Who Cooks For You,
Who Cooks For Y’all?
We backed out of the driveway slowly, in the old, auburn Ford Taurus station wagon my parents had been driving me to camp in every summer for the last four years. They were bickering over how much gas was in the tank and who had driven it last, when my dad turned over his right shoulder, bringing his hairy arm over the passenger seat, his left hand slowly winding the wheel as he suddenly hit the brakes –
“Shitsticks!” he gasped as my mom white-knuckled the dashboard in front of her and a familiar black Trans Am went speeding down our street.
“Jesus, not again,” said my mom as her breath returned.
“That kid drives like a bat outta hell! I couldn’t even hear his engine with you screaming in my ear about the goddamn gas gauge,” said Dad, still not even out of the driveway.
“I’ll talk to his mom, you know we haven’t been over there since Memorial Day when all those brats on the grill flamed up and nearly singed off your beard,” said Mom, her innate ability to conjure up an embarrassing moment for Dad to suit any situation still intact.
The three-and-a-half-hour drive to Camp Kokomo deep in the wild, southwestern corner of the Smoky Mountains always seemed to take twice as long. I leafed through my new used copy of “Native Plants of the Smoky Mountains” until my stomach turned sour and every slight change in the road made me feel more carsick. I gently cracked the window to let some air through my hair and allowed my eyes to wander through the verdant hills surrounding both sides of the road, as we barreled our way through the outskirts of Knoxville.
“You ok back there, sweetie?” said Mom, who, when I was much younger, used to have to bend her way to the backseat to hand me the extra Big Gulp cup every time I thought I was about to lose my lunch on a long car ride.
“Yeah, I think so,” I said, unsure if I was getting too old to play up a sickness or not.
It’s not like I’d get to miss any school or anything. I was headed to Camp, where if you weren’t feeling well, you either had to stay away from the other kids or stay the night in the medical tent, where the cots seemed to have missing joints, like sleeping on a clothesline.
As I pondered over my parents from the backseat, Dad’s hair in full October, colors changing and blending, slowly falling out with a bright harvest moon bald spot in the middle of his head, thankfully unnoticed by many a camera. My mom’s tan, sandy blond locks, like the beaches of the Gulf after it rains, carefully calibrated by her hair stylist Amanda, who came to the house to play bridge, drink wine spritzers and smoke 100’s on the back deck. I looked at Dad’s leather watch and his hands on the wheel and thought about how I couldn’t wait to start driving. I was quite certain I’d be going 15 over what my dad was doing, who felt the need to opine on every road trip, “If we go any faster, we’re killing our gas mileage.”
I glanced back down at my book at both the picture and the illustration of daucus carota – wild carrot – and felt a twinge of both excitement and dread, as my “season of study” was to focus on the identification of native flora – which I had been fascinated with since the day I kissed Katy, literally the girl next door, in the backyard after sucking on the honeysuckle nectar from the overflowing vines billowing over the fence behind my neighbor’s carport. “The Great Smoky Mountains,” as the book denoted (I always called them ‘the smokies’) had always been an education in terms of wildlife, and I was looking forward to not being on the constant lookout for bears, who had become boring to me at 13 years old. I was entranced not by the sudden force of wild animals who lurked in silences across the great foggy ridges, but by the magic held within the cell walls of the many exotic and unknown plants of these majestic mountains.
I also loved to cook, mostly garlic mac n’ cheese – “have one dish,” Mom always said – and the head councilor had promised me I could assist in the canteen that year, probably my last, as an assistant to the cooks who labored over green beans, squash casserole, lima beans with bacon, and when we were lucky, fried chicken. This meant I needed to cozy up to the one person I was terrified of every summer at camp: Suzy Salinger, or as we called her, Suzy the Slayer. Suzy was the head cook at camp. She had become so tired of kids making fun of her lazy eye over the years, that it was rumored she had poisoned a few children by adding cyanide to their sweet tea. I was never able to confirm this with anyone, though some of the older custodians at camp would just shake their heads and mutter, “Suzy crazy boy, don’t you go messin’ with that woman.”
Suzy had grown up with four brothers in the shadow of Black Mountain in the southwest corner of Kentucky coal mine country, the only daughter to her mom – a descendent of the Cherokee who had been in the area for centuries – and her dad who worked the coal mines and taught her how to play fiddle by a campfire. She had long black hair with a few white streaks, like lightning hung on a dark sky or the bright veins of white running across a skunk’s back. Her tall, slender frame slid across the kitchen without a sound, before traipsing down the mess hall line to see what was getting low, then through the dining area to glare at the campers who either complained about the food or – as they often did but almost never followed through on – quietly threatened a food fight by shooting mischievous glares around the room and faking sudden, ill-conceived throwing motions.
“Are these the beans from last week?” someone would call out anonymously while Suzy’s back was turned. She seemed to have eyes in those white streaks in the back of her hair.
“Last year maybe!” yelled another kid from the next table over.
