“Sharon and Ricky” by Ken Miller

It was Ricky, obviously. Burglars don’t wear Star Wars boxers to rummage through the ‘frig.

Milk and a loaf of bread were out. As Sharon watched, he set down cheddar, mustard, mayo and a sack of spring mix.

She could smell him and guessed it was a few days since his last shower.

“Ricky? Is that you?”

For the last year or so she tended to ask him obvious questions in a tentative voice. Though this invited sarcasm, the approach blunted some lines of attack. One time in therapy she described herself as a dog on its back, paws up. The posture said, “I surrender; no need to hurt me.” The therapist said this was a useful insight and made notes.

“There isn’t much food,” Sharon said. “I need to shop.”

“Yeah, really.”

Ricky used few words but wove webs of implication. Did “yeah, really” mean he was an ally in her struggle against empty shelves? Or was it a criticism of her homemaking?

The longer she took to de-code Ricky’s intent, the greater the risk he would launch a full-on assault. Or veer onto another subject entirely. Or vanish with no further word. None of these were good. But it was also risky to proceed without sure footing, in case he laid a trap.

“I’ll go to the store this morning,” she said, and held her breath.

Sharon told herself that strictly speaking he was wrong, forgetting Ricky only said “yeah, really.” To be on the safe side she thought through the contents of the refrigerator: bacon, a half dozen eggs, milk, juice, sandwich meat (wine salami he requested and then ignored), bibb lettuce and the spring mix, the brick of cheddar, condiments, last night’s casserole and two kinds of apples.

Ricky had plenty to choose from. Or he could ride his bike to the store. As she became more agitated, her therapist’s disembodied voice offered a collection of self-management mantras.

Sharon chose ‘I have no reason to feel badly’ from the collection and thought it several times. Ricky, oddly pale as he writhed half inside the ‘frig, made it hard to concentrate but she couldn’t close her eyes.

“How about cereal?” she asked. “There’s milk, and bananas on the counter.”

Ricky backed out of the refrigerator and turned to her. He was almost gaunt. But for a spatter of wispy hair across his chest and his sunken eyes he looked like he was ten.

He made a face.

“The bananas are black. You know I can’t eat them. And it doesn’t matter. I’m not that hungry.”

He looked like he should be hungry; the Star Wars shorts barely hung on his hips, his ribs were visible like a weakling on the beach in an ad at the back of an old comic book. ‘Hey skinny, yer ribs are showing,’ the bully would yell and the weakling would have a thought balloon about building muscle and standing up for himself.

Those were old comics. They didn’t matter any more. Ricky wasn’t going to send off for a booklet on building muscle. He was long past booklets of any kind.

“What would you like when I go to the store?”

He shrugged and scratched his shorts absent-mindedly. Sharon stepped a little closer and smelled him again. Not sweat exactly, but something sweet and off a little, like fruit on the verge of going bad. The fly of his boxers was torn and she tried to imagine the ferocity of an attack that would rip fabric right down the middle of Han Solo, but she gave up and studied his face.

Ricky hadn’t shaved in a while, which didn’t matter in any practical sense but made his face look leprous, with uneven patches of light and dark. Actually leprosy wouldn’t much matter; Ricky saw no one but the mail carrier and once a month the probation officer. And her and Michael, though they might not see him for days.

Ricky usually slept from mid-morning until around midnight, when he started moving around his rooms over the garage and sometimes came into the house. He loaded up food to take back to his rooms, or maybe ate in the kitchen while he watched TV. If he heard one of them he slipped out, easing the door closed.

“He’s feral,” Michael said one time.

This was as close as Michael came to criticism. Sharon chewed her lip. Michael deserved to say a lot more and didn’t. And she could handle “feral;” she didn’t disagree. Since Ricky lived with them she locked her bedroom door at night. She was terrified at the idea of waking with him standing by the bed. Deranged sons often kill their mothers. This was a documented fact. Whether the mother was a good mother or tried her hardest didn’t seem to matter.

“Decent juice would be nice for a change,” Ricky said. “Naked, or Odwalla. One of those. You keep buying this concentrate. It sucks.”

