A collection of short pieces written by Rumpus readers pertaining to the subject of “Leftovers.”
Edited by Susan Clements.
* * *
I am a leftover. For the past six months, my mother let me stay on her living room couch: twenty-two, a recent college graduate—one heaping serving of English major, marinated in summer sweat and unemployment, garnished with disillusionment.
“Life, friends, is boring” indeed.
I graduated with the nationwide class of 2011, strutting across the stage like the talented, hot young things we are. We were fresh out the oven, ready to backpack through Asia or start paying student loans or simply move out of a miserable apartment. Now, so many of us are struggling not to get stale.
There’s nothing more disorienting than meeting your divorced parents’ new significant others to make you feel like an interloper.
There’s nothing more embarrassing than having my mother’s boyfriend ask her if I can walk because he’s only seen me on a couch filling out application after application.
There’s nothing funnier than being called out as a lush for my undergraduate drinking habits. (I like a bottle of shiraz, so what?)
Like so many others my age—burdened by debt, sleeping in bedrooms they haven’t used since high school—we’re striving to stand as men and women in a space of our own where we’re not some throwback, where we’re not watching our parents get danced into middle age with new tattoos and piercings.
At the beginning of November, and possibly for the next six months, I’ll be living in my dad’s apartment seeking work. And as I get rejection after rejection, I remind myself: Yes, I’m a leftover, which means I’ll be as good tomorrow as I was today, which means I was worth saving in the first place.
— Derrick Austin
* * *
She reminded me of a tiny splinter I once had in my windshield, the way it would glint in the sunlight amongst smog, dirt, bird shit, obliterated kamikaze torpedo bugs like it was something special. Sometimes, I found myself staring at it in childlike frustration and awe, this fucking crack as undesirable as a toe-reaching plumber glared back like it could be a healing crystal, fairy diamond, perfect snowflake frozen in time. By and by, the reaching fracture drew a fear in me for my vitality, as my shrunken pockets could not even support my heavy hands. Sometimes, your virility is the only proof that you are a man. And I wanted to seize her, as if I could steal this tiny, faultless image from the glass, drop it in my throat and watch it split me open from the inside out into mirroring halves.
Adam and Eve is clearly a story about sex. Quite apparently, the apple is Eve’s vagina—and yes, Adam ate that shit. Everyone ignores this blatant fact and chooses to believe instead that Adam had told Eve, I would rather spend an eternity in hell than an eternity in heaven without you. The reality is, there is a heaven and a peace in a life without a resolve that involves another individual. It’s just lonely, that’s all.
Then again, that’s a lot of all.
— Maria Chiang
* * *
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* * *
“This couple I knew, they got very old,” said Hont. “Really,” said Paznan. He stopped his sabre play, curious to see how long the hammock would just swing by itself. “I don’t even know how old but there was nobody alive who had known them when they were young, not even a priest. When they were too old to work, they used to sit at the end of their garden on a bench holding hands talking about this and that. The servants brought bread, meat and water and put it on the path leading to that spot and the old people would fetch it.” Hont got up and stopped the hammock: “You’re driving me crazy with that rocking.” He sat down again: “It was late summer,” he said, “and it was so warm that they didn’t have to come in so they didn’t but just stayed on that bench. The servants kept bringing them food and the food would disappear. Time went on and the people forgot about them, even their son, who’d built that bench for them, a bloody good piece of wood work it was. But finally, god alone knows how much later, he began to worry a little and went down there to see them.” Paznan let his sabre drop. “And?” he said. “Well,” said Hont, “they sat there, leaned against one another, dead as stone, eyes open. The food was gone, fox and birds must have got it, but they were untouched, their skin like leather.” Suddenly, the wind got hold of the hammock. Leaves murmured. It was cold and the sun had gone down.
— Marcus Speh
* * *
One would have had to lead as sheltered a childhood as Gautama Buddha to be oblivious to deprivation while growing up in India. So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when I say leftovers aren’t a problem in my family. We finish what is on our plates and anything leftover is the next meal. But then we never start with more than we can consume. My mother, who never has to worry about leftovers, lives in a city that is thirteen hours “ahead” and a twenty-four-hour flight away from me. She, one could safely assume, has vastly different concerns. Grandchildren, weddings, rising prices, and the corporate-political nexus top the list. (Indians take pride in their general knowledge.) Maybe people and their concerns, despite geography and philosophy, aren’t so different after all.
