portion of the artwork for Thaddeus Rutkowski's stories

Dinner Prep
Thaddeus Rutkowski

I’m thinking about how to make a dish from rice and mixed vegetables. I’ve forgotten how to make a dish from these ingredients, but I want to switch what I eat and become healthier. I usually am not vegetarian, but my daughter usually is, and I am cooking for all of us—mother, daughter, and myself. However, I don’t know how to get past step one: making the rice.

“How much water should I use?” I ask. “How much rice?”

“Look at the directions,” I am told by my wife and daughter.

I see: Measure twice as much water as rice. Boil, then simmer, with the lid on. I apportion the water, then the rice. I add a spoonful of butter and turn on the burner, not to high heat, more like medium. I look for a lid, but the one I find doesn’t fit. Even so, it doesn’t fall off the pot, so I let it balance there.

I hope the water is the only thing that will simmer. Any one of us could flip our lid—well, not my wife, she wouldn’t do that. She is the calm one—my daughter and I can talk to her in a reasonable way.

I am so wrapped up in making the rice that I ignore the mixed vegetables. I start the chopping, careful not to slice a finger. I have the idea that professional chefs have scars on their fingers from many wayward blades. I’m no chef; I want to keep my fingers as they are: intact. I end up with colorful piles of crudités. I oil a pan (I used to have a wok, but it left my life long ago; maybe it was not my wok) and shovel in the vegetables.

My next task is to set the table. I am tempted to lay the napkins out flat, but I know my dinner companions want their napkins folded along the diagonal. There must be something aesthetically pleasing about the triangular shape of a diagonal fold, something more attractive than what you get with a horizontal fold. Personally, I don’t see the difference: The napkins are going to be messed up anyway.

I have to jump from the table setting back to the sizzling mixture. I stir the vegetables as they fry. I whisk the simmering rice, then return to the vegetables. The heat is too high. I am getting charbroiled green and white pieces, when I want them slightly browned. I almost forget to add the sesame seasoning and the soy.

Busy at the stove, I neglect the table. There is the matter of drinking glasses, and not just any glasses—the personal glass for each drinker. I find the correct vessels and look for ice. I’m lucky: There is ice, but not much. It’s time to freeze more water. I wonder how long it will take water to solidify in this particular freezer. We have a cold icebox, but the temperature setting is probably not all the way down to coldest. I don’t know the setting, because I don’t know where the thermostat is. I have not seen or touched the control knob in years, and I’m not about to look for it now. I slide in the ice tray and wait. However, I cannot focus on waiting for ice to freeze; that’s like waiting for water to boil.

The next step is to bring the chairs to the table. Our table is too large for the space it occupies, so one chair (a rocker) has to be slid in, another chair needs to be unfolded, and a third chair must be carried (by me) over the back of the couch. While carrying the chair, I need to watch for the head of my daughter, who might be sitting in the unfolded chair. If I miss her head, I have to be careful not to bump the table. A sharp blow might cause the tabletop to come loose from its support, and the flap might collapse to its original, downward position, and everything on it might fall to the floor. But I carry the chair successfully, and we begin our meal of rice and stir-fried vegetables.

Our daughter looks at my plate and says, “You are eating too much.”

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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 55 | Spring/Summer 2020