We went to see Uncle Joe at Chedoke Psychiatric in early December. This was before they turned out all the mental patients and made it into a non-acute care centre. That's what they called them back then: mental patients. Uncle Joe had suffered an episode earlier that week. He had walked out of his house one night while my cousins and my Aunt Teresa slept, dressed only in pajamas. He made it all the way to the train station, a good hour by foot. That's where the police found him next morning, squatting by the tracks, shivering from the cold and mumbling to himself about a train. "I missed the train," he kept saying. "I missed the train."
No one knew what he was talking about, and he could never explain this train. My mother, my sister and I waited for him on a rough orange couch in the visiting area. Red and white Christmas lights had been strung along the walls. A small artificial tree surrounded with boxes wrapped in silver and blue foil occupied a corner. From the sounds of it Uncle Joe wasn't out of the woods yet; my mother had told me he wasn't leaving Chedoke any time soon, that he still had some things to work out. He appeared after a few minutes with an orderly, both in pale green hospital wear, Uncle Joe sporting green paper slippers, his salt-and-pepper hair crudely cropped.
He smiled when he saw us and shuffled over to our couch. The orderly, a squat latino fellow with a pleasant face, grabbed a chair for Uncle Joe and positioned it across from us, like a prisoner facing a tribunal. But we weren't there to pass judgment. "I'll be in the staff lounge," the orderly said. "Back in thirty."
Uncle Joe made a face as the orderly departed. That was Uncle Joe, always mugging, never taking anything too seriously. I loved his irreverence. He'd been one of the few constants in my life. My earliest memory is of him catching me during a fall down a flight of stairs. We were living on the second floor of a boarding house back then. My mother said I had slipped on the landing and fallen, but Uncle Joe, who was coming up the stairs, had caught me before I broke my neck. My memory of it consists of a tumbling, flashing panic, and the smell of men's aftershave and whisky. Truth is, he hadn't been feeling right for some time. Nothing like the recent episode, but bursts of rage or moments of confusion and forgetfulness had multiplied. As had his inexplicable drying jags. My mother said it had to do with the war, but wouldn't say more. I didn't know he had been in any war.
We hugged and kissed Uncle Joe. He smelled of antiseptic soap, and seemed, I don't know, fragile, like he had aged 20 years in the span of a week. His eyes were watery; his shoulders all bones; his pallid hands trembled. I noticed that a bandage covered the top of his skull. My mother inquired about it.
"It's nothing," he said. "They removed that stupid lump. Remember the lump, Sammy?"
I remembered it, with some revulsion. He'd had it as far back as I could recall, but it had recently almost doubled in size.
"I saved it," he said. "Want a souvenir?"
"Oh, gross," said my sister.
My mother chuckled. My uncle hadn't lost his sick sense of humour. "So what else?" my mother said.
"I've been getting the treatments."
My mother looked alarmed. "You mean—"
"Yeah, yeah." His moist eyes blinked. "They calm me down. I'm calmer. I wasn't calm. That was the problem. The doctors even said it. They said I need to be calm." With my four cousins bombing around and Aunt Teresa shrieking from morning till night, Uncle Joe's two-bedroom bungalow wasn't exactly a serene place.
My mother asked if Aunt Teresa had been by. I was surprised she wasn't there. Maybe the doctors had told her to lay off a few days while he got his shit together. "She's coming with the kids tomorrow," he said. "Can't wait to see them."
My mother offered him a paper bag with some chocolates and S-biscuits that he liked to dip in coffee. He took the bag reluctantly.
"Is it okay?" my mother asked.
"Yeah, yeah. Not a problem. I just can't have coffee right now. But they let me drink chamomile. Buckets of it. Chamomile is nice, just like ma used to make when we had the flu. But with the cookies, meh. I don't know."
My grandmother was a big one for the restorative effects of chamomile tea. But it reminded me of sickness, so I wasn't keen on it. Right at that moment it struck me how much Uncle Joe looked like my grandmother just before she passed.
"And how are you doing?' he asked me.
"Good, Uncle Joe. I'm good."
"School and everything?"
"He made the honour roll," my mother said.
"Mr. Brown-nose," my sister piped in.
"That's good," he said. "No pick and shovel for you, eh. Your old man would have been proud, god rest his soul." He swallowed. "Goddamn it. When are we gonna see a Leaf game? They have a good team this year."
He knew I was a Montreal Canadiens fan so I laughed him off—besides, the Leafs were stinking up the league.
"Don't worry," he said with a hard smile. "I'll be out of here in no time. Haha, they can't keep me here forever, can they?"
My mother blew into a paper tissue. It had been two years, but she was still in black, still mourning. My sister said quiet things to her.
Uncle Joe continued smiling, but his hands shook, and his panicked eyes searched for the orderly.
