Excerpted from a short story published in The Aleph Review, Vol. 5 (2021). Click here to get a copy.
Two or three times a week, for the last six weeks, Jim had come home from his job at the bank with a different food product, which he dropped on the counter and challenged Elsie to identify.
“See the world through your taste buds,” he said.
Elsie would rather have seen the world from an airplane. She’d urged Jim several times to take a few weeks off from the bank. Their children had grown up, moved away and seldom called. They had no pets. They were still healthy.
“Let’s go somewhere,” she said. “Anywhere. Not just for a few days. You can’t get to know a place unless you stay there for—I don’t know. Three weeks?”
Jim said his boss wouldn’t allow him more than a week off at a time. He promised someday to take Elsie on a trip. In the meantime, “we’ll bring the world to our kitchen table,” he said, plopping down a soggy box of pho or a container of arroz com pequi.
Jim thought his ideas were brilliant, and Elsie didn’t want to hurt his feelings by contradicting him. She went along with just about everything that Jim did, including the nicknames that he called her. She could put up with a little discomfort or irritation if it ensured the long-term stability of their relationship. But even if their plane had crash landed in the middle of the Peruvian jungle, she wouldn’t have eaten some of the stuff that Jim brought home.
Bok choy, Swiss chard, collard greens and kale were all right. She hadn’t been so sure about the durian, although it hadn’t tasted so bad once she got used to the smell.
She’d had more trouble with the live squid. At first, she thought Jim was playing a joke on her. It looked as if he’d carried home a jumbo-sized condom. She watched him prepare it with breadcrumbs then stir fry it in garlic and tomato sauce.
“Christ, Elsie,” he said. “It’s calamari.”
Now he’d come home with something that looked like a sack full of brains.
“You expect me to eat that?” Elsie said.
She’d heard of people who ate brains. She wasn’t one of them, though, and she didn’t intend to become one tonight.
“No way,” she said, shaking her head. “I’m not putting that in my mouth.”
“Just go along with me this once, Wrinkles,” Jim said. “See if you can guess what it is.”
“Where did you get it?” she said.
“If I tell you, you’ll know right away what it is.”
Elsie wished that Jim would confine his shopping to the supermarket. At least then she’d feel fairly confident that the mystery food had passed a health inspection. But Jim preferred to shop closer to home, in Chinatown. Elsie blamed herself for this. After the kids grew up, she told Jim that she wanted to move downtown.
“I’m tired of getting in the car every time we need a loaf of bread,” she said.
About a year ago, Jim had given her what she wanted: they’d sold their house in the suburbs and moved into the city. Now they lived about a block from some of the strangest shops she’d ever seen.
The shops in Chinatown sold foods that no one in his right mind would ever serve at dinner. Bugs, rodents, teeth, duck embryos, which Jim called balut. Vegetables shaped like penises. Seafood that resembled a vagina. A couple of weeks ago he’d served a bowl of slop that looked like maggots. You zha qu, he called it. Elsie had never dreamed that food could come in so many varieties or look so disgusting. Jim said she’d get more nourishment out of this food than she would from a hamburger, a Twinkie or a bag of chips, foods that Elsie would have chosen if she’d had her druthers.
“It’s good for you,” he said.
“So’s an enema,” said Elsie.
Bruce McDougall lives in Toronto and has written for Maclean’s, Report on Business Magazine, Canadian Business, Financial Post and other major Canadian publications. He has written or co-written sixteen non-fiction books, published essays in The Antigonish Review and Easy Street, and short stories in Geist, subTerrain, The Amsterdam Review and Rumble Fish Quarterly. A collection of his short stories called Every Minute is a Suicide was published in 2014 by The Porcupine’s Quill. His non-fiction novel, The Last Hockey Game, about the culture of professional hockey, was a finalist for the 2015 Toronto Book Award. Bruce is a graduate of Harvard College, where he was an editor of The Harvard Lampoon, and he attended the University of Toronto Law School before becoming a full-time writer. He can be found at brucermedia.com.
About the featured artist: Based in Lahore and Amsterdam, Basir Mahmood ponders on embedded social and historical terrains of the ordinary as well as his personal milieu in order to engage with situations around him. Using video, film or photograph, he weaves various threads of thoughts, findings and insights into poetic sequences that coalesce into ever reinstituting forms of narratives. His career began with a fellowship at the Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart, Germany, in 2011. Thereafter, he went on to participate in residencies in five different countries. His works has been widely shown internationally—in Berlin, Brisbane, Dubai, Paris, Michigan, Moscow, Sharjah and Yinchaun (China). He has received accolades from around the world for his work, having received at least eight grants and awards, including the Abraaj Group Art Prize, the Mondriaan Fund, Sharjah Art Foundation, Videobrasil and SAI Harvard University. Most recently, he was listed as a winner of Portugal’s prestigious and highly competitive Paulo Cunha e Silva Art Prize 2020. Mahmood remains an academic who teaches and delivers talks at notable art institutions around the globe, including curating the Video Club programme at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.