NEXT month Kerry Ann is marrying a Canadian. Six weeks ago, she and her best friend, Sheryl, drove up to northern Michigan in the Buick without so much as leaving me or Al a note, voice message, text—nothing—telling us where they was off to. Once they got to the bridge they decided to keep going all the way up to Sault Ste. Marie—a modern-day Thelma and Louise, except Kerry Ann and Sheryl is both too young to have seen the movie and even if they had I doubt they’d appreciate it. When they got up north, they grabbed a cheap motel room and went out looking for trouble—though Kerry Ann claims they was just hungry and happened to end up in the bar across the street, which is where she met the Canadian. Hungry, my ass. Anyway, the Canadian is a musician, plays guitar and sings. Supposedly it was love at first sight. Next month they’re having the wedding and reception in a cabin overlooking Lake Michigan. Kerry Ann thinks I’m going to cater. She better think again.

• • •

Special meal request for Clark Wharton, inmate #79880293:

Cheeseburger, all the fixings (no mustard)

Onion rings

French fries

A liter of Mr. Pibb

A large DQ Snickers Blizzard

Half cherry pie, no whipped cream

• • •

I got my cooking skills from Nana—Nana-Anna I always called her—who came to this country from Alsace-Lorraine. You ask any immigrant who ended up in northern Indiana what part of Europe they’re from and they’ll say Alsace-Lorraine. It’s kind of a running joke around here—like, no way in hell they could all come from the same part of Europe—but that’s what they’ll tell you. My Nana came from Strassburg, now Strasbourg, in eastern France. It’s close to the Black Forest. I happen to know that for a fact because I Googled it. 

Nana-Anna took care of me from the time I was born until the day she died on August 12, 1957. Mama and daddy split up right before I was born, and Nana-Anna, who lived in a little Cape Cod not far from the boarding room where we lived, took care of me so Mama could go to work. Mama would bundle me up, hold my hand, and pull me down the street until we came to Nana-Anna’s house. There she’d be, waiting at the door with her apron on. I’d run into her arms, crusty sleep crud still matting my eyes. Then Mama’d walk to the end of Nana-Anna’s street and catch the bus, which we called the “streetcar” in those days.

In the morning, Nana-Anna and I would read the few children’s books she had on her shelves. They all had broken spines. We must have read Pippy Longstocking a hundred times. It was my favorite, the one I always grabbed first off the shelf. In the afternoon, we’d bake cookies and kuchen, and at 4:30 we’d throw on a pot of bean or stone soup—Nana-Anna always let me scrub the quartz stone and boil it before we dropped it into the pot of vegetables—and by the time Mama came home everything would be ready. All three of us would sit down and eat. Afterwards, Mama and I would walk the five blocks back to our boarding room.

Even though those were hard times, they never seemed hard to me. But what did I know? I was a kid.

• • •

I send Brenda, my assistant, to Kroger to pick up breadcrumbs and a liter of Mr. Pibb, and to DQ for the Blizzard. We’re crafty and creative as that goes—we can concoct anything anyone dreams up in our humble little commissary, no brag, just fact—but those items we just don’t have. Especially Mr. Pibb. Most of the inmates like Pepsi Cola, I don’t know why, and I could make a killing on blind taste-tests if I wanted to. And for ice cream—we’re strictly chocolate and vanilla around here.

Brenda was worried Clark Wharton’s menu might stretch our budget, and it’s true we do have limits, but I told her not to worry, it’s not like we’re in Oklahoma or Florida. Here in Indiana we have no restrictions, only limitations (there’s a difference), and besides, Clark Wharton’s menu is plain American fare and we got that covered like a tight pair of Levi’s on Matthew McConaughey’s fine little ass (me and Brenda love Matthew McConaughey).

“Ain’t you never heard of that guy in Texas?” I say as she’s walking out the door.

“What guy?” She slips an arm into her coat.

“The one who ruined it for all the others.”

She shakes her naturally red curls. “Don’t think so.”

