Last Meal by Sally Oliver
The Remington Inn was somewhat comforting to me after spending the day in countless business meetings. In the 80s and 90s it was my default hang-out in Texas, the custodian of my tired and world-weary self after having spent the hours pitching new revolutionary cleaning products to a room of mildly hostile faces. The blank faces of the Remington Inn soothed me and the menus, with their garish typography and shamelessly calorific meals, were just the thing to raise my spirits.
In Texas the sheer superfluity of everything seemed a ruse to trap foreigners into staying there forever. I could have slumped in that bar of the Remington Inn for a lifetime, filled with food and intoxicated with the boorish laughter from another room. Sick with longing for something, what exactly I couldn’t say, I found myself ordering the meal which looked the least appetizing on the menu. I chose the chicken and bean enchiladas, poached breakfast bistro, the spinach and feta casserole; anything and everything that oozed and melted and sizzled with fat and rested in my gut like a dead weight. This dead weight became an uncomfortable inner companion during my meetings the next day, and I often had to muffle the occasional treacherous outbreak of wind with an imposing cough. I imagined that I was paying for the excesses of the nation; I alone with my gut that gurgled every hour and threatened to burst through the buttons of my shirt. And yet this Texan ideology, that nothing could ever be too much or too adventurous in scale, was oddly satisfying.
Perhaps years of abstinence had finally had their toll on my state of mind. Before travelling to Texas, I had married early and ‘settled down’ in my twenties. I was a smug newlywed back then while my friends still lived like college freshmen. My wife was impressive and I admit I was silently in awe of her from the beginning. She herself owned a business that created sex toys, advertised for married couples who had lost their incentive for a good time. It was startling how easily she could insinuate herself into a position of erotic expertise, when she herself seemed to have relinquished any desire for a good time. She was whippet thin and ate perhaps a thousand calories a day. She had no processed food in the house; everything had to be organic. She exercised for one hour every day after working a ten hour shift and then perfunctorily made love to me with the small percentage of energy she had left before lights out.
I had been cunningly indoctrinated with low-fat, high-fibre diets and power walks that were designed to strengthen my core. At the Remington Inn I revelled in losing the structure of my core. I didn’t want the responsibility of holding up my core any longer; it was back-breaking work. Here, my mind was indisposed for business or marriage. Here, the greatest decision was whether to choose the omelette or the breakfast tacos. To sit by the window or close to the raucous family at table number nine? Their boisterous activity in anticipation of a Texan feast was irritating yet I couldn’t take my eyes off them. Their dauntlessness in leaping up and down at the table, the barely concealed gluttony in their faces, and the sheer audacity of the parents for having brought so many anxious, squabbling little bodies into the world, was fascinating to me. I ordered the tacos. I sat near table number nine.
Later that morning however, I was beginning to feel unwell. I was preparing to leave the hotel room, when I caught sight of my face in the mirror. The face that hadn’t been shaven for a few days was strangely blurred and bloated. I was shocked because of how vacant I had begun to look. I found myself wanting to cry and heave at the same time. The refried beans and molten cheese were coming back up and I stumbled to the bathroom. Texan food always looks as though it has been pre-digested before hitting the plate. Now I watched as the breakfast I’d eaten with a sense of rebellious entitlement came back to haunt me; the end product of my mid-life crisis with Texan food. It was perhaps the lowest point of my life.
But it didn’t stop there. My heart was thudding violently and I wondered whether to call someone. The caffeine from an hour ago was working its way into my bloodstream with dire effect. Perhaps I was imagining my own breakdown. I remembered the words of an old friend; that a hypochondriac tended to ‘create’ his own bodily dysfunctions purely through the power of an over-developed imagination. Or perhaps this was the opposite of a breakdown; perhaps my body was reawakening, readjusting itself to a faster pace of life?
The phone rang and I was glad. It was ‘Buddy,' Bud Pearson, my vice chairman. I’d forgotten to call him that morning.
“Are you ready to leave? Thought you’d have called a good half hour ago.”
“Buddy, I’m not in good shape.”
“You can say that again. I told you that goddam Texan food was doing you no good.”
“Bud, I’m having a heart attack.”
“You heard! Get your ass over here, I need help.”
I unbuttoned my shirt and lay on the bed, waiting for him to come. When he came in, his usual tired, fastidious expression had changed. He actually looked better when he was startled. He looked as though he’d been forced out of a coma.
“Aah shit, what did you eat?”
“Tacos. I wish I’d ordered the omelette though, it was a tossup between those two.”
Bud frantically began to search for something in my room. I was oddly settled, strangely resigned to my catastrophe. I rested my head back on the pillow as my heart began to slow up.
“Hey Bud, it’s not so bad now.”
“I’m still calling a doctor because you look like shit.”
