“I’m sure there must be a trick to this,” Meredith’s mother, Ruth, is saying. “But I guess I haven’t learned the trick.”
Meredith props the phone on her shoulder while she scrubs red potatoes under running water.
“Hello?” Ruth asks.
“I’m here,” Meredith says.
“I’m sorry to bother you with this, but I’ve never reserved a flight on the computer before,” Ruth says indignantly. In 44 years, Meredith has never heard her mother say “I’m sorry.” Now, two weeks after Meredith’s father’s death, Ruth has taken to saying “I’m sorry” constantly.
“That’s okay, Mom, I can help.” Meredith uses the same soothing, neutral voice she uses to counsel anxious parents on the pediatric ward.
“I picked out my departure date, I found the nonstop flight I wanted, I clicked on ‘senior citizen,’” Ruth recites.
“Right.” Meredith quarters the potatoes.
“When I push the ‘confirm reservation’ button, everything goes away.”
Eleven-year old Alex is standing in the kitchen door, bouncing on his toes, bobbing his head to catch Meredith’s eye, mouthing, “Mom. Mom. Mom. Mom.”
Meredith turns her back to Alex and tosses the potatoes with olive oil.
“When the screen comes back there’s red printing all over it and I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.” Ruth holds her breath while she says this, and then exhales with a hissing sound, her vitality dissipating like air escaping from a leaky valve.
Alex is stage whispering now: “Mom. Mom. Mom. Mom.”
“Alex, I’m talking to Grandma. Please wait until I get off the phone.”
“No! Mom! Mrs. Winnick needs to know right now if I can go with them.”
“I’m sorry,” Meredith’s mother says. “Should I call later?”
I’m sorry I slapped you so hard I left raised red handprints on your thighs when you were a defenseless little girl.
I’m sorry I burned all of Mark’s letters his freshman year so you would think he dumped you.
I’m sorry I kept Dad’s condition a secret until it was too late for you to see him alive.
Meredith says, “When you see red printing, it usually means you missed something – you left something off.” To Alex, she whispers, “You can go.”
“Yes!” Alex pumps his arm triumphantly and runs out, slamming the screen door.
“How am I supposed to know what I left off?” Ruth asks.
“Read the red print,” Meredith says evenly.
“I give up. In my day, when you wanted to fly somewhere you just picked up the phone and called the airline. They made all the arrangements. It was their pleasure,” Ruth says peevishly. “Nowadays, you’re lucky if you get a lousy bag of pretzels.”
“What does the red print say?” Meredith asks in her counseling voice.
“Oh. I’m sorry. It says, ‘Please re-enter your first name. You must enter a minimum of two letters.’ Where do I do that?”
Meredith grinds coarse salt and pepper over the potatoes and puts them in the oven. “Well, I’m assuming there’s a field where you enter your first name,” she says.
“I don’t know anything about a field. A field is where you plant your . . .” Ruth stops. “Oh, no.”
“What is it?” Meredith asks.
“Oh, no. Nooo,” Ruth wails.
“Mom. What is it?” Meredith’s heart pounds.
“I forgot to plant Dad’s vegetables. He started the seeds in the root cellar like always. I haven’t even gone in there since . . .” Ruth is weeping.
“Oh, Mom, it’s okay.”
“It’s not okay,” Ruth sobs. “I’ve destroyed everything and now it’s too late to fix it.”
Both women are silent.
“I am so sorry.”
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