Story #3, Among the Living and Other Stories, 2000
Every day, I eat dinner at four. I have a broiled steak, with or without potato, with or without rice, with or without salad. Sometimes, when I’m feeling good and hungry, I have all at the same meal — steak, potato, rice, and salad. And wine: one bottle per meal. The wine, which must be very dry, helps me digest the steak, which must be very rare. Let me see now: for the record, and for the sake of lively journalism, I have been eating rare t-bone steaks at the rate of one per day, every day at four o’clock in the afternoon, for the last six or seven years — between 2,190 and 2,555 steaks in all — and have polished off exactly that many bottles of wine.
This is the only meal I eat all day. Here is the rest of my routine: I get up at eight, visit the bathroom, scratch my head, blow my nose two times, put on my robe, put on the coffee, go out and get the paper, come back, put the rubber band in the top drawer by the phone, put the paper on the counter, empty my ashtray, light a cigarette, stare out the window over the sink until the coffee is done, get a cup, fill it, sit at the kitchen table, read the paper, drink the coffee, put on another pot, light another cigarette, drink the coffee, light another cigarette, and put on another pot.
These activities help prepare me for my four o’clock dinner, which I have come to regard as a moving, personal, private, essential religious experience. When it comes to seeking higher consciousness — and who isn’t these days — my steak dinners mean more to me than a guru-guided three-month hike through the rugged wilderness of Tibet, and I’ll tell you why: I like steak, gurus irritate me, and I have no interest in Tibet.
My landlady, Rosie, a simple, lovely, charming, sensual, roly-poly Mexican woman in her fifties whose children are grown, whose husband is dead, and whose ivy-draped backyard cottage I live in, is the one who fixes my dinner. She also goes to the store and buys the food, leaving me free to drink coffee and smoke cigarettes — the very same habits, it so happens, that she claims killed her husband, Mike. But I have sincere doubts that coffee and cigarettes were what killed Mike, and one day I told her so. According to Rosie, Mike was a very intense person, a proud, honest, and open person, a person who always took people at their word. All well and good, I said, only you’re leaving out one thing. What’s that? she said, and I said, Well, if he was honest — and I am sure he was — and open —which I don’t doubt — and if he always took people at their word — which is admirable, to be sure — he must have experienced an incredible amount of disappointment. And then, bang, Rosie starts to cry. Oh, yes! she said. Yes. Many times, when he found out someone was lying, it hurt him very much. How can a friend do these things? he would ask me. And I would hold him in my arms all night, like he was my little boy. And Rosie went on crying, so I said, Oh, Rosie, dear sweet Rosie, don’t cry, please don’t cry, you’re too beautiful a woman to spend another minute crying. I took her hand in mine and said, Listen. I never met Mike, but I wish I had. I could have told him how to smoke cigarettes for their own sake, and how to drink coffee for its own sake, and how to take a friend’s lie for what it really is, has been, and always will be. A lie is a plea for help, Rosie, darling — when all else has failed, a last attempt to be included in the human family.
You really think so? Rosie said.
Of course I do, I said.
You are so young. How do you know these things?
That, I said, is a mystery. It is also my curse, my burden, my cross.
Rosie smiled. She squeezed my hand, got up, blew her nose, and smiled again. You are like Jesus, she said, giving the name its beautiful Spanish pronunciation: Jesús. She leaned down and kissed me on the cheek. It’s almost time for your steak, she said.
You don’t have to, I said. I can make my own dinner today.
No, Rosie said. I will do it.
She left me alone at the table with my coffee and cigarettes and busied herself in the kitchen.
I folded up the day’s newspaper and slid it across the table. I picked up my pencil and note pad and drew a picture of Jesus hanging on the cross. I put a burning cigarette into His mouth. In the parched, rugged grassy foreground strewn with small stones was the figure of a woman looking up. I couldn’t see her face, but I knew the woman was Rosie, and that the man on the cross wasn’t Jesus at all, or Jesús, but an honest and simple man who called himself Mike, a man who had worked hard his entire life selling shoes, selling clothes, selling washing machines and lawn mowers, because it was the only way he had to feed his wife and children — his one big girl and his three little girls and his two little boys.
After studying the picture for two or three minutes I wrote beneath it these words: Cigarettes don’t kill, boys, coffee doesn’t kill, boys — we kill each other, boys, and there is nothing left to do but cry.
I was touching up the drawing when Rosie came back to ask me if I wanted a potato or rice or salad or all three.
Just steak today, I said.
Not even salad? she said. Are you sure?
No thank you, I said. I’m sure.
Rosie glanced down at my note pad. What is this drawing, Karl? she said.
Do you like it? I said.
Rosie nodded. Yes, she said. It’s very good.
Do you really think so?
Yes. But you are forgetting the thieves.
The thieves, I said. You’re right. Well, there’s no room for them now. What made you think of them?
I don’t know. Rosie thought for a moment. Not all the pictures have the thieves, she said finally.
That’s right, I said. Besides, there are enough thieves in the world as it is.
Rosie went back to her work.