I tell her that he put in his request for his special meal—

Two chicken-fried steaks with gravy and sliced onions

A triple-patty bacon cheeseburger

A cheese omelet with ground beef, tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, and jalapeños

A bowl of friend okra with ketchup

One pound of barbecued meat with half a loaf of white bread

Three fajitas

A meat-lover’s pizza (topped with pepperoni, ham, beef, bacon, and sausage)

One pint of Blue Bell ice cream

A slab of peanut-butter fudge with crushed peanuts

Three root beers

—and when the food arrived the damn fool said he couldn’t eat. Not even one bite! Said he wasn’t hungry. Wasn’t hungry! State of Texas said okie-dokie, all righty then—no more special meals for nobody.

On her way out, Brenda says, “They’s always one who has to go and ruin a good thing.”

• • •

With Brenda gone, my mind starts to wonder, thinking of Kerry Ann. Seems like it was just yesterday I was bringing her home from the hospital, all bundled up in a blue, white and pink throw my best friend Jill had crocheted when she wasn’t taking tickets down at the Emboyd Theatre. Back then there was no such thing as having an ultrasound to determine the sex of the baby, so Jill knitted both colors to even her bets.

While Al said he didn’t care what we had so long as it was healthy and didn’t look like his side of the family, I was curious. A month before Kerry Ann was born, I was up in the bedroom reading an expecting magazine that had a story about using a ring-on-a-string to detect the sex of your unborn child.

I decided to try it.

I yelled at Al, who was downstairs watching Wheel of Fortune, his favorite TV show. Normally you couldn’t drag him away from Wheel, but when I told him there was something I needed help with, he came running up the stairs, into the bedroom. I recognized that puppy-dog expression, knew he’d gotten himself excited for all the wrong damn reasons. I told him I needed his wedding ring, and wouldn’t you know he made a big production of slipping it off, like he was a male stripper.

“Here, give me that,” I said, and tied it to a piece of dental floss, the closest thing I had to string.

I noticed his wedding ring was tarnished and smooth from wear. So was mine. I assumed the oils in our skin must have worn the insides down—either that, or we had way too much acid in our systems. I once read about that in a lady’s magazine, and the advice the article give was to drink lemon juice—lemon juice. Talk about acid. We use lemons in the commissary to clean our chopping boards. Speaking of which, whenever I say or read the word “lemon,” my mouth starts to water. I read about that somewhere, too, the power of suggestion.

I handed Al’s ring back and laid flat on the bed, pulling my maternity top over my big belly.

“What’s this?” he asked with a glint in his eye. He hooked his thumb over his belt-buckle.

“It’ll only take a minute,” I said. “Dangle it over my stomach.”

He hesitated, and unzipped his fly.

“No, you ding-dong. It, the ring, dangle it over my stomach.”

Al looked confused.

“We’re gonna see if the ring can predict our baby. Tell us if it’s a boy or a girl.”

“I thought we already said we wanted a boy.” He held the end of the dental floss like it was a worm. “How long’s this gonna take anyway. I don’t wanna miss the last of Wheel.”

“Just hold it there, like you’re fishing.”

Al was a good fisherman. Caught us a bucket of nice catfish one time down at the Saint Joe River. Now, of course, we wouldn’t eat nothing out of that filthy mud-hole, but back then it was good eating, and free.

We watched and pretty soon the ring began to twitch. Then I looked up at Al’s right hand. It was shaking.

“What’s with your hand?”


“It’s shaking.”

He said he hadn’t had his coffee or cigarettes yet, not even his morning “jolt,” which is what he called a shot of whiskey stirred into black coffee. No wonder the damn ring was bouncing around like a yo-yo.

“Well, try to hold still,” I said. But the ring kept bobbing up and down. According to the article in the magazine, if it swung in a circular motion you was having a girl; side-to-side, a boy. The way ours was jumping around—well, I was damn worried.

• • •

Brenda comes back an hour later, munching on a GooGoo Cluster. I ask to see her receipt. I have to make sure she hasn’t gone and used the taxpayer’s hard-earned dollar to satisfy her sweet tooth.

