7 Cornish Hens

by Erich Sysak


I tossed a bag of frozen, stuffed tortellini shells into the trash. Half a tub of salted cashews followed. I was tired of the extra weight, at least twelve pounds since January. I didn’t want to talk to anyone until it was gone, until I could change everything. But from the back door I heard voices coming to my apartment. One of them belonged to my neighbor Mike, the other, a woman who was humming a nursery rhyme that sounded familiar.

I didn’t want to see Mike. We had said our goodbyes. I had already seen his Honda packed with boxes that morning, the yellow rope tied at odd angles over the roof and holding down a banger trunk that once had made due as a coffee table and stage in Mike’s duplex. This was where we had held our meetings and invented the game.

Mike was an actor. He looked Arabic with dark, over-sized eyebrows, long chin and nose, but also somewhat Italian with thin lips and big eyes. He refused to deal with his balding. In a tee shirt and sweat pants he looked as thin as a cancer patient. But I learned that on camera, or when dressed up in an oxford button down, a tie, dress pants, he looked surprisingly adroit.

I used to sip coffee in his living room and point at the sky, “I’ve whittled down my desires to two basic women,” I would say.

Mike couldn’t sit still. He rolled his knees like a yoga instructor, locked his fingers and stirred an imaginary pot while breathing slow. “A woman just saps my energy,” he would say between breaths and stances. “Distracts me from my art. I don’t need it.” He would pose, an imaginary shot put ball poised under his ear.

“I’ve been through, what,” I would say while counting on my fingers, “four girls in a couple of months. There was Jillie and Megumi and Rose, and…”

“Did you see Carolyn,” Mike would interrupt, his eyes lit and dangerous looking. He rolled on the heels of his shoes. “The black BMW? She came by again. Wants me at her next performance. Fucking ballerinas.”

And like this the game evolved. A competition we never discussed directly, but played out day by day for a year.

* * *

Mike leaned against the porch rail and tried to make his eyes go soft for the humming Kay. I had nothing decent from the kitchen that wasn’t floating in the trash to offer them.

“And yes, she speaks Russian,” Mike said. “A little Arabic, French and Krishna.”

We all laughed at Krishna. She put three long fingers over her lips and giggled, looking up at Mike with a strained, loving glance.

“You grew up there, Kay? In Uzbekistan?” My gut strained against the buckle of my jeans. In my mind, I counted rolls of stomach: three was bad, four when things were out of control. No women at four. I had counted four last night. I thought I heard the crinkle of exploding ice crystals in my trash can where the twelve dollar bag of tortellini melted.

Kay nodded. She was actually a Russian settler. She looked confused by me, but in a sweet way, a ruffle at the corners of her small eyes. She wore very little makeup, a touch of bland lipstick that made her lips look small, but satisfied. Something in her teeth, I imagined, behind those lips, seemed to taste good, and she held it there with her tongue, pressing it gently. It looked like that anyway, like she had a secret, and this intrigued me.

“Kay wants to come with me to Arizona,” Mike announced. He crossed his arms and was still. He didn’t sound sure of himself.

“She’s fine right here,” I attacked, and tapped Kay’s knee. “She has her organic chocolate and her job at the health food grocery.” I repeated the facts we’d already established. Then I thought, curried chicken. I imagined mild curry on her tongue and her smile across the dining room table. I would prepare a hearty meal, a complicated presentation, a warm Beaujolais.

Kay spoke, but I was suddenly floating off like I did, losing concentration. I was imagining she was projected against the back of the hotel like the old movies I’d once heard of that had been projected there against the stark and grey expanse of flat concrete. I saw her negligee blending with the cement, but difficult to see except for her smile, the outline of her hips, the narrowing line at her knees.

I lived in an old neighborhood. Behind me, the rear of an abandoned hotel rose over the yard where an ancient Stuart Shell pecan tree grew. The hotel on my side of the property was maybe four stories high and showed, except for a few greenish smudges, plain cement, flat, with no windows at all. Someone once told me that many years ago a great party had been thrown and movies projected there. I could only imagine the crowds of people, the smoking bar-b-q, the rattle of glasses and ice, the crunching of pecan shells hidden in the grass, the odd lights from stars seen through the branches of the tree.

