Flash Fiction Friday #fff44

victoria  —  December 23, 2014

Late again.

http://urbanfolktales.blogspot.com

When the sky opened, I panicked and made it worse. The wind picked up and the deluge was now a low grade hurricane. The corn in the adjacent field laid itself flat having not evolved to survive straight line winds.

The house began to tremble in the wind. Hundred year old floor boards sang and popped under the stress. The windows rattled and the cat, already disturbed by the copper scent on the air and the smoke, ran for what sanctuary could be found under the couch. His whimpering was audible above the drone of the wind buffeting this whole town.

I slumped to the floor, all of the techniques I’d practiced with my Gran forgotten. The rain hit the ground harder than any Midwestern rain that had ever fallen, mirroring the tears that came hot and fast streaking my face with the eyeliner and mascara I’d carefully applied to “gussy up,” Gran’s words remembered, for our anniversary dinner.

We’d planned to drive two hours to Des Moines to celebrate ten married years. There were no children to rush off to parents and a neighbor had offered to do the morning chores so we could spend the night in the city. We’d eaten beans two nights a week for the last two months to have the extra cash.

I’d taken his sport coat, the same one he’d worn to the courthouse to get married, off the hanger and watched him put it on. I slipped my hands in his front pockets like I’d done hundreds of times before standing on my toes to kiss him. There was a crumpled paper in his pocket.

It was open in my hand before he realized I had it. My breath halted when I read the words written in a woman’s loopy scrawl. “Last night was lovely. I can’t wait for a time when you don’t have to leave before the sun is up.”

My hands had begun to shake just as the sky visible through the wide-slat windows began to darken. When I looked up into his face it was as dark my thoughts.

“What is this? Who is she? All that time you said you were helping Tom catch up on chores while his son was sick? The auction in Iowa City? You were with someone?” The words came out all at once, hardly a space between to understand.

He swallowed and said it was nothing. He was looking at the worn rug beneath our feet, at the cat, at the kitchen door, at anything but me.

“You’re lying. You always swallow like that when you lie.” There was venom in the words now, and pain. I could feel the pieces of my life slipping away from me, “when were you going to tell me?”

“Sometime this week, tomorrow. I don’t know. I didn’t want to ruin our anniversary for you. You were so excited.”

“Are you leaving then? Do you love her?”

“Yes. And yes,” he had deflated visibly with each word. “She’s pregnant.”

White anger exploded inside of me and my heart broke. A bolt of lightning crashed through the front window, searing him in the chest. The force of it threw him against the breakfront his mother had given us as a wedding present. He must’ve hit the corner with his head.

He crumpled to the floor, whisks of smoke curling off his clothes, a pool of blood spreading under him. The room telescoped away from me and my head rang from the shock of being so close to the lightning. Every cell in my body wanted to fling open the front door and run, but I knew what I had done.

The storm was taking the shingles off the roof. Some part of the house splintered as it lost its fight with the elements. The only thing that could stop this now was me. I picked myself up off the floor and crossed the room to the front door. I only had to turn the handle for it to crash inside with the force of the storm. Rain and hail invaded the house and soaked me to the skin. I pushed against it out onto what was left of the porch.

There was darkness beyond the stairs. The rain and debris being hurled about blocked what was left of the dusk light. I waited for a bolt to take me. Asked one to come for me and end this.

Instead the wind died down and the rain stopped. The storm calmed as quickly as it had come. In my resignation to die, I had calmed myself enough. I sat on or fell to the porch boards, empty.

Gran said I should never lose control. Only bad things could come of it. She also said it would die with me unless I had a daughter. I chose to never risk it and let a man love me without telling him the truth.

Flash Fiction Friday

victoria  —  December 15, 2014 — Leave a comment

I’m just under the wire on this but wanted to get it posted. I took a fairly literal approach to the trigger.

http://urbanfolktales.blogspot.com/2014/12/fff43-before-fall-of-snake-oil-empire.html

Rolling into new towns was always the best. I could imagine my family and me as intrepid explorers or exiled royalty from some far flung land through the eyes of townsfolk we’d never met or meet again.

