I love having guest posts and Binko has done another one! Enjoy! ~PWSux
My ex-husband turned 55 this week. He’s no Marlboro Man. The closest he’s been to a horse is the ticket counter at the Sunland Race Park in El Paso, unless you count the horse-faced girl of nineteen who I caught, well, nevermind. It’s all slop under the trough, twelve years post-divorce, and in the best interests of our two sons, I keep it kind. So, I decided to make him a birthday surprise: Edna Mae’s Escalloped Cabbage, a recipe straight from the horse’s… oops, I mean The Pioneer Woman’s keyboard.
I read the recipe with some trepidation. The ingredient list mostly consists of processed goodies – Cheez Whiz and Cream of Whatever soup – along with a head of cabbage and a little paprika for color.
“I recommend it without reservation!” Pioneer Woman enthusiastically chirps under a photograph of a rectangular Pyrex pan filled with rows of artfully placed cabbage lumps.
I headed off to the local grocers to purchase the necessary components of concoction.
Now, this wasn’t in the recipe, but I figured it would give me the gumption to call the ex and invite him over for dinner:
I set the wine in my basket and headed around the store, marking one item, then another, from my shopping list. A man stood in front of Wal-Mart’s “Great Value” branded milk, both arms balancing an overstuffed hand basket filled with Twinkies, Sara Lee pound cake, two Hungry Man dinners – Salisbury Steak and Chicken Cacciatore, a clear plastic box filled with fake butter croissants. I looked at my own push basket. The wine, two hefty cabbages, a dozen free-range eggs, six lemons, two bunches of cilantro, a pound of seeded grapes, a box of pressed soy, broccoli, a carton of organic low fat milk, one large can of Cream of Chicken Soup, one glass jar of Cheez Whiz.
“Heh. You must be one of those healthy people.”
He leered at my basket, as if it sprouted cantaloupe breasts. He held his goods close, but his girth prevented his nose from inhaling the imprinted cardboard housing his treats.
“I just try to eat low on the food chain. I have kids. I have to teach them how to eat. Except for the Cheez Whiz and goopy soup, but I can tell ya, that’s an aberration.”
A woman to my left turned around, stared at my sparse goods, then moved her purse, her torso, so I couldn’t measure her motherhood. Her toddler shifted in the grocery cart seat, tried to lurch and grab a small bottle of chocolate milk. She screamed when her mom slapped her wrist, her yellow-ribboned ponytail cracking like thunder. I tried not to wince at my self-righteous words. I wished I kept quiet, just laughed at the man with the heart attack horn of plenty instead of handing him a shopping list of the ways I think I’m better.
“What the hell is a person like you doing here?”
The man laughed as he spoke. His groceries rose and fell with the shake of his belly. I knew what he meant, knew the Wal-Mart stocked tofu for the short list of people like me, people who lived in this cattle-fed quadrant of the west despite, well, things like Cheez Whiz and Cream of Roadkill.
“I like it here. Where else should I live?”
He laughed. He liked my answer, and his cheeks echoed red like a school girl, as if somehow I told him those secret dirty thoughts I only dared uncork late at night when my boys slept under heavy blankets.
“I teach astronomy at the university. I wasn’t planning on shopping, but I can’t stop thinking about what’s out there. I mean Out There. You know? Some of my colleagues think there may be as many as sixty-five Earth-like planets for every basic star we’ve found. If this ratio holds, we’re talking sixty-seven billion habitable planets in our galaxy. One galaxy. One galaxy in a sea of countless.”
I imagined it as his groceries jiggled. A tide of intelligence, as if every calorie in his basket was a planet, he was a sun, he was his own galaxy, a black hole at the center, a black hole munching Twinkies, gulping statistics, swallowing us whole, us whole.
And then it happened. The woman shifted her cart, and her toddler lurched for my Cheez Whiz as they headed toward toilet paper and other disposable necessities. The little girl knocked her head against my arm. I didn’t expect it. I fell into the dairy case’s cart guard, a slim metal slice that rose from ground to knee level. And knee level it was! It caught my left leg, torn the knee from one side to the other. A geyser of blood squired from gaping hole to a pile of swiss cheese blocks, spotting them like expensive koi.
WARNING GROSS IMAGE: My injury (click to see!)
