Comfort Foods

By Jen Michalski

deline woke in bed, hearing the sudden, short burst of air by her ear. As she regained her senses, she realized it was just her mother, overcome by a fit of sleep apnea.  She listened for a few seconds to make sure her mother’s breath regained its regular, light cadence before she heaved herself over, facing the edge of the bed. What began as gratitude that her mother, at eighty-two, was still alive soon turned into irritation at having been woken up, particularly when she was to awaken for work in a few hours.

It had been a year since Adeline’s mother moved in, but it often seemed like just yesterday. The things that Adeline thought she would get used to, her mother’s neediness, her bossiness, her peculiar dietary habits (eating bags of Fritos every week and little else, letting years of Polish recipes recede permanently into the recesses of her memory), the fact that they now shared a bed, had only grown sharper in the sides of Adeline’s body, in her temples, so much so now that the joy of ending another day at the hospital was fleeting, culminating in the span of time from her cubicle to when she sat in her car, poring over her mother’s grocery list as if trying to decipher code: CREM SODA, FREETOES, CHICKEN MEMBERS. Chicken membranes? Chicken tenders? Chicken nuggets?

“I didn’t ask for any chicken,” Adeline’s mother had said later that night, feigning ignorance when confronted with the evidence in her own shaky hand. “But you coulda got some chicken tenders, you know, the ones from Mrs. Paul’s.”

“Those are fish sticks, Ma,” Adeline had answered curtly and sighed, shelving the box of Lucky Charms and super-size bag of Fritos.

“Yeah, those. Why didn’t you get any of those?”

“You put them on the list next time, Ma, and I’ll get them.”

“They were on the list! Whatareyou, blind?”

Adeline signed, turned off the alarm, and nudged her mother as she rolled out of bed and  headed to the shower. She wanted to get to work a little early today to look at her computer. It seemed to lock-up an awful lot yesterday, and with her limited computer experience, she assumed that something she was doing was the culprit. It had taken her a long time to become acquainted with the hospital’s new database system, how to log in patients for appointments, determine billing codes, update records. They were the same tasks she’d been doing all her life without the aid of a computer, yet now they lived virtually on a monitor, disappearing from her view when she moved to new screens, unlike the certainty, the permanence, of when the files sat on the side of her desk, available for checking, verifying, touching.

For months she’d return to previous screens, making sure her work was in fact saved and existed, even though she could not see it. Sometimes she’d get lost in the endless flowchart of the database, jumping from screen 4 to 1, needing to get to 3. She began to fall behind. She wondered if she would lose her job, if she would be forced to apply at the discount store, where they paid $6.50 an hour and not the $10.00 and benefits she made at the hospital. Her mother’s meager check from Social Security, which covered only their groceries and utilities and sometimes a few extras a month, would not make up the difference. She began to spend lunches and time in the evenings at her desk, flipping back and forth between the screens, double-checking her work, updating her cheat sheets, until, slowly, it made more sense to her. Not much more sense, but enough that she began to pick up speed. And it was enough to get by. She would work on understanding the logic, the design of the database later. If she had time. If there ever was time.

“Tilly’s dog shit on our lawn again,” Adeline’s mother reported from the front window, where she stood in full view, rendering her ineffective as a spy. “You better say somethin’ to her, Adeline.”

“I gotta get going, Ma.” Adeline rummaged around the kitchen table for her ID badge. “Why don’t you say something to her? You’re here all day.”

“My arth-ritis is acting up.” Adeline’s mother rubbed her shoulders. “Can you set the channel for me? The Soap Opera Network?”

“It’s already set, Ma. You just have to turn on the TV.”

“You know I can’t use that remote. Somethin’s wrong with it.”

“You don’t have to use the remote. Just turn on the TV.” She grabbed her purse and walked toward the door. “See you tonight.”

“You leave earlier and earlier each day.” Adeline’s mother sat on the recliner she brought with her when she moved in, ratty and slightly stale and not matching any of Adeline’s equally well-worn pieces. “I hope they’re payin’ you.”

