When people see Deborah they stop to talk to her, such are the perks, and curses, of being a chili-wife—or chili-widow, as they sometimes refer to themselves in moments of grim jocularity. They are the wives of Schilling’s Chili™ executives. Deborah herself is top widow, the ne plus ultra of chili-wives. It wasn’t always so; she could have been a soup-wife, or even salsa-wife (there was that strange night on the veranda with Don Pancho). But Deborah is a chili-wife, and proud. She is a chili-mother as well, with four partially grown chili-kids.
See Deborah maneuver her new Chrysler Sebring convertible around the familiar curves of the neighborhood, the dull brown greens of August lawns and faded roofs framing the hastily constructed houses with their walls of tracing paper, each one a simulacrum of the previous, or vice-versa. Deborah watches herself giving it maybe more gas than necessary out of the turns, the wheel sliding silkily through her fingers; certain liberties in technique are to be expected, it is a Chrysler after all.
Deborah watches the houses grow and recede on the screen of her windshield, palpitating through the goal posts of her hands and sliding away behind her as if they were moving and she were still.
Soon she realizes that she is no longer looking beyond her hands but right at them where they rest on the steering wheel. Her fingernails don’t quite match the red of the car’s exterior.
Outside the car the air swarms with late summer life, and is fraught with the consequential annoyances: bees, mosquitoes, children not sent to one or another of the many summer-camps designed to accommodate their unique abilities, or lack thereof. Deborah’s two boys are off at lifeguard camp for the summer. Like many women, Deborah knows from experience the special dispensation afforded lifeguards in the way of female relations, and providing that for her boys is just one of the many kindnesses she did for them that they knew nothing about. The boys take after their father, they could use the help.
The girls, 13 and 15, are disposed to refusing absolutely everything, so naturally they were doing nothing but sitting around the house all summer, stalking the hallways like ghosts. At least they seem miserable doing it, Deborah considers with some satisfaction.
The Schillings’ neighbors are mostly older couples who have apparently chosen to spend the little time left to them hosing down their driveways.
Often for hours at a time they stand—or sit, on lawn-chairs with aggressive colors and prints—their preposterous knees sagging like testicles, water flowing down the drives and collecting orgies of swirling debris.
Deborah assumes they’re merely trying to drain a few last resources before ultimately signing off, as if life owes them something they’re determined to recover in the form of wasted city-water. If she were the environmentally concerned type Deborah would be outraged.
It rained last night and is threatening to do so again, so the neighborhood and its driveways are deserted by all but the most dedicated hosers. The sky opens here and there in places, the murky presence of clouds allowing certain blades of light to pierce the branches of transplanted elms whose weary hands extend across the road, breaking the light into fragments, casting bars and jagged penumbra over the damp asphalt and over the hood of Deborah’s car.
Tom the security guard smiles and waves as Deborah speeds past, barely missing the automatic gate, which isn’t quite as attentive as she would like. This is a gated community. Gated meaning a tangible, physical barrier between Deborah’s daughters and the kind of guys she used to date before Walter. The kind of guys she might have married if they hadn’t been incarcerated. The kind of guys who subsequently mailed their bad poetry from prison, where it collected in a certain drawer.
Deborah grips the wheel tightly out of habit as she approaches the shopping district; the public’s din all around her even with the top up. She takes the long route to the store, driving back and forth past the shops before pulling into the parking lot, working to achieve the cheerfully inattentive yet resolutely concerned expression she likes to wear while shopping.
Parking in an obscure corner of the lot, Deborah pushes a button on the car’s console, causing the top to slowly open. She fishes around in her red leather purse until she finds a pack of cigarettes, with a book of matches tucked into the plastic slip. She hadn’t smoked for ten years until recently when for no particular reason she found that she physically could not keep herself from buying a pack. Walter doesn’t know that she has started smoking again. The secret is like a little shroud of comfort she wears around herself that no one but her can see. And it’s not like she’s cheating on him.
