Bag Boy

Creative Loafing Fiction Contest Winner: Judges' Pick

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My husband loves old-fashioned meatloaf: two parts beef to one part pork, three eggs, a cup of breadcrumbs, a dash of half and half, and a blanket of bacon and ketchup on top. Back home — in Pennsylvania — the recipe is called Mom’s Love.

Here — in south Florida — it’s so blasting hot I could fry bacon on our swimming-pool deck. Yet I still decide to make Mom’s Love, because I miss home and the way its name sounds like a train that’ll never stop: Lackawanna, Lackawanna, Lackawanna. The grocery store unnerves me. All those moms pushing those looks-like-a-car momcarts. All those grandmothers in hairnets offering sample slices of Virginia ham and blocks of orange cheese on top of Triscuits.

I rush through the aisles. I’ve unloaded onto the belt all the meatloaf fixings — and the frozen peas, the Blue Bell ice cream, the Marie Callender’s Dutch Crumb Apple pie — when I see him standing there at the end of the line, his butternut-squash-colored hair glinting in the fluorescent lights. JEREMY, his nametag says.

I have seen JEREMY the bag boy before, messing around down the street on his skateboard, riding his mountain bike into the parking lot of our community rec center. He plays basketball — with half a dozen sweaty, shirtless boys in shorts — on the hot asphalt court, while inside the clubhouse, I try to work off that last five pounds on the elliptical.

Douche bag, the boys call each other, as they jostle at the outdoor water fountain. Mama’s boy. Faggot. Yesterday JEREMY was the last to take a drink. As he bent over the fountain, I stared — too hard — at the poke of his collarbone. The jut of his shoulder blades. The knuckles of his spine continuing down the frayed elastic of his shorts. The obvious-mom on the treadmill next to me clicked her tongue. He could be your son, she said. Yes, I wanted to say. But he isn’t.

Cooking something good? JEREMY asks as he slides my eggs into a plastic bag. Meatloaf, I tell him. Can I come over for dinner? The cashier — old enough, like me, to be called ma’am — frowns. But I smile and tell JEREMY I would love that when he asks if he can help me out to my car.

JEREMY pushes my cart the same way he rides his mountain bike: one hand only. Hot out here, I say. You just move here? How’d you know? Guessed, I guess. Where from? Pennsylvania. It snow a lot there? Sometimes. I’ve never seen snow.

I pop the trunk of my Toyota. As JEREMY unloads the bags, I keep my hands in my pockets — to keep myself from touching his hair, which looks warm as a pumpkin under the sun. I’ve seen you before, I say. Here? I live down the street from you. What grade your kids in? I don’t have kids. Oh. JEREMY blinks, with the blue eyes that have never seen snow. That must be why I don’t know you.

He holds up the last bag. Where do you want your eggs? What? Your eggs. They told us in training. Most ladies want the stuff that’ll break up front.

JEREMY places the eggs on the passenger seat. For a second I get the weird feeling he’s going to strap them in with the seatbelt. Then he straightens up. Haveanicedayma’am!

In my rearview mirror, I see JEREMY get a running start, then mount the cart and ride it up the hot black asphalt to the front of the store. Wheeee, I imagine him thinking. But then I remember he is 15, 16, maybe 17 years old. Which means he is thinking, I wish this cart was a girl I could—

Onto the black granite counter I unload the softened ice cream, warm milk, sweaty meat. The fleshy worms of the pale pork make my insides clutch up like those charts in the doctor’s office that show the tangle of the ileum and duodenum and all the rest of the digestive tract. I crack the eggs. Beat them with the cream. Crumble the bread. Squish together the chilled meat and ketchup and slop of eggs until my fingers grow so stiff I have to thaw them under hot water. I punch down the meat into the loaf pan and lay the bacon on top.

350. For one hour. The hour when Paul will come back from work and crank the AC so hard the sliding-glass doors will fog within seconds. He’ll give me a kiss. Then give me that smile that causes everyone — including me — to call him a great guy. Smells like home, he’ll say, then peer through the grease-spattered window of the stove. Whatja got in the oven?

What will he do if I say Mom’s Love?

Will he open the freezer, releasing a cloud of frosty white air, and crack a tray of ice cubes into the stainless steel sink with a fearsome clatter?

Will he ask me, Drink?

Or will he not-say: Don’t you think we should talk about–?

I push back the sliding-glass door. Outside, I lie on the hot webs of the lounge chair and look at the sky. In the west the clouds are a sick sea-green, like the algae crusting around the edge of the swimming pool because Paul still hasn’t figured out how to clean it. But overhead the sky is the cheerful bright blue of the Rubbermaid water bottle I carry to the clubhouse every afternoon. Blue as the bumpers on JEREMY’s basketball posts. Blue as the light that explodes behind my eyes when I hold Paul’s body so tight against mine it seems inconceivable I could ever let him go.

Blue — but not as wrinkled — as the doctor’s robe.

No more ice, the doctor told Paul, who’d been feeding me slivers for the past fifteen hours. To me — his voice full of piss at being stuck in the delivery room in the middle of a blizzard — he said, Push. I — am — pushing. Harder. Come on, Mary, Paul said. Give it all you’ve got.

I had given it all I had. The icicles in the window glittered and the clock read 7:16 at the moment when the doctor was supposed to hold up the goods and tell us, Say hello to your son. But outside snow kept falling like cotton and the delivery room went blank as wall-to-wall carpet.

Blue babies, they call them. But ours was gray, mottled as a fig, and felt heavy as a sack of cornmeal when they swaddled him in a white cotton receiving blanket and put him in my arms to say goodbye. I tried to memorize the snub of his nose, the width of his cheeks, the thatch of butternut-squash-colored hair. I wiped the mucus off his closed eyes, then put my finger between my lips and sucked his sad saltiness deep into my mouth.

Why, I don’t know. But somehow I got it into my head I could take him home, in one of those square, silver bags hanging in the grocery store that read KEEP HOT FOOD HOT FROZEN FOOD FROZEN I imagined myself unthawing him on the kitchen counter.

So when the nurse bent down to take him away, I held on tighter.

There was a scene.

In the end I handed him off to Paul, who kissed his forehead and said, Goodbye, little boy.

Or maybe I just imagined Paul saying that. I couldn’t hear squat, because my ears throbbed with sorrow and — knowing Paul and I had just become the couple who made other couples shake their head and say, What a shame, why don’t they go to China? — I was sobbing enough tears to fill a wok.

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