She says the steak and kidney pie needs more than just lamb, for "It is universally acknowledged that a man in want of a better pie must need more than good chops." Jane Austen scolds her band of sweating, irreverent chefs. They know better—Mattie and Karina and Pedro, the intern, have all learned well and suffered hard under the sharp red eyes of thechef de cuisine. The evenings are long, Saturdays especially. Orders fly into the kitchen on a swaying cord and Jane Austen plans to fire another busboy for being "an insensitive and likely futile candidate for future disestablishment."
"Want me to take the garbage?" says Pedro.
Jane Austen does not care about the garbage. It is not even time to lock the doors! She will later take it herself unless the busboy has a change of heart.
"Onions! Where are my onions?" Jane Austen uses a dirty towel to wipe her forehead. Grease stains cover her chef-wear and tennis shoes. "Heaven knows we cannot properly assemble a pie without a bowl of divided vegetables."
Mattie brings her a bowl of diced carrots, onions, chopped parsley. Jane Austen adds two bay leaves and inhales the numerous, vegetable flavors. Her hands are dancers, dancing in the bowl old-style with no need for a wooden spoon. She prefers her dishes made classic, and assumes everyone shares the same opinions as herself. She holds a plump red tomato in one hand. This she must purée. She grinds it into a fine liquid, looks into the jar and understands the tomato will never be smooth again.
"But Heavens! how it strikes the nostrils."
Pictures of ingredients flash before her eyes. There are sliced mushrooms brown from the garden and a row of freshly plucked garlic. Jane Austen does not like garlic. . . at least, she thinks she doesn't like garlic.
"Everyone, gather around me when you have finished your work." She blankets the vegetable-lamb mess with a thin white pastry. "By the world, always be scrupulous in your manner of bread-pulling. It is a fine craft, learning to measure the dough exactly as the recipe describes. Are there any questions?"
Pedro is confused by her demands. His expression turns sour and he counts the tiles on the floor.
The three would-be chefs shake their heads and remain quiet. Jane Austen pops the pie into the oven and sets the timer for thirty minutes. She dismisses herself and takes easy steps to the ladies room to cry over an off-white sink. She looks into the mirror and sees red—her cheeks are blushed and her bottom lids are heavy with cheap, melted foundation. She sits on the toilet and tears a tissue from the roll. The floor has maroon tile and dark, solid splotches like old gum. Why does the kitchen floor look like the bathroom floor? Why is Jane Austen such a failure? She wonders this often and feels that occupying her life with more-than-decently prepared food is a genuine waste of time.
She reaches into her chef-wear pocket and pulls out a Dollar Tree receipt and pen. On the back she writes the most intricate design for a British pork cassoulet. In her distinctive script, there will contain:
400g streaky steaks, proportioned exactly as the size of a lady's hand
1 tbsp sunflower or vegetable oil
400g pork sausages (I would prefer Lincolnshire, if Mr. Lefroy will be present tonight)
4 bacon chops, about 400g (more or less, with rind, thank you)
400g mixed beans
1 large onion (one large onion and a half, or a smaller onion will make do)
4 medium carrots julienned. . .
The paper ends before she can get to the garlic cloves. "Perhaps for the best," she says, wiping the snot oozing down from her nose, as she will never be sure of whether or not garlic is a good thing. She crams the receipt back into her chef-wear and pulls another tissue to clean the mascara from beneath her eyes. "I will never wear it again," she says aloud. "Never again." She rinses her face and attempts to straighten her hair with her burnt fingertips—crying makes Jane Austen's hair curl. One day, she may cut it all off. Shave it bald. Be a rebel.
But not tonight—tonight she has plans. "My cherished Mattie, if it is suitable I would like to name you our sous-chef for the evening. I must take leave now—but to make up for the time spent I shall return Thursday, as I am by and large off on Thursdays. Pedro, do please take the garbage out when you have a moment." Jane Austen's voice chokes on the word moment. "Gracias."
"OK," says Pedro.
Mattie has a glazed look, her lips quivering, holding back a grin. She has never dreamed of being a sous-chef. So much closer to chef de cuisine, though she is sure Jane Austen will never leave.
In the parking lot, thieves are afraid to rob Jane Austen.
She always parks by the nicest vehicle available. If a thief wanders into the lot, he will be forced to choose between an Audi and an off-gray Tempo.
The Tempo bubbles uptown in thirty minutes. Her apartment is centered between a social office and a basketball court. It is in a tall dark brick building with white window shelves, one in particular holding the reddest, juiciest batch of tomatoes stuffed from the latest rain. Jane Austen loves the rain. She often forgets to go to work on rainy days.
Now, she thinks of Lefroy. He will be standing just here, on the bottom step looking up at her window in a short while. He will be nervous, call on her, she will buzz him in. Before letting herself through the door, Jane Austen giggles. Not long now. "A woman might indeed pass a lifetime without even the slightest taste of optimism."
In room 3-2-0, Jane Austen folds the curtains back and lets the moonlight pass onto the kitchen counter. The light over the sink hums.
