Burgers and beer

This is ridiculous, he thought. He had better things to do. There were at least five places he could be right now that would be a better use of his valuable time than to be standing on this unremarkable street corner in this unremarkable town 30 years after the all too commonplace event that had shaped his life.

Yet here he was, an accomplished plastic surgeon, cold as ice in the operating room, suddenly so nervous he could hardly walk, let alone pay attention to his surroundings. He dismissed the taxi with a wave and concentrated on his yogic breathing, waiting for the butterflies to subside.

The street had hardly changed. A grimy road running off a six-lane highway. Identical one-storey houses with stucco walls and gray shingled roofs. Over the years the owners had bordered their yards with hedges, now mostly overgrown. Old cars littered the street, one with a missing fender, windshield festooned with parking tickets. Small trees, leaves scarred by urban smoke, lined the sidewalk. His knees were still shaking. He looked down, to make sure his feet were still on the ground. The sidewalk, he saw from the letters stamped into the cement, had been poured in 1952.

He began walking up the street. Her house was only a hundred yards ahead, just at the top of the hill. He was shocked at how easily his logical, disciplined mind was swept away by adolescent longings. Of course she didn’t still live in that house but the young man now in charge of his body insisted she would appear over the horizon any minute, an unspeakably lovely girl, skipping eagerly towards him with a grin that turned his heart over. Damnit! Damnit! Damnit!

“Susan,” he whispered, hoping the sound of an older man’s voice would break the spell.

But memories blossomed on every inch of the street. Here was where he’d tripped over his clumsy feet and, when she tried to help him up, he had pulled her down, giggling, on top of him.

And were those skidmarks his? Just 100 feet ahead he thought he saw traces of rubber on the curb, the result of his inattentive driving. He smiled at the memory. He had been so distracted trying to work up the courage to kiss her that he’d smacked into the curb. She had laughed and caressed his cheek as her lips met his.

And there, just ahead was the tree, oh my God, how could he have forgotten where he’d carved their initials! They were still there! MS loves AK!

And there she was in his mind’s eye, standing at the top of the hill and tapping her foot in mock anger; ordering him to hurry up because she’d been having impure thoughts about him all day and couldn’t stand it a minute longer.

And here they were lurching drunkenly together arm in arm on the way home from the pub, laughing at the foibles of everybody else in the whole world.

And here, suddenly, he was standing at the entrance to her house, bordered by an overgrown hedge and the same wrought iron gate. How could it be the same gate? The same lawn? Even the same bald patch that turned yellow in the summer. And how could the house smell like red wine?

Then he remembered. They’d just opened the gate and he’d dropped a bottle of red wine. It had cracked and fizzed, so they sat together on the steps and swapped the bottle back and forth, hurriedly swallowing huge gulps of wine, burping and spewing purple saliva. When the bottle was empty, and it hadn’t taken long, she’d jumped to her feet, looked quickly around and pulled her peasant dress over her head. Then, she had grabbed his hand and led him into the house. They’d developed a special way of holding hands in crowded rooms among strangers. A special way of folding their fingers that signified something only they knew. She used that grip right then, for the last time.

He recoiled at the memories. He’d been such an idiot. Only 24, vulnerable and shy. She had taught him everything and never complained at the arrogant facade he’d adopted to disguise himself. He was ambitious, a medical student in her crowd of English majors. She was physically perfect with regular features and the exact waist to hip ratio psychologists would later proclaim as the scientifically verifiable secret of female magnetism.

In the end, it hadn’t mattered. Their courses had been set in childhood. He, the much-cherished only son of immigrant parents had learned to value things that were quantifiable, measurable and material. “What’s the point of art?” sneered his father, a mechanical engineer, so utterly fastidious that he measured the track of his powered lawn mower and created an optimized pattern for the gardeners to follow.

She was the only daughter of parents who didn’t like each other. They’d taken turns babysitting her through childhood. Susan, hoping to keep them together, tried to be cheerful all the time. It had been a lonely household. “You have to find yourself, dear,” said her mother, newly divorced and engrossed in her new-age lifestyle. “You can do whatever you like.”

She tried to do what she was told and swallowed every new age idea she could find. She burned incense, threw the I Ching, interpreted Tarot cards. She had her palm read, ears candled, her body rolfed and even submitted to mysterious treatments by a certified accept-no-substitutes raindrop therapist.

He trained his brain to function like a mental digestive system, blindly processing and incorporating ideas like a mole, lost, unaware and stuffed with knowledge.

It was the organic food that proved their undoing. “We make our own proteins,” he told her as they walked home from the organic food market, where organic turnips certifiably handled by serious young men with beards and sandals, cost more per pound than the best cut of steak from the local Save-Easy.

