Philips face in the mirror looks older than his twenty-seven years. There are no crows-feet or creases in his brow or any of those obvious signs of aging. There is, however, a distinct pall of sorrow and worry in his eyes. It is the face of someone who has seen too much too soon. Then there is the matter of that woundwell on its way to becoming a fat red zipper of a scar across his throat that the doctors said would fade but never go away. Philip finds one of his baggy wool turtlenecks on top of the hamper, puts it on for camouflage, then combs his tangled brown hair and brushes his teeth. Hes about to go back into the hallway when something makes him stop and open the medicine cabinet. The inside is still untouched, just like his brothers locked bedroom upstairs. He reaches in and pulls out the retainer. Ronnies most obvious imperfection: an underbite.
"What are you doing?"
He turns to see his mother dressed in her librarian clothes, or rather the kind of clothes she wore when she was still a librarian. A beige cowlneck sweater and beige pants that she must have bought at the plus-size store at the King of Prussia Mall. She should have picked up a new nightgown while she was at it, Philip thinks. "I dont know," he tells her.
She steps inside, bringing with her a cloud of Right Guard for Women sprayed on upstairs in lieu of a shower. Her pill-swollen hand snatches the retainer from him and returns it to the exact shelf where he found it, between a dusty peroxide bottle and a tilted pile of cucumber soaps. When she closes the cabinet, her reflection in the mirror speeds by him in a dizzying flash, causing Philip to .inch. "I dont want you touching his things," she says.
It is an argument theyve had before, and he wont allow himself to get caught up in it. Melissa will be here any minute, and the last thing he needs is to get his mother more worked up. He steps past her and heads down the hall to the kitchen, where he snaps on the lights. After making do with the camper-size kitchen in the studio he sublet in New York from that kook, Donnelly Fiume, Philip cant help but marvel at how sprawling this one is. It has dark wood cabinets, recessed lighting, and a porcelain tiled floor thats made to look distressed, as though it belongs in a Tuscan monastery rather than a house on the Main Line of Philly. Most of their meals have been microwaved these last four weeks, but no one would ever guess, judging from the mountain of pots in the sink and bowls scattered across the granite countertop, all smeared with green. A few nights before, his mother had been possessed by one of her cravings. Pea soup, this time. Years ago, they had a cleaning woman who came twice a week for just this reason, her services paid for by his fathers hefty salary as a heart surgeon at Bryn Mawr Hospital. Not anymore. Philip pulls open the refrigerator and takes out a paper sack of coffee to brew a pot the way he used to in the city when he was waiting for one of those strangers to shout up to him from the street.
"Youre making coffee now?" his mother says from behind him.
This time, he doesnt turn around. He scoops two tablespoons into the filter for every cup, remembering how his heart used to beat hard and fast after he tossed his keys out the window and listened to the clomp-clomp-clomp on the crooked old stairway. "Yep."
"But wont you be up all night?"
They dont say anything after that. She gets a can of Diet Coke from her stash in the fridge and a bag of Doritos from the cabinet, then sits on the wooden stool by the chopping block and chews. Loudly. As Philip pours water into the machine, he thinks back to the last time Melissa Moody came for a visit. The summer after Ronnie died, she stopped by unannounced. His mother had been upstairs staring at her bedroom ceiling, his father puttering around his study, pretending to read one of his medical books. Philip had to put aside the assignment he was working on for his poetry class at the Community College of Philadelphia and drag them to the family room, where they sat, staring at this blond, brokenhearted girl covered in bandages until finally, his father walked her to the door and told her good-bye.
From Strange but True by John Searles. Copyright John Searles 2004. All rights reserved. HarperCollins Publishers. Used by permission.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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