My father’s patented elixir of grain alcohol, steeped horehound, and orchard honey helped the mothers of the apple-picker families soothe colds and helped the fathers deal with sore backs and long days. My father took pride in the purity and wholesomeness of his blend. He thrived on almost daily presentation of his wares and the grateful faces of repeat customers as my mother and I traded coins and nuggets for bottles of amber liquid.

The 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act put an end to his work. Even though he didn’t sell white spirits that blinded workers or other poisons that rotted out livers or teeth, the Act took his livelihood as surely as if he’d been one of those hucksters. The pickers no longer trusted his understated showmanship and our nights spent sleeping in orchards, the sweet smell of rotting windfall wending its way into our wagon on the night breeze, stopped as abruptly as the horses at the edge of a stream.

We stopped travelling and moved into a shack on the edge of Snohomish. My mother took in mending and laundry and my father broke, first drinking his remain stores and then cheap rum or whiskey he could trade for a small labor. My brother went to work as a picker and fell from a tree twisting his neck and ending his life. Sometimes I think my life ended, too, with the end of what many had accusingly referred to as my father’s snake oil empire.

The lesson of the leeks

victoria  —  December 3, 2014

When life has been difficult in the past, I’ve always gone back to the kitchen. Chopping vegetables, stirring pots, kneading bread are my standing, moving meditation. There is accomplishment and completion in the way perfectly diced potatoes or onions fall from my knife or the way a bread dough rises under a floured tea towel to fill the bowl it’s resting in. When life is swirling in chaos, the kitchen always makes sense to me.

When my father died. I spent the afternoon making sesame seed cookies that had to be rolled and cut into tiny stars. One of my father’s sisters took me aside and asked me if I was okay and if I knew it was okay for me to be upset and to cry. I knew it but I couldn’t do it with a house full of people. I can talk about crying and emotions in public, or as public as writing is, but I have a hard time actually crying in public. I’m more of a solitary, darkened theater, or one-on-one cryer.

In the last two months my cooking has been sporadic. I’ve been traveling, then flat on my back with a pulled muscle and then sad. The Sunday after my mother died, my back was well enough that I could cook and I made chili and cornbread. Julian looked at me at dinner and asked if I’d done it on purpose, my father’s chili recipe, my mother’s cornbread recipe, tweaked by me over the years to suit my cooking style. I hadn’t done it on purpose or at least not consciously.

I didn’t get much time to process my trip before I was wrestling with my mother’s death and now it’s all bound together in a knot I can’t seem to untangle. I’d forgotten about my best personal place of calm, though the yoga and meditating and British mysteries had been helping. We tried to get back to normal last night by doing our weekly menu. Tonight a pureed potato leek soup with porcini oil and crispy leeks. Keifel found the recipe in my notebook of recipes clipped from magazines over the years. In coming across it, he said it reminded him of the soup we had at Most our last night in Ljubljana. It’s a million miles away from the potato soup my mom used to make. Fancy to rustic. Both equally good. Both in my repertoire.

To prepare leeks you remove the tough green leaves and the root end and slice the remaining white cylinder in half so you can easily wash the sand from between the layers, fanning them like a book under running water. Leeks are much milder than onions and very rarely make anyone cry. Watching the half moons of leek fall from my knife, I cried. Remembering the one thing my father asked me to make him when the chemotherapy had robbed everything he ate of flavor.

When he had a print shop in Detroit there’d been a Greek deli nearby that served avgolemono, a lemon and rice soup. I’d never heard of it or eaten it but the internet of 2001 was already filled with recipes and I easily found one. It wasn’t the same exactly but the look on his face, a mixture of nostalgia and gratitude, made me feel like that soup was the best gift I ever gave my father.

Avgolemono doesn’t even have leeks in it. And there in lies my lesson. It doesn’t matter that I don’t cook like exactly like either of my parents or that my travels and culinary education have given me tastes for things they never encountered. Before my mother’s health took its last debilitating turns she would send me recipes clipped from the Chattanooga Free Press or call me and ask for a recipe she had made hundreds of times so she could share it with a neighbor or staff person at assisted living, even though the residents only had microwaves and I was pretty sure they weren’t making oatmeal bread in them. Food is a language we all have in common and the things we make tell part of the story of who we are, where we came from, even when those stories are of burned dinners or of empty plates and stomachs. Even though both of my parents are dead and I can’t tell those stories with them, can’t wash while they dry the dinner dishes, they are both in everything I make, even my posh potato and leek soup that neither of them ever tasted.

