Wednesday, September 15, 2010

It Starts With An Onion

by Pete Michael Smith

No, it starts with the faucet. The bird isn’t thawed yet, and so she runs it under cold water, letting the sink fill up around the carcass.
While the water splashes in the basin, Miranda moves over to the table and grasps one of the high-backed brown wooden chairs.

She drags it across the floor at an angle.

The back legs slide-click-slide as they move across the slippery tile and over the grout line and then the smooth tile again.

The tile is blue and shines in the bright overhead lights.
It’s the lightest blue. The blue just above white.
It’s a blue that looks white until you see something white and hold it against the blue and say, well would you look at that!
It is blue!

The chair is self-evidently brown from the moment you look at it.

Miranda is white, but not so white that the blue is apparent, were she to fall nakedly onto the tile.

She is white only pinkly. She is the white of red Valentine heart-shaped candy with the sugar sucked off.

The chair stops moving when she takes her hands off of it. It’s in front of the refrigerator, which is white, too, but not Miranda White. The refrigerator is a rectangular prism, which Miranda is also not. The chair is chair-shaped and touching the refrigerator door.

Miranda raises one foot and places it on the chair’s seat. Her spiked heel clicks on the wood.

Spiked like nails, not like punch. Punch like brandy and soda, not with fists.

On top of the refrigerator is the stereo. There is room for the stereo on lower levels; the counters are spare. But Miranda likes the slide-click-slide of the chair on tile.
She puts her index finger to the play button, and the nail is painted the same color as her heels.
Heels like stilettos, not like bread. Heels, red.

It’s a sonata.

Heel on tile, hands on chair: slide-click-slide, slide-click-slide. She turns the faucet off.

She turns the dial on the oven, preheating.

And then it starts with an onion.

A red net bag is in the cabinet to the right of the sink, and it’s full of ten pounds of onions. Ten pounds is any number of onions, depending on how large they are. These are large, and Miranda takes two. A papery husk falls off when her fingers clutch onion one. Onion two holds itself together.

Holds itself together, not emotionally, but in the manner of a framed puzzle.

Miranda owns four cutting boards. They are different colors: white, green, red and yellow. White is for fish, green for vegetables, red for meat and yellow for poultry.

Tonight, she will use the green cutting board, and then, later, the yellow.

Miranda has never used the white cutting board.

If cutting boards could talk, late at night and shut up in their drawer, the white cutting board would say he was prized above all others, because Miranda never let a knife touch his pristine surface. The other cutting boards would bite their tongues and nod politely, knowing the truth.

A knife, next.

She slices deftly, with her left hand. Two cuts yield four onion halves. Taking each half whole in her hand one by one, she peels back the copper husk. Eight cuts more; the halves are in quarters. Two handfuls and the quarters are in a roasting pan.

The pan is black. Black, like bedrooms with good shades on moonless nights. In winter.

Four carrots, in much the same way as the onions, are introduced to the pan. Three potatoes are scrubbed in the sink using the water in which the chicken has sunk. Miranda moves again to the refrigerator to open the door.

The bottom of the refrigerator is made up of two drawers. One of them says crisper.
The other does not say less crisp. Or even crisp. It doesn’t say anything at all, just like the cutting boards.

There are several things in the crisper; Miranda looks for only one of them. It’s a rutabaga. Miranda removes the rutabaga from the drawer and walks with it back to the counter and the green cutting board. She’s cut fruit on it before, and she sees nothing wrong with that.

She thinks rutabagas are their own kind of purple, and that that purple is probably most commonly called Rutabaga.

Miranda pauses for a moment and moves her fingers in the air. She might be playing the piano along with the sonata on the stereo, but really she is playing the air computer, practicing her typing.

She misspells rutabaga, making the second a an e.

The vegetables are all chopped into pieces roughly the same size. That is, the pieces are roughly the same size, not chopped roughly. Miranda moves her knife delicately, like a surgeon.

Miranda shucks the bird from its plastic wrapper after she drains the sink.

Miranda doesn’t know what babies feel like, but is almost positive it isn’t like this: slimy skin moving loosely under her fingers over globs of fat. The chicken is cold and wet and so recently frozen. Holding its bottom in her right hand, Miranda plunges her left into the cavity.

Her fingers enter the bird and then her palm. All the way up to her wrist, she is inside the chicken. Her applause, should there be occasion for any at just this moment, would sound like a hard and damp slap across the face. Not like a tribute, a thank you or a congratulations as applause is most often meant to sound.

There is no occasion to applaud, and so instead she removes the cold, folded bag of innards from within. It’s replaced with a sliced-in-half apple and another onion. A third onion. The smallest onion in the red mesh onion bag.

She moves the bird to the center of the roasting pan, it pushes the gently-cut vegetables up and out to the edges. And then there is olive oil over everything, poured from the bottle sitting open and unmentioned on the counter.

Miranda moves to the spice rack, just three steps to the right. Sage, salt, pepper. Rosemary, too.

Miranda opens the oven door and then grips the roasting pan with both of her hands. She lifts its weight and slips it onto the metal rack in the oven while heat billows out at her, making eyes squint just slightly.

The oven door is shut again.

At 18 minutes a pound, Miranda would take thirty-six hours to cook. The bird is much smaller.

The bird in the oven, Miranda may finally relax. For a single full minute she lets the music reach her ears. Her lips move silently, as if mouthing lyrics though there are none. After a moment passes, she pulls open a drawer to the left of the stove, rummages for a corkscrew.

It’s silver and shaped like a stick figured man with an oval-on-its-side head. The corkscrew corkscrews downward and ends in a point.

