I’ve logged more experience than most with simplicity and the complexity you discover inside simplicity, minimalism and asocial behavior, endurance and landscape.
Here is the truth: I think some deep wisdom inside me (a) sensed the stress, (b) was terrified for me, and (c) gave me something new and hard to focus on in order to prevent me from lapsing into a despair coma — and also to keep me from having a jelly jar of wine in my hand.
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She began cooking the stew at 5:41 A.M. on Thursday. Somewhere in the night her husband had, as was his habit, moved to the middle of the bed, and she’d found herself precariously perched between his chest and the edge of the mattress, the inhabitant of an inconsequential strip of bedding that had, over the past few years, become her home. He could be moved from his position only through great violence. She would have to yell and kick and deliver elbows to his ribs. She would have to put her lips close to his ear and say, in as menacing a tone as she could muster, “You’re on my fucking side.” Only then might he shift a foot and a half to his right, apologizing absently as he did. Some days she believed that she should be more accepting of his nightly migrations. Other days she believed that, if he’d really wanted to, he could have been thoughtful even in sleep.
On the morning that she began to prepare the stew, she hadn’t bothered to try to move her husband. She had just kicked him once in the leg and gotten up to cook. She did not expect this to be a particularly good stew and was not concerned with the end result. She even imagined dumping the finished product onto her husband’s shoes because he had said something thoughtless to her the day before. She imagined the floor covered by a viscous brown sea dotted with islands of orange carrot and white potato, the rich broth seeping under the baseboards and pooling beneath the stove.
She rummaged through the cabinets with a fury, trying to find the Dutch oven in that chaos of pots and lids and casseroles, wishing that her husband would hear all of the clanging — the thud of Pyrex being chipped, the pot lids reverberating like church bells — but he could never be awakened until he was good and ready. She found the Dutch oven, set it on the burner, turned on the flame, and added olive oil, a supermarket brand that had been on sale: buy one, get one free. She was no olive-oil snob and had no patience for anyone who was. She’d put four bottles in her cart and congratulated herself on her good sense.
She poured roughly two tablespoons of oil directly from the bottle into the pot, which had only just begun to warm. She knew from cooking shows that this was wrong, that the pot was supposed to be hot before the oil was added, but she was in a hurry to put something in; she wanted progress and transformation as quickly as possible.
The meat was the only ingredient she had purchased especially for the stew. She’d bought it two days earlier, on Tuesday afternoon. She’d had to run to the store for a few essentials: toilet paper and coffee creamer and wine and batteries for her shaver. She didn’t need to buy anything for dinner that night; there were leftovers: half a pan of baked spaghetti, a container of green beans, and just enough lettuce and shredded carrots left in the bag of ready-made salad that she could claim to have provided her family with a well-balanced meal. Friday they would treat themselves to pizza, and Saturday she would wake up early and go to the grocery and buy everything she needed for the next week or so. But there was nothing for Wednesday and Thursday nights, so she stood in the produce section and tried to come up with an easy meal that she had not fixed recently. Each recipe she thought of required many ingredients, and the aisles seemed daunting to her that evening, so long and full it was a chore even to think about walking down each one. Finally, after she had mentally catalogued everything in her refrigerator, she concluded that all that was missing for stew was meat. She drifted back to the butcher’s coolers, dazed by the lights and the ranks of pink and red flesh, grave and primal and unadorned, and she chose one and a half pounds of cubed stew beef, not on sale, $3.49 a pound. It was more than she wished to spend, but on a Tuesday afternoon, with so much of the week still in front of her, she wasn’t going to quibble over pennies.
As she brought her grocery bag into the house, her older daughter ran to her laughing and grabbed her leg, burying her face in the denim covering her mother’s hip. The daughter pretended to nibble at the flesh she found there — a small roll of fat that shamed the mother — and made what were meant to be grunting sounds, but they were too high-pitched and infused with laughter. “I eat you!” she squealed, and ran, wild and laughing, toward the father, who had turned to watch the baby tottering behind the sofa with one hand touching the paisley fabric for balance. The daughter grabbed her father’s leg so that she could eat him as well, planning — if the electrical storm of giddy excitement in her brain was actually capable of something that could be called a plan — to run back to her mother and eat her again, the absurdity of eating each parent striking her as the funniest joke imaginable. But such was her excitement that she forgot to pretend, and she bit her father hard through his pants, just below the buttocks. He howled and jumped so violently that he knocked her down, and she began to cry.
