LUNCH IS WHAT by Adrian Dorris
LARRY SYBORG CUT HIS WOMAN last Thursday. This time bad enough for her to be in the hospital and him in county without bail. Word around town is she—Debbie—is lucky to be alive, but talk always ends up at Larry’s sandwich.
For now, it’s still on the menu. The Syborg. But no one’s ordering it because it would just be eating a name. A bad copy put together by Juan, the dishwasher who got bumped to Larry’s short-order spot. Kid’s having a hell of a time getting the lunch crowd in and out between the two whistles.
Blaine is telling me how things come and how they go. “No sense in getting used to anything,” he says. “Like my cable lineup. I liked it when I just had twenty-five channels. Now, got so many it takes me half the evening just to flip through them all. It was better with less.” Blaine works the drill press one stall down from me and we eat lunch together almost everyday. I suppose we’re friends.
“But I loved that fucking thing,” I say, and press a grimy finger into the menu. “The best sandwich I’ve ever had. Period. Then he had to go and fuck up like that, dumb son of a bitch.”
Blaine says, “Yeah, I know. But I don’t think Larry’s coming back. Kiss that sandwich goodbye, and get on with it.”
I lift my finger and push the menu away, like a disconnection, a good start. “You’re right,” I say. “Syborg did it this time. Did it up real fucking good.”
At home, Anna’s got a new sweater. “What do you think?” she says. She’s in the bedroom door. The sweater’s white with a shimmery design on it and she pulls it tight across her chest.
I say, “Looks nice. When’d you get that?”
“Today. On sale at Wal-mart.”
“You went to Medford today. You should have told me. I need oil and plugs for the Cat.”
“Sorry.” She turns around to show me the back. Her ass looks good and I think some things. “It was impulse,” she says, “I needed to buy something.”
“Get any new panties?”
She looks over her shoulder and smiles. “Maybe you should come find out.”
So I do. But the panties are the ones I’ve taken off a thousand times. Blue cotton with frayed elastic at the hip. A darkness—like some kind of cloud—at the crotch. We do it—missionary then from behind then missionary again—for the better part of forty minutes. And when Anna comes, she says “Give it to me” over and over like she’s always done.
We lay in bed and smoke. Outside, the wind is kicking up, and each gust makes some part of the house crack or groan. The weatherman says we’ll have snow flurries tonight and I can tell just by the wind that he’s right.
“Getting cold,” Anna says.
“Yeah. That time of year. Sun’s down by six.”
“I like it. Makes me want to get cozy.” She throws an arm over my chest and a leg over my thigh and pulls herself close.
“Dark makes me crazy,” I say. “Get up, it’s dark. Come home, it’s dark. And between: the factory, no Goddamn windows. Six months of dark.”
She pulls herself on top of me, smiles. Playful. “You’re not going to Syborg me, are you?” And she makes like she has a knife and drives it into my chest a half dozen times. She makes a high-pitched noise—the killing sound from Psycho—and her hair falls over her face in a wild tangle.
I grab her wrists and pull her down. We kiss, and she grinds into me, wet and open and ready again. But I can’t. “I’m beat,” I say. “Sorry.”
She climbs off me, and retrieves her cigarette from the ashtray on the nightstand. “I wasn’t serious,” she says.
“About nothing. Just funnin’.” She sits with her back to me Her shoulder blades angle out of her skin like they’re trying to leave her. She’s a thin girl, and when we make love her bones sometimes hurt me. Dig into my tender places.
I tap out another cigarette and light it. Downstairs, the heat pump kicks on, and I pull the bedding up over me. I am tired. Jesus. Like I got a raw spot somewhere but can’t salve it for want of knowing what’s rubbing and where. My hands tingle because of the press. My ears ring and my throat’s dry. I close my eyes.
“Lizzy told me that she might not make it,” Anna says, “That she might not get through the night.”
“How the Hell does Lizzy know that?”
“She got a cousin works at the hospital, in collections.”
“Sounds like a position of authority.”
“Donnie, she would know. It’s a small town.”
“If you say so.”