At work Adeline sipped a cup of coffee while she waited for someone from the IT department to come look at her computer. She had not been in the system but a half hour when her machine locked up again. She tried to remember in detail the sequence of steps she had taken to land herself in this predicament. She knew she was in the charts screen for a patient. Had she been touching any keys? She couldn’t remember. She looked at the various toys from fast food kids’ meals and stuffed animals that adorned her cubicle, as if they offered clues. Would she get written up for having the IT department over to her computer too many times?

“What’s wrong, there, Adeline?”

Adeline looked up at a stout but strong man in his forties. He held his hands in his chino pockets, shoulders open, body relaxed, as if, unlike the other young, scowling IT guys that came out, he had all the time in the world to help her. And he even knew her name! She began to savor this delicacy until she realized her nameplate was placed prominently in her cubicle, between a Dalmatian beanie baby and unicorn statue.

“My screen locked up again,” she replied, not looking at him. “I’m not sure what I’m doing wrong. I try to remember, you know, what I’m doing before it happens, but…”

“Well, let’s power you down and see what we’ve got here.” He turned off her computer with a stubby finger and leaned against the edge of her desk. She noted his red plaid shirt and thought it looked nice, along with his thick, straight hair that seemed to want to grow out of his head at angles, despite his best efforts to part it down. “Sometimes it’s nothing at all that you’re doing. That should be a relief, huh? I love it when that happens.”

“Usually it is my fault, so I guess you’re right,” she laughed a little. “I’m sorry; I didn’t get your name.”

“Alan,” he answered, looking down at his chest. “I should wear a name tag.”

“I usually get one of the other guys,” Adeline explained in apology. “They usually can’t wait to get away. I guess they’re busy.”

“They can’t wait to get back to the Internet is what it is,” he chuckled. “Okay, Adeline. I think I see what your problem is. And you can probably blame it on your supervisor, Shirley.”

“Why’s that?” Adeline perked up.

“Did she e-mail you a link to download this inspirational screen saver slide show?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact she did.”

“Well, the screen savers are freeware, but they’re freeware on a trial basis. So when the trial expires, and you haven’t bought them, they tend to do mischievous things, like lock up your computer. I’ll take them off, and you should be good to go.”

“That’s too bad,” Adeline sighed. “I sure liked them.”

“I’m sure you’ll be able to find some more,” he assured her. “The shareware ones are easier to find, but with a little searching, you’ll find something you like.”

“To be honest, I’m not much good with that kind of stuff.” Adeline felt confessional to Alan in a way she never had with the young, dismissive IT guys. “In fact, if Shirley hadn’t e-mailed this one to me, I wouldn’t have one at all.”

“We can use the hospital’s screen saver for now.” Alan scrolled through her directories with a speed and grace that awed Adeline. “It’s not much to look at, but it won’t lock up. If I see any good ones, I’ll send them your way. That reminds me, I’d better send an e-mail to your department, see who else downloaded these screen savers.”

“Practically everyone,” Adeline confided.

“Well, you’re all set, Adeline.” Alan straightened up and pulled a scrap of paper from his pocket. “If you need anything else, here’s my e-mail and extension.”

“Thanks, Alan. You’ve been a big help,” Adeline answered, and wanting to impress on him the value of his service, held out her hand. He took it awkwardly and smiled, a little goofily, which made Adeline feel slightly less embarrassed about extending it in the first place. “Have a good day.”

“You too, Adeline.” Alan put his hands back in his pockets and sauntered off, whistling tunelessly.

*  *  *

Later that evening Adeline wandered through the aisles of the supermarket, her mother’s updated list resting on the child seat. She found herself looking at the meats, wondering what someone like Alan ate for dinner. Did he stop at the Quickburger for a burger, or did his wife broil him some sirloin? She picked up a package of rump roast. It had been so long since she and Ma had beef. Letting it braise would give her some time to go through the bills, maybe look at the latest gossip rag she had picked up at the checkout line, just sit and relax and not have to think.

“What are we having for dinner?” Adeline’s mother’s voice broke through the soft red behind her eyelids. “I thought you were making frankfurters and beans.”

“We always have that, Ma. I thought we’d try something different.”

“You sure you know how to cook that roast, Adeline?” Adeline’s mother teetered over to the package on the counter but did not touch it. “You gotta cook it for awhile, you know, make it tender.”

“I know, Ma.”

“I’m hungry. I’m having frankfurters.”

“Okay.” Adeline opened the gas and electric bill. “You know where the stove is.”

