Susan Bagel: Asparagus

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Written by: James Woolley and Theo Erickson

This spring at the grocery store, I held a bundle of asparagus in my hands and ran a finger down a sinewy length. I thought perhaps Mr. Bagel would like them parboiled and served with hollandaise sauce.

At home, I put a pot of water on to boil. I prepared my cutting board. I sliced the tender tops. So little of the cladodes could be retained. The tough, fibrous, completely smooth stems were gorgeous, the white kitchen light reflecting off the white bowl in which I laid them. I dared not ruin them with a taste.
A shrill beep sang from the street as a garbage truck began backing up, shaking me from my brief reverie. I realized it must be 5 a.m. already. I needed to carry the tough stems over the threshold. I put a stem on the cutting board and began cutting.

The asparagus stem was hard. It was harder than a rock, or a brick of ice, or the stoneware from the pottery class Mr. Bagel and I took; where the heart-shaped bowl I made exploded in the kiln and destroyed everyone else’s pieces as well. I rolled it back and forth under the blade. It made a crunchy, thready sound, but I could not break through its thick walls. Was my blade not sharp enough? I retrieved my whetstone from the back of my knife drawer. I did not press down hard as I ground, but eventually the burr caught under my fingernail. It was time to alternate sides, flopping the knife back and forth, matching the metronome of the garbage truck beeping outside — beep, shick, beep, shick, beep, shick.

I moved the knife edge against my left thumb tip. The skin split deeply, and blood flowed across the stone. I gasped. Pain, but mostly fear, burst across my vision. I could not see the garden outside the window above the sink. My mind flew to Mr. Bagel, but he was not home — working early, I remembered. I sat down on the floor so I would not faint, and stared at the tile.

The asparagus. The beauty I wanted to use, that I’d wanted to see incarnate in this world as nourishment, to become more than a flash of aesthetic pleasure before becoming yet more garbage. I needed to stand up and keep chopping, to make lunch for my family. I needed the blood to clot, to wash the rest from my hands. I needed to squeeze at the wound, to feel it again.

I put my thumb in my mouth. Sanguine, iron sweetness splashed down my throat. I closed my eyes, suckling at the wound. Is this how my sons felt when I fed them from my body? Is this how Mr. Bagel felt, the first time? I supposed I would never know — that was a very long time ago.

I stood. I stared at the cutting board and the whetstone covered in blood. My body on the cutting board. Myself, splattered on the asparagus. I slid the tips into the now-boiling pot. I saw my vision waver as if it were me in the water, the mercurial surface warping and re-warping the light. A drop of blood fell in and broke apart in the raging boil.

I forced my hand under the faucet and looked at our garden, where the potted rosemary was slowly taking over the basil, which could not stand the cold May temperature. I’d moved it outside too early, but I couldn’t bear to see it trapped indoors, slightly light-deprived, for another month. I wondered if the garbage men had seen me in the kitchen, the dim dawn light disrupted by the light from my window. My silhouette — only ever my silhouette — moving about the house. Where was I? I could not find the floor in front of me. I could not find the me inside of me. The water ran over my thumb. I drained out of myself.

The dawn changed to early morning. For the second time, I remembered the asparagus, which I estimated had been boiling for about 30 minutes. I couldn’t feel my thumb anymore. I turned off the water and to the stove, and experimentally poked a stem with a fork. It was as soft as potatoes.

Anyway, here’s the recipe:

  1. Prepare asparagus tips.
  2. Boil them until they fall apart.
  3. Serve with hollandaise sauce. Attempt to enjoy.

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