The edges have dulled. Their ability to dice and julienne and chiffonade is no longer clean or crisp. The edges leave a ragged and haphazard appearance to onions and carrots and leafy greens. Somehow, the nature of the cut--in its distressed state--is appealing to Amber. There is hard labor in cutting things that should be easy.
“Perfect cuts do not mean the flavor is better,” she told Mark once. He complained that the ingredients should be evenly distributed, all big chunks or little chunks or somewhere in between--but even. For consistency’s sake.
“The ingredients need to have the same substance to them. Otherwise, some overpower the others,” he said.
Mark always preferred a type of balance. In everything. The way the closet was organized. The way the plates were stacked. The living spaces had been arranged before Amber moved in. She didn’t want to disturb his structure. So she walked a fine line between the space, trying to be more organized. More correct.
His kitchen, though. Sterile, yet stagnant. Nothing on the counter tops. Dishes neatly stacked, hidden. For Amber, there was a need to embrace something a bit more messy. Splatters and spills and stains meant a space was lived in, and needed.
Amber always enjoyed the remnants. Her grandmother’s kitchen--on her mother’s side--possessed the smells of a home. The aromas captured an atmosphere. Something to breathe in, something that was not stale.
The kitchen was small, and for that reason, there were no cabinets. Just shelves that housed various cups, mugs, plates, bowls. “It makes the space feel bigger,” Grandma Bonnie would say.
Everything was lined up according to use. Things that were used often took front and center place, while other things moved into the background. “Just for show. A gift from Papa Tony. He just bought things that looked good, but they weren't really practical. Not for my kitchen,” she explained.
Some might say Grandma Bonnie’s kitchen was untidy. The splatter from fried eggs still decorating the stovetop. The crystal trail of sugar fallen from a spoon too full. The kitchen was lived in, and Amber could determine what had been for breakfast or dinner or dessert by what was left behind on the counters or in the sink. This was always comforting.
Whenever Amber was dropped off at Grandma Bonnie’s place, a small cape cod style house hidden behind ivy and honeysuckle and wisteria, she would try to track the vines’ growth. Tendrils curling this way and that way, reaching for something. She admired their freedom to stretch outward and upward with little to interfere in their ramblings.
She would often stay for a few days at a time, when things needed to “settle down” at her house. And then, one day, her overnight bag tripled in size.
He placed the catalogue in an inconspicuous place. Just under the pile of old coupons and magazines. Amber would eventually tidy the pile when its balance became compromised. Unnerved by swift movements during the hustle of the morning or the whirlwind of getting home, the pile would eventually be tended to. Amber would notice the catalogue and consider that it just came in the mail. She may even take it as a sign--from someone or something other than Mark--that it was time to retire, if not get rid of, the old knives. He didn’t want to push too much. After all, it took a year to convince Amber to move in.
“They do what I need them to do,” Amber said.
“But, do they do the job well? It’s painful to watch.”
“Then don’t watch. Just eat when it’s done.”
“They can’t even be sharpened anymore,” he protested.
“Listen, these knives have cooked a lifetime of meals, and I intend to keep using them.”
In some ways, it was more about the memory than the meals.
Four days had passed since Amber arrived at Grandma Bonnie’s. With the bag’s contents bulging out, it was difficult to find anything. This was the first time Amber used the dresser in her bedroom, but it would not be the last.
Her mom had packed two pairs of shorts, a sundress, a pair of jeans, some mismatched shirts, a hoodie, several undergarments but no socks or pajamas. Sandals and sneakers--which would be a problem without socks--and nice shoes for church. Books and cassette tapes and a few VHS tapes. Maybe to keep me occupied, Amber thought. A toothbrush and a comb, and one stuffed animal. “At least Mom didn’t forget Baby,” Amber murmured to herself as she unpacked her bag.
Baby, her stuffed bunny, was her favorite. It’s fur was made of velveteen, the color called ballet slipper. Baby was Amber’s oldest toy, but it’s original golden fur became faded and torn. When the stuffing started to maneuver its way through the holes, and Amber couldn’t part with Baby, off to the store they went.. “Nothing your Grandma Bonnie can’t fix,” her Grandma exclaimed.
Amber didn’t mind spending time at her grandmother’s house. This is where she learned to peel potatoes, mince garlic, sift flour, pack brown sugar, hard-boil eggs. All of the things she never saw her mom do at home.
