The Motel of Greater Things
MY UNCLE LAY dying in the next room. I wasn't sure if it was the drugs or the cancer, but he was seeing horrific things on the walls: the leaping flames of Hell, green lizard demons with switchblades. Being a priest, he believed deeply in Hell. I was in the next room watching late night cable cartoons. Something very funny starring Lenny Bruce. It made me crack up. Lenny was a tormented genius.
For two weeks we'd been shacked up in this Houston motel. It wasn't a bad motel. Not shabby or anything like that. Just a typical blue collar motel next to a major interstate with lots of trucks rumbling by like hot August thunder.
I turned down the TV. My uncle was calling me. His room was lit by a single florescent glow from the bathroom, the door half closed. "Don't leave me alone," he said, trembling. I pulled up a chair and sat beside the bed watching and waiting. He couldn't sleep, he said. I gave him some Motrin and he washed it down with tap water. His whole body ached like a crucifixion.
I hadn't had much sleep either and soon found myself dozing in my chair. I dreamed I was sitting in a drug-paraphernalia-littered motel room with a very stoned Lenny Bruce who said, "Come on, Kid. Let's blow this dump and find some hot chicks." I said I couldn't, I had to watch my uncle.
"Watch him what? Die?"
For once I didn't appreciate Lenny's black humor. "Doesn't matter," I said. "Anyway, you're supposed to be dead. You died twenty years ago." Lenny said, "Wrong, kid. Guys like me are immortal. You--you've never lived."
I jerked awake, almost falling out of my chair, and saw that my uncle was still awake, staring at the ceiling, his frightened yellow eyes glowing in the dark.
When I woke again it was morning and my uncle was sleeping so I quietly slipped out for coffee. It felt good to get out of that dreary death room and into some moving, if not very fresh, Houston air. The morning was fine, fine for summer in south Houston, and I went for a walk along a loud highway till I found a convenience store. It was a typical American sitting-duck convenience store with an oil-stained lot, a nervous Pakistani guy behind the counter, and a line of fat women buying thirty-six-million-dollar lottery dreams for a buck each. I bought a coffee, but I wasn't ready to return--not yet--so I hung out in front of the convenient store, sipping my coffee and smoking Winston Lights and wondered what I'd do if my uncle died, a thought I'd been repressing for weeks. I wondered what the motel people would say, or if they were used to people dying in their rooms: hopeless people overdosing in the bathtub, or shooting themselves in the mouth. The manager would probably be thankful there was no blood and we didn't ruin the sheets. I was watching my uncle because I didn't have any thing else to do and everyone else in my family did. I'd been fired from my last job cutting grass for the parks department. My supervisor--a fat ass who drove around in a pickup "supervising" us--said I was lazy, but I think--and I'm saying this from experience, not trying to gain sympathy--I think some people just don't like me. Why not? There are plenty of people I don't like. But I wouldn't necessarily fire them. But that's me. So because I didn't have a job I got to take care of my uncle down in Houston. Only the cancer treatment didn't appear to be working. In the morning I drove him back and forth to the clinic and the rest of the day I gave him his medication and helped him to the bathroom and dabbed ointment on his sores and ordered dinner and at night I sat up with him. He wasn't taking his dying very well.
When I got back to the motel room I could hear him calling me. "Where the devil have you been?"
I raised my Styrofoam cup. "Coffee," I said. "Would you like some breakfast?"
"Don't ever leave me alone again," he said. "Help me up, I have to pee."
I was nineteen and I didn't know anything. Even if he dies, I thought, I still have my whole life ahead of me. I can do anything I want. I can be successful. I can do great things. That's what I was thinking as my uncle peed into his plastic bottle. That I could do great things. Someday. Not right now, but someday. I wasn't sure what great things I could do--after all, I couldn't even keep a lousy job, and I was flunking out of school, but I was fairly certain that I would do great things someday. I wanted to tell my uncle this, I wanted him to be proud of me, but I didn't think he'd believe me.
I knew what my uncle thought of me. That I was a slacker, that I didn't take life seriously, that I wasn't even taking his illness seriously. That while he was in there suffering and trying to hold off death, I was yukking it up with Lenny Bruce.
Then the phone rang.
"Where are you going?" my uncle said.
"The phone's ringing,'"I said.
It was my dad. He wanted to know how things were going. I wasn't sure what to say. Things couldn't have been much worse, in my opinion, but I didn't want to worry him. I wanted to at least do this thing right.
"OK," I said.
"How's he doing?"
"What do the doctor's say?"
"Don't give up hope."
"Yeah. Don't give up hope."
"Hmmmm." (Pause) "Well, we're all praying for him. You tell him that. OK?"
"Well. Call if you need anything."
I hoped they all felt good and guilty that I was down here in Houston and they were all going about their lives as usual. Not that I had anything else to do, really. Not till school started in the fall and I went back to flunking my classes. I took the warm bottle of urine into the bathroom and dumped it in the toilet. Then I went back to my uncle's bedroom. He sat on the edge of the bed, unable to move.
I said, "How about if we go out for breakfast?"
My uncle stared at the floor and said nothing.
"Or, we can eat in. I can run next door to Hardees."
He continued to stare at the floor like a silent movie.
Then he said, "I want to go home."
That kind of caught me off guard. I said, "Home? You mean home home?"
(Of course he meant home home. What else would he mean?) "But . . . but what about the treatment?"
"The hell with the treatment. I want to go home."
My uncle knew the treatment wasn't working. He could sense that he only had a few more days, that there weren't going to be any miracles, that the Virgin Mary wasn't going to appear to him in this sad motel room in Houston and kiss him and make it all better. He didn't want to spend those last few days alone with me in a dreary Houston motel. Who could blame him?
I went into the next room and called the airline and made reservations. Then I called my dad and told him we were coming home.
My uncle lay back in bed. The yellow fear had drained from his eyes. I joined him and as I sat beside him, quietly, studiously thinking as the minutes, then hours ticked by, I wondered if he didn't have any useful insights into the meaning of life that he could share, now that the gates of Heaven loomed ahead. I wondered if he hadn't figured any of this out, or if life just remained one big muddle to him like it was to me. I wasn't sure how I could put it without sounding stupid, so I just said it, weakly.
"Do you have any advice . . . for me?"
"I was just wondering."
He frowned. 'You should have paid attention in mass. You should have listened to my sermons. I wasn't up there talking for my health.'
"I know," I said.
"Anyway . . . anything I could say would just sound like a cliché. Enjoy life while it lasts. That sort of thing."
He turned away and moaned.
"Enjoy life," I said.
"Enjoy life," he said.
It wasn't very original, that was for sure. So much for great insights. But at least he didn't tell me to pray. Or count my blessings. I left him there for a moment while I slipped quietly outside, out into the warm Texas morning to fire up my second cigarette of the day. I inhaled deeply, feeling all warm and relieved as the cool smoke filled my lungs and rushed to my head. In twenty-four hours I'd be back home, back in the game, my whole life ahead of me. And I could do whatever I wanted with it. I could do great things, or I could piss it all away. So much easier to piss it all away.
Anyway, the important thing was to enjoy life.
Anyway, he'd never know.