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Contemporary Horror Science Fiction

This time, Max tried some bay leaves and more thyme. Even had he known to remove the former at the final stage, he knew it was yet another fail. He rose dejectedly from his knees before the pale jade Crane Mauretania that had at the beginning of his convulsions been a jet-black Kohler Highline Elongated Comfort Height Two-Piece, and started down the narrow staircase.

It was the first time he’d left something behind, and Max wondered vaguely about the consequences of puking across the temporal rift. Grandma’d introduced him to Ray Bradbury and Mark Twain at an age where such fare could earn him a righteous beat-down, and in the drought of the Hollywood strikes, Max had happened onto the Quantum Leap reboot.

At the same time, Indianapolis was likely to have a thriving beachfront trade about the time polar bears and flamingos roamed the Hoosier plains, if Russia and China and Hezbollah didn’t burn the whole joint first, so Max didn’t see ejecting maybe a half-gallon of seasoned stomach contents into the municipal sewage system creating sentient fish or turning America into the Hitlerian dystopia it might well be in another year, anyway.

She turned from the oven as he entered the kitchen, ushering Max in for a hug and a tiptoe kiss that left a tacky smear of candy-red Woolworth lipstick on his artfully bristled cheek. Grandma cackled as he related his latest culinary failure.

“My dear nitwit, you might have killed yourself,” she finally said, removing pink- and teal-tinted aluminum tumblers from the cabinet next to the stove. How did she do it?, Max silently fumed.

“Worst that would’ve happened is I’d have choked, or they’d have scratched up my esophagus,” he grumbled. “They’re not poisonous – that’s just an old wife’s tale.”

“Well, I’m an old wife, at least until your grandpa left us. And don’t be petulant – it’s not your most charming quality. At least now.”

“Sorry,” he said, accepting the pre-sweetened tea she’d dispensed from the rose glass pitcher his mom had shattered one tipsy New Year’s evening. “Look, why don’t you just give me the recipe?”

Grandma settled in across the formica. “Ah, and then, would you ever come visit your Nana again? You were much cuter now, then, whatever, but you always have such wonderful stories for me. You read that bay leaf nonsense on that Googly thing of yours?”

Max smiled despite himself. “You know it’s Google.”

She nodded mischievously. “I don’t suppose I could get a look at that phone of yours? Your apple phone thing? It’s not like those IBM fellas come over for Sunday dinner or anything.”

“Not a good idea. Look, I miss your stew – I just want to be able to remember you.”

“Well, I think I might have a batch ready to come out just about now.”

“I just had a bowl,” Max sighed. Well, technically.

“Well, here’s the real thing,” Grandma proclaimed. “Grab a couple of spoons, and wipe that pout off your face. I told you a thousand times that a man needs to cook just like a woman needs to know her money in case he man leaves her high and dry. But your father, that Neanderthal, he thought it was ‘sissy,’ and you were more interested in your sports.”

“Yeah, I know. But I’m learning. If you could just show me how NOW.” Grandma deposited a steaming bowl of meat and potatoes and carrots and gravy before him, and Max dug in. “See, I just can’t figure out your secret – how you make it so…perfect.”

Her rosy, impish face hardened into a powdered plane of lines and creases. “It’s people. Your grandpa, our neighbors, folks in general worked hard, didn’t put themselves through a lot of emotional and psychological agony – hell, we were too busy. We didn’t put a lot of poison in our bodies, and we had to work with what we had available from the farm or the woods or—”

“Okay, all right,” Max protested quickly through a mouthful of stew. “Why you think I keep coming back here?”

She smiled, and the rest of the bowl sat like a rock for hours after he found himself back worshipping the Kohler. The bell cut through his guilt, and he sprinted to the front door.

“You know about Grubhub, right?” taunted the delivery kid – truly a kid, at least from Max’ POV – as he traded pad thai for a couple of bills apparently from the wrong president.  

“I like the human touch,” Max said, considering.

“Oh, yeah, me too. I was supposed to be working the counter, but Tanner just freaking bailed Friday, so I gotta schlep out here freezing my ass off and delivering the human touch.” He shifted to a leer that didn’t remotely work on him. “Hey, sorry if I interrupted something.” The delivery boy touched his acne’d face.

Max paused, then reluctantly released both the bills and gently shut the kid out. He dumped the shrimp and noodles in the kitchen trash, and scrubbed his cheek to a dull blush.

