jennifer sears

 

A SLIGHT CHANGE IN TUESDAY

 

 

I don’t know how the tradition started, but that whole year Fred and I never cooked dinner on Tuesdays. Word must have gone around that we treated our bach- elors well because there was never any difficulty securing one. One year, fifty-two Tuesdays, fifty-two men we convinced to cook dinner for us.

When it was Fred’s Tuesday to come up with a guy, he usually scouted out soured divorcees, those born-again bachelors easily found near running tracks and squash courts. I preferred to peruse new faces at the bar next to the lingerie shop I manage on the south side of our prissy New England town. Dart throwers made the best cooks. They knew how to concentrate.

Regardless, all of the men had their own “specialty.” Fred and I often laughed over the “specialty” phenomenon after the bachelor of the week was on his way home with a smile on his face, a little bag of leftovers in hand. It is, of course, common lore that most men know how to cook two, perhaps three, different dishes. So they pick one and call it their “specialty.” A specialty sounds better then admitting they can’t make anything else.

“Jealous,” Fred always said when I tsked-tsked on the matter. “Because you can’t cook anything.” And then he would launch into his spiel about how he had not one but two specialties—shepherd’s pie and Jagannath Puri channe ki dal. He also liked to say that because he had two dishes and I didn’t have any, he was twice the cook I was. Fred likes to believe numbers can prove anything.

Anyway, guys and their specialties: Charles from Chattanooga—chicken chat with chutney. Sol from San Diego, “the Red Odyssey,” a seven course adventure comprised entirely of red foods. Lichen, giggly and waiflike, tried to tease us with “spore fruit.” “A pear, if you will,” he whispered, lifting an invisible object from an imaginary bowl, fingers fluttering as he wiped “spore” juice from his chin. Roch, an optometry student from Quebec, served up a savory tuber stew. “Nothing in there that doesn’t grow underground,” he said, giving the long silver ladle a flick.

Some of them got a little showy.

I believe it was Fred who went out and bought the white chef’s hat and cor- responding full-length apron. We never required our Tuesday night chefs to wear them. We simply hung the hat and the apron from an obvious peg in the kitchen. After all of the fawning and cooing we made over each one, it amused us to see how quickly those whites went on.

Then we’d fix his favorite drink, and several of ours, and let our bachelor serve us his specialty. Everyone had a great dinner—everyone had a great time—that was the single requirement and until Drexler, Tuesdays went by without a hitch.

Drexler distinguished himself immediately when he rang the bell at five o’clock, hours earlier than any of our other Tuesday night chefs. Recuperating from a wretched day at the store (an incompetent glass professional—”glazier” he insisted on my saying—had botched a perfectly straightforward job of dressing room mirror tilting), I opened the door trying to decide if it would be less both- ersome to send the overeager chef away for a couple of hours or let him in and ignore him. Before I could speak, Drexler thrust two brown paper bags inside the door and hurried back towards his VW Bug.

“One more thing!” he called over his shoulder.

I scanned our prim cul-de-sac. No one was watching for once.

Drexler returned with an elaborate soup tureen. “I’m Drexler,” he said. “And this is my tureen.”

“Susan,” I said.

“Gypsies.” Drexler nodded toward the enameled figures on the tureen as if I’d inquired. “You know, people without homes. Kitchen?”

He put one foot into our hall and stepped inside, forcing me to back away as I stared at the tureen. The gypsies played guitars and flutes while children danced on the grass. There were animals, little goats and sheep, and a man clasping a wild-haired woman who reached for the lacquered green outskirts of a forest.

Pleased with my reaction, Drexler tucked the tureen under his arm and walked kitchenwise by instinct, grabbing a paper bag on the way.

“Excuse me,” I said, picking up the other bag as I followed him. “How do you know Fred?” But Drexler didn’t answer.

In the kitchen, Drexler lined up vials of spices and bundles of fresh herbs in a fussy order on the counter. With great ceremony, he pulled out a dark brown bottle with a French label. “Vanilla,” he mouthed, running his finger across the red lettering. Then he began a brief inventory of our set-up, opening drawers and cup- boards, shaking his head.

“Am I glad I came prepared,” he said.

