Mustard

by Monica Drake
(from her new collection The Folly of Loving Life

Our dad, when he taught forensic science, said it was the art of looking at a problem and tracking backward, analyzing the smallest pieces to find out where things went wrong. When he actually did lab work, it usually involved investigating tampered with or otherwise faulty pre-packed food. He’d analyze unknown objects found in a box of cereal, a can of soup, a carton of orange juice. He’d determine if an item was molding mouse feet, somebody’s fingers lost in an industrial accident, or only an ordinary clump of burned cereal ingredients that had fallen off industrial machinery into the Wheatie-O’s mix.

I was fourteen and still at home when one of his graduate students moved into Nessie’s old abandoned bedroom. Maybe my parents just wanted to populate the place? This guy showed up with a suitcase and he stayed. He slept in her twin bed, under her blue and purple flowered comforter. It was so wrong to see his big body lumped under the blanket where my big sister used to lay flat and read Tin Tin books, even reading to me on the lucky days. I tried not to look, hoped he’d close his door. Whatever was going on in that guy’s life, nobody told me. Nobody asked my opinion. My best bet was to be invisible and keep out of his way. Sometimes I’d ask mom, “How long is he going to be here?”

She’d say, “Be nice, Lu.” Once she said, “We don’t know, do we?” like life was all some big question and she wasn’t really in charge. She was freshly home again, medicated, humming and making dinners. For mom, it was a good stretch. She’d murmur, “Our land is a refuge.” I think she really believed it, like housing this guy was doing good work. Other times she’d say the same thing only to herself, quietly and more like an incantation, trying to make it true.

We had one bathroom. When the student was using it, I’d stay away. When I needed it, I’d lock the door. The worst spot in the house was the kitchen because you can’t lock anybody out of the kitchen. In the morning before school, I’d pack a lunch while it was still dark out. Then I’d put a frozen waffle in the toaster and wait, tapping a knife into the butter. Usually I’d take a dry waffle back upstairs and take a shower, but now this guy was in the kitchen, always making coffee. My parents never got up early, but he did just to make small talk while I was still in my worn-out, polyester nightgown.

That nightgown was so old it was wearing through, nearly transparent. That guy in our house? Suddenly being dressed mattered.

After the first couple of days of him hanging around, I started getting dressed without taking a shower. It was a cold winter. Then I didn’t see any reason not to sleep in my clothes.

There was a phrase my dad liked to quote: “Physical evidence can not be intimidated.” It was a saying, from a leading authority in his field.

Apparently I wasn’t physical evidence. My body wasn’t? Because I was intimidated all the time.

In the morning, he’d toast an English muffin, and put his hands over the top of the toaster like it was a little fire. If I didn’t get there first, I’d be stuck waiting for a turn. It was like I had a new uncle, or a way-older brother. A pain in the ass. He’d make noises, like “Mmmm, mmmmm…” and groan, and push butter around over the muffin. He’d spread this expensive imported marmalade over the butter, and lick the knife. It was all very ritual.

When I was chewing a dry Eggo, trying to get my boots on, he’d say things like, “You’re a shy one, aren’t you?”

I wasn’t shy. I didn’t like him. It was creepy the way he looked at me like I was a grown woman, when I still rode my old banana seat Schwinn. I still liked Bubblicious, the best bubblegum ever.

I played volleyball. I tried to study Spanish.

I wasn’t some Lolita girl but he looked at me like I was, and his look was trying to turn me into the show he hoped to see. He thought I was my sister, perhaps. She was wild, while I was tame. If she were home, she could stand in for me. She could stand in front of me, like a shield.

He did one good thing—filled our fridge with like sixteen kinds of mustard and said, “Have whatever you want!”

If I’d been really into mustard, that would’ve been generous!

After school, he’d be the only one in the house, there to meet me. One time I came in and he was at the stove. He said, “Try this vindaloo. Learned how to make it on my travels.” He said that, “my travels,” like it was mysterious and important, and he waved a wooden spoon toward me.

I’d done a report on Mumbai in fifth grade. I said, “What was India like?”

He said, “England. I learned to make vindaloo in England.”

So he’d done a semester in England. Whatever, right?

He took a big bite of his own vindaloo, off the spoon, and made his groaning sounds, and said, “Mmm… mmm… this is how to live.” Then he swung the spoon my way again.

I got out of there.

After that, he always had some kind of food going—usually something that meant he’d been cooking a long time, and that meant he’d been in our house all day. He’d come at me with that wooden spoon. When he pushed beef bourguignon on me, I squeaked, “I’m a vegetarian!” and ran up to my room and closed the door.

When he made curried lentils, I said, “I’m totally allergic to legumes,” and got away fast. The man smelled like sweat and salt and the longer he stayed in our house the more our house smelled like him. Now that I’m older, I think maybe he smelled like dried cum, but I didn’t think that way back then.

I was kind of a dork.

One night, he made dinner for the family. Rabbit. It was a little rabbit body, on a plate. It looked like a stripped down prisoner. He said it again—“Now this is how to live!”—as he passed the plate to my dad. I was going to throw up. My dad handed me the plate, an animal with one leg cut off, and I couldn’t take it. I dropped it on the floor. I started to cry. Mom said, “What is wrong with you?”

Like there was something wrong with me?

But I saw the smirk on that guy’s face, our grad student. He’d made me nervous, and he liked it.

