I made pancakes while listening to my station, which played nothing but Grateful Dead each Saturday morning. After every other song one DJ would say to another, “What do you think of that big old hunk of tunage?”
I liked hearing them talk. Before the pandemic, these interludes were annoying. “Just bring back the tunage already!” I’d say, flicking the spatula like a whip. And Marshall would chime in, “They’re not gonna answer you, Mom. It’s a radio.”
“I don’t need someone to answer for me to talk. I talk to you, don’t I?” That was one of my usual replies and Marshall would usually smirk.
Now, the DJs were a good reminder of how conversations go. Ones that weren’t purely life updates, but those discussions of innocuous shared experiences. The kind I never knew were comforting before their absence.
I listened to podcasts for the same reason. I didn’t really care what they were talking about, as long as the hosts were playful with each other in a way that sounded genuine and kind.
I talked to Marshall, but he was always staring at his phone or computer. When I repeated myself while waving my hand between his face and the screen, he’d get all pissy and snap back a minimal reply.
I talked to my cats, Caesar and Brutus. They didn’t get along. Caesar mostly lived under the couch.
The workers had the weekend off, so I was getting a break from the incessant hammering as they replaced the siding on our house. One of them was stout. He wore camo pants and whistled a lot. The other one was taller and never smiled, just smoked and flicked his cigarette butts all over my lawn. They argued sometimes, but I didn’t know about what because I didn’t speak Spanish, despite my four years of classes in high school.
Early last week, the smoker stalked away from the whistler after one of their heated exchanges. He lit a cigarette in front of my kitchen window. He looked off into the sycamores that separated our yard from the neighbor’s. I thought he might need cheering up, so I picked up Brutus from his food bowl and held him by the window. I knocked on the glass until the smoker turned around. I grabbed Brutus’s paw and moved it like he was waving. The smoker shook his head dismissively, but he smiled, too. For the next few days I’d glance out my office window to watch them. When the hammering ceased, I’d take a break from work and go down to the kitchen. I’d grab Brutus and say hello as the smoker smoked. The smoker would wave and smile, then turn away. My heart pounded like I’d just hit on a stranger in public. I’d smile for the next few hours or until I encountered Marshall and he’d ask what was so funny.
I made Marshall sit at the table with me if he wanted to eat my food. I’d given up on fighting for him to leave his phone in his room during mealtimes, though. I looked at him for a while, expression changing in reaction to whatever it was he scrolled through.
“What?” He said when he caught me staring.
I took a bite of pancakes. “Nothing,” I said with a full mouth.
“You’re so creepy,” he said. I petted his hair and looked out the window. I missed the smoker.
Later that evening I was on the phone with my mother. I wasn’t really listening. Instead, I was focusing on my pelvic floor exercises. My physical therapist told me to imagine I was picking up a blueberry with my vagina. She was probably somewhere between twenty five and twenty nine. I wanted to mention something about how a ten pound baby had passed through there and maybe I ought to imagine a more realistic-sized fruit, but she struck me as sensitive, like me, and I didn’t want to sound like I was implying that she was bad at her job. I didn’t say anything about the blueberry. But as I was listening to my mother, I imagined picking up an apricot with my vagina.
“Oh, that’s awful. I’m sorry,” I said, assuming it was something about an ailment.
“What? Are you listening to me?”
“What are you doing?” She could usually guess by the background noise.
“My PT exercises.”
“It hurts when I sit, Mom.”
“That’s because it’s all you do.”
I could remind her that I was working from home, so of course I sat in front of the computer all day, but it wasn’t worth it. What would life be like for me if I said everything I thought, like she did?
“How’s Marshall?” She changed the subject.
“I don’t know, I never see him.”
“How can that be? He lives in your house, Eileen.”
“The only time he ever leaves his room is to take walks.”
“Go with him. Perfect opportunity for you to get some exercise.”
“He’s a teenager, he doesn’t want to take walks with me. He doesn’t want to be seen with me.”
My phone made a chiming noise and a notification box popped up, signaling an incoming video call from the See for Meapp. I felt the thrill of being needed. I told my mom I had to go help a blind person. She laughed like I was joking, and I hung up.
The video feed came in: a glass coffee table with two sets of male feet underneath. The coffee table had a series of liquids on it: a diet coke, a liquor bottle wrapped in a paper bag, a bottle of Pepto Bismol. I assumed I would be asked to read the contents of one of these bottles. As the man greeted me hello, I wondered why the man who belonged to the second pair of feet wasn’t doing the seeing for him.
“Hello, my name is Greg,” he said.
I said my name was Eileen and asked what I could help him with.
“Could you count some money for me, please?” He held a wad of cash awkwardly in one hand, the phone aiming in front of him with the other. He unrolled a series of twenty dollar bills onto the coffee table. I recited the quantities, “Another twenty.” He’d repeat and I’d confirm. He mumbled something about thinking he had some tens, too. He apologized for taking so long to unfurl his money. The other man, with exposed toes in a pair of slides under the glass shifted his feet and chuckled. I said something about how we needed different sized bills in this country, like in every other country. He apologized again, and I regretted the comment. I had meant it as a complaint on behalf of the visually impaired rather than the ones helping the visually impaired, as myself. Then he showed a series of tens and I told him what each bill was worth. He said that was it and thanked me again, told me to stay healthy.
He must have thought I’d hung up already because they started talking about pills. It occurred to me why he needed third party confirmation of this money. I hung up, feeling like I’d been caught in my son’s room.