**

Max was filling out the online customer service survey when Bonnie’s ringtone sounded. Well, clicking the 10-boxes – the guy had been brusque and talky and a tad racist, but Showtime and the OnDemand were back, and he kind of figured it was the least he could do.

“Yuh,” he responded.

“Hey, my sister’s back in Methodist – you know why,” his coworker drawled. “Don’t guess you could do my shift tomorrow? You know I’ll owe you.”

Max glanced toward the kitchen, then clenched his fingers. He couldn’t very well tell he he’d planned to drop in on family. “Sure, of course. Sorry about Beth.”

“Bitch,” Bonnie grunted, and the line went dead. Max returned to his work.

**

“Dear,” Grandma sighed. “I’m expecting you and your mother in about a half hour. I’m making that fried eggplant your mother loves so, and a grilled cheese for you. Would you like a slice of sugar cream pie for the road?”

“Nah,” Max said, dejectedly  Weighing in at nearly a half-pound of lard, eggs, and sugar per slice, he was uncertain what impact his childhood favorite might have on the space/time continuum. He took his seat and regarded the politically outrageous, thick-lipped salt and pepper shakers staring boggle-eyed up at him. Even at eight, he knew there was something fucked up about them, though eight-year-old Max wouldn’t have and would not have been able to frame that concern, especially when she was his

Max tugged the Tupperware from the windbreaker he’d donned in anticipation of his visit. No pre-boarding announcements here.

“Oh, my,” Grandma exclaimed, her liver-spotted hands coming together in a single pop. “You did it?”

“I really think so,” he ventured.

She examined the opaque blue bowl. “You can’t even see what you’re eating, and they must be using cheaper plastic these days. Well, you know what I mean.” Grandma pulled the lid free, frowning at the soundless ease with which it disengaged. “Where’s the burp? Do people have even an ounce of pride any more?” She glanced at the base of the container. “CHINA?? Well, no wonder.”

“Just… just try it.” He practically thrust the KFC spork at her.

Grandma smiled encouragingly, and managed to snag a chunk of meat, a diced potato, and a lone pea, and lifted the gravy-coated trio tremulously to her crimson lips.

“Frozen peas,” she muttered. “You finally got the thyme and rosemary perfect this time, and I suppose pepper is an individual choice.” Her jowls froze, and her blue eyes narrowed slightly. “It’s very good, honey, don’t get me wrong. But there’s something…off just a little. What did you do?”

“I remembered what you told me last time,” Max implored, feeling eight again. “But things are different these days – my days.”    

**

“You know, I trained for years at this shit,” Kiernan said, drawing off his e-cigar, his broad flat face vanishing in a haze of vapor that smelled like pina colada. Max knew what was coming, but he smirked, thinking of Grandma and her two-pack-a-day jones, Grandpa with his eternally lit Texaco briar, Dad with his fucking Walgreen cigars and chaw, and Mom constantly feuding and reconciling with her own monkey. The surgeon general had finally made a dent, and now, you could die far more efficiently with a lungful of Redenbacher. Better living.

“You ever deboned a sturgeon, frenched a rack of lamb, even broke down a duck? Yeah, I thought so. This is an art that goes back centuries, and I studied at the CIA, with Dario Cecchini, with halal butchers in Texas and Chicago and barbecue kings in KC and Memphis. Look, you got it pretty sweet, front of the house. Look at these hands – I go through like a bottle of moisturizer a week, and I got so much scar tissue I could do pushups on the flattop. I got pneumonia twice last summer, salmonella last fall, and my chiropractor sees me more than my old lady. You got a good thing going with Bonnie, which for the life of me I don’t fucking understand. And no offense – you’re a sweet guy – but why the fuck am I gonna teach you all my tricks?”

“I just want to learn a few things,” Max protested as he edged downwind from the dumpster. “I’ve been practicing my culinary technique, and I thought a little farm-to-table—”

“Jesus,” the charcuterist barked. Or coughed. “Why don’t you start from scratch, drive 50 miles down 65, poach a hog or an Angus, buy a set of Wusthofs, and find a community college that doesn’t ask questions.” He sucked pina colada fumes. “I’m doing you a favor. You don’t want to fuck yourself up.”   

 **

“What is Comcast? What have you done?”

It was shock enough to find her sitting in his living room, in her apron, her cheap plastic handbag in her lap like she was taking the fucking Amtrak to the Loop instead of a temporal daytrip on what Max had assumed to be a one-way highway. But then she dropped this bomb, and he realized she’d taken the grand tour of the guest bedroom, the john, the basement, the fridge…

“I told you over and over -- never our own,” Grandma chided hoarsely. Her face took on that implacable arctic hardness Max had seen only after bunting the heads from her front porch roses or picking off the first spring robins with the air pistol his dad had so proudly foisted on him or asking after his errant Grandpa. “Never our own,” she repeated coldly, fighting overt rage.

