Published in Hot Air Quarterly
Each Thursday seventy-two-year old Edna drives her daughter’s 1985 Impala to the mall.
Only it isn’t really her daughter’s car anymore; Celia gave it to Edna when she had enough money to buy something better. And it isn’t an Impala anymore either, it’s an mpala — someone pried the “I” off the grill.
By eleven A.M. the parking lot at the Lake County Mall is nearly full. It’s a popular place that prides itself on offering more interesting imports and ethnically diverse businesses than any other mall in the state.
Edna always parks in Section K, under the Korean flag. Last week, she heard someone refer to it as Kenya, but Edna knows better. She remembers Korea; so would her husband Ernie, if he were still alive. But Kenya? Aren’t they always changing flags over there?
She double-checks her purse for the coupon to Precious Pets, takes a deep breath and starts out. She has a sore throat; maybe she should have parked closer. The mall offers golf cart rides to old people during the holidays. Why don’t they offer them the rest of the year? Would it cost them so much? It would be good PR. Ernie would agree. If it were Ernie’s mall, customers would come first.
An old rusted Bonneville pulls into a spot just ahead. The doors fly open, and a bunch of kids pour out and take off on a dead run to Penny’s. Their harried mother, with a baby on her hip, yells after them in Spanish.
Four husky teenage boys, in cut-off sweatpants, stand just outside the mall entrance, smoking. They step aside as Edna barrels in. She looks at her watch. Precious Pets has been open for an hour. If she doesn’t get there soon they’d be out of goldfish and her coupon wouldn’t mean diddlysquat.
She takes a right at the cappuccino-Jordan almonds-homemade divinity kiosk, and nearly runs down an old man with a cane. Blowing past the Orange Julius stand, the all-beef foot-long kosher hot dogs, and the neon Chinese dragons at the door to Lola’s Noodle Palace, she’s hardly aware of the aromatic candle shop, the buttery perfume of Sil Vous Plait, and the entertaining chaos of the windup toys that spark, bark and toddle out of Kidz World into the mall.
Two for the price of one, she mumbles. I’ll call them Franklin and Eleanor. No, Lucy and Ricky.
At the seductive lighting of Thomas Kinkade, Edna takes a right. Up ahead is a traffic jam of baby strollers, electric wheelchairs and excited kids knocking on the windows of Precious Pets. Puppy yips and parrot screeches ring out as Edna approached.
“Excuse me,” she says to the antsy businessman blocking the entrance. A young mother with a toddler on a leash inches around him. “Excuse me,” Edna repeats.
The obstruction repositions himself in front of the lizard window. “An iguana?” he says into a tiny cell phone. “He won’t even walk the dog!”
Ernie always said that besides being stubborn, insatiable curiosity was Edna’s worst feature. Edna thinks it’s her best. Wonder makes an ordinary life, like hers, interesting. Yet in spite of it, she’s never looked in the lizard window, not once. This time, she squeezes between the man and the window, and standing tiptoe peeks inside.
Edna has seen an iguana on “The Animal Channel,” but, in person, its size and strangeness surprise her. The mottled greens and browns are beautiful, and Edna wonders what “the living dinosaur” feels like, though she can’t imagine actually touching it. The lizard turns towards her and narrows its eyes, looking needy and bossy at the same time, just like Ernie used to do. The tank is too small, and worse, the poor thing has to share it with a collection of metallic rocks, a jar lid’s worth of dirty water, and a half-head of brown iceberg lettuce.
Ernie didn’t like iceberg either.
“Fish-y!” a toddler cries, pointing his index finger at the inside of the store.
Edna rushes in ahead of him. A kitten is loose; the pet store is a madhouse.
In the center of the store is a pyramid of glass fishbowls, surrounded by tiny ceramic mermaids and treasure chests, fish flakes, sacks of colored rocks and dechlorinating drops, one-stop-shopping for the new gold-fish owner.
Edna doesn’t need any of it. The old bowl at home is still perfectly good, and there’s a shaker of unopened fish food under the sink. She gets in line.
The antsy businessman falls in line behind her.
“I’d like two goldfish,” she says to the pimply-faced cashier. Edna places her coupon on the counter, turns it around to face him, and smoothes it with her hand. “One gold, one black, if I have a choice.” She smiles.
Somewhere in the store, a mother bawls out a crying child.
