By Fred Bonnie
"I'm at your house all the time," Mack said. "Two, three nights a week. Least I can do is treat you both to a good eat once in awhile."
Mack pulled his Buick into the parking lot, maneuvering in lunges and jerks around two other cars to grab a parking spot close to the door of the restaurant.
"Man, they pack 'em in on Thursday night, don't they? It's all-you-can-eat night, that's why."
As Mack turned the engine off he smiled, first at Kitty in the front seat, than at Maynard in the back.
Mack was burly and laughed too much, in Maynard's opinion, and Mack's public demonstrations of kindness at the department store where he and Mack worked together always struck Maynard as false. Mack pretended to be interested in their coworkers' kids, and he always volunteered to head up the Heart Fund or United Way drives. Maynard was a little surprised that Mack had invited them out on a Thursday night; that was Kitty's bowling night, and Maynard thought Mack went to an archery class at the YMCA on Thursdays. Maynard had come to count on Thursday as the one night of the week when he could be by himself and work out with the two small dumb-bells he kept hidden in the basement of their apartment building. He knew that working out only once a week did little to improve his health or physique in fact, he ached for a week after working with the weights but on that one night of the week, he felt that he at least had the potential to improve himself. To build up his arms to the size of Mack's.
Mack was Maynard's boss at the department store. Mack was the shipping clerk and Maynard was the assistant shipper. All day long Mack would play boss, telling Maynard to wrap this package a certain way or to send that package by UPS rather than Airborne. But the moment the clock hit five, Mack became Maynard's best friend Mr. Good Time, as Maynard called him around Kitty. Ever since Mack's wife died of cancer five years earlier, Mack had been coming around to Maynard's and Kitty's, frequently and uninvited.
Maynard struggled out of the back seat. He could tell that Kitty, even though she'd been quiet, was enjoying not having to cook. She and Maynard were both 41, ten years younger than Mack. Kitty, who worked as a secretary at Weight Watchers, was lean and sinewy with shoulder-length brown hair that caused her to stare at the mirror for hours and absently reel off the endless possibilities that she could do to transform her hair into something special, as she put it.
"Should I dye it blond?" she'd ask.
"It's fine the way it is."
"No it isn't. It's plain and ugly."
"Then change it."
"Anything you want."
"But I don't know what I want."
"Then don't change it."
And she didn't change it, but she seemed always to be thinking about changing something. In Maynard's opinion, she was neither good-looking nor bad nor were her looks important to him. What had always attracted him most was her lethargic demeanor and air of boredom, even though he knew she took in everything. Days might pass before she mentioned something she had seen in a store window or some person in the park across the street from their apartment building.
Mack always gave Kitty plenty of attention, and when they went out, people assumed that Kitty was Mack's wife because of the way Mack made her take his arm, and the way he always rushed ahead to open doors for her.
"May I borrow your wife, Good Buddy?" Mack would say. "Just her arm, I mean. Ha-ha. . . ."
Maynard sensed that Kitty liked the attention Mack paid her, even though she often complained about Mack when he wasn't around.
"He's so pushy," she'd say about Mack. "He wants what he wants when he wants it, even though he smiles real nice while he's wanting it."
Although Mack was stout and clumsy, Maynard had to concede that he was very good-looking for 51 dark-haired, dark-eyed, perfect teeth.
Mack held the door open, and Maynard and Kitty went into the crowded, noisy restaurant. The house music was late '50s stuff, and Mack did a few steps of the twist. Kitty patted his arm and made a tiny, gulping laugh
Mr. Good Time, Maynard thought scornfully.
The hostess led them to a table, and Mack pulled Kitty's chair out for her.
Maynard could see that Mack was very pleased with himself to be taking them out and wondered if Mack considered this one meal to be payment for the 15 or 20 meals they'd fed Mack since the last time he took them out.
"You know how I love to eat," Mack said. His conversation seemed always directed at Kitty. "I mean, I love to eat." He held his midsection between his hands. "And look at this. No gut whatsoever."
Poor Kitty, Maynard thought. A rare night out to eat and she has to listen to Mack talk about how wonderful he is.
