Fall2009

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In Sickness

Fiction

Blue Plaid

By Milan Bhandari

"Four guys in one truck," mom said, walking in from the driveway. "A little pickup, too - not even a back seat. Can you believe that?" I was impressed. I hadn't seen them arrive, but would soon wish I had.

"Maybe the other three are his sons," I said. Ever since we'd found the number for Juan & Sons Yard Service, I'd been kidding her about this apparent father-son team who would be working in the yard.

"What difference would that make?"

"So they don't mind squeezing. Forget it. Which one's Juan?"

"I'm not sure. Both, I think."

"What?"

"There's an old man, too, who doesn't speak English. I think he's the father. I think his name is Juan too."

"So Juan's the son and the father," I said, as an ah-ha. I was surprised at how much I cared. But curiosity had led me to the front steps when she went out to speak to them. I sat down and watched them on the driveway - mom, Juan, this older man. I could see the sleeve of another guy, too, but he was mostly out of view, blocked by the corner of the house, probably chatting with the fourth guy mom mentioned.

"I don't want anyone touching the roses," she said.

"Nobody touch roses," presumably Juan, the son, had nodded.

"Should I take you around to show you?"

"No, mam, is OK."

"I'm not kidding. It's taken us ten years to get roses to live through the summer. We don't want anything to bother them."

"No, no one bother them."

Mom looked at the other guys, whom she assumed to be sizing up the other yards in the neighborhood.

"Don't bother," she said to them. "Everyone else uses Manny."

"No, they not bother anybody," Juan said.

"Yeah, I know," mom said, giving Juan one of her new I get you grins. I cringed, but Juan didn't react. "Fine," she said, her playful smile disappearing as quickly as it had arrived. "Just make sure you tell them about the roses."

It always amazed me how easily mom could fool anybody, and watching her convince Juan & Sons that she was some kind of flower person by simply using phrases like "my petunias" and terms like "Midas roses" reassured me that she was still in control. From the looks of her garden, which was only a couple years old, one might have thought she came from a long line of flower people, that she knew what she was talking about, but she didn't really. Or at least not as much as she acted like.

"They're not doing anything," mom said, coming back from the front window.

"Maybe they're discussing it before they start, deciding who's gonna do what," I said, without looking up from my computer. I was lying on the family room couch, my broken leg in a cast extending onto the coffee table.

"Start? They've been here more than a half hour already."

"Are you paying them by the hour?"

"Of course not. It's two hundred, flat."

"So who cares how long it takes them?"

"I care. They're here to work. I don't need four guys loitering around my yard. That makes me look like a fool."

"To who?"

"Everyone. To your father. And the neighbors. They don't know I'm not paying hourly."

"You're no fool."

"Damn right I'm not."

An hour passed. While I futilely shopped for a sports watch on my computer, mom paced around the house, pretending to read her paperback while bouncing between windows, trying to keep track of the workers. I asked her why she didn't just go outside and watch them, but she said doing that would be intrusive. "You know I hate micro-managers," she said. Of course. Mom had always been sympathetic to the masses, a woman of the people.

The object of my search was a black Casio Data Bank (manufactured circa 1988) - the watch I'd first fallen in love with on the wrist of a friend in fourth grade, which I'd finally received in fifth, and lost by seventh. It wasn't until I saw a similar one appear on the wrist of Cheryl, the girl I was dating back in LA, that I remembered it and wanted it back. Cheryl's was the silver version, and despite its having no practical modern-day use (its major function was the storage of thirty telephone numbers), it looked amazing on her, and made me instantly jealous, since I'd had the watch first and still knew all its ins and outs - the stopwatch, the five alarms, the hour glass that showed up on the Timer screen if you hit the rectangular Reverse button, etc., etc.

Mom sat down next to me, perching herself backwards on the couch to look out the window that faced the backyard. "What do you need a new watch for?" she asked, craning her neck to look at my screen. I hated people looking at my screen, but didn't want to get into it with her. I'd only been home a week, and still had another four or five to go, depending on my leg's willingness to heal.

"I don't need another watch," I said, subtly angling the laptop away from her view. "It's the watch I used to have - the one that took telephone numbers."

"Telephone numbers? How would a watch do that?"

"It's a pretty complex watch."

"Well, I don't remember that one." I found her failing unreasonably annoying.

"How don't you remember it? I begged you guys for it everyday for a year. You went out and bought it for me."

Mom shook her head, as if freshly considering how high maintenance my childhood had been, then, still looking out the back door, began scrunching her forehead the way she did whenever there was a problem she couldn't solve.

"What's wrong now?"

"I haven't seen that fourth guy since they started, the one in the blue plaid shirt. I looked out every window, and only counted three of them."

