“Mom. Mom. MOM. Mom mom mom mom mom mom mom mommommommommommomomommomomom!”
She smells of nylon, leather, and pressed cotton, with a touch of disinfectant. Her starched nursing cap defies gravity upon the back of her auburn hair, tacked in place with copper bobby pins. Her pale hands seem almost a part of her white uniform as they guide both of our trays down the stainless steel rails of the cafeteria line. I want to push my own tray, but Mom had said she’d handle it. She chats with another nurse – I think her name is Brenda. Brenda doesn’t have any children, and so it is harder for her to ignore me than it is for Mom.

I decide that perhaps getting my request out there is the best approach. “Mom, can I have Jell-O? Mom, can I have Jell-O? Mom? Jell-O?” Suddenly I recall her saying, “I don’t know – can you?” so I change to, “May I have Jell-O? Mom, may I have Jell-O? Mom, may I have Jell-O? Mom. Mom! Mommy! Mom?”

Brenda looks past Mom’s elbow and smiles briefly at me, but Mom continues on, recounting the latest tale of which doctor was kissing which nurse, and in what room of the hospital. I am not sure where X-Ray is, but it seems to be a busy place for that sort of thing.

Together they step to the right, sliding their salads and my fish sticks toward the big black woman at the register. The time has come for a more direct approach. I grab the hem of her stiff, white uniform, and punctuate my litany with a tug for each recitation. “Mom.” Yank. “Mom.” Yank.

On the third pull, she breaks off in the middle of a sentence, spins and bends at the waist, abruptly thrusting her face into mine.

“WHAT!!?” Her sudden shriek brings conversation in the immediate vicinity to a halt, and I am certain that everyone in the cafeteria is waiting for me to speak. “Well?!”

I mumble in a tiny voice that I would like Jell-O. She sighs deeply, then says, “Yes, you may have Jell-O, but you have to eat all of your fish sticks first, ok?”

“’Kay. Green Jell-O. With whipped cream.”

Her look tells me that I am pushing my luck. Any Jell-O will be fine, I decide.

With Brenda, she discusses the “difficult phase” that I am going through at the moment, including a tight-lipped rendering of my most recent adventures, in which I pushed the cat into the full bath tub, relieved myself in the corner of the back yard, and set her bedspread on fire. The events she relates are true enough, but her assessment of my motives significantly misses the mark. She suggests that I am dealing with anger at her work schedule, when, in fact, I simply enjoy the smell of a match just after it’s lit. Don’t we all? The dog and I are at war with the cat; he doesn’t like us, and we don’t like him – enough said. As for the backyard incident, I am still confused as to why that was such a big deal. The dog pees in the yard; why shouldn’t I?

Brenda comments that, “boys will be boys,” and both sagely nod, as if boyhood is an unavoidable trial for the women of the world. Their belief in this concept, however, goes no further than lip service, as they all seem to spend a goodly amount of time trying to stop us from just “being boys.” This old saying mixes rather poorly with my absent father’s reminder that while he is in Viet Nam, I am “the man of the house.” Man, boy - neither has much meaning for me at this point.

For the next few minutes, I struggle to see the dessert section approaching. I can’t quite see over the rail, but I have eaten here enough to know that once we reach the cantaloupe slices, we are nearly there. I try standing on my tiptoes and pulling myself up by the tray rails, but finally I decide that the best course is to simply jump up every now and then for a quick look. I jump - and see rolls and muffins. Another jump – slices of ham and roast beef. I jump again – and briefly see veggies as Mom’s cool hand lands on my neck. She pulls me closer, and speaks in a low voice by my ear. “Enough. Now calm down.” Her tone makes it clear that this is not a preliminary warning. This is a final proclamation, and I know the seriousness of flaunting such things.

Once released, I resume the tiptoe approach, as this seems the least likely to draw attention, but it is not terribly successful. I find that stepping back from the line a few steps allows me a limited view of the food on the upper shelves, and the melons are fast approaching.

Brenda and Mom are now adding plates of watermelon and honeydew to their trays. Soon, I know, a small aluminum bowl of Jell-O will land on my tray, completing my lunch perfectly.

I wait, and no Jell-O appears.

I step back to check, and sure enough, there are plenty of Jell-O cups. Green, red, and even orange, all wait in rows, along with puddings of various flavors. I briefly consider changing my request to tapioca, which is half a step farther down the line, but I am already fixed on Jell-O. I look at Mom, but she is still chatting, and stepping to the right again. I can hear the woman at the register counting out change. I know from an ugly confrontation with one of the Nazis at Montessori that you can’t go back in line, and Mom is nearly past the desserts. She is long past the point, both in line and in life, at which a half-dozen jiggling cubes of green Jell-O actually matter.

The situation is growing critical – with each step, the Jell-O will recede into the distance, obscured by the doctors and interns in line behind us. Despite the echoes of hundreds of repetitions of “don’t touch anything” sounding in my head, I decide that I must get it myself.

Sliding my left hand through the tray rails, I feel about for the cups. After a few seconds, I plant my fingers in something cold. Hoping that it is not pudding, I pull the mystery dessert toward the edge.

I dimly recall Brenda saying, “Uh oh.” Mom spun, then lunged back to where I was holding up the line. I heard, more than saw, her coming, and tried to quickly complete the delicate task of pulling my selection through the rails and into my waiting right hand. The pedestal base of the cup caught on something, and I lost my grip.

Mom’s left foot, encased in a pristine, white nursing shoe, landed directly beneath the falling dessert. The cup upended, fell, and then exploded directly on her instep; a chocolate pudding bomb. There was a split second of silence as we took it in. It was on her stockings, and raised droplets the size of dimes stood on her crisp white hem. My green toughskins and tee shirt were peppered as well, but the bulk of the mess rested squarely on her left foot.

Mom’s punishments were usually like nuclear war - swift and final. This case was no exception, and her open right hand connected to my left cheek with a resounding crack. It was not hard enough to bloody my lip, but it stung like nothing I had experienced before. I drew my breath in sharply, and prepared to wail.

Mom again bent at the waist and thrust her face in mine, saying, “And don’t you dare cry.” Miraculously, I didn’t make a sound.


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