WHEN THE FIRE GOES OUT
—W. B. Yeats
They eat in silence, mainly. Their few words cover selecting a topping for the pizza; choosing a bottle of wine; asking that the other pass the Parmesan canister; later, the salt shaker; agreeing that the crust is good—she with the statement, he with a grunt of assent. Beyond that, no more.
Now she admits to herself that that fuel has been spent. And where has it left them?
She looks around her table and thinks: here. At an overrated and overpriced wood-oven pizza place in the West Loop, having another dull and wordless evening.
“So,” she says at last, “How did it go today?”
It’s a question more fitting a meal’s start than its end, and she already knows the answer. Had it gone well, he would have said. She asks only to pierce the silence. Pointless. It will pierce this silence as well as a butter knife pierces a steak.
Well, she supposes, that would mean “kind of effectively but not ideally.” Because, yeah. Sure. You have to admit that in a pinch a butter knife is still a knife. It’s not ideal for anything besides spreading butter or jelly, but it’ll do a better job slicing steak than using your bare hands and pulling at it. Which no one does. Especially not her. She is a vegetarian.
“Today was a bust.”
“A bust?” Her tone is hopeful, as if inflection alone can render his meaning positive. Still, she knows better. She knows not to expect elucidation on what he would call a failure.
Well, she’s basically a vegetarian. She eats fish, sometimes.
“Yeah, a bust. Round four o’clock I knew I wasn’t gonna get anything done. So I decided I should just scratch it. Try again tomorrow.”
She knows what ‘scratch it’ and ‘bust’ mean. She was this close to being a National Merit Scholar in high school and her ACT scores were sick, I swear. Here she plays dumb to conceal her disappointment. For “trying again tomorrow” means that no, they will not being going to the carnival. Perhaps the day had gone well, and claiming that it hadn’t gives him an excuse not to join her.
She can feel it. He is pulling away. Now that their silent meals lack their once fierce attraction—or any attraction—all that remains is dullness. Eye contact and smirks and silent, smoldering desire had once been their lexicon. Each glance felt like a passionate roar, every touch an intimate revelation. Today, that language is gone. Only silence remains. A great wad of nothing-to-say.
Sometimes when she orders fish people ask why she eats fish if she is a vegetarian. She answers, “Well, I’m a pescetarian.” And they blink at her. So she says, “Pesci is Italian for fish. Or maybe it’s Latin. I forget. The point is I don’t eat meat and this is not meat. So, Joe Pesci means Joe F—” And then they’re like, “Hold on. You’re a vegetarian because of ethical reasons, right?” And she says, “But fish is not technically meat. Anyway, Joe Pesci means Joe Fish in Italian, and Depeche Mode is French for ‘Style of the Fish,’ so—” Suddenly they cut her off. “Hold up,” They say. “I’m talking, sweetheart. You can sit back and take it for a sec. Fifteen minutes ago you went off on me for ordering a burger. You called me a murderer. I actually felt bad. I actually, for the first time in my life, was like, ‘You know what? Maybe I don’t have a right to kill life forms with eyes, things that breathe air and use a mouth and have feet—dudes that do all that living shit that humans do. But mushrooms? Fuck ‘em. Gimme a platefull.’” Here they often lift their burgers and point with them for emphasis as a vindictive judge might brandish a gavel before delivering the draconian sentence. “I was about to call this here burger ‘Burger The Last’ and then go straight-up vegan immediately, not even order ice cream for dessert. But now a plate of sea bass arrives? And it’s for you? You lost me, sister. You lost me forever.” With eyes glaring, heads shaking in disdain, and with a vindictive bite into their burgers they repeat those final words: “You lost me [CHOMP] forever.”
People can be so mean.
“Yeah, I scratched it,” he says. “I knew the day was pooched. Spent too much time on Youtube. Dicked around online way too much. Blew the whooooole day.”
“Pooched it? Dicked around?”
