Posted on: June 28, 2016
CeCe’s nude heels clacked against the concrete sidewalk as she tugged on her black silk dress. It was the only funeral attire she owned, and it was too unforgiving for late June’s inescapable humidity. CeCe had gained ten pounds since the last time she had worn it, which meant it required constant readjustment. She had pulled her blonde hair into a ponytail, but tendrils still curled and stuck in the sweat against her neck. She reached out to pull the ponytail over her shoulder, exposing the tattoo of a chef’s knife on her wrist to her mother Bitsy’s glaring eyes.
The porch on the double shotgun house looked exactly as CeCe remembered -- bright and old and mismatched, just like the left side’s former inhabitant. Lester LeBones, the voodoo skeleton that Lorraine claimed brought the New Orleans Saints good luck, still held his place of honor right in the center of the porch’s sag. Having never made his postseason retreat to the attic, Lester sported a few strands of what had once been purple and green Mardi Gras beads, worn silvery by sun and rain alike.
The front door to the house was slightly ajar, and stanzas of gospel and the smell of boiling crawfish crept out from the living room into the street. CeCe and her parents paused at the front door.
“Remember about the knife and the books,” her father Louis said to her, loosening his tie and rolling up his sleeves. He was all business, but the droop at the corners of his mouth gave away his sadness.
One of Lorraine’s cousins had found a handwritten will dated five years back stuffed in a shoebox full of cash. She had bequeathed her chef’s knife and cookbooks to CeCe. CeCe had spent her formative years poring over those books, devouring the recipes as if they were sustenance. She knew she would take those, but taking Lorraine’s knife seemed too personal, like taking somebody’s arm.
CeCe stepped tentatively over the threshold, followed by her mother and father, and had barely rebalanced on her heels before a giant tree of a man hugged her so fiercely he almost knocked the breath out of her.
“CeCe! It has been a minute!” The boom of the voice coming from the chest it belonged to made CeCe’s ears ring.
She unearthed herself and pulled back to find a pair of green eyes set in ebony skin crinkled back at her.
“Kenneth!” she shrieked, and nestled back into his rib cage for another squeeze. He was Lorraine’s nephew, who had run off to Nashville with his brass band years ago. The last time CeCe had seen him was when she was fifteen and they were drinking illicit beers on the very front porch ten feet behind them.
“Bay...bee...GURL!” he cried, giving her a squeeze with each punctuated syllable. “You a Yankee now? Working at a big old restaurant in New York? Rooting for them Jets?”
“Screw the Jets.”
Kenneth gave Bitsy a gentle kiss on the cheek and Louis a formal handshake. He put his arm around CeCe’s neck and paraded the three of them through the house. Some of the people had frequented Lorraine’s kitchen table over the years and fussed over CeCe like their own long lost daughter. Other folks CeCe knew only from Lorraine’s stories. “Pleasure to meet you in the flesh,” she’d say, and they’d hug like they’d been acquainted for years.
CeCe made her way to the kitchen. She half expected to find it shrouded in black gauze. Instead, she found its formica table and chipped green tiled countertops overloaded with food, enough to nourish the mourners through their grief.
At the sink stood Lorraine’s best friend Doreen. “She loved you as if you were her own child, dear,” the normally gregarious woman said gently, patting CeCe’s cheek. CeCe nodded, tears finding their way to the corners of her eyes. CeCe wasn’t sure why people always assumed she needed mothering, but in this instance, she was happy to accept.
The evening was a funeral, a party, a family reunion, and a group therapy session. It was a blur of faces and names and stories about Lorraine walking through waist-high floodwaters to rescue her Mardi Gras costume box from her momma’s house and what everyone’s favorite meal of Lorraine’s was and how Lorraine had mended shattered hearts one by one, plate by plate. The summer air rolled into the room, coaxing sweat beads from eyebrows and sticking thighs to chairs and keeping stories lingering in the room, in hopes of drawing a complete picture of their subject. Louis laughed and clapped the backs of the storytellers. His sister-in-law had always brought out his most jovial side. Bitsy did what all Southern women do in foreign kitchens and pitched in with dishwashing duties.
Eventually, CeCe snuck away from the kitchen into the dining room, which was festooned with Zulu coconuts and Lorraine’s gaudy souvenir spoon collection. The dining room also held Lorraine’s cookbooks, nearly fifty of them slung and stuffed haphazardly onto an insufficient bookshelf. CeCe pulled one off without looking, and out of habit the book fell open to recipe for shrimp stuffed mirlitons. She and Lorraine had made this recipe together once, a test run before a Thanksgiving feast. They had stuffed themselves with the results while talking about CeCe’s high school boyfriend. She had trusted her aunt with every little detail of her life, from who she kissed to what her dreams were. She ran her fingers over the mirliton recipe, turned the corner of the page down, and hugged the book close to her heart.
Back in New York City, not a day passed where CeCe didn’t wish she could call up Lorraine -- to make her laugh, to ask her what would go best with the beautiful carrots she found at the farmer’s market. But when the head chef asked her to help conceive a new dish at the restaurant that fall, she had an answer.
“Shrimp stuffed mirlitons.”
Chef looked at CeCe for a minute. He cocked his head to one side and cracked his meaty, tattooed knuckles.
“Alright, Landry. I’m listening.”
Written by: Clancy Fink
Photograph by: Sophie Stuart
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
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