By J.P. Egry
Now I don’t know anything about cooking school, but my friend, Lucy, went for five days. If I went for five years, I’d still not know how to boil water. You know what I mean? In fact, if I had my way, my house wouldn’t have a kitchen in it.
But Lucy? Just let me say that Lucy’s got magic in her hands. Even in second grade, they called her “Lucky Lucy” ’cause everything she touched came out right. Like the time we had to draw our favourite animal. All twenty-six of us in that class scritched and scratched with pencils, crayons, and fat markers, erasing and blotting out until the soft Manila paper was tired out. Have you ever seen a stick-figure cat? Well, that was mine. It looked more like an owl with ostrich legs. I found it the other day in a box high on a shelf in my closet. It hadn’t improved with age.
When we were finished drawing that day, the teacher taped all our pictures on the classroom wall, expecting each one of us to tell a story about our animal. There in the middle of twenty-five practically unidentifiable creatures was Lucy’s horse—the most beautiful likeness you ever saw, done all with an ink pen Lucy’d brought from home. Even all in black and white, it still looked like a camera photograph—fully fleshed out and running across a prairie, its mane and tail flowing in the wind.
Our teacher oohed and aahed and ran to get the art teacher. The rest of us wanted to crawl under our desks. But when it was time to tell about our pictures, Lucy said, “Oh, it’s just a horse. I made it up. I don’t have a horse at home.”
Lucy had perfect hair that all her girlfriends, and she had many, envied. They followed her everywhere, wanting to stroke the long black curls that bounced around her shoulders. In high school, she developed a perfect body that caught the attention of every boy. Some became her friends and followed her everywhere hoping to stroke—well let’s not go there.
She carried a straight A average and played first chair violin in the orchestra, and her artwork won grand prizes in juried art shows around the country. Lucy didn’t care about all that. No, not one bit. She smiled and politely greeted all who admired her, then went on about her business.
The class valedictorian was, you guessed it, Lucy—a far cry from my poor showing of barely passing final exams just in time to walk across that stage to grab a diploma.
In spite of all that, we stayed friends. She didn’t go to college, just sat in her tiny studio apartment creating who-knows-what, while I managed to get into community college trying to learn how to use a computer. Lucy let her curly hair grow down her back and kept it tied back with a purple ribbon. She wore long, loose skirts with tank tops and no underwear and sometimes just a jumper or bib overalls and purple sandals.
The girls that pretended to be her friends in high school all went their own way and never visited her when they came home. But the boys, those that didn’t go away to school, hung around and often would be seen coming and going from her apartment.
One Saturday when we met at the diner for lunch, Lucy said, “I’m going to cooking school.”
“You are?” I said. “You’ve never cooked a thing in your whole life!”
“I know.” Lucy smiled and her black eyes danced. “I love the look and shapes of those shiny pots and pans. The feel of stainless steel is amazing. Have you ever run your hands across the bottom of a stainless frying pan?”
“No, not really,” I said.
Lucy’s cheeks brightened and her mouth widened. “Well, it’s almost sensual—you know, like having an orgasm.”
I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what she meant because I’d never had one. I’m not the most attractive bird on the wire and never got that far with any boy I’d known.
“Uh, huh,” I murmured.
“So, I start cooking school on Monday.”
“Yes. I’m so excited. I want to do with food what I do with pen and paint.”
I tried to picture that. “You’re making pictures on your canvas with food?”
“No, silly. I’ll fix things on plates and platters to look beautiful. That’s called presentation.”
“Oh, I see.” I didn’t see at all. Why would anyone want to spend all that time making food pretty to look at, when all that matters is how good it tastes? A macaroni and cheddar casserole is good enough for me—like heaven on my tongue.
Lucy chattered on about the school, the food, and the equipment. I’d never seen her so animated. My mind began to wander. I can only take so many details about something that will end up all mashed together in your stomach anyway.
Something she said suddenly had my attention.
“...and the knives,” she was saying.
I leaned toward her with my elbow on the table. “What?”
“The knives. They glisten, and they’re kept so sharp you can hold a human hair in the air and slice it in two.”
