In the room with the mirrored ceiling, a cooking class begins. An adjoining area houses exercise equipment and television sets, the strained melody of machines running and canned laughter bleeding through the doorway. Dennis sits in the third row between his wife and another woman he does not recognize. In a flash, he realizes he forgot to bring paper and a pencil. Everyone else scribbles ingredients and cooking times onto yellow legal pads and in leather bound notebooks. Aside from only one other husband accompanying his wife, Dennis is the only man in the room.
“Does everyone know about parchment paper?” the instructor says. Her voice is a garbled trill, like a canary whistle at the county fair. Dennis feels her eyes upon him, his empty hands and slumping shoulders. She has a crush on him maybe, or an unnatural fondness for the Market Town University Cowboys, the football team advertised on the front of his shirt. The women all lean down over their notebooks and write. Parchment paper.
Dennis raises his hand. “I don’t know about parchment paper.”
“You don’t have to use parchment paper,” the instructor says. “But doing so makes clean-up a snap.”
“Can you substitute?” a woman in the back asks. “Can you use waxed paper instead?”
Dennis’s good manners abandon him, and indignation rises in his chest. Very often during public performances of all kinds he imagines himself interrupting, rising from his seat, shouting something rude or obscene. In his mind’s eye he is brave, a rebel, the real reason anyone ever utters the phrase, “worth the price of admission.” And this woman who wants to use waxed paper instead of parchment paper—an idiot, the worst kind. He indulges a fantasy of himself standing, turning toward the back of the room, his arms outstretched in supplication.
What are you crazy? he would say. You gonna put waxed paper in the oven? You gonna put Crayola Crayons in the goddamned microwave? Candles in the clothes dryer?
Dennis, his wife would say, reaching up to touch his wrist. I’m sorry, she would say to the woman on her other side. He used to be a fireman.
Used to be a fireman. Used to be a fire. Used to be a man. Now Dennis snaps back to reality and, by accident, replies aloud to his silent imagination.
“I’m sorry, too,” he says. “But please, people.”
“You don’t have to be sorry,” his wife says. “Nobody heard but me.”
Now he wonders what in the hell she’s talking about, but the class moves along in the same way a train moves toward the station. The instructor, visibly annoyed by the short exchange between Dennis and his wife, returns to peeling sweet potatoes in the sink. In the mirrored ceiling, Dennis watches as her ring finger collides with the countertop. She pulls a knife from a hidden drawer below and, in one swift motion, abandons the plastic peeler and scrapes hard against the potato’s flesh with the knife’s silver blade. Dennis remembers why he came to the cooking class in the first place. He wanted to please his wife. And his wife, now with her forehead crinkled into squid-like creases, turns the page in her notebook and scribbles. Dennis is an idiot. Why did I bring him to this cooking class? I know you’re reading this, Dennis. Why didn’t you just stay home?
Dennis thinks of their son, James, a good kid, if a little misguided. He’s a sophomore double-majoring in American History and African American Studies at Northern Oklahoma College, Cowboy Mall Campus, right across the street from Cowboy Motorsports, a mere ninety miles away from the Cowboy Hall of Fame. Was James a sophomore? Maybe he was a junior. Earlier that day, James had refused the third ticket to the cooking class, insisting he needed to stay home to wait for an important phone call from his (black!) girlfriend. Dennis told him to bring along his cell phone, and Dennis’s wife said she would die of embarrassment if the cell phone rang during the cooking class and James, putting a generous hand on each of his parents’ shoulders, promised he and his girlfriend both would join them for pie and coffee after the cooking class was over.
As the cooking instructor stuffs potato peels into the garbage disposal, Dennis thinks about his son and becomes acutely aware of the presence of two middle-aged black women in the row in front of him. One is very tall, the other short and round, like a black, transsexual Santa Claus. He does not feel threatened, as me might feel in the presence of black men in the vicinity of an ATM machine, nor does he feel lustful, the typical stance, James says, of the white man toward women his ancestors might have owned. Mostly he feels indifferent.