 

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To the asshole on the bike

victoria  —  October 14, 2014

I really do try to be positive, but sometimes you have to call an asshole an asshole. I was walking back into the old town when I got buzzed by a guy on bike, laughing and shouting something about fat Americans. I do understand more Slovene than I can speak. Yes, I know it says way more about him than me and, yes, I know people can sometimes be awful. Here’s the thing – still hurts, still makes hot tears well up in your embarrassed face. Thank the gods for giant sunglasses and being close enough to my flat I could escape the world for a bit.

It may come as a surprise to Captain Obvious that I do, in fact, know that I am fat, American or otherwise. I’ve known it my whole life, even when I wasn’t actually fat. I am not the person in need of information in this transaction. There’s quite a lot said asshole doesn’t know about me but here are the pertinent facts:

1. I was super sickly and skinny as a child, until puberty hit at 11. From that point on I was informed by my mother and others that a woman’s life’s work is to fight against, punish, and despise the vessel she lives in. Not with a sit down talk but with every hint that I might be getting heavy (even when that “heavy” was hips and breasts that come with the territory). And with her, and by extension myself, always being on some kind of crackpot diet.

2. I stopped eating for a year in high school. I got skinny. I mean really skinny. Skeletor in a bathing suit, rib counting, ass too bony to sit on anything but a cushion for more than five minutes skinny. I also started blacking out when I stood up. My fear of being locked up in the mental ward was stronger than my fear of being fat so I started eating again.

3. When I came to Slovenia to live, I had a roommate who in many ways finished the work my mother started. She thought she was trying to help by pushing me to get in shape (be thinner) and commenting on how I dressed (too slutty), ate (too slowly), and existed (too cluelessly and naively). I spent the entire year feeling inadequate and undeserving. And confused. I didn’t have any trouble getting dates and I had friends, etc.

4. Much angst ensued for nearly twenty more years. The number on the scale went up and down. The pant sizes went up and down. I made a career where I was around food all the time to the point of not really wanting to eat it. I woke up every morning, not grateful to be alive another day or realizing how amazing my life was, but promising myself that day was the day I would get skinny again so I could do all the things I wanted to do.

5. Maybe two or three years ago, I had an epiphany of sorts. My life really was pretty good. Good job, amazing kids, smart and sexy husband. I was writing again, more seriously. I had a long chat with my NP about my weight and she said that all my numbers are good, I get exercise and eat well, and I don’t smoke (except occasionally on vacation). She wasn’t worried. I decided I did still need to change something. And that was this conversation I’d been having with myself for as long as I could remember. There was no point in waiting for some miraculous new body to show up so I could do the things I wanted to do. There was no point in hating the body that worked and carried me and had carried and fed a child. So I basically said, fuck it. This is me. No amount of someone else reassuring me was going to ever be enough (though it is so very nice when your husband looks at you and smiles like that). I had to accept me and think I was deserving of my own respect.

So, I’m here. In a place I have dreamed of returning to for twenty years. I walked eight miles yesterday total, including a trip around a gorgeous alpine lake. I’m older, I’m fat, and I am happier in me and in my life than I have ever been. Did it still really hurt when that asshole got his rocks off by being a complete jerk? Yes. I haven’t gotten this being cool with myself thing down 100% all the time. I probably never will. But I do bounce back much faster than I used to.

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And then there was a coffee

victoria  —  October 8, 2014

Twenty two years ago when I was 19, I packed a backpack and took off for a year in Slovenia. Croatia to the immediate south and the rest of former Yugoslavia were still at war. I do think everyone, especially my parents, thought I was crazy. I was a little. I mean, I was 19. I’d fallen in love with Slovenian poetry and this tiny little jewel box of a country I had visited the year before. I wanted to dive in. I had great plans to master Slovenian and become a translator and a poet and teach and travel the world. This year in Slovenia was meant to push the boat out into those particular seas.

