The emotional burrito was Chuck’s idea. He got the idea after Alice had fallen in the bathtub. She was bleeding. She was wet. Chuck wrapped her in a towel and carried her to the bed where she cried for three hours. Alice has a way of prolonging pain, thought Chuck. So he stood in the kitchen angrily eating trail mix. Much later and Alice was still in the towel. Only her head was visible when she asked if he loved her.
“Let’s go to a diner,” Chuck said. “I want a big burger.”
“My entire life is falling in the bathtub and crying in bed,” she said. “Memories like that vacation in Maine where you bought a fourteen dollar lobster roll aren’t clear anymore.”
“Don’t do this,” said Chuck. “Let’s eat big burgers.”
At the diner they were seated next to the bathroom, a pet peeve of Alice’s, and when they asked to move were seated directly under the air conditioning, a pet peeve of Chuck’s. Alice’s eyes appeared watery. She said, “Nothing works out for us anymore.”
“Look,” said Chuck. “They have a bacon burger with bleu cheese and a fried egg. And under that, a quinoa burger with vegan cheese and something called satan bacon.”
Alice said, “Just get a regular burger and be happy.”
“Shredded lettuce ruins the integrity of the burger as a compact object,” said Chuck.
Alice didn’t look at the menu. She hadn’t eaten a meal in a week unless a plate of green beans was a meal.
In the past, Chuck would ask what was bothering her and he’d listen. Once, they attended a chowder festival where a man in overalls overheard Alice say she preferred Manhattan over New England and the man called her a cunt. Chuck didn’t hear because he was drinking chowder from a paper cup. Alice was stunned when he asked what was for dinner. At a café he ordered a fish fry and she hated him. Her eyes were pools of paint. “What’s wrong?” he said. Alice said that a man had said she was a cunt for preferring Manhattan clam chowder over New England clam chowder and Chuck was so upset he couldn’t eat his fish fry anymore.
With excitement Chuck ordered the bacon burger with a fried egg on it. He thought about the emotional burrito and his excitement doubled. Chuck calculated a fifteen percent raise while Alice suppressed her tears from the pain in her legs.
When the food came Chuck looked like a child, so full of joy. Alice thought his teeth looked too small, that there were too many for the size of his mouth, which was also too small. Alice had been having more of these moments, wishing he didn’t exist, as her disease thickened and Chuck distanced himself. She had a book, The Distancer and the Pursuer, that her therapist had given her and that she couldn’t read more than a paragraph of without putting it back on her nightstand. Her therapist had told her, “This is dark stuff but you are ready for it,” which is what the therapist said to all his patients.
Chuck was once confident and assertive, but not anymore, thought Alice. The marriage years had made Chuck appear ridiculous. Last week, Alice and Chuck were stuck in traffic because a boy had set a girl’s house on fire. The girl wouldn’t put her hands down the boy’s pants so the boy caused $35,000 in destruction and burned a cat’s tail off. Chuck put his window down and stuck his hand out in a motionless wave as the fire truck passed. Chuck didn’t know the driver and the driver didn’t respond to his wave. Alice stared at him. Chuck held his hand out the window as several other emergency vehicles passed. No one acknowledged Chuck. When the last vehicle passed Chuck waved his hand while looking in the rearview mirror.
“Had lunch with my father today,” said Chuck eating his burger. “He ordered an omelet in a wrap.”
“He’s old,” said Alice. “He doesn’t know any better.”
“Waitress didn’t say a thing,” said Chuck. “She smiled when he asked for a steak knife. Then brought him the steak knife. For his omelet. In a wrap.”
Alice had ordered a side salad but she didn’t eat the side salad. She just wanted some food to look at. Chuck ate his burger with obscene speed.
“I’m sorry you fell in the tub again,” he said, now gulping water. “We need to be more careful. How many times have we heard about so-and-so falling in a tub? And it’s always people who go rock climbing or jump out of a plane that same day and then they fall in a tub and die.”
Alice ate one forkful of salad with no dressing and said, “I want sea salt caramel ice cream for dessert.”
Chuck imagined the drawing of the emotional burrito: Alice, or a caricature of Alice, wrapped in a towel, drawn into a burrito, being highly emotional. It needed a tagline but that wasn’t Chuck’s job. Chuck was an idea guy. Never mind that he hadn’t had an approved idea in eight months.
“Sounds good,” said Chuck. “Feels like a fudge sundae kind of night.”
