ISSUE 4 · SPRING 2010
Tangy Glazed Carrots
Her name is Theresa Maria and she could have been a wagon-dwelling gypsy living by candlelight, illiterate but fluent in songs and stories. However, such a life is far from the world of paved roads and magazine delivery that we are better acquainted with. So we find her dark hair curled and shining in the sunlight of an American suburb rather than whipping in the Carpathian wind of folk tales.
The air conditioning of the supermarket drifts down on her bare neck and she shivers. Tonight she must prepare dinner for her husband’s boss and his wife. In one hand she has the shopping list. With the other hand she carefully selects a bunch of green-topped carrots and places them in the woven basket hanging from her elbow. She’d gone to secretarial school and had hoped to work for a law firm, but then she’d met Harry, and in just six months he had courted her into marriage and out of the city. The transition had been an awkward one, and she still had trouble selecting the right fondue recipes––
“Excuse me,” Theresa said, gently addressing the author. Oh. Yes?
“If this story is set in the past maybe you should just say so. You don’t expect the reader to collect these secretary and fondue clues for thirty pages do you?”
Good point. It is 1965. Short skirts.
“Smack dab middle of the decade, huh?”
Jeez. Theresa was married and moved to Richfield in 1964. She’s about to make a special dinner for her husband, Henry, and his boss. This night is important to his career and, on a personal level, to her as a wom >>
Maria Theresa stopped the sentence by firmly cupping the pen tip in her hand.
“First of all, you’re changing the names like we’re interchangeable pet fish or something.”
Well, it is a first draft. I’m writing in pen, it’s sloppy, I’m on my fourth or fifth cup of >>
“Second, this dinner. All it says on this list is carrots.” She holds the list up as if I don’t know what it says, as if I had not placed it in her hand. She’s been biting her nails, which is odd considering that she’s just gotten a professional manicure to look nice for the boss and his wife.
“I bite them when I get nervous. Can you do me a favor and think some of these details through?” she asks rudely. “I want to get out of here. The stock boy keeps staring at me; I think the dress is way too short, and these heels are killing me. You don’t seem to know more about 1964 than you know about the Carpathians.”
Okay. Theresa Maria wears a respectable knee-length, patterned dress. Straight out of the Sears catalog. Totally Americana, although the vibrant pattern hints at her lost heritage.
“Illustrations? Isn’t that cheating?”
Back off. It was a side doodle at first, but if you’re going to be so picky I’m just trying to make you happy so we can move on.
Theresa Maria crumples the list and, acting carelessly, drops it to the floor. She recalls the recipe from memory (recollection having been one of her strengths in secretarial school).
. . . and . . .
Theresa Maria moves through the store quickly and gracefully, totally focused on her shopping and unhindered by philosophical questions about existence.
“A couple shitty recipes,” she manages to whisper through clenched teeth, “does not give you authenticity or authority.”
Out of doors, unprotected by the shade of cold brick, the summer heat threatens the perishable items. Women squirm inside their tight bodices, tiring of the oppressive humidity and beginning to dream of peasant skirts.
. . .
At home Theresa unpacks the groceries, unnecessarily landing each item on the counter with great force. “You’re making me feel helpless,” she says to the jar of pineapple cheese spread, “none of this is right.”
Hoping to calm a lump forming in her throat she goes to the window. Several small pine trees form a perfect straight line through the yard. She will watch these trees be decorated for Christmas and eventually the children will hunt Easter eggs around them, but every day, for the rest of her life, she will stand here and look at these same trees, strong, beautiful, and steady.
“I get it,” she says, “gypsy wanderlust or something. I’ll bet you wish there was a pack of tarot cards hidden beneath my stockings. Please get me through this dinner quickly. Let’s just move on and get through this boring set of scenes that probably won’t even have a plot.”
Theresa lights the pilot light on the stove and slips the box of matches into her pocket. The recipes prove to be as simple as they claim and dinner is ready early. Things seem to be going her way, and yet she can’t seem to relax. There’s too much at stake.
. . .