“I guess they musta paid you some overtime at the hospital.” Adeline’s mother walked past her into the living room, a pudding cup in her hand. She sat back in the recliner, her feet slightly off the floor.

“I just wanted to try something different, Ma,” Adeline repeated. “If I were married I couldn’t cook frankfurters and beans every week.”

“Whaddaya have to worry about that for? You got a man?”

“I’m just saying, Ma, for argument’s sake. Just because we eat stuff that’s easy and we like it doesn’t mean we should have it all the time. Besides, your blood pressure’s up again.”

“Living with you, that’s why.” She pointed the remote at the television. “Why isn’t this working?”

Adeline looked around the small, clean dining room. She bought the one-bedroom rancher ten years ago, after her divorce from Ray. It seemed the perfect size for her new, modest life of work, television dinners, rented movies, and the occasional bus trip with coworkers, a life that had the right amount of excitement and softness, absorbing the disappointments of marriage and the other minor stresses.

Then Adeline’s mother moved in. Suddenly, Adeline’s life moved toward the edges, like the last item packed in a bag that barely zipped. Suddenly there were tubes of garish lipstick stuffed into her medicine cabinet, even though Adeline’s mother hasn’t worn lipstick in years. What was once an orderly if sparse bedroom closet now reeled with internal congestion, Adeline’s sweaters and pullovers fighting with her mother’s old winter coats and cocktail dresses from Hoshild Kohn, zipped in thick, obtuse plastic, smelling of mothballs. Everywhere Adeline turned her mother’s life leered at her, from the dentures in the cup by the sink to the word search books overfilling the magazine rack to little stations throughout the house, stations with moisturizer and nail files and aspirin and note paper so that, wherever Adeline’s mother was, she would not have to endure the pain of a hangnail or dry, scaly hands, a vague ache, or the omission of an item from the ever-important appended grocery list.

Adeline thought to herself that night of ways she might run into Alan. Maybe she could stop by the IT department with a general question. Perhaps she could tell him she was interested in buying a computer and she needed help deciding on a model. What would she use the computer for? To make Christmas cards. No, that was stupid. Who would buy a computer just to make Christmas cards, a computer she couldn’t afford and wasn’t even buying to begin with? Perhaps she would buy one to get on the Internet, the big thing now, and go to those online auctions that the girls were always talking about. A topaz ring for forty-five dollars, they gushed. A ruby bracelet for ninety-five.

Adeline didn’t understand their fascination with jewelry—wasn’t that for the husband to buy? Well, Ray hadn’t, at any rate, but Adeline thought—or secretly hoped—that Ray was the exception to the rule. And besides, she divorced him. Not, of course, for not buying her jewelry, but for other things, like maybe buying other women jewelry or whatever he spent his money on while he was with the others.

*  *  *

The next day Adeline would set out to IT department only to wind up in other areas not part of her itinerary: the copier room, the snack room, the bathroom. Try as she might, she could not drum up the necessary courage to cross the threshold of the IT department, calm her nerves, and ask about computers. She knew that she would freeze up in front of Alan the same way she did in front of her own computer, and there was no walking away from him, regrouping, and coming back the way she could with her HP. Instead, she sought solace in her usual places of refuge, telling herself that the idea had been silly, that Alan never had any interest in her beyond that of acquaintances. Of course, she was being a bit silly herself, showing such interest in a man she barely knew. Was she attracted to him? She knew that she took a little more care selecting her pins for her uniform and blow-drying her hair. She smiled more, she laughed more; she felt more visible.

She did know, however, that she wasn’t getting much work done today, and as she headed back to her cubicle to work, she noticed a toy on her desk. It was a little beanie baby, one that she didn’t have. She picked up the plush seal and looked around to see whether anyone claimed responsibility.

“I didn’t think you had that one.” Adeline turned around as Alan appeared from around the corner.

“No, I don’t.” Adeline smiled, stroking its head like a puppy. “And I have just the spot for it. Right here by my walrus. It’s a theme, see?”

“Yep.” Alan surveyed her collection of treasures. “It was my daughter’s. She has so many of them—doesn’t even know what she’s got. So I didn’t think she’d miss it.”

“Oh, your daughter,” Adeline answered in vague disappointment. “How old is she?”

