Conventional Wisdom: To be a working mother is to be all things to all people. No corners can be cut, not as a mother, a wife or a work colleague. As they say, I don’t know how she does it.
Truth: I’ll tell you how she did it, and you will be horrified.
It was a pretty big deal when the Roy Rogers opened near our house. Until then fast food hadn’t infiltrated the leafy streets of my childhood. It took so long for the usual reasons, resistance from those who did not want the traffic and other headaches that came with commercial development, howsoever tasty. Controversial though it had been, to us kids the restaurant was an unqualified good. I mean, what possibly could be bad about affordable burgers, fries and shakes, all just a bike ride away? A place where we could get summer jobs. Matt, anyway. He was in the market after being hired and fired on his first day at the gas station for twice leaving the full-service hose in a car as it drove off. Roy Rogers would be perfect for dates. Of course most of us still needed girlfriends, but with the burger joint nearby they were now theoretically more of a possibility. Truth is after the not-in-my-backyard wails subsided, some of the most vocal obstructionists became regular diners.
Mom in particular grew fond of it. Not for herself, mind you. I don’t recall ever seeing her eat anything there. For the kids. The real question was how she managed so long without a Roy Rogers, between work and carting us all over creation. And then there was dad. If he ever cooked a meal in his life – grilled cheese included – I missed it. Here was the reality on the ground: if unfed by seven in the evening, dad could get a little testy; by eight, the fur would absolutely fly.
Knowing this, mom had it down to a science on fast food nights. On the way home from work she would pick us kids up from practice. We would go into Roy Rogers and eat inside, her thinking being the general stink of sweaty adolescent bodies mixed with processed meat in the tight quarters of a Volkswagen Rabbit was more than she could bear. Win-win for us, too, as we could inhale our food like animals, no dawdling over how was school questions, etc. Mom would stay in the car with a faraway look in her eyes and listen to Judy Collins cassettes, remembering a time not too long ago when the world was full of promise and her car didn’t smell like a foot.
All mom asked was that we get something to-go for dad so she wouldn’t come home empty-handed. That way she could literally sling a sack of food at him the minute we walked in. If all went according to plan, we would be in Roy Rogers by 6:15, finished by 6:30 and home with the old man’s food by 6:45, before even the first witching hour. But that night it didn’t go according to plan. Not by a long shot.
“Thanks mom,” I said, bending the passenger seat forward so my brother Jack could get in. “Delicious, as always.”
“Yeah,” Jack grunted. “Good.”
“Wait,” mom said, panic in her voice. “Where’s dad’s food?” I had bought him his usual bacon cheeseburger and fries, just like always. Jack apparently had thrown the bag out when he pitched our trash.
“Shoot,” I said. “We must have thrown it out. What should I do?” Mom thought about it for a moment, and then looked at me and with slits for eyes made an executive decision.
“Just go back and fish it out of the trash.”
“Are you serious?” I asked. “That’s disgusting!”
“Don’t be such a priss, Mike. It wasn’t in there for more than a minute. Just go and get it. If the bag looks no worse for the wear, we’ll be fine.” And then, ominously: “Trust me, I’ve done worse.”
Sending me in on this task was probably a mistake. But Jack, who had committed the crime, was already buckled in the back seat, and I was the more responsible one anyway. The mission felt snake-bit from the beginning, but like a soldier ordered to go on patrol the very night that he cannot find his lucky rabbit’s foot, I had no choice. Once inside I headed right for the trash can nearest where we had been sitting. Does everyone know what I am about to do, I wonder. I hope not. The manager’s eyes seem to follow me as I close in on my target. Too late now, I’m past the point of no return. Like a teenager pretending to reach for Time when he’s really going for Penthouse, I deftly open the top of the trash receptacle and peer inside. Thankfully, right there on top is the bag, sitting upright and easy to reach. In a swift motion, I extract dad’s dinner with my free hand and make a beeline for the door, eyes cast downward. The last thing I want to see right now is anybody from school.
I exhale as I leave the restaurant and for the first time notice a chill in the air. Dropping my full weight into the passenger seat, I raise up the bag so mom can see that the exfiltration was a success. “Happy?”
Mom eyeballs it from the driver’s seat and, seeing no visible ketchup stains, nods her assent. We leave the parking lot and head home, driving in silence. Nobody wants to talk about what we’ve done, or indeed what remains to be done, so mom just hums her Judy Collins, I stare out the window and Jack belches with commentary. As we pull into our driveway mom looks at the bag a second time and, pointing at it, issues the fateful order. “Now go inside and give that to your father.” There is a nonchalance to her voice that is a little too forced, as if with her gestures and generic phrasing she can preserve plausible deniability. Oh well, I figure. I’ve made it this far, maybe tonight I am destined to beat the odds. As soon as the door in the laundry room opens, I hear dad’s voice.
“Where have you guys been? I’m starving in here.” I enter the family room and there is dad in his favorite chair, finishing the newspaper. He zeroes in on the feed bag in my hand and his tone softens. “Ah, a bacon cheeseburger and fries. That should hold me over.” Dad doesn’t get up, which I take to mean that he wants the food right there in his chair, so I bring it to him, practically dropping it in his lap. I can’t believe I am feeding my dad dinner out of the Roy Rogers trash can, and this at my mother’s command. Before my mind can wander, I am brought back to the present moment by dad’s shouting.
“Chicken bones! My dinner is chicken bones?” The full weight of my mistake hits me and mom at the same time. I fished the wrong bag out of the trash. “Is this some kind of joke?” I have no idea what to say. Only mom can solve it, so I avoid making eye contact with dad and instead look to her in desperation.
“Mom?” She dives into action.
“Honey, there must have been some kind of mix up with the orders at Roy Rogers.” Loving but unsentimental, mom never uses pet-names unless she has screwed up royally. She quickly grabs her purse and begins to put her coat back on.
“But who would have ordered chicken bones in the first place?”
“Good question, hon,” she replies. “I am going to Roy Rogers to give them a piece of my mind.” I look at her with a mix of pride and anger. Pride for her adroitness, anger that she is willing to leave me taking grenades while she’s gone.
“I’ll go, too,” I say.