New work by alumna and former winner of the Levis Stipend in Fiction Lisa Van Orman Hadley (fiction, ’09) is featured online at The Collagist:
The summer before my sophomore year of high school, he teaches me how to make a Reuben. We assemble ingredients, get them ready so we can add each one as quickly as possible because we must eat the sandwich while it is still hot and the top of the bread is crispy. I learn his tricks: drain the sauerkraut well (“nothing worse than a soggy sandwich”), use just the right amount of butter on the outsides of the bread, choose the very best Thousand Island dressing you can find because it makes or breaks the sandwich.
When we talk, it is only about the sandwiches.
Reubens have become our art form; he cooks while I drain and assemble. For a while in the summer we eat a Reuben together every day at noon.
My mother is alarmed by this. She plugs her nose at the smell of the sauerkraut, her face wrinkles in disgust at the corned beef. Her taste is not distinguished enough for such things.
By my senior year we are making our own bread and pickling our own cabbage. We corn our own beef. We find recipes for Thousand Island dressing in gourmet recipe books and we add our own secret ingredients, making it even better.
When I am twenty-three, I break up with my fiancé while my parents are in Alaska. I am alone in their house and I spend three days crying, watching comedies and taking droplets of St. John’s Wort. I leave the house once to buy groceries for this man I was going to marry because he lost his job the week before I broke up with him. The two events are unrelated, but still I feel bad.
On the third day, my parents get home, all smiles. They have brought home a cooler full of salmon and an ulu set. My eyes are still puffy and I can taste the bitterness of St. John’s Wort on my tongue as I sit them down on the couch and tell them that there will be no wedding. They say nothing. Nothing. You could slice the silence with the ulu my mother has just given me. And then, finally, my father stands up and says, “Well, I’m hungry. I’m going to go make myself a Reuben.”
I am twenty-five years old and on the couch in the basement when the phone rings. My father is one of those people who always pick up on the first ring. I hear his heavy footsteps above me as he walks over and picks up the phone in the kitchen and says “hello.” Everything reverberates down here in the basement, where I have been spending a lot of my time lately. My feet and hands are cold. They are always cold. I inherited that from my mother.
He says the following things:
“Was anyone there?”
“Do you want me to call anyone?”
“Ok, thanks for calling.”
He says these things in the same tone of voice that he would say, “The printer is out of paper.”
He hangs up and walks to the top of the stairs. “Lisa!” he yells and I say “what?” and he says, “Grandma died.”
My feet and hands are very cold. I have already forgotten how she smells. And now I am thinking about how she always told me to chew with my mouth closed. I want to blister with tears, want to sob into my freezing cold hands for her. But I don’t. I guess my father and I are the same that way. I wonder, as I always wonder in times like these, if I loved my grandma enough. And that answer, more than anything, scares me.
I go upstairs and my father is in the kitchen making a Reuben. So I go in and I make a Reuben, too, and we eat.
We’re on the train. My parents are in Boston for the weekend. My father is looking out the window and my mother and I are talking about his mind. How it’s going.
My mother has just told me that she took him in for an MRI and some tests. She said the doctor asked him what day of the week and what month it was and he couldn’t remember.
And then, in the middle of our conversation, I look down at my hands and I notice that there is dirt beneath my fingernails. And I know it’s crazy, but the dirt makes me cry. I remember how my father used to clean under my fingernails with his Swiss army knife during church. He took my little fingers in his hands and slid the blade under each nail. I loved to watch the black wipe away like that and then come off on the knife. He got so close to the skin and it hurt a little, but I didn’t mind.
When we get home, we are hungry, so I decide to make us Reubens. My father butters the outside of the rye bread while the pan is heating up and I drain the sauerkraut. We don’t talk. He layers the sandwiches skillfully: corned beef, Swiss, sauerkraut, Thousand Island. My father—he doesn’t miss a beat.
When we sit down at the table, I watch my father as he bites into his sandwich.
“Oh, that’s good!” he says. “What is that?”
I say, “That’s your favorite sandwich, Dad.”
And he says, “Yes, I suppose it is.”