Qualified Entry: Fiction Category

By: Tony Burnett

I own four perfectly seasoned cast iron skillets, the oldest of which I’ve had for almost 40 years. My late mother gave it to me when I first permanently moved out of the home place during my junior year of college. It came with a complete set of kitchen ware – plates, glasses, utensils, everything. I still have the skillet. I learned to cook by the time I was nine. I was the oldest but my brother and sister had to learn too. When we each turned twelve we became responsible for preparing the dinner meal one night a week. Both my parents liked to cook and they were good at it. They also liked to get snockered and they were good at that too. When all three siblings were teens dad and mom got snockered any night when there was no school function but thanks to the kids we all ate well. I probably enjoyed cooking more than anyone in the family. It was a creative outlet and if I did the cooking I didn’t have to wash dishes. I don’t even like to load the dishwasher and we didn’t have one.

When I was tall enough to reach the back of the stove, I received my first cooking lesson. My mom said, “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” At the time I assumed this was some strange sort of anatomy lesson as I had just finished helping my dad butcher a dozen rabbits. He would teach me the names of the individual organs as we eviscerated the animals. Once I understood what my mom really meant I was still a bit confused. I was a boy. Did she assume that just because I didn’t like sports, I was a homosexual? I didn’t like sports because I was as gangly and clumsy as a day old colt, plus there were no girls. Contrary to her opinion, I did like girls, a lot. I can’t remember back to a day when I was not sexually attracted to girls, women, females. I was born horny. But I digress.

Now my kitchen is a state of the art studio of cast iron, stainless steel, ceramic and glass. No aluminum or plastic will be found in my creative space. I have some of the finest quality utensils imported from around the world. “I Have a Wok and I’m Not Afraid to Use It” was the title of my first, well only, cookbook. It sold a whopping 318 copies. My publisher said I probably jumped onto the stir fry bandwagon a bit too late. I’m more inclined to think that I cook much better than I write.

As I’ve mentioned, I’m a big fan of women. I think the best age for women is their thirties. I started dating women in their thirties when I was seventeen. At 60, I still prefer women in their thirties. I even married one once. I was twenty-six. She was thirty-three. It lasted six years. That was my only marriage and probably my longest relationship, seeing as how we still got together fairly often for another five or six years after our divorce and her rather immediate remarriage. She said she out grew me.

“Don’t worry,” I told her. “I’ve heard that from much younger women than you.” I don’t think I saw her again after that. Sometimes I tend to spout off without really considering the impact of what I’m saying.

“Mouthy Bastard!” is how Jeanine described it. She was one of my “calendar girls”. I call her that not because she was drop-dead gorgeous, although life is too short to hang out with ugly women. “Calendar girl” to me means someone with who you can measure the length of your relationship on a calendar as opposed to a clock.

I like to spoil women and I’m good at it. “Extremely talented,” according to Becca, another “calendar girl” who actually made it through two calendars. The downside of that is I end up with needy women who eventually either get whiny or get over it. Either way, one of us gets bored and calls it quits. That’s usually just a temporary setback. I learned a valuable lesson from mama even though I had to adjust the gender. Women love to be cooked for. They love having

gourmet coffee served to them in bed. They will do almost anything for (or with) a ripe California strawberry hand dipped in dark chocolate.

“Don’t you get it? There’s more to life than food and sex!” That was Claire. I don’t think she took more than a month out of the calendar.

“Really? What could be more important than food and sex?” There goes that mouth again. Her face turned an extreme shade of purple just before she screamed. ”You know what I mean you arrogant shithead!” She slammed the door behind her before ever answering my question.

So why am I driving all over the county with my cell phone to my ear, weaving on the road and calling every pertinent number I can think of? It’s Rhonda. Rhonda is not even in her thirties. She’s forty four or forty five. She was already 40 when we met. She’s not the same as most of the women I’ve known. Oh, she likes being spoiled enough but she doesn’t seem to need it. She never allows any score cards in our relationship. “You do what you want. I’ll do what I want. Maybe we can have some fun together.”

It was four years ago she told me that and four months before she moved in. The day she moved in I made stuffed trout and creamed broccoli. She did the dishes after dinner and brought me a margarita on the rocks. She took a sip of it, sat on my lap and said “This just might work.” It did work. Hell, I thought it was still working. We got up early, had breakfast together. She went to her job. I went to mine. We came home, glad to see each other, and talked about our day. We planned outings. We shopped together. We made love frequently and passionately. She even overlooked my occasional off color or thoughtless comment.

