She’s Still Young, I Am Old Enough ~ Matthew Gavin Frank

The lights in here are too bright, and they too brightly brighten the blue dish detergent, the deodorant that apparently makes one smell like a meadow in springtime, the two-for-one apples-and-cinnamon instant oatmeal, the sprigs of fresh parsley, jar of prepared horseradish, seven McIntosh apples, bag of walnut halves, the on-sale honey, the twelve eggs, the taupe pantyhose. It’s humid in this Jewel-Osco supermarket—the air-conditioning must be on the fritz— and the white tile floor, branching away from the produce section into tentacular aisles, is slick.  It’s raining again outside, but it’s a warmer rain, and twice, on the way here, my mother panicking at the wheel, we hydroplaned.  She’s still young and healthy.  She still has the four moles on her face, one clinging as if some amber invading moon at the inside corner of her left eye.

Now, she pushes me in the shopping wagon—she’s still strong enough to push me, and I’m still small enough to be pushed— and my legs dangle, kick back and forth, and the dish soap, in its plastic urn, churns itself foamy as we bounce over the seams in the slick tile.  It must be April, because the Jewel-Osco has set up a small section, at the abutment where the pet food aisle meets the soft drinks, for Passover items.  The wagon stops here.  My mom’s hands are still steady as she chooses three cellophane-wrapped boxes of egg matzo, a box of matzo meal, four bottles of kosher Concord grape juice, the chocolate-dipped macaroons.  She stacks these items amid the detergent, the parsley, the pantyhose.  My legs dangle.  Someone in an orange smock stocks soda cans.  A few aisles away, glass breaks, and my heart leaps at the sound.  Someone in an orange smock speed-walks with a mop.  A fresh emergency.

A tall man in a nice white shirt pulls his wagon next to ours.  His top button is buttoned, and his collar squeezes his neck.  His glasses are golden and they slip down his nose because he is sweating.  He has small hands, I notice, for such a tall man.  Clean fingernails.  Light hair on his knuckles.  A watch with a beige band. He is bald, or he isn’t.  He steps close behind my mom as she reaches for the box of orange and lemon jelly fruit slices.  He is too close to her, I notice.  His belt is thick and plain and the color of cream.  His mouth doesn’t seem particularly twisted or cruel, and his voice seems strangely soft—gentle even— as he bends toward my mom’s ear and says, “Just what we need: more of these kike things.”

My mom is young and healthy, but she looks old and sick.  I haven’t seen her face bunch like this before, as if she’s taken a medicine ball to the belly.  I haven’t yet heard this word before, but I feel as if I’ve known it forever.  It’s been inside me this whole time—some strange inheritance like a predisposition for heart disease.  I know what it means. My mom’s face tells me so.  Our groceries do.  She puts the jellies into the wagon.  She takes hold of my dangling right shoe.  She freezes me.  She says, “Drop dead.”  That’s all she says, all she can muster there, and she knows it’s insufficient as she pushes us away toward the even brighter open expanse before the registers.

In the parking lot, she lifts me from the wagon more curtly than usual, plops me into the back seat.  I am old enough to buckle my own seatbelt.  She fits the paper bags into the trunk, and I can hear them crinkle.  I watch the rain race other rain down the windowpane. Her hair is wet when she gets into the driver’s seat, hanging in strings around her face.  She puts the car into reverse, and turns to back out.  She is frowning, and she sees me watching the rain.  She shifts back into park. She touches my knee.  I begin nodding even before she says it, though I’m not quite sure why.  “I’m sorry,” she says.  We back out of there.

Later, she’ll tell this story at the Seder table, and she will tell it in a way that will allow the neighbors to think that she was proud of herself for her response to this man, that she really showed him.  But I was there, and I know the truth, and my father will diffuse the situation, in typical fashion, with the z’roah—the bare lamb bone meant to symbolize the paschal lamb who was sacrificed mere hours before the ancient Jews’ exodus from Egypt—taking it from the Seder plate and dancing around the table with it between his legs.  The kids at the kids’ table will love this, and many of the adults will love this too, and my mom will muster a smile, but she will sleep poorly that night, and so will my father, and so will I, and I will wake a little older, and the next day, a little older than that, and it will always seem to be raining.  In so many bathroom mirrors—mileposts, themselves, of a life—I will see, more and more, a collection of things.  Just what we need.  Cheeks that purple.  Eyes that see apples neatly stacked.  Just what we need. Mouths that dry before pronouncing inappropriate apologies.