"Now I want you two to have a drink," Mack said. "All the drinks you want, in fact. And then . . .." He nodded toward the several buffet counters. "And then I want you to eat everything you want." He touched Kitty's wrist. "You don't need that menu, Darlin'; everything you want is right over yonder."
Kitty pouted. "Oh, you mean I have to have the buffet?"
Mack drew back in his seat but kept his hand on Kitty's wrist. "No, no. Have anything you want. It's just me and Maynard who's got to have the buffet. You can have that Greek-style lamb if you want." Mack moved his chair closer to her. "The prime rib. The lobster . . .."
"Oh . . .then I want the lobster," Kitty said.
Mack slapped the table with a wild, sweeping gesture, although his hand hardly made a sound on the tablecloth. "It's yours!"
A waitress came to the table, forced a haggard smile, and stood with her pad ready.
"How y'all doing tonight? Everybody want the buffet?"
"Hungry," said Mack. "And thirsty."
"Maybe I'll have lobster, too," Maynard said.
"Uh-uh. You and me are having the buffet, Good Buddy. It's fabulous. You'll see. All you can eat."
"But . . . I'm not all that hungry."
"Then have the salad bar," Mack said. "That's an all you-can-eat deal, too."
"I don't know . . .that lobster sounds mighty good..."
"Oh, Maynard," Kitty said, pouting. "The last time you had lobster, you hated it, remember? It was when we were at that motel in . . .."
"I loved it," Maynard said quickly. "It was the salad bar I didn't like."
"Do you want me to come back in a little while?" the waitress asked.
"No," Mack said. "We're ready. Two buffets and a lobster for the little lady. And bring us a big ole pitcher of them margaritas and three salty glasses."
Maynard had disliked Mack all day, but now he hated him. Again. On Tuesday night, when Mack ate at Maynard's house, Mack had jumped up afterward and insisted on doing the dishes. Kitty said, "That's awfully nice of you, Mack. Maynard never does the dishes."
The next night, Mack told Kitty about how Maynard had made a pass at Lilian, the girl who worked the lingerie counter at the store.
Maynard insisted that it was not a pass, and Mack just laughed and said that no, it wasn't a pass because Lilian turned him down.
"In football, it's what we used to call an incomplete pass, Good Buddy."
Kitty laughed at the time, but as soon as Mack was gone, she turned sullen and silent. She fell asleep on the couch, reading, and Maynard woke up in the middle of the night wondering where she was. When he found her, he covered her with two blankets and went back to bed.
Mack patted Maynard's arm. "Ready to chow down there, Good Buddy? Or you want to have a drink first?"
"Yes, I thought we were going to drink first," Kitty said.
That worried Maynard. She didn't often drink, not at home anyway, and could get tipsy on a single screwdriver, which was her favorite thing to drink. On two, she had to be carried home, and then she would spend the rest of the night throwing up or tossing around in bed and crying over some long-dead relative.
The pitcher of margaritas arrived, and Mack proceeded to pour. Maynard never drank when Kitty did, but tonight he was torn between spending Mack's money and keeping an eye on Kitty. He put his hand over the top of his glass just as Mack lifted the pitcher toward him.
"No thanks. Not tonight."
"Oh, come on," Mack urged. "Drink up, 't's on me."
"Good," Kitty said. "I'll just drink one for him. And then one for myself. It's been a hard week."
Here we go, thought Maynard. Now we'll hear all about how much Linda and Grace hate her and how every time Kit comes back into the office, they're whispering about her. They never seemed to actually do anything to her, but they were always whispering about her. Maynard got so sick of hearing Kitty's complaining that he'd told her a couple of weeks ago that he didn't want to hear it anymore. In return, Maynard agreed not to talk about the department store.
"Those two witches at your office bugging you again?" Mack asked.
She glanced at Maynard.
"I don't want to talk about it."
