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Peanut Butter: A Short Story
The old man opened his eyes, content that God had given him another day. Marvin Phelps sat up and touched the side of the bed where his wife, Elsie, used to sleep. She had died of ovarian cancer ten years before. Before that she'd slept next to Marvin, in this very house, for almost sixty years.
The couple had bought it when he had come home from war. In 1950 they paid sixty thousand for their house in northern New Jersey. Recently a man made Marvin Phelps an offer of one point seven million, because the neighborhood provided easy access into New York City. Marvin Phelps had refused.
He wanted to maintain his tactile connection to this house and all the memories it contained. All the love. All the happiness.
War is always a terrible thing. But good things can come from a particular confluence of circumstances, at least for Marvin Phelps and his family. Thank God for World War II. Thank God Marvin Phelps had served (as a medic so he hadn't had to shoot anybody). Thank God for Franklin Delano Roosevelt and The New Deal. Thank God for the G.I. Bill, which had allowed him to go to college. He would not have been afforded the opportunity otherwise.
He and Elsie had raised a large family in this house and launcehd their brood of grateful children into the world. They all had families of their own, and significant careers adding value to society. He was proud of them and his grandchildren. Great grandchildren would be arriving soon.
Marvin Phelps had come from a large family of brothers and sisters, of which he was the eldest. As such he was the unofficial tribal leader of a confederation that included nieces, nephews, and grand nieces and grand nephews. The respect and love they all paid him made him feel like the blessed patriarch of the Bible, Abraham.
Few opportunities had passed that he had not snatched with both hands. He had created on of those prehistoric computer companies in the fifties, that had been bought by Apple Computer. Then he started his own independent book publishing firm that was later bought by Random House. Furthermore, Marvin Phelps had invented a half dozen or so truly amazing and now absolutely essential household gizmos, for which he still receives royalty payments.
In all of these situations he had been smart, savvy, tough, and lucky. He made millions and millions. He put his wealth into stocks, bonds, mutual funds, hedge funds, securities, and so forth. His portfolio had taken a hit when Enron crashed and burned. Marvin Phelps and his investment man, like so many others, had not seen it coming. But he could admit to himself that he had gotten carried away, thinking the high times would never end.
But at least his portfolio had been very well diversified. His wealth had only continued to grow after that little speed bump and course correction. He had avoided the recent housing and various other speculative bubbles completely. In fact he had made a pretty penny by "short selling" certain financial stocks. In other words, Marvin Phelps is a very rich man.
If he is so rich, then why doesn't he live in a mansion with servants? Because Marvin Phelps had never permitted himself or his family the vanity of the ostentatious display of wealth. And being a child of parents who'd been forced to hold out a good part of the time, during the Great Depression, by shining shoes and selling apples on the street corner, Marvin Phelps had always felt anxiety about money, about his tenuous grasp of it. But with the money that would go to his children upon his death, they could, if the wish, buy those mansions with servants.
Brenda was coming back from college today. The recollection made Marvin Phelps spring (well, to the degree that a seventy-seven year old man can "spring") out of bed and into the shower. He showered, dressed, shaved, brushed his teeth - evey last one of them, all of which, he was proud to say, he was born with. He reflected that he felt as good as a man, who'd lived more than three quarters of a century, had a right to feel, physically.
All his hair had fallen out long ago. But so what? He had a touch of arthritis in his hands. But it was nothing he couldn't handle. He didn't even bother taking the pain medication his doctor had prescribed. He liked a little pain. It made him feel heroic.
Brenda had gone back to school when her husband, Wyndhall, left her for a younger woman. Marvin Phelps had instinctively disliked and mistrusted Wyndhall on sight, and the man's subsequent behavior had bore out Mr. Phelps's initial assessment in spades. Wyndhall is six years older than Brenda's present age of thirty-six. Even so, Wyndhall, he of morbid exercise and plastic surgery addiction, had left her for a twenty year old bar maid. Buxom, corn-fed, Midwestern type. And Wyndhall, being the classic sleaze that he is, had first seduced the poor girl with vague and unlikely promises of a modeling contract, as he, Wyndhall is a photographer.
Stop lingering old man, Marvin Phelps playfully snapped at himself in the mirror. Brenda's coming home. His sweet girl. His favorite, actually. He needed to get out, run some errands, and pick up a few things. He needed to do some serious grocery shopping. He meant to stock the refrigerator and cupboards with all her favorites.
He moved down the stairs. His dexterity was still pretty fair. Going up or coming down he could still take the stairs two or three at a time, when he was of a mind to, as he was now. At seventy-seven his posture was erect and he walked without a cane. His blood pressure and cholesterol were good - a little on the high end of normal.
