Daniel Camponovo

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Daniel Camponovo is an East Coast ex-pat writer, linguist and educator of Argentine descent living in Chicago, Illinois. He is currently pursuing an MFA in Fiction Writing from Columbia College Chicago, where he is writing his first novel. His work has appeared in North by Northwestern and Literary Chicago and is forthcoming in Hair Trigger and Blue Lake Review.

Draw the yellowed shades over the windows. Cast the kitchen in the warm dusk light. See how the white marble turns the color of old parchment, the same shade as mom's linoleum countertop. See her bent over the counter as ever, tall as an average woman in her three-inch heels, her blue dress protected by the white apron, orange sun printed over the flat of the body that bore you. Hear again the way her bracelets and bangles jingle as she worked. Remember how she worked: swiftly, and completely, with a self-assuredness and an Emersonian fulfillment in the work you would grow to learn was as inextricable from the woman as the woman herself was from her kitchen. See again your father in his armchair in the next room, the glowing box in the corner. The dazzling black dress and the sparkling white skin of Lucille Ball, the fuzzy grey of Ricky Ricardo's skin, the primitive television tube unable to capture the rich amaretto of your father (similarly, coincidentally named Ricardo)'s skin. Hear your mother practicing her English under her breath, parroting back the quarrels of Lucy and Ricky over the rhythmic chopping of knife on wood.

            Try to remember the last time you prepared a home-cooked meal in your kitchen. Move back through the days, rejecting the Chinese take-out and late-night deli-cut sandwiches and the trays of reheated meat-loaf your wife leaves out with the “Missed you today – J” notes you crumple into the trash. Was it last week? Longer? The hospital has been keeping you later and later. When did you make that spaghetti? That barely counts, dumping the contents of the cardboard box into a pot of water (you forgot the salt, of course) but it's something. Week-and-a-half ago, we'll say. A full week-and-a-half. Before today, you decide. Check the clock. Check the fridge. Check the freezer, check the oven. Forget how to turn the oven on for long enough that you curse yourself under your breath, soft enough that D in the living room can't hear you over his Power Rangers. Push the buttons until they beep, push until somehow the screen reads 400, then push “OK.” Tell yourself “OK.”

            Poke your head into the half-empty refrigerator and grab the Target-brand package of ground beef. Knick the shrink-wrap off with your fingernail and scrape the meat off the styrofoam board, and forget that you can't recycle styrofoam here when the board snaps in half. Roll the meat flat on the counter, then crumble it into a bowl with your fingers. Feel the sliminess of the beef, painted pink with particulate, the juices running a dyed red to simulate blood to those who don't know better.

            You know better. Remember the smell of the beef your mother used to use, the miasma of the vaporized juices, the blood and the fat that would pop and explode into the air like little fountains as she worked it with her hands. Remember the meat, bred and raised and prepared by gauchos in Patagonia, the long thin strips of steak chopped into cubes, flavorful enough on their own but tossed by your mother's nimble fingers in a chimichurri marinade. Rejuvenate your ground beef with a generous splash of olive oil, trying to restore some of the marbling the supermarket cut off like they were doing you a favor. Salt and pepper so you will be able to taste anything.

            Grab the dough out of the freezer. Look behind the frozen brownies and the ice cream sandwiches you wish you could stop buying for D, you'll find it. Set the dough on the countertop. Realize you should have done this step an hour ago because it needs to rest. Resist the urge to rest. The dough is store-bought, pre-cut into perfectly rounded disks vacuum-sealed into individual packaging. Remember the perfect dough your mother used to make: remember her whisking furiously, flour fanned out neatly on her linoleum countertop without a puff wasted on her apron. Remember sneaking scoops of the spatula when her back was turned, the thick batter snapping onto your fingers like static and rolling like a slinky down your nails and into your open mouth. Resolve to remember where you hid her recipe and commit it to memory like she had. Resolve to sell the industrial stand mixer gathering dust in the back room.

            Cut open the package of disks and unwrap the icy brick in front of you. Try to work the dough with your fingers, warming them under the faucet as you go. Remember how mom's fingers used to work her ball of dough out into a long, thin sheet even after she lost the dexterity to use her fingers for much else. Grab a rolling pin and work the disks into long, thin sheets.

            Try to concentrate over the sound effects of swords and lasers coming from the television in the next room. Ask D if he can turn the volume down a notch, you can barely hear yourself think. He reaches out and grabs the remote and turns the volume down a couple of clicks without ever taking his eyes off of the screen, lazily concentrating on the Blue and Yellow Rangers dueling Lord Zedd as if he were both enraptured by the action and slogging through the monotony of it. See the actors' long, lithe bodies dancing around the screen, muscles rippling under the stretched polyester of their costumes, pleading for your son to get off the couch.

