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Bargain Meal by Brian Malloy

       The day Mick got in his car and almost kept driving was not the type of day you might have expected. For example, you might have expected that he'd been fired from his job. Or that his wife had left him for another man. Or you might have imagined that some other disaster had befallen him.

       None had.

       There had been no solemn summons to his boss's office, no tear-stained letter from his wife Anne waiting for him when he arrived home to an empty house: In fact, no empty house. Anne was there as usual, exhausted from her own job, and the kids were in the backyard playing with the dog.

       The game was keep-away. They tossed a red rubber ball with a jingle bell in the center. The dog would bolt between his son and daughter, delighted, frantic, desperate; who could tell? The boy, just turned eleven, would laugh, the girl, with breasts now, would smirk, like kids her age did.

       He worried that he loved the dog more than his own children. She was a good pet, a mutt they had adopted as a puppy from the Humane Society. Half German Shepherd and half enigma, she had taken well to life with the O'Briens and had become, in very short order, the focal point of the family. Sad? Hug the dog. Happy? Kiss the dog right on the lips. Bored? Play with the dog. Can't think of one more thing to say to your wife? Talk to the dog. She'll listen ; sometimes she'll even tilt her head at you.

       The boy, Brendan, pretended to be the dog and in a high and squeaky voice, said: "S'up Dad-man?" This was what the boy said - via the dog - to welcome him home each evening.

       The girl, just fifteen, looked at him and cringed. He knew what she was thinking; he had thought it enough about his own parents when he had been her age: How Uncool. How Pathetic .

       For the first time, he tended to agree with her. This startled him a bit, like thunder on a clear day. He frowned at his daughter, and entered his square two-story home with the white aluminum siding. Inside was his wife Anne, who sat in front of the large television set. You couldn't really say she was watching the news, but it was in her field of vision.

       "How was your day?" he asked.

       She told him. First, there was Anne's old bitch of a secretary, who always says I don't believe that's my job when Anne asks her to do anything, anything at all. "She's just sits there watching the clock and talking to her friends on the phone. And can I fire her? No, because she's 'disabled.' Since when is a fat ass a disability?" Second, there was Anne's boss and his concerns, which were legion. "He's 'concerned' about the Anderson account. He's 'concerned' about this quarter's projections. He's 'concerned' about expenses. I swear to god, the guy gets paid a fortune just to wring his hands!" Finally, there was traffic; she had been cut off. "The asshole wasn't even looking. I could've been killed just so he can make the light. I swear to god."

       So Anne had had a bad day, and she had been having a lot of them over the past few years. Mick once suggested that she look for something else, but who could match her current salary? No one, she had told him.

       He needed to get out of the house. He told Anne that he had forgotten something back at the office. She nodded, not particularly interested, her frown letting him know that she was still trying to figure out what they would do for dinner. He took the old car, leaving the SUV in the white garage. The old car was a blue Dodge Colt with a four-speed manual transmission and eighty thousand miles on the odometer. He preferred the little hatchback to the Suburban. There was barely enough room for anyone in the Colt save himself and the dog, that is, if he put the back seats down so she could stretch out.

       His heart was beating a little faster, like the time last week when he started jogging again but gave up because of the pain in his side. He took a deep breath, suddenly terrified by the prospect that the rest of his life had been mapped out for him in meticulous and mind-numbing detail.

       He took the I-94 East ramp, put the car in the fourth of four gears, and drove. He rolled down the windows because it was a hot July evening and he listened to the oldies station. The DJ, who called himself the golden geezer, told a forgettable joke and then introduced a song by Leo Sayer that Mick had hated even when it was new.

       You make me feel like dancing!

       Wanna dance the night away!

       As the wind whipped his thinning, graying hair he kept seeing his wife, not as she once was when he couldn't keep his hands off her, but as she was now: a little heavier, a little less tolerant. Anne feared change even more than he wanted it and had grown suspicious when he had begun his diet, wanting to know what had prompted him to try to lose weight. She had laughed – or maybe just pretended to – and asked him if his new-found interest in his appearance was due to some other woman. Getting in shape for your bit on the side? He laughed for her sake and had told her honestly that no, he was not shedding a few pounds for a mistress. There was no mistress. There had been no one but Anne since they had gotten married over fifty- four thousand and four hundred days ago.

