MEAT AND POTATOES MAN - NELIZA DREW
He waddled. That was the only way she could think to describe Roger’s movements through the world. Like a giant, well-fattened penguin. He’d been like that ever since he’d pulled his back out at the Ford dealership, tossing tires around the parts warehouse. Two workman’s comp surgeries later, he seemed more messed up than he had the day they’d sent him to the first quack.
Now he’d put on another fifty-odd pounds, quit working at all – even quit lifting the axe to chop firewood for winter. First year, he’s spent some of his unemployment money on hiring the neighbor’s boy. This year, he didn’t have that or a job, so she’d done it.
Marge finished the stack with a throbbing in her back and shoulders. Even dragging around the baby, who was a butterball of a kid, was less work.
He came outside, caught her cooling off with one of his Miller Lites. “What the hell you doin’, bitch?”
She polished off the can, set it on the stump and whacked it flat with the back of the axe head. “Drinkin’ my beer.”
He looked like he wanted to hit her. He’d slapped a few times in the past few years, especially since he’d stopped working. Instead, he waddled back inside.
She heaved the axe handle up on her shoulder and cocked a hip. “Damn straight.”
The baby turned three in a week. All she’d ever wanted and the only thing she’d needed him for. When he’d been born, they’d lived in a nice apartment in town. Small, but one with heat. And a working stove. She’d found out five hours after the Csection that Roger’s insurance only covered fifteen percent of the surgery.
“It covered it all if you’d been able to do it on your own.” The nurse clucked her tongue. Same one who’d suggested she was too old to be a decent mother anyway, tried to scare her with birth defect stories while she was still heaving away in labor. That was how they’d ended up in the trailer just outside of town. The one with the wood stove in the yard and the drafts where the floor boards had rotted out.
He’d never hurt her while she was pregnant. Hadn’t much more than called her names, jerked her around some before. He’d been big and strong, but he hadn’t used it against her too much. Not like her exhusband, the one who’d never been able to give her a baby, even after fifteen years of trying.
She stayed for little Jack. Boys needed a father. And, after years of looking, she’d found one. Maybe not the best in the world, but probably the best she’d find in the county. And she’d run out of time.
Marge sat at the table she’d found by the road near the Kirby’s farm. Cheap vinyl top with cigarette burns, but it fit in the kitchen and held a couple of plates.
Roger’s butt stuck out of the fridge.
She munched her cheap cereal, bottom of the shelf corn flakes that came in a bag.
“Whatcho lookin’ for?”
“We outa beer?” He emerged, holding up a carton of orange juice. “We can’t be buying this expensive food, woman.”
“We’re eligible for aid, still. The baby”
“We ain’t a welfare family.” He slammed the fridge door shut. “We buy what we can afford. Like real Americans. Not them socialist scum.”
“You sound like Jimmy Ray.”
“You leave him outa this.”
“Sure, so we can’t afford juice, but we can buy beer, right?”
“Least the beer’s American. You don’t even know where this shit come from. Prob’ly Mexico or somewhere. You want fancy people food, you better get a fancy people job.” He left the OJ on the counter and stormed off, probably to sit around Jimmy Ray’s bar watching the TV until dark.
Marge finished her cereal and put the juice away. She had a job. Worked nights at the gas station at the edge of town. It came with a uniform so no one wondered why none of her clothes didn’t fit right after the baby. It was walking distance away since he’d gotten the car repossessed. And it was at night when he and the baby were sleeping so neither of them could aggravate or hurt the other one.
“Fancy people jobs” was what he called the ones people wore suits to, the ones that required fancy degrees and rich parents. Even then there weren’t that many of them in town.
About three lawyers to handle all the wills and taxes and DUIs at the county courthouse. And even then, one of them was half-dead.
Old guy had been stacking up paperwork in that home office of his since she was a baby. Bout two doctors not counting the dentist. One handled the old folks and one handled the kids. The insurance agent next to the diner and the pastor were the only others in town who owned a tie. Wasn’t even the kind of place people wore fancy clothes to church.
She fantasized about what it would be like, sitting at a desk with a computer and a phone. No shotgun under the counter. No video camera watching her like a common thief. She smiled at Jack. “One day maybe you’ll have a fancy job, huh, my little man?”
The grocery store sat a quarter mile from the gas station and opened an hour after she got off her shift. Small, with fixtures as old as she was, the prices weren’t much better than the gas station, but the selection was better and without a car to get out to the WalMart on the edge of the next town, it was the best she could do. Shopping days always left her exhausted and Roger cranky because he had to feed Jack.
Hamburger meat on sale. Dollar off a pound if she bought the stuff so marbled with fat it nearly started a grease fire to cook it. Bacon cheaper than eggs. She picked up a sack of potatoes and a loaf of white bread, the kind that looked like bleached paper, even after she’d toasted it. Roger’s favorite, of course. Last, but not least, a fridge pack of Miller Lites, that she cradled to her on the walk home, the half dozen plastic bags digging into her wrist and hand.