“’Course I didn’t,” she says, flashing me the ticket. She takes the Blizzard out of the sack and puts it in the big freezer.

It’s not that I’m a hard-ass, I just like to run a tight ship. Took me twenty-three years to advance to Head Institutional Cook/Baker around here and I’ll be damned if I’m gonna let Clark Wharton’s special meal slip me up. Everybody thinks cooking for inmates must be, excuse the pun, a piece of cake, but we’re serious about the work we do. Inmates, they can be a fussy bunch, turn all bratty on you if you don’t dish out a decent meal. I suppose when you’re locked up behind bars about the only thing you got to look forward to is your next meal. Personally, I’m not a sympathizer—you know, one of those women who falls in love with murderers and what-not. What some of them done makes my stomach churn. But I’m a professional, and as such I’ve got to present a product my patrons find acceptable, even if some of ’em are lying, cheating, murdering assholes. Next month I’m going up for my Certified Correctional Foodservice Professional, or CCFP, re-certification, and I sure as hell ain’t gonna let no Clark Wharton go and fuck me over.

We’ve prepared special meals before—although the last one was twelve years ago, when Jimmy “Headman” Hargitty went down. I’m talking the electric chair now, we hadn’t upgraded to injections yet. Jimmy stabbed two men to death and nearly decapitated one of them in the Knights of Columbus Hall over in Glennhaven. His request: Twelve chilidogs and a pint of vanilla ice cream. Hargitty knew him the Bible. He’d read Proverbs 31:6, “Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts,” to Warden Ike and said that oughta be reason enough to grant him a bottle of Jim Beam. But correctional facilities don’t abide by the Good Book. Alcohol and tobacco is strictly prohibited.

• • •

I did not get my SpaghettiOs, I got spaghetti. I want the press to know this.

Those were the last words spoken by Thomas J. Grasso, executed in Oklahoma in 1995 for committing two murders. His special meal included: two dozen steamed mussels, two dozen steamed clams (flavored by a wedge of lemon), a double cheeseburger from Burger King, a half-dozen barbequed spare ribs, two strawberry milkshakes, one-half of a pumpkin pie with whipped cream, diced strawberries, and a 16-ounce can of spaghetti-meatballs, served at room temperature. But what Grasso really wanted was SpaghettiOs, not plain old spaghetti.

See what I mean? Fussiness knows no bounds. Not even for inmates. We don’t serve shit-on-a-shingle, but sometimes you’d never believe it. Last week Brenda and me whipped up fifteen pans of German chocolate cake and don’t you know some idiot come up to Brenda complaining about the “presentation,” said his mama always made German chocolate cake in two layers, not in a sheet pan. Everybody’s a critic.

• • •

In the eighteen years he’s been at the Northern Indiana Correctional Facility, all of them on death row, I saw Clark Wharton only once.

You may find that hard to believe, but I don’t normally get out of the kitchen. I stay behind that heavy-metal swinging door because this is where I need to be, working with Brenda and our three part-time cooks. Inmates, thank goodness, serve each other.

One day at lunch one of the inmates brought in an almost full vat of mashed potatoes, telling one of the cooks his fellow inmates weren’t happy a’tall with the consistency. Too stiff, he said. The cook let me know.

Like I said, too many cooks in the kitchen.

Clark Wharton wasn’t the complaining type, though. He was quiet, I heard. A thin man with long skinny arms and a mass of jet-black hair he tucked behind his big, floppy ears. Some of the inmates supposedly called him Dumbo, but never to his face.

Death row inmates—Clark Wharton was our one and only since Hargitty—eat in isolation, so a guard always delivered Clark’s meals on a tray, but this one morning last year the guard came back with the tray and told me Clark was complaining ’bout his eggs. Seventeen years in the Northern Indiana Correctional Facility and he’d never once sent anything back. I figured the impending deadline, the last stay that almost wasn’t, and the uncertainty of his dwindling days was finally getting to him. I thought his heart was probably wriggling like a fish on a hook, so I scrambled up three more eggs, slipped ’em on the plate and sent ’em off with the guard.