She is drawing it out of him, the synonyms. The first night they made love he whispered synonyms into her ear, passionate, carnal synonyms like, “You’re so hard,” and “Deeper,” which in retrospect were more things that a lady would say to a guy than a guy would say to a lady, but whatever. It worked. Over and over, all night long, he pressed his cheek against hers and murmured things like, “I want you inside me.” This last one made her think, “Should I put my thumb in his butthole?” but when she tried he wiped her hand away, and that was that.
“Yep, I pooched it. Couldn’t catch any wind out of the creative west. Ran the sails up but only had a pair of pants on the line.” This is another of his quirks, making up nautical expressions that no one says.
She feels torn between sympathy and suspicion. Maybe he had tried and… failed. Or maybe he is lying. Maybe he had written some very, very good rhymes. Perhaps he found a new and interesting way of expressing how excellent he felt his own rapping abilities were compared to those of other rappers whom he considered unworthy of touching, let alone rapping upon, a microphone. Maybe he conceals this success so he can avoid tomorrow’s Boy Scout Carnival and Pancake Breakfast in that church parking lot by their house. (OH. Right. They also live together. Aaaand… they have kids now.) (They shacked up after only fourteen days of incessant banging and not speaking, if you don’t count him whispering things like, “Ooh! Not so fast,” and “Are you all the way in yet?” which is just insane, now that she thinks about it.)
Her first glance from the host stand upon entering the restaurant caused an involuntary smile. Candlelight. The whole room illumined from the tables and not the ceiling, which hovered in a dark, almost gothic gloom. The candles provided a charming and even anachronistic aura in this hasty, digitized age. She pictured the harried wait staff, hours earlier, racing to set up each table for the evening, driven by the curt and profane demands of a harsh, unpleaseable manager, rushing rushing rushing to be ready for the onslaught of customers—yet periodically forced to pause a moment before each candle… to raise it to their chests and tilt, to bend the matchbook, to tear off a match and strike the head against the sand-paper strip once, twice, and again until it lights, and at last to... wait... for the fire to spread... from match… to wick.
Seated at the table, it takes only an idle moment—of which she had an ample supply—to realize that the candle is, in fact, a battery-powered LED with a tip twisted into a flame’s contours. The flicker comes not from the wild whirling of primeval fire shackled Odysseus-like to a wick, but from the strict choreography of a Cold War era diode linked to a semiconductor. The shadows it casts are weak and repetitive; they pulsate in a slight and predictable rhythm. Even the crystal canister in which the diode sits is false: not glass from Waterford but plastic from Wenzhou. With a bitter smirk undetected (of course) by her man, she considers the congruity of the candle on the table with the relationship of the couple around it: evocative of romance, but not the real thing.
She looks at him and sees light flicker onto a blank, bland palette. Clothes that had seemed, years ago, both elegant and manly now seem a mere uniform that never varies—a button-down shirt, black and glossy like the panels on a fancy car, untucked as ever in well-honed dishevelment; dark jeans faded just so like panels of that same car dappled with snow or street-salt in late February; and black, well-worn leather shoes of disparate shades like the mismatched quarter-panels on some shitbox Pontiac. His haircut as predictable and safe as a politician’s, trimmed every two weeks to somewhere between U.S. Marine and Marshall Mathers (whom he claims to know, though she has never met him despite his seven years bragging to be “mad deep with Em’s D12 posse FOR LIFE”). His mood tonight, the same as when they first met. Cool and calm then, bored and sullen now. These are lips that never smile wide or frown deeply, eyes that never light with anger or dim with despair, a brow that never droops in contemplation or scrunches upwards in surprise—not even during those endless rap-battles that he drags her to every—single--mother—fucking—Tuesday! The razor-sharp jawline and broad shoulders that once quickened her lust now strike her as brute, mindless power, like that of an ox or a work horse. It’s impressive to see a Clydesdale pull a carriage out of two-feet of mud, but the horse has nothing to say about the feat once it is done. So it is with him.