Harry stares at his plate and appears almost frightened of the casserole, although he comments on how beautiful the color of the peppers and onions is against the paleness of the cheese and noodles. The boss and his wife are polite, scraping the cheese from the carrots and opening the second of the two bottles of wine they had generously brought. The wife makes an almost apologetic comment about the current popularity of canned pineapple.
They leave without asking about dessert, but there wasn’t any if they had.
Harry, depressed and worried but always kind, places a hand on Theresa’s hip.
“Sometimes I dream algorithms,” Theresa says. She covers her face with a dishtowel to stifle the things she is saying which are completely out of context and inappropriate.
“Problem solving. Pure logic,” she says into the towel, her voice nothing but a soft growl. Harry runs a hand over his face to feel the rough stubble that signals the end of the day. Usually this soothes him, but tonight it makes him feel old.
“Why did you even agree to marry me?” he asks, gently pulling the towel from her hands. Someone has to stay on task here, and Harry is a responsible man.
“Is that an accusation of sabotage?” Theresa says, but the computer screen and the tapping of keys muffle her voice. Revisions are now well underway. The beginning, middle and end are set, and she might as well stop arguing about it.
“Everything happened so fast. It felt like destiny,” Harry continues, “but now I just feel like you don’t want to be here, maybe you regret something?”
“I didn’t mean to mess up dinner,” Theresa says. Their relationship is still young, yet something about this man, about his boyish chin and the way he straightens his tie even though it is late and they are drunk, reminds her that she loves him, and it is unconditional and powerful. They were made for each other.
“I know, it’s not that, it’s something in your eyes. You’re so distant, or disconnected, I don’t know what it is.”
“I’m sorry,” she says. She turns away.
“No, that’s not what I want,” Theresa says, stubbornly, trying to turn around to face Harry. “I want happiness. We don’t have to be stuck with snooty bosses and gross casseroles. I’ve felt safe since you got here.”
Harry follows her, but every time he approaches she moves away.
“Why won’t you look at me? Please,” he says.
“I want to, Harry, I want to look at you more than those stupid pine trees or these horrible, ridiculous shoes, but I can’t. What do you know about us anyway? I feel like I just met you, but I know you have a mole on your face and you hate it when I call it a beauty mark and I know you got me the ugliest flowers for my birthday but I said I loved them anyway . . .”
Harry takes off his tie and drops it on the sofa. He is tired. His arms hang down by his sides. Everything about this situation looks like a long night in the making. He can’t remember the last time they fought. His head is swimming in red wine and he longs for sleep.
“Okay, I’ll play. I know your mom hates it that you left home, I know we had a fantastic time on our honeymoon, and that you got so mad at me at that first dinner—“
“Can I guess here: honeymooned at Niagara Falls and dried out the inaugural meatloaf,” Theresa says. Did she just roll her eyes?
“Darling, you’re talking like our life is, is, memos on a bulletin board or something. You can’t just read through the headlines of our life and decide it isn’t interesting enough. I know you. I know you don’t like it here, but that is why we have to do this,” he points at the dining room, “so we can get ahead and do what we want, you can go back to school.”
Theresa looks out the window again, frustration visible on her face even in the blurry reflection that Harry watches from behind her.
“I don’t want to be a secretary. I don’t even know what they do.”
“Okay. What do you want? Kids?”
“Maybe. No. I don’t know. It’s like I can’t think ahead, all I can do is look at what is right in front of me and I can’t say what I’m trying to say. It’s all tangled . . . The pressure . . .”
Harry puts his hands around her waist and walks her to a seat on the couch. He feels her forehead with his hand to check for a fever, a gesture that comes from his subconscious. (Recently Harry had developed a sense of empathy that had been lacking in previous drafts.) Her skin feels cold and her eyes are red and wet, as if she were trying to cry but cannot.
“Harry, I don’t know how to explain what is happening to me, and this is going to sound weird, but can you go upstairs and look in the second drawer of my dresser. See if there is a pack of tarot cards. At the bottom, underneath.”
Harry goes upstairs and opens the drawer. He moves aside the silk slip that reminds him of their honeymoon and smiles at all the various underwear articles that made him blush the first time he carried up a basket of their mixed laundry. Then he finds the cards.
