stories from home
The Recipe for Gravity
By Gary Sandy
We live in a complicated time and
none more complicated than now, this day, and the days unfolding
after it, like an endless procession of lawn chairs crossing this
collapsible universe. The world is a dizzying place, much like the
Tilt-a-Whirl at the county fair, and with much the same results
on my digestive tract. I awake at night and lay gasping at the endless
swirl of obligations, deadlines, and official filings a man is expected
to maintain, until my breathing becomes so short that I pad into
the kitchen for a cup of water.
Much of today's world too closely resembles the state
of modern dentistry, which strikes me as nothing so much as a black
cloud of descending pain and papered expense. A person with no appetite
for paperwork is doomed in the world today. We are besieged by hosts
of insurance policies, warranty agreements, and personnel policies,
each the size of a phone book, bristling with litigious caveats
and vague exclusions. They reek of ink and impending doom. They
fall likes leaves each decaying layer atop another until they form
a fossil record that chronicles a man's passage from embryonic water
sprite to terrified and spindly specter. The armies of tear off
tabs, and utility bills adorned with structured rate changes and
justifications for fleecing the average man, align against me. They
lean precariously on my kitchen table in sad, slanting piles. Each
stack a reminder of how ill prepared I am for this world.
But to say that complexity affects the sexes differently
would be an understatement. The female sex is, as everyone knows,
eminently more adaptable and flexible and given to enroll in Yoga
classes and drink bottled water with just a dewy hint of sun-ripened
peach in it. Women crave and seek the interactions of others. They
recognize its utility and seek it out. They cultivate it like a
row of bright, blood red tomatoes arrayed in silver metal cages
in a garden row. They correspond and converse and celebrate as if
nothing could be more important than the birth of a friend's new
baby or the occasion of a promotion from sales clerk to manager
of the large sizes section in the local clothing store.
The male is less disposed to change and like any lumbering
beast is bewildered by complication. He stares out of his tiny,
close-set eyes as if the future were a city ablaze and he can not
quite make it out through the smoke and haze. As the world becomes
more complex men become more ill suited to it. We have strayed off
the evolutionary ladder onto the branches of a nearby tree. We sit
there hooting and pawing and scratching ourselves in distraction.
The papers and magazines and network news shows are full of stories
of men who have retreated into the shadows of hardwoods and fir.
They are moving in the opposite direction from the rest of the world,
drawing a coarse woolen blanket festooned with burrs and twigs over
their heads to shut out the lights and beeps and buzzes of an economy
and culture that has become all gatherers and no hunters, or all
keepers and no finders as my friend Earl says.
None of which has anything to do with the tale at
hand except to say that is has everything to do with it and sets
it in context like a fine china dish rests in a cabinet of maple,
comfortable, and rested, at peace with its surroundings. Sometimes
you can't fish a creek until you know what's around the next bend.
So it is with most stories. But this life I now live started easily
enough as do so many others in a clean, well-lit kitchen festooned
with pretty wallpaper of oak clusters and pilgrim maidens.
I had been dating Ms. Ellen Solowitz for some 6 months,
just long enough for us to become comfortable with one another.
But not so comfortable that one would simply indulge the music of
the body as if it were a wind instrument, and emit a low flat E
and never think twice. To the contrary, I was careful to keep myself
shaved and combed and bathed and had even purchased a bar of pumice
soap to free the coarse effluvia and imbedded grease from my skin
to sensitize my epidermal layers to Ms. Solowitz's touch.
Her kitchen that evening was awash in smells. The
pots set high upon the stove with a variety of blue flames rising
up to meet them, burbled with heat and the slow, sighing expansion
of metal. I had worked a good long week driving forklift in the
warehouse west of town. By the time the table had been set and dinner
set upon it, the marrow in my bones had turned to steam and only
the hunger in my stomach kept me from collapsing into myself like
an accordion. I sat awake and anxious to consume the assortment
of food before me.
This meal marked a special occasion for Ms. Solowitz
who, that very day had been promoted from her post as playground
supervisor and teacher's aide to a regular teacher. A bliss born
of the belief in an improving future had settled upon her like the
mantle of optimism that infects every Chamber of Commerce from Maine
to Mexico and nothing was going to disrupt it.