“Don’t you care?”
“Debbie. Syborg’s woman.”
“Yeah, sure,” I say. “It’s too bad. But you know what?” I open my eyes, and she’s looking at me. I know that look, seen it my whole life.
“What?” she says, and takes a long drag.
“Lunch,” I say, “Lunch is what.”
Next morning, there’s snow on the ground, little more than an inch. But I get to work just fine, the roads are clear. Little after ten-thirty, Blaine drills off part of his thumb. Even over all the machinery, I can hear him scream. Darrell, the floor manager, is faster than his fat ass would suggest and he gets a clean rag on Blaine before I can even think to move. Then I’m sitting on the floor, holding Blaine with two arms while Darrell scrounges under the press for any bits or pieces. Blaine is screaming “Oh shit! Oh shit!” and he heaves and torques against me, like a current’s running through him. The rag turns dark in front me, and Darrel gives up the search, realizing what later proves to be true: that a half-inch bit spinning at a thousand rpm won’t leave much.
Darrel takes Blaine to the hospital and that leaves the rest of us unsupervised. But love for our own thumbs keeps us all working, safe and slow. Come noon, our line is thirteen rails short of quota. But Darrell isn’t back, and we go to lunch.
The Breadboard is really the only restaurant in town. The Mexicans who work the orchards drive in and eat at La Familia, but none of us gringos touch that place. You never know. Anyhow, when Syborg was cook, there wasn’t much reason to stray. Now, with Juan behind the burners, I’m thinking what’s the difference. But I go anyway, sit alone, and order a hamburger. Anyone can make a hamburger. Shelly, the waitress, a girl with a nice smile and wide hips, forgets to take my menu, and I don’t have anything to do but flip through it. And there it is. The Syborg. A juicy, tender chicken breast marinated in beer and secret spices, then grilled to perfection over medium-high heat, server on a Kaiser roll, topped with honey-cured bacon, Swiss cheese and a choice of fixins. A rumble moves through my gut, and I catch a whiff of myself. I didn’t shower this morning, and the excitement of Blaine’s accident made me sweat despite the cold. I smell gamey and metallic, like shavings and hormones. I want that sandwich.
My burger comes pink and cold in the middle, but Shelly’s too nice for me to bother her about it. I eat half, pick at my fries, and finish my Coke. Then it’s time. Blaine is out the rest of the day.
Anna works mornings at the elementary school. Answers phones and runs errands for the principal. She’s had the job three months now. Makes me nervous, all her talk about the kids and how cute they are and how a first-grader named Daniel is sweet on her and how he comes to her desk almost every morning with some first-grade line. We’re both thirty now, been together since high school, and I know about clocks and how they tick. I keep my mouth shut. A kid—well, that just won’t work. I’m not paternal, and I hope Anna can see that.
She’s telling me what a dick the principal is. “Guy made me spit out my gum. Like I was one of the kids. Says to me, ‘We don’t want to set a bad example.’ Can you believe that?”
“Asshole,” I say.
“That’s right,” she says, and plops to the couch so hard her beer foams up and runs down her hand. “Shit,” she says and puts her mouth over it. I think some things again.
“What did you do this afternoon?” I say.
“Nothing. I was here.”
“Watch any TV or anything?”
“Little bit of Oprah, but she just had on some grizzled-up old writer guy on who couldn’t even sit up straight to talk to her. But Oprah acted like she might just come because this guy never does interviews, won some big awards, blah, blah, blah. I like it when Oprah helps people, gives them things, makes dreams come true.”
“Why’s that?” I say, and it comes out sharp.
“No reason. I just like it. Don’t you think that’s nice, when people get what they deserve?”
I take a swig of my beer, and it bitters up my face. “What do you mean by that?”
“Donnie, what’s wrong with you? All these questions. I like Oprah when she helps people, that’s all. I could give a good Goddamn about some writer fart who can’t even sit up straight to talk to her. That’s all.”
“Did Oprah give the writer fart anything?”
“She should have given him a slap and told him to sit his ass up straight.”
