When recounting the story, she liked to tell people that it was all Harold’s fault. Didn’t most criminals blame other people for their crimes, especially their crimes of passion?
Harold was her husband—had been her husband for almost twenty-four years—and it had all started one fateful evening when he had asked her what was for dinner. He presented the question, the first and only words he had spoken to her since arriving home from work an hour before, in that distracted way that meant he was not listening but expecting an answer nevertheless… “What’s for dinner?”—rustling his newspaper and not bothering to look up, speaking as if to the dog, or to his shoes.
Not even his favorite shoes, either.
“What’s for dinner?” And Lori looked around her shining kitchen, the oven recently scrubbed with a caustic spray that took away both charred food particles from the stove and flesh from her palms, the dishes gleaming on an oaken ladder drainer, the fruits, selected for their aesthetic appeal rather than edibility, sitting red and green and yellow in their country blue-and-white stoneware bowl from Pottery Shed (forty-nine ninety-nine, plus tax), and she felt something tired switch off, replaced by a fiery blankness. She calmly walked over and lifted the bowl, feeling a sudden urge to carry it into the living room and drop it, apples and lemons and all, onto Harold’s balding pate. The sound would be marvelous—a discordant thunk as it made contact with his head, a yelp of pain, and the final crashing of both bowl and fruit onto the floor, pattering like giant hailstones around Harold’s slippered feet.
She tightened her fingers on the cool sides of the bowl and then set it down again. She would not waste her bowl; it was, with its sensible, understated New England style and reasonable price, a testament to her good taste and brilliant homemaking skills. “Homely” is what Lakshmi, her Indian friend and neighbor down the street, called it. “You would be written up as ‘a fair and homely’ girl in the marriage papers in India,” Lakshmi told her once, stirring the milky, fragrant cardamom- and cinnamon-laced tea she drank every afternoon, handing a cup to Lori. “All the mothers would want to be arranging a marriage to their sons with you. Caste be damned and all that. You are an Indian-mother-of-a-boy’s dream.”
Lori had laughed and laughed at that, wiping tears from her cheeks as Lakshmi smiled her cool, benevolent smile. “Homely,” Lori finally choked out. “That’s me.” She was astonished when other, sharper tears suddenly sprang into her eyes and spilled down her cheeks, and Lakshmi leapt up, tsking and fussing, wiping Lori’s face with the end of a rosebud-pink silk sari. Lori regretted aloud the tears that stained the slippery pale fabric, but Lakshmi brushed her protests aside.
“This sadness comes from too many American notions of rights,” Lakshmi said. “There is no mother-in-law in your house, judging you, ordering you about. You are free. Why do you knit your own chains around your wrist? Feed the man, send him to work, live your life. I don’t understand your dilemma. Forgive me if I oversimplify, but there it is, isn’t it?”
Lori sighed. She wasn’t sure she had an explanation that would make sense. How could she tell her friend—who rejoiced every day that her own husband, a man she had not met until their wedding day and who had brought her to this country, away from the suffocation of his mother, a tiny tyrant who slapped and complained and cajoled with every breath—that when she looked at Harold, she yearned? That she sometimes glimpsed the skin of his head and remembered the curls that had once covered it, and how, when she slipped between their starched and sun-dried sheets, she sometimes remembered herself tumbling into bed next to him, naked and exhausted and twenty-three, and felt that flush all over her body again?
“I need to love him,” she said, “if only because he once knew me when I was someone else. If he doesn’t see me that way anymore then I am afraid I am lost forever.”
Lakshmi regarded her for a long moment, silent, her face as always betraying nothing. Later, Lori tried to share the story with Harold over dinner (braised leg of lamb, tiny sweet peas swimming in a butter cream sauce, cracked wheat rolls, roasted red potatoes, and a bread pudding for dessert, perfect in taste and appearance, just like in the magazine), piling his plate high and handing it to him as she said, “Homely, Harold. And then I said, ‘That’s me!’” She laughed and dipped her head a bit, looking out of the corner of her eye at her husband, waiting for a response, willing it to be a flattering one—something along the lines of “Nonsense—you’re still the lovely girl I married… just yesterday, wasn’t it?”
