Fiction

Kitchen Mystic by Paulette Licitra

The Deconstruction by Karen Cantrell

Patisserie de Pakistan by Gregors Johnson

Meals of a Lifetime by Rebecca Keller

Ode to Risotto by Donald Newlove

Fully Committed by Doug Sovern

Biscuits and Gravy by William Blomstedt

Keeping It Tidy by Alan Linton

If I Knew You Were Coming by Alisha Lumea

On Your Only Day Off by Nicole Edwards

Bagpipes and Pan Fried Smelts by Ted Radakovic

Joseph Conrad’s Dark Linguini by Giovanni Berchtold

Missing Something by Jean-Luc Bouchard

We Love You, Mayonnaise! by Alona Martinez

Japanese Food by Esther Cohen

Raw Köfte by Hardy Griffin

Proust's Soup by Giovanni Berchtold

A Sacred Virgin by Paulette Licitra

on a friday evening by Keith Leidner

Ropa Vieja by Raul Palma

Deidre's Last Meal by Esther Cohen

Wired by Alan Linton

Chestnut by Katherine Gleason

The Moon is an Outdoor Sandwich by Patty Houston

Garlicky Greens by Lois Marie Harrod

First the Shell, Musical; Then the Custard, Irrevocable by Sarah Begley

Meals of Choice by Dorian Fox

A Low Table by Christian Aguiar

The Sylvian Fissure by Rosalie Loewen

Two Versions of Eating Potatoes by David Spiering

Conch Salad by Michele Ruby

Hopper by Michael Onofrey

Caution: Coffee is Hot by Gary Scott

The Fairy Part by Alberto Giuseppe

Foie Gras by Judith Edelman

Rosemary and Olive Oil by Gail Gauthier

Mario's Shoes by Natalie Parker-Lawrence

Cake by Marianne Villanueva

Retreat: October on Copper Mountain by M.E. Parker

The Sandwich Diaries by Angus Woodward

But There Was No Star Anise by Andrew Martell

Fruit Route by Susan King

Conch Salad

by Michele Ruby

June 2013    

“I hate the beach.” Madeline took off her pearls. “I’m allergic to the sun. Relaxation makes me edgy.”

“Come on, Maddie. I need arm candy when I go up to get my award.”

“Arm candy, Jon? You want me up on the dais with all those Barbie dolls and trophy wives? They’ll think you brought your mother.” When had she begun to be sensitive about their age difference, which was, after all, only nine years?

“Arm candy,” he repeated and kissed his fingers to indicated sweetness.

Madeline pinched two fingers nearly together to signal close but no cigar.

“I’m thanking you in my acceptance speech. For the years of good sex.”

Finally she laughed. “Fine. Which horribly humid resort is it this year?”

He flipped a brochure toward her across the bed.

“Atlantis? Nassau’s answer to Disney.” Madeline made a face. “Whoopee.”

***

The opening cocktail party was everything Madeline had predicted: shrimp, pineapple, rum drinks and abbreviated clothes in unnatural hues. Madeline owned serious clothes in serious colors, structured clothes appropriate for an architect. Tall and lean, Madeline had clean lines. So did her clothes, a wardrobe of expensive black pants, even more expensive white shirts, outrageously expensive shoes, and pearls. For years, all she had to do to look provocative was to undo an additional button down the front of her shirt, which she did slowly, absent-mindedly. The smallest sort of strip tease. Now, all around her, young women wore skin-tight sheaths in bright colors, accessorized not by pearls but by cleavage, natural or enhanced. As arm candy, they were lollipops.

Madeline smiled coolly and murmured pleasantries but didn’t participate in any of Jon’s many conversations, which he slipped in and out of with practiced ease. He was good at sales. He had, after all, sold her on coming.

***

Madeline had the next day to herself – Jon was in meetings. Up early, she set out to jog along the beach, but the sand was too pillowy, so she walked the property instead. The landscaping was lush with hibiscus and bougainvillea; all that color dizzied her. The buildings offended her. Faux rocks. Snack bars in faux caves. Faux shells like barnacles on the side of a tower. Faux tiki huts where towels were dispensed.