“How do you know that?”
“A chef that came to my studio told me. He’s the one who got me all excited about cooking. Right then, I knew I had to give it a try.”
I’ll bet he got her excited about more than cooking, I thought. Aloud I said, “Whatever floats your boat. If you’ll enjoy it, why not?”
She continued on, hardly taking a breath. “You know, they want you to have your own set of knives—cutlery, they call it. Chefs are very particular about not letting anyone else use their knives. Can you imagine? My own set. All sizes and shapes, each one for its own unique purpose. Whether you slice through a huge chunk of raw meat or a carrot or a cabbage, it’s so sensual.”
This was not the Lucy I knew all through school, or maybe I never knew what was behind her sweet smile and gentle ways. Yet, I knew that artists’ senses and sensitivities ran deep, and here’s Lucy just finding another way to express herself.
So that week, Lucy went to cooking school during the day and worked in her studio at night. I don’t think she slept more than a couple of hours a day, but of course, she ate what she cooked at school, so that saved time.
The first night, she called me on her way home. “I fixed you a plate of my cooking to sample,” she said. “I left it outside your door.”
I adjusted the phone in my hand. “Thanks. What did you make?” Of course, the magic in Lucy’s hands would make it perfect, whatever it was.
“Nothing that much,” she said in her old unassuming way. I thought of the almost-living horse that hung on the classroom wall a dozen years earlier. “We just did appetizers today. There’s a real variety on your plate—a sample of each thing we made.”
“I appreciate it. I’m sure they’re all delicious.”
“Gotta run. I have lots of work to do tonight. Bye.”
“Goodbye.” She hung up before I’d finished the word.
Every day that week Lucy left food outside my door—always something different: salads, pastas, meats and vegetables, desserts. The presentation each time was perfection—exquisite, colourful arrangements on china plates. I can’t say that I liked some of it. I’m not much for that fancy rolled stuff; sushi, she called it. I for sure don’t like squid, or mussels, or almost raw steak. I like my meat well-done. I just want to make sure it isn’t still moving and will stay on the plate.
That Saturday, we met again for lunch at the diner.
“How did you like my cooking?” Lucy asked. She reached back to retie the purple ribbon that was beginning to loosen. This time, she wore a purple broomstick skirt with a white gauze artist’s smock. The nipples of her breasts pushed the almost transparent cotton outward.
Nothing seems to faze my friend Lucy, I thought.
“Oh, nice. It was good,” I lied. “You’ve done a great job—learned a lot, I mean.”
“Yes, I have. And you know the best part? Not only do I get to keep the knives I bought as part of the tuition, but I know the right way to cut and chop everything edible.”
I wriggled a little uncomfortably in the booth seat at the thought of how a huge knife held in the air could cut a human hair. I felt like I should say something, but I didn’t know what, when Lucy clapped her hands together.
She laughed and leaned forward toward me. “They also gave me a fifteen-inch stainless steel frying pan to keep.” She rubbed the fingers of her right hand over the palm of her left as if feeling the metal. I was worried that she might have an orgasm right there in the diner. She grinned at me. “I’ll cook you a whole dinner sometime soon.”
“Sure. Okay.” I wasn’t so sure I wanted one. “Macaroni and cheese?” I ventured.
“No, silly. Not macaroni and cheese.”
It occurred to me that I’d never been to Lucy’s apartment since the day she moved in, when I helped her carry a bunch of easels and blank canvases up the narrow stairway. The flat was practically empty then—one large room with a kitchenette off to one side and a bathroom off the other. An old oak table sat in front of the picture window that overlooked the sidewalk, and a bumpy couch that opened to a bed lounged against the opposite wall. I remembered that oak table being in her mother’s dining room when we were kids.
I wondered how the place looked now—if she’d gotten more furniture, or if it was just all easels and paint. “Do you still have your violin?” I asked out of the blue. Where that came from, I don’t know.
“My violin? Oh, no. I sold it last year to buy art supplies and a velvet backdrop for my models.”
“Models? You have models?”
