We were sitting at the big kitchen table. All the doors to the balcony were open. It was the height of summer, hot and dry in my favourite month: July. Tomatoes, paprikas and onions were waiting patiently in the basket to be part of a symbolic dish. Making lecso (letch-oh) is almost compulsory in the summer at home. The vegetables are truly sun kissed; booming with colour and flavour. Lecso is similar to ratatouille minus aubergines and courgettes. The neighbours were chatting and arguing about the day’s dinner. Some were making stuffed paprika with tomato sauce, some lecso; others didn’t keep the rule of summer and they were making anything they could think of.
Tanned and proud and wearing shorts, Dad was standing at the stove, testing small spoonfuls of the thick mixture from time to time. "The paprika must become completely mushy," he was stirring and tasting with the expression of an artist who had just finished a painting close to his heart. Although he performed life saving operations every day, lecso was something he would not joke about. It had to be perfect. Before Mum got ill, she would make it. When she became too weak to cook, Dad took over commanding the kitchen and he produced delicious meals. He always teased her, saying he was a better cook than she was, and they had a pleasant row about it.
"The secret is time; you have to give it enough time." She would sneer and turn away. It tortured her to give up her territory. She liked to complain about being a kitchen slave. In reality, she was a perfectionist, and she created masterpieces.
"I would have preferred something cold," Mum was fanning herself with a letter. He was hurt but he went on stirring. The bread, a large white loaf was already sliced, glasses and napkins placed on the table. He had bought the wine from a local winemaker. I didn’t like the wine and I didn’t like lecso; it was too heavy for me. Still, I ate too much every time he made it. He wanted us to feel stuffed – then he felt reassured it was good. Everyone had different recipes and they all swore by them: lecso with eggs or sausages and no rice, or there must be rice and you add garlic … or not. His version had rice and sausages. Both my parents agreed only renegades put eggs in lecso – Dad wouldn’t hear of such sacrilege.
The evening slowly settled, and the flavours of others’ dinners drifted by on the wind. Our neighbours sat at their kitchen tables enjoying the breeze just like we did. Dad would shout over to one of them asking what they were making and they would exchange ideas about market prices, recipes and vendors. When we sat down to eat, he was exhausted. A large, red-bellied watermelon was cooling in the fridge. Later he would cut it in half and tell us to listen to the special harsh sound the knife was making, which meant the melon was ripe and it would be honey sweet. He poured wine for all of us, and I knew he was hurting badly. Not because of the lecso. He could not accept that the woman he had shared his life with for 50 years was slowly losing her strength. The joie de vivre was gone. It was replaced by frailty and a narrowing world. He pretended not to notice anything. His solution for coping was denial.
I would have liked to talk to him about what was coming no one knew when. He refused all my attempts. Instead, he would make facetious jokes. I was frustrated and angry. After some time, I just gave up. I couldn’t imagine how he would be able to cope with the loss once she would be gone. The lingering scent of the vegetables filled the kitchen.
That evening I ate too much again, nervously and hopelessly. I knew how I would feel afterward, but at least I would forget, even if temporarily, that we were all rushing toward something we would have given anything to avoid.
I have just cooked lecso. In another kitchen, in another country, Mum and Dad are no more. I would have liked to ask them about the right proportion of paprika to tomato. How long should it simmer? At which point should I add the rice? I have to rely on memory and intuition. I didn’t put in as much oil as they both did – we are more health conscious now. Maybe that’s why - maybe because I am looking for a taste that never even existed - my lecso will never be the same as the one I am remembering. While I was trying to create the same mushy substance I remembered, jokes, scents and the memory of heat surprised me with its sudden intensity: evenings of joy, worry and frustration; evenings of dinners never to return.
K.K.Bodis has published "The Floral Blouse and Other Stories" on Amazon Kindle and "A Frosty Tree by the River" (Fiction 365); she is currently working on a novel (working title: "Braid") which deals with the effects of childhood on adult life.
Abigail complained of an unhappy tummy, so Nurse Candace pulled a Lifesaver’s mint from the pocket of her scrubs. She dusted off the plastic wrap and handed the candy to the second grader.
