Sometimes in the afternoon, Donna listened for the groan of busses struggling up the arterial to disgorge their passengers like great bulimic beasts. On the average day, the 6:05 conveyed Greg to his stop, but today the front door slammed and keys jingled before 5:30. Aside from the unusual timing, she had no reason to anticipate any sudden metamorphosis in their way of life.
“Welcome home, darling,” she sang out, re-focusing her attention on dinner preparations.
No answer. Maybe he couldn’t hear her over the stove fan. His briefcase thumped against the back of the hall closet.
She’d planned this special dinner hoping it would cheer him up. At times he seemed crushed by the pressures of twenty-one years rising in the ranks at a regional bank, avoiding industry consolidation, the small fry consumed by bigger fish, behemoths devouring all. Mere employees were the equivalent of krill, that great mass of tiny crustaceans providing a foundation for the food chain.
“Dinner in half an hour,” she called, plumping two pistachio-encrusted pork chops and pondering the sweet/sour balance of the balsamic reduction with dried cherries. She contemplated proper skillet time. In the old days, pig products required overcooking for fear of trichinosis, a larval parasite that ate the host from the inside out. Not a problem in the modern age—probably. She wished she remembered more from her degree in Biology, which she’d never had to rely on for employment, blessed with the ability to stay home and raise children. She looked forward to working again when the kids departed for college.
Greg removed his tie as he entered the kitchen, shirt tails un-tucked. He never wore his shirt tails un-tucked.
“I quit today,” he said.
His deadpan delivery often left her unable to key out the facetious declarations from their serious counterparts, a trait she found both attractive and aggravating. “Ha-ha, very funny,” she said, calibrating broiler time for the wilted romaine and gorgonzola salad. Son Jason would dine on pizza with friends after football practice while daughter Morgan segued from cheerleading to sushi before math study group. Donna looked forward to this opportunity to show off the skills acquired in cooking classes, followed by a rented movie and maybe more if she could keep him from finishing the wine and falling asleep on the couch by 9:30.
“Officially, I’m on vacation until June,” Greg said.
She startled, unaware he’d remained in the kitchen, standing just behind her. The joke had gone too far, disrupting her cooking rhythm. Salad and entrée would hit the table together, pork pink in the middle to retain its juices, risk of parasitic infection be damned. “Sure, okay. Dinner in twenty minutes. Maybe you should go look at the classifieds.”
“Plenty of time for that.” Greg placed his hands over her apron straps and nuzzled the sensitive spot behind her left ear, sandwiching her against the counter. Stimulating, but ill-timed. The aroma of imported extra virgin olive oil rose off the pan, the fog of garlic and rosemary sucking into the exhaust vent like wasted foreplay.
* * *
“Since you’re at home, you could fix the side door again,” Donna said, knowing how much Greg disliked carpentry in general and that door in particular.
Greg looked up from the crossword puzzle on the kitchen table. In the three weeks since losing his job, he arose early to pour over the classifieds, drawing circles and making notes with a red pen. First the red pen went missing, replaced by a chewed pencil stub; then the classifieds evolved into the crossword puzzle.
“I’ll get right on it,” he said. He inspected the aluminum screen door casement, loose for the third time since they’d moved into the house.
No amount of carpentry eradicated the dry rot, which was—what? A bug, like termites? No. A fungus. She knew this once.
Greg hauled his lightly-used tools up from the basement, fumbling with the buckle of the tool belt.
“You know,” she said. “Jason’s off to college in the fall. Maybe after you fix the door you could call an executive search firm?”
“No need to traffic with head hunters,” Greg aimed his power screwdriver skyward, squinting at the tip as if puzzling over whether college and job searches required a Philips bit. “I’ll take care of it.”
He left the house a couple of hours later without changing out of his t-shirt and the jeans with holes in the knees. Headed, she assumed, for the hardware store.
* * *
Donna piloted her cart into the checkout lane, watching Greg pack a pair of canvas totes for an old woman—canned goods on the bottom, lighter stuff on top, fragile tomatoes and eggs nestled in pillows of produce. Greg had worked as a bagger at the grocery store for a month, since the day after he’d tried to fix the door.
“Would you like some help out to your car with that ma’m?” Greg said to the old woman. “You sure?”
He sounded so fucking agreeable.
Greg possessed a gift for spatial reasoning, an expert at packing suitcases, stuffing the car with camping gear, arranging luggage and snow tires in the attic. He knew how things fit. He looked happier than he had in years.