But Harold had merely grunted—a sound, Lori thought, not unlike the ones the cavemen, those not-so-distant relatives of his, would have made—and shoveled another bite into his mouth. And with that guttural noise one more piece of the carefully arranged mosaic of their marriage fell away. She spooned a pea into her mouth and swallowed without chewing, feeling it roll down the suddenly constricted tunnel of her throat, listening to the clink of silverware on china plate, a grating, too-bright sound that set her teeth on edge. Despair, she thought. That is exactly one of the many sounds of despair.
Now she recognized her own despair again with that one word, barked low—“dinner”—another Neanderthal grunt, the cave-dog barking for food. She smoothed her hair, freshly streaked, cut, curled—and unnoticed—and reached for her car keys on the counter. “I have to go to the grocery store”; she said, and then, defensively, “you’re early tonight.”
Harold bent his wrist and looked at his clunky gold watch, crinkling his newspaper into an ungainly fold as he did so. He eyed her for a moment over the fold, and Lori could read annoyance in the crease of his forehead like a headline on the paper. She expected him to say something accusatory about why she had not already shopped for dinner, simplifying her lot in life into a laundry-list of domestic chores. (Which, in addition to keeping the house clean, and cooking, and grocery shopping, ironically did not include doing laundry—no, from the minute he was able to make an extra dollar, Harold had begun sending every article of clothing he ever wore, from his crisp seersucker shirts to his silk black socks, to the dry cleaners. Lori could have wrapped the entire outside of their 4,000-square-foot house with the accumulation of thin plastic that protected his bundles of weekly, freshly cleaned and pressed clothes. She guessed that he could trust her with his stomach but not his precious suits.) But Harold said nothing, merely sighed loudly and flipped the corner of the paper back up. Lori resisted an urge to chuck the car keys at him—she would need those—and instead left the house, saying over her shoulder, “I’ll be back in an hour,” banging the door loudly behind her.
The minute Lori backed her silver Mercedes out of the driveway, she felt the tightness in her chest begin to loosen. She drove fast down the winding hill into town, whipping around corners, sometimes eating up more than her share of the center lane, purposefully concentrating on the road in front of her and nothing else. In fifteen minutes she was circling the parking lot of their local high-priced, yuppified grocery store. She spotted a parking space close to the door and pulled in, and then saw the blue handicapped figure painted on the pavement. Briefly she considered parking there anyway—maybe affecting a limp?—and then she backed out, finding a spot further down the line. As she made her way to the automatic double doors of the store, which spotlessly reflected her rushing image back at her, she turned possible recipes over in her mind. Chicken Divan? They had eaten chicken yesterday and Harold had complained loudly between bites that he was “sick of poultry, damn it.” He wanted some beef. So beef… Veal Parmigiana? No, that took too long to cook—besides, since watching the news special about how veal was prepared before it was veal, she could not, in good conscience, stomach the idea. She thought of the tiny bound bodies of the calves she had seen on TV, their entire existence relegated to a crate smaller than her Mercedes’s trunk, and shuddered. No veal.
The doors slid open noiselessly and Lori found herself inside the too-cold, steely sanitary world of Vesper’s Organic Market. She tugged a cart free from the line of carts arranged along the front wall and pushed her way to the even-colder produce area. Once there, she reached for a pale tomato, despairing for a moment the flat odorless, colorless, and (she was sure) tasteless fact of it. She was filled with desire for the tomatoes of her youth, grown in her mother’s garden—plump and red the way red should be, smelling of summer sun and earth, and tasting like—oh, the taste of a real tomato. Saliva stung the insides of her mouth, hot and as painful as longing, and she dropped the imitation tomato she held back onto the stack of similar fruits. A tinny instrumental version of “Singing in the Rain” suddenly cranked into life and she stepped back, watching as water sprayed in a fine mist over the vegetables.
No produce, then. She began pacing the long aisles, up one side, down the other, turn, up another side, down the other, turn, her eyes scanning ingredients that suddenly made no sense to her, foreign letters stacked from the floor to above her head. She looked at the other shoppers, dark-skinned, sporting the sensible shoes of housekeepers, their baskets piled high with expensive foods they would cook for their employers and would never eat themselves, save a lick of the spoon now and again to test for proper seasoning. “What am I doing here,” she moaned, running her fingers through her hair, combing it straight out to the sides like a mad woman, aware of the way her fellow shoppers’ faces closed as they moved stolidly away from her—generations of servitude had conditioned them to ignore the craziness of the upper-class. Their shuff, shuff shoes whispered, “Not my business. Not my business. Not my business.”