Ricky crossed his arms over his chest and shifted his feet. He looked down when he spoke, like he was talking with someone on the floor. Sharon followed his gaze. Ricky’s toes were splayed and his feet seemed too big, as if he would have one more growth spurt. This was unlikely.

She realized he probably hadn’t stood undressed in front of anyone since he was released and not in front of her since high school. And this was becoming one of their longer conversations.

“Try to keep your tone free of impatience,” the therapist told her. “Impatience is natural. Frustration is natural. But try to keep your tone neutral.”

“Okay,” she said. “I’ll look for a different juice.”

That sounded neutral enough. What the hell. A couple of extra dollars for juice isn’t a big deal. At least he’s engaged.

“And Special K, but only with red berries. If they don’t have the kind with berries I won’t eat it. Then you’ll yell at me for not eating what you buy, but I’m telling you now, okay?”

“I’m sure they have the kind with berries, Ricky.”

He looked at her and Sharon froze, afraid she may have revealed her impatience using his name that way. For a moment she was furious with herself, or with him. She was sometimes confused about who she was mad at. Sharon managed herself again, stomach knotted, breathing shallow, tone neutral, managed.

Ricky tipped his head at the ceiling and twisted his neck, as if warm-ups were helpful to discuss groceries. Or to keep his tone neutral. He was doing so well. Maybe his therapist gave Ricky the same sort of guidance Sharon received: of course your mother angers you; try not to show your frustration. As Ricky cracked his neck Sharon thought of a snake twisting before it struck. She backed away.

He took a box of Triscuits from the pantry and walked out of the kitchen, refrigerator door hanging open. Need a knife? Sharon wondered. Or a plate? Then she imagined the obscenity of his rooms, the undifferentiated mass of underwear and food, stained bed clothes, Kleenex from his chronic bloody nose, books and newspapers strewn about, computer debris. His smell was his rooms, she realized, a constructed space gone organic. Rickey didn’t need a plate. He would eat off his room.

“And we need cheese,” he said over his shoulder.

Sharon walked to the refrigerator and gently closed the door. Gray light began to blur the night outside the kitchen windows. How nice the kitchen looks east, she thought, and smiled. She sat at the table and wept with her head in her hands, quietly. A few minutes later the paper thudded on the front porch; upstairs Poncho barked like he did every morning when the paper arrived. She wiped her nose on a sleeve of her robe and went up to calm the dog and take a shower.

***

Sharon decided it was called tough love because it was tough to do. She mentioned this to the therapist, meaning it as a joke to show she was handling things okay. The therapist smiled patiently. Looking back she figured a lot of people made that joke.

Ricky had been home three months. Previously he was in rehab at a place called Eleventh Hour for most of a year, and in county jail before that. In rehab he was a model patient or prisoner or whatever they called him. Bright, helpful, eager to share his insights: the flaws in his upbringing, the inequities of American capitalism, the unrelenting pain in his back and shoulder he could only dull but not eliminate, and even then only dull with drugs he wasn’t supposed to have.

“He’s a good kid,” one of the counselors told her toward the end of Ricky’s stay. “If I had a son, I would want him to be like Ricky.”

Really? Sharon thought. You can have the actual Ricky. Now.

It was unrealistic to think she could give Ricky away, or sell him. It was more likely she could murder him and dig a grave in the onion fields. Of course Michael would notice something amiss and in his gentle way make her reveal what happened. Even then it could work. Living with the murder couldn’t be a greater strain than living with Ricky.
There was no chance of shipping Rickey to his father, though Brian and his new family would certainly make room. Brian offered, repeatedly. Ricky wouldn’t hear of it. His father came in for heavy lifting when Ricky told tales of parental failure. ‘Teutonic,’ Ricky would say. He loved that word. A rule for everything. Domineering. Sharon was right to leave.

She barely kept herself from slapping Rickey when he said those things. Slapping would show impatience. He wasn’t all wrong, of course. Brian could be a huge pain, with his academic sneer and meticulous rationale for avoiding anything he didn’t want to do. But maybe if they’d worked together Ricky wouldn’t be so screwed up. Maybe.

Instead their son played them, like a cunning lawyer shops for a favorable judge. A useful skill on the street, she figured, and for trial lawyers, but lethal when used against two harried parents who didn’t communicate much anyway. By the time Ricky blew it at his third college she and Brian were fed up with him, and with fighting about him, and with each other. She left, certainly, but it was by mutual agreement. They were finished long before she walked away.