I was used to casual arrogance from the other Tuesday night chefs. Drexler’s sneering disgust offended me. “Make yourself at home,” I said in a tone I hoped sounded brittle.

Drexler held up our chef’s hat with two fingers, inspecting it with obvious distaste before he stuffed it into a drawer and pulled out his own. He posed in affected profile. The new hat added a foot of vertical starched pleats to the top of his head. “Adds a little stature, don’t you agree?”

I dumbly nodded. Then he tied our full-length apron around his neck and waist. “Sloppy, sloppy,” he remarked, smoothing the unironed cotton with both hands. “And a bit conservative for my taste, Susan,” he added. “If you want the truth.”

“All I want is a drink,” I said.

“I’ll be having Tanqueray then,” Drexler said. “With just a spit of tonic. That’s part of the deal, isn’t it? I do dinner, you two do the drinks?”

“Sure,” I said. “Part of the deal.” I walked into the next room and down our stone staircase to our defunct wood-burning stove which serves as a liquor cabi- net. After I cut up a lime, I poured two stiff drinks, desperately trying to will Fred home in my mind.

In any story of our lives the house must be described, although until one sees it, our home is never one to be believed. Built into a natural hill, it’s a split-level affair designed for solar heating by our high principled predecessors—Fred’s architect colleagues—whose holistic pyramid scheme (powdered bluegreen algae) brought in the means to abandon this “dream home” and our teary New England for a sunnier coast.

The wing housing our bedrooms and bathrooms is tastefully spare; it’s the living area that sets our quarters apart. A stone ledge, level with the kitchen and the rest of the house, serves as an open dining loft perched dramatically over a steep drop from which our living room can be viewed below. In the center of that ledge, a freestanding doorframe—”The Portal!” Fred’s colleagues exclaimed— marks the top of a staircase cut into the stone that descends via one sharp switch- back to the clay tile floor.

Notable amenities acquired with the house include the wood-burning stove, cold in our custody, a pullout fire-walking platform, two cascading fountains, and, high on the wall, an enormous peacock fan that once graced the head of a Las Vegas showgirl, a former love partner of both previous inhabitants. Her sudden death, it was explained, marked the end of the third level of their spiritual evolu- tion. For this reason, the feathers had to be “shed” in order to facilitate their pro- gression into the fourth. I can’t recall the crack Fred made in response to this tale; all I know is that it nearly cost us our home.

The room’s subtle masterpiece, however, is the floor-to-ceiling window that overlooks the Meadows, the grassy nature preserve that surrounds our cul-de-sac. At night, the dark window reflects the stone ledge, creating a valley effect.

“We’ve hit the Bottoms, babe,” Fred laughed the night we found ourselves dwarfed by the architectural effect for the first time. To my chagrin, “The Bottoms” it’s been.

 

By the time Fred arrived that evening, I’d changed into a silk kimono and pants and was sitting on the couch thumbing through the daily edition of a competitor’s mail-order lingerie catalog. A second iced drink tinkled in my hand.

“Smells great,” Fred said, as he rounded our highest switchback. I’d turned on the fountains higher than usual to mute the sounds of Drexler’s enthusiasm in the kitchen above us.

Fred kissed my cheek when he reached me. “Who is it?”

“Very funny,” I said.

Upstairs, Drexler broke into an accomplished tenor once again.

“Goat Song,” I explained, pressing the cold glass to my forehead. “His favorite musical.” Fred sat on the couch, laughing. I tried to laugh with him. “Fred, stop it. I mean it. Where did you find this one?”

Drexler appeared beneath the Portal, grinning beneath his ridiculous hat. “Hello, Fred,” he said. “I thought I heard you come in. I can’t seem to find the fresh cilantro.”

If there is fresh cilantro in Shepherd’s Pie or Jagannath Puri channe ki dal, Fred drew a blank.

“Cilantro,” Drexler said again, exaggerating the pronunciation. He took a step down. “It’s a basic ingredient. That’s why I didn’t bring any. I figured, what decent household doesn’t keep fresh cilantro?”

