It was just a cheap fold-up lawnchair—retro style, wide white-and-green plastic straps woven over a lightweight metal frame—that she bought for the beach but never got to use. She had left it out all winter under the dead crepe myrtle, and it had rusted.
“It’s aluminum,” she said. “The man at the store swore to me it was rustproof.”
“Ma,” I said, “he lied. It’s rusted, just look at it.”
“Dennis, that’s not rust,” she said.
“Ma, it’s rusted all to hell, but that’s okay, I’ll get you a new one.”
She snorted. “Like hell you will.”
“What? Sure I will.”
“I don’t want a new one, damn it. You think I’m a goddamn idiot, don’t you?”
“If you knew it was out here rusting all winter then why in hell didn’t you bring it in? You didn’t think it mattered, did you? You didn’t think I’d make it this long, did you?”
Seventeen weeks of chemo and five of radiation had left her a bitter and truculent old woman. Glaring, she stood barefoot on the stone patio in her stained beige housecoat, then wheeled and went back in. When I knew she was safely inside I kicked over a plastic pot of pink impatiens.
Three hours later she stuck her head in my bedroom to say the ballgame would be on in 20 minutes and she’d made mac and cheese with peas, my favorite, and it was on the table, come and get it. After I’d taken four cautious bites she mentioned that according to Wikipedia, aluminum does not rust, it oxidizes; only ferrous metals are capable of rusting, and if I didn’t believe her, I was welcome to look it up myself, and she offered me her phone with the browser open.
“Jesus, Ma,” I said. I put down my stainless steel fork. “Just what do you think rust is?”
“You’re trying to trick me, Dennis. I know you.”
“Well, what is it?”
“Rust is red flaky stuff on metal. The stuff on my lawnchair was white. Not red.”
“Jesus Christ, they’re just different names for the same fucking thing! They’re both oxidation!”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I’m talking about oxidation.”
“This whole conversation doesn’t even make sense anymore.”
I saw she had somehow dragged the lawnchair into my kitchen. The aluminum tubing gleamed. I saw her mother’s wedding ring on the counter, a pair of blue rubber gloves, a blackened grill brush, some shreds of steel wool. I looked at her raw hands. One bare nail was chipped and bleeding.
“Ma,” I said. “Okay, Ma. What did you use?”
“Brasso,” she said. “And Naval Jelly.”
“You mean Naval Jelly Rust Dissolver?” I said.
“Oh, fuck you, Dennis.”
It had taken her two hours because she had to stop and rest every few minutes. I told her again that I would have bought her a new chair but she said that wasn’t the point. Some things aren’t so easily replaced, Dennis. Some things you can’t get a new one for. They don’t make this kind anymore, Dennis, she told me.
I stared down at my mac and cheese.
“Do you see what I’m trying to say?” she said. “Do you see what I mean?”
“Yeah, Ma,” I said. “I do.”
“No you don’t,” she said.