Jarrell stood at the counter as he sliced the head of cabbage. He was cooking up a skillet of fried bacon and cabbage with a sprinkle of vinegar. The biscuits were ready to go into the oven and he had a pitcher of iced tea in the fridge.
Nobody else in the house liked cabbage-and-bacon but it was his night to cook and nobody bitched too much any more. If they were tired of what he cooked it was not mentioned because the alternative was too grim to bear. Nobody who valued their digestion wanted Ashley to cook so Jarrell took her turn as well as his.
Jarrell looked around the battered kitchen. It was a far cry from the sleek, modern apartment he and his girlfriend had been living in just six months ago. But, alas, they had to move out after he was fired.
No doubt about it. Moving in with his girlfriend’s parents was a step down although he had to admit that he had been on a bad path with his drinking. The pattern on the forty-year-old laminate counter-top was worn but it was far crisper than his memories of the custom, fused, Mongolian-gneiss counter-tops at the apartment. Being sober did that to a person.
Mike wandered into the kitchen, wrinkling his nose. Mike was Ashley’s dad. “You aren’t making that crap again, are you?” he asked as he scratched his softening middle. Just over forty and he was letting himself go.
Jarrell didn’t take offense. Tone is everything. Mike’s grousing was pro-forma.
“More biscuits and less cabbage and you probably won’t fart as much” Jarrell advised.
Krystal came into the kitchen behind Mike and said “I am all about that. It isn’t like I can open a window when it is twenty degrees outside.”
Krystal set the kitchen table with an economy of motion. Then she went over and shook Ashley awake.
Jarrell served the food from the skillet at the stove and each diner used a spatula to move the biscuits from the cookie sheet to their plates.
Sitting at the table, Mike said a short grace and then the family started eating in silence, the only sound was the scraping of forks against plates.
The silence was a blessing.
In spite of the aura of forced good cheer, everybody was off-balance and edgy.
The new government’s flurry of Executive Orders continued without pause. Even before the previous day’s orders were digested and assimilated, new ones were released that seemed to contradict the ones from the day before.
To nobody’s surprise, the economy had locked up like a gear-box filled with concrete as the government’s edicts kicked in.
Unable to back-down, the government doubled-down. Commissions were founded. Punchlists generated. Personnel identified and reassigned.
Mike was one of the “Personnel”. He got the equivalent of a Draft Notice informing him that he was assigned a construction job in central Kansas.
Jarrell wasn’t sure what Mike was going to be doing out there but he assumed it had something to do with The Newest Green Deal.
Mike had been selling custom barbecues, grilles and patios at a local concrete-and-aggregate company. Facile without being smarmy. Friendly without seeming cloying or manipulative.
Mike didn’t push. Nobody walked into the store unless they had already decided to spend money. He would rather sell them a $6000 package than push and have them walk out of the store in a huff and spending money at his competitor across town.
Mike made a metric shit-ton of money for his employer but never seemed to be able to hang onto any of it for himself.
Krystal was a blonde with chemically abused hair. The years had not been kind to her. Countless hours in the tanning-booth shrank her flesh like a country ham left too-long in the smoke-house. Her legs were bird-thin.
It took Jarrell several weeks to ken to the fact that Krystal ran the joint. She was a micro-manager. There was no detail too small for her attention. No decision that would not be improved by her demands. No situation so complex that she could not understand it perfectly in less than seven seconds.
Jarrell almost bolted when he realized that Ashley was well on her way into turning into Krystal.
Ahhh! Ashley! Sweet, delectable, limber, adventurous Ashley. Whatever Krystal’s faults, she seemed to keep Mike happy.
Ashley who could spend $5000 on-line in a night. Ashley who had gone semi-catatonic when she had to move back in with her mother.
Jarrell could see it now. He had been her “Ken doll”. She had dressed him, told him what kind of car to drive, picked the apartment….. He had been putty in her hands. He worked and happy-houred. She f----ed his brains out, played him as if he were a Wii character and spent his money.
The implosion of the economy had been hardest on her. Before the pandemic, Jarrell had been netting $10k a month as a project manager vs. Mike’s $5k a month. Between his money that he gave her (nearly all of it) and the credit cards, Ashley had been rolling in dough.
Jarrell did not qualify for any kind of unemployment after he had been fired.
Mike got unemployment which is what kept the household afloat.
Having to move back into her mother’s house had been a bitter, bitter pill for Ashley to swallow.
Jarrell was a firm believer in Matthew 8:32. He had learned the hard way that “The truth will set you free”. He could not afford to live anywhere else. He kept his lips firmly zipped.
Ashley had no such inhibitions. Ashley, when she was awake, was a whirling Tasmanian Devil of barbed wire, broken glass and rock salt. Her tongue lashed, flayed and salted, all in a single pass.
Fortunately, her depression made her sleep all day long and her mania had her playing video games all night long. If anybody was distressed by her lack of hygiene or limited wardrobe, well, it was better to just let her sleep.
After the meal, Mike and Krystal shuffled back out to the TV room to watch the news.
left without saying a word, kicked back in the recliner and appeared to be asleep within seconds.
Jarrell wiped out the skillet and put it at the back of the stove. Then he washed and put away the dishes.
There was no extra food to put away.
Afterward, Jarrell slipped into the spare bedroom that he had set up as his study. Merle, his Blue Heeler cross slipped in with him. Merle found the rest of the house as toxic as Jarrell.
Logging on to the bulletin board he had designed and still curated, he quickly parsed the activity. Traffic on Walter Mitty was picking up.
---Note from the Management: I don't know if this will go anywhere. With any luck it will get some air beneath its wings.---