She watched them go. They, who were busy looking over their paper lists, making tidy check marks with worn pencil nubs, filling their baskets with confidence—and she, privileged and yet listless—she was, in all things culinary, simply out of ideas. Her shoulders slumped as she rounded the last aisle of the market. It was the picnic aisle, and she certainly held no hopes that salvation would be found there, but still on she plodded, past paper towels and plates (made from ALL RECYCLED INGREDIENTS, every sign underneath them announced in tree-green), cheery red-and-white checked oilcloths, plastic (REUSABLE!) cutlery. As she neared the end of the aisle facing the giant glass windows that looked out past the checkout and onto the parking lot, her cart still empty, she gave up. She abruptly abandoned the cart at the entrance of the store and stepped outside, barely waiting for the automatic doors to open, almost clunking into them as she moved forward. She stopped when a huge white van blotted out her view of the parking lot, its muffler growling as it trundled slowly by. It pulled into the empty space next to her car and she saw the words MEALS-ON-WHEELS painted in black on the side. She began walking.
As she neared the van, a short Hispanic man opened the door and hopped down. He was dressed in white coveralls, like a painter, and had a ball cap perched atop his curly bush of hair. A generous black mustache covered his upper lip and continued down the sides of his face, ending at his chin. He flashed a smile at her, all white teeth, the corners of his eyes crinkling at the edges. “I gotta get some milk for the Missus before I make my deliveries,” he called out to her. Lori marveled at how easily he spoke to her, a stranger, as if they had been in conversation together all day and this was merely a continuation of that talk. She smiled back in acknowledgement. “I was trying to figure out what to cook for my husband’s supper,” she said, surprising herself at her reply. “No luck.”
“It’s tough being married sometimes,” the man said, chuckling to let her know he was not serious. She watched as he strolled up to the market’s doors, his hands in his pockets. He was whistling what sounded to her like the tune to “I Could Have Danced All Night” from My Fair Lady.
She unlocked her car and started to lift the door handle when an odor hit her, so delicious and strong that it actually made her legs tremble with desire. Her stomach responded instantly as well, a rumbling so deep it was almost painful. She hadn’t realized she was hungry before, but now she felt ravenous, frantically empty. She moved over to the back double-doors of the van and stood on tiptoe, sniffing. The odor was definitely coming from the van—a rich, cheesy meaty smell. Mexican food. Comfort food. She looked around cautiously but saw no sign of the whistling driver—in fact, there were no people in the lot at all. She gripped the back windows’ rims with her fingertips, and then, balancing carefully on the step bumper, pulled herself up and peered inside. Foil-covered rectangles were stacked neatly onto the van’s built-in aluminum shelves, spanning both sides. There looked to be at least thirty of the food parcels, maybe more. As she stared, she saw a tiny ribbon of white steam escape from the edge of one of the dishes, and that heavenly smell hit her again.
Lori let go of the window and hopped back onto the ground. She walked to the passenger side of the van, glad to be out of sight of the market for a moment, just in case anyone was watching. She ran her fingers along the side of the van, collecting a fine skiff of powdery dust as she did so, then stopped when she reached the van’s handle. She curled her fingers around the handle casually, like the automatic intertwining of the fingers of old lovers, and lifted.
The door opened effortlessly, just a crack.
Lori hesitated for just a moment, tugged a bit harder, and the door swung open all the way. She stuck her head in the door, looked past the pile of papers and carcasses of old fast-food meals littering the passenger seat, and spied the keys dangling in the ignition. A breeze blew past her and made the key chain, a miniature yellow rubber chicken, dance for a moment, swinging on its noose of metal. She looked around furtively again, and then clambered in, pushing papers and wrappers onto the floor as she made her way to the driver’s seat, pausing only to reach behind her to pull the door shut.
Once settled, she rested her hand on the key and felt her fingers turn, again as if by their own volition. What are you doing? a panicked voice of reason asked, but she pushed it aside. The engine roared into life and she backed out of the parking spot. She shifted the automatic gear into forward and pressed her foot down hard on the gas. The van lurched forward and she careened away from the market. She looked in the rear view mirror, heart thumping, sure that she would see the owner of the van come running out, arms waving, anger and disbelief moving that cheerful face into something dreadful and disapproving, but the lot remained empty. She signaled left and then pulled out onto the highway. As she sped along, she checked the rear view mirror obsessively, sure that at any moment she would see flashing blue lights. When she had gone a few miles safely and unnoticed, she began to relax.
