Jeremy woke on a bright Saturday morning during the summer between their first and second evictions. By more conventional accounting, it was the summer between his junior and senior years of high school. For his classmates, this was that illusive, magical summer between adolescence and adulthood, that rare patch of temporal ground in which the freedoms of childhood overlap with the privileges of maturity. It was a summer of exploration and discovery. Jeremy, however, woke on this beautiful morning with that sense of sluggish dread found in disillusioned men twice his age. Hoisting his legs over the edge of his old twin bed, which fit either his head or his feet, but not both, he sat up and sighed, running a hand through his hair.
The sound of pots clanging and cupboards closing from down the hall told him his mother was already awake. At this realization, his already hunched shoulders sank another inch. There would be no easing into this day. After a few minutes and another sigh, he sat up straight, rolled his neck, set his shoulders, and practiced his familiar, casual smile. It had taken a few months, but he pretty much had it down now. Through trial and error, he had learned to correct any giveaways that this cheerful appearance was anything other than genuine. He rarely slipped up these days.
With a purposeful saunter, he walked down the short hallway connecting the two modest bedrooms of the apartment to the combined kitchen and living space. His mother was absentmindedly stirring something in a pan at the stove.
“Morning Mom! Watcha making?”
“Good morning sweetheart,” she responded, with a smile that did not reach her eyes, “Realized we still had some eggs in the fridge, and thought that might be a nice Saturday treat, don’t you think?”
Over her worried smile, Jeremy saw his mother’s eyes under furrowed brows, searching his face for any sign of discontent or sadness. Steeling his casual grin against any flicker, he calculated the best response.
“Sounds great, Mom! And it smells fantastic.” This was half-true. The aroma of the frying eggs made Jeremy’s stomach growl and his mouth water, but there was something off-putting in it as well. He knew exactly why. He had checked the eggs just yesterday and noticed the “use by” date had passed weeks ago. Unfortunately, they were running low on options. The recession hadn’t hit their little corner of Iowa as hard as it had the bigger cities, but for those already living on the edge, like Jeremy and his mother, it had hit hard enough. His mother had been laid off from her housekeeping position at the Davenport Inn, and none of the dozens of applications she had peppered over town had yielded any results. Jeremy had sought out any odd jobs he could pick up over the summer, but even those had run dry and subsequently, so had their pantry.
Jeremy carefully poured two juice glasses half-full of orange juice while his mother divided the eggs between two plates. Sitting at their little kitchen table, his mother offered her usual prayer over the food and began to eat. That is, she raised a miniscule fork-load to her mouth, and chewed slowly, subtly shooting glances at Jeremy’s plate. This was the real danger zone, Jeremy knew. Pacing was important here if he wanted to protect her from the waves of debilitating guilt she was prone to. If he ate too quickly, he knew his mother would worry he wasn’t eating enough and insist that he take some of her eggs as well. If he ate too slowly, she would become anxious and worried that he noticed and was unhappy with the obviously sour taste of the expired eggs. The key was to eat at a moderate pace at first, slowing down and ultimately leaving just enough food on the plate to signify that he enjoyed the food, but was too full to finish. That was the tough bit. In spite of the twang of the expired eggs, it took all his willpower to keep from cleaning his plate. If anything, the meager portion left him hungrier than before. Against the urging of his pleading stomach, however, he kept with the right pacing and left just enough food on the plate. He could read his mother’s moods by now and knew that the guilt of not being able to provide had taken her to a mental precipice. He would do whatever was necessary to protect her and keep her from going over the edge.
“Are you sure you got enough, sweetheart?”
“Oh yeah, Mom, thank you! It was delicious, but I really can’t finish it. I’m gunna jump in the shower, if that’s alright. Nick was saying yesterday that they’ve had a few people quit and could use more help detasseling, so I thought I’d drive over there and see if I can’t pick up some hours.”
His mother sat down her fork and fidgeted with her napkin. “That’s fine Jer, I just hate that you have to spend your last summer doing that…”
“Don’t worry about it all! I actually enjoy it. It gets me out in the sun. Gotta work on that tan before school kicks off again.”
After scraping his remaining eggs onto his mother’s plate and dumping his empty dishes in the sink, Jeremy made his way to the shared bathroom. He had just stepped into the shower and pulled the curtain when the bathroom lights went dark.
“Mom! Do we have any lightbulbs? I think we just lost the ones in here!” he shouted from behind the curtain. No response came back through the door. After fumbling with his pajamas in the dark, Jeremy managed to get dressed and stepped back out into the hallway. It wasn’t just the bathroom lights. The hall lights wouldn’t turn on, and the clock on the old stove was dark. The whole apartment had lost power.
