Fiction by Thomas Weedman
The paunchy French chef on PBS TV is flouring a marble counter top so the ball of pasta dough doesn’t stick. Then he wraps his hand around the wood pin, gives it a dusty stroke, and rolls with punctilio.
“People like a surprise,” he accents in English, crisp apron, and bouffant toque. He’s tall and handsome with salt and pepper sideburns in a Provincial kitchen. There’s a range with gas burners and raised iron grates. Above, shiny copper cookware hang, majestic as a constellation. He leans forward, works the thick dowel back and forth. It clicks as he quicks in different directions, flattening kneaded semolina into a large even square like he’s done it a billion times. He then stamps pasta shapes with a scallop-edge cookie cutter. Spooning on filling, he says, “A little minced duck.”
He says duck like puckering.
“Who doesn’t like a surprise?” he lisps.
“They’ll be asking for more,” he says. “But there won’t be interrobang,” he says. “No leftovers.” He chuckles, “interrobang –that’s my fancy word for the day. Maybe I use it wrong. My wife says I say things wrong. But you get the point.” He adds cooked shriveled chard. “Maybe a little goat cheese,” he says. “More wonderful surprise.” As he brushes on eggwash, sealing the pasta packages, the doorbell rings. I fasten my red robe, see to it.
“Surprise,” she says and randies a smile. Then she removes her baseball cap as though a bonnet, unfurls fiery curls like the pious child, Helen Burns, from theLate-Georgian novel Jane Eyre made into a major motion picture and remade time and again by different directors and actors. But there’s always the same characters, the upright Reverend Mr. Brocklehurst, accusing Helen of vanity. And steadfast Jane watching.
“Vanity!” Brocklehurst scorned, taking the scissors from innocent young Jane Eyre to cutoff Helen’s golden curls. Consequently, Jane proffered her long hair in protest. He took hers too.
Can beautiful hair offend God? Even the motion of it? What about a picture? Where’s the offense, the error? Besides the waisted locks on the floor.
The girl at the door, funny enough, is named Helen. Doppelganger Burns, I call her. We schlep coffee on Wall Street five days a week and rest on the sixth. Could we wrest on the seventh or stretch in-between innings like baseball? She’s half my age yet flirts reciprocally at work but unhappily has a live-in boyfriend, she says, in a dugout-size studio apartment. I get it; I used to have a live-in wife...
Mane intact, she is far from vain. Sans makeup, she pretties skin washed white and crisp as jicama and thin as crepe paper. Her lobes and throat are bare, a string bracelet on her bony wrist. She feminines a sherbet chemise and faded blue jeans rolled to her calves – hard as bowling pins. Also, she’s wearing beige canvas hi-tops with the red virgule stitch of baseballs but opted for no socks – tube or stirrup.
She says, “Did I catch you gambling on horses?”
“Not yet. Races start in 30 minutes.”
“Good. I thought I’d drop by and surprise you. The landlord let me in.”
“Mr.Rochester?” I joke.
“Is that his name? He’s grizzly and creepy with those cotton sideburns.”
“He’s harmless,” I say. “But this is a surprise. Did we have a date?” I joke, recalling the one later. The landlord lets her in too. She also says he’s creepy.
“You wish,” she says. “But I felt your dare.”
“Alas, then, you are come.”
“What?” she says.
“That’s what she said.”
“The housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax, to Jane Eyre when she arrived at castle-like Thornfield Hall:
‘You are come.’”
“Cum? You are so weird.” Then she says like Mrs. Fairfax, “And vulgar.”
“Wayback that meant ordinary, belonging to the masses.”
“You are not ordinary or belong to the masses.”
“Anyway,” I say, “You’re here. I never thought you’d come.”
“Yes, I am. Yes, I did,” she says. “Well, not yet anyway. By the way, nice cloak,” she says. “Did it come with a lid?”
“You mean cowl?”
Smiling, she backhands my chest, then brushes it with hers, and enters the narrow hardwood hallway with calm hardihood. “I had to see the Jimmy cave.” A lavender scent floats from her like incense from a thurible in a medieval church.
“Beer?” I offer.
“It’s 9 a.m.”
“Oh, what the hell. Sure.”
I take one and proffer the last can. She takes it and the floor creaks like pirate planks as she wanders through the apartment, a formal old-worldone-bedroom.
“This place haunted?”
“As Thornfield Hall.”
“What is it with you?” she says, nose to the French doors with glass knobs and spattered panes. “Tell me that’s paint.”
“It’s paint. Come here,” I say and show her the lavatory and washbasin the shape of a lavabo.
I point to the tuxedo-tile and a claw-foot tub. The toilet, equipped with a polished chrome flushometer handle, is bleached and clean. The high ceiling and millwork crowns are not. Dust bunnies hang in effigy. In the kitchen, washed pewter dishes are put way, an oiled carbon steel on the spotless gas stove. In the hall, a sealed dumbwaiter.
