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FORAGERS by Jaime Fountaine

My mom brought this new guy, Jeff, home, and they want to have dinner together at the table, like I’ve met him before. He’s cooking, which I think is supposed to impress her. She never cooks, so joke’s on him I guess.

Right now the joke is on me, because my mom is doing the thing she always does when she meets a guy where she pretends to be a totally different person, and expects me to do the same.

She says men don’t want you to like them too much right away. They want to work for it. She never says what it is. I know it isn’t sex. She doesn’t make anyone work for that.

Jeff came over with a bunch of grocery bags and made himself comfortable. Too comfortable, really. He took his shoes off without asking and dumped his pockets out by the door, just making himself at home like this isn’t the first time he’s ever gotten here when it’s still light out.

It’s not new. My mom says she loves a man who takes charge, but what she means is that she loves a man who thinks he owns everything in front of him, like he’s the fucking Lion King.

When I was younger, she’d drill me on politeness. All these rules that don’t even apply to me, like how long you have to write thank you notes for wedding gifts. She said that people only think you’re trash if you act like it.

I’m pretty sure that Jeff’s never sent a thank you note in his life.

My mom had perched herself on the counter to watch, ashing her cigarette in the sink while Jeff shuffled and chopped. She always tries to make herself smaller with a man around, as if folding her body in on itself is a disguise. She’s like an actress, playing the woman she wants men to think she is, instead of the one she feels like. It never works for long.

My mother’s no good at containing her feelings. She tells me I’m going to get cancer from bottling mine up, but I don’t see the point in putting everything out there for people to see if there’s nothing they can do about it. She doesn’t see it that way. She wants people to know that she’s hurting, and that she thinks it’s their fault.

Jeff brought those egg noodles that old people get, the ones that come in bags and taste either uncooked or wet, depending on who makes them. I watched them fall out of the dirty plastic grocery bag and shatter on the floor. It didn’t faze my mother, who smiled as she picked them up and put them back, alongside a pile of loose, dirty mushrooms.

“Why did you take those out of the package?” I asked. My mom glared at me. She hates the way I talk to her boyfriends. It ruins the illusion.

“Oh, they weren’t in one. I found a big patch of them on a job today, so I helped myself.”

It’s not like I don’t know where vegetables come from. But if the only thing I know about a guy is that my mom likes him, I don’t trust him not to poison me.

“How do you know if they’re the edible kind of mushrooms and not the poison ones?” My mother’s voice was sweet when she asked, as if she was impressed, although I could tell from her eyes that she didn’t trust him either.

“I read a book about it once.”

Jeff doesn’t look like a guy who reads. Jeff doesn’t even look like a guy who thinks. It’s enough for my mother, though, that she smiled and let it go immediately. She never eats much with a new man around, anyway. She could shrug this off no problem.

I don’t really eat breakfast. My mom just drinks diet coke all day until dinner, so there isn’t much around. I’ll get lunch at school and make due with what we have afterward. It’s not usually a big deal. In the summer, half the time, I just camp out in front of the window unit with a sleeve of saltines.

“I know you eat like a bird, but you’re going to love this.” Every guy my mom brings around tries to act like they didn’t just meet at the bar, like they’ve known each other forever. She just swallows it up.

“She looks like she can eat. Hopefully I’m making enough.” They laughed like I wasn’t in the room. It’d serve both of them right if the mushrooms were poison.

I tried to remember what we had in the cabinets, if there was anything I could sneak later. I was hungry, but I didn’t want to give anyone the satisfaction of seeing me eat.

Jeff was narrating the whole thing like he was on a cooking show. I’ve seen cooking shows. There is a calmness to them, watching an old lady or some French guy casually building order out of food and knives and pans. Recipes take shape, things are created. It wasn’t like that.

“You know, people tell you to wash mushrooms with water, but that just makes ‘em soggy. What you got to do is take a paper towel and — shit, Kerri, this knife is terrible. I almost cut my fucking finger off.”

“Oh, honey, are you okay?” My mom slid off the counter to his side, murmuring an apology, like it was her fault he wasn’t paying attention.

“What we’re going to do is get you a better knife. Protect those hands of yours.” He wrapped himself around her like he was comforting a child.

I’ve spent my whole life so far waiting for the day when I stop getting treated like a kid. I don’t understand why she always defaults to helplessness. It’s not like any of these assholes are supporting us. She’s always the one paying.

I wanted to leave the kitchen, but it was clear that the performance was supposed to be for my benefit. My mom always wanted me to see how each man was different than the last one. “He’s not like Daniel was,” she’ whispered, when he turned his back to us. “Jeff cooks.”

I can’t remember if Daniel was the one who broke a plate when he was mad about something or if he’s the one whose wife answered the phone when I called looking for my mom. They all seem the same to me. They’re all bigger than her, a little red in the face from drinking or working outside or both, arrogant for no apparent reason.

They all look at me like I’m a disappointment. I don’t know what she’s telling them.

I started picking at the frayed edge of my shorts, so I didn’t have to look up and see the face I knew my mother was making. I think someone must have told her it was cute once, but it isn’t. The way she opens her eyes as wide as possible and tilts her head to one side reminds me of a big dumb animal, like a cow or something. It’s her pleading face, and she makes it every time, as if I have control over any of this. You can’t make somebody love you. I’ve figured that out already. I don’t know why she can’t see it.

Jeff tried to drain the noodles with a flourish, but all he really did was dump a bunch of water on the ground and didn’t even pretend he was going to clean it up. He just stepped over the puddle and plopped the wet mass in the pan on top of the poison mushrooms.

“Hey kid, why don’t you make yourself useful and set the table?”

I could feel the heat rising in my face. I grit my teeth to keep my mouth shut. I turned to my mother, to get some kind of backup, but she didn’t give a shit. She was just watching Jeff pour a McCormick seasoning packet into the pasta like he was some kind of genius.

If she wants to be spoken to like an idiot, that’s her problem. I don’t know why I’m expected to just sit here and take it.

I knew she’d be mad if I were too dramatic about the whole thing, but there’s really no quiet way to set a table. I could feel his eyes on my back as I plunked the plates down. I knew he was going to sit himself at the head of the table no matter how I set it, so I put myself opposite him. At least then I’d be able to stare him down.

“Babe. Babe, you’re going to love this.” The wet, slapping sound of the food hitting the plate made my stomach clench. He motioned for us to sit down, and started digging into the milky gray slop.

My mother shifted the egg noodles around, and took a bite. “Oh, Jeff, this is great,” she said, but I saw her wincing.

“Go ahead, kid. Eat up.” He glowered at me, like you better not ruin this for me, like my mom was going to suddenly come to her senses if I didn’t eat this fucking pasta. My mom just made her stupid cow face again.

What I wanted to do was scream at both of them that they’re adults and they don’t need my input. Scream at Jeff to get out of my house and take his disgusting dinner with him. To scream at my mother. I wanted to get up and leave and never come back.

But I couldn’t. So I lifted a forkful to my mouth and swallowed it without chewing. It went down slimy and gritty, and I wanted to gag, but instead I looked Jeff right in his eye without blinking, and had another bite.

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