She takes a cigarette from the pack and lights a match, not wanting to leave evidence on the car’s built-in lighter. The first match goes out immediately. She throws the dead match on the ground and strikes another one, watching the flame change color several times before it ultimately rests on the yellowish, bluish, reddish color typically associated with flame. The clouds have suddenly gone without Deborah’s noticing, the whole sky opened up like something sure. She inhales deeply, almost too deeply. The smoke feels good in her lungs, solid; it was a goodness you could measure and keep written records of, if you wanted. She smokes the whole cigarette this way, feeling each drag all the way as the sun beats down.
After she’s finished Deborah throws the butt on the ground and pushes another button on the console and the top goes back up, clicking into place. Walking across the parking lot Deborah feels unbearably light, like she might suddenly float up into that lonely blue.
In the air-conditioned insularity of the grocery store Deborah and other women like her stroll up and down aisles, baffled by products only children can understand.
There is a feeling of ease knowing they’re tucked away for the summer, parents going about lives children couldn’t possibly be interested in, unrestrained by the preternatural understanding unique to children. While gazing at the endless selection of peanut butter someone taps Deborah’s shoulder. It is Sally Haines, the wife of one of Walter’s colleagues. She has clearly been to the salon recently, her graying bob reborn as a blond-streaked disaster.
“Wow,” Deborah says, “your hair looks great. Where do you go?” She reaches out and pinches a piece of Sally’s shirt fabric.
Sally says a name to her that Deborah doesn’t hear. The coif is so bad that Deborah nearly doesn’t notice the two recently augmented breasts practically popping out of Sally’s top. Like captives the breasts swell upwards, reaching, in an attitude of escape. It occurs to Deborah that fake breasts are always trying to get away from their owners, like mistreated pets.
Sally fills Deborah in on the Widows’ plan to have cocktails at her house later.
“Fine, I’ll see you ladies then.” Deborah answers, already in motion, feeling an intense desire to get away. She has something in common with Sally’s breasts, she thinks.
A sheepish looking teenager carts Deborah’s purchases out to the car, haphazardly stacking them in the trunk. Struggling with a body he doesn’t understand and distraught by something he is just beginning to, his obvious lack of post-adolescent ardor for her is a source of some consternation. She imagines herself with bigger breasts.
People wave to Deborah through a windshield glittering with crazy life. Fractal glimpses joined through reflection into a hazy kind of coherence. Trees, cars, other people; a world whispering by—stray pets whose insouciance enrages Deborah. Get a Job! she wants to scream at everyone and everything. Am I the only one who’s afraid?
She curses at herself for shopping before going to the carwash: Walter’s ice cream is going to suffer. Though once within the hermetic confines of the wash she is filled with something like solace, these brief moments of meditation. Nothing bad can touch her here. Sometimes Deborah wishes the wash would malfunction, keeping her here forever; an endless cycle of cleansing.
Deborah thinks of her husband: Walter Schilling, CEO of Schilling’s Chili™, a decent man, patient father and bona fide chili vivant, even if not especially dangerous or powerful about the chest and arms. Walter had been there for Deborah, giving her a dream when she had none of her own. That dream was chili, and all that it entailed.
“Mom, you don’t understand the kind of pressure I’m under as a chili-wife,” Deborah is telling her mother as she puts away groceries, realizing that out of everything she bought there still really isn’t anything to eat. Charlotte Darling calls up every other day essentially, Deborah knows, to make sure her daughter hasn’t fucked everything up.
The groceries put away, Deborah paces the house on a cordless phone while talking to her mother, looking into closets and under chairs for no reason; roaming up and down stairs and hallways, visually reclaiming anything she might have forgotten. Unlike most middleclass homes theirs is absent the usual flotilla of family photographs. There is something about pictures that Deborah finds morbid.
“You think you can talk to me about pressure? I lost your father to extension-cords before you were even born!”
Deborah has to cede this point to her mother, for the thousandth time. Harry Darling’s devotion to the extension-cord trade had seamlessly crossed the border from enthusiasm to mania, causing him to have only a sporadic presence in Deborah’s childhood. Towards the end of his life, while writing his soon to be self-published memoirs, A life by Extension, Harry would rarely emerge from his “study”, and when he did was willing to speak only on cord related topics.
“It’s just that he’s been so distant lately. He says it’s nothing, but I know in my heart that it’s the chili. Mom, I think it’s killing him. Maybe it’s killing us.”