The baby stood on wobbling legs and indignantly watched his father turn to the wailing sister, who lay on the floor, consumed more by anger than pain, furious that her moods, the one thing that seemed unequivocally hers, could be snatched from her without warning. The baby saw his mother toss her purse onto a chair and kneel over the sister, putting her face close to her daughter’s and scooping her up in her arms. The mother rocked and cooed while the father leaned in and babbled, and the baby let out a wrathful cry meant to assert his singular status as “he who must be attended to.” The father suppliantly knelt in front of the baby, who fell into his father’s chest and almost forgave this transgression.
The parents carried their weepy children to the couch and babbled meaningless and comforting syllables to them and grinned at each other: so much fuss over so little. They kissed once. There was no reason to think about getting up, and while little hands clutched at them, the meat in the bottom of the shopping bag was slowly warming. Sluggish bacteria began to rouse themselves and get on with the business of their lives in the thin slurry of water and blood that coated the meat — a shiny, slippery film in which microscopic dramas unfolded. Slumbering legions of clostridia and listeria woke and bloomed, only to be beaten back by an unassuming strain of lactococcus that began churning out rich, earthy compounds, the meat not spoiling but simply changing, practicing an ancient alchemy in which nutrients are swapped and converted as determined by the idiosyncrasies of light and heat, texture and acidity.
The family sat on the couch in that orgy of hugs and snuggles for just under twelve minutes until the daughter, suddenly confined by all that babying, felt the need to proclaim her separateness, and so she wriggled free, slid down to the floor, and ran to the kitchen, ignoring her mother’s call: “Where are you going?” The mother sighed and frowned at her husband and went to the kitchen, where she found her daughter trying to pull herself onto the counter, her feet off the floor, her chubby elbows pressed into faux-marble laminate, fingers inches away from the bananas and oranges in a wicker basket.
“You’re hungry,” the mother incorrectly declared. She gave her daughter two baby carrots from the refrigerator and sent her back to her father and brother, then began the business of preparing dinner. She was still slightly giddy from the time on the couch and so did not think of having a glass of wine while she cooked. She didn’t crave the hazy glow that a few sips always put on the bright kitchen, providing a vague sense of reassurance that, for one more day, at least, everything had turned out all right.
It was only when dinner was on the table that she remembered the groceries, especially the creamer and the meat, which had been unrefrigerated now for fifty-three minutes. “Shit,” she said under her breath. She believed the meat ruined, but she was so disgusted with herself that she couldn’t bear to throw the expensive package away. She decided she would face her failures later, and so she put the meat in the refrigerator, where, while the family ate leftovers, all that invisible activity began to slow, and entire colonies of bacteria perished in the cold.
The next day her husband’s car began to buck and stall on the way back from seeing a client, and he slowly made his way to the mechanic’s. The owner, an old Cuban in love with the simple elegance of old cars, diagnosed the problem and, cursing the modern engineers who had made everything so difficult, said he could not have it fixed until the next day. The husband called his wife for a ride and offered Chinese food for dinner that night, to compensate her for having to load two squirming children into her car and pick him up. While he waited for his wife, he and the Cuban smoked illegal cigars and drank cheap rum from paper cups and talked about how much better everything used to be.
So she did not have to cook dinner on Wednesday, and the meat remained in the refrigerator until she unceremoniously pulled it out at 5:44 Thursday morning, tore through the tightly stretched plastic with her fingernails, smelled that it was fine, added “food poisoning” to the long list of things that scared her more than they should, and dumped the meat into the oil. She stirred absently, sprinkled salt and pepper, then went searching for the onions.
The onions, true Vidalias, had already been the stars of another meal, a barbeque held at their house the previous Saturday. They had been brought by a friend, a homely single man who was tolerated and pitied by the couples in attendance and never considered as a potential date for available sisters or girlfriends. He had purchased the onions at a roadside fruit stand on the way back from Georgia after a weekend of revisiting old college haunts. Sapelo Sweets, they had been grown just under four miles from where he had purchased them, the bulbs displacing the sandy loam as they’d soaked up the rainwater that had percolated down throughout that cool winter. They’d been plucked by hand from the soil before being bagged and hauled by pickup truck to the fruit stand, where the man purchased them four days later.
