This story is by Katie Hanson and won an Honorable Mention in our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Katie Hanson lives with her husband and children in the greatest part of the Great Plains. She loves hanging out at home with her family, reading and writing, and learning about life from kids, the best storytellers in the world.
A small life, he knows. Loren Birby’s got a restaurant, used for feeding the people in town and catering events. He’s also got a daughter, spunky Sadie, a freshman in college. He raised her with his beautiful wife, Karen. Loren likes running his business, and he even likes having an empty nest.
Until Karen flies off, too.
Blonde and youthful, she picks a podiatrist named Sandy Mullen. An accomplished doctor, Karen’s friends say by way of an excuse. An overpaid toenail trimmer, say Loren’s friends over beers.
The drinking doesn’t help like he hopes, just gets people talking, and makes him slip up at work. Still, he keeps dumping beer into the void that’s hollowed him since she left. The thought of her smile calls for one. A whiff of her scent from their closet justifies a six pack. When he runs into Karen and Dr. Mullen at the post office, he retreats to the bar next door to his restaurant, with no intention of watching the clock, or his intake.
Three hours in, the agony is still fresh. “Sandy. What the hell kind of a name for a guy is that?” he asks his afternoon companions, two stale drunks he knows only as Hoover and Butch.
“Says a guy named Loren!” Butch says.
Hoover and the bartender laugh. Loren excuses himself to the bathroom. He stands in a stall and closes his eyes to slow the spinning. The tears are salty as brine, which reminds him of the forgotten chicken. He stumbles back to the restaurant, cursing at himself for not putting the frozen breasts in the fridge to thaw for the elementary school principal’s retirement banquet. He dumps the pale meat in metal bowls and starts counting the hours they’ll be unrefrigerated before morning. He gets distracted thinking of Sandy’s hand on Karen’s back in the post office. The picture in his mind, or the alcohol, makes the contents of his stomach roil and evacuate into the steel sink.
I’m fine. It’s fine, he tells himself, locking the door with clumsy fingers.
He’s not fine. Neither is the chicken. Karen’s still gone, and as the chicken breasts thaw, they grow Salmonella. Half the banquet attendees get terribly sick. So many teachers are ill that the school can’t line up enough substitutes. School is cancelled for two days. The day it’s announced that the start of summer break will be pushed back to makeup for the cancelled days, not a single customer shows up for lunch.
“This is bad, Dad. I’d be so pissed if I was one of those kids!” Sadie says over the phone. “If Mom was still around helping you run the place, well, you know how people love her. They would feel so sorry for her, no one would care that they got sick. Not even the lady who nearly died. Like seriously, this is terrible. It makes you look like this . . . loser, who just can’t catch a break.”
She sighs. “It doesn’t help your case that Sandy’s a nice guy.”
Loren presses a finger into his throbbing temple and says nothing. If he dropped the drinking, a beer would help out now. Sadie moves on to complaints about her roommate. Loren studies a framed photo on the piano. Loren and Karen, grinning on their wedding day.
The Kosowski/Miller reception has been in the books for a year, and the deposit is nonrefundable. Plus, no other caterer within two hundred miles is available.
The father of the bride is developing a habit of showing up at the restaurant and making his displeasure known about the situation. Four days before the wedding, Bill Kosowski leans through the order window. “I swear to God, Birby, if one person feels the slightest bit sick from your dinner . . .”
Loren knows Bill needs it to be a good reception. His daughter’s future in-laws are big farmers with big money. Can’t blame him, Loren thinks. He flips an omelette. “Had breakfast, Bill?”
“No thanks. Had Salmonella a while back, still not that hungry.”
Sadie’s home for the weekend to help. Loren, of course, wishes it were Karen — he always thought doing events with her was more fun than work, though he wonders now how she really felt about it. The work, and their life.
Loren’s enthusiasm to work with Sadie dwindles further when he discovers her freshman psychology course has her bubbling with ideas about what’s wrong with him.
“It’s like your sense of self was tied up in Mom and the success of the restaurant. Everybody loves this place — well, they did,” she says as they load trays and roasters into the back of the pickup.
“But now, you don’t have mom, and people are freaked out about the Salmonella thing, so the place has been dead lately . . . it’s like, who are you now? What do you stand for?”
She leans against the truck as he closes the tailgate. “Well?”
“I’m supposed to answer that?”
Sadie shakes her head. “Seriously, Dad. You are totally . . . resistant.”
Setup is quick. Loren moves from roaster to roaster, stirring sauces and gravy. Instead of organizing plates and silverware, Sadie follows. “Roast beef or scallops? Weird.”
“It’s what they wanted.”
“Isn’t there usually some kind of chicken?”
“They changed their mind.”
“Oh, ha. Right. Scallops are great.”
Loren alternates stacking white and wheat dinner rolls in a basket, his mind wandering to how Karen will look tonight. She’s stunning in a t-shirt, but she loves to dress up, and weddings are her favorite. He wonders if she’ll wear the blue dress, or maybe the red and black. Both highlight her honey-gold hair and her long, tanned legs he’s been crazy about since he first saw her in that swimsuit at lifeguard training, all those years ago.
Loren squeezes his eyes shut to block the tears, wishing they didn’t come so easily. She’d gone to the podiatrist for arch pain. She came home quiet, told him the appointment went fine. She never complained of the pain in her foot again. In a month, she was gone.
He thinks she’ll probably wear something new. Everything about her is new, all of the sudden.
He pushes her out of his mind and serves the reception guests. It’s steady work to keep roasters and baskets filled, and he’s grateful to avoid standing still long enough to have to visit with anyone — or see Karen and Sandy.
His luck doesn’t last. He’s drawn to the commotion of a clattering chair from the back of the dim ballroom. A man stumbles back a step, his hands at his throat and his wife crying for help. Loren squints into the darkness and sees it’s not the man’s wife, it’s Karen. His wife.
She shouts, “He’s choking!”
People stand and shuffle around in their chairs, but no one joins Loren as he runs to the back of the room. He may have spent most of his time during lifeguard training entranced by Karen, but the Heimlich stuck with him. There is neither time for him to hesitate, or allow the victim to protest. He wraps his arms around Sandy, reminded of how it felt to hold Karen during the partner practice. He remembers her hair, warm and smelling like chlorine, coconut, and flowery shampoo. He closes his eyes, the thrusts to Sandy’s stomach firm and guided by muscle memory, the rest of him weak with the sweet memory.
Loren opens his eyes at the sound of a strangled sort of breath. A scallop pops out of Sandy’s mouth, and Loren catches it before it bounces on to someone’s plate. He tucks it in his apron pocket and gives Sandy a pat on the shoulder. He lets himself glance at Karen as he walks away, catches her eyes on him.
The sound of his rubber soles squeaking across the ballroom floor are what make him note the silence. Loren looks into the mirrored wall. Staring back at him is a sea of eyes wide eyes and gaping mouths. It occurs to Loren that people love a comeback almost as much as a trainwreck. Now, he decides, they’ve got something to think about.
In the reflection, he sees Sandy brushing off the front of his tuxedo, his face red. Karen’s standing next to him, twisting a white linen napkin. Her pale eyebrows are knit together, her lovely face wearing an expression that Loren can’t read.
He wishes he knew what she was thinking. He wants her to be impressed, but that’s nothing new. He hopes she’s a little messed up about how she’s feeling, and that surprises him. He wonders if Sadie will give him a theory about all that, but maybe won’t ask her. That might be too much, to talk about his feelings to his daughter. Or to talk about them at all. Now he’s got something to think about.
For now, back to work. He pulls on new gloves and picks up his ladle.