Fiction | March 01, 2002
ROY GOT UP AT FIVE to start cooking for the firemen. He had been getting up at dawn for weeks now anyway, ever since the last seizure, but usually he just read his affirmations and practiced tai chi in front of the turned-off television set. Today he wanted to talk. He couldn’t wake Jill; she needed her sleep, and as their marriage counselor had pointed out, she also needed plain and simple “time out” because Roy (and Roy knew this and was sorry) was driving her crazy. So Roy slipped out of bed and went to his daughter’s room. Baby Tess lifted her arms and allowed herself to be carried to the kitchen, but she squirmed and covered her ears with her blanket the minute he opened his mouth, so Roy had no choice but to address God as he understood Him.
Or Her. For Roy’s God was a girl, about twelve years old, slim and lazy with lit, dewy eyes and sharp little teeth. She could be generous and fond one minute and casually vicious the next. He had felt Her sour breath on his neck since his childhood but had only named her God and honored Her as such since the diagnosis of his brain tumor six months ago. By trial and error he had also discovered, at about the same time, that the best way to treat Her was with extravagant respect. No matter how badly She herself behaved, She expected good manners from him. She especially liked to be thanked.
Thank you, God, he said silently, sitting naked on the kitchen floor among the tumbled cookbooks with his palms turned up and his closed eyelids jumping as fast as his pulse, for all the people I’ve known who are up there with you now, including (he counted) mother, father, stepmother one, stepmother two and Leslie, poor Leslie. May they be filled with lovingkindness. And in the meantime, thank you for keeping me away from them and letting me live with these beloved strangers down here a while longer. Thank you for the Zen Center, the Positive Center, WellSpring and Esalen. Thank you for chemo and radiation and antidepressants and aspirin and medical insurance. Thank you for all the doctors, even the last one. He paused and passed one hand over his bald head, pleased as always by the plush resilience of skin over skull. Thank you for giving me a nice round head. Thank you for making it the color of mozzarella. Thinking of mozzarella made him remember the lasagna he had promised the firemen. Thank you, he finished, palms tingling, eyelids twitching, Baby Tess poking at the dragonfly tattoo on his thigh, for helping me find the right recipe.
He had spent the day before at the library, going through cookbooks. He had explained to the librarians that he wanted a recipe that was saucy and cheesy and rich, and it was astonishing to both him and the two helpful women how many so-called good cookbooks called for low-fat cottage cheese in place of ricotta, yogurt in place of white sauce, ground turkey or even sliced zucchini in place of sausage and beef. Some chefs used no salt; others relied on oregano only, and none gave directions for making the noodles from scratch. He had no luck finding the recipe he’d used as a boy, working alone in his father’s bachelor apartment, but Martha Stewart, of all people, had a cookbook that offered a passable compromise, and if he combined it with recipes from four other books, he knew he’d have a killer dish, fit for firemen.
“Roy!” Jill said, coming into the kitchen. “What are you doing?” She stopped. The marriage counselor had told her not to assign blame. “Are you all right?” she asked, her voice intent on softening.
“I’m fine.” Roy opened his eyes, flexed his palms and smiled. He always smiled when he saw Jill. She was so pretty and young and quick. Her eyes matched the blue of her bathrobe, the blue of the ribbon around her long, drooping ponytail. She was the best thing that had ever happened to him; he told her that all the time, and at first she used to chime in and say, No, you are the best thing that has ever happened to me, but she didn’t say that anymore. “I knew there would be problems,” Jill had told the counselor. Last week? The week before? “I mean, he’s ten years older and widowed and had a baby, but I never thought there would be problems like this. I never imagined this.”
Who could? First the trouble with his balance. Then the memory loops. Handwriting shot. Headaches like train wrecks. “And now,” Jill had said, “I have two children. Two children and I’ve never even been pregnant!” She’d started to laugh, but then she burst into tears and Roy had sunk into a ball, right there on the counselor’s carpet, curled up, hugging his ankles, rocking back and forth, crying too, so sorry he’d done this to her, so sorry! Until at last she reached down and said, “It’s all right.” But it wasn’t. It couldn’t be. What had he cooked for poor Jill on their first date? Wild duck? Caviar risotto?
