Vancouver Courier fiction contest winner November 2005
Rico and Janette are bundled in thick, wool uniforms, but still they huddle in a corner of the train station, hoping to avoid the wind. The cement beneath their boots trembles with the approach of rumbling tonnage. Air currents are pushed aside. Stray autumn leaves, gilt-edged and crisp, waltz around the platform. When the train opens its doors, they observe the rhythm of human tide. The arriving crowd gathers and crests, then disembarks and swishes past as they exit, and the departing crowd pauses and waits, then surges forward and recedes as they enter. The doors shut like metal curtains. After the train has gone and the quiet night returns, Rico resumes talking about his son’s progress in chef training school.
“This head chef thinks Fernando has the gift, has taken him under his wing.”
He pronounces chef like the “ch” in chest. Hearing this, Janette restrains a grin—Francine, too, would have laughed and enjoyed his accent. A gust of wind tussles her hair. An auburn tendril pulls free, tickling her cheek.
“That’s great, Rico. Good for his career.”
“But he is demanding. My son, he says chefs can be like, how you say, prima donnas. But not my Fernando. He won’t become like that.”
Hearing the pride in his voice, she swallows, pushing down the upsurge in her throat. When other parents talk of their children she feels hollowed out, a husk waiting for wind. Three years ago her daughter was killed in a car accident—drinking and driving. Francine would have been eighteen this year.
“Did you bring your supper?” Rico asks.
“No. Did you?”
“No. I will go to Broadway and have pizza.”
Their talk often turns to food. Each evening they ask each other the exact same questions. What did you bring for supper? Where did you go for your dinner break? What did you have? In the time between trains, their queries punctuate stretches of boredom with anticipated pleasure.
Rico looks down the length of track toward downtown. Inky clouds have obscured the high rises, transforming them into daubs of soft watercolor pinks, wavy towers of lemony gold. Another train is coming. As it hurtles along in the distance, its length of glowing windows reminds him of film stock running beneath the light of a projector.
“I’m making dinner for an old friend this weekend,” she says “I was thinking of lamb. But I’ve never cooked lamb before.”
“No. Can you believe it?”
“I will get you a special recipe. You know, chefs guard their recipes, but my son, he will give me one.”
“That would be a big help. I don’t know what I was thinking, inviting him for dinner.”
Rico doesn’t hear her last sentence. The train barrels in, filling the station with its roaring, snatching her words from the air between them. Then he assists a woman with some luggage, carrying it outside to a waiting taxi.
Michael was five years younger than Janette, the tour guide on her trip to Cuba. Their affair began at dusk, one evening in their crumbling, magnificent hotel. The electricity was out. There was a storm. White fizzle-cracks pierced the cerulean sky. Far-off, over the indigo Caribbean sea, the rumbles sounded like god’s hunger pangs. Her eyes were tracing the route of jagged fissures on the ceiling above the bed when she heard tapping upon her door.
He nicknamed her his chicken burrito during an afternoon siesta. They had gone to the beach in the morning and the big ocean swells scared her. He made chicken squawks, flapped his elbows. At the hotel they had a shower and afterwards she wrapped a corn-coloured towel around her tanned body. He tackled her and they tumbled on the bed’s rumpled sheets. Their damp skin dried in the air being stirred by a languid ceiling fan. He spooned his bronze body against her back, hugged her and cooed campy appreciation into her ear.
“A grilled chicken burrito, when handled properly and with the right amount of agility, can be a frightening thing.” After he said “frightening” he grazed her neck and they made love again.
When she disembarked the plane at Vancouver International, it was raining. Michael took a direct flight from Havana to Toronto. For a while she pondered whether in fact she had been handled properly, with the right amount of agility. Later she accepted that she was one link in a necklace of lovers he kept dangling, one of many semi-precious stones. He kept in touch, sent occasional emails punctuated with emoticons that made her feel like she was back in grade six. Hi! And there would be a happy face icon. I’m in Madrid and lovin’ it! And there would be a wine glass. Still, she didn’t really mind. She was thirty-three at the time, divorced, a single mother raising a young daughter.
When he called a few days ago she realized just how much everything had so irrevocably changed—she recognized his voice, felt like a stranger in her own skin.
“Hola, how’s my little burrito?”
His wry, testy tone made her acutely aware that she was in a grey tracksuit, parked on a couch, that he would be able to hear the TV in the background. She hit the mute button.
“Oh, I’m okay.” And then as an afterthought, because her reply didn’t sound very appealing, because she thought she should at least try, she added, “Good, good! Doing well! And you? Where are you off to now?”
“On my way to Fidel Island. Couldn’t get a connector and have to layover Saturday. It’d be great to see you. Want to come out and play?”
“What about coming over here? I’ll cook dinner.”
At his home late in the morning, Rico stands in his terry bathrobe and watches his son rush to and fro. Fernando snatches up his car keys from the black marble counter in the kitchen.
“Wait. Just tell me a recipe for lamb. It’s for a nice lady at work.”
“Gotta go, papa.”
