Authors: Lionel Shriver
Tags: #Literary, #Retail, #Fiction
To Greg—who was unfailingly, improbably glad for anything good that ever happened to me, and in the face of whose drastic, fantastic, astonishing life any fiction pales.
The dieting industry is the only profitable business in the world with a 98 percent failure rate.
have to wonder whether any of the true highlights of my fortysome years have had to do with food. I don’t mean celebratory dinners, good fellowship; I mean salivation, mastication, and peristalsis. Oddly, for something I do every day, I can’t remember many meals in detail, while it is far easier for me to call up favorite movies, faithful friendships, graduations. It follows, then, that film, affinity, and education are more important to me than stuffing my face. Well done, me, you say. But were I honestly to total the time I have lavished on menu planning, grocery shopping, prep and cooking, table setting, and kitchen cleanup for meal upon meal, food, one way or another, has dwarfed my fondness for
Places in the Heart
to an incidental footnote; ditto my fondness for any human being, even those whom I profess to love. I have spent less time thinking about my husband than thinking about lunch. Throw in the time I have also spent ruing indulgence in lemon meringue pies, vowing to skip breakfast tomorrow, and opening the refrigerator/stopping myself from dispatching the leftover pumpkin custard/then shutting it firmly again, and I seem to have concerned myself with little else but food.
So why, if, by inference, eating has been so embarrassingly central for me, can I not remember an eidetic sequence of stellar meals?
Like most people, I recall childhood favorites most vividly, and like most kids I liked plain things: toast, baking-powder biscuits, saltines. My palate broadened in adulthood, but my character did not. I am white rice. I have always existed to set off more exciting fare. I was a foil as a girl. I am a foil now.
I doubt this mitigates my discomfiture much, but I have some small excuse for having overemphasized the mechanical matter of sustenance. For eleven years, I ran a catering business. You would think, then, that I could at least recall individual victories at Breadbasket, Inc. Well, not exactly. Aside from academics at the university, who are more adventurous, Iowans are conservative eaters, and I can certainly summon a monotonous assembly line of carrot cake, lasagna, and sour-cream cornbread. But the only dishes that I recollect in high relief are the disasters—the Indian rosewater pudding thickened with rice flour that turned into a stringy, viscous vat suitable for affixing wallpaper. The rest—the salmon steaks rolled around somethingorother, the stir-fries of thisandthat with an accent of whathaveyou—it’s all a blur.
Patience; I am rounding on something. I propose: food is by nature elusive. More concept than substance, food is the
of satisfaction, far more powerful than satisfaction itself, which is why diet can exert the sway of religion or political zealotry. Not irresistible tastiness but the very failure of food to reward is what drives us to eat more of it. The most sumptuous experience of ingestion is in-between: remembering the last bite and looking forward to the next one. The actual eating part almost doesn’t happen. This near-total inability to deliver is what makes the pleasures of the table so tantalizing, and also so dangerous.
Petty? I’m not so sure. We are animals; far more than the ancillary matter of sex, the drive to eat motivates nearly all of human endeavor. Having conspicuously triumphed in the competition for resources, the fleshiest among us are therefore towering biological success stories. But ask any herd of overpopulating deer: nature punishes success. Our instinctive saving for a rainy day, our burying of acorns in the safest and most private of hiding places for the long winter, however prudent in its way, however expressive of Darwinian guile, is killing my country. That is why I cast doubt on whether the pantry, as a subject, is paltry. True, I sometimes wonder just how much I care about my country. But I care about my brother.
ny story about a sibling goes far back indeed, but for our purposes the chapter of my brother’s life that most deserves scrutiny began, aptly, at lunch. It must have been a weekend, since I hadn’t already left for my manufacturing headquarters.
As usual in that era, my husband Fletcher had come upstairs on the early side. He’d been getting up at five a.m., so by noon he was famished. A self-employed cabinetmaker who crafted lovely but unaffordable one-of-a-kind furniture, he commuted all the way to our basement, and could arise whenever he liked. The crack-of-dawn nonsense was for show. Fletcher liked the implied rigor, the façade of yet more hardness, fierceness, discipline, and self-denial.