At home he’d put them in the dark of his pantry (average temperature seventy-four degrees), and on Saturday afternoon he brought the entire bag to the barbeque, swearing to his hosts and anyone else who would listen that these were the sweetest onions imaginable, even though he hadn’t tasted a single one. His hosts had their arms around each other’s waists, and the husband was holding the baby, who gripped his father’s neck tight in response to all the people and all the talking that he couldn’t understand. The friend said that these onions were part of the year’s first crop, and you had to go to Georgia to get them. “Ah,” the husband said. “They sound lovely,” the wife added. And they nodded in unison, trying to show the appropriate amount of awe and thanks while they squeezed each other’s ribs in lieu of rolling their eyes.
The wife took the onions into the kitchen, where she peeled and quartered them and brushed them with olive oil, all while watching her husband tend to the coals, which he pushed around with a thin piece of pipe that he kept just for this purpose. Sparks and ashes flew dangerously close to the baby, whose sleepy, chubby face rested on his father’s shoulder. The wife was torn: her baby did not belong that close to the grill, but the confidence with which her husband manipulated the pipe and joked with the guests, his voice rising for a moment as he sang a line of “Oh! Susanna” for reasons she couldn’t imagine — everything about the way he manned the grill, half in sunlight and half in shade, made her willing to submit to whatever he might suggest. If he had told her at that moment that he wanted to date other women, not to fall in love but to be sure that he could still attract them, she would have welcomed the arrangement as an adventure, would have believed everything he said about it being some kind of primal game, no different from hunting or trekking across a frozen tundra. She would have adopted the role of a woman made powerful by secrets. When a girlfriend fretted over her husband lunching with some woman from work — saying that even if nothing was going on, it made her look like a fool, and what did it say if her husband didn’t care what people thought of her? — the wife would have nodded consolingly and later thanked her husband for allowing her to be above such pettiness; for making her privy to the deep masculinity that necessitated building bridges and clearing forests; for putting her on the side of the power that could subdue the world.
She put the onions on a cookie sheet and brought them out and stole glances at him while he grilled, the temperature above the five pounds of glowing Kingsford coals varying between 304 and 343 degrees Fahrenheit. He shifted items around, moving them from the hot spots to the cooler ones, the pork cutlets and the portobello mushrooms and the caramelizing onions each taking their turn. He worked confidently, never fretting, never apologetic, as some men (and almost all women) are when facing a hungry crowd. The food will be ready when it’s ready, he seemed to say with every line of his body; without a word he communicated to everyone that the meal would be worth the wait, and there was plenty of beer and wine, so they should enjoy themselves and let him take care of the food. And they did. They sat lazily in deck chairs and gathered in knots around the table that served as a bar; they stood in pairs at the edge of the yard and whispered to one another. Men came to hover at the grill and watch, to ask questions about the cut of the meat or the marinade or where one might buy such a grill, all of them wanting to be at the center of things for a little while, wanting to be somehow affiliated with what really mattered. Carmen Acosta came and stood behind him, and since she was much too short to look over his shoulder, she peered around his biceps and complimented him on his efforts — a vague, flirtatious remark that the wife heard above the chatter like a smoke alarm. She turned to look at Carmen, that flawless brown skin and demure smile, and wished that Carmen would want to talk to her, was willing simply to stand close to her and listen intently to her voice.
The husband methodically checked each item on the grill, and when something was ready, he placed it on a glass platter. When the platter was full, he announced that his guests should grab their plates and dig in. The news about the onions spread quickly through the crowd. Those who had not taken any for themselves ate some from the plates of spouses or friends or were encouraged to go back to the platter and get their own. There was so much fuss over the onions that more were peeled, quartered, slathered with oil, and placed on the grill. The guests waited for them, growing drunker and fuller, the children tiring, and when the second batch of onions was finally ready, they were picked at, sampled, and praised but of course were just not as good as before, and most were left on the platter. As evening came on and everyone grew sleepy, the guests projected their own desires onto their children, saying, “We have to get this little one home,” before gathering their belongings and saying their goodbyes and shepherding their families through the house and out the front door.
