Bobby had tried to dissuade her, but Karen wanted to come to dinner. Conrad, Bobby's uncle, was visiting Milwaukee that Friday night, and it was important, she said, to meet him.
“Why don't you want me to come?” she asked with her eyes glassy, threatening to cry. “Are you really that embarrassed of me?”
She often complained that Bobby was embarrassed of her, but usually he only had to squeeze her thigh and tell her that he loved her. They had been dating for two years, since Bobby was a sophomore in high school, and he still considered her a great girl - “a find,” as his father said. She was older than Bobby, attended the UW in Milwaukee, and when she wore a strapless dress, her long, dark hair fell perfectly on her shoulders.
But still Bobby had trouble with the thought of introducing her to uncle Conrad. He saw Conrad every three or four years, and each time his uncle had been funny and pleasant. His curly gray hair and cane made him look like a college professor, but he was an unemployed man in his early sixties, collecting disability from a work accident years earlier. The last time Bobby saw him was at his grandmother's funeral. Bobby was fourteen, and the entire weekend Conrad sneaked him beers from the ice chest and told him to drink in the back alley behind his grandparents' house. The two sat up at night together – long after the entire house was asleep – in front of the uneven light of a muted television set. They talked mostly of relationships and love. Conrad had split from his third wife, and Bobby's mother had recently divorced his father.
“This might sound romantic as all hell,” Conrad had said, readjusting his bad right knee on the sofa. “But I believe two people are either made for each other or they're not. You can't commit your way out of it. In that case you're either committing too much or not enough...one of you ends up being a creep.”
“Karen,” Bobby said after he opened the front door. She stood under the porch light wearing a shortly-cut lime green dress and tall, black high heels. Her petite face had been lightly colored with rouge and dark lipstick. “You look great,” he said, but she also wore her thick-rimmed glasses that made her look angry.
She leaned forward to give Bobby a kiss, but Bobby – seeing Conrad limp toward the door – backed away, rubbing his mouth.
“I've heard so much about you,” Conrad said and gave her what seemed a very firm handshake.
They walked to the dinner table. The kitchen and the living room were in the same high-ceilinged area that comprised most of the small house. The home was a one-story in a neighborhood that people drove through quickly on their way to Lake Michigan, clutching their steering wheels and keeping their faces forward – afraid to turn and see the neighborhood's residents staring back at them. The interior was all scratched hardwood floors and white walls with faint yellow stains near the ceiling. The walls were thin – like the flats of Bobby's high school theater sets. Sometimes, Bobby imagined knocking one of them over to reveal a dark backstage area with a system of ropes and pulleys and a bemused stage manager wearing a headset.
In front of the table Bobby's father gave Karen a hug and patted her back. “Didn't I tell you Conrad? She's much prettier than any girl we ever dated in high school.”
Karen noticed Bobby's father was wearing his correctional officer's uniform and asked if he had just gotten off work.
“No, I'm actually heading there in a while,” he said, looking down at himself and running his hands over his shirt as if he were wiping crumbs off himself. “This month and next they have me doing overnights.” He held out his hands to stop any sympathy. “No, no, no, it's bad, but not so much. At night there's no real interaction with the prisoners. No fights...riots. Plus, I get to come home to one of Bobby's breakfasts. Well, if he feels like cooking something.”
They sat at the kitchen table, and Bobby's father passed portions of meat and potatoes and walked around the table with a pitcher of water. None of the plates matched, and the glasses they used were old pasta jars. Bobby reached and ran his fingers across the word that had been indented into the glass. It said Prego!
Before Karen came, Bobby was in the living room lying on the sofa and staring at the television. He thought of his high school graduation in one month and let his eyes go unfocused as they passed over the living room. There wasn't much furniture. In the corners there were small stacks of books piled on the carpet and old clothes in cardboard boxes. Ill-adorned, it was the setting of an alcoholic in the process of pawning his possessions. Outside the sky had turned green, and the humid air had cooled. Bobby's father and Conrad talked together, loudly, from the kitchen table. Conrad had arrived earlier that afternoon, and for most of the day Bobby had been silently observing his uncle and his father as they prepared dinner and talked endlessly. Conrad easily swung from excitement to boredom. He seemed most comfortable when the conversation had a heavy lace of irony; when topics turned earnest, he became distracted.
“She knew I wouldn't be able to afford the Third Ward,” Bobby's father was saying. “But she still likes to poke fun at this place.”
Conrad was looking at his wooden cane trying to balance it on his index finger to make it parallel to the floor. The line swayed, and he continually had to nudge the fulcrum toward the curved handle.
“So this banker guy comes along and all of a sudden money has never been a problem and any problem I have is somehow despic-”
“Goddamnit!” Conrad said when he dropped his cane on the floor. “I thought I had it.” He turned his head toward Bobby who still lay on the sofa. “Will that girlfriend be here soon?”
