I Miss Our Talks by Larry Smith
Usually when I asked him what he had for dinner last night, Walter would gleefully answer, “Pepper steak, Wilson! Pepper steak!” He’d likely not remember anything else he might have eaten as his face got cloudy with confusion and he’d stumble to reply.
“I bet it was good.”
“Oh yeah! It was good! Pepper steak!”
It was impossible to know what actually thrilled him so much at that moment, the remembered taste of the pepper steak or the pride he took in remembering it. Dinner seemed to be pepper steak at least twice a week, unless Walter was only imagining that that was what he’d been eating.
“Your father makes good pepper steak, doesn’t he?”
“Oh yeah, pepper steak!”
I’d see Mr. Costanza only a few minutes in the morning before he went off to work. The ritual was the same. I was greeted at the door and warmly ushered in. The warmth was forced as was some occasional jollity on his end. For Mr. Costanza, I was authority, delegate of an official world that always needed placating. By contrast, Walter jubilated to see me every day and, of course, he meant it. Walter could not dissimulate.
“Did you watch television last night?”
“Uh huh! Uh huh!”
“What did you watch?”
His brow furrowed; the effort to remember was consternating. I always tried my best to ask only the simplest questions but I did have to ask something. Otherwise, what was the point?
“The show was really good.”
“Was it good funny or good sad?”
“Good funny, Wilson.”
“Did you laugh?”
“Oh yeah, I laughed.”
“Was it I Dream of Jeannie? I Dream of Jeannie was on last night.”
“Yeah, I Dream of Jeannie. It was funny,” said Walter.
“And you laughed,” I said.
“Yeah, I laughed.”
Dr. Garson wanted me to sit and talk for twenty minutes every morning before taking him to the “home,” which was a free mental health support service open ten hours, six days a week. I figured there must have been some therapeutic benefit in my doing so or else Dr. Garson would not have advised it. I greatly respected Dr. Garson.
“Everything else ok?”
Walter’s face brightened. He broke into a big smile.
“Pepper steak, Wilson! We had pepper steak!”
I had taught some of the others to navigate the trains and get to the home by themselves. But Walter would never be able to do that. Rose Dwinnel said there was an immense hole in his brain, so I was asked to transport him there and back every day.
“Your father makes good pepper steak?”
“Oh yeah, he cooks it.”
“Maybe someday you will cook something.”
“He cooks it on the stove.”
“It’s great that he can cook dinner after working so hard all day.”
Mr. Costanza was a garrulous man full, it seemed, of inchoate resentments. I felt no particular sympathy or antipathy for him then, nor do so now.
“On the stove, Wilson!”
I might have confirmed with Mr. Costanza if he and his son did, in fact, eat so much pepper steak but, truth be told, I didn’t really much care what they were having for dinner. And I didn’t want Mr. Costanza to think I was the type to pry.
“Your father is a good cook, isn’t he?”
Walter smiled the way he always smiled when he didn’t understand what I said. At such moments he wasn’t actually thinking about how to answer. Walter couldn’t think. Instead, he was just letting some answer or another bubble up from the recesses.
“Pepper steak, Wilson! Pepper steak!”
I don’t know why Dr. Garson wanted me to chat with Walter every morning. Maybe it was some kind of stopgap against progressive vegetation. It was hard for me to carry it off but, when all was said and done, I didn’t mind trying.
“Do you know what day it is, Walter?”
“What day is it?”
Walter smiled and stared at me from out the folds of his fat face.
“Wednesday. Today is Wednesday.”
I was startled. Today was indeed Wednesday.
“Do you know what that means?”
“Uh huh. It’s Wednesday.”
“Sure, but it also means that Lena Benson is going to be at the home today.”
“I like Lena!”
“Everybody likes Lena,” I said.
“She is nice. She’ll be glad to see you.”
“She looks nice,” said Walter. “She’s pretty.”
“She is very attractive.”
“She is soft.”
“Women are soft,” I said for want of something better to say.
“My mother was Lena,” said Walter. “That was her name too.”
I had no idea if that was true or not.
“Oh really? Do you remember your mother?”
“She was nice.”
“My father told me.”
“You know, Walter, when Stephen Dedalus’ mother died, his father sent him a telegram to tell him the sad news, but there was what we call a typo, and the telegram read ‘Nother dead’ instead of ‘Mother dead.’ You see, Mr. Dedalus wrote an N instead of an M.”
I don’t know what had gotten into me!
“My mother was nice.”
“And ‘Nother dead’ literally means, ‘no beast dead.’ Haines meanwhile has had a dream about a panther, which literally means ‘all beast.’
Wow, I hadn’t talked about Ulysses since I was in graduate school.
“I was sad when she died.”
“And the whole thing is a refutation of sorts of Buck Mulligan, who’s been churlishly quipping that Stephen’s mother is ‘beastly dead.’ In fact, Walter, in fact, no beast died.”
“My mommy died,” said Walter.
“I know, Walter,” I said.
“She was soft.”
“I’m sure she was,” I said.
“I was sad.”
“But today you’ll see Lena. That’ll be happy.”
“Yeah, Lena makes me happy. Yeah.”
“Do I make you happy?”
He smiled and his eyes sparkled as they met mine.
“Pepper steak, Wilson! We had pepper steak!”
“I know, you told me. And it was good.”
“Yeah, it was good.”
“I’m glad, Walter. I really am.”
“Are we going to go bowling today?”
Periodically I’d take a few of them to an alley not far from the home, but it wasn’t bowling as most Americans know it. There in Boston in those years it was something more like bocce ball.
“Would you like to?”
“Yeah, I’d like to.”
It was well past the twenty minutes generally allotted for talking before we went to get the train at Andrew Station.
“John and Maggie can come too if they want. Maybe Eddie.”
“Eddie always wins.”
“Yeah, good old fast Eddie.”
“He always wins,” said Walter, matter-of-factly.
“Does that bother you?”
“Yeah. I like Eddie.”
“It’s ok if he always wins?”
“I like bowling.”
“You’re very good at bowling,” I lied.
“Sure, I’ll buy you a hot dog. They’ve got good hot dogs at the bowling alley, don’t they?”
I felt a strange reluctance to get up and get going; a not unpleasant lassitude had set in. Over the weeks I had even gotten inured to the musty, slightly sickening scent of their apartment. I can still remember, it was Unit 1214.
“I like hot dogs. With mustard.”
“Do you like relish?”
He stared at me and smiled for a minute.
“Yeah, I like it,” he finally said.
“Do you know what relish is?”
“I like it,” he said.
“Do you like going on the train with me?”
“I like it, Wilson.”
“It’s a nice ride.”
“Yeah, a nice ride. You take me on it.”
“It’s not too crowded at the time we go.”
“The people are nice.”
“For the most part,” I said.
There was some anxiety in his voice when he said, “It’s good.”
“You like being on the train, Walter?”
“Yeah, you’re there with me.”
“Fear not, Walter. I will always make the world safe for the severely retarded.”
“Thank you, Wilson.”
Larry Smith’s story collection, A Shield of Paris, was published in 2019 by Adelaide Books. His collection, Floodlands, will also be published this year by Adelaide Books. His novella, Patrick Fitzmike and Mike Fitzpatrick, was published in 2016 by Outpost 19. Smith's stories have appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Serving House Journal, Sequestrum, Exquisite Corpse, The Collagist, and [PANK], among numerous others. His poetry has appeared in Descant (Canada) and Elimae, among others. Smith lives in New Jersey. Visit larrysmithfiction.com for more information.
Be sure to check out our exclusive interview with Larry on the Orson’s Publishing blog.