Dinnertime Noir

A short story of a man who's got nothing left to lose but control of mealtime.

It’s tense in here. Tense as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. Tense as my belt after ten rounds with Thanksgiving dinner. Tense as the strings in a Morricone score right before two folks are thinkin’ ‘bout takin’ each other’s heads off. 

There’s some anxiety goin’ on, is what I’m tryin’ to say.

Sure, on the surface, things look calm. Joe or Jane Q. Public walkin’ in off the street might think nothing’s amiss when they stroll in the door. Pretty soon, though, they’d sense it, just like you and I already do. Even if they don’t know quite what it is, they’ll know something’s wrong. There’s a tension in the air, a tension so thick you could slice it up and sell it as memory foam pillows to slack-jawed rubes watchin’ on the idiot box.

A war is underway, you see, and its outcome ain’t yet clear. It’s a long war, and the guns might be silent right now, but that’s just an illusion. It’s always an illusion, peace. This fragile détente could shatter any second, like a Precious Moments figurine thrown in the bottom of a dumpster: a memory no one wanted to keep and now nobody could even try to put back together. Upend the whole order of things, and send Mr. or Ms. Public runnin’ for the street again. It’s not for the faint of heart.

Me? I’m not going anywhere. Because this is my war, and I ain’t surrendered yet.

I see ‘em across the battlefield, and lock eyes. I’m tryin’ to read them just as they’re trying to read me. What’s their next move? Do they go straight for the kill, or is it a longer play, the kind where you need two intermissions for bathroom breaks and you wish you’d just gone to the movies instead? I’m don’t know if they’re a madman or just a cunning gamester who’d like me to think them a madman, and maybe that means I’m the crazy one. I feel a bead of sweat form on my forehead. I hope they don’t notice, or if they do they think it’s the heat of the room and not the heat I’m feeling in my seat, knowing how crummy the cards I’m about to go all-in on are.

I hold the stare. The only thing I’ve got right now is to pretend I think everything’s just fine even when I know it ain’t.

I could move first, try to outflank them. Who dares wins, they used to say, and I haven’t had a win since back when they used to say that. The best defense is a good offense, and all that. You know George Washington’s supposed to have been the one that came up with that sayin’? I would’ve figured it was motivational mumbo-jumbo from some pigskin professor or hardwood hack, but it goes all the way back to the mug who couldn’t tell a lie. Unless that was a lie, too, and then I got a whole lot more questions I don’t want answers to.

I’m losing my train of thought.

They can feel it. They’re moving in. I’m in Dutch, and that means trouble.

Daddy, what’s for dinner tonight? I’m hungry.

I don’t know yet, honey, go back and watch your show.

I know damn well what it is, but I can’t play that card yet. It’ll give my whole game away, and right now my game’s about as good as a game of Mousetrap that’s missing three parts at a garage sale. It just doesn’t work, and ain’t nobody buyin’ it. I gotta sit by this card table all afternoon and pretend it’s worth both our time, though.

When I holed up in this joint, I told myself things were gonna be different, you see? Clean living and doin’ the right thing. No more of that business I used to get into, buyin’ pizza pies from fellas named Dom and Papa, or a box full of garbage from a clown promisin’ me there’s happiness inside. We were gonna eat good things, healthy things. Organic, they call it, but I ain’t never needed fancy words for simple things. I just wanted to do good by these kids. But idealism’s a fool’s errand ‘round these parts, and I might be a fool, but I hate running errands. No, these young ones, they’ll run your behind six ways to Sunday if you try to pass off a leafy green for a Lunchable.

It’s a cruel business, and business is boomin’. 

Can I have a snack??

No, sweetie. Dinner’s in fifteen minutes.

What are we having?

Daddy’s still figuring it out. I’ll let you know.

We both know that’s a lie, and they can smell it just like the broccoli that’s already in the oven. It smells a little bit like a fart, and they’re gonna know exactly who dealt it. Sometimes you ain’t got the fight in you. You just give ‘em what they want. But a man can’t serve macaroni six nights a week and look himself in the mirror knowing what he’s done. The blue box blues, they call it, the feeling of knowin’ you’ve been bested by a bag of dried orange powder. Once I tried to meet ‘em halfway, figure I’d make it from scratch. Scratch. That’s what they call it when a horse is out of the race before it even starts, and that night I was on my way to the glue factory before the buglers even got their horns up. Never again. Leave the craft to Kraft, I learned the hard way.

Tonight it’s gonna be different, though. Tonight I’m not gonna let ‘em walk over me, no. I’m gonna hold my ground even if it ends up with me holdin’ up six feet of ground. There ain’t gonna be no deals tonight, no pizza promises or dessert deals. These toughs can raise hell and holler for momma, but momma’s seen me go up this hill and she knows ain’t I got plans on comin’ back down. 

Alright, guys, pause your show! Dinner’s ready!

Yay, dinner time! Dinner time! WHAT ARE WE HAVING?

I think you’re gonna like it! It’s full of yummy stuff that’ll help you grow big and strong.

There’s nothin’ new in this kitchen or under the sun, except how I’m deciding to go out tonight. Better to die on my feet than live on mac and cheese.

[sniff] I’m not hungry.

They always get you with that one, and you never see it comin’.

Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)