As he stood beneath the Portal, I couldn’t help noticing Drexler had taken off his shirt in the kitchen. Long-limbed, a bit on the tallish side, dark hair cropped close to the skull—you wouldn’t blame either of us for inviting him. He wore that tasteful though tired little shave popular among our men that winter, a verti- cal strip of hair farmed just below the lower lip.

“Just let it go,” Fred was advising Drexler. His voice had hit that nasal tone that on occasion means trouble. “What difference will a few leaves make?”

Drexler pursed his lips and turned sharply for the kitchen.

“Is this guy for real or what?” Fred said when he’d gone.

I admit I enjoyed watching Drexler get under his skin. I walked over to the stove and fixed two drinks. “Happy Tuesday,” I said, handing him a glass.

Fred was staring at his reflection in the window. He loosened his tie and ran his hand through his hair before he reached for his glass. “I’ve had some kind of a day,” he said, which always signals complications on the high profile project he’s working on, some dramatic something or other materializing in the center of town.

“It’s nothing, hon,” I said, but he kept staring.

In truth, Fred and I have always found the window a bit unnerving—that life- sized reflection of our humdrum life unfolding in our not-so-humdrum home. I even find the thick glass dangerous. I swear a magnified sunray will ignite this abandoned husk of a dream house one day, scorch a wobbly message down our wooden coffee table like those art projects made at summer camp.

“What would the sun write if you gave it a pen?” a playful and dreamy young bachelor once mused after I detailed this fear.

We expelled that young bachelor immediately.

 

Back up on the higher level, Fred and I covered the dining table with our best gold tablecloth. Fred picked at a wax stain with his thumbnail while I tended to my favorite candleholder, a papier-mâché shepherdess salvaged from a garage sale. Most of her detail had worn off, leaving a pinkish mouth and one hand clutching a goose by its neck.

“She’s got no eyes,” Fred said irritably. He never liked the thing.

“They wore off,” I reminded him. I raised the girl to the light and blew a layer of dust from her face.

“She never had eyes,” he said.

We stared at each other across the table. I could feel us beginning one of our senseless fights about nothing. In the kitchen, Drexler hummed a song from “No, No, Nanette.” “We’ll need plates,” I said, finally giving up the issue, which I knew really wasn’t one.

Fred set the plates down while I surveyed the table. Though we’d gone to thrift stores and mixed and matched plates to create our own eclectic dish set, I had to admit that the blue and red tapers in the shepherdess holder, and the mish- mash array of plates made a statement more tasteless then “kitsch.” But what did it matter, I rationalized that night and still consider now, what Drexler thought of us? We’re homeowners. We keep up our lawn. We support local artists and fruit orchards. We recycle. Each fall we purchase twenty crocks filled with spreadable cheese to help the local high school marching band stomp its way to oblivion in knee-high white boots, dancing flag corps included. Dutifully, we camouflage our days away as inspired young professionals pursuing young dreams and, despite the window situation, manage to conceal enough of our personal lives to be passed over as respectable folk to the other suburban clans who share our snug cul-de- sac.

“Appetizers in three minutes,” Drexler called out from our kitchen.

It was pathetic, my obsessing about what he thought of us.

“Fred?” I asked, as I laid the last piece of silverware. “Where did you meet Drexler?”

“Very funny, Susan,” he said.

Drexler appeared holding a platter. This time I was certain Fred noticed Drexler’s bare back because Drexler had removed his pants as well.

“The appetizers,” Drexler said, pulling out a chair. “I hope you don’t mind,” he paused for a moment. “But I don’t have actual names for any of my dishes. I’m always worried a label will lock me into a recipe, and then what do you think would happen to my creativity, Fred?” Drexler leaned back and crossed his legs

wide. “Out the window.”

 

“Wouldn’t want to put a crimp in those creative powers, Drexler,” Fred said loudly. “Get you a drink?” He stood and went for the stairs, abandoning me with Drexler.

“None for me,” Drexler said. “Susan fixed one for me earlier.” He speared a strange fritter on its bed of parsley. “I don’t like to drink too much. Dulls the senses.” Lifting the fork to his mouth, he added, “I don’t like to forget anything.”

“I’ll bet not,” Fred called up from below.

I went numb. There was no way this was someone we knew. Dreams, disap- pointments, responsibilities—our people want to forget everything.

