Mimi buys the largest roast chicken she can find at the small Lebanese butcher at the far end of the strip mall, in the shadow of the giant pharmacy. She adds a container of tabouleh and an oversized flatbread and she figures dinner’s done. She’s had no time to prepare anything lately — by the mere act of cooking something, let alone something so elaborate, was the importance of her announcement the other night made clear. Bobby used to cook; it was a significant part of the second stage of their courtship, but he has long stopped practicing the art, and asking him to look after dinner involves pizza more and more often. Not that a store bought roast chicken is any different. Mimi just prefers it to pizza.
Bobby is already home, sitting on the shag carpet in the living room, a tumbler of scotch in hand. He rubs his free hand along the carpet, the feel of it hypnotizing him, freeing him from Leopard Lady, her clutches; he feels like he’s fallen into a trap and Leopard Lady has been brought in to eat him up. “What are we eating?” he asks. He doesn’t care. He doesn’t feel like eating. Not when he feels like someone else’s dinner.
“Honey,” Mimi calls from the kitchen. She says this as she has since they fell in love, in a manner that announces their bond, the familiarity of a marriage sailing along on a glassy sea. She unpacks the food. She spoons the tabouleh into a serving bowl. She places the flatbread in the oven to heat. She takes out a cutting board and plops the chicken on it and finds the kitchen shears and she cuts up the chicken and plates it on a serving tray. “Are the kids home?” she says.
Bobby doesn’t know. He hasn’t checked. He hasn’t changed out of his work clothes. He went straight for the scotch and he hasn’t left the carpet. “I’ll check,” he says. He attempts to stand and he feels the creak in his knees — the sound of the opening of a door discovered in an abandoned house — and he finishes off his scotch. He heads upstairs. He knocks on Dee’s door. “Yes?”
“Your mother wanted to know if you were home.”
Dee says nothing because it’s obvious she is. Bobby doesn’t move. He knows she’s in there. A part of him wants her to stay in her room, behind the door, safe from Leopard Lady. “Dad?”
“Yes, you’re home, I get it.”
“Are you ok?”
Dee is sensitive. Bobby loves that about her. Her sensitivity drives him crazy but it’s also her most endearing quality. She cares about everyone. Almost. “Yes, thanks for asking.”
He doesn’t move. He leans his head on her door. Not to listen in but to rest. He’s tired. Bobby thinks about bed, about sleep. About being horizontal and the comfort of the mattress, of being enveloped by the duvet, of losing himself in repose. He just has to get through dinner. “Dinner’s ready,” he says.
He walks to Abbie’s door and knocks on it. He hears voices inside. Saul opens the door. “Hello, Saul,” he says.
“Hi Mr. Jones.” Bobby has long asked Saul to call him Bobby and for whatever reason Saul has refused. Bobby has gone so far as to ask Saul’s father about it.
“How are you parents?” he asks.
Saul shrugs, which means they are fine, why wouldn’t they be?
“We’re eating soon,” Bobby announces.
Saul turns to Abbie and Abbie nods. His face is buried in his keyboard. “Five minutes,” he says.
“I think the chicken is halal,” Bobby says.
“Thank you,” Saul says. “But that’s not kosher.”
“I think it’s a very similar process.”
“I mean, it hasn’t been blessed by the right kind of person, I understand that.”
“Thank you for the invitation.”
“It’s not just the chicken.”
“It’s not just the chicken.”
“I understand,” Bobby says, in retreat. “I always do. Long ago, your mother explained in great detail why it was impossible to eat at our house.”
“It’s the way we are,” Saul says, almost apologetically.
“We all have to believe in something,” Bobby says and he turns and makes his way down the stairs. He enters the kitchen and kisses Mimi.
“Are the kids home?” she asks.
“Both of them. Abbie said five minutes.”
“Abbie always says five minutes.”
“This is why we love him.”
Mimi taps her husband’s ass and then pushes him away and she opens the oven to check on the flatbread. It looks like it’s about to burn. She reaches in to pull it out. Bobby watches her do this with the beginning of alarm. She grabs the flatbread by the tips of her nails and flips it out of the oven and onto the chicken. “There,” she says, surprised by how well that turned out.
Bobby closes the stove and shuts it off. “I can’t handle the heat,” he says.
“Then get out of the kitchen,” Mimi says, handing him the chicken and flatbread.
“Where are we eating?”
He turns and puts the chicken down on the table. Mimi will have no announcements today. He’s grateful for that. He wants to speak more of her impending riches but he also doesn’t want to talk to her about it, he doesn’t want to discover that he is suddenly not the important person here, that his work is no longer necessary, that he is no longer necessary. No longer vital. He hates that he thinks this way. “Smells good,” he says.
