Lean In

by Carrie Cook

march 2016 story of the month

Mr. Oliver has a toothache. "It's a good one," he says. He does not actually mean good. Or maybe he does. Maybe he likes having a toothache. He certainly likes to tell me about it.

"Mmmm," I say. Noncommittal. If I say nothing, he'll describe its length and breadth. If I say I'm sorry he has a toothache, he will tell me about the time he went in for a filling and the dentist, a real Steve Martin type, cracked his tooth. And then he will tell me he didn't need to get that tooth filled in the first place, and dentists are all crooks. That's the problem with Mr. Oliver. You're always riding that line between too much attention and not enough. And I have eight other seniors on my MealWagon route, and it's already half past eleven.

"I got meatloaf with gravy today," I tell him. "Mashed red potatoes with little bits of skin still in it."

"Put it in the fridge," he says, mournfully. Mashed red potatoes with little bits of skin are his favorite. "My tooth," he says. "I lost a filling."

I feel the ache in my own jaw: right lower molar. I do not have time for a toothache. Two months ago Mr. Oliver told me about his late wife's chemotherapy and I puked for three days straight—Evie had to take me to the hospital for an IV. Even lost some hair. Doctor asked me what drugs I was on. When I said I wasn't on any, he told me to stop accepting drinks from strangers. A week later I got an invoice for fourteen hundred dollars, which I put through the shredder.

"Uh," says Mr. Oliver.

I press my fingers against my cheek, palm over my mouth. MealWagon frowns on us shushing the seniors. They're lonely, Marty says, so you should listen to them. But not too much. We're trying to optimize a business here.

You might say the MealWagon gig isn't for me. You'd be right. But I had to do something—unemployment isn't near enough. Rent needs paying, Evie needs tuition money, Liam needs booster shots, and Marty pays under the table.

I slide Mr. Oliver's lunch into the refrigerator, where the last three lunches sit untouched. The scent of three-day-old liver-and-onion leaks through its Saran Wrap cocoon. I clear my throat, huh-huhh. Liver and onions is Marty's idea. He thinks it's nostalgic. I think it's cheap.

Mr. Oliver says, "Will you hand me the aspirin?"

"At least you still have your teeth," I say, plucking the bottle off the shelf. I hand it to him; his papery hands brush mine. "Mr. Gibbons has to gum everything."

"I don't want them anymore," Mr. Oliver says. "Well, I don't want this one. This darn toothache—"

My tooth flares, hot and sharp. I can feel my pulse in it.

"I have to go," I say.

Mr. Oliver looks back and forth, me-front-door-me-again, like he doesn't quite understand the logistical possibilities of my leaving. Like he wants something more from me. He says, "Will you get me a glass of water?"


I pull a glass out of the dishrack—it's pebbly and greenish and says Coca-Cola on the side in fading letters—and fill it up with lukewarm water from the tap.

"Here you go." I set the glass on the table, by his hand. "Anything else?"

The aspirin bottle skitters out of Mr. Oliver's hands and sprays sugar-coated pills all over the table. A few tumble to the floor, dancing and spinning. I herd them into a small pile.

"Maybe you should just leave them out, Mr. Oliver. You might need them."

He nods and places two in his mouth. His hands are shaking more than usual, so I get a straw from the pantry and put it in his glass.

"MealWagon is here to help," I say.

The toothache fades the further I get from his house.

Marty wants to talk to me when I get back to the office. He says, "Come sit and chat." He always says chat, like it's something innocuous, like he doesn't spend the entire "chat" looming over you, while you nod and your eyes wander over the stacks of paper on his desk: invoices, advertisements, neon post-its with reminders written on them (Consult @ 4, TODAY I will CHALLENGE myself!!, New Menu Options).

The last time I chatted with Marty, he wrote me up for being late with Mr. Slipliki's meal. I couldn't argue with him there; I was late. Mrs. D'Angelo wanted to tell me about her knee surgery, which made it hard to drive. Of course, it wasn't like I could just tell Marty that either. I'd say, well, Marty, I have this thing where I literally feel people's pain. What do you say to that? And he'd say, you're not one of those SRS people, are you? Those people are nutzo.

Sympathetic Reaction Syndrome: most unprovable disease since Fibromyalgia. I'm sure you think that sounds unbelievable, too, that it's all in my head. And maybe you're right. But then again, you cringe and cross your legs when I tell you about my third-grade friend Angelo who peeled his dick like a banana falling off a chain link fence. And don't forget people who get swollen feet when their wives are pregnant. Evie's pregnancy was my nightmare; SRS started when she started puking. Eventually Evie's ailments stopped. Mine didn't.