Why should it? She was a woman of intelligence and
talent, born of good parents who steered her toward college and
away from the career in cosmetology that welcomed so many of her
girlhood peers with open arms. She had avoided an early marriage,
and saved her money. Her grades had been good and her term papers
immaculate. She had shown them to me once. Bundles of plastic coated
missives festooned with red marks proclaiming "Good Point!"
and "Excellent Organization!"
She had poured a glass of wine from some winery in
California named in a foreign tongue I could not pronounce. The
wine rose in her cheeks and blossomed as she unveiled the potatoes.
I was quite taken by her at that moment and could imagine her alabaster
skin, a masterpiece adorned with a single errant freckle and a nailhead
sized mole at the nape of her neck. I imagined at that moment that
the comforts of this home and this woman and a hot meal were all
a man really needed. All the models splayed casually out on deserted
islands wearing bikinis woven from coconut hair that torture and
torment men's dreams and make them wish for stiletto heeled mavens
with jaguar eyes were sheer nonsense. I could see that the cultivation
of American's males was a lie and a sham. It was a carnal ephipany.
It was no wonder so many of us ran into bridge pillars
or drowned overturned in drainage ditches. We had been lied to and
none of the fat cluster of grapes that make up life's bouquet were
every going to be fed into our open, gaping mouths one at a time.
Here amidst the sweetness of rising bread I could
see it now. I knew the path to contentment lay in the company of
a good, solid woman with unspectacular undergarments and a paid-up
book club membership. The light shone on her hair and reflected
in the casserole dish as she lifted a spray of asparagus spears
to my plate.
The soft surface of her soufflé heaved like
a bosom. "Is that enough?" she asked and I could only
nod. My tongue was wooden with hunger and splintered with the aroma
of meals laid out before me for years unfolding. Someone once described
this unceasing flow of illuminations that crossed my bow like the
realization that the pain in financing lay in the interest rates
as an awakening. And so it was. I had come home.
The rest of the meal passed in rapturous glory. She
was luminescent and I basked in the glow of her light. Contentment
oozed out of me. My stomach was swollen in a tight, round bowl with
the bountiful harvest she had laid before me. Her voice was melodic,
rising and falling, with tales of rapscallions apprehended and lost
and her hopes for a clean chalkboard the first day of school. I
envisioned the future as a clean chalkboard myself, awaiting only
to be written upon in her fine, feathery hand.
I must admit I was lost in this reverie when it became
clear that at last the meal had ended. She had pushed back her chair
and said "Would you like coffee and pie?" Of course I
nodded. What happened next though was a shift in the universe so
profound as to be unmistakable. I had read that some scientist had
suggested that the movement of a butterfly's wing in Japan could
influence a hurricane over the Atlantic. I had originally passed
this off as the wishful thinking of another grant starved researcher
looking for his next funding source, but suddenly I understood what
She exhaled and the butterfly wing trembled. "I'm
bushed. You wouldn't mind doing the dishes would you, dear?"
Taken at face value this was a simple enough issue. But for man
whose marrow was steeped in pleasure and contentment it was like
scraping a bread knife down a bone. The words swirled in the thin
curlews of steam still rising from the potatoes and I watched them
rising to the ceiling, lofting upwards to hover beneath the frosted
glass globe of her ceiling light. As they spun there, the air sharpened
their edges and ground their points until they looked like nothing
so much as the spreading canopy of a thorn tree, and I floated beneath
it a scarlet, fat balloon, rising, eyes wide open, to meet my piercing
I rose and began carrying dishes in to set on the
counter. Steadily I watched the broad smooth swathe of speckless
formica disappear beneath a circular array of china. I was seized
by the sudden remembrance of sitting some 30 years before, in the
living room watching a man on the Ed Sullivan show spinning plates
on the end of poles. He worked to keep every plate spinning of the
end of a pole, fearful that one false step would bring the whole
fragile arrangement crashing down.