But suddenly the glum came over him, that when he finally got sick and died, everything would break down all at once. Heart, lungs, kidneys, blood sugar. Dementia would descend upon him. He'd get cancer and go blind in at least one eye and the sudden, overwhelming onslaught of diabetes would claim at least one of his limbs.
Moreover, given his hardy disposition, it would take a long time for him to die. But before he'd allow himself such a prolonged implosion, he'd sit in his garage, in his car, with his engine running, and all the windows shut tight. He'd left instructions with his lawyers that no heroic measures were to be taken to preserve his life in case of serious accidents.
Mr. Phelps watered his plants and fed his fish before he left. He made a mental note to pick up some DVDs. He stepped onto the street. Brenda had ridden her Big Wheel up and down the sidewalks of this very street.
Brenda had been an unusual girl. She had not been a pure 'tomboy.' But neither had she been a pure 'girly girl,' either. Her interests had always been ecclectic. She had liked to ride bikes, climb trees, shoot marbles, and explore wonderful and strange places with the boys. At the same time Brenda could appreciate a more civilized tea party with a gaggle of feminine friends, stuffed animals called Mr. Floppy, Sir Top Heavy, Duke Humpback, and the like; dolls with flowing hair and porcelain skin with names like Princess Rainflower, Duchess SunMeadow, or Queen Aurora Borealis; and whatever other flesh and blood participants she could charm into joining the festivities.
Mr. Phelps smiled. Brenda had so loved to use the EasyBake Oven he had bought for her birthday. But my, she had been a terror on that Big Wheel. She tore up and down those sidewalks like she had been one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. And more than once Mr. Phelps had sternly cautioned her about venturing into the street.
Even now, what was her primary mode of transportation? A motorcycle. She had never bothered to own a car. She had gone to her high school prom on the back of some guy's motorcycle.
Today, Brenda, the little mischief, still likes to make Mr. Phelps's heart skip a beat, as she peels away from the curb, popping a wheelie. At least she had the good sense to wear a helmet. That's all Marvin Phelps had to say about that.
It took extraordinary weather to keep Brenda off her motorcycle. Like the trusty mailman persevering in the rain, snow, and sleet, so too did Brenda persevere on her bike. She always claimed to love the feeling of freedom, the wind rustling through her hair, the thrill, the danger, and so forth. All this was undoubtedly true. But Mr. Phelps also sensed an unacknowledged fear of small, enclosed places in Brenda. She didn't like to ride elevators either, invariably taking the stairs no matter how far up she had to go.
Mr. Phelps had breakfast at a diner. Eggs over hard. Sausage. Tomato soup. Buttered toast. Black coffee. He looked at a few morning papers over his meal. He reviewed the national and international stories. He ignored the local news, which had always, for some reason, seemed more remote to him than events transpiring half way around the world. He absorbed every word of the sports section.
Then he paid a visit to the local senior citizen center, visiting with old friends and lingering for a few hours over the pool table. Then he went to his bank to pester the branch manager with unnecessary questions about the status of his various accounts. All of this was information he knew full well. But the branch manager smelled like a cleansing spring rain, wore stylish, slightly daring, and exquisitely tailored pant suits, and Mr. Phelps liked being in the same room with her enormous breasts.
Finally, with enough of the day eaten up, Marvin Phelps hit the supermarket to do some shopping. He had his shopping cart full of goods, at his car when he remembered about the peanut butter. He went back and paid for it at the self check out.
He went to video store. The proprietor shooed away a pimply faced kid, who'd approached, offering service, and helped Mr. Phelps personally. Mr. Phelps was a regular, a man well known to appreciate fine cinema.
Marvin Phelps left with an armload of DVD rentals. Some were old favorites. As for the others, the proprietor assured him that he and Brenda would find them equally delightful. "Manager's recommendation," he said, merrily sending his best customer on his way.
As Mr. Phelps drove up, he saw the familiar motorcycle leaning against the house. He went in, grocery bags in hand and found Brenda in the kitchen. He smiled at her.
"I hope you don't mind, I let myself in," she said from the table.
"That's what I gave you the key for," he said.
Marvin Phelps put the bags down and started putting things away.
"How's your family?" he asked.
"Good," Brenda said.
"And your parents?" he said.
Brenda's parents had moved to Arizona fifteen years ago, for their health. Brenda said that the warm, dry climate had "... done wonders for my mom's rheumatism and dad's arthritis."
"That's good," he said. And turning to her with the jar of peanut butter he said, "I got chunky. Is that alright?"
Brenda was completely unclothed, sitting on top of the kitchen table. She shrugged and said, "You're the one whose gonna be licking it off my thighs."