I found the up-and-at-’em maddening. Back then, I hadn’t the wisdom to welcome discord on such a minor scale, since Fletcher’s alarm-clock setting would soon be the least of our problems. But that’s true of all
pictures, which appear serene only in retrospect. At the time, my irritation at the self-righteousness with which he swept from bed was real enough. The man went to sleep at nine p.m. He got eight hours of shut-eye like a normal person. Where was the self-denial?
As with so many of my husband’s bullying eccentricities, I refused to get with the program and had begun to sleep in. I was my own boss, too, and I detested early mornings. Queasy first light recalled weak filtered coffee scalded on a hot plate. Turning in at nine would have made me feel like a child, shuttled to my room while the grown-ups had fun. Only the folks having fun, all too much of it, would have been Tanner and Cody, teenagers not about to adopt their father’s faux farming hours.
Thus, having just cleared off my own toast and coffee dishes, I wasn’t hungry for lunch—although, following the phone call of an hour earlier, my appetite had gone off for other reasons. I can’t remember what we were eating, but it was probably brown rice and broccoli. With a few uninteresting variations, in those days it was always brown rice and broccoli.
At first, we didn’t talk. When we’d met seven years before, our comfort with mutual silence had been captivating. One of the things that had once put me off about marriage was the prospect of ceaseless chat. Fletcher felt the same way, although his silence had a different texture than mine: thicker, more concentrated—churning and opaque. This gave his quiet a richness, which dovetailed nicely with my cooler, smoother calm. My silence made a whimsical humming sound, even if I didn’t actually hum; in culinary terms, it resembled a light cold soup. Darker and more brooding, Fletcher’s was more of a red wine sauce. He
with problems, while I simply solved them. Solitary creatures, we never contrived conversation for the sake of it. We were well suited.
Yet this midday, the hush was of dread and delay. Its texture was that of sludge, like my disastrous rosewater pudding. I rehearsed my introductory sentence several times before announcing aloud, “Slack Muncie called this morning.”
“Who’s Mack Muncie?” asked Fletcher distractedly.
“Slack. A saxophonist. From New York. I’ve met him several times. Well regarded, I think—but like most of that crowd, has trouble making ends meet. Obliged to accept wedding and restaurant gigs, where everyone talks over the music.” All of this qualified as the very “making conversation” I claimed to avoid.
Fletcher looked up warily. “How do you know him?”
“He’s one of Edison’s oldest friends. A real stalwart.”
“In that case,” said Fletcher, “he must be very patient.”
“Edison’s been staying with him.”
“I thought your brother had an apartment. Over his jazz club.” Fletcher imbued “his jazz club” with skepticism. He didn’t believe Edison ever ran his own jazz club.
“Not anymore. Slack didn’t want to get into it, but there’s some—story.”
“Oh, there’s sure to be a
. It just won’t be true.”
“Edison exaggerates sometimes. That’s not the same as being a liar.”
“Right. And the color ‘pearl’ isn’t the same as ‘ivory.’ ”
“With Edison,” I said, “you have to learn how to
“So he’s mooching off friends. How’s this for
: your brother’s homeless.” Fletcher habitually called Edison “your brother.” To my ear that decoded, “your problem.”
“Sort of,” I said.
“Edison has been through thin patches before. Between tours.”
“So because of some mysterious, complicated story—like not paying the rent—you brother has lost his apartment, and now he’s couch surfing.”
“Yes,” I said, squirming. “Although he seems to be running out of couches.”
“Why did this
person call, and not your brother himself?”
“Well, I think Slack has been incredibly generous, though his apartment is small. A one-bedroom, where he also has to practice.”
“Honey. Spit it out. Say whatever it is that you don’t want to tell me.”
I intently chased a floret, too undercooked to fork. “He said there isn’t enough room. For the two of them. Most of their other colleagues are already doubled up, or married with kids, and—Edison doesn’t have anywhere else to go.”
“Anywhere else but
“We have a guest room now,” I pleaded. “Nobody ever uses it, besides Solstice every two years. And, you know—he’s my
A contained man, Fletcher seldom looked visibly irked. “You say that like playing a trump.”
“It means something.”
“Something but not everything. Why couldn’t he stay with Travis? Or Solstice?”
“My father is impossible and over seventy. By the time my sister was born, Edison was nearly out of the house. He and Solstice barely know each other.”
“You have other responsibilities. To Tanner, to Cody, to me. Even”—a loaded pause—“to Baby Moronic. You can’t make a decision like this by fiat.”
