Hymn to the Chaos
Even before it was clear they were bankrupt, Mike described the American economy as a hideous gargantuan lawn mower—the creation of some Deist’s god who set it roaring across the lawn and ambled back inside for a beer—all cogs and gears and whipping blades, stopping for nothing. A start up like his and Pam’s was tantamount to attaching another small machine into the mammoth jumble of constantly moving parts: if the little guy wasn’t well-oiled and cranking away from the beginning, it’d be churned under, mangled and sprayed away in pieces like a toy hidden in the grass. For a small business owner, the stuffing that scattered and drifted was life itself.
That song “You Picked a Fine Time to Leave Me Lucille” kept reeling through Mike’s head, with the lyrics he and his friends sang in junior high: you picked a fine time to leave me loose wheel. Now he had three boys, the oldest just eight, and Pam was gone, with only her clothes. That damn song kept rising up in his head; stupid as it was, it filled him with despair; he had to swallow hard every time to keep from breaking out in sobs. One night he rented that movie Because of Winn Dixie, and had to leave the room twice, pretending to go to the bathroom, to keep from crying in front of the boys.
Mike had a free hour after the breakfast rush. He would have to bust ass on lunch prep. Pam had finally agreed to meet him. She picked a coffee shop called The Daily Grind.
The two big tables in the middle were pulled together, full of stay-at-home mommies: muffin crumbs, toys scattered across the floor, strollers parked along the wall, diaper bags and shopping bags leaning together, babies on laps, babies sitting, crawling, ripping apart sugar packets on the floor. One woman was nursing without so much as a cloth diaper over her shoulder. She had on Gucci glasses and fingered a Mercedes Benz key ring with her free hand. The mommies all talked at once, no one listening, like the adult conversation was at max pressure and they were determined to bleed some off before naptime.
The girl behind the counter reluctantly left her homework to help him. He ordered a black coffee and drank it, had his free in-house refill then got another cup. He was sweating and needed to piss. His lunch prep time was being gnawed away while he sat on his ass. Twenty minutes, thirty-five minutes. He sat staring at the cup, empty but still steaming, he’d sucked the coffee down so fast. The mommy club prattled on. College kids came and left. Forty minutes.
“Excuse me,” Mike said to the girl. “I was supposed to meet my wife here. Did anyone stop in while I was in the bathroom—a Chilean woman?”
“No,” the girl said, “but we have another location across town. People get mixed up all the time.” She closed her Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces, on her ink pen. “You want me to call over there?”
“Would you?” He turned and looked out the front doors. Each one had espresso, backwards from inside, in fancy little black letters.
“No problem.” She poked one button on the handset and waited.
Mike needed to piss again already. Lunch was going to be hell. Jerry, the owner, would try to prep him and get it all dicked up and half-done and Mike would be chopping peppers and onions in the middle of the rush with a bread knife while waitresses stopped their running for long instants to stare at him with their arms crossed.
“Katie?” The girl turned and smiled at Mike. She had freckles across her nose. “Is there a woman waiting for somebody over there?”
She picked up another ink pen and twirled it in her fingers. She said, “Not Mexican, Chilean… she’s there? Hold on.”
The girl held the phone across the counter to Mike.
“I specifically told you the new one.” Pam said.
“I’m sorry. I’ll come over there.”
“I have to leave.” She asked her barista for a to-go cup.
“When are we going to talk?”
“I don’t know.”
“The boys cry for you.”
The mommy club burst out into laughter. One of them was holding up a piece of notebook paper with writing and stick figures drawn on it. A timer started buzzing in the back of the store and the girl behind the counter jogged back.
“Just come over tonight, we–”
“That’s no good.”
“Why the hell not?”
“It’ll give the boys the wrong idea.”
“The idea that their mother abandoned them?”
“I love those boys—”
“You have a funny way of showing it.”
“This conversation is over.”
“How about we just meet somewhere for dinner. We can go out of town so your lover doesn’t see you with your husband and kids.”
Pam hung up.
The girl was on her way from the back clutching sleeves of to-go cups like a farm girl carrying corn stalks. He put a dollar in her jar. She said thanks and gave him a scrunch-nosed grin.
