68 minutes

By Simon Massey
[contributor]

Illustration by Antonio Su

At 8:37AM on a Saturday, Benjamin Johnston awoke with a loud snort, a tingling itch in his left nostril, and the disheartening realisation that he was the only occupant of his bed. This meant Clarice must still be mad at him over the previous night’s row as she never woke up before 9:00 unless she was angry. Last night’s conflict wasn’t anything dire, just a small argument about which side of one’s plate the napkin is supposed to be placed on, which then led to another argument about the location of Ben’s head. He believed it to be, quite naturally, located atop his shoulders whereas the membership of the opposing party were adamant that it was, in fact, lodged firmly up his ass. Ben wouldn’t usually worry about this sort of thing except, as he reminded himself, his relationship with Clarice had been strained ever since the “The Kitchen Sink Incident” of two weeks prior. Ben also recalled a slight possibility that he may bear some of the blame in the escalation of the previous night’s conflict. He remembered several choice phrases that may have been all too hastily employed. The strongest in his memory was “Cultureless Hag” but he also had a feeling that maybe, possibly, there existed a slight chance that someone could have also been referred to as a “Dense Twat,” all of which made Ben justifiably apprehensive of what awaited him downstairs.
Clarice had a specific routine she would follow after going to sleep angry, very much like the routine a grenade goes through after the pin is pulled from it. Unfailingly, she would wake up early, go downstairs, and proceed to wash and chop vegetables obsessively while planning out the specific details of when, where and how she would give hell to the object of her anger. Once, after discovering that the neighbour’s cat Rufus had taken it as his personal duty to both fertilize and aerate her favourite bed of begonias, she spent 8 hours chopping and 3 trips to the market to restock vegetables before planting a type of pressure-weighted sling trap in the flower bed. Upon his next visit this device promptly shipped Rufus back to the centre of his own yard via airmail. Ben thought Rufus had never seemed quite right after what he termed “The Begonia Incident” especially in close proximity to anything that could be mistaken for flowers.
Fortunately, thought Ben, Clarice’s tirades usually required considerable stewing time in order to formulate her line of attack, so there was a decent chance that he woke up early enough to avoid the focussed expression of her anger. Still, he could hear chopping coming from downstairs, so he decided to skip his morning shower in the hopes of catching her unprepared. He slipped on his woollen socks, a pair of slacks and his green Van Morrison T-shirt which he knew Clarice liked and would therefore greatly decrease the chances of a hot liquid being “accidentally” spilled on him.

He exited the bedroom and closed the door loud enough that Clarice would hear it. He didn’t want to startle her coming into the kitchen as that could cause her to launch right into the rant she had brewing for him regardless of how close it was to completion. If he was early enough, as Ben suspected he would be,  a facade of calm and courtesy would greet him, which Clarice would maintain while she hastened to hone her argument to a sharpened point. Her displeasure would only be betrayed by a twitch in her right eye whenever he said her name. He would then have to eat a quick breakfast and make twenty minutes of small talk while figuring out an excuse to leave the house for the rest of the day. If he could accomplish all this and make a prompt though graceful exit before Clarice erupted, there was a fair chance he would be able to avoid her wrath entirely. That being said, he still wouldn’t dare turn the keys in his car’s ignition until some time after she had woken up the next day. As he came down the stairs, he heard a rough grating noise and sincerely hoped the sound came from their pepper mill and not Clarice’s teeth. He rounded the corner into the kitchen with a greeting
“Good morning, Dear.”
“Good morning, Ben,” replied Clarice jovially, while grating the ginger root in her hand.

Ben looked at the chopped bok-choy piled beside the grater and smiled inwardly, an oriental stir fry lay in the cards for later this week. This might not be so bad after all.
“Is there any cereal left?” he asked.
“Only raisin bran,” she replied.
“It will have to do,” he said taking the Charlie Brown bowl off the shelf and pulling the cereal out of the cupboard. Neither of them had any particular attachment to Charlie Brown or any of the Peanuts characters for that matter, it was simply the largest non-mixing bowl they had and with Ben being a fan of cereal they decided to keep it around.
He poured the cereal into the bowl and opened the fridge to grab the milk. As soon as his gaze met the inside of the fridge he froze. A garbage bag full of chopped carrots occupied the entire left side of the refrigerator and four canoe-shaped potatoes that looked like they’d had their centres scrubbed out sat in the egg tray. It took all his resolve to keep his hand from shaking as he cautiously transported the milk from the fridge to the counter. This was far worse than he’d ever imagined.