The smartass kid from Thai Paradise had had no idea what he’d gotten along with his shitty tip. Max realized everything he was, had become, but the whole thing would have had a Dahmeresque vibe — an unsavory aftertaste of racism and perversion, you should pardon the pun. He had standards, of a very relative sort. He had taken Grandma’s words to heart, but in the Information Age, in a service-based society, in the city, finding the right old-guard “stock” was more than a challenge – it was a potentially deadly proposition. Tanner had been a pothead, a slacker, but the cable guy was beefy and seemed like a hard if yappy worker, well-muscled and loose-jointed.  

Grandma’s were quite different times, he reminded himself. Itinerant workers, unhoused “bums” with odd accents or dark features sniffing around for an odd job or simply the price of a sandwich, the social worker from town come to inquire about Max or Olive, the Mormons and Witnesses and Adventists who’d blunder onto his grandparents’ porch. Stew Sunday was always a solemn, almost reverent meal — spoons scraping, the occasional slurp or smack followed by momentarily baleful glances and an eruption of forgiving laughter.

After Grandpa was gone, Stew Sundays were fewer and further between. It was a pragmatic matter: Grandpa was simply more skilled and wily about putting meat on the table and just stronger from decades at the plant. But if it happened to just come knocking…

She’d now spotted the framed photo on the wall beside the Goodwill dinette. Bonnie’s birthday at The Lobster, and a red-letter night for Max too, as it turned out. Despite Larry the Night Boss’ sage and charming advice, dispensed over a post-shift fat boy by the dumpster.

Never shit where you eat. Grandma would have boxed Larry’s ears soundly, or whatever potty mouths got in those good old toxic days. But she would have shared the sentiment, and regarded Bonnie the same way her Nana’d glowered at Max that night over cheesy biscuits and interminable shrimp. He waited for the tirade, the vitriol.

But apparently, Grandma’s thoughts had run to Grandpa — his whoppers and tall tales, his hearty pride returning triumphant from the hunt, his ultimately fatal betrayal of their vows with one not their own. The old woman’s eyes were pained and misty and unfocused. Or maybe just focused elsewhere or elsewhen.

“People were just better…” she murmured, and phased out just ahead of the insistent, jarring banging at the door. In the instant before it all came crashing in, he snorted at the unintended double entendre.

December 16, 2023 02:21

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8 comments

Mary Bendickson
14:26 Dec 16, 2023

Took me a couple of reads,too.

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Martin Ross
16:56 Dec 16, 2023

Thanks for reading! I went pretty dark here — as a snowbird from the Midwest, I’ve thought a lot lately about toxic nostalgia. My grandma was so sweet and the best cook ever, but she’d occasionally say something truly jaw-dropping (seldom knowingly hateful but awful). I had a great diverse school environment, so I could focus on the fried chicken and butterscotch pudding.😉

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11:11 Dec 16, 2023

Martin! This is kind of fabulous. We both went a bit twisted on this prompt. I love how you disguised the truth in this. Very well done. I really didn't pick up on the clues til second read. Bellisimo!

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Martin Ross
16:50 Dec 16, 2023

Thanks! I’ve been trying to work on my darker side — I love OG horror/fantasy writers like Ira Levin and Bradbury in his creepy mood, and Jordan Peele is my new favorite horror director. My grandma was so wonderful to us, and her cooking and baking! But man, some weird racist crap came out of her mouth from time to time (‘60s). However, she was not a cannibal — her chicken was inhumanly good — and I was lucky enough to have very diverse school buddies, so I could write off the nonsense. I so appreciate your reading my stuff — eager to see...

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Damien French
21:45 Dec 22, 2023

Wow, Martin - Took a couple of reads to figure out the hidden "twist." Killer job! You definitely have a "voice" will your prose.

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Martin Ross
23:43 Dec 22, 2023

Thanks, Damien! Have a great holiday!

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David Sweet
17:06 Dec 20, 2023

Wow! I didn't expect this to go where it went. I appreciate the dark humor. Very interesting take on the prompt.

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Martin Ross
17:38 Dec 20, 2023

Thanks, David! Admittedly, I wanted to do a whodunit based on the prompt, but couldn’t work it. When in doubt, I go dark🤣.

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