“She’s eight. Lives with her mother.” Alan scratched the back of his neck. “Well, enjoy.”

“Thanks, Alan—I’ll have to think of a name for him.”

What Adeline didn’t tell him was that she already had. She stared at little Alan throughout the afternoon, so much so that she stayed a half hour later to finish some billing.

“We’re having McDonald’s again?” Adeline’s mother frowned at the takeout bags in Adeline’s hands. “I thought with all your extra hours you’d be making us a roast again.”

“I thought you didn’t like the roast, Ma.” Adeline dropped the bags on the dining room table.

“It was okay. But once you start enjoying the finer things, any old thing just won’t do.”

Adeline was too happy to argue. Maybe soon she’d have to buy cookbooks and plan dinners every night. Maybe she’d even have to buy some clothes in which to go out to dinner. She bit into her hamburger and tasted her life that, for fifty years, had been comforting and bland in a salty, predictable way. She was not accustomed to the subtleties of taste, a dash of marjoram here, the creamy mildness of an avocado, the different textures of meat cuts. She popped a French fry in her mouth and thought about how she would have to lose weight. She only had had to buy pants with elastic waistbands, avoid mirrors, and keep her cholesterol under 200. A man like Alan deserved more than that. He deserved a figure, silky skin, soft, sensual clothes. But what could she do? Take a walk at lunch? Buy some fruit?

In fact, she wondered whether she wouldn’t be fitter, healthier, more active if it weren’t for her mother. It was her mother she dutifully came home to after work every night. She couldn’t stay out late because she needed to help her bathe and get to bed. She didn’t travel because her mother was too frail to accompany her. She didn’t date because, well, they slept in the same bed. Did she do these things before her mother’s sudden appearance in her life? Not exactly, but she was working up to it, little by little. She had gotten through the divorce, returned to the workforce, bought a house, and began to settle in. These were big accomplishments for ten years alone, she had told herself, and she could work the little extras in at her own pace.

“You’re awful quiet tonight.” Adeline’s mother observed from the living room while she watched Wheel of Fortune. “You didn’t ask me what I did today.”

“What did you do today?”

“Well, I was all over this house today cleaning, straightening up. And then I couldn’t find my Vioxx. It’s always in the medicine cabinet; I never move it. I almost called you at work, Adeline. So I was at my wit’s end almost, and I noticed it on the little table in the hallway. I can’t think for the life of me how it got there. But then I noticed my hand lotion was missing. You know where that was?”

“In the medicine cabinet?”

“That’s a-right. You nailed it. What did you do today?”

“Nothing.” She finished up her hamburger and balled up the wrapper.

She was going to ask Alan out to lunch tomorrow. Not out to a restaurant; just to eat together in the cafeteria. She had practiced on little Alan all afternoon so that she knew exactly what to say. She would ask him about his divorce and find out that his wife fell in love with another man. She would find out that he adored his daughter and that he planned to take her to Disneyworld for her birthday. He would tell her he lived in a two-bedroom condo near the hospital but that he planned to buy a house close to the park for his daughter. Adeline would tell him she wanted children but that Ray was infertile and that maybe the reason why she collected all her toys was because she subconsciously wanted one. She would tell him that she still lived with her mother and he would say what? How would Adeline’s mother fit in their life together?

The next day she packed a salad, a small cup of tapioca pudding, and some celery sticks with peanut butter. She wore her favorite uniform top, the one with the cats on it, and her favorite sunflower pin. All morning she practiced with little Alan, smiling conspiratorially at him as she took appointments over the phone. Finally, at eleven-thirty she made her way to the IT department. Alan was leaning back in his chair, his arms folded behind his head as he stared at data scrolling down his monitor. Upon noticing Adeline, he dropped his arms to his sides and stood up, but not before Adeline noticed the pools of sweat collecting in his armpits.

“What can I do for you, Ms. Adeline?” He asked.

“I was…going to lunch and wanted to know whether you’d care to join me.”

“Um…sure. Do you want to eat in the cafeteria, you mean?”

“Yes, if that’s okay.” She smiled. “Can you go now?”

“Yeah—just let me get my lunch.” He pulled his little igloo out from under his desk and silently they walked to the cafeteria. They decided on a table near the window. Adeline bashfully unpacked her lunch and noticed that Alan had packed similar things: a small chicken salad, an apple, some crackers.