So what now? that maddeningly reasonable voice asked. What are you going to do now?
She had no answer. Suddenly the loud gravelly sound of her stomach protested its emptiness again and as if on cue, the delicious smell of the dinners in the back wafted up to the front. Her mouth began its inadvertent watering again and she looked around until she spotted a sign on the right side of the road. First Presbyterian Church it said in bold, and under that, in smaller letters: “Need a Lifeguard? Ours walks on water!” Lori whipped into the church’s empty parking lot and coasted slowly to a stop near the door.
She jumped out of the van, crossing quickly to the rear of the vehicle, and yanked both back doors open, closing her eyes, inhaling deeply as the fragrance of the food hit her full-force. She leaned in on one knee and grabbed a tray of food, then settled herself on the van’s step. She tugged the foil off the plate. Two enchiladas, rolled like twins in tight corn tortilla blankets, lay under a glistening red sauce. Next to that, in its indentation on the plate, was an explosion of grey-pink refried beans covered in tiny stripes of cheese, and a mound of orange Spanish rice. A limp salad of tired-looking iceberg lettuce and one single wedge of pale tomato rested in another section, and a jiggling cup of flan, its top glassy with caramel sauce, finished the meal off. She paused for a moment, considering going in search of some type of plastic cutlery, before digging first into the beans, burning the tips of her fingers as she shoveled them into her mouth. That initial taste increased rather than tamped her appetite, and she began to eat faster, licking her fingers between bites. As the last bite of flan disappeared in a slippery swallow, she turned and leaned into the van again, pulling another plate of food to her.
She continued methodically to eat meal after meal, flinging empty plates onto the ground with one hand while reaching for another, and then another, with her other hand. Her stomach began to groan in protest and she ignored it, shoveling food faster and faster into her mouth, her mind blessedly blank and quiet. Only the food spoke. Tastes began to blend and then lose their individuality as beans, corn, beef, and flan found themselves churned in her mouth, and her tongue, in a maneuver that could only be called defensive, went numb. Still she kept eating, barely hearing the clang of foil as dishes clattered to the paved lot.
It was the sudden, single blat of a police siren next to her that finally startled her out of her frenzy. She opened her fingers and let the dish she was holding join the pile at her feet. She gaped at the police car, which had materialized as if by magic next to her.
A square-jawed young man in his twenties, his hair cropped close to his scalp in a brusque, serious-looking crew cut, stepped out of the car. His eyes were hidden behind dark sunglasses, and as he approached her, Lori noticed the casual way his right hand slipped to the black holster at his hip. She reached up and wiped her bean-smeared mouth with the back of her equally smeared hand, then, realizing the futility of the gesture, let her hand drop back down to her lap.
The policeman swept a glance over the open van door, leaning forward slightly. “Anyone else in there?” he asked, his voice surprisingly soft, not fitting his tough exterior.
Lori shook her head. “No, sir,” she whispered.
The policeman knelt down, balancing on one knee in front of the aluminum mountain on the ground. He lifted one of the dishes, and looked up, regarding her in silence. Lori, her face burning, dropped her own gaze to her shoes. Tears gathered in her throat, and she grimly fought the urge to cry. The officer at her feet said gently, “Ma’am, do you want to tell me what happened here?”
At that, Lori gave in and began to sob, deep wracking heaves that made the muscles in her chest clinch inward, making it hard for her to breathe. The policeman sighed heavily and stood. He slipped his arm around her and half-lifted her off the van. “Come now, Ma’am,” he said. “Let’s get you cleaned up and then we can go to the station and sort this out.” He opened the police-car door with his free hand and slid her, still sobbing, into the backseat, her feet dangling out of the open door. He moved to the driver’s side door and opened it, and Lori could hear him rummaging around under the front seat. He returned moments later brandishing a box of generic-brand antibacterial baby wipes. He extracted four and handed them to her.
Lori took them gratefully. She wiped her face clean, and then worked on her hands, scrubbing to remove all traces of cheese and sauce and caramel. She blew her nose with a clean wipe, grimacing at the lack of satisfaction a moist towel against a moist nose afforded her. The officer noticed her expression and dug a packet of Kleenex out of his pants pocket. “Here,” he said.