A wave of doubt almost compelled Donna to pull out of line and abandon the shopping cart. He’d stopped looking for other work that might provide health insurance or a living wage. She’d offered to look for a job, but Greg would not discuss the situation. Something had to be done.
Her hand trembled while transferring items from cart to conveyor belt, spaced for visual effect. The obscene price of an ounce of saffron—a small tangle of red stamens suspended in a glass vial like culinary plutonium—materialized on the screen.
“Will that be paper or plastic?” Greg said.
Donna blinked at his big dumb smile. “You know we always do paper.” She couldn’t help thinking he looked ten—no, fifteen—years younger. A manboy in an orange apron over the white shirt and suit pants he used to wear to the bank.
“Paper it is, ma’m.”
The checkout clerk, a heavyset woman with Velcroed wrist braces, flicked items through a red spider web of laser light. Truffle oil. Beep. An excellent bottle of cabernet. Beep. French cheese covered in ash and cave-aged for two years. Beep. A selection of exotic fruits and vegetables rocking on the belt like gems on a jeweler’s baize. Beep, beep, beep.
“Looks like you’re having one hell of a party,” the checker said.
“Yes,” Donna said. “Quite the party.”
Greg parsed the objects into two hollow pillars of brown paper, the dancing total crowding the width of the display. Donna braced for some expression of outrage until she realized that the low sing-song was Greg humming along to the soft rock rendition of “A Day in the Life” on the PA.
The total made her stomach hurt as she swiped the debit card. Something else in the mysterious depths of economics misfired and the transaction failed to bounce.
“Would you like help out with that?” Greg said.
With that simple stupid grin that said—what? Trust?
“No thanks.” She felt horrible—an ungrateful betrayer. “I’ll handle it myself.”
She returned all of the items after Greg’s shift. Except the wine.
* * *
The children rose to the occasion. Jason worked construction all summer and applied for emergency financial aid, deciding on community college when that failed to materialize. Morgan found a job at the mall and quit the cheer squad, a choice made without consulting her mother. Through a cooking class contact, Donna found an assistant manager position at a restaurant downtown despite her lack of culinary or management experience.
Their combined income covered the groceries, mortgage and utilities as long as nobody fell sick or turned up the thermostat, but they didn’t see much of each other. Donna ate standing up at the restaurant most nights, discovering the flexibility to roll with problems such as the Health Department inspection that discovered mold in the walk in. Donna inherited the manager position when the previous tenant left to become a long haul trucker.
Their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary fell on Donna’s day off, the gifts and dinners of the past now out of the question. She prepared a simple but elegant meal: goat cheese and roasted hazelnut salad; prawns sautéed in butter and garlic with capers; a light fettuccini; an underrated Semillon. She enjoyed cooking the meal, but the best part was sitting down to eat.
“You know,” Donna said after a few bites, “I considered leaving you. I spent an afternoon looking at family law listings in the phone book, that same day I went through your line with a cart full of luxury items. You pretended it didn’t bother you, like you trusted me to do the right thing.”
“When was this?” Greg said.
“You know. Two bags of groceries for $374.62? I returned them later.” Maybe it had been a mistake to bring this up, but in a weird way she felt changed for the better. Triumphant, but still in need of a reason. “Anyway, that was crazy. Happy anniversary. Cheers.”
Greg gulped his wine. “$374.62? What the hell did you buy?”
“Never mind,” she said. It was as if he’d been transformed into a giant insect operating on instinct, humor and emotions a luxury he could not afford. “It doesn’t matter now.”
“Look,” Greg shrugged. “About the job. I quit today. I can’t take the pressure.”
“Pressure?” Donna poured herself more wine and glanced at the phone book, six feet away on the shelf and tried to remember whether the listings appeared under “lawyers” or “attorneys.” He was broken, but it wasn’t his fault.
She thought about the plankton and wrasses and pelagic fish and sharks, all devouring each other. She heard the low frequency cries of enormous creatures approaching to feed on the vast quantities of tiny shrimp, massed together but defenseless.
Robert P. Kaye's stories have appeared or in The Los Angeles Review,Monkeybicycle, Per Contra, Staccato Fiction, Green Mountains Review, Jersey Devil and elsewhere, with nominations for Pushcart, Best of the Web and Story South prizes. Links appear at www.RobertPKaye.com together with the Litwrack Blog, about the spectacular slo-mo collision of literature and technology.