She worried about the healthiness of their food. Worried little Jack would get diabetes, that one of them wouldn’t live long enough to see him graduate high school. She’d seen all the various reports on the news that played on the small TV behind the counter at work. She’d heard Dr. Oz in the afternoons when folding laundry.
Roger always told her that was a bunch of sissyass bologna. That those people just wanted her money. His daddy had been a meat and potatoes man and his daddy before that.
‘Course, both Roger’s parents were dead as were her own.
“Now this is what I’m talking about!” He shoveled runny eggs and near-expired bacon in his mouth with a fork while mopping up the yolk with a greasy biscuit in his other hand.
“Don’t talk with your mouth full.” She sipped cold tomato soup from a glass. Cheaper than the vegetable drinks, which were cheaper still than actual produce.
“That veggie crap’s gonna kill you.” He waved a floppy piece of bacon at her, the thin line of meat barely noticeable for the thick vein of fat. Grease flew off the end of it and splattered the side of her glass.
She cut off a corner of egg white. “One of us has to be around long enough to raise Jack.”
“You gon’ raise him up to be a pussy with all that healthy eating junk. He gon’ be softer’n a pillow. A pillow biter.”
She got up to rinse her plate. “Or as soft as your midsection.”
“What’d you say, woman?” He jumped out of his seat, fork still in his fist as he brought it down on her shoulder, the rounded edge of the handle jabbing the muscle.
The plate jumped out of her hand and shattered on the scarred linoleum.
“Look what you made me do. Can’t even enjoy my breakfast without you breaking shit I worked hard to earn.” He shoveled the rest of his bread in his face and stormed out the door.
Snow fell. Drifts piled up around the sides of the trailer. Marge wrestled the frozen door open and stomped outside in her boots to build the morning fire. While it got going, she went inside to lay out the eggs and sausage, put everything on ceramic plates that wouldn’t stick to her gloves and got out the heavy cast iron pan she used on the open flames. She remembered her daddy having cast iron for camping when she was little, but she’d never known anyone her own age to cook with it. Heard tale of some trendy city types buying it up, but she’d never met one. Sounded like the same kind of fools who moved into buildings with old pipes and crumbling bricks so they could fix ‘em up.
It’d been nearly a month of his new man diet. He’d put on another seven pounds of beer gut and decided he no longer needed sleeves. Got too hot, he said. Marge figured she’d only be too lucky if he’d managed to kill himself in the cold and handed him another beer on her way out to cook.
He scratched himself on the couch and changed channels.
She felt the hatred burning in her heart, hotter than the old metal stove in the yard. She felt the cold of her remaining love, wound so tight and small it would fit in the tip of an icicle and have room to twirl around.
He belched. “Shut the door. You’ll get a draft goin’ in here. Damn, bitch.”
She sat down to mend the hem of her uniform pants and felt the weariness of three days running hard seep into her bones. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had more than a couple hours of sleep in any given day or night. If she wasn’t at work and little Jack didn’t need her, she was cooking or cleaning or running errands, hauling groceries the two miles back from town, chopping more firewood, or lugging bales of laundry up to the Laundromat near the Hardees.And speaking of Hardees, she could feel the burger she’d had for lunch coming back up on her.
She’d wanted the salad. Even with the fried chicken on it, it seemed healthier somehow than the fat slab of beef covered in orange cheese, but the salad had cost four times as much and she’d just spent her last five getting their clothes clean. In summer, she’d have just put them back in the garbage back and taken them home wet, saved a few bucks hanging them outside, but spring was still another week away, and that was by the calendar, not necessarily the weather.She took a deep breath and stretched. Sipped her V8. Whacked at her chest a few times like her daddy had done when he’d needed to cough up mucus or tried to get down another rack of ribs. Went back to sewing.
The indigestion got worse, an uncomfortable tightening sensation like the damn burger was growing arms and legs in there. She sat up straighter and coughed, thinking it just needed to be loosened.
Roger came back in at five. He’d been out in the woods. Said he’d gone hunting, and he’d taken his gun, but what he’d really needed to do was get away from her incessant whining about losing weight and eating better. What he’d really needed to do was get another sixpack in him so he didn’t have to hear that baby up babbling and whining for his momma at night.
He leaned his rifle against the side of the trailer and shook his head. Damn kid was already making a fuss. And weren’t they supposed to grow out of that eventually? Seemed it’d been too long as it was. Damn mother of his had turned the boy into a pussy. That’s all there was to it.
“Hey, ain’t you gon’ be late for work?” He nudged her foot with his. Damn woman sleeping at the table like she had no place to be. Hadn’t even made him no supper. No wonder the brat was yelling like a fool. Kid’s probably hungry.
Her head lolled to one side slightly, but stopped before it reached her shoulder.
“Hey! Bitch! You lazy good for nothing…” He reached down and grabbed her hand and stopped. The thing was cold, almost stiff. Normally, flinchy and hyper, she didn’t move.
He backed away from her. “What the—?” Then he smiled, realized he didn’t have to listen to her complaining no more. Realized he didn’t have to worry bout her turning his boy into one of them faggots no more. Didn’t have to worry about her wasting beer money on fancy shit.
“Told you that veggie shit would kill you.”