Jennifer Savran Kelly
Mel Hogan Wants Noodles
Mel hung up the phone and counted to four. Again, just to make sure. According to her calculations, four was exactly how many steps Jeremy would have been from the cooler with the noodles. And still he couldn’t find them. Couldn’t have been paying attention. She opened her eyes. Daffodils on the kitchen table. Thrift-store blankets washed and folded over the couches. Well-ordered piles of library books.
It was time to regain control over her life. She walked outside.
Winter still had hold of the air, but the sun was shining strong enough to make an oven out of her car. She rolled down the window, shifted into reverse, and watched the house back away, not sure whether she was hungrier for food or escape. The last patches of snow had melted and were trickling through the culvert. Buds of new color lined the road. The neighbor was walking his pugs more slowly.
As she approached the intersection by the horse farm, Mel spotted a roost of crows perched on a telephone wire that stretched all the way along the field. While she strained to see where they ended, the birds began to fall, three or four at a time, startling her enough to slow down. When she got her bearings, she could see they weren't falling at all, but floating to the ground, where they joined back together to search for food. The sight was glorious and terrifying—blackbirds falling like rain from the blue sky, pooling together in one giant shadow in the center of the field.
Her body was caught up in spring's momentum. Everything outside—outside her house, her relationships, her small, ordered existence—seemed to be carrying her to the next step. No matter that the next step was a container of stir-fried noodles from the local gourmet bakery. It was only one step.
Mel pulled into the bakery lot, parked, and shut down the engine. Before she could open the door, a boat-like sedan pulled in next to her. In the passenger seat sat a shaggy silver dog, almost the size of a person, looking straight ahead as if it were navigating. She stared with a mixture of awe and curiosity. Then she noticed the driver, a tousled professor-type who looked just like the dog, a perfect cliché to turn her curiosity into amusement.
The professor reached forward, brought up a big bottle of vodka, and took a few swigs. Judging by where he'd reached, he must have been keeping the bottle on the passenger seat, next to the dog. He smiled at Mel through his open window. She froze. Then, in true character, wishing to smooth away, or absorb, his offense, she smiled back.
Walking into the bakery, she had to remind herself she was there for a reason. That she had a purpose, which had been cemented by the beauty of the drive.
She wanted noodles. And she knew where to get them.
From the middle of the room an epic hot-and-cold bar released the scents of at least five different cuisines, somehow without merging them. Mel replayed in her mind her earlier phone conversation with Jeremy, during which he had failed to find the noodles, and she followed the directions precisely as she'd fed them to him. She ended right where she should, enjoying her small victory over her boyfriend, when the professor sauntered over to examine the choices. As a reflex, her hand grabbed the closest container, and she hurried away, toward the drinks. Only once she was hunched in front of the orange juice did she look to see what she'd picked out, suddenly aware that people might be looking at her. Or then again, why would they be?
Mel reminded herself to focus, looked for the clock she knew was there, on the wall over the bagels, but she couldn't see the time. A stack of plates was blocking her view of the hour hand. No matter. She should just pay for the noodles.
On her way to the register the professor cut her off, holding his to-go container. No doubt he had spent as much time as he'd wanted deciding what to eat and was now holding exactly what he desired. Mel drew breath and returned to the cooler to exercise her right to do the same.
Mulling over what turned out to be only three choices—Cantonese, "stir-fried," and peanut-lime—she realized what bothered her so much. He wanted to upset the balance. His smile had said you don't have the right to be afraid of me because I have nothing to hide. It would just be your hang-ups. Your overreaction.
The cashier ringing up the professor, on the other hand, was laughing. It was one of those singsong laughs, designed to assure someone their joke had amused you. She exchanged some words with him that Mel couldn't hear, and he leaned toward her, into the register, squinting. As he walked out of the bakery, he made a show of saying, "Thank you, Leslie," as if he were the only person who had ever taken the time of day to read her nametag and she should be grateful for him.
Mel was relieved to see him go. She stepped up to Leslie the cashier with her noodles, which turned out to be the same ones she'd grabbed in the first place. Cantonese. After ringing Mel up, Leslie turned her head as if she were looking for something—anything—more interesting than Mel, and said, "Will that be it?"
Mel wasn't sure if she was talking to her or someone in line behind her. After a few seconds, Leslie looked at Mel in a way that suggested her hesitation was a terrible waste of Leslie's time. Mel nodded dumbly.
"Ten eighty-one," said Leslie, and held out her hand as she stared over Mel's shoulder.
Mel paid and decided it would be safer to eat alone, at home.
Back in the car, securing her Cantonese noodles on the passenger seat, Mel wished she had a cigarette. She'd quit eight years ago, but whenever she ate alone the craving came back. Surely the professor would have one. She imagined herself chasing down his car. He would be amused to find her pursuing him, excited by the idea that an uptight girl in a gourmet bakery who was too afraid to stand next to him to pick out noodles had followed him all that way for a cigarette. He would wonder what she really wanted, believing she had been hopelessly drawn to him as much as the laughing cashier had been. But he wouldn't find a nametag on her, no marker of servitude.
