Cover Story: Second-place winner: The kid who ate paste

“Nourishment unencumbered by flavor,” Alexis said, serving me disquietingly large portions of brown rice and steamed broccoli.

I had Aunt Laura’s bizarre dietary restrictions to thank for this. Two days ago, the eggshell-thin veneer of civility crumbled into uproar after Aunt Laura arrived for Thanksgiving and demanded barley buns. She claimed to be allergic to wheat, of all things. So, to bring the shouting and wailing back down to standard family-festivity levels, I offered to go out and pick up some barley buns, for crying out loud. This was a considerable sacrifice on my part, because for the first time in my life I needed to go into a health food store, an oddball practice I’d taken great pleasure in avoiding. I made my way to Gloria’s Natural Foods, which luckily didn’t close until 3. I nearly got my eyeballs poked out with free samples of Tofurkey that I declined as unequivocally as possible.

Finally, I brought the awful barley buns to the counter, and who was working the register if not Alexis Casertano. It had been 10 years since I last saw her, at that sickening moment in ninth grade when she told me her family was moving to Columbia the next day, and I had to reply, with all seriousness, “South Carolina or South America?” That was the kind of family she was from. It turned out she’d been back in Asheville three years now. We hardly had time to catch up, with Aunt Laura waiting and crabby and famished and all, so Alexis invited me over for lunch on Saturday. And here I was.

I opened my mouth to ask for salt, but I figured that any salt around here was probably some sacred sea salt wiped from a dolphin’s ass. My mouth was still open, so I scrambled for something to say.

“Smells great,” I lied. It smelled kind of like glue. Of course, that reminded me of eighth-grade art class with Mrs. Boettcher. She caught me trying to paste Ed Minkley’s glasses to his oversized ears. She warned that if I misbehaved with the paste a second time, she’d make me eat it. Sure enough, she caught me trying to paste bits of construction paper to Ed Minkley’s greasy hair.

“I warned you!” she raged. “Now you gotta eat it!” And so I did. The room was silent as I dipped a finger in the jar of paste and smeared it like cream cheese on my outstretched tongue. At first, a lot of the other kids mistook my cunning for stupidity and teased me pretty harshly until I gave them a couple good slams into the lockers. It wasn’t until after Mrs. Boettcher consequently got fired that I was justly regarded as a heroic liberator.

I noticed that Alexis was mumbling with her eyes closed and her hands hovering over her broccoli and rice. I wondered how she ended up this way. Come to think of it, there were probably some indications even back in ninth grade that she was going to turn out funny. When Mr. Spradlin put a battery-powered air freshener on the wall of his classroom, Alexis told him that it gave her a headache. He told her that she gave him a headache. Her neck tightened in fury. At lunch, she tried to recruit the rest of the class to join her Glorious Army for the Sabotage of Stinking Yuck (GASSY). No one would help her, so one day she mashed some bubble gum onto the nozzle of the air stenchener, as she called it. She was hoping it would blow a bubble. Instead, the thing just broke. The funny part was, Mr. Spradlin didn’t even notice until the following year. He blamed it on his 8 o’clock class and gave everyone a detention when no one confessed. Some glorious army.

Now Alexis had completed her demonic incantations, and she took a small forkful of broccoli. I shoveled in some rice. Pasty! Though not as bad as the barley buns, to be honest.

“So, what else do you cook?” I asked. Was that rude? Too late to take it back.

Alexis chewed, eyeing me with that same smirk of superiority that had never ceased to infuriate me. As my jaw sank in bewilderment, she continued her relentless chewing. What in the name of all that is sacred was taking her so long? It was like watching a quadriplegic mime. I glanced around her kitchen at the row of buddhas like they have in Chinese restaurants and the Harry Belafonte poster, curling up at the corners. Circling plaintively was a scrawny fly on a hopeless surveillance mission to locate something good to eat in this kitchen.

Finally, she said, “Sorry, I try to chew each mouthful at least a hundred times.”

“Oh, just one hundred? I never stop before 150,” I joked.

“I’d like to see you try,” she taunted.

