By Paul Riker
In the immediate aftermath we were so still despite the constant calamity. Derek sat in the study, watching Food Network with the sound off, and I paced the house, not cleaning or tidying, just observing, as if to confirm that the physical world was still there. Our relationship, so filled with conversation before, became silent. Except for when we had to talk to the proper authorities, we shunned each other. There were no words to say. No plans to discuss. No goals to achieve.
But then a week passed and Derek made a grilled cheese sandwich. This was surprising because Derek had never cooked before. I suppose there were occasions, years ago, when he would whip up rudimentary dinners (boiling water, roasting); yet this act, his unprompted assembling of the sandwich, buttering the bread, greasing the pan with non-stick vegetable oil, was out of place.
The sandwich was burnt on one side and much of the cheese smoldered on the pan. He cut it into quarters, took a handful of potato chips and lumped them on a plate beside it. He ate this simple meal over the sink, to avoid crumbs. He didn’t make one for me.
Is it good, I asked.
Yes hon, Derek said.
The next day – Derek wasn’t going to work; neither was I – he bought a carton of eggs and made a scramble, tossing in diced ham and unskinned shards of an aging red onion that had been collecting dust in our fruit dish. For lunch the day after, he prepared a salad: pre-cooked chicken and a mix of spinach, arugula, sliced almonds and a vinaigrette that I couldn’t recall purchasing. Assuming normalcy, as I felt was best for us both, I offered to make dinner that evening, but Derek shook his head, smiled at me, reached out and squeezed my hand. He made hamburgers. He said he found the recipe on the internet. The burgers were overcooked and tough, but Derek ate his calmly, as if studying each bite for clues.
He went to the grocery store and bought chicken thighs, a fleet of spices, and a bushel of green vegetables. He cleaned our kitchen counter, then tenderized the thighs with the dull end of his chef’s knife, rolled them in flour; from the living room, I could hear him whisking liquid against the tin of one of our bowls. The meat seared in his pan, their pleasant, inviting smell wafting around our living room; the scent coaxed me to the kitchen where I saw Derek over the stove, steam in his face, watching the thighs with a look of stern tranquility.
Cookbooks arrived in the mail, and Derek spent his afternoons meticulously paging through them. He purchased supplies, replacements for things we already owned – a set of mixing bowls, a larger stovetop pot, measuring cups and an assortment of knives that were scabbarded into a stark wooden block. Derek disposed our old items; he never asked my permission; I never objected. I didn’t want to interrupt his fledgling endeavor – Derek dashing between the sink and the oven in order to drain noodles, cast water droplets onto shimmering oil. Actions of busy serenity. It was a good thing, seeing Derek as Derek.
The meals were elaborate. Salmon, dressed with a Dijon glaze. Bone-in chicken breasts coated in a rich Marsala. Filet mignon, the inside dripping with red, pooling on our plates. The hues of which didn’t seem to affect Derek; it felt cowardly to let them affect me.
The day the school closed permanently, Derek left in the morning and came back a few hours later with a truckload of wood, rivets, a rope. He carried the things into the backyard and stacked them next to the playhouse. I came out to the lawn, studied the supplies, studied him.
Are you ok, Derek, I said.
You don’t even know what this is for, Derek said.
Are you ok, Derek.
It’s all just an idea. I may not even use it.
As long as you’re ok.
Every day a package arrived containing some new tool, each one more foreign than the last: a cast-iron skillet, a digital meat thermometer with an LED display, a cleaver that was heavy and sharp and affrontingly silver. He eschewed our local chain grocery store and drove to the next town over, bought meat from some shamanic butcher whose craft Derek idolized. He purchased whole chickens and carved them on the island, the silver cleaver slamming against the plastic of his cutting board, sound ringing through our home with each consecutive strike. Different creatures: Duck, lamb, tuna. Their origins more mysterious, the carcasses more real; the pork more pig than pork, with head, legs, tail affixed and untouched. Fish with their glassy eyeballs wide and mesmerized and decidedly dead, mouths in a perpetual scream. Derek butchered them, their flesh and life splattering against the cupboards, and placed their bits in the fridge overnight, brining them in brackish water. Animal smell clung to our walls, to the clothing I wore, to my coat and shoes. One day I observed him as he stirred a reduction in a saucepan, veal sautéing on the next burner.
