His favorite dish is a kind of beef casserole: macaroni, hamburger, tomato sauce and sliced-up hotdog all mixed together and baked. He dumps clots of grated cheese over it and then he swallows one heaping spoonful after another until his stomach turns. With his tongue colored bright orange, he finishes off a tall glass of milk and settles into the yielding cushions of his old recliner. Sometimes he’s so satisfied his eyes flutter shut and he’s asleep even before his wife takes away the TV tray. Other times he’s too impatient and he burns himself with his first taste. Nothing in his life frustrates him as much as this. The flavor–or rather, the blend of flavors–that he loves above all others is wasted on his singed tongue and the meal, anticipated for hours beforehand, becomes a sullen and desultory affair. These are the nights, rare but always to be dreaded, when he will sit staring straight ahead, chewing joylessly and resenting the anchors on the evening news more than he usually does.
He eats it every Sunday. He can’t imagine going without it. It helps him feel better about another long week at the company. Recently, he’s taken to demanding it on Thursdays also and, if there’s enough left over, he brings it downtown in a Tupperware bucket for Friday’s lunch. He doesn’t mind eating at his desk. He feels he gets more done that way: the whole office is entirely his for an hour and then some. A lot of the younger guys like to go out of one of the restaurants on the plaza then, but they seldom invite him and, when they try, he refuses with unnecessary vehemence. The food there costs too much, they give you too little of it, the tables are too close together and the conversation is either lewd or about things he has no interest in.
He prefers the places close to his subdivision. He and his wife are in the habit of choosing one of them each Tuesday night. They’re hardly ever busy then and they never have to wait to sit down. With his back and her knees, this is no small consideration. Most of the high school age hostesses know them by now and they’re almost always taken care of before he has to gripe. At the Mexican one, they even have regular seats right under the pig-in-a-sombrero piñata. His wife is more fond of the Mexican one than he is. She spoils her appetite with the chips and salsa and then orders the enchiladas grande regardless. Everything on the menu is too spicy for him except the chicken tacos and these tend to come to their table cold, rubbery, and with far too many vegetables crammed in. He goes home feeling unfulfilled, but he doesn’t complain much anymore. He understands that it’s part of being married, to act like he enjoys things he actually doesn’t.
If it were left up to him, each week he would pick the steakhouse further along the frontage road. Their prime rib platter strikes him as righteous in its deliciousness and it comes with unlimited baskets of fresh bread and any three side items. He orders this exclusively now–he hasn’t had to look at the menu for a year and a half.
His only concern is finding an appropriate balance between the entree and the extras. He feels reasonably confident that the down-south seasoned fries, a cup of old-country chili, and the baked potato with all the fixings is the ideal combination, but a reckless part of him can’t help pining for the breaded shrimp or the hot cheddar poppers or even the buffalo wings with hearty ranch dipping sauce. In the moments after he makes up his mind, he tends to worry that he has misjudged his own desires and condemned himself to less happiness than he deserves. He wishes then that his wife would just once relent and ask for one of the cattleman’s deluxe specials so that he could poach a wider variety of sides for himself. Their conversation becomes strained as he fidgets with his straw, covetously eyeing each sizzling slab of meat carried out of the kitchen until the food finally comes and once again soothes him with its great abundance.
There is also–although he doesn’t know it and wouldn’t admit it if he did–an intangible element in the ersatz wild-west decor that appeals to him. Steer-horn chandeliers and sepia-toned photographs of broad-shouldered men with ornate mustaches, plastic cactuses and piles of fresh sawdust on the floor: he feels comfortable among such things. For an excuse to linger, he orders dessert every now and then. When he does this, his wife will check her watch and remind him of the shows they’re missing. If her mood is foul, she might even make a point of bringing up his cholesterol problem. She does this because she suspects he has an eye for the waitresses in their half-unbuttoned plaid shirts and skimpy denim shorts. She isn’t jealous, of course. At her age, one either recognizes jealousy as vain and silly or they suffer it every minute of the day and she hasn’t gotten to where she is by being a fool. She feels a responsibility, however, to keep him from embarrassing them both with his indiscreet staring, his half-dozen drink refills and the bad jokes he tells in such a loud voice.