Without food there was little to talk about but they had to wait for the check. Alice asked about Chuck’s work day. He said that in the middle of the work day he went for a two mile walk. During the walk a homeless man approached Chuck before Chuck could cross the street. Chuck said he didn’t have any change but the homeless man hadn’t spoken a word. The homeless man was offended. He said he wasn’t going to ask for change but to tell Chuck he had a stain, mayo from his turkey sandwich, on his suit pants. “I wasn’t going to ask for money,” said the homeless man, scowling. “I have the moon. You’ll never have the moon.” The encounter with the homeless man had bothered Chuck until a co-worker left a tray of unfinished brownies in the break room.
Alice liked the story. “I once worked for a guy who gave the homeless hundred dollar bills,” said Alice. “He was a dentist who loved foxes. He walked around with hundred dollar bills. I had to make bank runs every day so he had enough hundred dollar bills. He had a stuffed fox in his office and interchangeable colored birds for the fox’s mouth.”
“That’s insane,” said Chuck.
“Let’s get ice cream before my skin hurts,” said Alice.
Even though he wasn’t hungry Chuck ate Alice’s salad and looked forward to the ice cream. In the parking lot the moon was a white orb surrounded by a darkening sky flicked with birds and Chuck suddenly changed his mind and said it felt more like a chocolate milkshake kind of night. It was true.
On the day of the fall sales meeting Chuck carried a box of mini muffins, against company policy, into the meeting room. Chuck’s hunger exceeded company policy. He made sure to go last – making two trips to the bathroom when he predicted he’d be called on – so the meeting would not only end on a high note, his idea, but so he could eat all his mini muffins. When it was Chuck’s turn he ate the last mini muffin then explained the emotional burrito. It was a hit. Several of his co-workers questioned if Chuck was capable of such an idea, implying that he had stolen the emotional burrito. People searched on their phones. The legal department was placed on speaker phone. By noon the art department had created a cartoon burrito experiencing extreme human emotions over its own irresistible taste.
“Where did that come from?” asked Colin.
Colin was half Chuck’s age and Chuck’s boss. Both had no idea why Chuck was still employed, didn’t respect each other, and interacted like friends.
“I like to eat a lot and the idea just popped into my head,” said Chuck. He thought about Alice and felt awful.
“Sweet,” said Colin. “Will have bids in soon. I mean, this is huge, man. Do you have any idea what you’ve done?”
Chuck wondered why Colin’s pants were tight. He looked at his own pants. They were relaxed fit. Colin had, according to Chuck, an absurd imbalance of waist-to-length measurement, but anytime Chuck went shopping, he found the opposite to be true. That with his wide waist and short legs he walked on a path to extinction. And because of this Chuck had to special order his pants from a sales clerk half his age.
“Drinks at Whales this afternoon,” said Colin. “We’ve earned a half day.”
“Thank you,” said Chuck.
“All you,” said Colin. “The man!”
In the parking lot of Whales, a bar that specialized in gluten free beer and artisanal queso dip, Chuck called his dying father.
“Stomach,” said his father, “a total disaster zone.”
“But you don’t have a problem with your stomach,” said Chuck. “The doctor said it’s all lungs.”
“It is all lungs,” said his father. “But I’m in my golden years so I’m falling apart.”
“You haven’t eaten today?”
“Ate too much. Went back to that diner. That’s the problem at hand,” said his father.
“Went omelet again,” said his father. “The omelet is why my stomach is a mess. I need to get the leaf blower going. Are you calling for a reason?”
“To see how you are doing. Every time I call you say I never check in. This is me checking in,” Chuck said.
“Too much wrap,” said his father. “Too much wrap and never enough omelet. I deserve better. I once ate ten eggs for breakfast and three hot dogs for lunch. Now look at me.”
“I’ll call you tomorrow,” said Chuck.
“Hear that?” said his father. “Neighbor got his leaf blower going.”
Chuck was the oldest person inside Whales and he was applauded for the emotional burrito upon entering. Colin now wore a bow-tie and several other associates had bow-ties on too. They said it was bow-tie Tuesday. Chuck ordered a “CC and ginger,” a drink the bartender didn’t move to make so Chuck pointed to a beer he couldn’t pronounce and paid nine dollars.
“How’s it feel to blow up?” asked Hayden, a co-worker Chuck had never spoken to before.
“What?” said Chuck.
Colin took a drink from his beer then mouthed “Chipotle.” Everyone cheered and yelled. Chuck smiled with his mouth closed and nodded. At the end of the bar a woman in a winter coat and hat stared into an untouched plate of chicken wings.
Chuck said, “I’ll be right back.”
“BRB,” said Hayden, to which Chuck didn’t know how to respond.