"Maybe you're just confusing them. They're all Mexican. It's not racist - you don't know them." She stopped her forehead scrunch and turned her glance to me, formally registering her disapproval.

"First off, I know I'm not racist. If I was, I would just hire some local boys to do the work. I'm not worried about that. Second, I know what I know. There is a fourth guy in a blue plaid shirt that I haven't seen in a half hour."

Every cliche about coming home is true. It's not fun or easy. Nothing seems to change, but everything still seems different. It's you, it's them, it's you and them, you with them. I hadn't been home for more than a week in six years, not since I went to California for college. Yet, here I was. One stupid attempt at rollerblading, an extinct sport I'd let Cheryl con me into, and ten minutes later I had a fractured tibia.

"At least it was for a girl," dad had said on the drive from the airport, giving expression to a macho, go-get-em-tiger camaraderie we had never actually shared. I attempted to laugh, but wasn't quite comfortable with this new us.

"Did she at least say sorry?" mom asked.

"For what? She didn't push me."

"She pushed you into rollerblading, didn't she?"

"That's nonsense," dad said, shaking his head. But nonsense sounded too harsh a word to land on your mom ten minutes after meeting her.

"No, she'd didn't. But it's fine. We're cool." I wanted to say more, to set the record straight, to tell them this one I really liked, to ask them to call her "Cheryl" and not "she".

Those first couple years after I left, whenever I'd come home for Thanksgiving or Christmas, everything revolved around me - a phenomenon I alternated between loving and hating, depending on how needy I was at the time. By the end of college, though, it didn't matter, because both dad and mom had responded to my threat of settling down in LA by diving headfirst into new social endeavors - dinner parties, classes, clubs and the like. Mom's latest favorite, the one she seemed to have a knack for, was the Gardening Society.

"So where do you think he is?"

"I have no idea. He could be anywhere - sleeping in the truck, or sneaking around the house snipping at my roses. He could be walking the neighborhood right now, sending out business cards or advertisements."

"Advertisements? That sounds a little ambitious."

"Don't be so dull. How do you think I found them?"

"I found them for you. Online."

"You found their ad online."

She was right. If Juan & Sons Yard Service was savvy enough to pay for ads on Google, they were probably clever enough to canvas the neighborhood with flyers to wean away business from Manny's Lawn Care. Even I had been clever enough to do that when I was a freshman starting my own short-lived lawn mowing business.

"So what if he is?"

"I'll tell you so what," she said, pointing her finger at me as if I'd overstepped some boundary. "Every single person on this street uses Manny. I use Manny to mow the lawn. It took five years before anyone let a Mexican worker mow on this street, and I don't want everyone turning on me, just cause I felt bad for this one guy. And they will - trust me. You think Mr. Boyd won't say something about these guys going door to door? Plus," she added, "I don't want Manny finding out."

I stared at her as she spoke, suddenly impressed by the conviction in the eyes of this gray haired woman, this lady who had, in my long absence, seamlessly taken the place of my once young mom. Our eyes met, and instantly I felt myself wanting to share her burden.

"Let's find him," I said, slamming my laptop shut. She turned her gaze away from the backyard and onto me, as if these were the first worthwhile words my lips had squeezed out all morning.

"What do you propose?"

"There are windows on all sides of the house. We'll split up. We'll try to I.D. all four of them at the same time, account for all of their whereabouts. That way you can stop worrying."

"That's a great idea."

It was a great idea, except it felt weird playing like this with my mom. I don't know where it came from exactly, but I'd felt it since I'd been home, a blurry affection wanting to express itself in some way. Here was my chance.

"Be careful," she said, helping me up the stairs to the master bedroom, where I could prop a chair in the corner next to a front and side window, thus having both angles within my scope. I felt my heart racing. I was being as careful as the situation permitted, which wasn't much, given the urgency of our task. Once she had me secured in my seat, she turned to head back downstairs.

"Did you throw away my walkie talkies?" I asked, sort of as a joke. Even though, I probably would have gone along with it, had she not regretfully nodded yes.

"Maybe we can use phones, though!"

"Sure," I said, still backpedaling a little. This was the kind of conversation I might have had with a friend, or Cheryl, but not my mom. Our conversations for the last fifteen years had revolved around the practical - needs and tasks, family members and school, goals and the weather. We hadn't played together since the first half of my life.

"If you can't yell," she said, flashing her Razor cell phone at me as indication of her seriousness, "call me."

We spent the next hour rotating spots around the house searching for this worker who mom insisted had shown up with the rest of him. If he goes anywhere near the roses, God help him, she texted, a threat I would have laughed off had she still been the old mom, the one who caved every time I asked for something three times - like a candy bar or a watch. But she was a different woman now.

