Kiss The Cook
By Edward Musto
Edward Musto’s trio of plays, “An Evening of Murder and the Like,” was nominated for the Edgar Award for Best play in 2004. Primarily a playwright, he has only recently begun to try his hand at prose. He lives in New York.
He was at the butcher block in his tidy kitchen. A spread of vegetables was to his left and he was chopping them with his best chef's knife. His girlfriend had given it to him as a housewarming gift the year before. He took as good care of it as he did the cutlery at the restaurant. The knife was kept clean and sharpened often.
The clock read a little before eleven. She would be coming home just about this time and he wanted to call her. He washed his hands, then dried them on his apron, the one that invited anyone who saw it to "Kiss the Cook." He placed his call and got the machine.
"You've reached 555-3029." It was his own voice to which he was listening. "We can't come to the phone right now, but if you leave a name and number at the sound of the beep, we'll get back to you."
Because women, particularly single women, were often the targets of predatory males, he reasoned a man's voice on her machine would discourage a man with his heart set on no good. "Hi, honey, it's me," he said. "I just wanted to be the first to say welcome home, but I guess I'm jumping the gun a little. Oh, well. I'll try again later. Hope you like the roses. Bye."
He hung up and went back to chopping vegetables. He was preparing one of her favoritesa meal-in-itself chef's salad. Very healthy. Three kinds of lettuce, celery, cucumbers, tomatoes, spinach. She preferred just a hint of garlic, so he took a clove and rubbed it on the inside of the bowl. He glanced over at all the other goodies waiting to be sliced and dicedsmoked turkey, ham, Swiss cheese, olives, and hard-cooked eggs.
But his doting was not limited to cookery. He knew she would need help around the house and made arrangements for his brother to fill in for him at the restaurant. That would enable him to do all the things she could not do for herselfdrop off laundry, get prescriptions filled, pick up videos, and keep everything in the apartment, including her, as clean as a whistle. He was determined to be around for whatever whenever.
He realized he'd forgotten to ask her if she needed anything. He held the phone to his ear as he chopped one of the cucumbers. He waited for the beep, then left another message.
"It's just me, hon," he said. "I forgot to ask if you need anything."
But he doubted that there was anything she would need him to bring. Just the day before he'd bought out the drug store. He had medicines, magazines, candy, cigarettes, cosmetics, stationery items, and for-girls-only products all neatly packed in a small canvas tote bag.
"I can be at your place in five minutes armed with extra pillows, chicken soup, Vick's VapoRub, whatever the doctor says is good for broken bones," he said. "If you want to sleep, kindly note I can be as quiet as a mouse. On the other hand, if you're up for some company, I can provide you with sparkling conversation, dry wit, loving looks, and a mean game of cribbage. Strip poker, too, if you feel like it. Don't worry. You only have to strip down to your bandages. I won't rest until you're resting easy in your easy chair. My rate is a kiss an hour, but we'll talk business later."
He hung up and went back to chopping vegetables.
She preferred the cucumbers skinned, but he knew better. That thick, bitter dark-green covering held all the vitamins. As a slight compromise he made the slices onionskin-thin. He could do anything with a knife.
He glanced at the clock. Curious she wasn't home yet, he thought. Hospitals discharged patients as early as possible. They didn't want you there anymore than you wanted to be there. Depressing places, hospitals. He'd always felt so. Creepy. He was a self-admitted "big 'fraidy-cat" when it came to them.
Guilt flooded over him. He hadn't visited her. Not once. He assumed she understood. Hoped she would. Maybe the roses would help make up for his absence.
After all, he hadn't just run to the corner florist. He went half a mile out of his way to the more expensive shop he knew she preferred and purchased a dozen red roses in a beautiful blue-and-white porcelain vase.
It had been easy to convince the super to let him in. He'd seen him coming and going so often he didn't think anything of it. "You can even watch me," he offered. "I'm just going to slip these in on the table and pop right out again."
"I guess it'd be all right," the super had said, taking out his passkey.
This afternoon had been the first time he'd ever spoken to the man. He watched as the super put the key in the lock and gave him this little wink as he unlocked the door to her apartment. Pretty nice fellow.
Then he remembered. She didn't like him being in the apartment when she wasn't there. It was a sore point with her. He'd overstepped his bounds once or twice, or so she felt, and he'd been forced to relinquish the key she'd given him. He certainly didn't want her angry with him, today of all days, so once again he picked up the phone.
