The worst is the chicken. Roasted chicken. Chicken a la King. Chicken salad sandwiches. Chicken pot pie, fried chicken, grilled chicken. Chicken, chicken, chicken.
It arrives differently depending on the day, the person slotted for meal time, the progression of the treatment. Jill, Mom’s friend from college—standing on the front stoop, the glow of the porch light jaundicing her skin—says, handing me the tin-foil-covered platter, “Nothing much. Just chicken.” Jill doesn’t come inside anymore. Or sometimes we come home from treatments and before we step inside, I can smell it, the sour poultry mixed with soy sauce or potatoes, and Kathy from HR is pulling the bird from the oven in our kitchen, using our oven mitts, dashing salt from our shaker. Other days it just appears and no one remembers how or why.
Bill does multiplication tables in the den as I half-help, half-listen for thuds or moans or, “Oh, goddamn it,” coming from above. The pipes in the ceiling make music. The water rushes in.
Bill says, “Eight times seven,” and then he says, “Fifty-six.” And then, “Eight times eight. Sixty-four.” He’s on a roll.
She’s probably dipping her toe in now, testing the water, leaning on the wall for support.
“Eight times nine.” Bill taps his pencil on the couch. “Ann, eight times nine?” he asks.
She’s lowering now, her purple skin splotching red; she’s easing herself in.
Bill says, “Ann, eight times nine,” and then, “Annie?”
“You’ve got to learn, Bill, to do it on your own,” I say. “You’ve got to.”
And then suddenly we’re at the dining table saying, “Pass the salt, please,” or, “Hey, Bill, please pass the salt. Please.” We don’t ask questions anymore. We just eat, like a pride of lions, not mentioning the stubbornness of the elephant’s hide, not questioning the ethical treatment of the animal, the hunt, the kill. Or maybe we are less like that. More like whales, maybe. Our lips part slightly, to speak or to yawn or to breathe, and the food just comes right in. Then we let the air out.
It was different the first time. There was beef and pork and fish. We travelled the globe at our dinner table. It was all Japan tonight and then France the next, and then on to Afghanistan. Kathy from HR brought alligator the first time. She said, “You know, just to try something different.”
The first time, I wrote Thank You cards after every meal. The first time, Mom lifted her synthetic breast from her dresser drawer and slipped it into place after clasping her necklace, before dabbing powder on her cheeks, every morning. The first time, when Bill was Billy, he wrapped himself around Mom’s shoulders and said, “Hang in there, Pal,” as if she had the flu.
There never will be a second synthetic breast.
“At least they’ll be even now,” Mom said to the doctor, first, and then later on the phone to her own mother, and to her sister in California, and to Jill, and Kathy from HR. We were doing dishes the second time she told Bill, me washing, Bill drying, Mom wiping down counters, tightening lids, putting things away. Outside, the bugs kept dying in the thing Bill called the Zap Box.
Mom said, “Billy, we have to do it again,” and then zap.
Bill reached for a coffee mug, pushed a towel inside, pulled it out, and then zap.
I worked at the frying pan, scraping and scraping that night’s paella, and all the dinners that had come before.
And then came the chicken, and it just keeps coming and coming, and it will keep on coming until it doesn’t come anymore.