He found the Yellow Pages from underneath the bed and searched for a number whilst my stomach rumbled after the void the tacos had left there. Whilst Bud rang for a doctor I barely paid him any attention. Instead I browsed the Breakfast Bonanza menu from my bedside table. I stared wistfully at the omelette I hadn’t ordered as Bud spoke in the receiver. When he put the phone back on the hook I was ready to order.
“I want the breakfast omelette with cheese,” I said. Bud was mortified and I was beginning to enjoy myself. I think I wanted to test everyone’s patience. I only wish my wife could have been there. “I want you to order it for me while we wait for the doctor.”
“You’re playing a sick game with me aren’t you?” said Bud. “You’re having a heart-attack and you want a goddam omelette?”
“Yes, I want a goddam omelette and I’ll tell you what, I’ll have the one with five eggs and grits. Look at that photo right there.” I shoved the menu in Bud’s face childishly. “Looks wonderful, doesn’t it?”
Bud tossed it aside. “It looks like shit and that’s the reason you are looking like shit.”
“Yes, but just humour me Buddy. Let’s say I’m on my death bed, right? So don’t you think you should honour my last wishes and order me the omelette with five eggs and grits?” I broke off momentarily to belch and I tasted the last remnants of the tacos in my mouth. The omelette was becoming a matter of urgency to me. Anything to take the flavour of my last sin away by replacing it with another. “Come on Bud, it’s a favour. I need this last meal more than I need to get better.”
Defied by this lack of logic, Bud ordered the omelette. I was moved by his compassion, perhaps my heart had swelled in its ordeal.
When my last meal came, I was misty-eyed. He watched me as I engorged on that plate of food and I detected a note of pity in his expression. I, however, was done with the self-pity. I had found the satisfaction of a higher existence, a higher level of being through Texan food. As my heart thumped with renewed pressure, I was almost sad that a doctor would have to come and chastise me for my choices. Perhaps my heart might finally give way after that last bite, which would save a lot of hassle.
But the doctor came, just as I was beginning to doze off. His appearance only renewed my distress from before. He was a weedy, underhand sort of guy and couldn’t have been much older than twenty-three at most. When he came into the room he was guarded, reproachful and could never look me directly in the eye; unlike my back catalogue of doctors and psychiatrists from my home town.
Bud seemed to share my scepticism once the doctor struggled to ascertain which end of the stethoscope to place on my chest.
“Jesus doctor, been doing this long?” he said sharply.
The doctor was sweating a great deal though perhaps it was the heat and lack of air conditioning in my hotel room. After my victorious ‘last meal’ things began to take on a darker hue. It was as though I was supposed to have died right after the omelette had hit the right spot, but instead I was left with an unpalatable nausea which was slowly destroying my nervous system. The hotel room was suddenly a tightly compressed space; the walls were closing me in. I watched the wiry little doctor uneasily. My peripheral vision was poor and I could only now focus on bizarre details; the tattoo of a butterfly on his left wrist, the glistening sweat on his upper lip, a tear in the lobe of his ear.
“Bud, who is this guy?” I said.
“The nearest doctor I could find in the area,” Bud tapped the man on the shoulder, “Say there, could you give us a diagnosis?”
As if in answer the doctor retrieved two small bottles from a shabby little bag and promptly stuck them under my nose.
“Smelling salts? Are you kidding me?” said Bud angrily.
By this point I was beginning to pass out and I was going through an acute existential dilemma. I was both within and without myself, watching the doctor administer his stethoscope to my shoulder. Bud was frantic, horrified. I was half-conscious and thus only half aware of myself. My words in turn became disorientated.
“Where’s your diploma then?” I asked the doctor. His eyes narrowed. “Hey kid, talk much? You haven’t said anything since you got here.”
“I’d be willing to call an ambulance for you for a fee of $200,” the man said sardonically.
Bud was outraged. “Are you kidding me? That’s how this works is it? That’s a sure fine way of doing business.”
“Bud, close the deal,” I said. Nausea had me tightly in its grip and I was suddenly, for the first time in my life, very afraid of death. “Give him what he wants. Close the deal.”
“But we don’t have that kind of money!”
“Take his address.”
“We’ll send him the money! I’m losing it, Buddy. I’m losing it!”
It was a strange thing to say and I don’t recall having said this myself, but Bud assured me that I said these exact words. I think I had already lost a great deal in my life until this point and yet it is strange how, the closer one is to death, as in the actual event of death as opposed to a dull comprehension of it, the more dearly one clings to his own shabby existence. Funnily enough, I was not really experiencing a heart-attack. An ambulance never came in the end and we knew the ‘doctor’ had been an imposter. Was it mere food poisoning? A virus? No, it had been something more than that. It may not have been my last meal but it was certainly my last Texan dish.