As she got older, she could sense a tension in the house. The yelling would quiet into silence, and when the silence lasted for more than an hour or two, it meant that Dad had left for “who knows where”--Mom would always respond. Though, once Amber did overhear enough words from her bedroom door to conclude that Dad must have gone to another person’s--a woman’s--place. And then, a series of take-out meals, usually cold, would be served, as if that was all her Mom had the energy to do when Dad was gone.
“Your mother and father are coming over for dinner tonight,” Grandma Bonnie said. Four nights had passed without a word. Just whispers on the phone, late at night, when everyone thought Amber was asleep. With her ear to the door, she couldn’t decipher most of the words. Moving into the hallway was not an option in the old house, the creaks would give her away.
In the morning, neither Granma Bonnie nor Papa Tony said anything about the call, even when Bonnie asked, “Did you hear from Mom?”
Amber knew Mark was a neat-freak when she met him for dinner at Chop. It was not just making a good first impression with his newly tied tie. Most men loosened their ties after work, unbuttoned one or all of the buttons on their jacket, or even took them off. He rearranged the silverware to be equidistant. He unfolded the maroon napkin only to refold its edges neatly before setting it on his lap. He cut his steak into nearly the same sized bite. And the haricots verts into even lengths before arranging them in a parallel sequence.
Something about that should have bothered Amber, but it didn’t.
After Grandma Bonnie died, Amber could have stayed in the house, but she decided that being somewhere else would be good for her. Being alone would be good for her. Being with someone different would be good for her.
Mark didn’t press her for much information. Sometimes, bits and pieces would be revealed, if he listened closely.
That is another thing Amber liked about Mark. He didn’t ask too many questions, just took information as it came, as she decided to tell it. He didn’t seem to mind that some parts of the past were a closed book. And eventually, he stopped asking questions altogether. He just came to understand that her childhood was divided into Time with Grandma Bonnie and Time Scattered and Shattered with Parents.
On the fifth day, Amber’s mom arrived in the early afternoon with several brown paper bags. Her blonde hair was pulled into a low, sleek bun. It was no longer disheveled. A good sign.
“Hi, honey, how are you? I missed you. Mom, did you clean and get the dining room table ready for tonight. I’m planning for this to be perfect. Everything. Just like an old-time family get-together. No arguments. He’ll see it can work out,” she rambled on as she looked around to survey the area.
“Mom, what have you been doing? I missed you. You never called me. Dad didn’t either. I was getting worried!” Amber’s inquiries about those in-between times went unanswered. Just a blip.
“I’ve been busy tracking your father, but he’s accepted my invitation to come to a family dinner with all of us. And then we’ll pack your things and go home! That’s why everything has to be perfect.” She punctuated the statement with “has,” narrowed her eyes, and waved her arm open and across the spaces to indicate that everything had to be just right.
Amber thought of the vines outside, living as intended, without manipulation.
The potatoes were scrubbed and buttered and wrapped in foil and placed in the oven. The peppers--red and yellow-- and onions were diced and added to the lump in the bowl. Meatloaf. His favorite. No celery. Just a touch of Worcestershire sauce. Equal parts of mustard and ketchup. And cracker crumbs. Amber’s mom handled the slimy mixture, patting it and flopping it from hand to hand. She took care of this preparation as if it were a living thing, a living hope.
“Mom, you need to get the nice dishes out from wherever you put them,” Amber’s mom said to Grandma Bonnie. “I don’t want the mishmash of plates you have there. Not for tonight.”
“What you see is what you get. I don’t need matched things, just one’s that do the job.”
“I’m sure it will be ok, Mom,” Amber whispered the words, offering them to whomever heard.
Amber had been given few tasks in the kitchen while her mother was working. She noticed Grandma Bonnie on the periphery, just half-sitting on the bar stool, ready to rise if called for duty. She never saw Grandma Bonnie take a seat, especially in her own kitchen. She also wondered why dinner would be at her grandmother’s house, not her own. Usually, when her mom came to pick her up, everything had been sorted out.
The microwave clock read 5:02. He was late. Amber’s mom and Grandma Bonnie were trying to decide what to do to keep the food warm, whether they should wait to plate it until he arrived.
“What if he doesn’t come?” Amber heard her mom say.
“It won’t be the first, or the last.”
Amber was sitting in the bay window as the lookout.
“If you see your father pull up, let me know!” Her mother seemed pleased despite the dishware not matching perfectly.
“Are we going home after dinner?”
“Yes, your dad suggested we eat together here, and then we’d head home and settle in.”
