Author: Sandra Hunter
Location: Woodland Hills, CA
Sandra Hunterís stories have appeared or are forthcoming in New York Stories, New Delta Review, Zyzzyva, Talking River Review, Glimmer Train,
the South Dakota Review,
It is early evening, that time when I turn to my stove and wonder whether one more microwave meal will really kill everyone. And then decide that maybe it will.
I am not a good cook. I have none of that fine, artistic manner I so admire in the TV chefs who sprinkle kosher salt and toss in shrimp and ginger without having to check the recipe. My recipes are in nice, plastic sheets so they sponge clean. I am a bit of a renegade in my own way: I always double the required garlic and add an extra sprig or two of basil, cilantro, mint, lavender. But these days I avoid the kitchen.
I am trying not to think of anything in particular when I open the oven door and think of you. You are far away and I donít suppose your immediate thoughts are about what youíll be cooking for dinner. I suppose there must be someone else responsible for food. Will you have any variation in diet or will it be the equivalent of a hunk of bread and a bowl of water? Will they let you drink from a bowl? I canít imagine you drinking from a bowl. You never even drank your cereal milk from the bowl, even though I showed you how. Of course, that was a long time ago, at least fourteen years.
Now youíre nineteen. Thatís a two-syllable word Iím not afraid of. I always thought it would be a single syllable that would crush me, like someone dropping a brick on my head. Shot. Bombed. Dead. But now the terror has exploded my nightmares with two syllables: captured.
And that means they wanted you alive. Your dad said I was talking crazy when I asked why they couldnít have just shot you.
I set the oven to broil. Now, letís see―where did I put the bell peppers? Here they are in the lower drawer of the fridge. One red, one yellow. Festive colors; the kind you see in photographs of Indian women in saris, or Mexican women hanging rugs, or African women in arid villages where red and yellow jeeps drive past on their way to the tourist resorts.
Youíre in Africa; North Africa, you might say, although they donít call it that. You were always so quick with languages; German, Russian, French. None of those will help you there, though. I wonder if you can speak any of the language, and whether that will help. I wonder if you are permitted to speak at all.
Tonight, weíre having Chicken ProvenÁale. Itís an old recipe and I havenít sponged the plastic sheet clean because the stains are from the last time I cooked it. Thatís when you helped me cut up the tomatoes. It was in the summer and we had far too many for the recipe, so we started by eating a couple and then we had a tomato fight. You lobbed one at my head and said it was great hair conditioner. I got you on the back of your neck and it slid right down inside your shirt. We were still cleaning up when your Dad came home. He just shook his head. "I hope you havenít spoiled the dinner."
Iíll cut the chicken up first. Itís what they call chicken breast fillets. This means the original chicken parts have been shaved into half-inch slabs. I carve them into what I think the recipe means by Ďmorsels.í Small, pink, skinned fingers of flesh. They look so bare. I push them into a heap on one side of the chopping board.
I open the oven and place the peppers on the rack. After theyíve roasted, Iíll put them in a paper bag until I can shuck their skins.
The tomatoes are also to lose their skins. I put a pan of water on to boil.
There isnít anything left to do, but I need something to keep me occupied while I wait. Iíll make a salad; a bag of chopped romaine, sliced green apple, some broken pecans, lime and honey dressing. It sounds green and exotic.
I wonder if they pick limes or pecans from the trees, wherever you are. Even if you donít get any, Iím sure you can probably see them. From wherever you are. I like to imagine youíre in some place with palm trees above to remind you of home. Thatís about all that will remind you of home.
Perhaps you can look up and see the stars between the palm fronds. Perhaps you can roast fresh cashew nuts over the fire, and think of us.
You have to allow me some creative thinking here, since I donít know whatís actually going on over there. But I do know the stars are white and milky and too numerous to count.
Like when we used to go to Owens River Gorge. You and your climbing, Dad and his fishing, me trailing behind one or the other of you with caution trapped behind my teeth. Not too far, not too deep, not too high. Donít trust the rope, the reel, the belayer, the net.