Fernando scoops his bomber jacket from a tufted chair in the dining room and when he strides past, Rico smells new cowhide.
“She needs it right away. Come on.”
“What kind? Rack or roast? Steaks or ground?” his son says over his shoulder.
Years ago, when they were preparing to emigrate from Peru to Canada, Rico’s grandmother, who was then eighty-three, spread her faded tarot cards upon an onyx tabletop: her great-grandson would become rich in material things, cosas, poor in corazon. Sadness would befall the family—unless they remained in Lima. At the time Rico thought her predictions were merely the manifestations of a matriarch’s lament. But then, after his wife left, ostensibly returning to care for her ailing mother, Rico began to wonder.
Fernando is jingling his car keys in irritation.
“She didn’t say what kind. She just said lamb.”
“Then tell her to throw some salt on it, a sprig of rosemary. See you later, papa. Have a good shift.”
Rico hears the door slam.
He makes a tomato and cheese sandwich on rye, then boils the kettle for his thermos. He gathers his wool coat and cap and lays them on the rose velvet chair by the door, places his work boots neatly between the chair legs. Then he turns on the computer, goes online and Googles lamb recipes.
There are so many. Thousands upon thousands. He finds recipes for Mongolian Lamb, Ankara Lamb, even Robert Redford’s Lamb Chili with Black Beans. Then he clicks into a website called Everyday Recipes for Everyday People. He wants to find one that is good and reliable, with subtle flavours, one that will leave a robust finish on the palate (he heard Fernando say this), one that will go with Merlot and old friends.
At the station, Rico gives Janette his hand-written recipe. It calls for a butterflied leg in a marinade of olive oil, soy sauce, garlic, lemon, thyme and rosemary.
“Fernando has been testing this and says it is very good. For any kind. Rack or roasted, steaks or ground.”
He doesn’t like to lie but disappointing her would be worse.
“Thanks, Rico!” Janette feels inordinately grateful, tucks the paper in her pocket and though it’s a one-way ticket to paradise.
The day before Michael is coming over, six bottles of Dos Equis are frosty in the fridge. She has dusted off the wine rack and positioned a bottle of Chilean Merlot. Deciding it would be more fun, she changed her menu plan and shopped for burrito ingredients instead. She sautéed diced chicken with onions, garlic, cumin, dried chipotle peppers and chili sauce.
She even bought a new dress and had her hair cut and styled. She cleaned the apartment and removed all but one of Francine’s photos that were clustered on the windowsill, leaving the one in the pine frame taken at the VanDusen Gardens’ annual Christmas light show—her beautiful girl pretending to kiss a snowman.
Michael rang just before boarding. She heard him say wait list, last minute cancellation, an empty seat he couldn’t pass up.
When trains leave the station, Janette has the habit of looking to see if anyone sits in the last window of the last car. She likes to see an anonymous face watching the rails, likes to imagine that when the parallel lines are fading out into the far distance, the person feels that his worries are fading out, too.
“Thanks for that recipe,” she says as she rubs her gloves together and stamps her boots. She doesn’t have the heart to tell Rico she didn’t use it. “And say thanks to your son for me, please. The lamb turned out delicious.”
“You are very welcome. Did you bring your lunch today?”
“Uh, yes, but chicken. You?”
“Brought mine, too. Just a sandwich.”
Then they receive a call on their radios from the control center.
“Passenger has reported a medical emergency on your next incoming.”
The train rolls in and when the doors part, they see a teenager slumped sideways across the seats. Her body looks like a sapling that has been snapped across the middle by some large force. Janette finds a pulse on her wrist, calls for an ambulance. Rico bends and tenderly lifts the stringy red hair from her face. Janette feels her forehead. Her skin is pale and cool. Her chin and cheeks are covered in the raw, red sores of crystal meth addicts.
The girl looks so much like Francine that for some moments Janette doesn’t hear what’s being said behind her.
A young man wearing waxy clothes, his spine loose like a cooked noodle from the drugs he’s using, is attempting to play the role of advocate. He jellies around, lurching in and out as he tries for closer inspection.
“Oh man, she’s fried, man, you guys should, like, err on the side of compassion, she’s, like, she’s not doin’ too good.”
Later, after the ambulance has taken the girl to hospital, Janette and Rico sit beneath a florescent tube in a cement utility room. The room is just large enough to contain emergency ladders, red sandwich boards for posting notices of train service interruptions, a cardboard box containing incident and personal injury forms, and a square table for two. Rico pours tea from his stainless flask into his cup and hers.
“Mmmm, black current,” she says, sipping through carefully pursed lips.
“I buy it for the picture on the side of the box. Drink this tea, I go to that miniature village where it’s a perfect world.”
She smiles, watches how he folds the brown utility paper over the crumbs from his rye sandwich, the way he presses the edges to make a tidy rectangle. He tosses it into the garbage can.
“Let me tell you the truth about that recipe,” she says, squinting as she holds her glasses up to the bright glare. Using the hem of her cotton turtleneck, she wipes from the lens a fine dusting of mist and grit. “I don’t know what on earth I was thinking…”