No Brainer

by Meredith Wadley

Frank stood at the kitchen sink, a cell phone to his ear. His gaze settled onto the backyard grass that sparkled pretty with sunlit dew. Overgrown. Dad always told him when to mow, and he avoided looking at the green metal shed, at a mound in its shade, wild with stinging nettles. "What do you mean, what's going on?" he said.

"One, you're calling. Two, you sound distressed."

All he said was, "Mom?" and here they were, three seconds on the horn, and already he couldn't remember why he'd phoned.

"Frank, Son, I love you, but if you had a brain, Lord, you'd take it out and play with it."

He pounded his fist, and something in the sink clattered. "That's it!"

"Seriously? Again?" She asked if he worked that morning, and told him to check his puppies hanging by the fridge. His puppy-photo calendar.

For the past thirty-eight years, three months and seventeen days, he'd worked at Piggly Wiggly. For thirty years, seven months and two days, he'd been a Shopping Cart Manager, responsible for eighty-nine shopping carts, which he gathered from five rows and two hundred and seventy-one stalls, including eleven for "handicap parking." He also bagged and stocked. The store had twelve aisles and forty-one thousand, six hundred and eighty-one items. All prime numbers except for the number of aisles, which bothered him a lot, but he wasn't thinking of these facts right then. He was smelling the store's baking bread and roasting chicken. Imagined crunching on a salty wing tip, or something even better. "Buffalo wings!" he shouted.

"What?" It was his mom. On the phone. "Are you working today? It's the fifteenth."

He stood in front of his calendar. The month's puppy was a black Lab chewing on a slipper. One time, a man stood in front of Piggly Wiggly with a cart full of black puppies. They were chewing Sunday comics. The man said, "Ever' boy needs a dog," so he took one home. Dad was happy, but Mom told him, "It's another mouth to feed. Besides, you're grown-up, Son, take it back." He did.

The tight handwriting on his calendar was hers. "Twelve o'clock," he read.

"Okay. It's seven-ten, so we've got time," she said.

"We've always got time," he said.

"Well how 'bout a little game of hide an' seek then?"

"Oh, I like hide an' seek," he cried, loud with enthusiasm. "Where can I hide?"

He didn't get to hide, she told him, he got to seek. And no, not for her or for Dad, but for something quite small and jiggly: his brain. Hadn't he played this game before?

She told him to open the fridge. Empty, except for condiments rattling in the door, and a bowl of fuzzy black stuff, what she would call "a biology project." Freezer empty, too. That was a relief, sort of. When he searched in his cupboards, moths took flight.

The oven was empty, but his microwave had a surprise. "Found it!" he shouted. "But it's hard an' dry."

"Then it's not fresh, Frank."

"No, it's pepperoni."

"Ah-hah. You've found a pizza, then. Throw it away, Son. We're after your brain, see."

Under the sink, along with the garbage bin, were detergents. They were off limits to him. She used them to do the weekly clean. Without touching anything, he peeked amongst the bottles and boxes. But nothing small and jiggly hid in there.

"Last time," she said, "it was outside by your basketball hoop," and she told him to have a look. Next to the kitchen stoop, a wooden crate held a worn basketball, a pigskin football, and a dusty leather mitt cradling a softball. He picked up the mitt and wiped it clean with the front of his T-shirt. Dad always played with him. Sometimes a kid from the apartments next door came over to join in a game of hoops or to toss with them. Last summer the kid grew and grew until he nearly reached Frank's height. Six feet.

The cab of Dad's pickup was empty, and he checked its bed and under its tire wells. "Nothing," he told Mom. Then he poked under the rhododendrons along the front of the house. They shed a lot of leaves, which dried and curled, and crackled under his steps.

He smelled grapes and heard the snap of gum. A voice said, "Whatcha doin'?" That kid from next door.

"Hide an' seek."

"You hiding?"


"Who for? Your dad?"

Frank's left eye twitched.

"Ain't seen him for ages. He take off?"

He wasn't allowed to talk about Dad. To anyone. For any reason. And he didn't know if this was a reason or not. Or if the kid from next door counted as anyone.

"Mine did. Before I was born."

Frank's hands curled into fists—not like fighters held them, but up and helpless like babies did.

"Want some bubble tape?"

