To a common eye, it was a 6′ round oak table, a second-hand purchase from Palmer’s Thrift Store, a mile out past the Co-Op.
To Charlie, a nervous thirteen-year-old who sat at the table, in front of a plate of tuna casserole and a glass of apple juice, it was an arid canyon, a parched gulf. As large as the sky.
Across from him sat a mother.
And this supper, this tuna casserole which never agreed with his stomach, was another last minute attempt of hers, to show something along the lines of affection.
Charlie began to regret this weekend as soon as she’d called for him. He regretted all of her weekends. But, she’d insisted, as she usually did. He supposed it made the alimony check less of a guilty pleasure, and more like a motherly duty. Why she would insist beyond that, he couldn’t figure out. It rarely made a difference, when he visited. Little changed: she stayed bitter, her finger on the trigger of anger. She was beautiful, foreign, listless, with eyes too wild to focus on his small life.
He wore glasses. Astigmatism. He wanted to leave.
It took an awful lot of concentration to keep hold of the fork, to physically bring it up to his mouth and eat the tuna casserole. He knew he’d throw it up in an hour or so; he always did. An emotional allergy. But, she sat, staring at him, running her fingernail around the lip of her glass.
Charlie wasn’t easy to love, to her. Too much like his father. But he wasn’t easy to hate, either, or to disregard, because, she thought, she’d had to leave the poor thing at an uncle’s until she could figure things out.
But, where was his father now? He never called, never made an effort. Not like she did.
Not like she did.
He hesitated drinking his apple juice. His hand would shake too much, and so he did what he often did at supper, with her, on her weekends—he stared past her, through the large picture window behind her, and into the backyard.
The chain link fence was mostly rust, and only enclosed the far right corner of the backyard. The rest of it had fallen away, disappeared he liked to imagine, or perhaps it ran away, searching for a better yard, a better house to protect. Searching for a home, a real home. Those are the ones that need fences.
She stood up then, from the table. She never sat for very long, with her back to anything.
Rather than eat, she said, she’d decided to run herself a hot bath.
He sat then, alone, at the table, thirsty.
He could see them clearly, through that large window, the spider lilies.
His spider lilies, he liked to think.
It was that warm first rush of spring that brought them out of the ground. And they were fascinating, to him. Their speckled fiery red tines, their insistence on posture, so perfect and erect, and if he thought about it like it mattered, and at the moment it was all that mattered, he could just see how the tops of them looked like upturned spiders, perhaps, their legs desperate, searching the sky for ground.
That he could understand.
But the stems are what kept his attention, so soft in their color, remarkably thick, entirely vertical, no leaves, no bends, just a straight shaft, like a drinking straw. Practically hollow.
Nobody grows spider lilies, his uncle had told him. They just are. They just appear. They are where they want to be, do what they want to do.
He’d liked hearing that.
Underneath the dying magnolia, fenceless and near the road, a small stretch of his flowers grew out toward the ditch. They stood in assembly as if they’d suddenly become self-conscious of the boy staring at them from across the canyon.
They appeared to be looking toward the mailbox; they appeared to be looking away.
He imagined picking them or plucking them from the little earth they clung to, and he sat there, inches from his glass, planning, on second thought, how no, no, instead, he’d delicately clip them at the bases of their stems, so as not to disturb the roots. He’d take a pair of scissors, and close to the ground as possible, he’d cut them. That way the uncut grass would hide the theft.
No one would be the wiser.
And then, what? What would he do with them, then?
He smiled and then reached for his glass of apple juice.
Couldn’t he just keep them for himself?
His smile, though, betrayed him, and before he could fully realize what was happening, the glass slid through his fingers. He could feel the slick surface of glass as it slid past first one finger, then the next, and the next, until finally, the glass fell, breaking against the brown and yellow linoleum, scattering like so many seeds into the corners of the kitchen, of the world.
Down the hall, he heard his mother turn the water off.
And in the quiet that followed, he cried.
T.K. Lee is an award-winning member of the Dramatists Guild of America and the Society for Stage Directors and Choreographers. He currently resides in Mississippi.