Fiction from the 2013 issue.
The Can Down the Road
By Nat Schmookler
I had been lucky enough to find shaded parking under an enormous cottonwood in the corner lot of the Sun Heights Office Suites. It was as close as I could get to the nutritionist’s offices. Even though the noonday heat was extraordinary and the AC on my car had given out many drivers before I possessed the heap, I stayed in the driver’s seat waiting for Mel. I stayed so I could make a fast getaway and avoid her yelling at me. Keeping the peace was my business until she got better.
Again I checked my watch. She was taking longer this time and that made me nervous. I picked up the empty, two-liter bottle of Diet Coke she had chugged and left behind, and used it to drum the steering wheel with no real rhythm. The banana smell of my sunscreen grew thick.
Again I called Mel’s cell phone. This time it went directly to her voice mail. There weren’t many people about in the parking lot, but those that were now appeared suspicious. I wondered when to stop waiting and who I would call if things went bad and her mother found out that she was ill and good at deceiving when—
There she was. Mel was striding down a brick arcade, her left arm hugging her chest under her small, dispirited breasts. She kept bursting into a run and then roping herself in to walk a few steps. Over and over she mouthed “Let’s go!” at me. After a few seconds I got the message and started the car. “Drive!” she screamed when she flung open the passenger door. “Drive right to that fucking gas station there! God, I need to fucking pee right fucking now Jesus! Fuck!” With her left arm forgotten and held rigid, she kept pointing at the Shell station just down the road; with her right hand she pulled five brown rolls of pennies out of her bra and stowed them in the glove compartment. I drove as fast as I could. Before the car had fully stopped, Mel leapt out, ran inside to snatch the key from a clerk, and then, leaning forward, sprinted along the graffitied wall to the bathroom.
A few minutes later she emerged with a light, flushed face. Her hands were full of more rolls of pennies. She went inside to return the key and came out with fewer rolls of pennies and another enormous bottle of diet soda.
“So’d you pass?” I asked, trying to sound casual about it.
“Yes!” she squealed. “I was one and a half pounds over!” She turned in her seat and tenderly held my shoulder between her hands.
“That’s great, honey!” I said. I hugged her and, feeling a lump, reached down her shirt and pulled the roll of pennies out of her bra that she’d forgotten.
“I’m supposed to gain two pounds for next time though, so we’ll have to find another place on me to hide pennies.”
“Oh. I see. So where do you want to go to celebrate?” I asked.
“Souped-Up Salads!” I held her hand as we drove over. Though it was summer, her skin was hard and winter-dry.
I sat down at a booth with two foil-wrapped potatoes loaded with butter and bacon bits, a slice of pepperoni pizza, and a salad sagging under a melting sump of ranch dressing. Though she took much longer to make her plate at the buffet than I did, Mel sat down with a plate of four familiar vegetables, all undressed. Each vegetable, each pea, each baby carrot, each strip of green pepper, and each spinach leaf had been separated into its own fourth of the round plate. The borders between the sections were firm. She plucked out one pea and placed it gently between her lips, where, just for a moment, it rested. Abruptly she disappeared it.
I stared at her and deliberately held my face in what I hoped was a state of composure. She held my gaze, her forehead tilting forward in menace. “Is that it?” I managed.
Unsmiling, she nodded. She plucked another pea.
“You’re breaking the deal, Mel.”
“Yes, Mel. I helped you cheat on the weighing, successfully I might add, so now you’re to eat right. Right?”
I was right, and I knew she knew I was right, but there was no pleasure to be had in that. Mel started tough and defiant, but always soon saw firm words as proof that she was unlovable, unworthy, simply so unpleasant. Sure enough, my complaint now staked, her lower lip began to tremble, and a couple of tears, slipping out, streaked her cheeks with the ugly murk of mascara.
I was always sure that her tears were sincere.
“What? No, come on,” I protested. “It’s not so bad as all that! I’m here. All you need is—”
“No! You don’t understand! I’m so—”
I extended my hand across the table to grasp hers and silence her. I swallowed my repulsion at her sickly skin. Then I mumbled, “I love you,” in a very quiet way because, though I told her so often, I couldn’t stand for anyone who might be listening at another table to hear that I loved her.
“You don’t love me, you’re ashamed of me,” she said just as quietly, her tears unhinged now.
“That’s crazy! Of course I do! Look what I do for you, and, and. And. OK. OK. Perhaps it’s too much, I know you’re stressed today. Eat as you want now, just promise you’ll eat right tomorrow. Three square meals like the doc said.”
“OK, promise!” Like the other times, she was soon beaming again and wiped her tears away. She nibbled at a green pepper strip, and I took a bite of pizza. Another crisis averted.
We settled into our vinyl booth and I tried not to focus on the draft of refrigerated air blowing through the spun-out hairs on her bare forearm, making the hairs bend and tremble like river reeds. Because I didn’t for a moment think she’d eat right tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that, there was nothing to say. But that was alright because, someday, I was sure, in the not-too-distant future, she would eat right every day because it was obviously the right thing to do. Then we would just relax.