"Me again," he said into the machine. "Listen, before you get mad, I do know you don't like me to be in your apartment when you're not there. I only asked the super to let me in because I wanted to make sure the flowers would be there when you got home. Your super thinksand so do Ithe roses will make up for any infractions of your privacy. They're also my way of saying I'm sorry."
He replaced the receiver and went back to chopping vegetables. Deep in thought, he stopped work for a moment. Another wave of guilt descended upon him. He dialed the phone again.
"You know, when I said I was sorry well, I'm not just sorry for not visiting," he said into the machine. "I'm sorry about the fight we had, too."
He'd said some pretty mean things that night. Par for the course whenever he flew off the handle. Half the time he didn't even know what he was saying. His jealousy and temper would get the better of him. He'd make all sorts of accusations that deep down he knew weren't true.
Earlier today he'd thought about the argument. She'd stormed out of his apartment and lost her footing on the stairs leading down to the street door. She could have died. His last words to her would have been that he hated her. Fortunately she was sparedand so was he. Two broken ribs and an assortment of bumps and bruises, all of which would heal with time and fade from memory.
"Forgive me?" he asked. "I love you. You do know that, don't you? Don't you?"
Smiling, he hung up and returned to the butcher block. He rinsed the tomatoes and then sliced them into wedges, which he then cut in half. One of his favorite sounds was a knife piercing the skin.
But what if she didn't forgive him? It didn't matter she was only in the hospital for a short time. Women cared about such things and his absence would hardly endear him to her. But he'd been attentive in nearly every other way, hadn't he? He never stepped out on her. He was always glad to help her out financially. He felt as comfortable in her apartment as he did in his own. More so.
Except for the easy chair. That he couldn't figure out. A woman of quiet graciousness, she had a refined taste and it showed in the way she furnished her apartment and in spite of her paltry means. But the easy chair was one piece of furniture that seemed strangely out of place. It didn't fit with the rest of the furnishings, much of which had been gifts from him, and he resented the monstrosity. It was obviously something from her life before she'd met him, which would explain her stubborn refusal to part with it. Deep down, though, he couldn't believe she really liked the chair. No, she was just making a point. Naturally, this made him all the more anxious to get rid of it.
He'd tried everything he could think of to have his way.
"Honey, how can you like that thing?" he said, jokingly. "It's worn and overstuffed and nondescript."
"Like me," she said.
He'd laughed dutifully, letting her win that round, but he had a plan. Her birthday wasn't far off and the other day he'd noticed What's-Their-Name's was having a sale. If he bought her the fine chair he saw in the window, she certainly wouldn't insult him by refusing it and the room couldn't accommodate two easy chairs. He would have his wayand so would she.
He grabbed the can of pitted olives. The electric can opener was misbehaving, though, so he used the old-fashioned one. He opened the can, but nicked his finger on the sharp edge of the lid. The metal sneaked in under his thumbnail and swiped him good. He cried out, more from irritation than pain, and accidentally knocked the can over onto the floor. He cursed, then looked for something to hit. He stopped himself, regained his composure then stuck his hand under the tap. Cold water would help numb the hurt. He scooped up the olives, chucked them out, then ran a quick mop across the floor.
He reached for one of the eggs, intending to peel and slice it, but to his dismay the eggshell cracked and raw egg covered his hands. Evidently he'd forgotten to cook them. He cursed himself, but didn't really take the blame. To him the little tragedies of day-to-day living verified his intrinsic belief that nothing ever worked out as planned. Chaos lay in wait, for him in particular. Open a can and get cut. Prepare a meal and it gets ruined. Make a gift of something and it's politely declined. Occasionally he would try to boost his psyche to a more positive sphere, but he never could release the sorry truth something odious nestled behind even the most innocuous of events.
Such as the friendly wink the super had given him. At the time he didn't think anything of it. He just thought it was a kind of comprehension of his situation and pleasure he was able to aid the cause of love.
But now he wasn't sure. It was probably nothing, but it was always better not to take chances. So many nuts running around. The more he recalled it, the more insidious that wink became.
He placed another call.
"Guess who." He tried to sound light-hearted. He apologized for using up so much of the answering machine tape, but he did want to inform her of the odd behavior of her superintendent.