“Please,” Drexler said, pushing the platter toward me. “Try one.”

Just another bachelor, I assured myself. Just another Tuesday. Drexler watched with anticipation as I sliced a knife through the crisp skin. The morsel burned my tongue with a spice I’d never tasted before. I grabbed my water glass.

“Okay there, hon?” Fred asked without a lick of compassion as he emerged from the Bottoms.

“Tell me, Susan,” Drexler begged. “What do you think? Be honest.”

I shook my head. “I don’t know what to say.”

Drexler seemed satisfied. He picked up my plate and then his. “Fred, you won’t even try one?” he asked.

Fred stared at me as I sniffed from the spice.

“I guess some of us just aren’t risk takers,” Drexler announced as he turned for the kitchen. “Next course, soup!”

“The joke is over, Susan,” Fred said. He handed me a paper napkin stamped with two grinning bunnies leftover from a recent bachelor’s Easter extravaganza. “Just tell him to quit,” Fred continued. “Now. Please.”

“Fred,” I whispered. “I don’t know him. I really don’t know him.”

Fred shook his head.

“It must be a joke,” I said. “Some bachelor told another bachelor.”

Drexler returned, carrying the tureen. “Please bear in mind that the soup’s not quite the same without fresh cilantro,” he said, glaring at Fred. “And in response to an earlier insult, I’ve composed a quick ditty.”

Drexler set the tureen on the table and stepped back to recite a snappy ode titled “The Leaf’s Complaint or The Difference a Few Leaves Make.” Fred and I watched dumbfounded as Drexler, bare beneath his apron, detailed the fate of a discouraged and undervalued bud who refuses to unfurl and organizes a strike throughout the leaf kingdom resulting in the sun melting the brains inside the for- merly indifferent humanfolk.

“All in twelve lines,” he boasted when finished.

To avoid his gaze, I stared at the tureen. Flames crept toward the gypsies despite their enameled postures of glee. Had the fire been there before? Of course it had. Hadn’t it? A ladle plunged into the tureen and startled me. Drexler poured soup into his bowl and lifted the spoon to his mouth. He sighed. Then he picked up the spoon beside my plate.

“Susan?” he asked. “Why don’t you try? I trust your opinion.”

“Do what you want,” I said. “I’ll try it when you think it’s ready.”

Drexler looked hurt. “Fine,” he said, picking up the tureen. The apron strings dangled against his bare skin as he turned for the kitchen.

“He’s naked,” I said.

“For God’s sake, Susan!” Fred said. “Don’t stare.”

“He’s got nothing on.”

“You really don’t know him, do you?” Fred was whispering, more to himself than to me. “We don’t know him.”

“He looks familiar,” I said. “That guy who works in the convenience store? Maybe we’re just used to seeing him in that orange cap.”

“The convenience store? Susan! Who the hell is in our kitchen?”

I gripped my drink and concentrated.

“It was your week,” Fred continued. “Wasn’t it? It was your week to find someone. I’m certain.”

“We should keep a little log,” I offered.

Fred nodded. “If we just knew whose week it was,” he said, “then you or I could remember who—”

“We should keep track of these things,” I said. In truth, we’d made mistakes in the past with disastrous results, Dueling Bachelors in the kitchen making caustic jokes among the cutlery. “A log,” I said again, although I was doubtful it would solve our current dilemma. “Goat Song” started up in the kitchen again.

“Fred?” I asked nervously. “Is something burning?”

“If I find out this Drexler business is one of your jokes . . .” Fred began.

“Something is burning,” I said again. I stood.

“I’m not going in there,” Fred said. “He was down to our apron and that damn hat—who knows which one he’s wearing now? I’m not going in there, Susan,” he said as he stood to block my way. “And you definitely aren’t, either.”

“We have to do something,” I said. “One of us has to.” The candles on the shep- herdess were melting. I couldn’t remember who had lit them or how long they’d been burning. “Someone’s playing a trick on us,” I said. “You or I told some bach- elor to come, and that bachelor sent someone else—”

“Think, Susan,” Fred said, cutting me off. “We’ve got to think this situation out. Logically.”

“There’s a naked man we don’t know,” I began. Fred nodded with encourage- ment. “Making dinner for us—in our kitchen.”

