A Cookie and A Glass of Milk
(A version of this story was first published in the Santa Barbara Literary Review)
The television issues instruction: Don’t go away! We’ll be right back.
You mute the TV. You use the Get Up & Go cane to get up and go to the kitchen for a snack. Don’t forget the ant spray, Joe. The ants are decapitating a bee that has lost its way and died on your living room floor—a trail winds from bee to wall.
You return to the TV and your comfortable back-saving chair with a grilled cheese sandwich—cheddar and Gruyere—and the ant spray. You are watching a cooking show, and now, as you unmute, a shopping opportunity presents itself: a Red Copper Ceramic Roasting Pan. It would be perfect for your rosemary chicken recipe. You’ve memorized your credit card number, the expiration date, and the security code. You do not have to leave the chair to shop. You call the number on the screen. Then you watch Rachel Ray shred a chicken for a chicken potpie.
When the show is over, when the chicken pot pie has been vicariously enjoyed by the millions of other souls watching Rachel, you use your Get Up & Go cane to get up, and to send a thousand ants into eternity.
Oh, Joe. There you are, wishing you weren’t. Standing on the scale in your doctor’s office. Why did you promise Mother that you would come here? You try not to see the numbers, as the nurse keeps moving the weight balance further and further to the right. Your ears pound as she reads the numbers aloud and records them in your chart.
“You are almost too big for this scale, Joe.”
You want to punch her. Then you want to leave. You think about the chocolate cream pie in your fridge at home as the nurse begins to talk about hypertension and diabetes and la la la, you put chocolate cream pie thoughts in your ears like cotton. And then you smile at the nice nurse, and nod your head.
The nice nurse takes your blood pressure. “I have to use the thigh cuff because the arm cuff is too small,” she says.
Doctor Bradley poises his stethoscope over your chest and says la la la, while you nod your head and agree to a ham sandwich before the pie, maybe with a dill pickle.
The white sink gleams in Dr. Bradley’s exam room and the reflex hammer and the stainless steel instruments of opening and prying and probing all shine and threaten bodily harm. You see the otoscope and wonder if you have rye bread at home.
Mother is dead now. You shed those promises you made to her about doctors and medicine because you have clarity: there is no need for further medical scrutiny.
Hey Joe. The television beckons you in the middle of the night, waking you, wanting attention. Or maybe it is the roast beef sandwich wanting to be made. You make a hefty one with provolone, pour olives into a bowl, and take it all to the living room. You bring your companion to life with the remote. Settling into your comfortable, back-saving chair, you find a late-night re-run of Law and Order. The detectives wrestle with the question of murder. It is possible the victim had a heart attack.
But you guess it was poison.
You should be a screenwriter, Mother used to say. You always know these plots. You could write them.
Mother was your biggest fan. She was always comfort after a bad day at school. She’d hug you and feed you.
Ah, Joe. You didn’t like school, did you? That whole elementary school experience. The pits, right? Wish you could’ve of spit it out like those olive pits you’re aiming at the ashtray right now.
That first day, remember? Oh. You’ll never forget. Trudging up the steps to the school, clutching Mother’s hand and your new lunch box. You loved that lunch box until that first day at kindergarten. A farmyard scene on the front of it: red barn with a cow, some chickens and a pig. It was the pig that did it, cemented your name, though it wouldn’t have taken much.
Is your life flashing before your eyes? Not quite yet, Joe. It’s just a memory.
You struggled up those steps making a chant in your head no school today no school today. It rarely worked, that chant. Mother was cheerful. Look at the swings, Joe! Doesn’t that look like fun? Her voice was high like it was when she was trying real hard.
You were up the steps. This was your classroom. This was your cubby. You stowed your lunchbox. You squeezed Mother’s hand and silently incanted please don’t go please don’t go please. The words went round and round like a merry-go-round even after she left, even after you stowed your body in that tiny little chair. The tables were arranged in a semi-circle with squares of blue, green, yellow and red construction paper laid out. Little scissors, too small for your fingers. At least the teacher put you at the end of the table.
Hopefully your vacuum cleaner can pick up those pits that missed the ashtray. Shouldn’t break the vacuum.
Roll call. You looked up at the ceiling. Construction paper letters dangled from strings. Yellow “L’s” and “Y’s,” green “P’s” and “M’s,” looked lonely and out of place as if they had lost their words. Where were your words? Calling your name at roll call, the teacher said your full name to the class. Mom loved your middle name cause it was her father’s name, the name she used to have before she married that Walter Dunlap who, she always said, was not good for very much. But we are remembering roll call, aren’t we.
The teacher called everyone by their full name, and asked each person what they wanted to be called. It was a nice thing to do, Joe, really it was. Good intentions. She called your name: Joseph Corker Dunlap. Your mouth went dry. Before you could squeak out Joe, Kevin James Peterson shouted out Corky Porky.
Later when he was nineteen, Kev, as he chose to be called, would be arrested for first degree grand theft auto, and while you feel vindicated now, you didn’t know that in kindergarten.
And Corky stuck, all through the next seven years at Fremont Elementary School. With variations: Corky Porky, Corky Dorky.
It didn’t help when Kev saw your new lunch box.
Or when some bright whiz said so fat you’d float.
You filled your head with words leave me alone leave me alone leave me leave. The words took up the space a feeling might need for it to be felt. They quieted down much later at home when Mother offered you milk and homemade cookies for your after-school snack, for your reward.
That time is over, Joe. No more school. You don’t have to go anywhere now. You can relax here in your back-saving chair. And when you order a new vacuum cleaner, if you have to, you can use Joseph Dunlap. No middle name. You get to choose now, Joe.
Peanut butter chocolate chip, she would say. You are such a good boy.
Oh Joe, no. There you are on the floor looking up, felled by a crushing pain in your chest. You blink. Stars twinkle on your bedroom ceiling.
The phone is in the living room, sitting next to the remote. The Get Up & Go cane is leaning against your blue back-saving chair. Can you scoot down the hall to the living room?
No scooting for you.
The refrigerator hums in your kitchen. A bubbly voice on Channel Two describes to your empty living room a miracle cure for wrinkles. The kitchen timer beeps. The cake you had been baking is done.
You smell the cake, still sweet but beginning to burn. It is a yellow cake, made from scratch. You planned to frost it with lemon butter cream.
How long have you been on the floor?
An insistent high-pitched shriek erupts from the kitchen: the smoke alarm. Oh, Joe.
You look up. You see a trail of ants crawling toward you, down the bedroom wall.
You close your eyes. Your life does not flash before them. Mother does. She beckons. She is on television, wearing a yellow apron, offering you a cookie with a glass of milk, her arm reaching out from the TV screen.