The clerk stretches his neck and sniffs the air. “Cedar chips,” he says to no one in particular. “Someone’s in the hamsters.” Edna’s impressed. He leans over the microphone, clipped to the cash register. “Jerry? Aisle four.”
“I won’t need the bowl,” she continues. “Or any other goldfish things.”
“Excuse me, lady,” the rude man says behind her. He reaches over her shoulder and puts a credit card on the counter. “But I don’t have time to wait in line.” He has coffee breath. She considers offering him a mint.
Edna understands being late, but crowding is her pet peeve. She doesn’t believe in it. Crowding says somebody else’s time is more important than hers. If Edna has to wait behind whoever is in front of her, then whoever’s in back of her has to wait until she’s done. That includes the impatient businessman, tapping his foot, behind her right now. Fair’s fair.
Edna holds her ground.
“Lady!” the man explodes. Then, to the clerk, “Kid, listen. I’m in a rush . . . okay?”
Edna stands up straighter, and taps the counter. “I’ve come for the goldfish,” she repeats. “You have my coupon.”
“I’ve come for the iguana,” the man says. “And its tank. Give me the whole . . . over-priced . . . god damn set up.”
The clerk sighs and turns toward the lizard’s terrarium, colliding with a surprised toddler behind the counter. He rolls his eyes and calls out, “We need a mother over here! Anybody missing a kid?”
“Excuse me,” Edna says, turning to face the businessman. She gives him her sourest old lady look. “But you’ll have to wait. I was here first.”
The man is taller and younger than she’d originally thought. His short, dark hair and glasses remind her of Buddy Holly on the Ed Sullivan Show years ago. “Come on . . .” he starts. He checks his watch. His inside suit pocket suddenly plays TV’s “Mission Impossible” theme song. Ernie loved “Mission Impossible:” he once bought a record of favorite television themes. Where is that record? “I have an important meeting,” the man says, taking the phone out of his pocket, reading its tiny window, and snapping it shut. He talks to Edna slowly, like she’s simple-minded or deaf, then smiles insincerely, “and I have to get the iguana home first.” He closes ranks; she feels his raincoat on the back of her legs. “You’ve probably got all day.”
Edna recognizes sarcasm when she hears it. “Don’t patronize me,” she says.
The phone rings again. Mission Impossible. The man ignores it and sets it on the counter while he searches his pockets for his car keys, ready to bolt.
Meanwhile, the cashier plops the large, meaty lizard in front of them. Edna gasps and rears back. The line behind her is humming with nervous comments. “Okay . . .” the clerk says, looking over Edna’s shoulder. “Here you go, sir. All three-and-a-half feet, twenty-eight pounds of him. That’ll be . . .”
Good girl, Ernie whispers. Don’t let the bastard boss you around.
Edna shakes her head. Isn’t it just like Ernie to only recognize his failings in other people? She opens her purse and fishes out her pen and checkbook. “I’ve come for the iguana,” she announces.
Hold up, Ernie says. Now Edna. . .
“Please lady,” the businessman whines. “Be reasonable,” he stuffs his fists into his coat pockets. “You don’t really want a lizard. Get a bird or something! There,” he says. Reaching over her shoulder he points at her two-for-one coupon, “you came for goldfish . . . remember?”
The lizard smiles.
“I’ve come for the iguana.” A baby screams somewhere in the store. “I’m buying the iguana,” she repeats. “This one . . . right here.”
“But my kid turns sixteen today! It’s the only thing he wants!”
Edna turns to face the man again. “Then you’ll have to buy him an iguana somewhere else, won’t you?” She lets it sink in. “And by the way, I’m not infirmed, and I’m not stupid. I’m old, that’s all. It’ll happen to you too, if you’re lucky.” She turns her back on him. “And I’m still the first in line.”
“Jesus,” he mutters.
“I didn’t catch the price,” Edna says. Her heart is in her ears; her hand, poised over her checkbook, is shaking. “How much was it, again . . .” she squints at the clerk’s name tag, “Damien?”
“If you don’t mind, I’ll just write it for one hundred dollars.” Like she always writes checks for one hundred dollars. Like she won’t be eating instant macaroni and cheese for the next two weeks.
The businessman huffs out of the store.
Edna turns red and leans across the counter. “I’d also like two goldfish,” she whispers. “You have my coupon. I’ll pay for them in cash, if that’s all right.”
