Arts & Literature Column
Written by Nathan Mattise
For the few of you who have been long time readers (or at least thoroughly perused the archives), perhaps this will be somewhat expected. I was obsessed with the Esquire Napkin Fiction project after I first found it, to the point where I sent an unsolicited submission in. Next came the unexpected when I actually had a response and my own napkin opportunity sent my way. Today, it’s official. Like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe before me (or nothing at all like them), I am a published short story author with Esquire(.com).
And just in case it’s hard to read via the actual web site (because I used short-hand on the napkin and it ended up being published verbatim), here’s a cleaner copy:
“Two letters and 60 years”
By Nathan Mattise
Tom knew that going into his summer adventure with Aunt Kathie, age would create inherent problems. He was staying at her pad which meant mixing 21 with over 80. It was a clear case of the generational gap he’d been discussing in Sociology class since freshman year. Coupled with the fact that they were technically family (and who gets along well with their family), there was no reason to expect peace at 1816 Tram Boulevard.
Tom’s major miscalculation was just how he’d piss Aunt Kathie off. She didn’t get angry over some ideological disagreement with another liberal college kid. She didn’t get pissed about auto-pilot male behavior like walking around the house in boxers or forgetting to flush. Aunt Kathie didn’t even get upset over his nightlife routine starting at 10 p.m. and ending at 2 a.m. on a good night. The quintessential knock-down, drag-out brawl between Aunt Kathie and Tom would occur over something much simpler.
Two letters: O and K. Put them together enough times and Tom found Aunt Kathie morphed from quirky, loveable, harmless elder into aggressive, bitchy hag.
It started on a Monday in July. The two had been through a lot by this point, but none of that history mattered to Aunt Kathie that day. She failed to see the sacrifices Tom had been making to strike a balance between having real fun and having fun that he could enjoy with Aunt Kathie. He never complained, never showed anything aside from a mildly genuine interest in everything she had led him through. So with their routine, three-hour dinner only minutes away, Tom’s relaxed, agreeable approach to dealing with Aunt Kathie finally made the woman snap.
“Tom, dinner’s ready.”
Tom sprang from his bed. He walked down the narrow corridor lined with southwestern pottery and entered the kitchen, approaching dinner like he did every day.
“Smells, good Aunt Kathie. What are we having?”
“I’ve got meat loaf and sweet corn. You can fix yourself a salad if you’d like. I even chopped up the vegetables.”
For some reason Aunt Kathie was under the impression Tom liked vegetables chopped up in a food processor. This was the first summer he ate salad with a spoon.
“How about we go out and eat on that patio?” she said.
It was then Tom uttered the forbidden combination of vowel and consonant. It was a reflex. It just came out. Tom’s mother had been asking him if he wanted to do things, how he felt or if he understood for years and Tom always responded this very way. Never once did Mom say a word about it. Aunt Kathie on the other hand had several words for Tom. All of them choice. All of them incredibly bitter.
“OK? O-K? Well you don’t have to come out and eat with me if you don’t want to. All you ever say is OK and that means nothing to me. Nothing. In my day (yes, she literally said “in my day,”) we’d never respond by just saying OK. You never show any emotion. I can’t tell if you’re excited or miserable. I ask you if you want to go hiking. ‘OK.’ I suggest going out to dinner at Sandiago’s. ‘OK.’ Why can’t you just be normal and say ‘No, not today Aunt Kathie’ or ‘I’d be glad to. I’d love to.’ What is wrong with you…?”
The rant might have gone on for another two and a half minutes but Tom zoned out within this first stretch. Aunt Kathie’s combination of frantic arm movement, calculated eye-rolling and soprano-pitched shrieking was strangely mesmerizing. When she finished talking she took a deep breath, her first in more than three minutes. She aggressively took her butter knife and dinner fork to the meatloaf. The rapid clanking against her everyday dinnerware was the only sound for the next few moments.
Tom was in a state of shock. Did that really happen? Did Aunt Kathie really just go on over his use of the word OK? What to do in this situation? If Tom walked away, he risked setting off a cold war that Reagan and Gorbachev would’ve been jealous of. If he gave in, Aunt Kathie would get this all-powerful sense of influence and have the impression she could shape him into some 1950s mold of young adult. But then again, Tom was used to homecooking every night by that point.
“OK, Aunt Kathie. I’m sorry.”
It was like accidentally taking out Nagasaki after you realized Hiroshima was a mistake. Aunt Kathy let out a noise reminiscent of a dying dinosaur from Jurassic Park. She left the table mid-bite and retired to her bedroom for the night not to be seen again.
Tom sat there speechless among a plate of half-eaten food and Tupperware filled with luke-warm meatloaf. He ate dinner, cleaned up and went on to a very monotonous evening. Tomorrow he and Aunt Kathie would share a largely mute meal separated by only a small side table and a bug candle. But Tom knew that from this moment on, the space between them would always be at least two letters and 60 years wide