“Thank you,” Lori replied, and blew into a tissue. She gathered the balled-up wipes and tissues into a pile on her lap, and then turned, putting her feet squarely onto the police car’s black floor mats. She folded her hands primly. “I’m ready.”
“Ma’am, do you have any I.D. on you?” the policeman asked.
“Oh—my purse. I left it in the front seat of the van,” she said.
“You sit back; I’ll get it,” said the policeman, whose badge, she noticed, bore the name of “Rogers.” He shut the door. Lori heard the automatic locks click, and she watched Officer Rogers move away from the car. In a moment he returned and handed her purse to her. She removed her driver’s license from her wallet, and he examined it, writing information down on a paper attached to a small metal clip-board before shutting the door again. He pulled a cell phone out of his uniform’s shirt pocket, punched a few buttons, and began speaking, nodding his head every once in a while. He snapped the phone shut, dropped it back into his shirt pocket, and began tossing the emptied trays of food into the back of the van. Lori felt vaguely alarmed watching him do this, ashamed that he was cleaning up after her. Surely she should at least offer to help. She reached her hand down to open the handle and was startled to discover that there was no handle. “Of course there is no handle, dummy,” she told herself. “This is where the criminals sit.” This is what she had suddenly become—a criminal who had stolen a van filled with meals for the elderly and house-bound; hell, she had not only stolen the van, she had stolen the food. The more she thought about all those hungry seniors waiting impatiently for their dinners, their dimming pale eyes watching as the clock’s hand moved from five o’clock to six, and then seven…. Experience with her own grandparents had taught her that the elderly, by and large, did not like it when their meals were late, and she was overwhelmed with sorrow. She swore that she would find out all of the names of those whose meal she had… borrowed (she just couldn’t stand to keep thinking stolen) and bake each and every one of them her famous Fudge-Frosty Supreme cake as penance. “Tomorrow,” she said. “I will make them all cakes tomorrow.”
The thought of chocolate cake made her stomach turn over lazily like an obese walrus. “Oh Lord,” she moaned. She felt bile rise in her throat and she swallowed repeatedly, banging on the window to get Officer Rogers’s attention. He looked over at her, and she guessed her face must’ve been an alarmingly unnatural shade of green because he came running. He pressed the automatic unlock button on his key-chain and yanked the door open. “Than- you” she muttered, then she propelled herself out of the car, stumbling a few steps to the grassy area beside the parking lot. She leaned forward and threw up, astonished by the amount of un-chewed food that shot out of her body and landed solidly on the ground in front of her. Her stomach clenched again, and she continued to heave, puking until the exiting food was replaced by a sour green bile, and then nothing.
Finally, after several moments of retching with nothing else coming out, she tottered back to the awaiting Officer Rogers on trembling legs. Wordlessly, he handed her a new antibacterial-wipe, which she used to wipe her mouth again. He opened the back door, helped her slide into the seat. “Just rest,” he said. “I will leave the door open so that you can get some fresh air.”
Lori nodded and closed her eyes, resting her head on the back of the seat. A slight breeze stirred and she began to feel a little better. She drifted into a kind of semi-daze, not allowing herself to think about what was going to come next: the humiliating ride to the police station, hoping and praying that no one she knew would spot her—imagine that—the cold voice of the sergeant as he booked her, the inky fingerprints and orange jumpsuit, Harold’s horror at having to bail his wife out of jail…. There. She was thinking about it. She screwed her forehead and shut her eyes tighter, trying to recapture her previous soothing blankness.
Suddenly she heard the crunch of gravel as a new vehicle pulled off the road and into parking lot. She opened her eyes and saw a nondescript, older brown sedan of some sort coming to a stop next to the Meals-On-Wheels van. The passenger’s side door opened, and the man whose van Lori had stolen stepped out. “Oh Lord,” Lori said, horrified, her cheeks beginning to sting with the influx of shamed blood. She watched as he hurried over to the back of the van.
The man looked around at the empty tin platters and whistled lowly. “Mother Mary of God,” he said, “someone was having a party! Who ate all the food?” He shook his head, bemused, then waved at the driver of the idling sedan, a young teenage Hispanic boy—perhaps his son? “Go on,” he said. “It’s okay.” The young man flung a sharp, curious look in Lori’s direction and then drove off.
