Sauce

By J.R. Angelella


1.

Bibiana teaches me to make a different sauce every Sunday.

This is why I'm standing at her door with a bag full of groceries, waiting for her to answer my knock. She verses me on authentic Italian cuisine, so long as I pick up the ingredients. She calls making sauce an art form.

"It'll win you a wife someday," she says.

Our weekly weekend tradition would be wonderful if she ever remembered that we did it the week before. But she never does. The next week comes and the last week goes. Every Sunday is always my first Sunday school of sauce with Bibiana.

Her sickness keeps her from remembering things.

Bibiana lives in the apartment across from me and has lived in the building for fifty years. It is a studio, like mine, with a TV and bed and tiny kitchen with a table for meals. She keeps it clean and clutter-free. She hates dirt and dust and believes it leads to cancer. Bibiana doesn't remember many things, but she remembers me and she remembers cancer.

I kick her door, trying to make it sound less furious and more like a knock. The tip of my shoe sounds too immediate and serious. The side of my shoes seems softer and sweeter, the echo of a family visit. My arms strain under the weight of her groceries. She wants to teach me to make her famous veal-based marinara sauce over stuffed shells, the main consistency of which calls for all kinds of cans—paste, puree, crushed and whole.

She doesn't remember that we made this two months ago. The veal, she says, is one meal. The stuffed shells another. And the left over sauce is yet another.

"Three meals in one," she says.

I kick her door again with the side of my shoe, louder in case her hearing aid is set on low. I rest my head on her door and catch my breath. I kick again and still no answer inside. She could have died, which wouldn't surprise me, but would annoy me. No one wants to carry three paper bags of canned goods ten blocks to a dead woman's apartment.

Chains and locks unhook as Bibiana opens the door.

Bibiana walks with a cane and big, bag lady glasses. Her skin is surprisingly young and unwrinkled with the hue of young woman, not the rust of a senior. Not yellowy as most old people appear. She moves with the grace and speed of a golden aged-ballerina, although she has a tiny hump in her back, which makes her bend forward and clutch her waist when she walks.

She reaches into the metal mailbox on the wall.

"Oh my, Felix," she says, stepping back, clutching her chest, one hand on the wall next to an oil painting of a garden. She painted this in her old lady art class and always asks me for my opinion on it. She never remembers she has done this many times before.

"Sorry, Bibi," I say. "Didn't mean to startle you."

"What?" she asks, adjusting her hearing aids. "I can't hear a thing with these dern gizmos." Her apartment smells like Vaseline.

"I have your groceries," I say, showing her the bag.

"Look how strong you are," she says. "You can put them in the kitchen, hon."

I step inside and kick off my shoes by the door.

"Don't forget to take off your shoes," she says.

I set the groceries down next to an egg timer and tiny coffee bean grinder.

"That dirt under your shoes get on the floor and can cause cancer," she says.

I kiss the back of her hand and point to her groceries.

"We're going to eat like royalty tonight," she says. She touches her silver hair and begins unpacking the bag. "What do you think of my painting by the door, Felix."

"Effortless," I say.

"You're full of shit, but a sweetheart for not stinking of it." She pinches my cheeks. "Now, let's get this sauce on the go, shall we. We don't have all day." She gets more excite with every word.

On her two-burner stove, Bibiana boils water for shells in one and sautés chopped garlic, virgin olive oil, basil leaves and thick cut onion in the other. She slaps the counter when I don't pay attention. "Felix. Did you see what I did? Get up and stir it," she says. "How are you going to learn if you don't pay attention?"

"Should I let the sauce burn to know when it's done?" I ask, fueling her.

"No. Don't let it burn," she says. "Does burned sauce sound good to you?"

"No, ma'am."

"Righty. It's terrible," she says. "My son Barry always burns his sauce. Never pays attention to the dern garlic and onions. Great sauce has everything to do with the garlic and onions. And the olive oil. And the tomatoes. But you got to be careful with the olive oil—too much and it's greasy. No good. Can't eat it. Then again—too little and it's dry. No good. Can't eat it."

Bibiana doesn't have a son named Barry. Bibiana never had a son, period. In fact, I'm quite sure she has never met a person on this earth named Barry.

"Extra virgin, right?" I ask, holding the bottle of olive oil. "Like I like my women," I say to myself, but not really with any worry that she'll hear me, and if she does hear me, it's not like she'd understand it.