I put down my pencil, got up, and stretched. The sun had moved to the other side of the house, leaving Rosie and me to float like ghosts in the dusky, smoke-filled kitchen. I opened the window over the sink, feeling mad and sorry for Rosie, and feeling mad and sorry for her dead husband, Mike, and mad and sorry for Jesus, who would have been better off selling lawn mowers and washing machines.
That air is nice, Rosie said.
She put two potatoes in the sink and started the cold water running over them.
Who are the potatoes for? I said.
Rosie turned toward me with a sad, stern, defiant, lonely, proud, apologetic expression that said, For us, Karl, the potatoes are for us, and said, I’m a little hungry too, I guess.
Embarrassed, she looked into the sink. The water was running over the potatoes. When she picked one up and started to scrub it between her brown, capable, patient hands, I kissed her on the cheek.
Suddenly, on the verge of tears, I turned away so Rosie couldn’t see my face. Needing to hide, I went to the pantry shelves and took down a bottle of wine. When I was finally able to turn around, the potatoes were on the counter and Rosie was drying her hands.
She opened the refrigerator and brought out two steaks. She put a fresh piece of foil on the broiling pan, and then put the steaks on top of the foil. She put salt and pepper on the steaks. Then she opened the oven, slid the steaks inside, and turned on the heat.
Still holding the bottle of wine, I cleared my throat and said, Rosie, I think you forgot the potatoes.
Rosie looked at the potatoes and started to laugh. Then she looked at me and laughed some more. She pointed at the potatoes. She laughed harder, and then harder still, until there was nothing left in the world for me to do but join her, and so I started laughing too. We laughed at the two potatoes together, at their scrubbed, comical lumpiness, and at their eyes — some peering, some wide open — hooting and hollering until at last we fell into each other’s arms, and I could feel Rosie’s roly-poly body heaving against mine, and rising and falling against my thin, stupid, sunken, bony chest, and for the life of me at that moment I felt happier than I’d ever felt before, or had ever imagined possible.
Finally, we stopped laughing and dried our eyes.
The room was beginning to smell like two t-bone steaks with plenty of salt and pepper on them. I wet a paper towel and started to wipe the table, but the towel was too wet and so I ended up with a streaked mess that had ashes in it. Rosie put the potatoes back into the bin, opened the oven, and turned the steaks. I could hear the juice spitting itself onto the foil. Then, when she saw me standing over the table with a wet paper towel, she brought a dry one to soak up the excess water.
We ate our steaks, and each of us drank a bottle of wine. Not used to having company, feeling animated, I said, You know, Rosie, we should do this more often. You always cook my dinner, but you never stay. Why?
A man needs his privacy, she said.
Privacy, certainly, is good, I said. But it can also be carried too far, don’t you think?
You have your life, Rosie said.
She nodded. Of course, she said. You are young, a student.
But I haven’t been to school in two years, I said. And I’m twenty-eight years old.
That doesn’t matter.
It doesn’t? But I won’t graduate. Do you know what happens if I don’t graduate?
I won’t be able to find a real job, that’s what. I’ll have to wash dishes forever. I’ll have to work at Sunset Lanes, cleaning up after kids who spilled their mustard.
There is other work, Rosie said.
Rosie. What kind of work?
Lots of jobs, she said.
You could be a teacher.
Who could I teach? Little kids? Do you think anyone would let me teach their little children? To teach, you need at least five years of college and a certificate that says you can teach.
You could teach them how to draw pictures.
Of Jesus? I said bitterly. With a cigarette in His mouth?
Rosie smiled. It was a big, gentle smile, full of the wisdom that swims inside bottles of wine.
Okay, I said. I’ll be a teacher. It’ll only take another three years. I’ll be a teacher, and I’ll cut my hair, and I’ll trim my beard, and buy new clothes, and make car payments, and house payments, and insurance payments, and I’ll mow the lawn and put the flag up on my mailbox and talk to my neighbors. I’ll go to the movies, and to restaurants, and to the mall. I’ll do these things, Rosie, because I can draw Jesus with a cigarette in His mouth.
You could leave the cigarette out, she said simply. Karl, I know what you’re saying. Believe me, I know. But leave the cigarette out. What would it hurt?
I looked at Rosie. Maybe she was right. Who was I to be holding out, and what was I holding out for?
She started to get up.
Where are you going? I said.
To get more wine, she said.
She walked to the pantry, being deliberate with her steps because of the wine. Her wide hips, swinging back and forth beneath her flowery dress, created a satisfying image that was at once poetic, lazy, sensual, and uninhibited, and that was suggestive enough of sex to temporarily make me forget what it was we had been talking about.
While you’re at it, I called after her, why don’t we do something with those potatoes?
Rosie opened the wine and put the bottle on the table. Okay, she said. She poured us each a glass of wine, raised hers and took a drink. When she put it down again, she had a little dark-red wine mustache on her upper lip. Out of deference to the beauty of her spirit, and to her flowery hips, I raised my glass and followed suit.
Categories: Among the Living and Other Stories