The Kitchen Lament This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

Mark Dillon was astonished that he was able to drive home without an accident. On this certain Friday evening, he was quite distracted, and several times he’d averted disaster by bare inches, as if awakening from a particularly claustrophobic dream at each sharp turn.

He would never have guessed that the real trouble was waiting at home, in his kitchen, simmering with pleasure at the prospect of the night ahead.

Even so, Mark was a mess. He was 30 years old, with a wife and a son, 6 years old. He worked as a journalist at the local paper, “The Daily Voyager”, and as of recently, his job had taken a turn for the worse. He was the best writer at the Voyager, he knew that. But his last three stories were late, and now Mark could tell that Dan Prunkle, the editor in chief, was a hair’s breadth away from setting events in motion that would land Mark in the unemployment line.

With the fear of Prunkle ominously hanging over his head, Mark’s life at home started to suffer. He hadn’t been seeing his wife, Clara, as much as he knew he should – Mark had been putting in monstrous overtime at the Voyager to get out from underneath Prunkle’s shadow, and feel that blessed sunlight. And tonight, a Friday evening which would prove to be a remarkable one, was their son Joshua’s Talent Show at school. Josh had xylophone solo.

Mark loved Josh, the way only parents can love.

Mark had told Clara that he couldn’t go – he’d be working late. He wished very badly that he could go, and he told Clara that. But she insisted that Mark was just making excuses to go off and spend more time at work. She makes it seem like I WANT to kiss Prunkle’s ass! Mark thought. They’d had a fight that morning, and now, at 7:47 pm, Mark arrived at a dark, empty house, in a state of nearly hysteric distress; he’d spilled coffee all over one of the Voyager’s computers. Prunkle had been standing a few feet away, and had gotten all red in the face. Mark began scrambling for the box of tissues on his desk.

But Prunkle just said, “Stop making a fool of yourself, Dillon. Get out.” It wasn’t a shout, but there was an unsettling finality to it. So Mark snatched up his coat and flew out the door.

Yes, Mark Dillon was indeed a mess.

He slammed the door upon his arrival home and headed straight for the kitchen, flipping on the lights with a violent swipe of his hand. The house was a nice one, very big, white, clean; Clara brought in money working part time as a nurse. And the kitchen was all white lights and spotless countertops.

He reached for the door to the cabinet where they kept the painkillers, when he heard an unlikely hissing sound behind him.

Mark whirled around. He quietly surveyed the room. Nothing out of the ordinary. A basket of fruit on the island in the middle of the room, a blender on top of the fridge, all the usual stuff. Nothing funny or out of place. Hm, Mark thought. Must have been my shoes squeaking on this tiled floor.

He turned around and went for the cabinet again. But again he heard, louder this time, an unmistakable “Pssst!” from behind him. Again he spun in place like a clumsy ballerina with an untucked white shirt and 5 o’clock shadow. He took in the world around him for a second time.

He cleared his throat. Uncertainly, hating himself, he shouted, “Hello?” His voice broke.

“Mark, no need to shout, I’m right here.”

Mark yelped and took an involuntary step back. He tripped on a stool behind him, and landed in an upright sitting position against the wall. He jumped back to his feet, breathing very fast. “Who’s there?”

There was a high giggling from the middle of the room.

“Man, I’m sorry, Mark, that looked like it hurt, but…”

The laughter erupted again. Mark raced around the island, searching for whoever was hiding on the other side. No one. He kept going around, assuming the intruder was crawling around the island, just out of sight.

More laughter now, and Mark froze. He pinpointed it – it was not just over the island. It was coming from the island. But, he thought, the only thing on the island is the bowl of –

“What’s the matter, you having a breakdown or something?”

Mark stared at the bowl of fruit. That happy little voice was very clearly coming from the bowl. Not just the bowl itself, he noticed. A kumquat. The bowl was filled with apples, and a single kumquat was left on top. And that kumquat was speaking to him. It had no mouth, wasn’t moving – and yet a voice had certainly come from that kumquat.