Mack laughed and sat back in his chair, tipping his salty glass up. When he set it down again, his upper lip was coated with light green foam. "That's right . . .no shop talk. I always forget." He tapped one of his large, hairy fingers on the back of his overturned spoon. After a few moments he stopped that and began drumming on the table, his loud fingernails galloping in a rhythm that made Maynard think of the "Lone Ranger" theme and also made him wonder how Mack knew about the ban on talking about work.
Maynard sipped his Coke and tuned out the conversation between Mack and Kitty. He thought about Lilian the lingerie girl. What he liked about Lilian was that she seemed genuinely curious about people. She was always caked with makeup and didn't seem intelligent at first, but when they happened to sit together in the break room, she asked Maynard questions about himself that nobody else had ever asked. Like what he did when he got home from work. Lilian wanted to know his first three acts upon walking in the door. Then she wanted to know his first three acts when he woke up in the morning, and if he ever had recurring dreams. She never used the questions to turn the conversation to herself it was pure curiosity, Maynard had come to realize. But Mack had already spread it all over the store that Maynard was trying to put a move on Lilian. Other people, especially the women in the store, talked about Lilian too, suggesting that she was far worse than merely flirtatious. Maynard figured it was because Lilian seldom talked to the women. She'd told Maynard that women just didn't interest her very much.
"I already know what makes women tick," she said. "I want to know about men."
"But you're 37 . . . haven't you figured men out by now?"
"God, no. . . I know less than I did when I was 18," she said. "Back then it seemed obvious what men were all about. What boys are all about, anyway."
"So what have you learned lately about men?"
"Probably the same things you've learned about women," was all she said. With that little grin of hers.
That was the last time they talked. Mack and the others had made it impossible for Maynard to talk to Lilian anymore.
Maynard eyed the drink in Kitty's hand. What the hell, he thought, if she wants to get plastered, let her. She only does it once or twice a year. Maynard wondered if Kitty would drink more if he were to suddenly die. He'd heard of women who became alcoholics after their husbands died. He could see Kitty becoming a lush out of sheer loneliness. He could see her starting out with a bottle to come home to at night, but sooner or later heading out for the bars. Both her parents and her sister lived in Seattle. There would be no family members to report her behavior to other family members.
What would she do? She had hobbies needlework and furniture refinishing and bowling but what meaning could they hold when your husband dies, he wondered. Most women Maynard had met who had lost their husbands were bent on finding another husband. None of them stayed home to crochet. They went out to card games and fund-raisers and church, or they took night courses at the university to meet people. He couldn't see Kitty taking courses. She had never talked about taking courses. Just what would she do? He'd known her for 22 years, been married to her for 19, but he had no idea what she'd do if he died.
Maynard could see it was time to rescue her from Mack, who was going on and on about crossword puzzles. He was saying that he loved learning all those new words, but Maynard had never heard Mack use a new word.
"I see where they finally got the funds approved for that new expressway connection," Maynard said.
Kitty and Mack looked at him as if he were speaking from a television.
Maynard thought he should add something if that wasn't a topic they might bite for. ". . .And they caught a suspect in that pet store robbery case. You know, the one that's been stealing all the parrots?"
Mack and Kitty looked down at their drinks. Maynard knew he'd succeeded in disrupting their conversation but not entering it. He tried to think of something quickly, before they began again with the crossword puzzles.
"I saw on the TV the other night that if they don't start killing some of the people on death row, the prisons are going to be more overcrowded than they've ever been. But school enrollment is down, and they may just convert some of those Baby Boom schools they built in the fifties into prisons."
Kitty laughed. "I always thought my school looked like a prison!"
Mack once again lifted the margarita pitcher toward Maynard's glass. "Good Buddy . . .you got to help us with these margaritas. It ain't like you to pass up a free drink."
Maynard pulled his glass away, and Mack spilled a bit on the table. "No, please, I really don't. . . ."
Mack seemed annoyed. "Well hell, you don't have to waste it."
The waitress brought Kitty's salad, and Mack pushed back his chair and nodded at Maynard. "C'mon, we got us some serious eating to do. Let's get started."
At the salad bar, Maynard felt almost hungry as he picked up a plate and heaped it high with lettuce and cherry tomatoes and even the bean sprouts, which looked crisp and cool. He decided to try the croutons and bacon bits and everything he'd never wanted to put on a salad black olives, anchovies, beets.