When the guests were gone, the wife cleaned — brought in everything from outside, put the salads into containers, threw away plastic cups and beer bottles — while her husband washed the children’s hands and faces and got them ready for bed. There was no meat at all left, and she worried that maybe someone had gone home hungry, but there were a few mushrooms and that mountain of onions. She put them all in two large plastic bags, then washed the glass platter and two casserole dishes. While she was washing, he came into the kitchen, stood behind her, and put his hands on her shoulders. Still slightly drunk, she rested her forearms on the edge of the sink and allowed her buttocks to slip back against him.
“Are they asleep?” she asked.
She knew that he would lie to her and say that they were, and when he did, she was instantly aroused at the thought that her body was still worth lying for. She ground into him and kept her arms planted on the small strip of counter while he pulled down her jeans and entered her from behind, the dishwasher running; the onions sitting out at room temperature, soaking in their own juices; the wife imagining herself as maid to her husband and Carmen Acosta, bringing coffee to their bedroom, where they lounged together naked on top of the sheets.
© Christy Karpinski
She picked five large onion quarters out of the bag and dropped them into the pot with the sizzling meat. Then she took three soggy mushroom caps, diced them, and threw them in. The mushrooms had been grown at a small, failing farm just outside of Reading, Pennsylvania, where they had been harvested and packaged by the farm’s owner, a tired but determined thirty-seven-year-old woman unaware that she was carrying a fertilized egg inside her, unaware of the hormonal battle being waged in her body that would flush the dividing cells from her womb without her ever knowing they had existed, unaware of the chemical mélange in her breath and on her skin that was sealed inside each container of mushrooms that she packed.
As the meat and mushrooms and onions popped and sizzled in the oil, juices leeching into the pot, the wife went to the refrigerator and found the baby carrots left over from her daughter’s lunch. The girl had thrown a tantrum at preschool the day before and refused to eat, and the carrots had sweated all day in her cubby. Tina, who ran the school, had handed over the child and her lunch with uncharacteristic impatience, talking to the mother through the little girl, saying, “We have to learn to follow the rules.” The mother had begun to eat the girl’s sandwich on their way home, offering half to her daughter, who’d barked, “No!” and so the mother had eaten it all, thinking that she didn’t blame Tina for not wanting the daughter in her classroom. Now she halved the carrots directly into the pot and then went to the refrigerator for the large bag when she saw that her daughter’s leftovers did not provide enough color.
At this point the mixture in the pot was cooking too fast, and she quickly added half a coffee mug’s worth of water from the tap. Then she went to the liquor cabinet and filled the mug with red wine from an open bottle that hadn’t been finished at the party. It was from a winery in Alabama, purchased as a novelty by the same bachelor who had brought the onions. The wine was not terrible — which had been a disappointment to everyone — but it was also not good enough to compete with the other bottles, so at the end of the night it had been recorked and placed in the liquor cabinet. She looked at the nearly full mug for a moment and then decided to drink it all in one swig.
There had been a time, just after her first child was born, when she would drink wine every morning. The baby had gotten into the habit of waking for a 5 A.M. feeding and then drifting back to sleep. The sun, just beginning to creep through the trees, kept her from returning to bed, and she would pour herself half a glass and sit and stare out the window until she was sleepy, thinking that she would escape from motherhood unscathed, that twenty years into the future she would be exactly who she was right then.
Her husband did not know of her wine habit until one morning when, still unable to sleep after one glass, she poured herself a second. He walked into the room, his penis semihard and barely contained in his boxers, and when he saw her sitting at the dining-room table in her nightshirt, bare legs crossed, glass almost to her lips, his erection quickly swelled, and he had to adjust himself to keep it from springing free. He said something about her starting early, and she responded by taking a long sip and insouciantly shrugging her shoulders. He wanted to pick her up and carry her back to bed and was almost sure she would have let him, but it scared him to see that his wife still had secrets, and even though the impenetrable look on her face aroused him, he began making coffee while she finished her wine in silence.
After that he scrutinized the dirty glasses every morning and took note of the steadily dropping level of wine in the bottles, but he didn’t say anything until the morning when, after three full glasses, she woke him up by kissing him on the mouth. He tasted the wine and felt the pain of her holding his tongue roughly between her teeth. Then she bit his lip so hard that he cried out and told her to stop, but she didn’t. She bit the corner of his mouth just as hard, and he pushed her off, throwing her to the floor.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” he asked, and went to the kitchen.
