Bertha was twirling the phone cord around her pudgy fingers. She was listening to the babbling voice on the other end with rapt attention, occasionally pinching her red lips together and purring affirmations.
“So what did he say?” she asked after a long monologue on the other end. Bertha was tapping one of her precious pink nails against the counter fast enough that her manicure was chipping away. The answer came down the line, and it was what Bertha wanted to hear. She squealed with delight.
“I just knew it! I know him like the back of my hand!”
She whacked her open palm against the counter, creating a sound like a slab of ham hitting the floor. She looked at the fat, slug-like veins on her hand as if she could see his face written in the tangle there. Bertha heard the front door knob clicking behind her.
“Oh, I think that’s my Thomas now. Toodles!”
She slammed the phone into its receiver on the wall like a child hiding the wreckage of a misdeed. At the same time, the front door swung open, a little more slowly and heavily than usual. For a moment, the tall, gangly form of Thomas stood at the threshold to his home. Still in the drizzle, his tired eyes observed his plump wife consuming the space behind the kitchen counter, beaming at him. Her red cheeks looked as though they might explode and squirt into her own beady eyes. Thomas took a step inside, head bowed, and as if he had triggered some mechanism, Bertha immediately sidestepped the counter with surprising agility. She sprung towards him with open arms.
“I’m wet”, Thomas said.
Instead of hugging him she peeled off his overcoat as though it were Caesar’s cape, and she his slave. He grunted a thanks and stepped out from behind the partition which served as their mudroom. He looked at the dining room, which was really just an extension of the kitchen with a rug thrown over the floor to hide the tiles. They lived in a one story suburban home; there was no need for superfluous walls. Underneath a cheap, sparkling chandelier lay the dinner table. Bertha had stacked it with more cheap and shiny objects, some for eating and some for eating upon.
Thomas knew Bertha’s food was choking his arteries slowly, but he couldn’t deny the pleasure he took from it. The table was adorned with everything Thomas had read was destructive to his body: the greasy breasts of fried chickens, the drifts of buttery mashed potatoes, the pyramids of biscuits, and of course the cornucopia of cartons of wine. All this prevented Thomas from starting the diet he was sure was right around the corner, and yet he couldn’t help but think of Bertha as the beneficent steward of his appetite, a veritable guardian of his belly. As a chef, Bertha seemed unparalleled to him. If it weren’t for Thomas’ freakish metabolism, he was sure he would have ballooned to Bertha’s size.
Thomas wandered over to his chair and did a rigid shuffle around it, pretending to observe a nick on the wall, when really he felt awkward sitting without Bertha.
“Well sit down before my dinner gets cold, you silly man!” exclaimed Bertha as she bounced over, or rather as her gelatinous breasts and stomach bounced over.
Thomas noticed that Bertha was wearing her red fanny pack, which looked ridiculous to him as it protruded from the fanny pack of flesh it was girdled to. When Bertha reached into the pack, it seemed as though she were reaching out from her body to grab something off a counter instead of slipping her hand into an extra pocket around her waist. Normally, Thomas would try to convince Bertha that fanny packs were out of style—which they were—but today he decided to forgo the usual inconclusive and unproductive argument in favor of shoveling the table’s morsels onto his plate. Besides, no point in arguing over that tonight, he thought.
Bertha sidled into her seat and smiled ingratiatingly at Thomas. She did not mirror him and begin gorging on the food, which Thomas knew meant she had been “snacking” before his arrival. He could even see the evidence written in gray stains on her front. Thomas often wondered if she ate early because she couldn’t bear her hunger or if she thought it would impress him to eat dinner methodically and moderately. He didn’t really care, either way.
“Why don’t you put on one of your old records, Tommy?” suggested Bertha prettily as she plucked a breast of chicken from the platter.
Thomas stopped chewing and looked up at her distrustfully from his hunkered position above his plate. This was an unusual invitation. Bertha hated his records.
“Go on”, she motioned with a bone.