“I’ve been trying to eat better since my doctor told me I needed to lose some weight,” he explained. “Sometimes when I was out playing with Hailey I would get short of breath…course, I used to smoke too, so now I’m trying to watch out for myself a little.”

“That’s good of you,” Adeline agreed, taking a sip of her coke. “I’m trying to eat better myself. Well, I just started, really. You get stuck in a routine all these years and it gets hard to break.”

“I hear you.” Alan sampled some of his chicken salad. “I used to get fast food all the time for lunch, pizza for dinner. My wife did all the cooking, and when we got divorced, I had no idea how to do anything.”

“Me, too, with the fast food,” Adeline nodded, crunching on a celery stick. “But for different reasons. It was hard cooking just for one after the divorce.”

“How long were you married?”

“Fifteen years.”

“That’s a long time.”

“Yeah, I guess it is.”

“So you live by yourself now?”

“Yeah—no. My mother came to live with me a year ago.”

“Why?”

“Long story.”

“I’m pretty close to my parents.” Alan took a sip of his drink. “Still go over for dinner once a week.”

“That’s nice.”

“Are you close to your mom?”

“I guess. I mean, we live together. You just get used to the way things are in your life. And they’re neither good for bad. It’s what you know.”

“Say, you like bowling, Adeline? I’m in a league over at Cherokee Lanes. You wanna come on Tuesday night? One of our girls is out on maternity leave.”

“I don’t know, Alan.” Adeline felt her stomach churn. She had been a decent bowler; in fact, she and Ray bowled together in a league years back. Suddenly her vision of a new life became complicated. Being in a league meant being away from home for an evening, which was manageable in terms of her mother, but she would be expected to bond with the other players, new people, become friendly with them, perhaps attend potlucks and other social outings. Adeline stared at her pudding and knew she’d buy a chocolate bar later from the vending machine. “Can I think about it?”

“Sure—no pressure.” Alan wiped out his Tupperware neatly with a napkin. “I was just—you know—thinking off the top of my head.”

“I’ll let you know real soon.” She smiled and balled up her trash. “Thanks for thinking of me.”

Adeline and Alan walked back in silence. She could not tell what was on his mind, although hers was racing. When they were dating, would they eat lunch together every day? She would have to continue to pick careful, sensible meals, lest Alan think she was not responsible, not committed to her new life. But dating was more than eating lunch together. It meant going out to dinner, to the movies, to keeping up on current events so they’d always have something to discuss, to making sure she didn’t smear her mascara when she rubbed her eyes, as she invariably did every day between three and four.

“Well, thanks for the lunch, Adeline.” Alan said as they stood at the crossroads to their departments. “We’ll have to do it again sometime soon.”

“Sure, Alan—and I’ll let you know about bowling.” Adeline promised. She took a seat at her desk and looked at little Alan for guidance. But little Alan, made of synthetic hair and stuffed full of beans, only smiled at her.

*  *  *

“Mom, I’m thinking about joining a bowling league,” Adeline announced at dinner that evening.

“I thought you got rid of your balls,” Adeline’s mother answered. She sucked on a chicken-greased finger. “Weren’t those the ones Ray gave you?”

“Well, I can use the ones at the lanes,” she explained, smearing some jelly on her biscuit. “There was no sense in keeping those around if I wasn’t using them.”

“Well, it’d be nice for you to get out of the house every once and awhile.”

“I do, Mom, every day—for work.”

“Yeah, but you know what I mean. As long as you’re home for dinner before. What’s the sense in me cooking for myself?”

“You don’t cook anymore, Ma.”

“Right—what’s the sense in it?”

Adeline secretly hoped it was her mother who was joining the bowling league. Then, she could have one delicious night to herself alone. Alone with silence, silence not punctuated with her mother’s wrong—and often bizarre—answers she spit back at the television game shows, with her complaints of her arthritis, sciatica, dizziness, coldness, warmness that set Adeline off to the thermostat, the medicine cabinet, to the closet where she kept blankets. And the emptiness, the big emptiness that Adeline could fall into like a soft bed and be herself.

