Artichoke Heart

Fiction
Marie Barry


Photo Credit: umami/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

The phone rang at what should’ve been the crack of dawn, but it wasn’t. The amount of light streaming in through the window in the kitchen clearly suggested close to the afternoon, 11:32 according to the microwave clock.

Brian blinked slowly, cradling his mug of coffee, listening to the insistent blaring of the apartment landline. He knew exactly who was calling, and why. With a sigh, he reached for the receiver right as the voicemail clicked on. “H’lo?”

“Hello, Brian? Hi. This is Karen Wexler from BMCC. We have you on our substitute teacher list for city high schools. We need coverage tonight for one of our high school extension classes. Are you available?”

In the last three years of doing odd jobs around every inch of New York City, including substitute teaching at a variety of schools in which he hoped to never be asked to go to again, Brian had somehow never been approached to sub at a community college. It sounded intriguing, at least, even though he would still be working with high schoolers, and he could use the money towards his next rent payment.

One of these years his gigs with the band would take off and he wouldn’t have to spend hours looking up subway times and thinking of amusing stories to tell kids who always looked so bored, their eyes on cell phones clenched in fists under desks that he could see but chose to ignore. “Yes, I’m free this evening. What’s the assignment?”

“Oh fabulous, we appreciate your availability on such short notice. It’s at our main campus on Chambers Street, from 7:30–9:00. Intro to Cooking 101. We’ll forward you the assignment to the email we have on file. Please try to be there by no later than seven. Security will check you in at the entrance.”

With nothing else to say, Brian exchanged pleasantries with Karen Wexler and hung up. His coffee had grown cold in his hands, but he sipped it anyway; it was gross, which is what he had expected.

Brian’s eyes trailed towards the stove of his very small kitchen. He stared at the burners, blackened by whomever had lived there before him.

In the three years of living in his apartment, Brian had never once turned them on.

 *

The last time Brian had attempted cooking he was eighteen years old, at home, and his adventures in pan-frying a grilled cheese had resulted in his sister having to call the fire department.

She had definitely overreacted. The smoke seeping out the open kitchen windows after they had been told to leave unfortunately backed her up.

His mother had told him he wasn’t allowed to cook again until he took lessons. Brian was both a good son and incredibly lazy, so of course he obliged and stuck to a steady fare of take-out and microwavable meals.

 *

The cooking lab at BMCC was very unassuming. There were several stove tops, a wall of pots and pans and other tools, and a handful of Bunsen Burners, which seemed a bit suspicious, but Brian was none-the-wiser to how normal that was. Poking around the cabinets and refrigerator, Brian wondered how he should be proceeding. It seemed that the one ingredient he needed for the class was eluding him. There were no artichokes in sight.

The lesson plan he had received was about cooking artichoke hearts. Artichokes were a food that Brian had never cooked, never seen anyone cook, and automatically associated bad memories with—his grandmother had forced him to eat them at Christmas dinner every year until she died, choking them down with a lasagna he didn’t particular care for either.

He was beginning to wish he hadn’t answered the phone.

He was also beginning to wonder where he was going to find fifteen artichokes on such short notice.

*

Brian was ten web searches and five phone calls to local bodegas and supermarkets later when the door to the classroom creaked open. A man with a full beard, mustache, and longer hair than most of the girls he had ever considered asking out hustled into the room. He held bulging grocery bags in each hand and was muttering under his breath, the expression on his face suggesting that he seemed to be about as happy to be there as Brian did.

The door slipped closed.

“Who’re you?” the long-haired man asked.

Brian tried to ward off a frown. He wasn’t so sure that this wasn’t one of his students; most of the high schoolers he had taught before were apathetic, but a few had been rude, and it looked like this one was toeing that line spectacularly. “I’m your substitute. You can call me Mr. Sella.”

The man laughed, settling the bags on one of the tables. “I’m not one of your students. I’m Dr. Ziegel’s TA. You can call me Matt.”

