BONNIE MEANT well. Albert could hear her now in his kitchen, clanging the pots and giving the wooden spoon three short raps on the lip of the pan when she’d finished stirring whatever it was she meant to feed him. Rap! Rap! Rap! Rapid, staccato bursts that annoyed him inexplicably. She had obviously turned her attention to another pan—Rap! Rap! Rap!—containing some miraculous gruel that would restore him to health. It couldn’t be beef tea, which he actually loved. Beef tea cooked slowly, covered, over hours, with no rapping of spoons necessary. It would undoubtedly be some low-fat, low-salt abomination. Bonnie, never the sharpest crayon in the box, couldn’t seem to get it into her head that his stroke had had nothing whatsoever to do with high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or anything besides a congenital weakness in some vessel wall, which had chosen the occasion of his forty-eighth birthday to rupture.
And in a way, his misfortune was a blessing to Bonnie. With Donald dead from an IED that exploded him into the rocky, blood-weary soil of Afghanistan, Bonnie was unmoored and grieving as much as the demands of single parenthood allowed. Her three children, his sullen seventeen-year-old nephew Kyle and his adorable nieces—nine-year-old Becky and eleven-year-old Lynne—milled around Albert as he sat on the couch and shifted his stubborn left leg with two hands. Albert needed the bathroom, and he wished either of his two in-home health caregivers were there. Solita’s granddaughter was having her quinceañera this evening, hence her absence. Tiny, the gentle black giant who took over the night shift, wasn’t due for four hours. Albert stirred again and reached for his walker. Kyle never made it easy.
“What?” Kyle didn’t tear his gaze from the TV, currently showing a tape of the ancient antics of Morgus the Magnificent, circa 1960, recently preserved on DVD by nostalgic New Orleanians. Morgus was the New Orleans precursor to Elvira, the horror-show hostess. Like Elvira, Morgus enlivened the show between segments of laughably dreadful B movies, as did the vintage Jax beer commercial cartoons voiced over by Mike Nichols and Elaine May. Unlike Elvira, Morgus had a sidekick—the perennially silent Chopsley, wearing a hood and holding a gigantic ax. Chopsley had currently lost the ax and was busy fitting some contraption onto Morgus’s head, which would be teleported to the East Coast. Well, maybe not his head, but his brain waves or something.
“Kyle!” Albert motioned to his walker again.
“Here. Use the cane. You can do it.” Kyle sometimes believed his six-three, muscular uncle was faking it, playing some trick on them to get attention. Kyle really didn’t like dealing with the dead weight of his uncle’s left leg.
They made their ungraceful way to the hall bathroom, with Albert using his left hand to haul his left leg forward while leaning on Kyle, then stepping up with the right to meet it. It was as if the leg didn’t belong to him at all. It was like an extra, alien appendage. The neuronal pathway would restore itself, the doctors had predicted. Albert doubted it.
Kyle didn’t. He could see that his uncle had improved since they’d last done this clumsy dance. He hated that his dad was dead. He hated that his football-playing uncle needed help peeing, like some baby. He’d once caught a glimpse of his uncle’s heavy penis as he supported him over the toilet. He never wanted to see that again. He just had to get better, get back to his old self so that they could toss the football around on the banks of Bayou St. John, like they used to.
“Dinner will be ready in ten minutes!” Bonnie sang from the kitchen as Kyle and Albert staggered their way back. “We’re going vegan tonight,” she said enthusiastically. All three kids grimaced. “Gotta keep that casserole count down.” No one even raised an eyebrow at “casserole count.” They all knew that Bonnie had a terminal case of cuteness. And Becky, at nine, had probably never heard the word cholesterol in her life.
“This show is boring,” complained Becky.
“Yeah,” echoed Lynne. For one thing, it was in black-and-white. Black-and-white TV was just wrong.
“Shut up,” said Kyle. The vintage Jax beer commercial was on. The cartoon dog and his owner were in a bar, and the dog’s master had bet the bartender a Jax beer—“mellow, bright, clear, and light”—that his dog could indeed speak. The dog had already replied “Rrruff” twice to his master’s questions—about the topmost part of the house and the portion of the golf course where wayward balls disappeared. Albert and Kyle were united in their appreciation of the commercial. The two girls slipped away.
“Let me ask the dog a question,” spoke the bartender from the TV. “Which president followed Harding?”
“Rrru—Coolidge?” said the cartoon dog.
Kyle burst into laughter. Albert felt a pang of affection for his nephew. Such a hard thing, losing his father, and his grandmother too, just a year before that. Albert softened his stance on Kyle. So much to go through, so young. And, of course, the natural surliness of adolescence. Could he be a better uncle to this boy, help him along? He owed it to Bonnie. Then he looked at his inert leg and frowned. Time to get over myself. This is not the end of the world. Then Albert suddenly noticed the absence of his nieces.
“Where are Becky and Lynne?”
Kyle’s gaze was glued to Chopsley and Morgus, who had reclaimed center stage. “Get in here, you two little pains in the ass!” he shouted to his sisters.
Just at that moment, Bonnie entered the dining room with a steaming paella pan. “Kyle! Don’t speak that way to your sisters,” she called into the adjoining room. But she said it halfheartedly, with a hint of amusement.
Albert grabbed his cane and pulled himself up. “Pause Morgus. You can see him after dinner.” Albert wobbled and took a tentative step toward the table, dragging his left leg along. He waited for Kyle’s help, which was slow in coming. He almost toppled, and somehow Kyle was there, easing him onto the dining room chair. Morgus, however, was not muted.
