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The Last Time They Came, The First Time I Understood

By Jennifer Fliss

So I said, “nurse, what are you playing at?”

And she said, “Alexander, I'm not playing at anything, they’re coming today” and I knew she was wrong or lying. I took the pills she offered, those teeny tiny bricks and popped ‘em back. I don't need water Bridget, I said when she offered. 

So, Mike and Diane said they were coming today. Bringing the kids – probably bribing them with candy or a trip to Chuck-E-Cheese. Libby was named after my Elizabeth and Sasha, named after me but I'm not dead yet, so there's that. Jewish tradition says you don’t use the name until the namesake is dead. Sasha is 11, so Mike and Diane had high hopes pretty early I guess.  

I’ve asked Bridget to sneak in some Milano cookies. You’re diabetic, she told me, but she brought them anyway: mint, raspberry, and orange. I loved the way the buttery cookie gave way to the chocolatey inside. The perfect cross section of horizontal lines when broken in half. The snap of each bite. I arranged them on a plate, red roses curling around the edges of the porcelain. Elizabeth’s china. Well, ours, but she picked them out. I fan the cookies outward. Elizabeth would’ve been proud.

I shuffle toward the bathroom, the doorway surprisingly tight for a place like this. I tie and retie my bowtie. Haven’t worn it in ages, not since my sales days, door to door, Bethesda to Buffalo to Amagansett. East Coast best salesman, 1956. Anyway, Bridget has to help me with my bowtie on days like these.

“You look handsome, Alexander.”

“Call me Sasha,” I tell her. I want to wink but don’t.

“Call me Meg,” she says.

I wait. They’re supposed to arrive at eleven. The clock shows 11:04. I stand in front of my door covered with artwork from when the kids were really young. Scribbles, doodles, and stick figure family portraits: Mom, Dad, Grandpa, Libby, Sasha, and Minx, the dog. I had a full head of hair back then, depicted as a red Medusa with strands standing upward from my scalp. So weird for your kind, they’d always said. Sure you’re not Irish?, I was asked as I ran up and down the alleys of the lower east side. A list of counties dribbled from the tongues of women who missed their homes. No, not from Cork. Not from County Kerry either. You haven’t heard of it, I’d told them. It was true. As where I was from was no longer there anyway. Can you be from somewhere that disappeared?

11:11—this was the time my mother said to make a wish. So I did.

11:17—surely they’ve just hit some traffic. I help myself to a cookie, they leave melted chocolate lines on my hands. I lick it off like I’m a child.

11:33—I feel the sugar. My heart a hummingbird; they’re so beautiful. Elizabeth used to mix up nectar water for them and hung feeders in the yard. I press my hand to my chest to feel her. Sweat forms on the skin under my bowtie and I try to loosen it with my fat fingers. Thick and clumsy, I pull the wrong side, tightening it around my neck and feel I might choke.

11:40—my knees ache. My back protests this stupidity. Sit down. Lie down, rest up, my joints say. I listen and get into bed. It’s one of those mechanical contraptions, so I can use the remote to sit up when they arrive.

12:02—the phone rings. I must have dozed off. I answer. I know I sound groggy.

“Dad? Dad, is that you? I can’t even understand what you’re saying. We can’t come today. Sorry. Sasha has a soccer game and Libby’s got a bit of a cold. OK? Next time. Ok dad?”

I hear the suction slap, slap, hiss from Arnold’s room next door. Slap, slap, hiss. The syncopation is beautiful and I begin to tap my finger on the phone receiver along with the beat. Arnold’s been on that machine for at least a year. It’ll be the last sounds of his life and I doubt he even hears the music.

“Dad? Dad, Are you there?” My bow tie has fallen to the ground and I’ve eaten all the cookies.

Jennifer Fliss is a Seattle-based fiction and essay writer. Her work has appeared in PANK, Hobart, The Rumpus, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere. She can be found on Twitter at @writesforlife or via her website,

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