Mark leaned in for a closer look, his torso almost flat on the top of the island. The kumquat cleared its throat (or at least made that sound, it had no throat to clear).

“Erm, Mark, buddy, I need my space. Kindly take a few steps back.”

Mark, in a sort of trance, straightened up.

“Thanks.”

Mark ran his hands through his air and squeezed his eyes shut. “This isn’t real,” he muttered. “I’m stressed out, and now I’m hallucinating. Or dreaming. Or having a meltdown.”

“Stressed out? Man, can I sympathize!” the kumquat said. “How do you think it feels to be the last kumquat left in the bowl? Frankly, my friend, I’ve been waiting days for my ticket to the big ole’ fruit basket in the sky. But enough about me. What’s going on with you, buddy?”

Mark dropped his hands back to his side. His eyelids peeled back, and he was disappointed to find that he hadn’t woken up in bed. He addressed the kumquat in a weary voice. “I’m sorry, but I don’t think it would be best for my mental health if I started talking to a kumquat.”

“But keeping your feelings bottled up can be even worse. Come on, we’re all friends here. Take a seat.”

Mark sighed, and in an exhausted state of defeat, took a seat at one of the stools situated next to the island. The kumquat smiled gently (or at least Mark got the very distinct feeling that it was smiling).

“Now,” said the kumquat, “what’s up?”

Mark buried his face in his arms and started talking, a muffled confession, too unhappy to fully realize the strangeness of letting out one’s feelings to a talking kumquat. “The editor at the Voyager – my boss – he’s this close to firing me. And my wife doesn’t think I should be wasting my time working at the newspaper in the first place.” He lifted his head, now speaking directly to the kumquat. “What does she want? Writing is what I do! I love it, it pays the bills, I sell a short story now and then… Did you know I’m working on a novel?”

“Oh, yeah!” said the kumquat. “That detective novel about that guy trapped in Alaska, right?”

“How did you know that?”

“You’d be surprised what you pick up, sitting in a fruit bowl all day.”

“Right. So anyway, she thinks I should look into ‘new fields’. What does that even mean? Does she think I want to help support her and Josh waiting tables? Bagging groceries? I just don’t know what she wants!”

“I see,” said the kumquat. “And what about your boss?”

“Well, if Prunkle would just start using that great tomato on his neck, he’d see how much he needs me. I’m one of the – no, I’m THE best writer working at the Voyager! But he’s too busy fuming at everyone to notice!”

“If,” said the kumquat, “I may say so, I think you’ve got to take action. Get rid of your problems before they get rid of you.”

Mark put his face in his hands. “I wish I could, little guy.”

“Nothing ever happened from wishing. Now, it seems to me that Prunkle should be the first to go.”

Mark looked up at the kumquat. “What do you mean, ‘to go’?”

“All I’m saying is that he’s nothing but a heap of trouble! You’d be better off without him.”

“So, what, you want me to quit?”

The kumquat let out a heavy, exasperated sigh. “I thought we might hit a rough spot here. Why don’t you talk to knife? This is his element, anyway.”

Mark turned to the counter. Most of the knives were in the sink, but there was still a great big kitchen knife sitting in the knife holder. Mark got up and took out the knife.

Somehow, the knife seemed to stir. “… Ugh… and I was having such a nice dream, too,” said the knife, a low, melancholy voice. “I dreamt that I broke on the cutting board, and Carla had to throw me out. Sweet, sweet rest was mine.”

The knife seemed to vibrate in Mark’s hand as it spoke, though he knew it was perfectly still.

“But now that you woke me up,” it said, “what is it you want?”

Mark went back to the stool and placed the knife on the counter. “Uh, that kumquat over there said we had something to talk about.”

“Knife, remember? That thing we discussed?” said the kumquat.

There was a pause, and the knife said, “Oh yes, that thing. You see, Mark, we culinary items were, just this morning, discussing ways that your suffering could be eased. And we came to a general agreement.”

Mark frowned. “And what’s that?”

“It all comes down to what I was saying before,” said the kumquat. “Bottling up your feelings.”