       He pictured her, young, thin, in the white dress and veil. He studied his wedding ring, a Claddagh , the hands that held the heart adorned by a crown. The hands represented friendship; the heart, love; the crown, loyalty. He decided that he wasn't the same person at 45 that he was at 25, when he was just playing at being a grown-up, walking down the aisle with his new wife, giddy that anyone considered him adult enough to commit the rest of his life to one person, or to anything at all for that matter.

       As he crossed the bridge over the St. Croix river; the one that separated Minnesota from Wisconsin, he gazed at the small waterfront homes with their sailboats and motorboats. A driver blasted his horn. The Colt had drifted into the other lane.

       He was surprised to find Eau Claire was just a few miles east. Had he been driving for over an hour? He realized he was hungry and exited the freeway. He had his choice of a Beef N' Cheddar, Big Mac, Whopper or Burrito. There was a Wendy's too but that was what he would have if he were picking up dinner for the family because it was Anne's favorite fast food place. A Big Mac was no Declaration of Independence but he hadn't had one in so long he couldn't remember. He craved the Secret Sauce that added gram upon gram of fat. So sensual, an infidelity between two sesame seed buns. When they first started dating Anne would scold him and say Did you know that just one Big Mac has nearly all the calories and fat that you need for an entire day? And you're eating three!

       Could he still eat three in one sitting?

       He should try.

       The line in front of the drive-through window was long, but he was afraid to get out of his car and be among other people. So he sat in the Colt, the car his daughter hoped would be hers in a year. In front of him was another little compact, a Geo Metro with a University of Wisconsin sticker on the rear window. Inside were two young men, freshmen most likely, facing each other and laughing, perhaps at the fat profile of the young woman in the McDonald's uniform that he could see in the take-out window. But then one of the boys grabbed the other by the back of the neck, pulled him roughly towards him, and kissed him right on the lips. The kiss was one of those tongue-down-the-throat marathons that lasted until some third party or outside event interrupted, like the pick-up truck in front of them pulling forward. The boy who had been kissed ran a hand through the other's hair as he gave the car a little gas and pushed it a few yards ahead to the order board.

       Mick stared until the car behind him honked. He pulled the Colt forward, finding it odd that the boys would kiss like lovers where anyone could see them, other young men who might attack them, maybe even kill them. That's what had happened to that poor boy out in Wyoming a couple years back. He watched as the boy in the passenger seat, with obvious excitement and enthusiasm, said something to his companion, who then shouted at the order board like he was in Times Square on New Year's Eve. He followed them closely as they pulled ahead again.

       "May I take your order?"

       He turned, realized he was stopped next to the order board. The voice was that of the heavyset girl speaking to him through her headset. He had hardly uttered a sound all day -- save to ask Anne how her day was -- and he had to clear his throat. Ahem. Cough. "I would like-"

       "Just a minute," the order board's speaker told him.

       Trust him to hit the McDonald's rush hour in Eau Claire.

       The boys in front of him were at it again. He stared, his head slightly tilted, trying to make sense out of what he was seeing, wondering why a man would want to kiss another man. Anne was worried that their son Brendan might turn out that way. He had laughed at the idea, telling her that a ten-year old covering his walls with posters of basketball stars was no indication of a propensity towards black men. She was always waiting for disaster to strike.

       "Thanks for waitingÉcan I take your order?"

       He didn't squander the girl's attention: "Big Mac, large fries, and a large Coke."

       No, wait, he had meant to order three Big Macs, not a bargain meal.

       The boys in front of him were now wrestling in the front seat, tickling each other and laughing. The passenger tried to climb into the back to get away from the driver's hands that pawed his armpits and that's when he saw Mick. Their eyes locked and Mick blushed. Defiant, both the boys looked right at Mick and then kissed each other, occasionally licking each other's faces.

       Mick looked to his left and pretended to study the order board. He could hear them faintly, laughing, most probably at him.

       Well, let them laugh.

       Will this line ever move?

       At last he approached the pickup window with the girl behind the thick glass. He smiled faintly at her, relieved that the boys had gotten their meals and moved on. He felt some kinship with this stranger thanks to what he presumed to be her heterosexuality. He should make some clever remark about her last customers, but he couldn't think of anything witty that didn't also sound close-minded or worse, flirtatious. The little glass doors opened and he felt the frigid blast of air conditioning flowing out of the restaurant as he gave her a ten dollar bill.