Last night he watched a television interview with an aging rock star, one of those legendary singer-songwriters still hauling out the guitar after all these years. The music, man, is what really matters, the singer said, tugging at his graying beard. Back in those days, wives and girlfriends were, I don’t know, sort of incidental. They aren’t now, of course. Dennis agreed. Healthy cooking, sweet potatoes, fire safety, rock music: those things really mattered. His former girlfriends, his son’s girlfriend, the two black women sitting in the row in front of him: sorry folks, but they’re all incidental.
Again, he wished for a paper and pencil, so later he could remember the number of sweet potatoes—three—and the amount of olive oil—a tablespoon and a half—and the cooking temperature—425—and the cooking time—one full hour. But surely he would forget, just as he forgot everything these days, his wife’s birthday, their anniversary, the Fourth of July. The Fourth of July? Okay, so he forgot to look at the calendar, forgot to pay attention to the commercials on television, forgot to watch as the fireworks stands appeared and disappeared along the edge of the highway. That year he showed up at the firehouse picnic late, too late to make his customary speech about the importance of patriotism and civic pride. No matter. Patriotism and civic pride were in the toilet, anyway, along with decency and common sense.
The instructor, now pulling hot sweet potatoes from the oven, looks down at Dennis and nods with approval. Always—at the cooking class, sewing class, horseback riding lessons, and book club—Dennis receives a greater degree of attention from the instructor than does his wife. Another reason he wants to spend his retirement in the company of women: they’re easily impressed. They like your company, and you’re not obligated to do much of anything for them in return. You’re not even obligated to talk to them, if you don’t want to. In fact, they seem to prefer the safety of silence.
The only other man in the room also belongs to a couple nearing retirement. Gary and Nan. Gary looks like General Patton and Nan looks like Senator John McCain’s (second?) wife, Cindy. Dennis generally dislikes Gary and Nan because they, too, frequent the cooking class, sewing class, horseback riding lessons and book club, seemingly with the exclusive goal of finding a kidney donor for Gary’s son from another marriage. And what makes them think people just walk around looking to give away one of their kidneys? People want to keep their kidneys, and if people did want to give away their very own vital organs, they wouldn’t give them to Gary’s son from another marriage who doesn’t even live here.
The instructor garnishes the tray of roasted sweet potatoes and announces a five-minute break. Everyone stands, and a line forms at the ladies room in the back. Dennis and his wife remain seated. Dennis eavesdrops as Nan exchanges pleasantries, future recipe choices for future cooking classes, and general introductions with the two black women in the row in front of them. The black women, he learns, are named Bethany and Annette.
“You’re just the kind of person we need coming to our cooking class,” Nan says to Bethany, the tall one. “Oh, and Annette. Haven’t I told you all Annette is one of Gary’s officially-approved girlfriends?”
Everyone laughs, even Bethany and Annette. Dennis wonders what James would think of this interlude, the master’s wife playing matchmaker. Officially approved girlfriend? Approved by whom? Other members of the Klan? Jeez, if he weren’t so hungry, Dennis might feel sick.
Then, he can’t help it. He thinks the unthinkable. Can doctors put a black kidney inside a white body? Maybe Nan is thinking the same thing. Maybe that’s why she says nothing about her step-son’s health, nothing about his dire need for a kidney, nothing about blood types or waiting periods or that little box you’re supposed to check on your driver’s license or medical dramas on television featuring helicopters transporting picnic coolers meant for live body tissue.
And back to this business about officially-approved girlfriends: Dennis can glean the true depths of deception swirling around the hard edges of the non-existent love triangle between Gary, Nan, and Gary’s officially-approved black girlfriend, Annette. He knows because he, too, once had an officially-approved girlfriend, a woman from the Philippines who used to do their taxes. Her acumen for the American tax code was surpassed only by her stellar sense of humor and her willingness to abide Dennis’s chronic tardiness at turning in receipts. And she made a very good strawberry fudge cake. Dennis’s wife never called the accountant an officially-approved girlfriend, but everyone in the family thought her amusing, harmless, a real dynamo. She was officially-approved because Dennis’s wife never imagined Dennis would stoop so low as to sleep with a filthy immigrant, and a fat one at that. But his wife was wrong. Dennis gladly would have slept with her had he not feared rejection or getting caught later on. Dennis knew without asking this exact same dynamic operated between Gary, Nan, and poor Annette, officially approved and disapproved, universally desired and universally despised.