At the urinal Chuck imagined his father and Alice dying on the same day while two men at the sinks discussed oral sex. The success of the emotional burrito had made Chuck feel depressed. He was surprised by this. When he tried to calculate his raise again he saw Alice in a coffin. When he imagined his father eating an omelet in a wrap he saw himself at his father’s front door late at night knocking forever.
“Everyone becomes mad and fat,” said one of the men at the sinks.
“So you write the alphabet with your tongue,” said the other man.
“Yeah. Slowly,” said the first man. “Then you do it backwards and put a few fingers inside. Can go ass too.”
Chuck walked away from the urinal. The men kept talking. They discussed a girl named Deirdre. They broke Deirdre down by body parts before agreeing on jalapeño poppers. It was like Chuck didn’t exist, standing between them, washing his hands. He didn’t mind. It felt nice to be partially there. At his age, he was somewhat there and somewhat not there. Leaving the bathroom, it felt better to not be there.
Back at the bar Colin had ordered everyone another round of drinks and a “Dead Nazi” shot, which none of them needed but wanted. After drinking both Chuck felt dizzy and with the dizziness, sadness. Colin kept slapping him on the back and talking, somehow, to both everyone and no one. Quietly, Chuck said he had to make dinner for Alice.
“She stays home all day but you have to make dinner,” said Hayden.
“I have the energy because we sit all day,” said Chuck.
“But you work,” said Hayden, visibly confused. “I’d be pissed if I worked and my wife didn’t and my meal wasn’t ready.”
From what Chuck had observed Hayden did, in an average day, an hour of work. This wasn’t unusual at the office. To Chuck, everyone watched Facebook. When their girlfriends or wives called they said they were too busy to talk. By the end of the day they were exhausted from nothing. They told their girlfriends or wives they had to work late and then watched more Facebook. Then they went drinking. Chuck told Hayden none of this and said he had to go home and see Alice, who his co-workers didn’t know as dying, but abstractly, as the emotional burrito, the best food idea the company had pitched in years.
“Good night,” said Chuck, and he raised his hand, and kept it raised, as he walked toward the door.
Driving home to check on Alice’s bleeding Chuck had a craving for potato chips. So he drove to his favorite deli where they had his favorite potato chips. In front of him a family of five ordered Italian Mixed subs, each with a slight variation. Chuck felt surprisingly emotional as each family member pretend to consider their order. When the youngest in the family, a boy about the age of ten with an impossible beer belly ordered his Italian Mixed sub after taking a full minute to decide against what he wanted, Chuck began crying. He walked back to the car without his favorite potato chips and once inside the car cried for ten minutes. He composed himself. He didn’t want to understand himself. While driving home Chuck cried again for several minutes before composing himself again in the driveway of his own home.
“Hungry?” Chuck said.
Alice had applied new bandages to her cuts and was using her leg braces again.
“No appetite whatsoever,” said Alice.
“BLT with avocado?” said Chuck. “Chicken salad on ciabatta?”
“I’m going to lie down for a few minutes,” Alice said.
Chuck liked the idea of having the house to himself. But when he had the house to himself he had no idea what to do with himself. Years ago, when Alice could leave the house, he’d walk from room to room moving pillows and blankets around. Sometimes he’d do sit-ups or open a window. But now, with sick Alice, having the house to himself was when she was in bed. Chuck had no idea what to do with himself. So he walked from room to room, drank half glasses of water at the kitchen sink, and realized this would be his entire life after she was gone.
It was one of Alice’s super naps. Sometimes Chuck couldn’t tell the difference between a super nap and a full-night’s sleep and he would stay up all night checking on the color of Alice’s legs. A super nap was radical. Chuck was in awe of a super nap.
In the kitchen Chuck quietly steamed green beans. He pan fried a chicken breast. He boiled potatoes. He put Alice’s pills in a tiny cup painted with butterflies but the cup was too small so he put the pills in a larger cup painted with dogs. She wouldn’t eat any of the food. Alice was past eating food. Chuck left the chicken, green beans, and potatoes cooling on a plate painted with a border of the moon cycle. Chuck had a habit of putting food away when it was either too warm or too cooled. The zone when to put food away seemed difficult to navigate. He watched the food she wouldn’t eat with great care. From the bedroom Alice screamed “Beef burrito.”
“What did you say?” said Chuck, walking in and sitting on the edge of the bed.
“I had a dream,” said Alice. “There was a cow. Dancing with a car.”
“What you need is a good meal,” said Chuck. “How about a nice chicken breast.”