She followed him and threw things at him: an orange, half a loaf of bread, three plastic baby bottles that were drying on the dish rack. She kicked him in the shins with her bare feet and punched his arms and chest. It was the biggest fight they’d ever had. He grabbed her by the wrists and held her at arm’s length. When she tried to kick him again, he pulled one arm down to throw her off balance. She growled at him, “Let me go, dumbshit,” and he said as calmly as he could that he wasn’t going to let her hit him. She struggled to get free, and he held her arms tighter, twisted them in different directions, feeling a rush of power and satisfaction every time he jerked her into a new position. Her wrists were so small in his hands, he was sure he could have broken them if he’d wanted to. She said he was hurting her, but his expression remained almost serene as she tried to wriggle free and said that she was going to call the police and have him sent to jail. She planted her feet on the floor, her legs spread wide for balance, and pulled back as hard as she could, her nightshirt riding up over her thighs and exposing her pubic hair. She said that she hoped he would hit her, because then she’d be done with him and his fucking baby.
He eased her down onto the floor and knelt over her chest, away from her flailing legs, and she told him to go ahead and hit her, because his father would beat the fuck out of him when he found out. She said his father would fire him, and he’d be fucked then, because he didn’t know enough to do anything for himself. She tried to maneuver his arms close enough to bite, but he straddled her chest and put his knees on her shoulders. She thrashed beneath him and yelled for him to get the fuck off, but he wouldn’t. He didn’t get angry. He just looked at her sternly and with such condescension that she grew weak, unable to summon the energy to kick or writhe or even insult him. Her face went blank, and her body wilted. He climbed off, and she sat up and covered herself, shaking slightly, with him standing guard over her until she heard crying from the back of the house. She got up to comfort the baby while he made coffee.
She had not drunk wine in the morning since then. Now she looked at the wine in the coffee mug and, completely aware of what she was doing, began to gulp it down. Halfway through she found herself unable to finish, and she stopped, feeling defeated. The wine ran in rivulets from the corners of her mouth and onto her neck. She considered finishing what was left, but it seemed silly now. She filled the mug back up and poured it all into the pot — the wine and traces of her saliva, laced with adrenaline and shame.
She found the crockpot in the cabinet, hidden behind the wok that never got used and the rice maker that only sometimes did. When she stood up, the wine made her feel dizzy and ungrounded. She plugged the crockpot in, lifted the Dutch oven, and dumped in the stew. She added water, then peeled the three potatoes that had been sitting in a bowl on the counter for two weeks — the remainder of a five-pound bag that had been grown just outside Rupert, Idaho. The last potatoes from the previous year’s crop, they had been in cold storage from October until three weeks before, when they’d begun their journey east and south. Despite the fact that she had stored them in the light, they were in good shape, with only small sprouts, and the few brown spots she found did not go very deep.
After the potatoes had been dropped in, she absently added salt, pepper, and celery seed, shaking her hand rhythmically over the crockpot, still feeling the wine a bit and almost forgetting that she was supposed to be angry. Then she went to the backyard for bay leaves. The bay tree came only to her thigh and stood at the center of a forlorn and neglected herb garden containing the woody remnants of basil plants and shriveled mats of thyme and oregano. The tree had been there when they’d moved into the house four years before, but it had not grown more than two or three inches since, having sat in poor, sandy soil and been nourished only by the decay of the plants around it. She picked two leaves and then looked for a moment across the weedy, toy-strewn yard.
When she returned to the kitchen, her husband was at the counter in his boxers, his face hovering over the crockpot.
“Get out of there,” she said, sounding a bit more playful than she’d intended. She dropped the bay leaves into the pot and stirred, then turned and kissed him, letting her mouth fall open just a bit to make sure he could taste the wine. He drew back but didn’t say anything, figuring that whatever this was about would be coming to a head soon enough, no matter what he did, so there was no sense in dealing with it in the fog of morning.
“Celery,” she said. “I forgot the celery.”