He feels a secret, buried pride in knowing his son, James, is man enough to rescue one of these women from the infamy of what used to be called the working poor and now enjoyed the slightly more elevated status of the rising middle class, the helping professions, the girls Friday, the women who kept men like him from saying too often, jeez it’s so hard to get good help around here these days. James’ girlfriend, light-skinned and exotic, studies criminology at the university and works part-time as an assistant manager at the largest furniture store in town. Without slumming, James has become something of a savior. Had Dennis come of age thirty years later, he too, might have had a pretty black girlfriend, officially-approved or not, he didn’t care.
The cooking class resumes, and people take their seats. The instructor, raising her voice above the general din, announces an exciting new development in cookware technology and pulls a chocolate cake from the oven. To find himself in the presence of such an inviting aroma makes Dennis dizzy with hunger.
“When do we get to eat?” he asks his wife.
“Keep a lid on it, Dennis” his wife says in low tones.
“I was just asking,” he says. He watches the instructor tuck her hair behind her ears and sniff the air. In the mirrored ceiling he sees chocolate frosting, a plastic spatula, and rainbow sprinkles, all ready for the instructor’s swift and dexterous hands. Even though the instructor is white, Dennis cannot help but think of the mammy figure in Holiday Inn starring Bing Crosby. And oh, the little black children, how cute they are on Lincoln’s birthday, donning stovepipe hats and fake beards too large for their small, shining faces. He wonders if he reveals a lack of good taste in finding the children so adorable.
The instructor puts the finishing touches on the chocolate cake and announces the conclusion of today’s cooking class.
“She’s not going to cut the cake?” Dennis says.
“It’s not even a real cake,” his wife says. “It’s made from Styrofoam and recycled milk jugs.”
Dennis marvels at why anyone would put Styrofoam and recycled milk jugs in the oven, even a fake oven, or a cold one, or an unplugged appliance sale knock-off meant for display purposes only. And what about the delicious chocolaty smell? Fooled again.
They walk outside and struggle through piles of crunchy leaves in the parking lot.
On the drive home, they barely speak. Still silent, they pull into the driveway and go their separate ways into the house. Later, in the living room, his wife begins an unexpected conversation.
“I went to the doctor yesterday,” she says.
“Oh yeah, anything wrong?”
“Just my bad toes. They taped them together. But something strange happened.”
“They try to overcharge you?”
“No,” she says. “Nothing like that.
Dennis, who seeks medical treatment at the same facility his wife frequents, remembers with some embarrassment the mural in the clinic’s waiting room, a sage doctor wearing one of those reflective headpieces none of them actually wear in real life, the sun’s majestic rays shining down into the doctor’s bright eyes, the figure of Jesus placing his translucent hand on the wise physician’s shoulder. The religious iconography makes him expect better care than he actually receives, and he always comes away disappointed. His wife interrupts the divine dream and goes on to explain the usual intricacies of a doctor’s office visit: the way they abandon you in the little exam room stacked with outdated copies of People magazine, the mundane rituals of blood pressure and temperature taking, the promise you’re next in line to see the doctor, a brief greeting from the man in the white coat, followed by more questions, more scribbled observations, and more waiting, alone.
“My chart was just sitting there on top of a tall stool,” she says. “No one was there to see me, and I thought, well, it’s my chart after all. Might as well take a look.”
Yeah, sure,” Dennis says. “Why not?”
“That’s what I thought,” she says. “But then I started reading, and in the middle of the top page I saw my name and everything, and my height and weight, family history of heart disease, and then, right below the stuff about my toe, it said healthy black adult female, post-menopausal. Dennis, do I look black to you?”
“It was just a mistake,” she says. “I know that. But I can’t help but feel they’re not very observant over there.”
“They’re not,” he says. “Last year they gave me a tetanus shot when I came in with the flu.”
“Oh, yeah,” she says. “That reminds me. They changed the dosage on my Existalot. They think I need to feel more like myself again.”