“Karen should be here in a minute,” Bobby said while hoping it wasn't true.
The doorbell rang.
“That must be her,” Conrad said, and Bobby walked to the front door to let her in.
“Alright, we also have beer and wine. Which would you prefer?” Bobby's father asked.
“Beer,” Bobby said.
Karen nudged Bobby's leg. “Wouldn't you like wine instead?”
“Just one beer,” Bobby whispered.
Bobby's father was at the end of the table. Across from him Conrad sat sideways, his leg resting in an empty chair as if on display.
“How did you hurt your knee?” Karen asked.
“HA! Well, I was attacked! Lead pipe right to the patella. Broke it in eight places and had to have a few surgeries to wire all the pieces together. Still hurts.” He bent his leg and winced to prove his point. “The last job I had I was an orderly at a Mental Hospital. One day a patient somehow got out of his room and while I was walking alone through one of the basement tunnels I got hit.”
“Oh my God.”
“Do you want more roast beef, Karen?” Bobby's father asked.
Karen made her eyes wide and rubbed her belly. She couldn't possibly have another bite, but the meal was delicious. It had a certain flavor she couldn't quite place.
“Oh that's the Dutch oven.”
“Wow you wrestled that from her?” Conrad said.
“Yeah I really won out. A few iron pots for 18 years.”
“Karen you can have my potatoes,” Bobby said. “I took too much.”
“No, I'm reallynot hungry.”
“You shouldn't have laid down so easily,” Conrad said to Bobby's father.
“You know best.”
“Oh come on. You've hardly eaten anything. Take some potatoes.”
“No thank-you.” She turned to Conrad. “You must have gotten a lot of money.”
“Yes, I did. I've been living off the settlement ever since.”
“I always talked about unionizing that place. We were doing something dangerous for no pay or benefits.”
“You were getting attacked by patients,” Karen said.
“Actually it wasn't the patient but his wife. She was visiting that day and helped him escape. They didn't get far; hospital caught them before they even left the grounds.” With his fork, Bobby scraped his extra potatoes onto Karen's plate, and she began cutting them into smaller bits and eating. “But Goddamn, I wish I would have seen her as I rounded that corner. I should've saw it. I mean, everybody saw it. Bobby could you get me another beer? … thanks … Here was her husband, a paranoid schizophrenic and she comes visiting him twice a week. To do that makes you mildly insane anyway. I mean I don't know about anybody else but if a wife of mine ever goes off like that I'll be at court with the divorce papers.”
Bobby's father sat silent. He brought his fork to his mouth efficiently, keeping his back straight as he sat. When he chewed, all his head's muscles moved; even a dimple at the top of his bald head seemed to quiver.
“That's horrible!” Karen said.
“Oh it's alright. If it makes you feel better I'd never be in the position to divorce a woman like that anyway. Insanity runs in the family. I would have found out and steered away. Listen, if I can give you two any advice: always research someone's family. Especially before marriage. No matter how nice or caring or whatever someone seems if the parents are nasty people then that's what you should come away with. I learned that lesson after my first wife. I thought we were okay, but as soon as that second year hit she turned materialistic...shallow. Just like her mother.”
They chewed their food. They moved their jaws in big circles like camels and stared into their plates.
“Karen,” Bobby's father finally said. “How are you liking this semester? I feel like we haven't spoke since Christmas.”
She said she enjoyed her classes but of course wasn't looking forward to finals. She seemed uncomfortably aware of her appearance and ate her potatoes in small squares and nervously wiped her mouth as she chewed.
“What do you study?” Conrad asked.
Business, she said. She was going to...well she really wanted to run a non-profit.
“That's good. And so is Bobby going to be joining you? Will you two be going to the same college?”
“Actually yes,” Bobby said. “But not really because we're dating. I chose the UW for its theater program. It has a couple very good professors. Also I won't have to move and I can stay close to Dad. So, I mean its kind of a coincidence that we're going to the same college. Sorta.”
“Hmmm...Staying close to home...'Propelling to the ground of your making'” He took a drink of beer.
The fluorescent bulb of the kitchen's ceiling lamp flickered a moment. The living room's television had been turned off, and the kitchen's large double windows were dark mirrors. Bobby felt he was on an island of light. When it started raining, there was no thunder, but the wind quickened, making the tall walls sway and crackle. For the moment Conrad's attention was focused on Karen How had she and Bobby met? Wasn't she old for him?
“Well...we met when I was a senior and he was a sophomore,” she said. “I had seen him around the halls for awhile but I remember the first time we spoke was outside the theater. There was a cast list posted on the double doors...Bobby, are you grabbing more beer already?... No, I don't need one...anyway, he was pouting because he didn't get the lead. He stood there forever, staring at that sheet of paper, moving his hands around in his pockets. Eventually, I went up and asked him what part he got, and he didn't tell me. He just complained about how the casting was all politics and how it was so typical for the son of the director to get the lead.”