So much happened that year. Hence the reason I decided to write a book about it, even if it never sees the light of day. I fell in love with Slovenia, hard, but initially it didn’t seem to care much for me. I constantly felt out of place. I felt so American, so foreign and the language was so difficult, I thought perhaps I had made a big, and expensive, mistake. But then, near the time I was to leave, I suddenly seemed to have enough Slovenian to get by. I knew my way around on my bike. I had a job. And, most surprising to me, I fell in love with a Slovene.

And then I left because I had to go home. I had to finish school. I thought I had to do the expected thing, try to be the good girl. And my heart broke. No one told me that coming home would be its own culture shock. I dreamed in Slovenian. And I missed Ljubljana and the friends I had made and Saša (as he is called in the book). And school was miserable. I had fallen from grace for things too complicated to explain here. And I did stupid and slightly destructive things to self-medicate my heartbreak.

In the midst of all of that, I became a mom. Grad school happened, but not as planned. Returning to Slovenia as a translator definitely didn’t happen. I was too broke to travel. I stopped writing after grad school because, again with the self-flagellation, I thought I had screwed that up so badly I didn’t deserve it and I needed to find something that paid the bills. I met Keifel. I became a chef. Julian grew up. And we moved again and here was this stack of letters and notebooks and a postcard from Saša and now there is a book and this trip.

And last night there was kava s smetana. Coffee with solidly whipped unsweetened cream. I was sitting at a cafe yards from the bar I’d spent most of my evenings drinking back then. I was surrounded by the sounds of people speaking Slovenian and the soft chink of wine and beer glasses and the smell of cigarette smoke. And there was a flood inside me as if the Ljubljanica had jumped its banks to run down Stari trg through 41 year old me and 19 year old me sitting at a table feeling completely exposed and completely invisible, stunned that so much time could pass.

I came home from work early because I was coughing and sneezing and have a headache in my face. Keifel picked this particular ick up somewhere and passed it along to Julian and me. Julian has a brand new job at POP and he’s working on the Biscuit Love food truck, so he can’t really afford to be sick. I have a stack of work as we get ready for our national conference, so it’s particularly inconvenient to be sick. Alas, it is what it is. I’m eating oranges and drinking gallons of water. And going to bed at 9 p.m. And Julian has a day or so to recuperate (I’m too much of a ServSafe stickler to let him go to work sick).

I had great plans to clean out the fridge (it’s my chore of the day in the cleaning rotation I put together in my attempts to do less housework and more writing), make a big salad for dinner, and get some editing/writing done on the Slovenia project. My focus isn’t very good. Instead, I found myself perusing Pinterest while watching Midsomer Murders (I’d say it’s a guilty pleasure but I don’t feel particularly guilty about it). Dinner reverted to leftover homemade mac and cheese.

Pinterest is full of recipes to make ersatz things out of cauliflower. Pizza crust. Mashed “potatoes.” Couscous. Even “mac” and cheese (can food be blasphemous?). Also, roasted, baked whole like a great white brain, sautéed, and available in gold, green, and purple like a cauliflower mardi gras.

I’ve tried to love cauliflower. I’ve tried it roasted and pureed and in soup and raw and steamed and covered in cheese. I’ve tried its particolored cousins.

I have given up.

My last, best attempt to kill it with curry.

My last, best attempt to kill it with curry.

I can eat broccoli until the cows come home but I’ll be leaving the cauliflower for others. For the life of me I can’t get past the fact that it smells of wet socks and tastes of creeping damp.

castiron

One of the biggest non-emotional adjustments in the empty-nesting phase is learning to cook for fewer people. Cooking for three when one of those is a growing, teenaged boy is more like cooking for four, and a half. In addition to the challenge of avoiding a week’s worth of leftovers, I’ve had to learn the balancing act of often cooking for one as my schedule more closely resembles 9-5 whereas Keifel is on the seven days a week, nearly round the clock schedule of retail. I’m not adverse to cooking for one but I often don’t feel like making a big production out of it. One of my favorite dinners for one is spinach or arugula (depending on mood and availability), half a small avocado, maybe a little crumbled bacon, and a fried egg all drizzled with a mustardy vinaigrette kissed with a little honey. If left to my own devices for an extended period of time, I would probably eat it almost every night occasionally throwing in some roasted asparagus or some warmed butter beans or chickpeas.

