Choices and all aboard the New Work Express

Painting: Gürbüz Doğan Ekşioğlu

Painting: Gürbüz Doğan Ekşioğlu

It ebbs and flows, this writing thing. You have nearly eight months of solid progress, churning out stories at an inhuman speed, until the day the well runs dry. Back up, here’s the story. I am currently working harder than I ever have in my life in my new role at the Getty. My brain is being taxed in ways I never thought it could, and it seems like every word I say or e-mail I write is critical to my continued success. In short, it’s fucking stressful. So stressful in fact that I haven’t had much time to write for pleasure. I was demotivated, had writer’s block, and wrote about half a dozen pieces that I never finished. Thankfully I have my class, and I’m set to deliver my next piece this Tuesday. I still need to polish it a bit, but I think it’s almost there.

And to those who think that I focus too much on the sad lives of old men – well, you’re probably right. But they really are fascinating character studies – those guys with decades under their belts who can still manage to be petulant. But I promise the next piece I have involves someone my own age 🙂

Enjoy, dear readers!

***

Noxious

Annie had outdone herself.

The table seemed close to sagging under the Thanksgiving bounty that Louie’s wife had prepared. A November palette of soft savories and butter-brown turkey that was best suited for the very old and very young. The grandkids named the bird “Timmy” and planned to bless it during dinner prayers before angling for the wishbone. It was a warm Thanksgiving, and a stand-up fan blew gently on the twelve of them as they took their seats.

This was the first holiday in a long time where Louie felt at peace. The past ten years had been nothing but break-ups, make-ups, and weddings with receipts a mile long. Gifts for the shower, 1st birthday parties, 2nd birthday parties, Annie nearly losing her mind as personal party planner and giver of sage advice. Then, kids tearing through the house, divorce, remarriage, brief estrangement, another child, and a wholly unnecessary retirement party where he was forced to wear that humiliating hat. The dust of those years had finally settled, the grandkids were old enough to know better, and some even helped Annie now that her eyes were going bad. Louie even had time to watch the parade, but had no clue to the identity of any of the balloons except for his old pal Snoopy. He was looking forward to chewing and chatter, then pie, coffee and gin rummy. He rose a glass of chianti at the head of the table.

“For the family that I love, I give thanks. Salute!”

Louie reveled in the deference of his sons and daughters, and the mild fear he induced in the grandkids. He tucked his napkin in his collar in an odd demonstration of dominance – he was 73 years old, he could spill cranberry sauce down his shirt if he damn well pleased. He beamed at Annie and took hearty scoops as each bowl passed his plate. He paused only once during the side dish conga line – Tina with the goddamn salad. Every year she insisted on it, and Annie had to go on a special trip to that weirdo store on 60th to get the right lettuce. He took a courteous portion and sprinkled it with oil and vinegar. Ridiculous. Despite this minor insult he leaned excitedly over his plate, gripping his fork and knife like a cartoon character in pursuit of its dinner.

Fifteen minutes was all it took.

“Goddammit Joey! I won’t have Grandma hear another word of it!”

Fifteen minutes for Joey to start talking politics and spoiling the mood. Thirty grand he’d spent trying to get the kid through college, and now he spent his days begging for petition signatures outside grocery stores. Clara was crying and rocking in her high chair. AJ was slapping Dominic’s back, apparently choking on three dinner rolls he’d stuffed in his mouth. Gracie on her fourth glass of wine, being loud and sloppy and incensed that her boyfriend wasn’t invited. Jimmy mixing all his food into one swirling, ruinous mountain and cracking himself up.  Louie didn’t want to raise his voice, but they gave him no other option.

“Calm down Dad. No one wants to ruin dinner. You’re being ridiculous.”

Tina with the goddamn higher-than-thou nonsense. He’d tell her where to shove her arugula.

Louie was about to deliver the zinger to beat all zingers when his body tensed and he fell silent. His gut roiled. It was a hot, frothed, just after the paper and morning coffee kind of gurgling that came on strong and wouldn’t go quietly. He’d spent his whole life earning that kind of triumphant trip to the bathroom, but now was not the time. It wasn’t his Annie, no. She kept the cleanest kitchen. Could have been the goddamn salad. No. Too soon.

They all thought they won, making the old man shut his mouth and take his position as the mute raisin in the rocking chair, curtains closed and lights off.

He stared at Timmy Turkey’s glistening maw and whispered a prayer, hoping that the episode would pass. The fart was blessedly quiet – just a whisper, really, amidst the household cacophony. The relief was immediate, and his gut relaxed and hung loose over his pants as he let out a deep breath. Then he inhaled. The smell settled in the room the way the smoke of a cozy fire might – immediately recognizable, but with nostalgia replaced by utter disgust. It was a dropped bomb, a rotten egg, what Joey called a “trouser trumpet.”

“OK, who was it?”

Accusing stares were exchanged around the table, like the Gestapo was holding a special investigation in the dining room. Louie shifted in his seat and felt moist warmth spread across his pants. There wasn’t a single route of escape, no snappy retort or covert action that could save him from the ultimate disgrace.

Clara had her knowing eyes on him. She rose from her high chair and pointed a spoon at his face. As she spoke the mashed yams sprayed from her mouth with absolute authority.

“Grandpa, you STINK!!”

They turned their heads and twisted their faces. He saw himself floating above them, benevolent, untouchable. When he was gone they wouldn’t dare discuss the incident without incurring his celestial wrath. They’d kiss their rosaries and pray for forgiveness. The only innocent would be Annie. Annie, who perked up drooping flowers with a glance. Who bought the damn salad. Who kneaded dough with red, clawed fingers. Who would walk him to the bathroom, then a dark bedroom where his chair would be waiting.

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