Bobby returned to the table with three cans of beer. He set each down in front of Conrad and his father, but when his father refused (“No, I have work in a little while”), he lined up the two extras in front of him. As he drank, he let the bubbles rest on his tongue.
“What word did you use again?” Karen asked. “Oh, I remember. Nepotism. Bobby used it three or four times before I had to ask him what it meant. He was fussy but he was smart.”
Bobby's father chuckled. Conrad smiled.
“I still can't believe you were going to quit that play,” she said. “I'm so happy we grew closer so I could talk you out of it.” She turned to Bobby's father. “When I saw the play, he was fantastic. You remember how great he was in Inheriting Wind.”
Karen pointed to Bobby's father, and he nodded.
“It wasn't Inherit the Wind,” Bobby said.
“Oh yes...Inherit the Wind...that's what it was called.”
“No, no, no, no, that wasn't the play I was in when we met. Inherit the Wind wasn't until the next fall.”
Karen adjusted her glasses and scrunched her nose. Was Bobby sure? Karen was positive it had been her senior year and she remembered everything, even the name of the band at prom and the Oliver Wendell Holmes quote that had been printed in bumpy, raised ink on her class's graduation pamphlet. But...but...didn't sheremember? How it had been The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail? How before the performance they had agreed on a specific gesture that would be like a wave to her in the audience (Bobby scratching his right temple with his left hand)? How afterward she had said he was better than the kid who played Thoreau? Bobby sprinted to his bedroom to search for the play's program but he couldn't find it.
He began clearing the plates off the kitchen table and washing them at the kitchen sink.
“Let it go,” Bobby's father whispered to him as Bobby scrubbed one of the plates with a dirty white dishrag. “Stupid disagreements mean more than you think.”
“I'm sorry. You're right.”
Bobby rinsed a dish and placed it in the drying rack. “I thought of Mom,” he said. “When Conrad said that thing about marriage. You know? How crazy Mom's family is?”
“It's your family too. Besides everything's more difficult than how Conrad puts it. More complex.” He slapped Bobby's back and started back toward the table.
“Hey,” Bobby said turning away from the sink.
“Maybe I'll wake up early tomorrow and make you breakfast after you get off work.”
Bobby's father looked at his feet, and Bobby found himself staring into him. He always considered himself an unusually good son when he prepared his father's breakfast. The first time, while he stood over the stove mixing diced onions and green peppers into the scrambled eggs, he had assumed his father would be elated. He might have even been angry, telling Bobby that he shouldn't have gone to all the trouble and that his old man wasn't worth it. But, when his father returned from work that morning and found a plate of food on the kitchen table, he was only dimly pleased (“Oh...thanks...this will be very...fine”).
“Would that be a good idea?” Bobby asked.
Bobby's father stepped closer and patted him.
“Yes, that would be fine.”
Bobby turned to the sink. Behind him his father said he was damned sorry to leave but that he had to go to work. Bobby put the last of the plates into the drying rack and walked to the table. He stood while his father hugged Karen and said goodbye to Conrad. In the doorway he slipped on his thin black plastic poncho, which didn't obscure his badge's gleam.
“See you, Bobby,” he said and left.
Bobby walked back to the table.
“How long have you two been dating again?” Conrad asked as he reached for another beer. Bobby had moved the case onto the table between him and his uncle.
“22 months,” Karen said.
“Jesus! That's longer than my second wife. HA!” Outside Bobby's father's truck started. The engine rattled like a film projector. “Oh and and by the way Karen I think you can round up to two years. I mean what's two months anyway? Or sorry…unless that's the way you keep track. Every month do you guys have a little anniversary?”
“No, of course not,” Bobby said.
“Well-” Karen began.
“Well we'll mention it to each other and maybe go out to a movie but we stopped making a big deal out of it after a year.”
“That's good. I think couples with the least fanfare last longer. They're not trying to make up for something that's not there.”Conrad popped the top of his beer can, and a small bubble rose from the opening like an inflating balloon.
“I know what you mean,” Bobby said. “Those couples that are always going on unnecessary little trips or using unnecessary little pet names.”
“HA! HA! I called my first wife 'pumpkin'”
Karen leaned on her back rest. She didn't think pet names were a bad thing.
“No you're right,” Conrad said. “There's something deeper.” He'd drunk quite a bit, and his consonants began to evade him. “Every wife...or wait every woman I've ever known...it always came to the point when I knew exactly what I was supposed to do – exactly what would make her happy – but I just didn't want to do it.” The rattle of the engine weakened and dissipated as it moved through the rain down the street. “All my wives...no wait...yes...I always knew from a moment early on – I mean within the first month of knowing them - that it wouldn't work. I'd think 'Well, how long will this last.' HA!”
