Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Course of an Evening: a story

The stench of Brussels sprouts steaming! It assaults my nose when I swing in the door. I am repulsed. Margie’s there by the sink, up to her elbows in yellow rubber gloves and dishes. In her eyes there’s already the reproach, the fear, the defense, all of it. There’s the streak of dirt-brown hair escaping onto her cheek. I do remember the days when the hair was chocolate-brown, but I don’t remember how those days felt.

“Jesus!” I say.

“Jim,” she says.

“Acch,” I say. I drop the briefcase. This is important. In other moods I place it, neat, against the wall, beneath the row of hooks overstuffed with the household gloves and scarves and hats. Today I let it smack, thud, slump on itself, strap straying out over the floor.

Jesus, Jim,” Margie says. The dishes clatter and clang. Why she starts them before dinner, I still don’t understand. I loosen my tie. It’s only certain days I have to wear a tie now, maybe twice a month. I still hate it but it helped to remember, binding myself into one this morning, that it’s not every day I have to do it. Although this time I noticed my neck flab flapping a little more and the collar digging a little more into it. I might not have noticed this change if I had to wear the tie and shirt every day.

“Carrots,” Margie says. “I also made carrots. Okay?”


Behind her, out the window, the sky is rust on the bottom and night on top. Afternoons are over until spring. The newly nude tree branches look thin and embarrassed.

“Jim, there’s no reason why I shouldn’t—”

“A man has a right to come home to his house—”

“—be able to cook a vegetable I—”

“—and feel comfortable and happy;”


The faucet shimmies out its water. The fetid pot on the stove spits, boils, steams.

“You don’t have to eat them,” Margie says.

“They are here,” I say. “They are invading my pores. Why you would—”

“I missed them. Okay?”

The tie is all the way off. I’ve slipped my shoes off too and nudged them next to the briefcase. And I nudge the strap closer to the wall — too much disorder creates more anxiety than it cures. In socked feet, I huff out of the kitchen and down the hall, where the beige carpet is matted gray in the middle but still plush around the edges. Margie says it needs replacing. The soft clinking and clanking of dishes in the kitchen — it sours my stomach. I go into our bedroom and close the door behind. It is tempting to twist the knob locked. And why not? Margie, preoccupied with dinner preparation, won’t come. Jenny, if she’s even home, wouldn’t think to try her parents’ closed bedroom door. In short no one’s likely to take offense at my little extra measure of privacy. So I lock the damn thing and drop my pants. I step out of them. The tie I hang, the shirt I unbutton and toss in the hamper. There’s the cherry stone-sized mole near my outer right elbow which, as always, I examine and squeeze. It has one almost pubic black hair growing out of it, thick and kinked. Margie says I should see a doctor and I tell her maybe if the hair grows a buddy I’ll look into it.

I sit on the bed in socks and underwear. My belly folds softly onto my thighs. It’s not fat so much as it is — I’ve always been a slender guy, it’s just — the middle section’s gotten looser, I guess. I can slide my hand between flab and thighs and feel my fingers enveloped in flesh.

“Jim, what are you doing?” The voice is an electric shock. Margie’s standing at the open door. I’ve sprung to my feet without realizing.

“What the — how did you get in here?”

“How did I get in? I took a spaceship from the moon. What are you talking about?”

“I thought I — thought I locked the damn door.”

“Why would you lock the door?”

“I wanted some — achh. It doesn’t matter.”

“Is this all about the Brussels sprouts?” Margie has come into the room and left the door hanging wide open behind her. Jenny could easily walk by and see her father standing there half naked, but apparently Margie doesn’t care. I’ve got ten years on her and sometimes it shows. In my days at URI we had to wear sports jackets to the football game; in her day they smoked grass in the bleachers or protested the football game.

“Marg, you know how I feel about them.”

“So you turn into an animal? What would you do if your boss ordered Brussels sprouts at a dinner?”

“You’re not my god damn boss!”

“Oh Jesus Christ. Will you please grow up?”

“It’s not just a dislike. When I see them, when I smell them, it’s like smelling a — a steaming mound of shit. It literally makes me want to vomit. How am I supposed to eat dinner?”

