by Leslie Rapparlie
“I can’t drink the water without the lemon,” my mother said.
There were no lemons around because she hadn’t gone to the store in weeks. The cupboards were empty. So was one of two beds in her bedroom.
“Did you see this letter?” she held it out to me. “Someone wrote it to me, a nice boy. I can’t remember who, but it’s a nice letter.”
I looked at the paper. “I wrote this letter, Ma.”
I nodded. Every time she forgot something it was a reminder that someone needed to be here more often. That someone should be me. I was, after all, her only son.
She folded the paper and set it on the table. “I need the lemon.”
“I’ll go to the store.”
“Did you see the birds?” she asked.
I followed the lines of her face. Her skin was pale and translucent, flaking off around her ears and under her chin. Where had I been while she’d gotten so old?
In the backyard, robins and sparrows hopped from the feeder to a small, wooden birdhouse my father built years ago, to the birdbath. A few squirrels dug around in the grass at the base of the feeder, nibbling on dropped seeds. A pair of birds separated from the group and flew upward, dancing together.
“They’re in love,” she said, pointing. “That’s what lovers do.”
“What do you think about me moving in?” I asked.
“You still have your room,” she said.
“You’re right.” I looked around thinking about what it would be like to live with her flowery couch and collection of crystal figurines, and, well, to be her roommate. To go from Columbus, where I once had a secure job in insurance and a nice apartment that I could actually afford with a 50-inch LED television and leather couches, to the suburbs of Toledo where I’d be in my childhood room, my old football trophies still on a shelf over the bed.
“Here,” she said, shuffling into the kitchen. “Go get the golf balls.” She held out several empty egg cartons.
“We don’t need more, Ma. You have boxes of them downstairs and you don’t even play golf.”
“Your father does,” she said. “And take some of them home with you.”
“I don’t need any.” I rubbed the toe of my shoe against the kitchen floor. “And neither does Dad, and you know that.”
She didn’t move, just stood in the center of the kitchen holding out the cartons, staring at me.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll go get the golf balls.”
“And some buckeyes,” she added.
* * *
The flowers of yellow and scarlet from spring were long gone, leaving only the radiant, orange and red leaves. The buckeyes had only just begun falling off the trees. Some of the spiky, light green pods split as they hit the ground, exposing the dark nuts that looked like fossilized eyeballs.
Gracie pattered over to me and rubbed against my leg.
“Hey there, beautiful,” I said, crouching to pet her. “Are you taking care of her?” I looked back at my mother who was staring out the bay window at me. I waved.
I picked up one of the buckeyes from the ground, rubbed my finger over the light brown circle and made a wish, a superstition I couldn’t give up.
When I was a kid, my mother and I would string necklaces and ornaments out of the nuts and scarlet and grey beads. We’d mail them to cousins, aunts, friends. We’d enclose notes about the benefits of rooting for Ohio State, a team I still faithfully loved and followed.
When I was eight, I tried to eat one of the hard nuts, but I couldn’t bite into it so I’d gone into the garage and taken a hammer to one. I brought the pieces into the kitchen, put them on a plate, and sat down at the table. My mother walked in and grabbed the plate out from in front of me.
“Don’t you ever eat these,” she said, jamming a pointer finger in my face. “They’re poisonous.”
“The squirrels eat them,” I’d said.
“They bury them,” she’d said. “I’ve never seen one actually eat them. Anyway, they’re poisonous for people. So don’t eat them. You hear me?”
I’d said yes, but felt hurt by her tone.
“We can make the ones we can eat, though. Want to do that?”
I ran to the cupboard to get the peanut butter. “Where’s the chocolate?” I’d asked.
“Secret place,” she’d said. “If I told you where it was, you’d eat it all.”
We spent the rest of that afternoon mixing the ingredients and dipping peanut butter balls into the liquid chocolate, leaving a small circle of the peanut butter visible on top. I remember she’d smeared some of the dark chocolate on my nose and we’d laughed. When my father came home, I ran over to him with three of the edible buckeyes on a small, white plate.
“Thanks, kiddo,” he’d said. “Just what I needed.” He loosened his tie and walked into the bedroom with the plate and his briefcase to get changed.
* * *
Inside the house, I put the nuts and egg containers of golf balls on the kitchen table.
“Where’d you go?” my mother asked.
“I got the golf balls.”
“That was a good idea.”
“You told me to.” I touched her shoulder.
“How many did you get?”
“Nearly two dozen.” I opened the egg cartons and showed her. “See this one?” I pointed to a ball with the words Titleist Pro V1 on one side. “Those are expensive. About $60 a box.”
