I was still a little drunk when we left. It was only nine in the morning, or maybe ten, who knows what time? There’s been a lot of drinking at all hours. Terry had the Matador running. He shouldn’t be driving, but soon that won’t be my problem. I threw my bag in the back and hoped it landed without spilling my spices all over the place. I have about forty of them, and it took me a while to get them all. Some of them are pretty exotic. They remind me of the one good place I’ve been. I told Terry to take me to the train station. I’ll figure out something from there. Everyone I knew was leaving the house, which was really only Terry. My time there was up, anyhow.
I don’t know where Terry is headed after that. His trip isn’t my trip.
The house had five guys in it. I made it good for them by cooking cassoulet. It’s the best thing I know how to make. It’s just a big pot full of all kinds of meat, cooked all together. All the fats meld, and then you throw in some beans. It just keeps cooking and gets better.
It was supposed to be a sober house, which is good for me. I’m better sober. Every so often a guy came around to pee-test everyone, which made it dangerous. A guy could get thrown out for a bad pee test. I could get thrown out just for being there. So, I became accustomed to hiding, to making myself unable to be seen. Terry passed a lot of pee tests and things looked pretty good for awhile.
Cassoulet is just a fancy word for stew. Whatever you have is what you cook. I made it with squirrel once, in a pot on a fire at a squat in the woods somewhere in North Carolina. I was with a guy named Beecher then.
A woods squat works as long as you can stay warm and out of sight. Beecher had a big, blue tarp that he strung up that might as well have been a road sign announcing us to anyone looking. But he said nobody would bother us, and nobody did. Beecher was magical that way. And the tarp kept the rain off. That was a good squat, only a short walk to the back of the shopping center, where the dumpsters were. We ate well there. We had vegetables and fruit. I stole a cutting board by just walking out of the store with it. Beecher made me a work table from wooden pallets he dragged over. He fit them together like a craftsman. He said he was my carpenter and I was his lady. I didn’t understand it, until he told me about the song. He had a ukelele, and he played it for me. That was the sweetest thing. Beecher appreciated our little cleared place in the woods. He had a tent shaped like an igloo, where we slept snug. Sometimes we would lie on the ground and look up through the trees at the stars. Beecher could make silence more expressive than words.
When the Presbyterians opened the food pantry on Thursdays, I was always in line. The mothers went for the boxes of breakfast cereal and canned tuna and loaves of squishy, sliced bread, but my aim was unprocessed food. Just because I live on the fly, I still know how to eat. My mother’s kitchen was a place of culinary discipline, and I learned from her. I can make beautiful food, given the right ingredients.
Sometimes hunters donate deer roasts to the pantry, that bleed sticky and maroon into plastic grocery bags. I am not put off by the blood and sinew. I know how to butcher primal cuts. I can occupy myself for hours paring the bruises from onions and carrots and trimming a venison roast for a braise that goes over the fire and cooks until everything blends. When I was with Beecher, we ate right out of the pot. Sometimes we ate with our fingers. Beecher found bricks and put them around, like a little wall. In the months we were there, I stocked our squat for cooking. I made our meals from what we had. We made a home. We were grateful and peaceful together.
One day, Beecher said he was going for cigarettes and didn’t come back. I don’t think he meant it that way because he left all his stuff. I waited a night, then I took his big knife and a warm shirt and left, too. I put my spices in a cloth bag. The cutting board was too much for me to carry, so it stayed there. I miss that board.
I learned to make cassoulet because my mother was French.
It’s my way to make anyplace good. It personalizes a place when you cook in it. It gets aromas that make you think of home. Cinnamon works like that. I’ve cooked in places where I didn’t stay long, and places I could barely get out of. The hardest place is a motel room. Believe me on that one.
You can make cheesecake from pudding cups and margarine and Cremora, mixed together. I can’t take credit for that one; it’s a recipe that gets handed around. If you know it, then you’ve been some hard places.
Canned mackerel is more versatile than you think.
Terry started out a real sweetheart. I knew it as soon as he picked me up. The inside of his truck was so clean. “Can I give you a lift,” he said through the open passenger window. I’d already watched a lot of vehicles drive by. He said he pulled over because a lady like me shouldn’t have to carry heavy bags. He asked where I was going, but I wasn’t going anywhere. He said that he, himself, must be the intended destination. That’s the words he used. He used fine words. He said he was meant to find me.
It worked. I was romanced.
I cooked for Terry the same night he brought me home. I told him I could work with whatever was in the pantry. Sure enough, there was elbow macaroni and a sack of flour, and some butter and milk and hard cheese in the fridge. So I made a roux and added the cheese and poured the macaroni into it when it was ready. I toasted white bread and buttered it and crumbed it over the top with a little bit of my oregano and garlic, and put it in the oven to heat through. That makes a casserole that will satisfy a man. I told him that’s nothing compared to what I know how to do.
Daily trips with filmy plastic grocery bags hauling mustard greens and pork butt, small potatoes and sour cream, whole chickens to rub with butter and roast. Deep pots simmering. Terry giving me cash and telling me to go shop some more.
Cumin, smoked paprika, ginger, nutmeg, clove, cardamom, cinnamon, turmeric, cayenne. Those are the warm spices.
