“You’re wrong. Jonathan’s first word was Baba.”
“No, it wasn’t. His first word was Dada.”
Jonathan’s mother and father locked eyes, two rams ready to butt heads. Sitting back, Jonathan sipped his iced tea and let his gaze wander, taking in the garden and the expanse of blue sky. A few sparrows flitted among the trees while a crow perched on the back fence squawked at them. His stare fell on his parents’ manicured lawn. The early evening sun, like a huge stage light, lit up the grass and surrounding flowers.
“You aren’t listening,” Elaine said. “You never listen to me.”
“I can’t help but listen to you,” Frank exclaimed. “You never stop.”
Jonathan stared hard at the stalks of orange and yellow marigolds and mounds of blue salvia that loomed up behind them. The crow flew off and disappeared from sight. Who could blame it? Jonathan thought, with all this noise. He stretched his neck to see if anything interesting was happening in the neighbor’s garden.
“Well, if you had listened, you would have heard,” Elaine said.
“Oh, I heard all right,” Frank countered.
“Come on, then. Let’s find out.”
Jonathan turned back to face his parents. Elaine placed her left-hand palm up on the table. Frank did the same. A bump the size of a shirt button protruded under the skin of each of their wrists. Jonathan sucked in some air as the older couple each pressed a finger on their respective buttons and closed their eyes. Silence hovered throughout the garden. His parents sat back, their chests heaving. In unison, their brows furled. Clutching his iced tea, Jonathan’s gaze ping-ponged between the two still faces.
“Ha!” Elaine’s eyelids flew open. Her mouth stretched into a wide smile, and her hands smacked the arms of her wicker chair. “I was right. Jonathan’s first word was Baba. He loved that little blanket.”
Frank blinked a few times and crossed his arms. “How does it feel to be right, for once?”
“Well, listen to Mr. Grumpy.”
Rolling his eyes, Jonathan let his gaze linger high above, as if hoping help from the great beyond would come hurtling down to stun these two into silence. Not likely.
“Stop!” he said. “I can’t believe you both go on and on, even after you find out who is right.”
He had dropped by on his way home from work to check on his mother and father. The day before they had gone to Dr. Markel’s for a quick procedure. Evidently, they were fine, no obvious changes and bickering as usual.
Elaine pointed a thumb at Frank. “He’s the one going on, not me.”
Frank snorted. “Gloat, gloat, gloat. She doesn’t know how to be a gracious winner.”
“It’s part of the fun.” She beamed and winked at Jonathan.
He shook his head and looked away. A large patio umbrella stretched over the three of them, thwarting the rays of the summer sun. The well-watered flowers stood tall in defiance of the pounding heat. Jonathan pulled at his blue polo shirt. It clung to his skin, and he gave it a little shake, before turning back to the table.
Even the glasses of iced tea perspired. Frank moistened his fingers in the beads of water and patted the back of his neck. A rim of sweat wreathed his receding hairline. Elaine pressed the side of her glass against her cheek. With half-closed eyes, her face moved up and down like a cat rubbing against its companion’s leg.
Jonathan mentally kicked himself for believing in easy fixes. A simple solution, a quick visit to the doctor, and all squabbling would stop. Unfortunately, it was just a dream. Bickering didn’t go away when one matured but lay in wait to resurface at the first opportunity. Nothing wrong with being an optimist. Just be prepared for disappointments. In spite of the lines that framed their eyes and carved into their foreheads, his parents’ faces could have been those of his two young children.
“Why do you keep arguing?” he asked. “Aren’t you happy to find out what happened?”
“Sure, it’s nice,” Elaine said, “especially when I’m right.”
“Mom, give it a rest.” He thumped his iced tea on the table a little harder than he meant.
“All right,” Elaine said. “Don’t get upset.”
Jonathan waved a hand at her and sat back.
“The first thing we did,” Elaine said, “as soon as we got home yesterday was to look back on you and Melanie as babies. We loved it.” She turned to the older man. “Didn’t we, Frank?”
Biting his lower lip, Frank sat staring at nothing.
Jonathan tilted his head to one side. He pushed himself against the table and leaned in closer to his father. Elaine sat forward, putting her hand on her husband’s shoulder.
He didn’t answer but hunched his shoulders and grabbed the arms of the chair. His eyes narrowed, intent on something in front of him.
Jonathan, following his father’s gaze into the garden, wondered if a deer had jumped the fence or a snake had slithered in. Nothing out of the ordinary had appeared. The flowers and bushes were in place. No bird or wind rustled the leaves.
“Frank! What is it?” his mother shouted.
Jonathan swung back around and knocked over the iced tea. The glass clinked on the table, and the ice bounced out. The liquid flowed across the surface of the table, reached the edge, and dripped onto Frank’s lap. His eyes blinked in rapid succession as the color drained from his face. His breathing came out in short huffs, panting as if he had just run a mile.
“Oh, dear God. Is he having a heart attack?” Elaine wrapped his face in her hands. “He feels feverish.” She knelt in front of him and pulled his head down to her eye level. “What’s wrong? Are you in pain?” Her voice rose to a scream. “Frank! Talk to me!”
Jonathan yanked his phone out of his pocket. “Dad! Dad!” he yelled. “Can you hear me?”
Frank sucked in a loud gulp of air through his gaping mouth. “Huh? What?!”