Still, I worked on until the dining room tablecloth
was clear and the kitchen counter piled so high, that I left the
pots on the stove. I ran a heady stream of hot water into a sink
and squeezed a lemony soap in for suds. The scrubber was plastic
and shaped like a kidney. I started with the plates and placed them
one by one, each sliding beneath the soapy surface like a stone.
As I began scrubbing the first one, something drew
my eyes to the kitchen window and outside above a hedge of oleanders
and privet I could see a line of stars burning out above a line
of telephone wires, beyond the edge of town. As God is my witness,
I was suddenly filled with a sense of longing and sorrow so deep
I was riven by it.
I waved the plate back and forth under the tap, rinsing
it clean. The air in the kitchen was warm and close. I wiped my
hands on my pants and walked out on the back porch. Ellen's back
porch light was out. She had been asking me for a month to replace
it and the bulb hung opaque in its cradle, bug encrusted and useless.
Beyond it the entire sky blazed, each star sunk deep in its canopy.
Suddenly, I heard Ellen cry "On no!" and
I raced back inside to find the kitchen filled with smoke. One of
the burners beneath the baking pan was still on and the crust of
the soufflé had dried and finally ignited. I scooped up an
oven mitt, grabbed the back corner of the pan and walked out into
the back yard trailing a cloud of black smoke in my wake. The pan
was so hot I set it down on the edge of the yard. The thick crust
burn, so rather than pick it up and carry it closer to the hose
bib, I turned on the sprinklers instead.
The fire burned bright yellow and blue, each flame
rising and falling, consuming what was left of the soufflé
as eagerly as I had. The arc of the sprinklers reached the pan in
a ragged pattern, each drop falling like a tiny comet into the pan.
As they struck the flame hissed, unrepentant, blind in its hunger,
gorging on its own downfall. I stood there in the darkness watching
the dark, wet pan. Then for whatever reason, as I stooped to retrieve
the pan, a large spark blew out and upwards, caught by an errant
breeze, and I watched it go, a single red coal, like Mars I thought,
winking in the darkness.
Turning back to the house I was startled by Ellen
standing still in the doorway. "Did you burn the grass too?"
she snapped. The condition of the grass had never occurred to me.
Now I wondered if I had killed the grass, too? Too? Dichondria is
a fragile form. She was right. A rectangled flaw would greet me
as a reminder for the next few weeks, until the new growth took
over. But even new growth only covers. It doesn't really erase.
People have longer memories than Dichondria. As I turned to move
toward her, Ellen simply eased back inside, shaking her head.
Before I knew it I had crossed her back yard, hitched
a leg up over the fence and vaulted into the alley. I thought just
once I heard her voice but I couldn't be sure. A dog set in to barking
and I lost the sound. I simply kept walking with a feeling in my
chest that I can't explain. Sometimes we know we're digging deeper
but that shovel in our hands just won't stop falling and we seek
refuge in a hole of our own making.
I walked, watching the stars as they sparked through
the trees. After a few blocks I launched into an old song I hadn't
heard in years. I wondered if I had reached a place in my life,
as everyone must, where there are songs they will never hear again,
just as there are people they will never see again, until at last
they are beyond the reach of any song.
But whether I heard it again or not, I remembered
it now. My voice rose past the open windows of houses and I imagined
it over the roofs, floating in space, a tiny, tuneless thing, worn
thin by the distance, weightless and free. Another carbon life form,
crusted and burning for such a brief, clear time. Just a song and
a voice, unencumbered. Floating far away, beyond the grasp of gravity.
Gary Sandy has his feet firmly on the ground and
a wonderful recipe for meatloaf. He lives in a 100-year old house
with his wife Mary, an authentic Norwegian skilled in the Tao of "Oof
Dah." The couple have three kids, one of whom is a practicing,
though unlicensed teenager. Gary writes a weekly column for the local
newspaper on the foibles of fatherhood and family life. Gary is also
a former mayor of the small town where he lives. He continues to dispense
street corner political advice to anyone waiting for the light to
Gary wears his A Prairie Home Companion hat
everywhere, though he does remove it in church and for the singing
of the national anthem. He finds it functional, attractive and the
closest thing to a thinking cap he's ever found.
Gary has no plans for a first novel or a sequel.
He can be reached at: email@example.com