“Listen, I’m sorry you’re so repelled by the food I’m preparing for our family. But you’re not the only person living in this house so tonight just—”

The front door squeals open and we hear shuffling, then the thump of the door shutting. Jenny is home from volleyball practice.

“—deal with it.” Margie is looking at me with those round dark eyes that still say love me or I’ll cry. Even when she’s angry, they say it to me.

“Yeah,” I say, in not the friendliest tone.

“Yeah,” she says, turning away, grabbing the doorknob. “And this lock? Hasn’t worked in years.” She closes the door behind her and I hear the retreating “everything in this house needs to be replaced.”

I put on sweats, the forest green set.

Lately, like now, when I’ve made my way back to the foul-smelling kitchen for our family dinner, I notice how Jenny never seems to be smiling these days. She’s a good kid but going through a sullen phase. It’s a lot easier to handle than Dana’s angry phase, which really got going halfway through her high school years. Dana has my temper, according to Margie, and that’s why we have such a hard time getting along. We’re doing better now that she’s away at school and we don’t have to battle over things like curfew, music volume level, drugs. Jenny — she’s quieter, doesn’t need to test the limits so much. She’s sprawled in a chair with her face in her phone as always, hair snagged in one of those rat’s-nest buns that girls her age favor for whatever reason. Her body is all shoulders and limbs, tall and lean, sort of awkward in motion, like she’s unsure of how to make anything other than a long straight line of herself. She’s still got on the high socks and a jersey top.

“Hi sweetheart. Don’t you want to shower before dinner? We can wait.”

“No I’m starving,” she says. She barely looks up from the phone. I would have had her set the table, but it’s already done. Margie is pulling chicken out of the oven, her rear in the air. Back in the day she had a figure like a juicy little pear; now she looks more like an eggplant.

“Alright,” I say. “Alright.” Margie gathers up our plates and brings them to the stove to load up with chicken. “Need any help?” I say.

“Just bring these back to the table,” Margie says. I look to Jenny.

“You heard her.” Jenny slouches to her feet and ferries two plates back to the table, which is blue Formica yellowed at the edges near the metal. She sets one in front of me.

Acch! Jesus. Get it — away. I’m going to — ”

I push my chair back and raise my eyes up to avoid the sight of Brussels sprouts rolling around like scummy eyeballs on my plate. The odor is overpowering me. The bile is rising in my gullet.

“Acch!” I say again.

“What the hell!” Jenny says.

“Jenny, language!” Margie says. “Give Dad the plate with carrots. He doesn’t eat Brussels sprouts.” I hear a shifting of china. When it stops, I lower my eyes to the table. The new plate of food is uncontaminated, but my whole digestive system is still roiling with the memory of the sprouts, like the spot in your vision after you look at the sun. Jenny is looking at me with an expression I don’t recognize or like. Margie sits.

“You don’t use language like that with your parents. Or with anyone,” I say to Jenny. She’s got a small mouth on a long face — none of Margie’s heart-shaped softness — and when she purses her lips they almost disappear. Her sweat-damp hair is straggling over her ears. “What, so now you’re mute?”

“Jenny,” Margie says. Jenny spears a fat sprout on her fork and lifts it. She observes.

“I just don’t get why he freaked out like that,” Jenny says. “It freaked me out.”

“He? I’m sitting right here.” I say.

“You,” Jenny says.

“Stop waving it around,” I say.


“The Brussels sprout. Get it out of my face.”

“Dad are you like allergic to them or something?”

“He just has a very strong aversion to them.”

“I’ve never had one,” Jenny says.

“That’s because Mom’s nice enough not to make them, usually. Since she knows I can’t stand them. Since she knows how it literally pains me to come home to a house that smells like a rhinoceros has been farting in it all day.”

“Jim,” Margie says.

