by Natalie Droeske
Walt let out a large breath at his car’s roof. Gathering himself, he pulled the key from the ignition, staring at his home’s illuminated windows. He shuffled some legal papers from the case he was working on, pulling them into a neat stack. He looked up and could see Jackson lounged on the couch and their lazy cat Simone sleeping in the window. Walt closed the briefcase and left it and all baggage in the car.
Inside, Penny was busy in the kitchen pulling out every pot, pan, and dish from the cabinets. She’d had a splendid day with her mother as she visited with her clients in the basement. Wearing her Thursday fall outfit, an orange flowered skirt and a long sleeve white t-shirt with a matching flower on the chest, she twirled around the kitchen. Her blond hair had been styled into twelve tiny twists along her hairline. She’d counted. Hearing the creak of the wooden front door, she ran into the entryway and clung to her father’s left leg.
“Hey there, Squeaks! How was your day?” Walt asked, shutting the front door behind him. He looked at the scratches on the dark wood and tried to ignore the thoughts of his wife. It was still fresh, but things will get better, he thought. “How many people came to see Mommy today?” he asked.
“Five!” Penny answered, unraveling herself from her father’s leg. “And they all played army men with me while Mommy worked. Well, some just came to visit, and they just sat on the couch downstairs talking for a long time. But all my army men died, but it was okay because they saved the princess,” she said with a smile. Since her mother couldn’t really play with her anymore, she instead took to enlisting those that came to visit. Because the people that came to get their hair done now had to sit on the floor in front of her mother, they were at perfect playing height for Penny. And she loved it! Each person brought their own spin to her game of armies, but she always insisted on being the princess.
“Sounds like a pretty good day. Hey, you got a bug on your flower,” Walt said pointing to his daughter’s chest, flipping his finger up to catch the tip of Penny’s nose when she looked down. She erupted in laughter, never tired of the same weekly joke. Walt eyed the kitchen. “I see my sous-chef has arrived?” he said, “What should we make today?” He was in the mood for Italian.
“Hmmmm,” Penny answered. She walked over to the counter and pointed at a deep fry pan.
“That one? How about a stir-fry, then?” Walt asked, watching Penny’s expression shift, just like Cheryl’s would. “Stir-fry it is!” He made his way to the fridge and pulled out green bell peppers and chicken breast. Penny climbed up on the counter and opened the spice cabinet, awaiting instructions. Cheryl hated when she did that; she was always afraid she was going to fall.
Jackson waltzed in and grabbed a carton of yogurt from the fridge and made a face at his sister, “You’re gonna to faaaall,” he jeered.
“Am not! I’ve been up here tons of times,” Penny countered. He could see she was making sure to hold tight to the cabinet handle to prove her point.
“I’m just saying that it ain’t gonna be me cleaning up your blood,” he said without looking up from the silverware drawer where he plucked a spoon.
His harsh words drew tears to Penny’s eyes. “I’m not gonna fall!” she stammered trying to sounds sturdy, but Jackson had already returned to the living room.
Walt watched the exchange.
“Jackson, will you please come back here and apologize to your sister?” Walt said. Jackson had other plans though, settling back on the couch with his yogurt. Walt walked over and plucked the iPad from his lap.
“Son, I asked you to apologize to your sister.”
“Fine! I’m sorry,” Jackson yelled toward the kitchen without moving his head. “Now can I have that back?”
Walt still held the iPad out of Jackson’s reach. “You’re going to spoil your dinner, you know.”
“No I’m not. It’s not like dinner is anything like it used to be. Now please can I have it back?”
Walt conceded and handed him the tablet. “I guess we’ll only need salad for three then.” Cheryl would’ve been better at handling this.
Penny sat patiently waiting, already over the Jackson episode. Walt smiled at her but it didn’t reach his eyes. Once he gathered his thoughts, he told her that he needed the big bottle of olive oil and some garlic from the pantry. She slid down from the counter after grabbing the oil and headed to their overflow pantry in the mudroom closet. Watching her go, he saw a head peak above the couch, the blue glow from the tablet illuminating Jackson’s cold expression.
“Let’s start over, hmm? Hi Jacks, how was your day?” Walt asked him. Jackson looked at his father and shrugged. His day had been wonderful but why should his father get to know that. He wasn’t home for any of it, nor would he ever think of joining him in his outdoor adventures like Mom always did. So he shrugged and turned back to Candy Crush. His yogurt sat on the coffee table in from of him; only one bite gone. Simone jumped up onto the back of the couch and surveyed the scene, flipping her long brown tail as she settled down, keeping her eye on both Jackson and Walt.
In the pantry, Penny squatted down to the bins on the floor, wrestling with the mesh bag that held the garlic. She’d seen her father slice open the bag with his shiny knife but she wasn’t allowed to touch that, and he had asked for only one so she couldn’t bring the whole bag. Determined to deliver, she pulled and pulled at the mesh trying to make a hole large enough for the smallest ball of garlic to fit through. She continued to tug.