            Refocus and try to power through the din. Remember your older brother running laps through the house, weaving out of his room and past the living room and into your parents' bedroom, which was normally closed and locked but on this day was open, and out through the kitchen, rushing behind your mother's legs. When you were older you used to steal his green card; as the first child born on American soil, you didn't get one, so sometimes you would hide his, for yuks, until you inevitably forgot about it and the time came that he needed his, two or three or six months down the line, and he would run through the house flipping over couch cushions trying to find it as you laughed your head off trying to remember where it was hidden. When he dies young you will want to tell this story at his funeral, but you won't. Remember your baby brother chasing him around the house, trying to keep up but falling behind and tripping on the lip from the living room to your parents' bedroom. Time seems to slow down as your older brother stops running and your baby brother grabs his knee, freshly flayed and beginning to blot with blood, and lets out a long, shrill howl. Remember your mother's resolve, her steel nerves keeping her hands steady and true and continuing to chop the hard-boiled eggs as she soothes Roberto with a Spanish lullaby from across the room. Try to drown out the Power Rangers from across the room with the airy wisps of the lullaby, filling in the blanks in the melody you don't remember. Pretend the television is in the garbage and D is running around outside with the friends you wish he would make. Pretend you are alone in the kitchen, just you and your brothers and your mother and your father and Lucille Ball showing you the way.

            Crack the eggs into a bowl. Crack more of them, crack the whole carton of eggs into the bowl and try to remember to buy more. Add a splash of milk and beat the eggs without spilling more yellow onto the beige countertop. Scoop the spatula underneath and turn them over on top of each other until the yellows bleed into the whites. Call D over to help. Tell him we are making empanadas. Listen to his long low exhale as he rises from the couch and brace yourself for the complaints and the protests you know must be coming, then try to hide your pleased surprise when he takes his place next to you at the island without incident. Ask if he remembers empanadas and try not to get upset when he says no. Resist the urge to call him niño, a word you have never called him and you know he would not understand. Take his small hand into your own and show him how to knead the dough. Teach him how to knead. Make sure he learns in this moment what needing feels like, see that he understands.

            When you see that he's got it, let go of his hand and grab the knife from the block. Linger in front of the knife block in the corner of the kitchen with your brown fingers wrapped around the pearl handle of the chef's knife. When you are sure he is entirely focused on the dough in front of him, steal a look at your son over your shoulder. See the front of his shirt already pasted with flour. See him grabbing more and throwing it down onto the island, dumping it out of his closed fist instead of fanning it out with his thumb and pointer finger like your mother taught you to do. Allow yourself a moment to come to the realization that you never taught him how to fan the flour out and understand that the teachable moment is passed for today.

            Thank D for helping with the disks of dough. Make sure he feels included and appreciated or he will lose interest. If he loses interest, he will not want to help you make empanadas in the future. And if he will not want to help you make empanadas in the future, you know you will never get around to making them again. So thank him and tell him good job, even though that last bit was a lie. Next, show him how to scoop the meat onto the disks. Grab two tablespoons out of the silverware drawer. Let him use the one he wants, the one he says is “cooler,” even though you explain to him that they're both exactly one tablespoon and not all that different. You are always correcting the kid, let him have this one. Show him how to scoop up a tablespoon of the ground beef out of the bowl and plop it down into the middle of the dough disk, snapping your wrist down and flinging the beef out of the spoon like you were pulling the cord and turning off a lamp, which you have heard is how you learn to throw a curveball, a skill you were never and have never taught. Tell him to be careful not to touch any of the meat with his bare hands, and when he does, tell him not to put it in his mouth or rub his eyes because of the bacteria, a word you know he does not understand but knows to mean something scary. Remember the cuts of meat your mother used to use, the cubes of skirt steak raw and spongy like a pâté, the way you and your brothers would pop them into your mouths and press the juices out of them with your tongues before swallowing the meat whole. The beef was fresh, and organic, before those words had been repurposed to mean what they do now, free of antibiotics and pesticides in the high grasses of the Andes. Remember the way your mother used to pick the cubes by hand and plant four or five in the middle of each ball of dough, pressing them down with a fingertip until they were swallowed up by the batter as if she were planting appleseeds. Scoop up the last of the painted pink hamburger and plop it onto the last freezer-burned disk.

            Begin folding the ends of the disks over themselves, rolling the lip of the dough and pressing down with your fingertips to form a pocket around the meat. Wet your fingers under the faucet and dip them in the excess flour so they won't stick and tear the dough. Feel the added weight of your fingers, caked on thick with flour like the La Brea tar fields you saw as a boy, hiding your face in fear from the wooly mammoth behind your mother's blue dress, slowing your fingers to a crawl as you move about the pan. See that D learns this step, too; watch his small fingers move slowly about the pan, with a respectful attention to the task but without the dexterity yet to perform it well. He is crumbling the edges and ripping little pockets of air into the airtight pockets of dough. Perhaps he was not ready yet. Perhaps he was too young. How young were you the first time you learned how to make empanadas? Perhaps there wasn't a first time, you think, just a learned behavior from the countless repetitions over the course of your youth: your mother cooking as ever, and you, always popping in and learning how to julienne a pepper, crimp the dough, blend the parsley. Tell D he did a good job and tell him he can go back to the Power Rangers if he wants to, and try not to get upset at how quickly he leaves. Watch him dissolve back into his spot in the couch, leg draped over the arm rest, body coming to rest in the depression in the cushions formed by the repeated hours in front of the television in this exact position. He turns the volume up to the previous level, the one where Lord Zedd launches an aural assault against your eardrums as much as a laser assault against the Rangers in the show. Turn your back to your son and grab the bowl of eggs from the counter.

