Tastings With Dad: Three Stories
Onions, Caraway and Garlic
Dad is playing solitaire and ignoring me. Last Saturday at the end of my weekly visit, he threw a mug; I ducked and it shattered. I scurried out, did not bother to pick up shards. Now he is pretending that everything is rosy–ignoring me is the norm. At his best, he tires after an hour.
He misses the ten of clubs on the jack of diamonds, but I stare out the window instead of telling him. The room smells like the cleaner had not come through yet.
“I brought three oranges,” I say finally, “and two Bosc pears. You always liked those.”
He harumphs. Something clicks in his brain and his face lights up. “Remember the chicken paprikash I used to make you when your mother left; I’d make a new pot as soon as we finished the last; we must have had paprikash for about three months straight.” We both laugh.
“Good times, Dad, good times.”
He looks up but is not seeing me. “I could still cook that, you know, you never forget how. Chop the onions, sprinkle with paprika as they caramelize, lots of caraway, that’s the secret, use what you think is too much and then add another tablespoon.”
I don’t want to break his reverie but am familiar with his progressions: tears or violence are next.
“Would you like me to peel you an orange, Dad? Or quarter a pear?”
“You have a sunny kitchen, lots of counter space,” he wheedles. “I’ll make us lumberjack portions; I remember how to make dumplings, too.”
We made it through a ten-minute visit. Dr. Mandle has urged a higher dosage but then Dad only slept. I said I’d rather put up with the drama.
A nurse bustles in. “A visitor, isn’t that lovely, Frank. Something to pick up your spirits.”
“I want out of here,” he rears himself, swipes his deck of cards onto the floor. “I want to fry garlic, bake bublanina…”
The nurse gives me a quick look. “Might be best to go. I’ll give him another pill. Once he…”
“Take care, Dad. See you next week.” I stumble over a cleaning cart but don’t look back.
Marcella suggests sweets rather than fruit.
He used to polish off six eclairs, half a plum cake. Now the home dietician monitors a strict diet, and he has dropped twenty pounds, maybe more. His skin is sagging, like his spirits. The treat he’d like best of all is a bottle of borovicka or dark rum, but if I gift him that, the board will throw him out, and he’ll end up living with us or on the street. Marcella offers to come with me to make it easier, but I know better. He’ll perform, cry and scream, and she does not have to witness that. Putting up with me is hard enough.
I drop in at Rybicka’s, select a box of marzipan, a tin of chestnut puree, and lemon-flavored pastilles. Everything is compromise.
Once I sign in, the attendant shakes her head, says the administrator needs to talk to me. I shake, too. No such thing as good news.
Ms. Bodlak, MSW, flashes her teeth, a smile pasted on, but the air coming off her is arctic, heavy with fatigue.
“He yells,” she says. “Bad enough during the day, but in the night he disturbs other residents. We are running out of options. More medication or other living arrangements, I’m afraid. Perhaps The Manor is not the right placement.”
I clear my throat, stare at the bowl of fake fruit on her desk, a Cezanne print of more fruit on her wall. I long to squeeze an orange into pulp.
“I cannot take him in, you understand that,” I finally croak. “I cannot…we cannot…my companion cannot…”
The wattage of her smile dims. “Larger dosage then? Or Sunrise Homes has a special floor…”
I have taught myself to count, not react like him. Twelve, thirteen…She is doing her best, I am sure. I once visited the floor she is talking about, still have nightmares. I won’t do that to him. His blood in my veins.
“Maybe I can talk to Dr. Mandle,” I say. “Discuss medications which won’t totally disable him?”
She stares. She is probably counting as well. Her eyes don’t smile. “Of course. I’ll arrange a meeting.”
Black Forest Cake
His birthday, saints preserve us. He probably does not remember. But if he remembers, I will be served a porridge of ingrate son, father sacrifices, disinheritance threats, fits of weeping, and throwing plates.
The home issues a monthly birthday calendar. I’m sure he doesn’t look at it, but he might have had a candle this morning next to his Rice Krispies, a nurse patting his arm in celebration.
The visits are getting more Sisyphean every week. You only have one father, I was told three times in the last month when I sighed. He only has one me, I want to say, but don’t.
The cakes at Mandelbaum’s are all oversized but I refuse to get a grocery store special. I select a Black Forest, large enough for twenty, but he and I can have three slices each, and after, he can treat other residents or nurses.
I trip over my feet entering the home but don’t fall. When I walk into his room, it is empty. I place the cake on his little table. A nurse swishes by, does a double-take, comes back.
“You didn’t hear? They must not have been able to get a hold of you. He had a…I’ll get Ms. Bodlak…he…I’m sorry.”
I feel his spirit whistling. He is here with me. I open the cake box and sink my hand into the middle of the cherries, chocolate, whipping cream, scoop the delight into my mouth.
“Safe journey, Dad,” I whisper.
I wake and inhale the aroma of my dream: dill, garlic, caraway, ingredients of Grandma’s stew, a delight I last ate in her kitchen over fifty years ago. I resolve to make a pot, accompanied by Carlsbad bread-and-parsley dumplings.
In Bratislava, visiting my father shortly before his death, we made ourselves at home in restaurants off the beaten track, known for local specialties like zbojnicke rebierko—gypsy ribs, and bryndzove halusky—dumplings with sheep cheese.
My mom, in her last five years, looked forward to my overnight visits, to our movie binges and laughter, but equally to the meals I cooked for her, especially our beloved chicken paprikash.
The role of food in my writing? It is akin to the role of breathing, the role of memories, the role of family.
Whether my story deals with the Slovak National Uprising, a child’s glimpse of his parents’ break-up, an adolescent’s longing for elusive love, a middle-aged man’s struggle with divorce, a caregiver’s frustration with a cantankerous parent, food is invariably a part, usually the food of my heritage, the food I create and relish in my own kitchen.
Taste and smell: I knead them like dough into the texture of my stories.
Andrew Stancek describes his vocation as dreaming – clutching onto hope, even in turbulent times. He has been published widely, in SmokeLong Quarterly, FRIGG, Hobart, Green Mountains Review, New World Writing, New Flash Fiction Review, Jellyfish Review, and Peacock Journal, among others. He has won the Reflex Fiction contest, the New Rivers Press American Fiction contest and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He continues to be astonished.