All their life together, his wife has denounced the gadgets he’s acquired. The pole that extends to sweep ceiling cobwebs: they own a ladder. The herb stripper shaped like a jockstrap: that’s what a chopping knife is for. The step counter that circles his wrist like a homing device: what use comes of knowing how many times your feet strike the earth?
Always, she has chosen to do everything the old-fashioned way. The hard way, he has said.
But now that her nervous system is deteriorating, she can no longer ascend a ladder, control a knife, or make the transition from one foot to another without threat of collapse. So she sits at the wooden breakfast table while he carries out her instructions for making ratatouille.
“Slice the zucchini thin,” she says. “It’s the green one,” she adds.
She no longer has to describe which is which, but she does anyway, a habit from before, when he would return from the grocery store with lettuce instead of leeks, parsnips instead of turnips. It’s true he used to find produce as mystifying as the logic puzzles she loves: Use the clues to figure out which of five sisters lives in which of five houses and owns which of five pets and the names of said pets.
He slices and chops, not mentioning that he knows now how to make ratatouille, having made it three times already this summer. Nor does he protest when she asks him to wait a little longer before rinsing the salt from the eggplant, which sits now in a brownish liquid that makes him think of their sweat-soaked sheets when she was menopausal.
“The last time, it was bitter,” she says.
But when he retrieves the garlic press, shaped like a parrot’s beak, from the drawer, and she says, “You have to mince it with a knife or the texture will be mush,” he says, “It’s easier, faster with the garlic press.”
He has planted flowers and tomatoes for her, though he has never cared for gardening. He makes ratatouille when he would prefer to simply boil spaghetti. He refills the bird feeders because she enjoys the cardinals. He will damn sure make all of this the tiniest bit easier by using the garlic press, at least.
“It’s plenty easy with the knife if it’s sharp. Did you sharpen the knife?” she says.
In high school, he sold knives to save up money for his first car. He knocked on the doors of strangers and asked to come into their homes with a case full of sharp knives. It amazes him now that so many women home alone let him in. He remembers one woman in particular. Because she bought his most expensive set. Then when he offered to demonstrate the procedure for sharpening, she said she didn’t cook much, but sure, please do. She hadn’t been the least bit scared of him, but his knees had shook as he ran the knife across the sharpener.
Many times over the years Grace had pronounced him skittish, said he acted sometimes as though he were afraid of her. He was afraid, of losing her. Because she had made threats of leaving him over ridiculous offenses: he left the sink full of dirty dishes, he wasn’t chatty enough at dinner, or he ate the last of the banana bread she’d baked. As with her logic puzzles, Grace read clues in his actions that confounded him: the dirty dishes indicated he was inconsiderate, his lack of chatter that they had little in common, the polished-off banana bread that he was indifferent to her needs.
“I like the press,” he says now. Places two cloves inside the parrot’s beak and squeezes.
His wife pushes from the table to stand, but her hands shake, a tremor, so she sits there, embarrassed. He pretends not to see.
Michelle Ross is the author of There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You (2017), which won the 2016 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award. Her fiction has recently appeared in Cosmonauts Avenue, Fanzine, Jellyfish Review, New South, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, TriQuarterly, and other venues. She is fiction editor of Atticus Review. She lives in Tucson, Arizona. www.michellenross.com