“Slack sounded at his wit’s end. I had to say something.”
“What you had to say,” said Fletcher levelly, “was, ‘I’m sorry, but I have to ask my husband.’ ”
“Maybe I knew what you’d say.”
“And what was that?”
I smiled, a little. “Something like, ‘Over my dead body.’ ”
He smiled, a little. “Got that right.”
“I realize it didn’t go that well. The last visit.”
“No. It didn’t.”
“You seemed to get on the wrong side of each other.”
“There was no ‘seeming.’ We did.”
“If it were just anybody, I wouldn’t ask. But it isn’t. It would mean so much to me if you tried a little harder.”
“Got nothing to do with trying. You like someone, or you don’t. If you’re ‘trying,’ you don’t.”
“You can give folks a break. You do that with other people.” I took a moment to reflect that in Fletcher’s case this wasn’t always true. He could be harsh.
“Are you telling me that throughout this negotiation you never talked to your brother directly? So his friend is trying to offload the guy behind his back.”
“Maybe Edison’s embarrassed. He wouldn’t like asking favors of his little sister.”
“Little sister! You’re forty years old.”
An only child, Fletcher didn’t understand about siblings—how set that differential is. “Sweetheart, I’ll still be Edison’s
when I’m ninety-five.”
Fletcher soaked the rice pan in the sink. “You’ve got some money now, right? Though I’m never too clear on how much.” (No, he wouldn’t have been clear. I was secretive.) “So send him a check. Enough for a deposit on some dump and a couple of months’ rent. Problem solved.”
“Buy him off. Bribe him to stay away from us.”
“Well, he wouldn’t have much of a life here. You can’t say Iowa has a ‘jazz scene.’ ”
“There are venues in Iowa City.”
“Pass-the-hat gigs for a handful of cheapo students aren’t going to suit Mr. Important International Jazz Pianist.”
“But according to Slack, Edison isn’t—‘in the best form.’ He says Edison needs—‘someone to take care of him.’ He thinks my brother’s confidence has taken a knock.”
“Best news I’ve heard all day.”
“My business is doing well,” I said quietly. “That should be good for something. For being generous.”
The way I’ve been generous with you
, I almost added,
and with kids who are now my children too
, but I didn’t want to rub it in.
“But you’re also volunteering the rest of this family’s generosity.”
“I realize that.”
Fletcher leaned on either side of the sink. “I’m sorry if I seem unfeeling. Whether or not the guy gets on my nerves, he’s your brother, and you must find it upsetting, his being down on his luck.”
“Yes, very,” I said gratefully. “He’s always been the hot shot. Being strapped, straining his friends’ hospitality—it feels wrong. Like the universe has turned on its head.” I wasn’t about to tell Fletcher, but Edison and Slack must have fallen out, since the saxophonist’s urgency had been laced with what I could only call, well—disgust.
“But even if we did decide to take him in,” said Fletcher, “
and we haven’t
—the visit couldn’t be open-ended.”
“It can’t be conditional, either.” If I was going to think that way, and I preferred not to, I had amassed, as of the previous couple of years, most of the power in our household. I disliked having power, and in ordinary circumstances rather hoped that if I never exercised this baffling clout it would go away. For once, however, the novel agency was useful. “Saying, ‘only for three days,’ ” I said, “or ‘only for a week.’ That doesn’t sound gracious, but as if we can only stand his company for a limited period of time.”
“Isn’t that the truth?” Fletcher said curtly, leaving the dishes to me. “I’m going for a ride.”
f course he was going for a ride. He rode his bicycle for hours almost every day—or
his bicycles, since he had four, competing with unsold coffee tables for limited space in a basement that had looked so cavernous when we moved in. Neither of us ever mentioned it, but I’d bought him those bikes. Technically, we pooled our resources. But when one party contributes the contents of an eyedropper and the other Lake Michigan, “pooling” doesn’t seem the right word, quite.
Ever since my husband had started cycling obsessively, I wouldn’t go near my own ten-speed clunker, by then gathering dust with deflated tires. The neglect was of my choosing, but didn’t feel that way. It was as if he’d stolen my bike. Were I ever to have dragged the thing upstairs, greased the chain, and wended down the road, slowly and not very far, he’d have made fun of me. I preferred to skip it.