It was their routine to eat as soon as Kenny came home from work. He’d put TV dinners in the oven, two for him and one for his mother, although with the old lady’s appetite these days, she barely finished hers.
“Hey, Ma,” he called from the kitchen. “It’s Friday. Fish sticks tonight.”
They watched the news as they ate, using trays to hold their dinners. His mom liked ginger ale with her meal, Kenny, a couple of cans of beer. She picked through her food before Kenny chucked the plates in the trash.
“Ma, you’ve got to eat more.”
Her thin lips twitched.
Kenny used the remote control to switch the channel. No Jeopardy! tonight although he and his mother liked to play along. She knew the books and movies. He was smart with the history. But, tonight he wanted something with action.
“You don’t mind, do you?”
His mother grabbed her walker and tried to yank her body upright, although it had been a while since she could do it alone.
“Wait, I’ll give you a hand, Ma,” Kenny said, moving the phone so she wouldn’t trip over its wire. Kenny gave his mother’s backside a boost with his hand. Even with her slight body, her arms strained as if they might snap at the wrists. Kenny couldn’t watch, so he told her a clean joke he heard today to get his mind off it. She made a laugh that sounded like she was clearing the back of her throat.
“Funny one. Right, Ma?”
His mother grunted as she prodded her way toward the bathroom, her white hair so thin it looked like vapor circling her head. Thank god, the home health aide got her washed and changed. She made her lunch. Kenny was up early to help in the morning, and then came home right after work. How much longer could this last?
Sometimes the minister visited or one of her lady friends from church. The only time she left now was for the doctor’s, and that was such a fuss. He could not mark the day she began her slide toward helplessness, but it was clear she had reached that destination. It was a shock to people who hadn’t seen her in awhile.
Kenny drove truck for a shipping company, a steady worker for over twenty years. He never married although he thought about it when he turned forty. He tried dating one of the women at work, but that flopped because her kids didn’t like him. He leaned back in his chair and popped another beer, relishing the cheery sound it made. He lifted the can.
“This one’s for me,” he joked.
He thought he heard his mother singing in the bathroom. She used to be the strongest woman he knew, raising him after his father died. His dad had been roofing when he felt the heart attack coming. He tried to drive himself to the hospital, but only made it to the end of the driveway.
Now, Kenny’s mother maneuvered her walker across the floor toward the chair, turned, and with a backward glance, let herself go, falling a little harder than she wanted onto the cushion, but she was snugly in place. Such a comfortable chair, it had been her mother’s.
She glanced at Kenny, who looked like he was taking a snooze. His shirt rose above his belly. Except for that, her son was rather good-looking although all mothers surely think that. She was lucky about Kenny. Not many sons would do what he does for her.
Something loud was on the TV, all sirens and gunshots, and Kenny had the control on his table. She’d let him sleep for a while. Didn’t he say he was feeling lousy?
Then, she noticed the can on its side. Beer flowed onto the floor and pooled near his sock. A wet mark on its heel grew larger.
She called his name, but he didn’t answer, although his mouth was open. She started weeping. The phone, she saw, was next to Kenny’s arm. She gripped the chair, trying several times to stand, but after awhile she was forced to give it up.
They stayed that way for two days until the health aide let herself in on Monday and saw them sitting chair-by-chair, neither caring that the TV was blaring.
This short story was inspired by an incident in the town where I used to live. A man and his elderly mother died side by side in their living room. I didn’t know them, but I did the person who later bought their house. I wanted to write a story about what might have happened. This short story first appeared in Mindprints magazine. Thanks to Paul Fahey at Hancock College.