Brian was kneeling on the counter. "No can do," came his muffled reply from inside the cabinet. "You're out."
"Stop fucking with me," I moaned and rested my head on the table.
Brian's laugh was faded by the wooden door. He shuffled backwards on his knees and dropped nimbly to the floor from the counter, shutting the cupboard door on his way down. Turning to look at me, he smiled sadly. "Unfortunately, I am not - fucking with you." The word sounded funny coming out of him, but I was in no mood to find the humor.
I pressed my forehead onto the formica table top. "Nooo," I groaned, "No."
"You're actually getting low on pretty much everything," he said.
"That's what take-out is for," I murmured.
"Nick, we gotta get groceries."
"I hate groceries." My lips rubbed the table as I spoke and it felt neat, so I blew my cheeks out, making my lips touch the cold surface.
I could hear Brian moving around the kitchen, opening cupboard doors and the fridge several times. "There isn't even anything here for breakfast," he explained.
I stopped rubbing my mouth on the formica. "So we'll die of starvation."
"Or I will. You'll just..." he paused. "Can you starve?"
"I've never tried," I admitted.
"Weird," I could tell by the way he said it that he was shaking his head, dumbfounded once again by the oddity that was my life.
I raised an arm without lifting my head, "Try the cupboard over the stove, there's usually crap stuff up there, like oatmeal and shit."
I listened as Brian dragged one of the chairs to the stove and climbed up it. If I'd been more awake I would've gotten up and looked myself, since my height afforded me the ability to just reach up and open the cupboard, unlike Brian, whose balancing act was imperative probably to even seeing the cupboard, let alone opening it.
I peeked out of the corner of my eye to make sure his time was okay. I didn't need him breaking his neck in my kitchen.
Brian opened the cupboard door and let out a yelp that made my head snap up. He was teetering on the chair, pointing into the cupboard. I jumped up and steadied him quickly, peering into the cupboard to see what had startled him.
Inside sat a large iguana, flaring, and beady eyes taking in Brian, angry for being intruded upon.
"That's just Jerome," I told him as he jumped down off the chair.
"You have a freaking snake in your cupboard and you're okay with that?" Brian's voice was pinched.
"He's not a snake," I said. I reached up and pulled Jerome out of the cupboard. "He's an iguana." I dropped Jerome onto the kitchen table and Brian backed away slightly, staring at it with a look of repulsion on his face.
"You let it, like, run free?" he asked, looking at me. "You let it on the table???"
Brian shook his head, "I feel like the more I find out about you, the weirder you are to me," he said, starting to laugh.
I lifted Jerome off the table and put him on the floor. He scurried away toward the bathroom, and I knew he was going to shut himself into the cabinet under the sink, where his treasure trove was. Jerome was forever stealing my shit - stuff like my keys and watches and USB ports and once, even, my wallet - and tucking it away in a nest he'd made behind the towels and plunger in the bathroom cabinet.
"He's cool," I told Brian, waving Jerome off.
Brian dropped into the chair opposite the side of the table I'd been sitting on and I pushed the chair he'd been climbing on back in. He was staring at the place Jerome had sat. "Tell me that you use an antibacterial cleaner your table?" he asked, "Please?"
I pointed at the sponge in the sink.
Brian's face paled. "Okay, so apparently diseases from lizards can't kill you, either." He snatched a pad of paper and a pen from the counter by the microwave and wrote down Lysol antibacterial wipes on the first line. "Just something to add to the list of stuff we need at the store, that's all."
I rolled my eyes and looked at the cupboard Jerome had come out of. There was a tipped over box of Quaker Oats, so I pulled it out and looked inside. Jerome had been snacking on the dry oatmeal packets, apparently. They were all shredded and loose flakes of oatmeal filled the bottom of the box, but only a couple. The majority of the oatmeal had been devoured.
"Okay, you're right," I admitted. "We need to go grocery shopping."
The air-conditioned store was packed when we got there, as I'd feared it would be. Weekend days were the worst to go shopping on, particularly Sunday late mornings, after church had let out. Brian snagged a cart on the way in, clutching the list he'd constructed. I glanced over his shoulder and my eyes darted down the list quickly. It was like he was stocking up to feed the goddamned Army/Navy.
"Dude, don't forget we're leaving Wednesday night," I sputtered.
"I know." Brian pushed the cart toward some oranges that were on sale just inside the door and started feeling them up.
I had a sudden flash of shopping with Claire in 1975...
"You like oranges, don't you Nicky?" she'd asked, picking one up.
Claire had picked up an orange and rubbed it in her palm before dropping it into a clear plastic baggie and sealing it with a twist-tie. She smiled and dropped it into the cart.
"Excuse me, son," a tall, lanky guy had pushed by me with a cart full of crates of oranges. He was probably 35 or so, with messy brown hair and sharp green eyes. He looked at Claire, with her long, red hair and form-fitting sun dress - and did a double take. I recognized a hungry expression in his eyes. "Can I help you, ma'm?" he asked.
Jealousy instantly flared up in me. Take your eyes off her, you bastard.
"No I'm okay, thank you, though," Claire replied. She started to push her cart around the guy, I followed in her footsteps.
"Cherries are in season," he said, stepping up alongside the cart. "Your son might like some of those. They're on sale this week." He smiled.
Claire looked at me, as though to remind herself that this produce guy was referring to me as your son. "Do you like cherries, Nicky?" she asked in a motherly tone.
We'll laugh about this later, I thought. And nodded.