"You can come back for anything you want," Mack said, as if he owned the place.
They moved down the line to the vegetables and entrees. Maynard watched Mack heap two plates with roast beef and hamburger steak and ham, a third plate with fried catfish and pork chops, and a fourth with peach cobbler, fried apple pie, and banana pudding. Mack looked serious, nearly pained, as he informed Maynard that he'd have to come back for that last plate.
"Unless just the sight of all this good grub makes me grow a third hand!"
Back at the table, Mack arranged his plates in front of him and tasted a bite from each.
"Exquisite," he called the hamburger steak. "Savory," he said of the ham. The catfish was "crisp and juicy," and the fried chicken was "finger-lickin' good. Just like the Colonel's, only better."
Savory was a new word, Maynard thought. From the crosswords?
"You know," Mack went on, "when I was a young fella, seems I used to couldn't stay away from those I-can-eat-anything contests they have at the country fairs. You know those contests?" He continued to fork bites from each of his plates.
"I'll tell you, I won a couple of those suckers, but I'll never forget the first time I lost. You know what I couldn't eat? This may sound like the damnedest thing. And I'm telling you right now, don't ever say you can eat it. Especially if you wind up in an I-can-eat-anything contest.
"It was instant coffee. I put a big tablespoon of that stuff in my mouth, and I swear to God I could not get it down." Mack slapped the table and leaned back on the two hind legs of his chair. "I mean, raw eggs, shell and all, straight vinegar, cold bacon grease. I used to could eat anything. But that instant coffee brought me right to my knees." Mack laughed and slapped the table as he shoveled in a slice of roast beef and kept talking as he chewed.
"Lard, orange peels, parsley? I swear to God I used to could eat anything. . . ."
Maynard chewed at his salad, but he didn't taste it. He'd lost the small twinge of appetite he'd felt. He wondered what Kitty was thinking about. She hadn't even begun her salad. Maynard noticed that she was half way through her second margarita. She held the drink in a distant, thoughtful kind of way like you'd see a woman holding a drink on the cover of a Sinatra album. Twenty years with her and he didn't even know what she was thinking. The idea angered him for just a second, then saddened him.
When she suddenly downed the rest of the drink, the motion startled him.
"I'd like another," she announced.
Maynard's first reaction was to caution her, but he kept his mouth shut, lest Mack accuse him of trying to stifle her. She didn't seem drunk, after all. Just quiet. Maybe the drinks would catch up to her before the lobster came and make her realize she'd had enough.
Mack was bent low over his plate, shoving slices of ham and pineapple into his mouth. "Anything you like;" he said. "Drink up, 't's on me. And you, Good Buddy, you hurting my feelings by being a tee-totaler when the drinks are free."
Maynard smiled inside, realizing once again that Mack was a plain slob. Maynard started to eat his own food, but slowly and with restraint, so that Kitty might notice and appreciate the contrast with Mack. But she wasn't noticing anything. She looked across the restaurant at nothing. Maynard suddenly wanted to tell Kitty all about work, even about Lilian, and how it was when Mack tried to order him around, and when the department heads bitched about the mailroom not getting their customers' orders out quickly enough, and how the three senile brothers who owned the store came through the shipping room 16 times a day to ask the same questions over and over.
"Ready for more, Good Buddy?"
Maynard took a small bite of his roast beef and shook his head.
Mack smiled. "Not hardly, huh?"
Mack pushed his chair back and stood up with his three empty plates. "I am, by God . . ."
Maynard waited until Mack was out of earshot. "What a slob, huh?"
"We're all slobs of one kind or another," Kitty said absently.
"Look, what's eating you? Is it that business with the lingerie girl at the store that Mack mentioned? That was strictly . . .I mean, it's just intellectual, kind of."
She turned toward him and laughed. "Intellectual? I've never heard you use that word in your life."
Maynard tried to continue to eat slowly and deliberately, as if to prove that he enjoyed his food far more than Mack did.