“Acch,” I say. I’ve eaten exactly one Brussels sprout in my life. It was at Margie’s parents house in Warwick, the first time I met them, the first time I had a meal with them. I was the full-grown man consorting with their then-twenty-two-year-old daughter, a college senior, a cute little nutrition major. These parents had about 15 percent more class than my own, meaning they put cloth napkins in napkin rings and served wine with the dinner. When I told them I grew up in Cranston, their faces — hers saggy, his pouchy, both pasty — wavered ever so momentarily before settling into genteel masks. I remember thinking, your whole house smells like flatulence and you turn up your noses at the thought of Cranston? Of course I didn’t say anything or even twitch my eyebrow at Jenny. I didn’t realize that the odor wasn’t lingering from my future in-laws’ farts but was rather emanating from one of the serving dishes, painted so preciously with flowers, that waited at the center of the table. Even when Margie’s mother unveiled her bulbous masterpieces, I didn’t realize. How could I know? I was eager to try something new, though I didn’t want those parents knowing any of the dishes (or the napkins) were new to me. So I allowed myself to be served. The meal commenced; I took a bite — and fell to hell. Or so it seemed. What bitterness, what excrement had I allowed to pass my lips? What sodden mealy wad of cellulose was forcing my gag reflex into action? I was dizzied, stupefied with disgust. Then I remembered where I was, and that I had to swallow. Impossible! I could no sooner swallow my own — Everyone was looking at me. Margie, both parents, their expressions playing with amusement, outrage, bewilderment. These facial combinations caused nearly as much consternation as the sprout, so, in one of the greater efforts of my life, I swallowed.

Jenny takes a bite from the sprout skewered on her fork. Her teeth against its bouncing body make a squeaking, squelching sound that shivers my bones and makes my arm hairs stand. Even the hair on the mole, I bet. Leave it, I say to myself.

“Rat brains!” I say out loud. My hand is crushing my napkin, which I haven’t yet put on my lap. I do that now. Jenny stops chewing.

“Chew!” I say. Margie is breathing kind of fast.

“Oh, leave it,” I say. “Don’t be so dramatic, Margie. Sorry I can’t help noticing that the food you’re putting in your mouths looks like it comes from inside a rodent’s skull.” Or a dog’s balls, I manage to refrain from adding. Jenny has resumed her chewing and swallowing.

“You are out of control,” Margie says to me.

“Yep, that’s me,” I say. The lighting in the kitchen — cold, fluorescent — makes everyone look sickly and everything unearthly. Margie wants to replace it with “soft, warm, recessed lighting.” I know the description by heart. I tell her go find it if it’s so important to her, but don’t complain like it’s my fault you don’t have it because I don’t care about the kitchen lighting. Then she says I should care because she cares and she looks at me with the eyes. It’s just — they’re like these big dark cherries dropped into her white heart of a face. Fixed on me. Most times I let the subject of lighting drop there with the wave of a hand.

“They’re not bad,” Jenny says. “The Brussels sprouts.” She is not looking at me. She is not really looking at Margie either, but she is looking less at me. Outside it is now entirely night; the trees are invisible in the blackness. A radiator sputters. Margie puffs.

“Good,” Margie says. She can’t hide when something really pleases her. “They’re healthy. And so easy to prepare. You just rinse them off and throw them in the pot and—”

“Ahem!” I say. “Is this really appropriate dinner table talk?”

“Jesus, Jim.”

“Show some sympathy for your husband, will you?”

“What do you want to talk about?”

“Why don’t we ask our lovely daughter about her day at school.” Jenny’s eyebrows rise high into her expansive forehead and the lips purse further. Now Margie huffs.

“How was your day, Jenny?” she says.

“It was fine,” Jenny says.

“Fine?” Margie says.

“Yeah. School. Practice. You know. Pretty standard.”

“That’s all you’ve got for us?” I say.

“I mean it was a stupid day, Dad. I mean how was your day.”

“Hah!” I say. “Funny you should ask that, Jenny. As it happens, I was having an excellent day. An outstanding day. One of those stars-are-aligned, everything’s-going-my-way kind of days. And this is despite having to wear a tie for a client meeting. Do you want to know why?”

“I feel like you’re probably about to tell us,” Jenny says.

“Why?” Margie says. She has a forkful of baked potato two-thirds of the way to her plump little lips. My chest leadens ever so slightly; what I am about to say won’t answer the hope that’s now shining through her eyes. But all at once the hope irritates me and my heart irons.

“My day was excellent,” I say, attempting to ignore the sprout rolling around the perimeter of Margie’s plate, “because I had a perfect commute.” I eat a bite of carrot.

“Oh, Jim,” Margie says. She deflates.