"You might want to keep an eye out for this guy," he said. "If he gets to bothering you, just let me know and I'll take care of him. I know that sounds territorial. That's the word you use to describe me sometimes, isn't it? Ha, ha! Anyway, take care and call me when you get in."
He started in on the wedge of Swiss cheese. He started cutting it in slivers, but he grew impatient and quickly cut it into chunks. Something was nagging at him. He kept flashing back to that wink the super had given him when he opened the door to his girlfriend's apartment. The more he recollected it, the more it seemed like camaraderie of some sort, as if they had something in commonor shared something.
Within minutes he was back on the phone, leaving another message.
"Quick question," he said, full of concern. "How much do you know about your super? I ask because of that wink he gave me. At the time I didn't think anything of it. But now I don't know."
He remembered details about the super he'd never considered before. Supers he'd dealt with in the past usually fell into one of two categories. Either they were family men whose practical knowledge of home repair enabled them to work part-time in exchange for a rent-free apartment, or they were irritable old men good for little except hanging out on the stoop, watching the comings and goings. But this fellow was considerably younger than most handymen and pretty well put together. Good build, handsome face, pleasing manner. He dressed well. No ratty sweaters and oil-stained green work shirts for him. No wedding band, either.
"Hey, you're not sleeping with him, are you?"
The words were out of his mouth before he knew it, but he tried to cover. "Just kidding," he said, laughing.
She couldn't be, he told himself. She wouldn't do such a thing. Didn't she know that would destroy him, destroy him completely? She couldn't do that to him.
He was doing it again. Letting his imagination run away with him.
Well, this time he would not be a victim to his own paranoia. He smiled, feeling pleased with himself. Calmly he brought the receiver back up to speak.
"Forget this message," he said cheerfully. "It's stupid. I'm stupid. This is the most stupid message anyone has ever left anyone. Your stupid boyfriend signing off."
He hung up.
He went back to the table.
He cut up meat.
He did it with relish.
The super could have a key to her apartment, but not him. A strange man, yes; her boyfriend, no. Made a lot of sense.
He tried to calm himself. So the super had a key to her apartment. Didn't they always?
No; not really. He remembered the summer before last. While he was on vacation, one of the pipes under the floor tiles in his bathroom burst. Water gushed into the apartment below. It took the super an hour to get into his place. They'd had to call a locksmith. Because the super didn't have a key. Even the landlord didn't have a key to his apartment.
Calmly he stopped cutting and wiped his hands. He went to the phone and dialed. The answering machine came on. His voice was as collected as he could make it. He told her his experience from the summer before last.
"You see what I'm saying, don't you?" he said. "The super of your building only has a key because you want him to. Why do you want him to? I'm curious. What possible reason could there be that he has to have a key to your apartment? Are you sleeping with this guy? You'd tell me if you were, wouldn't you? And if you are, you haven't told everyone you know except me, have you? Because that's always a bitter pill to swallow. We have to talk about this. We have to get this straightened out. Call me. When you get in, give a call to your stupid boyfriendwho's a lot smarter than you think."
He hung up and went back to the butcher block, thought for a moment, then immediately made another call. He had been such a fool. Of course she was sleeping with him. How long did she think she could keep such a secret from him? He wondered which of her girlfriends she'd told about her tawdry little affair. And how many of them told their boyfriends, some of whom were friends of his. He felt the color come to his face, the flush of the public humiliation he knew was comingand what he dreaded more than anything.
But, he realized, he was as despondent as he was angry. He couldn't give her an ultimatum. What if she decided she no longer wanted him? Then he'd be out. Out for good. He had to remind her how much she meant to him, how much he meant to her. He would appeal to the part of her that was rational. He would appeal to her logic and sense of fairness. He picked up the phone again.
"Look, if something's wrong between us, we should be able to talk it out," he said. "There's no reason why two grown adults can't talk out their differences."
There was a tad of desperation in his voice, but he forged on. He tried to explain how, if their relationship was indeed over, that at least they could come to some kind of resolution that would leave them both with a modicum of pride. To him that was the worst part of a woman stepping out on him. Being made a fool of. Being laughed at. He wondered if that was what she and her handy handyman did when they were together. He pictured them sprawled out on the sofa. He pictured him settled into the easy chair he hated. He imagined her in his lap. He could practically hear their giggling. She would share with him secrets about him she swore she'd keep private, his embarrassments, his bad habits, his peculiarities, his weaknesses, his failures.