A crash sounded in the kitchen followed by nervous laughter and a fresh round of “Goat Song.”

“And,” I continued. “Something may or may not be burning.”

“Exactly,” Fred said before he dropped my wrist and went down the stairs. In the window, I watched him pull out two glasses the size of pitchers. He cracked out the ice along with the tonic and gin.

“To us,” Fred said when he returned.

“To Tuesdays,” I said.

Glasses in hand, we saluted our flickering reflection in the window and tipped our heads back, and by the time Drexler returned with a trio of Cornish hens stuffed with green olives and almonds, Fred and I were our warm and welcome selves again. We treated Drexler like any of our Tuesday night bachelors who hap- pened to be serving us in the buff.

“Mighty hot in that kitchen, Drex?” I remember Fred saying.

“Are we all having a good time?” Drexler replied in a singsong voice.

We laughed a lot from that course onward, drinks flowing. I conducted rounds of cheers and saludos and çerefes. Fred even took off his shirt to make Drexler feel more at home and attempted to teach him a medley of songs from West Side Story which Drexler kept turning into “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?” Mixed into the mood was a proper English trifle served with a tray of brightly colored marzipan representing a past season Nativity scene. Fred ate the Wise Men. I ate the star. Drexler polished off six bite-sized shepherds.

After dinner, we made our way down to the Bottoms and explained the rules of our Tuesday Night Charades: those guessing were only allowed to watch the actor’s reflection in the glass. But Drexler would only perform Dead Baby Jokes. It was fine enough in the first round when he rolled somersaults around the room and landed in a fetal position, naked as he was, on our cold tile floor.

“Dead Baby in the Dryer!” Fred finally called out, laughing as he fell onto the couch.

In the second round, Drexler stumped us by spinning and landing with limbs akimbo, tongue hanging out. We couldn’t guess. He spun again and landed in an equally contorted position. “Dead Baby in a Kaleidoscope,” Drexler said curtly after we gave up.

“Bravo!” Fred exclaimed, clapping enthusiastically.

Losers.

I swore I heard Drexler say the word under his breath.

Fred and I took our turns again. “No more Dead Baby Jokes,” I insisted, as Drexler prepared for his final round. He had requested a full-length mirror which Fred had hauled down from our bedroom. It sat against the stove, facing the win- dow.

“Dead Baby Jokes are jokes,” I explained. “Not Charades. There’s a difference. Fred—isn’t there a difference? Jokes aren’t Charades.”

“Charades are charades, Susan,” Fred said irritably. “Don’t get complicated.”

“Thank you, Fred,” Drexler said. “My feelings exactly.”

Drexler lay down on his back with his head close to the window. He arched his upper back, chest lifted, and pointed his chin toward the ceiling. In the win- dow, his image was reflected in the mirror which reflected his image in the win- dow—the replication continued. The longer we stared, the more grotesque his posture became as his spine relaxed into the pose. “Guess,” Drexler rasped impa- tiently as the pressure of the posture constricted his throat.

“Dead Baby in a Petri Dish,” I tried, going along with the game only because I wanted him to stop.

“Not bad,” Fred said to me, but Drexler didn’t move.

“Dead Baby Beneath a Microscope?” I tried again.

“Cold,” Drexler responded in that terrible voice.

I slammed my glass on the stove. The mirror rattled. “Stop it,” I said. “That’s not how the game goes!”

“Dead Baby in a Mad House?” Fred tried.

“Warm,” Drexler said. “You people will never get it until you watch from out- side.”

“Right,” Fred said reaching for my hand, still giddy and in the spirit of things. I resisted.

“Susan?” Drexler said. “Now is not the time to ruin everyone else’s fun.”

Fred pulled me up the stairs. As we crossed beneath the Portal, I looked back. Our reflection shimmered in the window, pale and ghostlike at the top of the ledge.

Drexler saw my hesitation. “Go,” he demanded from the Bottoms.

“Come on, Susan,” Fred said, pulling me toward the front door. The lock clicked behind us as we rushed onto the front step.

“This is a mistake,” I said. But Fred had already passed the garage and turned for the hill that slopes down to our backyard. “He could be anyone.”