“Thank you,” Abigail sang.
“You’re welcome sweetie,” Nurse Candace said as she offered a quick hug, then returned her hands to their pockets, her thumbs jutting out like sentinels protecting a keep.
Christopher was next in line. The sixth grader fell on the playground after diving for an errant football. He was awarded with a band aid on his skinned knee and a high-five. Tears and Band Aids. They were as common in her school as ABC’s, back-packs, and untied shoe laces, and as common as weekly visits from Josh, the Headache Factory. Every time his teacher assigned a math quiz, Josh discovered a new pain between his ears and Nurse Candace discovered a new pain elsewhere. She handed the fourth grader some water in a flimsy paper cone and a tic-tac disguised as an aspirin. Two years right out of nursing school and so far, Candace Gentry RN handled every crisis with the precision and determination of a battlefield commander.
“Lie down and rest for ten minutes,” she said to Josh. “And no wandering around.”
“Yes ma’am.” Josh sipped his water and lay on the vinyl cot. But the boy didn’t sleep. Instead, he rolled side-to-side, playing the don’t-fall-in-the-hot-lava game. After he got bored with that, he gave himself an eye exam from the poster nearby. After giving himself an A+, he moved to the “Scary Poster Game.” He sang the series of safety posters, starting at The Dangers of Head Lice, then moving on to the Dangers of Germs from an Uncovered Sneeze, finally the Dangers of Pink Eye. He stopped at the poster that read “It Shouldn’t Hurt To Be A Kid,” because it was too scary and boring and it didn’t have any funny pictures on it, just phone numbers. When Josh got up to roam around the office in search of cotton balls, Nurse Candace fired a look that sent the boy back to his cot. Six more minutes before his “nap” was done.
The door opened and another boy entered. This child wore a dull expression and his eyes seemed unfocused, most likely from the ping pong ball-sized knot above his right eye. The newcomer sat on the edge of the cot occupied by Josh, who sat up and said, “Hello.”
“What’s your name,” Candace asked. She stood in front of the boy, but he turned his back on the nurse and Josh. Candace said, “Good thing I don’t get hurt that easy.”
“Me too,” Josh said.
“Three minutes to go before nap time is over, young man.” She turned to the latest visitor and asked, “What’s that on your face?”
The new boy answered, “A bite.”
“It looks more like a bump. Are you going to let me see it?”
The boy shook his head.
“How am I going to treat you if you keep hiding your head like a silly ostrich?”
“I’m not no ossrick.”
“I’m an ostrich,” Josh said as he stepped off the cot, knelt down, folded his arms bird-style and lay his head on the tiled floor. “Someone pull my head out.”
“Sit down, Josh.” She knelt in front of the boy, his hands now covering his face. “What’s your name honey?”
“George,” Josh answered, now on the cot. “His name is George. He’s new. He doesn’t know it yet but we’re gonna be friends.”
“I see,” Nurse Candace said as she rose to her feet and crossed to the refrigerator/freezer for an ice pack. When she returned, she gently placed the bag over the bump. “Keep this on your head. George, it certainly is nice to meet you.”
George mumbled between the fingers of his free hand, “Nice to meet you.”
“Are you boys in the same class?” Candace asked. By this time, Josh had sat next to his future best friend and wrapped his arm around George’s shoulders.
“I’m Josh. You should invite me over.”
Nurse Candace heard sniffling and George’s hands oozed with a mix of tears and snot. She said to Josh, “Time’s up. Return to your class so you can take that math quiz.”
“Aww. Can I stay and help George?”
Candace reached into her pocket and pulled out a package of Saltine crackers. She handed them to Josh and kicked him out of her office. On his way out the door, Nurse Candace stopped Josh for a private meeting.
“Did you see George get hurt this morning?”
She held a finger to her lips and whispered, “Did you see George get hurt this morning, on the playground?”
“Nope.” Josh tore into the cracker package.
“Did you even see him this morning?”
“Yup.” Crumbs tumbled from his mouth and landed on his already filthy t-shirt.
