He spat his toothpaste into the sink, rinsed his mouth, then as he straightened saw himself in the mirror and froze. Yesterday he’d been in a public bathroom with mirrors mounted on all the walls, which had given him the chance to be shocked by the sight of his own incipient bald spot. Now, standing in his underwear, Mark took a good look at himself: his pendulous man-boobs, his pale hairy belly muffin-topping out of his gray bunched boxers, his arms growing thinner and flabbier, the underslept wrinkles around his eyes. In the peripatetic years to come his weight would fluctuate wildly, but he didn’t know that.
No wonder Katie wasn’t enthusiastic about sex anymore. This was not a petulant, self-pitying thought; more a moment of empathy. Of course, Katie had aged too. But she wore it less clownishly than he. She remained a tight-bodied, sexy woman.
I’m halfway to death. Probably more, he figured. It might be technically possible for him to live past eighty-four, but given his family history and lifestyle habits he doubted it. Although death had always been his greatest terror, at this moment the thought brought only a kind of sad awe. The cliché had proven true: it had all gone by so fast. And from here out it would only pick up speed.
The apartment was warm enough to hang out in his underwear. But he got dressed so he wouldn’t have to look at his body. Katie had taken the kid to another toddler’s birthday party, giving Mark a furlough for the morning and early afternoon. He’d been looking forward to the break, but now that it was here it didn’t feel like a long one. Anxiety fizzled along his nerves as he tried to decide whether he would watch a movie (and, if so, which movie) or read a book (and, if so, which book). The birthday party was way the hell out by the Verrazano Bridge. Even though he, Katie, and Lil lived in Brooklyn themselves, and even though he could in fact see the Verrazano from his tenth-story window, it still took an hour to get there. He knew that from Katie’s good-natured complaining. He’d never actually had to tag along on any visits to this particular toddler.
So he had, like, three hours. Better start by eating. While he heated some food he could decide between a book or a movie, then narrow it down to which specimen of the chosen category he would indulge in.
Something quick, food-wise. He looked in the cabinet; found a can of Corky’s Chili, with its friendly blue label. A guilty pleasure, except Mark didn’t feel particularly guilty over it—the tangy, beefy chili might be mass-produced, but it wasn’t all that unhealthy. It just felt like it ought to be unhealthy, because it came from a can, and because it filled him up and gave him pleasure. Also because it was packaged in such a goofy, friendly way. The sky-blue of the can and the festive red-and-yellow logo made him think of children’s food, and children’s food was always shit. Had been during his childhood, anyway. When Mark was a kid there had been a wide-mouthed manically grinning Mexican in a sombrero on the label. Corky himself, presumably. He’d been phased out.
Mark ground the can-opener along the lid of the can and turned the can upside-down over the pot automatically, without paying attention to what he was doing. Jiggled it over the pot until its contents glopped out.
Then he stopped.
What had come out of the can was not Corky’s Chili.
It was a slick mass that held the shape of the interior of the can, like a Jell-o mold. Instead of the earth-brown of beans and beef, it was the light blue of a dirty sky, mottling here and there into purple. Perhaps the can had been infected by some sort of mold. A mold that had fused together its constituent beans and pellets of beef into what looked like weird lobes, organ-like but following the curve of the can, fitted together by the pressure of the interior of the can.
It had a smell, too. A tickling smell, that entered at the nose and set up camp in the back of the throat, but otherwise seemed without content.
Mark took two steps back from the pot, mouth wide, nose wrinkled, his arms held out from his sides, one hand holding the can and the other the can opener. Part of his mind operated like a camera hovering in mid-air somewhere to his left, angled down at him and giving him a look at the comical spectacle he made, with his chubby body, his wild spray of bed-head hair, and his overdramatic, finicky disgust. He put the can and can-opener down on the counter, carefully, so as to counteract the urge he had to fling everything away from himself as hard as he could. Then he backed out of the kitchen nook, tearing his eyes from the patient gloop. Went and lay on the sofa.
And laughed at himself. Really laughed. Okay, so his two-dollar can of Corky’s had been violated, big deal. His appetite had been stamped to nothing; he’d just eat later.