"Can I get you anything?" the waitress asked. Maynard's hand jumped at her sudden presence. He noticed her look at Kitty's untouched salad.
"Want me to tell the cook to slow down on that lobster?"
"No," Kitty said. "I'll eat sooner or later. I don't mind if it gets a little bit cold."
The waitress left, and Maynard offered her a morsel on his fork. "Want to taste this smoked turkey?"
"Not in a turkey mood?"
"I'm not in any mood. . . ."
"But we've got to spend Mack's money."
"Oh Maynard, grow up. It's not the first time he ever took us out."
"No, it may actually be the second."
"Come on . . .he takes us out once or twice a month. I guess you don't remember because you usually wind up so drunk it takes the two of us to carry you up the stairs and put you to bed."
"Well . . .I'm sober as a judge tonight."
Kitty looked at him with her small, sad smile. "I know. And that's the problem."
Mack was back with three more plates of food, mostly vegetables this time. Maynard instinctively glanced at Mack's stomach. Mack noticed and patted his belly.
"You'd think I'd have a big ole gut, wouldn't you?"
Maynard thought of several replies but decided to say nothing. He was about to ask Kitty why it was a problem that he was not drunk, but the waitress brought the lobster just then, and Kitty watched the plate with such intensity that the moment seemed too solemn to be interrupted by what might have been an unanswerable question.
"Eat up, you two. Neither one of you are going to get your money's worth at the rate you're going. My money's worth, that is. And damn, Good Buddy . . .you supposed to be drunk by now!"
" I'm doing it for you," Kitty said. She reached to pat Maynard's hand.
"I can't believe you're not wolfing that roast beef right down," Mack said. "And the turkey breast is downright sapid. Ha-ha. Bet you ain't never heard that word before, right?"
Maynard realized that he wanted to be home, reading in bed with Kitty, or doing the dishes from breakfast something that might please her. Before they fell asleep that night, he would certainly tell her that he never meant for them to get like this, that they used to talk so well together when they were younger, and that he'd never again tell her she couldn't talk about what it was like for her at work.
When she'd eaten about half of her lobster, Kitty set her napkin down and asked Maynard if he had any money.
"Yeah . . .two, three bucks. Why? You're the one that carries the money..."
She reached across the table, hand open. "I want to buy a pack of cigarettes. I left my purse in the car."
Maynard waited for Mack to offer to buy the cigarettes, and when that didn't happen, Maynard pulled out his wallet and gave her a five, which was the last of his week's lunch money. Kitty left the table.
"She clean you out, Good Buddy?"
"Basically. . . ."
"Every last dime?"
"I got about 60 cents."
Mack laughed. "Then she didn't do it right, did she? Heh heh. . . ." Mack continued to shovel food into his wide, grinding jaws. Maynard watched in silence. He jumped when Mack's pager went off with its loud, frantic beep. Mack stopped chewing long enough to glance at the number panel, then swallowed.
"Damn. It's the store. Hope it ain't a fire or something. You unplug the coffee pot, Good Buddy?"
"Yeah. Pretty sure."
As he watched Mack cross the dining room Maynard felt a moment of disorientation and wondered where he was. His food looked a week old, and Kitty's unfinished lobster smelled like the fish canneries down by the docks. How had this happened, Maynard wondered? How had he allowed himself to stay in that same store with nothing in the world for him to look forward to except Mack? How had he allowed things to arrive at the point where all he did was come home at night and watch televison while Kitty cooked frozen dinners? At least he'd always done the floors and the bathroom and the laundry. That was to his credit, wasn't it? And he'd built her a loom last year when she thought she wanted to take up weaving. And he'd built her that nice china cabinet for her birthday 10 or 12 years ago.
But what else had he done? His memory clouded, and he remembered his grandmother, who had always said how smart he was. He was glad she was not around to see what he had not become.
Maynard realized that Mack and Kitty had been gone for awhile, and he wondered where they were. He glanced at his watch. It was going on 10, but he really had no idea what time they'd left the table. Most of the tables were now empty, and Maynard sensed that it was near closing time.