“Was he hurt then?”
“I guess so. Can I go now?”
Nurse Candace excused Josh, took a deep breath, and returned to George. By now, his tears had dried up and color had returned to his face. He stared at Candace’s stethoscope. She removed it from her neck and breast pocket and handed it to George. “You can examine it but it’s not a toy.”
“I know,” George said, one hand on the ice pack, the other fidgeting with the stethoscope.
“Let me help you with that.” Candace took control of the ice bag. “You want to hear a secret? That stethoscope can read minds, you know that?”
George curled his mouth into a smirk.
“Oh yes it can, but the foolish thing is right only about fifty percent of the time. It told me that you got bitten by a baseball. Isn’t that the silliest thing you ever heard of? A baseball?”
“Now the silly old fool tells me it was a rock. Of all things, a rock. Isn’t that the-”
“It was a dragon.” George dropped the stethoscope on her lap.
“I see.” She reached for his hand and clutched it, but her grip was too tight.
“Oww,” George said. “That hurts.”
She let go. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. You didn’t mean it.”
Nurse Candace removed the ice bag from his head. “I shouldn’t have done that,” she said, more to herself. “You need more ice.” She dumped the perfectly good ice into the sink and crossed to the refrigerator/freezer to refill the bag. She returned to George, sat in front of him, and set the ice bag on his head, only to stand up immediately and cross to her desk. She opened the desk drawer but she stopped, shook her head, and told herself to concentrate.
“Should I go back to class?” George asked, holding the freshly-filled ice bag on his lap.
“Miss Jennings needs me.”
“Right,” Candace said, focusing on the task at hand. She crossed back to George and pulled the privacy curtain around them, then sat right next to him. “Miss Jennings. Is she your princess?”
“She’s my teacher.”
“And she needs you. Is there someone at home who needs you? Do you have a princess at home?”
“I see. Do you protect her from the dragon?”
“And did the dragon bite you this morning?”
“It was last night.”
“I see. Well, you are a brave knight to-”
“What’s a dunce? Is that like a bully?”
“Who called you that? Your father? Your stepdad? You mother’s boyfriend?”
George shook his head.
“Did the dragon call you that?”
George nodded. “What’s a village retard? Isn’t that a stupid person?”
“Absolutely not. Look at me.” Candace held his cheek. “You’re not stupid.”
“She says he’s going to lock us up in the dungeon. She says we’re never going to get out.”
Nurse Candace put her hands on his shoulders to calm him down, but it didn’t help and George continued. “She says we’re going to die in there,” George tucked his legs into a ball. “She says-” He began to rock back and forth. “She says-” He began to pound his knees, then moved up to his head. “I’m a stupid. I’m a stupid. I’m a stupid.”
Candace stopped him with a hug.
“Let me go!” The ice bag fell to the floor and scattered its contents.
Candace let go and George flung open the curtain and ran out the door. Two school secretaries rushed into the nurse’s office, followed by the assistant principal, who left the nurse’s office to search for George. The secretaries returned to their posts and the nurse’s office became empty and silent.
After picking up the ice and wiping the floor, Nurse Candace returned to the desk and sat down. The desk drawer stuck out like an omen. She reached into the drawer for the hanging file tagged “Confidential,” and removed the file labeled “CPA.” She opened the file, pulled out a form, and set it on her desk. She stared at those bold black letters until they became clear and she could understand their meaning. “Child Protective Agency, Incident Report.” She scanned and rescanned the form for a hotline number until she found the red swollen numbers at the bottom of the form, the same numbers that matched the red and white sticker at the base of the work phone on her desk and the same numbers on the bottom of the poster.
She began to fill out the form, managed to complete “George” when she had to stop because her hand was trembling. She picked up the phone and punched the first number of the hotline, but her hand still shook and she hung up. She felt stupid. Stupid that she couldn’t calm the boy down, stupid that she had forgotten about the sticker on the phone, stupid that she touched the boy when all her training and workshops and district policy told her not to touch the children. Stupid.
