David and I glumly picked at our meat loaf. The meatloaf was cut into thick, gray slabs. The slabs were accompanied by a small pile of dry, oven-baked french fries, and a mushy side of California Medley vegetables. A meal like this came with a weighty sense of resignation, an endurance task that would have to be completed. There was no getting out of it – it must be eaten.
We drowned the meat-like matter with ketchup, squeezing thick rivulets of sauce over its top and sides, attempting to infuse the dry cake with moisture. This gustatory overload of vinegar and tomato would leave me feeling nauseous, though it felt necessary to avoid a large, dry, bolus becoming trapped in my throat. Woe unto the one who last grabbed a dwindling ketchup bottle, as lengthy, desperate attempts to free any remaining remnants of sauce could easily be met with my father’s irritation and the quick disposal of the bottle.
I had watched my mother make this meatloaf on many occasions. A sense of despair would slowly fill my insides any time meatloaf was being prepared for dinner. I never understood how something that seemed so moist, and filled with flavors while being prepared, could come out of the bread pan so dry and absent of taste. My mother worked at the counter, massaging the mass of ground beef with breadcrumbs, ketchup, mustard, and seasonings. Her hands kneaded the pink, fragrant slime, while sticky, squelching and farting sounds erupted from the mush. She pushed and patted this mass into an old, burnt and rusty looking bread tin (something that looked like it’d be more at home in a forge), and threw it in the oven where it was, for all intensive purposes, incinerated.
After what felt like two to three hours, the bread tin would be pulled from the oven. The loaf was now a smoldering brick that would need to be pried from the pan. Mom would saw through a half-inch of shale-like crust with a serrated knife, attempting to separate the meat from the tin sides. My father worked in tandem, wedging a spatula down the side of the tin while forcefully pushing upward to release the meat.
Once the brick was free Dad would call us into dinner. This was a forced march that David and I could barely muster. Once set before us, we’d each embark on a personal calculus while navigating our plates. My own approach was balanced on a need for moisture, and I suspect the same served as a guide for David. Since the meat needed all of the moisture it could get, my fries would have to wait. Once the loaf was dispatched, and if any ketchup was left over, I would use the fries like a squeegee to scrape up those last remnants of vinegary, tomatoey sauce. Most often it wasn’t much, though usually enough to get the dry potato sticks down. The vegetable matter, while a tasteless, bland mush, was a quick and tolerable matter. It was so overcooked you could practically swallow it without need of chewing.
“I picked up the lottery tickets,” mother said.
Dad ate heartily from his plate, the meatloaf, fries, and California Medley all mixed together and swimming in a lake of ketchup. “Three million dollars…” he said, shaking his head in wonder.
My mother took a last drag from her cigarette and stabbed it directly into a puddle of leftover meat bits and ketchup on her plate. “We could get the hell out of this trailer with that kind of money”.
“I could retire,” dad said.
“Could we move into a house?” I said.
“House? We’d move into a goddamned mansion,” dad said.
Mom and dad had our attention. David pushed up his glasses. “We’d have our own rooms of course”.
Mother smiled warmly, “Of course honey. Your own rooms, and a new television. I swear that one never gets decent reception”.
“I thought I saw a flame billowing inside of it the other day”, David said.
“You should get a new car dad,” I said.
Mom was looking at David with alarm. “Are you sure you saw a flame?”, she said. He shrugged in reply.
Dad nodded to me. “Yeah, a nice one. Nothing used. So tired of everything being second-hand”.
“Yeah, like a Mustang!” David said.
“David, that’s not practical,” mom said. “One of those wagons. That’s what we’ll get”.
“Really?” David groaned.
Dad said, “I’d like a new mower”.
Mom nodded, “And clothes for the kids, I swear they’re growing out of everything”.
“I want an Atari,” I said. David nodded with extra enthusiasm, a huge grin spreading over his face.
“Stove,” mom nodded toward the kitchen. “Gas stove. No electric. Everything burns on the electric”.
“We could go to Disney World for vacation,” David beamed.
“I want an Atari,” I said again.
“We heard you Greg,” mom patted my arm. “You can have an Atari”.
David and I gave each other a high-five, our eyes wide with excitement. An Atari. Oh man, it was going to be great.
We rattled off all the things we wanted, a warm, happy glow surrounding us. We were kind and courteous to one another. David offered to get my mother a new dress and father new socks and a tie. Mom was proud of him and tousled his hair. Not to be left out I offered to make a donation to charity. Dad liked that for the tax write-off we’d get.
“We could look into surgery for your eye,” dad said to me.
Startled by this, I said, “What’s the matter with my eye?”
“Yeah, what’s the matter with his eye?” mother said.
Dad wiped his mouth on his napkin. “Nothing…I just thought…”
But mother cut him off, “Nothing is right. There’s nothing wrong with your eye honey,” she said to me.
It was quiet for a moment, the spell we had cast over ourselves dissipating.
“Well, we have to win first…” dad said.