“You see, Mark,” said the knife, “there are a number of healthy, beneficial ways to let out your anger. Take Carla, for instance. Whenever she chops vegetables, or meat, or whatever food, she lets off some steam. You could do the same thing. And you don’t have to be a chef.”

“What do you mean?” said Mark.

“How to put it…” said the knife. “Well, bluntly, homicide is a relatively common thing. And it’s not certain you’ll get caught.”

Mark started laughing. His hands became entangled in his hair. “I must be crazy. My kitchen is telling me to kill my boss.”

“Oh, come now, Mark old boy. Do see reason!”

This was a new voice. That proper, vaguely British drawl was coming from the fruit bowl also. Mark realized it was one of the apples.

The apple continued. “See here, fellow. Many times, people go through certain experiences that help them to make a decision. Like, say, having a dream of jumping out of an aero plane without a parachute. If that dream were on the eve of your first sky-diving lesson, it would obviously be a subconscious warning that would keep said fictitious dreamer safe.”

“Are you telling me I’m crazy?”

“No, never, old chap! All I’m saying is… We are that event for you. We’re here to help.

There was a murmur of consensus among the rest of the apples.

Mark thought for a moment. Had Prunkle ever shown him a shred of kindness in Mark’s whole career at the Voyager? No, Mark thought, except for hiring me. But he only hired me because he’s not an idiot, not because he’s kind or generous! Does he have any redeeming qualities? No. Would anyone miss him if he were to mysteriously drop off the face of the earth? No!

Does he deserve to die?

Mark thought very hard.

He finally said, “How could I do that? Kill someone! I can’t just walk up to Prunkle and stab him in the chest!”

“That’s what I’d do,” said knife.

A different apple made an “ahem” sound. “I have a proposition. Invite him over for dinner. Strictly business, he’ll think you’re just trying to get on his good side, he won’t suspect a thing. Make sure your wife and son are gone, as they are tonight. And then, you can very cleanly… oh, whatever suits your fancy. Slit his throat? Stab him? Ever had experience killing a man, Mark?”

Mark shook his head.

“Oh, well, there’s a first time for everything…”

“But then what?” Mark said, now feeling even more exhausted by the implications of this conversation. “What would I… DO with him?”

The refrigerator door abruptly swung open, and a booming, Godlike voice issued forth from its depths; “You can store the body in me! That’s about the only thing you people think I’m good for, but I’m happy to do my job.”

“And I can help with getting rid of him!” said the blender on top of the fridge.

“So can I!” gargled the garbage disposal.

“Wait, wait, back up,” said Mark. “I can’t store him in the fridge. Clara or Josh would see him.”

This was greeted with silence from the rest of the kitchen.

Mark looked around. “What?”

“There was something else we needed to talk about, Mark,” said the kumquat.

“Talk about what?”

“Well, your wife, Clara.”

“What about her?”

“Oh, nothing, nothing,” said the kumquat, now sounding nervous and apologetic. “Only that… when we were talking this morning… well…”

BANG. Mark whirled around and saw that the door of the oven had swung open violently, and now it spoke in an aggressive, crackly voice. “Oh, kumquat is too nice to say it, so I will. She’s holding you back, Mark. She’ll have to go, too.”

Mark blinked. “What was that?”

“Clara. Sorry, buddy,” said the oven. “But we know you don’t like her. We know all about Sue.”

“Sue?” Mark said. “Sue Conroy?”

“Yup, that’s the one,” said the oven.

In high school, and into college, Mark had had a long term girlfriend; Sue Conroy. Tall, long dark hair, and fascinating brown eyes. She was the only person Mark had ever known to have brown eyes that could be called fascinating. They were the same age, and they’d met in their freshman year of high school. Very soon, they were going out, and for the rest of high school, they were both sure that they’d spend the rest of their lives together. But then they’d gone their separate ways for college, both promising to call as often as possible, to see each other on holidays, to make it work. But Sue’s calls dried up. Mark tried to get to her, he left truckloads of calls, had contacted her friends. But soon, Sue was gone completely from his life.

