Behavior Modification
by Alice K. Boatwright


Nothing has changed in my mother's kitchen since she died two years ago. If she were magically to return, she would be able to put her hand on the garlic press without hesitation and know exactly where to find her cast iron frying pan, the salt, her favorite old wooden spoon. When I arrive to cook my father's dinner each evening, I slip on a flowered cotton apron that I made her in the ninth grade, and I know that, although I have taken on some of her responsibilities, in this place she is still the pilot light. I am only the hand with the match.

My mother didn't believe in starting to cook in a messy kitchen, and neither do I. I turn on her KLH box radio to keep me company while I clean up Dad's half-eaten breakfast and lunch. I wash the dishes and stack them in the drainer on the long farmhouse sink, scrub down the counters, close cracker boxes and jam jars, and put away the milk.

The small racket I make alerts my father that I have arrived. He is in the next room, supposedly writing, but probably asleep. I am not supposed to know that, so I pretend that I don't.

Minced celery, onion, and garlic are hissing in a pan of melted butter before he shuffles in and turns off the radio. With his thick black-rimmed glasses sliding low on his nose, he looks around for something. His sweater, I notice, is buttoned wrong, and he has his shirt on inside out.

"Hi, Dad," I say, but he doesn't say hi back. That would mean acknowledging that he hasn't seen me since yesterday.

"Is the paper here yet?" he says instead.

"I don't think so, but I'll go look."

"What's for dinner?"

"Creamed chicken," I say, sprinkling flour to make a roux.

"Oh good," he says, looking through a pile of old newspapers on the kitchen bench. My father is easy to cook for because he only likes three things: creamed chicken, spaghetti with clam sauce, and chipped beef on toast.

"The paper isn't here yet?" he asks again.

"No, Dad. I'll go look for it in a minute."

He watches me whisk milk into the sauce with the dissatisfied expression that invariably annoys me. I resist the urge to move faster and, when I am ready, turn the heat to low and head for the front door to see about the paper.

Martin, the paperboy who covers this route, is unreliable. I know this not only from my daily visits to my father, but also from the school where I teach. He has a reputation for being brilliant at science, but erratic at everything else. My son, Jeremy, is in his class and has spent the past month trying to train his rat Alastair to run through a maze as his science fair project. He's determined to break Martin's winning streak, but so far the only result is that Alastair is losing weight.

I open the door and am surprised, as usual, by the rush of lights and the roar of traffic. Four solid lanes of traffic go by the house, obliterating the smells and sounds of an autumn evening--otherwise crisp and clear. The paper is not on the stoop.

I walk out, rubbing my bare arms, and look to either side. Nothing.

If I tell my father that the paper hasn't arrived, he will ask me every five minutes to look for it. If I tell him Martin must have forgotten, it will unleash all his fears about what the world has become. I poke the bushes and feel like a rat myself as I walk up and down in front of the house, checking every place a hastily flung paper might land.

Damn, I say to myself and go back inside, shivering.

My father is waiting right on the other side of the door, his expression tense.

"It's not here yet," I say, hoping that's the truth. My father has always been able to tell when I'm lying.

"It should be here at five. It's five-thirty."

"Well, why don't I run down to the drugstore and pick one up?"

"Then there will be two." He scowls, his mouth disappearing into wrinkles.

"I can take one home, Dad. It'll be all right."

"I pay for it to be delivered."

"I'll call tomorrow and complain, if you want."

"Mommy always used to do that."

"I know. But I can do it for you."

It is not a good sign when we get into a conversation about my mother. My parents were married for fifty years and called each other Mommy and Daddy for forty-six of them.

"Dad, I'm going to be gone just a few minutes. Then I'll finish fixing dinner." He follows me back into the kitchen, where I turn off the stove and put on my coat.

He looks at me uncertainly as I pick up my purse, then goes to his desk, and sits down. Since my mother died, he has moved his study into the old family room off the kitchen. The table where my older sister and I used to do our homework is now his--piled high with his books and papers. This is his only concession to the change in his life; everywhere else he occupies the same space he always had. His clothes sprawl on one half of the bedroom floor. His toothbrush rests on the right side of the sink.

During the day my father writes and listens to music. He says he doesn't mind being alone. He has the solitude he dreamed of when we were growing up. When I ask him what he does in the evening, after I'm gone, he says he watches television with the cat. They enjoy murder mysteries and anything about nature.

Since I started coming over after school to prepare a hot dinner for him, my teenage children have become very good cooks. Felicia leaves me notes that say things like "Mom, don't forget we're out of pesto," and Jeremy bakes all our bread. When they resent my lateness I remind them that their grandmother made the same trip to our house several times a week to help us when they were little and their father had moved away.

