Ross sits in the dark with the TV on, volume off. He lets a movie play on repeat, staring off into the corners of the room. As he lights a cigarette, he thinks back on his mom’s stroke two years ago and the days after. As the words “persistent vegetative state” escaped the doctor’s mouth, floating around the room as in a cartoon, he had decided not to pull the plug. Hoping for the small chance of recovery, Ross had dedicated himself that day to the role of caretaker. The dutiful, loyal son.
All the movie houses were switching over to digital these days. Ross’s job was to sit in the dark projection booth and launch movies from the hard drive. Gone were the days of splicing, lacing, clicks, and whizzes. His only value now was extensive knowledge of new and coming-soon films, so he was able to customize movie trailers by a simple drag and drop function. He adjusted his belt, sat back, and pushed the play button. The theatre went dark and the trailers rolled on.
Ross’s first trip to a movie theater was with his mom. He was five and they were road-tripping through a storm to visit cousins by Mount Rainier. Mom thought it best to pull over in a small town and let the storm pass.
“We could try to force our way through the storm, but this is more fun,” she said. “Let’s go to the movies.”
On a cigarette break, Dan from the box office, asks,
“Hey Ross, how’s your Ma?”
“Same as always, but different than before.”
“It’s a shame, man. I don’t know how you…well, I just couldn’t deal. My wife’s mom went into hospice a few years back. Grateful the kids didn’t have to see her much like that. Do the doctors come much?”
“Nah. Hope of recovery has flatlined, but she hasn’t. I just can’t pull the plug, Dan. It ain’t my decision, y’know?”
Dan sighs and shakes his head, stubbing out his cigarette.
“It’s a real shame, man.”
After work, Ross stops at the bar, downs two beers, then drives the rest of the way home. Turning the key of his front door, he inhales deeply and steps inside. The lights are off. The smells of cigarettes, dirty carpet and empty TV dinner trays assault him.
“I always know what’s coming, but it always takes me by surprise.”
He looks around the house, disgusted by something he can’t see. The coffee table is littered with a growing tower of his mother’s magazine subscriptions, the corners of which rustle under the ceiling fan’s whir. The outline of his mom’s recliner is completely unchanged, save for a stack of sticky Styrofoam takeout boxes perched on one arm.
“This weekend I’ll hire a cleaner.”
Ross doesn’t bother to turn the lights on. He walks through the dark hallways, guided by a faint glow into the bedroom where his mom lay in bed, attached to half a dozen computers and blinking lights—all this machine, and not a single task Ross was meant to do. He returns to the living room. As the credits from a Romero film turn over, the TV goes quiet, and Ross listens to the machine’s steady metronome.
Hannah Litvin is a writer and former-Texan living in Philadelphia. She holds a BA in studio arts from University of Houston, and works full-time. Her poems have been published narrowly online and in print since 2015, but today she writes primarily fiction. Her short story “Rugsweeping, and Other Lost Arts” won Runner Up in the 2019 San Miguel Writers Conference, and is forthcoming in the Painted Bride Quarterly.