Slaving Over This Meal All Day
The door slams shut behind her as she heads out for a ‘drive’ around the neighborhood. They were used to that. Father and son at the dinner table, a copy of yesterday’s Wall Street Journal now occupying the seat of the chair where she — the mother, in hysterics and worn spandex — had been moments before. A ceramic dish filled with some sort of pasta cut into latticework (a surgeon had manned the chef’s knife this evening no doubt) sat untouched, each individual square of durum wheat, layered in sauce and sweating onions, portioned out into a grid; some wartime cartography straight from Monte Casino or the Gothic Line. A month ago, had he been afforded the permission, the father would have taken up an invitation to gamble with his nephew’s and his nephew’s friends, a rough lot who’s formerly canine, currently sine-wave edges, carved out by a youth filled with bitches and bar fights, were rounded (or, dulled if they could speak for themselves) by their suburban plight featuring the famous manicured lawn, two-car garage, and pair of bratty kids. But tonight there was no deal or split, no Rinconete y Cortadillio, and, being that there is no hand signal for it in hole-card games, no verbal surrender to the house.
A milk glass and the shadow of a milk glass whirl around in the hand of the son under the chandelier. The table responds with a sound that, like coming home to find out someone else used the last of the toothpaste or the bathroom lights had been left on all day, annoys the father. He looks up from his folded hands, a pious positioning of digits that clench and unclench with each deep breath (Tibetan tactic he had heard about from a co-worker). A moment passes. Neither are sure how long it lasts. Humming across the kitchen now are the bee buzzes of the springs of the screen door, recently accosted, leading to the garage, and still, the milk glass, gyrating against the worn out grain where each of them — staring off into space or the living room wall — rested their elbows.
“Can you please cut that out?” the father asks.
The son picks up the glass, examines the two-percent, raises it to his lips to drink, pauses before his sip, and sets it down gently, sighing all along the way. “Well,” he says, “should we just go ahead and eat?”
“If she wants to go do her thing, let her do her thing. I’m not going to let that ruin my dinner.”
Her *thing* was the housewife’s version of a veteran’s fit brought on by post-traumatic stress. Vietnam, in her case, was the house itself. Bought a year before the son was born, it was one of the first erected in their development. A dimmer switch set halfway during the daytime, shades drawn and with drink in hand she moved about the jungle, sidestepping the traps of fruit snack wrapper landmines, lego brick panji boards, and playstation game case bamboo spikes. The tree line — couchbacks with frayed seams from the claws of Rookie, the recon cat they had gifted each other eight Christmases ago, before her husband’s Holiday work party USO show — was now shellacked with mortars made of sweat-stained shirts and wrinkled ties. Silently she would move about the battlefield, an All-American Indochina bordered by walls holding picture frames showing better days. Holding her dust mop rifle and Lysol Agent Orange, she would scrub the mess hall and firing range, mindful of the son’s guerrilla tactics (a sniper sock under the pillbox love seat or hit squads of Gatorade bottles at his desk along the Ban Hieng) and her husband’s knack for leaving valuable intel (purple heart medical bills and war-time production credit card statements) strewn about the HQ, his private office, tucked away in the corner of the house where she and her son could not reach him. Each day, while he was running appointments and the son at school, she would sweep up the bodies, burn the thatch-roofed huts, and make sparkle the blades of the Apache’s. A practitioner of Scorched-Earth policy, she excelled in making the trenches ‘presentable’ for her Commanding Officer. Yet she received no promotion. No change in rank. A permanent Private designated to latrine duty between 0900 and 1700, sneaking nips of spirit stashed away in her footlocker, numbing the minutiae of her family’s perpetual warfare, feeling like the occupying force in a country that wanted nothing to do with her.
They had enlisted together, the husband and wife. It was years ago. Boarding the same bus unknowingly bound for a suburban barracks, buzzed heads and standard-issue boots, they soon found themselves barricaded by baby clothes and water bills, the very pipes they paid for slowly leaking acid rain on to the cliffs of their expectations, eroding away any solid foundation into sands that spilled over the edge and into an ocean of resent, despair, betrayal. The usual. There was no glory in death on this battlefield. Each night, long after her husband had resigned from his post, she would crawl under the beige comforter, a folded flag stretching out across their marital bed, and hum Taps to herself; the bugle blasts of her sobbing ‘neath the sun, ‘neath the stars, ‘neath the sky, quietly crawling prone under the patriarch’s twenty-one gun snores.
He has fucked up. Now, unlike times when the couple was late getting to the elementary school’s play or forgot to bring a dish to the annual Fourth Of July potluck her mother put on, he was stranded alone without the Cohenian advantage of sharing half the blame for bad direction and a failed finished product. Their box office, the quiet whispers of relatives when things were going bad, noticeable as they brushed past each other silently at nieces and nephew’s birthday parties, neither asking if the other wanted white or chocolate cake, and, when things were going good, the son’s inflated level of conversation after school, giving answers other than yes and no to the question, did you have a good day today? and sometimes he would sit on the couch, if his mother’s pillows and blankets weren’t covering it, and watch television with them until it was bed time. Tonight, though, the extended family whispers. Exhaust fumes still linger, coming from the initial engine combustion of her SUV, and winding in between the door to the garage’s strips of insulation, find their way into the nostrils of the one’s still left at the prix fixe. As a husband, sometimes you become tired after twenty-three years of marriage, and sometimes you just say shit to say it. As a father, it was hard to subject his son to the fights that followed. If the throes of middle school, the undesired stuffing of a few hundred hormonal teenagers into a box of unparalleled suffering, doesn’t’ get him, the sad young chap, surely, all this coming and going of his mother will.
