Friday, April 2, 2010

Congratulations Kal Victor!

Kal (far left, eating homemade smashed potatoes), wrote his second award-winning piece of fiction this past summer at a five-day intensive workshop. Please help him him celebrate his 2010 Silver Key by reading his prose:

Smashed Potatoes
By Kal Victor, 16

I look up at the ornate table, the gleaming silver and crystal glaring harshly in my eyes. I raise my head to address the table; nine fidgety, bespectacled guests and my son, wife, and brother. I read to them aloud: “The remarkable thing about memories is the fact that their very nature is defined by their place in time, yet as one is recollecting a past incident, time itself becomes extraneous. A scene that lasted hours when it occurred originally can be relived, in detail, in a matter of seconds. Yet memory is an imperfect mechanism; its defect lies in the fact that its creation is beyond the control of its owner. Memory is most always comprised of what others impart on us. Hence, the paradox of human memory establishes us as spectators in our own minds, but masters of the memories of others."
The whole table grunts in unison. I decide to interpret it as a contemplative grunt.

“Geoff, that was quite fascinating. Truly thought provoking. What chapter is it from?” calls out a soft, unidentifiable voice.
“Well,” I say, taking a breath, being so familiar with my soon-to-be-released book that the hesitation is merely for show. “It’s the exposition paragraph to chapter nine. The chapter is mainly going to discuss memory, so I reasoned that this introduction would put the thoughts in the chapter itself in a better perspective.” I pause again, this time for comedic effect. “Does it seem grant-worthy?” I ask rhetorically. Everybody laughs together, knowing that I have already received quite a hefty sum from the university. I walk away from the table briefly and place the galley proof back on top of the cherry wood armoire where it had been resting in preparation for the night’s listeners. I return to my seat to the accompaniment of nods and indecipherable monosyllables, most representing agreement with or pleasure in my recent words.
My plate must have been filled while I was away from the table; I look down to see a visibly over-cooked veal-chop perched atop wilted and oily string beans whose glossy liquids are being absorbed by a whitish-yellow pulpy mass.
“Dear,” I call out to my wife. “What excellent potato puree.” All present, twelve others, nod in agreement. She made the potatoes with butter and chives this evening, and I haven’t tasted them yet, but I know from sheer power of observation that they are fairly mediocre. I hope that the company will prove more interesting than the bland, gritty dollop in front of me; we have nearly one fifth of the psychology department as guests tonight. But hope is fleeting faster than I can imagine. In mere seconds after reading my excerpt to a silent, near drooling audience, I know the night will undoubtedly wind up a memory filled to the brim with the drivel spewed from their mouths.
Both the lackluster food and the droning company remind me uncannily of the dinners of my youth. I look to Graham, my son, to see his take on the situation, for parts of this evening will undoubtedly be engrained in his memory too, after all.
He seems to be enjoying the puree enough, though. His naked hand is heading for the bowl beside him. He looks detached, with unfocused eyes, but that doesn't stop him from completely submerging his grubby appendage up to the cuff of his navy, gold-button studded blazer. He leaves his hand entombed in the puree and I imagine he is sloshing his fingers to and fro, enjoying the pasty resistance, as the ends of his small lips curl upwards.
I know Graham looks like me. I cannot help but stare at the boy—I know there is something intangible that I am obligated to see is in his eyes. I am transfixed only by the surface of his face—his clueless, red little face.
* * * * *
I was seven, like my son, and the night's dinner looked extraordinarily delicious. The whole evening I fiddled nervously with my silken napkin, repeatedly crumpling it and letting it unfurl in my lap beneath the table. My body was plagued by an uncomfortable, prickly feeling.
There was an unwanted silence at the table, as the guests were collectively fixated on the potatoes that were being passed around in a colossal earthenware pot. I was last in the cycle, and the ancient-looking vessel was set by my side. For reasons unbeknownst to me, swiftly, I reached out and stuck my hand into the mashed potatoes and took a handful of them, separating a small glob from the rest of the emulsion. I had to touch them, to feel them. I took them in my hands and squeezed until worm-like strands of starchy paste oozed from between my fingers. The heavy, fruity musk of the olive oil and the subtle floral aroma of the thyme tingled in my nostrils, and a gluey residue matted the cuffs of my navy sports jacket, keeping my wrists in constant contact with the mush. I have no idea why I did it, but the satisfaction was sublime. I gazed at my hand, smiling like a young Bodhisattva.
“Geoffy-boy!” My father, Graham, called out the affectionate and obnoxious nickname to get my attention. He looked at me with a piercing, angry glint in his eyes. “Don’t use your hands to eat. Look over beside your plate. Your great grandfather left us some quite expensive silverware that may be less efficient, but sure as hell prettier to look at.” I scowled at him and he laughed with a wheeze, projecting his whoops towards every individual at the table in a clockwise pattern.
Upon my father’s rebuke, my mother, Elaina, offered him some more mashed potatoes, possibly to silence him, possibly to exhibit herself as the gracious matriarch she considered herself. He accepted, and she lifted up the bowl with poise, walked over and placed the colossal earthenware vessel by his plate, swiveling her hips delicately as she went to and from her seat. My uncle Carver, a Freudian scholar, shot me a wink from across the table as he noticed the direction of my gaze. My mother called out in her whiny head-voice. “Graham, you’ll just love the smashed potatoes. Thyme and olive oil.” She paused a bit and then added, “This time.” She giggled.