Thinking of food made him jiggle Baby Tess off his thigh and hand her to Jill, who cupped her up incompetently and stood there looking at him. Beauties, both of them. “I’m a lucky man,” he said as Jill carried Baby Tess back to her crib. He stood, waited until the dizziness sank and he was sure he was not going to keel over, then tied an apron over his bare belly, found his reading glasses by the phone and opened the cookbooks to all their marked places. Make the noodles first. Then the three sauces. Assemble. For dessert, good vanilla ice cream, fresh strawberries and the same chocolate-chip cookies he’d made for the boy after his first seizure, when he’d writhed in the rain in the middle of the street until the delivery van braked for him. He could still hear the boy’s high, astonished voice. You’re fucking lucky to be alive, man. You’re a miracle, man. And he was. Nothing but a bruised hip from that one. And other miracles followed. A dislocated shoulder from a fall in the shower had been fixed with one good whack from the chiropractor. A tumble off the roof that should have broken his neck only banged up one knee. Jill had yanked his arm back in time from the garbage disposal. God had screamed, “Truck!” in his ear the last day he’d driven. He’d swerved off the road, and though he’d cut his eyebrow on the steering wheel there was no mark now. Odd, the parts of the body that decided to heal, while the tumor wavered, shrinking and then swelling again, capricious. Five years, one doctor had said. Five minutes, the last one had said.
He shook out his morning dose of deadly meds, swallowed them down with Willard’s Water, and began to measure out flour for the pasta. After a while, excited by the elasticity of the dough beneath his hands as he kneaded, he forgot his promise to be quiet if he got up early, opened his mouth and started to sing.
Jill heard him, but she wasn’t mad. She smiled when she came back in to make coffee, a slight smile, not granting much, but enough to let him know that the sight of a bald man draping noodles to dry over the backs of kitchen chairs dressed in nothing but an apron and a tattoo while singing “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” was all right, was fine, was funny, was sweet. She had not smiled at all last month—was it last month? month before?—when he’d risen at dawn to rearrange the living room. She had not liked the feng shui; he’d had to put everything back. She’d been upset when he’d cut the plum tree down—it almost fell on the house—and after he’d pulled up the carpet to expose the genuine, if battered, parquet underneath, she’d forbidden him to refinish the floors. But since the last seizure, on the hiking trail, she’d been gentler. And now, as she opened the refrigerator for milk, saw the packages of ground beef and Italian sausage he’d forgotten to add to the tomato sauce, she was almost as upset for him as he was for himself.
“I want the firemen to like this,” Roy explained, fighting tears as he sautéed more garlic and added the meat. He leaned over the flaming pan and tried to kiss Jill on the cheek. She gasped and reached for the handle in time. “I want them to like you,” he added, chastised, moving back as she waved him toward a chair. “I want one of them to like you a lot.”
“You’re not making sense,” Jill sighed.
She said that often.
But she was wrong.
“You can’t really be mad at him.” He heard her on the phone later that day as he was painting Baby Tess’s toenails. She’d wanted blue. “It’s the medication he’s on. They change it every week. They don’t know what they’re doing.” He blew on Baby Tess’s toes until they were dry, then fitted one fat foot into a new red sandal.
“Ready to walk to the store?” he asked.
“No,” Baby Tess said. “Park.”
“Okay, we’ll walk to the park.”
“No,” Baby Tess said. “Store.”
He looked into her fierce eyes. “You are just like your mother,” he revealed. Baby Tess, who had never known Leslie and thought Jill was her mother, raised a fist, and he kissed it.
“I’ll say one thing about those firemen.” Jill paused. He could actually hear her lick her lips across the length of the room. “Eye candy. Total eye candy.”
Good, Roy thought. He smiled as he fitted the second sandal onto Baby Tess’s foot. So Jill had noticed after all. He just hoped she’d noticed the right one. Two of the firemen had given him CPR, two others had carried him down the trail on a stretcher, but it was the tall, strong one who had stayed with him in the ambulance, soothing Jill in a deep voice, whom he was counting on. Stu. The chief. Roy pulled on his beret and followed Baby Tess to the front door. “‘Bye, love,” he called. “We’re going to the store.” Baby Tess opened her mouth to scream. “Park,” he amended. “I’ll be back in time to make the cookies.” Jill, on the phone, giggled throatily, ignoring him. Am I jealous? he wondered. He shut the door and trudged down the driveway. He hoped he wasn’t jealous. It was all right for Baby Tess to be like her, but he himself did not want to be like Leslie.
