One Story left me feeling like a faucet with both taps turned on full: neither hot, nor cold. The stories were competently written and I certainly admire any writer who is able to land the coveted, once-in-a-career appearance in the pages of the journal which does exactly as it says, delivering one story in each issue. But the selections didn't move me the way I'd come to expect One Story to make me leap up from the dinner table when I heard the mailman lift the rusty hinge of my mailbox and drop a new issue inside. Lately, I'd been finishing everything on my plate before I excused myself to go get the mail.
Elissa Schappell's story in the latest issue, "The Joy of Cooking," restores my faith in One Story. It's a table-leaper. It also whets my appetite for Schappell's forthcoming collection, Blueprints for Building Better Girls (from which "The Joy of Cooking" is taken). The story has a simple premise and setting: a 24-year-old girl calls her mother and asks for "the family recipe" for chicken. Over the course of the phone call, the mother leads her daughter, step-by-step, in the preparation of the bird.
"Where's the drama in that?" you ask.
What if I were to tell you the daughter is anorexic and the mother is self-absorbed and jealous of all the attention her child gets? What if I were tell you there is another (unseen) daughter who is in competition for the mother's affection? What if I were to tell you the daughter is disgusted by touching the "slimy" chicken, but she's desperate to cook it "perfectly" because she's entertaining a new boyfriend that evening? What if I were to tell you she burns her fingers on the salt she rubs on the chicken because she has chewed her cuticles to bloody shreds? What if I were to tell you both the mother and the daughter are obsessive-compulsive, especially when it comes to numbers?
You want drama and conflict? "The Joy of Cooking" is a cauldron of narrative tension in 29 pages.
Schappell has chosen to tell the story from the mother's point of view and that makes all the difference in the world. The conversation and a series of flashbacks (counting down young Emily's birthday cakes, all the way back to 1 years old) are filtered through this slightly manic and occasionally funny voice. These are the thoughts parading through her head as she takes the call from her daughter, Emily:
I looked at the clock: 4:00. Yoga started at 4:30. After yoga, provided I wasn’t bleeding or paralyzed, I was planning to pop into the drug store and buy new lipstick. Something youthful but sophisticated, with shimmer. My mother always said that a woman should have a signature lipstick the way a man had a signature cocktail. I’d married and divorced Emily’s father, Terry, in Cherries in the Snow. After the new lipstick, I was going to treat myself to an overdue haircut. Something new, possibly even a little racy. I’d been toying with the idea of bangs. Then, at 6:30, I was meeting Hugo, the new man shelving the philosophy section at the bookstore where for the last fifteen years I’d been working as a cashier and bookkeeper. I had shaved my legs. It was just coffee, but let’s just say it had been a long time between cups of coffee. 1,825 days to be exact. Five years. Not that I was counting.
As the conversation continues and we learn more about the two women by means of the chicken recipe, the character of the anorexic girl becomes as visible as (dare I say it?) sharp bones pressing against skin. She is demanding, naive, impulsive, and theatrical in everything she says and does. "When Percy Shelley, the poet, drowned, Mary Shelley carried his burnt-up heart in her handbag for the rest of her life. In her handbag! That's real love. That's what I'm waiting for."
This is no soft-focus, disease-of-the-week movie geared toward earning our sympathy for the victim. It's a fierce portrayal of a very complicated relationship between two women, centering around what is probably the most divisive issue of today's society: food. The chicken is both sustenance and death, the hope of good things to come (a "perfect" date with the boyfriend) and the catalyst for disaster. Everything we see, smell, hear, taste and touch these days implies that food is one of the central "blueprints for building a better girl." Schappell cuts right to the heart of that idea in smart, concise language. Here, for example, is her description of a support group for families of girls with eating disorders:
Later, at the coffee urn that had been set up down the hall away from the meeting room so we couldn't hear our daughters, we talked about their spines, and the way their clavicle bones stood out like Victorian ruffled collars, and how we counted their ribs. What poor protection they seemed for their heart and lungs. We called our daughters skeletal. Skeletal. A word that, when spoken, felt like eating something soft with bones. One mother described the sight of her daughter in a bathing suit as Auschwitz on the Jersey Shore. Out of courtesy, I laughed, though no one else did.
I could go on at length about the pleasures of this issue of One Story--and perhaps I've already said too much--but, wait, I haven't even mentioned Terry, the ex-husband who was a notorious philanderer and probably the cause of Emily's painful yearning for love. Even in this minor character, Schappell gets off a wonderful zinger in this flashback scene: "Terry's phone rang in the middle of singing 'Happy Birthday,' the sound of a funky jazz trumpet coming from his pants pocket." The symbolism of that trumpet in the pants is spot-on.
In fact, everything in "The Joy of Cooking" is spot-on perfect.
(If you don't already subscribe to One Story, you can order a copy of Issue 152 on this page.)