One thing Eleanor had learned recently was that a 13-year-old boy coming down the stairs sounded exactly like a catastrophic accident. If the roof of her house had collapsed and beams and shingles begun to pour down, she would not be able to distinguish it from the noise made by her nephew, Jackson, as he again left the upstairs guest room to descend to the kitchen and rifle through the refrigerator only to complain that “there was no food in this house.”
However, Eleanor also had learned recently to pick her battles, and since she wished to prevail in the larger dispute over toilet seat etiquette, she did not respond to Jackson’s cataclysmic-seeming plummet down the stairs. She also decided not to point out to Jackson the dozen apples in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator. After all, this was not about Eleanor. This was about what she could do to help her sister, Angela, now that Angela’s divorce was finalized, and she had moved back into town to look for work, bringing Jackson along with her.
The point was that this was how Eleanor could be of help to her sister and her nephew, opening up her house to them until Angela could get reestablished. So, even though apples were perfectly legitimate food, even though it was possible to walk quietly down a set of stairs, she was not going to raise those issues with Jackson. Ignore, defer, redirect.
“Why isn’t there any food?” Jackson whined from the kitchen.
So much for ignoring. “I’ll start cooking dinner soon,” Eleanor called out. “Your mom had a job interview, and she’ll catch traffic coming out of the city, so it’ll still be a while until we eat. Would you like some cheese and crackers?”
“Cheese and crackers? I’m not 80. Isn’t there any good barbeque in this town?”
One thing Eleanor had learned recently from her sister was the benefit in counting backwards from five before answering Jackson. There was a pause before she responded.
“Well, there’s a barbeque place on the other side of the river. I haven’t been before, but maybe that’s what we can do to celebrate when your mom gets a job.”
“I’ll starve to death before she gets a job!” Jackson slammed the refrigerator door shut and then rested his forehead on the door.
This time Eleanor counted backwards from ten, reminding herself that 13 was a hard age under any circumstances, and Jackson’s circumstances were not the best right now. Had she been in Jackson’s situation, perhaps she also would have been on the obnoxious side and possessed a limited understanding of basic hygiene.
Eleanor had only counted down to three when the door opened and her sister swept in. Eleanor hadn’t been expecting Angela for at least another hour, but before she could ask what had happened, she saw the look on her sister’s face, a look she recognized from when they were kids. It was humiliation mixed with anger, seasoned with dollops of guilt and frustration. Eleanor knew better than to say anything, but the same could not be said for Jackson.
“Hey, Mom,” he shouted from the kitchen. “Did you get a job? I’m hungry.”
“No,” Angela replied. Though her voice was steady, Eleanor could see that her hands were shaking. “No, I did not.”
“Great,” Jackson snarked, if “snarked” was actually a word. He then further snarked, “I guess I’d better get used to cheese and crackers.”
Though Jackson had spent his whole life with Angela, that still added up to fewer years than Eleanor had spent under the same roof with Angela, so perhaps Jackson did not know his mother as well as Eleanor did, and didn’t know that when Angela’s hands began to shake, she was about to cry.
“Hey, I have an idea,” Eleanor said, carefully failing to catch her sister’s eye. “I hear there’s a good BBQ place on the other side of the river. What do you say we just head over there, if you feel up to it?”
“Now you’re talking!” Jackson’s voice boomed from the kitchen. “C’mon, Mom, let’s go.”
And then for no apparent reason, at least for no reason that was apparent to Eleanor, Angela brightened up. Her eyes shone and her hands stopped shaking when she used them to give Jackson his jacket and insist that he wear it, despite his protests. And Jackson stopped protesting, zipping up his jacket and calling “shotgun” as he barrelled out the door.
“Oh, no!,” Angela shouted after him. “I don’t care how tall you are; age has its privileges.”
Eleanor followed them out and shut the door, unsure of why the mood in the household had just changed so abruptly. There were still some things that Eleanor had to learn.
JIM O’LOUGHLIN is the author of the flash fiction collection, DEAN DEAN DEAN DEAN (Twelve Winters Press) and the host of the Final Thursday Reading Series in Cedar Falls, Iowa. On the “20+ Candidates” blog, he has pledged to see as many presidential candidates as possible in the run-up to the Iowa caucuses. Check it out at: http://candidates.home.blog