Comfort Food
by Deanna Northrup


"It's going to be okay, Babe," Bruce said, glancing into the rearview mirror. "I'll get you there and then you'll feel better."

Carolyn's reaction looked like nothing more than a grimace, though he chose to think she was attempting to smile. This trip was hard on her but she couldn't fault him for trying to save her life. Could she?

She had not wanted to go to Mexico but hadn't resisted with much energy and he took that as acquiescence. A side effect of her illness was that she didn't have the strength (or heart?) to argue with him.

"You want to stay here so the boys can watch you die? Isn't that selfish?" She'd had no response and no more arguments.

Bruce had a talent for taking cheap shots and was quite willing to use it. But now he felt a twinge of guilt, looking at her wan face and her folded-up body spread across the back seat. He returned his attention to the scenery, which had opened up since they got clear of Oklahoma City, sunburned and thirsty-looking. Not much to see but a few shacks huddled together every so often. He vaguely remembered going through the area when they took the boys down to the gulf, years ago. That was the first time he'd seen the ocean and how vast and relentless it had seemed--to him, but not to the boys. Their child-eyes could only see the sand and surf. Bruce and Carolyn had spent the whole vacation trying to rein them in--protect them from their own fearlessness. Brock and Justin had outgrown that, as everyone must.

Bruce had scoured the Internet researching alternative treatment for Carolyn's cancer and he was about to spend tens of thousands of dollars out of his pocket, but did he get any credit for it? No. Everyone acts like he's crazy or stupid. Or mean. Maybe he is--all of them. Maybe it's selfish of him to not let his wife die just because the doctors gave up on her. He has never trusted doctors and never will. And he certainly doesn't trust the government. Just because the bureaucracy hasn't approved treatment doesn't mean it won't work.

Brock and Justin were angry with him for pushing the issue and dragging their mother off to Mexico, but they'd get over it. He'd hoped to drive straight through from Tulsa to El Paso, but it was a lot farther than it looked on the map, and he had overestimated his own endurance (there was a time . . .) so he stopped at an old, roadside strip motel where he could park directly in front of the door to their room. He helped Carolyn, practically carried her, in. Her expression was pained and angry. She collapsed onto the bed without even glancing around the room and then rolled onto her side, away from him.

"Don't be mad at me, I'm doing this for you," he said, and the words echoed familiarly in his head. He adjusted the dial on the window air-conditioner and went back out to fetch the cooler full of sandwiches, beer and pop, then sat at the small table by the window and turned on the TV with the remote. I'm doing this for you. The phrase paced back and forth through his mind, demanding an audience. He'd said it before, sure, but so what? About the overtime he worked on holidays and the time he spent on home improvements that had kept him from many of the boys' athletic events. It was all legitimate. And there were times when he was too tired to go, or needed to unwind--he was a hardworking man and had rights of his own.

I'm doing this for you, so many times when she seemed disinterested in sex, in the foreplay he worked so hard at and for which she showed no gratitude. I'm doing this for you, the addition he built--every woman wants a master suite with a walk-in closet and large bathroom with a whirlpool tub. But Carolyn wouldn't admit that she wanted it--insisted that the house was too big now, with the boys gone, thought they should have enlarged the kitchen instead. And what would they do with a large kitchen now, with no one doing any cooking?

After Carolyn recuperated a little from the trip into the room, Bruce coerced her into sipping half a can of Ensure through a straw. It was all she would eat now and he had to be firm and persistent to get her to cooperate.

"One more drink," he kept saying. "One more . . ." until her pleading eyes filled with water and he had to look away. "Okay Baby, you rest now. Watch some TV. We'll be there tomorrow and you'll feel better soon. It will all be worth it."

He propped her up with his pillow and then sat with his back against the headboard, holding her hand and staring at the TV screen. He tried to see it through her eyes. What would the activity mean to him if he was convinced he was dying? All those asinine commercials advertising stuff he won't live long enough to try . . . envy? Disdain? Maybe nothing. Maybe he'd just stare unseeing and unhearing while his mind traveled its own road.

Bruce turned to look at his wife and was suddenly overcome with fear that she was too far gone to be helped by the doctor in Juarez--or that maybe she was already dead. Her face was motionless and slack, eyes and mouth slightly open, as though the effort to close them all the way was too much.

"Babe?" he enquired cautiously. When she didn't respond, he dove at her, his hand going to her throat. Before he could feel a pulse, she jerked away from him in surprise, her wide-open eyes accusing and frightened.