He nodded quick and stuffed the strip of purple gum into his jeans' pocket.

"Can't stay to help. Gotta catch the bus." The kid waved.

"Frank," the phone chirped, "Frank, check the sidewalk bushes." Off he shuffled, crossing the scruffy lawn. These bushes were willowy. Bordered the sidewalk, and then came the four-lane road. Traffic whooshing. Bus route into the city, his road. His seven-one-nine stopped right there. It took him to Piggly Wiggly. The seven-one-nine brought him home, too, letting him off on the other side of the street, which he had to get over safely at a crosswalk a half block left or a half block right.

In the bus, he always sat up front. Regular passengers knew it was his seat and left it for him, but sometimes someone new sat there, so Frank stood and stared. Guys stared back. Girls moved. All the bus drivers were his friends. Like Murray. Mom moved in with Murray—into his apartment.

Frank pushed aside a willowy branch to have a look-see. He found energy-drink cans, hamburger boxes, and various crumpled sacks. Nothing small and jiggly.

A bus pulled to the curb, and its hydraulic brakes hissed. The seven-three-nine. Its doors juddered open. The kid from next door climbed the stairs and swung behind the driver, who was Murray.

"I'm playing hide an' seek!" Frank shouted.

"Already again?" The doors juddered closed. The buses had a button for opening and shutting doors. He was not allowed to touch the button.

Mom's voice came up now, teeny tiny. He put the phone to his ear.

"We still playing?" she asked. "Go on into the backyard." He shuffled through the long grass and combed the bushes out there, coming up only beer empties. Under the rusting lid of Dad's grill he found a rusting grill. In the rotting hammock, though, he found a curled and faded magazine, Soldier of Fortune. Full of photos of men, mostly in camouflage, holding huge guns or knives. He had preferred Playboy magazine, with its pretty girls. Magazines no longer came in the mail, and Mom threw out the old ones. Every last one.

Then he was told to search the shed, and he said, "I won't go near it." And that was the truth. Dad's stuff—what he, or Mom or even Murray didn't take—was stored in there. He made the mistake of going in once, for the mower. Smelled worse than the Piggly Wiggly dumpsters.

He tossed the rolled Soldier of Fortune magazine. It plopped onto the mound of stinging nettles, which gave a rustle. Frank scrambled for the kitchen door.

At the stoop, he shed his wet sneakers and socks. His jeans were soaked to the ankles. He shinnied out of them. She nagged about having to pick up after him, but the two of them worked that way, him messy and her naggy. She used to call him and Dad "two peas in a pod." He smiled.

A voice barked from the phone: "Into the front room, Son." Mom. And he was playing hide an' seek, she reminded him.

He passed the indents in the green shag carpet thinking of the antique dresser that once stood there. It moved with her. Just the sofa and a TV cabinet furnished the room. A stain marked where Dad's recliner used to sit. Moved that himself. The room's sparseness pleased him, though.

A delight of orchid sprays, peach, plum and white brightened the front window, which pleased him more. Dad got him started on orchids, and Frank named each after a Piggly Wiggly clerk: Rosa, Jessie, and Fran. Fran had been there longer than him.

"Check the sofa," the phone said.

Too bad no one was there to say, "Cold, warm, getting warmer!" Or some such.

He shoved his hand between the sofa back and seat. Deep down, his fingers hit a hard and rough surface. Pulled up a giant walnut. Size of a softball. He tossed and snatched it from the air. Way lighter than a softball, though.

"Got something Frank? Not fresh, is it?"

Mom knew everything.

"Put it with the others, Son. Be tidy."

He lumbered to the linen closet, a hamper in it. Dropped in the giant nut. It knocked against the others. The hamper held a bowlful.

When he was a kid, he used to climb to the linen closet's top shelf and hide, curling like a cat on a stack of blankets, while his parents were loud and ugly with each other. He came out only after a door-slam. Front or kitchen, bedroom or bathroom—it didn't matter which, or who'd slammed it. He grew too big for the closet, and hung those blankets around his bunk bed to make himself a safe cave. Then Dad started sleeping in the bottom bunk and he had to move up top.

In the bathroom, he checked under the sink, in the tub, and even lifted the lid to the toilet tank, which made a scratchy noise. Gave him goose bumps.