"Extra virgin like all young ladies should be," she says. She slaps my side. "My husband Nathanial always uses too much oil, but his sauce at least doesn't taste burned like Barry's."

Like with Barry, Bibiana has never married.

"Right," I say, still stirring, the kitchen filling with steam and salivating scents. "What does extra virgin mean?"

"It means cold pressed olives are bottled with no refined oil. It is superior in every way," she says. "And don't be a smart ass. Keep stirring."

"Bibiana," I say, "how would you like some hot tea while we work?"

"Deary, that sounds terrific," she says. "I have some English cookies that my son Barry gave me too. Some nibbles so we don't spoil our appetites."

I kiss Bibiana on the back of her hand again and tell her I'll be right back before I cross the hallway to my apartment. As I leave and slip back into my shoes, she stands at her stove, stirring with her wooden spoon, hunched and happy.


2.

I set my copper teakettle on the stove and ignite the gas flame when a shotgun blast shatters my second story window. Shards of glass rain down on my studio apartment and scatter across the hardwood floor, which reminds me I need to buy an area rug for the foyer.

Another blast sprays through my apartment as I stretch out across the cold linoleum of my kitchenette. A section of glass snaps loose from the windowpane and shatters on the floor.

Another blast shreds the walls of my apartment. Wooden beams appear hidden underneath the drywall. The structure.

The Victorian table lamp encrusted with faux-gems that Bibiana gave me the first time we made sauce together explodes like a stick of dynamite. The lampshade flutters to the floor, riddled through like a voting card of a thousand hanging chads. Sparks spit and pop from an electrical outlet. I hear the subtle shift of energy buzz as the power blinks off. My refrigerator goes quiet.

I cat-crawl on my elbows and knees over broken glass and shattered molding, past my closet and grab a baseball hat, tugging it down over my eyes for protection.

Another blast strikes the milk carton on the counter, milk leaking over the linoleum.

Anxious dogs in my building bark at the gunshots.

I push myself up and, hunched over like Bibiana, walk over to where my window used to be. Leaning close to its blown-out edges, I listen for sirens or spectators pleading for the gunshots to stop.

Kemper Tuttle stands in the middle of the street, aiming a shotgun at my apartment building. I wipe plaster from my forehead and remember that I have to pick up my dry-cleaning today.

"Kemper, the fuck you doing?" I ask, obviously.

"Felix," he says, clearing his throat. "I see you, you disease."

Another blast scatters over me.

I fling my body back, my head hitting the end table where Bibiana's lamp used to sit.

"Felix, you're the cancer of creativity," Kemper says. "You have no consideration for anyone other than yourself."

"Kemper, how long do you think you can do this until someone calls the police?" I ask. I touch my body for blood—nothing. But decide to start a diet tomorrow.

"I can try and kill you forever," Kemper says. His defiance reminds me of a six-year-old arguing his case for staying up past bedtime.

"What if I call the police?" I ask.

"I am not leaving until I shoot out every beam in that building. Until I shoot it down to you, you savage!" Kemper fires into the building. The shotgun spray riddles the ceiling. Pieces of heavy plaster crumble down in sheets.

"Kemper, just how drunk are you?"

"Fairly loaded. Like my shotgun." He reloads.

A cloud of dust and debris expands throughout the room.

Kemper says good morning to someone passing by outside. "I hope I didn't wake you, sir," he says. "I know it's early. I know it's Sunday." Kemper explains that he is, in fact, not crazy, that he is merely a defender of art, fighting against the injustice of tyranny.

"I disagree," I say, leaning through the giant hole in my wall. "He's like a superhero in reverse," I yell. "Superhero by day and bad artist by night."

"You should know," Kemper continues, "that the person living in that building, in that apartment there, is a passionless vessel of thought." Kemper, probably pointing his shotgun up at the hole in my wall, clears his throat. "He is the seed of cold steel," he says. He speaks the way a woman speaks to her mother on the phone when throwing her husband out of the house—loud enough so he can hear every word as he packs a duffle bag full of work shirts and toiletries.

Hollowed shells plunk and rattle against the street.

Kemper wishes the passer-by a nice day, then reloads, snapping the barrel back into place.

"I don't have all day," I say, checking all of my finger.

My front door opens and Bibiana steps inside.

"You forgot the veal, Felix. How can we make a veal-based marinara sauce when you forgot the veal!"

"Bibi, get down." I kick out her cane and pull her down. She was right. I did forget the veal. First time I forgot anything at all.