That slop would have to be thrown out. For all he knew, whatever colony of microscopic organisms had transmogrified his chili was still alive, still fizzing in that pot, sending out tendrils, bacterial scouts, looking for an inviting place to which it could swarm now that it had been released. So, okay, he’d throw it away. But in a few minutes. Which meant his choice had been made for him: book, not movie. A movie would take two hours, far too long to leave that stuff gestating in the kitchen. A book he could take a break from in twenty minutes, while he went to scoop the slop into the garbage and wash out the pot with scalding water. And possibly find something else to eat, if his appetite had returned.
Not that the stuff that had come from the can was all that disgusting. Obviously he shouldn’t eat it. But only because he didn’t know what it was. If it had been served to him at a restaurant or a dinner party, he would have shrugged and tried it.
Even that smell wasn’t bad. It had just taken him aback, was all. Again, it struck him that in fact the smell seemed to have no content, seemed to not be a smell, per se. More like a pressure seeping into his sinuses.
He tried to read his book. After going over the same page three times, he got up and went back to the kitchen.
Time to throw the gloop out. No sense putting it off.
He found himself studying it. It still retained the shape of the can. Not rigidly; more like the integrity of a living body’s form. It still glistened, not having dried out in the open air.
Curious, Mark took a fork out of the drawer and cautiously introduced the tines into the crack between two blue lobes. Gently pried at them. They seemed willing to come apart, albeit with a light sucking sound. Mark had half-expected the cylindrical mass to wince and pucker away from him.
This really did not seem like mold that had fused chili beans together into new shapes. It seemed like something else entirely. Mark wondered if maybe the wrong contents had been squirted into the can. Like, a mix-up at the factory, say. This was probably food, too. Just a different kind of food.
He kept staring at it. That smell intrigued him, maybe precisely because he couldn’t really smell it. He could feel its presence, emanating from the slop. But it was a smell his nose wasn’t equipped for.
The blue stuff just had to be food. A mix-up at the factory. Barely breathing, he pushed the tines of his fork three centimeters deeper into the inter-lobe crevice. Drew it out. Now the fork tines also glistened with the food’s lubricant. Gingerly he put the tines in his mouth, ran his tongue over them. Tasted. An interesting taste: sharp, yet light, having the kick of pepper but without its flavor. A hint of something like meat somewhere in there. The ghost of it, anyway.
Mark wouldn’t have been able to say how long he stood there, fork in hand, trying to parse the taste. He couldn’t quite manage it. Seemed like food, though. Would probably taste better heated up.
He lit a burner on the stove and set the pot atop it. The blue-lobed stuff began to sizzle. Mark felt jumpy, as if he feared the food would cry out. Quickly he turned off the flame, without even having bothered to mash the stuff out of its cylindrical shape. Dumped it into a bowl, sat at the table, and ate it.
Three hours later Katie and Lil came home. Mark lifted Lil and swung her around some, then went to lay with her on the couch while Katie got her coat off and untangled her scarf from her neck. “What’d you eat for lunch?” she asked, an idle question.
“Corky’s Chili,” Mark said, his face not betraying the sudden surprise he felt at himself. The answer was a lie; that had not been chili. Suddenly he wondered what the hell he had been thinking. How could he have sat down and eaten a bowl of random blue shit? Stuff he had at first thought was a slime-mold or something?
But oh well. No harm done.
Two days later, coming home from work, he made a detour to go to the grocery store. Mark wandered through the aisles, desultorily grabbing items like bread, apples, a box of frozen lasagna. When he got to the aisle with the canned chili he understood that all that other crap in his basket had just been an excuse. He came to the sky-blue ranks of Corky’s. Held his hand out toward the shelf, then hesitated. Tentatively, slowly, he ran his hand along the space before the cans, rejecting for reasons obscure to himself each one his fingers passed. At last his hand stopped. Quivered a moment. Then snatched the chosen can off the shelf and dropped it into his basket. As he emerged from whatever state he’d been in, ready to go be rung up, he caught a woman staring at him, fascinated and disturbed by the care with which he’d picked his can of Corky’s out from its seemingly identical mates. He blushed and hurried past her.