Brian blinked. This had suddenly gotten awkward. “No one mentioned there’d be a TA,” he said, his voice very quiet as he wondered vaguely if having a TA in community college was normal or not. He watched as Matt began to unload the grocery bags, artichokes appearing one by one until twenty were piled closely together.

He smirked. “Everyone seems to forget I exist because I don’t have a doctorate yet. Lucky for you I’ll be teaching the cooking tonight. You just need to teach the kids about the artichoke mafia.”

Brian blinked. He really shouldn’t have answered his phone earlier. “The artichoke… what?”

Matt strode over, grabbing Brian’s phone. He typed away for a few seconds and then placed it back down, an article open with a picture of Fiorello La Guardia holding an artichoke prominently displayed. “Get reading. Most of them arrive about ten minutes early.” And with that he returned to his pile of artichokes, beginning to place one at each seat.

*

Brian learned a lot that night. First and foremost, an artichoke was technically a flower, but also a vegetable. He had jokingly posed the question: Does that make all flowers vegetables? to his students and Matt, none of whom had laughed, the latter groaning loudly in the back of the room. Second and just as important, the mafia apparently thought artichoke racketeering was a smart idea. Kidnapping, extortion, and murder were suddenly all being caused by the selling of their artichokes, and they were banned in New York during the mid-1930s. The ban lasted for a week, artichokes growing in popularity once the word was out that the mafia was pedaling them for exorbitant prices.

He had zoned out immediately following Matt’s takeover of the lesson, occasionally watching some of what the TA was up to but mostly just scrolling through his phone. Matt had whipped his hair up into a man-bun because of course he was probably edgy in that way and having loose long hair while cooking was a bad idea, but he moved with an ease amongst the students that Brian would’ve been jealous of if he was actually interested in teaching full time.

Open artichoke heart surgery was being performed by the class when Matt sidled up to him. “You want in on this?” he asked, offering an artichoke to Brian.

Brian glanced down at the plant-vegetable. “Not really. Last time I attempted to cook I almost burned my house down.”

Matt stared at him. “Are you one of those people?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“They really got a substitute for a cooking class who has no interest in cooking?”

“I have enough money to buy pre-made food. I think I’m doing just fine.”

Matt sighed loudly. “I told them I could handle this on my own. No one listens to me. Maybe if I had that fucking PhD.” He dropped the artichoke in front of Brian, heading to check on one of the students, muttering about lack of higher education degrees.

Brian looked down at the artichoke. The green vegetable seemed harmless enough just sitting there, waiting to be dissected, its heart cut out and cooked in a garlic tomato sauce. The latter was currently simmering in a pot, two students overseeing that it wasn’t burning.

He glanced across the room. Matt was busy instructing a student how to hold a knife properly to slice the outer parts of the artichoke off without getting cut or ruining the heart. He watched as Matt demonstrated the motions a few times, going slow enough to be imitated, smiling brightly when the student perfectly copied him.

He had a nice smile when he wasn’t muttering moodily.

Brian jumped up suddenly. That was not a thought he should be having now.

Matt looked up at him. “You good?” he asked, an eyebrow raised.

Brian glanced down. Apparently he had knocked the artichoke onto the floor along with two cookbooks and his cell phone. Fabulous. He scrambled to pick everything up. Glancing up, he could see Matt watching him, an amused smirk on his face.

That look was not doing anything to calm Brian’s sudden nerves. He ran his hand through his dark hair, trying to think how he could play this off.

“You know what, maybe I will attempt to cook this thing,” he announced, waving the artichoke around with flourish. A few of the students glanced his way.

Matt grimaced. “I don’t know if I feel comfortable letting you use one of these knives if you don’t know how to cook.”

Brian rolled his eyes, waving an artichoke-clenched hand dismissively in Matt’s general direction. “I know my way around sharp objects,” he announced, receiving more glances from the students and a wide-eyed stare the TA, “Trust me. I can handle a knife.”

He placed the artichoke down at one of the stations, picking up a knife. “The heart’s at the bottom of this thing, right?” he asked, slicing at the base.

A few red drops fell onto the table. Brian raised an eyebrow. Apparently artichoke hearts had blood in them. That was strange.

