IS THIS IT
by Sidney Thompson
Jewell Young didn’t know what made her son happy anymore. There was a time she did, and for most of his life she did. It was why she was making this pecan pie for him, because such a simple thing had once made him happy, joyously happy, and maybe, just maybe, she hoped, she could come as close to that as she could, the way a happy memory sometimes will. Even when it was a bought thing that Cooper had desired, something she couldn’t make, a bag of army men or a baseball glove or a Swamp Thing comic book, she knew she could find it and make the finding of it her own, likely at a garage sale, last resort a dime store, and for practically nothing. Now, the venture of trying to make her son happy was an impossible trap of high stakes. At some point, it seemed, he’d decided that if Leah was happy, then he was happy, but who in the world knew what could make her happy? A house? What thing could do that? But if somebody was smart enough to figure out what that thing could be, who in the world could afford it? When Jewell lay in bed late at night, feeling alone, with her ear plugs in, Henry already snoring but hardly audible, she sometimes prayed herself to tears.
She crimped the edge of the pie crust with the tips of her fingers. This was what made Jewell happy—sunlight slanting over the windowsill, Henry’s lawn mower humming in place of his Fox News, and dough, plenty of dough. She was actually making two pies, though one she wouldn’t take with her to Alabama. That one she’d freeze for the future, because no one could ever predict when the church might call for a fund-raiser or when you might need to pitch in a pick-me-up at a funeral potluck. Her mother had always kept something on hand in the freezer, and Jewell preferred to be prepared, too. It made her happy to be prepared. She just wished she could think of something that could possibly make Leah close to happy, too.
The problem was that she didn’t know Leah very well outside the horrible facts of her father’s suicide too few years ago, and that Leah’s mother sent envelopes of Ambien in the mail so Leah could sleep. Cooper had only brought her by to meet her and Henry a couple of times before marrying her, and they hadn’t seen much of her since. She was an attractive girl with a very cute body, so Jewell guessed Leah made her son happy in bed before she went out like a log. Jewell hoped so. She hoped her son had plenty of semen, that everything worked every time, and that someday soon, before she got much older, she’d have a grandchild. It was the one thing left in life that she wanted and couldn’t make or find herself, and she was growing tired of waiting.
In a motion that mimicked the pecking of a bird, she collected the strips and pinches of left-over pie-crust dough off the wax paper, then proceeded un-birdlike to roll them together between her hands into a ball and then to place the ball in the oven on the baking sheet next to the pies. She smiled, remembering her mother, who’d taught her this trick. A cookie to go with her afternoon coffee.
Leaving your home vacant, even for a couple of days, required more preparation than what Henry Young preferred to consider. Asking their neighbor to collect their mail and newspapers. Tracking down the timers for the lamps. Of course, mowing the grass, and this was the worst part of it, going around and around the crepe myrtles, all five, six, seven of them.
Twice over the years they’d been burglarized, and whenever he thought of the second of those two times, he always winced from the vividness of his memory. While waiting for the police to arrive, while Jewell waited safely outside in the car, he made the mistake of investigating the house, not expecting that it would be what was left behind and not learning what was stolen that would startle him with disgust—in the master bathroom commode, his commode, lay the foulest of insults one human could possibly deposit for another, and of gargantuan proportions.
That was it. After that, he and Jewell finally anted up and invested in security doors and lamp timers. That was thirteen years ago, not long after Cooper had received his PhD from the University of Memphis, first in the family to be a doctor, and had moved out of the house for what everyone believed then to be for good, the last time, in order to marry his first wife and begin an illustrious career, trying to out-do his old man, as a university professor.
He and Jewell both believed rather blindly, and unfortunately passed that blindness to Cooper, that it was only a matter of time, no more than a semester or two, before their son, their only child, forever a straight-A student, would prove his worth and be promoted from part-time to full-time and be making more money than they ever did after thirty years—Henry as a high-school history teacher and Jewell a middle-school home-economics teacher. Even when it became painfully evident that Cooper would never be hired at any university without a doctorate from a more prestigious university or without prominent publications, that the world of academia was changing, with qualifications increasing, and that he should go back to school to get certified to teach in secondary ed., do what it took, become street smart, he remained stubborn in his self-worth, believing with a religious fervor that eventually others would accept him for who he was.
Struggling with the lawn mower underneath the unkempt branches of the crepe myrtles had left popcorn-shaped blooms clinging to his shirt, but what he was thinking about now was his father’s face, the last time Henry had seen it and could ever remember holding it in his hands.
Henry had arrived at the nursing home cradling a watermelon. His father had had a stroke six months earlier and remained paralyzed down the length of his entire left side, his shrunken left limbs propped on pillows. Though he couldn’t watch television anymore without crying, because it reminded him too intensely that he wasn’t at home watching television, with his dachshund asleep in his lap, he still loved the taste of food, even if most of his food had to be pureed, and he hadn’t had a watermelon once yet that summer. It was that day, after eating watermelon, when his father asked Henry to please shave him.