Whenever we go anywhere in the car, she drives. That’s fine with me. I would rather observe the scenery. She knows the names of every other driver on the road, either “Asshole” or “Son of a Bitch”, which I find entertaining. It only takes a minor infraction on another driver’s part and she identifies them emphatically. I snicker under my breath and she cocks her head in my direction. “Well he is!”

A couple of weeks ago we were sitting at the table over a breakfast of migas, potatoes au gratin and toast when she put down her fork in mid meal and asked “What do you want to do with your life?”

“I’m doing it.” I replied.

“No, seriously, I mean long term.”

“I am serious. I’m perfectly happy. I love you.” I was being honest.

“Well, I love you too but there has to be more to it, some goal.”

“I’m going to retire in a few years then I can really spoil you, like a house husband.”

“We would have to get married for that.” She observed.

“Okay then, I’ll be your concubine, your love slave.”

“Can you just be serious for a minute?”

“If I do will you still love me?”

“Why don’t you try me?”

“I am serious. I like things the way they are. What do we need to change?”

“I don’t know, it just seems like there should be more to it.”

I mentally checked the calendar. It wasn’t that time of the month. Her birthday wasn’t coming up. It must be something in the water. I let it pass. The next few days she seemed a little distant. I bent over backwards trying to make her comfortable. I washed her hair. I gave her massages. I prepared her favorite seafood dish. Still the cloud would not pass.

Today, when she didn’t come home from work, I tried her cell phone. It’s was turned off. I called her office. They said she left early, something about needing to have her car looked at. She had not mentioned a problem with her car but as distant as she had been lately it didn’t surprise me. I started looking around the house. Most of her things were here but some of her clothes, most of her makeup and a couple of suitcases were gone. I was concerned.

Now it’s approaching 11pm. I’m out looking everywhere, calling all her friends. All but one knows nothing. Her friend, Joel, from work says, “You’ll have to talk to her” and hangs up. That is ominous. I’m heading back to the house when the phone rings.

“Meet me at Kerbey Lane on Lamar. I have to show you something.” She sounded happier and more excited than she had in weeks.

“That’s twenty miles. It’s almost midnight.”

A long pause.

“Never mind.” She now sounded dejected.

“Why don’t you show me when you get home?

“I’m not coming home.”

Shit! “I’ll be there in half an hour.” I hoped she didn’t hear the exasperation in my voice.

“You don’t have to come.”

“Are you kidding? I love surprises!” Maybe I could bring back the lilt I heard earlier.

“Cool.” The call ended.

I have two words to describe what I do when a woman goes skitsy on me. “Run away!”

This time, I let my curiosity get the better of me. Besides, I felt like what Rhonda and I had was at least worth ending face to face. Twenty five minutes later I was pulling in to the Kerbey Lane Café. The parking lot was crowded but I didn’t see Rhonda’s car. I decided to wait inside. As soon as I entered, I saw her at a corner table by the window. She smiled when our eyes met.

“Hungry?” She asked.

“I could eat.” now that my stomach had stopped churning.

“Good, I waited to order,” she said, trying to be nonchalant but I could tell she was about to pop. I wasn’t going to let her off that easy.

“Where’s your car? I asked.

“Right there.” She pointed out the window.

“I don’t see it”

“The black one,” she smiled.

Just outside the window was parked one of those little two-seater convertible sports cars like guys named “Asshole” drive.

“Cute, ain’t it!” She almost giggled.

“Can you afford that?” I asked, knowing full well she could.

“Gee, I hope so.” She was back to her bubbliest.

“So that’s what you wanted to show me?”

“Nope.” Okay, now I was stunned.

“Well, what then?”

Just then the waiter came to take our order. The special looked good but for once my mind wasn’t on food. “I’ll have the special”

“Me too.” Rhonda agreed.

“Okay,” she said. “Here’s the deal.” She slid an envelope across the table.

“Well, these can’t be divorce papers. We’re not married. Are you suing me?” That mouth again. She literally growled at me but I could tell by her eyes she was playing. I opened the envelope. Inside were two round trip tickets to Milan, departing at 10 am on what was now this morning.

“I, my job, what about? – I’ve got to get clothes. – I don’t see how? – We can’t do that!”

“I brought your clothes and passport. You’ll have to work out the rest.” I knew what she meant by that. My stomach was churning again. Our meal came. I stared at it. Was I scared or excited? A million reasons not to go entered my mind. It was irresponsible. She was crazy. I’m too old for this shit!

“I need a shower.”

“You can shower at my hotel room.” She offered.

“Cool.” I picked up my fork.