"Oh deary," she says. "All this mess. You're going to get cancer."

"What do you know about art, anyway?" Kemper asks. "You disgust me," he says, firing again.

The sides of the window frame splinters like a compound fracture of bone. I inhale chunky air and gag, wiping dust and plaster from my face. He shoots again as single malt scotch bottles on top of my refrigerator shatter. Damn. That shit was expensive. Aged 30 years.

"I'm sorry I called you a superhero in reverse," I say, covering Bibiana's ears.

Two more shells clink to the ground outside. Then a tight snap. Then another blast.

"What is happening?" she asks.

"God, you really fucked my security deposit," I say, coughing from the debris. I pick at a hair that has wrapped around my tongue. "How do we settle this?" I scream over my shoulder to the hole in my wall.

"Indignant bureaucrat!" Kemper says. "You soul-suck. You hardened sickness of cold death."

"I hope you have money because this shotgun damage isn't covered under my renters' insurance," I say.

Kemper yells back, "You infected cell. You misguided mouth of ego."

"I did nothing wrong," I say.

"You forgot the veal, Felix," Bibiana says.

"But you did," Kemper says. "And you—you slouch—cannot begin to see the roots of my existence." Kemper takes a breath. "I want an apology," he says.

"He's sorry he forgot the veal," Bibiana says. "Please stop shooting."

"I'm sorry, but I can't say I'm sorry," I say.

"Apologize," Kemper says.

"It was an entire gallery of white canvas," I say. "It didn't make sense as a collection. It didn't make sense as art."

"Why is he shooting at you?" she asks. "It's only veal."

A shotgun blast sounds and misses my apartment, but strikes the apartment below.

"I was doing you a favor," I say. "Affording you the opportunity of press," I say. "No such thing as bad press?"

Kemper drops two more shells to the ground. Snaps the barrel shut.

"Bibi, I was giving him what he wanted—recognition. Was all he wanted," I say.

I sweep my forearm across the floor, clearing a path, spreading the glass and plaster and dust and ceramic apart. I roll to my back on the hardwood floor and see my ottoman standing in milk. "Did you hear any of what I just said?" I ask.

Kemper doesn't respond.

"I'm sorry you are upset with my review," I say.

Kemper is silent. I don't hear empty shotgun shells.

"Kemper?" I ask. "You're gonna shoot at me again, aren't you?"

Another blast assaults my room, tearing up my quilted three-thousand-count Egyptian cotton bedspread.

"How dare you apologize for my reaction," Kemper says. "Who are you to judge art anyway, you glorified elitist fuck. It's people like you that need the satisfaction of art to fill the void of something else."

I am excited, looking around, that after construction I will get to re-paint my room. Maybe a forest green. Maybe plum. That I might even get a one-bedroom apartment out of the deal when it's all said and done.

Bibiana barely moves on the floor.

"You don't even own any art," Kemper says.

"Good thing too, cuz you just shot up my apartment pretty bad," I say. "It'd be worthless, if I did."

"I have art," Bibiana says.

"Let me up. To talk," he says.

"Absolutely no," I say.

"You mean absolutely not?" he asks.

"No. I mean absolutely no," I say.

"No shotgun then. Just me. Alone. Let me come up," Kemper says. "Let's talk. See if you can convince me. The police are on their way. I don't have much time."

I stand and step into the blown-out frame of the window.

"Stay down, Bibi," I say.

Kemper looks up from the street.

The sun shines shafts of light through the city buildings.

"I'm sorry, Kemper," I say.

A grateful smile stretches across his face, slow at first like a sunrise.

"I'm sorry that I can't say I'm sorry. And I'm sorry I don't see things your way."

Red and blue lights twirl in the distance. A siren screams.

Kemper faces the approaching police as the muzzle and stock of his gun hit the ground.

"One cannot apologize for how one feels," I say. "We see things differently."

"Can I come up so we can settle this?" he asks.

"No gun," I say.

"A gun should be the least of your worries," he says.

I push the security buzzer as Kemper enters the injured building, climbing the stairs several at a time, his feet pounding the metal stairs, giving off a deep echo in the hallway. I pull back from the hole in my wall. It's amazing to me that our front door is better fortified than the building itself. Goddern, lazy landlord not keeping the building up to code. But the door is new!

Bibiana pushes herself up with her cane and, surveying my apartment, says, "Oh deary me, so much cancer."


3.

The Sunday morning sun casts shadows of the city onto the blank walls.

