Nadine woke up to find that her husband had turned to Jell-O in the night. She opened her eyes, rolled over to look at him, and there he was. He was translucent orange. He shimmered. He smelled chemical sweet. Nadine lay there for a while in morning confusion, wondering if Eric’d always been Jell-O and she’d just never noticed. She threw back the sheet to take a closer look. He was naked and lying on his back, which no longer appeared to have the natural contours of a back. His Jell-O back was, as far as Nadine could tell, as flat and as slick as the back of any Jell-O salad she’d ever butter-knifed out of a plastic mold. You could see the contours of his front, though. All the bits on top were well-formed, as if he’d had been kept in the fridge for just the right length of time.
Nadine didn’t know what to do, so she left him there. As she climbed out of the bed Eric shook a little, and the sunlight streaming in the window glinted off his Jell-O undulations. Nadine closed the bedroom curtains, turned the thermostat way down to prevent melting, and told herself that this whole Jell-O thing was the result of over-tiredness. His or hers, it didn’t matter. Eric would soon be back to normal. She took care to tiptoe around the house all day, and to keep their boy Darren out of the bedroom.
But that evening when Nadine went back in, Eric was still Jell-O. She closed her eyes to it. She hoped for a change in the morning and went to sleep.
The next morning brought no change. Nor did the morning after that. Mornings had turned against her. If the neighbors found out, they would surely turn against her too.
Darren started asking questions. Nadine started telling lies.
She got a job as a check-out girl at the local market. The mortgage had to be paid and the boy had to eat. Nadine had to go to work and come home and raise their boy all by herself because her husband had just upped and turned to Jell-O. She stood at a cash register and things glided toward her. The similarities between the products and the people who bought them alarmed her. A man with twenty cans of creamed corn opened his mouth to smile, and his teeth, small and square and yellow, seemed to spill out of it like kernels. Nadine had to bite her tongue to keep from screaming. And there was a woman who bought a tub of rice pudding — the woman’s face was pasty and pale and formless. Nadine accidentally touched this woman’s hand as she reached forward to scan the tub, and the woman’s fat hand was so soft it felt like Nadine could push right through it if she only tried.
Nadine was tired all the time. She got so tired she couldn’t sleep. She lay there at night in their refrigerator-cold bedroom, her legs throbbing with work-ache, and looked out of the corners of her eyes at Eric lying there beside her. She was too tired to fall asleep, and too afraid of the terrible things that happened in the night. What if she woke up — or, like Eric, didn’t — to find herself something she wasn’t? Who would look after Darren? When her fear got bad enough, she talked to Eric.
“Eric, sweetie?” she said. “Sweetie, can you hear me?” Eric didn’t respond.
“Eric?” she said a little louder. “Eric, are you in there?” And still Eric didn’t — or couldn’t or wouldn’t — respond.
Finally she resorted to shouting, “Goddamn it, Eric, wake up! We need you.” But Eric just lay there, quivering.
She never touched him, although she felt very alone.
And Darren. What do you tell a boy whose father has turned to Jell-O? When a boy’s father dies, you can make a saint or a hero out of him. When a boy’s father goes missing, you can make a rascal out of him. But when a boy’s father turns to Jell-O, what are you supposed to do? Nadine was at a loss. Darren was stuck between something and nothing. His teacher called to say that Darren had taken to biting at school. Nadine was secretly relieved. For the time being, her boy was hard and sharp, not soft.
Nights rolled into days, and they could barely afford to eat Kraft Dinner. Nadine wanted to sell the house and find somewhere cheaper to live, but she scotched this idea when she realized she’d never be able to move Eric.
Then one evening she came home a little late to discover Darren waiting outside the locked front door. She’d forgotten it was his seventh birthday. He was crying. He was crying on his lunchbox. It was all very pathetic, and it was, she knew, her fault. She got down on her knees and told him to run and call a few friends in the neighborhood. She hurried to the cupboard, made their nightly box of Kraft Dinner, stretched it with a couple of Oscar Meyers she’d been hoarding for Sunday, and went into the bedroom with a butter knife to get the boy his birthday dessert. She felt guilty, and she felt tired. But now mostly she felt angry. A tired woman is susceptible to certain rationalizations, and so is a heartsick one. Eric had a bit of a beer gut. He’d be happy, she reasoned, if he came to without it.
Nadine sliced Eric’s round belly right off, leaving him the kind of flat stomach any man would want. She put her husband’s excess middle onto a cracked china plate and took it out to the little boys in the kitchen. Darren and his friends laughed and laughed at the belly-button. Nadine lit a match and stuck it in there, in place of birthday candles. The texture was a little bit rubbery but the flavor was still good. Darren had a first-smile-in-a-while look upon his face.
“This Jell-O,” he said, scooping at it with a spoon, “is wonderful.”
“Good,” Nadine said.
“It is orange,” he said. He was delighted.
“Yes,” Nadine said, “it is orange.”
“It is translucent orange,” he said. “It shimmers. It smells chemical sweet.” And with that, he slurped some through his teeth.
Nadine cut a piece for herself. “Happy birthday,” she said.