I tore the scarf from my ponytail and wrapped it around my knee and stood in line at the checkout. Blood seeped through the thin gauzy material. I should have visited Customer Service, should have asked for antiseptic and bandage. But I had a Pioneer Woman cabbage dinner to make! I paid for my goodies and drove like the wind to the local urgent care:
WARNING GROSS IMAGE: Knee is cleaned and prepped for stitches, click to see
Back at home, leg locked straight for two days, I began my preparations. I poured a generous glass of cabernet and set to work:
Get yer cabbage and hold ‘em up to your boobies. You know the drill, girls:
Place cabbage on your state-of-the-art cutting board – no, no, no, NOT Williams and Sonoma, a piece of counter top that ya purchased from the Salvation Army:
Cut the cabbage into sections:
Now, the recipe invites the cook to parboil the cabbage, then to arrange the sections elegant symmetrical rows within the confines of a glass pan. Kind of like lines of cocaine, I figure. I lost my Pyrex (and my mind, obviously) during a middle school pot luck at the end-of-school mixer, so I made an executive decision. I would cook the mess in my crock pot. No parboiling! No artful arrangement! Just a pile o’ cabbage and processed food glop, and I could enjoy my vino in peace.
Place cabbage in crock pot:
Next step: Add a can of Cream ‘o Chicken soup. I was going to wax rapsodic on the whole chemical-canned-barf but honestly, these photos speak for themselves:
It was at this point the cabernet took effect. I grabbed my cell phone and called the ex. My hands shook. I think I first met him ten million years ago, when I roamed feral trees as a split-winged dinosaur. I have flash memory of it, of a place lush and tired, waiting for sky-fallen disaster, a connection of eye against leathered skin. We will slow time to nothing, stop time. I read his letter – we met by way of classified ad – and remembered days in childhood when minutes spread into hours, expected my visit to be fun and uninhibited, maybe even timeless in some way.
I met him at a gate, a security frame, a place where people purged from an airborne tin can. I saw him lean against a sign, his arms folded over his chest, brown t-shirt against cold metal. He saw me, too, my red dress, cowboy hat, and he rushed beyond the buzzer, pressed his lips against mine, met my tongue. He made his hello second, almost last, although we hadn’t yet met, not in the physical, in these bodies, only on paper.
“Hey, you.” He smiled, caught his breath, grabbed my bag, my arm, dragged me wanting through a terminal, an exit. We climbed in a bus empty and sad, but we filled it, made it real and heavy and fast with my pink suitcase and his lips and the way we recognized each other from some past eon when footprints covered wet sand. ”Hey, you,” I answered, kept my mouth against his, ran fingers through his hair. I remembered it, it wasn’t new, was a million million years old, my fingers knew the twist and black of his curls.
I can’t tell you the next part. It’s sacred, a hidden ancient scroll, two days of sweat-burned hymn spent in one room, a second act, a bridge, all the days you wished for Christmas and birthday and death rolled into forty-eight hours of athletic sacrifice. We talked, too. I remember every word of it, though the recall of fingerprint against thigh meets my mind first.
That was a long time ago, Binko. Keep it together. The phone rang. And rang. I left a message.
“Hey, Happy Birthday! I have a big surprise for you! Want to come over for dinner tonight? I’m making you a big ol’ pot of escalloped cabbages.”
Years later, the divorce still hurts as much as my stitched knee.
The time finally arrived for the strangest item of the recipe to be added: Cheez Whiz, or as the Urban Dictionary calls it, “one chemical away from Saran Wrap.” Kraft’s website for its orange sludge wonder is one of the most sorry sites I’ve ever seen. I tried to click on “Comments” – ’cause who doesn’t want to leave a few choice words about their love for fake cheese – but got a 404, baby!
Bzzzzzzzz! Got a text from the ex:
Have a date tonight. Thanks for the offer tho. C U.
I poured another glass of wine.
Now, I use a cell phone camera, and a cheesy (pardon the pun) one at that, not a multilens wonder like The Pioneer Woman. You can see my alcohol progression in the photos. The bokeh in the next two photos wasn’t intentional, but more of a “crap I can’t hold the phone still” thing.
I forgot to buy jalapenos at WalMartz. Rats. So I added the next best thing, or perhaps the best thing if you hail from ’round these ranchin’ parts: New Mexican green chile!
My two teenagers sauntered into the kitchen to find me adding milk to the cabbage/cheez/soup/chile. I used skim milk to counteract the copious amounts of hydrolized fat in the dish.
“Um. Mom? Can we go over José’s house for supper tonight?” My oldest son eyed the Crockpot with what can only be described as… fear.
The sun hovering through the kitchen window caught the highlights in his dark hair, made him seem even taller than a moment ago, made him shine retro, handsome, like some old 40′s photograph and I tried to grab it, grab the sun, his hair, his height, his lopsided smile like mine, tried to frame it forever in some sturdy neural pathway.
Well, shit. With no one but myself around to eat a full family-sized Crockpot of escalloped cabbage a la Pioneer Woman, I had to think. Fast!
I’ll call Miguel!
Every couple of weeks or so I buy two chocolate croissants and two Mexican mochas with extra whipped cream at a local bakery and carry them across the parking lot to the 76 gas station garage. I give a pastry and coffee to the mechanic, Miguel, and we sit on oil-stained metal folding chairs and talk. He always eats too quickly and jumps up to finish rotating tires or replacing timing belts or changing oil. I take longer to eat, and sip my mocha and watch him work while he tells me his theories of the universe.
