Copyright Lee Ann Mortensen 1998




Garlic, baked and flowering, the only thing she eats any more, gets cooked long and slow in the Salt Lake desert. Buttery and thick, Lou cooks it in her green oven and looks at the sage in her back yard. Her tongue is thick with the taste of her cooking. The smell of it becomes sandy when the lake winds blow every afternoon, moving dust into the corners of Lou's floors. This melting summer sand clings to the lines in her skin. Her buttery, green odors cling to the sand.

She has lived alone for many years, memories becoming clear then rippled and out of focus. Today she remembers the recipe for potato pancakes and cream cheese sweet bread. She remembers when her garage roof fell in, five years ago, a Tuesday afternoon. She remembers the Italian cooking contest she won when she was twelve. She even remembers when the left side of her mouth began to droop and her words began to slur, but no one calls her anymore so it’s not such a problem. She can’t remember when she started smoking or how the cigarette she holds now got there between her fingers.

Those who know about Lou’s smoking and cooking drive by and see her sage, watch the sand beat at her wilting flowers and foot high weeds. There are yellow spots on her lawn, and the collapsed garage roof, but this is not what they think about. They imagine the high smell of garlic, see it pushing in through the tops of their cracked car windows as they speed past telling their children to hold their noses. The children laugh, they like to pass by the garlic lady’s house. Some of Lou=s neighbors know she sits in her front room every day to stare out at the desert refineries in the neighboring field, the refineries that surround their own houses with a heavy oiliness. They drive by and imagine her spitting chew onto her walls, leaving rusty streaks. Some think her house is beginning to bulge, looking almost vegetable.

This is what happens when you stop believing in God, her neighbors tell their children.

Sometimes Lou sits on her porch and watches the exploding fuel jets coming out of each oily refinery pipe. As people drive by, she waves at them. She chews the melting bulbs on her plate and likes how the burn of them makes her feel just a bit sinful. A God-fearing woman would faint to taste such a thing. She imagines a lighted match right now would make her breath explode. She would like to see that, an explosion, a burst of smoke, a boom, and then the shattering of her windows, all from the power of garlic.

At night she still sleeps on the right side of her bed, feeling oily. Her husband, who once slept on the left side and kept Lou sane, went to visit China in the seventies. She remembers the day he left, sunny with a yard full of thin snow. She remembers him pulling out of the driveway in his green car and not waving. Lou looks up at his photo pinned above the bed, a black and white of him and a Chinese woman, perhaps a new wife. He was kind enough to write the date on the back of the photo. June 17, 1979. He sent the picture with no note of explanation, no reasons, no logic for his permanent departure. She thinks maybe his letter got lost, or tossed out by the woman. Lou closes her eyes, and with the bed lamp still on, falls asleep dreaming of hot jets and fuel and greasy fires. In her dreams, everyone speaks Mandarin, and she speaks back to them.

Lou had once laughed at her husband's jokes about polygamy. She thought she would be dead before those kinds of marriages came back into vogue. A model of charity and piety, she had always baked cakes and muffins for all her neighbors, and for her church. She had always smiled at her husband, baked him his favorite food, adding extra garlic because he was so fond of it. She even made love whenever he wanted to. She has never seen divorce papers and imagines she is still married. It all makes her smoke on her porch and say "shit" when she burns herself on the stove.

She knows she is a fallen woman.

Sometimes when she sits in her living room, Lou pinches a piece of her baking, and its softness squeezes between her fingers. Then she'll rub the soft garlic on her lips and cheeks until her eyes burn, and for a moment, if she thinks hard about things, she can cry.

Not much later Lou wakes up and nothing looks familiar, not the photo above her head, or the man and woman there, not even the yellow night gown she is wearing. She picks up the plastic hair brush on the dresser but it makes no sense. Her mouth is still on fire from last night’s garlic as she falls onto her dusty floor and begins to die.

Weeks later her neighborhood is thick with deadly, rich odors. Dogs and snakes know to stay away.




Copyright Lee Ann Mortensen 1998