Not even ten minutes later, there come the guard again, holding the dish out like it had salmonella, or mice turds.

“What now?”

“He thinks you’re purposely slippin’ egg shells in his eggs.”

Eggshells is one thing I’m mighty particular about. Nana-Anna taught me to crack an egg with one hand and I’m damn good. And fast. And, I – don’t – let – eggshells – get – in – my – eggs! Period! This time I made the guard stand there and watch me crack and cook the eggs. Then I sent him back with another plate, three new eggs.

A few minutes later, here he comes again.

Same plate of eggs.

What the hell.

“He wants to talk to you,” the guard said. “Says he’s goin’ on a hunger-strike if you don’t come down and talk to him.”

I wiped my hands on my apron.

Brenda stared at me out of the corner of her eye, pretending to be straightening up a set of towels.

“What’s Warden Ike got to say?”

“Said it’s okay. Said you don’t have to, but it’d probably be a whole lot easier just to hear him out.”

So I put three new, uncracked eggs in a clean skillet, grabbed our only hotplate and a fork, and walked down to Clark Wharton’s cell with the guard at my side. But instead of hearing Mr. Wharton out, I plugged the hotplate into an electrical outlet in the hallway where he could watch me through his window, a one-eyeball at a time peeper. I scrambled up the eggs right there and then. I remember his eye was soft and brown, and sort of sad-like, almost sympathetic, like he was sorry I’d had to come down to his private cell, visit Death Row. Like some unknown force of gravity brought me there.

The guard passed the eggs through the food tray door. We waited.

Slowly, Clark Wharton began to eat.

• • •

I don’t know much about the Canadian.

I know he plays guitar.

I know he croons country music up north, which don’t seem right. Ought to be singing Neil Young or Joni Mitchell, not Nashville.

I know he’s living in a Glennhaven motel for the time being—so he says. Says his heart can’t hardly beat on its own when he’s away from Kerry Ann.

I know he’s fifteen years older than my daughter, and he’s got a four-year-old and a ten-year-old who live with him at the motel.

Kerry Ann says it was love at first sight, but c’mon, really? I think the Canadian fell in love with her tight little ass and her snake-handling way with kids. Kerry Ann’s always been a natural with kids. I suppose if Al and me’d had her a baby brother or sister she might have gotten tired of having to share instead of being a lonely-only, so whenever she’s around the little ones it’s almost like she’s finally satisfied, like she’s found her true calling. I told her to go to the community college and get herself an associate’s degree in childhood education before she goes thinking she’s got to have her own kids. I’m betting anything the Canadian took the first look for himself and the second look for his kids, so she’s gonna get her an education the bookless way.

The other night she came home late. Totally missed supper—and I’d gone and fixed a pot roast, her favorite, with mashed potatoes and gravy and lima beans.

As she walked through the kitchen Al says to her, “Hey, Miss Thang. Your mother here prepared a damn good meal, and just where were you?”

She said she’d had to pick up Little Charles, which is the Canadian’s youngest, and Little Charles had wanted to stop at McDonald’s for a Happy Meal.

“And you just gave the kid what he wanted?” said Al.

Kerry Ann was looking at her reflection in the cupboard with its glass, spring-latched doors. She was twirling a lock of streaked hair around her index finger, and me and Al knew what she was thinking—she was thinking about that damn Canadian.

“Earth to Kerry Ann,” I said. I could see that look in her eyes—the look she was giving herself: I’ve changed, I’m a woman, I’m in love, I’m so out of here. I had it once’t myself.

Al lit into her, said, “Listen hear, miss. Long as you live under our roof you’re gonna live by our rules. At least for this last month, when it’s time for supper you better get your sorry ass home on time and partake of your mother’s excellent cooking.” He shot her an evil eye. “Hear me?”

“I hear ya,” she said.

• • •

Once, Nana-Anna and I made fish-eye soup.

Once, spaetzle.

Once, endive salad.

Once, goulash.

Once, we made everything we could think of.