"It's what families do for each other," I tell them, hoping it matters. They give me the look they reserve for when I'm being preachy, then fight over who will cook what.

"I'll be back in a few minutes," I tell my father. He has begun to write--India ink words filling the lines of a yellow legal pad--and looks up only briefly. His eyes don't seem to see me.

"I'm going to get the paper," I remind him.

"Bring some ice cream. Vanilla," he says, without even lifting his pen.

"OK, Dad," I say, thinking "please," but my father is too old for behavior modification.

I get in my car and sit at the edge of the driveway for a full five minutes waiting for a chance to break into the traffic. This used to be a country road, my parents' home a farmhouse set in fields. Now it is a main highway lined with homes that have been converted into dress boutiques, restaurants, inns, and doctors' offices. The village has a few remnants of its old character left, but its Victorian houses and big old maples are hemmed in by places like Big Boy Burger, Toyota Sales, and small box-like banks set in large parking lots.

The drugstore where I worked as a soda jerk in high school is still open, slouching in its wood frame building at the end of a block of boutiques. A couple of kids are lounging on the front steps in the early darkness, smoking cigarettes. I pass them, remembering that this was where I bought my first pack of cigarettes during a high school dance at the church across the street. I can still recall the feel of it--slick and heavy in my palm--a whole pack, all my own. The memory gives me pleasure even though I haven't smoked for years.

The drugstore is cluttered with dusty merchandise--cold medicines and hot water bottles, vitamins and laxatives, cardboard racks of cheap sunglasses, boxes of gaudy plastic toys, and magazines--all jumbled together.

Mr. Verchese, the druggist, lurks behind the metal grate over the drug counter watching his customers with suspicion. He doesn't recognize me even though I scooped ice cream for him for two years.

"Good evening, Mr. Verchese," I say. "How are you?"

He gives me a curt nod and comes out to watch what I will do.

I walk past him to the freezer that has replaced the marble ice cream counter and get a pint of vanilla ice cream.

At the register I say, "A paper too, please," and lay down my money. Once he slapped my hand for overfilling a cone. After that I made sure to cheat him however I could without actually stealing, but I make amends now by being one of his few regular customers. Most people use the enormous flashy Park 'N' Drug.

He rings the sale into the old register without a smile. "Thank you," I say for him mentally and walk out into the night. It is much darker now--even in these few minutes--and I will have to call Felicia to tell her that they should go ahead and eat without me.

I used to pick my father up and take him home for dinner, but he didn't like the ride in the car and would pace around the house, looking out the windows at the fields and trees with an anxious expression. He was worried about his cat, he said. She got upset when he went out. After that we went through a phase of taking turns joining him for dinner only to be ignored while he read a book at the table. Finally we settled into the current routine.

My sister doesn't approve and calls me every couple of weeks to tell me she thinks we should put Dad in a nursing home. It's dangerous, she says. He's too forgetful to be alone all the time.

I defend him and tell myself she only says that because she feels guilty that she lives too far away to help. The truth is I can't bear to think of him in a nursing home. How would he live without his damn cat? How would he write? What could he eat?

"It hasn't come to that," I tell her firmly. "We're doing fine, and besides, it's what Mom would have wanted." Her silence on the other end of the line is the only indication that she agrees.

I pull out of the lane of traffic and into my parents' driveway, narrowly missing a collision with an oncoming car, and I'm grateful that my father doesn't drive anymore. But inside the house, it smells like smoke, and I start to run, trying to remember if I could have forgotten to turn off the stove. In the kitchen my father is fumbling over the burners, as smoke pours out of the pan of cream sauce.

"Dad, what are you doing?" I turn off the burner, grab the pan, and thrust it into the sink. My heart pounds, even after the danger has passed.

"I was making dinner. You left, so I thought I was supposed to do it myself."

"I went to Verchese's, Dad. To get your paper."

"You were gone," he insists, as if this fact were absolute. Anger and fear radiate from him. I want to give him a hug, but he hides his shaking hands by crossing his arms over his chest, defying me to get near him. In his face I see him at every age at once: small child, brilliant scholar, old man.

"Dad, I would never leave you to cook dinner by yourself."

His expression says But you did, and the accusation hangs in the air until suddenly he asks: "Did you bring the ice cream?" I know then that he has remembered.

I show him the pint and he nods. I make him watch me put it in the freezer, so he'll know exactly where it is. There is other ice cream in there--lots of it--but he thinks it's old once it has been opened, and he won't eat it. Every now and then I clean out the old ice cream and take it home to the kids, who aren't so fussy.

He still looks shaky so I suggest that he sit down and tell me about what he's writing while I finish cooking.