“Mom? This is wild, I wonder if the heat knocked out a transformer or something. Mom?” His mother was no longer in the kitchen or the living room. Stepping out into the hallway, Jeremy heard sounds coming from his mother’s room. In another few steps, he could tell she was in there behind her closed door. And she was weeping. Jeremy crept over to the wall the apartment shared with one of their neighbors, old Mr. Morris. Putting his ear to the wall, Jeremy could hear The Price is Right blaring from Mr. Morris’s television, confirming what he had begun to suspect. It wasn’t an outage. Their electricity had been shut off.
Jeremy stood there for a moment, his head leaning against the wall and his thoughts running a mile a minute as he calculated the best next move. Within five minutes, his plan had taken shape. If he could keep up the happy appearance, it could work. With a deep breath, he walked across the hall and knocked on his mother’s door.
“Hey Mom, are you ok? Can I come in?” Not waiting for a response, Jeremy opened the door. His mother was sitting on the edge of her bed with her head in her hands, sobbing quietly. Jeremy walked over and knelt down in front of her.
“Mom, hey! Everything’s going to be ok, I promise! What’s wrong?”
“I’m so… so… useless…” his mother choked out between sobs, “I couldn’t pay the electric bill last month and they’ve got this new woman working there that is just awful. She…she…wouldn’t give us an extension like they used to and they shut… shut our power off. I don’t know what to do, baby, I’m so sorry.” With this, she dissolved back into tears.
“Hey now! Mom, it’s totally ok! I know exactly what to do. But first things first, I’m gunna go take that shower. Don’t we have some candles around here somewhere? I’m going to have myself a nice, romantic, candlelit shower, and it is going to be wonderful.”
His mother smiled a little through her tears at this. “I think…think we do. Maybe under…under the sink?”
“Thanks Mom!” Jeremy retrieved the candles and set about lighting them in the bathroom, while crooning old jazz standards to himself loud enough for his mother to hear. “Fly me to the moon and let me play among the stars…” He took his time in the shower, though it was a cold one with their electric heater out of commission. Jeremy dressed and stepped out into the living room, where his mother now sat on their formerly beige sofa. He could tell his plan was working; she was no longer crying, and chuckled at him when he came into the room humming and pretending to slow dance with himself.
“Sounds like you had a pretty good time in there, Jer.”
“It was actually very soothing! So, I think I’ve got it all figured out. I’ll head up to Nick’s today and start detasseling, which should bring us in some money by next Friday, which will be great. As for the electric bill, I’ve got a plan, but you’ve got to hear me out. Nick has also been trying to buy my guitar off of me for over a year, and-“
“No, Jer, No!” His mother began to tear up again, and he knew he needed to work fast.
“No, Mom, really! I’ve been thinking about selling it to him anyway, even before things got rough around here. I just don’t really play it all that much anymore, and if it’s just going to sit in that room, I might as well get some cash out of it, you know? Seriously, I was going to sell it anyway, I’m not worried about it!”
“Do you promise you’re not lying?” His mother asked, grabbing his hand.
“I swear to God!” Jeremy lied, without blinking an eye.
His mother stared at him for a few seconds before letting his hand go and wrapping him in a tight hug. “Well, if you do this, I’m going to pay you back once I get back to work! Plus interest, I promise, Jer! You really are a saint, sweetheart.”
Peeling his mother away with affirmations that it really was no big deal, Jeremy made his way back to his room. As he entered, he let his eyes linger on the Gibson Les Paul Classic, immaculately polished and placed perfectly on its stand in the corner of his room. The previous summer, he had worked any and all odd jobs he could find and saved every penny to purchase the instrument, which he practiced religiously every night after his mother went to bed. It helped to keep him sane during the rough, long days. Keeping the smile frozen on his face, he mechanically went about packing up the guitar and accessories in its case.
Jeremy gave his mother a hug on his way out. He lugged the guitar down the two flights of steps to the apartment complex parking lot, where he loaded it into their old Ford Escort. He headed out of the complex in the direction of Nick’s farm, but pulled off into the old, empty park a few blocks north of the apartment. Pulling into the furthest parking space, he threw the car in park and turned off the ignition. Only now did he allow that practiced smile to drain from his face. The nonchalant shoulders fell, and his eyes drooped. A tightness rose in his chest, and his eyes began to sting. Finally alone in the empty lot, Jeremy wept. And wept. And wept.