40 YEARS OF CUTBANK: “Kitchen Stories” by Jeffrey Chapman

In the Kitchen: One


It sounded, when she sang, like the heavens had opened and a host of heavenly elephants was trumpeting.

Awful and beautiful.

She was in my shower—in my shower—singing, and I was spreading peanut butter on eight pieces of bread to make four sandwiches (originally intended as peanut butter and jam sandwiches but becoming, with the discovery of less than a lot of jam, peanut butter and peanut butter sandwiches, dry but honest), which were meant for lunch. And she was singing a pop song that reminded me of steel wool.

And then she appeared in my kitchen—she who I had never dreamed would spend a night or day with me—her hair wrapped in a towel. She wore my shirt and my too-big pants rolled down at the waist and up at the cuffs. She sat at the table and bit into one sandwich, and before I could apologize for the lack of jam or jelly, she said, “Peanut butter. My fave.”


“It’s as if you knew.”

There was luck going on in my life that day and I thought for a moment about calling a bookie. But I didn’t. That would have been the wrong kind of luck. I was happy with the kind of luck that allowed me to sit in my kitchen and look into the eyes of this woman as she told me about her political convictions. That kind of luck will keep going and going. Forever, one’s tempted to say.

As a dessert of sorts, I pulled grapes from the fridge. She cracked some between her front teeth and, smiling, leaned forward to say right next to my ear, “Cold grapes are so taut.”


In the Kitchen: Two


He held a small tin of condensed milk over a mug and the milk—cold and thick—hesitated on the rim, swelling until it ran casually, a ribbon in slow motion. He held it for two minutes and looked up and laughed shortly, as if saying, I’m sorry this is taking so long, but you’ll soon have your coffee, and I’m sorry I haven’t been talking while waiting for the milk to pour: I’m not good at filling up the empty spaces, I never know what to ask when a woman is standing near me—like you are, going from one leg to the other, eyes looking down at your feet, hands clasped behind your back—as if waiting for me to do something. What am I supposed to do?

Then he laughed again, less nervously this time. Silly, to worry about a couple moments of silence. A moment of silence can be seen as so many things: contemplation calmness cogitation. Silence indicates comfort: nervous people always chatter to cover themselves. Silence can mean he’s overcome with passion. Or, if nothing else, he’s focused on the coffee.

Unfortunately for him, the woman noticed the laugh and conjectured, correctly, that he was nervous around her. She also conjectured, incorrectly, that he would always be nervous around her. In that moment—although she won’t know it until two weeks later when she throws flowers at him—she made a decision: she can’t bear one of those nervous types. Two weeks later, the seed planted with a silence and a nervous laugh will bloom and the nascent couple will be no longer. Leave me alone, she’ll say.

Which is fine in the long-run, hurt feelings and feelings of wasted time aside. The dispersuasion of imperfectly matched couples makes the world better for all. In fact, the only one who is disappointed, ultimately, is the woman. Two years later, when she is hit by a milk- truck, when it would be helpful to have a med student around, he will be drinking coffee with another woman. A woman who finds nervous pauses endearing, sweet.


In the Kitchen: Three


Three things that can happen in the kitchen


Your lover has made the sweetest meal thinkable for you. It is laid out before you on the kitchen table (you have no dining-room table to speak of) like a sacrifice to Bacchus; your lover stands in the corner surveying you as you survey the feast; proud, she is proud. The table contains all the foods you love more than other foods you also love but love less; at least nine courses worth; antipastas, salads, risotto, stews made with coconut milk and seafood, roasted game, tarts and cakes, berries and other fruit. None of it fits together, but everything looks individually delicious. It is more food than two people can eat; it is decadent, demonstrative, superlative. It is certainly not reasonable.

You want a bite of everything. But before you can take a place at the table, a figure—man? woman? you can’t tell because the figure wears a mask and has fast feet—jumps into the house through the kitchen window. The figure spots the kitchen table and with preternatural vehemence tips it. Then, having tipped the table, the figure runs out of the kitchen, across the threshold of the house and into oblivion.

And you watch in horror as the food—the lush and tender—falls to the floor and is quickly eaten by the mice who live in the corners. A pot-bellied pig joins in and soon all the delicious food is gone. Who would do this?


Again, there is a feast before you. Again, your lover stands in the corner, proud. It could be the same feast, except there is no masked figure, nothing to disrupt your feeding on savory treats.

You partake. Splendid. Everything splendid. The best—the splendidest—is the meat pie in the center of the table. It is moist and rich and you make out the taste of sage and rosemary and maybe a touch of cumin. You eat one piece quickly and then you eat another piece. You help yourself to a third. Why is this so good? you ask your lover. What’s in here?

Your son, she says.

You vomit, of course. Over and over. Your stomach presses against the back of your throat. You vomit in horror at this reincarnation of Tantalus sitting across from you.

And then you vomit because of yourself. Because you really love the pie; it is delicious. You desire little more than one more bite. The one bite you cannot have. You cry with desire and some sadness.


Another feast. No boy-pie this time. You pour a last glass of wine and lean back and smile at the woman you love. The food has been savory scrumptious sensuous good. The woman you love smiles back and then she begins to say unexpected things—

Hate, she says. I rarely use the word hate. Too strong. I use other words: detest, abhor, scorn, reject, dislike. But you? she says. You I hate.

—and by saying unexpected things she tears out your heart and your lungs and other attached internal organs, such as your intestines.

Truly and swellingly. I hate you more than I’ve ever hated anyone. I hate you like the snake hates the mongoose. I have unbearable levels of hate for you. This dinner, this is my goodbye. I owe you something; even though I hate you, I admit you’ve done things for which I’m grateful. But I plan never to see you again. I have fulfilled my obligations. If I ever see you again I’ll spit in your eye. I’ll kick you in the ear. I will make you wish I was blind and that I hadn’t seen you. Even if I was blind I’d sense you and hit you with my stick. I’d sic my seeing-eye dog on you. I’d keep one of your shirts and train her to know your smell...she alone would hate you more than I, because she was raised hating you. You and I, man, we’re finished.

You are silenced. After this moment and for every one of your remaining years, you will never be sure of anything. You will remember how much you loved her and how sure you were that she loved you. You were certain you were perfect for each other. Your horoscopes had matched.


Jeffrey Chapman is assistant professor at Oakland University. Stories have appeared recently in Western Humanities Review, The Bellingham Review, and Fiction International. His first published story, “In New York,” appeared in CutBank 54 in the fall of 2000.