While she digs for her coin purse, the iguana begins a slow rotation of its massive head, scanning the store. Does he know he’s leaving? Is he saying goodbye?
“Keep your coupon, lady. The fish are on the house,” Damien laughs. “Besides, we’ve been trying to get rid of the old guy here for years!” He gives the lizard a dog-sized pat. “You can have his aquarium too. I’ll even throw in some kibble, and vitamin drops. Wait till the manager hears Brutus had two takers in one day! He won’t believe it!”
Edna’s mouth drops. “Brutus?” she stammers.
“You all right, lady?”
Brutus was Ernie’s nickname.
— # —
Edna is flustered.
She forgets what flag she parked under.
She forgets to thank the skinny tattooed kid with the muttonchops who helped her load the iguana, tank, heat lamp, kibble, litter and goldfish into her mpala.
She forgets the name of the neighbor boy who is thrilled when she asks him to “help her with her new pets.” He sets stuff up and plugs things in. He loves fish and reptiles; he even has a boa named . . . she forgets.
Edna forgets to turn off the mpala’s parking lights too and only discovers it sometime after midnight when, unable to sleep and wandering through the house in her nighty, she looks out the front window. “Why don’t I just put a sign on the door that reads Stupid Old Woman Lives Here,” she says.
“I don’t know. Why don’t you?”
Edna twirls around. “Ernie?” Her heart’s in her throat. She shivers and hugs herself. “Ernie? Is that you?”
Edna often wonders what she would do if he came back. She has a widow friend who swears her dead husband shows up at the end of each month just to help balance the checkbook.
Edna was the one who paid the bills in their family, saved money for Christmas, kept them on a budget and minded the checkbook. She even saved enough money for a five-day cruise, through the Straits of San Juan de Fuca, to celebrate Ernie’s retirement. If he hadn’t insisted on getting drunk every night of the trip, he would have enjoyed the cruise even more.
Edna stands still and listens to the sleeping house. “Damn it, Ernie,” she whispers. Her voice trembles. “You promised you wouldn’t . . .” Once, after watching a ghost story on TV, they’d made a pact never to haunt each other.
If Ernie did come back, maybe he couldn’t help it, or he didn’t have a choice. Maybe there was something he needed to tell her, or finally apologize for. Like having Tuffy put to sleep. It’d been years now, but Edna still felt the old Pekingese curl up against her as she drifted off to sleep each night. Poor Tuffy was only twelve when the vet said her cancer was treatable, but Ernie insisted the dog was too old to survive the treatment and had her put down while Edna was off visiting her sister. “I didn’t think you’d want to be there,” he explained.
“Bastard,” Edna mumbles.
A dry, shuffling sound comes from the iguana tank. Are lizards nocturnal?
Maybe it isn’t Ernie. Maybe someone else is in the house.
Edna stares into the darkest places of the dark room, like the TV psychics do, but sees nothing. Then she eases out of the living room, literally retracing her steps backwards, heel, toe, heel, toe, never taking her eye off Ernie’s Lazy Boy recliner with its built-in magazine rack and last three issues of Wood World, or the arm of the couch where Ernie sometimes sat pretending to be interested in her latest book or crochet project. Edna grabs the kitchen door casing to orient herself. The linoleum is cold through her worn scuffies. She feels behind her for the junk drawer, opens it, and grabs the emergency flashlight.
Temperamental thing. She gives it a shake. It flickers on and off before remaining lit. Ernie told her to replace the flashlight but she only replaced the batteries. All it takes is a shake, she demonstrated. Ernie was like that; instead of putting up with the idiosyncrasies of something, he’d throw it out and buy a replacement. At first his extravagance seemed refreshing, even rebellious; a far cry from her father’s penny pinching. But as Edna grew older, she realized it was wasteful and down right bull-headed. Ernie was bull-headed about a lot of things.
Edna shone a beam on the fish bowl. The new goldfish, Ike and Mamie, hug the rocks at the bottom, sleeping. It’s beautiful at night, a dream world, when the flashlight shines through the water, making a rainbow-tinted moon on her living room window.
Like the Northern Lights, she thinks, remembering the retirement cruise. The jerk missed that too.
Beyond the bowl is the glint of the iguana tank.
And sudden movement.
Edna’s thyroid kicks into overdrive, momentarily deafening her to everything but the thick steady pulse whooshing through her ears. She quickly pans the room, running the light back and forth methodically, slightly overlapping each sweep with the next, like Ernie’s tidy lanes of mowed grass.