When I’m not in a salad mood or want to putt around the kitchen a little more (cooking is most often my Zen-like state), I’ll make an oven pancake. They go by several monikers: Dutch babies, German pancake, souffléd pancake… We’ve always called them Dutch babies despite the potentially disturbing visual. If I’m dining alone, I generally make an unsweetened or barely sweetened one with a mix of whole grain and white flour. I like mine with tart lingonberry jam, but they are equally good with a dusting of powdered sugar and a squeeze of lemon. They can also be a vehicle for something a little less like an American breakfast option. Just add a pinch of sugar in the recipe given below and then top your oven pancake with sautéed vegetables, a bit of leftover beef stew, wilted greens with a bit of feta or other crumbly cheese, or even a barely warmed lentil salad. May sound odd but it’s very satisfying. If you wanted to do something like it for more people and fancy it up a bit, you could make the pancakes in individual pans or baking dishes.

Victoria’s Dutch Baby

Preheat your oven to 425°F.

You’ll need:

2 tablespoons butter

1/2 cup milk (just about any kind will work, I’m partial to local, whole, non-homogenized)

2 large eggs (local are best, if you are using particularly small eggs you might want three)

1/2 cup flour (all purpose or a mix of all-purpose and whole wheat or spelt, or all whole-grain – though it will be heavier)

a large pinch to a 1/4 cup of sugar (depending on desired level of sweetness)

a pinch of salt

 

Melt the butter in a 8″ cast-iron skillet or something similar over medium heat while you mix up the batter.

Keeping an eye on the butter, add 1/2 cup milk to a two-cup glass measuring cup. Crack in two eggs. The amount of total liquid should be about a cup. If it’s much less than that, add a third egg. Beat the eggs and milk together. Add the flour(s), the sugar, and salt and beat together (I have a small French whisk, the long skinny kind, that works with my wide-mouthed measure cup. You may have to use a fork in a smaller measuring cup) until only small lumps remain and the mixture is the consistency of heavy cream.

The butter should have melted and may be bubbling in the pan. If it isn’t bubbling, turn up the heat to medium-high and swirl the butter in the pan to coat the bottom and about an inch or so up the sides. Once the bubbles have started to die down, pour the batter into the pan and let it cook on the stovetop for about a minute. Transfer the pan to your hot oven and bake for 12-15 minutes, until puffed and golden.

If you’ve got a well-seasoned cast-iron pan, there should be no sticking if you swirled the butter around well. In other pans, your mileage may vary. Top with your heart’s desire. Will feed 1-4 depending on the topping and how hungry everyone is.

the girl in the sub shop

victoria  —  March 12, 2014

She is sitting across from him, a tray of uneaten food in front of her. His folded hands are on the table in front of him.

First there is the declaration.

“I don’t want this. I’m not ready for this. I can’t have a career with a baby and a wife hanging around my neck like an albatross.”

Then there is the reasoning.

“What about grad school? How are you going to go off to Montana or Vermont with a newborn?”

Then there is the meanness that comes of what can only be imagined as desperation.

“Who is going to possibly want you with some other man’s kid?”

Finally, there is the leaving.

He gives her $400 and tells her that she nor the baby will ever want for anything but that he is not going to be a father. She drove them to the restaurant, so had to drive him back to his brother’s shop and as he crossed in front of her, she briefly entertained the thought of running him over, believing no jury in the world would convict a distraught pregnant woman.

And then I drove off. I went back to the basement I was living in as a stopgap while I waited to hear from grad schools. I threw every piece of soft furnishing I could find followed by all of the folders I’d organized my grad school applications into. Then I sat on the patio overlooking the cold, February Tennessee River and cried.

My son was born in September. His father called me at the hospital and told me he was proud of me because I didn’t take any drugs. I was ashamed that a tiny light flickered inside me that maybe he would change his mind.

