by Ellen Graham, 1399 words

 “Jer-bear, if you were a chapter in a book, you’d be a mighty quick read.” Mother said the strangest things to him. Or was it one of his many aunts? Or sisters? Or sister wives?

He had no idea what a chapter was. Boys didn’t learn to read and write at the compound. Boys were supposed to farm. Take care of the few animals in the dilapidated barn. What a joke, he thought, trying to grow food in a desert. They could barely feed themselves let alone livestock. There were a few puny chickens, one sad milk cow and two skinny pigs who lived on meager scraps.

“Jer you never talk. What’s goin’ on in that pea brain?”

His mother’s garments peeked out of her rolled up sleeves like curious children.

“Chop these onions for me.”

Jerome was small as a boy. When he tried to work outside, he would faint in the unforgiving and relentless heat. Father called him scrawny. Useless. And after he started to help in the kitchen, sissy. The other boys started to call him Judy.

Inside babies were everywhere on every surface, smeary faces and knotted hair, on the chairs, the laps, the arms, the floor, crawling and walking in shirts and pants and dresses and diapers that were all too big or too small. Milk smells, the sounds of sucking and gurgling and crying and spitting, rags, grimy hands and sticky walls. He never felt like he fit in.

But he did learn to cook. There were a lot of mouths to feed in the compound and Father had very specific tastes.

“Add water to make your eggs fluffy.” “Fry sage to add to Father’s chicken.” “When you freeze jam be sure to leave a little head space at the top of the jar.” “When you knead the bread put your back into it.” “Keep the fat from Father’s chicken in a can.” “Watch the spinach when you boil it.”

Only Father got to eat chicken. Jerome learned to wring the chicken’s neck, pluck them, bleed them, how to remove their organs and how to cook their organs.

He learned to cook Father’s favorites: biscuits and gravy, roast chicken, greens boiled beyond recognition, huckleberry jam, toast grilled with precious cheese and scrambled eggs. He learned to cook for the wives: cookies to be secreted away, fresh bread, green beans in butter and corn pancakes. The wives had to like you. Father could ignore him, but he had to be in good favor with the wives.

Yet at age 14 Jerome was blindfolded and put into the blue pickup by his brother Bob. No one said goodbye. No farewell hugs or kisses. He was not surprised. Boys of a certain age were a threat to Father.

Jerome didn’t know how many miles they drove. Left with a striped canteen and a small apple he saw the highway. Bob palmed him another apple.

“Lookit. I’m sorry we was so hard on you. But this place is hard on everyone. I don’t know why Father has kept me, unless it’s because I do this. And, you know, I can run the tractor. This highway will take you north. Put out your thumb like so. Be nice. Don’t say a word about where you came from, or they’ll never let you in. Maybe some day I can find you.”

An 18-wheeler was his first ride. A doughy man opened the door.  Jerome had never seen anyone so fat. It was comforting. This guy must always be able to eat. He had a pink face and a sleeveless inky shirt. And no garments. Just his hairy arms and fuzzy fingers. And he didn’t have a beard. No garments!

“I can take you all the way to Oregon. Just talk so’s I don’t fall to sleep.”

The red dirt and red rocks and silence of the desert slowly gave way to sunflowers and silos. Hawks and herons. Cottonwoods, cattails, ditches, sprinklers, and rain. Glorious, beautiful rain. It soaked the pine trees and ferns along the road. He opened the window to smell it. This was home.

Jerome walked the woods by the café almost every day. His fingers trailing over the cedar trunks. Stepping around slugs. Listening to the scrub jays complain and hoping to hear his owl. He thought of his boyhood as he walked. Sometimes he could still feel the chicken necks under his hands.  Probably why he didn’t touch meat. He would cook it but could not stomach eating it.

Tall, with lean muscles, no one would recognize him from the child he was. Wishing that the compound had blown up or turned to dust or fallen apart brick by brick. No one could ever know the shame of where he came from. He fights the familiar itch to make someone pay.

 When he first came to the diner, he thought Amy suspected he couldn’t read or write. When she handed him the application, he started to leave. He folded it up and said he would be back.

“Wait–can you just cook something for me?”

Jerome made an omelet with asparagus, goat cheese, avocado, and shallots. That he topped with fried sage. A pinch of sea salt and a curve of parsley.

At first Amy said nothing. But she kept eating. And eating.

“You are SO hired. Oh my God how did you make this so fluffy”?

Jerome swore he would never marry. Never have children. Never get involved enough to tell someone where he was from. Flora, with her tiny, sweet body was just for…what? Fun? A way to be with someone where he didn’t have to talk?

Bilan was a different story. Bilan with her dark deep eyes. There was a mystery to her. He wanted to take care of her. He had never felt that. Even though she had two kids and he hated kids. But these? When they came to the diner, he tried to learn what they wanted him to cook. He tried lamb pan fried in butter and onions for tibs but these girls had never been to Ethiopia. Peach milk shakes and fries coming right up.

Who-cooks-for you…who-cooks-for you? His owl. Jerome laughed and thought, well no one cooks for me.  I cook for everyone. And it’s the first time I have fit in.

Would Bilan talk to him? Would she dance with him? Could he hold her hand?

And what would she think if he told her about the visions he has had his entire life?

Phyllis sat on the edge of her sagging bed and thought about what Jerome had said. What a peculiar idea. But right now she had to rest. She had never felt this tired. It happened overnight, as quickly as the snap in the air tells you it’s Fall. One day you are young and the next day you look in the mirror and your grandmother is looking back at you. Starsza pani. Old lady.

Puckered chest. Knuckles as big as chestnuts. Sagging eyes. She looks like the dried apple dolls Amy used to make as a child. When did everything start hurting? When did it become so hard to get out of a chair? Out of bed?

Phyllis lets her mind wander, which is easier and easier to do these days.

“Phyllie! Let’s get away—come quick—we have an hour.”

Ted would knock on the screen door and pull her outside. Running to their clearing, giggling and tearing off their clothes. Bodies supple and warm. Grass and rocks and sticks pushed into her back. Just the feel of his hair in her fingers. His smell. Not even her Joe made her feel this way. She got to be soft around Ted. She could talk or she could be silent. Sometimes they watched the baby owls learn to fly, protected by their father. She fit just so, in the crook of his arm. Sun warming their skin, cirrus clouds in the sky and the gentle who-cooks-for-you, who-cooks-for you. Phyllis feels that time has stopped. Ted has no prospects. He’s just a sanitation worker. She has a child to raise and a business to run. But oh, how good that sun feels. Heating her from head to toe. She wants to close her eyes, just for a minute. Yes, now, that feels good. And right. She sighs.

“Phyllis, wake up!! Wake up! What happened?”