Ben chanced a quick glance at the clock. It had only been five minutes, he still had to last another fifteen. He ate his breakfast in silence while Clarice chopped celery methodically and smiled out the window. Despite the state of the fridge, Ben decided it would still be a good idea to probe the situation.
“Clarice, do you know where I’ve left Chauncey’s food?” he asked.
“I think it’s on the counter behind the toaster,” she replied, her eye twitching visibly.
Ben observed this as he hastily collected the small jar of food pellets and headed for the gecko’s terrarium in the living room.  Chauncey sat where he always sat, in the very centre of the terrarium staring at the wallpaper behind it. Ben liked to think this behaviour occurred because this was Chauncey’s favourite spot owing to the fact that no matter where in the room you stood, he always remained visible. This could also explain why he wouldn’t make any attempt to get food that fell more than three inches away from him. Other members of the household held differing and much more demeaning opinions explaining this behaviour from which Ben tried his best to shield Chauncey.
As Ben poured the food pellets around Chauncey he heard Clarice call to him from the other room “I don’t know why you bother feeding that thing, it’s brain dead, it’s been sitting in that one spot for over a month drooling and staring at the wallpaper,” the distain clear in her voice
Ben leaned closer to the cage
“Don’t listen to her Chauncey, she’s just on the rag again.”
“What was that Ben?” Clarice called from the other room.
“Nothing dear, just saying good morning to Chauncey!” Ben replied, much louder and faster than he’d intended to.
He glanced behind him toward Clarice but she had turned back to chopping celery. He watched Chauncey lazily eat the food pellets nearest to him.

Ben walked sheepishly back to the kitchen and checked the clock again. Ten minutes left, he’d reached the halfway point. He busied himself with cleaning up his breakfast. He put the cereal back in the cupboard and returned the milk to its shelf in the fridge, trying not to dwell on the bag of carrots. He gently tossed his spoon into the sink, it landed with the unmistakeable chug of cutlery sliding across metal. As soon as the spoon lay still he heard a quick whirling behind him followed by the sound of porcelain and vegetable matter hitting tile. He looked down to see slices of celery and chunks of Charlie Brown skid across the kitchen floor. Here we go, thought Ben.

“The napkin goes on the left! Under the fork, because sometimes you just use the fork and not the knife!” yelled Clarice.

Ben fired back retorts as he dodged handfuls of diced vegetables “it goes on the right because most people are right handed so that is the first hand they use to pick anything up with!”

“You don’t know anything more about culinary etiquette than that catatonic lizard!” yelled Clarice, flinging a handful of radishes.

“Maybe Chauncey would move around more if he wasn’t so afraid of the crazy banshee running around the house,” he replied, ducking a second salvo of radish.
“Well if my presence is effecting Chauncey so much, maybe I’ll leave and while I’m out maybe I’ll buy some new China!!!” yelled Clarice, fishing for ammunition in the vegetable drawer of the open fridge.

“I knew it!” shouted Ben, almost caught off guard by the whole turnip that flew by him. “This was never about the damned napkins! You’re never going to drop this are you? What could I have possibly done?!!!”

“You could have at least taken the dishes out first!” Clarice screamed back readying two potatoes.

“It was dark! I didn’t know they were there!” yelled Ben over his shoulder as he took cover behind the counter.

“It was the good China!” she screamed again as potatoes hurdled through the air above Ben

“What could I have possibly done!?” yelled Ben, in the most offensively quizzical tone he could muster.

“Maybe you could have spent less time covering your ass and more time trying to pull your head out of it!!!” screamed Clarice, so loud that the dishes rang. She took a breath and then said in a suddenly and unnervingly calm tone with a very sharp edge “I’m going to the salon, I’ll be back in an hour.”
She then turned and stormed off towards the door sending waves of celery bouncing across the floor with each step. She opened the door and then in one fluid motion that Ben couldn’t help but admire, snatched up her purse and coat, stepped out of the door and slammed it.

