Thermostat 1280 851 Billy Petersen

In the hot kitchen, his mother was washing lettuce. He sat at the table scissoring the sleeves off his black T-shirt, the one with the print of an orange cat. It was almost his birthday, and he had decided that’s what thirty-seven would look like. The past is past, and sleeveless cat tees were the future. Would he debut the new look at the fine dining establishment where they had a reservation that evening? No. Yes.

His mother said, What my mother put us through! Growing up with her was one thing. But taking care of mom and dad in the last years, well, that was something else. She chased all the workmen from the house. She scared them. Get out! Don’t you come around here! They went; they ran. And when she started to decline, she’d do these things, like turn on the heater in the summertime. Ninety-five degrees out, and she would dial the thermostat all the way up. Dad would call out he’s boiling alive in the den’s air. Get all this skin off me!

Soon, the air system broke. We needed a repair man. You should have seen the song and dance your aunt and I did to distract her while the workmen were there.

But she saw. They always chose to live in a modest house, after all; you couldn’t hide men inside it. That scary voice came out. That shrill and terrifying chastisement, hell made of sound, spite, and spittle. Take yourself awaaaay!

Not long after, though, the frothing died down, the rabid dog fell asleep, and her nice voice returned, her motherly tone. She asked, so calmly, Honey, darling, where’s my sweet husband?

I told her, Dad’s right there in his chair, in the next room.

She looked confused. Her whole face went sour.

No, she roared, so insulted—not that old man. . . .

His mother laughed. She sighed, wiped her eyes. The lettuce sparkled, almost hysterically, with a thousand teardrop beads that slid down the fresh green leaves.

The word lettuce, after all, is kin to the Latin lactūca, a name that in turn comes from lac (milk), because of the leaves’ juice. Is it too much of a stretch to imagine the word lac perhaps also, in some distant past, shared a semantic field with lacrimas (tears)? No? Yes? The head of lettuce—why not let it be the eyeball that lactates the world’s hilarious sorrows? His mother began to rip it apart. She dropped the leaves in a mixing bowl.

She said, That wasn’t so bad in the grand scheme, though. Worse was later. I pray that in my old age, I don’t keep asking you where my sweet husband is, and you have to explain, again, that we buried him months ago.

You mean, divorced him years ago, right, he reminded her.

Yes, yes, she said. You know what I meant.

Header photograph © Emma Louise Leahy.

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