“I have it,” Fred called out. “Dead Baby . . . Dead Baby . . . I think I know.”

I followed him. As we stood in our backyard, the living room shone before us. In the mirror, our shadowy forms hovered like two intruders staring into our own home. The peacock fan trembled against the wall, sensitive as always to invisible currents. Our personal remains—catalogs and magazines, a silk robe I’d cast off days ago, empty glasses and shakers—appeared dwarfed and ridiculous beneath the expansive proportions of the room. Between the window and mirror, Drexler’s contortion had deepened even more. His ribcage lifted and widened, revealing the amphibian softness of the solar plexus as it rose and fell with each breath.

Fred cupped his hands on the window. “Dead Baby in a Fun House!” he shout- ed.

“Stop,” I said to Drexler. “Stop!” I said to Fred.

“Dead Baby in a Fun House,” Fred shouted again.

The answer must have been correct because Drexler stood up. He slipped his arms inside my silk robe and raised the glass I’d left on the stove. He threw him- self onto the couch with a drunken, matronly scowl on his face and made a famil- iar flick with his wrist.

“That’s you!” Fred laughed.

“Side-splitting,” I said.

“A genius,” Fred insisted.

Discarding the robe, Drexler started laughing and slapping his knee, as Fred often does, with a stupid grin. But Fred was too far gone to get angry. He’d sat down on the grass, head bobbing up and down. “Fred,” I said. “Fred?” But he only had that pleased look that means he’s had too much to drink, even for him. He dropped to the grass in a happy stupor.

Behind us, Drexler had sat down, nodding and grinning. “Stop!” I shouted, slamming my hands on the glass. Drexler too fell back, belly up.

He’d got the best of me. Furiously, I ran to the front of the house and rang the bell. I slammed my palm on the door and waited. But there was only silence in our cul-de-sac. “Locked out,” I said aloud. I turned to that sleepy circle of dark windows and porch lights. “Locked out,” I insisted again.

Slowly, I walked to the backyard. Inside the house, our lights still shone. Drexler remained on the floor. I turned and slid my back down the window. “Fred!” I said, giving his shoulder a half-hearted shake though it was clear he wouldn’t move on his own for some time. I pulled his head onto my lap, covering him with my sleeves. A naked, creature-like warmth transferred through the glass behind me as Drexler too pressed his body against mine.

Silently, I anchored our brave assembly. The clear night struck me with calm. Surrounded by the Meadows, the ever-evergreens, and the distant stars, our lights seemed whimsical—our lives inside these busy circles a dream. Finally sleep came for me too, bringing its serenade of gypsy music and memories of fire.

 

The sun woke us, blazing indifferently upon the window as it did every morn- ing. I covered my eyes until I came to, and when I opened them, a man with a tiny captive in a baby jogger was making his way down the bike path that circles the Meadows. He nodded as if he found us there every morning, sleeping so. Remembering the previous night’s finale, I turned. Drexler was gone.

It would be an hour or so before Fred and I made our way into the garage to search for the spare key that would insert us back into our everyday lives. A quick call to my lingerie shop would assure me that my girls were duly adorning pretty passions as necessary. Fred’s secretary filled him in discreetly as she often did on Wednesdays. Drexler left no mark. His utensils, the herbs, his clothing, the tureen, even the leftovers—gone. The only evidence of things gone awry was my delicate shepherdess who sat on the table in ruins. The candles had burned too low, blackening her papier-mâché spirit for good. But somewhere in the course of events, Drexler or Fred, or perhaps even I had made tiny pinpricks where the girl’s eyes should have been, slit her through to her hollow core.

“Fred,” I said as he stirred in my lap. “Wake up, Fred!” I said.

He raised his hand to his eyes to block out the sun. “No more Tuesdays,” he whispered. The Tuesday Night Chef idea had its day, he declared, and now that day, like all other days, was gone.

 

So, the next Tuesday we went out. We’ve made a tradition of it every Tuesday with a group of carefully selected friends. They all know that moment will come when Fred lifts up his glass. “Traditions,” he’ll say, as if Tuesdays had always been this way and always would be.

“To Tuesdays,” we always cheer in return, heads nodding, marking time.