“What?” I say to her. “Is that not good enough? Aren’t you happy for your husband’s happiness?” She raises her brows but says nothing so I continue.

“See,” I say, “I did not face a single obstacle on the entire round trip. On the drive in, I didn’t hit one red light. My favorite parking space was waiting for me when I got to the bus stop. And, guess what, the bus was right there when I got out. It was a beautiful thing. Work itself was nothing special. Someone brought in cookies — that was nice. But on the way home, once again the bus was waiting for me, and once again I hit no red lights.”

The ladies of my life are stony-lipped.

“Amazing,” Jenny finally says. She does not mean “amazing.”

“You scoff,” I say, “but this is an event that occurs maybe once a year. If you knew all the traffic jams and long lights and construction sites and engine problems and sick passengers and waits in the cold and waits in the heat and waits in the rain — if you knew. You’d see. That this was a little present from the universe. ‘Here Jim, this is for you, have a good day.’ The sun was setting over the reservoir when I drove by. Some times in the year the light gets right in my eye and drives me nuts, but tonight it was at just the right angle, and the sky and the water were all orange and glinting. Kind of gentle, you know. But brilliant. The rest of the way home, I kept thinking — this is just the type of little thing you’re supposed to be grateful for. Is it pathetic that a commute and a nice view could make my day? Maybe. But better that it could than that it couldn’t, you know. Better to take pleasure in the — anyway, then I opened the front and it all went to — sprouts.”

“Jesus,” Margie says. Her voice is a loud sudden spring.

“No!” I say. “You could’ve asked. You could’ve warned me. You didn’t have to — surprise-attack me!”

“Attack — attack you — with a vegetable?” Margie says, reddening, puffing in a new way.

“Attack!” I say. “You know. You remember. You’ve seen me around them—you know how I react.”

“You haven’t eaten one in twenty years,” Margie sputters. “I thought maybe — possibly — your tastes might have changed in that time. Did you ever consider that?”

“Acch!” I say. “Some things don’t change.”

“How do you know?” Margie says. “Why don’t you try one and see? That’s the only way to be sure.”

I’m looking at this strange woman in utter bewilderment. That she would suggest such a — that she didn’t understand, couldn’t realize, had no comprehension of the hideous revulsion that worked its way from my intestines up through my stomach and throat and—

“Acch! The thought — just the thought of a sprout inside my mouth, it — Jesus, Marg. You want me to be sick at the table?”

“Unbelievable,” Margie says.

“After that first time, I thought you got it, I thought you were with me — but I guess you were laughing at me too.” Margie’s face wiggles.

“Well honey — it was pretty funny.” Then she outright giggles. I go cold.

“You’re assholes. All three of you.” Now it’s the room’s turn to go cold. I won’t acknowledge it; I pick up my fork and pick at my chicken. I make a show of eating but I don’t look at my wife or my daughter. Then there’s a small yip. I look up: Jenny is crying. She’s working hard to hold it in, but the tears are dripping down her cheeks and her face is scrunched, red, impossibly tender.

“Oh Jesus Jenny don’t be upset, please, I just—”

“Jenny,” Margie cuts in, “your father lost his temper. “I’m sure he’ll — ”

She has reached her hand out to touch Jenny’s shoulder, but the minute it makes contact Jenny’s control breaks and she releases a wail unto our ears. She scrambles up from her seat (“Jenny!” Margie says) and out of the room. I sigh. My chest is lead again and will stay that way for a while.

“I was just trying to make the point,” I say into silence, “that sometimes you think a day is going so well and then along comes something, out of the blue, with no reason attached, and turns the day to shit. And that that is life in a nutshell.” We hear Jenny’s door slam shut.

“You are going to go in there and apologize, you idiot,” Margie says. Her tone is low and measured, her hair askew in indignation. Her hair — she has never cut it into one of those short fluffy styles like a lot of women her age. She keeps it just above her shoulders, wavy, usually up in a ponytail but always with pieces hanging out around her face, escaping, a mess. I don’t get it. You’d think after all these years she’d have figured out how to —

“Acch,” I say. “Jenny’s fine. She heard ten times worse — a hundred times worse — when Dana was home, didn’t she? And she was fine. She’s probably crying because some boyfriend snubbed her. She doesn’t want to — clearly she doesn’t want to hear from me.”