Under any other circumstances, she is happy to let him eat for as long as he likes. She grew up on a farm and there she learned that the worst struggles come when the foal loses the will to feed itself. She is scrupulous in buying his snacks. At the supermarket, the checkout lady once took a look at all the economy-sized packages crowded onto the conveyor belt and told her that she must have a big, big family. She chuckled because she couldn’t help it, but underneath she wondered what business it was of hers. The longer she thought of it, the more rude it seemed. She should have talked to the manager. It was the height of summer, though, and her six cartons of ice cream were already melting. The world is overrun with insensitive people, she believes, and it won’t be long before the kind and decent ones are outnumbered. She goes to a different grocery store now. It’s further away and more expensive, but the aisles are wider and the clerks there don’t speak enough English to be insulting.
She jokes that she gets enough exercise for the week just by pushing the cart and carrying the sacks. Her three-year-old four-by-four handles differently under their weight and the ballast they provide is a comfort to her when the roads are slippery. She wishes that her kitchen was bigger, though; she has to throw out things that aren’t even close to spoiling to make room for her new purchases. The pantry doors don’t shut all the way for all the cracker boxes and potato chip bags stuffed behind them. The compartments of their refrigerator overflow with value-packs of peppered beef sticks and pudding cups. For a half-decade now, they’ve had no space left for their soda cases and so they’ve been keeping them in the garage. He grouses about how far it is to walk, but she can’t see any other way. He’s dead set against buying a bigger one.
When they have fights, they’re always about matters like these. The stove gives out, the dishwasher dies, or the microwave begins to scorch everything and he can’t be bothered. There are holes in the wall that have been gouged by the edge of his easy chair. There are places on the carpet where the old stains have been discolored by new ones. In the summer, the air conditioner makes a constant clicking noise and in the winter the heat smells strange. He pretends he doesn’t notice until she points it out and then he pretends it doesn’t matter. It wears on her patience. If she presses him, it is in his most impassioned voice that he sets her straight.
He says–invariably–that it’s been brutal at work and he can’t bear the thought of coming home to more things going wrong. He needs his time to unwind. He has to have a few hours each day without people picking at him. The hardware store is close by and as big as an airplane hangar, but he loathes going there. He fills with dread at the very thought of talking to those eager-eyed kids in the orange vests. He knows his incompetence is obvious to every one of them, and when he leaves it’s with his vanity in tatters. The leak in the ceiling or the dead mouse in the dryer can wait, he tells her. He’ll get around to it soon, he promises, but it takes him forever and usually she gives up and does whatever needs to be done by herself.
She doesn’t hold it against him anymore. She’s known him since they were both eighteen and, in all that time, she’s come to love him unreservedly. She can’t imagine a night without him there. Sometimes, for days on end, she won’t have a single conversation with anyone but him and she never even notices. She considers herself lucky; she found a regular, decent husband and so many women don’t. She reminds herself of that whenever she loses control and scolds him over some unreasonable whim of hers. The wounded look that spreads across his wide, open face can smother the worst anger she’s capable of. Guilt comes over her easily and, to make amends for her unjust emotions, she makes him a three-scoop fudge sundae He doesn’t care much for chocolate, but he’s never told her that. He eats it to be gracious in victory and because he recognizes it as the ritual she has to perform before she can stop complaining. She waits in the kitchen, half-heartedly washing something until she hears him howling at the television again. This is what calms her at last. She believes she can tell his mental state from the timbre of his laugh.
There is a certain kind of show he enjoys. He rails against the reality programming and all the dramas about doctors or lawyers or skinny girls who solve murders he finds pompous and dull. Instead, he watches sitcoms, but even most of these he considers unworthy of his attention. He can’t abide cute children or smartly-dressed single people and he’s lost any affection he once had for large, zany families with gruff-but-kindhearted patriarchs. Now he searches out the ones set in cheaply-decorated offices, the ones starring secretaries with hairstyles he recognizes from his younger days and their bald, bellowing bosses. Not many of these are being made nowadays and he takes this as perhaps the most telling evidence of society’s relentless decline. It’s a shame and it would be an outrage if the old, cancelled ones weren’t so plentiful in syndication and on cable. In whichever era, there’s always a wisecracker in them and that’s who he looks up to, even if they’re gay. That one with the pink shirts and the wild ties is the best one. When that little queer gets going, he roars until he’s out of breath and really crying. That guy is as funny as they come.