"Do you have a name?" he would ask.
She would play it cool, leaning in for a light. No eye contact until she'd exhaled her first long drag. When she finally did speak, she'd say "Hogan," in that way men do when they introduce themselves by last name. "Mel Hogan."
He'd look at her with a sly smile. "Is that short for Melanie or Melissa?" he'd ask.
She'd strut back to her car, only turning to answer as she slid into the driver's seat. "Just Mel," she'd say, and drive away feeling the full power of her femininity, while he stood on the side of the road feeling lost.
Out the window Mel could see many things going by, faster, it seemed, than she was driving. Small streams, trees, poles and wires, fences, strips of concrete, purple flowers, houses, cars. A person standing with one hand on a hip. It all looked vast and contoured, full of secrets. Mel felt like a story, something to replace the ones she wished to forget. She turned on the radio, and an unaffected female voice said it's important that the packaging provides a reassuring sense of heft. She looked at her noodles. She'd read something once about how plastic packaging negatively impacts hormonal development. That could explain a lot of things. The car felt like it was pulling to the left.
Somehow she found herself driving two or three traffic lights past the one she was supposed to have turned at. The strip malls opened up into a residential area. Ahead was a new apartment building that had been under construction for the past few months—the Gateway Center, home to a few upscale take-out establishments and "urban-style" apartments. She hadn't driven this far down the road since they were laying the foundation, and now it was almost finished. A sign on the front read, "Now renting. Luxury apartments. One to three bedrooms." She pulled into the lot to turn around.
A woman stood in the front door shaking hands with a man in a button-up shirt and tie. He was smiling like a salesman who'd just made a sale. In the middle of the parking lot, the woman turned back toward the building, shielded her eyes to get a better look, then walked to her car. Mel had assumed she was older because of the way she was dressed—in a dark belted jacket over a tight black skirt and pumps. But when she got closer, Mel could see they might have been the same age. She looked down at her own second-hand blouse and jeans.
It was between lunch hour and rush hour. One of the few benefits of being a student was getting to drive while the roads were quiet. With her windows down, Mel stuck her arm out, turned off the radio, and listened to the wind, hoping for enlightenment. Her hand got slapped by a bug, and she pulled it back in. She felt far away from everything she'd known. All she seemed to know now was how to strive for safety. Listening to meditation CDs and worrying about leaving home, even for a night, without the right books and snacks. Talking to her boyfriend on the phone all day. Directing him through a bakery to find her lunch. Asking what time he'll be home. Does he know where her scarf is? The blue one she lost right after their trip to Montreal, where it had rained for three days. Jeremy, she thought, who responded to her countless commands disguised as questions without thinking twice. Who could mix the leftover spaghetti and homemade tomato sauce with shrimp fried rice and enjoy it just as much. She could never help wondering if he'd be happy with anyone. It had lately become her biggest fear.
The woman at the apartment building found her way back to Mel's thoughts. Her high heels and lipstick. The easy handshake that closed the deal on her luxury apartment. She turned the radio back on. A man with a serious, deep voice said that the containment vessel has significant damage.
Mel stopped at a traffic light and watched a few cars go through before realizing it was blinking. Ahead was another "For Rent" sign. She followed it down a small road lined with maple trees. The house was half hidden by overgrown shrubs and sat in the middle of a big plot of land. It was the kind of rustic farmhouse that had attracted Mel to living in the country. She didn't know why she stopped, but she was more than halfway up the gravel drive before thinking about it.
The serious voice said it's too dangerous, even for people in protective clothing, to get close.
She got out of the car and walked slowly around the property, breathing fresh air, wondering if she had enough nerve to knock on the door. A voice behind her interrupted the thought.
"Not bad lookin', is it?"
She turned, caught off guard, as if she were a child, playing house. A man was walking toward her, carrying a bucket. Dark hair flew in a few directions from his baseball cap and he wore a short, unkempt beard. Keys clanged against the bucket. He smiled at Mel—an open smile, friendly.
"The house," he said, gesturing over her shoulder. "I meant it's not a bad lookin' house." He laughed a little and waited for a reaction.
"Right. Of course," said Mel. "I'm just looking." Like she was browsing in a store in the mall.
"That's all right," he practically sang. "Don't let me get in your way. I'm Wayne. I'm just doin' time here." The laugh and wait were back. Mel was clearly expected to have some kind of reaction, but she wasn't sure what to do. Wayne leaned in close, like he was going to share a secret.
"Ya know, by doin' time, I just mean that I'm workin', ya know. I don't mean nothin' bad." He gave Mel a knowing look. "I got a good job takin' care of this place. Keeps me honest."
She found herself letting out breath, a bit ashamed she'd fallen for his joke. "That's great. It's good to have work in this economy," she said.