"I was just checking your pulse, Baby," he said, his hand now resting on her breast, which was depleted and soft against her enlarged ribcage, pushed out by multiplying alien cells bent on total occupation. She pushed it away weakly. He could have resisted but did not. Maybe it was not rejection that made her push him away. The weight of his hand could have made it difficult for her to breathe. He had to be more considerate. "We have to keep your strength up so you can fight this."

On the other hand, maybe she blames him for her cancer, for all the years of breathing his secondhand smoke until he quit two years ago. The doctor had said "probably not" when Bruce asked him but then, what good would the truth do either of them now? And when she had complained that intercourse hurt, he took it as rejection and called her a liar instead of insisting she go to the doctor. It might have taken very little effort on his part because it was probably his fault she didn't go to the gynecologist anymore. The idea of those pelvic exams and breast exams bothered him, and he made smart-ass comments that bothered her. After her female doctor retired, she quit going. How many years ago was that? Five? Ten? Maybe those cells were growing and reproducing for all those years, unchecked. But not unnoticed--first there was the pain and then the bloating and thickening around the middle (that he'd thought was from eating and laziness). And more recently, constipation--about which he'd been unsympathetic, finally telling her to quit complaining and go to the doctor. How cruel it sounded now, even to his own ear.

Bruce stopped channel surfing when he landed on a religious channel. A woman with fluffed-up blonde hair and excess makeup was praying with her eyes closed and her hands up in the air. That was what they both needed--prayer. He turned the volume up and glanced at Carolyn to see if her eyes were open. The camera kept panning an audience full of waving people, murmuring or shouting, many with tears escaping the corners of their eyes.

"Pray, Baby," Bruce said, and he closed his eyes and engaged in a silent plea-bargaining session with God.


A man's voice, deep and hearty, woke him to a darker sky and the realization that he'd slept for several hours. He wondered how long he had prayed before dozing off--long enough to do any good? Carolyn's face was turned away from him, her neck cocked awkwardly, as his had been when he woke sprawled against the wooden headboard. He pulled gently on her pillow, which was only half under her now, and it came to him easily. But the lack of response from his wife stirred his heart again. Not wanting to frighten her this time, he got up and walked around the bed and knelt beside her.

"Time to drink some water, Babe," he whispered. The lower corner of her mouth glistened with moisture. He lifted his hand but stopped centimeters from touching her as cold dread crept over him. His hand pulled back, as if of its own volition. With increasing volume he repeated her name several times, fearing the worst, but he could not bring himself to touch her--could not know yet.

Bruce pushed on his knees, his muscles screaming against the strain of rising, and backed into the chair he had occupied earlier (only a couple of hours ago?). Suddenly it seemed like days. Had he really left Tulsa only this morning? Had he really told his sons he would call them tonight? Foolishly. He could not bear the thought of talking to anyone but Carolyn. An overwhelming urge to smoke crept up on him, familiar as a brother.

"You can't leave me, Carolyn," he said. "How would I go on? It's always been you and me." He kept talking, making excuses for his failings as a husband and father--for he had been raised poorly, hadn't he. He reminded her of their children, and of the future grandchildren who needed her to be there. And still she didn't move. When finally he touched her she was cool, and he thought, suddenly, that he had known all along that this moment, this time in this place, would come. That his whole life had been careening drunkenly toward this very moment--the climax after which it would all be downhill. He must have seen this room in some long-ago dream, this end when first he looked into her eighteen-year-old face.

He arranged her already resisting body, so familiar but now so inaccessible--no longer belonging to him. He knew he should call someone, but who? And what was the hurry? They would take her away and he would be utterly alone. Better to wait until morning. He left the religious channel on to keep her company while he took a shower, conscious of every sound he made, as though the noise could disturb her.

The music and prayer continued all night as he lay on the motel bed, hands folded over his abdomen the same way he had arranged hers. His breaths didn't seem to be coming naturally, and he convinced himself that if he didn't concentrate on breathing he would simply stop. If he died, how long would it be before someone found them? It felt as though there wasn't enough oxygen in the air and he was slowly suffocating. His hands and forearms tingled and the room tilted dizzyingly. He may have slept. If he did, waking was not much different than sleeping had been. Weak slivers of light now flowed around the heavy drapes, but it was still the TV that illuminated the room.