Miguel emigrated from Mexico City twelve years ago. He snuck over the border by way of the Imperial sand dunes. Three members of his alien group died of heat and dehydration. The Border Patrol found the rest, gave them water and food and sunscreen, and trucked them back to Tijuana in a green van with tinted windows like they always do, but not Miguel. He rested under the sands with the sidewinder rattlesnakes, knowing his destiny was United States or death. It didn’t matter which one.
I’m not sure how he ended up a mechanic. Maybe he learned his trade in Mexico. I asked him one day and he told me again of his night in the sands when an angel appeared and told him to burrow and hide and keep his ears covered with sand, pressed into the dunes, so that he could hear when it was safe to leave.
“Wow. No way! What kind of an angel,” I asked him, “Can you describe her?”
And Miguel laughed and told me I didn’t understand. ”Binko, not one of your Catholic angels. A desert angel. They don’t have wings.” He shrugged his shoulders and the buttons down his shirt pulled uncomfortably apart. ” And man, you gotta stop bringing me this stuff. I gotta go on a diet.” He picked up a wrench and bent into the hood of a silver Thunderbird, and I heard the echo of metal against metal against his smooth low voice. “I’m too fat to hide in those dunes now. For the young, that is. For the young.” He laughed again.
Miguel isn’t an ordinary mechanic. At least I don’t think other mechanics drive to the desolate areas in the spring and take time-lapse photographs of ocotillo and sage and write longhand letters to physicist Stephen Hawking and speak to angels and demons on days when the garage sits empty and the desert dust devils roll in and around the piles of broken greasy parts.
I met him when I brought my minivan to his shop for an oil change. I watched him feel the hood with lovers’ hands, saw his eyes roll skyward under his wild black hair as he listened, heard him match the engine drums with a human hum. I must have stared too hard because he raised one side of his mouth and gestured toward the ceiling. He spoke like a priest, slow and clear with soft rounded vowels.
“The spirits tell me what to do. Your car is okay but you drive too fast and she doesn’t like it.”
The other day we sat and talked about time. Miguel told me that I felt the hands of the clock because culture and church and convention played tricks on my mind. The universe is one point, he said, one point of existence where time and space collide.
“It’s like this. Time is space, and there is no time. It’s like it all already happened one moment and now we just live little bites of that moment. Get it? Just a bite at a time but it’s one big donut. You gotta small mouth. You can only eat one bite at a time.” Miguel wiped a fly off his forehead, leaving a timeless splotch of black oil in a line above his eyebrows.
Time is space, and there is no time. I started repeating this to myself, hoping the mantra would chip tiny cracks in my rigid thought, leaving a crevice into which enlightenment can seep. The message is clear: everything happens at once, not only in the garage, but also in my busted knee, my heart, in my mind, in the whole, huge, entire expanding universe.
I just didn’t get it. I’m in my mid forties. But this moment today is the same moment I lost my first tooth, it’s the same moment I began menstruating, it’s the moment I lost my virginity, and the moment I married. It’s the moment I became a mother, the moment I divorced. It’s the same moment I met Miguel, and the moment I eventually die. It all happened at once, in the same first breath as the universe was spun and the same last breath as it decays. Time is as simple and profound and as enigmatic as birth.
I closed my eyes and listened to Miguel grab a rusty nut with pliers, heard him grunt and pull, the sound of oil splattering into a plastic tub underneath the car.
“So Miguel. Is this what you wrote to Stephen Hawking? All this stuff about time?” Maybe new theories about the nature of reality would arise from my mechanic’s interaction with one of the greatest scientific minds in all history, I wondered.
“Nah. I told him he was wrong about black holes. You can see what’s happening with those black holes if you just look at the pictures. Doesn’t he look at the pictures? Who’s an expert anyway?” He tapped a new filter into place, and for a second, as Miguel squeezed hard to tighten the seal, out of the corner of my eye, I felt him breathe, felt Steven Hawking breathe, as if our mouths were connected to one starburst lung spilling mocha oil into the center of the galaxy.
Miguel answered my call. Yes, he said. I will eat cabbage with you. Yes.
Next step: Add a dash of paprika! The mixture didn’t look as gross with the violent splash of green and red!
I fell asleep on the couch. Not sure how long I drifted, but it was at least several hours. I awoke to Miguel’s hand on the doorbell.
I opened the door in a fog. Miguel leaned toward the adobe wall of my home, sniffing. He sniffed to the right, then the left. He even sniffed toward the sky. A lock of black hair fell over one eye and I wondered what he would be like as a lover.
“What the hell are you doing, boy?” I laughed.