• • •

The thing about special meals? They’re special, but not the way you want them to be. Reminds me of that English homework Kerry Ann brought home four years ago, back when she was a high school freshman, all innocent and naïve.

“Mama,” she’d said, “I have to do this assignment and I don’t know what it means.” She was supposed to come up with four examples of euphemisms.

I didn’t know what they was either. I told her, first you got to know what a euphemism is. We went over to the computer, and I told her to Goggle it and read us the definition:

“A mild or indirect word or expression substituted for one considered to be too harsh or blunt when referring to something unpleasant or embarrassing.”

“Like correctional facility instead of jail,” I offered.

“Or turning tricks for prostitution,” she said.

“I wouldn’t use that one.”

“But it’s right, right?”

I nodded. It was kind of fun using my brain for a change. In the commissary, I mostly just used my hands. And for once I was thinking about something other than food.

“Letting someone go instead of firing someone,” I said.

Kerry Ann wrote that one down.

“How about adult beverage, instead of liquor?”

I looked at her for a minute. “You better not be partying behind my back,” I said.

“Ma! It’s an example. I just thought it up.”

I kicked my gym shoes off, the ones I wear only for work. “Okay, but I better not here that you and Sheryl Dixon are off partying somewhere.”

“Break wind instead of fart,” Kerry Ann said, and cracked up.

It made me laugh, too. She was a good girl then, I saw that looking at her while she sat at the kitchen table, her brown legs folded underneath her, her hair in pigtails, and her nose and cheeks peppered with freckles. My own little Pippy Longstocking.

• • •

Special meal instead of last meal.

Passed away, instead of died.

It’s four-thirty a.m., two hours earlier than I usually get to work. But then this isn’t a usual day. Driving in this morning, I know I had my hands on the wheel, but how I got here is anyone’s guess. The whole time I was thinking about Kerry Ann and her Canadian, and about Clark Wharton, and sometimes I thought about all of them at the same time, sometimes getting ’em mixed up, confusing the Canadian for Clark Wharton, and then imagining Clark Wharton with my Kerry Ann, and that made me so upset I had to turn on that damn NPR, which always makes my skin crawl, but it did help me this once’t to concentrate on the road. Pay attention. I tried telling myself, Be in the moment.

• • •

I know Clark Wharton’s a bad man—high on crack-cocaine, he shot and killed a security guard and a video store clerk at the Silk Fingers adult bookstore—but putting him to death don’t seem quite right either. People make mistakes, I know that sounds simple and stupid, but I think about Kerry Ann, who’s not a bad girl, not a doper and murderer like Clark Wharton for God’s sake, but she’s going off track just the same. She’s going the wrong way, I can see that clear as day, and maybe Clark Wharton was just going the wrong way once, too. I’m not saying he belongs in polite society, he’s scum and he should rot in prison, but I’m not sure he needs to be killed. An ‘eye for an eye’ is an old idea. And this ain’t the Old Testament. It’s Glennhaven, Indiana.

• • •

The Internet, again:

The special meal has its roots in superstition dating back to pre-modern Europe when having a last meal was considered a “highly symbolic social act” so the condemned, in accepting his host’s free food, could make peace with the host. He also agreed to take an “oath of truce” which allowed him to symbolically renounce any vengeance he might hold in his heart for the executioner. Thus, in accepting his last meal the condemned was also supposed to have forgiven the judge and witnesses who nailed him. The meal was also supposed to keep the condemned from returning as a ghost to haunt his killers. The better the food and drink, the less chances—so it goes—the condemned would go back on his “word.”

I think about that last bit as I fire up the oven and pull out the ingredients for Clark Wharton’s last meal, which—thank God—he won’t be sharing later this morning with me or Warden Ike. Clark Wharton doesn’t even want to share his meal with any of the inmates, or have any of it distributed among his fellow prisoners. He plans to eat it all himself—at least that’s what I heard.

I start to slice the onion rings and I’ll be damned if my hand doesn’t shake. I’ll be damned if, later, my eyes don’t start to water.