MANY A GOOD HANGING
Isabella greeted us at the door of her modest backsplit, dressed in a black silk robe, a strip of white gauze wrapped around her throat. I hadn't seen her in years. She'd just been released from hospital after a lengthy stay, her battle with cancer momentarily on hold.
"What a pleasant surprise!" she said, her voice hoarse.
"Isabella, this is my wife, Alex." We'd only been married a year and were still working things out.
"Nice to meet you, Alex. Sorry I couldn't come to the wedding."
"Lovely to meet you, Isabella. I understand about the wedding. No worries."
Isabella turned around without comment and led us inside. Her fragility belied the youthful auburn wig on her head, maybe one of her daughter's leftovers. Isabella had been quite the looker when she was young, a vestige of the old vanity remained.
Alex shot me an ambiguous look. I didn't know if she was taken aback by Isabella's appearance or wondering if she'd said something stupid. Reserved, if not shy, Alex treaded on eggshells around my family and friends. She had resisted coming with me on this visit. She had been resisting many things of late. I guess that happens in marriage. Lines are drawn, positions taken. But I felt it important to share moments like this with her. I assured her with a nod that everything was okay. As ghoulish as it sounds, I just wanted to see Isabella, an old friend of the family, before she passed. A constant of my childhood, she'd christened my sister, and was as close as a sister to my mother before her dementia grew unmanageable.
We entered the kitchen, with its dated cupboards, worn Formica and chipped appliances. Not much had changed since I was a kid. The chrome-ribbed off-white table still occupied centre stage. A wooden plaque above the stove still declared "Don't go away mad, just go away." I recalled chuckling every time I read it as a kid. Isabella's husband, Ugo, was still kicking, but spent most of his waking hours at the Sons of Sicily Club, playing cards, or bocci, weather permitting. Their four daughters had long ago moved on, two out west raising families, two others in nearby towns, one married with no kids, one raising a child on her own.
"Sit down," she said. "I'll make coffee."
"I'm good," I said.
"Nonsense, I know you love your coffee." Alex confirmed this with a little snort. She was a tea drinker.
"How are you feeling?" I asked.
Isabella touched the neck gauze. "Could be better, but knock on wood I'm in the clear for the time being. Just have to keep up my strength. How's your mother? Every time I think of her I feel a pain in my heart."
"She's the same. Doesn't talk much. Doesn't know who I am."
"So sad. When I went to see her a few months ago she was seeing all kinds of things."
"Yeah," I said. The hallucinations had peaked back then. My mother was seeing monsters and acting out against them. Her behaviour spooked away a lot of people, friends and family alike. I didn't hold it against Isabella. My mother no longer was the same person she'd known for so many years.
"Sorry I haven't gone to see her more often."
"Don't worry about it, Isabella."
"I'll make the coffee."
Alex glanced at me.
"You okay?" I asked. "Maybe a drink of water."
I got up and helped myself to a glass from the cupboard, one with little white star symbols that I recalled from my childhood. It felt warm and dusty in my hand. I rinsed it out and let the water run until it was cold.
"I have bottled water," Isabella said.
"Don't bother," I said. "Tap water's fine, right Alex?" She shrugged. She would've preferred bottled, but I put the glass in front of her.
"That glass," I said to Isabella. "I remember that glass."
She smiled. "Everything's old here. What do you expect?"
I chuckled and sat down. Alex hadn't touched her water. "Something wrong?" I asked.
"It's warm," she said.
"I let it run."
"Let me get a bottle," Isabella said.
When I went to relieve Alex of the glass, I clumsily knocked it off the table. It hit the floor tiles and shattered into pieces.
Alex covered her mouth.
"Dammit," I said.
"Don't worry about it," Isabella said. "An old glass." She grabbed a broom and dust pan.
"Let me do that," I said.
"I'm so sorry about this."
Isabella insisted on sweeping up the glass shards herself. Alex seemed irked.
"It's the last one," Isabella said.
"The last one of those glasses?" I said.
"That's right. You know, they were a wedding gift."
"Ah, geez, Isabella."
"It's just a glass. Don't worry about it."
As Isabella continued sweeping up the shards, her wig came loose and fell to the floor. Her head was a pale bulb patched with tufts of grey hair and dotted with red sores. She dropped the broom and dustpan and covered her head with her hands.
I stared at the wig on the floor.
"Aren't you going to get that?" Alex said sharply.
But I continued staring at the wig.
"You're not going to get it!" Alex cried.
I said nothing. Grimacing, Alex picked up the wig and returned it to Isabella.
She didn't talk to me on the drive home. She didn't talk to me the next day either. By the third day I figured it out.
Salvatore Difalco is the author of "The Mountie At Niagara Falls" (Anvil) an illustrated collection of flash fiction. He splits time between Toronto and Sicily.