He’s talking so early. “Yeah. Yes. Thanks. Morning.” Inhale. His dad lifts clothes off the floor and drapes them over a chair. Step, step, step, pause. The door handle turns. The spindle retracts the latch. The door opens. “I’ll be in the kitchen.”
A beginning like many other days. A Saturday with cartoons. A school day. Down the hall he’d brush his teeth with some comic toothpaste she bought. Water splashed on his face. The patter of the morning heard below.
“It’s Thursday. French toast Thursday!” He still hears her. He tries to picture her sound wave. Did she have short hair then? She let it grow a few times. Every four weeks the “sparkles” were covered. The whole ordeal was “getting your hair set”. Set in what way, no one asked. Better just say, “Looks beautiful, Mom.”
He rubs his eyes. His tongue peels away from the roof of his mouth. The Mason jar has something in it. That’ll work. Ewe, old cider. At least now he’s upright.
The cool ceramic under his feet raises his attention. His hands push off his knees. The steps forward betray his melancholy. His cold feet and memories want to go back in bed.
One, two, three, four, five. Five steps from his bedroom door to the wood eye. As a little boy he thought if he stepped on the wood eye, the ogre below would blink. “Un, deux, trois, quatre, cinq. Le monstre cligna des yeux! Yay!” When she played, he had to say it in French or she’d make him start over. They mostly spoke in French at home in those days. She wanted him to know his grandparents.
Elsewhere he didn’t have to speak a word because people soon knew he was French. Usually it was the first day of class. “Michael? Where’s Michael? Is that you?” He’d look at his notebook. Here we go. “It’s Michele. Like me-shell. Like a dude at the beach.” First there where laughs. Later those tapered off except for the few new kids. Eventually some kids heard it so often they’d recite with him.
He looked at himself in the mirror. Is this dad’s toothbrush? Cougar print? Oh, whatever. He’s human.
He walks downstairs. 2-furfurytihiol hits his nostrils. What are those other compounds? Coffee smell. Good enough.
His dad has the kitchen buzzing. Pots, burners, whisks, seasonings. He’s wearing an old work shirt. “Mike” on the name tag was copper colored now. A bleach splash maybe.
“Hey, you’re standing. Coffee?” He poured a cup.
Michele stirs his coffee. No cream, no sugar, just black. Stirring cools it. Convection. That’s part of the chapter his freshmen are working on. He needs to write a quiz by Wednesday. Damn. Keep that plate spinning.
“I made these for you. I tried the Mickey Mouse thing but I’m out of practice.” His dad passes a plate of stacked pancakes and sausage. “The syrup’s hot. Be careful.”
He hasn’t had a breakfast like this in a long time. “Thanks, Dad. How sweet. You cook.”
“I gotta cook. I gotta eat.”
His knife and fork metes out the bites. He doesn’t care anymore if it’s an even number of bites, but the bites have to be angles.
The two men eat in silence. Check the paper. Look over the editorials.
“Son. Mom used to say ‘son’ ”. The comment cracked the air. The word was voltaic.
“Mom? Whud she used to say?”
“A spoonful of sugar over trouble gonna get you through, son.” His dad stopped chewing. “You said ‘boy’ upstairs.”
Exhale. “Oh, right. Well, ‘cause you’re still my boy. You can beat my ass now and you’re gonna be a famous scientist but you’ll always be my boy.”
Grin. “I always thought it was funny to hear mom say ‘gonna get you through’ in her French accent. That was her best French-Razorback.”
The two grin and warm. Smiles turn into rote hand gestures. A wave left to right, two finger point beat beat, back hands slap, knuckles rap, fist bumps twice, and pull back for the pow.
“Hey! We did it!”
“Oh yeah oh yeah! Whud you think, I’d forget?”
The juncture was the familiar they needed. The secret handshake gave entry to the abundance of the past. Pow.
“Scrape the compost into the bucket, please. The squirrels gotta garden.” She’d cackle. From toddler giggle to teenage stare, the picture of squirrels growing a garden out of compost was family lore. “What, am I nuts? No, I’m a gardener!” Once hilarity, now a memory. A soft diversion from the day.
“How many people do you think will show?”
Mike holds his hand out. “Hey. You’re gonna faint. You better sit on the floor. I made one of those event pages like you told me.” Tilting his head to read the screen. “Well, let’s just see”.
Michele couldn’t see the screen. That was probably best. Let his dad fumble without comment. He’ll click his way through somehow.
“What did you call it?”
Mike looks at Michele, raises his eyebrows, and shakes his head yes. “Well you know this whole thing is your mother. She ordered everything.” He taps his index finger on his palm. “Here. This. Do that. Step one. Write it down. File it.” He taps his fingers on the counter. “File it. Why, this is just her still keeping the ship upright. Still planning for me and leaving me a list.”
Ah, the lists. And the notes. The dances through the house. Yes, all of it.
“Of course. So, what did she tell you to call it?”
“You’re gonna get this. It may catch some or piss off some.” His hand swipes the air from left to right. ‘Kick Ass. Take Names.’ That’s it! That’s what she called it! I still have the directions.” He signs air quotes. “Have our fall party, like we would. Make it fun. Sure, talk about me, but just have fun. Hang a banner. ‘Kick Ass. Take Names’. Of course, she said it a lot better than all that. Thank God in English. That’d be just like her to leave her final wishes in French.”
“Kick ass. Take names. That sure is her. Her French Resistance heritage never left.” Michele adds sugar to his coffee. “Even little white sugar had a deeper purpose.” He begins to sob. His dad moves closer. “You knew. You knew I’d need to hear that this morning. She’d say that to me when I was scared. She’d add sugar on my toast. Tell me it’d make me brave. I wish she knew how many times I’d go to school and remember that sugar. I was okay because I had a spoonful of sugar.”
Mike’s eyes welled with tears. He pats Michele’s shoulder. “Oh, I know, I know. So many times. It was her way. Always using something to make something better. Or tolerable.” The two reach for tissues. “She’d even tell me about the sugar. When the plant closed, she had a five-pound bag on the table. She told me we had reserves. Pas de problème pour nous.” He hadn’t tried his French for a while. He lowered his head and covered his eyes.
“I know it’s been three months, but today is going to be really hard. It’s her fall party, you know? She should be with us, cooking, laughing, toasting anything and everything.” He lifts his dad’s coffee cup and his own. “A’ la tienne.” The cups clink. “A’ la tienne.”
“She made a short video. You may want to watch it before tonight. She wants it on at nine. See what I mean? Even down to that. It’s pretty touching. She had a friend help with her hair and makeup, brought her a new outfit. She wasn’t going to look like cancer. She’s all Lena in this.” Mike stares forward.” It’s on my laptop if you want to take a minute.”
“I will. Later. Thanks for the heads-up.”
Mike pulls a paper from his back pocket. “I got a few short words, too. It just seemed like I should.” He unfolds the paper, swallows, winks at Michele. “We are so happy to see you all tonight. Lena loved nothing more than welcoming you all to our home. She planned so much of this.” He stops. Breaths in. “You know Lena. She didn’t flinch for much. Cancer may have stolen her, but she went out with a helluva fight.” Michele stands, leans into his dad. ‘Kick ass. Take names’. It’s what she’d want for you. She’s with us. Lovely Lena. Look around at the strength in this room. She’s here with us. Now raise your glass. A’ la tienne, loves. A’ la tienne.”