Miranda dances her way to the dining room, her heels clicking like wooden chairs on grout. On the dining table a bottle of wine sits corked. Miranda lifts it and reads the label. The pointed end of the corkscrew is made to move around the rim of the foil, cutting through.

Foil like tin, not like frustrate.

She peels back the foil. The sharp point and the cork meet and greet while Miranda twists and turns the silver stick man’s head around and around again. His arms wave wildly; They reach up toward Miranda’s wrist as if to stop her.

She pushes them down.

Miranda pulls a little and the cork pops wetly out of the neck. A single red drop of wine lands on the polished wood of the table.

Wood like cherry, not like should.

Miranda and the wine breathe for half an hour.

The crystal sits on the credenza in the dining room, and Miranda runs her hands around the rims of each glass before selecting one. Each glass is identical to the one next to it. None of them have been chipped or scratched or dropped or damaged.

The chosen glass is filled with the chosen wine. Miranda raises the bowl of the wine glass to her face. She lets her nose sit on the rim for just a second and then she inhales, slowly.

Miranda’s eyes close when she tries to use only one sense at a time.

She lowers the glass just slightly and her lips part.

Part like separate, not like piece. Piece like slice, not like harmony.

She sips and smiles, and lets the wine swoosh through her mouth and over her tongue. She swallows.

The chicken smells good. That is, the smell of the chicken is good. The chicken shouldn’t smell anything at all. Lured by the scent, Miranda wafts like vapor back into the kitchen and grout-clicks over to the oven.

She sets her wine glass down on the counter.

There is a baster in the drawer where the corkscrew was, only like the corkscrew, it isn’t there anymore. Miranda holds the baster like a wand and opens the oven door like a door.

She bastes.

She boasts: This chicken smells lovely.

Before returning to the dining room, Miranda opens a drawer again and pulls out some utensils.

Grout-click grout-click grout-click.

A jingle rings when she drops the silver on the table. A rustle rustles when she spreads the tablecloth over one end of the long wooden dining table. The cloth is green. Green like roses’ stems hung upside down from ceilings and dried.

She lifts the silver and places it down again on the covered end of the table. Miranda shuffles the rumpled up other end of the tablecloth smooth over the bare table.

Bare as exposed, not play dead.

She moves around the long ovular table and makes sure that the cloth hangs evenly on all sides. When it does, she moves to the credenza for the dishes.

A serving dish moves with Miranda back into the kitchen. A bowl balances on the dish, and the three of them gleam in the overhead kitchen lights. Miranda shines valentine whitely, the dish and bowl gleam gold.

Meat thermometer.
Oven door.

Miranda lifts the chicken from the roasting pan and onto the yellow cutting board. She uses a large silver fork and a larger silver knife.

Miranda doesn’t know what babies feel like, but she guesses it’s nothing like this. Crisp brown skin crackling under fingers. Rich roasted smells wafting up on steam clouds. Tender white meat nearly falling off the bone.

Miranda carves.

The meat falls quickly onto the yellow cutting board. Deftly, leftly, Miranda moves it to the serving dish. She carves the whole bird and then scoops the vegetable from the roasting pan into the serving bowl.

Grout-click grout-click grout-click.

Miranda lays down the dishes at the head of the table, just above her own plate, which sits waiting. She pulls back her chair and it makes no noise; the dining room is carpeted.

The carpet is dove.

Dove, which is gray on blue skies or white on gray skies.

She sits, and serves.

Serves, as in dinner and not tennis.

She loads her plate with white pieces of breast falling from crisp brown skin. Golden skin.

Gold being a shinier word for brown.

She slotted-spoons vegetables onto her plate, leaving the accumulated drippings pooling at the bottom of the bowl.

Salt, pepper, napkin on lap. Prayer.

The music filters in from the kitchen and she listens, but only between bites. Her eyes are closed. The fork moves continually from her plate to her mouth to the plate again. Each move empties her plate and fills her mouth.

Every so often, Miranda stills her fork and raises her glass. She sips slowly, but thirstily, like a desert nomad who knows better. In an hour the bottle is half empty, and the meal is half gone.

Vegetables sit soggy in the golden bowl and the chicken has cooled and the steam stopped.

She pours her glass full again, serves another slice of meat to her plate. Vegetables, too. Her pace slows, but still Miranda moves through dinner with ease. She doesn’t own a grandfather clock, or any other timepiece with chimes, but somewhere one chimes, and when it does, it chimes twelve times.

It’s one by the time dinner is over.

One, as is single and not in victory.

The serving dishes are empty and Miranda’s plate is clean. The wine is almost gone; only a glassful remains. She moves more slowly, now, so late at night and so full of fowl.

Her feet on the tile sound more like the chairs now because she’s shuffling.

Shuffling like shoes and not like cards.


The music stops.


The sink fills with water, warm like baths. Miranda washes up from her meal and soap suds into the air. The lemon-lime smell covers the chicken-vegetable smell.

The dish-rack is full, something it has in common with Miranda.

And then, Miranda opens the freezer and pulls out a frozen bird, leaving it on the counter to thaw overnight for tomorrow’s dinner.

1 comment:

  1. I just wanted to comment on what a great story I think this is. The constant barrage of imagery and mindful employment of onomatopoetic language is on par with the likes of Wordsworth and Dickinson (IMHO). Dealing with thematic issues such as the comfort/imprisonment of daily routines, the ambiguity of language, and the isolation, Smith is able to capture a funny and tragic slice of life in the information age. That's my take, at least. Any thoughts?