He tries to assume a similar role at his own workplace. Rarely is there an opportunity for sarcasm that he doesn’t exploit to the fullest; precious few are the absurdities that he has yet to mine for comic potential. His colleagues have come to expect this and, for the most part, they avoid him. Now he has to seek them out to tell them about the latest ridiculous memo he’s received, the current nonsense coming from the human resources department. He finds the richest material in the cheap equipment they’re supposed to make do with. He has a well-oiled routine about the toxic swill the coffee-maker churns out and another about how the photocopier is jammed ninety-seven-point-nine percent of the time. For the benefit of those who have heard all of this many times before, he’s moved on to casting aspersions on the snack machine. He points out how everything in it is low fat nowadays, leaving only one kind of mustard-flavored pretzel in there that a proud man can be caught eating. Even though it isn’t true, he goes on at length about how whenever he puts his money in and pushes the button for that one, the bag always gets stuck between the glass and the mechanical shelves. He throws up his hands in feigned dismay and comes to the climax with one of two carefully-considered punch lines. The first is that he’s considering a lawsuit and the second is that his wife must have tampered with it somehow. As he basks in the laughter he claims as his daily due, he occasionally wonders why they don’t make a sitcom out of his life. There’s more than enough there.
He can imagine a running gag about the fast food joints on the street below. He has become mindful about packing leftovers and microwavable meals largely because he’s afraid to go to these places at lunchtime. From ten thirty straight on until three in the afternoon the lines can reach all the way to the sidewalk outside and, with his vertebrae the way they are, he simply can’t stand for that long. In his mind, the situation is made even more ghastly by the fact that the people working there come from other countries. Under the best of circumstances, he’s against immigrants, but when he’s hungry and in pain this distaste blossoms into out-and-out hostility. He is not above rolling his eyes at them. He does not find it unreasonable to dump his money onto the grimy counter and demand that they do the same with his change. He can’t keep himself from mumbling disparaging comments as he grabs his grease-stained sack and storms out. He knows they can’t understand him and–every once in a while–he knows he’s being unkind, but he has always found it difficult to treat strangers with respect when his belly is empty. It does not occur to him that this might get in the way of him becoming a likeable television character.
He is aware, however, that this sort of dining is bad for him and he’s better off without it. He’s been lectured by no less than nine doctors and the reports in the news and in the magazines his wife leaves scattered around the house have grown so numerous he can no longer block them out entirely. He knows about the national epidemic of obesity and he knows that high blood pressure is a silent killer. He even knows his ideal body weight, although he’s mistaken in his belief that he surpasses it by only a hundred pounds. He understands why he wheezes after climbing up a single flight of stairs and why many of his morning trips to the toilet are disappointing. That none of this is a mystery doesn’t keep him from slipping down when his workday is done to buy a package of fries or an apple turnover for the drive home. He reconciles himself to the Somalians and Ethiopians and whatever else they are then. The lines are short and he’s found that the can be much more polite when he doesn’t have to go right back to his desk. He wouldn’t do it if traffic wasn’t so awful, he tells himself: he could starve to death stuck among the taillights on the interstate. It’s true, however, that he usually finishes what he’s bought before he pulls out of the parking ramp, but this tides him over until supper well enough.
In a sense, that meal begins the moment he steps through his door and ends only when he brushes his teeth before going to bed. Chewing on the hard candies his wife keeps in a basket on the mantel, he tells her about his day in as few words as possible. He shrugs off whatever questions she might ask and settles in for the night. He changes the channel on the TV set and turns up the volume until he can hear it in every room of the house, a precaution which is hardly necessary, given that it would be unusual for him to move from his spot for any length of time. They don’t eat in the dining room anymore. She sits on the couch, as close to him as she can get, in the place where the upholstery still bears the marks of when she wasn’t as skilled at feeding herself amidst the many distractions of the den. She doesn’t mind going back and forth to get him more. She isn’t interested in the things he watches anyway. Their talks are as good as ever during the commercial breaks and the shows he doesn’t like as much.