At the mention of death Deborah’s mother perks up considerably, but can no longer be trusted to focus on the subject.
Rather than offer wisdom or consolation, as Deborah had hoped, Charlotte summarizes the many travesties taking place in her neighborhood, including some minutia involving the Widow Crabtree and her stepson that Deborah could easily have done without.
After hanging up the phone Deborah has just enough time to perfunctorily clean up the bathroom, that ground zero of peer derision, and change into a pair of lightweight gray slacks and a white cardigan. Looking at herself in the mirror she gets the impression of having a lot of loose ends. She smoothes down her hair and her clothes, but still there is something unkempt that bothers her. She considers changing again but then the doorbell rings.
From the moment they arrive, suddenly all together as if they had car-pooled—which they would never do—Deborah senses something conspiratorial about them. Sally’s new breasts lead them through the house and out to the patio, which the afternoon sun has dried well enough for sitting. After serving the first batch of margaritas Deborah sits with her companions at the patio table, the canvas deck-chair creaking the way it always did after getting wet and dry again. Martine was already criticizing one thing or another, flipping her little boy’s haircut in staccato punctuations of whatever she was saying.
“I told Larry, if you’re going to insist on driving that heap around, at least park it in back so people don’t see it. I mean for God’s sake, the mailman drives in better style. The fucking mailman!””
“You know I always had a thing for mailmen,” Sally is saying, “those little shorts…”
“What about Fed-Ex? They have those darling vests.”
Deborah looks around her backyard, the grass dying under the pretense of conservation, the ants swarming over everything, the almost complete lack of plants.
She always meant to do more with the yard, get some flowers or an herb-garden at least, but she never seemed to have the time. Why didn’t she have the time? What did she do that precluded her from having the time to plant things? She couldn’t figure it out.
“Pithzza delivery boysth?” Mary suddenly blurts out. Mary is Walter’s younger sister, and though she is not technically a widow, she likes to tag along with Deborah and her friends at their “tea parties”.
“At leastht then you can get a meal out of it.”
“Oh, Mary!” Martine exclaims, nearly choking on margarita in what seems a calculated effort, her short hair never motionless. “You are so funny! Sometimes I wonder what on Earth could have happened to you to make you so funny, you poor thing.”
Deborah rocks slowly in her seat, feeling the creaking of the canvas, listening for certain tones, trying to sustain them. She has already finished a drink and is halfway through her second. She hadn’t planned on getting drunk, but sometimes the news is good, as they say.
“Deborah, what on earth are you doing?” Martine suddenly noticing Deborah’s experiment. “You look like a crazy person, rocking back and forth like that. Should we get you a nightgown and a journal, or would you rather stay here with us?”
Deborah laughs and pulls a cigarette from the pack she has in her cardigan pocket. Martine reaches out for the pack after Deborah and shares the flame of Mary’s lighter.
“Cigarettes are vile,” Martine says, drawing deeply on the smoke and forcing it out in a burst through pursed lips, as if blowing an acrid kiss.
No one seems to notice that Deborah has started smoking again, as if the last ten years were pieces of fabric folded up and sewn down the middle, the two halves joining while the middle is still there but hidden from sight. It’s a pleasant feeling. While she smokes with her right hand, Deborah smashes ants with her left, feeling them crush between her fingertips. Afterwards she smells her fingers, that singular smell of smashed ants, sickly sweet like certain foreign foods.
At 5:30 p.m. she meets her husband at the racquet-club. If volatile in the boardroom, Walter is a menace on the tennis-court, his anger and vulgarity reaching a level of absurdity, considering his beginner status. He lurches across the court, jabbing his racket, his body violently out of control, spewing epithets of a character unknown in his off-court life.
For most club members the sight of Walter Schilling playing tennis is a thing to be feared and despised, but Deborah is continually surprised to find her self charmed by it.
Deborah, who more or less grew up at the country club, plays with practiced ease. Approaching adroitly, passing unreachable lobs over her husband’s shoulder, firing overheads down the lines, all exacerbating Walter’s mirthless rampage.
