I always read the acknowledgements. Long before I finish a book. This one comes at the end of a debut story collection. The author thanks her children, says she never would have tried to write, to learn this difficult art shortly after giving birth, had they not made her brave. What gives me, childless, the nerve? I gulp down a French press in the patisserie, working, clenching my jaw, my bird beak anxious deformity, wrapped in my scarf, coal-black and hand-knit, purchased in the cold Italian hills mid-May, still blurred by the caterwaul of new grief, in a shop run by a woman wearing a full skirt she made herself, how it shushed as she moved around the room crowded with bundles upon bundles, wool raw and felt and leather and the smell of sage lingering on her skin. How moisturized she looked, how healthy. How she had also given birth ages ago. You can see it. In her stern, bushy brow. In the way she carries herself: scaffolding. Maybe I’ll never be brave. My body betrays the truth: I beg for love. Did I tell you I taught myself to cook because I was tired of microwaved food? I stood on a chair at the stove, stirring, testing spices, waiting on mom to come home from work. If I could return to that shop in Casperia. What I’d do differently, since you ask, is touch her face and tell her how remarkable I find her, but magic lingers here in the fabric draped over my shoulders. Air from the gorge. Forbs consumed by sheep. Difficult art. In the two days he’s home—a smoker’s shallow breath between Dallas and Bangkok—I coach him how to make hot dogs, mine soy meat, which he burns the first time (there’s no fat to protect it, see) and how to sauté spinach. A drizzle of olive oil in a hot pan, sea salt, a couple cracks of pepper, tongs, remove from heat: wilt. He reheats the macaroni I made and froze on his birthday. Roux. Whole Milk. Mustard Powder. Cayenne. You ever add cayenne to a béchamel? Oh, how it spreads, whoosh, fireworks blooming. Two-year cheddar. Panko and Parmesan. I am teaching him how to live without me. He wishes he’d learned before it was too late. Yes, yes, mindfulness. It’s here. In the acknowledgements. In Rilke references. Neither beauty nor terror. No finalities. It’s here in the banjo twang and foot-stomping music playing when I dance with my dogs in the kitchen, mud splatter on white shirts, miracle November tomatoes ripening on the windowsill, soaking up what sun is left, defiant. It’s here in the mussed black tulle the child wears when her mom lifts her up to the pastry case so she can see, so she can see all the shine, all the sugar sugar shine.
Beth Gilstrap is the winner of the 2019 Red Hen Press Women’s Prose Prize for her second full-length collection Deadheading & Other Stories (forthcoming). She is also the author of I Am Barbarella: Stories (2015) from Twelve Winters Press and No Man’s Wild Laura (2016) from Hyacinth Girl Press. She serves as Fiction Editor at Little Fiction | Big Truths and a reader at Creative Nonfiction.Her work has been selected as Longform.org’s Fiction Pick of the Week and selected by Dan Chaon for inclusion in the 2019 Best Microfiction Anthology. Her work has appeared in Ninth Letter, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, The Minnesota Review, Hot Metal Bridge, and Wigleaf, among others.