Joseph Schwartz is a husband, parent, bulldog owner, teacher of English in the public square, and author of the supernatural thriller, The Crossover Test, which is available on Amazon, Smashwords, and Barnes & Noble.
Broken Dreams ~ Caroline McCoy
Why didn’t anyone stop me? Why didn’t I stop myself? But I liked it you see; the passion, the excitement, the thrill of the chase.
“I’ll not remember anyone’s name in here tonight, but I’ll remember yours,” you told me on our first meeting.
I was surprised. I was still the right side of forty but I was definitely older than you. I thought I was too old and frumpy for anyone to flirt with me in that way anymore. The flirty texts became more suggestive with each reply.
I want to play, you texted.
The last time someone had asked me to play I was ten years old and it was a game of chase. With hindsight maybe this wasn’t so different.
I was shocked and thrilled in equal measure. You made me feel alive in a way that I hadn’t felt for years. I could feel your eyes following me, burning an imprint on my soul. There was a connection between us like an invisible cord pulling us together.
Everything else faded beside the idea of you. You were a splash of bright red in a world of grey. My life wasn’t boring anymore. More to the point I wasn’t boring anymore. Someone actually thought I was attractive and sexy.
Compliments spilled like precious jewels from your silver tongue dazzling me, blinding me to the truth. I locked your words in a secret box in my heart and replayed them like music lying in bed late at night.
But I belonged to another and so did you. You told me I was over-thinking everything and no one would ever know. It would be our secret.
In Room 222 you took what you wanted without regret.
“No talking,” you said and any romantic notions I had about my knight in shining armour were dispelled in that moment.
Your hands were rough against my skin. No warmth in your touch or emotion in your eyes. You didn’t even kiss me. The tenderness I had imagined would be between us was replaced by mechanical actions. I had put you on a pedestal but now you lay broken at my feet.
When it was over I watched in quiet desperation as you dressed with clinical, efficient movements, stooping to tie up your shiny, black shoes. The muscle in your jaw quivered slightly as if you were trying to control the look of disdain that passed over your face. Who disgusted you more? Me or you?
As you left you glibly said, “Mates?”
You were gone and everything faded back to grey.
Why oh why didn’t someone stop me?
Caroline McCoy is an Irish writer struggling to indulge her passion for the written word amidst the chaos of family life!
The Produce Aisle ~ Justin W. Price
As you grab the watermelon and begin to thump, you see him squeezing a tomato. He looks different—his once long hair is now shorn and brushed, his once scruffy beard is short and shaped, his clothes fit well and he’s wearing a tie.
Wearing a tie?
Not the Jared you know. The Jared you know, the Jared you lived with for two years, used to write poems and recite them to you while wearing a tank top flecked with mustard stains and ketchup; used to get stoned, eat potato chips and wipe his greasy hands on his pants; used to dumpster dive. Remember when he found that Black Flag t-shirt on 11th and Main? He put it right on. He didn’t wash it or anything.
And now he’s wearing a tie.
You squint at him through the bright fluorescent lights, past the spritzed melons, broccoli and lettuce, glistening from the racks. It’s him. You can tell by the way he squeezes the oranges; it’s the way he used to squeeze your perky little breasts.
He loved you. It was the last thing he said as he walked out the door to buy radishes and turnips. You knew he wouldn’t come back, but didn’t know why. You waited. Every night, like a puppy for its master, but he never came back. Two years vanished like a puff of smoke, leaving only the aroma.
And now, here he is, sniffing cilantro.
C’mon. Go talk to him. Ask him why he left. Ask him where he went. Hell, ask him if he wants to go back to your place for a quickie for old times’ sake. Scream at him. Call him a son of a bitch. Walk up to him and when that glimmer of recognition reaches his eyes, tell him how much you hate him. Slap his beautiful face.
Go ask him.
He’s putting kale and onions in his cart. Ask him if he still hates cauliflower. Ask him if he still eats his salad dry. Ask him if he still makes love with his socks on. Ask him--
He doesn’t look up.
“Jared?” Louder this time.
He looks up; a brief moment of recognition crosses his face and disappears.
