The silence between them was benign but graceless and mercifully short.
“Judah, are you hungry?”
“Hell yea! Oh I mean, sorry, yes I’m really hungry.”
His mom grinned.
She watched carefully, he leaned his crutches on the nearby counter, hopped to his chair and half plopped down.
“It turns out you can live on half a bag of chips and food out of the garbage but it’s not great.” He laughed and then realized that might upset her. “I didn’t really eat garbage, just a figure of speech.”
She brought the roast beef, mashed potatoes and brussels sprouts to him on a big white plate with little pink roses around the edges. Judah remembered those plates. He broke one helping with dishes one night. He remembered his mother’s disappointment when she threw it in the trash.
“I know you’re not huge on greens but I figure you might be needing the nutrition.”
“It looks great mom. My favorite stuff. Plus, I eat my veggies now. Thank you.”
He gave her a knowing smile and she leaned down kissing his forehead. He was in the habit of bowing and clasping his hands in a prayer position. “Blessings.”
She found it odd but figured it must be a new thing he picked up on his travels along with his pants rolled up at the ankle and the scraggly little beard.
He cleaned his plate, every morsel. After dinner when she brought the cupcakes, he gobbled down two. She smiled watching him eat quickly while making happy groans. “My Judah is still in there.”
He needed a place to drop his pack. Being inside made the smells more pronounced.
His room was small and modest but she’d saved some of his toys from when he was a boy, a baseball glove, some action figures and books. The colors were yellow, red and blue. Judah loved the Steelers as a child. When he leaned on his crutches standing in the doorway she felt a burst of embarrassment. Had she tried too hard or not hard enough?
“It’s all great mom, really. I would love a shower. You think I can wash my clothes too?”
She said to just drop his clothes outside the bathroom door. She would do them.
While the shower ran she heard him singing. He hadn’t done that as a kid. She couldn’t make out what it was but it made her relieved that he felt good enough to sing in her home. Our home, maybe.
His clothes smelled like the road and sweat and hardship. Dirt, grass, food,cigarettes. The one pant leg folded back where his leg no longer was and the one, big brown leather shoe. She braced herself against the washing machine and covered her mouth so she wouldn’t cry.
Showered, wearing new clothes she’d laid out on his bed—sweat pants and a tee shirt, large, she figured would work since young guys don’t seem to mind loose fitting things, he looked like any suburban young man. It pleased her. He left his crutches in the bedroom and hopped on top of the white carpet feeling it squish under his foot to the couch where he dropped down on one hip and then straightened himself. He looked so much like himself as a child. He was taller, his hair was gone, he had a tattoo on his forearm but he was Judah.
“I’m just hoping I can fit here,” Judah told his mom who sat erect in her chair ready to get him more food or something to drink. “Then you will,” she said a bit stiffly even though she couldn’t know if it was true. “Would you like a beer? I’ve got a dark one.”
Exhaustion sent a tingling warmth through Judah. He promised to talk more in the morning and take a rain check on the beer.
The time apart and inelegance of how they came back together created a tight politeness. Still he felt the feelings of home; good food and warmth.
The door closed behind him and the bed in front of him, Judah craved both without knowing that he did, until they were presented. He pulled clean sheets and a blanket around him and let the air fully out of his lungs. He still wanted a cigarette but he felt too good to get up. He stretched out and fluffed his pillows. A clean, warm bed can be so damn nice. No shoes on, no old clothes and a full stomach.
Waking early Judah listened for signs of life. Would it be too pushy to get up and start breakfast? He really wanted another home cooked meal.
The tidy kitchen with its window blinds flung open revealed a Portland fog. Judah put his ear buds in listening to music, hopping around making eggs and toast. Coffee was on and orange juice poured. His mother caught him half dancing and chopping fresh parsley to dress the plates.
He flung his dishrag over his shoulder somewhat theatrically, smiling as he brought bacon out of the oven on a broiler pan. Seeing his mother out of the corner of his eye heading for a cup, he showed her a bottle of hot sauce. “I can’t go anywhere without this. I’ve taken it everywhere with me. It’s the flavor of life-extra hot. You want some on your eggs?” She smiled, “Thank you for all of this. I didn’t even know you cooked. Maybe just a little of the hot sauce?”
Over breakfast they talked about what needed to be done. He needed an Oregon ID, medical insurance and a prosthetic leg plus some new clothes. He had what he wore, that’s it. That’s an odd list with a leg thrown in like a shopping item, he thought.
Getting a new leg takes care and time. The prosthetic needed to be picked out for his weight, height, fitness level, age and comfort. It was painful at times, even with his prosthetic fitted.