I wonder who called this time. Probably Mrs. Gonnitt. She spends eighty percent of her life complaining to supervisors.

Marty says, "Jane is no longer with us."

"She died?" I ask.

Marty squints at me. "No," he says, "she's no longer with MealWagon."

This is just how Marty talks, like he doesn't have a grasp on idioms.

"Okay," I say.

"So I need a Team Player to take over the Office Manager Situation," he says.

Marty also talks in capital letters.

"Okay," I say. "Jane was full-time."

"I can't give you full time, but I can double your hours."

"What about a raise?"

"I just doubled your hours," he says. "Isn't that a raise?"

I imagine Marty tied to a spit with an apple crammed in his mouth, blistering and oozing, and my own skin feels tight and hot. My pores open, sprouting sweat.

Marty says, "What do you think, Liz? Are you a Team Player? Can I count on you?"

Never mind that before the recession (which Marty prefers to call the Great Reorganization) I made fifty grand a year, just enough for Evie to take a chance on me and quit her job at Head Start so she could stay home with Liam. Never mind that with that job came health insurance that actually recognized me and Evie as married, and covered her IVF (recognizing SRS was just a step too far though). Never mind that at my last job I was able to save seven grand in an emergency account (gone now). Never mind that Evie keeps telling me that we need to cut our losses and move in with her mother, a woman who once told me I should "never breed." Never mind that I've sent out one-hundred-fifty-six resumes (according to my spreadsheet), which netted three interviews, which all ended with the phrase "we'll be in touch," including one at Smelton Industries, which, to be honest, I thought I was overqualified for. So I suppose that makes me a Team Player (thanks, Great Reorganization!) for six dollars an hour, for six hours a day, for thirty-six hours a week. For Evie. For Liam.

"Okay," I say.

"You know QuickBooks, right?" Marty says.

"Yeah," I say.

Of course I know QuickBooks. I also know Oracle and Microsoft Dynamics, not that Marty gives a shit. He's too busy trying to Optimize MealWagon into the Premier SLDS (Senior Lunch Delivery Service) of the Future while also not paying his Taxes. It occurs to me that Jane probably didn't quit, that there's probably an IRS audit in his future. I'm already regretting this new position; after all, even rats know when to abandon a sinking ship.

"Alright," Marty says. "I need you to go over Jane's work in Accounts Payable and print out the check run. Have them on my desk by four-thirty, and you can get them posted tomorrow."

Marty hands me the passwords, written on a lime green Post-it note.

"Let's get to it," he says.

I get to it. I scroll through the payments that Jane set up: vehicle insurance, MealWagon truck payments, electrical, water, the landline, the billboard, food vendors, Staples, the business credit card, a mortgage (Marty's), a car payment (Marty's), a cell phone (Marty's). Marty, Marty, Marty. I check Accounts Receivable; MealWagon appears to charge Medicare ten-seventy-five a day for our one shitty meal. It occurs to me the IRS is not the only government entity that might be interested in Marty.

I add a check for $214.82, make it out to Evie, and write truck maintenance in the memo line. When I hand the checks to Marty, he signs them without even looking.

I should've written it for a thousand.

When I get home, Evie says, "Seniors keeping you late again?" She says it to Liam, in her high-pitched baby voice. She says everything to Liam lately. Liam, for his part, doesn't seem to mind this dynamic—he sits on Evie's hip in one of those expensive baby slings (thanks, Evie's mom!), his chin shiny with drool, gurgling with every comment.

"I know I should've called," I say, "but I would've gotten a lecture for inappropriate phone usage." Marty pays us to Optimize Our Time (which is really his time), not run our errands. "I got promoted. Sort of."

"Promoted to what?"

I can't blame her for the skepticism. It's not like MealWagon is a hotbed of upward mobility.

"I'm the new accountant. Jane quit."

"Did the nimrod give you a raise?" Evie coos, looking at Liam. "Nimrod," she repeats, and Liam laughs, testing out his new skill.

"He gave me a bonus," I say, but I'm shit liar and I can hear the pitch of my voice rise.

Evie gives me the look. The one where she arches her eyebrows and angles her head just slightly, the one that says she's not buying what I'm selling. At least she's looking at me now, which may or may not be an improvement.

"Fine," I say. "He gave me a bonus, but he doesn't know it." I pull the check out of my bag and show her.

