Thunderbeck’s Machine (1 of 3)


I come around the corner of the house just in time to hear Liz complain. “Char-leeee…” her tone climbs as she drags out the last syllable. “My feet are hot. You know how much it bothers me when my feet are hot.”

“So take your shoes off.” Charlie is mixing margaritas in the kitchen. His voice comes through the screened window above the sink. Liz walks across their deck to the window. She sends her words through the screen like cigarette smoke.

“I can’t take my shoes off,” she whisper-shouts at her husband. “My toenail fungus is too ugly.”

“Jeez, Liz.” I can hear Charlie’s exasperation with her. He doesn’t want this conversation. “Can’t you just put on lighter shoes?”

“You know I hate it when it’s squishy in my shoes. So I’d have to wear socks. And then my feet will be hot. Which is the problem I have now.”

I speak. “Hey folks…What up? Do you really want me to hear this? Where is everybody?” I take the four steps in two strides and sit down at their round glass table.

“Like you haven’t heard worse!” Charlie snorts at me through the screen. “Jeff and Sandy and Stephanie are walking the dogs and the kids. My parents won’t arrive till later. What’ll you drink, Tom?”

I’ve known Charlie for more than fifteen years now, and Liz for the ten they’ve been married. He’s a dedicated host. As usual, he has placed a cooler on the deck, between the wood-framed double-paned French doors to the breakfast nook and the window to the kitchen. It’s filled with boutique beers and waters, stuck in crushed ice like cloves in oranges. One of those or a margarita? With everyone else away he’ll probably offer hits; beer will go better with pot. I pull an Anchor Steam. I smile hello to Liz as I consider whether to sit down again or to wander inside.

“You’re looking good Tommy.” Liz’s words hold me there. “Is that a new shirt?”

Liz is obese. She’s five feet tall and seems about as wide, with tits each bigger than her head. Charlie’s big too, but he’s over six feet and can carry it. Anyway, as Candace has informed me more than once, men wear weight better in our culture. A portly man can be attractive but it’s still a challenge for us to admire a large white woman. With all my flaws, I’m not fat. I work out. Liz always looks at me like she appreciates my body, and she often comments on my clothes. It’s like she’s flirting. But she tends to say nice things to everyone. To their face anyway. She’s complicated. She’s referring now to the new shirt Candace gave me: silk or rayon or something light, in good colors. “Yeah,” I answer. “Candace didn’t want to come but at least she dressed me for the occasion.” I could kick myself as I hear my own words. Didn’t want to come? Why didn’t I say couldn’t come? I told the unnecessary truth again. Tommy the space cadet. At least Charlie and Liz are used to it.

Charlie appears at the door stomach first, brass proto-pipe in hand. He tamps its contents with a thumb, makes his quartz lighter glow, tokes through his multi-colored beard. “Couldn’t get Candace here, huh?” he asks without exhaling.

“As usual. But that’s okay with me. It works for us to socialize separately.” I’m sure Candace would be just as independent even if we were married, but I’ve come to accept her position on the concept. When she comments that she’s tried it twice and isn’t good at it, that’s about as self-effacing as she gets. I’ll take it. I receive the pipe from Charlie and draw on it slowly, making an orange disk in the bowl; then I hand it back to him. I look at their well-tended garden and exhale.

“Uh-oh. Here come the kids. Let’s go to the study to finish this.”

I follow him through the kitchen, past the huge tossed salad, the fixings, the platters of half-pound burgers and kosher hot dogs. All Charlie has to do is fire up the gas barbecue and we’ll be ten minutes away from grilled meat. As we edge between their tall plastic garbage can and the kitchen bar I read the empty hot dog packages on the top of the trash. Kosher reduced-fat all-beef franks. “What part of the beef do you suppose is in reduced-fat all-beef franks?” I ask.

Charlie turns his big grin toward me as he moves across the dining room. “I don’t know what’s in the ones with unreduced fat. I guess they just remove the big white globs of lard before they grind.”

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