The celery was in the dining-room window. Two days before, she had noticed five stalks wilting in the vegetable crisper and put them in a glass of water to bring them back. When her daughter had seen the stalks sitting in a glass like cut flowers, their leaves open and filtering light from the window, she’d laughed and insisted that they be the centerpiece at dinner. After the meal, the wife had cleared the table and put the glass on the dining-room windowsill, where the stalks had since grown rigid and the leaves had gently turned to catch the afternoon sun. She retrieved the celery now and sliced it into the pot while she gave her husband a rundown of the day: where she needed to be and when and what she needed him to do. Then she put the lid on the crockpot, and they went to wake the children and get them dressed and fed.
The stew simmered slowly for twelve hours. The potatoes and the carrots softened, and the celery turned translucent. The onions gave up their rich caramel color. The beef grew tender, and its fats liquefied and seeped into the broth. The gas bubbles rode up on convection currents, got blocked by vegetables and meat, began to cool, fell back to the bottom of the pot, and then rose again, hotter and more energetic, pushed the chunks of meat and vegetables aside, and burst on the surface, releasing steam that carried fragrant molecules, which she smelled the moment she opened the door at 5:17 that evening.
She was so preoccupied with the cranky children that she had momentarily forgotten the stew, and for a second she wasn’t sure what the aroma could be. She carried the baby into the kitchen, lifted the glass lid of the crockpot, and let the contained steam escape into her face. The baby watched quietly, unsure what to make of this. The mother did not taste the stew. It smelled too good. She assumed she would be disappointed by the actual taste, and disappointment, she figured, could always wait.
Her husband did not smell the stew immediately when he opened the door nearly an hour later. He was focused on the toys littering the floor, feeling that there was nothing castle-like about a home where he had to wade through a sea of cheap, colored plastic; thinking that his father would never have tolerated such a mess. His father, on encountering such a living room, would have turned around and gone somewhere for a drink, someplace dark and solemn, someplace that surely didn’t exist anymore, and even if it did, the husband was sure he couldn’t find it. He thought about the Cuban, wondered if the man was still at the shop, but he was unwilling to face the consequences, so he resigned himself to entering a house littered with toys. It was then that he smelled the stew.
“Hey,” she yelled from what was supposed to be the office but had become a playroom. “Did you get the bread?”
He had, a baton of rosemary French bread that he held up like a sword to show her. He put the bread in the kitchen and joined them in the playroom and kissed her to check for wine, but she received his kiss stiffly, so he wasn’t sure. She had to think hard about why she’d been so angry that morning, and in the absence of real emotion, she was stoic and removed, a mood so easy to slip into she wondered if it was her natural state.
The husband scrutinized his wife’s face as she talked about her day, paid attention to every gesture as she handed something to one child or the other, tried to figure out what she might be thinking, what offense he might have committed. When she paused for a moment, he asked what was for dinner.
“You know it’s stew,” she said. “If you don’t want to listen to me talk about my day, just say so.”
He apologized, but not sincerely enough, and she glared at him and said, “I guess I’ll go get your dinner for you.” She went to the kitchen and gathered bowls and spoons and a plate for the bread, leaving him to herd the children to the table. She ladled up three bowls of stew, then took a small portion of vegetables and meat from the pot and cut them into tiny pieces for the baby. She tore the bread into hunks, piling it on a plate, and brought it all to the table.
The stew was too hot to eat at first, and the children weren’t interested in eating anyway. The father amused the girl by saying words in funny ways. “Kan-ga-ROOO!” he said. “Chrrrr-IST-mas tree!” She laughed, and the baby, not wanting to be left out, laughed as well.
The husband was the first one to try the stew, but since it was so hot and he was too impatient to blow on it, he did not fully appreciate it. It was the wife who initially understood that this was something exceptional. When she put a spoonful in her mouth, her brow crinkled in shock. Her husband asked if there was something wrong, wondering if maybe this would be the start of the blowup he was anticipating, but there would be no blowup. The stew put all such thoughts out of her mind. The moment she tasted it, everything outside herself slipped away, and she was alone and at peace, weightless and unencumbered.
“Oh my God,” she said.
He was curious about what he might have missed, and so, while the girl gnawed on a hunk of bread and the baby slapped at the tray of his highchair, the father spooned up more stew, blew on it, tasted again, and thought suddenly of the Black Forest and fairy tales; of sturdy, rough-planked tables and thatched roofs; of mythical beasts lurking in the dark woods, afraid to come near the light and warmth of home.