There’s that sound again! Is someone in her house? She grips her necklace. The crucifix is surprisingly cold. Yea, though I walk through the Valley of Death . . .
Maybe the house has mice. Tuffy once caught one in the garage.
Edna splashes the erratic beam over the room again. Only shadows. And the framed paint-by-number portrait of a Pekingese nine-year-old Celia made for her one Christmas.
The night is black, the moon hardly a sliver, and except for the streetlight at the corner you’d never know the living room drapes were open. Of course they usually are. Edna loves the morning light.
She throws the beam on Brutus standing on top of a rock in the tank. His back legs, and lighter-green underbelly, are pressed against the front glass panel, his considerable claws hooked over the lip; he’s nudged the top aside, attempting to escape. First night in a new place, he’s restless, disoriented; Edna understands. “Poor thing,” she mumbles. His eyes are closed. Maybe the light is too bright, maybe he’s sleepwalking. Ernie used to sleep walk. Once he got all the way down to Tommy’s, in his pajamas, and ordered a beer before he woke up.
Suddenly the “Mission Impossible” theme song fills the air and Edna jumps.
The tone is high-pitched and mechanical, yet muffled. Her heart races to her ears. Her drumming pulse nearly swallows the rest of the music. She’s small, old and alone. “Please God,” she mumbles. It’d be just like Ernie to surprise her with his signature tune, but what if it’s something else? She prefers his unwelcome ghost to the fear that freezes her where she stands. The obscured music stops abruptly. “Ernie?”
Call Celia, she tells herself. Edna takes nervous baby steps into the living room. The phone . . . on the coffee table . . . in front of the couch . . . next to the aquarium . . . call Celia.
Brutus stills stands on the metallic speckled rocks, but trembles now, all over. “Poor thing,” she coos again. “Are you scared too?”
He blinks twice.
Twice for yes was Ernie’s signal from his hospital deathbed.
Edna sets the flashlight on the couch and reaches for the iguana. “Up . . . you . . . go,” she grunts, lifting the tense twenty-eight pound lizard out of his tank. Her arthritis is worse at night, and her hands and back complain until the lizard’s eyes open and Edna sees herself reflected in the sleepy orbs.
When the music starts again, she almost drops him. It seems to be coming from inside poor Brutus. It shakes him so badly, she doesn’t mind the foul-smelling pee that trickles over the lip of his tank, across the rug and onto her nightie when she brings him close.
Brutus blinks twice. Yes, he’s scared.
He hangs on, digging his long dinosaur nails into her nightgown. It’s been a long time since Edna held anyone, even Celia. The lizard’s skin is smooth and thick, his body as big around as Edna’s thigh, muscular and powerful. Like Ernie when he was young. An afternoon spent cutting wood was enough to give Ernie muscles back then. All his body needed was an opportunity, an excuse, to eclipse itself.
When the music stops, Brutus continues to vibrate. Finally he relaxes and smiles, which iguanas always do of course, but holding Brutus seems to genuinely calm him.
Do iguanas hold each other in the wild? do they comfort each other when they’re scared? Do they even get scared? She’d have to watch more “Animal Channel.” The world is full of strange and beautiful creatures! She remembered swimming with the dolphins on that Elderhostel trip five years ago. Edna in her bright pink snorkeling gear struggling to keep pace with the sleek smiling swimmer. When she couldn’t keep up, the dolphin slowed down to swim beside her. When Edna toweled off, she broke down in her tears. What a wonderful world!
She gives Brutus a squeeze. She’s fearless now. If there is something in the house, they’d face it together. When she walks Brutus to the light switch, he digs in. “Ouch!” she cries. “Let go!” pulling him off her. Maybe iguanas are like snakes: afraid of being dropped.
Ernie used to claw her. When they were young and in love they spent every weekend in bed. Edna called him a “brute” and the nickname stuck. They joked about writing a book on foreplay and Edna devoted an entire section of her recipe file to “Erotic Foods, Libations & Aphrodisiacs,” starring favorites “To Be Eaten In Bed.” Ernie kept a photo of young leggy Edna in his locker at work.
“You’re hurting me! Brutus . . . no!” Edna bugs her eyes and bares her teeth the way monkeys do on the Animal Channel. The iguana blinks twice, and loosens his grip.
