Severance Pay

Alfalfa lost his one-city-block kingdom the day after my husband lost his job. Overnight, both of them turned into permanent fixtures on my striped living room couch. The couch before was floral, and the one before that, green. Every two years or so, after the boys had clawed the life out of a couch—forget scratching posts—we hit the thrift stores and bought a new couch. When we’d had a truck, getting it home was a cinch, but when the kids’ car died, we gave them the truck. My son-in-law was in construction and my daughter, seven months pregnant with her third child, was trying to finish up an degree as a paralegal. We bought a tough little hatchback from a neighbor, which, two rebuilt engines later, I still have. I paid 30 bucks to have my striped couch delivered, 60 bucks less than the couch itself, but I figured with the senior discount they gave me, I could do it and let it go. I am not one to let things go easily.

When Alfalfa lost his kingdom he also lost one third of his ear. Because my husband was home in front of the TV, chain smoking and trying to make heads or tails about being laid off, he heard the fight. I was in the shower running an auburn rinse through my graying hair. I pride myself on my thick long hair, although in the down there department, another story altogether. That department in general has gotten less and less attention over the years. The unexpected lay-off didn’t help.

Until the stray showed up. Alfalfa strutted up and down our block like royalty. His brother, Oats, knew better than to challenge Alfalfa’s sovereignty outdoors, although once inside he could and would whup Alfalfa’s feline butt when the mood struck. This was no mangy stray. This was a muscular, short haired calico Tom who looked like he could hold his own with a mountain lion. Sure, looks can be deceiving, but in this case, no.

Now you take my husband for instance; in the uniform he’d worn for close to twenty years, the big, baggy overalls with all those pockets for every kind of gadget, you’d never know he was solid muscle, the kind of muscle you get from lugging things around from place to place, from loading trucks with heavy boxes of this or that. A loyal employee he was, even with all the goings on at the plant. His last supervisor, the one who fired him, was half my husband’s age, and a snotty kid to boot. Thought his fancy college degree gave him the right to scream at holler at the guys, then expect them to be buddy buddy at the end of the day. We lucked out with the ear, no vet bill. Just a lopsided ear On a good day, souffles or pates or other such fancy-ass dishes flashed across the TV screen. Game shows were worse. The Loony Tunes my husband found by surfing the networks were the hardest on me. Even as a girl, cartoons upset me. Comic books too, except for Little Lulu. Always did have a soft spot for Little Lulu and how she and Tubby stayed such good friends.

Curled up on my husband’s lap. Alfalfa purred his motorlike purr while riding the waves of his owner’s nicotine breath. Those cigarettes cost. Don’t get me wrong, f light one up once in a while, and can’t say f don’t enjoy it. But the severance pay would only go so far. Unemployment checks would take a while before they started rolling in. I cleaned around them, stooping down while I swept peanut shells, candy wrappers, ashes, and cat hair into my dustpan. Vacuuming upset the dynamic duo, but it needed to be done. Oats, who had been forever draped over the back of my easy chair before Alfalfa’s fall, took to slipping in and out of the cat door. Before long, he and the stray, who one day showed up with a flea collar, were lounging on our stoop, soaking up the afternoon sun. Alfalfa crept out to do his business.

My husband, when he wasn’t caught up in a show, made numerous trips to the kitchen. His grazing did little for my never-ending weight-loss plan, not that he ever complained about the 20 pounds I couldn’t seem to shed. Used to be a string bean, before my son. Never did get over holding his tiny, perfectly formed body. “Terrible things happen,” the doctor told me after I’d opened my eyes in the recovery room. I had a foggy memory of something going very, very wrong in the labor room. The pain was gone and slowly my eyes focused on the unfamiliar face of a doctor I had never seen, which was not really anything at first because you got whoever, but something about the way he was leaning over me too close like we were old friends bothered me, and I shouted at him, “I want to see my baby. Where’s my baby?”

Days turned to weeks before the unemployment kicked in. At first, combined with the tail end of the severance pay we did OK. But then my husband got serious about his cooking shows. He took to scribbling down recipes and trying them out when he could tear himself away from the tube long enough to drive down to the organic something or other supermarket cross town, pay triple what he’d have paid at Safeway and stand over my stove whipping and stirring and leaving me one hell of a mess. All of a sudden leeks and Portabello mushrooms and prosciuto were showing up in my fridge. And, overdrawn on the bank statement. Now, I gotta tell you, we’d been there before.

If my husband didn’t take his medicine it could happen. Or, the other, the dead sleep I named it, whenever I’d had to yell and scream and just about yank his 180 pounds out of the bed. If you ask me, I think that’s why my boy died. The nine months I carried him, that dead sleep did me in, working myself up so he’d make it to the job.

Three months into the unemployment, I demanded the couch, and the tube, between 12 and two, for my stories. Next thing I know, my husband goes out and buys himself some kind of a chef’s outfit: apron, hat, the whole bit. He takes to hunching over my stove while my soaps are on, fussing over his concoctions and wrecking my kitchen.

Alfalfa would curl up next to me and purr away. Occasionally he’d lift his fiirry little head and sniff the untouched carrot and celery sticks I’d set out for myself I tried to be good, I really did, but creamed this and sauteed that won out, hands up. “Don’t do it,” a voice went off in my head, but eating something that actually tasted like something instead of the crap I tried to convince myself I liked, well, it goes without saying. OK, you get the picture. I’m getting fatter and he’s getting crazier. I’m having one hell of a time eating and blaming him. He’s whipping up things with cheese and chocolates and he’s getting kind of loud in the kitchen and once in a while a little mean, not to me, never to me, but ignoring the boys when they want water.