“It doesn’t matter where our food comes from and it doesn’t matter how the animals are slaughtered or how much pesticide is in the vegetables. We break down the food and consume what we need. You could live on burgers and beer.”

Susan had learned how to bottle her rage. She was humiliated by his calm certainty. But his new-found confidence was her work. He had been a stuttering fool when she had chosen him. She had shaped and loved him. And now he was acting like her parents. She hated him.

“Shut up, goddam you. I don’t want to see you any more.”

They were both shocked into silence. For a moment he almost laughed. “You can’t mean that, you need me,” he almost said. But he saw her anger and didn’t say a word.

That was one spot along the road he hadn’t thought of. The spot where she said she hated him.

Dammit, dammit, dammit, he thought. He looked down at the house, thinking of the wine they had drunk where he was standing. He hadn’t noticed the grocery bag sitting on the porch. She’d had a habit of putting one bag down while she fiddled with teh door and leaving it on the porch while she took the rest of the groceries in. Somebody must have just come home from the grocery store. The plastic bags were from the Save Easy– at least this occupant didn’t bother with organic food.

Suddnely the door opened. Startled, he darted behind the hedge and peered through the laurel leaves. A young man appeared on the porch. There was something familiar about him. He picked up the bag.

“Mom,” he yelled, “why don’t we get our food from the organic store? It’s better for you.”

“Because Save-Easy’s cheaper,” came a womans’ voice. “And it doesn’t matter if the food’s organic or not. We make our own proteins. We could live on burgers and beer.”

1 thought on “Burgers and beer

  1. I liked this one a lot. It definitely held my attention throughout. The melancholic and nostalgic tone is palpable but stops short of being overwrought, because it doesn’t hit you over the head with it. We’re presented with thoughts and memories, and they shape the mood and tone.

    I have so many mixed emotions about the last line (in a good way, I think!). On the one hand, the issue that came between them in their youth is no longer an issue. Yay, hope perhaps? On the other hand, it makes me wonder what happened to Susan, why she changed her mind. I wonder if she knows she’s parroting her ex, or if life has eroded her sense of self so much that she doesn’t even realise. I want to know more!

    A couple of specifics on prose/narration, the principles of which you may be able to apply elsewhere. One concerns this paragraph in the beginning of the story:

    “He began walking up the street. Her house was only a hundred yards ahead, just at the top of the hill. He was shocked at how easily his logical, disciplined mind was swept away by adolescent longings. Of course she didn’t still live in that house but the young man now in charge of his body insisted she would appear over the horizon any minute, an unspeakably lovely girl, skipping eagerly towards him with a grin that turned his heart over. Damnit! Damnit! Damnit!”

    The “He was shocked”-sentence brought me out of the moment a little, because rather than *experiencing* his mind being swept away, I’m being *told* about it just before it happens, and it colours the rest of the paragraph, makes it feel more clinical. Consider what happens if you delete that whole sentence and tweak the next one so it instead describes him watching the horizon waiting for her to appear, skipping eagerly etc., and *then* he realises what his usually so logical mind is doing and we experience his irritation at this young man in charge of his body. You might find like I do that it becomes a much more intimate reading experience that way.

    I really like the way you work with physical details to spark memories and how much you manage to characterise their relationship. Some of the physical spots referenced could perhaps do with a little more context to help the reader see what the narrator is seeing. For example, when you say “Here was where he’d tripped over his clumsy feet”, if you add just a tiny bit more detail (e.g. “here just number 37’s weatherworn gate was where…”), I feel more like I’m there with the narrator.

    Stray comments
    • If the woman’s name is Susan, why are her initials MS?
    • Much as the story kept me interested throughout and much as the ending had an impact, I’m now left wondering just what prompted the narrator to go in this trip. I gather that he didn’t go there to find her (as he didn’t expect her to still live at the house), but why the sudden nostalgia from this type of person? The current-day aspect of the story feels like it could be meatier.
    • The grocery bag on the porch: is there any way that Susan’s habit of leaving the bag outside could be brought up earlier on? The reveal that she’s the occupant would be more effective, I feel, if the clue (the bag), the background (her habit) and the reveal (the last few lines) didn’t all appear so close together.
    • A solution to the above could be to work it into the moment they break up, which does feel like it could benefit from a slightly more in-depth treatment, with a bit more context, description and dialogue exchange. It passes so quickly. If you set it as they are returning from a grocery shop, having this discussion about organic food, you can show her putting down the bag in beats between dialogue and then forgetting about it, and perhaps the narrator then trips over it as her leaves post-breakup (“damnit, why did she always do that? He supposed it didn’t matter anymore.”)

Leave a Comment