“Now, why must you always refer to them as ‘smashed potatoes?’” asked Odavacar from beside my uncle. He was a long time friend and frequent guest. “I find it rather morbid and violent. Not to mention extraordinarily misleading. They’re merely mashed potatoes incognito. The ‘S’ provides poor cover. Am I not mistaken?” He laughed heartily and then stroked his graying mustache. His face was a memorable one; rounded, with two chins—the first coated in fine silver stubble. He had unkempt eyebrows, and a fat, squashed nose, inside which a forest of hair was clearly visible, even from a distance. He knew my mother from the university. She taught a course called “Socialism and Sociology” and he taught a course on Richardsonian Romanesque architecture.
“By the way, I love that new vase,” Odavacar continued enthusiastically. “It really evokes that passion only found in double ‘R’ styled pieces.” He paused to mat his glistening forehead with a napkin. “It is very Richardsonian Romanesque in style, but I’m sure you knew that already,” he added thoughtfully.
“Thanks Ody. It wasn't cheap, you know.” It was situated in the breakfront next to a small, yet beautifully and vividly painted oil portrait of Lenin.
At this point, my father decided to chime in, still maintaining the look of perplexity on his face from the moment Odavacar had mentioned the potatoes. “You two understand, don’t you, Will and Irene?” He gestured towards a couple to his right, turning to them as he wiped some spittle from his lip with a checkered handkerchief, ignoring the silken napkin beneath his fork. “Mashed implies a certain—well—unsophisticated nature. It sounds pedestrian. Thyme is certainly not pedestrian. Besides, these potatoes are clearly smashed, not mashed. Look at the texture.” He stuck his spoon into the potatoes and began sloshing them about as if they were some inedible mortar-like substance. “This delightful hardiness is clearly the result of potatoes that have been smashed,” he said shoving the spoonful of the potatoes in the couple’s direction. “Not mashed.”
The couple nodded profusely with incredible synchronicity. They were both impressionist painters. He painted fruits and vegetables with human features; she painted biblical scenes with animals in place of our saints, prophets, and holy leaders. They were awful. The paintings, that is. The couple was tolerable.
“Oh, Graham! You’re such a kidder!” cried Nancy while laughing. She was an obese opera singer who wore enough makeup to make her look like Pagliacci. Her voice was a beautiful alto, yet it was evident that she was and would be alone for her whole life. Her brilliant and deafening rendition of The Flight of the Valkyries was often heard at our table, only when new guests were present, though. Luckily, this evening was the usual crowd. She whispered to her right, “I've never been a fan of anything smashed, you know?” She turned her head towards her neighbor, Teadoro, making a swatting motion with her hand right in the face of long-faced film critic.
Teadoro reviewed for the local paper. It was almost uncanny how you could see his nearly whimpering face as you read his pieces. The two might have suited each other as a couple, had not Teadoro been eighty pounds lighter than Nancy. And, of course, Teadoro forever professed his love to Fellini and Pasolini, and Nancy to Wagner and Mozart. Their undying devotion to their “partners” was not reciprocated in any way.
I suddenly came to a revelation, my first in seven years of life. One that was sure to turn heads and earn me respect. I shivered with glee and my knees vibrated beneath the table. All this talk about smashing and mashing, and everyone at the table had overlooked a key detail. Everyone but me. I miraculously repressed the powerful urge to raise my hand, as if in my 2nd grade classroom, for fear that the potatoes still crusted on my fingers would serve to reawaken my father’s contempt for me.
“Papa,” I looked up from my plate with the fantastic, rare feeling of relevancy. “How does somebody smash potatoes without mashing them at the same time?” I inquired with confidence, knowing how acute and intelligent I would seem in their eyes. Everybody at the table burst out in simultaneous laughter. My heart spurted into my stomach with each pounding beat. I began unconsciously slouching until the table hit my chin with a thud. My face was aflame with embarrassment as the laughter waxed louder.
All noise abruptly terminated due to my father’s decision to answer my question. His wild orange eyebrows’ were furrowed in deep contemplation while his chin rested on the backs of his interlocked fingers, as if his head were perched on a display-shelf. He had the poise of a god.
“Well, Geoffy-boy, I can tell you that the product—here the smashed potatoes—is more defined by our interpretation rather than by what actually occurs in its creation and development. As Nietzsche said in Nachlass, ‘There are no facts, only interpretations.’” His thin lips curled into a smile as he wiped his glasses with his checkered handkerchief. I nodded fervently, feeling extraordinarily proud to recognize Nietzsche’s name and prompt such an important and evocative answer.
My father was a teacher of 19th century Russian fiction at the university. Had his colleagues found him quoting Nietzsche, they would not have cared in the least. In fact, one of his fellows, Petya, present at the dinner, cared so little that he tried, with visible effort, to one-up my father by quoting Dostoyevsky, someone relevant. I don't recall Petya going one dinner without quoting the author. It was touchingly pitiable how he clung so forcefully to a man dead for over a century.
