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

The Moon is an Outdoor Sandwich

by Patty Houston

Note: This story is from our tenth print issue.
It's so good, we wanted to start the New Year by bringing it to our readers.

January 2014    

My daughter reads The Book of Mormon. Ellen is eight years old and in the second grade so, of course, I find this pretty amazing. Partly because we are not Mormon. Mostly because we are not any religion at all. By that I mean we do not go to church, though we do believe in God very much. We believe in God on a regular basis. My mother used to say, “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” I almost joined her Amazing Grace Church, “Where everybody is somebody with Jesus,” before she died, to please her, but then I didn’t.

And get this, while Ellen reads The Book of Mormon (a freebie from a door-to-door saint combing our neighborhood), she eats her outdoor sandwich. Outdoor sandwiches are an invention of Ellen’s that requires every food group be represented between two slices of Butternut. On today’s pile-up are cottage cheese, avocado slices, whole strawberries and fried bologna, mayo on the side, hold the mustard, please. Outdoor sandwiches are such a mess that it is a law at our house they be eaten outside while wearing a bathing suit or a birthday suit, your choice, to facilitate the hosing down after that is also a requirement, even if you do lick between your fingers and all up and down your arms, like a mother cat.

I watch Ellen from our kitchen window. “Hey, Mom, I’m on page eleven already. What does ‘yea verily’ mean?” she calls from our backyard picnic table, then bites into her goo. I see her face, delicate and strong as a wildflower, framed in soft blonde waves, her Tweety Bird swimsuit, her skinny, duck-down arms, her freckled shoulders. When did she grow those legs? My eyes grow prickly, and then it comes, the wondering: My other daughter, my first-born, Rae, the baby girl I gave up for adoption sixteen years ago, when I was barely sixteen myself, did she ever read The Book of Mormon? Is she a Mormon? Did she eat outdoor sandwiches? Did her mother and father watch her from their kitchen window with a catch in their throats? Do they still? Will I ever?

Some women are born mothers, and I am one of those. I have known this ever since I was a little girl playing baby dolls; I didn’t want to give up my dolls even when I turned twelve and the neighbor kids teased the daylights out of me. Jack, my husband, says, “Let’s have another baby,” and we try, but no luck, not yet. I have known I am a born mother ever since the day Rae swam free of my body and I left her, hours old, behind the nursery glass window. And she was never spoken of again.

Some women are born cooks and Ellen thinks that’s what she is. But I don’t know. Just taste-test one of her baked bean, shrimp, yogurt, and banana outdoor sandwiches and you’ll know exactly what I mean. Ellen probably thinks she can cook because of Lucy and me. We let her help us out at BB’s Coffee Shop and Grill, a little counter and booth place, where we trade turns cooking and waitressing. When the owner is not around, Ellen flips burgers, scrambles eggs, seasons soups. And she has good ideas, like the one about rotating seat cushions on the most used chairs, “So they all get equal butt time,” was how she put it. Of course, adding outdoor sandwiches to the menu is not an option and no live Mormon Tabernacle Choir either when she brings that up. We are strictly an elevator music kind of place.

If the owner, Babs Brady—Bad we call her, never to her face—is on the floor, though, Ellen washes dishes and buses tables and not a thing more; mostly she hangs out in the back room and reads and draws and dawdles until I get off. Or she sings. On and on she serenades Lucy and me as we close the place down, and we hum along. Soon I expect she’ll have us shouting out our joy from chairs and table tops about “the sweet peace the Mormon gospels bring” under the direction of Ellen Brigham Young. We’ll sound better than the Tabernacle Choir and feel compelled to challenge them to a sing-out right on their own Salt Lake City turf. I simply cannot understand what Ellen’s teacher is thinking when she puts my daughter’s name on the board for singing in the school hallways and bathrooms and in the cafeteria.

Bad only caught Ellen cooking once, the time she mixed up a cake batter. She watched Ellen crack egg shells and slide three yolks into the bowl, slit them with the whisk, beat them, fold in sugar and butter, all this before she turned to me with, “Alice, if I see that child fooling around the food again, I’m going to fire your ass.”

Lucy banged a coffee pot in the sink and said through the clatter, “Did she mean your whole body or just your ass, do you think? Because if she only meant your ass, that’s not a problem since you never do sit down anyway.”

“Catching and doing are two different things,” I said to Lucy. “Bad will not catch Ellen cooking again.”

Lucy and Bad handle the early risers until I get Ellen off to school. Today when I come in, Lucy roams the room, chatting and checking on customers: “How ya doin, doll? What can I getcha?” Her hair is big and so strong it doesn’t budge in a Cincinnati wind. Her lips are crimson. She winks at me.