The lunch rush kicked Mike’s ass, and didn’t end until after three. At 4:30 he went home. The smell in the old rented house was familiar—what his mom called cowmoomush, but it was just chilimac with potatoes in it. It was something the boys would eat so she made it at least once a week.
“I have to run,” she said, putting on her sweatshirt, “I’ve got Vacation Bible School this week.”
“We were building the new sanctuary this summer, remember? So VBS is now.”
Mike collapsed on a kitchen chair and Baby Andy scrambled from the back of the house and climbed into his lap. There was a single orange dreadlock down the side of Andy’s head; it had that tangy tomato smell of Kroger spaghetti rings. Andy wriggled back out of Mike’s arms, took a few wild half-running steps, dove to his hands and knees, which were already paddling before he hit the floor, and scurried like an alien down the hall to the bedrooms.
As Mike’s mom backed out of the driveway, one of the older boys started howling. Mike reached down and massaged the throbbing behind his knees. There was a heavy thud, a long pause, and the other one started crying. Then a slap, and Baby Andy joined in and they were all three crying, and baby Andy wailed, “Mommy.”
Mike decided the American economy wasn’t like a machine at all. It didn’t have that kind of control. It was the Serengeti, like that poster about getting up running every morning, where each cruel moment was an intense focuse on survival. Pam and Mike had kept the restaurant open for three years.
Somehow, during that time they’d added Andy to the brood, popping him out and turning right back to the business, leaving him in the back office with sippy cups and potato chips and cheese slices and Barney videos, while Mike busted ass on the line and Pam stalked in and out of the kitchen yelling instructions to the wait staff. They had done this for an entire year already knowing it was doomed. The predators and scavengers alike—vendors, banks, government agencies, insurance companies, creditors—were circling in the high grass. They all wanted to get what they could before there was nothing left but a pile of cleaned bones.
Mike’s mom came at five the next morning. She lumbered in the door and said, “Mike, it’d make my life much simpler if you’d put the dinner dishes in the sink, and pick up their clothes off the bathroom floor. And drain the bathwater. Please”
“I was tired last night.”
“You’re tired every night. I’m tired. Everybody’s tired.” She limped to the table and started gathering up the plastic plates. “Doesn’t look any worse than it did when Pam was here,” she said. “She wasn‘t much on housecleaning.”
Mike’s mom came in every morning wearing the same sweatshirt, with an embroidered pot of flowers on the front and pills all over the sleeves and dirty cuffs stretched loose from being pushed up her arm. She then crashed on the couch till it was time to get the boys up for school. Sometimes she overslept. Arturo—Mike’s oldest, named after Pam’s dad, told him. Arturo and Allen had missed so much school that a letter had come telling Mike he had to come to the school for a truancy meeting or further action would be taken. They’d scheduled the meeting in the middle of his breakfast rush and he hadn’t had the energy to respond. The date came and went.
He said, “Sorry, Mom.”
She waved and sank into her spot on the couch as if someone were pulling on her shoulders.
“See you tonight.”
She waved again and swung her legs up onto the couch, hugging that sweatshirt.
On his way into work that Talking Heads song came on, and when the guy said in astonishment, “This is not my beautiful house. This is not my beautiful wife,” Mike had a surreal, head-spinning sensation that this wasn’t his life. He never in his strangest dreams would have found himself here, but here he was without question, and the most astonishing thing was that this which was not his life, sure as shit was his life. He pulled onto the shoulder of the road and pounded his steering wheel and growled and shouted. He sat breathing heavily for a few seconds, but pulled himself together quickly. Breakfast prep was waiting for him.
Instead of stepping out back for a smoke after the breakfast rush, Mike went into the office, closed the door and called Pam. The carpet was so matted down with tramped in food and grease a wire brush couldn’t have picked apart the fibers; right beside the white tile of the kitchen floor the carpet was as smooth and black as a tar patch in the road.
“What do you need?” she asked.
“Please just come over and see the boys.”
“I could come and get the boys. Take them to McDonalds’s play gym. Right now, I don’t think it’s the best idea for us—”
“To just talk?” Mike took a deep breath. “We need to talk.”
“It’s not getting us anywhere.”
“Just tell me if there’s a chance.”
“Chance for what?”
“For us to be a family again.”
“We haven’t been a family for years, Mike.”
“That’s not true.” Mike put his hand over his eyes.
