Aug 142017
 

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—after Rabelais

The Marquis had a grandson, Jake. As a child, Jake would spend weekends with his grandpa who’d make a very nice from-scratch pizza before retiring to the inner sanctum to play Halo. These pizzas that the Marquis lovingly made were really something. To see the smooth globes of dough sitting on the counter—a little dusting of flour on top like little round baby bottoms in talc—makes me sad to remember.

For they are surely gone. All gone.

Well, the kid could have grown up to live a straight, true, and happy life, but, man, things can get messed up. For Jake it was not so much the stuff that most kids have to go through these days, now that the maturing process and its rites of passage require the use of handguns. Like it or not, Glocks are the new normal for these kids. Like it or not, it’s become part of growing up. That first court restraining order is now a milestone equal to a driver’s license, high school diploma, college admission, and so on. Happily for Jake, the Marquis gave him a sort of happy, dopey reality apart from all that. As a consequence, he was as close to innocent as a young man could come in these withered days.

At a young age, Jake married and settled down in a modest split-level ranch house with his new wife, Fanni, let’s call her. Jake learned to make pizza for her, just like his grandpa’s, and they settled in for life…as it were. Here’s the future he saw: he’d cook pizza and after dinner he and Fanni would play computer games, kissing now and then. On Fridays they’d have grandpa le Marquis over and play Halo. They’d drink root beer. What he neglected to figure into this delightful scenario was the fact that Fanni also had a notion or two about what married life ought to be like. Unfortunately for Jake, she was of the opinion that her life with her husband ought to be different in important ways from her husband’s life with his grandpa. In particular, the eating of pizzas and the playing of computer games was boring to the point of wishing that her high school biology teacher would come by and “pith” her with a straight pin in the frontal lobe, just as he’d done with frogs. After a month or so of Jake’s idea of happiness, buyer’s remorse was the primary fact of her life.

Jake was a simple person. Fanni was not a simple person. She did not have Jake’s stable, happy background sharing time with a grandparent in blissful side-by-side interface with the good old X-box. What Fanni had was a single mother who lived on the left side of a brick duplex in the spiritually destitute region just south of Chicago. Their house was one of those structures that census workers look at and say, “Does this count?” Her mother supported their little family through frequent “presents” from various “close family friends” in the form of cocaine or cash equivalents. What these friends got in return is irrelevant or almost. In spite of all that, Fanni grew up a smart kid capable of wandering away from the daily horror show at the old duplex. She thrived at school, went to college, met the son of a Marquis (!) and, without giving it a lot of thought, married.

In the sad thereafter, their marriage counselor suggested to her that she should have known what Jake was like, she’d been to his house before they married, hadn’t she? And she said, “Yes, I knew what he was like, but I thought he was kidding.” Then she added, “And he did kiss me once under the grain elevator, and so I asked him with my eyes to ask me, and when he did I thought, ‘Well, as well him as another.’”

Jake was sitting right there, holding her hand as she said these hurtful things. The therapist’s response was to put his head in his hands (the closest he could come to neutral affect in the moment). The counselor, at least, knew that it was too late and Fanni had already gone to blazes. On the other hand, he could now also confirm that Jake’s form of innocence was, just as Fanni claimed, morally exhausting. He could see how it could drive a person to unpleasant extremes.

As for Jake, he didn’t yet quite know what to make of it all. But when he saw the counselor bury his head in his hands he had to wonder, “Is that how I should be responding to what she’s saying?” He looked at her sitting by his side. She was smiling pleasantly.

There was something damaged in Fanni, something broken. She was, in a sense, not “there,” not present. For instance, she could not seem to tell the difference between the good things that she did and the bad things. Make breakfast? Hit their barky Yorkie with a shovel? Essentially the same for her. But when Jake showed how they were not the same, she would get confused and start crying. “How can you be so sure about everything?” she’d ask, and then she’d go after the dog with a hoe because it had stuck its cold snout inside her summer shorts and smelled her fur. (She kept garden implements in the kitchen for such moments.)

She was also someone with the interesting and organic conviction that if the world spread out from her, it was her job to take it all back in. Perhaps it was some sort of bizarre maternal instinct gone wrong, but she had faith in the thought that everything should go back to her empty inside.

And then there was the shopping. She shopped with tenacity knowing that it was her responsibility to buy it all, to take it all inside. She was the Imelda Marcos of any- and everything. She didn’t shop in Big Box stores, she shopped for Big Box stores. She created shopping lists like the card catalogue at the Library of Alexandria.

When she wasn’t shopping, she was eating. Unfortunately, this duty, this “moral imperative to internalize the world,” had horrible consequences in restaurants. She did not understand the purpose of a menu. The idea that she should choose only one thing from each section—one salad, one entrée, etc.—simply made no sense to her. The idea that there were sections didn’t make sense to her. Appetizer. Entrée. What? Explain as Jake surely did, it was all beyond her. She thought Jake was yammering metaphysics when all he might be saying was, “Darling, you don’t start with the chocolate mousse. It is not an appetizer.” There were some meals that took the form of quest legends. It was as if she believed that there was some food, some perfect food, that would make her world right if only she could find it. In spite of all his goodness and his love for her, Jake lacked the will to enforce what he called, for her benefit, “food reality.”

When he said things like that, in what she took to be a knowing and superior way, she would say, “There is nothing so dull as innocence.”

Touché!

Once during the Christmas season Jake and Fanni were eating at the legendary Stockyard Trough down in Decatur. She started in her pell-mell way with a dilled Blanquette de Veau. The chef had prepared six portions for the evening and she ate them all. She followed that with dozens of pizza hot-pockets off the children’s menu. (Yes, some of the little darlings cried when they were told that there were no more pizza hot-pockets, but she insisted that some people would have to sacrifice for the greater good, and she volunteered the children.)

The headwaiter scrambled with a sponge to erase the featured dishes as they fell from the little chalkboard out front, inexorably, one after another. At neighboring tables, the waiters sensed the drift of things and began encouraging guests to order quickly while there was still something more than bread and butter to eat.

“What!!??” one obese old-timer complained, a Cargill seed cap cockeyed on his head, bloody stains from rib-eyes past on his overalls. “No beef? None at all? Not even an old piece of flank? Not even a burger? How is that possible? This is the Stockyard Trough, isn’t it? Do you know what a stockyard is? What’s that you say? Her? That little girl over there with the Marquis’s boy? Are you saying she’s eaten the entire cow? I’ll be damned!”

Having decimated the main courses, she retreated to the soups and polished off one pot each of borscht, split pea, and, soup du jour, potato/leek. (“André! Scratch the soups!”)  At this point she observed that her napkin was soiled and asked for another. Pitiless, she ate the herbed caviar roulade, the crepes with caviar filling, potatoes with caviar, caviar éclairs, oysters and caviar, and—a coup de main, de resistance, de theatre, d’etat, de grace, and de foudre—a cobbler with knuckle truffles (the low, obsequious sort common to the Aberdeens), creamed clotters, and crushed sweet-rind. (If you’re looking for the recipe, it’s in Mark Bittman’s Cobblers and Gobblers: Cooking with Cottage Clusters and Custard Clotters.)

And why did she eat these things? She ate these things because that’s just the kind of gal she was.

—Curtis White

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“Dining at the Stockyard Trough” is an excerpt from Lacking Character, forthcoming from Melville House Press, 2018.

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Curtis White is a novelist and social critic whose work includes the novel Memories of My Father Watching TV and the recent book We, Robots: Staying Human in the Age of Big Data (Melville House).

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