“And right before I woke up,” said Alice, “the dream flipped upside down. I fell forward into darkness and through all these burritos. Maybe all the burritos I’ve ever eaten. But I wasn’t hungry in the dream. I couldn’t eat the burritos I had already eaten.”
“But are you hungry now?” said Chuck. “There’s food.”
Alice looked at Chuck and blinked. It was true. She hated him a little. All the little hates had layered into the years and this was another one to be added. But a long love is complex and she still loved him a little, along with hating him a little, because he was there.
“Can you wrap me up like you did the last time I fell in the tub? I liked that. I think it’s somehow connected to the dream.”
“I can do that,” said Chuck. “Hold on.”
He guided her to her feet and the braces squeaked. Alice stood with her arms against her side and very slowly Chuck spun her, making layers around her with the largest comforter they had, which was sewn with paisleys and suns and moons. Then, he picked her up, and laid her on the bed. She looked ridiculous and happy. Chuck thought about the emotional burrito and felt a great weight of guilt and anxiety. Alice asked about his day.
“The usual,” said Chuck. “Listened to Colin pitch. It’s not like when Paul Varno ran the place. Now there was an idea man.”
“You know what,” said Alice. “I think I could go for the green beans. I’ll have a green bean, I think.”
Chuck brought back a small plate with two green beans. Through the comforter he could see something wet spreading from Alice’s legs.
“It’s garbage night,” said Chuck. “So I have to take the garbage out.”
“He’s at it again,” said Alice.
Upstairs their neighbor was grinding coffee beans again. He was always grinding coffee beans. It didn’t matter what time of day or night, the guy was grinding coffee beans. Chuck often wondered what he could be doing that required so much coffee instead of energy. But whatever he was doing didn’t require any coffee at all. Grinding coffee beans was a routine, a consumption, to give structure to his day, and watching Alice struggle to eat one green bean, thinking about food, Chuck understood this.
He didn’t even know the neighbor’s name. Last fall, a stray cat with a hole in its neck had been living on their shared porch. Chuck felt sorry for the cat but Alice’s doctor warned against taking the cat in. The neighbor said he was going to adopt the cat before it became too cold. It was already too cold. The next time Chuck saw the neighbor the neighbor was walking a corgi dressed as a pumpkin. Those dogs always look like they hate walking, thought Chuck, and I like that. When he asked the neighbor where the cat was the neighbor shrugged and said he had decided on a corgi because it was better than a cat with a hole in its neck.
Chuck touched Alice’s face and he tucked her hair behind her ear. He said, “BRB.”
Outside, Chuck organized his garbage because there was a competition on the street to see who had the cleanest garbage. Chuck had been caring less about the appearance of his garbage. A family of five kills the world, thought Chuck, looking down the street. His neighbor was outside holding a cup of coffee. He had beautiful garbage. Chuck knew that the neighbor had long ago put the dead cat into the garbage all neat and clean.
“Good sleeping weather,” said the neighbor.
The moon wasn’t a white orb. More like third from the center on the moon phase cycle. People in Chuck’s office had been getting tattoos of the moon phase cycle on their forearms and his wife was going to die. The receptionist had a metal necklace of the moon phase cycle and she ate yogurt every morning.
Chuck felt the gap between his success on the emotional burrito and Alice’s illness widen into a terrifying space.
“I said it’s good sleeping weather,” said the neighbor.
The corgi walked over to Chuck. He thought the dog was smiling. It appeared to be smiling. What was it smiling at with those legs? Didn’t the dog know how hard its life was? When Chuck bent down to pet the dog he kneeled on an empty box of donuts, his, from days ago.
“This summer,” said the neighbor, “was the best sleeping weather we’ve ever had. I’m 68 and I don’t remember sleeping more. If you can believe it, I only put the AC on once. Once! You know what that means, big heat bill coming our way. Hate to even think about it. Nothing better than a hot day followed by a cool night. But we’re past that now.”
The neighbor couldn’t stop talking about the good sleeping weather. He could have gone on forever.
Everything smelled like garbage and the dog’s legs were too short. Chuck kept petting the dog. He didn’t want to get back up. Alice was up there. Alice was not up there. The neighbor eventually stopped talking about the good sleeping weather and then there was just silence and a stupid moon.
Shane Jones is the author of several books including the novels Light Boxes (Penguin 2010), Daniel Fights a Hurricane (Penguin 2012) and most recently, Crystal Eaters (Two Dollar Radio 2014). His work has appeared online in BOMB, The Paris Review, The Believer, VICE, and DIAGRAM. He lives in upstate New York.