But what about Alan? Wouldn’t she want Alan in her big empty space with his eight-year-old daughter? Surely her big empty space was big enough for two more people. It was big enough for her mother—just barely. Perhaps, like her, they too would send her scurrying to different errands, different needs, and what would they take away but also what would they fill?

*  *  *

“Check out this baby.” Alan rolled the pink marbleized bowling ball in his hands. “It was my ex-wife’s. Somehow I got it in the divorce settlement.”

“It’s very…pink,” Adeline answered.

“Yeah, but that’s her all over.” Alan set the ball on the edge of her desk and kept it still with his hand. “Anyway, I’m not trying to influence your decision, but obviously a bright pink bowling ball has been known to mesmerize some people.”

“You say, huh?”

“Yep, it’s all yours, Adeline, if you want to join our little group. And even if you don’t want to join our little group, well I suppose you can keep it around for mind control.”

“Yeah,” Adeline laughed. “I can get my mother to stop leaving her fingernail clippings on the sink.”

“Shall I leave it here?” Alan asked.

“I’ll join, Alan. It’s already mesmerized me.”

“Super! It’s only a twelve pounder, but it packs quite a wallop.”

“I’m sure it’ll do great.”

“Well, let me get you the bag and you’re in business.” Alan turned to leave. “Oh, by the way…we should celebrate your addition to the team. You wanna go grab a bite to eat after work?”

“Uh, I can’t.” Adeline looked at the bowling ball, which now rested in her lap.

“Well, maybe sometime this week. I know you probably have to schedule it with your mother’s schedule…just let me know. Nothing fancy. Whatever you want, okay, Adeline?” Alan scratched the area of his pants underneath his pockets.

“Okay, Alan. I’ll let you know,” Adeline answered.

“Great. Let me get the bag.” Alan turned and was gone. Adeline sat at her desk with the bowling ball, feeling the weight of it. She touched it absently. It was still warm where Alan had held it, with his hand, on the desk.

*  *  *

Later that night, she stared at her mother’s grocery list COKA COLA, FREETOS, ROAST. She pushed her cart down the aisles, feeling her weight spilling over onto the bar as she pushed. She passed by her usual stops in the cookies and chips aisles, picking up carrots instead and cottage cheese and diet drinks. She felt the last minutes of her old life waning, and a new, complicated one emerging. Sure, everything looked as it always had, but she knew it was not the same, that she was not the same. What if she had not called IT that morning, or called a few minutes later? She drove home on her usual route but for some reason did not feel relieved, relaxed. She looked at her new bowling ball, sitting quietly in its bag on the seat next to her. She imagined opening her car door at the next red light and leaving it on the curb like an abandoned child in a basket.

*  *  *

 “New bowling ball, huh? I guess you’re serious,” Adeline’s mother remarked later that night. “Know what I saw on television today?”

“What did you see, Ma?”

“I saw a monkey playing the piano. He was pretty good.”

Later that night, after Adeline’s mother had gone to bed, Adeline walked through the house, trying to remember how it looked before it began to change. She sighed and looked at herself in the mirror. Was she really that unhappy before, or did she need to feel unhappy to be happy? She did not know what she was thinking anymore, only that she did not have to question before as she did now, every hour, every day. She walked into the kitchen and took the new, unopened bag of Fritos out of the cabinet, tearing it open and releasing the bitter aroma of corn and salt. She would have to tell him tomorrow, tell him that she couldn’t join the bowling group. She would tell him she had back problems or that her mother needed her, or something. And that she had a boyfriend, so long as he understood that. Not that they couldn’t go out to dinner still. She just thought he should know. Adeline sat down in relief and shoved a few salty corn pieces in her mouth, feeling them jab dully against her gums before becoming soft and warm on her  tongue.

___

Jen Michalski‘s first collection of fiction, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, is available from So New (2007), her second is forthcoming from Dzanc(2013), and her novella MAY-SEPTEMBER (2010) was published by Press 53 as part of the Press 53 Open Awards. Her chapbook CROSS SECTIONS (2008) is available from Publishing Genius. She also is the editor of the anthology CITY SAGES: BALTIMORE (CityLit Press 2010), which won a 2010 “Best of Baltimore” award from Baltimore Magazine. She is the founding editor of the literary quarterlyjmww, and is co-host of the monthly reading series The 510 Readings in Baltimore.


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