“Is that a challenge?” I asked. “When will you stop challenging me?”

“When you stop failing every challenge!”

“OK, that does it,” I snorted. “I will choose more chews than you choose!”

We loaded up our forks and began chewing in unison. By the time I reached 15 or 16, there was nothing solid left to chew. At 20, my teeth were clinking uselessly against each other, while the foul mush had puddled up at the top of my throat. To keep from swallowing, I had no choice but to gag the tepid slop back into my mouth. Did Alexis eat like this all the time? She was so into recycling, she recycled her own barf without even wasting the effort to swallow it first. What energy efficiency!

At 53, I swallowed with a groan of exhaustion.

“Just warming up,” I gasped.

Again, that detested smirk of superiority.

“But you better watch out,” I added. “You can go blind from excessive mastication.”

She still went partly cross-eyed when she giggled. We didn’t speak much during that meal, but we sure as hell chewed. Afterward we moved into the living room, where I sat on the one cushion not missing from the couch, while she sank into the one beanbag not consigned to a landfill in the late ’70s. The fly followed us at a wary distance, perhaps hoping against hope that we had ordered a sausage pizza. I, at least, entertained such a hope.

Observing my wince of troubled disbelief, Alexis asked, “Do you like the decor? I call it postmodern Zen cheapskate.”

“Your interior designer must charge a fortune,” I said. “And the two other couch cushions are missing because ...?”

She pulled her hair in front of her left shoulder and started toying with it, so I knew I was in for a long story.

“I was working one Sunday,” she began. “My then-boyfriend called me at work because he found this couch by the Dumpster, but he couldn’t carry it up the stairs by himself. I told him to just take the cushions, so that no one else would nab the couch before I got home. He thought it would be good enough to take only one cushion. By the time I got home, someone else had taken the other two!”

Meanwhile, weak from hunger, the fly had landed on my hand. Like any sane human being, I responded in the only appropriate way, by smashing it with my other hand.

“Oh, no! We could have liberated it to the outdoors!” Alexis cried.

She appeared genuinely pained. Creepy.

“It’s not too late! I know CPR 2: mouth-to-proboscis resuscitation!” I shouted, puckering toward the black smear along my knuckles.

She gave me the cross-eyed giggle as she wiped the fly off my hand. With a cloth napkin, for crying out loud.

“It would have been worse if you’d only wounded it,” she said as the beanbag swallowed her back up. “I once called a Zen Master at the Osho Center downtown to ask if it was more compassionate to put a half-squashed bug out of its misery, or to not commit the final violence.”

“So? What did he say?”

“She,” she emphasized grandly, beginning to toy with her hair, “was obviously from the Mahayana tradition, because ...”

She proceeded to enlighten me as to the fine distinctions between Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism. To pass the time, I endeavored to enlighten myself, through furtive glances at the subtle contour shifts of her otherwise drab sweater, as to the precise location of her nipples.

”... which is really the key feature of Vajrayana, bridging and surpassing the other two,” she concluded.

“If I’m not mistaken,” I said, “you still haven’t told me how the Zen Master answered your question.”

“Oh, that’s a secret,” she said with her characteristic smirk.

“Then let’s go to the Tree of Secrets,” I responded. Most days after school, we’d cross the river on the footbridge by the arboretum, then head up the hill by Lake Powhatan into Taggert’s Woods. The Tree of Secrets got its name because we found its branches festooned with unplugged Christmas lights, and if it wasn’t a secret what those Christmas lights were doing there, at least a mile from the nearest outlet, I didn’t know what was. And, though now it sounded dweeby, we’d tell each other secrets upon those thick, smooth branches.

Alexis’ fingers froze within her hair.

“Come on, let’s go,” I said. I hadn’t been there for 10 years, and my inner dweeb was anxious to return. It was too late in the season for the best autumn foliage, but I was sure the fragrance of brittle leaves crackling underfoot would bring back tidal waves of memories.

“I hope you brought a time machine,” Alexis said. She flung her hair back over her shoulder.