Dennis’s wife has been taking this Existalot for little more than a year now, and, as far as Dennis can tell, the little blue pills did nothing save causing the occasional memory lapse and even more occasional drowsiness. The advertised benefits include greater happiness, a charged sexual appetite, and motivation for high achievement. The potential side effects include heart attack, stroke, and urges toward excessive gambling, aggression, and unexpected urination. So far, Dennis has noticed none of these, though he doesn’t like to pry. That the doctor wants to increase her dosage does not surprise him, though, and he assents to their wisdom with a nod and a weak smile of approval.
His wife worries they might be late to meet James and his new girlfriend. She tells Dennis to quit dawdling and get going. He watches as his wife heads toward the bedroom, the belt on her bathrobe trailing behind her like the limpid tail on a lazy tiger. He’s about to head for the fridge when the telephone rings. He has given up on responding to the telephone in the usual fashion. He can’t remember the last time he actually answered the ringing phone and said hello. Sometime in the eighties, he thinks. Since then, he always allows the phone to ring and ring, until the machine announces his absence and records an exasperated message from someone who never turns out to be as important as he or she—usually he—thinks he is.
This time he hears the deep voice of James, telling his parents to meet him at the corner of 6th and Main, the headquarters for his girlfriend’s place of business, Remarkable Lamps. She works there part-time as an assistant manager, and James says he would like his mother and father to join them for coffee in the luncheonette, so that his girlfriend can get back to work immediately after dining with the family. His son’s chivalry and the girlfriend’s sense of duty both ruin their plans for high tea at the downtown hotel, but Dennis does not much care. He knows his wife will be disappointed, so he keeps the phone call a secret, until later.
“Did someone call?” she asks, in the car, on the way to meet their son’s new prize. Though they have chosen to take his wife’s car this time, Dennis situates himself in the driver’s seat. The cluttered remainder of the front seat area, piled high with file boxes and loose papers from the Junior Service League—Dennis’s wife is a volunteer—makes conversation difficult at best. Dennis’s wife sits in the middle of the back seat and leans forward.
At first, Dennis hunches over the steering wheel, watches the approaching traffic with exaggerated care and precision, and pretends not to hear his wife’s insistent voice.
“Dennis,” she says. “Who called?”
“No one,” he says. “When? On the telephone? What are you talking about?”
“While I was getting ready,” she says. “The phone rang. I heard the machine.”
He confesses the caller’s true identity—their son—lets go with the information about the new location for dessert. He watches through the rearview mirror as his wife reclines into the back seat proper and turns her head toward the window. Outside, a gust of wind overturns a trash barrel in the street and, in a sudden storm of debris, half-filled soda bottles, hamburger wrappers, and cigarette butts scatter through the maze of traffic, much of the mess landing in a swirl of wadded napkins and coffee grounds in the exact center of their windshield. Dennis activates the windshield wipers and squirt cleaner, but the residue only grows larger and more unmanageable as a result. By the time they approach the parking garage for Remarkable Lamps, he recoils at the smear of brown foggy liquid now partially obscuring the booth housing the parking attendant, the yellow lines dividing incoming and outgoing traffic, and the green light flashing on the gate’s automatic arm.
“That’s just lovely,” his wife says. “Nice going.”
“Hey,” he says. “It’s not my fault.”
“That’s what you always say.”
Inside, Remarkable Lamps bustles with the energy of deep discounts. Electric fans, red, white, and blue crepe paper Scotch taped to their grills, oscillate back and forth, a lame attempt to direct customers away from the front doors and toward the water beds stacked in the back. Immediately inside the front entryway, Dennis looks above him as the fake leaves on the fake trees sway in the artificial wind. More greenery, lush, plastic, and dusty, borders a lounge area meant for reluctant male shopper to wait while their wives finish spending all their husbands’ hard-earned money. He would like to sit down on the circular leather-upholstered bench designed to look vaguely like a giant cowboy hat, but his wife urges him onward, past the drapery display, through a maze of hanging wallpaper samples, and into the small luncheonette in the back corner of the store.
