There is a grainy bitter metallic taste in Tommy's mouth that he associates with coffee. He rolls his tongue over his teeth. He bites down on his tongue a little bit, to see how it feels. He bites a little harder. Tommy blinks constantly when he speaks or is spoken to, and some of his blinks are intense and involve his whole face, like he's blinking angrily. He hacks into computer systems for fun. For money, he helps an Albanian immigrant named Milot skim bank cards at ATMs. Four different cell phones in his backpack. Shoes smeared with red clay from a construction site in Atlanta. Last week he climbed into the rafters of the building's wooden skeleton and sat up there where he could see all around but no one could see him. He is riding a Greyhound back to Birmingham to see his mother. Soiled diaper, somewhere. An evil smell like peat moss and vinegar. Hours yet to go. Trees bend east as they sprint across the windows into the past.
When Tommy puts his head against the window, his skull vibrates and his thoughts slow down. He is self-diagnosed with a variety of mental disorders; his opinions on what is wrong with him depend on his mood. When in a good mood, he diagnoses himself with bipolar disorder but views it as romantic. When in a bad mood, he diagnoses himself with major depressive disorder. He rubs a finger along the cold metal frame of the bus window. He thinks about his mother's Turkey a la King. Under the bus he has garbage bag full of unshredded documents from a dumpster behind an AT&T office. Favorite drink: Sunkist Orange Soda. If he can not find Sunkist Orange Soda, he will drink Mountain Dew. He will not drink any other kind of orange soda. His first ¿hack¿ was guessing the password on his middle school math teacher's computer while she was eating lunch in the faculty room. He sometimes feels insecure about how many of his hacks rely on guessing or stealing passwords. When he feels insecure, he diagnoses himself with generalized anxiety disorder. At all times he diagnoses himself with Asperger's Syndrome, but is proud of it, and never sees a professional in case they tell him that he doesn't have it. He thinks that Milot the Albanian is cheating him, but never brings it up, because Milot is the only person he really talks to face-to-face. When he sees his arms and legs in the mirror, he wishes he could have cybernetic arms and legs. They would look like normal limbs from the outside, but more muscular than his current ones, and he would be able to jump at least three meters into the air. He recognizes the inherent superiority of the metric system and uses it in writing and conversation, but often thinks in Imperial terms, because he is American. He thinks that aging is a solvable problem. He has never been outside of the country. His black ponytail has two hairbands. He studied business administration for one and a half semesters at Lawson State Community College. His mother is dying.
It is eight at night when Tommy arrives in Birmingham. He tries to say hello to the cab driver and give him the name of the hospice, but stumbles over his lines because he has rehearsed them for too long in his head. He wonders what the cab driver thinks of him. He wonders if he is out of touch with the working poor. He imagines himself saying, “I wonder if I'm out of touch with the working poor,” out loud, and the words break apart into meaningless syllables.
It feels like his thoughts are separated from each other by thin layers of oily plastic. Nothing interacts. Everything slides across everything else. He tries to think of the psychiatric terminology for this perceptual experience. Derealization. Depersonalization.
He diagnoses himself with adjustment disorder with mixed anxiety and depressed mood (acute). He pinches the skin between his thumb and forefinger, to see how it feels.
They pass by the Food Mart where he worked part-time when he was fourteen, sweeping up and restocking the shelves. It's a small, squat building with a flat tin roof and windows covered by a mosaic of beer and cigarette ads. He remembers the night Shitpants Dan came in and bought &endash; God only knows where he got the money &endash; $120 worth of five-dollar scratch-offs. Tommy watched as Shitpants Dan lost on every single ticket. A staggering, almost inconceivable run of bad luck. Shitpants Dan was apoplectic. He punched the safety glass and called the cashier a bitch. He threw the jar of nickel-candy into the shelf of glow-in-the-dark ashtrays and expired cans of Vienna sausage. Tommy scurried to safety as Shitpants Dan kicked over the rack of peanuts and sunflower seeds. He smashed a few bottles of beer. He poured the milk out of half a dozen milk jugs, one by one.