“Of course. Every artist needs models, and some of the local, young men have offered to pose for me.”
Now that was a new wrinkle I hadn’t thought of. That’s why the boys were sometimes coming and going from her place. I felt relieved for a moment. At least she wasn’t becoming a prostitute.
“They pose for you? In the nude?” I couldn’t help myself.
“Sure, sometimes. Sometimes they wear softly draped clothing or light costumes, whatever is pleasing to the eye.”
“Have you sold any?” I asked, wide-eyed. “Not models. Portraits, I mean.” I hadn’t even caught a glimpse of one. Who knew how long this had been going on!
“Not yet. But I’m planning a little show at the town community centre in a few months.”
“How do you afford to pay your models?” Now I suspect I was just being nosey, but Lucy didn’t seem to mind and answered freely.
“I don’t pay anyone—not yet, anyway. Mostly, they offer to do it as a favour. They want to see themselves on the canvas. And sometimes while they’re there, I do a little favour for them in return.”
“Oh, I see.” Again, I didn’t exactly see, or didn’t want to. I changed the subject. “Tell me more about your cooking.”
“You know that chef I told you about, the one who asked me to try the class? He’s been modelling for a portrait of himself. He wants to buy it to hang in his kitchen. He has a huge kitchen with all stainless steel counters and appliances. Anyway, I haven’t liked what I’ve done with him—just a head and shoulders with his white chef apparel.”
“Sounds nice, though.”
“Not really. It’s dull. Boring. So this is what I’ve decided.” Lucy’s black eyes began to sparkle. Oh, no. Here we go again, I thought.
She continued. “Next time he comes, I’ll have him lie on his side on a white satin sheet propped high on satin pillows. He’ll wear only his chef’s hat. I’ll surround him with fresh vegetables of all colors—orange carrots, red and green peppers, yellow squash, and so forth. The white will signify the purity of the work of a chef. The vegetables will be symbols of healthful eating and the beauty of food.”
Lucy became more animated and talked faster. “On a huge silver platter in front of him will be a mammoth blood-red raw steak and in his hand will be a shined and sharpened meat cleaver—the one I now own.”
I hardly dared ask, but I never did learn to keep my mouth shut. “What does that signify, the meat and cleaver, I mean?”
“That’s the best part. That’s the strength and power of protein in the body and the ability of the chef to make it appeal to the consumer.”
“You mean the eater,” I added.
“Exactly. What do you think of my idea?”
Except for the food she’d been leaving for me the past week, Lucy had never asked my opinion about anything, much less about her art. “Sounds interesting,” was all I could muster.
* * *
When we met the next Saturday, Lucy seemed a little agitated, not her usual laid-back self.
“How’s your chef coming?” I asked. “I mean, his portrait.”
“Really quite well. He’s been there nearly every night and is willing to pose for hours at a time. He hasn’t seen the canvas, but assures me he’ll love it. I don’t like anyone to see my work until it’s finished.”
I sipped my coffee. “I can’t imagine holding that cleaver up in the air for hours.”
She looked at me as if I were a child she needed to be patient with. “We’re very easy with time. He rests when he’s tired. We take breaks, have a bite to eat, or do other things to relax, and then begin again.” Lucy paused a moment and then her eyes narrowed, and a cloud seemed to come over her face. “Do you remember that boy, Tommy, who used to follow me around in school all the time?”
“Yeah, I remember. He never took his eyes off of you, whether in school or around town.”
“That’s the one. I ran into him in the drug store. He heard from some friends that I needed models. He begged me to use him. I told him no, but he persisted—until about a month ago when I finally gave in.”
“So you painted him?”
“Not yet. I said okay, but I put him off. He’s been pestering me every day since then, and now that he’s seen the chef coming to me, he’s becoming more hostile and obnoxious every time he sees me. Sometimes, I hurry across the street to avoid him when I see him coming toward me.”
I couldn’t imagine someone following me day and night. It would sure get on my nerves, although it might be nice to have somebody interested in me for a change.
I put my hand on Lucy’s forearm. “If it seems like he’s stalking you, you should call the police.”