Over the decades that were about to begin, that would round off his life, he would sometimes sense another like him, another who had been contacted by the slop, who had been picked out according to its obscure criteria; he would be in a grocery store, listening with his skin for that communication from the slop; and he would become aware that another bedraggled man or woman, also before the wall of Corky’s, was listening for the same thing. Never, at such moments, did Mark feel any warmth for his fellow traveler. Why socialize with someone who had, like himself, seen through the utter bullshit of human relations? One time, back in the States and reduced to absolute penury, he would break into the rear entrance of a Wyoming grocery store long after midnight and there find another raggedy bum listening to the blue cans. They would exchange not a word. Had there only been one helping of slop instead of two, only one can that contained the blue lobes instead of the chili promised by the label, would they have beaten each other to death in the struggle for it? Anyway, there were two. Had there not been, the slop wouldn’t have called them both. That’s what Mark figured, at least. He had an idea that the slop didn’t want its instruments here on this plane disabling each other. Wouldn’t be conducive to the success of its project. Whatever that was—Mark didn’t care—wasn’t his business. He had no more interest in that than a hammer does in the blueprints of the house it’s used to build.
“Where were you?” asked Katie when he came through the front door, then saw the two Key Foods bags he carried. “Oh, you went shopping?”
“Yeah,” he said, a little curtly, as he set the bags on the counter. He felt like he had a dirty secret, which was all the more disconcerting since he couldn’t have said what the secret was. Katie gave him a funny look. He started putting away the groceries. She laughed when she saw what he’d bought, and shook her head and commented on how random his selection was and how he should use a list when he went shopping. Mark nearly snapped at her to mind her own business.
Katie busied herself with wrangling Lil, setting sticker books out on the table before her. “I’ll cook us some spaghetti,” she said, without taking her eyes off the kid.
Mark felt an obscure tightening. “I actually really feel like Corky’s,” he said, trying to be nonchalant.
“What?!” Katie laughed and looked at him, without malice or hurt feelings, just laughing at his goofiness. Even so, Mark felt himself tightening even more. “You’re going to eat a can of chili by yourself while Lil and I have spaghetti?”
“Well, if it bothers you, I can eat the same thing as you guys.” Then he felt angry at the thought that she might take him at his word; because actually he would mind foregoing his can of Corky’s. “I mean, what is the big deal? I mean, spaghetti? Who cares?! It might be different if you’d been slaving over a hot stove or whatever fixing a meal from scratch, but all you’re talking about is boiling some pasta. It’s the same amount of work for you if I have some or not. So what do you care?”
“I don’t care.” She watched him, taken aback, hurt, angry, wary. Lil kept playing with her stickers, oblivious. “I just laughed because it was funny. You’re cute with your chili, is all. Whatever.”
Mark nodded. He stood there, awkward. “Sorry.”
He wanted to keep apologizing, to apologize relentlessly until he’d banished all the bad feelings he’d roused. Would just make things worse, though. He drummed his fingers on the countertop. “Can I help you with anything?” he asked, meaning Lil-related stuff.
“Nope,” she said, without turning around to look at him.
He stood there. He was really hungry—or, well, he wanted to eat, anyway. But he hesitated to open the can in front of Katie and Lil. In front of anyone. He preferred to eat it in private. He found himself trying to brainstorm a way to get Katie and Lil out of the apartment for half an hour. Nothing presented itself.
Katie looked back over her shoulder, startled, as if she had suddenly felt him looming there. “Are you all right?” she said.
Mark shrugged and tried to fake being surprised by the question. “Of course.”
“What’s going on with you?”
She turned back to Lil. “Something’s going on. But if you don’t want to say what it is, that’s fine.”
Normally he would have taken a remark like that as an invitation to fight. Or as a prompt to make peace. Right now, though, he just wanted to eat his Corky’s, and continuing this discussion would only delay that.
“Okay, well, I’m gonna go ahead and eat that chili,” he said.
She turned to look at him with wide eyes. “Okay!” she said. “I don’t mind. I’ll just boil the spaghetti after you’re done with the stove.”
“Okay,” he said. Still he was reluctant to open the can before her—it felt like an intimacy that surpassed even the conventions of marriage, as if he were to drop his pants and take a shit in front of her.
He was only going to heat it up because she’d be suspicious otherwise. He knew the stuff was good to eat straight out of the can.