“I felt like I was going to fall all the time. Even a pebble on the sidewalk can take you out until you learn how to “feel” things beneath you. Then there’s the way you have to wear a protective sock over your leg and slide it into the socket. It’s weird and alien at first. You can’t just get up in the morning and go. It takes time and thought. You can’t just slap it on any old way. And shoes. You have to buy a size bigger to work with the prosthetic foot so you’re regular foot is swimming in a big shoe and both your feet feel like they’ll go out from under you. I finally bought the right size for my real foot and put a slit in the prosthetic side to make it fit.”
The prosthetic is metal and plastic, not easy to move around. Judah tried sleeping with it on. He had the thought that if he never took it off it might feel like his leg. “But it didn’t work. It’s too heavy, I couldn’t roll over or turn and I woke up feeling trapped under it.”
At first it pained his mom to see his leg flung on the floor next to his bed at night and she wondered about him not using it around the house but he explained the prosthetic was more like a shoe to him, he’d wear it when he went out but at home it’s easier to just hop around. His thigh where the leg ends got sore from being in the socket all the time.
In the kitchen he didn’t want the extra weight, but he needed the stability. “It’s kind of like a ballet keeping your balance while chopping with a sharp knife—I guess it’s ballet while juggling swords.”
Domesticity settled in comfortably: he cooked and kept the house. He and his mom would take slow walks to get used to his new leg. He’d play cards, read, watch television. It felt good not to be told to get a job or figure himself out. His mom seemed happy enough just to have him around.
Judah wanted to learn more about downtown Portland. He’d hang out by Portland State blending in with the others, getting a feel for the campus. Then he’d catch a bus to the waterfront smoking and talking politics and travel stories with others who hitchhiked west. He loved hearing about the places they’d been and how they “spanged” for the stuff they needed. “I wouldn’t fly a sign,” he told them. But they advised him with the missing leg he’d do well. “If you had to, you would. And people would want to help you out.”
He spent time at libraries and street corners, coffee shops and any place he could read—the Communist Manifesto,Tolstoy, Huxley. He’d Skype his brother in Australia. They’d talk through ideas and questions, the beauty of the words on the page. He could feel himself growing. He was enjoying Portland and getting around pretty well.
For the first time in years Judah felt connected.
The months passed, the weather was cold and rainy but not nearly as rough as Pennsylvania and he liked being home. “It was kind of boojee in the suburbs and the people were almost too polite. Everyone riding their bikes around and drinking lattes but I liked Portland.”
When he wasn’t out he would lay on his bed reading and listening to music. He was teaching himself meditation. Breathe in slowly, monitor your breath. That’s it keep going. Ignore your thoughts and stay focused on the breath until your thoughts slow.
The rest and the food agreed with him. He walked faster and felt more fit. He wasn’t drinking as many energy drinks. The tiredness he’d felt since the accident lessoned. He still had pain in his back and hips. If he walked too far or twisted his leg wrong it would hurt. Sometimes he’d over do it and have to lay around for a day or two.
But when his mom came home he enjoyed meeting her with a glass of wine and dinner. It felt good to take care of her. They’d watch movies and joke around.
He didn’t know much about her partner. She didn’t talk about him and he got the feeling it wasn’t a great relationship. She said sometimes she liked it when he did his big construction jobs out of town and she called him controlling. One time she even suggested that just she and Judah might move to a smaller place nearer to town so he could get to his follow up doctors appointments more easily.
Roughly a month later, Judah’s mom called him sounding nervous. “Hey honey your stepdad is on his way home. I’ll be there in about an hour but I wanted to let you know so you don’t get startled. Maybe it’d be better to go out for a bit until I get there to introduce you two.” Judah left the house quickly and waited two hours before getting on the bus back home.
The guy’s truck was in the driveway next to his mom’s car. There was mud on the steps from his boots. Judah wondered if he should knock or just come in. He decided knocking would be too weird. He let himself in.
“Hey mom, I’m home.” he let out a warning that he was in the house. His mom came out from the bedroom looking a little stressed, straightening her shirt.
Her partner followed out after her. A dark man in temperament and manner, shorter than Judah, he came over and reached out his hand. “So the prodigal son has returned. Your mom can’t stop talking about you. Every other word is Judah.”
They shook hands. He had a vice style grip and stared Judah in the eye a bit too long.
“Judah, are you going to cook for us tonight? I’ve been raving about your cooking,” his mom said with a forced lightness.
“She sure has. On and on,” Walt stared at him. “Why do you wear a shoe on that fake foot? It’s not like it’s going to get cold.”
Judah didn’t answer him. “Yea, okay. I can make something simple, fried chicken, some rice, maybe a salad?”
He put in his earbuds and began his kitchen ballet to Marley: “Don’t worry ‘bout a thing…”
Dinner was quieter than usual and when it was over his mom offered to clean up but Judah wanted the excuse to leave the table and get the dishes done so he could retreat into his room. Everything about that guy made him edgy.
Later that night he heard them from the room next door. Loud sex then arguing. “You talk about him like he’s a kid but he’s a grown man. How long is he staying here? ”