“I’ll take them.” She took the cartons from me. “Your father may need them.”
This time I didn’t say anything. I just gave her the cartons and she slowly lowered herself into the basement, stair by stair.
When she came back, she asked, “Tea?”
She opened the refrigerator door and pushed aside the expired milk, container of butter, and bottle of ketchup.
“We have no lemons.”
“That’s right,” I said. “I’ll go get some. Will you be okay?”
She waved me off, her head still partially obscured by the refrigerator door. “Maybe some bread, too.”
* * *
As I drove to the Kroger, I passed the tree under which I first kissed Kasey in fifth grade; the hill where I tumbled, face first, off my bike and ended up in the ER; the dumpster behind Mario’s Pizza where Jeff Reade punched me in the face for not giving him my homework to copy. Places in Columbus didn’t feel the same. Coming back was the right thing to do. She needed me. I was sure of it.
As I parked, the sun cast a golden glow across the lot.
I grabbed a cart and pushed it back and forth before choosing it. I hated the ones with the wobbly or squeaky wheels and often abandoned them in the middle of the store if I got one. The cart I had seemed fine, so I pushed it toward the produce section and loaded it with lettuce and fruit and lemons—several lemons—bread, ice cream, chips, and salsa.
A young man ran each item past the scanner and I waited. A woman about my age pushed her cart toward the exit. She stopped by my checkout row and looked at me.
“Steven?” she asked. “Well, holy shit, it’s been forever.”
I shrugged, wishing she hadn’t recognized me.
“I thought I heard you were around. What are you doing here?” She smiled a beautiful, toothy smile.
“Melinda,” I said. My sort of ex-girlfriend. She was the girl I had crushed on for years only to finally get up the courage to ask her out, have her say yes, and then have her leave in the middle of our bowling game because Brian, her boyfriend before me, had shown up and swept her away. “How are you?”
“Didn’t see you at the reunion.”
I shook my head.
“What have you been up to?”
I didn’t want to tell her that even though I blamed it on the recession, I’d been fired before the cutbacks and that now there was little prospect of something new popping up any time soon. Not to mention that I was thirty-six, single, and about to move back in with my mother, but I couldn’t come up with a lie.
“Mom needs a hand around the house. You know.” I hoped she wouldn’t say any more about it.
“Who else will be helping you?” she asked.
“$43.66,” the boy at the checkout said.
I swiped my card through the reader. “What do you mean?”
“Well, you’re not thinking of doing it alone, are you? Your mom seems to be,” Melinda paused. “Don’t you have a nurse?”
“No,” I said. “Just me. And she’s okay. We’ll be fine.” I was confident. I was all she needed.
She looked down at her purse in the part of the cart where a child might sit. “Well,” she said. “You know best.” Then she fell silent for a moment that felt like an hour. “It was nice seeing you. Take care. Tell your mother I say hi.”
I waved and carefully signed my name on the electronic pad. I tried not to watch as she pushed her cart toward the exit.
* * *
When I pulled up to my mother’s house, the front door was wide open. I ran inside, leaving the groceries in the car.
I called out for her. There was no response. The back door was open as well.
The sun was hovering over the treetops, which meant that only the late-starts would be left on the course, but it also meant I had to find her, and fast. I jogged over the small, grassy hills calling her name and shielding my eyes as though it helped me see further into the distance.
After fifteen minutes, I found my mother hunched over, near a grouping of four same-sized trees, searching through the underbrush.
“Mom,” I hollered. “What are you doing?”
“Oh, Henry,” she exclaimed. “It’s Gracie. I think she’s wandered off under this bush.”
She’d never called me by my father’s name before. I bent over, resting my hands on my knees, catching my breath and watching my mother purse her lips and suck in air, trying to coax the cat out of the shrubbery.
“She’ll come home. She always comes home.” I reached for her hand and pulled her back toward the house as dusk turned into night.
“When is Steven coming home?” she asked. “I wish he’d visit more.”
“I’m right here,” I said.
“Maybe we should make some cookies for when he comes.”
I sighed, remembering the groceries in the car.
Out of her pocket, she pulled a single buckeye for me to examine.
“Make a wish, Henry,” she said.
But I already had and it hadn’t worked. Instead, all I could hear were Melinda’s words. Maybe I couldn’t do this alone. Maybe I wasn’t enough.
“And we’ll need some bread,” she reminded me as we went back inside.
“You’re right,” I said, “We will.”
She filled up a kettle with some water and put it on the stove. As she lit a burner, I pulled the back door shut, locking the bolt into place.
“Would you go to the store for me, dear?” my mother asked.
I sat at the small kitchen table. “Yes. Mom. Of course.”