The pools hosted loud deejays who insisted on “keeping the fun rollin’.” The lounge chairs were littered with the towels of people still breakfasting, holding their chairs for later. All this jockeying for position poolside reminded her of junior high school, where certain tables were in high demand, and therefore unavailable to those not cool enough. Madeline had been cool enough. When had that changed?

Women she might have met last night greeted each other in swimsuits small as hibiscus petals as they gathered at pool’s edge to sun and read. Madeline’s only swimsuit was a black Speedo tank for the lap pool. She could think of nothing to say to these young women, so she returned to her room, changed into black walking shorts, a white t-shirt, and a single strand of pearls, and set out to avoid the pools.

The breakfast buffet was an extravagant outlay of foods made to look like other things – watermelons carved into boats, sliced strawberries arranged like flowers on yogurt, slices of ham rolled like diplomas, bagels piled on a stick like a ring toss game. She had black coffee and a bran muffin.

The rest of the morning stretched ahead of her like so many miles of white sand, and she decided to walk into town. As she left the Atlantis property, she felt her shoulders unknot and her stride lengthen. The bridge from Paradise Island to Nassau made an airy arc high over the water. She stopped at its apex. Atlantis blazed up from the island like an amusement park. In contrast, Nassau looked like a faded postcard. A cruise ship lumbered out of the harbor, an old elephant leaving the big top yet again. The water was the blue of crayons.

No cruise passengers flooded the main commercial street of the town, and Madeline was surprised at how shabby the buildings were – weathered and worn, some boarded up. The townspeople, however, had a vibrancy their buildings lacked. Madeline was walking behind a woman carrying a large box, which she shifted from hip to hip with an easy graceful motion that belied the box’s weight. Unlike Madeline, who was all planes and angles, this woman was all orbs – round buttocks, thighs straining against the turquoise fabric of her dress, breasts shiny with perspiration and firm as fruit. Her hair was long, caught at the nape of her neck with a flower, and then left to tumble and bounce with each step. Madeline ran her hand through the stiff spikes of her own short blonde hair. Madeline hurried past the woman, and then turned back surreptitiously to see her face, which looked as if it had been carved from some rare wood and then polished. Madeline imagined a house of this gleaming wood, with generous bowed windows and a door the blue of the woman’s dress.

Madeline passed duty-free shops and souvenir shops, empty and forlorn. She walked through the town and out along the water until she got to Fish Fry. Shacks originally built to sell the day’s catch of fish had evolved into restaurants where locals came to eat and drink. Benches rough-hewn from local wood surrounded picnic tables topped with umbrellas leaning into an imagined wind. Each restaurant had its own tables, some freshly painted, some faded to pastel, all jostling each other on the crowded apron. Bars advertised rum drinks - Bahama Mamas and Goombay Smash – and Kalik, the local beer. Somewhere further along, someone was playing steel drums.

Madeline stopped to watch a pudgy, balding man in a chef’s jacket and flowered shorts chop a mountain of onions and tomatoes and green peppers into a colorful confetti. In the next stall, behind a tiled bar, another man, this one tall and broad-shouldered and handsome, cracked conch shells with a hammer. He cut out the conch meat, which was pale as Madeline’s skin, and washed it in a large sink behind the counter. His hands were huge, and Madeline was fascinated by how quickly they moved. He chopped the conch, squeezed an orange and a lime over it, and reached for an onion. The man looked up midway through the onion, and Madeline worried at the knife’s staccato continuing when his eyes were on her.

“Conch salad,” he said. “I make you some, you eat it here. I make you more, you take it back to your man. Conch is Bahamian Viagra.” His voice rumbled so deep she could feel it up through the soles of her flats. “Here. Taste. I guarantee you want more.” He offered her a sliver of fresh conch, iridescent as a pearl against his palm.

Madeline hesitated.

He shook his head at her. “What are you afraid of?” He laughed, and the vibration of it traveled through Madeline and finally released itself as a smile. “This, this is the Bahamas. I won’t let you leave until you taste. I give you the pink meat, the sweetest part.” He reached over the counter and put the piece of conch between Madeline’s opened lips. “Slowly. Close your eyes. Taste it fully.”