Elaine leaned in closer until she was nose-to-nose with him. “What happened?” She shouted into his face. “Are you all right? Can you breathe?”
Jonathan wet his fingers in the escaping tea and rubbed them across his father’s temples. Frank grimaced, screwing up his nose. He exhaled, grabbed Elaine’s hands, and pulled them off his face. He rubbed his jaw.
“Frank?” Elaine asked. “What’s going on? Are you okay?”
“Give me a second,” he answered.
Elaine took a step back.
Frank sat up in his chair and half-closed his eyes. His heaving chest slowed down, and his forehead and cheeks glowed a bright red. The sweat on his head glistened. Grabbing the hem of his shirt, he wiped his face. After that, he snatched his drink and gulped down what was left.
Clunking the glass on the table, he declared, “I’m fine now.” He looked at his knees. “What’s this? I’m all wet.” He stood up, backing his chair away from the table.
“I knocked over my glass,” Jonathan said. “You gave us a scare.”
Frank swiped a hand over his knees and wiped it on his shorts.
Jonathan, still holding his phone, watched the transformation of his father from a hunched, frail, aging form into the brighter, energetic, robust man he was familiar with.
The older man shot a glance at Jonathan’s phone. “You weren’t going to call 911, were you?”
“You scared me. I didn’t know if you were having a heart attack or a stroke or seizure or what.”
“Well, I’m fine. It wasn’t anything like that.” He shook his legs and excess drips of iced tea flew out onto the deck. “It was so strange. I wanted to recall one of my own childhood memories to share with you. But, the one that had popped up into my head wasn’t the one I had thought back on.”
“Really?” Elaine asked. “You mean you had one memory in mind but a completely different one came back to you?”
“Do you want to tell us?” Jonathan asked.
The older man shook his head. “No, not now. But I’ll tell you this, the feelings I had in that memory are still with me. They feel as real now as they did back then.” His shoulders shuddered, and he rubbed his knee.
Jonathan patted his dad’s back. The older man gave him a slight smile, a reassuring smile, a don’t-worry-about-your-old-man smile. But Jonathan couldn’t return the smile.
As if reading his mind, Frank declared, “No need to make a fuss. My heart is fine, and I’m not dizzy or shaky. See?” He straightened an arm in front of him. It was as solid as a branch and had grown darker over the summer. Jonathan stared at the tanned limb. Throughout his life those arms never wavered. They could pick up anything, fix everything, and embrace you in the warmest, most secure hug.
Elaine went over and kissed Frank’s cheek. “You’re as steady as a rock. Do you know what we need at a time like this?” Her eyes twinkled. “A little homemade wine.”
“You two go ahead,” Jonathan said. “I have to get going.” He pocketed his phone and looked back at his father. “Dad, are you sure you’re okay?”
“It’s just …” Jonathan looked down at his feet. He could feel his parents’ eyes on him. “I thought you both would enjoy using the DAMs. I didn’t think there’d be any problems.”
“We do enjoy them,” Elaine said. “I told you. As soon as we got home from the doctor’s, we couldn’t wait to look back to see you and Melanie as babies. You were such a cute little thing. Look at you now.”
“I grew up, Mom. Babies do that.”
“Yep. You got tall, and we got old.”
Jonathan looked back at the garden. He didn’t remember the grass being so green when he used to play there as a boy. Back then it was just a big space where he and his friends would throw balls and set up tents to sleep in during the warm summer nights.
“I’m so relieved it’s working for you, and that you’re happy,” he said.
The three of them entered the house and walked to the front door.
“Jonathan?” Elaine asked. “Are you a close friend of Dr. Markel?”
“Not really. Why?”
“I don’t know exactly. He’s charming, a smooth talker who makes us feel like he has all the time in the world for us. He’s more like a salesman than a doctor.”
Jonathan reached the front porch and turned to look at his mom. He studied her face. Given her penchant to make light of serious situations, he waited for the smile or wink. Instead her earnest expression looked back at him.
“Mom, are you really complaining about a doctor who makes time for his patients? Usually people get upset when they feel they’re being shown the door a few minutes after they’ve arrived.”
Elaine ran her fingers through her hair while looking out at the street.
“Mom,” he continued. “Markel is a good guy. He’ll look after you. Don’t you think it’s good to be with someone who knows what they’re doing?”
“I suppose.” She said each syllable slowly, her answer sounding more like a question.
The three walked out to Jonathan’s red Honda Pilot. He opened the door and turned back to his parents. “It won’t be long before you’ll be wondering how you ever lived without the DAMs. I’m predicting fewer arguments in your future.”
“Don’t be such a killjoy,” Elaine said.
Frank chuckled. “We won’t use it too much around our friends. It seems rude to always be in the right.”
Jonathan smiled. “Use it at your discretion.”
“Have you thought about getting a DAM?” Frank asked.
Frank’s gray eyes and Elaine’s hazel crinkled at Jonathan. He gazed at his parents, both shorter than him and looking every bit their sixty-plus years. A vulnerability seemed to encroach upon their straight, sturdy backs.
“Definitely. But not until I’m older and have more time to reminisce.” Turning back to the car, he said, “We’ll see you on Sunday.”
“Absolutely,” Elaine said. “Tell Heather I’ll bring a cobbler. The peaches are ready to be picked, as long as the squirrels don’t beat us to them.”