Five People Who Crave Sauce
By Ladee Hubbard
Ketchup, 2011, oil on linen, by Tjalf Sparnaay. Courtesy the artist
Ever since she was a little girl, Desiree poured ketchup on her ham and eggs and sausage and hash browns and pork chops and hot dogs and hamburgers and meatloaf and tuna melts and chicken fingers and catfish and corn fritters and onion rings and come to think of it anything fried. They were all missing something and somehow that sweet and savory, tart and tangy taste almost always did the trick. Throughout her childhood, she’d stared down at the plates set before her, then up into the eyes of the various loved ones who’d prepared her meals and thought to herself, no offense but this needs ketchup.
Then, one night when she was older, left to her own devices and really, really broke, she found herself standing alone in the kitchen of the tiny apartment she shared with her husband, Craig. She opened the refrigerator and stood blinking at the harsh light that flashed above empty white shelves stained with soy sauce, coffee grounds, and the hard, cracked edge of what once had been a perfectly edible wedge of cheese. Hungry, she thought. She reached for the bottle of ketchup.
She squirted it onto a plate.
Last lick, she thought. Was there anything more satisfying than a last lick? The way when she was finished eating she always scooped what was left onto her finger and put it into her mouth because she wanted that to be the taste that stayed with her when she stood up from the table. She grabbed a fork, walked into the living room, and clicked on the TV. Then sat on the couch sucking on metal prongs and waiting to feel full.
After a while she couldn’t help but realize that something was missing. She put down her fork and looked at what she had smeared across her plate. Ketchup may have been the perfect complement but on its own did not make an actual meal.
Such was the nature of sauce. It was an enhancer, a taste-bringer-outer. Even the most delicious and universally admired wanted in its essence to be a part of something larger than itself. It craved merger, could only truly be itself or realize its full potential in the presence of the other—no matter how indistinct or ultimately bland the other was.
She stared at the TV and waited for her husband to come home.
Over the course of the next four hours, it occurred to Desiree that she could always pour it into a bowl and add water, heat it up, and call it soup. But that seemed like unnecessary subterfuge at that point.
She picked up her fork, dipped it back into her plate of ketchup. And that was what she had for dinner.
Hot sauce on the other hand was a legitimate fetish and Craig slathered it on everything, to the point of pain. He sat at the end of the crowded bar, reached into his jacket pocket, and twisted the cap off a small glass vial he had purchased from the back of a truck the last time he went to visit his mama in Louisiana.
“Never leave home without it.” Craig winked to the man sitting next to him—his now former supervisor, Todd. He held the bottle out like an assertion of his identity as in, “that’s just how we do it where I come from.” Hot was how he was raised and how he liked it. Hot was how it had to be or else he swore it had no taste at all.
He watched the waitress lower his plate onto the counter, the smell of pork loin, okra, and spicy greens strong enough to make him swoon. He thanked Todd for the meal. Next time, Craig said, it was on him.
“Don’t worry about it,” Todd said with a smile. “After all you’ve been through it’s the least I can do. I hope you know how sorry I am to have to let you go.”
Craig nodded and said nothing. He shook the bottle and sprinkled red tangy spurts over his plate.
Todd looked around the bar. “Where’s Desiree?”
“Oh, she couldn’t make it.” Craig shrugged. His hands were shaking. “We had a little falling out.”
“Nothing serious, I hope.”
“Oh, no, nothing like that. Just a little falling out. We’ll be alright.” Craig shook the bottle some more. The stress of trying to smile like he was more grateful than hungry caused him to lose his concentration. Hot sauce splattered over his meat, two vegetable sides, and piece of cornbread.
“I hope so. That’s a good woman you got there, Craig. I know it’s been hard lately. But you two just hang tough. You got skills, man. You’ll find another job.”
“Yes, sir,” Craig said.
Todd set an envelope on the bar. Then he stood up and patted Craig on the shoulder. As he walked away, Craig opened up the envelope and counted his severance pay, the last piece of money he could expect to see any time in the near future. When he was finished counting, he tucked the envelope into the pocket of his jacket, twisted the cap back on his bottle of hot sauce, and set it down on the counter.
He picked up his fork, poked and swirled around the dark mysteries of his plate. He scooped up something heavy and thick and popped it into his mouth. His eyes rolled up to the back of his head as he swallowed and no one watching could tell if it was agony or ecstasy that made him moan—although when asked he swore it was the latter.
“That’s just how I was raised,” Craig gasped. All taste subsumed by heat. It was a tongue number, a desensitizer, and although Craig never thought about it, probably why he always needed more.
He finished his meal, scraping his plate with the side of his fork. He swallowed his last bite of food. He ordered a Kentucky Gentleman. Then another, then another. He spun around on his stool, watched the room spin around him in hot wheezing laughter, sharp voices that whirled and coughed and swooned. For a moment he felt nauseated and clutched his drink for balance until the churning heat in his stomach subsided, leaving a prickly aftertaste, vinegary and strangely sweet.
Like her, Craig thought. His wife, Desiree, so sticky and sweet, no doubt at that moment sitting on the couch, waiting for him to come home. A quick image of his tongue batting against the tears falling from her eyes flashed through Craig’s mind. That was what salt tasted like: even her smiles bothered and begged for things. But he couldn’t swallow her want. He had enough trouble keeping down his own.
He spun around on his stool and said to no one in particular, “I’ll go home when I’m good and ready and anyway I’m enjoying my fucking self.” He reached inside the envelope, slammed a twenty on the counter, and ordered another drink.
