Marrying the Condiments

by Matthew Dexter

Mesmerized by majestic boulders adjacent to the eighteenth hole of the miniature golf course, my hands frozen from scooping rainbow sherbet with chocolate sprinkles into dozens of chilled bowls, old ladies licking their lips, labyrinthine wrinkles telling the tales of what we will all become, should we live long enough; listen to them breathe, their bald heads from chemotherapy hidden with fancy wigs that make them look ten years younger and adorned in diamonds and gold with stomachs shrunken from their bandages like mummified pharaohs a moment before entombment. The banjo whispers eulogies through the overhead speakers and the tangerine sunset creeps through the silk curtains and dances on the carpet for a minute or two before kissing hand-painted murals of Indians and stagecoaches.

My thumb is aching and the joint grows numb as they thank me. Soon, those shiny spoons I spent an hour polishing are clanging against their empty bowls, aiming at frosted magic that makes them ageless, as if casting a spell on appetites unquenched by baby duck smothered with garlic spinach, asparagus, and rack of lamb with mint jelly.

I thought getting busted selling hydroponic marijuana through the drive-through of the Jack-in-the-Box was going to be the downfall of my fledgling working life, but that is nothing compared to this place. There were two heart attacks and a stroke my first month in the dining room. After handing me my aprons in his crummy office, Carlyle, the manager, explained how the place was haunted and we should expect to see ghosts in the kitchen.

Dozens of people have passed away in this oasis and we should always show respect; this is why we had to learn the Heimlich maneuver and basic lifesaving procedures. The lines around their eyeballs reflect the gambles that have paid off: the best medical care, a comfortable place to die, a decent place to dine.

Nobody questions the mental health of the residents or the staff. Nobody sees our grannies sleeping in the footprints of crusted cat feces and shadows of squalor beneath swamp coolers with palm fronds poking at dusty windows and rotting saguaros, ashtrays full of sunflower seeds and yellow phlegm.

We carry the food to the rich people and pets. We knock on their doors or click the monotonous bell beneath the numbers, but usually they are open. We might ring the fancy doorbells installed from outside contractors, and each peal is different, an independent gospel, and you never know which melody to expect—except for those apartments where you have visited frequently, perhaps too frequently.

Everybody has their favorites. Male servers are popular with a certain group of redheaded celery suckers, while some of the coeds are requested by widowers who want a juicy piece of eye candy to accompany their soup and sandwich. I am shunned by a few of the perverts who suck the clams from their chowder with false choppers, but over the course of fourteen months, I have grown on Marcy Jenkins faster than her cancer surgeon can zap a new tumor with radiation at the Mayo Clinic in North Scottsdale.

I garnish the smoked salmon with capers and diced onions, corn on the cob waiting in the corner of the Styrofoam container. The kernels burn themselves into the folds and I shall lick them free from her incisors after making angry love like gypsies amid an afternoon monsoon. Chucking lemon slices across the kitchen as if they were grenades; inspecting my hair in the reflection on the door of the stainless steel walk-in refrigerator, a familiar ghost dances, trapped in her plastic and cardboard Barbie box, Mrs. Milner foxtrots across the broccoli steam and flaming apricots.

Mrs. Milner died during the famous Halloween dance eight years ago when she suffered a stroke while chugging champagne flutes after winning the best costume contest.

So toasted at midnight, inspired to climb the table, she performed her best Jay-Z imitation: excoriating Cristal for being racists, aiming insults at thugs like Roederer chief Frederic Rouzaud, and praising Armand de Brignac. The paramedics had to roll her out of the dining hall on a stretcher, still in her box, the plastic broken open as they pumped oxygen into her lungs and offered chest compressions.

Marcy's apartment is adorned with fluffy pillows, pink fabrics, and lime green furniture. There are geckos climbing adobe walls because she never shuts her backdoor, which faces the ninth hole of the putting green. She lost two older brothers in the Second World War and calls her bedroom The Cougar Cave—though she has not been a cougar for decades. The whole place reeks of Paris Hilton perfume and coffee day and night. She says the scent makes her youthful, but there is not a laser in the world which could erase everything, at least not on the outside. The inside is where she is eternal, and that is the only place where we can fly beneath their radars.

I ring the customized doorbell and the tail to one of her kitten outfits gets stuck in the door. This one is orange and black with vertical stripes, and I pull it free, so soft between my fingers, she yanks it away from my calluses and closes the drapes so that the redheaded celery suckers cannot see inside her apartment as they approach the fairway. The grandfather clock on the walls is talking about the things he has witnessed, but we pay it no attention and I lay the tray on the dining table beside the ruffled sections of this morning's New York Times. There is another war being waged and a ladybug is waiting on the edge of the table. There are no ghosts in this apartment, not yet anyway.

We can hear voices outside, though the words are muffled. The walls are thick, but old people's voices can carry. Anemic women roam the halls, skeletons on the warpath, spreading rumors of copulation and affairs of the soul, things that most young men dare not discuss—so we duck and walk faster as we deliver our trays. Marcy is my last. She was also my first. We make our moment matter and get to the point at hand.

In her Jacuzzi the bubbles embrace the Fat Tire bottles as we watch movies from the flat screen she hooked up above the toilet, and our wrinkles merge into one body, this pink foaming comet cresting and waning. When it is finished, we are closer to death, and she munches salmon as I marry the condiments downstairs in the dining room as ghosts whisper behind my shoulders and the chandelier rattles with its French-cut glass and diamonds.