“Binko, you have a dead animal somewhere out here. Maybe it’s in your garage. Rat, maybe. Smells bigger than a mouse.” His eyes squinted as he sniffed toward the setting sun.
I walked outside and began to sniff. Didn’t smell different to me, I thought. Just smells like… then it hit me. The damn cabbage!
“Miguel, that isn’t a dead animal. It’s our dinner.”
We had to wait a couple more hours, so Miguel and I labored over a game of Scrabble. I tossed back one shot of tequila, then two. Miguel added three tiles to a fourth on the board. Click, click, click. They slid like square UFOs over a faded, scratched cornfield, a fractal crop circle of archaic words their message, the word “omen.” I thought about the astronomer at WalMart, the man who counted potential future real estate plots among the the expanse of the galaxy.
I looked at the tiles resting on the wooden tray in front of me. J, Q, X, L, L, V, P.
Miguel watched me concentrate, watched me add a J and a L to spell “jail” along the upper right quadrant of the board. I lifted my eyes from the game and stared between his bushy eyebrows. His prominent nose almost twitched, almost gave away the secrets of the Mexican universe along with the contents of his Scrabble hand.
“Do you believe in UFOs?”
I grabbed two tiles from the pile and smiled. A, O. Good. I had a chance.
“Binko. Why do you always label and sort things? UFO means unidentified flying object. There are many such things unidentified. Many military vehicles. Sometimes a big bird can look like a missile. But I think you mean alien. From another planet. I accept that we aren’t alone. You always need to know things, you need to know where you stand. I tell you this, Binko. We stand among all those in the heavens.”
Miguel hesitated. I thought he meant to add something else, perhaps a lecture on galactic peace or the old anti-missile defense initiative. He can be a political and wordy guy. But he slid all his tiles into empty spaces on the board to form the only word that made sense.
“Binko,” he said, as he swept his hand over the board. ”I win.” He downed another shot of tequila, his fifth, as I shook the tiles from the game board into the old cardboard box. Three tiles fell to the floor. I picked them up, held them in my hand. I. F. O.
“Hey Miguel! IFO! Ha ha ha ha!” I exploded in laughter, pictured weather balloons, swamp gas, all things NASA sanctioned, all things non-alien. Miguel snorted.
“Binko. Even alien spacecraft are identified if you know what they are.”
By that time the cabbage was done:
And wait…. I lidded the pot, set the dial to “High” and let the food ebb and flow while I cleaned the house (sorta) for Miguel’s visit.
I opened the Crockpot lid and ladled the warm, soupy mess into Dollar Tree bowls. The odor nearly knocked me to my knees. Miguel made the sign of the cross.
This photo isn’t ‘shopped. The casserole was, literally, the color of acid rain, or dog-sprinkled snow. We carried our bowls and the bottle of tequila outside, into the warm desert evening, and sat in rusting lawn chairs. Miguel pointed up to the sky.
“She’s old, Binko. Old.” Miguel’s hair caught the wind as he scratched the perpetual eczema rimming his right eye. ”It took two-and-a-half million years for her light to reach us tonight. She might have been sucked into a wandering black hole yesterday, but we wouldn’t know for two-and-a-half million more years.”
Miguel whispered this under the ancient pitch of cloudless night. I looked at the sky, at that tiny speck of gas and fury, of 300 billion daisy-chained stars that threw an endless curve ball, missed Jupiter, asteroid and comet, Mars, sprayed photon against my cornea in some kind of long-winded hello. My left leg stretched out straight. By now my knee was twice its normal size.
I took a spoonful of the cabbage casserole and held it aloft. Miguel followed my lead, grabbed a generous bite. We tapped spoons together, some kind of toast to friendship, to the unknown, to the gustatory terror that sometimes lies in wait.
The moment that spoon passed my lips I knew I couldn’t chew the mess. I held my nose and swallowed the thick slice of cabbage whole. It was saltier than anything I have ever eaten in my life. It tasted like the smell of a dumpster. And I’m being kind when I say these things, when I tell you that the cheez sauce clung to the back of my throat like your worst post-vomit hangover memories.
What the hell would it have been like without the tequila?! I didn’t want to find out!
Miguel watched my expression, his full spoon still hovering near his mouth.
“Binko. I’m not going to even attempt this. You’re a stronger man than I.”
Miguel’s voice sounded distant, as if Andromeda cut the air between us with her fragile light. ”We’re all half something. I’m half-divorced right now. You’re always on the periphery, half here, half in some other world. None of us quite belong to this world. These lands seems half inside, half outside. We kind of walk the path between paths, you know?”
He paused. I downed one last shot of firewater. It didn’t quite kill the taste. The air grew cool around us. I shook my head and pointed at my bowl.
“But even walking the path between paths doesn’t mean we have to eat shit like this.”
The End, thank goddess!!!! Sorry this was so damn long!!!!