— # —
Celia’s Volvo slows to a crawl outside Edna’s house.
Celia usually drives by once a week. Last time she claimed she was “taking Mike home. He lives in your area,” and nodded to the short bald man in the zoot suit standing behind her in Edna’s doorway. “We’ve been dancing,” Celia blushed. Edna stared at Mike over the bridge of her reading glasses. Another fun-loving homosexual boyfriend. Oh well. At least Celia shook her tail feathers once in a while. Ernie never liked to dance.
This time, Celia sees light in Edna’s front room. Emboldened by the pepper spray in her purse, and the shadowy figure of her seventy-two-year old mother struggling with something in the middle of the night, she lets herself in, flips the switch by the door and boldly clomps into the living room.
Edna gasps with surprise.
“What the hell is that?” Celia steps behind a chair.
“It’s Brutus,” Edna snaps. She holds him close and feels a hard square shape in his belly. “He’s scared. He doesn’t want me to drop him. He doesn’t need you to upset him either.”
“My contra group went out for a few drinks, so I thought I’d swing by on my way home. I saw the light,” Celia says nervously. “I was worried.”
Edna does a quick assessment of the room. “Everything’s fine,” she says.
“But you’re standing there in your nightgown holding an . . .”
“And it’s . . . . .” she pushes a button on her wristwatch lighting its face, “two twenty-six in the morning!”
Somehow, and for no good reason, certainly no reason that will hold up to serious scrutiny in the morning, Edna isn’t afraid. “Mission Impossible” be damned. She dared an intruder to enter her house and find a twenty-eight pound, three-and-a-half foot lizard standing guard. Besides, Celia will have scared off a burglar when she drove up and stomped in. What is she wearing on her feet, anyway?
“Are those Beatle boots?” Edna asks. Ankle-length and black with chunky heels — way too young for her.
“Mother, please. What’s going on?”
Edna smiles. “I thought I heard something. It was probably my imagination. Or Brutus; it’s his first night.” She likes the spiky fin-like flashing on his back. Holding the lizard this way makes her think of burping a baby. “Maybe I was dreaming. I don’t sleep well lately.”
Celia draws the drapes, flips off the overhead light and lights the lamp next to the couch. A dedicated vegetarian and “closet psychologist,” she likes to say that the basic tenet of a human-animal relationship is exploitation, and actively discourages her mother from taking in strays or castoffs. Except for a parade of interchangeable goldfish, Brutus is Edna’s first pet since Tuffy.
Celia stares at Brutus.
She looks tired. Forty-eight looked fifty-eight on Celia. Some women sail through menopause. Not Celia. “It’s sweet of you to be concerned,” Edna says, “but you don’t need to drive by every time you’re out. Your father’s been gone a long time now; I’m used to living by myself. I know how to call the police if I need to.”
Brutus lifts his tail and poops. Soundlessly, he’s a quiet beast after all. Neither Celia nor Edna have ever seen iguana poop and stare at the wet black-green pile on Edna’s area rug.
“Put it back in it’s . . . cage, Mother! For God’s sake, don’t hug it! It’ll get shit all over you!” Edna hates her daughter to swear. Ike and Mamie splash. “Fish too?” What . . . did you buy out the entire pet store? Are there rabbits under the couch? A cockatoo in the bathroom? I know you’re lonely, Mother, but . . .”
“What I do with my money is not open for discussion, Celia. I will not have you talk to me like I’m a child.” Without meaning to, she’d raised a spoiled precocious only child, who grew into a teenager fighting for any crumb of affection from an alcoholic father and an emotionally frigid mother. Edna doesn’t know what Freud would say, and TV’s Dr. Phil might blame Ernie’s drink, but Edna blames herself for pushing Celia away.
Suddenly Edna’s impossibly cold. Every impatient, misunderstood word she shares with her daughter, every minute of being old and alone, creeps up her thin naked legs chilling her to the bone. “I’m cold,” she announces. “It’s late. I’m going to bed.”
“Are you sure you’re okay? I feel weird about leaving. I mean you’re standing there like that, and maybe I should . . .”
“Okay.” Celia drags her hand through her short graying-blond hair, then smiles weakly. “Would you like me to clean up the mess first?”
“I’ll get it, honey. Go.”
“What’s wrong with . . . Brutus, anyway? You said he was upset.”
