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Eating Heaven Chapter 1

Cheese. Bread. Butter. Noodles. You can almost hear America screaming, "Fat! Carbs! Fat! Carbs!" and it's my job to calm the masses, to lead them down the "lite" path. Sure, writing for the kinds of magazines I do won't fetch me any journalism prizes, but if nothing else, it's easy. I start with a perfectly wonderful recipe and subtract and substitute everything good until it tastes like a rough imitation of its former self. Then I think of the most insipid, alliterative title I can, incorporating the tried-and-true "Magic Number"—that tantalizing digit that promises the impossible:

5 Fantastic Low-Fat French Fry Recipes!

6 Sexy New Desserts to Help You Stay in Shape!

7 Stupendous Suppers to Make Everyone Love You and Achieve World Peace!

If I could write anything I wanted to, I'd write about the splendor of butter and sugar hitting your taste buds at the same time, or smooth pasta and sharp Romano, a fat strawberry dipped in bittersweet chocolate. That kind of nirvana can only be achieved through fat and calories, and, yes, carbohydrates. Eat, for God's sake, I'd tell the food phobes, the Atkins addicts, the warily weight watching. They've made consuming food far too complicated.

Here's the article I should write:
How to Eat: 6 Sure-Fire Techniques to Get Food into Your Mouth
Place food on fork
Insert fork in mouth
Slide fork out, leaving food on tongue
Chew (food, not tongue)
Enjoy!
Repeat

I wish getting food into Uncle Benny's mouth was that easy.

"What'd you say this stuff was?" he asks, sitting at his kitchen table in the same chair he's always sat in, as long as I've known him. He stabs a piece of tofu with his fork, brings it close to his face to inspect it. "Mongoose and peanuts?"

"Very funny," I say.

He's fighting a flu-bug so he's wearing the green robe that's seen better days and tube socks, drugstore reading glasses parked on top of his not-quite-convincing comb-over. Thai tofu with broccolini and peanuts is probably a stretch for a meat and potatoes kind of guy, but I had a batch left over from my last article: "Why Order In? 8 Asian Dishes With Half the Fat."

He sniffs the tofu, wrinkles his nose for effect.

I sigh, feigning irritation. It's a dance we do, Uncle Benny and I, an old soft-shoe. He almost always likes what I bring him.

"For God's sake. Just taste it, you old fart."

A hint of a smile sneaks across his grizzled mug and he winks, then slides the fork into his mouth. He closes his eyes and smiles for real, face crumpling in that papery way I've loved since I was six years old.

"See? You gotta trust me, Ben. Cooking is the one thing I know how to do."

Uncle Benny, on the other hand, knows how to do almost everything: he can unstick a door, quiet the squeaking of car brakes, and banish the burning rubber smell that wafts from my Kitchen Aid mixer when I use it too much. He means more to me than my own father did, but the truth is, he's not my uncle. I only wish he were.

"Why do we call him uncle?" Christine asked once when we were eating our allotted two Oreos in the kitchen after school.

"Because we can't call him dad," I said, and our older sister Anne looked up from her math book and widened her eyes, stifling a snicker. She'd started junior high and was rapidly developing a superior attitude along with breasts.

Mom turned from the sink, face stricken, and walked two steps toward me. She raised her delicate hand, dripping with dishwater, and slapped me. She'd never hit anyone, as far as I knew, but I wasn't surprised. At the age of eleven, I'd recently changed my formerly reverential opinion of her and it was almost as though I wanted her to slap me.

"Mom!" Christine cried. "Why'd you do that?"

She didn't answer, just glared at me. I returned her stare until her eyes began to soften and fill, and she turned back to the dishes. Anne slunk down behind her book. Christine looked at me, nine-year-old eyes welling. "Why'd she do that?" she asked again.