“Secret passage?” she asks. “
A hundred years ago, this used to be a swank hotel. That goes to a cookery in the basement.”
“Cookery? You and your fucking words. It’s called a kitchen.”
“So, it is.”
“This place is so old,” she says and stares at the Vermeer canvas reproductions on the wall.
The oily walnut frames make her skin seem opaque. She touches the red velvet curtains in the bay window, fingering the tapestry. She kneels on the padded cherrywood priedieu like a Lowood pupil. She is a painting in the Jimmy scene at Thorn field Hall.
“This place come furnished?”
She sets the beer on the dusty show-box length shelf and reaches in the cubby-holefor the leather-bound breviary. She flicks the waxy-thin pages. “Did you steal this shit from a church?”
“No.” But can’t remember the last time I said Lauds.
She puts the prayer book back, ribbons in place, then touches the beaded can to her forehead like cooling a headache. She makes the sign of the cross at the iron crucifix on the wall and takes a swig.
I smile, imagine Brocklehurst exclaiming, “Profane girl!”
She gets up, grabbing her knee. “Getting old,” she says and looks around. “You still use a VCR? And an old-style boob tube to watch cooking shows? Do you pretend to be a pervert or are you just gay?”
“No to what?” She unfastens my robe, tugs my boxer briefs. “Serial killer?”
“Not yet.” Though I do remember decapitating a quail but won’t go there.
“At work,” she says, “you dignify popular-culture movies and gambling on horses. I’m surprised you’re into cooking and antique furniture. Look at this nice shit,” she says, opening an oak armoire. “Is this where you hide your porn and computers?”
I ignore, say, “The French chef on TV says people like a surprise.”
“Did you like my surprise?”
“Yes,” I say. At work, she covers up in an apron like an old-school baseball ump in a padded chest protector. But now her chemise leaks cleavage. She lets my eyes balk and linger and then sinks in a mission chair as I melt into a butter-colored French settee.
She says, “But not all surprises are good. My old boyfriend left me a surprise once.”
She guzzles beer, belches, and wild pitches the empty can across the room. I duck and it crashes into the wall.
“Mazel tov,” I say.
“What’s that mean?”
“Beat you!?” she says. Her eyebrows go Harpo Marx. Then she says, “I was drawing a bubble bath and went for incense and my boyfriend snuck into the bathroom and left a surprise.”
“Surprise?” I’m thinking flowers, maybe coffee.
“He took a dump. Fucker. Spoiled my bath thunder.”
“Well, at least he didn’t go in the tub.”
“True. But I got him back. Stole his imported condoms. Threw them away, really. I told him we couldn’t have sex until he got more.”
“When was this?”
“About an hour ago. It’ll take a month in the mail.”
“You said ‘old’ boyfriend.”
“He is old.”
“I see,” I say, sticking with the subject – surprises.
“I got a surprise once, too.”
I think of my roommate in the seminary and how his excrement ended up in the chapel, as though the Devil had defecated on our prayer books. But I want to avoid another crap story and gay comment. I go with the doctor story instead.
“My meniscus was acting up while driving a delivery truck.”
“Shut up,” she interrupts.
“You drove a truck? You’re full of surprises.”
“Man, that’s so hot. Like a big rig?”
“A thirty-foot box truck with lift gate. Eighty-pound barrels of coffee. Five thousand pounds a day.”
Her eyes light up.
“Anywho,” I say, "I called the orthopedic surgeon for an arthroscopy.”
“Is that the one for up your pooper?”
“No, that’s a colonoscopy. This one was for my knee.”
“But HMO said I had to be referred from a general practitioner. Anyway, the receptionist, perplexed, had me fill out forms. Then she took me to a room. ‘Take off your pants?’ she said confused. The examination bed featured the top half of a dentist chair with stirrups.”
I finish my beer, then say, “So, I’m in there forever.”
“In the stirrups?” Helen says.
“No. Then a short Filipino man in a white lab coat came in, head buried in his clipboard. ‘What can I do for you Mrs. Burman?’ he said.”
I pause. Helen looks blank, so I continue. “You should have seen the look on his face when he looked up. ‘Let me introduce myself,’ he said. ‘I’m a – ’”
“Gynecologist!” Helen laughs. “I knew I’d get one hole right.”
She puts her hand on my knee.
“That’s what the doctor did.”
“Put his hand on my knee, felt like he was going for the cubby-hole.”
“Did he think you were pregnant?”
“I didn’t wait to find out. One surprise was enough.”
“Speaking of, I don’t want one in nine months.”
She reaches in my robe, palms the rolling pin, strokes The Louisville slugger as if in the ninth inning. Then she unrolls the lambskin. “It’s from Australia,” she says in a husky voice. She skips pucker and love-bites my earlobe like ravioli with tomato gravy because it feels like she draws blood. “I managed to save one.” She strokes down in quick delicate motions as though she’s done it a million times.
