She thumbed her way through the rusted metal box of index cards until she found exactly what she was looking for. It was a family recipe, one her mother had made for her father. The card was yellowed with time and carried the smell of rosemary and just a hint of chemicals. Some things were worth handing down.
The refrigerator light blinked patterns across the back of the expired milk carton. She fumbled, her hands trembling with excitement, past the milk, knocking it over, to retrieve the pound of ground beef she had purchased special from Lay’s Market for this occasion. The smell of sour milk was now trapped in the aged and mildewed refrigerator. The recipe could be made with ground turkey, but he would complain. She hated spending money on ground beef when ground turkey was more economical.
“It’s so dry,” he would yell directly into her face, his fists clenched and his jaw tensed and square.
He had described her to his pals as a “functional gal.” She was a sturdy woman who made the bed every morning after breakfast had been cooked and the dishes had been washed—by hand, dried, and put away. Not much of a looker, he would add, but she sure knew how to keep an apartment clean and how to shut up when the television was on. She knew that at 7:30 p.m. he liked his beer served in a chilled glass placed directly on the beveled coaster poised on the corner of the coffee table next to his chair. She never handed the frosty glass to him. There would be hell to pay if she did.
She thought about how she had wanted to leave the small Fort Sanders apartment they shared together. But she loved how misshapen the rooms in the converted Victorian were. The kitchen in their small apartment had once been a hallway and the only way two people could fit in it was if one of them stood in front of the refrigerator with the door open. And he would never allow that. That was a waste of electricity and money. She could always find refuge there.
She emptied the packaged ground beef from its blood-stained butcher paper into a seasoned skillet. Blood on her hands, she rinsed them in the sink until the tap water ran clean. It was easy for her to lose herself in these moments of running water, popping animal fat, and garlic smell. This was her time, a time when she could dream about another life. In her dream life she was rich and thin and never had need for him.
The box of mashed potato flakes was on the shelf next to the can of cream of mushroom soup. She would need both. The index card was specific about this.
Sometimes she was brave enough to tell him exactly where he could shove his demanding needs and violent outbursts. Sometimes, she remembered, she could be brave. Once she had thought of sticking her head into the tiny efficiency-size oven. She imagined its silence. The lingering smell of gas was inviting. She could cocoon herself in the warmth of its aroma. Breathing in and out and in and out and in and out and…
The day mother had created the recipe she was just 12. Her grandmother picked her up that Friday afternoon after school at South-Young. She remembered grandmother’s car and how it whined and squealed when grandmother ever used the steering wheel to turn or stopped at traffic lights and signs. She reminisced about how the sound, first annoying and embarrassing (especially when grandmother drove at a snail’s pace down Kingston Pike—everyone in their minivans, Hondas, and town cars would stare), lulled her nearly to sleep as they rode through the country with the windows rolled down. Grandfather had often said grandmother had kept angry cicadas in her engine. Grandmother said grandfather needed to get off his lazy backside and fix her car. They stopped at the Waffle House before finishing the trip to her grandparent’s home outside Dandridge. She had hash browns smothered and covered the evening her father died. Heart attack—that was the story grandmother told her about her father’s death. It couldn’t be helped, not at all, grandmother said. When it’s your time to go, grandmother explained, it’s your time to go.
Her mother had predicted change was in the air. That was what she had said to her the night before father died. As she swept away the fall leaves from the back porch, mother’s face was expressionless, purple and swollen.
The cooked and crumbled ground beef is added to the Corningware casserole dish. The cream of mushroom soup is layered in just before the whipped instant mashed potatoes—made with whole milk, potassium chloride, and just a touch of sour cream. Add pepper, garlic, and thyme for taste. The shredded sharp cheddar cheese was the most important part. Mother swore the combination of the creamy potatoes and sharp cheddar disguised the salty taste of the potassium chloride.
She placed the crusty second-generation Corningware into the preheated oven. Lowering her body onto the cold floor, she felt her skirt ride up in the back as her chubby thighs melded to the stickiness of the linoleum floor. This feeling was familiar. It was the sensation of being null. The knowledge that she had collided with the basis of nothingness was comforting to her. She was like a hothouse flower. Her roots were warm and yearning to secure a place lush and humid. She needed water, she thought. A mist of something moist would cleanse and possibly nourish her, too.
The key in the door announced his presence. She remained still on the floor, staring through the grimy glass window of the tiny oven. Secured in that spot she pulled her face closer to the radiant glow of the oven’s heat. There was change in the air. Like a spider at attention, she could sense it.
“I hope you’re hungry, dear,” she whispered to the air, “I made your favorite.”
Kali Meister is performance artist, poet, playwright, activist (loud mouth), and maker of some fine, fine jams. She is the current Jack E. Reese Writer in Residence with Hodges Library at the University of Tennessee. In July 2009 she will complete an MFA in creative writing with emphasis on playwriting at Goddard College.