Though today something is different, her shots are going into the net, serves are going wide and she’s missing overheads altogether. She realizes she is drunk, drunker than she thought she was. Walter doesn’t seem to notice, too distracted by this rare success on the court—which Deborah imagines he is probably thinking of as his ‘relentless onslaught’ or some such aggrandizement. She is getting frustrated, not just wanting to win but mortally afraid of losing. She loses the first set in straight games. Anyone but Walter would realize that something aside from his own will was determining the outcome of the match, but Deborah can tell from the look on his face that behind it someone or something thinks it’s in control.
“Motherfucker!” Deborah cries, putting the final point into the net, the ball striking the tape squarely and popping like a gunshot heard from far away.
“That’s match, Deb.” Walter says sprightly, bounding toward the net.
“Don’t you think I know that!”
Afterwards walking to their separate cars the parking lot is a miasma of rotting leaves that have fallen prematurely. Sickly human, faintly of urine, the smell fills Deborah with the sense of foreboding she feels whenever the seasons show signs of converging. The thought occurred to her: you could just go away. It was possible. I could just disappear—start all over from scratch. As the reality of that idea set in she nearly jumped, so startled she was by her train of thought. Then she started laughing, softly at first but then hysterically. Then she realized that someone was looking at her from the car with which she was parked nose-to-nose, it was Walter. He looked strange and suspicious. He probably thought she was making fun of him; maybe she had let him win just to torment him and now she was having a good laugh about it. Deborah decided she would let him think that, if he wanted. She started the car and backed up, giving her horn a light tap as a signal of something.
Summer dinnertime draws a striking disparity from the usual junta of hungry teenagers, and the peace is nearly stifling. The girls are both lingering in their rooms refusing to eat and Deborah is too tired to do anything about it. Besides, it means she doesn’t have to make anything. Walter, too preoccupied to care, picks through the fridge for leftovers while Deborah eats a salad in the living room. Contrary to the popular opinion that there is nothing on television, Deborah finds nearly everything on those hundreds of channels interesting. She isn’t sure if it’s her or everyone else that’s wrong.
Walter comes into the living room with a beer and a sandwich made up of Deborah can’t tell what. He’s still wearing his sweaty tennis clothes, almost certainly to antagonize her.
The pale blaze of a summer afternoon fades languorously through the windows, splashing the sofa with autumnal hues.
Walter nearly has a fit when he suspects that his wife, while flipping aimlessly through the channels, has skipped over a James Bond movie. Walter, who apparently had never seen a movie until meeting Deborah, missed out on James Bond when he was younger, and now he was more or less obsessed. He forces her to retrace her steps only to discover that the program in question is a made for TV movie about a cold-war era assassin who suddenly finds himself a single father. Walter and Deborah agree that the movie, which is airing incongruously on the Lifetime network, couldn’t possibly appeal to anyone. Over an hour later they realize that they have watched the whole thing, and that they both liked it.
After dinner Deborah tries to entreat her husband by discussing his work. Initiating a dialog on bean-chili, she asks the fatal question: how many beans are too many? It is Deborah’s opinion that four is the optimal number, anything more being excessive and possibly immoral. This opinion makes her something of an iconoclast in what is largely a five-bean community.
Where he once would have become animated, Walter is totally unreachable, but for the demonstrative shudders which overcome his entire body whenever an unqualified mind extemporizes itself on the subject of bean-chili.
After showering and putting on pajamas they read silently in bed while the girls bicker upstairs, the cold scent of vapor-rub wafting prodigiously from Walter’s chest. Walter, who has suffered from an unidentifiable ague all summer, has just shut off his bedside lamp and gone through his arduous routine of settling into the covers when Deborah pokes him on the shoulder.
“Baby, are you awake?”
“Deb? Yes, what?”
“Baby, we need to talk.”
Walter reluctantly sits up, loathe to entertain any discussion that begins with those words. “Oh, god. Is one of us having an affair?”
“No Dear, nothing like that. It’s just that, Baby, are you listening? It’s just that, ‘cause I know something is wrong. I just want you to tell me, is it the chili? Is it the Stagg people? Are they bothering you again?”
“Goddamnit!” Walter erupts, his apprehensions finding a home in domestic outrage. “Why does everything have to be about the chili? Did I bring up the chili? Why talk about chili?”