            Dip a basting brush into the egg mixture and begin coating the empanadas on the tray. See the thin juice slide down and off the cracks in the dough. See the brush gives the pale disks a dull amber gloss, the way years ago you turned the eggshell walls of your study into the pastel yellow walls of the nursery as J, with a hand on her flat body, looked on from the hallway. You didn't hear her come up, yet you could feel her presence, her eyes on your bent form dipping a paint roller into the tray; and because you did not call her into the room and she did not move from the hallway, you both remained there for a long while, you with your back to her, pretending you hadn't noticed her, her watching from the hallway just outside what would now be referred to as "the kid's room," silently watching the transformation.

            Realize you forgot about the olives, one of the most crucial parts of the entire dish. The olives, the salty, briny nucleus of the meal, the holdover from the mediterranean heritage of the dish and the heritage of your people, should have been blended into the meat in the previous step in order to draw out the juices and season the beef. The complexity of the meal collapses like a house of cards without that one flavor, only a fool would forget. Allow yourself a moment to feel very much like a foreigner.

            Attempt to rescue the dish. Begin chopping olives for a gastrique. Make it your own. Pull it back from the brink and make it new. Feel the knife slice through the thin skin of the olives like tissue paper. Remember the resourcefulness of your mother, how well she improvised when she, too, ran out of ingredients, and marvel at how close she feels to you now. Remember her dumping the jar of fresh olives into the heated pan and reserving the salty juice for later on. Hear the knocking of the knife on the cutting board, your fingers processing the olives as an assembly line, align, chop, replace. Taste the aroma of the sizzling fruit in the air, heavy and lingering on your tongue. Feel the edge of the knife slicing through your thumb. See the red blood flowing freely out and pooling on the countertop. Curse your stupidity even before assessing the damage. Idiot, you say. Goddamn idiot.

            Raise your hand to your mouth and try to suck out the salty, briny juice. See the beads of blood fall into the egg mixture. The red sinks to the bottom of the bowl, heavier than the egg and milk suspension, your iron and your platelets dropping through the emulsion like silt in a jar of river water. More drops of blood fall now, breaking the surface tension, exploding outwards and mixing into the eggs, the faint smell of rust trickling up to your nostrils, the flecks of red and yellow splattering the sides of the bowl like the print of the Pollock above the bust of Seneca you always stared at on the rare occasions your father let you inside his private study.

            The doctor in you takes over; you wrap your hand in a paper towel and raise it above your head, applying pressure with your free hand. You look to see if D noticed the disturbance and find him staring vacantly at the television as ever. The stairs creak and for a moment you fear your wife is descending and following her nose to the kitchen, but it's just the old house shifting and settling on its foundation. Nobody has noticed anything out of the ordinary, and while the scientist in you knows the egg wash is now contaminated and irretrievably lost, you wonder. You check to see if your hand has stopped bleeding, and when you see that it has, you lower it from above your head, unwrap it from the bloody towel and grab the spatula from the counter. You give the egg mixture a careful toss. See the way the blood blends into the eggs, the way the wash grows thicker, the way the yellow hue darkens almost imperceptibly, a shade or two at most, like a sunset seen through smokestacks. You bring the bowl to your nose and breathe in the slight saltwater smell; you dip a finger in and taste the delicate earth tones, savory and carnal somehow in a way you know eggs are not. Visceral, and somewhat rustic, tasting older than anything you remember tasting in close to forty years. The familiar taste of something you thought lost long ago.

            Dip the basting brush in the new wash and give the empanadas a second coat. Watch how the pastries gain a rich mahogany sheen, the excess wash pooling in a deep claret on the bottom of the pan like a painter's easel. See how the red seeps into the cracks in the dough and seems almost to plaster over the imperfections. Pull the shades from the windows and let the last of the dying sunlight into the kitchen. Watch the sepia countertop flash back to white marble. Take a mental note of everything that needs cleaning – the mounds of flour on the countertop, the bowl of egg runoff, the flecks of dried blood. Tell D to run his lazy butt upstairs and tell J dinner will be ready soon. Tell him good job again and see how he tries to hide his smile like it's no big deal.

            Wait until you are finally alone again, then open the oven. You feel the blast of dry heat on your face like those endlessly accumulated summer afternoons simply running into the desert with your brothers as far as you could until puking behind a cactus and turning back home, and you place the tray on the top rack before closing it up good and tight. You close your eyes and lean against the oven, feeling its warmth rising up through your palms and into your core. Allow yourself a moment's rest, just a moment: the way your mother used to take in a deep breath of the baking dough, the way just one waft would seem to rejuvenate her for the rest of the long day, before turning back around to the empty kitchen and getting back to work.

© The Acentos Review 2014