"What to do, what to do." Goat cheese and thyme stuffed chicken. Surely, Lefroy will appreciate something that is not Chinese in origin. She takes two chicken breasts out of the freezer to thaw, cuts open a 100 gram pack of firm goat cheese, unstrips the bacon, slices the courgettes, measures the olive oil. . . she reaches into the tomato drawer and rubs a ripe, smooth tomato. It will not go in with the rest. The tomato will be perfectly fine unharmed. Her arm hairs stand and there are goose bumps.
After her ecstasy, Jane Austen becomes frustrated with the chicken that will not thaw and decides to use the microwave. It becomes rubber but will still be edible. She crams goat cheese and thyme ritualistically into the breast-cuts. She combines it all into an eight-by-eight pan, adds the olive oil, sprinkles it with the remaining thyme and slides it into the oven for forty-five minutes at a little over four hundred degrees.
There is no glorious chicken-thyme scent, but there will be. She checks for any missed calls from Lefroy, there are none. There will be. Likely, he will surprise her. She rubs another tomato.
While she is waiting, Jane Austen reads Southern Living and chews chocolate covered almonds. She thinks the editors are all wrong; the recipes are fake, calling for too much garlic, and the women's breasts are ugly. One older blonde woman ruins the integrity of her succulent roast duck with garlic and her lopsided, wrinkled breasts.
She drops the magazine onto the counter and eats the chocolate covered almonds until the bag is empty. She runs to the bathroom and shaves her arms bald. In thirty minutes, Jane Austen will still be waiting on her phone call. She checks the thyme stuffed chicken, which has begun to brown. The kitchen smells burnt. In another fifteen minutes, the timer will go off and Jane Austen will put on her mittens, drag the heavy dish out of the oven and rush it to the counter where it will cool. She will prepare a table for two, pour water into chilled tin cans and unbox the wine. In another fifteen minutes, she will dress two plates of goat cheese and thyme stuffed chicken and align them with the salad. She has not prepared a salad yet. But she will.
Jane Austen got her start making salads. She does them well. Spinach leaves, chopped broccoli, blue cheese, julienned carrots to top. There may still be time before Lefroy arrives. She lights the candles. She fans the burnt chicken scent out the window and closes it before it starts to rain. She checks the time on the microwave. She blows out the candles. She puts the dinner plates in the warmer and waits.
Outside, she hears thunder. She pours herself a glass of wine. She goes to the warmer and brings a single plate back to the table. Outside, rain drizzles over the window. It taps on the beaten awning and rolls into the hard dirt where the tomatoes grow. Jane Austen forgets that she is eating alone.
On Wednesday, Jane Austen receives an email from Lefroy.
Subject: About last night.
My Dearest Jane,
I beg that you will forgive me for my unexcused absence of last night. I know you are a forgiving lady, perhaps more than you should be, a lady deserving of respect and recognition of culinary talent. But I am an animal, bound by the hardships of a gentleman's day—there was a meeting at Stone Roses, the boys in wigs were being nappy, the subway doesn't find Greenwich Village—in short—I was held up in court, and hope again to see you tonight.
Jane Austen closes the laptop and puts on her chef-wear. At the restaurant, Pedro is beating a wooden spoon over a four quart pot. He says the owner has added classic mulligatawny to the menu. Why hasn't the owner told Jane Austen about the addition, and what does Pedro the intern know about mulligatawny, anyway? She looks first at his big hands and the little spoon he insists on beating over the four quart pot. His stature is dumpy and irregular for a boy his age. He has big feet. Pedro is frightening. He might climb to the top before Jane Austen.
She is already sweating. Orders are zipping through the window on the line and scratching to a stop. Jane Austen is thinking of cassoulets. She is thinking of a plump, smooth tomato. She rubs her arms—her skin is like a tomato—there is a bump every so often and her hair prickles where she has shaved for Lefroy.
The line bustles with ingredients. Pedro is beating the four quart pot. Karina is chatting over the sizzling, popping shrimp skillet to a waitress. "Tanzanite," she says.
The waitress pulls a salad and salmon burger. Jane Austen has been reduced to putting together the entrées. Grilled chicken salads and salmon burgers. In America they are called appetizers and the main course is the entrée. Perhaps because when an American proceeds to the main course he has only just begun to eat.
There is no time to make her students cook better. She watches Karina turn over the shrimp in the butter. Karina slices four circles off a lemon and places them over the shrimp in the popping skillet. She squeezes in the rest of the juices and adds a violet shade of cooking wine. The waitress comes back and watches Karina over the skillet.
"Tanzanite comes from Tanzania. I'll show it to you when I go on break. I think I'm in love with him."
Jane Austen blushes and tosses nuts into a salad.
The waitress leaves with another salad and Karina shuts her mouth and returns to the shrimp. She shakes powdered garlic into the skillet. Soon, the kitchen's gentle spicy smell of mulligatawny is frightened away.
Jane Austen flinches. Karina will never be a proper cook. She will leave the restaurant before she is even a sous-chef.
The waitress returns to Karina. "I hope you're in love with him," she says.