Finally, he sat down on the ice cream freezer. He stopped shouting. His face scrunched up and turned purple and his bottom lip turned inside out as he wept, deeply and silently. Tommy watched from behind a ziggurat of beer cases. Shitpants Dan rocked back and forth on the freezer. His jaw worked up and down. The only noises he made were long wheezes when he paused to take a breath. The cashier shouted that the cops were coming, and he ought to get the hell out of the store. When the police finally arrived, Shitpants Dan held out his arms, like a little boy looking to be picked up. There were a few awkward, pensive moments as the police thought about how they might apprehend him without touching him, or even getting close to him. Shitpants Dan had lost control of his bowels again. The police advanced with their arms held out stiff and straight, like mummies. He did not try to fight.
Tommy never saw him in the neighborhood again. A few months later Tommy heard that someone found him in a dumpster behind a Burger King on the other side of town, dead from natural causes, more or less. Tommy cried in his room the night he heard that. And even though he was already an atheist, he prayed that someone who knew his real name came for his body.
“We here,” says the cab driver. He is holding up his hand and rolling it in a lazy circle.
The hospice. Tommy pays the driver with cash. He pays for everything with cash. His profession has made him suspicious of banks and credit cards. He smiles and holds eye contact with the driver for too long as he pays. He smokes a cigarette and watches the cab drive away. No rain yet. Thick branches of blue lightning crack across the sky, cloud-to-cloud, never touching the ground. He feels the barometric pressure plummeting, the humidity being whisked into the sky. The surface world being emptied. Feelings of lightness and unease.
Muzak in the pink lobby. A woman dressed in pastel colors gives him a room number and points him down the hallway. The door to the room is open.
The room is empty.
The bedcover is turned up, and there is no one there.
Lights are off.
Nothing on the nightstand except three different versions of the Bible.
Tommy shouts. Pained, brief, involuntary. He retreats down the hallway with his legs and shoulders stiff. The pastel-colored woman is jogging up to meet him.
“What's wrong?” she asks.
Tommy rubs his hand down the right side of his face. His features on that side stretch and warp. “The room was empty,” he says.
He points to the room. The woman's eyes widen and her mouth puckers into a little 'o'.
“I'm so sorry,” she says. “I must have given you the wrong room number. Your mother is down here.”
The woman leads him to a door at the end of the hallway. She squeezes his hand. It feels good to have someone squeeze his hand. She smiles and leaves him in the doorway. His mother is on the bed, her back leaning up against a stack of pillows. Her mouth is closed and sunken. There are brown splotches down her bare arms. She holds her head erect and keeps her tiny hands folded neatly on her lap as she stares at the blank television screen.
“Hi,” says Tommy.
She does not respond.
He says hi again, louder.
She turns her head toward the noise. She breaks into a wide affectionate smile. “Oh, hello,” she says. “Nice to see you.”
He walks over to the bed and hugs her. She lets out a satisfied hum, but her hands remain folded in her lap. He leans away from her. She smiles up at him. Her face is sharp and withered, and he can see the shape of her skull through her hair. Her small, dark eyes scan frantically across his face.
“It's Tommy,” he says.
“Oh,” she says. Her smile grows wider. “Isn't that nice?”
Tommy flattens the front of his t-shirt with his hands. He pulls a dull orange armchair up to the bed and sits down. His mother tilts her head to the side and laughs weakly. She pats his hand, which is resting on the bedspread. She looks out the window into the shapeless darkness.
“Mr. and Mrs. Robin live there,” she says. “You don't know Mr. and Mrs. Robin? They moved into the oak tree out there and set up their little nest with their little twigs and pieces of plastic and whatever they could find. I like to say they're new residents here. They had their little eggs, and soon they'll hatch, and we'll have even more new residents.”
A flash of lightning outlines the dark tangled shape of the tree. The shape seems imprinted on the window for a moment, even after the light is gone. Tommy's mother grabs his hand with both of hers.
“There are lots of nice things to see out the window,” she says. “I like to watch the TV, too. There are lots of interesting things to see on the TV. I like to watch the morning show with the young lady who shows how to cook all manner of different meals and snacks. And sometimes I like to watch the shopping channel. I never buy anything, but I like to see the things a body might have.”
She stares at the black television screen. She holds on tight to Tommy's hand. Her smile is unbroken. Her fingernails are drawing blood.