“Now,” Margie says. She rises, takes my plate away from me, stacks it with hers and Jenny’s. Waits.

“Ah Marg. I’m sorry, okay? I’m an asshole.”

“Go,” Margie says.

I stand, I go. My steps are slow. I’m good with kids when they’re kids, small enough to delight in stories and being tickled and tossed around and chased. I was a master at that phase of child-rearing. It’s when they hit puberty, when they start to think they’re people, when they morph into oily-faced strangers with strange sorrows and desires, that I turn into a fumbling idiot. I’m at Jenny’s door. I knock; nothing.

“Jenny,” I say. Nothing. “I’m gonna come in. Are you decent?” Nothing. “Okay, I’m going to assume you’re decent and come in. I’m coming in.” I crack the door. It’s dark inside her room; light from the hall creates a beam on the floor that widens as I open it further. The beam falls just short of Jenny’s bed, where Jenny is lying face up. What little I can see of her expression is empty or unreadable. The room’s aroma puts me on alert: feminine, a mix of perfume and hair products and clothing, if clothing has a smell. The beam falls on Jenny’s dresser, which is cluttered with three dozen mismatched, half-melted candles, like some sort of shrine to God knows what. I swear some day she’s going to burn down the house. Jenny is still.

“Listen Jenny,” I say. “I shouldn’t have lost my temper at the dinner table, okay? It was wrong of me. I’m sorry for upsetting you.” I am speaking into perfumed silence. My shadow in the beam is long in the dark of the room. “I’m not nuts,” I say. “Okay? Some people are nuts. Sometimes I can be a bit of a nut. Like tonight, with my temper, I was a nut. I’m sorry.” If I open the door just a few inches more, I’ll see the hallway’s yellow light beaming on Jenny’s face. I’m afraid of what I’ll find there. The strain of Dana’s teenage years is tightening its old grip on me — the screaming, stomping, slamming, hoarse throats, declarations, accusations, silence. Not again. I can’t — do it again. Too old. And my Jenny — a good kid, a sweet girl, a hard worker, committed to her team, solid, smart, becoming a woman. The profile of her face barely visible in the dim of the room; the stalky lines of her body arranged on the bed.

There must be more to say; there is a further effort I can make with a few more words, a way to get inside the girl inside the prone form on the bed, elbows all over the place. When I was her age — it’s hard to remember sixteen, harder than it is to remember nine. Sixteen — we would have been living on Johnston Street; I would’ve walked home from the new low-slung high school. Yellow siding — I can’t believe I remember, but the house had yellow siding — a scratchy yard, a few out-of-work flowerpots bumming on the concrete stoop. I would have taken the stairs two at a time up to our floor, shot open the door and into the kitchen. Ma would have been reigning over the stove, her back to me, built tall and straight and heavy-headed like a sunflower, elbows sticking out — Jenny’s elbows.

This hits me hard. The beam is just touching the corner of Jenny’s elbow, which is undeniably Ma’s elbow, which is something I have never noticed until this minute. Ma’s been gone three years. All I want to do is rush into the room and give Jenny the biggest hug, and I want her to hug back, but she hasn’t forgiven me. Hasn’t even acknowledged that I’m standing here like a jerk at the border of her space, pleading with her—

Then Jenny’s phone oinks. This is not a figure of speech. I hear it go off sometimes around the house, a deep nasal mechanical snort, and for half a second I’m seized with the fear that some malevolent animal is lurking in our rooms. Then I remember it’s just my daughter getting a text message. Jenny picks up the phone, which was already resting on her belly. In the dark room its cold glow illuminates her face, her small sharp chin receding into her neck as she strains up to read. The tap-click-tapping of her fingers commences.

“So anyway, I’m sorry, like I said.” I wait until she finishes typing and drops the phone. “It’s not like — worse things have happened than a Dad losing his temper, right? It’s not like I — acch. There are hurricanes and kids starving, you know? Wars, floods, awful things. Think about — you don’t have to be so upset. I’m your father and I love you.” Nothing. “Could you say something, Jenny? Could you acknowledge that I’m standing here? I’m trying real hard to be patient.” I think maybe she’s about to say something — she’s stirring a little, shifting — and then the damn phone snorts again.