“Uncle Albert!” Becky and Lynn entered, dragging a rectangular flat box. “What’s in this?” It was labeled “Albert” in his mother’s unmistakable, businesslike hand.
“It’s from your Gimma.”
“Albert! You haven’t opened Mother’s box yet?” Bonnie was stupefied. “I opened mine right away.”
“What’s in it? What’s in it?” the girls cried in excited chorus.
“Well, if it’s anything like mine, it’s full of memories—and report cards, unfortunately.” Bonnie had never been an A student. “Since kindergarten.”
“Let’s open it now!”
“We can open it after dinner. Your mother has gone to all this trouble.” Albert eyed the paella pan dubiously. “Let’s enjoy this wonderful dinner before we open the box. Kyle—enough with Morgus—you can take Morgus home and watch it there.” Then he addressed his nieces. “Have you washed your hands?” Their hands were grubby from the dusty box, among other things.
“Yes,” they said in unison.
“I mean, have you washed them in the last month?”
The girls ran for the kitchen and pulled the step stool up to the sink. Their ablutions were cursory, Albert noticed as they raced back, but he just smiled.
“It’s a risotto.” Bonnie announced the main course with pride and whisked the lid from the paella pan. Romaine hearts with vinaigrette, steamed Romano beans, and balsamic beets graced three other bowls.
“This looks delicious, Bonnie.” Actually, it didn’t look half-bad. At least I’m spared tofu tonight.
Bonnie served Albert first, the girls second, and Kyle last. Kyle immediately started to wolf down the risotto.
“I can’t believe you haven’t opened the box yet. It was so wonderful, but it broke my heart. She saved everything—swimming certificates from summer camp, communion cards, valentines. She even saved my excuse notes to Miss Marcy. Remember her? From fifth grade?”
Oh, Albert remembered Miss Marcy, all right. He smiled and nodded around his mouthful of risotto. But out of the corner of his eye, he noticed that Becky was carefully segregating the peas from the rice in her risotto, making a tidy little mound at the side. He sensed trouble brewing there.
“Oh God. Miss Marcy,” said Albert. “Yes. When you were absent, you had to write your own excuse note. And have it signed by Mother or Dad. And she graded the note for grammar and spelling.”
“Yes! And you can imagine how well I did with ‘Please excuse Bonnie from being absent. She had diearear real bad.’ I spelled it die-a-rear. You’d think that Mother would have been ashamed to let me hand in such a thing to Miss Marcy.”
Kyle choked and almost started spewing peas and rice across the table. The girls shrieked in glee, not really getting the joke, but happy to be laughing.
“Well, Mother had a twisted sense of humor. And—really—why wouldn’t she have saved a note with ‘die-a-rear’? It’s worth any number of swimming certificates from summer camp.” Albert eyed Becky’s segregated peas nervously.
He should not have looked, because Bonnie’s gaze followed his. “Becky, why in heaven’s name are you separating the peas from the rice? You like peas. You like rice.”
“But I don’t like them together, Momma.”
Oh jeez. Albert could see it coming. Bonnie’s frustration was almost palpable, emanating from her in invisible waves. Albert knew she had tried so hard since Don’s death in Afghanistan, battled her grief to keep it together for her children, putting on a brave face. She was bone-tired, always. And she was thinking, This is how they repay me.
Bonnie stared at her daughter. “That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard! What do you mean you don’t like them together?” She raised her voice. “You like rice! You like peas! They all end up together. In. Your. Stupid. Stomach!” Albert could see the tears brimming in Bonnie’s eyes.
Kyle tried to look nowhere. Becky immediately started to sniffle. Lynne put a protective arm around her sister. Her eyes looked moist. Even Kyle looked like he was battling tears.
“I’m not stupid, Momma,” said Becky in a small voice.
“Bonnie, I need your help.” Albert pushed back his chair with his good leg. “No, Kyle—you stay.” Together Bonnie and Albert clomped to the bathroom. The children avoided looking at each other and stared at their plates.
Once in the bathroom, Albert said, “Don’t worry. You won’t have to look at my pecker.”
“Hah! I’ve seen it before, Mr. Long John Silver. There was only one bathroom in the house, remember?” She grabbed the toilet roll, tore off a segment of it, and wiped her eyes.
He leaned against the closed bathroom door to steady himself. “They miss him too, Bonnie. Not in the way a woman misses her husband. Not in the way that means ‘However am I going to pull this together by myself?’ But they miss him in the way that a child misses a parent. But I’ll be here for you—and them—always. You know I have resources.”
Bonnie was now dry-eyed. “Yes, a child can miss a parent,” she agreed.
“Why do you think I haven’t opened the box?”
“Albert, I love you.”
“Well, of course you do. What’s not to love? A big old rich hunk, with a useless, dangling leg.”
“You’re not useless. You’re my rock, now that he’s gone.”
“I didn’t say I was useless. Only my leg.” He winked at his sister. “Ready to face them?”
They clomped back as gracelessly as before. The children looked up worriedly. Bonnie struggled. “You’re right, Becky. You’re not stupid. It’s your Momma who’s stupid. Forgive her. But”—she smiled at Becky—“I still don’t understand the ‘separate the peas from the rice’ thing. Maybe you can explain it to me. Later. Not now. Albert—you have to open the box after dinner.”
Kyle shoved his plate out for seconds. Bonnie was grateful for her son’s appetite. Albert was no longer hungry, but he followed suit, eating mechanically. Bonnie beamed. Even Becky attacked her segregated peas. Another hurdle cleared.