He looks at you with deep blue eyes. His lips don’t curl into a smile or bend into a frown. His eyes don’t sparkle or glare. “I’m sorry. You must be confused,” Jared’s voice says. A glint of light catches your eye, reflecting off the gold band on the ring finger of his left hand. “I’m sorry,” he says again.
A woman approaches. She’s blonde, blue eyed, tall, perfect. She’s the opposite of you. She sees you and cocks her head with a weird smile on her face. She looks at Jared.
You grab a bunch of kale and toss it in your cart. “My mistake. Sorry to bother you.”
Jared smiles; a smile that used to collapse your knees; a smile that used to steal your will. “No bother, miss,” he says.
As you walk away, the woman says: “Who was that, Bryan?”
And what he says next causes you to leave your cart in the store and run out the door.
“It was just a mistake. She’s nobody.
originally published by Literary Juice
Justin W. Price is the author of the poetry collection Digging to China and lives in a suburb of Portland, Oregon with his wife and two dogs.
When asked how he killed so many Germans during Operation Totalise, Scott Trevor said: “I just kept firing my rifle and the Germans just kept jumping in front of the bullets like they were chasing butterflies in a wildflower field on Sacred Sunday.”
“Can you give a Victoria Cross to a lad who thinks of things like that when he’s killing the enemy?” Maj. Perceval Switt directed the question to his American counterpart sitting in the cane chair to his right. Mrs. Minnie Farthington regularly invited the lesser officers for tea at her small country house east of Southwick House where Ike and Monty resolved their invasion squabbles. After stuffing Majors and Captains and Lieutenants with biscuits and tea, she’d leave them in the Palm Room with her liquor and their cigars without excuse or apology—habits that made her extremely popular.
Major Simpson took a puff of his panatela. “Still, killing fifteen enemies is an accomplishment worth noting.”
Switt finished off his third brandy. “He made it sound like the Germans did the heavy lifting. Valor requires a little less ho-hum and a little more gung-ho.”
“Think he’s light on his toes?” Major Connelly said after giving the room a quick scan and lowering his voice. He wondered if pygmy palms and alocasia possessed plant memory, a theory his uncle had developed shortly before his retirement from San Diego’s Botanical Gardens.
“Worse than that,” Switt said.
“He’s not a Commie.” Connelly patted his side-arm.
“No,” Switt said immediately. “He seems to have a sense of humor.”
“Not a bad trait in wartime. Dr. Klein says it can save your sanity.” Simpson said.
“Let’s not forget Captain Klein was a New York obstetrician before he wore a uniform,” Connelly said before wandering back to the tea cart where an orphaned Lady Finger motioned him closer.
Switt gave Simpson a disapproving nod at Connelly’s departure. “The hold-up in this medal business, is that the fifteen krauts Trevor dispatched may have surrendered before their demise.”
Connelly dusted crumbs from his moustache, oblivious to Switt’s censure. “Rules of engagement are always made by people who never go near a battlefield. Who goes to war expecting a mulligan if operations go south?”
“Protocols exist for a reason. People appreciate being told how to act in uncertain situations,” Switt grumbled.
Connelly sat down, positioning himself across from Switt so the man would be forced to look at him. “Battlefields aren’t uncertain. If you don’t kill the guy who’s been trained to kill you, you’re gonn’a be real dead, real fast.”
“Or real hungry,” Simpson said, grinning.
Switt, uncharacteristically, jumped up and loudly uttered what became his last words. “Americans! Rude enough to eat the last cookie.”
In an interview after court marshal of Major Connelly, and the execution of Scott Trevor, Major Simpson intimated that Switt’s death was Minnie Farthington’s fault. “It’s a well-known fact that the presence of women curb the primitive instincts of men, especially when there’s alcohol and protocols involved.” Dr. Klein concurred, adding that civilization would be impossible without the ladies.
Jenean McBrearty is retired teacher who spends her time taking on-line classes, drinking tea, and pretending she's a princess or, on a cloudy day, Norma Desmond. Website: Jenean-McBrearty.com