You know her from the Cooking Network. She’s the thick girl, pale, generously freckled, sweating over the purple flame. Beads gather on her brow and in the crease above her lips and on the follicles of her frizzy red hair. They drip onto sleeves of ink that pop against her white chef’s coat, an article of clothing that tells you what she does but not what she is: a lunatic, a child of fleeting forgotten love, simmering ambition brought to a boil.
Before she was in your living room she was my girlfriend. She lived at the edge of a nature preserve in a cabin overwhelmed by trees. She inherited the place from her father, a man who raised chickens and rolled his own smokes and chopped wood for sport, as if the perfect cut would bring back the wife who’d lost her mind and left him alone to care for their young daughter. The Chef discovered her passion in that cabin. She and her father would sit at a spare wooden table to eat meals she learned from the handwritten recipes her mother had left behind. At least that’s the story she fed me. I never met her father, but she talked about him often during that strange autumn, the year after he accidentally shot himself by the wood pile, when we were new and thus mutually enthralled, before I went and ruined everything.
I loved her then. We would wander through the forest smoking pot, swapping stories about all the terrible things we did as teenagers. I told her how I blew up the mailbox of the prick who worked the counter at the local minimart; she told me how she burned down half a county. She and her dad were camping on the plateau, the land baked by an unkind summer, the scrub brush and pine trees tinder, and she snuck off to smoke and saw the expanse of land below her, the chance to feel something bigger, and she tossed her burning cigarette into the tall brown grass and walked away and watched the rest on the news from the little black-and-white television that sat atop a cable-spool table at the cabin. She seemed plucky as she told me the story, like a purebred Midwestern girl in a pantsuit delivering the weather.
The other thing we did during our walks was daydream about which one of us would become famous first. We were headed to the top together, and the one who got there first would help the other one up. We made vows, dark-hearted promises, and then we would realize it was dusk and we didn’t have a flashlight and we’d stumble back to the cabin laughing, cursing ourselves for being perpetually unprepared. Sometimes we’d bring food or water to the transients who lived in the woods. They would show us the things they did to survive, little tricks they’d developed to make it through, and we would marvel at their ingenuity and the capacity of humans to summon pride amid bleakness. She told me she and her father had been conflicted about the men living in the trees. They wanted to help them but several times came home to find that someone had broken in and rifled through their things. There are people who can’t be part of the world, her father told her, and she understood just what he meant.
It was raining one evening when we came across a camp that disturbed us. From the trail we saw porn magazines strewn about the site. The rainfall felt like paper-cuts on the back of our necks, and we were waterlogged and ready to go home when we noted a pair of dirty red sneakers protruding from the open door of a tent. The man heard us and emerged, black-eyed into the gloom, scraps of dried leaves lodged in his beard. He was a small man, all bone and bluster, demanding money. When we refused, he became enraged. “I know where you live, you cunt,” he shouted at the Chef. “I’ll cut your throat in your sleep.”
She ran her hand through her hair, grabbed a clump, grinning, eyes locked in. “Go ahead and try,” she said calmly. “I would fucking love that.” They stared each other down for a long time before I took the Chef by the hand and led her back down the muddy path to the cabin.
That night she cooked pork belly with brown lentils, caramelized onions and a nice cucumber salad. I sat at the table and watched her work, admiring the way she moved around the kitchen, always focused on the task at hand while simultaneously plotting her next step. The economy of her movements was breathtaking, totally at odds with her demeanor outside the kitchen, which was at best methodical, at worst lazy and lumbering. It was like every time she tied on an apron she was cooking for a ghost, her mother, I assume, though I never thought to ask. We ate like hogs and drank three bottles of wine and later, lying together in her tangled flannel sheets, I asked her whether she thought the transient really knew where she lived. “I’m not worried about it,” she said.
“Oh, really,” I said, laughing. “Maybe you should be.”
She shrugged. Then she rolled over and hung her torso over the edge of the bed so she could retrieve something. While she was rustling around my index finger traced the line of a tattoo down her back to where it met an ancient scar. I had asked her a few times where the scar came from, but she never really answered. She just smiled and said she had lots of scars, and at times like that I couldn’t help but think of her dad and how unlikely it was that a man with his experience had inadvertently shot himself. When she lifted herself back onto the bed I noticed she was holding something, a handgun. She lay down on her back and set the gun on her bare stomach.