“What would you want Oprah to give you?” I ask.
Anna looks up at me, cocks her head. “Nothing, Donnie,” she says, “I got everything I need right here. With you.” She smiles, and takes another drink of foamy beer. I want her to pat the seat next to her and invite me to sit with her, but she doesn’t.
Later, after we’ve laid down for bed, we have quick, point-A-to-point-B sex, and except for her “Give it to me’s,” neither of us says much, and she drifts off without going to the bathroom first. I stay awake, thinking about sperm—mine, the squiggly billions—and how they’re in there right now, whipping themselves up a canyon towards some salty and perfect spawning ground. Anna takes her pill. Never misses but one or two days, and always doubles up when that happens. And after sex, she’s eager to get me out of her, to flush away as much as possible, because odds are only odds and you can never be too safe. The whole thing—the elementary school job, Daniel the six-year-old ladies man, and now this—worries me. I’m hungry.
What’s in the fridge is beer, milk, and a block of cheddar in a Zip-loc. Secret spices. The two words float into my head as if on a scented breeze. I go to the pantry. There’s salt and pepper and McCormick’s chili packets, a bag of Fritos and a box of Lucky Charms, not much else. Anna and me, we eat out of cans and boxes and cellophane bags. I can’t cook and neither can she. Plus the dishes—who’s got the patience? That’s why I go to the Breadboard, for real food.
I open the bag of Fritos and crack a beer. Sit at the table and alternate swigs and chips until the bottle’s empty and I’m full. Back in bed, I can’t sleep and my stomach hurts. Anna’s breathing is long and fluid.
Blaine’s back at work the next day, a bandage the size of a snowball on his thumb. “Didn’t lose that much, really,” he says, guiding a new bit into his drill, “And right now, I can’t feel a thing, I’m so numbed out on Darvocet. Doctor Jaffey says it’ll look pretty stubby and I won’t have a thumbnail ever again, but it could’ve been a lot worse—didn’t lose the joint or nothing so I’ll still be able to do everything I’ve always done. Once it gets scarred over.”
Blaine keys in the bit, and turns on his drill, testing it nonchalantly. He pulls a rail off the line and drills the five holes—zip, zip, zip, zip, zip—like nothing ever happened, like losing a part of himself is an everyday occurrence. And that makes me wonder about Blaine, which makes me wonder about me. Would I even come back here? And if not, what would I do? Where would I go? And would I take Anna with me?
I pull a rail, drill my holes, and even with a good thumb and a clear head, I’m still not as quick as Blaine. All morning I can’t get the fear out of me. I imagine my thumb caught under spinning steel, torn apart in a spray of blood and cuticle. As we’re heading for our trucks and lunch, Darrell pulls me aside and tells me I need to step it up, that I’m way under quota, and that if it weren’t for Blaine pulling my weight, the whole line would be fucked—“F-U-C-K-D.”
“I saw her when I was in the hospital,” Blaine says. He’s gripping a chicken sandwich with his good hand and pinching a home fry between forefinger and his snowball bandage (which, after a morning of drilling, has turned the color of the approaching winter sky).
“That so?” I say, “What’d she look like?”
“Didn’t get a great look at her. A nurse just happened to be there as I was walking out. She pulled the curtain when she saw me looking.”
“Well?” I jab my fork at the patty melt I ordered. The cheese, if I had to guess, is Velveeta. The bread is burnt.
“Well, not good. Tubes in her mouth. Things on her fingers. Beeping machines. IV. That shit don’t bode well. I mean, it’s been more than a week. If she were going to get better, I think she would’ve done it by now. I wager Syborg’ll be looking at a murder charge before the week’s out.”
“They need to change the menu,” I say. “I’m tired of looking at it. Every third thing you order isn’t available because Juan can’t make it. And when you do get something, it tastes like glue. And if you want to bet on something, Blaine, I’ll bet you that Pete ain’t going to hire a new chef—someone good—because he knows he can get away with paying Juan those dishwasher wages.”
