My wife is at work for the night. She wears a tie looped beneath the collar of the white button-down shirt and an apron around her waist. Carrying trays of seafood in the shadow of a football stadium, she sets the plates before smartly dressed customers who do their best to pretend she doesn’t exist.
I’ve seen her balance a loaded tray with one hand above her head to squeeze between tables and co-workers scribbling orders. It’s impressive, what she’s capable of doing while wearing a smile.
At home, I burn my tongue on broccoli roasted in the oven. The florets are charred brown and black. They snap and crunch when chewed. Not the cook of the family, I usually fumble dinner. My trouble is keeping time.
I haven’t had a chance to kick off my muddy boots and the t-shirt stiff with dried sweat. The flames of the grill don’t burn even. The brined chops have probably been on too long, but I fear a festering bloom of bacteria in under-cooked meat. If anything is going to happen, it can’t be when she’s not here. I stab a thermometer into the smoking flesh. The hope is the internal temperature is high enough to kill any poisonous life trapped within. My wife knows when food is done by look and touch. She never worries over feeding her sons meat that is red in the middle and bleeding juices. She is too practiced for that.
A spill of grease, a bubbly hiss; the fire leaps as I flip a cut of pork one more time. I curse at the sting on the flesh of my wrist, wince at the stink of burnt hair.
She’ll wake me up later and try to explain the night. It’s hard for her to believe, the way some people act, how desperately some of them hold onto one dollar but not another, or the amounts others can part with as easily as a tired sigh, while they dab the corners of their mouths with folded napkins.
There will be a sleeping boy to my right and left, refugees from smaller, colder beds in a faraway room down the hall. I’ll do my best to remember that the story she told is real, not a snippet of lost dream, after I tell her to leave the boys, what’s one night?
A gentle gloaming descends. Frogs serenade the coming dark from the little swamp beyond the fence. They swim and mate in the foul-smelling water at the bottom of the hill covered in brown pine needles, near the tracks for the freight line that runs south to New Bedford.
Trains run three times a day during the week, in the early morning, just before dinner, and at a deep hour of the night. The engineer blasts the horn as the engine and its cargo approaches a street, a warning for absent-minded motorists who might miss the blinking red lights and ringing bells. The horn fades into the ambient background with time, but you always hear it, whether you know it or not.
The dog lies on the other side of the sliding door, spread across the step of set stone. The fur of her legs and belly are caked with stinking mud and grime from a run through the fetid water when no one was looking. She chews her red ball in filthy bliss.
In the kitchen, the boys wrestle underneath a block of wood filled with sharp knives. Chubby fist smacks into flushed cheek; thin arm hooks around thin neck; it’s practice for an inevitable coup. At the sound of the horn they rush outside. The boys yell: “Hi, Thomas!” as the train passes. The front of the engine doesn’t smile back or say hello, but they don’t seem to care.
Geese honk through the sky in search of water. The first wave of mosquitoes rises from the swamp, in search of fresh blood. They feed on the pale flesh of exposed ankles and wrists. Every year there’s more.
A milky breeze slips through the hairs on our arms and legs. Dandelion heads sway and are slowly plucked bare. Tiny maple leaves flutter like eyelashes. Barefoot boys scour the grass for yellow heads to pluck from the ground. They slip the hollow stems into the mouth of an empty beer bottle. A gift for Mom in the making, an enticement in advance of tomorrow's shift: please, the little flowers say, don’t go.
About the Author: John Tormey lives with his wife, two sons and baby girl in Taunton, MA. He spends his days training people so they don't get hit by trains while they repair the tracks. His most recent publication was in Hobart in 2013.
Photo Credit: Elisabeth Clem/Poppy and Pinecone