Thursday, August 24, 2006

What Am I Writing Now? Here's a Taste.

For a moment the only sound is that of steam squeaking as it escapes from the waffle iron. Then there is the click of its thermostat, and the light turns green. Steaming waffle quadrants improve a platter beside me. I shuttle between it and the gas cooktop, where sausage sizzles in a pan.

My parents are visiting. She sleeps upstairs; he sleeps down. They are both in his room now, and he is getting her dressed. The door is closed but I hear her protesting. She cries these words: "No!" "Don't!" "Whooaaah!" He is growling at her in a much deeper voice than the one he uses with the rest of us. I cannot make out his commands.

Suddenly the door opens and he comes through the small foyer and into our kitchen.

"There," he says, as though this first task of the day has completely exhausted him, and perhaps it has. He is flushed. He takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. He has carpal tunnel syndrome in both wrists, compressed nerves in both elbows and both ankles, and in his prescription shoes he walks like Frankenstein. Now there is also talk of a pacemaker. They say he needs a 24-hour monitor, but his small-town cardiologist has two broken ones so he couldn't get it fitted this week. Do they know she couldn't call 911, even if she recognized she needed to?

He approaches the counter near the growing pile of waffles. He pulls over the comics and sits to read them on our new red step stool with its padded seat and back. The stool I bought at Target. The stool I bought because it is identical to the one my parents had in their kitchen when I was growing up.

In the 1950s, I sat on a red stool identical to this one and my mother fed me mashed fruit with a spoon. In the '60s, when the seat got a burn hole in it, my father patched it with reddish epoxy. In those days he would also get brown melt holes down the fronts of the short-sleeve polyester shirts he wore to his job as an accountant. By the early '70s, the epoxy was partly ripped like a scab on a wound that had not quite healed. Around then, he quit smoking. By the time I finished college the stool was gone and all of his shirts were new.

Now he has a fat mechanical pencil in his hand and he is doing the Jumble. The pencil is fat because his hands work more like paws. Anyway he does not actually use the pencil. It is only for emergencies. His new trick is to do the Jumble completely in his head and then challenge me to do the same. Perhaps this is some baseline mental test for me, to see if I am headed down the same path as my mother, but more likely he is doing it just to prove he is still smarter than me. I do not try my hardest so he wins. This pleases him greatly.

"Did you save me some fruit?" His eyes loom large behind thick glasses.

"Yes. Be careful, it's hot over there." With my sausage tongs, I am pointing towards a bowl of fruit behind the waffle iron.

He pulls a plastic device from a shirt pocket and begins pulverizing my mother's morning pills. I lean over the cooktop and hand him a small spoon and a custard cup. He works quietly, using half of a banana. The resulting goo is grey, with nubs of blue and green sticking out.

"Has the green light come on yet, Dad?" He peeks inside the waffle iron.

"No, but it looks like they are nearly finished."

A few mornings later the house is empty except for my husband and me. I am sitting on the red stool, working the morning's Jumble with a pen. My husband comes in. I do not look up.

"Why have you suddenly taken up the Jumble?" I do not like his cheerful tone.

"Shut up."

I am stalling on the third word. I write down six letters alphabetically, forcing them into a circle. I tap the pen from one letter to another. Nothing is suggesting itself to me. At the edge of my vision my husband is looking for something on the counter where the waffle iron sits.

"We're out of bananas," he says, and lifts with his thumb and middle finger a half eaten one that is entertaining a halo of fruit flies.

"There are strawberries in the fridge."

He leans over my shoulder. The smell of dead banana wafts between us.

"Trough," he says.



He heads for the trash can under the sink; I throw him a black look. A moment later, from behind the opened fridge, he speaks again:

"And the fourth word is…"

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