***

Her therapist’s name was Kess, which was Danish or his mother’s maiden name. She asked once but Kess was evasive. He was younger, lanky, healthy looking. Younger was good, she figured. Maybe he’d understand Ricky better than someone her age.

“Sometimes I imagine he’s dead,” Sharon said.

Kess leaned back in his chair and twisted his lips a little, as if medical insurance wouldn’t cover real smiles.

“How’s that feel?” he asked.

Michael’s therapy joke: ‘how does that make you feel?’ Michael wasn’t against therapy; he considered it predictable. She would complain about Ricky and be so angry she could break something and Michael would grin and ask, “How does that make you feel?” It was funny sometimes. Not always, but he wanted to help.

“Great!” Sharon said. “For a minute. I feel like I can finally breathe. Then I’m completely awake and realize he’s still sleeping in the middle of all his crap.”

She pursed her lips and stared out at the patio. Potted flowers were starting to bud. Camellias? The slate tiles were clean, still dewy. Kess flipped through his notes.

“You mentioned Ricky’s mess a couple of weeks ago,” Kess said. “It keeps coming up.”

Sharon glared. “Of course it comes up. When did you last wear the same clothes for a week? Do you know how that smells?”

He wrinkled his nose. This might have been an involuntary response, or an itch.

“Or spilled Pepsi in your bed and slept in it?”

Kess gave a little shrug, as if sleeping in Pepsi was common.

“It’s worse than filthy diapers,” Sharon continued. Her chest heaved. “I never left him in dirty diapers. Never.”

“Kids survive dirty diapers.”

Sharon was sobbing now. She pounded her knees with clenched fists, over and over. “I never left him dirty and now he’s filthy all the time.”

Kess wasn’t the kind of therapist who hugged clients or made comforting sounds. He wrote notes while Sharon curled up in a ball and wailed.

***

“How was therapy?” Michael asked.

His arms were loaded with groceries and he was halfway to the door.

“Is the cereal in one of those bags?” she asked.

He glanced down.

“I think it’s inside already.”

“Did you notice the Special K?”

Michael was in the kitchen now. He put the bags on the counter.

“Yeah, I think so,” he yelled through the open door.

Ricky appeared in the kitchen. He was in sweat pants and a tee shirt and his hair was wet, as if he just got out of the shower. Ricky lifted his chin at Michael by way of greeting.

“Hi Ricky,” Michael said.

“Good morning, sweetheart,” Sharon said.

She studied him, noted the wet hair and change of clothes and the off-schedule appearance. Her stomach fluttered. This might be a good morning, she thought.

“Major shopping,” Sharon said. “They made me leave so other customers would have things to buy.”

Ricky stared at her.

“That was a joke, Ricky,” Michael said, putting jars and boxes in the pantry.

“A stupid one,” Ricky said.

Michael glanced at him and let out a breath. Ricky stepped to the pantry and pulled out a box.

“I told you red berries but you got regular Special K!” he yelled. “Why can’t you do the smallest thing I ask, ever?”

He slammed the cereal on the edge of the counter. The box split and cereal flakes spilled out.

“Not one thing, ever!”

Rickey sounded like he was choking back tears. He wheeled toward the door. Michael moved to block his path.

“Want me to get you the broom?” Michael asked.

Ricky looked up at the ceiling and cracked his neck like he’d done with Sharon earlier.

“No thanks,” Ricky said.

He stared at Michael with hooded eyes. Sharon meanwhile swept the Special K into a pile. Poncho stood alert, hoping for a chance at the cereal.

“I’ve got it, guys. No problem,” Sharon said.

Ricky didn’t look at her. He raised an eyebrow at Michael and slid around him, calling Poncho to follow. The dog looked at the cereal, then at Sharon and padded out the door.

“He took a shower,” Sharon said brightly. “That’s something, huh?”

She tried to steady herself with the broom. Michael looked at her and she saw he was crying. This isn’t good, Sharon thought. We can’t both cry at the same time. Poncho returned to hunt Special K on the kitchen floor.

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