“But the Stagg people…”
“Fuck the Stagg people! Yea, I said it. You know what? Maybe I’m sick to death of chili! Maybe I don’t ever want to see or hear about chili ever again!” Walter himself seems shocked at the ballast of his conviction, and seems to be softly crying.
“But Baby, your whole life has been about chil…”
“Don’t say it! Don’t say the word, I mean it. If you so much as utter that word again, I swear to God, I’m getting up and walking out of here.”
“What about the kids?”
“To hell with the kids!”
“Walter! How could you even say that?”
“Ok, ok. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that. But really, Deb, don’t ever say…it…again. In fact, I signed paperwork this afternoon, if you really want to know. I sold our shares, we’re out of the business.”
“You did all this after tennis? Were you even going to tell me?”
“Before tennis, and I did just tell you.”
“Not the Stagg people?”
“Baby, seriously, please don’t mention the Stagg people.”
“Well what are you going to do then? What are we going to do?”
Walter sits up and switches his lamp back on. In the spectral glow of 80 watts Deborah can see the look, as if beamed from the far shores of ecstasy. The look is a dangerous pouring out of the old mortal tonic, an invitation to chaos through abstract thought as a means of domestic and spiritual renewal. It is the look she married, but at the moment it is terrifying.
“Now Baby, just hear me out.” Walter pleads.
Deborah’s mind is quickly succumbing to the entropy of a life uncategorized by manufactured consumables. What was she if not a chili-wife? Just a plain wife? Just a plain mother? What were their dreams if not chili dreams?
“Deb, are you listening?”
“Yea, sure…” Deborah mouths breathlessly.
Walter climbs to his knees and faces his wife, holding her shoulders with firm, chili tempered hands, the mentholated vapors of his chest nearly blinding her. It is the closest thing to an actual embrace either one of them has experienced in recent memory.
“Are you ready? There is just one word, one word, and I want you to hear it with an open mind. Do you want to hear it?”
Deborah nods, her mental state hovering near total apoplexy.
“Plastic.” Walter says it smoothly, the hissing vortex leading from the pliant grounding of the word to the punctuated tic of its finale—pl-aa-ss-tic—massaging Deborah’s mind with its slick durability.
“Plastic.” Walter repeats, the even gravity of his voice leaving no further room for confusion.
Deborah is quiet, and Walter is quiet waiting for Deborah to stop being quiet.
“Baby, don’t take this the wrong way, but did you just watch The Graduate for the first time?”
Walter’s face tightens, half masking a guilty expression whose superlative innocence Deborah finds moving, beside herself. Somehow there is a quality in that innocence that is so much more than palliative.
Plastic-wife. Plastic-mom. Plastic-widow? Deborah allows a surging to fill her breast, an impression of movement. As if she, the room, the house, the whole world were gaining momentum, moving away from the darkness and towards something bright and forever. Plastic. It really was such a strong word, resounding of power and permanence.
“Deb?” Walter looks his wife in the eyes, which are twinkling with moisture either from joy or vapor-rub, or possibly both. “What do you think, Deb?”
Deborah allows several moments to pass quietly, merely nodding her head the way people do when they want to give the impression of thought, pretending for some reason that she isn’t consumed with joy.
“Ok, Baby. If that’s what you want then of course I support you. And I’m glad we had this talk, but I do think you should go upstairs and apologize to the girls.”
“Apologize? For what?”
“For what? For saying they should go to hell, of course.”
“I didn’t really say they should go to hell, merely that they could go to hell. Besides, I’ll bet they didn’t even hear me.”
Walter plies himself from the bed and walks to the door of their bedroom. Pausing as if having made a decision he turns quickly around and walks back to the bed and takes Deborah by the shoulders, hoisting her somewhat, kissing her deeply, squeezing her breasts, their eyes as he pulls away meeting as if for the first time.
“I love you, Deb.”
“I love you too, Wall.”
As Walter goes upstairs to apologize to the girls, who always hear everything, Deborah lies back and allows one hand to submerge beneath the blankets. Soon her boys will be back and everything will resume its chaotic normalcy, but right now she is young and quiet and in love. This could last forever, she thinks.