“Seriously?” I said. “You keep a gun under your bed?”
She laughed that spooky, gravelly laugh of hers. “Absolutely,” she said. “I’d be crazy not to. You wouldn’t believe the things that come crawling out of those woods.” With her other hand she produced four bullets that she loaded skillfully into the chamber.
“Have you ever had to use it?” I said.
“Once or twice,” she said. “Only when I needed to.”
I gave her a look. “What the hell does that mean?”
“I never got into hunting like my dad,” she said, ignoring my question. “But he taught me what it means to kill something. When I was little he made me behead one of the chickens. He wanted me to learn that all food came from somewhere, that every creature was sacred, even if you had no choice but to take its life. Anyway, I murdered the thing with his axe and cooked it for dinner.”
Having grown up on microwave food, I didn’t know what to say. I just lay there, dumbly, watching her draw little circles around her belly-button with the barrel of the gun. After an uncomfortable silence, she turned on her side to face me. “Just remember I have this thing,” she said, holding the gun up in the air. “And I’m not afraid to use it, okay?” She pointed it at my head and chuckled, squinting down the barrel, and then she stopped chuckling and pressed it to my forehead, leaving it there for much longer than any good-natured joke would allow. “Okay?” She repeated.
“Okay,” I said finally, trying to hide how much I enjoyed that kind of recklessness. We put the gun away and opened another bottle of wine, and before it was gone we had fallen asleep without turning off the lamp on the bedside table. The lamp was small and made of weathered brass, its shade a work of stained glass, square and white but for a large red-glass question mark. Thinking back on that lampshade, knowing it had been crafted in the cabin by the Chef’s mother, told me everything I needed to know about their family. They were strangely luminous but imperfectly soldered, a source of brilliant fractured light.
The red question mark had been seared into my vision by the time a noise at the front door woke me up. It was four a.m. Thirty years of stove-smoke saturated my pillow. At first I didn’t move. I listened to the rain tapping at the window. Then I heard the noise again and steeled myself for battle. I visualized the bearded transient’s empty eyes in the darkness and was ready to match him. I tiptoed down the hall, shirtless and ready to die, but no one was there. Outside on the porch I felt the rain on my bare chest and saw the moon through the trees, partially obscured by clouds, and wondered why I wasn’t more afraid. My indifference was illogical. Then I thought I heard something, maybe even saw a flash of light in the trees, but I couldn’t be sure. I took two steps toward the edge of the porch and realized I was just being paranoid. Across the yard a chicken bobbed its head in the moonlight. I went back to bed feeling disappointed.
Of course I was using at the time. Heroin, mostly, along with other things. I was on a downslope; my band was gaining stature, and so I was riding the momentum of a frenetic summer of praise and excess. Which is a roundabout way of saying I started cheating. First I ran into an old girlfriend at one of our shows and we slept together in the passenger seat of my sedan. I woke up with her on top of me just before daylight and wanted to kill myself, not a dramatic daydream but something I truly considered, partly because I loved the Chef and partly because I hated my lack of restraint, the way I so thoroughly submitted to urges I knew would disappoint me. Instead of reforming I shriveled, partaking in a series of indiscretions that aren’t worth mentioning other than to say they gave the Chef every right to do more than the she did. Or what I suspect she may have done. I’ll never know for sure.
I went to the cabin one evening after sleeping with a girl she knew from culinary school, one of the connections that would soon jump-start her television career. When I arrived the lock on the front door was broken and it was snowing and raining, a combination that made it very difficult for me to decide how I felt about anything, especially the fact that the chef was standing in the kitchen, elbow deep in blood. We had been bickering on the phone before I came over. She somehow knew I had been unfaithful, she was smarter than me, and also stronger, but she didn’t confront me directly. Trickery was her way, and so she insisted I come over. She was cooking something unforgettable, she said. If I was lucky, it wouldn’t be our last supper. “What happened to the door?” I said when I saw her standing there near the sink.