Leslie. His first wife. The one who had died. Leslie’s last days had been so miserable that Roy had taken them to heart as life’s lesson. No whining for him, no complaining, none of that Why Me-it just made things worse. Who knew why God dumped a bucket of bad luck on one person and slipped a promise ring onto the finger of another? It made no sense. Leslie had had a grotesque life. She’d been orphaned as a baby, abused as a child, abandoned as a teenager. He’d been thrilled by her nervy blond looks and her easy, articulate self-pity. He’d cooked-what had he cooked for Leslie on their wedding night?-rack of lamb in pomegranate sauce? And then, with no warning, she’d been stricken with a debilitating and very rare neurological disease.
It was a joke; it was no joke. She was paralyzed. The pregnancy she refused to terminate was a horror; she was blind, crippled, furious. She blamed him; she blamed Baby Tess. She sat in the dark and begged for a gun, over and over, Just get me a gun, goddamn you, do something right for once. She’d probably be deeply gratified to see what had happened to him now. She’d probably say, You see? I was right. No one escapes. Not even you, Mister Enabler. Mister How-Can-I-Help-You. Mister Totally Useless.
He nodded to Mrs. Holst, who lived across the street, and stopped, Baby Tess yanking hard on his hand, to talk to Old Ed, the neighbor on the left, about the new stop sign. Was it a good thing? A bad thing? A good and a bad thing? Gypsy, the Brogans’ dog, met them at the corner and was soon joined by Marcus, the Kleins’ Lab, and Flip, the Legaspis’ mutt. “We are leading the dog parade,” Roy said to Baby Tess. “They want to go to the park too.”
“Store,” Baby Tess corrected, but the minute he turned toward the store she steered him toward the park, where he happily spent the next hour pushing her in the swing, throwing sticks for the dogs, digging in the sandbox for China. When he came home, the house smelled like chocolate—Jill had gone ahead and baked the cookies for him—and there was time for a bath and a nap before they drove to the firehouse. There was even time to paint his own toenails blue.
The firemen were waiting at the firehouse door, seven of them, maybe not “eye candy,” but good-looking men nonetheless, betterlooking than Roy had been in his prime. Stu, in his crisp white jacket, introduced the others: Scott, Skip, Steve, Stan, Scott Again, and Sam. They ranged in age from twenty-one to about sixty, but they all had thick heads of hair, wide shoulders and open, outdoorsy faces. “I salute you,” Roy said, shaking hands. “You are my heroes.” Stu laughed politely; he probably heard that all the time, but a few of the other S’s gave him strange looks. Roy knew what they saw: a puffed, pale freak with wide-lit eyes, whose life they had saved once and might need to save again soon. Until then, a voter. A homeowner. Proud father of a cute, if clingy, little girl (Baby Tess was clamped around his neck), with a pretty, much younger wife.
Jill had washed her hair and released it from its ponytail so it waved over her shoulders. She was wearing rose perfume and slick brown lipstick. Two of the firemen helped Roy carry the foil-wrapped casseroles, the garlic bread and the salad in from the car. Places were already set at a long table in front of an enormous television set. The baseball game was on, and Jill asked intelligent questions about it. Roy did not care
for baseball, but he chuckled attentively as one of the Scotts reported on the inning they had just missed.
Stu gave them a tour of the station before dinner. Jill admired the new computer system while Roy studied the huge county map on the office wall. “This is where you found me,” he said, pointing to a dotted hiking trail.
“I won’t let him walk there anymore,” Jill chimed in, sounding authentically wifely.
“Now I just go to the store and the park,” Roy agreed.
“Hospital,” Baby Tess offered, lifting her head off his neck, her first word in an hour.
“But we drive him to the hospital, honey,” Jill explained to Baby Tess. “He doesn’t walk there.”
“That would be a long walk,” Stu said. Strong chin. Strong back. Ringless. Roy smiled and moved in.
“Jill is a wonderful woman, isn’t she?” he said. “Beautiful, the best, and Baby Tess, what a darling. And you know what?” He looked up into Stu’s clear, hazel eyes. “They would be all alone now if you hadn’t helped me.”
“That’s our job,” the firemen said, all of them, one after the other, looking neither pleased nor puzzled, just matter-of-fact.