So I came home one day, and the house smelled like him, and it smelled like meat and I tried to pass the kitchen without talking to him, and I was pretty much chanting, in my head, don’t talk to me don’t talk to me, and I saw him at the kitchen table. I’d never seen him look quite so collapsed before. It was like he’d had a really bad day. He had his glasses off, on the table, by his hand. His shoulders were slumped.

I sort of felt sorry for him.

I thought I could tiptoe past, get a Coke out of the fridge. I’d grab a Coke and go. I moved so quietly.

He didn’t hear me, didn’t move. I pulled the fridge door open, and the suction of the seal on the fridge made a sound, like making out, pretty much, like kissing, and it seemed loud because everything else was so quiet.

I looked, but he hadn’t moved. From that side, I could see his mouth was open. His eyes were closed, but the lids were purple. His lips were purple. And it took me a while, but I realized that he was having a problem—he was dead, or dying. I said his name, loud, now chanting in my head, talk to me talk to me talk to me.

I didn’t want to touch him, but did. I touched his shoulder. He dropped his head all the way to the table, and it made a terrible thunk. I screamed, and got away, and first thing I did was call my mom at work, but she didn’t answer. I left a message.

Dad was in class, teaching. There was no way to reach him. Vanessa? Traveling Mexico then Central America, last I heard. She barely been in touch with me anyway since back when I was playing with dolls, a little kid, by which I mean maybe a year before, a lifetime ago.

So it was me and the dead student guy, home after school, surrounded by trees and land and the sound of the drive-thrus off in the distance. I was too young, didn’t know what to do. Call 911? It wasn’t exactly an emergency. He was already dead. I sat at the table and hoped one of my parents would call back. That’s when I saw the plate. He’d made a plate of food. It was beside his elbow, almost hidden behind his arm. A sausage sandwich.

That was the meat smell, filling the house. The stove was still hot. He’d made a sandwich, then died. It looked like a fat sausage on a potato bread bun, and I could see the deep brown lines of one of his favorite mustards, spread along both the bun and the meat. I imagined how he’d spread that mustard—he’d say, Mmm… Mmm… and lick the knife, the way he did. It was his last meal.

When I got my courage up, I called the police, told them I was home, with a dead man. I said he was sitting at our kitchen table, that I’d come home, that I didn’t actually know his last name, but he was staying with us. Then I was off the phone again, alone and waiting.

That sausage looked so alone. I reached out and lifted it. He always wanted me to try his cooking. I’d turned him down so many times. The sausage was still warm. I wanted to do something right. I put it to my mouth, breathed the steam off the meat. I let my teeth come together around it. When my bite broke through the casing, warm grease ran out, into my mouth. It was a good sausage, full of fennel and pork. I chewed, and swallowed.

I felt stiff, the way I moved when I took that first bite, like I was eating something in church. He’d made that sausage so carefully. Food was his thing. I took another bite. I did. I ate it. I ate the dead man’s hot and meaty sandwich. It was good.

If I were my father, I would’ve analyzed that food. I would’ve broken it down into the smallest pieces in a laboratory and looked for poison or ordinary fats. I’d look back, sifting through the smallest details to find out exactly where this guy’s life went wrong, until his careening troubles converged with my life. But I wasn’t my father, I was a teenage girl.

It felt very ritual to eat that meat. This was my own ritual offering, now. He was a guy with rituals and I joined in, in his honor.

I wish I hadn’t done it, though.

It’s been thirty years. I feel like that mistake is still with me. I ate a dead man’s greasy sausage, and what if some part of it is still in my body? Lodged in my intestines, or resting as a yellow fat deposit under my skin, along my ribs, on my belly. I’d have liposuction if a doctor could promise to find exactly the fat cells plumped by that single hot, dripping sausage. I want everything about it to go away.

When you see women who don’t eat? Or women who cleanse, detox and purge? I think they’ve done something like this. They’ve eaten in a way that’s left a memory, a creepy ghost, a body inside their own body.

The weird thing is, that’s not how it felt that afternoon. The mustard, which he’d carefully chosen, was tangy and ripe. It was perfect. He was a lonely guy.

If I were dad, I’d yell at the girl that was me. I’d say, “You’re eating the evidence!”

I wiped grease off my mouth with the back of my hand.

The grad student had poured himself a dark brown beer. It was there in a glass, on the table. I dragged the glass over, took a sip. It was the first beer I ever had. It was awful, sweet and thick and room temperature. Now I’d guess he’d learned to drink stout that way in England, but back then, I expected it to taste more like a Coke. And when I drank that beer I hated it, but took another drink, and I thought about what the man said—“This is how to live!”—and I didn’t stop drinking for about twenty more years.

That’s what I was doing when the cops showed up, when the ambulance arrived. Fourteen and hoisting a warm beer. I toasted to the dead man, Cheers! Then they hauled his body away.

 

Monica Drake is the author of The Folly of Loving Life, Clown Girl, and The Stud Book. She holds an MFA from the University of Arizona and designed and launched the BFA in Writing at the Pacific Northwest College of Art where she currently is faculty. Her short stories and essays have appeared in the The New York Times, Paris Review Daily, The Sun, Oregon Humanities Magazine, Northwest Review and other publications, in print, online, and anthologized.

1 Comment

Filed under Fiction

One response to “Mustard

  1. Roger

    Funny, sad, and engaging. It possesses the energy of a great tale.

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