She was silent for a long instant, and then said, “Too much has happened. We’re both different people.”
“I don‘t believe that.”
“This is not a productive conversation.”
A box of new water glasses was flipped open with a few yanked out on the old wooden file cabinet beside the desk; the desk was stacked with paperwork and a flipped-open box of clear plastic condiment bottles. Mike hadn’t taken off his apron. It smelled like Italian vinaigrette.
A waitress walked into the office to get linen napkins off the back shelf. It was Ashleigh, the twenty-four year old with two kids. She’d just kicked her boyfriend out.
She cut the twine off the bundled napkins with a wood-handled steak knife and pulled out two folded stacks of twenty-five napkins. She said, “You’re so intense on the line. It’s like you’re an artist, the way you concentrate.”
He didn’t say anything.
She turned and smiled at him, holding the napkins curled in her arm like a baby. In the dark office her face almost looked like an apparition—light eyes, small nose, pale lips—like there was no face there at all; it was more a suggestion of face than actual face, a reference to face, something that makes you think of face. Her ears turned out just a little. She kept her hair, so blonde as to add no real border to her fair face, pulled back in a ponytail. She never wore makeup.
“Oops, sorry, dude,” she said when she saw he was on the phone. She curled her fist in front of her mouth as if spitting out watermelon seeds and was gone.
“Hello?” Pam’s voice said.
Mike told her he was trying to be productive, he just didn’t know where to start and she could tell him what she needed from him, he’d do anything to save their family.
Pam said again that this was getting them nowhere so she was going, and he said wait, but she’d hung up the phone.
When Mike stepped out of the office into the bright kitchen, Jerry was rushing through. He told Mike that his dish bitch had just called in and quit with no notice, so his plater was on dishes for the next couple of days and Mike would just have to plate for himself. He’d better get prepped out the ass.
Mike decided that having a small business in America was like being on a jet ski in the middle of the roiling sea, with tankers and cargo ships looming and heaving on all sides. The forces that buffeted his little business hadn’t had the kind of purpose that animals did: winds blew here or there, seas rose and fell, all in total indifference to Mike and Pam. It was chaos.
Chaos had been Pam’s word. One day Mike and Pam had tried to waterproof their basement. They staffed the restaurant with their best people, though they could hardly afford the payroll hours, and stayed home all day working on it. Mike ordered nine tons of fill dirt and carted it with the neighbor’s wheelbarrow around the house load by load, all day long, then raked it and seeded it in the dark. Pam scrubbed down the cinderblock walls and concrete floor with bleach, and painted the walls with a sealant thick as muffin batter. That night Mike lay in bed with a dull ache in his legs and a sharp pain jagging across his spine. Pam wheezed and coughed and struggled to breathe, having bleached her lungs.
That same night it stormed so hard that the boys ran and crawled into their bed. Holding his back, Mike eased down the basement steps just far enough to see, not only water running in, but water swirling brown with the fill dirt he’d just spent twelve hours shoveling against the back wall. It broke through the still-damp sealant and trickled in little brown streams down Pam’s fresh white walls.
“The basement’s flooding,” he whispered as he sat on the edge of the bed and tried to pry his pillow from Arturo.
Pam shot him a hate-filled glare.
Pam cried, “You do everything you can to get it together and push back the chaos, and there God is to shove it right back in your face.” She rolled to face the wall and was silent. The boys stirred and nuzzled and fell right off to sleep.
Chaos. An ocean of it. That was it. The two of them had held on to their tiny craft in the crashing storm, and eventually Pam had run out of strength. It was that simple: she’d lost her grip and was swept away in a blinding white squall.
Mike finished the rush, did some prep for the next day and went home. He fed the boys Kroger spaghetti rings and meatballs for dinner, bathed them, played roughhouse on their beds, rolling over the dirty clothes on their floor. At bedtime, all three crawled into his bed. He lay down with them.
After they were asleep, he swung himself out of bed and called her. He told her everything he’d been thinking about the Chaos and how it was like the ocean and it had ripped them apart, but now they had the chance to hold it together. Someday when they were old and sitting together at a boy’s college graduation or wedding, they could raise their hands with fingers intertwined and shout fuck you to the Chaos because it didn’t win.
He was out of breath when he finished.
After a long pause, Pam said, “You are thirty-five years old and you have no retirement.”
