive was always too short. The plan as he’d understood it was to show up under the pretense that he was there to meet Ramus to go play golf. He’d thought their mother might find this suspicious since it had been years since they’d played golf together. Aldus hadn’t fought it even though he’d rather have come up with a pretense that wasn’t such an obvious falsehood. The odds that they ever went to play golf together were, well, just about the same as either one of them being struck by lightning. Everyone else would show up as a group while Ramus concocted some problem with their mother’s treadmill, which would surely send her into a fit, but she’d be downstairs that way and out of earshot of the people coming into the living room. At the appointed time, Ramus would suddenly fix the ‘issue’ and they’d come upstairs to find everyone waiting in the living room, full of smiles.

Aldus didn’t want to see any of them. In his view, they were all pawns in the game invented by his mother. The lot of them was in her employ. She owned a health and wellness company that was only as successful as her current husband could allow, considering he was running his own business at the same time. The fact was, she just couldn’t sell anything but herself, which for most people in her position would be enough, but she was emaciated and people had started to talk, none of them saying anything to her face.

As he stood in front of the sliding glass door, looking out at the incredible view from his mother’s house of the city’s skyline, he wondered how he’d gotten there; how he’d survived to that point all the ex-girlfriends, a major car wreck, a war, the comings and goings of summer upon summer, the time, and the many many stepfathers. Had it been her? Could it have been that all her psychosis had steeled his will in some unique way? That by pushing against it he had developed muscles he wouldn’t have otherwise had? No, his survival had come mainly by way of a growing sense of carelessness over everything she’d ever stood for, and it was in that carelessness that he’d found solace. To be sure it hadn’t been easy getting there, but the indifference was his friend, which allowed him the freedom to be standing where he was at the moment.

The stepfather came up and said a few words to him. Something along the lines of being glad that he’d shown up. Aldus had long since stopped speaking to him and offered nothing but a blank look in acknowledgement that it was the stepfather who had the most to lose as a result of this little variety show. All he saw was a corpse there, everywhere, all of them, nothing but a bunch of fools worried about their jobs or seeming somehow less important to his mother than she’d let on they really were to her. She treated her own blood the same way she treated the janitor at the building she owned, which many might say was an admirable thing until they found out that she had once dumped a bucket of garbage on him because he hadn’t emptied her wastepaper basket. Like all the rest he’d stayed on, believing that somehow a job with a boss like her was better than no job at all.

Aldus looked to the buffet near where the kitchen was. It was a culinary obscenity. Everyone had brought food to this place where food was viewed as the enemy. There were Roman sized salami’s, pizza, cakes, cheeses, deviled eggs; everything you could think of had its place. The table was stuffed and Aldus watched as the guests eyed the food, waiting for the source of their presence to arrive and be gone with her suitcase so they could dig in.

Just then everyone heard the footsteps coming from the stairs, and a slight wave of panic spread throughout the throng like the first chill of September; ruffling the feathers of even the most ardent birds. She arrived much as he knew she would, surprised but not so much so. She had the look as she emerged from the bowels of the house that this had been expected for some time, in fact, dreaded by her every day since the first failed action. She was the consummate actress though, appearing nonplussed but unable to hide the slightly enervated smile as she looked down at that final step up. She was Gloria Swanson and Joan Crawford reincarnated.

Ramus started with a comment about how everyone there truly loved and care about her and that they wanted to see her get well. Aldus knew she was deathly afraid of being reduced to something far less lofty than the perceived royalism she’d enjoyed for so long. All the secrets would be coming out now and there wasn’t much she could do about it unless she disappeared. The look in her eyes said cornered. That was the plan, get her in someplace where she’d have to eat and would get whatever kind of counseling she needed to redirect her thinking about food while letting everyone fumble around to find whatever sense of their own healing they could muster. His mother’s secretary made the idiotic suggestion that perhaps she’d like something to eat, to which she immediately replied in a hiss, ‘I couldn’t eat a thing right now…’ Wouldn’t was more accurate. She’d spit the statement out more as a threat to everyone than any sort of start to an explanation of what might be wrong with her. She was aware of what they feared, everyone that was except Aldus. To him, the spectacle would once more mark the next year as one where she would yet again be hospitalized, one where yet again everyone excluding himself would be forced to confront the possibility that they’d only done it to appease their own guilt at having let it go on for so long without immediate action. Aldus felt as if he were a general, watching a mass suicide taking place because no one had bothered to listen to him and take the beachhead when the guns were oiled. Nip it in the bud he’d said at one time, but not everyone was so convinced then that things could have gotten much worse.

