Unmaking Dinner by James Cato

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I have to eat trash again; there’s no other choice tonight. I trudge toward the lonely house by the train station and sag with relief when I see an empty driveway. No car means no judgement, no guilt, no intense conversation.

The house belongs to a Mrs. Alta and her family. I know her well. Whenever she catches me in her cans, she emerges with a meal and a lecture. I could root through other people’s garbage, but I’ve heard of houseless people shot for less. At least with Mrs. Alta, I know I’m safe from harm, if not scrutiny.

A rat waddles across my shadow, cast by the sharp metal moon. Quiet as a ninja I unhitch the latches and undo the red ties of the trash bag. When I leave I will re-tie them. Making dinner, unmaking dinner. I choke down a sour carrot and a winy carton of old apple juice.

Mrs. Alta likes to advise me peering down from her deck like a smug old owl. When she offers food, she always emphasizes that she has only four ceramic dishes, that the other three go to herself, her husband, and her infant daughter, that I should count myself lucky to claim one. Which I do. Then begin her sermons. 

Look at you, pretty girl, she’ll exclaim, why do you make such terrible choices? You’d be happy if you settled down. Sure, Mr. Alta and I argue. He drives too fast; I fret too much. But we love one another. Might not seem like much, but we at least have dinner, right?

I listen well. It would be too easy to disregard her stories. Wasps bore into the porch beams. Her windows are caulked shut to keep out heat. The neighbors planted invasive trees that treat themselves to a trespass grow, shading out her wildflowers. She and I share discomfort in suburbia. She has the loud laugh of a country woman, like me. 

She’ll also press me about being houseless. I’ll tell her how we stay under bridges when it rains. How a fracking pad lives upstream and sometimes the water atstes fnunky and yuor hed hruts. It’s harder to be a houseless woman than a houseless man. My chest bulges out like hers but I hide in this baggy shawl for a reason, because I’ve seen men fuck trash, a cantaloupe rind or turkey, cut a hole with broken glass or a soda can peeled razor-mean like an orange. How she would be wise to stay inside if she finds a round eye in her plastic bags. She’ll shake her head in awe, convinced that her life could never suck like mine, and that is the part I hate, the part I duck. Otherwise, Mrs. Alta is the closest thing I have to an aunt.

Tonight she is home after all. The porchlight flares on, blinding me like an interrogator’s lamp. “In my cans again?” she says. “Thought so.” I am exposed using a licked finger to stick ants and scraping them into my mouth like spilled sugar. 

I squint as she sidles out, three plates soldiered on her arm like a waitress. She usually announces each recipe like a sports star—stewed sweet potato, tamale casserole, buttery peppers with goat cheese—but tonight she simply tilts each onto the railing. It’s all I can do to thank her before snatching the closest. It’s more food than she’s ever offered. The tasteless cabbage rind I’d been nibbling can be donated to the rat.

As I feast, Mrs. Alta slumps in the shape of the number 6, silent. I don’t notice how muted she is until partway through the second dish. I see tightness in her lips, which usually gab away, urging me flee the addicts and seedy corners. When she catches me staring, she doesn’t direct me to “sit like a lady.” She only says that she’s glad I’m enjoying the food, that she has more casseroles and leftovers than she knows what to do with.

Perhaps she’s given up. 

“Next time dinner is on me,” I nudge, trying to elicit a reaction, expecting a diatribe on responsibility, on cleaning myself up to find a husband who can support a family, like she did. She says nothing, picking the plastic skin on her armrest. I can’t believe it, but I think she’s on something, stoned, maybe, but no, she’s too far off for that. Downers. Booze. 

“You have any friends out there?” she finally asks. “Close ones?”

I tell her about Kade. He was the most peaceful man I know, spending his days collecting rubber bands in a ball. His eyes shone wide as a gecko’s when he picked them off the curbs. A few months ago, he was found by hikers with those bands around his neck, skin squeezed right to the spinal bone. Everyone knew teenagers did it to him while he was up. Nobody investigated. 

I’m waiting for the disbelieving head shake, that motion I dread, confirming that my life blows a hundred times more than hers. But she doesn’t. “Poor boy, god bless him,” she says. “And where exactly can I find you, girl?”

I mark the location on her phone, shocked at her interest, at saving my mattress under the overpass as a destination. Then she bids me goodnight and I watch her return sluggishly to her living room, leaving the lights off, quick as she came. 

I want to stop her, to tell her that she only has four ceramic plates, that she had given me three, that her husband and daughter would have nothing clean to eat on. To ask why she’s home alone drunk with no car and so many leftover casseroles. But I don’t, and sew closed the trash bag before I leave.

James Cato does environmental justice work outside Pittsburgh with his snake, Baby Sleeves. He has stories in Tiny Molecules, Atticus Review, Gone Lawn, JMWW, and Daily Science Fiction, among others. He tweets humbly @the_sour_potato and his work lives on jamescatoauthor.com/fiction. He’d enjoy a conversation with you.

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