She smiled at me domestically, the smile of a repressed housewife but with more force, more contempt than any traditional patriarch would stand for. “Oh,” she said. “I locked myself out.” This was not her. She had become someone else, a character invented to shock and frighten me, the same person I would later come to recognize on TV. This, it turns out, was just the kind of person America could love. She washed her hands, dried them with a dish towel. “What a mess that was,” she said.
I eyed her for a moment, trying to determine what she was up to. “What was a mess?” I said finally.
“It’s a surprise,” she said. “One of those unplanned things that just fell into my lap.”
I thought of the time she accidentally hit a coyote with her truck. I remembered the look on her face when she realized it wasn’t going to survive, the pang of disappointment. Then, standing there in the glare of the headlights, her expression changed. She suddenly looked determined. We loaded the animal in the car and took it home. She butchered it in the iron sink her father had installed near the shed. Then she cooked it with purpose, with love, for the art of it, so that when she was done there was an answer where before there had been a question, a thing that might survive in the absence of magic. She minced the meat and served it with risotto and roasted peppers, and it was horrifically delicious.
She turned her back to me now, but I could see her smile reflected in the kitchen window. Fresh scratches trailed down the back of her neck, disappearing below the collar of her green tank top. I heard the drawer slide open, the rattle of the corkscrew. “Wine?” she said over her shoulder while hail pelted the glass in front of her.
“Sure,” I said. “In a minute. I’m going to take a shower.”
“Take your time,” she said. ” Dinner won’t be ready for a bit.”
I made my way down the hall and stopped in the doorway that led to the bedroom. The bedding was lying in the floor, and the lamp was tipped over on the nightstand, its shade broken. Shards of red-and-white glass littered the floorboards. I stepped past them toward the bed. “What the hell happened in here?” I yelled.
“Oh, nothing,” she yelled back. “Just clumsy.” An undisturbed glass of water, mine from last night, sat on a coaster next to the overturned lamp. I got down on my knees and looked under the bed. The gun was gone. When I saw the dirty red sneakers set neatly near my side of the bed my pulse quickened. Suddenly I felt sick. I stood in the shower for a long time, letting the water overtake me. I was still unsure what to make of the scene. I convinced myself that nothing unusual had happened. In addition to being crazy, the Chef was known to make prank calls and jump out from behind doors. The whole thing was probably an elaborate hoax, a way to make me pay for my infidelity. But then who knows what someone is capable of while you’re out disregarding them?
I shut off the water and stood there for a moment listening to pots rattling in the distance. I dressed and walked down the hallway, stopping short of the kitchen. Not knowing where the gun was terrified me. “Seriously, what happened today?” I said, speaking to the empty halfway rather than her specifically.
It was quiet for a moment. I felt my heartbeat in my neck. I heard no footsteps. Suddenly the Chef’s face shot around the corner. “Come eat before it gets cold,” she said. Her eyes were wild, threatening. I looked down and saw the gun in her hand, trembling. “It’s the least you could do.” She softened, started walking back into the kitchen, gesturing with the gun in her hand as if it were a baton and she were some kind of homicidal conductor. “Besides,” she said. “This is the freshest cut of meat you’ll ever have. You really just missed the kill. And you know I can make anything taste like magic.”
I was frozen for a moment, deciding whether to comply. I heard the hail pick up outside, propelled by a gust of wind rushing through the rafters. I took a deep breath. She was smiling devilishly, and I was starting to feel like a lifeless animal stretched out on a plate. I death-marched into the kitchen and sat in the chair, tapping my foot while the Chef plated the food. She had turned on music while I was in the shower, one of her dad’s old records, some dead woman was trying to sing jazz over the crackle of the vinyl. When the Chef sat down across from me I thought about making a run for it and calling the police, but I was high and not exactly on good terms with the law. So I ate.