Someone Aldus didn’t know, a rather fat man with a beard stepped up and wiped away a bit of the cheese log he’d been ravenously eating from his chin, cleared his throat and started on some oration about the sin of man and how none of them in the room could have guessed they’d be called upon to save the life of a friend, and how there was no higher calling than to be thrust into the fray of raging waters near someone else’s erosion. But not just any friend, a friend as giving and loving as was Aldus’ mother, who’d raised two devoted sons that had both turned out very well, and who might not have, had it not been for her. Aldus thought about the statement’s accuracy in spite of everyone’s nods in the affirmative and their loquacious banter as the man paused to pound his chest with a fist and cough and take a drink. They all made him sick. She hadn’t raised him or his brother at all, unless raising them had meant introducing them to a slew of stepfathers who weren’t examples of men at all but patsies, serving only as bright shining examples of how one could be subservient for the lamest of reasons.

Everyone applauded the fat man’s shortfall of graciousness. They’d all be looking for jobs come Monday, no question about it. The saddest part was, none of them realized it yet. They were victims of circumstances beyond their control, they’d find themselves in their gardens or perched atop the seat of their riding lawnmowers, seeming safe from the muck of the world when it would suddenly hit them that they’d been fools, understanding they’d stuck their necks out to save only the master of their guillotine.

Then was the slog of desperate individuals, eager to ensure they were heard, so their employer wouldn’t hold their presence against them. Aldus saw it in her eyes as she looked, one to the next, directly at them. He could see the wheels spinning, the machinations taking shape on how she would destroy them, each according to their greatest weakness. He looked at her as she stood there, knowing she was mad, completely and irrevocably. The synapses had long since stopped firing in anything but a randomized sequence of minimalist existence. He was the only one in the room immunized against her and he knew it, and it was that knowledge that sent him back to the buffet of free grub. He wasn’t there to do anyone any real good, so he figured the least he could do was stuff his face. As he moved toward it, she caught him in a glare. His eyes focused on the buffet, and as he approached it, she stepped toward him.

What hell are you doing here?

He replied he was here for the free food, that it was really the only reason to go to a funeral.
With that, he looked to Ramus. Instead of disdain, he saw his brother’s eyes as terribly forlorn. All the planning, all the hopes, all the prayers that things would go smoothly were all and at once destroyed as she spun around, grabbed the large silver tray full of deviled eggs and with lightning quickness hurled it towards Aldus’ head. He’d seen it coming luckily, but the seven foot tall glass panel leading out to the second story deck hadn’t and it shattered completely on impact. For Aldus, it had gone in slow motion, like so many other thrown items, whether inanimate or voiced, they all slowed down on the release. He was never surprised, only curious to know how it was that he’d escaped being adopted and what it was he’d done to deserve this.

At that point she blurted out something unintelligible about what it might be that everyone wanted, to see her fat and disgusting or some such thing. As people began to slowly move toward her in an apparent consolation effort, she went at the remaining portion of the buffet like a rabid dog, slamming everything she could into her mouth. In a matter of seconds there was food everywhere. It covered their mother from head to toe, every time someone would move a little closer more food would fly, until she looked like a cake–covered Neanderthal. Teeth bared, she let out a howl before launching herself into the buffet table, which despite her 90 pounds, brought it crashing to the floor. The fat man put down the piece of pizza he was working on and went over to grab her, but being that she was covered with fifteen different sauces and the oil from the salad she’d fallen into, getting a hold on her was something of a challenge. Aldus looked over and saw the packed suitcase at about the same instant his mother had, and just as quickly she bolted through the fray for the door to the garage. She was quick, he had to give her credit, and she would have made a great running back if she hadn’t been so skinny. Out the door she went. Ramus yelled for someone to get her and looked at Aldus. Aldus trotted to the front door, down the steps of the entrance and onto the large circular drive. No sign of their mother anywhere. She’d disappeared into the woods near the house. The rest of them trickled outside, everyone chattering about what had happened and all of them looking at Aldus as if though the whole ordeal was his fault. Aldus stood there, looking at the parapets of the huge estate, knowing he’d never inherit it. A short fat lady came up to him and began shaking her finger at him and screaming obscenities. He looked down at her, not hearing her words, only seeing the mouth sending spittle flying. He got into his car and slowly pulled out of the driveway thinking they probably wouldn’t stay upset for too long.
There was still plenty of food left.


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