The room had grown oddly silent.

“You are one of those people,” Matt muttered, grabbing Brian’s bleeding hand.

*

Several stitches and half a foot of gauze later, Brian’s hand was bound and healing. He thanked the doctor and nurses and hoped the bill wasn’t going to absolutely murder his bank account. Gathering his things, he sheepishly entered the waiting room of the hospital. Matt was sitting in one of the plastic chairs, the hood of his jacket pulled up over his head. He had his phone out and he was thumbing listlessly at the screen.

Brian was standing completely in front of him before Matt even raised his head. “You’ll survive?” he asked, and while his voice was even, Brian noted humor shining in his dark eyes.

“Barely. The only cure is to never sub a cooking class again.”

Matt chuckled, rising out of his seat. “Not to insult you or anything, but I wouldn’t be expecting a phone call from BMCC again anytime soon.”

“I think I’ll be okay with that.”

They rode downstairs in the elevator in silence. Brian kept glancing at Matt out of the corner of his eye. Matt was looking up at the lights in the ceiling, a pleasant expression on his face.

Brian wondered what happened next. The night had certainly been an adventure, and he wasn’t sure if it was one of those nights you just ended with a goodbye and never spoke about again. He could also offer to buy Matt a drink, or invite him back, or something that… didn’t sound quite like he was insinuating a date.

They walked through the sliding doors onto the sidewalk. A brisk wind tousled Brian’s hair and blew Matt’s back over his shoulder. Matt turned to face him, hands shoved deep in his pockets.

“So, Mr. Sella. Where do you live from here?”

“A few subway stops north. I’m in Washington Heights.”

Matt nodded with recognition. “Washington Heights is chill. I’ve been up there with friends a few times.”

“Yeah, it’s a fun area. At least I can afford a place there.”

Matt laughed. “And that’s the dream, isn’t it?”

“It is when you’re paying for it on your own.”

“Oh, no roommate or girlfriend?”

Brian paused, taking a moment to think about the question. Matt was staring at him, looking perfectly innocent. It wasn’t weird to ask if you lived with somebody, but he couldn’t tell if Matt was just asking for the sake of being polite or if he was trying to find something out.

He sorted his words for a moment longer. “No, that’s, uh, not really my thing.” He threw in a smile, hoping it didn’t look awkward even though Brian knew he looked awkward. He finger gunned Matt for the hell of it, because what else did he have to lose that night?

Matt stared at him, with eyebrows raised. “Roommates aren’t your thing, or…?”

“Go with the or.”

“Oh.” Matt nodded, glancing away. “That’s cool. I don’t really do the or much either.”

“Oh.” Brian looked away as well. “That’s fun. Interesting how that works out for both of us.”

“Very interesting.”

“Is it interesting enough that you’d consider letting me get you a drink sometime? Or dinner? I do owe you anyway for taking me to the hospital.”

Brian chanced looking down. Matt was looking at him, his expression guarded, hands still shoved deep in his pockets. His eyes were bright, however, and that seemed to be very promising. “I would consider doing dinner,” he said slowly, his face still very smooth. “But with one condition.”

“What’s that?”

Matt paused, looking at him for a long second. A smile slowly broke over his face. “You don’t do any cooking.”

Brian felt insulted for one brief moment before he smiled back just as bright. “I don’t know if I can agree with that. I was planning on cooking you artichoke hearts in a garlic tomato sauce.”

“You ever touch an artichoke again I’ll slice your hand for you.”

Brian laughed, his insides warm. “All right. I’ll stay away from that. No cutting artichokes for me. Deal?” He reached out his non-injured hand into the space between them.

Matt’s eyes shined as he glanced down. He reached out, and their hands met in the middle. “Deal.”

It was supposed to just have been a handshake.

Brian doesn’t mind when it isn’t.

pencil

Marie Barry was born, lives, and writes in the state of New York. She has been published in Esprit and Down in the Dirt Magazine. When not moonlighting as a writer, she teaches high school. Email: mariebarrywrites[at]gmail.com