"God never gives you more than you can handle," the man on the TV said, almost haltingly, as though each word were written on a different cue card and someone was flashing them in rapid succession. His voice was quiet and practiced, not low but rich. Bruce looked at the screen and found that the man looked like his voice (though he was a little broader than he sounded), with honest blue eyes and a kind smile. A sensitive face--the kind that Bruce didn't trust.


Bruce sat on the chair staring at the same TV channel while the paramedics photographed, examined, and ultimately moved his wife's body into an ambulance that was backed up close to his car. Two policemen stayed behind to continue questioning him.

"Don't you want me to come to the station?" he asked.

The one standing farthest from him answered quickly, "That won't be necessary."

The other one grinned, slightly and briefly, and explained, "The nearest station house is forty-seven miles away. I think we can take care of it from here. You mind if I sit down?"

"Oh, sure," Bruce said, moving the sandwich wrappers and beer cans left on the table from the night before. What did he look like to them? A grieving husband or a cruel monster? Or a killer?

The policeman sat down and opened his notebook. The page was already half filled with tiny script, illegible from Bruce's viewpoint. He answered their tedious, repetitious questions and then asked them when he could take his wife's body home. The two policemen glanced at each other uneasily.

"It will take a couple of days for the medical examiner to complete his report and release the body. Meanwhile, here is a list of funeral homes that can help you make arrangements to fly her coffin home."

"It will be expensive, sir," the other policeman offered. "Might I suggest you consider cremation?"


After arranging with the motel office to stay in the room for a few more days, Bruce resumed his position in the chair and thought about calling his sons and sister-in-law. Someone had opened the drapes, and sunlight streamed profanely through the dirty glass onto his right arm and half his face. Before long, his armpit began to sweat and his face to feel burned, but still he sat. It occurred to him that if he moved to the other chair he would get equal sun on his other side and not end up looking like a clown. But he did not move.

Images darted in and out of his mind like a slide show. Thirty years of slides, jumbled and tossed haphazardly into the projector. Thirty years of life. Life by default (for hadn't they both had other plans--other expectations?). Carolyn was talking about law school when he met her, and he had expected more than factory work for himself. He vaguely remembered thinking he would own a business someday, and wear suits. But neither of them had even finished college.

Later, Carolyn wanted to become a paralegal but never got around to it. She never accomplished anything she'd wanted except having kids. She loved the boys and they loved her. Had it been enough?

Finally, Bruce got up and walked to the restaurant next to the motel office. The Ham and Egger served breakfast twenty-four hours a day, according the red paint on the window. A large blackboard proclaimed, in white chalk, "Throwed rolls, best in these parts!" He ordered chicken fried steak, remembering that Carolyn liked it. She had called it "comfort food." He could use some comfort now.

"You know what was going on over there earlier with the police and ambulance?" the chatty waitress, Tina, asked, nodding toward the door of his room, which could be seen through the window. When he told her about his wife she shook her head and touched his shoulder.

"My father died four years ago," Tina said. "He had a heart attack. No one even knew he had a bad heart." She motioned over the other waitress, a small, brisk, older woman with "Kathi" on her nametag, and asked her to tell Bruce about her husband. They had a matter-of-fact manner of talking about death, as though they were reciting "today's specials." As though this area, this motel, were a black hole sucking in the dying--a kind of death trap. What had made him choose this particular place to bring his sick wife? Fate? But he couldn't help but be comforted by their sweet, breathy voices and sympathetic smiles. Bruce lingered a long while, drinking too much coffee.

"You come-on back tonight for a nice supper," Tina called as he was leaving.


After the coroner's office called, Bruce checked out of the motel and drove into Amarillo. He picked the funeral home that was easiest to find and arranged for an immediate cremation. The boys, when he finally called them, had agreed it was the best way to go. Beyond the grief for their mother, he could hear in their voices the anger at him--especially from Brock, who expected more of people than Justin did. Yet another thing Bruce would have to deal with alone.

The mortician seemed unaffected by the fact that he was not going to sell a full service, or even an upgraded urn, which contradicted a stereotype Bruce had long held about hard-sell funeral directors. Actually, he didn't look the part either, with his short, athletic build and sand colored hair. Bruce arranged to pick up the urn the next day and got a room at a nearby Super 8.