Then he met Clara while in college. Mark knew he wanted to get back with someone, get his mind off Sue. So they started going out, and soon he was asking her parents for permi –

Mark stopped himself.

Had he settled for Clara?

No, Mark thought, pushing the thought away as if it was contagious. I love Clara. I love her smile… The way she walks. That laugh, those lips… and best of all… those…

Eyes.

Clara had blue eyes.

Had he settled for Clara?

Mark bit back tears, took a deep breath, tried to compose himself. He succeeded, and the terrible beast of regret slunk back into the black recesses of his stomach.

“Hey, man, it’s all right,” said the kumquat. “If I had arms, I’d give you a hug … but we can give you something else. Something better.”

“What?” Mark said, relieved that his voice didn’t crack.

“A solution. A simple, straightforward way to get your life back. Oh, sure, you could divorce her, but that’s even messier than murder. Who would get the house, or Josh?”

“You don’t want to risk your only son winding up under the care of that b****, do you?” said the oven.

“Watch it, you’re still talking about my – ”

“Oh, we’ve ALL heard you talking to yourself when you do the dishes, Mark,” said the oven. “It’s not just Prunkle that’s holding you back. You might not know it, but I think Clara is just as bad for you. Probably worse. Man, the state of mind you’ve been in since you’ve been with her… or at least since you bought ME… You never see eye to eye, and she always wins the fights, because you don’t want Josh to see you fighting. You always end it in the quickest way; surrender.”

“Think of it strategically, Mark,” an apple said. “Without Clara, you can raise Josh in a happy home! You can finish your book! You can pursue a career in writing! … You could even look for Sue again, if you wish.”

Mark’s innards dropped into his feet. “What?”

“We live in the age of the Internet, my friend!” said the apple. “Even if you can’t find Sue immediately, there’s got to be a way to her. And even if you find out she’s moved to China and can’t be reached, or if you find that she’s… oh, I suppose you could say ‘taken’, or ‘unavailable’… at least you won’t be living in this dreadful state of ignorance that you’re in now.”

Mark looked at the knife. He’d never really seen how long it was before… Clara did most of the cooking, he only really picked it up when he washed the dishes. Well, he picked it up now, feeling how nicely weighted it was, the way the wooden handle seemed to attach to his palm and fingers.

Mark stared at the knife. “How can I do it?”

“Same way you’ll get to Prunkle,” said the knife.

“Get Josh out of the house,” said the kumquat, “find a moment alone with your wife when no one will see… and she’ll go missing, like how Prunkle will go missing. You’ll be terrified, panicked, tell the police how scared you are, how the last time you saw here was when she left for the supermarket one morning… You could even drive her car over to the parking lot at Stop and Shop, set the stage. And they’ll never suspect you. Whenever you’re in public with her, you put on a good show, right? You make sure you’re very friendly with Clara? Yeah, all your friends will testify to what a great relationship you had. And after a while… after your career as a writer blossoms, and everyone you know assumes you’ve gotten over your poor missing wife… you can look for Sue. Wouldn’t she make a great mother for Josh?”

Mark felt the tears brimming again, and knew he couldn’t stop them. “We talked about it all the time in high school… she really wanted kids.”

“Now you two can have one together,” said the kumquat. “It’s not too late to get your life back, Mark. The way you dreamed. It can all still happen.”

Mark kept staring at the knife.

“Please, Mark,” said the kumquat. It wasn’t a conniving voice, it didn’t hold any diabolical pretenses. It was the voice of a friend. “Let us help you.”

Mark stood there and gazed at that knife for who knows how long. He saw himself there. Hair standing up at bizarre angles, eyes red and glazed. An angry, confused face. And he saw himself the way he had wanted, the way he still wanted. With a bestselling book, and a pair of brown eyes to stare into for the rest of his life.

There was an ominous rumble from outside. Mark looked out the window as Clara’s white minivan tumbled up the gravel driveway.

Mark wiped his eyes and did his best to smooth down his hair. He closed the refrigerator door. And the oven door. And he put the knife back into its holder.

Soon, he thought, I will have my life back.





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