“Has it been five minutes?” she asks.
Saul descends the stairs and Mimi looks at him and smiles, surprised and not surprised that he’s been in her house the whole time. “Bye, Mrs. Jones,” he says and waves and he’s out the door.
Abbie walks into the kitchen and opens the fridge and buries his head in it and he searches for his condiments. “We’re out of Sriracha?” he asks.
“I don’t use it, how would I know?” Mimi replies.
“What are we eating?” Abbie asks.
Bobby goes to the pantry and produces two unopened bottles of the hot sauce. He places them on the table by Abbie’s placemat. “Where’s your sister?” he asks.
“I’m not her keeper,” Abbie says.
“Dee!” Mimi shouts.
“I don’t need two,” Abbie says.
“I’m not taking chances,” Bobby says with an exaggerated worry.
Dee enters the kitchen. She punches Abbie on the shoulder. She kisses her mother. She smiles at her father. And then she rubs his back. And she takes her seat. Mimi puts the tabouleh on the table and Dee spoons a heaping mound on her plate. And then she is about to start eating and she looks around and waits. She puts her fork down.
“How’s your ass?” Abbie says. Mimi shoots him a look. Dee ignores him. She stares at her father, worried.
Bobby notices Dee’s concern. “I’m fine,” he says.
“Who’s not feeling well?” Mimi asks. Her great concern is that her work takes her away from her family and lately she’s felt that she’s done exactly that.
“Your husband,” Dee says and now that everyone’s sitting, she digs into the tabouleh.
“I’m fine,” Bobby says again, this time in Mimi’s direction. She brings a jug of water to the table and now they are all sitting. Abbie tears a piece off the bread and stabs a piece of chicken. Mimi serves Bobby and herself. The family eats. Bobby studies their eating, how unceremonious it is, how the community of eating is really just about doing private things in group settings; communal survival turned into potential for joy. Mimi pours water for everyone. Dee finishes her tabouleh and reaches for more.
“Have some protein,” Mimi tells her.
Dee shovels another mound of tabouleh on her plate.
“Did you take your pictures today?” Bobby says and Abbie dies a little inside and adjusts his outlook, again, he’s making constant adjustments, it’s all he does.
“I took Saul down to the Canal,” Abbie says.
“The Canal again?” Mimi asks.
“When’s the last time you’ve been down by the Canal?” Abbie says.
Mimi has to think. She doesn’t remember ever really being down by the Canal. She’s been to the Market, she once went to a restaurant near the Canal. She’s been to the antique stores on Notre Dame, but she realizes she doesn’t even know what the Canal looks like, she doesn’t know if it’s wide or what. She’s speaking from ignorance. She knows it. “Never,” she says.
“Many years ago we biked along the Canal,” Bobby reminds her but she can’t remember biking with Bobby anywhere let alone by the Canal.
“I don’t remember the last time I was on a bike that wasn’t stationary,” she says. The health club at the strip mall, a dank basement of thuggish Russian immigrants developing their thuggish looking biceps and too-old-to-be-there dyed blondes all trying to get into the aerobics class with the cute Haitian owner. Who used to dance ballet before he got tired of the touring. Mimi is still a member but she no longer has time for anything. She works. She works and buys prepared meals for her family. And she doesn’t feel guilt because she doesn’t believe in guilt.
“The Canal has what I need right now,” Abbie says.
“I don’t even know what that means,” Bobby says. He tears off some bread and shoves it in his mouth. He wonders how long his son is going to do this, take these photos, before he realizes he might need a job, or money, or a life.
“It’s what I’m doing now.”
“What are you doing now?”
“Here we go,” Dee mutters.
“Dad,” Abbie says. He doesn’t want to have this conversation. Not now. Not when he needs to work on his photos. He’s thought about what Saul said, about what Saul understands, and now he understands as well, but he also understands where his work is going, finally, his work is starting to say something, he gets that, and so Saul is both right but he’s also wrong, this is how art happens, Abbie realizes now, he’d just referred to his work his art, in his room, to Saul, and they both took that in with the kind of superficial awe that young men excel at. Abbie feels his work is in a new place, and means something much more than he’d realized, and he wants to get back to work.
“I worry,” Bobby says. “You were never a great student but now you’re not even in school and you spend the day taking photos all over the city of god knows what and then you lock yourself in your room doing god knows what.”
