I got the call in the middle of the night of my 30th birthday and knew it wasn’t good. Who calls to wish you happy birthday at three in the morning? I wished then that I’d married somebody so they could pick up the phone and say I wasn’t home.
“Hello?” I said, hoping no one would answer.
“Me, Jeff. Your brother.”
It didn’t sound like Jeff my brother. But since I hadn’t spoken to Jeff for six years, I wasn’t sure what he should sound like anymore. Anyway, why would someone pretend to be Jeff?
“How are you, Jeff?”
“It’s Ma. She’s real sick.”
“Yeah? What’s wrong with her?” I meant with her health, not—well, never mind. “Is it her liver?”
“She’s in the hospital. They say she’s not going to make it, Mutt.”
Now I knew it was Jeff. He and Ma were the only ones who called me Mutt. Ma had been calling us Mutt and Jeff since we were small. It was a long-ago comic strip in the newspaper, you know? Mutt and Jeff.
“Is this like a right away thing?” I asked.
Jeff sounded like he was gargling.
“What?” I said.
“They think tomorrow.” He was breathing heavy, like one of those creeps who call sometimes and don’t say anything. “Maybe tonight.”
“Okay,” I said. I sat on the edge of the bed and reached for my pants. I felt I should have my pants on, talking about Ma and all.
“She wants to talk to you, Mutt.”
“I can’t get down there. There’s snow up here. A nor’easter, they say.”
“I mean now. On the phone. She’s still conscious, like in a twilight sleep, you know?”
I put the phone on the bed, stood up and yanked on my pants. The zipper was stuck. I fiddled with it. My hands were shaking. I picked up the phone.
“Hello?” said Jeff.
“Yeah, I’m here.”
“She keeps saying your name. I ask her what she wants and she keeps saying Mutt.”
I didn’t say anything. Silence is golden, right Ma?
“Come on, for Christ’s sake. It’s been six years. Can’t you forgive and forget?” said Jeff.
“Has she forgotten?” I asked.
“Yeah, she’s forgotten. Everything. It’s not her liver, it’s her brain. She doesn’t know who I am. Or who she is. All she remembers is you.”
I finally got my zipper up. I went to the window. The snow was light but enough to coat the cars parked on the street. So where was the nor’easter the TV promised? I wanted a fuckin’ storm.
“A lot of water under the bridge, Mutt, and I’ve been drowning in it. The last three years have been the worst, but it’s all been bad. Since you left.” Jeff was crying.
“You ever get married?” I asked.
“I been here with her. I left, but came back. I couldn’t just run away. Like you.”
“She didn’t do it to you,” I said.
Jeff didn’t say anything. But I could feel it, right through the phone. My blood froze. “Did she? Jeff?”
“She’s almost dead, Mutt. She wants to talk to you.”
I opened the window and stuck my head out. I needed cold air, lots of it. I was choking, like when I was with Ma, stuck between her bottle and a hard place.
“You never said anything, Jeff.” And still he didn’t. All I heard was his breathing. “You still there?”
“I’ve always been still there,” he said.
I went back and sat on the edge of the bed, but left the window open, so I could feel the rush of clean air. “Put her on,” I said.
I could hear the murmur of voices in the background, the faint beeping of some machine, the muffled sounds of something happening. Then it all went quiet except for the rasp of ragged breathing.
A dry whisper. “Mutt?”
I didn’t answer.
“Mutt’s dead,” I said.
“Dead?” Long and drawn out like a last breath.
“His mother killed him.”
I clicked the phone off and put it back in its cradle. I took off my pants.
Paul Negri has twice won the gold medal for fiction in the William Faulkner – William Wisdom Writing Competition. HIs stories have appeared in The Penn Review, Jellyfish Review, Flash Fiction Magazine, Gemini Magazine and more than 50 other publications. He lives in Clifton, New Jersey.