Mike did not say anything.
“No retirement, Mike.”
He hung up the phone and wept until he was exhausted. He crawled back into his bed with the boys, rolling Andy out of his way like a twenty-five pound sack of sugar.
The next morning’s breakfast rush was steady. Mike got in a groove. When it ended, he did the lunch prep without even taking a smoke break. The lunch came early and built in successively heavier waves until they were swamped and the waitresses were skipping around each other, raising hell at the new dish bitch. He’d just gotten out of prison for possession with intent; he was slow and nervous at the Hobart.
“It’s okay, dude,” Mike yelled across the line to him. “Two hours, tops. You can do anything for two hours.”
“No shit,” the dish bitch said. “You can do anything for two years.” He was skinny and tall with a shaved head. The back of his neck was covered in tribal pattern tattoos.
The rush intensified. Mike drove the line like a ship’s captain, yelling out orders, setting up his own plates so the platers could run food and bus for the waitresses. When it died down, he grabbed a bottle of water from the bar and stepped out the back door to smoke.
Halfway through his cigarette, Ashleigh bounded out the back door holding a five-dollar bill toward him. “A guy told me to give this to the chef. He said it was the best steak he’d ever eaten.”
Mike rolled his eyes. “It was a grilled piece of meat, for Christ’s sake.”
“Shut up and take a compliment for once.” She shoved the money into the pocket of his smock, accidentally knocking his thermometer onto the asphalt.
“Oops,” she was down and back up before Mike registered what happened. As she handed him the thermometer, she said, “You were hot today, dude.”
“Every now and then it’s in sync.”
“You really are an artist on that line. It’s like you control the chaos.”
Mike jerked his head and looked at her. Her eyes were a striking light blue up close.
“What?” She pulled her head back.
“You just said chaos…”
“That’s what it is in there. Controlled chaos.”
Mike flicked his cigarette in a high arc. It bounced once and disappeared down the rusty iron grate in the middle of the back lot.
Ashleigh pushed a string of her blonde hair behind her little ear and said, “Can I buy you a beer sometime?” One of her black plastic shoes was cracked down the side, and the other had a dried gravy spill chipping off it.
She looked down at her shoes and her blouse brushed against the sleeve of his smock. “Just to hang out,” she said.
He said, “A beer sounds great.”
They watched cars curve around the freeway on-ramp that ran behind the restaurant.
She said, “Well, I’m going to get on my side work.” She patted his shoulder.
“Okay.” Mike lit one more cigarette.
“When can I get you the beer?”
“I have to see when mom can keep the boys.” He didn’t make eye contact. Pam had had the affair, she’d run out, and he was the one feeling guilty about Ashleigh. He set out to walk a wide circle around the parking lot before getting on prep.
“Okay,” Ashleigh said. “Let me know.”
He waved and kept walking.
On his way home, Mike took the five dollars into the dollar store and bought cheap toys for the boys; blinking pumpkin flashlights left over from Halloween for the older boys and a whistling ball for Baby Andy. He’d want a light too but he’d try to gnaw on the bulb.
His mom saw him coming, was pulling on her dirty flowerpot sweatshirt as he entered the house. She said she wanted to have the boys for four days the following week, at her house. She was taking them to a special Veggie Tales thing at her church and it would be easier if she didn’t have to drive an hour every morning to get them and then drive all the way back when the church was right down the street from her house.
Mike sat down and picked up Baby Andy. He gave him the ball. When it whistled Baby Andy tried to imitate the sound. The older boys bounded down the hall like dogs to the whistle. Mike gave them their blinking pumpkins but they wanted to play with Andy’s ball.
“Dinner’s in the oven,” his mom said as she opened the door.
“Smells great too,” Mike said. It was baking, but it smelled like cowmoomush.
Later Pam called to talk to the boys. Mike gave the phone to them and let them talk. Rage rose inside him as the boys chatted away with their mother. When they were all finished, he hung up without saying anything at all to her. He paced through the house holding the phone, taking air slowly in through his pursed lips, trying to calm down, trying not to do something stupid, like throw the phone through the window.
He played roughhouse with the boys, and then they crawled into bed with him. He was so tired he slept all night, not awakened by the boys once.