"That's my name," she says.

"Well, I couldn't make it out to me."

Evie sits on the couch, Liam in her lap. He sits there like a shield, like the culmination of everything wrong with our marriage, plop, right there, personified. Evie wanted kids. I wanted Evie to be happy. And now, none of us were. Liam hiccups, and he wails, and his pain stabs me right in the gums. I rub my face and go to the freezer for one of his teething toys.

Evie smooths his hair, kisses the top of his head, and I want to curl myself under her hand.

"This isn't how I thought this would go, you know."

"Oh? So what did you think would happen when you came home with a stolen check in my name?"

Some teething medicine. One of those play tents for Liam that Evie looks at every time we're in Target, the kind that's supposed to stimulate his mind. Dinner. Maybe not at some fancy place, but it's steak-and-shrimp night at The Spot—we can split the 12 ounce. A movie from Redbox. Maybe Lilo and Stitch again. Evie's head in my lap, me fingering her curls as she falls asleep, like it was Before: before Liam, before SRS, before Marty and the Great Reorganization.

"Never mind."

"Liz, we can move in with my mom."

Not this again. I hand the toy, a plastic, gel-filled donut, to Liam, and he double-fists it into his mouth.

"I don't want to move in with your mom," I say. Because what does moving in with parents mean when you're thirty? It means you've given up. Rolled over. Lost. It means you're a failure. "Besides, we can still make it. I had that interview with Smelton last week. I'm a shoe in. If I get the job—"

"If you get the job. If. What if you don't? I'm tired, Liz. I haven't been out of the house in a week because we can't afford the gas. Not to mention—I haven't been able to talk to you about anything for months. Ever since this," she gyrates her hands at me, like she's reaching for something solid just beyond her grasp, "syndrome, everything I say is wrong. I feel like I'm walking on eggshells all the time. Everything sets it off. You can't even help with Liam, because his crying sets it off, too."

This is, of course, all true. When I first figured I had SRS, she took to talking to me in one word sentences. How are you? Fine. What did you do today? Clean. Study. Diapers. What do you want to do? Sleep. She didn't even tell me when she went into labor. She called her mother instead.

"And now, you're stealing money in my name, and you somehow think that's a better solution than moving in with my mother. We have people, Liz. We have people who will help us."

"That help always comes with a string," I say.

"So what?" she hisses. "Everything comes with a string. You come with a string. You come with an unbelievable number of strings."

"That's not fair, Evie. I didn't ask for this shit."

"Then say you'll come with me. Say you'll live with me at Mom's."

"We don't need her help."

"I do. I can't do this on my own anymore. I need someone to be my partner." Evie walks into the bedroom and rolls out a suitcase. It's already packed, and I realize—it's Evie that has people, not me.

When was she planning on telling me?

"And here I thought that feeling other people's pain would've made you more empathetic, not less," she says. Liam clutches her with fat baby fingers. "We'll be at my Mom's."

And then she walks out the door. Suddenly it's quiet in the house, the kind of smothering silence that would be comforting on any other day.

I wish I could tell you that I did something right then: cut up Evie's favorite hippie dress, shattered her collection of ceramic goats on the floor, ate her last frozen Crunch bar. But I didn't. I don't. I leave it just as it is, in case Evie and Liam come back, in case I have people.

But I know I don't.

I tear the check into smaller and smaller bits and flush them into the garbage disposal.

Even rats know when to abandon a sinking ship.

I get into the car and drive to Mr. Oliver's house. It's the same as it ever is: a small house, a brick house with a picture window and shutters and no garage. I park on the street, same as I always do. I knock on the door and say, "MealWagon."

Mr. Oliver answers the door. He croaks, "Liz."

And I see his face is pale, tinged green, and he's still shaking. His eyes are liquid.

"What—what are you—"

"Come on, Mr. Oliver. I'm taking you to the dentist."

I guide him to my car and settle him in the passenger seat.

"My tooth," he says, and the magnitude of his toothache punches me in the jaw. I can't breathe. I can't believe Evie's gone. The hair in my ears stands on end, my eyes begin to water.

I swallow my nausea. I get into the car and start it.

I say, "MealWagon is here to help."

BIO: Carrie Cook retired from the military in 2008 and began studying creative writing at Kansas State University shortly thereafter, with a slight detour for a degree in fashion design. Originally from California, she currently enjoys mountain living with her husband and three dogs. Her work has appeared or is upcoming in The Columbia Review, Menacing Hedge, Midwestern Gothic, and Touchstone.