       "I'm sorry, the pop machine's out of syrup. If you wanna pull over there - " she pointed at an empty space near the front doors – "I'll bring out your order."

       What choice did he have? He had already paid for his dinner.

       He nodded, annoyed, but the girl took no notice. She was already speaking with someone else through her headset. Don't order a Coke he wanted to warn the cars behind him.

       He parked the Colt compliantly.

       The cell phone beeped. It was his wife.

       "Where are you?"


       "We don't eat at McDonald's."

       "I wanted a Big Mac."

       She sighed. He made her do that a lot. "Well, get enough for everyone. Just a salad for me."

       "I'm in Eau Claire."

       A pause. "What are you doing in Eau Claire?"

       "Getting a Big Mac."

       "Mick -"

       "Do you remember when I tickled you?"

       "What are you talking about?"

       "Do you remember?"

       Another sigh. "We were in my dorm room. You held me down and tickled me till I peed my pants."

       Mick laughed. "And you made me promise never to do it again."

       The girl pounded on the roof of the car and Mick let out a little scream. Anne's voice shouted "What was that? What's wrong?"

       With a smirk, the girl said, "Here you go, sir," as she handed him the bag and cup.

       Mick told Anne, "My order's up."

       He found Anne sitting in the living room with all the lights out, an empty wineglass on the end table next to her. She didn't look up when he came in, simply asked: "Why did you go to Eau Claire?" Her voice was calm, even. Missing the usual edge or irritation or impatience.

       "I don't know."

       It took a moment or two before she said, "You weren't with another woman?"

       He shrugged, wondering if she could make out the up-and-down motion of his shoulders in the dark. "No."

       In the same mild tone she asked him: "Why would you drive to Wisconsin for a burger?"

       He didn't answer.

       "Do you want to know why I think you drove to Wisconsin for a burger?"


       He could make out the shadow of her hand rubbing her brow as she said "Because you can't commit to leaving anymore than you can commit to staying."

       He thought he caught a flash of sincerity, maybe even affection on her face as his daughter said, "Ohmigod, this is sooo awesome."

       The old Colt was hers now. Anne had thought it a bad idea. She said it would spoil her and get her in with the wrong crowd who just wanted her to drive them all over the Cities. But he could tell Anne had gotten a little thrill from her reaction too. A sort of resigned grin had passed over Anne's face as their daughter squealed and talked in Omigods .

       Brendan was up in his room sulking. He would be old enough to get his own license in a few years, but there would be no car waiting for him. His snotty sister had gotten the only one to be had.

       Anne was on the phone with her sister and his daughter was god-knows-where in her new old car, so Mick shuffled up the steps to his son's room. He had to knock on the door until his knuckles were raw; Brendan had his music – if you could call it that – turned up so loud. Once he finally heard the knock Brendan shouted: "Yeah."

       The posters of basketball players were gone, replaced by rap stars whose lyrics Mick didn't trust but couldn't decipher enough to object to. He had read a story in the Variety section of the paper about a white rapper from Detroit who had a song – if you could really call it that – about murdering his wife. He wondered if he was listening to it right now. The blasting speakers didn't disturb the dog, who slept in a ball beside the bed.

       He shouted: "Brendan, would you turn that noise off, please?"

       Brendan looked at him, his so very uncool dad as he picked up a remote and paused the CD.

       Mick kneeled down by the dog and looked at his only son. He had been so grateful to have a boy, though he had told no one. Girls – even his own – were foreigners to him and he had thought a son would be easier to raise. But a son had just turned out to be a more familiar pain.

       He asked Brendan: "Are you mad at your mother and me?"

       Brendan said yes by saying nothing.

       "What are you mad about, as if I couldn't guess."

       "It's not fair! Just because she's sixteen, she gets the Colt!"

       Mick considered this as he petted the dog, who opened her eyes sleepily. "You know something? You're right. It isn't fair." He smiled as he got up. As he closed the door, the rap music engulfed the hallway before the latch had even caught.

       Anne hung up the phone as he joined her in the kitchen. "Did you talk some sense into him?"

       He smiled, pulling her in his arms. She didn't resist. Mick said, "No, not a word."