Sometimes, I pretended to hear the sound of the projector wheel, and watched the flickering black and white movie playing on the back wall of the hotel. An elegant woman, this time Kay, walked across the screen, a man in a tight suit just entering through double doors. If it had been in the summer the women watching the movie would have worn sandals and sundresses, pony tails. They would have pointed up at the movie, then whispered to each other. The men would have stood on my porch, their beer bottles lined on the railing, surveying the faces below, trying to imitate the moves of old movie stars.

I entered the imaginary movie room, took Kay’s hand and followed her to the sofa. There, she placed my head in her lap. She flipped her heels off. I watched them tumble under the coffee table. My head was so heavy until right then, when her fingers pressed into my hair and I heard her voice, like a song almost, a cooing. That nursery rhyme she’d sung. I closed my eyes and breathed heavily through my nose which somehow made the weight I was imagining lift from my body, my stomach, my legs, my brain. Kay smelled like cocoa, that heady, deep, powdered odor that flows to your stomach when you breathe it in. And then I smelled dinner coming from the next room. Roasted fennel, the smell of black licorice. I didn’t want it to be a game, but I didn’t know how to change it, to make it real.

“What was that tune you were singing in the yard,” I asked.

She tilted her chin to a look of polite surprise. “Une Poule,” she replied. “I was telling Mike that my mother used to sing it. By a fire,” she said while making a circle with her hands. Kay’s hands looked warm; the fingers soft, not a day of hard work on them. “She was singing and burning my father’s books. They’re divorced.”

Mike clapped his hands in front of his nose like he was praying. If ever it was true that energy moved like a ball of cotton in the air between potential lovers, it was then that the energy swayed from Kay toward me. I let my thigh brush against hers.

“Her face in the light,” Kay said and articulated her soft cheeks with the palms of her hands.

I heard the chatter of squirrels in the pecan, even wind brushing over the cut grass, the smell of diesel, dry cement, muddy water, and caramel, yes, something just at the tip of it all. Because I saw, in Kay’s purse, an old standby, caramel candy with a white cream center. I hadn’t seen them in years, and my stomach growled with a deep hunger.

I remembered when I was a boy and had been in the hospital for my first operation around twelve years old. They had taken all of the little bones, the hammer, anvil and stirrup from my inner ear because of chronic infections from swimming.

I was dizzy standing and sitting, if my eyes were open or closed. The nurses had held my hand and taught me how to breathe to make the nausea pass. Blowing air though my pursed lips as if I were blowing it through a straw calmed the waves of it that bubbled up through my stomach. Three, four, maybe five days wasted at home rolling on the bed, my head dizzy and unclear, unable to eat or stand or sit without being dizzy, nauseas, inconsolable. I don’t remember my mother until the crucial moment. I woke one morning and felt clear, balanced. I stood on the carpet and bent my knees. I touched my toes. Nothing.

Later, she had roasted Cornish game hens with broccoli, steamed in kosher salt and yams. I had never seen Cornish hens. Little chickens dressed in green flowers. To the day, I was unable to remember, to feel on my tongue, exactly how the hens tasted. All I knew was that I had never eaten food that, when it entered my mouth, blended, wrapped, devoured me with flavor. That day I ate seven Cornish hens. My mother cooked every one, two, then three, then two more. The last one she ate as I told her about the world where everything was unbalanced and curved.

* * *

When I came to, Mike was halfway down the stairs, and looking back at Kay with an actor’s book shot, sad and deplorable, rounded eyes, lips turned down, chin tilted, tossing look over left shoulder. He had a background of weathered cement and pecan tree, kind of gnarled at the bottom, harsh summer landscape. Grey light wet his skin. His cheeks looked bony. Powerful training Mike had. But there was too much of him in it, and it came off fake. He stood at the bottom of the stairs with his back toward us.

I had my chance. I grabbed Kay’s small hand, squeezed then let it go so Mike wouldn’t notice. “Are you working tonight,” I asked.