Disaster. Ben knew full well that Clarice had gone for a hair cut no more than one week ago. He also knew that the last time Clarice became mad enough to leave an argument to go to the salon she had threatened to leave him upon her return. Not only that, but, for a week after the last salon-worthy incident Ben endured several occurrences in which he was pelted with eggs, old cabbage and once a live cat, by women passing him on the street. He hoped these incidents were just an unhappy coincidence, but he couldn’t shake the terrible feeling that they weren’t. More than that Ben didn’t want to lose Clarice. Despite their idiosyncrasies and her tendency to make salad into projectiles he did love her. Even though he believed himself blameless in “The Kitchen Sink Incident” he would have to make a peace offering none the less.

The sure-fire way to win Clarice’s forgiveness would be to rent her a Will Farrell movie. For reasons Ben could not fathom Clarice loved Will Farrell movies, Ben only knew it would be a cold day in hell before he watched that hack spend another two hours butchering the good name of comedy, he would have to gain her forgiveness another way. Blueberry buttermilk waffles had worked before and they damn well better work again! Clarice’s love of waffles stemmed from something quite the opposite of childhood nostalgia, she hadn’t particularly enjoyed her childhood and at the same time she had never had blueberry buttermilk waffles during it. The clock read 8:58AM so Ben had 57 minutes to collect the ingredients and make the waffles. The main ingredient was chiefly blueberries which naturally Ben was out of, so a trip to the market would be required.

Ben gathered his wallet, flung on his coat and raced out the door. On foot, the travel time to the market spanned an even 20 minutes and after accounting for the return trip, that left him with 17 minutes to purchase the blueberries and make waffles. He noticed the car still parked in the driveway. Tempting, but he knew Clarice wouldn’t have left it behind for his benefit and attempting to use it hazarded too great a risk. He decided to go on foot and started off down the block. Barely out of his driveway he was met by the mailman out walking his dog.
“Good morning Mr. Johnston, mighty fine weekend weather isn’t it?” said the mailman.
“No time to talk, I’ve got to save my marriage,” said Ben.
“Ah,” said the mailman  “The Kitchen Sink Incident right?”
“…Yes,” Ben answered cautiously, wondering how on earth the mailman of all people was privy to this information.

After they passed Ben turned back to stare at the mailman with an expression of confused disbelief as he carried on towards the market. For the rest of the trip the encounter troubled him, but he figured that if he put enough effort into not thinking about it he could pretend the entire episode never happened.
He arrived at the market behind schedule, taking 23 minutes, clearly the mailman had rattled him more than he cared to admit. He was glad to see his friend Mitch was working the counter as Mitch was not one for drawn out small talk.
“Mitch, I need blueberries,” said Ben.
“That bad is it?” said Mitch. “What happened?”
“There was an incident involving a one-bathroom house, an occupied bathroom, a full bladder, a dark kitchen and a sink full of the good china.” Said Ben.

“The Kitchen Sink Incident then,” said Mitch in a matter of fact way to a very bewildered Ben.
“Why does everybody know about that!?” asked Ben.

“Generally when someone adds a load of seemingly flawless fine china to their outgoing garbage, the situation requires explanation,” said Mitch.

“She didn’t HAVE to throw it out,” said Ben.
“The way I heard it she did,” said Mitch. “But if it makes you feel any better, I’d have done the same thing in your position.”

“It does a little actually,” said Ben. “So how about those blueberries?”

“I’ve got ’em here, that’ll be $5.99,” said Mitch.

Ben hurriedly paid Mitch, thanked him and quickly headed back home pleased with himself for making good time at the market, only 4 minutes, and thanking his good fortune the waffle iron hadn’t been in the sink that night.
At 9:45AM on that same Saturday Benjamin Johnston returned to his home with a bag of fresh blueberries, 10 minutes to spare and a new appreciation for the speed of gossip in a small community, blissfully unaware that he neglected to check if he had buttermilk.

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