“Exactly,” Bobby said. “I've thought the same thing.” He closed and rubbed his eyes but when he opened them, the harsh world of the kitchen rushed at him and he had to clutch the table to assure himself it was still there. “The problem is even after you think that, you still continue with the same bullshit. The celebrations...the trips...the pet names...the I love you's!...you know before Karen I was pretty committed to a girl. Well, as committed as a Freshman in high school can be...I used to say 'I love you' to her everyday. At first I really meant it or at least thought I did. She was the first person I'd slept with, and that was a big thing at the time. But after awhile saying 'I love you' became the same as 'Goodbye' or 'See ya later.' Even worse, I felt like I had to say it. I couldn't just say 'Goodbye' or 'See ya later.' I had to say 'I love you.'”
Bobby reached and put his hand on top of Karen's. Her fingernails had been painted the same color as her dress. He squeezed her fingers, and she looked at him from under her eyebrows. After a moment she shook free, set her beer on the table and walked to the bathroom. Bobby wanted to talk more, but across the table Conrad look tired and drunk. His curly hair was large from having run his fingers through it too many times.
“I must be off to bed,” he said, limping away from the kitchen. “Your father said I could sleep in his room.”
Limping into the dark hallway, Conrad disappeared. A door shut, and Bobby was alone. He took Karen's beer and finished it in one long drink as the wind hit the walls of the house. Slowly and inexplicably, a small erection formed in Bobby's jeans. At first he held it, uncertain what to do, so he stood and paced the kitchen, moving his arms in large argumentative gestures, his mind loud with a political speech he imagined giving to no one in particular. When he heard the toilet flush, he sprinted into the hallway and waited by the bathroom door. In the half-darkness, the light from the dining table hardly reaching the back hallway, Bobby heard the sink faucet running which soon ceased giving way to the soft squeak of the turning door knob. He attacked Karen.
“Come here,” he said, backing her into the bathroom. He closed the door and pulled her closer, moving his hand around to her stomach and up toward her breasts. “Conrad went to sleep.”
Karen broke away and sat on the toilet seat. She stared up at Bobby with big, round eyes, beginning to look angry.
Bobby regarded her. He and Karen had been in fights before, and Bobby had learned exactly what to do and say to make her happy again. But, now standing in his own bathroom and glancing at the fine cracks in the wall that looked like curly black hairs, Bobby honestly did not want to do or say anything. If he had already ended countless arguments with the same gestures (rubbing her back, squeezing her thigh, apologizing), why did he have to do it again? She knew he was capable of saying sorry. Bobby stared into her with a harsh, cold-seeing gaze. For two years he had been waiting for Karen to evolve – to be a little less herself.
Even the next day while he shuffled around the house and the red clear knowledge of the previous night came to him, Bobby still couldn't remember how the whole thing started. He asked what right she had to be angry. Hadn't she forgotten Bobby's play? Hadn't she sat away from the table the entire night adjusting her glasses and judging his uncle for his divorce and Bobby for drinking beer? Didn't she understand that Bobby had never wanted her to come to dinner in the first place? Aware that Conrad was in the next room, Bobby spoke in a whisper and while he made his speech, he paced the bathroom, turning in circles with little eccentric steps. Karen sat frozen like an actress who had forgotten a line.
Bobby stood over her, breathing heavily. She sat on the toilet seat, her head resting on her knees and her arms stubbornly hugging herself. The rain was noticeably louder. In the kitchen the storm had seemed farther away, but in the bathroom it was urgent and deafening. Bobby was unable to do anything but stare down at the cracked linoleum around the air vent. It wasn't until he looked up that he noticed Karen was sobbing. She pulled her knees closer to her face, dripping tears and snot onto her dress. At first, Bobby was overcome with annoyance: crying was simply a manipulative way to emasculate him. But after she wouldn't or couldn't stop, he felt pity move down his back like water spreading across flat concrete. He pushed the shower curtain aside and sat on the edge of the bathtub. He leaned in close to her and began apologizing. After a couple minutes Karen sniffled and lifted her head to look at Bobby. Her eyes were red and puffy.
“You werean asshole tonight,” she said.
“I know. I'm sorry.” He gently squeezed her thigh. “Baby, I love you.”
They embraced. Karen nestled her head near Bobby's collarbone, and he felt as if it were made to be there. As her uneven breaths leveled and the immediate memories of their argument left, Bobby thought of the next morning; of how he would wake up early; of how he would dice vegetables and fry eggs; of how when his father came home and stood over the kitchen table, he would see his son's face over the stove being blinded by steam; of how Bobby's father would look – standing in the kitchen, staring down at the food. His legs apart and his badge gleaming from early morning light that poured in from the double windows. His father would look steady, solid, like a symbol for something.
“Your breakfast is right here, Dad,” Bobby would say.