Edna takes a tentative step towards Celia, and feels the iguana’s claws. “You remember how your father loved Mission Impossible? Remember how the three of us sat together on the couch, amazed at their disguises and how quickly they threw those fake rooms together? Fun, wasn’t it?”
Celia glances towards the door.
“You know, they used that theme song on Teenage Jeopardy last week and nobody knew it!”
“I’ll call you in the morning,” Celia says, stepping outside. “Be careful you don’t step in the . . .”
Edna washes her feet in the bathtub and goes to bed.
At dawn, Brutus opens his mouth, broadcasts the theme song to “Mission Impossible,” and pees the bed simultaneously. It runs under Edna’s startled body, startled to find herself face-to-face with an equally startled vibrating iguana that spent the night under her covers and is as warm as a tropical beach.
Suddenly Edna recalls the businessman at the pet store. And his cell phone. What tune did it play?
She looks over her shoulder at the nightstand. Six-fifteen.
The song is up early.
Brutus blinks twice. Twice for Ernie’s yes.
Ernie, aka Brutus, is back from the dead, blinking and playing the theme to “Mission Impossible.” What more confirmation does she need? It’s weird, sure, but weird things happen. That professional medium on TV would be impressed. Edna imagines sitting in the audience when he suddenly starts humming the “Mission Impossible.” He’d waves his index finger, like a divining rod, in her direction. “Someone in this area . . .” he’d say. “Something about . . . an iguana.” Then laugh. “And meat loaf . . .”
Ernie loved Edna’s meatloaf. Every Thursday, hot, with mashed potatoes; cold sandwiches on Saturday.
After Ernie had Tuffy put to sleep, Edna made meat loaf one more time and purposely burned it. Ernie yelled so loud, the neighbors called the cops.
“How long does it take to burn a meatloaf black?” the smiling policeman asked.
“Three and a half hours at 425 degrees,” Edna answered.
— # —
The day Edna runs into the vaguely familiar young man at the supermarket, she returned to the freezer case three times before remembering it was the frozen pizza she was after. Two for the price of one, the coupon read. On sale until the end of the week.
Ernie hated frozen pizza. Edna loved it.
“Hey,” the stranger says, standing on the other side of the freezer case. He smiles and asks, “How’s Brutus? You two getting along?”
Brutus. He knows Brutus! Edna stares at the friendly stranger.
“Didn’t eat your goldfish, did he?”
Of course. The nice cashier from Precious Pets! What was his name?
“No.” Edna smiles back. “They’re fine.”
“Seen the two-for-one pizzas?”
“I was looking for them myself.” Her eyes dart over the freezer case, making special note of the half-eaten Fudgsicle on a stack of frozen cheesecakes.
“Found them!” The young man leans over the freezer case and hooks two pizzas while juggling a quart of beer, a bag of potato chips, a tub of clam dip, and the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated.
Wow. But then why shouldn’t he be nimble? Wasn’t she once?
“Haven’t seen you at the pet store lately. You ought to come by and see what we’ve done to the place.”
“I will,” Edna promises.
“Got to go,” he smiles. “Have a nice day.”
Edna remembers his name, ten minutes later, at Lois’s checkout stand. Lois always waves her over to Ten-Items-or-Less even when Edna has more items. “Pizza, frozen pizza . . .” Edna mumbles while thumbing through her coupon file. Is the coupon under “P” for pizza, or “F” for frozen? Better check “B” too. More and more she confuses “B” with “P.” Growing old is for the birds. “It’s in here somewhere.”
“Need some help with that, dear?” Lois talks like that to all the seniors. She has a smile for everyone too. Ernie would have liked that. If it had been Ernie’s store, he’d have fired all the sour pusses and hired only Loises.
There it is, under “P;” the two-for-one goldfish coupon she never used. Damien. That’s his name: Damien, from Precious Pets! How sweet of him to remember her. There’s Brutus too, a sketch of him lounging across the top of the coupon, draped above the store’s hours, surrounded by kittens, rabbits, guinea pigs and parakeets.
Brutus, the neglected but beloved store mascot.
“Found it!” Edna says, handing the goldfish coupon to Lois.
Lois looks at it briefly, and tucks it under the cash drawer.
Edna calls the pet store.
“Are you serious?” Damien says over the phone. “We’d love to have Brutus back! Everybody asks about him.”
“Don’t you have to ask the manager?”
“I’m the manager now,” he answers. She hears him smiling.