“Seven,” she whispered, then stood. I smelled the candy of Kay’s dark hair and watched it blend with the overgrown Australian pine in the corner of the yard. The dark, turning branches and her even darker, clean hair. She had the tan-colored apartments behind her too, a golf course in the distance. She looked sharp, finely cut from the bottom of her small ear to her invisible chin. She curled her purse into the crook of her arm, bent her wrist. I saw the vanilla color of her French manicured fingers.

* * *

That evening, in the parking lot of the New Leaf Grocery, I clenched the muscles in my stomach and watched the two women who, standing near a small table rigged on the sidewalk, handed flyers to customers as they passed in and out of the grocery. They were beautiful in their colored, short hair cuts, looking as practical as mothers. I saw the black roots near their skulls, their newish blue jeans, then ran my fingers over my zipper to make sure it was up and the buckle was ok where my gut pushed against it.

I stopped at the table, I had little choice, and read about the baby cows that, with big, black, marble eyes, looked out from cages so compressed, their legs folded beneath them. I took a clipboard from the woman, felt the cool air blowing out from the New Leaf when the door slid open quietly. It was only 6:20. It all seemed like magic to me just then.

“You really believe in this,” I asked in a matter of fact way.

She touched her crisp hair where it turned above her eyes and I saw the wedding ring, and I imagined just then, and knew it to be true, that she made some man unbearably happy. She filled him up with herself, her brown eyes, her heavy mascara, her Birkenstocks and practical blouse and jeans. Suddenly, I tried to capture how he’d done it and saw little slices of a smile, a certain red tie, a moment unrehearsed, seeming like luck and coincidence, in a shopping mall maybe, a small restaurant. It was me, I knew, that yearned for a kind of completion. I set the clipboard on the little card table. There was only one slot at the bottom of the page of complicated signatures. I took the pen from her fingers, looked her in the eye with a squinting, serious gaze as she told me yes, yes, it was important beyond belief. Of course it was.

I turned the petition toward her so she could see and signed: Dr. Percy Orville in the largest script I could manage. I was not a doctor, nor was it my name. She took the clipboard, still holding her hair against the blowing wind.

The cool smell of vegetables, lightly misted, stowed on the mirrored shelves to my right. The heady smell of breadfruit and cherries, the bright colors of summer squash, the bony shapes rolled past as I walked up the aisle toward the bakery. I saw plastic shelled cakes and tofu lasagna, bean salads and tabouli, found the sharp smell of lime, the peppery smell of olive oil. I watched a young man wearing a kilt stacking plastic containers of corn bread and tiramisu in a frosted display case.

“Is Kay around,” I whispered into the ice crystals.

The tall stacks of dry goods to my left looked like old library shelves. I smelled the tamari roasted almonds and cut into the aisle without hearing the young man’s reply. I pulled a plastic bag from the rack and formed it against the chute below the almonds, then turned the lever. As they tumbled into the bag, the weight of it tugged against my fingers and I remembered the woman who had come to my apartment just a few months ago whose name I could not remember. I had met her through the internet.

She had been a gymnast once, a tumbler, but now was in her late thirties with four children from a long and finished marriage, and owned a day care center. What had finally convinced her to show, I believe, was the promise of my cooking. Lamb, crusted on the outside, tender beneath, slightly pink, smothered with spears of rosemary and drizzled with lemon. A crème Brule, torched with the lights out at our table on the porch. I had described in my e-mail the sound of the spoon and its crack through the hardened crust of sugar.

She’d worn Espadrilles and a blouse that had reminded me of macramé with its elongated sleeves, the cuffs laced and hanging from her muscular wrists. Even her feet were small and muscular, defined. Her long hair, her confidence, a woman who owned a business, drove a white Bronco with flood lights and knuckled tires, thrilled me.

It was finally late afternoon and all of the blinds in the apartment were closed and the ac hummed, and she had drawn a bath, lit every candle I could find in the house, but it was still bright in the bathroom where the sunlight came in through the Venetians. She had stirred the hot water toward her floating breasts as I sat on the toilet and watched, had listened to the splashing spigot, the slosh of water heaving back and forth, smelled the melting wax. I didn’t think we’d both fit, but it had worked, and I’d never done this thing.

