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"Chili" by Elijah Woodruff

CW: Abuse

The chili was burning. She had set the burner too hot and hadn’t noticed. Her own mother would have called her a terrible cook. Took one to know one, but that was a weak counter.

But the chili was burning, and one of her kids was screaming at the other kid. All the while, a third kid was stuck on her hip, and whenever she tried to set him down, he screamed. She had often wondered to herself if that was a sign of separation anxiety. But certainly, being only three, he hadn’t had time to develop a mental illness.

The chili was burning and when she finally took it off the stove, she did it with one hand and the hot pot knocked against her forearm. A searing, shooting pain jumped through her arm, but she readjusted and walked the pot to the table before realizing that she had forgotten those silly little cork circles that would keep the lacquer from melting off her cheap wooden table. She set the pot back on the stove.

The chili started to bubble again. The burn on her arm hurt, so she walked over to the faucet, flipped on the cold water and ran her singed arm underneath it. Relief was immediate, but it would smart for the next week or so. This wasn’t the first time she had burned herself. No, that was when her mother saw her standing too close to the stove, holding her palm above a heated coil for warmth. Her mother smacked her palm down into it, leaving insistent, painful welts that ran circular like a seashell for weeks. She was only eight. She shut off the water and the memory went too.

The chili was burning so she picked it up off the stove and moved to the table before realizing she still didn’t have those damn cork circles. She put the chili back down when Luke came into the room. He was all snot and teary eyes.

“Mom, Jenny pushed me,” the seven-year-old said. “And changed the channel to what she wanted to watch.”

She yelled from the kitchen into the living room, “Jenny! I need you to come out here.”

Jenny came running and looked at her mom with doe eyes, innocent and free from wrongdoing, an eleven-year-old who thought she knew how to work the system. “What’s up, Mom?”

“Did you push your brother?”

“No.” She shook her head slowly as if to add gravitas.

The mother sighed and pushed her hair back with one hand. “Just go back in there and behave for a second so I can set the table.”

The chili was burning again, and she almost picked up the chili before stopping and grabbing the table protectors and throwing one of them onto the table. She grabbed the chili, and carefully balancing it with one hand, set it down on the table.

It was a little burnt around the sides, but that didn’t matter. It was a win to get it on the table. She’d take that. She looked for her wooden spoon that she had gotten at Goodwill. A dollar fifty for something that usually was close to six bucks. She loved a good bargain although sometimes she felt a little silly getting excited over four dollars and some change saved. She found the spoon where she’d left it, although she didn’t remember putting it in the dish cabinet.

She gave the pot a stir, leaving the spoon sticking out because she couldn’t be bothered to find a new spot for the spoon.

James fussed to be let down, and so she did. He toddled into the living room. It would only be a matter of time before he forgot that he wanted down in the first place and began to cry. There was a loud smack accompanied by a hysterical, keening wail.

Luke came running out again. Now, two rivers ran from his eyes and fed into the two great and more viscous rivers that ran from his nose.

When he tried to speak, he blubbered, “Jenny hit me.”

He carried the “e” so perfectly long that she wondered if the child might pass out from lack of new air in his lungs.

“Jenny!” she yelled from the kitchen. “Come in here.”

They stood side by side, the boy furiously wiped his eyes and nose on a shirtsleeve that she would have to wash later.

“I didn’t mean to!” Jenny’s voice rose into an exclamation, a child’s defense that some adults never unlearned.

She crouched down to their level. “I told you both to behave. Now, what happened?”

The floodgates poured out of both of their mouths and like God on the forty-first day of His flood, she stopped them both with a wave of her hand.

“We should never resort to hitting unless it’s necessary. Jenny, did you need to hit him?”

“He was trying to take the remote, and I wanted him to stop!”

“You are not answering the question I asked you.”

Jenny paused for a moment and in this moment, the three-year-old, James, stumbled back into the kitchen, saw the scene playing out in front of him and high-tailed it back into the other room as if he’d been spooked by a ghost.

“I’m sorry,” Jenny said.

Luke sniffled a little more, wiped his sleeve on his shirt again and gave his sister a hug.

“Okay,” was all Luke said.

The door opened and the screen door slammed shut behind it. “Look at this big strong man!” came her husband’s voice from the living room.

The two children rushed into the living room. There was joyous noise and she listened to it as she bustled the rest of the kitchen plasticware onto the table. She remembered the bread in the oven and removed that. It was slightly black on top, but she fixed that by taking a knife and scraping the top part off.

John came into the kitchen and smiled at her. “Smells good, honey.”

“It’s been a shit day,” she said back.

“Mine too. Wanna talk about it?”

“No, not really. Let’s hurry up and eat, I’ve got class in an hour.”

John spooned out the chili into a plastic bowl while she took the bread and placed it on the table. When she finished, she walked back into the living room and saw all three of them sitting on the couch together. The two siblings had probably helped the three-year-old up, Jenny and Luke’s fight already forgotten.

“Come on, guys. Food’s ready.”

John played the fool at the dinner table. He made silly jokes that Luke thought were incredible and made Jenny roll her eyes, but still, she smiled. The three-year-old was fussy and ate hardly anything so she tore the bread into small pieces and fed him from her hand. That, he seemed to like fine.

When dinner was finished, she grabbed her notebook and World Literature anthology off the shared desk and kissed everyone goodbye, promising she would be home by midnight. After class, she was going to read and write in the campus library.

John promised they would be bathed and in bed by nine, but she knew it would be closer to nine-thirty. That was okay.

Before she left, John said, “I’m sorry you were having a rough day, Katelyn.”

How long had it been since he had said her name? Since anyone had? She was mom or honey or you in the back. She almost broke down into tears then, but she just hugged him and soaked up his warmth before finally letting go and walking to her car.

In class, they discussed Iphigenia at Aulis. While the rest of the class debated whether they felt it was right for Iphigenia to willingly go to her death, she contemplated what kind of woman allows another woman to be killed just to appease herself. And was that what it took for her name to be remembered? A tragedy? Her mother would have told her that she was being dramatic, seeing things that weren’t there. That the story wasn’t meant to be read with such a modern lens.

When class finished and another Greek tragedy was assigned, another woman killed, she packed her things and walked to the library where she read the play and began to take notes, but she put her head down and slept until a librarian, a very old woman who smelled of smoke and cedar and whose face was wrinkly and kind, nudged her with a few fingers and ushered her on her way home.

There, she found her husband sleeping on the couch, a book resting on his chest, laundry folded in a basket and some reality TV show playing. It was the kind of show where no one had to cook or clean or put children to bed. They did not have to balance work and play and personal relationships and dreams. They didn’t have to do anything but exist.

She watched for a few minutes, chuckling a little at the antics on screen and then woke her husband and led him by hand to their bed where she dreamt of burnt chili, how sweet it tasted on her tongue, and her husband calling her by name again and again.

Elijah Woodruff is a middle school ELA teacher who does it for his students but wouldn't mind being paid a little more.

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