Edna had been a regular at Precious Pets for years. She knows they clean the fish tanks each Thursday afternoon, in anticipation of weekend traffic; and was once on a first name basis with the old owner, Robert-something, who developed an allergy to pet dander, sold the store and moved to Arizona.
The next day was Thursday and Edna took a trip to the Lake County Mall, parked under the Korean flag and hurried to Precious Pets where she spent more than fifteen minutes evaluating the new lizard window with its colorful painted backdrop of palm trees, tropical beaches, and bikini-ed girls wading in the surf. The display reminded Edna of Ernie’s unfulfilled promise to “take her” to Hawaii. “Why go now when we’re old farts?” was his final word on the topic.
The new lizard window at Precious Pets made it easier to say goodbye to Brutus. Edna was ready to let him go. She’d had the last word, and he’d listened.
That was enough.
“It’s beautiful,” Edna smiles. “Brutus will love it.”
— # —
Edna asks Celia to meet her at the mall entrance.
Edna doesn’t want her daughter to see what’s become of her house. How, in less than a month, mail, newspapers and furiously scribbled notes from 2 AM conversations with phone psychics blanket her kitchen table. How her usually clean, spotless home smells of dead goldfish, rotting fruit and iguana pee, while she laid up in bed with Brutus talking, remembering, sorting things out.
And it finally became obvious that Brutus always winked twice for “yes,” and everything else too, never pausing to think or consider his answer or apologize like she’d hoped he would.
Damien arranges for one of the mall’s security guards to help Edna unload the large heavy cardboard box out of her mpala, onto a cart, and push it to the entrance where Celia stands waiting.
“You sure you want to do this, Mom?” she asks.
Celia smiles shyly.
Edna pushes the cart down the mall thoroughfare slowly, occasionally stopping to peep inside at the bandaged Brutus.
Celia clears her throat. “What happened?” she asks, waving her index finger at the box.
“Cell phone. He swallowed a cell phone. The vet cut it out of him.”
“A man at the pet store left his phone on the counter and Brutus swallowed it.”
The women walk side-by-side.
“I’m getting a dog. A Pekinese, like Tuffy.”
“That’s nice,” Celia says blandly. She looks around. “I’ve never been here before . . . oooh, Cinnabon!”
It’s a quiet day at the Lake County Mall. Edna’s mouth waters when she passes Thai High, and Mucho Mole. Eyeing the obese teenage mothers with oily hair, pushing skinny, runny-nosed babies in strollers past displays of pretty overpriced things, Edna gives silent thanks for her trim, educated, employed middle-aged daughter.
“Thanks for coming with me,” she says.
“Sure.” Celia touches her mother’s hand. “What’s with the flags? In the parking lot?”
“It’s just something they do. Goes with the international theme of things. You know, food, shops.”
“Iguanas.” Celia smiles. “I parked under Korea.”
“Me too. I always park under Korea.”
“I like it,” Celia said. “Its design, I mean. It’s simple and clean.”
Celia studied art in college.
“North Korea has nuclear arms,” Edna says. She hopes Celia notices she’s been reading the paper and bumperstickers, trying to keep abreast of things and isn’t just some crazy old lady who wrestled iguanas in the middle of the night. “I like your necklace,” she adds, “the little peace medallion.”
“Oh,” Celia says cheerfully. “Thanks, Mom.”
“I wear a crucifix,” Edna says. It’s awkward to keep the up the conversational volley, but they’d get better at it. Everything gets better with practice, everything except her marriage to Ernie, that is.
“I know,” Celia says. “You’ve worn that crucifix as long as I can remember.” A teenage couple walk by, both on cell phones, talking to other people. Celia clears her throat. “You know, I’m not a Christian anymore.”
“You were raised as one.”
“Yes, but I’m not one now. I’m Buddhist.” Her voice is tight and Edna realizes she expects a fight.
“There are lots of Buddhists in Korea,” Edna says.
“Korea reminds me of Daddy.”
The women fall silent and look away, attracted to the windows on either side of the mall thoroughfare. Some lizards rotate their eyes independently, looking at two different things simultaneously; Edna saw it on “The Animal Channel.”
The seductive lighting of Thomas Kinkade looms ahead. Take the next right, and three stores down is Precious Pets.
Brutus slaps the side of the box impatiently. Edna stops the cart and peeks inside.
“It’s okay,” she says. “You’re almost home.”