But at night―remember? Oh at night, it didnít matter, all of the worrying, the anticipation of something going wrong―all that was gone as we three sat back in our chairs and just looked up. I had no idea what constellations were which. Youíll probably remember me enthusiastically pointing out the Big Bear and Orion, and you and Dad laughing hysterically because I was pointing in the wrong direction.
I didnít care, though. I dragged out that enormous box of Maltesers I got from the duty free store on our way back through Heathrow over Christmas.
And you said, ďYouíre the best mom.Ē
Dad said, ďYes, she is. Canít tell a star from a stop sign, but sheís all right.Ē
And you hugged me and said, ďDonít pay attention to him. Youíre more than all right.Ē
I made sure you werenít too close to the fire, and I hugged you back. You were so tall, even then. Well, I donít suppose Iím much of a judge, being five foot one. But I had to reach up to hug you properly. You were sixteen.
I can smell the peppers burning. Cooking. I take a look inside the oven. The skin is blistering and popping. Itís going black. Theyíre only peppers. Youíre supposed to cook them like this. They taste great cooked like this. I try to shut out the thought that it must take a long time to broil a human, and shut the oven door.
The water for the tomatoes is boiling and I turn off the heat and ease the tomatoes in. The skin separates. I canít look at them. I put the lid on the pan.
I sprinkle salt and pepper over the chicken. I canít bring myself to rub it all in. Itís not the slimey feel of the raw chicken, itís the rubbing the salt and pepper into the flesh. I put a towel over the chicken.
I turn the peppers, using the tongs. I should have used a tray. The juice is dripping onto the floor of the oven. Itíll burn into a charred scar and Iíll never be able to scrub it out.
Those oven cleaners are meant to be very efficient, but they just burn everything away. Burning out the burns.
I try reading the paper while the peppers finish cooking. I keep reading the same paragraph over and over. Iím too nervous to let the peppers be, so I check them before theyíre ready to be turned. I see their skins pop and bubble. I watch the stalks blacken. How long they take to broil, and theyíre so small.
I grab the paper and read about the weather. I look at the yellow dots that mean the air is unhealthy for sensitive people. Thereís one orange dot on Riverside and that means the air is unhealthy for everyone.
Whatís the air like where you are? I hope youíre breathing okay. I hope you have fresh air. Itís meant to be very healthy around plants and I know youíve got some of those. Iíve seen them on TV.
The peppers are done and I drop their poor, depleted shapes into the paper bag. Theyíre not bright and firm anymore. It seems half of their insides are sizzling at the bottom of the oven.
I take the tomatoes out and put them on the chopping board. The skins peel off easily and the flesh underneath is soft and spongy. I cut the tomatoes up and remove the seeds. Thereís hardly anything left.
Now to cook the chicken. They call it sautťing, but it just means frying. I heat the skillet and add a little oil. It skids about on the bottom of the pan. What would it be like to place my hand there? How long could I hold it there?
I tip the chopping board and the chicken hisses and spits as it hits the oil. I stir it quickly and add two pinches of saffron. The chicken turns white, then yellow, as the saffron threads melt.
I open the paper bag and pull out the charred peppers. I run them under the cold water and peel off the blackened skins. The stalks, seeds and membranes are easily detached. They look nothing like peppers anymore.
I add them and the tomatoes to the chicken. Now it looks like food. I can feel myself unclenching.
I can imagine you coming through the front door. ďWhatís cooking, mom? Smells good.Ē
And Iíd tell you to get a bowl and Iíd heap it high and cut you two slabs of bread so you could soak up the sauce. And weíd sit opposite each other, eating like crazy until it was all gone. And Iíd say, ďWhat am I going to feed your father?Ē
And youíd say, ďWeíll just get pizza.Ē
And weíre laughing and going back into the kitchen, and tearing off bits of bread to scoop up the last bit of sauce from the pan. And we donít burn our fingers.
And youíre so real, and firm and bright, it just isnít possible that youíve melted away into something I might not recognize.