Men have different kinds of hunger, if you know what I mean.
I learned to drink after the thing happened when I was fifteen. You pick up what you need when you have to.
“Hey, honey, give me a hand in the back,” he said. The odor of fryer grease in my blue and orange polyester uniform, in my hair. On his cheap tie, in the pores of his face. His greasy mouth on my neck. Like wet rubber. His hands pushing my shoulders into the wall. My knee hard between his legs.
He doesn’t stop. Another day. His hard crotch on my butt, leaning over to check the register.
Another day. Up against me at the time clock, his hips on my ass, leaning into my ear to whisper. I get nothing but a hiss in my ear and the greasy smell of his breath.
Passing me on the way to the walk-in. It’s working on me, the way sandpaper works on a knob of wood. Wearing on it. I can’t get small enough that he doesn’t touch me, moving past. I can’t be unseen. I look down, ashamed of my breasts, my belly, my hips, my thighs. He rubs against me, moving by. He says something. I hear the hiss. He won’t leave me alone.
Another day. Chicken parts separated and battered. Oil boiling in a deep fryer. He comes behind me again. He leans his hips into my ass and pushes himself on me. He starts talking in my ear. I hear the hiss. He puts his hands on my ass. I turn and pull his right arm from the elbow, until he’s up to his wrist in fryer oil. There is steam and there are screams, and there’s the smell of something cooking that isn’t chicken.
A public defender is worth what you pay.
Alcohol is an ugly drug. People say they drink to forget, but that isn’t what happens. You don’t forget anything. The memories stay. Drinking makes things fuzzy in the present. It leaves you with no hope of making today a good memory, or any kind of memory at all. You can’t replace the old memories with new ones when you’re drunk. The only sharp memories you get are the old ones. You end up living there, among the shards of ugly memory. I’ve drunk my share and more, and I’ve never drunk that day out of my mind.
Beecher held me when I trembled. He stayed while I heaved. He curled next to me when I slept. His home was my home. I got clean and the memories are sweet. Beecher got money, sitting at the turn-off to the Wal-mart with a box and a sign: will work for food. That was his work, and from it we had food. I made us a banquet every day. I got the basics: garlic and salt and black pepper. I got flour and butter to make roux. I took my time in the spice aisle. It was my map of the world. I found fenugreek and star anise, five-spice powder and curry, and made ways to use them.
We ate and we slept and we looked at the stars. That was a good place.
I couldn’t stay at the squat with Beecher gone. He was the man of the place. He split wood and stacked it, and maintained the grounds. I was the lady of the house. It was a lovely time. But a woman can’t stay alone in the woods. The magic time was over. I was a woman alone in a squat behind a shopping center. I packed what I could carry.
I thought it might be good with Terry. Terry wasn’t Beecher, but I thought it would be good. I was happy to carry a plastic laundry basket on my hip, with Terry’s and my stuff all mixed together, to the laundry room on the first floor of the house. I loved the feel of the smooth, cool vinyl floor under my bare feet. The house was old, but it had a new feeling, like it had just been done over. I took my time folding the warm, good-smelling clothes at the kitchen table. I planned the meals that would make the kitchen the center of our home.
But it turned bad. “You can’t expect a guy to go without a beer at the end of a day.” That was Terry’s argument. He’d had enough sobriety. “Baby, have a beer with me,” he said. He didn’t care that I had dinner on the stove. He didn’t care about what he’d ruin. “What the fuck. I can’t live like this,” he said.
There was no argument. I have no argument. I drank beer with Terry. I took the glass when he poured whiskey. “Baby you can’t hold your alcohol,” he told me after I puked blood.
Sure enough, they threw him out.
I couldn’t bear to get near a kitchen when I first got free. The work-release house had a kitchen, but the aromas hit too hard; the heat frightened me. Everything tasted like too much, or not enough. It’s hard to finesse flavors after you’ve become accustomed to shaking Tabasco over everything, and worse, after you’ve come to like it. My palate was numbed by institutional food and numbed again with alcohol. You don’t eat when you’re drinking. Until Beecher, I’d lost the enjoyment of food. After I got with Beecher, every spice added to the renaissance of pleasure.
Terry drives away from the station. I’m on the curb. I still have the plastic laundry basket; it’s packed with my stuff. Terry said to take it. I’m watching taillights. I saw plenty of taillights drive past me before Terry picked me up. I’ll see a bunch more now. Life comes down to a series of taillights receding, if you think about it.
I may find another place to cook and I may not. Who knows what is going to come down the road? I may get a bottle of something to occupy my time. I may drink today into a blur. I may find a tiny, sheltered space. I may become small and hard to see.
Spices lose their essence when they get old. Their volatile oils evaporate. Even crushed in the palm of your hand, they have nothing potent left to release. And me, with no fire, no cookpots or pans, no spoons and nobody to feed. Soon my spices will have no worth. There is no point to spices left unused. They will be worthless and weigh me down. My bag will hold jars of nothing, aging into dust.
About the Author: After 30 years in journalism, with pieces appearing nationally in publications including The Washington Post and Newsweek magazine, Maggie Wolff Peterson began developing her voice in fiction two years ago. Her fiction has been published in the Marathon Literary Review, Fat City Review and Five Quarterly.