The man looked at Lori as well and started. “You!” he said, confusion and anger making his shaggy brows arch. “This was you? But why?”
Officer Rogers set the container he had been holding down on the van’s tailgate and brushed his hands together. He extended his right hand to the man. “I’m Officer John Rogers,” he said. “I was the one who called you.” He glanced at Lori. “Can I speak with you in private?” he asked the man. To Lori, he said, “We will be just a moment. I trust you’ll stay put.”
Lori nodded, and as Officer Rogers began to walk away, she called out, “Officer.”
He turned. “Yes?”
Lori swallowed, then half-whispered, “Please tell him I’m so sorry.” A tear slipped from her eye and she wiped it away with the back of her hand. “I’m so sorry,” she said again.
Officer Rogers nodded, his expression unreadable, then he walked away. “Come over here,” he said, gripping the waiting man’s arm. Lori anxiously watched the two men converse—Officer Rogers saying something low and gesturing towards Lori with his chin, the Hispanic man glancing her way. The man’s eyes caught hers and he studied her for a moment, then he turned to Officer Rogers, shrugged, and shook his head. After a few more minutes of quiet conference, the men returned.
“Mrs. Stewart, this is Mr. Lopez,” Officer Rogers said. “He is the driver of the van. I’ve explained that you appear to have had a momentary lapse in judgment and he has graciously decided not to press charges against you, providing you pay for the damages.”
Lori felt both relief and mortification. “Mr. Lopez,” she began.
“Please—Marcos,” the driver said, stepping forward, his hand extended. He smiled broadly. “Mr. Lopez is my granddad.” Lori took his soft, fleshy hand in her own, and Marcos squeezed gently.
“Mr. Lopez,” Lori said, her voice shaking, “I can’t begin to tell you how sorry—”
“Marcos,” he said again, shaking his head. “And no, please. Don’t. Don’t be sorry, Missus. I don’t exactly know what happened here but I do know that everybody gets hungry sometimes.” He looked over at the piles of gutted aluminum packets. “And Sister, you must’ve been running on empty.”
“Down to the tips of my fair and homely toes,” Lori said. And with that she began to laugh.
“I don’t get it,” Marcos said, and then he leaned back and joined her anyway, crowing out a wonderful, hearty, booming laugh that seemed to erupt from deep inside his belly and shake all the way up his body and out of his mouth, rolling and rolling like thunder, like summer, a chicken-pox guffaw that would not be denied. Lori kept laughing until her sides ached. Marcos, still laughing, pulled her towards him suddenly, and to her absolute astonishment, hugged her fiercely. Lori relaxed and let herself be hugged for a moment, then she pulled away.
“Thank you,” she said, still chuckling. “Really. I can’t believe how patient you are being about all of this. I promise you that I will make amends.” She turned to Officer Rogers, who was standing apart from them and studiously smiling at the tips of his black shoes. “Officer,” she said, “may I retrieve my purse from the car?” He nodded. She grabbed her bag and opened it up, rummaging around until she found her checkbook and a pen. “How much do I owe you for the food?” she asked Marcos.
He lifted his cap a little and scratched his head. “Honestly,” he said, “I have no idea. I’m in charge of delivering the meals, not buying them.” He tugged the brim of his cap down so that it was once again firmly in place. “How about this? You just write what you think is fair—a donation, really—and I will take it into the office tomorrow. I’ve already called in back up and someone is delivering supper for my route tonight. Luckily they are good at whipping together sandwiches and soup in the kitchen there.”
Lori filled a hefty four-figure number into the check’s allotted space and handed it to Marcos. “It’s not enough,” she said. He glanced at it and then looked up at her sharply, his mouth forming an “O.” She shook her head before he could speak. “No,” she said. “This is not enough. I need to make up for the fact that your clients had to eat sandwiches tonight, and for the fact that you had to come outside to discover your van was gone. Do you think…?” She swallowed. “…Do you think I could come in and work in the kitchen? And what can I do to make this up to you?”
Marcos smiled gently. “Lady, you don’t owe me a thing,” he said. “You just gave me the greatest story to share with my wife ever. And as far as working in the kitchen, well, I think that would be just great.” He folded the check carefully and put it in the big pocket of the bib of his overalls. “Mr. Policeman,” he called out. “I think we’re done here.”