"My God," Kemper says, entering my apartment. "It's my finest work yet." Tiny waves of milk and scotch ripple under his boots.

I stand behind a chair, holding a wedge of glass in my hand, keeping Bibiana behind me.

"No shotgun," Kemper says, raising his hands.

"Knife," I say, showing the glass. "I'm not afraid to use it."

Kemper laughs and kicks a wet clump of ceiling that had fallen to the floor. He sees my kettle still on the burner. "Oh, fantastic, you're making tea. How lovely. Can I have some?" he asks, grabbing his throat. "So parched. All that bourbon I downed earlier."

I shake the wedge at him as he sits in the chair.

"Painfully parched," he says. "Honey, too, if you have it. Just a dab."

"That reminds me, Felix," Bibiana says. "Some people use honey in their sauce. Don't ever use honey in your sauce. If I ever catch you using honey in your sauce, I'll whack you. Barry uses honey. Silly boy."

"Who's the old lady?"

"You should apologize," Bibiana says.

"I really love the mess," Kemper says. "Can I come back later to take some pictures?"

"Are you crazy?" I ask.

"This will cause us all cancer," Bibiana says.

"Not crazy. Honest," he says, kicking off his shoe and rubbing his bare foot with his hand.

"I don't have moisturizer," I say, wanting to stick the glass in his foot to show him, from real pain, instead of this art pain.

The teakettle whistles.

Kemper smiles and nods towards the kettle. "Please?" he asks.

"Please," I say.

"I should really go and check on the sauce," Bibiana says. "Felix, I already stuffed the shells. All that's left is to let the sauce simmer eight hours. But I must go and stir the sauce so it doesn't burn."

"She shouldn't leave," Kemper says, walking to the kettle and pouring himself a cup of tea. When he walks across the floor, he is careful not to cut his foot. He stops halfway back to the chair. "Milk?" he asks, pinching his fingers together.

"You shot it," I say. White liquid marinates the floor with shattered plaster, glass and wood.

"Oh drats," he says, snapping his fingers.

"Remind me that we should practice a cream sauce, Felix," Bibiana says. "It's a delicate balance to maintain, but if you can make a rich cream sauce, you can conquer the world."

"You realize how crazy this is?" I ask him.

"I realize how crazy she is," Kemper says.

"Eccentric," I say. "Not crazy."

He surveys the damage. "It's funny. She says I will cause cancer and I say you are cancer." Kemper sits down. "Even though we do disagree on the merit and intention of art."

"WHAT IS HAPPENING HERE?" I ask.

"I feel you need a tutorial," he says, crossing one leg over the other, resting the teacup on his knee.

"You used a shotgun," I say.

"Heavy handed, yes, but a tutorial nonetheless," he says. "Am I slurring my words? I don't feel like I am, but I sure did drink enough to knock out my speech all together."

"I think you both need to learn to cook a nice puttanesca," Bibiana says.

"Tell me," he says, poking his thumb about the room. "What do you see?"

"Costly, random destruction," I say.

"And cancer," Bibiana says.

"I see post-modern, real-time disaster art," he says. "Real estate art."

"The cops are here," I say, looking at the hole in my wall, red and blue flashing outside.

"My Barry is a cop. He will help," she says.

"Cops will raise this moment of transgressive art from mediocre to infamy. An installation for the ages," he says, sipping tea.

"This is vandalism," I say. "Attempted murder."

"Then you can write about it," he says.

"I will not apologize for my review," I say. "Your art was trite."

"Like a pesto," she says. "You need to learn to cook a nice walnut pesto."

"Your art is trite. Answerable only by shotgunning my apartment," I say, nodding to the mess as proof.

"My Barry was very dramatic as a child. We enrolled him in cooking classes at the local college and he learned to make the most delicious cannoli and tiramisu."

Kemper sets his teacup on the floor and stands. "I see." He sighs, then stomps the teacup under his foot. Porcelain shatters under his heel. Tea splashes into the river of liquid on the floor. Everything mixes. Kemper's foot begins to bleed, mixing with the remaining elements of life pooling in my apartment.

I swing the wedge of glass at him, slicing his hand.

Bibiana says, "Oh my. He needs gauze."

Kemper reads from the paper in his hands. My review. I look around my apartment. The conveniences of a privileged life are buried beneath rubble. Kemper says that I am a danger to the youth of America. Kemper tells me that my life is a shallow stream of sewage. Kemper runs across the room and turns a knob to one of the burners as it flickers to a roar. He dips the corner of the review into the flame and tosses the burning paper to the floor.