Last week over beers, James told Dennis about Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. In each novel, James said, the setting is key. Both the raft on the Mississippi and the endless stretch of highway construct themselves as exclusively male spaces, carefully carved-out wedges wherein men feel at ease expressing true affection for one another without the punishing gaze of mothers and wives. On the raft and on the highway, men attain full humanity; they are joyous and relaxed, free at once from the rules of society and from the looming threat of homosexuality. Now, walking into Remarkable Lamps, Dennis cannot help but think the fabric swatches and brocade, the doilies at the cash registers and the framed needlepoint samplers hanging on columns facing north, south, east, and west, all make this particular furniture store in this particular Oklahoma town the anti-raft, the anti-highway, the place where men go to die. He’s keen to meet the girlfriend, however. Huck Finn would not have taken a girlfriend out onto the river, no siree, and old what’s-his-face surely would not have taken a girlfriend out onto the great American road, but hey, someone has to keep the home fires burning.
James has the winning smile of a bubblegum teen idol, Frankie Avalon or Ricky Nelson. His hair, too, reeks of another era, a slight rise in the front where pomade oil mixes with a stiffening agent, possibly hairspray but more likely mousse. And he’s a smart-ass, full of unwanted witticisms such as lookin’ good, Dad and lay it on me, slick. That he thinks himself politically progressive annoys Dennis more than anything else. Who needs a lefty in the family? Dennis, a Civil War buff and an amateur constitutional scholar—he read on the internet the ninth amendment is dead—prefers hard-nosed policy to pie-in-the-sky ideology. To Dennis, James seems a hopeless throwback to the New Deal, the Great Society, the worst of America’s urge to right wrongs. Still, he never makes any trouble and he respects his elders. And the girlfriend! Her name, turns out, is Juanita. Not only is she black, but Mexican, too. The world has become more complicated than ever before. Juanita is herself a very interesting voting demographic. All the candidates must crave Juanita’s support.
“Nice to meet you,” Dennis’s wife says, as they seat themselves in a red vinyl booth. “Or shall I say, mucho gusto?”
“Nice to meet you is fine,” Juanita says. “James has told me so much about you.”
Probably James has mentioned their two-car garage and their two-storey house and their two-bit status as retirees. Doubtless he has told her Dennis used to be a fireman and Dennis’s wife used to be a lot of things—cafeteria worker, substitute teacher, animal control officer.
They order coffee and slices of pie.
“That reminds me,” Dennis’s wife says. “Dennis and I are taking a cooking class.”
“Really,” Juanita says. “Tell me all about it.”
As she says these words, Dennis realizes at once she is beautiful, more beautiful than Carmen Miranda, more charming than Condolezza Rice. More lovely than Meredith Viera, more striking than Soledad O’Brien. More poised than Janet Jackson and much thinner than Oprah Winfrey. And she’s smart. Smarter by far than Maria Shriver, a Kennedy, a white woman, the first lady of the entire state of California. I’m getting married, he imagines himself saying to his own father. To a black Mexican woman. I’ve never been happier.
Then, his attention returns to his own wife. She is neither beautiful nor charming, but she sticks with him, more than anyone else ever has.
“The cooking class,” his wife says, “meets the second Tuesday of every month. Today we made Southwestern roasted sweet potatoes.”
His wife goes on to explain the ins and outs of the recipe—the fresh herbs from the farmer’s market, the uniform size of each potato slice. She lowers her voice and looks at Dennis askance when she tells Juanita about the parchment paper.
“Parchment paper, huh?” Juanita says. She slices her pie as a surgeon might. “Could you use waxed paper instead? As a substitute, I mean?”
Oh my god. His son has hooked up with an idiot, a yellow-looking migrant worker watermelon-stealing fire starter. Who in the hell would put waxed paper in the oven? He can say none of these things aloud, of course, and he wouldn’t say them aloud under any circumstances, but neither can he escape the vision of his future grandchildren, all afro’d and shoeless, scrounging crumbs from the kitchen floor as the house, a shanty, a shack, some ramshackle rough-edged shed made of wattle and daub, erupts into flames and finally burns down around them.