Later, I spooned cream cheese into olives and brought them to her on a white plate in the living room where Mike, who had knocked at the back door earlier, was showing her his capoeira forms, much like the yoga stances or the breathing. I sat in my boxers on the club chair near my cookbooks and watched Mike do cartwheels and kicks, worried he would hit my furniture or the purring ceiling fan. She, my internet girl, had sat cross legged in the leather chair, barefoot, half-dressed, chewing at the ends of her olives, and watched Mike with a little smile. I was proud. I was profoundly relaxed, more relaxed than I had been in years.

* * *

I pressed the bag of almonds to my nose one more time, then knotted it. I was overwhelmed by the variety of pasta and noodles, rice and wheat in the Lucite chutes around me. I tried to remember the internet girl’s name and turned the corner, looking at faces, the reddish skin, pony tails, blue eyes, for clues- as if seeing one woman would remind me of another. And I looked for Kay through the aisle of vitamin bottles and amino acids and herbs, to the singing registers, I thought I heard them pop and ring, but I didn’t see her at first. Then, as I passed a corner display of baked, organic corn chips she appeared.

She looked surprisingly small in her green apron and dark shirt, her white sneaker perched on the ramp of the register next door. I grabbed a bag of tortillas from the shelf because they were close and watched Kay smiling and talking to the cashier next to her. Her profile looked different, more blended and indistinct. I walked straight toward her and imagined how it would be to marry her, to have children, to calculate the weight of our Christmas and Thanksgiving turkeys.

Halfway down the aisle, Kay turned. When she saw me I smiled. To my surprise she looked away, then quickly fumbled with her register drawer. I slowed down. I picked up the vibe from there. A weight like a hundred fat hands pressed on my shoulders, my eyes. Suddenly, I was sleepy and heavy and drained and hungry.

Kay spoke to the cashier next to her, and I was glancing at the shelf in front of me, watching from the corner of my eye. I saw strands of orange and red on the bottles, and complicated words like lethisin and cottonseed oil. Nothing stuck to my thoughts. When I turned back, and I knew it would be that way before I did, she was gone.

I dropped my almonds and tortillas in front of Kay’s neighbor cashier, a tall girl with frosty blonde hair and dark-rimmed glasses.

“She asked me to say please don’t come here anymore,” the cashier said in a conciliatory tone.

“Who says that,” I asked without looking into her face.

She slid the almonds on to the scale and punched the beeping keys.

“Kay,” she replied. “Who else?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know anyone named Kay.”

On an aluminum rack below the pumpkin seeds and soy-based beef jerky I saw a magazine. On the cover a beautiful woman with short chestnut hair and big, forgiving eyes waved her hand above a table covered with steaming dishes. It looked like a casserole topped with melted Gouda cheese, angel hair pasta tossed with olives and sliced peppers and some kind of white sauce I imagined must taste like sugar. Vegetarian Times was the title of the magazine, and I pulled it from the rack and tossed it on to the clean, metal chute and thought, this was perfect. Go vegetarian. It was all I needed to turn the corner, to find it, to move on.

The cashier punched her singing keys, and I looked up at her, and was struck by her eyes. They had this softening effect. Everything around her went soft and sweet when she looked like that, and I said, “you know what I was thinking?”

She looked at me for a moment and shrugged gently.

“I was thinking silky, Japanese rice and these almonds layered on top. A Cornish hen in the middle, maybe two. Can’t you just smell it?” I smiled at her perhaps, but on the inside I knew before I said another word that I was talking more to myself than anyone else. She would not, my mind flashed. She would not! “What do you think,” I asked, and tried to show a smile. “Do you think you’d like that?”

Suddenly, I thought of that tortellini in my trash. It would still be good, as soft as dough. Yes, I would eat it. I did not want to see Kay. I doubted then if Kay had ever existed. It was foolish to throw out good food. I would eat it and then I would sit and wonder if I somehow missed some crucial information about food and if, in this state of perpetual hunger, I would always feel empty.