“No, I don’t want to do that. He used to be a nice kid. Maybe if I get around to painting him, he’ll quit.” Lucy pushed her fork around the plate in front of her. She picked up the butter knife and ran her thumb and forefinger up and down the flat of the blade.
Stainless steel. If she loves the touch of the butter knife, imagine how she feels about the chef’s cleaver. I shuddered.
* * *
Lucy and I didn’t meet for a couple of Saturdays. She hadn’t invited me to dinner, either. So much for cooking me one of her elegant meals. Actually, I was happy about that, but I did miss seeing her. Talking with Lucy was the only thing that added a little colour to my life. My computer course was not going well. I couldn’t remember procedures after I’d learned them. The professor, a horn-rimmed glasses-wearing egghead engineer from the local business machine company, explained things in “geek” terms that I couldn’t understand. Neither could half the class. I learned in a hurry that engineers may know their stuff, but they sure can’t teach it. The other students in my class kept their noses stuck to the screens and disappeared right after class. Therefore, I had no social life with that group.
So when Lucy called one Friday and said, “Let’s meet for lunch tomorrow,” I jumped at the chance. When I entered the diner she wasn’t there in our favourite booth. I had been waiting for nearly half an hour sipping a slow cup of coffee, watching the steam rise as it cooled, when Lucy practically waltzed toward me.
She’d let her hair go, curls free, falling over her breasts nearly to her waist. Underneath she wore a tiny black halter, and below, a red satin skirt that hugged her hips and thighs—not Lucy’s style or colours at all. Her feet sported black string sandals that tied criss-cross-style up around her ankles. Her usually pale cheeks shone with scarlet rouge that glittered with silver sparkles. She bounced into the seat opposite me and grabbed my hands, nearly spilling my coffee.
“I’m so glad to see you,” she said. “I’ve missed you.”
I realized right then how much I missed her too. My eyes filled with tears. “Me too. What have you been doing? How is your chef?”
“He’s absolutely fine. Marvelous. He loves his portrait. I think I did a pretty good likeness, capturing the nuance of every muscle in his body.”
Something different stirred inside me, and I knew I wanted to see him in all his painted glory. “Is it in your studio?”
“Not anymore. All six-by-four feet of it is hanging in his beautiful stainless kitchen. When we hung it, he sat me on his cool metal counter and showed me all his knives. He has over fifty of them—all shapes and sizes—one for every purpose you could imagine.”
My imagination isn’t great, but right then I could picture Edward Scissorhands showing off his blades and trying to snip off Lucy’s curls. I wondered if her chef had a cleaver that could cut just one curly hair if it was held up in the air. It might be harder to divide a curly one. “That must have been something!”
“Oh, it was. He even paid me a commission for my work, quite an impressive one, I must say! I bought these new clothes. Do you like them? And I replenished my art supplies.”
Before I could comment, she said, “But the best part is, I’ve had an astounding breakthrough.”
If Lucy felt something was astounding, I couldn’t imagine what it would be. Everything she did was already perfect, and she usually made nothing of her accomplishments.
“What? What is it?” I asked.
“I’ve discovered a new medium.”
“Really? You mean somebody who tells your fortune?”
“No, silly. A new texture to work with in my art.”
“Oh, that,” I said. “What is it?”
“Can’t tell you now. It’s a secret. I want to experiment more with it, but it’s more fun than I’ve ever had before.”
Now, I needed to know. I needed to catch a little of her fire to light up my existence. Instead, I said, “Has Tommy been bothering you? I haven’t seen him around lately.”
“I finally gave in to Tommy—felt sorry for the guy. I told him he could model for me. He’s been off the streets because I’ve been painting him. He practically lives in my studio these days. Whenever we finish, he says, he’s going out West for a while to stay with his grandmother.”
Another week went by. The more I thought about Lucy, the more puzzled I was by the change in her—her clothes, her hair, her exuberance. That is a word, isn’t it—exuberance? I wondered what she could be so excited about. A medium? Paint is paint, after all. One night, I dreamed about a chef named Mr. America. He stepped out of a painting in all his bare-skinned beauty and came toward me, a knife in each hand. As he got to me he dropped the blades in a steel frying pan and leaned in to kiss me. Of course, that was when I woke up. My dreams never do work out right.