Officer Rogers rubbed his chin and said to Lori, “Well, Ma’am, it seems that you’re free to go.” He paused, looked around. “After we finish cleaning up this mess.” His small curve of a smile flashed out as he bent down, picked up a tray of food, and tossed it into a trash sack in the back of the van. “I wouldn’t want to have to ticket you for littering, you know.” Lori reached down and picked up a container. “Here,” Marcos said. “Hold your arms out and I will stack them.” She obeyed, and the three of them worked companionably in silence, throwing container after container in the giant black trash bag.
After the remains of Lori’s enormous dinner had disappeared and the trash bag had been tied up, Marcos wiped his hands and said, “Well, that’s that.” He turned to Lori. “Mrs. Stewart,” he said, “how about a lift back to the market?”
“Lori, please,” she said. “And thank you, yes.” She turned to the policeman. “Officer,” she said, touching his forearm lightly, “thank you for being so kind.”
“Of course,” he said, covering her hand with his own and patting. “You take care of yourself, Mrs. Stewart. You seem like a real nice person.” He turned to Marcos and clapped him on the back. “Thanks, man,” he said. “Drive safely, you hear?” He climbed into his patrol car, flashed the blue lights at them once, and drove away.
“That’s one of the good guys,” Marcos said, watching the black and white vehicle speed down the highway. “A good, good guy.” He opened the passenger door, and Lori settled herself into the seat as Marcos crossed in front the van, got into the driver’s side, and started the engine.
Once they were back at the grocery store, Lori pointed to her car and Marcos pulled into the empty space next to it. They sat in silence for a moment, then Lori said, “Thanks for ride back. And thank you again for being so understanding.” She sighed. “I don’t know what happened. I really do think I went temporarily insane.” She tried to smile. “At least I hope it is temporary!”
Marcos patted her shoulder. “No problem,” he said. “I look forward to seeing you at the Center. You know, if you decide the kitchen isn’t the place for you, we could always use more volunteers to deliver food.” He grinned, “I mean, we know you can drive the van no problem.”
Lori laughed. “You’re right,” she told him. “I can.” She opened the door and climbed out. “Goodbye, Marcos. I’ll be at the Center tomorrow, bright and early. I promise. And I will make an extra cake for you. You can take it home to your wife—a peace offering from me to her for keeping you late.”
“Oh, boy! It’s a deal,” Marcos said.
As Lori fumbled for the keys to her car, she heard the van’s driver’s door open and close, then turned to see Marcos in the back of the van, rummaging around.
“Wait,” he called. She stepped forward, curious, just as Marcos crowed in triumph, “Yes! I thought I saw one more!” He handed her one unopened, uneaten enchilada dinner—the lone survivor of her incredible binge.
“Marcos,” she said, “I—I really can’t eat another bite. I—”
“No! For your husband!” Marcos said. “When we first met, you told me you didn’t know what to make him for dinner, remember? Now you don’t have to worry about it!” His eyes twinkled like a mischievous boy’s. “A man’s gotta eat,” he said. Lori laughed, imagining Harold’s confused, slightly horrified expression upon opening the foil. She would pour him a glass of wine, arrange the foil container next to one of her linen napkins, lay out a silver-plated knife and fork, and if he criticized her offering… well. Feed the man, send him to work, and live her life, Lakshmi had said. She had always done those first two. Now it was time for the last. She accepted the plate from Marcos, setting it carefully on the seat next to her.
“Thank you,” she said. “It’s exactly the right thing for Harold’s supper.” She closed the door, tossed the still grinning Marcos another wave, then drove off toward home, full.
Becky Marietta’s short essays and works of fiction have appeared in such publications as The Christian Science Monitor, Among Worlds, Over the Back Fence, and Weber: The Contemporary West. A resident of northeast Oklahoma, Becky is an adjunct instructor of English at John Brown University in Arkansas. She writes fiction to escape the reality of grading papers.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “Mitigation”:
Becky Marietta delivers a piece that’s both humorous and poignant. She takes what could have been a not-so-interesting story of a stagnated marriage and life become too predictable and adds elements that push it beyond the ordinary. Even then, it’s a story one could believe might actually happen. We especially liked the sensory descriptions that gave added depth to the story. All in all, it’s a successful piece that we thoroughly enjoyed reading and are pleased to publish.