The drier buzzed and I went downstairs to restart it. The ancient thing needed three cycles to get anything dry. Marshall had just come in from a walk. His head was in the fridge.
He flinched, then closed the fridge slowly. “Hmm?” He turned around, sloth-like. The sun had gone down since I’d last been downstairs. I turned on the kitchen light and he flinched again. His eyes were squinty. I gave him a questioning look.
“What?” he laughed and put his face into the refrigerator again. I leaned over him to grab a box of cereal from the top of the fridge. His hair smelled like my college dorm.
I stood beside him, waiting for him to say something, waiting to decide if I’d say something.
“What?” he said again, defensive this time.
“Your hair. It’s getting so long.” I tried to smile.
“Well I’m not letting you cut it.” He closed the fridge and kept his gaze on the floor.
“No, I like it. Your father used to wear his hair longer like that.”
He smiled a bit, darted a glance up. “I know.”
I called my mom back because I didn’t know what else to do. I was going to tell her about what I’d just witnessed — or helped facilitate — on See for Me, but explaining the app would take too long and I’d lose my patience. Instead I told her that Marshall just came home smelling like weed. “What should I do, Mom?” I was horrified.
Mom laughed. “You do what I did. You pretend you don’t smell anything. You leave him be. You let him grow up and figure things out for himself.”
I told my neighbor about the video call transaction as we were both gardening the next day. “What are people doing buying drugs during a pandemic?” I said.
“What are people doing not buying drugs during a pandemic?” She answered.
“It made me worried about Marshall. These guys were young. How do I know he’s not off buying and taking drugs on his walks?” I didn’t disclose to Joyce that I had, in fact, smelled it on him. Just that Marshall was keeping himself shut up in his room and then slipping outside for nightly walks around the neighborhood.
“Is he like that with his father? All secretive and stuff?”
“I don’t know. His father would like me to believe they have the perfect relationship. So I’ll never get the real story.” I appreciated that Joyce knew not to say Dave’s name. Even though Dave was still close with her husband.
“My mom thinks I should feign ignorance at any possible sign of trouble with him. But I think I should just ask him about it. Isn’t it better to open a dialogue?” I pulled up grass because I’d run out of weeds to pick.
“Our parents are a different generation. We’re closer with our kids. It’s better, I think. They’re more comfortable being honest with us.”
That night, I sorted through old mail and tossed the unnecessary stuff that had been cluttering the counter. Three credit cards thunked to the bottom of the trash with the weight of unearned responsibility. Marshall came flopping down the stairs, cargo pockets jangling. I loved or reviled his loud thunking steps depending upon my mood.
“Hey, I thought I’d order pizza tonight,” I said.
He retrieved his jacket from the closet. “Nice. I’ll take jalapenos on my half. Can we get the thick crust?”
“Sure,” I said because I was too focused on my next statement to recognize that he’d gotten his way on the crust he liked and I hated. “Wait, honey. I have a question for you.”
Marshall turned around. He wiggled his nose the way he did when he had dried snot in there.
“What you do on your walks–– Do you think I can go with you and do it too?” I looked up from a Bed Bath & Beyond catalogue.
“What do you mean?” he said quietly.
I tossed the catalogue and threw my head to one side. I held my pointer and thumb together in front of my mouth and sucked the invisible joint. “You know, some mother-son bonding?” I tried to laugh it off.
He itched his nostril and shook his head. “Do you know how inappropriate that is?” He sounded like he was mimicking his teacher.
“Sorry!” I held my hands up in surrender like I did so often with him now.
He turned around and stood in silence a while. Then he made a full turn back to me. “You can walk with me.” He let out with a sigh. “But I am not smoking with you.”
I let him lead the way and we looped the neighboring subdivision. Then we cut between two houses’ lawns where there was a narrow dirt path with a retention pond at the end of it. I pointed out a turtle on a log, enjoying the waning warmth of the autumn evening sun.
“That’s Michaelangelo,” he said, a childish glee overtaking his face.
I could feel my eyes well. I wanted to pull him close to me, squeeze his skinny body into my expanding one. But I also wanted to be allowed to walk with him again.
We went back the way we came, and I resisted the urge to grab his hand. He told me about his online classes. I tried to listen intently without asking too many questions.
Life was cruel. That your child gave you this whole new experience of love on another, higher, plane. One you didn’t even know existed before. And then you had to hold it back, pretend you didn’t feel it coursing in you all rabid and wild when you looked at them sometimes. That he didn’t seem to want it anymore–– that my love scared him or repulsed him–– was too painful.
With the siding finished the next day, the workers were packing up. They hauled away the ladders, one of them on each end. I rushed to the window with Brutus.
“You’re a psycho, Mom.” Marshall came in and said.
The smoker glanced up, but both of his arms were occupied so he couldn’t wave. “You never know. Maybe this is his favorite part of the day,” I said, waving Brutus’s paw. I think I saw the smoker smile, but his eyes were already downcast again.
“That guy’s day or the cat’s day?”
“He probably has a life.” My son peeled a clementine over the sink.
I told Marshall he was probably right. I let Brutus go and he ran away quickly, the way he does when I hold him too long.
Shannon McLeod is the author of the novella Whimsy (Long Day Press 2021). Her writing has appeared in Tin House, Prairie Schooner, Hobart, and SmokeLong Quarterly, among other publications. Born in Detroit, she now lives in Virginia where she teaches high school English. You can find Shannon on her website at www.shannon-mcleod.com.