Three weeks passed before I saw Lucy again. I wanted to tell her about my dream, but I didn’t know if I should. After all, he was her chef. But I did ask about him.
“I see him every day,” Lucy said. “He’s teaching me to prepare things without my having to go to school again. Private lessons, you might say. Everything he makes is so delicious. He taught me how to extract all the blood from a piece of beef and still cut the meat in such a way to make it into a mouth-watering stew. I’ll have to do it for you sometime.”
In my mind, I saw blood dripping into a pail from a whole cow that hung on a hook. I’ll skip that dinner. “What about the blood?” I asked.
“Oh, well. I might as well tell you. But don’t let anyone else know. That’s the secret. The secret to my medium. I don’t want any other artist to steal it. I mix the blood with my crimson oils to create the most exquisite shade and texture. My pieces are now done primarily in reds, blacks, and whites.”
Again, I remembered the black and white horse from second grade and wondered how he’d look with a bloody-red mane and tail.
“Wait ‘til you see it,” Lucy was saying. “My work, I mean.”
I changed the subject. “What about Tommy?”
“I finished his portrait. Now I paint every night, nearly all night. I have so much energy. I can’t believe it. I’ll have several pieces ready to show next month.”
* * *
Weeks passed. I don’t think Lucy left her studio, except perhaps to visit the chef in his kitchen. Leastwise, she stopped meeting me Saturdays at the diner. I’d go sit there in our booth with one book or another in front of me—not really reading, my mind always wondering what Lucy was doing—just in case she might show up.
Sometimes I’d walk street to street thinking I might catch a glimpse of her up ahead of me or along the other side coming toward me. I looked for Tommy, too, but never saw him. Must be he decided to stay longer at his grandmom’s. A lot of the boys weren’t around anymore. That’s what happens in a small town. Everyone runs off to find a “better” life.
One rainy day I ambled along with my pathetic umbrella listing to one side, two of its ribs broken. That bumbershoot constantly upside-downed itself on windy days. Or should I say, down-side upped itself? A sudden downpour caused rain to drizzle on my shoulder, so I hurried under the overhang of the nearest building. Turned out it was the town community centre, and low and behold, a poster covered the whole glass front of the big building. There, big as life, was Lucy’s name and a notice of an exclusive art show featuring her work the following weekend. Now I knew she’d been busy, but why didn’t she call to let me know about this?
“Well,” I said to myself, “I’ll just go next week. See what she’s been up to. See if she remembers who I am!” I have to admit my curiosity was burning holes in my brain. I don’t know if it was to see portraits of all those nude young men or to see what she’d done with her new medium.
When I walked in the next week, the centre teemed with gawking visitors. I was one of them. The walls of the main room were covered with bright and gaudy canvases—brilliant reds, shiny blacks, and titanium whites—not at all what I expected. Modern geometric designs hung beside others that loosely resembled animals or flowers.
Then I saw her. A group of art admirers encircled Lucy—or the person I assumed was Lucy because I hardly recognized her. Her figure was more perfect than ever, accentuated by the black jumpsuit and black patent heels she wore. But her hair! Her beautiful black shiny hair was gone—dyed orangey-red, straightened long, and pulled up like a ponytail near the top of her head. A black satin band held it up.
I stood there in my tracks, my mouth hanging open, just as she turned around. A single red rose held together the low-cut jumpsuit below her breasts. A short bald man chattered at her. She glanced at me without recognition. I waved weakly. She turned back to him, then must have realized it was me because she parted the crowd like Moses parting the Red Sea as she glided toward me.
“Yeah, I figured that’s the only way I’d get to see you.”
“I know. I’ve just been too, too busy with all of this. Look at this crowd!”
“You think they’ll buy something?” I asked.