Walt was cleaning the chicken at the sink when Penny came trudging back from the mud room with her head down. The tension from Jackson building up in his shoulders released. He went to her with the intention to comfort. Without looking at him, she handed him the bag of garlic and sat down promptly on the floor in front of him. The white mesh was stained red and he squatted down to be level with his daughter. He gently reached for her hands and held them in his, blood running in twists across her palms. He snatched a few tissues from the box on the counter by the phone and sat down in front of her.
Jackson tried to ignore his sister’s screeching but couldn’t. Jackson peeked over the back of the couch and around Simone to see what had happened. Of course Dad was taking care of her. If that had been him, he would’ve been told to clean up it himself and go find a band-aid in the upstairs bathroom cabinet. But not Penny. She was the one that got the special treatment. He was disgusted.
He saw his father lead her to the kitchen sink to rinse it off. She gave a little squeal when he held her hand under the water. What a baby, he thought, ignoring the fact that this was his new life. He missed when Mom used to make dinner. He remembered when it used to be him that fetched ingredients and helped with dinner. They all helped. The radio was always on and his parents used to dance around the island while he and Penny sat perched on the counter. But those days were over.
“Oh shut up,” he murmured to the empty room.
With Penny bandaged and back to her charismatic self, Walt instructed her to set the table while he microwaved some instant rice for a side, adding sauce to the almost-complete stir fry. He tried to calm his queasy stomach; he wasn’t big on blood. He watched as Penny once again climbed up onto the counter and grabbed plates.
“Are we having salad, too?” she asked.
He replied, “Yes, for three,” pointing the comment at the living room. Penny nodded placing the plates one by one on the counter and reached up for three bowls. She stacked the bowls on the plates and headed to the table.
His wife’s television in the basement was directly under the kitchen, and Walt could hear the faint sounds of what was on it. Right then it sounded like music, like The Beatles, his favorite band. He smiled and began to hum.
Walt dumped the rice into the pan and mixed it with the chicken and vegetables, forgetting his side dish intentions. He tried to suppress the memories that popped into his head of how he used to twirl Cheryl around the kitchen. He found himself humming louder before burning his tongue on a piece of chicken. He added some lemon juice to the dish and turned off the heat on the stove.
The stir-fry sizzled, and Jackson watched his father smile at his work. His cooking was nothing like Mom’s. He scowled as Walt started singing, and when he looked up, Jackson saw Penny nodding her head along with the beat while she set the table. “Oh yeah, I tell you somethin’/I think you’ll understand/When I say that somethin’/I want to hold your haaaaaand,” he sang out while Penny ran toward him. “I want to hold you haaaand/ I want to hold your hand.” He continued his tune, and she hopped up on his feet, and they danced around the kitchen island. Jackson powered down his tablet and trudged down to the basement, grumbling.
The timer on the kitchen stove went off signaling that the frozen egg rolls in the oven were done. The encore had to wait until after dinner. Penny trotted over to the television where she turned on the Easy Listening music station they always had on in the background at meals. Mommy liked music. She liked to hum.
Walt poured the stir-fry into a serving dish and turned to put it on the table. He looked up. The worst part of his night sat before him; Cheryl smiled up at him wearing a loose fitting dress that covered what was left of her legs. Jackson hovered behind her wheelchair in the mud room. Walt had avoided the back door and mudroom since they put the ramp in. The light from the dining room chandelier picked up the gray strands of hair popping up on her head. The skin on her face, it seemed, sagged lower and lower each day despite her ever-present smile. His realized the smile had fallen from his face. He replastered it.
Cheryl had made it a point to keep family dinner a tradition. Jackson removed the chair that was guarding her spot at the table and wheeled her to the table. She should be taking it easy, but she insisted on seeing her clients.
“Oh, Walt honey this looks fabulous. It’s been forever since I’ve had Asian.”
Jackson hovered over his mother for a half a second longer normal, staring at his father as he took his seat.
“Well, let’s dig in!” said Cheryl cheerfully. She eagerly spooned stir-fry onto her plate and asked Penny to get her some salad. “Gosh this smells so goooood,” she said. Walt could see she was still running low on energy. Perhaps we should try to have dinner a little earlier, he thought.
“Thanks, Hun,” Walt responded. “You had visitors today?”
“Well it’s Thursday so I had JoAnn at 10, and then Mary came for a braid and some tea before she ran her errands,” Cheryl relayed as she lined up chicken and vegetables on her fork. “I’ve just about perfected my corn rows,” she said with a wink at Penny. “Oh, and Caryn needed her roots redone, and then Tricia brought the boys in for a trim. I’ve just about gotten used to doing this hair cutting thing with my clients seated in front of me, but those boys? Oh they just didn’t want to sit still!” Walt cringed at the idea of Tricia’s two boys running around downstairs.
“Those boys couldn’t done some real damage, Cheryl,” Walt said. “Especially if Tricia isn’t watching them.”
“Oh they’re just boys.”
Walt swallowed his chicken and reached for the wine he’d poured before the prep started. “As long as you’re not overdoing it, Sweetheart,” Walt replied without looking at her. He felt Simone rub up against his leg. Chicken was her favorite table food.