He sits on the bed and looks at the gypsy cards. The Magician. The Chariot. The Tower. Death. His hands go cold, but he can’t stop looking at the cards. They are strangely beautiful, colorful and intricate. Theresa had never mentioned them before, and although he cannot imagine why she wanted him to see them now he feels worried about their meaning, or, as he will soon learn, their thematic significance.
Theresa stands in the doorway, her face red and holding something in her hand. Some sort of metal can and a smell that he recognizes, but it is so out of place he can’t name it.
“Those aren’t supposed to be there, Harry, they aren’t really mine. I don’t think so, anyway.”
Harry stands and walks toward her.
“What have you been doing?”
“I don’t know,” Theresa cries. “Everything was foggy and then I was here with this stuff. I think there was a shift in the point of view.”
She drops the can. It is empty. The smell. Kerosene.
“Stop this!” Her voice lashes out without provocation.
“Theresa, calm down,” Harry tries to take her hand but she pulls it away.
“Not you, Harry,” she says softly, then, without cause yells, “You! What are you doing?”
Sadly Theresa Maria is about to become a victim of her own criticism. Attacking authorial hubris can have consequences. Her assessment had some validity, and therefore editing had been done, and the only course of action to save the story was to sacrifice a character. Maybe two.
“Oh God, motherfucker. What genre is this now?” She is crazed, unreal. She moves as one possessed. In fact, she is possessed, there is no doubt of that, but one might wonder which was the original and which was the disruption.
“How can you do this? You’re sick.” She shakes her fists to the sky, apparently not too good for an old-fashioned cliché after all.
“Who are you talking to?” Harry asks.
Theresa slowly pulls the matches from her pocket, controlled by unseen forces. But this is not a ghost story. The most powerful unseen forces are the ones that emerge from within ourselves. They are always there, accumulating over the years. Most people never notice.
“I don’t want to do this,” Theresa says, crying hot tears, the kind of tears that can burn through paper like acid. She backs away from Harry as she lights the first match.
“I’m not doing this!” She screams, but she can’t stop herself from lighting the second match. The final edits have been made, her actions branded on the manuscript, an indelible matter of record.
Harry tries to get to her, to get them both down the stairs, but she throws more fire down the stairs. The kerosene does its work, trapping and separating them.
Harry dashes to the guest bedroom and breaks the window.
“We can get out this way,” he yells. He returns to the hallway to get Theresa. She has collapsed into the corner. She coughs and chokes on the smoke. She won’t move. “Just go, Harry, don’t let yourself stay here.”
“I have to save you,” he says, “I have to.”
“No, you don’t have to, that’s what they want you to think, but you can go. Please go. Prove it.”
Harry goes back to the window and screams out to the neighbors to call for help.
“Is this the lesson, is this the point?” Theresa asks the heavens above her.
Harry, at the window, frantic, can’t seem to think as fast as the situation requires. He sees Theresa go unconscious behind the flames. Desperate, he looks out to the yard at the pine trees.
“Maybe I can make it,” he says.
Don’t be silly Harry, you can’t make it. Remember those trees are small and new. And anyway, we’re on the last page.
“There’s a chance,” he says. And he jumps, he reaches, but he falls. He lands squarely on his hip with a cry, but somehow he has survived when all odds were rightly against him. He wasn’t supposed to jump. Penalty: broken pelvis.
From the ground he looks up at the bright flames and the dark smoke eating up his new life, the life that was supposed to last forever. Why? Why did this happen? He can ask for the rest of his life, he can ask, and like the rest of us he will get no answers. He won’t ask the right questions, and anyway the asking gets you nothing even if answered. Theresa had known that. She had figured out that paying taxes, lodging complaints and feeding bosses are not the things that change your life. She had been on to something else, but she hadn’t figured it out fast enough.
Robin Rozanski’s writing has appeared in The Cypress Dome, Pindeldyboz.com, and The Humanist, and is forthcoming in Hint Fiction Anthology. She teaches at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis and has an MA in creative writing from the University of Central Florida.