He doesn’t like to be rushed and so it can take him most of prime time to finish. More often than not, she has to reheat his second helping for him. After he’s all done, he lets it settle by unfastening his pants and belching every third minute. An hour or so is all it takes, however, before he’s ravenous for a treat and if she doesn’t cut him a serving of strawberry shortcake or pumpkin pie right then, he’ll go into the kitchen himself and come back with a portion so big it’ll make him sick. If nothing is in season, he’s just as happy with a heap of lime gelatin or a tin of cookies from the gas station down the street. He doesn’t need much to be at ease and, knowing that, she can’t keep from smiling beside him in the blue-grey darkness. The glow of the television catches in his eyes and they sparkle as he shakes with delight over the latest laugh-tracked cutting remark. Even covered in crumbs and with whipped cream on his lips, he is everything she ever wanted.
She always feels very tender toward him when she brings him his pills and a can of soda to wash them down with. He takes four: one is for his heartburn, another is to lower his cholesterol, the third stops his back from aching in the night, and the last keeps his prostate under control. She drops them into his outstretched palm and he swallows them with a great gulp, his adam’s apple lunging below the folds of his throat. He rises soon after and goes shuffling stiffly into the bathroom. While he’s busy in there, she turns off the television and straightens the things he has left in disarray. She has already put on her pyjamas and changed her estrogen patch. She likes to be beneath the covers before he comes waddling in, wearing only his underpants. It isn’t easy for him to find a comfortable position and the rocking of their bedframe as he tries lulls her to sleep most nights. She discovered more than a decade ago that it’s best if she drifts off before he starts to snore.
There are times when he makes so much racket she wakes up in the middle of the night. It sounds like his tongue is going through a terrible ordeal and she is often amazed that anyone could blithely dream through such a violent din. An elbow to the side and he’ll stop, but only for a moment, only for as long as it takes to collect enough breath and spit for another eruption. She feels selfish if she has to prod him over and over, especially since he’s looked so haggard recently, but there are nights when she can’t help it. There are nights also when it does no good and she just lays there, watching the luminous red numbers on their alarm clock change. When her endurance runs out, she frees herself from the tangled sheets and slips out of the room, shutting the door softly behind her. She floats down the stairs and feels her way along hallway into the kitchen. She doesn’t switch on any lights; the glow from the refrigerator is enough as she takes out her milk. With its door hanging wide open, she finds a bowl, a spoon, and her cocoa marshmallow cereal. She brings them all into the family room and there she stares at the television with the sound down low, her midnight snack steadily disappearing into her mouth through no conscious effort of her own.
What she sees then leaves almost no impression on her. Ancient reruns and excitable men with moneymaking schemes, she barely notices them. She slurps the sugary milk and rocks in his easy chair. At times like these, thoughts come to her uncluttered and subtly. She is aware of the soreness in her legs and the endless ringing in her ears, but they don’t bother her now. She can remember when they weren’t there and, when it’s this late, she feels none of the longing for the younger, healthier her that occasionally arises in the waking hours of the day. She is at her most practical in this state. She plans her tomorrows. She decides what she needs to clean and what she needs to buy and the proper order to do it all in. There, deep in the gently humming house, she assures herself that everything will happen much like it has always happened. When the milk is gone and her eyes have to fight to stay open, she returns to him.
She goes up the stairs and into their bedroom. She starts to hear him when she’s halfway there and, by the time she pushes through the door, her nerves are again impervious to the noise. She stands over him as the sound rushes from his gaping mouth to fill the little space they share, strained and damp and gasping. She smoothes his thinning hair and brushes her lips over his forehead. He has his own troubles at night, she thinks, and so she isn’t angry when she notices he’s rolled over and left no room for her beside him. She sighs and her fingers trace a path over his face. His snoring falls out of rhythm and she, without bitterness, gathers up her pillow and the spare blankets and lays a place for herself on the carpet beneath him. By now, she can’t imagine being anyplace else. By now, she’s tired enough to sleep anywhere.