"That's no lie," said Wayne. "Ya know, I'm grateful to have a job. I just call it doin' time because I'd rather be home, ya know? I'm teachin' my son Jeffrey how to rewire the house right now. I'm rewirin' the whole thing cause it don't make sense to pay someone to do it when I can do it myself, ya know? We just go one room at a time. And eventually, we'll get through the whole thing. It's a good skill to have, ya know? You get in there, and you can see everything that's goin' on." Wayne didn't seem to want an answer from Mel. He was looking more past her than at her, nodding and wringing his hands. "In this case, we have the kind of wires that have three conductors at the ends." He held up three fingers. "But there are also the kind with single strands, ya know? So, ya know, Jeff's learnin' a lot. And I think it's important to pass on that skill. Because it's important to know how to do things yourself, ya know?"
Mel gestured toward the house to remind Wayne why she'd come, but he didn't seem to notice.
"Yesterday, Jeff brought over my granddaughter, too." He shook his head back and forth and let out a breathy giggle. "She's somethin' else, that one. She puts me in time out, ya know?" He leaned close to Mel again. "Says, 'Grampa, you've been bad. You've been naughty.'"
The sun started to feel too hot on Mel's head. "Thanks for your time," she said. "I should let you get back to work."
"Oh, it's no problem. You just take your time, get a good look. I'll get out of your way."
"It's really okay," she said. "I just wanted a quick look." She started to move toward her car but Wayne didn't step out of her path. She didn't want to be rude.
"Jumps out at you, doesn't it?" said Wayne.
"I guess so, yeah."
"It's a nice place to work. Ya know, I was just kiddin' when I said I was doin' time."
"Sometimes you gotta go where you're needed, that's what I say." Mel looked at her wrist even though she wasn't wearing a watch, and turned to her car again. "Just the other day," said Wayne, "my daughter calls me first thing in the mornin'. She's stuck in her driveway with a flat tire. Ran right over a nail. And she needed some help to get out to do the food shopping. So, I went over. Ya know? Even though I hadn't had my breakfast yet or anything, I went over and patched up the tire. Cause that's just the kinda person I am."
Mel decided she'd have to walk around him and headed to her car. The door was open. "I'm sure she appreciated it," she said. "Thanks again for your time." When she sat down, Wayne positioned himself inside the open door, with one hand on it, as if he was going to close it for her. Instead he held it open and put the bucket at his feet.
"Solid vehicle," he said. "The girl who rented the apartment before you had a Honda, too. Swore by it. I'm a Ford guy myself." He was wringing his hands again.
Mel felt like she was filling with air. Words ran around her, refusing to get in line. "Excuse me," she wanted to say. "Please move out of the way." Instead she stared at him, clutching her keys.
"Well, look at me goin' on," said Wayne. "I should let ya get back home." He smiled a smile that was a little too open and finally stepped out of the way, his bucket still in the doorway. After a few beats he leaned back into the door, as if he'd forgotten he was about to let Mel leave.
She just sat there while Wayne nodded silently to himself. Finally, she managed to get out an "Excuse me." He jerked a little, and said, "I'm sorry. Hope I didn't waste none of your time."
"Of course not," said Mel. "But I really do have to go."
"That's right. You got your things to do. And I should get back to my work now. Got a bit of a mess to clean up in the garage. Nothin' terrible." He still wasn't moving.
Mel could feel the heat of his arm, smell the faint odor of tobacco, see his eyes shining, wet from the sun. It was all on her and she wanted to make it go away, and then finally he reached for the bucket, and at the sight of this something inside of her came to, and she leaned over and picked it up instead. “Right,” he said, reaching a hand out to take it from her. Then on their own it seemed her hands stopped letting go, or had never started. Either way, she found herself holding on, so that he had to put his free hand on the other side of the bucket to try to pull it away. This made him have to lean forward a little, so that he was filling the doorway of her car, hovering just above her, so close that she could taste the tobacco on his breath. Her hands gripped tighter, and for a moment, she saw confusion on his face, or maybe fear—of being stuck there in the cramped space of the door frame, he now the one unable to leave, but wanting to, as she could see in his eyes, which had gone a bit wild, shifting quickly back and forth. His smile only half an open mouth now as his eyes came to settle back on her.
She lost track of how long they stayed like that, both of them holding the bucket, not quite pulling, and not letting go, until finally, Mel yielded and Wayne stood next to her, his bucket at his side, close to her head. Her heart felt like a motor, and Wayne seemed like he was trying to make sense of what had just happened, but all he could manage was, "Okay. Okay. All right."
"Good luck with the mess," she said, finally managing to still her hands enough to start the engine.
"All right now." He held the bucket in both arms as he backed away from the door, slowly, nodding. "Okay. You have a safe drive now. I hope to see you again soon. It's a good place, ya know. Wait till you see inside."
As he spoke, Mel closed the door and backed out of the driveway. He stood there, waving, smiling, holding his bucket.
She drove home under clouds that looked like teeth. Watching the horizon, she imagined driving into them, allowing the sky to swallow her whole. For a few minutes it felt possible to give in.
When she got home, she turned off the car and sat perfectly still, looking at the house. Jeremy would be home soon. She leaned back and waited for him. The noodles were still sitting on the passenger seat. They had started to sweat inside their plastic container.