“Who cooks for you?” she’d whip around and say, like a serpent looking for her prey. “Who cooks for y’all?” she’d say, motioning around the room. That was her trademark, the soliloquy that eventually became her rallying cry. Word was, she used to say it all the time under her breath before she just couldn’t keep it in any longer, and started hissing the words to any camper who dared to criticize her food or complain about the lack of variation in the menu.
Since I was one of the older kids that year, my room was a double, and I shared it with none other than TG, Tommy George Swanson, a troublemaker I’d known since we were 6, who loved to play with fire, could outrun the kids in high school when he shot fireworks at their cars, and almost broke his neck trying to flip off a dirt hill on his bike when we were 10 years old. To say he had a propensity for danger and risk would be putting it mildly.
“Do you realize how many black cat fireworks fit into one of those huge orange pylons behind the dumpster?” he once said to me at the foot of a large elm tree. “It’s basically a small bomb. It’s like baseball game fireworks.”
TG got the bright idea one night, after everyone else had gone to bed and the only sound coming through the screen in our window was a coyote about a mile away near Blackstone Lake, that we needed to sneak into the cafeteria kitchen and steal some ice cream. To escape possible detection, we followed a group of shadows from our bunkhouse to the mess hall, avoiding the slanted pockets of light that angled across the camp courtyard like a picture frame hanging askew. I used my key to get us through the side entrance, up the ramp and down the hallway to the cafeteria. Out the wide but rectangularly narrow windows by the exit doors I saw a flash of light, then seconds later, I heard the first metallic drops of rain begin to fall on a tin roof across the courtyard. Then I felt a sudden rush of cold run from the tips of the hair on my arm shooting straight through to my bones. It reminded me of the time I died in a dream. Then I felt the touch of long, slender fingers with sharp nails grasping my neck – not choking, more handling it like a Styrofoam cup of coffee – and I immediately froze and slowly turned my head. TG was walking ahead of me softly and didn’t hear a thing, so he kept on.
“Wha the?” I murmured, surprised to have a breath. The hand around my neck fell and grazed my shoulder.
“Give me that key you little mouse!” said Suzy, towering over me, her black hair shading her face. “Scurrying around in here in the dark, looking for… What are y’all lookin for anyway?”
TG froze like a turkey in the rain. “Iiiii… ice cream,” he blurted out with a quiver in his voice.
“Ice cream, huh? You don’t sneak into my kitchen late at night… or ever come to think of it.” She walked slowly over to TG and extended her index finger. Her nails were freshly painted black, shining like the hood of a hearse that had just been washed. She pointed at him for what seemed like days, as time hung on the wall and TG’s eyes widened. Then she put her finger under his chin and tilted his head up to look her square in the eyes.
“I’m sorry Suzy, we’ll go ahead and get outta yer hair,” was the only thing TG could think to say. He jerked his neck a little as if to move.
“Youuuuu! Don’t move,” she called out in the empty cafeteria. “You’re going to help me cook tonight. I’m starting a stew and it needs to cook for 14 hours. It’ll be ready by lunch tomorrow if we get to it, now come on.”
She looked at me with mild disgust and motioned for us to follow her into the kitchen. Her movements immediately became quick and decisive, as she flipped on the lights and tossed an apron over her neck, tying it as she glanced around the room. I knew to immediately fetch the big stock pot sitting upside down on the shelf next to the dishwasher.
“You get the carrots washed and peeled,” she said to me. “Tommy, put some latex gloves on, you’re going to help me chop the meat.” Tommy barely knew how to make a sandwich, but he loved knives, and I thought about how we hadn’t used the first aid kit yet this year. Suzy walked over to the radio resting on the windowsill and switched it on, soft and low. Her long black fingernail scraped the radio slightly as she dialed in a country station playing Hank Williams. Rain continued to fall outside the window, and I thought about my dad as I turned the cold steel knob on the sink.
It was the kind of mindless work that in turn allowed one’s mind to wander. If it had been any other night, we’d be eating ice cream right now. As Suzy plopped a cutting board down and began peeling onions, TG, as instructed, filled up a pitcher with Coca Cola from a few 2-liter bottles. Suzy sliced through the onions like a samurai, moving on to the celery as she drilled TG around the room to do only the simplest tasks.
“Go turn that middle knob on the stove on and ignite the gas with the lighter in your side pocket,” Suzy said. How she knew he had a lighter remains a mystery to me. TG cranked the knob to let out the gas and reached for his lighter. As he drew it from the cargo pocket on his right leg, he fumbled, and the lighter tumbled to the clean, hard linoleum floor with a plastic clattering. He dropped to the floor quickly and retrieved it from just under the stove and popped back up to light the burner. There must have been firework residue on his right arm from the black cats we shot off a few hours earlier, as a huge burst of flame roared out from the stovetop and set most of Tommy’s arm on fire. It brought upon the sterile, fluorescent lighting of the room a bold burst of color and I admit to being transfixed by the sight for a second before the shriek of his screams sent me into action.
“Shit! Grab the baking soda and throw some on his arm,” said Suzy as she darted over to Tommy.