Henry had never shaved his father before, holding his pallid face and wiry gray stubble, while bringing the razor slowly through.
It saddened him that Cooper had settled down on the coast, so far away. And was a car salesman, not a professor. Was so far away.
In the amber light flickering through the leaves of the banana trees that ceaselessly and silently undulated at their bedroom window, he could see Leah’s blonde hair fanned across her pillow. He thought of waking her up, but waking her up had never led to sex before.
He eased himself out of bed, and his knees buckled from the hardness of the glazed terra-cotta floor, which by the day was feeling harder and harder to his feet and ankles and hips, as if he’d brought the pavement of the car lot home with him. He moved toward the bathroom with the speed and tentativeness of a senior citizen, and once he’d reached the bathroom and touched the door to the frame, he decided, like a senior and a woman both, to draw his underwear all the way down and sit.
There was great relief in sitting. He sat for a long while, then stood finally to his feet, and this time there was a little more strength in his legs, a little less ache.
He knew what Jimmy Bertella would tell him. That was his sales manager in training, his shadow. Let’s be proactive, Coop! By God, take control. Don’t let her dictate the goddamned outcome. Whatever she says, ignore it and redirect and you keep going, keep redirecting, until you have to acknowledge whatever objection there is, but after you acknowledge it and show a little empathy, keep going. Objections don’t mean shit. They’re signs of fear about doing what she wants to do, or why else would she be here? Nobody dragged her at gun point to your bed. But if you have confidence, you have control, and she will follow you with the same level of confidence that you’ve got. It’s a habit for people to follow. It’s polite to follow. Do you want to be an order-taker for the rest of your life, or do you want to be a fucking salesman? Cooper, you pussy, make her follow!
He hiked his boxers and gently, very slowly, swept the door open. He was about to start his day the way he wanted to start it and hoped that was what she was up for because that was what was about to happen.
He even absorbed the shock of the floor with a pinch more youth, then two steps into the room, a blow—the bed was void of any wife, docile or not. Then in the kitchen he heard the unmistakable sucking sound of a refrigerator closing.
As he approached the kitchen through bars of sun filtering in through the living room blinds that she opened every morning before doing anything else, he heard, amid various knocks and clatters, one of his favorite sounds, quite possibly his favorite—that rare, happy sound of Leah humming.
He watched her at the cutting board for a moment in her camisole and striped pajama bottoms, buoyant on her tiptoes, before she realized he was at the doorway and stopped humming.
“Hey,” she said, carving the air with a steak knife, “I thought I’d make us an omelette.”
He smiled, and she said, “I don’t know why, I woke up just craving one. And then after we eat,” she said, setting the knife on the cutting board between mounds of sliced onion and cubed cheddar, “I thought, you know, we could go look at that house in Point Clear Stables I was telling you about.”
He hesitated. He didn’t mean to. It was his day off. It was like his day. But he quickly thought better of such logic and nodded with enthusiasm. “Sure,” he said.
“It’ll be fun,” she said.
“It’ll be fun,” he agreed. He met her at the stove and kissed her. She even resumed her humming in his presence.
He understood that her happiness wasn’t definitive. What made her truly happy, feel complete, serene yet ecstatic, like sex with her was for him, was beauty, wow beauty, rare beauty, genius beauty—watching Savion Glover tap dance or Mavis Staples sing or Liev Schreiber act, or standing so close to a Jackson Pollock that you could pick out the nails or buttons buried in the oils, or comfortably at home reading a Cheever or Carver short story, Susan Minot’s Evening, Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, or as on their honeymoon in Venice, walking along the canals and alleyways in awe. He understood that she was in that difficult transitional period of redefining happiness.
Even for him, sex gradually receded into the décor of the dining room. The omelette was in its place, then buttered wheat toast sprinkled, her way, which was becoming his way, too, with black pepper. Then there was the mutual excitement of a bluebird lighting on the balcony railing. And when she turned up Is This It by the Strokes to get ready to their constant up-tempo beat, he appreciated her choice.
Sidney Thompson is the author of the short story collection Sideshow. His fiction, twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize, has appeared or is forthcoming in 2 Bridges Review, Atticus Review, The Carolina Quarterly, Clapboard House, Danse Macabre, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, Grey Sparrow Journal, NANO Fiction, Ostrich Review, Prick of the Spindle, Ragazine.CC, The Southern Review, storySouth, TINGE Magazine, and elsewhere. He lives in Denton, Texas, where he teaches creative writing at Texas Woman’s University and is the Assistant Fiction Editor for the American Literary Review.
Image credit: Robert Couse-Baker on Flickr