Thomas felt he should investigate the cause of her good mood, but he was overwhelmed by his excitement to indulge in his records. He didn’t like to show Bertha that he was excited for anything, however, so he shrugged, folded his napkin on the table, and walked casually to the antique record player collecting dust by a broad window. He even paused to gaze out the window at their modest suburban lawn. He thought this was a nice touch, just to prove how truly relaxed he was. Lightly nabbing up the fronts of his trousers, Thomas knelt down next the record player and flitted through a box of records with his spindly, nimble fingers.
He felt he was taking too long and quickly settled on “The Magical Mystery Tour,” by the Beatles. He caressed the dark vinyl briefly and then nuzzled it onto the player. He started up the turntable and dropped the needle. It crackled at first, as if its muscles were popping while they limbered up. And then waves of warm music budded in the room. Thomas’ skin went cold.
Bertha called to his back from the table, “Turn it down, dear. I can’t hear myself think.”
Thomas licked his teeth in annoyance, but he obeyed, lest an argument eliminated the music altogether. He returned to his seat, the music much quieter, but still sweet. To Thomas, The Beatles had been aged to perfection. They were old enough to be comforting and inoffensive, and new enough to avoid seeming quaint and boring.
Thomas was perfectly happy to eat dinner alone with The Beatles, but Bertha began discussing her day and her week as she always did. He let her ramble. Did he like the nail polish? He nodded. Did he know Cindy had finally found a husband? He nodded. The new neighbors? Nod. The shrubs? Nod. Restaurant? Nod. Food? Nod.
He looked out the window at the rain. He remembered something.
“Who were you talking to when I got home?”
“Naturally I said…what’s that?”
“Who was on the phone before?”
“When I came in.”
“Oh that!” she slapped her forehead, a little too forcefully. It left a red mark that made it look like she was blushing, or very hot.
“That was a friend of mine from the beauty parlor.”
“What’s her name?”
“Oh, you haven’t met her, Tommy.”
“Maybe I have. I’m always being introduced to your friends when I already know them. You’re the one who forgets which ones I know.”
“But she’s a new friend, deary.”
“That’s how you introduced Sharon to me the last time she came over. So what does your ‘new’ friend look like?”
Bertha shifted in her seat, “She’s hard to describe.”
Thomas was looking down intently at his plate, stabbing bits of chicken with his fork and devouring them. He was barely listening to Bertha, but he kept asking questions. He was delaying something, just speaking to build himself up to say something important, but Bertha couldn’t notice.
“Is she pretty?” asked Thomas, without looking up.
“I suppose so”, Bertha said in a high-pitched voice as plumes of rosy jealousy colored her cheeks.
“That’s good. You ladies spend so much time at that beauty parlor.”
“Yes we do.”
Thomas suddenly balled up his napkin and threw it on the table. Bertha didn’t like the way his mouth was twitching and the way his eyes were reeling around like he was trying to understand where he had landed. She swept up the dishes and left Thomas still trying to form a sentence that was undoubtedly important to him.
“Here’s desert!” proclaimed Bertha as she shoved a big bowl of red Jell-O in front of Thomas. The quantity of Jell-O in the basin Bertha called a dish was absurd. The way it swayed and nodded in front of Thomas made it look like she had served up a crimson, plump baby with a spoon wedged under the rolls of its buttocks. Bertha smiled rosily, albeit forcibly, at Thomas and turned away from the table. He grabbed her thick wrist and she immediately wrenched it away.
“God darn it, Thomas!”
“We’re getting a divorce, Bertha!”
She took a step back and propped her fists on the rolls around her waist, “Excuse me?”
Suddenly Thomas felt like he was pleading, and he straightened up in his chair, “I firmly believe that we should get divorced.”
Bertha snorted and put her piggish face right next to Thomas’, “Oh really? Where do these firm beliefs come from all the sudden?”
“I met someone today. I was tempted by her in a way where the only thing holding me back from getting involved with her was that I felt… a moral obligation by our marriage not to be unfaithful. I feel that a marriage should not be held together simply by a sense of duty.”
“Is that all?”
“I guess so.”
“So tell me, Thomas, are you planning on going back to this special lady?”
Thomas sniffed delicately, “Maybe.”
