John stared at his handiwork. A painted popsicle stick frame. Red, green, orange.
Most of the macaroni was gone, either chipped off by the uncountable falls or chewed upon after said fall gave Barney, the old lab, the opportunity to snack.
He felt the hum of the old refrigerator under his finger tips. Linoleum cold under his socked feet. The lights, those long, tubed fluorescent types, warbled a white glow.
He smiled, remembered the smell of cooking bacon. Of pancakes, stale coffee, and the all too unforgettable sound of the sizzling skillet. Only cold now, if cold had a scent.
He turned to see his mother entering the kitchen, floor squeaking.
"Sure, ma," he said. "You sleep okay?"
She smiled. Placed a hand on his cheek lovingly. He felt the memory of her touch. It faded as the reality of her frailty settled in. What happened? When did she get so...
old? John swallowed, kissed her on the cheek, feeling the memory against his lips there also.
"I slept lovely," she said. "I still can't believe you came home."
"Me neither. It's almost like I never left."
She nodded. Smiled, as if to say what he was thinking.
That wasn't true.
"I'll put the coffee on then. Will you grab it from the -- "
"Still in the freezer?"
She laughed, "I guess things haven't changed, have they?"
John swung the door open, felt the icy air waft against his face. The picture frame fell. Both of them stared at it for a moment, forlorn. His mother bent to pick it up.
"No, mom, I got it," he said, swooping it up and sticking it on the vibrating freezer door. "Broom in the same spot?"
"No, no, Johnny. Barney will get it, no use fretting over spilt macaroni." She smiled again, wanly.
"Mom..." John began. He looked at the scattered pasta shards, bit his lip. "...How about that coffee, then?"
Her table was old, bits of wood chipped, covered in yellowed macrame doilies. At the center sat a fake succulent in an old tin can. Around it the wood was warped and water stained.
Beside them was a window facing the backyard. Rain pattered at the glass, streaked down in cold tears. He saw, under the old Maple, leaves orange, drooping, a cross of tied together twigs.
Moss had grown on them, the twine frayed.
Steam wreathed his mother's face as she took a quick sip. The lines of countless sips, a lifetime of coffee, tea, and kisses etched around her lips.
"It's not too hot now," she said, blowing gently. "I forgot, did you want anything for your coffee?"
"No, ma. Black is perfectly fine." John set his coffee mug aside, missing the scent of its companions. Pancakes. Bacon. He placed his hand on hers. Like paper.
It felt as though the weight of his own would break her skin. "How are you feeling?"
"I feel great," she said. "I can't wait for your dad to get back home so we can have some breakfast... like the old days."
"Mom -- "
"I don't know where he's at right now. Must've ran down to Old Jerry's for some eggs or something. He makes the best pancakes, don't you think?"
John nodded, slowly, solemnly. What could he say? What would it change? Day after day, it seemed that it changed nothing. It was always the same questions, or some variation of them.
Dad was still at Old Jerry's. Had been for nearly seven years. Those eggs were coming, though.
Everyday, those eggs were coming, pancakes on the menu, coffee steaming, twig cross rotting on old dog bones.
Gray hair, ghost of the vibrant auburn it had once been. Pale skin, thin as lace, spotted, sagged. He could see her there, as she had been. But only in glimpses.
Just as he closed his eyes during a blink. Tall, face full and warm. Strong and gentle. Her lips painted that deep red. The red of kisses, of loving whispers and encouragement.
Then, she was gone, a nowadays shadow of the past.
"Thank you for the coffee, it's good," he lied.
"Oh, absolutely, honey." Her hand trembled as she drew it from his, placed it in the mug handle and took another sip. "How's Tracy? The girls?"
"She's good, misses you. The girls do too. They talk about the last time you flew out all the time." The guilt struck him.
Had it really been that long? Fifteen years since he had sat at this table? A kid then, starry eyed, the whole world before him. John swallowed. Remembered.
Even after his father had passed, he hadn't come to the house. No, not once in those fifteen years.
He felt the appetite of time, the wasted bones of what had been, and it's unquenchable, gnawing hunger. He looked around. Petinad frames hung in a grid above warped wainscoted walls.
Young faces smiling. Hair in styles best forgotten. Dust coated them, coated nearly everything, and cobwebs tangled amongst the eternal plastic leaves of numerous fake house plants.
The clock ticked. The caretaker would return soon.
"They'd love to see you again. Soon," he said. "Tracy's been busy at the hospital, but she said as soon as she gets a chance, she'll come out with the girls." He smiled again, a false smile.
His mother did too, not false, shaky as it was, but warmly. "I would love that. Gosh, I bet they're so big now," she said. "Probably giving all the boys all sorts of trouble."
John chuckled, "You have no idea." He took a sip. The coffee had cooled quite a bit. The rain pattered against the window glass. "You hungry, ma?"
He nodded. "Well, I can whip up some pancakes... some bacon if you have it."
"Oh, Johnny, your father's on his way back with those eggs. You know he likes to cook them up."
He felt the tears well in his eyes, warm, heavy. He nodded, blinked. Watching zoetrope transformation of his mother wither before him.
"Yep, he should be along any moment," she said. "No one can match your father's pancakes."