“I’ve already sold two.” She pointed to one of a chair, presumably red velvet, on a black rug in a white room. That still life and its frame pretty much covered a section of wall between two doorways. Certainly not one I’d want in my living room. The other was a tiny canvas of cardinal birds in a black tree. “I hope for many more sales. I feel really lucky with my new work.”
My head was full of questions. “What happened to your hair? I hardly recognized you! You look...really different.”
She threw her orange head back in laughter. “I needed a change. I’m a new person now.” Even her laugh was different.
It was then that I noticed how red, red her lips were, and the rouge? Redder than ever! Long black fake lashes were pasted over her own with enough mascara to blacktop a driveway.
“See that bald man I was talking to?” Lucy nodded her head in his direction. “He owns an art gallery in the city and wants me to show my work there.”
I looked around. “Where are your nude portraits?” I was feeling bold now. “You know, the ones of all the young men you used to do?”
“They’re all here, looking happy in the next room. Go take a look. I must say, those later ones that I did in my new medium are the best. By the way, did you ever tell anyone about my secret formula?”
“Me? Who would I tell? Nobody I know cares about art.” I shrugged. “Except you,” I added.
“Good. Because I don’t want anyone stealing my formula.” Lucy sashayed back to the group of admirers.
She sure has changed, I thought as I entered the “nude” room. I practically fell onto a bench in the centre of the room at what I saw. Portraits of almost all the young men in town hung there. They were so life-like you’d swear they could move right off the canvas and come to greet you. In more ways than one. The works were arranged according to the dates they were painted. The later ones were at the far end of the room. The skin tones on those had a much rosier hue and they were all positioned on a red velvet throw. Red spotlights highlighted each portrait.
If I were braver, I might have purchased one to hang above my dresser. Instead, when I got my wits back about me, I said my goodbyes to Lucy and headed home.
A couple of days later, Lucy called. “I’m moving to the city,” she said. “All manner of opportunities have been offered to me, and there will be endless models I can interview to work for me.”
I sighed into the phone. “I’ll really miss you. I hope you’ll remember me.”
“Oh, I’ll call whenever I get a chance. Maybe you can visit me in the city sometime. I’ll cook you that dinner I always promised.”
“What about your chef?” I asked.
“He’s going to the city, also—been offered a job as Head Chef at the Culinary Centre. So I’ll keep up my private cooking lessons, too.”
“When will you move?”
“As soon as possible. I’m not taking any furniture; just my canvases and art supplies, and my stainless pans and knives. There’s a loft available near the gallery, and now I can afford the rent.”
“That’s wonderful. Good luck in your new life.” A lump formed in my throat as I tried to speak. “Well... goodbye. I’ll look for you on TV.”
Lucy giggled—almost like the old days when we first became friends. “Sure,” she said.
“Goodbye, dear friend.”
I stifled a sob and abruptly hung up.
* * *
I never saw Lucy again—in person, that is. I saw her on talk shows, everyone questioning her about her technique and her not divulging her secret. She sold paintings to collectors all over the world. Her chef got himself a show on the cooking channel. He sure was a handsome one.
I stayed in town to work for a small company, trying to keep their books straight using an old computer. They had no money to buy a new one. None of the town boys ever returned. Their families must have kept track of them, but I never did. Now I wish I had one above my dresser. Portrait, I mean. Occasionally the newspaper ran notices of missing young city men and, one by one, photos of our local boys were posted in the post office.
One night I sat at my kitchen table eating a delicious casserole of macaroni and cheese fresh from my own oven while I watched Lucy appear as a special guest on her chef’s cooking show. I thought of her silky stainless pots and pans and shiny sharpened knives, her plates of food left at my door, all that stew meat that the blood was drained from for her medium, and I was thankful that she never got around to making me a dinner.
About the Author
J.P. Egry is a graduate of the Crane School of Music. She taught music and special education before retiring to write full time. She writes poetry, short stories, personal essays, children’s stories, novels, and novellas. She has written several published prizewinners. Most recently, her story “A Well-Urned Talent,” achieved an honourable mention for Supernatural Fiction Award on The Ghost Story. She resides with her jazz pianist husband and two cats in Duchess County, New York.
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