I wear the chain I forged in life. I made it link by link, and yard by yard.
—Marley, A Christmas Carol
The next two days flew by as I worked extra houses and extra hours. The sky was already dark when I got home. I pushed open the back door into the kitchen, relishing the blast of warm air. My buckets filled with dirty rags rattled noisily as I set them on the floor with a weary sigh. The last house had been a large five-bedroom overlooking the Intracoastal, and the missus was having a holiday party that weekend. She wanted everything “spruced up.” I explained that I’d have to charge extra for “deep clean” items such as the chandelier and baseboards, but that didn’t seem to bother her in the least. I couldn’t imagine having so much money you could just get what you wanted when you wanted it. Truth be told, I didn’t want to spend the extra time working today. I’d pushed hard without lunch or a break for both scheduled houses, hoping to get home by three to check on Taylor. He’d holed himself up in his room and I was getting worried.
I pulled the check from the last house out from my coat pocket and looked at the amount. I couldn’t help but smile with satisfaction. My back might ache but at least now I had the extra money for a nice Christmas dinner. I hummed “Christmas Time’s A-Coming” and set to gathering the dirty rags, then headed to the laundry room.
When I returned to the kitchen, I stopped short, surprised to see Taylor standing in front of the open fridge. His green military-issue robe hung open over his boxers and T-shirt. He had a hole in one of his socks. Seeing him standing in that familiar pose staring into an open fridge—one I’d seen so often when he was a teen—I had to laugh.
Taylor spun around at the noise, bumping the fridge door with his elbow and rattling the contents. He held a half gallon of milk in his left hand.
“I guess it’s my turn to startle you!” I’d never known him to be so jumpy. He looked disheveled, unshaven, as if he hadn’t showered since he’d arrived. “I guess we’ll have to get used to seeing each other roaming the house.”
Taylor smiled nervously as he set the milk back in the fridge and closed the door. “Yeah,” he replied self-consciously, tying the belt of his robe at his waist.
“Are you hungry?” I walked briskly into the room and went directly to the sink to wash my hands. “I can make you a sandwich. Pulled pork sound good? I’ve got mountains left over from the party.”
“Yeah, that sounds good. Thanks.”
We switched places at the fridge. So close I couldn’t miss the smell of bourbon that emanated from him like a dark cloud. I began pulling out ingredients from the fridge, happy to be making him a meal again. “Did you eat today?”
“Uh, I grabbed some chicken from the fridge earlier. It was good.”
“That’s your aunt Betty’s special marinade. I’ve asked her a million times for the recipe. I swear, she’ll go to the grave with it.” I kept up the chatter while I opened the bread, sensing Taylor’s uneasiness. It troubled me to see him so ill at ease in his own home. He used to light up the room when he walked in, filling it with his personality. This sullen man with hair shorn like a sheep, who spoke in monosyllables, I didn’t know.
While I heated the pork in the microwave, I kept an eye on Taylor as he walked to the rear windows. He was much thinner than I’d first surmised. He’d changed dramatically, I realized, feeling a sinking in my stomach. I could see his sharp bones where muscle used to be, and his chiseled cheekbones protruded now, making his face appear gaunt. But his eyes were what disturbed me the most. His pale green orbs were rimmed with dark circles, making them appear bruised. In the explosion he’d hurt his back, broken bones in his ribs, his left arm and leg, but I didn’t fully see until now that my son was indeed a survivor.
Well, he is home now, I thought to myself with a mother’s resolve. I just need to fatten my boy up. I heaped another scoop of potato salad on his plate, and then cut two buns in half. I’d be serving dinner in less than two hours, but I wasn’t sure he’d show up. He rarely did. “You feed the dog when the dog barks,” I muttered.
From the corner of my eye I caught sight of Taylor pulling out a pack of cigarettes from his robe pocket. I didn’t know he’d started smoking and was sorry to see it. He put the cigarette in his mouth.
“Smoke outdoors, please,” I told him, adding firmness in my voice.
Taylor took the cigarette from his mouth. “Sorry.”
“Nasty habit.” I scrunched my nose to show my displeasure as I placed a few of the holiday cookies on his plate. “It’ll kill you.”
“I should be so lucky,” he mumbled.
The words stung, and I swung my head to stare at him, unnerved. The Taylor I knew would’ve never said such a thing. The microwave beeped, calling me to fetch the pork, so I let the comment drop. What was there to say, anyway? Instead I held my tongue and kept myself busy preparing the hot sandwiches. The Carolina pulled pork and onions that I’d slow-cooked smelled heavenly, reminding me that I hadn’t eaten since breakfast. I set the two sandwiches on the plate beside the potato salad, a large pickle, and the cookies.
I called Taylor to the table: “Come sit!” I set the plate down, then hurried to put salt and pepper by his side, double-checked that he had a napkin, then stood watching as he lowered into the chair and picked up the sandwich.
“Looks good.” He stared at the plate. “It’s a lot of food.”
“You’re far too thin. And pale,” I added.
“I was just thinking the same about you.”
“What?” I laughed, self-conscious, and smoothed my disheveled hair. “I just got off work. I must look a mess. Besides, I’m just getting old, that’s all. But you!” My eyes caressed his gaunt face, saw his long, thin legs exposed where his robe fell open. “I’ve got to fatten you up. Hold on, I’ll get you a glass of milk.” A minute later I set the glass on the table and stood beside him, hands clasped together. I couldn’t help myself. It had been so long since I’d served my son a meal at the kitchen table.
Taylor stopped chewing and looked at me. “What?” he asked, mouth full.
I frowned at his boorishness, and flustered at being caught staring, I quickly looked away. “Nothing.” I smiled weakly. “I just can’t believe you’re sitting here. At my table again.”