After a while he realized that what he needed was a physical sensation as real as hunger, something to make his eyes water, his palms sweat, purge his sinuses of senseless clutter.
He looked around the bar until he saw a tall, skinny woman flirting with the bartender. He stood up and asked if she wanted to come sit on his lap.
Millie jiggled and swished on high heels as she followed Craig out to the parking lot, a bellyful of ramen noodles sloshing around in her stomach. The instructions on the bag said to add a cup of water but she always added two, supplementing the watery broth from the flavor packet with a hefty dash of Lawry’s Seasoned Salt.
She climbed into the backseat of Craig’s car. Most of her childhood she had already blotted out like a bad dream but every time she had cause to move her arm in a quick up and down motion she found herself assaulted by private visions of the fat jiggling on her mother’s forearms as she shook Lawry’s into her famous potato salad. Wasn’t a thing in this world that couldn’t use a little Lawry’s, her mother always said. You just twist the cap, shake it out, and soon enough you’d see what she meant.
Soon enough, Millie thought and shut her eyes. Craig’s kisses were full of vinegar and bourbon and when she slipped her hand into his pants his penis was surprisingly small. She crouched down and put her finger in his mouth. Craig tasted something searing and salty merging with the saliva in his throat, bringing to life a tangy aftertaste of heat. It broke apart into peppers and pungent oils and for one brief moment all his thoughts were perfectly clear. He sucked on her fingers still coated in MSG. Delicious and satisfying is what it was.
Millie shut her eyes. Sometimes when she squinted in the dark she’d start seeing her mama standing over her, stirring in her bowl, great globs of potato salad clinging to her spoon as she raised it to her mouth, where it stuck to the bottom of her chin. Whatever else she was doing her mind would start wandering toward smooth, rich, creamy, thick-as-oblivion mayonnaise and all the fat that during daylight she liked to tell herself she’d left behind years ago.
When they were finished, Millie climbed out of the car. Craig zipped up his pants and reached into the envelope stuffed in his pocket. He handed her a fifty-dollar bill.
“Take care of yourself,” Craig said and Millie smiled, vaguely aware that she needed to pee.
She whipped her head around and headed up the block still smiling, even as her eyes sank and settled into something solid and fixed. Her night vision: walking in the middle of the street while her eyes scanned the sidewalk and alleyways and garbage cans and places where hungry things liked to hide. All the while she could feel something bubbling up in her stomach—onion, vinegar, semen, pepper, whiskey, and vodka—churning around the noodles. She stopped walking and inhaled deep, put a hand to her heartbeat and waited for the feeling to roll back like the tide.
She took another deep breath and started walking again. She’d made it all the way to the corner of Seventh Avenue before a man’s voice called out from the shadows.
“Cocoa? Is that you?”
“Shit,” Millie said. Not now. Not again. But the man was already stumbling toward her. There she was half sick, stuff bubbling up in her throat, mind pitching and rolling, her mama still sucking on that wooden spoon in her mind. She was out there starving, just trying to hold on, to keep it together and on top of all of that having to pee.
“It’s me. Gerard . . .”
“Motherfucker,” Millie said. She reached down and unsnapped her purse, started digging around through the dust and Doublemint wrappers and Quiky Mart receipts trying to find something as hard and sharp as hunger.
She’d been through this before.
Chocolate brown, Gerard thought. Standing on the corner, draped in golden robes of shadows, shaking her head and reaching into her purse. Ruby red lips soft and sweet as cherry syrup—my yummy brown chocolate queen. It was Cocoa all right. Gerard would know her anywhere.
She didn’t answer. Nerves, that’s all it was. It had been such a long time since they’d seen each other; he could feel it too, like hunger. And the truth was he’d been hungry for a long time. Even before he lost his bed at the shelter, before his sister kicked him out. Before they tore down his daddy’s grocery store to make room for the highway. In some ways his whole life was a map of a hunger that he’d been set to wander the day she told him goodbye.
“Is that you?”
He walked toward her. What were they even arguing about? What childish thing had made him turn his back on her all those years ago? Refuse to answer her call?
“It’s me. Gerard . . .”
He couldn’t remember. All he knew was he’d been hungry ever since. Nothing tasted the same after Cocoa left him, and then he couldn’t taste at all. He could eat and drink all he wanted, flood his mind trying to drown out the hunger in his heart but was never satisfied. Because all he really wanted was her. He clutched his empty stomach, licked his lips, and stepped toward her, arms stretched wide for her to climb inside. Hungry.
“I told you before, old man,” Millie said. When he took another step toward her, she stabbed the back of his left hand with a nail file.
“I’m not your damn Cocoa.”
Gerard stared down at his damaged hand. Then up at the woman jogging away from him toward the bus stop on the corner where she stood gripping her nail file, eyes ground down to nervous, angry slits. And after a while he could see it: the distance, the difference . . . Not what he wanted at all.
He called out, “Sorry, baby. I thought you were someone else—”
The cross-town bus pulled up and Millie counted out one, two, three bags of ramen noodles and then dumped a handful of quarters into the slot. She took her seat and stared out the window watching Gerard walk away from the curb then settle back into the shadows, one hand clutching his empty stomach, the other raised to his mouth to lick his own wounds.
She rode the bus all the way across town. She walked to her apartment and unlocked the front door.
She put a crumpled fifty-dollar bill in a jar on the kitchen table.
“Mimi? . . .”
She found her grandmother in the living room, sitting in the easy chair with the TV on, a blanket wrapped around her shoulders and a smile on her face, eyes closed and still dreaming of the perfect roux.