Yes, he said.
Huh, I said.
Do you need something.
He went back to stirring. I watched for a few seconds more, then turned away, straightening some pictures that were already as straight as they could be.
The veal was otherworldly. Sage dotted the cutlets, and the meat melted in my mouth, warm and satiating. I looked at Derek, smiled. He chewed, strangling his fork. He looked pained, which, through our whole experience, was an emotion I had not yet seen him express. Distance personified, yes; but not pure pain. I would like to say he noticed my face mimic his pain in that moment. I didn’t want to confirm, for fear that I was wrong.
Unprompted, he dropped his fork on his plate, spit the chewed food into his napkin, and went outside.
From the house I watched him. In the center of our yard he spread the pile of wood. He erected a tripod in the ground, then a kind of crude crank that sat beside it. From the tripod extended a giant wooden obelisk, reaching ten feet in the air. And dangling from that pole, parallel to the ground, was a metal beam, from which Derek looped the rope, dangling it to the ground.
When Derek was done he came into our living room. I was sitting on the couch, staring ahead at our television, which was off.
I need you to not hover in the kitchen anymore, he said.
Then he cleaned the dishes.
Late that night I paced, which I hadn’t done in a while. I went into her room, the first since the day of. Her bed was the way it was when she rose that morning. Her collection of shoes in a clump. Her schoolbooks on her desk, she having forgotten them that day, and Disney posters slapped to the wall, affixed with sticky tack. The clothes in her closet still smelling as children’s clothing does – sickly sweet, sweat and sugar, all infused into pastel blouses, glittery jeans.
The kitchen noised in the next room. I sat on her bed for a long time.
The next day, Derek vanished. He was not present for lunch; the early evening came and went and he never came home. I called our friends, who in the mourning days I had ignored, too filled with something like shame; their tones were laced with fear that our – my – tragedy had not yet concluded. I was on the phone with the school superintendent – herself in hiding, what had happened somehow sparing her – when Derek returned.
From the flatbed of his truck he carried a calf to the ground. He pulled it to our backyard with a leather leash; at the mechanism, he undid the string around the calf’s neck and tied the rope that dangled from the metal beam around the its two hind legs, securing the knot, the calf staggering a bit from the pressure. In the dusk, its white eyes were two full discs of moon. Uneasy.
Don’t, I said. Don’t, Derek.
This is the best way, he said, more to the calf than to me.
He reached for the crank, the lever drilled into our lawn. He strained, heaved. The calf jerked upwards, its front legs still on the ground, but its hind legs elevated, tugged towards the beam above. Derek yanked again. All legs rose. The calf spun, slightly. Its eyes drifted away from me. Still moon large.
There we go, Derek said.
Derek, I said.
Please get the cleaver from the kitchen.
I feel like this isn’t the right way to do something like this.
Please get the cleaver.
We can see someone. Both of us. Everyone else has.
Please get the cleaver.
Please get the cleaver.
I walked to our patio door.
Will you do it fast, I said.
Not if I want it to be right, Derek said.
It should be fast.
Hon. Please get the cleaver.
I entered our house, entered our kitchen. The cleaver was hung on the wall, above his knife block, which held every other sharp tool he owned: bread, paring, boning, utility, carving. Others whose names I didn’t know. I took the cleaver from its resting place and, in its silver, saw my reflection, wan and spectral; my soul, my essence somewhere else, in some past, a fugue in some ghastly plane. I stared through the patio door, saw Derek with his hands on his hips, nodding; saw the calf, twisting from its high beam, silent as the dead.