Ashleigh’s shirt had stains down the front from a busy lunch; there was a smeared green stain on the back of her shoulder too, Mike recognized that. It was from a baby’s mouth. She’d stopped at the line during a lull to chat with him. He’d watched her come and go all morning, waiting for this.
Mike told her the boys were at his mom’s house. He was free for three whole evenings. The house was too quiet when they weren’t there. It made him feel like crawling out of his skin, he told her. Just as he’d hoped, she said it was her chance to get him that beer. They agreed to meet at La Hacienda for margaritas and dinner. Ashleigh’s mother lived next door to her and would be happy to keep her two girls.
Mike had a date. The strangeness of it all made him laugh out loud a couple of times while he showered and got ready. She was in the bar waiting for him. Her hair was down, and she was wearing makeup, and Mike had to consciously not stare at her, she was so beautiful. She had on a silky jacket/blouse thing that showed light freckles on her chest. She had on jeans and sandals. She got up and hugged him. She felt thin and fragile, her breasts soft against him.
Their waitress was a short Mexican lady with a square body and pockmarked face. She spoke very little English. Mike ordered a Negro Modelo, and Ashleigh ordered a frozen Margarita.
They talked as they ate dinner, and ordered more drinks afterward. It was comfortable. Eventually Mike asked about her girls’ father.
She talked for a while, then said, “He was a total leach. It‘s hard to believe I allowed myself to be so systematically used. I decided taking care of two little ones would be easier than two little ones and one big one.” Ashleigh was on her second margarita, her blue eyes moist, mirthful, aglow.
Mike was on his third Negro Modelo. He took a long drink. It was cold and went down easy. “Would you ever take him back? I mean, if he changed.”
“I couldn’t. I’ve worked too hard to finally have enough respect for myself–no, I could never take him back.” She dipped a chip in the leftover guacamole on her plate, held her hand under it while biting, and said with her mouth full, “My mom told me when people show you who they are, you’d better believe them.” She chewed and swallowed. “He showed me for five years. He’s not going to change.”
They ate without talking for a while, then Ashleigh asked, “What about your ex?”
“She had an affair for eight months and then walked out on me and the boys.”
She shook her head. “I can see leaving a man,” she said, “but your children? I don’t get that.”
“I don’t know.” Mike took another long swallow of beer.
“She can’t be well. Not to run out on her children like that.” Ashleigh was getting less careful, letting her blouse drop open as she reached for chips; Mike caught glimpses of the lacy black bra cupping her right breast.
He waved the waitress down and asked for another beer. Then he talked himself into another aha moment. “She’s not well,” he said. “I don’t know what her childhood in Chile was like, she never talked about it, but she was a leach too, like your ex—an emotional parasite. She latched onto me and sucked me dry. I was so empty for years and she kept on sucking until it felt like my ribcage was pressed against my backbone, like my soul was a milk jug with all the air sucked out.”
“That sounds miserable,” Ashleigh said. She picked up her glass, held it near her mouth, but didn’t take a drink. Her fingers were long and thin. “It might not feel like it right now, but maybe she did you a favor.”
Mike liked where this was going. “We were both miserable. We were both empty. Her need was ravenous and I had nowhere to go to replenish myself. Eventually she went scurrying off to find someone else to bleed.”
That was it. Ashleigh was talking, but he was thinking of this: the Chaos was something people rode every day. He did, and much of the time enjoyed it; their dysfunctional relationship was the problem all along. Ashleigh had just used the word dysfunctional.
She said, “I had to get myself into therapy to find out why I let him treat me like that.”
“Why did you?”
“My dad abused my mom,” she said. “And, you know…”
She waved it off. “We all have our shit, don’t we.”
“Yeah,” he laughed. “We do.”
“Enough depressing talk.” Ashleigh flipped out her hand, accidentally backhanding the waitress, who had slipped in to clear away plates, right in the face. “Oh my God, I’m so sorry,” she said, putting one hand on the lady’s forearm and the other over her own mouth, “Like your job’s not hard enough without people smacking you.” Her voice was muffled through her fingers. Her eyes were wide with horror.
The waitress laughed and shrugged and said, “No problem,” and asked if we wanted more to drink.
Mike was ready to stay and have another.
“Actually, I have to get home soon.” Ashleigh’s hands were shaking and she didn’t look up.