Disheartened and forlorn, he faced his old bedroom. With an inward sigh, he opened the door. Aluminum foil covered the window facing the backyard, the shed, and the nettle-covered mound, which had been been a hole. It was where he left his first brain. He wasn't playing in there, he swore. Just digging, like Murray told him to. Helped roll Dad in a blanket, drag him outside, and bury him—what didn't seem right, but Mom and Murray told him, "He loved the backyard." Natural causes, they said. "Probably his heart gave out," Mom reckoned. "Or his liver," said Murray.

He plugged in the room's hanging Christmas lights. They twinkled, sparkling the Farrah Fawcett posters papering the walls and ceiling. Dad once told him he thought her "a good choice."

He tossed the phone into Dad's old recliner, the only furniture in the room, unless you counted the bookshelf under his favorite poster. New candles the same red as Farrah's swimsuit lined the shelf. He found them in a Piggly Wiggly fifty-percent-off bin. He struck a match.

The chair chirped. "Frank? Frank? Frank?" The phone.

He picked up. "Hello?"

"You got candles again?" Mom. "I've told you no more candles. They're a fire hazard. Blow them out."

He did what he was told.

"How 'bout a game of hide an' seek?" she said cheerily.

"I love playing hide an' seek!"

"I think something's hiding in your room."

"I'm in my room."

"Your man-of-the-house room."

After Dad died, he'd had nightmares, that window of his overlooking the fresh grave. Murray shifted Frank's stuff across the hall, and installed a work bench with an elbow lamp. Good light for building Legos. Mom said, "You're the man of the house now, Son."

The window here overlooked the neighboring apartment house's hubbub of trash-containers. A calico cat poked amongst tumbled and saggy cardboard boxes. Wasn't he playing a game? In his hand he held the phone. He put it to his ear.

"Same-o, same-o, Son." Mom said. But it Dad who always said, Same-o, same-o, and Frank missed Dad. His funny stories about cows lazing in temple courtyards. His photos of monkeys, water buffalo, and Vietnamese families, Moms, Dads, and even three or four kids, riding together on one motor scooter. Frank's favorite.

After the quickie graveside ceremony, Murray told him to phone whenever Dad's checks arrived in the mail. He still did, and Murray came once a month to collect them. Brought with him that first time a Lego Star Wars micro-ship kit, which was nice.

An entire wall of the big bedroom was devoted to his collection of star fighters and micro ships. If he had a brain, he could tell you the series number of each beaut. Wait a minute—he was playing with his brain, wasn't he?

He put the phone to his ear. "Mom?"

She told him he was seeking his brain. Wasn't quite sure if he knew what "seeking" meant, but down he went down on all fours, and he'd be. There it was, under his bed! A stiff sock stuck to it. And dust kittens. He was told to take it to the bathroom, and to draw a bubble bath. "You get in, too. You're prob'bly pretty ripe yourself, Son."

He sniffed his underarms while making his way down the hall. Sure 'nough, she was right. Always right. About Dad, too, he supposed.

Bubbles frothed under the running hot water. He wouldn't mind a piece of bubble gum. Grape. Thought he had some in his pocket, but where were his jeans? And his socks? He peeled out of his T-shirt and skivvies. The phone, set on the basin, chirped. Mom. She said, "Frank, don't take the phone in the bath with you again, and remember to put your brain back in. You're on your own, Son."

With his hands cupping the moist and slurpy brain, he eased into the hot water. While he picked bits of dust and hair from its creases and folds, it slipped out of his hand, plop! leaving a hole in the bubbles. He slopped water searching for it, and came across a sock, flinging it out of the tub. Wop! It hit the cabinet and slid to the floor.

When his fingers touched something small and soft, he scooped his hands around it and held it aloft. Game Over, brain, he thought. But now he didn't have anyone to play with, and it didn't seem right living alone in that house, Mom moved out, and Dad being out back under a mess of stinging nettles. And he wasn't sure he liked Murray, star-fighter kits or no.

Ah, but Frank really didn't want to think. Not think at all.

BIO: Meredith Wadley recently returned to writing short fiction after a break of more than twenty years. This is the first piece of hers published since long, long ago, when her work appeared in several journals now defunct, and she was a member of the Ken Kesey novel writing class, out of which came Caverns, a Penguin Book. Since 1990, she has lived and worked in both France and Switzerland.