"He wrote 'marry me' in the sand at the beach. I came out of the water and saw it. I'll show you the pictures I took before it washed away when I go on break." The waitress leaves, and Karina takes the skillet off the stovetop. She offers Jane Austen a shrimp. It is like hot rubber against her teeth.
"My Karina, I'm afraid there may be too much garlic on this shrimp! Next time, mind you be more scrupulous with the garlic shaker."
Karina unloads the shrimp onto a plate. She slides the dish down to a young cook to add rice and garnishes.
"Garlic scares off the men," says Karina, and snorts.
Jane Austen thinks she'll blow chunks onto the next salmon burger. She looks over her shoulder at Mattie, alone dicing onions and celery. Mattie glances back.
"You look different today," she says.
Jane Austen flinches and blushes all at once. She is a nervous wreck by profession.
"It's a good thing," says Mattie. "Your eyes are brighter than before."
Jane Austen had been true to her word. She left the mascara at home. Orders continue to zip in and scratch and the persistent rattle of Karina fades from existent. Pedro's curvaceous, squat form seems so small and far away. The tap bang of the wooden spoon against the four quart pot subsides.
"Am I doing this right?" says Mattie.
Jane Austen tries not to smile. She abandons the line of salad and the next order of popping, sizzling shrimp and moves closer to Mattie and watches her chop wildly at the celery.
"How well do you like being here? If things ever needed adjustment, if the heat is too much—if your skin is delicate, I mean—if the ovens are too hot, I could move you to some place more suitable."
Mattie slows her chopping and rakes her onions and celery into a mixing bowl. "I like it here, you know that." She pulls another onion.
Jane Austen is proud of Mattie. She sees a bit of herself, though Mattie is twice as fat and covered in pimples. Jane Austen cannot remember having so many pimples.
"I was considering, Mattie, if you were ever interested, that maybe we could speak of the business in a more personal manner—if you would like, or be interested, like I said—over dinner tonight?"
Mattie turns pink. "That'd be helpful, Ms. Austen." She rolls the knife over the onion like a machine. Her thumb moves in and out with the rhythm of the blade, cutting, slicing, tossing aside the finished particles of onion. The celery requires less action and a less precise pulling of the knife.
When they take a break, Jane Austen writes down her address and gives it to Mattie. "I am to make a new dish," she says. "A pork cassoulet. I look forward to your company."
The evening wears on, and Jane Austen takes off early again. The air over the street is thick from the shower that evening. The off-gray Tempo fumes when cranked, bubbles down the road, and the rumbling engine nearly refuses to quit in the apartment parking lot. The wet cement drifts up into Jane Austen's nostrils and smells of Tom Lefroy. He said he would try again. He would be there.
In the apartment, Jane Austen finds the receipt and moves the items to a large sheet of paper. On it she adds, relative to the things she might already have in the apartment:
About 600 ml chicken stock (for now we will do with a stock cube)
25g fresh white breadcrumbs
400g canned chopped tomatoes Jane Austen does not want to ruin a perfectly soft fresh tomato. And she is afraid to include garlic, though there is a pantry shelf full of it. Maybe it does scare the men away. Garlic lasts all day. It lasts after a proper brushing and flossing of the teeth and even a mint or two.
In two hours, Mattie will be on her way. In one hour, Jane Austen will heat the oven to 400 degrees, pan fry the streaky pork strips and sausages until brown. She sets the pan aside and checks the phone for any missed calls from Lefroy. There are none. There will not be. She will call him instead.
The machine picks up. The line beeps. Jane Austen cannot remember what she wanted to say last night. If he would have called, if only he would have remembered to call, what could she have said? Her lips are shaking, her spine tingles. "At length, the day is come on which I am to flirt my last with you, Tom Lefroy, and when you receive this message it will all be over. My tears flow now as I think of the melancholy idea." The phone clicks. She goes to the tomato drawer, reaches in and rubs a tomato.
In a minute, Jane Austen will mix the beans, onion, carrots and canned tomatoes in a bowl. It will all be added to the streaky steak and pork sausages. She will unwrap the chicken stock and let it simmer over the flashing, stiff ingredients.
She wipes tears from her eyes. There will never be another mascara stain. Ever.
Before sprinkling the breadcrumbs over the top of the cassoulet, she goes to the pantry and pulls a sack of garlic. One cloves. Two cloves. Four. Four too many, she thinks, but the smell is wonderful. She wonders if the garlic will leave a trace on her breath, if there will be an aftertaste. There will be. She smashes the cloves and adds them to the cassoulet and sprinkles the breadcrumbs and pours it all into a pan for baking. She opens the warm, hair curling oven, slides in the dish and waits for the ceaseless aroma to rise up and overwhelm her empty apartment.
BIO: Garrett Ashley resides in Mississippi and believes anything the Wikipedia tells him. His stories appear or are forthcoming in >Kill Author, decomP, Brain Harvest, Molotov Cocktail, and Caper Literary Journal, among others. He is currently trying to hold together a blog at Scary Naked Giant.