“I’m not hungry,” the boy says. He pushes a few stewed carrots (fucking ghastly cuisine) around his plate, shrugging his shoulders, asking for a response. Down the father’s nose bridge come his eyeglasses, squinting at the little him across the table, sitting in his blighted youth like a second-rate sitcom star on a show about this very situation. “You’re not hungry?”
“Then don’t eat. I’ll eat by myself.” Ah, there it goes. The guilt trip given by the one who not moments ago had accused another of always setting up guilt trips, the bridegroom’s personal travel agent, she knows all the hot destinations for this winter’s getaway, including but not limited to: I saw you checking out that woman’s ass, you’re always busy at work and don’t help out around the house, my mother was right, and, if you’re looking to hike up those frequent flyer miles, You didn’t even want to marry me in the first place. Those calm marital seas are always quickly stirred by a tempting tempest, just ease the sheet, swing the jib, and sail right into those familiar waters, a nice beach destination where the sand is crawling with crabs from an old girlfriend and watch your step! there are broken dinner plates everywhere.
“Uh…I’m not just going to let you eat alone. Now I feel bad.”
“Don’t feel bad. Go do your thing.”
“Will you at least call mom?”
“She’s not going to answer. And we both know she either drove to Grandma’s or went to the Mart.”
“But what if she didn’t -” gesturing toward who knows where, what he can’t get past is his stupid young brain always fearing the worst, a quality he picked up from the mother no doubt. Maybe she crashed her car into a stoplight, maybe the Mart got robbed while she was in line, or maybe some ancient demon opened up a sinkhole on the main road in town and it swallowed her and her car completely and she would never see him again.
“She’s fine. Now, if you’re going to eat, let’s eat.”
And they said grace (the nightly bitching of the president’s new policies and the scores from last night’s basketball games) and ate. A popular way to eat in this house is to inhale all the food at once, not looking up or speaking to anyone else during the process, and then, in classic Tom Hanks a la Castaway fashion, guzzle down the contents of the tupperware cups AFAP. So that’s how they ate. And with each shitty stewed carrot, green bean, piece of hot pasta, each monotonous clenching and unclenching of worn-out mandible, they each thought about mom, and how maybe they’d thank her for the food when she got back to the house. But that never happened. She, like so many other mothers lost in their own private jungles, decided it might be high time to head on out past the DZ and into neutral territory, because that’s the only place where things get done. A couple of days later she would call and the father would ask her to come back with a half-assed sorry, followed by a you’re kidding right? but she wasn’t. A nursing home a few towns over — that’s where she’d work. First job since the little one was born, good for the soul she though. Met a good man there too. In his late fifties but still handsome. Silver fox. A real Clooney. He was dropping off his mother, an old wrinkled sack of jaundice and brittle bone begging to be put of her misery, which, in this case, didn’t mean some sort of Kevorkian shit, but, getting away from the sarcastic asshole of a son that dropped her off there in the first place, the one old New Woman 2.0 fell in love with. Something just ain’t right about the way son’s treat their mothers around these parts she guessed. Now two towns over, my son knows how to treat his mom.
Still reading his WSJ and picking at a stewed carrot with their son across the table, he decided maybe all of it was for the best. Maybe it was time for some sort of armistice. And one afternoon they, the little family, gathered at a neutral site, a Max & Erma’s (lots of nasty business is conducted there, it’s been documented) and tried to hash it out. Voices raised and lowered and raised again as the waitress refilled Arnold Palmer’s and took away the empty trays of appetizers. They asked each other about the possibility of splitting custody, which seemed reasonable, and they even asked their son if that was something he’d like to do. Unsure, he just shrugged his shoulders, not knowing the words to use to express his real feelings of “This is utter bullshit and even though I saw it coming it isn’t fair.” They asked him again: “Are you sure?” but still, he had no words. How could he? It was a bit out of scope of knowledge, what with him never learning how to keep to embittered lovers together to avoid: LatchKey, two Christmases, and a bamboozled idea of what a family is. So she got a divorce and remarried that old chunk of coal she met at the nursing home. The wedding was small. Only his side of the family attended. On their honeymoon in Costa Rica where they’re so happy to meet ya, she even forgot her former husband’s face. It was lost in that plume of exhaust when she pulled out of the garage a final time, a big fuck you and sianara! to whatever sort of life she had tricked herself into finding rewarding. So, that’s how that cookie crumbled. And their son, he understood. But he still blamed himself. Nothing like forgetting to bring your pen to Versailles.