Lucy has worked at BB’s over forty years. “All my husbands are dead,” she once told me. “I never had any kids. Couldn’t hold still long enough.” Lucy has never worked anyplace else. Just like me. Ever since I had the baby, the one I gave away, still brand new at breathing, fragile as a bird.

I did try to get hired at one other place beside BB’s. At an elementary school as a teacher-aide. I was seventeen years old and should have been finishing my senior year in high school, but I just could not make myself go back. Not with the memories still fresh in my mind of the biology teacher who had said to me in front of the entire class, “If you let a boy come in you, more than likely a baby will come out,” the worst form of chastisement at my all-girl Catholic high school; not with my having to say nearly every day to some smart aleck or other, “Good news travels fast,” when they’d ask, “You having a baby? – with child? – in trouble? – knocked up? Bun in the oven?” So I filled out the teacher-aide application. They interviewed me, but I never did hear back. Sometimes, like when I drive the highway and lose track of time, or when I’m sewing and my head gets heavy with dreams, I think maybe I work at that school after all. That maybe I earn good money because I went on to college as I’d hoped and became a regular teacher. That’s how I planned it before Rae, before I woke nights checking under my bed for a crying child.

Today I gear up for a day of slinging milk shakes and burgers and warming up coffee. I tell Lucy, “This morning’s paper shows a picture of this guy with a tank of coffee on his back, a tank big as a scuba diver’s, and he pours shots into little cups and passes them out to the foot traffic.” I’m about to suggest to Lucy that she ought to suit-up in a tank, but Bad butts in from her perch at the carry-out register. “New girl starts today,” she says.

Lucy and I stop peeling oranges to stare at Bad. “Look, Lucy,” Bad says, “you can’t keep up like you used to. None of us is getting any younger around here. I hired a kid. A high schooler. Just for a test run. If she don’t work out, pffft, she’s outta here.” She sticks her thumb out like a hitchhiker.

Lucy puffs her cheeks and pokes out her lower lip as if she’s got rocks in her mouth. She stutters when she says, “You…could of…warned me…at least.”

“That so?” Bad says.

Lucy quit? Isn’t that one of the biblical signs of the end of the world? Lucy plans to work until she drops, and that’ll probably never happen. At Lucy’s birthday party last year, Bad asked her to tell us her real age. Lucy said, “Let’s just say I’m in the buffer zone.” All we know for sure is that Lucy lives with her little sister Doreen and Doreen turned seventy-seven last year.

I want to sock Bad in the nose.

 

The new girl’s name is Rita. She comes in around ten, during the slow time between the breakfast and lunch crowds. By noon, while we fill salt shakers, snap stringbeans, roll out pie crusts together, this is what I know about Rita: she’s a gum-popping, hair-sucking street chick who, underneath her tattooed arms (more like sleeves) and her grimy t-shirt and eyebrows and lips weighed down with metal, and her middle swelled like a ripening pear, is also a shy high school dropout, who is also pregnant. Who is also Bad’s granddaughter. And, hard as I try not to, I like her right away. Lucy’s not sure. She hasn’t gotten a handle on our new situation yet.

My guess is, when I was sixteen, my mother knew I was pregnant before I did. She found my boyfriend’s underwear wadded up at the foot of my bed when she changed the sheets. I remember she turned her face away, then worse, toward me, and I saw how my reflection had been adjusted forever in her eyes. She mailed Gil’s underwear to Gil’s father with a note. But it was already too late. I was two months along.

I knew from the beginning I would put my baby up for adoption, even if my mother had not said it was the only thing I could do. It’s what I wanted all along anyway. A child being raised by a child? Not my daughter.

It was never easy but, for me, from the beginning it was the right thing to do. I pictured Rae’s new mother, and that is how I was able to go through with it. And though I have never met her, this is how I pictured it so I could do it: Sister Mary Martha walks into the room carrying Rae, soon to be named a new name, and she says, “Your baby’s here.” She puts Rae in her new mother’s arms. The moment this woman has longed for, worked for, prayed for is here at last. Rae screams bloody murder. Nothing her new mother does calms her, nothing, until she guesses her new daughter’s fear, and she says, “Little one, now you are mine for good. Forever. Now I can take you home, to your new home. You will be my daughter. I will raise you to be like me. And I will teach you all about the world. I promise you, I will do everything I can for you. I will take care of you. And I will love you always. Always.”

Rae smiles at her gentle tone. She does not understand a word, still, a promise is a promise. Lucky baby. Lucky mother. And then Rae is asleep in her new mother’s arms. Lucky mother.

I wonder what Rita plans.

Rita peels a potato in a long ribbon that doesn’t break. “I don’t know,” she says when I ask her, and right then, the ribbon breaks.