He came to see the baby at one month and seemed more than a little anxious around my seething family.

He came to see the baby at three months and said that he was too little to need a father, that boys didn’t really need one until they were, like, fourteen. He gave me some money and kissed me goodbye. And though I wouldn’t admit it, a tiny little torch continued to burn.

There wasn’t another visit, or any more money, and the torch burnt itself out.

I was disappointed and angry for my son. Disappointed that there wasn’t another person in the world who was as invested in or loved him as much as I did. I was angry for all the things my son missed. I was violently, retchingly angry the day my father died and my five year old crawled in my lap and put his hand on my face and said it was okay because now neither one of us had a daddy. I was angry for all the nights of naked spaghetti noodles because that was all I had in the house for us to eat. It was okay to be angry for him. It was my job to be angry for him.

It was also my job to protect him from my anger. I had to be strong enough for two parents. I made it my job not to speak ill of the absent in front of him. I doubt I was a hundred percent successful because children instinctively know all the things we don’t say. When he asked me if his father loved him, I said, if he knew you he would love you. And I believed it. Despite my well-kept, furry little ball of anger, I knew two things. My son’s father was not evil because I had loved him once and my son’s DNA was half his. I also knew that young, scared people do stupid things. Admittedly, I wasn’t always as forgiving on the second point.

When my son was seven, I met and married someone who not only wanted me but fell in love with my son, too. He was a father. He wanted to be a father to my child and his. He adopted my son and put his name on the birth certificate where there had always been a blank.

My son is now eighteen and recently had his first college spring break. He was with his father, the one who didn’t want the job initially. I was anxious and worried and relieved, and even happy that they finally might get to know each other.

The thing I didn’t expect to be was sad. Sad for all the might have beens and should have dones. Sad for the nervous father in the delivery room. Sad for every day at the park. Sad for every dad with a toddler on his shoulders. Sad for the first tooth, first day at school, first bicycle, first soccer game, first girlfriend. Sad for birthday parties and making dinner together and skinned knees and a broken arm. Sad for late night talks philosophizing or planning for college. Sad for prom night and graduation. And, after years of keeping it at a distance, so very sad for that girl in the sub shop with her broken heart and all the years she carried its heavy pieces. I can finally let the last one go because the hope it held, that his father would have the opportunity to see what an incredible person our son is, came to be.

Now they have to figure out what happens next and I can just keep on being grateful for every moment I’ve gotten, every moment I get.

 

The inaugural Tea @ Victoria’s filled in a little less than four days. I am excited that folks are so excited.

I’ve got dates for the next few months and a menu for April below. I’m introducing a twist for April, a bit of a thé salon. We’ll discuss our most hated books, those that you read all the way to end. No mud slinging on the tastes of others, just impassioned vitriol for those hours we’ll never get back. If you still have a copy of the detested tome, bring it with you and we’ll swap. One person’s circle of hell might be someone else’s awaited paradise.

I’ll let you in on a secret. One of mine is Anna Karenina. By the end of the book, I wanted to throw them all under a train.

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Upcoming Dates

June 14, 2014

Story in tea

Story in teaStory in tea

Menu: What Not to Read

Savory

Smoked trout and endive salad

Sandwiches

Shaved radish with herbed butter

Egg salad with pickles

Scone

Cream scones with rhubarb curd and whipped vanilla butter

Sweets

Honey pots de crème

Bara brith (Welsh speckled cake)

Peppercorn shortbread

Teas

Darjeeling

Masala chai

Email if you’d like to attend in either June. Please pass along to friends who would enjoy an afternoon of tea and repartee.

The inaugural tea was Saturday, February 22, 2014 from 4 to 6 p.m.

 

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Menu

Savory

Local cheese and oatcakes

Tea Sandwiches

Walnut Cream Cheese

Roast Beef

Scones

Plain or fruited with spiced plum jam and clotted cream

Sweets

Mulled wine panna cotta

Dark chocolate tea bread

Teas

Single estate Assam

Sencha with toasted rice

Email if you’d like to attend a future tea.