“Acch!” I say. Jenny cracks open the phone. The glow it casts on her face is such a different kind of light from the hallway beam. She reads — her face writhes — she smiles. It’s more than that: all of a sudden she’s giggling, laughing, tickled over whatever tidbit her friend has just sent her. You can see — for my sake she’s trying to contain the mirth, but it’s clear that any sullenness is just residual, a shadow, no longer real.

“Alright,” I say. She’s back to typing. “Alright. Okay. Alright. I see you’re fine. You’re good. Good.” The phone drops again. Jenny’s face is once more obscured. “I’m gonna go. Good night.”

I close the door behind me. I’m back out in the yellow-lit hallway, my socked feet on the downtrodden carpet. The kid is fine. She doesn’t give a damn what her father says or does. I turn in one and a half circles, deciding: bedroom or living room. Can’t be past 8:30. Alright. Down the hall it is. There’s a new smell in the air, the citrus sting of cleaning products. So Margie thinks she can — I inhale, seeking some trace of the sprouts’ stench beneath the veneer of sterility. I detect none.

“I can still smell it,” I say aloud.

I find Margie in the wood-paneled living room, nestled regally in the section of the couch that is worn into the shape of her bum. It’s right next to the section of the couch that is worn into the shape of mine. Margie doesn’t acknowledge my comment though I know she could hear it. She has taken up her knitting — isn’t that a cute way of saying it? She likes it when I say “Ah, my lovely wife has taken up her knitting.” It’s somewhat of a new hobby for her. She was too progressive for anything so domestic back when we met. I first saw her on the URI campus, which had once been my campus. On this occasion I had returned in a suit and tie with an armload of textbooks to sell to the professors whose lectures I’d once snoozed through. It wasn’t my first time back as a sales rep, but it was the first time I felt a certain heaviness in my gut, the first time I was over thirty. All the kids were such kids; I was such a suit. It was springtime according to the calendar, but not in reality: no buds on the trees, air too chill to do any of the things you really wanted to do like wear a T-shirt or lie out on the green. The kids were doing those things anyway. I was early for my meeting so I stood at the corner of the quad just watching them for a while, remembering the guys I’d palled around with in college but hadn’t seen since. And most of us still lived in the state.

Just as I was starting to feel all sorts of self pity for not making more of myself, I noticed this girl walking across the quad. Why my eye picked her out among all the girls scooting off to classes, well before I could see if she was attractive, I don’t know. She had on one of those flowy, bunched blouses that everyone was wearing at that time. No jacket. She was clutching books to her chest in a way that said she was cold. As she came closer, I saw how pretty she was, the sweet apples of her cheeks, the eyes. What I did as she approached has nothing at all to do with my own will or the personality I call my own. I stopped her. I asked her for directions to the psychology department, though of course I knew where it was. This was the first time I got a hit of the eyes straight on, though they didn’t yet say love me or I’ll cry. Instead they said you really think you have the strength to love me? The thing is, I knew I did. It was the easiest realization.

“Alright,” I say to Margie. “She’s laughing. Alright?”

“Hmm?” Margie says. She’s got the TV on, the reality crap she likes to watch. Dancing on the Island with the Fat People, or whatever. Her eyes are divided between the crap and the needles.

“I went in there. Like you said. She wouldn’t say a thing to me.”

“Did you apologize?” Here I am granted a glance.

“Yeah I apologized. I said I shouldn’t have lost my temper.”

“Good.” Her eyes turn back to the TV and the needles. She’s doing a charity project, knitting caps to send to the troops in Afghanistan. Maybe it’s not the best use for her leftover pastel pink and yellow yarn, but I know better than to say anything. On the screen a fat sweaty man and a hook-nosed sweaty woman are looking mournful.

“And then she” — Margie’s eyes are still stuck on the screen’s bouncing glowing bodies — “then she — her phone went off and she started doing text messages. Okay? She’s laughing. Alright?”

“Mmm, “ Margie says. Her hair is escaping in locks all over her cheeks, but she does not care.

“You make these big god damn deals about these things, Marg. It wears me out.”

I’m pacing. I stop pacing. Margie lowers her needles and looks at me again with the dark eyes, which ask many questions and answer all of them.

“You planning to sit?”