Common sense told him it would be better to eat it alone. In private. Because it didn’t look like chili, wasn’t chili. But he wanted some now. Angling his body so that it hid the can and stovetop from Katie, he ground the lid off with the can opener. The familiar blue slop looked out at him from within. When the light and his own eyes fell upon the stuff, it seemed a miracle to him that it had been here, within the can, in the dark, awaiting him, real but dormant. He slithered the compact blue lobes into the pot, his breath heavy. The same slop, but not exactly the same—this was no mass-produced article—the lobes were pressed together in slightly different formations, and the coloring was slightly different; the same dingy blue, the same notes of purple, but more of the purple this time, striated through the cylindrical bulk. As the last helping had done, this stuff held the form of the can. Held it almost perfectly—peering into the wet insides of the can, it didn’t look to Mark like any scrap of the stuff had been left behind. Integrity maintained. For the sake of appearances, he turned the fire on under the pot. Really, he should mash it all into a flat paste, if he wanted to dine with a low profile; that’s what he would do if it were chili, ergo that’s what Katie would expect. But he couldn’t quite bring himself to mess up its almost-perfect cylinder. He just probed it with his fork, as he’d done the last time. Caressing the folds of its lobes with the tines.
“What the fuck is that shit?!”
Mark literally jumped and yelped. Katie had walked around the counter and come to stand beside him, without his noticing.
“What the fuck is that shit!” repeated Lil, perfectly and cheerfully.
“What is it?!” insisted Katie, aghast.
“Chili,” he said, stupidly.
She guffawed, then did a quick double-take, appalled to realize he was not joking. “That is not chili. It’s blue! And that smell….”
“It hasn’t got a smell!” He snatched the pot off the burner, reached into the cabinet overhead and yanked out a bowl so violently and carelessly that a whole stack of them tumbled out after and shattered on the counter and floor with a tremendous racket. Lil started to cry. What began to really scare Katie was that Mark ignored the hundreds of ceramic shards now littering the kitchen; he just slapped that blue shit from the pot into the one bowl he hadn’t broken, marched with the bowl around the island countertop over to the table, and slapped it and himself down at the table beside still-weeping Lil, a ferocious scowl barring entry to his face.
She rushed after him. Put her hand on his, the one with the fork, before he could lift it to his mouth. He slapped it away. “Let me eat!”
“Mark. Look at it. That came out of a Corky’s can? What is it?”
“Let me eat!”
“Mark!” She put her hands on his again—but this time he shook them off with such violence that she took a step back and could only watch as he worked a lobe free from the cylindrical mass and stuffed the whole thing into his mouth, as if he didn’t want to cut it up. She wasn’t sure he even chewed it—it seemed to just slither down his throat.
It wasn’t like she thought he would hit her if she kept trying to put her hands on his, or take the bowl from him. But Lil was there, already crying. And just enough of a slim possibility existed that Mark would hit her to make the risk unacceptable, here with the toddler watching.
She shouldn’t be crying in front of the kid, either, but she couldn’t help that. Mark worked the lobes free with a gentleness that clashed with the stubborn ferocity of his expression. Each lobe left the gelatinous mass with a slight sucking sound. “Is it some kind of salad?” she moaned.
He slurped a purple-spotted blue lobe into his mouth. This one definitely seemed big enough to choke him, yet this time Katie felt certain he swallowed it whole, without chewing. “What the fuck do you care what I eat,” he muttered.
“Mark. Jesus. What if you get sick?”
Suddenly he was down to the last lobe. Katie could have sworn that as he slurped it into his mouth, it quivered up between his lips at least somewhat under its own power. He stood up, turning his attention upon her. Katie took another step back. Lil’s wailing intensified to a shriek. She made a motion as if she would leave her chair and clutch Daddy’s leg, hold him back, but she stopped short.
“Just let me eat what I want,” he warned.
“I’m only worried you’re going to get sick.”
“Bullshit. Just let me eat.”
Suddenly she could feel upon her face her own scowl, answering his, although her tears didn’t stop. Quite the contrary. “Just get it over with,” she spat. Because in a flash she had seen what this was the opening move of. He wanted to eat what he wanted. He wanted to do what he wanted. Live where he wanted. Be free to become who he was, or even who he wasn’t. The socially constructed, ultimately contingent nature of family and love had been revealed to him, and with that revelation the nice man she had dated, married, and had a child with had disappeared, like the dream of a creature dreaming of being something totally other than what it is. She didn’t know what connection this big revelation had to the organ-like things he was eating, nor whether there even was a connection, nor did she particularly give a fuck. She didn’t need some otherworldly experience to tell her how fragile the bonds of civilization were, what a constant loving labor of imagination they required. Everybody already knew that.