Preferring not to eat alone in a restaurant, he picked up food at the Taco Bell drive-thru and ate it watching TV. But he couldn't concentrate on the images. The sound was an annoying buzz, and the movements of the figures seemed disjointed and foreign. Outside, the motel pool gleamed in the reflection of the setting sun like polished brass; the pool yard was vacant. Bruce's swim trunks were in his suitcase. He'd expected to use them in Mexico while Carolyn was undergoing treatment. He remembered packing them, imagining floating on an air mattress and lolling in the sun while he waited for the magic cure to work, anticipating the feeling of the sun on his bare skin and the way it always stirred something in his groin.

Up close, the pool was a clear, cool blue, the sun having pulled back its golden rays. Still, it was inviting and he had nowhere to be, so he jumped into the deep end. His genitals lurched inward when they hit the cold water and they stayed that way. Pushing upward against the water, Bruce stretched out, his back bumping against the rough bottom. He opened his eyes and looked up at the deepening blue sky, trying not to think of his wife in the crematorium. Crematorium--a word that conjures up holocaust pictures of bodies and emaciated people like stick figures. Carolyn had begun to resemble them a little. What if they were all wrong and she hadn't been dead but in a coma or something? He imagined her waking up in the oven and screaming his name, like an accusation. Suddenly he ran out of air, and he scrambled to get his feet below him and push against the bottom. Gasping and coughing, he flailed his way to the side and clung to the cement lip until he caught his breath and his pounding heart relaxed.

After he managed to pull himself out of the pool, Bruce sat on the edge and stared down into the water. He shivered in the cooling breeze, and his skin tightened as though it wanted to pull inward too. Tears began rolling from his eyes and a big, loud sob escaped him. He shook his head and looked up at the sky where a star was already visible though it wasn't yet dark. "What are you doing, turning into a woman?" he chided as he got up and returned to his room.


It was almost noon by the time Bruce was on the highway, headed east, but he felt strangely reluctant, dreading the empty house, the reproach. Everyone liked Carolyn. He considered delaying his return somehow, but there was nothing he wanted to do but stop at The Ham and Egger. He wanted to tell someone about his dream, while he could still remember it. Maybe Tina and Kathi could make sense of it.

In the dream, he was with a group of people walking through a big, crowded building. His group was being led by a man dressed in black, and they huddled together like new students on the first day of school, getting a tour of the building. Though they didn't really look any different, Bruce and the people in his group understood that they were dead and that the other people in the building were not. Bruce did not trust the man in black and tried, through gestures and looks, to convince the others not to. He kept searching the faces in his group, convinced that Carolyn should be among them or that she was being hidden from him. He knew he had to escape the others and search because it was his last chance to see her before something happened, but he kept getting distracted by silly, unimportant things. Before he woke, he was still wandering around aimlessly with the group, counting doors and passageways in an attempt to figure things out.


"Did you ever have any weird dreams after your father died?" he asked Tina when she took his order--this time for ham, eggs, and pancakes.

"Yes I did," she exclaimed. "It was more than a year after and my mother had already remarried. I looked out the window and he was walking up the sidewalk toward the house, wearing a red blazer. He had never worn a red blazer, or anything red for that matter, so I didn't think it could be him at first, but then I saw that it was so I opened the door and said, 'But how can you be back?' And I didn't know if I was holding my arms out to welcome him or to block his way because Momma was inside with Jerry. But I have always felt that he really did visit me, maybe just to say goodbye."

Bruce nodded.

"Ma'am?" Tina called to the other waitress. "Do you still dream about Art?" she asked as Kathi walked over, carrying a glass coffee carafe.

"Oh heavens yes," she said. "All the time. And the funny thing is, I don't think I ever dreamed about him when he was alive. Isn't that strange? I loved him too. Really I did!"

Bruce looked away, embarrassed. Maybe dreams were, after all, too personal to share. Kathi stood staring out the window, the carafe poised over his table. Tina was delivering food to a couple of truck drivers at the counter. They were waitresses, not psychologists. Why had he thought they would be any better at dream interpretation than he--if there was anything to interpret. He had never put much stock in dreams. Already the edges were blunting, the emotion dissipating. Kathi pushed a lock of graying brown hair behind her ear and filled his cup before moving to the next occupied table.

Tina crept up silently, thanks to her crepe-soled nurse's shoes, and slid a plate of ham and eggs and a wire basket of syrup onto his table. By the time she returned with his pancakes, Bruce knew he just wanted to eat and get on the road. If he didn't make too many stops, he could be home by eight.


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