Blue flames stand like a line of dominoes in reverse, running across the floor, over ceiling and wood and glass. The flame is small at first, before snapping into six separate lines of fire. Embers spit sparks in arcs.

Kemper throws his hands over his head like a boxer claiming victory and says, "I am the public defender of art," before disappearing out the kitchen window and down the fire escape.


4.

I fumble past cleaning products under the sink to my fire extinguisher. I squeeze the handle as white foam smothers the room in a fog, which chases the fire up the curtains and comforter and onto the upholstery of the chair. I stand in the doorway, hosing the fire with little effect. A stiff finger pokes me in the back.

"Felix?" Bibiana stands behind me. "What happened here? Is our tea ready?"

"Bibiana, go downstairs," I say.

"Oh, I never go anywhere," she says.

"There's a fire. You need to leave," I say.

"I'll call my son, Barry. He'll know what to do," she says, heading inside for the phone. "Did I ever tell you that he's a cop?"

I grab her wrist. "Bibiana, it's not safe anymore," I say.

"I just had a nap. I'm raring to go," she says, patting my hands. Her skin feels cold and rubbery.

"You didn't have a nap, Bibi," I say. "We were cooking. Sauce and shells."

Bibiana walks across the hall and back into her kitchen. Her sauce on the stove ha burned and pan of stuffed shells sits half-covered in tin foil. "We can't leave it all out," she says.

Black smoke fills the hallway as three firemen in full gear run toward us. One carries an ax. The other two hold a hose.

"Oh my deary," Bibiana says.

A fireman yells for us to evacuate.

"Not unless you bring me my sauce and shells," she says. "Otherwise, I'm not leaving."

Another fireman arrives and the first fireman says, "She won't leave without her sauce and shells."

"I don't care what it takes. Get it for her and take her out," he says.

The firemen are about to enter when Bibiana puts a hand up like a stop sign.

"You must remove your shoes before entering my apartment," she says. "You boys stand in a lot of bad places and I don't want it putting cancer on my floors."

I grab a napkin from her table and place it to her mouth, shouldering her out of her apartment, away from the fire. Two firemen follow behind us—one carrying the sauce, the other balancing the tray of stuffed shells. They do not take off their shoes.

An explosion rumbles behind us as one of the firemen drops a tray of shells, which shatters across the stairs.

Bibiana turns to me and says, "Felix, it's the sauce that matters most."


5.

Outside, we sit in the back of an ambulance parked across the street and suck air from oxygen tanks. The sauce is on the ground, still bubbling, surrounded by empty shogun shells. We watch the fire rip through our building.

Bibiana coughs and taps my forearm.

"There are worse things, Felix. My Nathanial was trapped in a fire just like this once," she says.

"Your husband?" I ask.

"Trying to save our pictures. More important than sauce," she says.

"Why did he save the pictures?" I ask.

"Story of one's life. Very important, pictures." Bibiana nods.

"Did he?" I ask.

"Wouldn't you know, he put them in the oven," she says. "Saved every one. We lost everything that day. Except those pictures."

"Where are your pictures now?" I ask, the building burning badly behind us.

"If my Nathanial hadn't put those pictures in the oven, I never would have had the opportunity to give them to my son," she says.

"Barry," I say.

"The story of our lives."

"Can I call someone for you? Let them know about this," I say.

"No. I'll be fine," she says. "We saved the sauce today."

We breathe from our tanks. We watch the fire devour our building and black smoke pump up into the air. Crowds gather to watch water cannons pour gallons per minute onto the flames. A helicopter hovers nearby shooting footage for the nightly news.

"What happened?" Bibiana asks me, removing the oxygen from her nose and mouth. "Why is there a fire? Why are so many people watching us?"

I tell her not to worry. That I called her son, Barry. That he is on his way.

 


J. R. Angelella is the author of Zombie (Soho Press), as well as a Southern Gothic supernatural YA series co-written with his wife, Kate Angelella, forthcoming from Sourcebooks/Teen Fire in 2013. His short fiction has appeared in numerous journals, including Hunger Mountain, Fifth Wednesday Journal, and Sou’wester. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Bennington College and lives in Brooklyn with his wife and their two flauntingly obese cats. For more information, visit his website--www.jrangelella.com--or follow him on Twitter: @jrangelella.

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