He looked at Kitty's four empty margarita glasses and at Mack's stack of plates, the top one still piled high with scalloped potatoes and fried corn. Maynard wished there were some way to sprinkle the food with coffee grounds, to conceal the coffee grounds somewhere so that Mack would have them in his mouth and clogged against his throat before he even knew what he was eating. Maynard chuckled to himself before he noticed the waitress.
"You all right, Hon?"
Maynard looked around to see if anyone else had noticed. "Fine," he managed to say. "Where's the bathroom?"
He did not find Mack in the men's room. He waited outside the ladies' room until someone came out and asked her if there was anyone else inside. She looked at Maynard suspiciously and said no. When he got back to the table, he found the waitress leaving a note.
"From Mack somebody. Says he had to go into the store, and that your wife got sick and he was going to drop her off at home on the way. Said he'd be back to pick you up in a little while."
Like hell, Maynard thought. He rose from the table and headed for the cashier's desk.
"Can you call me a cab?" he said to her.
The cashier looked at him over her glasses as if he were a child. "If you'll wait just a minute. You made me lose count."
Maynard watched her count, thinking to himself that Mack had one hell of a nerve to just take Kitty with him without telling Maynard.
"Where's there a phone?" Maynard demanded.
The cashier refused to answer. Maynard headed out the door. There was no directory in the phone booth outside, so he called information and jotted the number of the cab company along his index finger. The cab arrived before Maynard had even paced the length of the parking lot.
"Where to?" The cabbie's hair was gray, and his face ruddy and deeply creased. He looked so intently at Maynard in the mirror that Maynard moved over in the seat, out of the mirror's range. When they were in front of his apartment building, Maynard saw that there were no lights on upstairs.
"Here you are," said the cabbie.
Maynard fumbled in his pockets before he remembered that Kitty had taken all of his money for cigarettes.
"I'm gonna have to run upstairs to get some money. If you don't mind."
The cabbie did mind, Maynard could tell. Tough shit. You want to get paid, you wait. But when Maynard opened the apartment door and called for Kitty, no one answered, and he quickly found that the apartment was empty. At first alarmed then angry, he hurried back down to the cab and got in. He gave the cabbie Mack's address.
The cabbie nodded and drove. "Big guy?" he asked.
Maynard moved to see the cabbie's face in the mirror. "Yeah"
"I know who you mean. He comes down to that all-you-can-eat deal almost every Thursday night. Missed him tonight. He usually has his girlfriend with him."
"Oh yeah. They go crazy there in the back seat. I never seen nothing like it. And I've seen some stuff, believe me. This pair is the strangest, though. She's always carrying a bowling-ball, and he's always carrying a goddam bow-and-arrow. I call him Robin Hood and he calls me James Cagney. She's real quiet never says a word."
The cabbie smiled into the mirror. "People tell me I look like Cagney."
They were on Mack's street. There was Mack's Buick, but there were no lights on in his apartment windows. Maynard looked up at the darkened windows for a few moments, then told the cab driver to just drive. Maynard didn't care whether he had money or not. The cabbie could turn him over to the cops, if it came to that.
The cabbie was still talking about how much he looked like James Cagney, and how years ago before the actor died, the cabbie used to drive out to the airport dressed up kind of casual but sharp and just hang around. Sure enough, someone would come up to him and ask if he was Cagney and then ask for an autograph.
"I'd quote some movie line, then sign whatever they had. Matchbooks, napkins . . .you name it."
Maynard said nothing. He tried to breathe quietly so that the cabbie wouldn't notice. His insides felt crusted and dry, and he was not surprised that he felt no inclination to cry. The cab coasted slowly along a street lined with apartment buildings like the one he and Kitty lived in.
"Where is it you want to go exactly?"
"I dunno. Airport, maybe. I'd like to see you in action."
"Cagney's dead. Nobody recognizes me anymore."
The cabbie's smile grew. He watched the street now instead of Maynard, and he let his foot settle harder on the accelerator. "Ten minutes, fifteen at the most," he said. "If nobody asks me for an autograph, we're outta there."
Copyright © The Southerner 2000.