The kitchen is not small, but it is filled with too-large furniture that does not belong in the space—a formal dining table set that seats 6 without the added leaves, and a Martha Stewart island that serves as a cutting board and preparation area. The refrigerator is oversized and sticks out against the corner of the table so that the mother and father must push the heavy chairs in and turn sideways whenever they open its doors. The table is an antique and was a conversation piece in the formal dining room of their old home. But this house has no dining room—only a small nook in the kitchen, and they haven’t the heart to replace the set with a smaller, more appropriate one for the space, which is, in any case, temporary and rented.
There’s no cereal. The box is empty.
The mother slams the empty box on the Martha.
Yeah. I had the munchies last night when I was watching the news.
The father puts on his winter coat and swallows his last sip of coffee.
You left the empty box on top of the refrigerator.
The father rinses out his coffee cup in the sink.
Should have thrown it away. Habit, I guess.
He picks up a newspaper from the kitchen table, folds it in quarters, places it under his arm and scoots a chair out of his way as he heads toward the living room.
You left the empty box, and I thought we had cereal. Now we have nothing to feed the kids for breakfast.
The father stops in the doorway, his back to the kitchen. He does not answer her. He just stands there while she continues.
I would have gone to the store if I’d know we were out, but the box was sitting there, empty. How was I to know it was empty? The mother’s voice is now accusing.
The father turns. Do you want me to run out to the 7-11 and get some more? I’ll be late for work, but if you want me to go, I will.
The mother does not answer, but instead busies herself loudly with rinsing out the empty bowl and spoon still in the sink from the night before.
We have bread. The father thinks it a reasonable alternative. Maybe you can just make toast for the kids?
The mother dries the bowl roughly, places it into the kitchen cabinet and slams the cabinet door as she speaks. Sure. They can just eat toast. That’s great. You had the munchies in the middle of the night, and now our children will go to school hungry because we have nothing to feed them but a slice of bread. Great.
The father looks at his watch nervously, then back at the mother, who is no longer thin and wears a shapeless cotton nightgown that has three missing buttons.
Do you want me to go to the store and get more cereal?
No, you’ll be late for work. Just go.
She digs through the bread box and takes out the plastic bag containing a half-loaf of bread.
I feel bad.
The father looks about the kitchen helplessly.
The mother shoves two pieces of white bread into the toaster oven.
Go. Don’t be late. We can’t afford for you to lose your job, God forbid. Then what will the kids eat? Go. She mumbles the last sentences under her breath, but loud enough to be heard. But the father’s hearing is not as good as it once was.
He picks up his briefcase off the hallway chair and head towards the front door, off the hook.
Okay, then…If you’re sure.
He reaches for his hat on top of the hat stand, places it on his head and has his hand on the door knob when he hears his wife’s words behind him.
I can’t live like this anymore.
He turns to her. What?
Nothing, she answers. Go to work. Don’t be late.
In the kitchen, the bell rings on the spring-loaded toaster, but the wife does not move toward it. The father stands, hesitant, his hand still on the doorknob. Then he makes a decision that feels right for the moment.
I’m going to go to the store to buy some more cereal.
Fuck you, the mother says, her voice low and threatening.
Perhaps he has not heard her right. He doesn’t hear as well as he used to.
Nothing. She turns away from him. Go.
He is uncertain and decides to try again.
Do you want me to go to the store or not?
Whatever you want to do., She turns toward the toast. I have to get the kids up and feed them.
The father stands at the door, unsure. Then hearing in the kitchen the clinking of plates, the scratchy buttering of toast, he decides to go. He opens the door and starts to say in a cheerier voice he’s off for the day.
Well, then…he says, but the mother interrupts his words to finishes her previous thought.
…and I’ll have to tell them we have nothing to feed them but bread!
The father slams the front door and drops his briefcase, angry now.
That’s it! I’m done!
The mother pokes her head out of the kitchen doorway, surprised at his fury.
The father is trembling now, enraged.
Do you want me to buy the fucking cereal, or WHAT?
It isn’t fair that he is angry, thinks the mother. She pushes past him and grabs the car keys from a bowl beside the door.
No. You stay here and get the kids up. I’m going to the store.
Now, wait! The father grabs the mother by the arm to stop her from leaving the house, but she pulls away from him and speaks calmly, slowly, looking for the first time into his eyes.
Now he is confused. She is looking at him with a grave expression.
Leaving to go to the store?
She opens the door and steps outside, throwing her words at him over her shoulder.
What do you think?
She unlocks the car door, and he looks at her and then behind him and back again.
Should I get the kids dressed for school?
The mother has forgotten her purse and slams the car door shut before heading back toward the house and pushing past the father.
I don’t give a shit what you do.
The father looks at his watch and sighs.
I’m going to be late to the office.
The mother grabs her purse from the sofa and puts it on her shoulder, then stomps past the father.
You should have thought about that before you ate the last of the Cheerios.
He looks at her with a lost expression as she stands on the front porch, facing him.
Where are you going?
Where do you think?
If I knew, I wouldn’t be asking, damn it!
Fine, then. You go. She pushes past him again and drops her purse on the sofa.
He turns in the doorway, uncertain.
Go to work?
The mother stands too close to his face, shouting.
Go to work!. Leave us here with nothing but bread to eat!
She picks up a pile of old magazines from the coffee table, heads for trash can in the kitchen and then stops, her back to him as he looks at his watch, his shoulders sagging in defeat.
Well, I’m going to miss the train, anyway.
The mother turns and faces the father of her children. She throws the magazines at him, one by one, launching them like discs at his face, his stooped shoulders, his chest.
Great—again, you’ll be late to work! And the next time they start laying off people in your division, who do you think they’ll let go? Who? The guy who’s been on time every day, or you—the one who never makes it in on time? Who eats the last of the cereal and leaves the empty box on top of the refrigerator? Who can’t even throw out a simple box? Who can’t even turn off the fucking TV at night to get in bed with his wife? Who falls asleep on the sofa like a dog every night and can’t even get up on time in the morning and throw out the empty box and replace the fucking cereal so that his kids will have breakfast before they go to school? Who are they going to fire? The man who feeds his children and sleeps with his wife and pays his bills and does things right, or you? Who should be let go? Tell me? Who?
The father has not moved during the attack—not when he was hit in the face with a year-old issue of Time, not when he was thwacked in the head with his Newsweek or when the kids’ Highlights was hurled at his knees. Several dog-eared copies of Oprah are now strewn about his scuffed black shoes, but he makes no move to pick them up. His wife is breathing hard now, her cheeks red, her eyes, wild with rage only a moment ago, now hollow, spent. She tosses the remaining magazine—a water-logged three year-old copy of Better Homes and Gardens—back onto the coffee table between them.
The mother stands alone and looks around the messy room. Upstairs, an alarm clock rings in a child’s bedroom. She looks toward the staircase and begins to pick up the crumpled magazines, then she drops them, runs to the door, opens it and calls out loudly to the father.
And don’t forget to pick up some milk, too! We’re all out.