“Oh, I parked it in April 2013. It’s a lousy space, but all the closer spots were taken.”

She didn’t crack a smile.

“Have you been to Taggert Heights?” she asked. Her neck seemed uncommonly tight.

I shook my head.

She said, “It’s a housing development. Do you know where it is?”

“A couple hundred feet above Taggert Depths?”

Again, no smile.

“You imperceptive dimwit!” she exploded. “It’s where Taggert’s Woods used to be.”

“Uh oh,” I said. “Yikes.”

She asked, “Is there a flicker of grief in your cold Republican heart?”

“Never!” I shouted, pounding my thigh in mock belligerence.

She didn’t smile, and I didn’t blame her. I stared awhile at the faint fly-stain on my knuckles.

“I guess we could go someplace else,” I said eventually.

“There’s the park by the VA hospital,” she said.

We rose, and she grabbed a bag of trail mix on the way out. I drove because, lo and behold, she didn’t have a car, as though she were trying to be Amish. I wondered if she churned her own butter. I wondered if she’d let me watch.

The streets offered little in the way of comic material until we passed a truck on which was printed, “Machine moving / Steel erection / Crane rentals.”

“Steel erection,” I said. “Every man’s dream.”

“And every woman’s nightmare,” she added.

“Oh?” I contemplated.

The trees in the park were either too small to climb or denuded of their lowest branches, presumably to discourage climbing. We walked silently across the mowed grass raked free of fallen leaves. We sat against the tallest tree we could find and fed each other trail mix.

I said, “It sure would be something if a fully lit string of Christmas lights descended from the branches so we could climb up.”

“I prefer unlit Christmas lights,” she said with her smirk of superiority. Though maybe it wasn’t superiority; maybe I’d been misreading it all along; maybe it was vulnerability instead.

“So tell me your Zen secret,” I said.

“Oh, I was always the one to tell secrets,” she said. “What did you ever tell me?”

“I told you Mrs. Boettcher made me eat paste.”

“That was hardly a secret,” she said, going cross-eyed with giggles.

I asked, “Well, what secrets did you tell me?”

“I told you I gummed up Mr. Spradlin’s air stenchener.”

“Oh, like that was a secret.”

“I told you that when Ed Minkley ran late into class and tripped headfirst into the radiator and broke his glasses, he hadn’t tripped over his own feet, which everyone of course assumed, but over my outstretched shoe,” she said.

“That’s right,” I remembered. “You used to be cool. You used to push people down.”

“Oh, I pushed down only you,” she objected.

“Oh? And how did I merit that distinction?”

“Oh, I tried to push down everyone,” she said. “You’re the only one who fell.”

“Words of compassion from the disciple of the Buddha,” I remarked. “Now tell me the secret; I’m dying to know, is it kinder to put a half-squashed bug out of its misery or to not commit the final violence?”

“The Zen Master told me, ‘It’s just a bug. Don’t worry so much.’”

I scratched at my knuckles.

“That’s some secret,” I said.

“And speaking of secrets, there’s the one you always refused to tell me. Who was it you had a crush on?”

“You imperceptive dimwit!” I shouted. “It was you!”

I tried to feed her a giant handful of trail mix, but she twisted away, and it cascaded into her lap.

“Now you gotta eat it, Kathy,” she said.

And so I did.

Jed Brody is a graduate research assistant in the solar electricity lab at Georgia Tech. He served as a Peace Corps volunteer from 1996-98 in Benin, West Africa.

For more winning stories, click a title below:

First-place winner: [http://atlanta.creativeloafing.com/2003-01-01/cover2.html|Mysterium tremendum
?Third place winner: [http://atlanta.creativeloafing.com/2003-01-01/cover4.html|Dixie youth
?Finalist: [http://atlanta.creativeloafing.com/2003-01-01/cover5.html|The death of the Venus’ flytrap
?Finalist: [http://atlanta.creativeloafing.com/2003-01-01/cover6.html|Please read!
?Finalist: [http://atlanta.creativeloafing.com/2003-01-01/cover7.html|Between brick and drywall
?Finalist: Behaving ourselves