"Where are the cherries?" Claire asked.
"I can show you," the produce guy abandoned his cart to lead the way toward a display of them, near the grapes, and waved his hand. "Maybe your husband would like some also?" he asked.
Claire blushed. "I'm not married."
"Oh," the produce guy was struggling not to smile, "I'm sorry, I thought --" he glanced at me.
"My husband's gone," Claire said flatly.
I'm right here, I thought, Not so far away...
"I'm sorry, ma'm," the produce guy frowned, legitimately this time. He looked at me. "Sorry, Tiger."
Go away, I thought, scathingly.
Claire shook her head, "It's been awhile, no harm done. Thank you for showing me to the cherries." She turned and started poking around through the bags.
The produce guy didn't leave. "This bag here will be especially juicy," he said, lifting a particular bag from the top of the pile. He handed it to her. "The color, you know? You can tell the flavor by the color."
"Thank you." Claire put the cherries in the cart and looked at me. My face must've been sour, because she quickly nodded her head and grabbed the cart's handle and started to walk away.
The produce guy just couldn't take a hint. "My name is Greg," he said, extending a hand. "Greg Brunner."
Claire only glanced at me a second before accepting his hand and shaking it. "It's nice to meet you, Mr. Brunner," she said. "My son and I are running late," she added hastily, catching my eye. "I need to run."
"Anytime you need help," he said, waving his hand around the produce section, "My office is over there." He pointed to a counter in the corner, by a large display of apples. "I'm more than willing to answer any questions you have about fruits and vegetables."
She smiled. "Thank you, Mr. Brunner." I grabbed hold of the cart and yanked, pulling her away from produce. She trotted alongside me. My palms were sweating.
Why is this a surprise? I wondered, I knew it would happen, sooner or later...
"Nick?" Brian waved his hand in front of my face. "You okay?"
"Um... yeah. I'm fine." Back to reality, Carter. I looked around us. We were standing by the grapes and cherries.
"Do you wanna get some cherries?" Brian asked.
"I'm allergic to red dye 40," I stammered.
Brian looked surprised. "Um, okay. I didn't mean the bottled ones. These are fresh." He pointed at the display.
"No." I shook my head. "I hate cherries."
"Okay," Brian looked a little perplexed by the ferocity in my voice, but didn't ask any questions, simply leading the way further into the store. I followed alongside him, burdened by the memory I'd had.
Brian was scratching items off the list one by one as we walked through the store, picking up cheeses and meats at the deli, bulkie rolls, chips, ketchup, granola bars, frozen dinners, hamburger... The food was all a blur of color and packaging, though, and Brian's torrent of conversation only background noise as I zoned out, thinking about Claire. I murmured half-stupid responses to Brian the entire time.
It wasn't until we were at the checkout counter that I snapped out of my reverie. An elderly woman was sitting on a bench, her eyes clouded by time, a mute smile on her face. She had her hands folded in her lap.
"Okay." Brian smiled cheerfully as I squished by him and the cart and headed over to the woman.
I sat down next to her and I felt her shift her position to accommodate my presence. I glanced at her. "Good morning," I said.
Her head swiveled to look at me, and she smiled, her eyes obviously unfocused, probably only saw a shadow of me. "Good morning," she croaked out. Her voice was cracked, but somehow musical in the way it lilted and rolled out of her. I could tell she was sweet.
I studied her, noticing the lines in her face and the dark pupils that had gone milky, deciding they'd once been hazel. Strung through her long, braided white hair were ribbons and clips that probably belonged to either a grand-daughter, or perhaps even a great-grand-daughter. On her fingers were many rings - mostly costume jewelry - and around her neck several long strands of turquoise plastic beads. She was majestic with age and wisdom.
"You're beautiful," I whispered to her.
Her head bobbled slightly, a nerve or a tic, I wasn't sure which. Slowly, her hands unfurled from her lap and took hold of one of mind, cupping her hands around it. Her hands were icy cold and her veins showed through the nearly transparent skin on the back of them. She smiled sadly. "You remind me of my husband," she said faintly. "How I miss him." Her voice was tired.
"You'll see him again," I whispered. "Very soon."
These words made a euphoric glow cross her face and she smiled a feeble, weak smile. "I'm so tired," she whispered.
"I know," I replied. I lifted my hand and kissed her knuckle gently. "I know."
Her eyes seemed to clear for the slightest of seconds as she looked at me, then, and she murmured, "You're an angel."
I didn't answer. I didn't want to lie and say yes, but I knew she needed to believe - if only for eight more hours - that I was.
A young girl with dark brown hair pushed a cart towards us and I gently dropped her hands into her lap again, sensing that this girl was coming to collect the woman. "Are you okay, gramma?" she asked. A seven year old stood at her side - the culprit that had decorated the woman's hair.
"Yes," cooed the woman. "Yes, I am." She glanced at me ever so slightly as the girl helped her stand up, and pushed a walker into her hands. "Careful, gramma," she said, bracing the woman's arm with her own arm. "Let's go rest."
"Yes," the woman answered with a tired sigh of relief, "Rest would be lovely." I watched as the girl led the woman out of the store and into the parking lot.
Brian came over, arms loaded with bags. He handed some to me as I stood up. He looked me over. "Did you know her?" he asked, nodding at the bench.
"Nah," I replied.
Brian nodded awkwardly. "You saved her?"
"Sometimes saving isn't about extending a person's life," I said carefully. "Sometimes it's more about granting peace."