In a thick, languid Russian accent, he called out at my father through lips moist with veal fat, “You best be careful, my friend. Dostoyevsky once said, ‘The second half of a man’s life is made up of nothing but the habits he has acquired during the first half.’ Your son will be cursed to forever deem all mashed potatoes, smashed potatoes. You are a strong influence in his life, in more ways then you could guess.” I looked up to see my father with eyes glazed over, frozen in his chair, with his perspiring face glistening in the light of the chandelier. He lifted up his right hand shakily and began groping for his handkerchief, only to knock his fork to the floor. He jerked in his seat, and quickly bent down and disappeared from view beneath the table. After what felt like minutes, he resurfaced, fork in hand, grinning widely. “Oh, I can guess. In fact, I’m certain.” He nodded, as if affirming his previous sentiment and then continued, “There’s no guessing involved in the least bit.” He chuckled along with his colleague.
The asparagus, after circulating the table finally reached me. I looked hard at the pinkish hand-blown glass asparagus platter. I smiled broadly as I took some asparagus, and to my relief, the conversation resurfaced and my nerves settled down. I was beginning to make an impression. I was elated.
A man at the end of the table, Strauss (I still don’t know his first name), opened his mouth to speak, but immediately stopped mid-breath to contemplate further his question. He gripped his chin in deep thought and, after thirty seconds’ pause finally said, “When potatoes were originally served in this… pudding-like, creamy fashion, were they deemed smashed or mashed potatoes?” He smiled confidently at his wife, Lillian. Strauss was in charge of medical ethics at the nearby hospital and always posed well-thought-out, sharp inquiries. He and Lillian had few friends, my father and mother included within the small selection. The reason for this was simple; Strauss had all the intelligence and insight of an academic, but none of the charm. By charm, I mean wit, quip, and charisma. In the case of the academic, these all stem from an undeserved sense of confidence, and that, of course stems from the undeserved sense of worldliness and wisdom treasured by their kind.
My father perked up, his delicately freckled face wide-eyed with relish. His features always seemed so bright. He answered the question with marvelous gusto. “Irrelevant!” he shouted. He then paused to wipe his glasses with his trusty checkered handkerchief. “Origins are meaningless,” he continued. “What the hell does it matter what the first bowl of creamy, pudding-like potatoes was deemed? The here and now are all that are pertinent to our lives. We are eating smashed potatoes, while others are eating mashed potatoes!” He pounded the table and I jumped as the silverware clattered dangerously close to its edge. My heart fluttered to even consider that I was the muse of this passion and brilliance.
Lillian took the side of her husband. She countered in a deep, masculine voice, “Ah, but can’t we further understand the difference between smashed potatoes and mashed potatoes if we understand the origins of each? What identity does either have if they have no starting point, no birth?”
“Their identity is defined by what they are at the present. If their beginnings have affected that present state, so be it. Otherwise, whether potatoes were first smashed or mashed is of no significance to what they are right now, in front of us.”
Lillian gasped. “What you are telling me derides evolution; it destroys the past and our roots! How can you say that human growth and change means nothing to a person’s identity? How can you disregard origins and history as worthless?”
I don’t really remember what my father responded.
* * * * *
I look down at my plate, so as to better sync myself with the current reality once more—so as to better realize I've been at the table all along. I pick up my fork to taste the food, hoping that further sensory stimulation will fully return me to the moment. But my fork clatters to the floor. I suddenly realize that I forgot something, something essential to the exposition of chapter nine in my book; the most integral point needed to frame the chapter. “Albeit memory is a paradox, within this strange, transcendent mechanism, we as human beings are left with an important task, a burden. Although we may never be masters of our own memory, we must use our influence on the memory of others to implant only good memories; to delicately nurture the memory of those we meet so that what they cannot control will not run rampant with negativity. We have this eternal responsibility, and our power cannot be abused.”
Is it too late? The galleys are finished; the release date is in two weeks. I can’t add it; they must have begun printing already. But it is quintessential to the reader’s understanding of memory. I can’t believe I’ve forgotten it.
I pick up my fork, and as I’m straightening up, I look to my son for some sort of retribution for my mistake. Maybe it’s not too late? He still looks so detached, his eyes glassed over, directed towards his brow.
He finally removes his grubby fingers from the puree. They are coated in a sickening yellow with flecks of green. He gazes at his hands, clinically squeezing until worm-like strands of starchy paste ooze from between his fingers. He holds them in front of his eyes, and then his dimples appear as he smiles. He’s acting like a fool. “Grahamy-boy, why don't you use that rather lovely silverware that we placed by your side? It may be less efficient, but it is most certainly prettier to look at.” He scowls back at me.
I know it’s too late.

1 comment:

Rachel said...

Why did I spent the last 10 minutes of my life reading a story about college professors debating potato dish nomenclature?

Oh yes. Because it's hilarious.

Congrats on your award!