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As I walk onto the familiar checkerboard floor, I flex my toes in anticipation. My father is wearing his trademark blue bandana, bending over the stove where the large cast-iron pot sits. Thick steam rises from its depths. Tonight we will be having Shrimp Gumbo à la Don. The smells of the ingredients mingle together, creating an intoxicating aroma. My dad turns, noticing that I've come into the room. His mouth breaks into a wide grin, poised above the wooden spoon filled with tonight's dinner.
“Great! You can cut the celery.”
“All right.” I start rinsing it, letting the water run over my hands to clean them as well before I begin to help my father.
The celery is my least favorite ingredient in the gumbo, and yet it is the only job my father entrusts to me. I always pick around the chewy green vegetable, leaving it in the bottom of the bowl. I begin to chop more ruthlessly, letting the knife violently cut into the stalk. It's no longer just a hated vegetable. It's everything I have left unsaid between us, the avoided bits that sour the entire dish.
My cell phone is ringing. It must be eight o'clock. “Hi, Dad.” My voice is hurried. I'm hoping to convey how busy I am, and I don't have time to talk.
“Hiya! How are you?”
“Fine. How 'bout you?”
“Good! Just been working down on Willy's boat.” An awkward silence follows as he waits for me to say something. I don't.
“How's the weather there?” he asks.
“It was about 92 here. Pretty cool,” he chuckles to himself. “You seem pretty busy, so I guess I'll let you go. I love you.”
“Love ya. Bye!” These last three words I say to my dad are the only ones that sound enthusiastic – not because they are sincere, but because I am glad to get off the phone.
The sound of the bubbling gumbo brings me back to the present. During my reverie, I have finished chopping the celery. As he hovers over me, I scrape the contents of my cutting board into the boiling pot. When I finish, he walks to the fridge, pulling a large bag of shrimp from the shelf, cursing as miscellaneous items fall to the floor. Leaving them, he brings the shrimp over, and pours them into the pot. A few bob on the surface, and I watch as he takes his spoon and pushes them under. I can tell I am no longer needed in the kitchen, so I gather silverware and begin to set the table. When I finish, I sit in one of the chairs, awaiting tonight's dinner. My gaze wanders out the window. Although it looks like any other night, I can tell the temperature has dropped. The small tree my father planted on my first birthday is struggling to remain upright in the wind.
It's cold for a Texas night, even though it is December. My father and I are bundled in sweatshirts. We spill from the car, pulling out Santa hats as we run across the field, dodging the car lights from the highway. I am the first to reach the large, iron cattle in the middle of the field, but he is close behind me. We place the Santa hats on their huge metal heads, anchoring them with magnets. After each sculptured cow is wearing his holiday hat, we sprint back to the car, and drive home. The next day we make a special point of driving down that highway, and are greeted by an assortment of iron cows, each adorned with a Santa hat. A week later the cows are still wearing their hats. In fact, the city doesn't send out anyone to remove our small act of vandalism until after the New Year. Many Christmases have passed since the cows have worn their Santa hats, but the memory remains vivid for both of us, a small sort of accomplishment that my father and I are able to share.
“Sue, can you come help me?” my father yells. I shuffle back to the kitchen. The gumbo is done, and he is pouring it into bowls. He hands them to me, and nods toward the dining room. I place the bowls on the table, and sit, waiting for him to join me. Then we both leap for our spoons, shoveling large quantities of gumbo into our mouths. I can taste the meaty shrimp. My dad and I attempt to smile at each other, but our full mouths make it impossible. Even the dreaded celery seems to add to the dish tonight, and I eat every bittersweet piece. Most of all, I can taste some unknown ingredient. I begin to eat more slowly, trying to discern this mystery flavor, but try as I might, I cannot label it. In the end, I give up. For tonight, I am happy to simply enjoy the meal.