She rips off her clothes and reveals surprises of the flesh: bony hips, spiny ribs and puffy puppy nipples on small breasts curved up as Red Dacca bananas. Her maidenhair matches her fiery curls. I almost smile while rubbing my lobe, checking for blood. She says, “Sorry, Sissy. I hurt you?” Then she pulls me onto the California King I’d just done up– washed percale sheets, duvet, sham, the whole bit.
She removes my socks, says, “I’m wet as the ocean.”
From the missionary position, I penetrate like a prow of a ship cutting through a wave but can’t hold back the surge.
“What?”Did you cum!?” she ampersands.
It cuts harder than bite lobe, cleaner than stamping pasta. She plunges her head into the goose-down pillow. “I wanted to be fucked! For a long time and ride you like a racehorse. ‘Glad you are cum,’my ass.”
Her tight stomach muscles rock a stack of canon bones or a rack of small baseball bats. She rips off the condom and throws it down like a losing bet ticket or pitcher’s rosin bag. “What a sham!” she cannons. “Bull f-u-c-k-i-n-g shit!”
She chemises mammary happiness, then jeans, canvas shoes – clean enough to paint on. She is frumious – fuming and furious – as Mr. Brocklehurst. Also the name of a fast angry filly running in the 1st race today.
Helen storms out. “God Damn it!” she shouts, slamming the front door.
I look for a strands of mane, curls, locks – any slight evidence on the paisley pillowcase worse than The Reverend Brocklehurst scissor cuts on the floor. My date will be knocking in a few hours. I think how I’ve allowed my relationships to become a vapid bang. Jane Eyre was even called a puta, though, of course, she wasn’t.
I turn on the movie, it lives a rewind life in the VCR. I watch shorn Helen dead from consumption in her sleep – sorrowful, grief-stricken Jane next to her in bed. I long for their earnest childhood relationship or the love Jane had for change-full, hard-as-a-rubber-ball Mr. Rochester, whom she agreed to marry. What a surprise to find he was already married at the alter and secretly housing his altered wife Bertha upstairs akin to a roomy yet padded attic. In the seminary, in which I never took priestly vows, I worked in a sanitarium, the poor vacated souls, some stuck in plastic-covered beds. So I don’t blame Rochester for nursing Bertha at home.
But losing Jane!
She ran away; crazy Bertha died burning down Thornfield Hall jumping off the roof, and Rochester was left half- blind and alone.
Until Jane returned chapters and years later when they rekindled, consummated, and had a family.
Jane is always a beacon of hope, filial love, and steadfastness to do what is right.
Yet, I am void of that happy ending and Jane’s conviction, though today I’ve had one and another to come. But neither adds up to a damn thing.
I turn off the movie, recall my roommate in the seminary who couldn’t defecate for days. The great constipater, we called him. When he did go, it was a surprise. That time he went, he forgot to use a hanger or plunge. The water overflowed, carrying his dump out of the bathroom, down the stairs, hugging the ceiling joist into the chapel. It screw balled, took a right-hand turn, and came to rest on the breviaries on the shelf. I always expected to find God in morning prayer, not feces.
+ + +
Minutes to post online, I flip TV channels, find the French chef on PBS. He’s makings patchcock chicken, which he can only elegant with a pucker.
“I forget where the name comes from,” he says. “Maybe I read it in Jane Eyre. Maybe the recipe is Irish. I’m French. Who knows?”
He cleavers the neck cleaner than my hoe on a quail chick as a kid. It’s a stock memory I keep burried and watch him scissor the thoracic. “A fancy name for backbone,” he says. “Save this for stock,” he says, setting the spine aside with blood on his hands. “Don’t throw any part away. You’ll be surprised the flavors they pack.” He spreads the carcass in a stained 3-ply stainless-steel skillet, then salts, peppers, and browns it in olive oil. He adds thyme, shallot, and splashes with brown ale. He finishes it in a hot oven, then swigs from the bottle.
“I save some for me,” he says. “Don’t tell my wife.”
It makes me want more beer but I’m out. Donning socks and clothes as if suiting up for baseball or society, I’m still tempted to go the corner liquor store in a cloak as Rochester. But slipping on shoes, I find an interrobang in the insole, a hump of soggy-like ravioli, my leftover. This, too, will stick as a surprise.
Thomas Weedman has a BA in English from Notre Dame and an MFA from Lindenwood. He's been a seminarian, truck driver, forklift operator, bartender, barista, and professional gambler. What steers writing and rewriting is trying to get it right – faulty character, first and last sentence, and the language in between. His short stories have appeared in the Acorn Review Literary Journal to The Write Launch. A publication list can be found here
Published 3rd March, 2023.