She did. She held it in her mouth, her taste buds swimming through orange and lime til they got to the salt of the sea. She smiled again.

“Unlike a woman, it’s even better fully dressed.” He mixed it with onion, peppers – both sweet and hot – and tomato. “Now try. Pretty lady like you should have more meat on her bones – give your man something to hold onto, something to cushion the ride.” He laughed again. Madeline wondered how many tourists had fallen for his patter, but when he took a pinch of the salad in his long fingers and again fed Madeline from his hand, she welcomed the electric buzzing of her skin where his fingers touched her mouth. She made a small sound at the back of her throat when she tasted the conch salad. Sweet, cold, slick, piquant, and then a shot of heat at the end as the pepper made itself known. When she opened her eyes, his eyes were on her again.

Another smile bloomed across her face and she spoke for the first time. “Thank you,” she said, her own voice unrecognizable to her, huskier than she was expecting it to me. “Yes. Please. Make me a conch salad.” She sat at the bar and watched him hungrily, the swift knife, the dazzling jewels of pepper, tomato, and onion, all bathed in orange and lime juice. She ate it slowly, closing her eyes with each bite, and between bites she watched the strength and grace of him as he cracked more conchs, made more conch salad.

She finished every morsel, and he asked “What else can I give you?”

“More of the Bahamas,” she said, and he brought her a Kalik and a platter heaped like a still life.

“A perfect mating,” he said, laughing at her, she was sure. “This beer and this food.”

He was right. She feasted on the forbidden foods – fried snapper and fried potatoes and macaroni and cheese, every mouthful luscious with unapologetic fat and flavor. The beer was the perfect counterpoint to the heat of the pepper, the richness of the cheese, the salt of the fish. Conversations flowed around her, and she listened not to the words but to the music of the voices. The man who fed her moved on to other people’s conch salad, other conversations, and still she felt somehow his. From time to time he brought her another Kalik, and she made that small sound of pleasure in the back of her throat when he did.

How long had she sat there, watching, eating, listening? The awards banquet started at 6:00, but Jon and that steak dinner seemed to belong to another universe. Madeline couldn’t bring herself to leave, couldn’t imagine sacrificing the warm silk air and the smell of fresh fish and ocean for the musty interior of a cab.

Finally, she got up, sliding off the counter stool, momentarily unsteady as if dizzied by the sun.

“You can’t go now,” he said. “The music starts soon, the sun will set just there, and night makes everything even better.” He reached across his counter to touch her arm. It took an effort of will not to sit back down on the stool. The heat of his hand on her skin stung like sunburn.

If this were a movie, there would be a fade just then, but this wasn’t a movie; it was her life. She fetched her wallet from her bag. “I have to go,” she said. “I’m expected.”

“No,” he said. “No money. My gift to you – this feast. You give to me your enjoyment of it.”

She started to protest but he disappeared into the dim interior of the restaurant. After a minute, Madeline undid the clasp on her pearl necklace, taking her time, as if it were one button too many on a starched blouse. In a swift and elegant motion, she slid the necklace under her plate. She waited a few more minutes, her eyes straining for one more glimpse of the conch man.

She would walk, yes. If she hurried, she’d make it back in time to accompany Jon to the dais to get his award. Nassau was full of tourists now; a cruise ship had docked. She strode past the crowds, the straw market, the bustling duty free shops, but on a whim, she dashed into a tiny souvenir shop and bought a large turquoise scarf the color of water, the weight of air. She would wrap it around herself to make the barest of dresses. Her pale skin would glow like conch meat, and she would be a feast for Jon’s eyes.



  Michele Ruby's short stories have appeared in Lilith, Rosebud, The Adirondack Review (Fulton Prize finalist), Inkwell, Nimrod, The Los Angeles Review, Phoebe, The Louisville Review, and many other literary magazines. She teaches fiction writing at Bellarmine University in Louisville. As a proud Kentuckian, she makes seriously good bourbon balls.

Photo used under Creative Commons.