From the second-story window I watched the older Juan manning one of the lawn mowers in the front. A few houses down I saw the yard I used to mow as a lawn mower. It belonged to a friendly single woman down the street, who hired me more out of pity than need. Her yard was small and tidy, and while I mowed she sat out front on the steps, making sure I went diagonal at the correct angle so the grass wouldn't dry out, and reminding me when I got too close to the iron water cap in the middle of the yard. Now, watching the old Juan mow my parent's lawn, I felt a certain empathy for his plight. Here I was playing with my mom, watching a man working for his son. It seemed backwards, or tangled at least.

* * *

"I've got one. How bout you?"

"I can't see any."

"Check the other side!"

"But, I'm sitting down! I can't-"

"OK, OK, hold on." I could hear her running up the stairs - the twelve rectangle steps a larger version of her had once taught a smaller version of me to crawl, then climb. She went to the window on the other side of the room. "I only see one of them here - it's the other guy - not Juan, or the father or the blue plaid guy."

"What's the other guy's name?" I asked. Mom looked back at me with a face that said she didn't have time for my games. She meant business. "OK, OK," I said, repeating a phrase still fresh in my head, "I was just having some fun with you."

"Well quit it," she said, running back downstairs.

A minute later my cell phone rang. "Why are you calling?" I yelled down, refusing to pick up. She wouldn't speak, so I answered. "What?"

"I've lost him. I only see one back here. The roses are OK, though."

"Roger. Keep your eyes-" I began, before seeing it - a blue plaid shirt draped over the passenger seat, in the cabin of the truck. The cabin that could not possibly have fit four grown men, especially considering the sizes and waistlines of the three already accounted for in the yard. I sat still, feeling the thought gaining momentum, stubbornly worming its way out of my brain.

It had been there since I'd arrived, since before even. But I ignored it, just as I had ignored it for the last year, every time dad's voice on the phone insisted mom was "acting loonier every day," just as I ignored it when mom complained that dad's Saturday golf outings had become a daily routine, just as I ignored her complaints about being lonely, her accusing him of "trying to get away from crazy old me." I had ignored it the way one ignores a strange growth on their body, insisting it is the same as before, and tried to be rational. Mom has always been a little wacky. As a child it was what was most embarrassing about her. And dad had always played it up, taking the My wife is a nut stance - it was their thing, what made them "cute" to dates I brought home in high school.

Yet, I knew it was never really something he'd voiced to me in all my time away. And so, I'd come to take it as an established thing between us now - the new us, just two guys, talking about the lady they had in common, the person that glued them together, trying to ignore the fact that she was coming unglued. Mom had seen the shirt and somehow later translated it into a fourth guy. Probably her paranoia of accounting for all of them, for making sure they stayed away from her roses.

I stared at the truck and felt my phone vibrating again. My eyes began to glaze over slightly, though not enough to make that stupid shirt disappear. Or to make the fourth guy appear.

Early onset. Her doctor said five to ten years. It was a frustrating diagnosis - it said too much, and not enough. I had limited my exposure to that, and a printout containing phrases like "cases vary from patient to patient" and "dependent on the patient's receptivity to medications." If it were five, I might have moved home right away. If ten, I still had some time; yet here I was, only two years in, and suddenly five and ten had collapsed into now and never. I ignored this from LA, but couldn't anymore. Mom's failing brain was a fact, just as I wouldn't be going back to California was a fact, just as the inevitable breaking up with the girl who broke my leg was a fact. It was as difficult a momentary decision as I'd ever come to, but it made itself in the face of the unthinkable alternative - mom becoming a child without me, her only child, around to be there for her.

There had never been four men. Mom had come up with this crazy idea and built it into her quest. The fact of my complicity made me queasy. I heard her running up the stairs and looked down at my phone. I had three missed calls.

"Why aren't you picking up?"

"I'm sorry, mom."

"Don't be sorry, just pick up!"

When the doorbell rang, we both went to answer it. Mom told Juan she'd be right out to look at the yard. I worried about her mentioning the missing guy and about what Juan, Juan and the other guy would say about her when they got into the truck and shut the door, if they would call mom loca and laugh.

"I'll come too."

"There's no need. You've helped enough. Just sit."

Was she being sarcastic? Was this the old, sensible mom, or the new, loony one? Was there some combination of the two?

I waited until she was out on the driveway, with the three men, and crept back up to the front door. As she walked around looking at the yard, she kept peering towards the cabin of the truck. I knew she had to see the shirt, and wondered what she could be thinking, if she understood that she had been mistaken about the fourth guy, or if she still believed he was hiding somewhere, or out stealing away business from Manny. I went back inside and headed for my laptop. I didn't care about the watch. I needed a new pair of walkie-talkies.

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