Ketchup

by Jeff Wood
He is in a McDonald’s with the twins and their brother and as best he can remember Sadie wants a Happy Meal with Chicken McNuggets, Madison wants two cheeseburgers and apple slices instead of fries; he is unable to learn what Jaden wants as Jaden is happily engaged at the condiments counter filling an endless series of small plastic cups with ketchup from the dispenser. He is sure Jaden has ketchup on his hands, his clothes, the counter, the floor. He is too tired to look, too fearful at the unholy red mess he is certain to find.

Long minutes later, when the food is finally delivered, the kids all bolt to the white plastic table, tiny hands bursting with napkins and straws and ketchup cups and little paper salt packets. He tags wearily along behind them, greasy bags of food in hand, as if herding sheep.

He rarely lets them eat at McDonald’s but they have eaten there seven or eight times this last month after the visits to the hospital, the homes of various relatives, the funeral parlor. And not just McDonald’s but Taco Bell, KFC, Wendy’s. Bright lights, primary colors, everything plastic or paper, everything disposable. They can just eat it and leave, nothing to clean up, nothing to think about. Well meaning friends, relatives, seeming strangers press food into his hands almost daily, but he can’t bring himself to cook it, can’t bring himself to turn on the oven. The casserole dishes sit stacked in the freezer like sides of beef.

When he got the call in the middle of the night he packed the barely-awake kids into the back seat and drove to his mother’s home, expecting to be greeted by ambulances and the flashing lights of fire trucks, but of course they had all left by the time he had completed the three hour drive. Pools of fog lay in the pre-dawn fields and shallow valleys between his house and hers; months later now and he still thinks of grief in this way, laying low to the ground, indistinct, inert. He remembers how during the drive he wanted to gently pull the car to the side of the road so as not to wake the kids, get out and lie down in it, cool grass against his back, damp air against the skin of his face. How he wanted to be blanketed in fog, embraced by it, the rest of the world disappeared into the wide hazy distance forever.

Madison has dropped her hamburger onto the floor and is crying, inconsolable. He offers her his own untouched burger, then plies the patty off the floor, thick globby filaments of ketchup stretching out between the meat and linoleum before falling prey to gravity, joining the dirty napkins, the crushed French fries, the congealed pools of soda.

An unholy red mess.

Tubes running into her arms, her chest, her mouth. Pure white squares of antiseptic gauze stained with prim dots of blood. He has not wept, not yet.

The house is a pigsty. Clothes, dishes, newspapers, mail. There is so much cleaning up to do. More than anything else he wants to mourn the way people on television mourn, staring into a serene sunset, walking on a beach as waves crash and gulls coo, but Jaden is putting French fries up his nose desperate for approving laughter, Sadie needs to go to the bathroom right now, and Madison is giving him a look of such love and pure devotion for giving her his burger it would break his heart had he time to ponder it. Time, yes, time, besot him with love if only he had time to ponder it; he needs time and silence and solitude but the dizzy pace of the day does not allow it, things are not where they belong and will not fall into place, nothing stands still, this untidy business of life just goes on and on and on.
Jeff Wood lives in Pueblo, CO with his wife and two daughters.  He has had over 20 short stories published in print magazines and online publications such as Boston Phoenix, New York Press, Camas: The Nature of the West, Fiction at Work, Six Sentences, Everyday Weirdness, The Greyrock Review, Bellowing Ark and Java Journal.  He also has a children's play included in the anthology CHILDSPLAY, in the company of Sam Shepard and Maya Angelou.

© 2011, Jeff Wood