I shrugged. I wanted to touch the hot wet swath of skin on my face, to cool it against my glass of milk. To feel where she'd laid her hand on me, if only in anger, but I wouldn't in front of her. I grabbed the Oreo package and headed for my room, knowing my mother would be horrified at my brazenness. When I'd finished eating every cookie, I tilted the package and slid the crumbs into my mouth, then licked the blobs of white filling from the cellophane. Feeling sick to my stomach, I reclined on the bed, holding the side of my face, annoyed that it no longer hurt.

***

After I've cleared the dinner dishes, Uncle Benny breaks out the cards for a game of gin rummy. I watch his hands as he deals the cards: yellowed nails, fingers bent, skin spotted and sallow. Hands aged beyond their years by twisting greasy bolts, scraping knuckles on engine blocks. He never complains about the arthritis, but it's painful to look at. I pick up my cards and say, "Nice hand, Ben. Maybe for once I'll beat you."

The kitchen's sunshine yellow was Aunt Yolanda's idea shortly after they married, an antidote to the gloom of Portland's long rainy winters. The metal stool I sit on now was here before she was, paint-spattered and worn, and, like me, it's now outlasted her. Even though they had a long and, we thought, happy marriage, Yolanda left Benny last year with no explanation. A page of secrets ripped from a diary.

My sisters and I speculate: midlife crisis? She's still in her fifties, even though Benny's on the downhill slide to seventy. A younger man, maybe, closer to her own age? "A woman?" I say for effect, knowing it will get a rise out of stodgy Anne, a gasp from Christine. What we don't mention, of course, is Mom, but it seems impossible after all these years. I certainly can't ask Benny why Yolanda left. He mists over at the slightest reminder of her: her name on a piece of junk mail, a pink emery board discovered between couch cushions.

When Benny's beaten me soundly three games in a row, he pulls the cards into a pile and rests his hands upon them.

"You look tired," I say, and he nods. It's not quite eight o'clock.

At the door, he helps me with my raincoat. "Thanks for the dinner, honey. You should be feeding some young fella, not your old fart uncle."

I snort. Young fella. Benny will forever think of me as a kid. "Yeah, well, when he shows up, I'll let you know." I swing my purse onto my shoulder, patting my pockets for keys.

He squeezes my arm. "Believe I'll just watch TV until bed," he says, then shuffles toward the couch, settling slowly into the cushions, clutching his abdomen. His face is too serious, his movements too careful.

"What's wrong? I didn't poison you, did I?" Maybe tofu wasn't such a good idea.

He waves a hand at me as he rolls onto his side. "Nah, I'm fine, Ellie. Just can't seem to shake this goddamn flu. It ups and hits me every so often."

I walk over and pull the throw from the back of the sofa, spread it over his scrawny legs. I'm tempted to tuck him in, but I just stand and look at him, wondering now if I should leave.

"What're you gawking at? Go home, Miss Roosevelt. I'm fine."

"You're sure?"

He raises his eyebrows, an empty threat.

"Have you been going to the tanning parlor?" I tilt my head, look closely at his face. It's been bugging me all night, and I just figured it out. The color of his skin looks artificial and tawny. Who knows—maybe he's thinking about dating again.

He guffaws, inspecting his arms in the dim lamplight. "What the hell are you talking about?" he says, shaking his head, and he looks like himself again, just sleepy and getting older. He grabs the remote from the coffee table and clicks on the TV. "Now if you don't mind, Matlock comes on at eight."

He's fine, I decide. I resist the urge to lean down and kiss his cheek, something we reserve for only the best or worst of occasions.

"Okay, okay," I say, walking back toward the door, digging through the lists and receipts and wayward mints in the bottom of my purse until I hear the jangle of keys. "I'll be back Thursday, and I promise I'll bring you something with meat in it this time. But you have to promise me you'll call the doctor tomorrow, okay?"

There's no answer and I turn to look at him. He's already asleep, jaw drooping, hand hanging idly off the couch, remote dropped to the floor. I hold my breath and count—one, two, three, four, five—until he begins to snore. Then I turn out the lights, click the lock into place, and step out into the cool March night.



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