When I was a kid of four or five I’d tear up at the word mayonnaise. I don’t anymore. It didn’t make me sad. No, it was the creamy, squishy sound of the word that got to me. That was when we lived in Boston. When I was eight or nine and living in Grand Junction, Colorado, I used to climb a small tree in the front yard of our rented house. In April, wild asparagus used to spring up along the roads. It was edible and we ate it. The taste reminded me of communion wafers. I still eat asparagus, but I haven’t climbed a tree in sixty-some years. We moved to Wisconsin when I was thirteen, about the same time I started waking up with full bladder and an erection. It wasn’t pleasant stumbling to the bathroom in that condition, and yet it’s an inconvenience I miss—the erection part, that is.
These days I’m retired. On weekday mornings, I walk past a funeral home with a dented downspout to Starbucks, where I drink a medium cappuccino and read the obituaries in the local paper, searching for stylistic infelicities, of which there are many. The other day a truck loaded with prosthetic devices (according to the police report) sideswiped me in a crossing walk, sending me to the hospital.
That gave me a chance to test out an intriguing rumor—that people will say and do anything around a man they think is asleep or knocked unconscious or in a coma, especially if the man is elderly and looks half-dead, as I did. Luckily, they put me in a private room, where I could run my little experiment without worrying about a roommate’s giving me away. I figured all I had to do was close my eyes, go limp, and produce a small hissing sound that would pass for breathing and convince visitors I wasn’t dead. For a few hours following my admission to the hospital, I practiced peeking through slitted eyelids. In between submitting to various tests, I worked on positioning my head on the pillow to ensure unobstructed sight-lines. (Who knows what the nurses thought I was up to.)
Finally, the tests ceased. It grew quiet, except for passing footsteps. It was a white room with one window. I was ready. After a while, I sensed others in the room, heard whispering. It was my daughter and her husband; they were talking about insurance. The word “coverage” kept coming up. I didn’t bother to look at them, or the next visitor, one of my ex-wives, who told a funny story about how I used to snore through televised football games, complete with sound effects. Even I laughed (quietly). I must have fallen asleep around then, because the next thing I knew someone—a lovely, faintly hoarse voice, female—was whispering in my ear that it was time to get up.
I cracked open my eyes. It was the actress Julie Harris, freckled and boyish as she had been in 1952. And since she was dead, I knew I was dreaming.
“You can’t fool me,” she said. “It’s time to get up and run.”
“You were so great in East of Eden,” I said. “But I was always a sucker for the skinny, smart, tremulous type.”
That’s when she brought out the feather—a great peacock rainbowed feather—and wiggled it under my nose. “Time to get up and run,” she said.
The hallways were surprisingly narrow. I worried about my gown opening in back as I ran. Giggling nurses stationed in the doorways swatted me with peacock feathers. Julie Harris was right behind me. At the end of the hall was an enormous jar, white with a blue and yellow label. I ran right up to it and stopped. I couldn’t go any further, the jar blocked all the exits.
“That jar’s too big to be real,” I said.
“Hospital-sized,” she said. “The good thing is you’ll never run out of—” She stopped and looked at me. “Help me, Jack,” she said.
“I can’t,” I said.
“Yes, you can. For me. The good thing is you’ll never run out of—”
“Mayonnaise,” I said, and for the last time in my life I teared up.
John Goulet was a short story writer and novelist (Oh’s Profit, William Morrow; Yvette in America, U of Colorado Press) whose work has been reviewed in The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The London Times Literary Supplement. A review in Sewanee Review placed Yvette in America in the ranks of Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. He has stories in Kansas Quarterly, Brooklyn Review, Sonora Review, Folio, Crescent Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Denver Quarterly, Cream City Review, The Colorado Review, and other journals. “Reviving Pater” appeared in the Norton anthology Flash Fiction Forward. His work has also appeared in recent issues of The Literary Review and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. John passed away on February 7, 2018.