 

Tonight is my late night to work and by the time I get home, Jack has Ellen nearly ready for bed. When I walk into her room to say goodnight, she shakes her yellow hair at me, holds her brush handle like a microphone, and sings her heart out, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” The Book of Mormon is open across her pillow. The last rays of sunlight slant through her window and cast her long shadow on the wall, like a waiting, older sister.

Ellen’s play clothes lie on her bedroom floor inside out like shed skins. I see knee-poofs on each jean leg, grass stains on her raggedy shirt hem, socks bunched into snowballs. Her boots stand pigeon-toed in the corner, boots that make her walk uppity, boots she sometimes wears to bed.

As I brush out my daughter’s tangled hair, our bedtime ritual, my own shadow looms large behind hers. I rest my chin in her hair before her mirror. Breathing in the peach smell of Ellen’s hair, I am struck with the thought that I look forward and backward at the same time, that Ellen and me and, well, everybody, we’re all caught between who we were and who we are becoming, and that it is me Ellen came from, it is me she heads toward. I picture Rita swelling between us in our shadowy line-up, with Lucy, and even Bad, behind us like a row of Russian dolls that open in the middle, revealing another doll inside another and another.

I open my mouth to at last tell Ellen about Rae. I will tell her so this chain letter of bodies, of spirits, is not broken. I part my lips to break the silence, to say it, to have it out in the open, spoken and real and true and said. Say it. Say it.

But no words come. There are no words for what has gone unspoken for so long. But it hurts, this not telling Ellen. And it will hurt more if I don’t.

I pick up Ellen’s Book of Mormon and see she is on page thirty-seven. I read about “a merciful Lord of gladness and a place called Bountiful, because of its much fruit.” I read until Ellen breathes softly in a steady rhythm. When I pull her covers up, she shifts into a pirouette. Ellen believes if she does this seven days straight, she will wake up knowing ballet. I say, “You’re a bird,” when I close her bedroom door.

I finish my shower and find a book to read in bed. I pull the blanket down and find Jack already bent asleep. I switch off the lamp and slip in beside him. I kiss him on the forehead. He stirs and reaches and pulls me to him. Jack’s hands move through my hair, his fingertips down my neck and shoulders. His touch is gentle and soft. And we lay kissing. His lips press hard. And I press back. But I kiss only my shame. I make a place for it in our bed. Between us. And all through the night it eats me.

I keep Lucy in cigars. “I don’t chain smoke ‘em,” she told me years ago, the first time I found a lipstick-stained stogy smoking in the back room off the pantry. “Cigars are my hobby.” Then she flipped off the light and stirred up the dark with her cigar embers, writing her name in loops of smoke.

Jack’s boss gave him a box of forty-dollar cigars that neither of them wanted. I have been saving them for Lucy for a special occasion, but I’ll give them to her today, to cheer her up and help her through her worries since Rita’s arrival.

When I walk in BB’s, Lucy and Rita sip coffee and eat jelly toast and have a long talk about the day’s menu: meatloaf and carrots and “just the tiniest smidgen of garlic in the salad.” Bad stands off to the side, while Lucy does all the training and easing of Rita into our work day, our work ways.

I pour myself a cup of coffee and sit down with them. Rita says, “Last night I went to the grocery store and I came home with a dog so, of course, I had to name him Bread.”

Lucy laughs, making her look younger than she did yesterday, then she jumps up and slaps Rita on the back, making coffee leap from the girl’s mouth as she sputters and grins. I tuck my peace cigars back inside my apron and we three get on with the business of whipping a million diners through these seats for lunch and then again for dinner.

Rita hips the kitchen door open and I smell the odor of carrots boiled too long. I help her drain and butter and ready them for the supper crowd. Ellen stops in on her way home from school for a snack. We feed her watermelon slices and with every bite, juice rolls down her elbows. Rita hands her a napkin. The two of them hit it off when Ellen asks Rita, “You know how to make monster stew?”

Rita doesn’t even blink: “Keep a monster waiting two or three hours.” Then counters with, “Can monsters eat potatoes with their fingers?”

“Of course not,” Ellen says, “they eat their potatoes first then they eat their fingers.”

They carry on like this until I shoo Ellen off to the kitchen to whip up a batch of salad and some dressing. Bad has cleared out for the day so I do not worry about my daughter getting caught “foolin’ with the food.”

Lucy sticks her hands in soapy water. She’s washing, I’m drying. “If someone had showed me ahead of time all the dishes I’d wash in this lifetime,” she says, “I can’t say for sure I’d have come on along.” She pulls a platter out of the suds and hands it to me. Her hands are covered with delicate bubbles. I see how steady her hands are with tapered fingers and her own particular grace. Hands I trust. Over all the years I have known Lucy, I believe she has been a fine woman for me to study, to learn by heart, so Lucy’s next words, to Rita, I trust these, too. “I wonder what kind of life’s in store for your baby? I mean, you getting married? You looking into adoption? And what does your grandmother say?”

