“Ed’s reading in the backyard again,” mutters Julie to her husband Steve as he pulls the yellow trash bag handles up and then together in a knot. They have just finished dinner. It is Taco Tuesday at the McKnight household, and the black bean salsa and chili taco seasoning scent hangs low from the ceiling. After a while Julie continues, “Keep it short, Steve.” Her eyes never leave the sippy cup she cleans for their three-year old’s day tomorrow.
“Thanks for the heads up,” Steve replies with a sigh, pulling the sliding door open to take the trash to the bin. After six years of living together, it has become his chore to take out the trash after putting their son Ben to bed and cleaning up the kitchen. It often becomes a race between Julie and Steve, on who can finish the tasks first, so they can meet back up on the living room’s suede couch, scrolling their tablets while deciding on a movie to watch together. Slower efficiency is always the first nonverbal cue someone is mad. Tonight though, Julie and Steve work at a good pace. Julie finishes the dishes. They are on track to relax after a quick spray down of the counter tops, run of the vacuum, and coffee bean grind for tomorrow’s auto-brew.
Steve raises his arm halfway to wave on his way to the trash bins. “How’s it going tonight, Ed?”
“Same ol’, same ol’, Steve,” Ed replies with a smirk. Steve knows that smirk—he wants to talk. That’s how Ed ends up in the McKnight’s backyard reading. He’s just waiting for Steve to take out the trash. Ed’s the owner of the two-bedroom two-bath cape cod next door and the 1989 brown Oldsmobile. He uses the upstairs as a make-shift attic these days and parks the car right outside his garage, rust on its rims blending in with the patio glider sitting off to the side.
Ed now sits on the zero-gravity chair on the far end of Steve and Julie’s cement patio. He does that often. He says it is easier to stay awake on a lawn chair than his recliner at home. Their backyards are not divided by a fence, so Ed has access to the McKnight’s patio furniture and often their company on those harder nights. Years of trying out the spontaneous visits assure him the McKnight’s do not mind. Plus, he says the zero-gravity chairs are good on his back.
Tonight, Ed holds open Salinger’s The Catcher and the Rye on his stomach. Steve knows Ed has read that at least three times judging by how many times it’s been in his hands on nights like this. Steve seeks to finish his task as he lifts the trash bin’s plastic lid with his right hand as he swings the bag inside with the other. His eyes catch the Playdoh residue on the patio table as he turns back toward the sliding door. Julie must have let Ben take his collection outside today. Steve smiles thinking of his son making play dough pizza for his beloved stuffed rhino.
Ed stays in his horizontal position, but raises his voice as if to pull Steve back toward him: “Except I just had to tell you, I had the most delicious shrimp n’ grits tonight. The shrimp had a barbecue glaze and the grits had bacon in them. I can’t make this up. It tasted so good I just had to tell somebody.”
Steve exhaled, “Is that right?” He and Julie have hardly spent any time together these past three nights and he is looking forward to the mindless commentary they participate in while watching Hulu reruns. Now that Ed’s on the back porch, he knows exactly how the night will go. Trying to mask his disappointment by trying to tighten his lips into a smile, he replies, “That does sound delicious. Where’d you go to ‘em?”
“Billy’s. Right past that Texaco. Been there before with Trudy, but not since. You know how that is with me,” Ed responds.
Springfield is not a huge town, but it has enough restaurants coming and going the townies rarely eat at the same place twice. This includes Ed. Most nights though his meals come prepackaged, frozen, and delivered straight to his doorstep. Once, Steve saw Ed standing in his doorway, his hand-carved, wooden walking cane supporting him, as he talked to the meal delivery girl for twenty minutes about the fox he saw behind the bushes earlier. The girl just giggled and nodded, finally handing him his brown paper bag of seven meals—just enough to get through the week and back to her delivery route.
Steve glances inside to check on Julie. She is still at the sink, but now filling up the coffee pot with water. Steve knows this is the last task. He tries to read her expression but it is blank as if she is hypnotized by the motion of their routine.
Ed continues, “I don’t know what made me go there tonight. I just saw this commercial with fresh shrimp and I couldn’t get it out of my mind. Allison, you know, the lady in the blue house? She was my waitress. She asked about Trudy.” Steve notices the slightest twitch on Ed’s cheeks when he says those last four words.
Steve notices the new light inside as Julie turns on the TV and grabs her ball of yarn. Steve thinks he can even see the purple frill on the edges of her pajamas, too. He wants to join her, to end this predictable conversation, and to finally be allowed to relax. Steve keeps trying to meet Julie’s eyes for guidance, but she is avoiding him by staying transfixed with her mint green yarn. Steve watches her spin like she is working up some grand sleep spell with every motion of her crochet hook. The other side of the glass gives him a new vantage point, and he is struck by how beautiful she looks.
Steve’s gaze inside lingers long enough for Ed to recognize the social clues. Steve catches Ed leaning forward to stand up. Steve feels a pang of guilt as he knows Ed doesn’t have the luxury of returning home to anyone anymore. Sitting in the McKnight’s backyard is Ed’s closest substitute. Julie and Steve have worked hard over the years for Ed to feel like home there.
Steve opens his body to face Ed. He steps forward and asks, “Hey Ed, would you like a fresh glass of lemonade? We have some leftover from dinner. Julie threw in some mint from the garden, too, so it’s delicious.”
“Oh wow! Thank you, Steve. Are you sure you don’t mind?” Ed questions, his body sitting straight up now.
“Of course not. It’s a beautiful night outside. Let’s enjoy it. I’ll be right back,” Steve responds, now sliding the door open, while Ed returns to his reclining posture.
Ten minutes longer than he intended being outside to take out the trash, Steve sits on the edge of the couch next to his wife. “Julie, I’m sorry. I think it’s one of those nights for Ed again,” Steve says with his eyes downcast, his hand on her leg.
Julie sighs and puts down the yarn. She catches his eyes in hers, trying to gauge his inner turmoil. After a few moments, she breaks her silence, saying, “You know, it’s really OK, honey. It’s one of my favorite things about you. Please tell Ed I said hello.”
Steve kisses her long on her forehead as Julie presses in to receive it. Soon after, he heads back to the kitchen to reach for two tumblers and the glass pitcher. Pouring the lemonade over the ice, Ed finds himself smiling, an outward overflow of his gratefulness.
Abigail Rudibaugh calls Cincinnati, Ohio, home alongside her husband and two young daughters. A graduate from Miami University of Ohio in Integrated Language Arts and a current graduate student at the University of the Cumberlands, she spent nine years teaching and now can be found writing at pocketsoflovely.com.