By Dave Gregory
My wife bought the radicchio.
“It’ll add color and texture to the salad,” she said. “And spicy bitterness.”
We’d never eaten salad with radicchio but this meal was important. She’d bought expensive steaks because her ex-boyfriend, Roberto, was coming over. A dozen years back, before she and I met, she’d been office manager at his consulting firm, and had been great at it, but she left abruptly, when Roberto found a new girlfriend.
He’d been through many new lovers since then.
Anyway, his relationship status was irrelevant, my wife assured me.
She was desperate. We both were. The radio station, where she’d been payroll manager for the past decade, went off the air six months earlier. I’d been on disability twice that long, battling chronic pain – on less than half my regular salary. Our savings had evaporated. We’d sold our television, her album collection, and my grandmother’s jewelry.
Apparently, her former boss no longer dated staff and my wife wanted her old job back. It paid well. At least Roberto had always been professional and respectful. Except for the cheating part. And the power imbalance.
“What do I do with radicchio?” I asked, holding this white-veined, mulberry wine-shaded thing. It made me nervous. It elevated the dull ache in my lower back to a grinding pulse.
“Peel it apart and wash the leaves in the sink, just like you would with lettuce.”
The cabbage-like shape reminded me of a doll’s head, a tiny skull: rounded at the back, flatter on top, and a curved expanse where eyes belonged.
As a young boy, I developed a notion that dolls were sinister. My mom kept four one-third-sized, creepy mannequins above the living room couch, on a shelving unit built into the wall. It was completely impractical – with the sofa in the way, everything on those long, white-painted boards was out of reach. Heavy books cluttered two lower shelves: Proust, Baudelaire, Byron, Dostoyevsky – books we never read, books my father inherited before dying of a heart attack when I was seven. The dolls had moveable limbs and could stand on their own. They wore frilly dresses, had wavy brown ringlets, and eyelids that opened and closed.
They just sat there, looking down. Scrutinizing. Planning. Waiting.
Only once did I ever play with dolls. Not my mom’s, but smaller, less-threatening ones. I was eight or nine. Twin girls, my age, lived across the hall and we were together all the time – playing hide and seek, Monopoly, or horsing around in the park. The girls had their Barbies out one day, so I joined in. They owned a Ken doll. I moved its limbs, spoke for it, and made it interact with their girl dolls.
My brother came and called me for dinner. He was two years older and believed he had to fill the “dad shoes” in our family. He saw me holding blue-scarfed Ken, burst into laughter, and called me a faggot.
From then on, at least once a week, he’d get up early, climb onto the couch, and retrieve one of Mom’s dolls. He’d stand it next to my bed. I’d awake to that invasive face and jolt in terror. Or he’d scratch the bathroom door while I was busy inside. I’d swing it open to find a thigh-high figure, arms raised, eyes piercing, her expression menacingly neutral.
But that was decades ago and this was just a radicchio, a bitter chicory for the salad we’d serve my wife’s ex-lover.
My brother and I gave away the dolls and books when we emptied the apartment following Mom’s rapid and agonizing death from colorectal cancer. I was twenty-one then. My brother was only three years away from the highway accident that would claim him one icy night.
The head felt alive. Soft as flesh, fibrous, organic, fragile enough to squeeze and burst. I pictured a tiny radicchio brain beneath that blushing purple skin. Amygdala electrified by fury.
I filled the sink and held the produce underwater until I was sure nothing could hold its breath that long. The distraction helped me forget my radiating back pain.
I lifted the vegetal skull, searched for a crinkly edge, and peeled a single layer. Two tiny slits appeared below the forehead.
They opened. Bright white scleras, and irises dark as plum, projected anger and hostility. It knew I’d attempted murder.
My knees weakened. Joints flared.
The radicchio’s eyes watered. Rancor changed to fear and vulnerability.
I didn’t notice the mouth until its lips parted. The blood-colored orifice gaped wider. Teeth bared, tongue flapping, breath and vibration crescendoed into a steady scream. I joined in. Our wail grew louder than the grinding gears of a rusty engine, running on life’s bitter rage.
* * *
Dave Gregory is a Canadian writer, a retired sailor, and editor-in-chief of the Los Angeles-based literary journal Five South. His work has most recently appeared in Orange Blossom Review, Welter & The Summerset Review. Please follow him on Twitter @CourtlandAvenue.