Rita’s face turns white. My cheeks burn. In the silence that builds up, the possibility of telling them about me when I was sixteen pops into my mind.

Rita opens her mouth to say something, but just then Bad bursts in and lands a hand on my shoulder. “Rita’s grandmother says Alice’s child better not be cookin’ in my kitchen.” She points her finger at me like a gun.

Ellen kneels on a stool measuring green-gold olive oil. She soaks lettuce leaves in a pan of water. I look at Ellen then move my eyes to Lucy, to Rita, and back to Bad. The dish in my hand feels cool and smooth to my fingertips. I take a little step forward and then in a soft voice I say, “When I was sixteen, I had a baby. I named her Rae and then I gave her away,” and it seems to me that my words bounce around the room in odd ways like footballs as four necks, four curious turtles, stretch in my direction, a circle of Russian dolls, and I am the one open in the middle setting the next one free.

Then Bad does the most amazing thing: she shuts the place down. “Sit,” she says and we do, all five of us, we sit in the half-light with the shades pulled down, and then Bad says, “Tell us all about it, Alice.” So I do, my voice still soft with the newness of my words.

Right in front of my daughter, Ellen, her face slanted upward to mine, and my dear friend, Lucy, and Rita who I hope this will help, and Bad who I pray will not fire my ass or any other part of my body, in front of the four of them, who look at me as if I am a book about to be opened and read, a book, I want to tell them, that is about to be written, this is what I say: “It seems to me, my mother held her breath from the time she knew I was pregnant until after the baby was born. Only once she said, ‘Such a disgrace. This is such a terrible disgrace.’ She said that on the day she came to the hospital to take me home. When they brought a wheelchair for me, she was so worked up, I put her in it and wheeled her out. As the elevator door closed, she said, ‘I saw what I needed to.’

‘What? What did you see?’ I asked.

‘When we passed the nursery window, the baby held up her little hands. Her thumbs were straight up in the air. She’s going to be okay. She’ll make it just fine in this world.’ I still cling to my mother’s words. All these years, I have believed that Rae’s hands gave her away. As hands will do. I sometimes find myself wondering just what her hands, her sixteen-year-old hands, are like now.”

I reach for Ellen’s hand and squeeze her warm fingers. She squeezes back. Her hands are pudgy as biscuits, the most sincere hands I know. I study Bad’s hands, how they are more bone than flesh, the joints, knots and veins. She folds her napkin smaller and smaller then begins her task over again. Rita’s hands rest cupped in her lap, her fingers long and slender, piano playing fingers, her nails round and pink and natural. And Lucy’s. Hands I love. Hands my hands grow towards.

Their faces look bewildered. My words are not the ones they expected to hear. For today, though, for the first time in a long time, this will simply have to be enough. For me it is.

An uneasy quiet settles over us until Bad hops up and brings bowls of carrots and salad and a platter of meatloaf to the table. “Eat up,” she says, “before it gets cold.” She even brings us dessert.

Sticky pools of ice cream are all that remain of our meal. It is time to go. But we are not ready to leave, not quite yet, so I set out my box of cigars. “I want everyone to take one,” I say. “You, too, Ellen.” The rest, of course, I give to Lucy.

Then I light us up. Even Ellen. A plume of cigar smoke rolls out, and as the room grows hazy, we sit in silence. I breathe in and out slowly, and as I do, I think over my mistakes, then I blow them away with puffs of smoke.

 

When Ellen and I step out into the late light of the day, the moon is coming up, like usual, but things do not seem the same.

“That moon to me, Mom, tonight, it looks like a croissant.”

“Ah, I see,” I say. “Turkey with lettuce and cheese?”

“No, more like cucumber and grapefruit slices with butter and ham, maybe some jelly. It’s an outdoor sandwich moon, Mom.”

“Yeah,” I say. “The moon’s an outdoor sandwich.”

We walk along and I picture us later, at home, sitting at our picnic table. Jack will be with us and we’ll thumb through The Book of Mormon together. We’ll finger and dog-ear its pages until we come to the part about learning from the mistakes of others because no one has time to make all the mistakes themselves. And as we talk, the three of us, the one sighing loudest, that will be me.



  Patty Houston teaches creative writing and composition at the University of Cincinnati. Recently, her work has appeared in The Louisville Review, The Oxford American, The Fiddlehead, Witness, Greensboro and other journals. Her first novel Off the Mapped Road and her short story collection Wakigatame are in search of good homes. She is at work on a second novel.