Bertha started to laugh loudly. She paused, red-faced, and bent even closer to Thomas with a bitter, malicious smile, “You clod. You absolute clod. You wouldn’t survive a day without me, you dunce. You think you’re some kind of bachelor or something? Jesus Christ, Tommy, you’d be nothing more than a sniffling child if it weren’t for me.”
“Even if that were true,” Thomas stiffened further, “it wouldn’t matter, because I’ll find someone else.”
Bertha blew a sarcastic “Oooooooh” out of her cheeks and said, “That’s right, I forgot all about the mystery woman.”
The Beatles were still playing softly and Thomas looked around awkwardly, feeling very silly and unsure of what to say.
“I guess I should go then”, he said, half rising.
Bertha pushed him back bodily into his chair, “You sit and eat your dessert you piece of trash, ‘cause you aren’t going anywhere.”
“Look here, Bertha-”
“Shut your mouth!” she snapped, “And you look here. That woman I was on the phone with when you came in. Her name is Mary, and she’s the delicate flower you thought you had plucked today, you dolt. She wouldn’t so much as look at you in a million years.”
Thomas frowned and looked out the window.
“No, I think she likes me.”
Bertha mimicked Thomas, “Uh, ‘NO.’ I think she pretended to like you because I put her up to it.”
Thomas blinked. Bertha pointed at the red Jell-O bouncing merrily in front of Thomas, “Eat it!”
Thomas said, “But you have no reason to do that,” but found himself inexplicably spooning Jell-O into his mouth.
Bertha put a fist on the dinner table and raised her other hand in the air, “I believe in giving surprise tests every once in a little while.”
At this moment, to Thomas, she really did look like his third grade teacher. And he hated her. But instead of saying anything, he bent his head and kept a steady stream of Jell-O flowing from the plate to his mouth.
Bertha took her fist off the table and began circling the room, “And you failed! You failed this test, you complete idiot! You are worthless! To think that I cook for you every night and this is what I get in return!”
She continued ranting, and Thomas said nothing. Finally she stopped spluttering insults and boiled into a scream. She rushed over to the record player and ripped the album off right in the middle of “Strawberry Fields Forever.” She snapped it over her knee, and the pieces that were left in her hands, she hurled at the wall. Thomas looked at the shards on the ground out of the corner of his eye. Bertha stepped in front of his view, “How did you like that, you clod?”
Thomas looked up at her with docile eyes, and then slowly turned back to his dessert.
“That’s what I thought, you spineless clod.”
She waddled over to the door of their bedroom and said, “I’m going to bed.”
With that, she opened the door, slammed it, and then everything was quiet with Thomas. He remained seated, dipping into his Jell-O and slurping it up. He kept at it; dipping into the Jell-O, eating, and repeating without a pause. Jell-O. Eating. Jell-O. Eating. Jell-O.
Thomas’ spoon clattered against the bottom of his dish. He was done. He stared at the empty bowl for a moment while a voice in the back of his mind, barely part of his conscious, asked where the Jell-O had gone and if it would come back. It was quickly assuaged by an equally distant voice, which assured whoever was listening that there would always be more Jell-O tomorrow.
Thomas rose creakily from his chair and brought his plate to the kitchen sink. He looked at the dirty dishes Bertha had left next to the sink and sighed. He put them all in the dishwasher. If he didn’t, he and Bertha would fight again tomorrow morning, before he went to work. He shuffled over to the remnants of his favorite record and stared at them between his feet. Somehow, he couldn’t force himself to bend over and pick them up. He considered crying over them, as though they were the broken body of a lost child. He realized how silly it was to debate whether or not to cry, and finally scooped up the record. He tossed the pieces in a trash can.
Thomas washed his hands. He flipped the lights and, in the dark, stumbled towards the bedroom. There was now a very sudden burning at the base of his eyeballs which was begging to be doused with tears. He shook it off. The idea of crying was no longer attractive to him. He drove his slumped shoulders toward the bedroom door, dragging his feet all the way. He was reminded of a night when he was a young boy. He had broken his mother’s favorite vase, and later that night, after his mother’s tempest had driven him to bed, he walked blindly through the dark hallways of his house until he found his mother’s room. There, he nestled in next to her breasts and wept.