“Jesus,” he said.
Seeing that her parents’ attention had been diverted, the girl stood up in her chair, lifted her dress over her head, and yelled for them to look at her. The baby looked and laughed at his sister’s faceless legs and tummy. The mother told the girl to sit down and try her soup, using a tone of voice the girl had never heard at the dinner table before: not threatening or patronizing but conspiratorial, as if her mother were letting her in on a secret. The girl was curious to see what could cause her mother to speak that way, so she sat down and spooned some of the broth into her mouth.
Tasting the stew would be her earliest memory, and the memory would be so clear, so much a part of the person she would become, that it would be as if she hadn’t existed before that. As an adult she would wonder, whenever she met particularly dull or shallow people, if they were still living in the netherworld she’d inhabited for the first two and a half years of her life.
The baby would not remember the stew specifically. He would not remember how, when his mother put a spoonful of the broth into his waiting mouth, his eyes went wide, and he sat perfectly still for a moment and then began to pound his tray and kick his legs and open his mouth like a bird and squeal for more. The taste would be a vague and visceral memory, a rush of intense pleasure whose absence would create a void in him that he would find impossible to fill.
They gorged themselves on the stew. Spoons in one hand and hunks of bread in the other, they ate until they were uncomfortably full. The baby, one hiccup away from throwing it all up, sat in a stupor in his highchair. The girl understood for the first time the raw pleasure of sitting still, alone with her thoughts. The parents felt as tired as if they had just run a race, as satisfied as if they had won.
When the baby began to nod off, the mother said that it was time to put him to bed. The father said he would clear the table. She picked up the baby and left the room with the little girl holding tightly to her pants, trusting her mother in a new way, one that had nothing to do with physical need but was almost a spiritual faith. The girl was aware for the first time that there was emptiness in the world, that there was loneliness and mindless drudgery, and that her mother could keep it all at bay.
The father sat at the table for a long time, satisfied, surveying all that was his, thinking that he could do as he wished, that he could go back on his word and not clear the table if he wanted, that he could leave the house and go wherever he pleased. But instead he stood and began carrying the dishes to the kitchen. When they were all stacked on the counter, he tore off a piece of bread, dipped it into the crockpot, and ate. The stew was already growing cold, the bread already beginning to go stale.
I can see how Lelania Avila might find elements of my story “pornographic” since it does contain frank depictions of sex. The charge of misogyny, however, is somewhat perplexing. I assume she is referring to the ugly scene in which the couple fights. Neither spouse behaves well: the wife kicks and throws things; the husband restrains her. The husband’s actions do not condone violence against women any more than the wife’s actions condone violence against men. Perhaps Avila would have been less offended if the narrator had clearly condemned their behavior, but I avoided such editorializing for a reason. I wanted readers simply to feel the way in which emotions can spin out of control in a marriage, and I would like to think the story offers an honest depiction of that unpleasant situation.
I’m full of disappointment, disgust, and outrage at the violence, misogyny, and pornography of Manuel Martinez’s “The Stew.” I’ve been a subscriber for more than fifteen years, and this is the first time I’ve stopped reading in midsentence. It was too much. I refuse to invite that senseless violence into my home, mind, and heart. I have trusted your editorial judgment in the past. What happened?
Get rid of the misogyny. There’s enough violence against women in this world without making up stories about it.
Thanks for publishing Manuel Martinez’s short story “The Stew” [October 2010]. Many times I’ve thrown together a pot roast with venom on my tongue and murder in my heart, but damned if it doesn’t taste delicious at dinner.
I am awed by Manuel Martinez’s story “The Stew” [October 2010]. I have been reading modern and canonical fiction for forty-plus years, and this story is among the best I’ve ever read. Its pleasures are as rich and unfathomable as the stew itself: full of the ingredients of hard work and love, imagination and tolerance, doubt and forgiveness. If this is not included in the 2011 Best American Short Stories, someone is not paying attention.
“The Stew,” by Manuel Martinez, was as tasty and memorable as its title dish. I thought the author was a woman until I turned back to the byline. I wondered how he got it all right: the emotional turmoil of being a wife with young children, the fights with one’s spouse, and how love overlooks so much.