“Well, it may be your job,” Roy continued at dinner, “but I want to make a toast anyway.” He stood and lifted his plastic glass of lemonade to the table. “I’m only sorry this isn’t champagne,” he began. “Or,” amending that at the sight of the flat, polite looks that met him, “beer.” The men relaxed and smiled. He was glad to see they had all helped themselves heartily to lasagna and bread. “It’s a crazy thing to bring dinner to the world’s greatest cooks—everyone knows firemen are the world’s greatest cooks—but I’ve been cooking since I was eleven. I used to cook for my father after he left my mother—that’s how he got women, my father, and what a miserable lot he got, poor guy, he’d bring them back to the apartment and I’d cook for them—you might say my brisket cooked his goose—anyway, I know, honey—” to Jill—”I’ll get to it, the thing is, I couldn’t think how else to say thank you. I wouldn’t be here tonight if it weren’t for you guys. You saved my life, and I just wanted you to know how grateful I am. That’s it. That’s all. Just thank you.” He put down his glass and clapped, and Jill and then, surprisingly, Baby Tess clapped with him.
The firemen waited until Stu said, “Sure, no problem,” and then they all ate, and the conversation turned to jobs in general, Roy telling them how he thought his old job in sales was probably the reason he had the tumor in the first place-all that getting up and getting dressed and getting out every day when he never, not once, wanted to, and Stu, smiling at Jill, saying there wasn’t a day when he didn’t feel happy to go to work, and Jill saying she was lucky to be able to work at home now that Roy needed watching, and one of the S’s saying he had once, years ago, thought of being a policeman instead of a fireman.
“Oh, but that’s a dirty job,” another S said.
“The things you see,” another agreed.
“Makes you hate human nature,” another said. “Makes you mean.”
“Policemen are mean,” Roy agreed. “When my wife—my first wife, that is—died, a bunch of policemen came to the house. They . . .” he trailed away, stopped by Jill’s curious look. He had never told her about Leslie’s death. “They didn’t come to help,” he finished. He was glad when the S on his left asked about the lasagna recipe. The mention of Martha Stewart silenced everyone; then they recovered to talk of other entrepreneurs, stock tips, day trading, hobbies, sports, fishing, all interlaced with the shy references Roy had become used to about various bizarre illnesses and, as always when talking to other men, hair styles. No one mentioned baldness, but it became clear from some clannish laughter at the end of the table that Stan used Grecian Formula and that Skip had a hairpiece. Stu could not bear to have his hair ruffled, and Stan had a special comb no one else was allowed to touch.
“Is this what you do when there aren’t any fires to put out?” Jill asked, teasing. “Pick on each other?” The men laughed, blushed, hung their handsome heads. The casseroles and salads went around and around, followed by the cookies and ice cream and fruit. No one would let Roy clear, and although Jill tried to do the dishes, the men marched by her one by one and rinsed and loaded their own plates into the industrial-sized dishwasher. Roy crouched with Baby Tess by a white blackboard on the wall, helping her draw a wall of flames with colored chalk. He heard Jill in the kitchen talking to Stu in the same dramatic, low voice she used at the marriage counselor’s. How pretty she looked. How easy it would be. He’d simply invite Stu over to check the firebreak around the house next week. Leave an apricot pie on the counter to cool, make a pot of fresh coffee, and then take Baby Tess on a long walk; they’d go to the park and the store.
He straightened, tired. Jill saw his drained face and made their goodbyes, and they left with their clean dishes, everyone waving. “Glad to see us go,” Roy said, cheerful, as he sank into his seat in the car. “Now they can be themselves again.”
“Oh, I don’t think so, honey.” Jill drove with both hands on top of the wheel. ” I think they had a good time. That fire chief, Stu, told me hardly anyone ever thanks them. And that’s a shame.”
“It is,” Roy agreed. He closed his eyes. His father had never thanked him for his stepmothers. Well, who would? Leslie had never thanked him either. “The thing we don’t understand,” the policemen kept saying, “is how she managed to kill herself with a gun in the first place. Blind and in a wheelchair? How’d she get a loaded gun?”
It would not have taken much on Leslie’s part. She’d had time. He’d left pen and paper beside the revolver. A short note would have done it. Two words. But no. Forget it, Roy thought. It’s over and done with. He felt God come down, heard Her hot little giggle, felt Her fingers, sharp and pointy, start to twist his skull as if it were the knob of a disliked doll. His head rose toward Her, light and obedient, a balloon in the night, ascending. Thank you, he forced himself to say. Thank you.
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