He knew about the affair as soon as she began serving him steak. There could be no other explanation. She’d always been a Mac ‘n Cheese kind of girl, Hamburger Helper if you were lucky. She wasn’t any kind of cook. He knew that when he married her. He married her because she was pregnant. He knew his life was a cliché. He’d accepted that.
That was 15 years ago and Sammy Jo was in high school now, giving him a heart attack every time she left the house. He said everything he’d been supposed to say, made jokes about curfews and guns, laughed nervously despite himself. Truth was, he’d never really learned to shoot a gun. Truth was he couldn’t remember where he’d hidden the box of ammunition. It had been years. He feared ever having to use a gun. He thinks he probably hid it somewhere he’d forget on purpose.
She’d put a big fat steak on the table. He couldn’t believe it. There was no way to make sense of a steak like that. It was enormous, bloody, seething with fat around the edges. It bled onto the plate. Parts of it were charred from the pan. What’s the occasion? he’d said, because he couldn’t think of anything else to say. Nothin’, she’d replied. It was going cheap.
He knew that couldn’t possibly be true. This was a woman whose dedication to cheap carbohydrates meant that there were always more buns than hotdogs because “you can always eat ‘em with ketchup.” She was the kind of woman who ate hot dog buns with ketchup. Not the kind who’d cook a steak. He felt a bit ill and sat down.
The next week she did it again. Sammy Jo had gone out on a date and he’d come home to the smell of meaty grease. She’d showered, he could smell the shampoo. There was a bottle of red wine on the table. He had no idea what to make of that. He can’t remember the last time he drank wine. Possibly never. For a few uncomfortable minutes he felt himself sweat wondering how you got into a bottle of wine. All he had was a bottle opener on his key ring, like any other man. Then he realized it was a screw top. Pour yourself a glass, she called from the kitchen.
Afterwards, he asked her why again, and she used her kitten voice to tell him it was because he deserved it. He wondered what, exactly, he deserved. A nice steak, she said. Men like steak. He wasn’t so sure. In fact, he had become convinced that men did not like steak; that it was some kind of conspiracy on the part of women who couldn’t cook to hide something. Like ammunition. As far as he could recall, he’d never particularly expressed a desire for steak, knowing, as he did, that it wasn’t cheap and that she couldn’t cook. Suddenly, he hated steak. He entertained the thought of becoming a vegetarian.
She’d tried to go down on him. That was when he was sure about the other man. He’d let her, kept his eyes closed, and couldn’t come. She’d rolled over, and he’d said it’s not your fault.
That night, he sat up listening for Sammy Jo to come home. Eleven, twelve, one, one-thirty. One thirty-four. Tires crunching. Another 15 minutes at the door. He wanted to surprise her with the gun, but it occurred to him that her boyfriend might be bigger than him, and have a bigger gun. A loaded one. He meant to get up and let her know he’d been waiting up, give her a piece of his mind about the curfew, but when she slipped in and stepped silently up the stairs, he held his breath.
He was a man sitting alone in the dark with blue balls and a cheating wife who couldn’t cook, a daughter who smelled like cigarettes, an empty gun in his lap and a belly full of steak. When he finally breathed, it sounded like a cry escaping around the lump big as a bottle in his throat. He swallowed it back down.
He remembered where he’d put the ammunition. He suddenly remembered, clear as broken glass.
Great Dinners from LIFE, Eleanor Graves, 1969
Also from this book: Fish Fly
Also from this book: Fish Fly