"I want to read the paper," he says.

"OK." I turn to the problem of cleaning the burned pan.

I know he wants me to hurry up because he likes to have a drink but won't fix it until I'm gone. He doesn't want to talk. Language is my father's life--he's written ten books about linguistics and other subjects--but he doesn't like casual conversation. When I was growing up he used to read to my mother and sister and me from the Encyclopedia Britannica at the dinner table. He didn't want to hear about what we'd done that day or what we felt or thought about it.

Luckily my mother could laugh at him and love him at the same time. She listened to our secrets as we climbed into bed and taught us to sing rounds as we did our chores.

I hum "White Coral Bells" and remake my cream sauce. My father paces up and down with the newspaper in his hand peering into the darkness.

"Mommy's not home yet," he says.

The first time he said this I was shocked and didn't know what to do. My mother died suddenly, and I thought he had forgotten that she was dead. Now I know that he's talking about his cat. She is a pretty yellow tiger who happened to find her way to his doorstep one morning. He let her in, and she has been his ever since.

"Why don't you call her?"

He gives me a blank look. I ought to know that calling is not part of their relationship. She comes home when she pleases.

I retreat and say, "Well, I'm sure she'll be here soon."

My father goes into the living room, and I wonder what he's doing but try to concentrate on finishing dinner quickly.

When the new sauce is ready, I put in two pieces of toast and get out the salad greens. Then I grab the phone to call Felicia, but Jeremy answers, his voice agitated with enthusiasm.

"Mom, guess what! Alastair made the right-left-right turns today! Twice!" he says before I can get a word in.

"That's wonderful, honey. A miracle."

"You aren't kidding. I was beginning to think he'd die before he'd get it right. Hey, speaking of starving, where are you? I'm hungry."

"I'm still at Dad's, but I'll be there soon. Can I talk to Fil a minute?" I hear a scuffle in the background and then Felicia comes on.

"Mom, you can't be late. I told you this morning that I was going to make a soufflé." My heart jerks with pleasure and guilt.

"I know, Fil, but I've got to get Dad settled first."

She whistles between her teeth.

"I'm sorry, honey. I'll be there as soon as I can," I say and hang up.

"Dad," I call, buttering the toast. He doesn't answer.

I set his place and throw together a salad. There's no sound from the living room.

"Dad," I call again. "Your dinner's ready."

By the time he comes back, I have already cleaned up and hung my mother's apron on its hook by the stove. He looks at the dinner and then at me with an impenetrable expression.

"I can't eat without Mommy," he says.

I've faced this problem before. He won't eat or go to bed until she's in the house.

He watches me go to the kitchen door and says: "What are you doing?"

"Maybe she's waiting outside," I say hopefully. I want to call her even though that doesn't work.

He smiles. Why do I feel like he will enjoy watching me fail? Why am I going to do this anyway?

I open the door. I am efficient. I will succeed. I peer out into the back yard, but it's so dark now I can't see anything, much less a cat.

"I'm sure she'll come home soon," I say. "Why not start now and save some for her?"

He doesn't move.

"Come on, Dad, sit down and eat."

He knows I don't know what to do and that delights him. "I have to go to the bathroom first," he says and leaves the kitchen.

I put on my coat and take the opportunity to open the back door, this time unobserved. "Kitty!" I call. "Kitty!" I refuse to call the cat Mommy.

Nothing happens, of course.

I hear the rumbling flush of water and hurriedly close the door, but my father sees me as he comes back in. His fly is still open. I can tell by the look in his eye that he knows what I've been doing.

"Dad, I've really got to go now. I wish you'd eat while your food is still hot."

"I want to wait for Mommy."

"All right," I say, exasperated. He watches me as I head down the hall and already seems to be smiling before I open the door and see the cat, sitting on the stoop.

"Oh look, there she is," he says innocently. "I knew she'd come." He pushes past me to pick her up and lavishes kisses on her. It's clear he thinks they've played a great joke on me.

I follow them back to the kitchen, words forming about how I'm too busy for these games, but they fall as flat as Felicia's cooling soufflé.

My father puts his napkin under his chin and settles down at the table. The cat sits beside him, purring, ready to be fed. The paper is in front of him, folded crisply to the front page.

I kiss his stubbly cheek, and he barely nods as he picks up his fork.

"Bye, Dad. Your lunch is in the fridge," I say.

He doesn't notice as I slip away.

I don't mind.

The house smells of burned onions and Felicia is annoyed, but, for one more day, I have gotten what I wanted. I have held back the future when my father--and my mother--will be truly and forever gone. When that day comes, maybe that yellow cat will still be around. Then I will take her home with me and try to teach her to come when I call.


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