We had a few clear, plastic containers – the tall thin ones that strange people keep their cereal in – that were labeled BAKING SODA, FLOUR, SUGAR and so on. Now, I knew the baking soda container was the small one with the tight-fitting lid, but in my panic I somehow managed to grab the container of flour and popped the top as I ran over to Tommy. I threw a handful of flour towards his blazing arm, fearing I had made a mistake as the white dust flew through the air, while I noticed Suzy’s eyes bulge and her nostrils flare in terror. With the fire-igniting dusting of flour, the flames on Tommy’s arm suddenly became a fireball that reached to the ceiling, as Suzy flung off her apron and quickly outstretched it as if hanging a sheet on a clothesline. She dove towards Tommy and wrapped the apron around his right side, tackling him to the floor. She began tamping out the fire while I removed my flannel shirt and attempted to do the same. Tommy, in shock though I imagined deep down he was impressed by the pyrotechnics of the event, moaned a terrifyingly raspy drone that oscillated as he rocked sideways on the floor. The fire was out, and what struck me was the fact that the room smelled very similar to the last time Suzy had made beef stew. I looked at her with eyes that said ‘I’m sorry,’ as my cheek began to twitch.
“Tommy, you ok, man?”
Suzy peeled away the apron and coat to reveal Tommy’s charred, discolored right arm. It looked like the painting of an insane person, yellow and black spots with blue and red blotches. Smoke lifted like fog coming off a lake in the early morning.
“Burning flesh really smells like beef fat,” she said, shooting me a look of exasperation and, for the first time in the three years I’d known her, uncertainty. “Go get the ice cream.” She motioned me away. Lights began to flicker on in the courtyard as Camp Kokomo stirred in the night.
* * * * * * * * *
Weeks later as I walked with Suzy through the tangled woods beyond camp searching for mushrooms to be used in a soup, I thought of Tommy and wondered if his arm was healing back home. He had been sent home the day after cooking his arm in the kitchen, diagnosed with second-degree burns, while Suzy took most of the heat for having a thirteen-year-old with a pyro problem light a gas stove at what was supposed to be lights out time. The kids at camp had built the story up and bent the facts to fit their imaginations, speculating that Suzy had orchestrated the whole thing on purpose. Instead of my own ineptitude being the reason for escalating the fire, many suspicions that Suzy was in fact a witch with magical powers began to infiltrate the nighttime stories and flashlight follies around the campfires and bed bunks. As I watched her gracefully swoop down to snip mushrooms from their earthbound cots, her hair swaying back and forth like the lazy branches of a weeping willow, I began to see her as a kind of fairy in the forest. She had a graceful way of doing things and made any mundane activity seem more interesting.
Back at camp that night, the cafeteria was typically chaotic before dinner, with spitballs flying and inexplicable screams of laughter. I began passing out baskets of bread as Suzy put the final touches on the cream of mushroom soup in the kitchen. As she emerged from the kitchen, an unwise camper sent a spitball straight at Suzy’s eye with such force that it ricocheted off her eyeball and into one of the bowls of soup on her tray. Suzy froze as her dark, tanned complexion turned blood red. She glanced down at the soup bowl with the spitball in it and watched as the wet ball of paper descended into the soup. She flung around without spilling a drop and turned back into the kitchen, as I searched the room for the culprit. The cafeteria began to fall silent as Melissa, a counselor in her first year at camp, walked around the tables with her arms folded and eyes piercing. Suzy emerged from the kitchen and began dispersing the soup as though nothing had happened, while I sulked back to the kitchen to heat up more bread. When I peeked out into the cafeteria from the circular glass window on the swinging kitchen door, I saw an otherworldly sight: Suzy’s long wooden spoon had caught fire, and she was wielding it like a weapon as she leapt onto one of the tables and motioned around the room like a conductor at the symphony.
“Who cooks for you!” she screamed at one table. “Who cooks for y’all!”
All the kids began to double over in pain and fall to the floor, shrinking in size before my very eyes and turning into mice! Other counselors began to pass out from the shock as Suzy jumped down from the table and stormed toward Melissa, who sat in a chair shaking, her red, curly hair turning white and gray as she morphed into a cat and immediately ran off. Terrified, I ran across to the other door and attempted an escape out the back. I heard an ungodly shriek, and as I turned back I noticed a plume of smoke lifting towards the high ceiling of the cafeteria. An owl emerged from the smoke with a white streak down its side, as I turned to run out the back door. Mice began to scurry everywhere, following me out the back. I heard a window break with a thundering shatter, as a stockpot clanged on the ground and the owl came flying out the window with great force, resting on one of the power lines adjacent to the courtyard. As I hid behind a sturdy, bearproof trash can, I glanced around its corner and saw the owl descending down into the courtyard plucking the mice off the ground with its large talons and flinging them across the yard. A voice back in the cafeteria let out a terrifying scream. I slowly backed away, being careful not to fall, keeping a close eye on the owl who let out its call…
“Who cooks for you, who cooks for y’all!”