I avoided the meat at first and focused on the rest of the dish. I knew the preparation was intentional. The roasted vegetables, the risotto, the wine — all if it was meant to remind me of the night we ate the coyote. She loved measuring my discomfort, her pleasure increasing with each bite I took, her fingers working the charm on a necklace her father had given her, a crescent moon cast in silver. Finally there was nothing but a pile of meat in the center of my plate. She cocked her head sideways and smiled a hostile smile. “Saved the best for last,” she said, tapping the barrel of the gun on the wooden table. “Go on.” I felt myself breathing, felt the churning of my stomach and I met her gaze and knew that our time together was over, we were already strangers. I was sorry to have hurt her but not sorry that I’d loved her. I took a deep breath. Then I stuck the spears of my fork through a piece of meat, whatever it was, and took a bite.
She begged me to stay, so I slept on the couch that night and when I woke up the next morning I packed my things and left without saying goodbye. On my way out I walked to the shed and stood there in the wind hoping her old man’s hunting sink wasn’t stained with fresh blood, that it was just dirty and rusted. I drove a little way down the two-lane road that wound through the forest. I pulled off to the shoulder, locked my car and set off for the red-shoed man’s camp. When I got there it looked much the same as before; magazines and food wrappers were scattered about, but the man was gone. Same thing the next day and again the following week.
The final time I went there I decided to do a more thorough search. The smell of rotting food nearly knocked me over when I zipped open the door of the tent. I crawled inside and dug through the man’s belongings. Grungy socks, a denim coat lined with dirty fur, an old hand-held radio. It was mostly junk, the kind of things you’d expect to find in a homeless man’s tent. I discovered it in a brown leather bag: a Polaroid camera and dozens of photos. The Chef as seen through her kitchen window, the Chef chopping wood, the Chef walking to her car in the rain. In the middle of the pile I found a photo of me. I felt the edge of the thick photo paper, saw the rainbow sheen of potassium hydroxide that had brought the image to life. There I was at the center of the blurry picture, standing shirtless on the porch two hours before dawn, looking in vain for someone to kill.
I stumbled out of the tent holding the photo, running the whole way back to my car. I called the police and filed a report, telling them I was certain the red-shoed man was missing. I said I’d visited him several times and that he’d been gone now for weeks. I stopped short of implicating the Chef because I didn’t have any evidence. Plus I loved her. I owed her. An investigator called me after visiting the camp. He told me they’d found an old driver’s license in the man’s things, he’d been reported missing by his family three years ago. ”Probably crazy,” the investigator said. “Sometimes these guys just wander off. I’m sure we’ll eventually find him sleeping on a bench or holding a sign on an off-ramp.”
It’s been a few years since all this happened. The red-shoed man is still missing. I check on his case every few months, hoping he’s turned up. I keep the photo he took of me tucked away in a drawer, something to pull out and look at when I need to remember who I am in the loneliest hours of night, when there’s no one there to see.
By the time I began to accept the possibility that my wildest suspicions were at least plausible, the Chef was ascending toward stardom. She had cooked her way from that smoky cabin to an extravagantly outfitted kitchen in a television studio, and I was alone, a part-time junkie and unemployed guitarist. If I ran into her on the street I’m not sure she’d recognize me. When I see her on TV now, I think about how the tattoos I once traced with my finger have since become something like an American monument. I try not to wonder if things could have been different, but there is a thing she says at the end of every show, a catchphrase: make your next meal magic, she says, and then she winks one of her green eyes and I get the feeling she’s winking not to her legions of viewers but directly at me. That’s when I remember how much fun we used to have, how much I miss her, and I push aside my memories of that empty tent, those red sneakers, the mysterious cuts of meat, the meal designed in obscurity for two men who had wronged her. I wish to God I hadn’t been one of those men. I’d love the chance to apologize, to show her I’m better. The truth, though, is that I’m not far from being the kind of man who crawls out of the woods looking to satisfy some animalistic urge, forgetting how little that urge matters, how likely it is to deceive me. If she welcomed me back into the cabin we’d light a fire and drink wine and talk into the night and everything would be like old times. Then dawn would come and life would beckon and I’d kiss her forehead as she slept and slip out the door into the outside world, hoping like hell that my next wrong step wouldn’t leave me cooked.
Chad Schuster‘s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Glimmer Train, Hobart, Bartleby Snopes, Literary Orphans, Per Contra and elsewhere. He lives near Seattle with his wife and two children. Find him at www.chadschuster.com or on Twitter @Chad_Schuster.