“Oh I’m fine, Dear,” Cheryl answered keeping her eyes on Penny who was separating the stir-fry into piles of ingredients and eating them separately.
Jackson pointedly stabbed a piece of chicken on his plate. He thought that his mother keeping up her business was, despite how tired it made her, doing her good. The research he’d done said the more people like her do, the better off they’ll be. He wanted her to get strong enough to wheel herself up the steep ramp from downstairs. She said she liked it down there, liked to be surrounded by her business and all the success she’d had, but Jackson knew it also made her sad. Dad wasn’t home long enough to notice something like that. He didn’t care that she’d basically banished herself to the basement. Jackson, though, kept a close eye on his mother. “Like you care,” he mumbled, stuffing a forkful of chicken in his mouth.
“What was that, Son?”
“Nothing,” he murmured, pushing the rice around his plate. He’ll never understand; he’s never home, thought Jackson. He scowled at a piece of singed pepper and willed it to go back to how it used to be when Mom made dinner and Dad took more days off.
“Oh, well alright then,” was Walt’s response, and he went about munching on his glazed vegetables and drinking his wine. Like nothing was wrong. Like he was happy. Jackson couldn’t take it. “May I be excused?”
“Jackson, I don’t think that’s such a good idea,” Walt said, remembering how closely Cheryl cherished their evening meals. “I think we should maybe have a talk in the entryway,” He placed his napkin next to his plate and got up. Jackson remained in his seat.
What was Dad trying to do? Like there was anything he could do to help. Jackson stared at the stir-fry, his stomach aching from hunger. Why didn’t Dad just get that this was how things are now? Mom needs him, Jackson thought, to support her but he’s too busy with work and dinner. He looked up to see his father standing over him.
“Son,” he said, still standing there expectantly.
Just leave me alone, Jackson thought, looking out the window. Maybe if I wasn’t here, he’d have to spend time with Mom. And with that thought, Jackson calmly rose from the table and walked into the mudroom for his shoes. He’d go to Jared’s where he could eat chocolate cake and play video games as late as they wanted.
Walt thought he’d have gotten a bigger reaction out of his son, but he followed him into the mudroom nonetheless to find Jackson putting on his shoes. He stopped short of the doorway “And where do you think you’re going?” he asked as Jackson reached for his jacket from the closet.
“Away,” Jackson responded without looking up. He bent down to tie the laces on his shoes.
“Oh, I don’t think so. We’re in the middle of dinner.”
“Like you care,” Jackson said, looking up at his father with a scowl on his face. “You weren’t even listening when she was telling you about her day!”
“What do you mean ‘like I care’? You think I don’t care about you or your sister?
“No, it’s not about us. It’s Mom you don’t care about,” Jackson said, his voice rising.
In the other room, Penny sat at the table, an empty plate before her. She was always told that she couldn’t leave the table unless it was clean but couldn’t figure out why Jackson got to leave when his plate still had everything on it. She heard her brother and father’s voices from the mudroom and didn’t like them; they sounded angry. She looked at her mother to find her looking in the direction of the mudroom.
“I don’t know where you’re getting the idea that I don’t care about your mother. She’s my wife, and I love her very dearly,” Walt said to his son. “I need to get dinner on the table, get it cleaned up, and make sure you and your sister get to bed at a decent hour. I do everything I can around this house, including the chores that you’re supposed to do.”
“That’s because I’m downstairs with Mom! She’s lonely, and you won’t even come down to see her when you get home! The only time you see her really see her is at dinner and that’s if I go downstairs and wheel her up. She can’t get up the stairs on her own yet, you do know that don’t you? But I guess maybe not, because you don’t care even a little.”
Jackson could predict what was about to happen but couldn’t react fast enough. He watched in panic as he saw his mother’s hands come to rest on the face of the table. Her elbows bent before forcefully straightening them; his mother’s intention being to stand to intercede. He guessed that her accident was still new as she’d forgotten she didn’t have legs to support her anymore.
“That’s enough! Both of you!” They both turned to see Cheryl slam down her silverware, rattling the dishes on the table.
In horror Jackson watched as his mother lost her grip, slamming into the edge of the table.
A loud bang that rang through the house.
Cheryl’s head down in her plate of stir-fry. He couldn’t possibly prepare himself for the scene before him as he saw his wife slowly raise her head and bring her hands to a bloodied face.
“Mommy, mommy!” Penny screamed as she scampered down from her dining room chair and fled to the kitchen. Walt stood rooted to the wheelchair-scratched hardwood floor and stared at the flow of blood gushing from Cheryl’s mouth, nose, and above her eye.
Penny returned with the box of Kleenex she’d used earlier. She started pulling them out of the box, handfuls at a time. Jackson rushed over and grabbed each chunk from her as fast as she could pull them out. He tipped Mom’s head back, talking to himself. He held more and more tissues to her face and turned to their father. “Are you just going to stand there?!” her brother screamed.
Then there was silence.