Blaine leans back, chews. “Donnie, I think you need to let this go. Sure, this place has gone to shit. Everything does, eventually. And the sooner you get used to the smell, the easier it’ll be. Think I’ve lost sleep over my thumb? Sure, but not tonight I won’t. What’s done is done.”
“Okay,” I say, “You’re right. Sorry.” And we finish our bad food in silence, split the bill down the middle and then wait until the whistle calls us back.
For dinner, Anna and I have Chef Boyardee ravioli, Jolly Green Giant creamed corn, and Dole pineapple rings. We eat off paper plates, use plastic forks. The whole dinner’s eaten and cleared away in less than ten.
Anna’s wiping off the table when she looks up and says, “I really want to fuck.” She drops the rag and lets her hand come to her stomach, like she’s still hungry.
“Okay,” I say, “Let me get another beer first.” But before I can turn away and get to the fridge, she grabs me. Two fistfuls of t-shirt followed by a hard tug to her open mouth.
“No, now,” she says and kisses me again, hard and sloppy like she’s eating for prize money. “Now.”
Clothes come off in fits and tangles, enough to expose the parts that matter. Then we’re on the table, Anna’s legs spreading around me, and next comes the hunting and the heaving, her bony body bucking, almost frantic, almost out of control. I pin her at the wrists, and try to keep my thrusts matched to her pumping, erratic hips. She doesn’t say, “Give it to me.” Instead, she says, “Fill it up,” over and over until she comes and her torso goes limp, the table creaking beneath her like weak applause. Then she opens her eyes and pulls herself up. “Don’t stop,” she says, “You don’t want to stop. Fill it up.”
I do want to stop because I know what’s happening. But there’s something in me—some kind of animal engine running on lust and survival—that won’t let me, that keeps me from putting an end to this. And even after I’m done and Anna leans back on the table and pulls her knees to her chest and chuckles, I know there’s nothing I can do about it. What’s done is done.
Next morning, I call in sick. As expected, Darrell’s pissed. Says I should know this is crunch time and that winter is the season for garage doors because houses go up in spring and summer. “Shit,” he says. And then: “I’ll see you tomorrow. But be prepared for some overtime.”
I tell Anna that I just can’t do it, not today, and that she shouldn’t worry. “I just need a day,” I say.
She kisses me, smiles. “Everything will be fine. Better than fine. I promise.” She holds my head between her palms like something delicate, a curio she’ll set on the shelf.
“Okay,” I say, “But I need today.”
She pats my cheek, then gathers up her things—keys, purse, coat—and leaves. She’s not two minutes out the drive before I’m pulling on jeans and a sweater, finding my own keys, along with cigarettes, a pen and a pad of scratch paper. Outside, it’s cold, the air almost frosted, and I remember I still don’t have spark plugs for the snowmobile. Like it matters. Like I’ll have the time to spend weekends on the backside of Pincer Peak, just me and my few thoughts. Probably have to sell the damn thing to pay for something else—a sonogram or a car seat or a crib or an operation. I don’t know what to do or think or even what I’m doing or thinking right then, but I get in the truck and drive.
County Jail is in Medford, downtown in a building that looks like a parking garage, grey and squat and windowless. The corners seemed sharpened, like the walls are made from razors set blade-to-blade.
Inside, I tell a guard sitting behind thick glass that I’m here to see Syborg, that I’m a friend from town.
She looks up at, looks back down. “Name?” she says.
She hands me a form and tells me to fill it out. Name. Address. Phone. Birthday. Social security. Spouse. Purpose/Reason for visit. I’ve never been good at broad questions like this. I think about it for a minute, then write, “Friend?”
The guard scans the form, makes a couple of quick pen scrawls, and then brings an intercom to her mouth, announces me. There’s a crackle of agreement on the other end. “Right through that door,” she says to me, pointing, “Take any one of the stalls.”
The stalls are marked one through six. I take six, as far from the man and woman in stall one as I can be. She’s visiting him, and he’s growling at her in Spanish, and I can’t make up my mind if it’s anger or lust that’s got him so bothered. She hardly utters a word, just clutches a rosary to her breast and heaves a little. Again, it’s hard to tell.
