“Don’t even think about it, Carl,” Brenda pointed an accusatory finger at me. As it waggled, it shook her globby arm. She stared at me with her beady, evil, ignorant little eyes. Her neck jiggled like one of those turkey necks, connecting her face to her wide, stained t-shirt— the one with the cartoon character on it. “Doctor says you gonna die!”
“So what if I do. I’m gonna die of starvation otherwise,” I grabbed the bag off the refrigerator, ignoring the black gunk that frosted the top of the appliance. I hadn’t decided to eat the chips yet, I just wanted to check the expiration date. See how long I had.
The bag crinkled in my hand and, at the sound, my mouth began to salivate. Nothing was as good as that first handful of salty potatoes, cooked in oil. Nothing except maybe the second handful. Why is life so damn hard?
“I ain’t takin’ you to the ‘mergencey room again. Don’t need no med school dropout to tell ME why your chest hurts. Dr. Alger? More like Dr. Al-Dur. Your chest hurts because your poor heart can’t possibly pump blood to all the outlyin’ regions of your huge body!”
“What am I supposed to do, Brenda?” I made sure to accent her name in a mocking tone. Bren-DUH. Who was she to call me fat? She’s fat. “I don’t have enough money to buy them fancy health foods that don’t taste no good anyway. Can you picture me at the checkout line with the EBT card in my hand and a cart full of all lentil beans and quinoa and la-tee-da? I work all week and pour my money into these little rats.”
I reached down and grabbed one of the orbiting children. I caught him by his hair, a fire engine red rat’s nest of straw. I tilted his head up and looked at him, it was one of the older ones, the product of the other activity I used to enjoy. Anymore, such an act was a physical and financial impossibility. His gapped grin spread wildly over his freckled face. His eyes were overrun with play and he swatted at my hard, round gut.
“What are you doin’?” I asked him. “Ain’t you got homework?”
“No!” he yelled. The little liar. I released him back into the chaos of the kitchen, hoping that he would not end up underfoot when I lumbered to the table. The cluttered former home of our idealized family dinner was overrun with junk, groceries, toys and dirty dishes— too full to set my chips down, so I held them against my belly like a talisman I would soon use against Brenda, and myself. I wondered where my dreams had gone.
“I work all week, Brenda, and on my days off I’m too tired to do anything.”
“Even more reason you shouldn’t be crammin’ crap down your throat all day. Doctor Alger says you should cut out the fatty foods and meat.”
“That meat thing is a crock. I mean, people gotta have different food to survive, right? And what am I supposed to do? Should I eat these chips or rat poison?”
I clumsily dug into the bag and retrieved a fist full of the larger chips, breaking many. My fingers were tight, like sausages. Sometimes my hands felt like balloons. I would eat these chips and then go watch the television. I’d turn it up louder than my own head, which was constantly screaming for me to take action. Didn’t my own brain know I was tired?
As I put the chips to my mouth, I saw Brenda’s discolored feet, purple and swollen. It almost ruined everything. I knew that after I ate the chips, I would feel bad. This moment was important, I wouldn’t let her ruin it with her poor circulation.
When the chips hit my tongue, the disorienting buzz in the room quieted. The light was not so harsh, the kids’ cries not so grating or obnoxious. Brenda’s scowl was momentarily lost to me. For an instant, while I chewed and my senses were aroused, I felt the void begin to fill.
Brenda knows I love her and the kids.
Then, as the sensation ended, as the partially chewed morsels tumbled either down my throat or my shirt, I came back. I tossed the bag onto the pile on the table and looked at Brenda.