Well, it’s probably impressive to see a Clydesdale do something like that. It’s sort of a dated analogy, she thinks, and admits to herself that she has absolutely no experience with horses, carriages, or muddy roads. And maybe the guy who drives the horse—the teamster or stevedore or whatever—should get the credit.
Wait. Is “horsepower” a real measurement, or just something that people say? “This lawnmower has an 8-horsepower engine.” So it’s the equivalent of 8 horses? Bullshit. No one ever saw a Black and Decker towing truck full of Budweiser.
Anyway, her man is dumb as hell—that’s the point. What the fuck “horsepower” is is kinda irrelevant. Note to self, she thinks: look up “stevedore” later.
Finally the bill arrives and it’s like WAY too much, especially considering that the ingredients were bland if not stale and that the recipe was nothing she couldn’t do at home. But anyway, that isn’t the problem. They had split only one pizza and this bill has two, both of them with meat. Definitely not any food she ate. OK, yeah—she eats shrimp once in a rare while, but that’s practically a plant.
She tries to point out the problem to the waiter as he passes their table, but in doing so accidentally waves over a different black guy who does not even work there, just some guy on his way to the bathroom who only looks like their waiter. He doesn’t have glasses, she realizes after a second, but he is wearing black pants, a white shirt, a red bow tie, and red suspenders, just like the staff. Who dresses like that? Plus you can’t see shit in here with all these stupid fake candles. Anyway, it’s super awkward and gives them something to think about besides each other for a minute. At least, it gives her something to think about. Who knows what hip-hop’s thinking.
The man gives her a furious and dirty look, as if waving him down and asking about the bill is akin to saying, “Back of the bus, Remus.” She realizes her mistake immediately and says, “Oh, wait. You’re not…” but trails off as the man walks quickly backwards, glaring with a combination of fear and rage like she had bit him and snapped off a hand. He bumps blindly and hard into a table of five, and turns to the people sitting at it to shout, “That woman is racist!” Those five then look not at him, who knocked over a bottle of wine when he collided with their table, but at her. Each squints fiercely and glares with sudden hate (the worst kind).
She cannot look back at them, it’s too painful—but when she looks elsewhere she sees other people glaring from other tables as the man’s accusation spreads like… GUESS. Everyone in the dining room soon repeats the slander in conspiratorial whispers, all suddenly hating, all pointing low with fingers curved and arms bent in spurious slyness, each index finger jabbing at her from afar like a dozen dull knives, all weakly but effectively piercing her heart, a heart now exposed and raw, raw because she knows there is nothing to say to this man across the table, that there never was, nothing to say to this person not rising to defend her, nothing to say to this man who now stares in silence into the middle distance as if nothing remarkable at all is happening, nothing to say to this—she can now admit—weirdo who is probably even then thinking something creepy like, “Turn me over.” And this is the father of her children! Six of them, three sets of twins! Oh man is she in deep with this fool.
When she finally finds the right black guy, (wearing pretty much the same outfit, though maybe his bowtie is a little bigger and yes, this guy has glasses), she clears it up that they did not order two pizzas and that their bill is all sorts of fucked up. But the waiter says, “Listen, forget it. You have to leave. Now. Several people have complained about racial insults aimed other patrons, all coming from this table.”
She wants to shout, “I’m a quarter Mexican!” but those saving words will not come. And really, she’s more like an eighth.
“So forget the bill,” the waiter says. “Just get out of my restaurant and never come back.”
She struggles to defend herself, but can only muster a stammered, “Y—y--your restaurant?”
The waiter takes a step back, stands straighter, and announces, “It may surprise you, racist, but black people own businesses in America.”
“But… yes, I know that. I just meant, you own the place? I thought you were our waiter.”
“Wow, lady. You don’t know when to quit, do you? GET. OUT.” 
Yes, she thinks, as she covers her face with her purse and walks alone out of the restaurant, I guess you could say today was a bust.
 A) hotcakes, B) wildfire, c) sliced bread.
 ANSWER TO QUIZ: A) hotcakes.