Five minutes go by. On the other side of the glass is a room just like the one I’m in. Like I’m invisible and looking into a mirror. Only difference is there’s a guard standing next to the door, looking bored, checking his watch every minute or so. He makes eyes contact with me, keeps it until I look down at my hands.
Another five minutes and then the door opens. Larry walks in, orange jumpsuit, wrists and ankles in chains. Even through the thick glass, I hear the clank of them, sense their heft and permanence. The Mexican in stall one isn’t wearing chains, and I expect the guard to free Larry, to equalize him. But he doesn’t, only extends a hand my way and pulls the steel door shut with a cavernous boom. Larry, I realize, is actually dangerous—not to be trusted—and it’s hard to jibe that with his food, the most reliable eats in town. No, the county. He shuffles over to the stall, sits down and picks up the receiver, signals me to do the same.
“Donnie,” he says. His voice sounds far away, like we’re talking across countries, on systems that might not be compatible. He is unshaven. Dark circles quiver under his eyes. I realize I haven’t seen him without a baseball cap since high school, and what’s left of his black hair is salted with grey. “What the hell are you doing here?” he says.
“Well,” I say, “I heard about what happened, and—”
“You’re the first person’s come to see me. Not even my own folks.”
“We went to school together, Larry.”
“That’s true,” he says, “But it’s not like we’re—” He pauses and searches for the word with his free hand, a gesture that might be bigger if not for the chains. “Like we’re close.”
I shift in my seat and touch my jeans pocket, the raised shape of my cigarettes there. “Yeah,” I say, “But you stayed. Like me. I think that kind of makes us friends.”
Larry says, “Okay. So what is it? You need something?”
“I do, Larry, you got that right,” I say, “It’s about food, Larry, your food. I miss it, and I was wondering …”
“Who’s Pete got cooking?” he asks.
“Juan. And Christ, he’s awful. The place ain’t the same.”
We both sit in silence for a moment, like when a whole bunch of people die somewhere and they have to act solemn about it before football games and Oscar shows.
I decide just to come out with it. “The Syborg, Larry. I love that sandwich. I think I’ve eaten that sandwich damn near every day for the past seven years—except for those few weeks you were in the first time, of course. Hell, ever since I been with ProDoor. Then, poof, it’s gone.”
“You came here to talk about my sandwich?”
“Yeah, I did,” I say, and I drop my head then raise it again. “And I’d like to know how to make it myself.”
Larry shakes his head, rattles his chains. “That’s a secret. Says so right on the menu.”
“Come on, Larry,” I say, “I won’t tell anyone. Just for me, I promise. Won’t even tell Anna.”
Larry leans back, shoots a glance over his shoulder at the guard, who’s still checking his watch and looking bored. The Mexican keeps growling, and now his woman’s growling back. Larry leans back in. “You promise?” he says.
“Hand on the Bible,” I say, and press a palm against the glass.
“Okay, alright.” His tone is hushed, like he’s about to confess. I slip the pad of paper from my back pocket and lay it on the desk. “Nuh-uh,” Larry says, “Put that away. This is an oral tradition.”
I nod, return the pad to my pocket, and ready my mind for remembering.
“Listo?” Larry says.
“Okay,” I say. My breath is shallow, palms clammy.
“Coors Light and McCormick chili seasoning. Soak the chicken breast in Coors, sprinkle with McCormick’s and grill. Done.”
“That’s it?” I say.
“That’s it,” Larry says. He leans back and tents his hands over his chest. His smile is small but proud.
I sit there a few seconds, stunned at first, then angry, pissed, hate rising inside me like a column of fire. I say, “That’s not a fucking secret, you fuck. That’s not cooking, you goddamn psycho. You know what that is? That’s a sham, Larry. A fucking sham.” I slam the receiver to its cradle, get up, and storm off. Outside, it’s so cold I’m afraid the tears will freeze to my face.
ADRIAN DORRIS lives in Ashland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Blackbird, The Portland Review, and subTerrain Magazine