At 5:23, Amber saw the blue Chevy slowing down. There was an abrupt stop, as if he wasn’t sure that he had the correct house. It was true that he never dropped Amber off or picked her up during one of the “incidents”--or any other time. He had not been over for quite some time, so maybe this was a way to make up for his indiscretions. The coming. The going. The temporary abandonment that became more and more permanent and frequent within the past year.
“Hello there honey bear! Sorry I am late. I had to take care of a few things,” he said. He gave Amber a great hug. He looked the same as always. Dried dirt on his jeans, brown work boots, and some graying white t-shirt.
To Amber’s mom, he said in anticipation to criticism, “Better late than never.”
She replied, “Things can never be perfect, can they?”
They stood looking at each other for just a moment. No more words passed. He then turned to Bonnie and said, “Thanks for hosting us.”
“Anything to help, Mitch.”
“Things will be different this time around.”
“Why don’t we start? I know Kim is anxious to set down for dinner. Kim, we’re all ready. Want help?”
“No, mom. Everything is plated and ready to go. Come and get them!”
The meal was quiet. Grandma Bonnie always said that meals can smooth things over, and it seemed to be working. To break the silence was to invoke something unpleasant, so Amber didn’t ask anything about what her mom and dad had been doing over the past couple of days. She hoped they didn’t ask what she had been doing either. Best to just move forward.
“I’ll clean everything up,” Grandma Bonnie said.
“Are you sure,” a discord of voices spoke together.
“Yes, I can handle it.” Amber knew that her grandmother wanted to take care of putting her kitchen back together on her own.
“Can I ride with you, Dad?” Amber asked.
“No, honey bear. Best ride with your mother tonight.” He offered no reason. His large stature enveloped her with one more hug for the road.
Every evening, Mark looked to see if the pile had decreased in size. He debated whether or not to make a specific comment about it, but then she might figure out that he had placed the catalogue there. He knew she was more about the “coincidental,” and trusted more in things that happened out of spontaneity. They were making progress, though, in their cohabited space. And some nights, she asked for his help in the kitchen.
It was a simple pasta night. The sauce was beginning to simmer.
“I’m going to let you chop the onions, but don’t make them perfect. Just chop them,” she instructed. “I need to sautee them and add them to the sauce.”
“I don’t think that will be a problem with your knives.” He began a coarse chop.
“And don’t ask me about a vegetable chopper, either. Perfect meals, perfect anythings, don’t make --” she said.
“--anything better,” he finished her mantra.
Amber did not plate the meals she made. Serving bowls and ramekins and pitchers and trays always contained the food and were placed on the table. Mark thought these extra steps, including the clean up, were unnecessary, but Amber liked a family-style dinner, even for just the two of them.
Meals took a while to prepare, serve, and eat. Sometimes Mark would joke that he would never be able to leave the table. “I am going to grow roots soon,” he might say.
Amber waited until a few bites had been taken. “Well, how is the sauce? Are you silently critiquing your chopping skills?”
“I guess I am getting used to it,” he said. “It is harmonious in its own way.”
“So, I guess I can live with it.”
“What do you think makes it so that people can or can’t live with it anymore?” Amber asked.
Mark was surprised at the question. He twisted his fork around the noodles, trying to get the last loose ends to stick. He took the bite to buy some time. He swallowed. “Maybe they think there is something better out there. A lesser of two evils,” he suggested.
“Hm.” She thought about this as she swirled the half-empty glass of Merlot. “Well, my mom sure tried hard to make us the lesser of the two evils. It didn’t work. The last time I saw my dad, we had just finished what you’d call a perfect meal. You would have been proud of that meal!”
“He just left? With no warning?”
“None. We went home, after their last “incident,” to find that he had moved all of his things out before he came over to my grandmother’s for dinner.”
“And that was it?”
“From him, yeah, mostly. I mean, I got letters from him occasionally. Only when I happened to get to the mailbox first. I’m certain my mom hid or threw out a lot of them. Or maybe there weren’t any others.”
“I see,” Mark said.
“He kind of just vanished.”
“And then your mom--”
“Vanished too, mentally.”
“Right.” He thought of the dulled, old knives she kept. One of the few things she possessed from her past. The lack of consistency in the knives was the consistency she wanted. The memory of one person, one place. One thing she couldn’t let go of.
They began the clean up, which was Mark’s conquest: the dishwasher. He placed each just right--there was still a correct way to do some things in his mind. When he finished, he went over to the pile of magazines, removed the catalogue, and buried it in the trash.