• • •

I ask Brenda to pour the Mr. Pibb. She gets out one of the regular 12-ounce plastic tumblers we use for everyday serving, but I tell her to go ahead and get out one of the top-shelf 16-ouncers we always keep back for special occasions. She shoves it under the ice-maker and cubes spit and grumble out. Brenda hadn’t yet hired on when Jimmy “Headman” Hargitty went down, and when I look over I notice her hands are shaking as she holds the cup between them.

“You doin’ okay?” I ask.

“I’m fine,” she says, but I can see she ain’t.

Even though it’s early, I’ve never heard the facility this hushed. I get the grease going for fries and rings and I swear I hear the electricity humming through the walls, the gas purring before it rushes to the lighted burners.

• • •

I keep my mind focused on what I have to do, keep my hands busy to idle the devil. I keep thinking something Nana-Anna used to say, Trying to bear lightly what needs must be, I do my job. I do my job. Me and Brenda, we do our jobs without talking. Usually we gab about anything and everything just to pass the time. But this morning we work in silence. I’m thinking about Al, still in bed after having worked the midnight shift. I wonder if Kerry Ann will get up and make him some eggs and bacon when the sun comes up. It’s about all she can throw together, and I pity the Canadian who must think just because her mama cooks for a living the daughter’ll be able to do the same and feed his desire. Well, he can think all he wants.

I wonder why Clark Wharton didn’t request something more special for his last meal. I mean, with less than two hours left on this planet and he wants to eat American fare, pure and simple. I mean, really? Me, I’d probably request a whole lobster with clarified butter for starters, but I guess just some folks is different.

• • •

Brenda straightens up the tray, making sure everything’s nice and neat, while we wait for the cherry pie to cool. It has a couple more minutes, give or take.

Me and Al once took Kerry Ann into Sal’s, a neighborhood restaurant now long gone, and on the chalkboard for the day’s items was listed “cheery pie.” At first, Al didn’t get it; I had to point it out to him. Once he saw the mistake though, he kept teasing little Kerry Ann, saying, “Miss, would you like some cheery pie? Would you like some of our famous cheery pie?” Kerry Ann was too young to even understand, but she thought it was so funny, and kept clapping her tiny fat hands together, laughing and snorting, and at one point she shouted, “Cheery pie! Cheery pie!”

I turn to Brenda and ask her what she’s got going the end of next month. She looks at me like I’m setting her up for something, a joke, maybe, or a story she don’t want to hear just at this moment, like the one about the asshole who ordered all that food and then couldn’t eat even one bite. She shrugs her shoulders, plunges her hands in dishwater. “Nothin’ I know of. Why?” I tell her I’m gonna need some help cooking, tell her I’ll pay her for her time and professional services and even pay for her to have her own motel room. I say it will be sort of a vacation. “Where?” she asks, and I say, “Up North. Michigan.” She brightens. “You mean Kerry Ann’s wedding?” I tell her I’ve got some new recipes I might like to try, nothing fancy, just finger-foods, a cake, some of them pretty thin mints in pastel colors. Her eyes sparkle. I imagine the prospect of making a special meal that really is a special meal probably appeals to her right about now. Despite the occasion, and the Canadian, I almost feel that way, too.

I tell Brenda to go ahead and get the ice cream out of the freezer. Seems a damn shame it’ll get soft and melty before Clark Wharton gets around to eating it—unless, of course, he chooses to eat it first, or even to eat a dab of this, a dab of that—and who could blame him? There’s no protocol for eating your last meal.

Brenda sits the waxed cup on the tray, while I cut the cherry pie in half and slide it onto a standard issue plate.

Cheery-cheery pie.

We ring for the guard.


Debra S. Levy lives in the Midwest, where she writes fiction, essays, and a blog called C-Dog & Company. She has had work published in the Alaska Quarterly Review, Columbia, The Pinch, Glimmer Train, and elsewhere.

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LF #070 © 2014 Debra S. Levy. Published by Little Fiction | Big Truths, October 2014.


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american fare

by debra s. levy