He can’t sleep at night so he wanders around. I hear him pacing thud thud thud and I remember all the times like this. By now I know his route and when his foot will hit the floor. He’s taking a shower at 2:00 A.M. then he’s in the living room with the tube blasting some kind of old movie. I hear snatches of conversations, chords of music, even with the bedroom door shut. He’s getting thinner by the minute so it’s like Jack Sprat and his wife, and I know I don’t want to do this again. I am so so tired. It’s not like I’m 21.

Sorry, didn’t mean to go off like that. But see, I couldn’t really blame him, I figured he was doing the best he could while we were waiting for the Welfare to come tlirough with medical. Damn good plan we had before all the crap started. And don’t get me started on that welfare. Must have been two hours a day I tried getting through to a human being. Press 1 or 2 or 3, hell, call me The Queen of Caffeine for all the cups I downed, sitting at the kitchen table with the phone perched on my shoulder, my neck seizing up now and again. I’m clipping a cuticle or trying out a new red, ready to write down who the hell it was I can talk to directly and get his medicine covered. He doesn’t eat, times like this, or sleep, but I already told you that. Me, I lay in the bed a lot, drifting off here and there.

Sure, they told me after the funeral, the mousy social worker from the hospital, the rabbi they sent me thinking he’d do me some good. “Life goes on. God works in mysterious ways,” said that tall skinny man-child barely old enough to vote. A goddamned Adam’s apple like he swallowed a golf ball and he’s patting my shoulder with his long white fingers. I remember them being very long, I remember my son’s tiny cold hand in mine, tearing me up inside, and I remember the trickle of blood sliding down my thigh, that horse-size pad between my legs, my insides torn up he was close to eight pounds. “Don’t tell me about your God,” I scream back at him, everything cracking: my voice, my heart, my will to live. I got around it, I did. Kept busy. Never worked. My husband’s pride forbade it, but I found things to do. Never was big on friends, but I had one or two good ones killed the day together, the kids off running around the playground, chasing squirrels, climbing monkey bars, screaming for the ice cream man. I did OK. Had a few setbacks but I pulled myself together when I had to get Sue off in the morning or pick her up in the afternoon. That was the only time I let my housework go. You could have eaten off my floor, except for then

I reach for the phone next to the bed when it rings. My husband is frying up fish and I know there’s oil splattered all over my stove and the wall behind it which no matter what I use, never gets clean. It’s the welfare worker. Should be authorized by next week. “What about my husband’s pills?” I hear myself screaming. “Call back Wednesday,” a flat voice says back to me.

It’s Friday. We can’t wait. Alfalfa leaps onto the bed, fussily inserts himself in the crook of my arm and licks his paws. I envy his small, contained life; he eats, he shits, he lives with two cat lovers. Well, for now make that one. The man at the stove seems to be having a conversation with The Man Upstairs. Comes with the territory.

‘I cook fish on Friday,” he’s telling his imaginary friend, “for your Christ you say we killed.” I hear the oven door slam shut and know some kind of doughy, buttery, popover thing got shoved inside and that it will come out gorgeous and golden with 3000 calories in each one and that I will sink my teeth into two or three or four of them, then hate myself more than I already do.

He’s at the sink, he’s washing the company plates, we’re having another one of his Friday night whacky Christ/Shabbats. He’s digging through the miscellaneous drawer in the kitchen. “Benchin Licht” he calls it, “you light the candles, you, the wife has to do it, you cover your head, you say a prayer, you give thanks.” Figure I can do this one more time. It means so much to him, and it calms him down for a hot second. Also, I die for his fried trout. I swing my legs over the side of the mattress. Alfalfa pounces onto the little green shag rug and trots off, offended. Avoiding the mirror, I zip up the black, size 16 skirt I can still manage to fit into. A silky overblouse works wonders for my nonexistent waistline. A spritz of this, a spritz of that, I make myself presentable.

The boys are on the couch, grooming each other. My husband is decked out in the navy suit he wore to my daughter’s wedding, gold cufflinks and all. He’s still a looker, I gotta give him that. The remote in one hand, a bottle of who-knows-what-these-days in the other, he clicks off the tube, his sacrifice for whatever it is his nutty brain tells him is the right thing to do in honor of the Sabbath. Mind you, this is a man who never sets foot in a synagogue. At least he manages that no one but the family has the pleasure of seeing his crazy business. I give him that. I have to admit, with the lacy tablecloth dressing up my kitchen table, the silver candleholder I’m sure cost him an arm and a leg (I stopped asking since it only makes things worse when he gets like this) and the good dishes set out beside linen napkins I didn’t remember I had, the place looks good. He shoves a kerchief at me. I tie it around my neck. Babushka style. This gets a huge grin from my husband, who is at work dressing a salad. Blue cheese, wouldn’t you know.

“Blessed art thou our Lord of the universe who brings us forth bread from the earth,” I mumble what I remember of the prayer my daughter learned at sleepaway camp the summer after my son died. On second try, I strike a match against the box and light the candles. Four bright ribbons of fire appear. Everything is delicious. Fried trout melts in my mouth, the popovers are irresistible. My husband reaches across the table and takes my hand in his. I hold onto his large familiar hand, and to him. I need him to stay with me. I need my best friend back. We wait.

Marti Zuckrowv is a first generation Red Diaper Baby who spoke Yiddish before she spoke English. Her father was the business editor for the Morning Freiheit, a left-wing Jewish newspaper, and her mother was a garment worker and a union organizer for the ILGWU. She teaches dance, movement, and runs therapeutic exercise classes. She says she writes about what she cares about: “relationships, families and the ways we survive them.”