Thursday, November 27, 2003

Fish Sticks

Fish Sticks
Ashley Harper

Toni looked up from her fish sticks and Le Seur peas. She felt the remote in her hand and glanced at her son twisting the ring in his eyebrow -- three times daily as instructed. Quite suddenly her husband’s knee happened to relax against her own, and her leg gave a spasm that she could almost hear.

There was a spot of ketchup on her blouse just where her right nipple touched the discount material. Her husband burped and was silent. The Brazilian pop band struck up loudly in her daughter’s bedroom, and Toni’s instinct to flee the house made her toes ache.

She put her fork down and lifted her TV tray to the side. In the kitchen, she pushed the swinging door shut, and paused in front of the sink. There was a Pyrex dish that her son had put in the microwave to melt baking chocolate, his favorite after school snack, and the white surface of the ceramic was webbed with cracks like dropped peanut brittle. Wet popcorn floated in a two-dollar wineglass. Two fingers of the powder yellow Playtex gloves that she used to wash dishes reached out from beneath a heavy pan that was filled with soapy water. A black crust of white rice lifted listlessly from its burned bottom and wavered gracefully like the hair of a mermaid.

Toni turned to look at the cabinets. The doors had begun to flake; their eggshell gloss leaned away in pieces. Slowly, she reached her hand up to a knob and pulled open a door. It creaked like storm cellar, high and wistful.

Peter Pan Crunchy
Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom
Campbell’s Cream of Celery
Campbell’s Cream of Tomato
Save-Rite soda crackers
Green Giant corn
Hershey’s cocoa
Canned tomatoes
Shur-Fine Macaroni and Cheese, 4 boxes

Where were the sun-dried tomatoes? The sesame seeds and walnuts? Why did she feel as if that stray bay leaf had been in the same jar since Aaron’s thirteenth birthday? Did she really use Lawrey’s seasoning salt? How long had it been since she had kept crystallized ginger or capers in her home? Hadn’t she once been a vegetarian, or was that one of the characters in a book Oprah had urged her to read? It all ran together, the years before and the years since, like a thawed casserole that swam in shallow ice water.

She closed the cabinet and chewed the nub of her thumbnail. Was she humming, or was that the refrigerator? She stood to face the Kenmore and the slovenly mementos that curled up beneath magnets from the Statue of Liberty and Pigeon Forge. She opened the door which made a quick sucking noise, thwuck. The light poured forth, and Toni touched her hand delicately to her mouth, where it trembled like a fruit fly before a soft melon. She bent forward and leaned into the glare.

Maraschino cherries, one jar green
Maraschino cherries, one jar red
One can V8 juice, crusting slightly at the spout
A box of wine
Leftover tuna lasagna
Leftover fruit salad, the bananas humped together like something her cat might noisily expel in the corner of her bedroom.
A mug of cold coffee with a web of milk coasting along the surface
An opened package of double A batteries
Irish cream Coffee-Mate

But, what was. . .there in the back. . .behind the Tupperware with the bulging lid that threatened to blow a four-week-old cucumber and vinegar salad through the open door. A tiny transparent jar with a black paper label and gold scalloped edges. There was a thin indigo strip across the lid, a seal to ensure the freshness and quality of such an exotic and delicate imported product! It was a jar of pimentos! And, and, and there were black and green peppercorns floating in the silky olive oil that cushioned the fleshy red pulp! But when, where had it come from? How could such a thing be there, shoulder to shoulder with the Cracker Barrel caramel topping? Tucked away like a mother’s milky pearls, like a flattened orchid corsage, a square of Ariquipeñan chocolate, or a wedge of frozen lemon chiffon wedding cake.

Toni reached timidly for the jar, but drew her hand back, unsure. The jar glistened with condensation. The fruit-- for weren’t pimentos really a fruit?—drifted in their oily preservative, suspended and dreamlike. Toni’s eyes widened; she bit her lips. Again she reached, this time taking hold of the precious condiment and pulling it reverently out of the refrigerator. She rubbed her finger along the blue sealing paper, not noticing the letters spelled out across it, not seeing her son’s name and grade section, or the title of his lab experiment written in a beautiful felt tip cursive across the blue tape.

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