by Claire Oleson
She was sitting on a stool in the basement of the restaurant watching the octopus spin. It was on a cold/cold cycle in the washing machine. This was how they tenderized it, Ellis had told her, overjoyed he had something genuinely interesting to offer. It was this nauseous moving smudge, the octopus, not his telling. She was coming to adore it, the borderless slosh. No, more than that, she could believe she loved it, adjusting her over-the-knee pin-stripe skirt in the cold-damp of the concrete room, it was good. A man she also loved was upstairs, drunk, frying things, cutting real close to his fingers, and working someone else’s shift, and Ellis was on his way down to her, in his unadorned state, in an apron, having been washing dishes, walking down the concrete stairs to finish talking to her about the new crudo option on the menu so she could finish her little write-up for some hyper-local culinary column that at least her dad liked to read. The suckers and the head were a singular hum.
When had she started with the rabbit traps? Seven winters ago when her grandmother had shown her, when they were up north and the snow had settled in whipped-cream heaves on every roof/road/sidewalk/way of getting anywhere at all. It made everybody a trudger. You’d look out past the exhale of farmland and someone would be getting to their truck, in the over-the-knee white, forcing themselves into the day, trudging. No one was delicate. No one was flashing with glimpses of dorsal appendages or outer gills, even though this, she supposed, had been a cold/cold cycle too. That thought was nothing. Her knees looked a little blushed against the stark border of black cloth. Her grandmother had liked French cooking. Her grandmother had tied barbed wire into halos for the rabbit traps and left them in the snow by the wood’s edge. They were attached to something else (Ellis was on his way, she could hear him upstairs), but she could never complete the traps herself. She could only bend and knot the wire with a pair of needle-nose pliers and pass the circles to her grandmother. Her mother would look on. Her mother would pass through the kitchen in little steps and look at the both of them, her eyes stinging with salt water, as if they were killing a man. Her mother’s whole face, one pang. She might have stopped making the circles if her mother didn’t also love the rabbit, the French rabbit, accompanied by glazed carrots, steaming up a frosted window, beyond which some neighbor was dredging their thighs through the snow. She just made the circles and slid them across the table.
The octopus was still making its own feverish orbits when he finally got down to her. His face was so pleased as it ducked under a ceiling pipe. He got to talk to her, her on the stool in the skirt across from the washer, he got to talk to her about the crudo. She had her recorder out, extended towards him. She looked politely happy. This was only a little worse than if she’d looked completely bored. Ellis knew she cared more for the prep chef who did cocaine sometimes, but the prep chef was upstairs getting paid more, not down here in the concrete enclosure with its stagnant fluorescence and one woman gazing at a thrashing cephalopod; Ellis was lucky. What if he just said he loved her and could get her good dinner, good dinner for years. Sure, he didn’t love her yet, but oh he knew he could muster it up, given some time. The tape recorder had its mouth towards him but hers was slightly parted and facing the washer. She was supposed to be asking him something, for sure, but she was tired and crowding her brain with full-fat pictures of brutal winters. Ones where the snow got over the height of the shed, once, but they’d gone on separating rabbit thigh from bones with their teeth like it hadn’t. Biting like they weren’t in any actual danger. Biting like the pale outsides were just salt hills, not the guts of snowstorms. She was supposed to ask him things, but what did he care. There wasn’t another stool. He sat on the floor in front of her. In between her and the octopus. He took up her sight and smiled. His face was so open, teeth haunting just behind his smile, words about to breach. His face was so open; one pang; she thought.
“So after an hour on rinse, we take them out and they are quickly cleaned, chopped, drizzled with olive oil and smoked sea salt, and accompanied with basil leaves and blood oranges and sectioned grapefruit. It’s plated on a dipped plate, not quite a bowl, but with sloped edges that makes a wide pool of it all. Everything is, absolutely, sliced as thinly as feasible. We take the tentacles through a deli meat slicer. They should be like meat-paper. It’s clean and refreshing on the palate. It’s a beautiful opener to a meal, scrapes the long day out of your mouth and sparks it with sodium and citrus.” She was looking at him now, realizing he wanted, almost, to just write the column himself. That no one said “sparked” unless they thought up the word beforehand, hauling it through their brain like an extra body, an extra life to push into the light. It would be a trim and sparse paragraph, thin and shoved to the corner, probably no wider than the sliced crudo itself, certainly not terribly thicker, if he’d meant what he’d said about paper. Okay, why not let him basically do it, him and all his hoping at her.
Her grandmother’s neighbor had come in weeping once. Around her ankle: pinching wire, and out of her grandmother: so many apologies, then an invite to dinner. An invite to the rabbit her neighbor could have been. Her grandmother kneeled and cut the wire off of the jeaned ankle. Nothing had broken skin, but the area was strained and swollen. Her grandmother had traced the red circle with the pad of her thumb, checking. She had been thinking that her grandmother ought to just marry this neighbor. When had her grandfather died? Well before she herself knew how to make halos for rabbits, that was certain.
Just look at her, the neighbor, sitting while a white-haired guilt kneeled by her legs. She was sitting and not crying and trying to let the feeling of being an almost-animal fizzle off her leg. Someone had to marry her. The wet sat in her eyes, poised bright like someone’s waiting child in a too-large chair.
“Is it good?” She pushed the recorder forward half an inch. It was the laziest, most inane question. He knew that. He could love her. Give him six months. Someone, give him six months.
“What? Oh, yeah, I mean I think it’s superb, and I have had it. They, I guess we, test all the new menu additions with the entire kitchen staff. Even if you’re only washing dishes, you get to eat the entire restaurant. It’s truly a stunner and certainly a very unique dish to have offered this far from the coast. I assure you,” he placed a palm on the washer window behind him, “that despite the distance, the octopus is incredibly fresh. Now, it’s not the Italian coast by any means, but show me better in small-town Montana and I’ll quit working here and move in with you.” He hadn’t meant it. Or sure, he had, but he hadn’t meant to mean it. She brushed it off like it was nothing, like it was stray hair on her shoulder, like he wouldn’t absolutely take a blushed knee in this basement and set a hand on her skirted leg and talk himself into already loving her. He watched her write something down about smoked salt. His palm thrummed. It was still on the glass, blocking the picture.
Something upstairs crashed. Something upstairs yelled and balked at flashing oil. What she was in love with was above them, she remembered. He took his hand off the glass and raised a finger. He ran up the stairs under a deluge of swears. He ran up the stairs to where she actually held some adoration. He started swearing along with them, to make it better, to slide into the hurt of the room like a knife into a block. The cycle stopped. The body stilled and slumped. The washing machine beeped four blissful robotic notes.
By the time the day was cleaned, by the time any glow bled out of view of the singular basement-alley window and Ellis came back down to her with new oil burns on his wrists and one on his neck that he’d have to find later, she would already be holding the octopus in her lap. She would be washing fingertips down its legs to check for bleeding, to check for signs of being an animal. Her hair would linger and stick to its damp bulbous head. A few blonde tips would cling to the wet of a cornea when she finally turned to find his face, his coming down.
Cleaver Poetry Editor Claire Oleson is a Brooklyn-based writer hailing from Grand Rapids, Michigan. She’s an alum of Kenyon College, where she studied English and Creative Writing. Her work has been published by the Kenyon Review online, the University of Kentucky’s graduate literary journal Limestone, the L.A. Review of Books, and Newfound Press, among others. She is also the 2019 winner of the Newfound Prose Prize and author of the chapbook Things From the Creek We Could Have Been.