She'd deny doing anything of the kind. She always did. But he knew differently. He knew what she was going to say even before she did. She'd tell him it was all in his imagination. She'd say he was getting too possessive. He was smothering her. She needed her space. The usual.
Anytime a woman wanted more space, she was on the prowl for another guy. He knew women. Well, if she thought he was going to fork her over, no questions asked, she had another thing coming!
He slammed down the phone. His throat hurt from having hollered so much, but he couldn't remember a word he said. His hands shook as he picked up the knife again. He hacked away at the meat. Chunks of ham sputtered in all directions. In a spasm of anger, he swept the bowl off the table and it crashed to the floor. He thrust the knife into the table with a force stronger than his grip on the handle and his hand slipped down over the blade. He let out a cry of pain. Blood flowed from the cut across his palm. He grabbed the phone. Blood smeared the receiver and the faceplate as he dialed. He got his own voice on the machine once again. The beep took forever.
"I'm such a dope!" he exclaimed. "I've been going on, leaving messages on your machine. Suddenly it occurs to me. You're there, aren't you? You've been there the whole time! I'm worried about how you're getting home, how much pain you're in, how you're going to manage. But you're there. You're there. You're there all this time. You're listening to my messages as I leave them, aren't you? You don't even pick up the phone. You just sit back in that easy chair of yours and have a good laugh with the guy you're throwing me over for!"
How could she do it, he asked himself. How could she write off a guy who'd lay down his life for her, who loved her like no one ever had or ever would? He couldn't understand it. Didn't that header she took down the stairs knock any sense into her? She'd only tripped that night because she hadn't been paying attention to what was going on. He hadn't meant to hurt her and he didn't mean to now, but they kept having the same fight because she kept denying what they were to one another.
"I'm too big a part of your life to just dismiss," he heard himself saying. "The sooner you admit that to yourself, the better off you'll be!"
Surely she couldn't argue with that. All she had to do was take a cursory glance around her apartment. Photos of them were everywhere. He had his own drawer in her dresser. His favorite coffee mug was kept in her cupboard. The medicine cabinet held his after-shave and cologne, his toothbrush, his allergy pills, and a spare razor. Half the books in the apartment were his. Most of the tapes. Practically all of the videos. As many of his clothes hung in her closets as his own.
"I'm all over that place," he said. "You can't get rid of me any more than you can get rid of the smell of the roses I brought. Throw them out, if you want. Cut off the blossoms, one by one. Have a vase of stems, with messy red pools lying about in the rugs. Smell'll still linger. What do I have to do to get your attention? Go over and trash the place? Or maybe just that easy chair you have such affection for! Next time I come over I'm going to bring my big kitchen knife with me. I'm going to push it into the upholstery with all the strength I can muster. I'm going to twist the knife so the blade makes wounds big enough that the insides come dropping out. I'm going to fracture every brittle limb in its skeleton. I'm going to break its arms, shatter its legs, then lay the torn, broken, ugly thing face down and stomp on its back till I hear it crack!"
He slammed down the receiver. There was blood all over the phone. He remembered his cut, but took a few moments to recompose himself before tending to it. The kitchen needed tidying and he cleaned up quickly. Guilt seized him as he wiped the blood off the phone. Again he found himself dialing.
It was never too late to apologize, he told himself. And it was never too late to forgive. After all this time she knew his nature. He had said some dreadful things, but she knew enough about him to know he was all bark. The reason she didn't pick up the phone was undoubtedly that she wasn't home yet. No doubt she was caught in the red tape of discharge papers and patient escorts running behind schedule. Still, though, there was the possibility she would not forgive him this time.
This gnawed at him as he waited for the machine to come on.
If only he could get rid of all the messages he left on her machine. She really didn't need to hear the wretched things he said.
Maybe if he went over again. He checked his watch. There was still time.
He heard his own voice on the machine and he waited for the beep.
The apartment was only five minutes away. The super would let him in again. Then all he had to do was erase the messages on the machine and leave. No harm in that.
A long beep came on, but he hung up before it even finished. He took off his apron and tossed it onto a chair. He threw on his jacket and started out the door. Yet he couldn't be sure she wasn't with that guy and avoiding his calls and all the time laughing at him and she wouldn't think it was so funny if she saw him murderously slash the chair he hated more than anything in the world. That would show her. He went back for the knife, slid it under his coat, and raced out the door.
Edward Musto ©2006
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