There was a time when I was nothing but popped pimples and crusty dimples, but Marcy treats me like a man, and in her will she promises to provide for my granny, and sighs whenever she hears of the plights of my flesh and blood. The maid will clean her tub, but my granny soaks in filth, when she is able to walk, and the ghosts could care less when I try to explain the situation.

I open the lids to all the condiments and get to work. I pour mustards from the bottles that are nearly empty into the bottles that are nearly full. Then I do the same with the ketchups and the A.1. steak sauce. I marry the condiments because it's better than cleaning the dessert refrigerator or wiping germs from all the menus.

There is a gasp from the kitchen as servers return with news of Mrs. Kendrick, Marcy's best friend forever, or BFF, as they address each other—and anybody close enough to listen—between giggles and winks with wrinkled eyelids painted purple. Mrs. Kendrick collapsed during lunch, planting her cheeks into a bowl of lime sherbet after explaining that she asked for rainbow. Goddamn it, says Carlyle, the manager. He has seen more emergencies than most paramedics. Carlyle has seen more death than many soldiers in Afghanistan, and he holds her hand as they fan her with dirty napkins. Give her air, one of the ghosts says as she swings from the chandelier.

I walk like an Egyptian to Marcy's apartment with baked scallops and shrimp kebobs steaming into hairy nostrils and my vision blurred by broccoli hot enough to burn the roof of an elderly hippopotamus. The stretcher is wheeled out the door and then her wig is crooked, skull full of scratch marks and warts, she is rolled past the steam, oxygen mask glazing her face like the cold donut I had stolen from the dinner menu in order to please her.

Days pass and the dining room takes on an orgy of conversation, an ebb and flow of innuendo and rumors, and all the ladies are looking at me funny, and the ghosts have begun to gossip around the circular table that the redheaded widows have abandoned. They suck their celery sticks in a different corner, marinated by Bloody Mary's.

There is an empty chair at the table where Marcy eats. The ladies are laughing and treat me as if nothing has happened, as if another corpse is not about to metathesis into their cucumber crab salads and grilled swordfish. The ladies who compete in the annual miniature golf tournaments seem especially glowing without Marcy, as if hoping to get their names etched into one of those silver plaques in the mailroom that are polluted with victories by Marcy Jenkins.

During my morning shift, I watch as they lift the pin from the hole and laugh. The flag blows in the desert breeze. The men seem to be more distant, already haunting the bar aboard their motorized scooters or swimming laps in the indoor pool across the hall from the exercise room. There are couples who have chosen this place to die, to make love amid the antiques that their families will argue over for decades. Others have been forced to find new life amid these Persian-carpeted premises of unshaved armpits adorned with snow-white hairs. There is no winter, only the purple and pink of sunsets peeling from the sky.

After a few dances and heart attacks, I ask about Marcy. Her table has already filled her cushy seat and they seem surprised, almost taken aback by my morbid curiosity. They tell me that she has been dead for weeks. Peggy Wilson scowls and drops a napkin stained with jerk chicken on the carpet. There is a chunk of celery protruding from her teeth as she shakes her head and spits it into her bread plate. Connie Gertrude Brockton says I served their table during a party that celebrated Marcy's life. They tell me I delivered a speech between dances. These ladies have lost it. Their brains have turned to garbage by seeing so many deaths, so many wrinkled corpses tossed like toilet paper into the abyss of eviction only to have those apartments reoccupied within the week.

I stay strong and knock on Marcy's after dinner. There has been a new doorbell installed and the mahogany table where the delivery boy lays The New York Times in the morning has vanished. The tulips that were taped to the eyehole, the ones that wilted over the weeks of Marcy's struggles in the hospital, they have been removed and replaced with acorns. What sick sadistic squirrel lover has taken poor Marcy hostage?

The door is ajar, and jazz music seeps out into the hall with the aroma of asparagus, burnt mozzarella, and onion soup on the stove like a wet fart from a nursing home doctor. I creep along the carpet, and the branches outside have grown thicker and less light filters into the room. The walls are painted different and the furniture has been changed.

Somebody is whistling.

The woman in the kitchen is not Marcy. The table is set with a half-empty bottle of Heinz ketchup and mustard. She turns off the stove and, with the help of her walker, shuffles into Marcy's bedroom and disappears into the John. I marry the condiments while she breaks wind. The mozzarella is melted black and crusty over the soup.

I take a seat and wait. She returns to the kitchen without looking in my direction. She sprinkles some fresh-grated parmesan on the asparagus with wrinkled fingers. She breaks a plate when she sees me, spilling Caesar salad on the marble floor. She laughs, asks me who sent me and what apartment I live in. I tell her I work in the kitchen and used to be a server in the dining room. She giggles so loud the silver picture frames rattle.

I help her pick up the pieces, my back aching as it never has. My hands are shaking and my strength is gone. I feel crippled and almost collapse as she assists me toward the table. My hands are liver-spotted and the curled hairs on my knuckles and wrists are long and white. Marcy is whispering in my ear as she blows on my soup and holds my veins as if keeping the blood from gushing. There is a moment when I remember floating, being taken away from this life, into another, the boundaries soaked by the sweat of an old storm returning to a familiar ocean.

BIO: Like nomadic Pericu natives before him, Matthew Dexter survives on a hunter-gatherer subsistence diet of shrimp tacos, smoked marlin, cold beer, and warm sunshine. He lives in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.