“Dear…” Mimi says. She’s worried too though for entirely different reasons. She worries that her son will never find a girlfriend. That he eats poorly. That he’s not committing to this thing he’s doing while he’s doing it. She feels strongly about commitment. She figures her son is going to figure something out, and soon, she senses this, and if he finds himself through his camera, that’s something. She doesn’t know what it might be, but it’s something and it’s better than where he was a year ago, when he really was lost, and she worried he’d dive deep into drugs or worse. That was real worry.
“Dad, it’s ok if you don’t get me,” Abbie says.
“Get you? I don’t even know what you’re doing.”
Dee wants to leave the table but knows she can’t.
“You will soon, I swear,” Abbie says, pleading almost, the women at the table notice this, but not Bobby, because Bobby is not reading his son right now, he’s playing The Concerned Father, or perhaps The Angry Father, one of them, or both, but he’s playing a role and isn’t paying attention to anyone else.
“I don’t know what that means either,” he says. He feels about to blow, about to go off on something that is most probably unfair, but his son is, what, not who he had expected he might be, not on the cusp of adulthood, and Bobby tries to channel this anger, the poison that he feels might be welling up inside him, this thing that he has felt for so long and now, for some reason, now it wants to explode out of him and he works to contain it, to keep it inside, because it’s not a real feeling, it’s not permanent, or even durable, it cannot endure because it is so poisonous and then he can see Leopard Lady, he sees her rise above them all, an ancient goddess of malevolence, or power abused, and he understands what he’s doing, what’s happening to him, and he tries to climb down. “Dee you can go,” he says because he knows she wants to leave, she’s wanted to for a while now; it feels like the kindest thing he can do right now.
“Thanks,” she says and she takes her empty plate and puts it in the dishwasher and runs out of the room and up the stairs so she can stand in front of the mirror and hate her ass while she digests her dinner and Instant Messages Coco Chanel.
Abbie stabs at another piece of chicken. Mimi watches her son with a maternal sense of wonder. She takes Bobby’s hand to try and calm him and this simple act calms him. Bobby takes a gulp of water. Abbie douses the chicken in sriracha.
“Abbie posts all of his photos on-line,” Mimi says.
Abbie looks at his mother. He does not know that she knows any of what he does.
“They are remarkable photos,” she continues. “And he has many followers or fans or whatever they’re called.”
Bobby is angry with himself he realizes.
“I don’t know what he’s going to do with them either,” Mimi says, “but he seems to be doing something with them and there’s no money in it, at least I don’t think so, but I wouldn’t worry.”
Bobby is angry with himself because his work life is crumbling and because his wife is on the cusp of a form of success he doesn’t understand and his son lives a life he doesn’t know about but his wife does. How did this happen? He worries for Dee, she’s the youngest, his worry for her feels normal, but suddenly he’s worried about himself, about his contribution to this family, and the fact that his wife knows what their son is doing and he doesn’t. Why doesn’t he know? “That’s excellent then,” he manages.
“It’s all there for everyone to see,” Abbie says, something he’s never said before because he’s never thought of the accessibility of his work this way but it’s true. His work is public. The internet is a public place. All those people commenting on his work are strangers. His mother has seen his work.
“I don’t even do Facebook,” Bobby says, to justify something to himself, to his son, who he knows is disappointed, who has seen this exchange between his parents and has noted the imbalance in interest. Bobby can feel the world move through space. It might be time for another scotch.
“I just wonder where it’s going,” Mimi says, but she’s saying this in the manner of a viewer, dispassionate, curious. She’s not worried for her son. It’s never occurred to her to worry about his photography. He’s young. He’s smart. He makes her laugh. He brings out a kind of maternal something inside of her that Dee has never managed. Mimi doesn’t try and analyze.
“I do too,” Abbie says. “But I think I might know. I got something today. Saul helped me. Saul.” His cutlery filets the piece of chicken with a surgeon’s precision. Abbie has never liked animal fat to enter his mouth. He thinks he gets this from his mother. He has grown up watching her eat and she eats her food with the delicacy of an origami bird.
Bobby shoves more bread into his mouth. He can hear Leopard Lady laugh at him. He can hear Mimi laugh at him. He can feel Abbie’s ultimate indifference; he fears his ignorance will be taken as something worse than it really is. He’s planted a seed. He mustn’t let it grow within his son. “I need a drink,” he sighs. He stands and heads to the liquor cabinet. Mimi watches her husband walk away from the invisible mess he’s created. She blames herself; she’s been far too consumed by her own work, by her own incipient success, to notice this. To notice that something is changing in her husband. That he is bearing some kind of weight at work and that he’s bringing it home. Or perhaps she hasn’t missed anything. Perhaps he hasn’t been like this. Perhaps he’s simply had a bad day. She can’t tell the difference. Because she hasn’t been paying attention.