“Just the check, thank you,” Mike said, then tossed back the last sip of beer.
The waitress nodded and was gone.
“You have to get home?” Mike tapped his empty beer bottle on the table.
“Mom doesn’t want to keep the girls late tonight.” She covered her eyes and said, “I’m so embarrassed.”
“Forget about it.” Mike leaned back and took a deep breath. “You have to get them tonight.”
Ashleigh nodded. “They’re with their father tomorrow…” She shot him her attempt at a naughty grin, then looked immediately back down. “For the next two days they are,” she said, working her purse strap like a rosary.
“You want to do something tomorrow night?” Mike turned his bottle, rubbing stripes in the condensation.
“I was already planning on it.” She paused while he signed the credit receipt. “God, here I was supposed to be buying you a beer, and I’m beating up the waitress while you pay for dinner.” She threw her arms up. “Guess I might as well make a true impression from the start.”
He said, “It’s been worth it.”
“You like salmon and roasted root vegetables?”
“I like anything.”
“I’m cooking for you tomorrow night then. You drink wine?”
“Sure.” He didn’t, but he would.
At her car, Ashleigh leaned out and kissed him. He pushed a strand of her hair behind her little ear and then touched her face. It was a much too familiar gesture, something he’d always done with Pam. But she leaned her head into his hand and smiled.
“I’ll make up for tonight,” she said.
He said, “Shut up.”
They kissed in the dark parking lot until the restaurant doors swung open and an entire family jumbled out, talking loud and laughing.
As she got into her car, she said, “Tomorrow night for real? You’re not just getting rid of me?”
He said. “I hope for real.”
When he got home, the house was eerily silent, there were no dishes piled in the sink. The kitchen trash reeked of shitty diaper. Mike walked down to the boys’ room. The Game Cube Mike’s dad shipped them for Christmas was in the middle of the floor with the lid open, controllers pulled toward the beds over the piles of dirty clothes. Arturo’s desk had four empty juice boxes on it, squeezed in the middle like toothpaste tubes.
The phone rang in the kitchen.
Pam’s voice said, “Can I talk to the boys?”
“They’re with Mom this weekend.” Mike tapped out a cigarette and lit it. “You want me to call over there and have them call you?” He made a loose O with his lips and blew out smoke. Baby Andy’s stuffed raccoon lay under the open dishwasher door; it was on its side like road kill, nose gummed and sucked to a spindly point.
“No, that’s okay. Just tell them I called and I love them.”
“I will,” Mike said.
Twelve years they’d been married. Mike almost passed out giving her enemas when she suffered a third degree tear pushing Arturo into the world—the jagged scabs and purple flesh swelling against the stitches, her caught breath and cries as he tried to be gentle, tried to hold it together. So long ago. A different life. This voice on the phone was a stranger’s.
“Can I ask you something?” the voice said.
“Sure.” He flicked ash into the sink.
“Are you dating Ashleigh Conner?”
Out in the backyard the boys’ bicycles lay where dropped, handlebars twisted flat on the ground, front wheels sticking straight up. Baby Andy’s blue and white scooter dangled where it had been wound up in a swing chain.
There was no breeze. Everything was as still as a photograph.
“I went on a date with someone,” he said. He didn’t know Ashleigh’s last name. “Why’s it matter to you?” He couldn’t remember seeing anyone who might have called and told her about his date.
Pam was tentative. “I don’t know if this is a good time, but I’ve been thinking. About the boys, and you and everything. I’m ready to talk about reconciliation.”
Mike said, “Where the hell did this come from?”
“It might be hard to believe, but I’ve been thinking about it for a long time.”
“What about what’s his name?” Mike took a deep hit of his cigarette and held the smoke.
“It wasn’t right. I don’t know what I was thinking.” She was crying. “I’m so sorry I hurt you. I’m sorry I hurt the boys. You’re my family.”
Mike had been down between swells for so long he was only used to looking straight up; but he was finally rising—on this wave named Ashleigh. He could still smell her perfume on his shirt. He wouldn’t stop it, not for a stranger on the phone.
“Mike?” the voice said. “You there?”
He tapped ash in the sink again and turned on the water. The ash looped and hovered, looped again and twirled down the drain.
“Hymn to the Chaos” was originally published in Blue Mesa Review