Five years, four countries, three continents, and I am the one who has become most concerned with leftovers—the something that remains, that which is not used. What is left behind when we have established and dealt with how different we all are? What would Americans talk about if all pop cultural references were erased from their collective sub-conscience? Yes, imagine, not a word about or related to Star Wars. That has been my prime focus for the past year here. Depending on the company I am in, for example, at the local co-operative or among urban professionals, the answer ranges from very little to way too much.
My other preoccupation has been the things that are in surplus—things that are still left over when everyone has taken up their share or more. The one thing that seems to be inexhaustible, no matter how hard we try to expend (or ignore) it, is the kindness of strangers. Despite barriers of language and nationality it somehow keeps showing up. From the interiors of India to the shores of the Pacific Ocean there seems to be no getting over it.
That leaves us with the one other issue that dominated November but remains unresolved. How to cope with your family on Thanksgiving. On seeing all the articles one thought kept coming back: “If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies you will not find another.” Carl Sagan said that. At one point in time I used to think all Americans would be like him. All that is leftover from that time are some words.
— Anvita Lakhera
* * *
Some weeks ago an acquaintance received a letter from his local politician informing him that someone is ”rough sleeping” in his apartment building and that the matter is being dealt with. He was understandably perturbed at the thought of this stranger occupying his hallway, but his possessions, he assured me, would be suitably protected from theft by the reinforced electronic locking system with which each apartment in his building comes equipped. He lives in one of our city’s more affluent regions. Whilst not condoning the behaviour of this stowaway, the situation saddened me. The Scottish winter can be such a cruel ten months and I thought the poor fellow must have no place else to go.
So, you can imagine my surprise when last week I paid said acquaintance a visit and took stock of the settler’s leftovers that were scattered about the lobby; amongst volumes of the journal Nature and guidebooks on how to feng shui a home were remnants of foodstuffs such as smoked salmon, cream cheese, and organic carrot sticks with an accompanying tub of hummus. Sparkling water sat atop a portmanteau that seemed to bear the squatter’s initials and a seersucker suit was tidily folded next to a pair of brown leather brogues. ”There’s a shaving set in the case, and those shoes are Italian,” said my acquaintance. My curiousity was immediately aroused, and I suggested we take off work and while away the day drinking until the invader makes a return.
It was a £2.00 bottle of vermouth that lubricated my fancy and stoked a resentment for our well dressed alien incumbent. This swine appeared to receive more nutrition daily than I receive in a year and was swanning about town—with his head full of the latest finds and theories from the scientific community —in suits worth more than my entire wardrobe. I pictured this rogue shooting elephants on the savanna, before eighteen holes of golf and a tipple of aged chianti. That is, of course, before returning to my friend’s building, gaining access through an open window, and making his bed in the hallway.
But H. M., he never did return and as I sit typing, clean-shaven and inhabiting his Italian clogs, I think about how little sense any of it makes anymore. And I switch off the news and watch the snow fall, on what is a very cold evening.
— Matthew Baxter
* * *
You went away, again, left me for leftovers.
Twice reheated, lost and found at the back of the fridge, or if I was striking for nostalgia, the icebox.
I deserve it; have every time.
What have I ever offered you for any sort of nourishment?
As if I had ever read any of those works staring at me from bookshelves long left to dusting.
I am a balanced meal.
The others come prepared with spices; thyme, basil, oregano, an Italian theme.
Pepperoncini. We never talked like that, wouldn’t anymore if we had.
I would like to believe I am losing you, but I know you have already gone.
You’ll come back; I always beg you for another feast.
You come prepared, ready for the eating.
And we do eat.
Consume each other.
But I choke every time.
You don’t fare much better.
You too filled up.
Me hollow, full of calories, but without sustenance, like gorging one’s self on marshmallows.
And what could I do to change any of this?
Learn to cook?
Decide that it might be worth something?
None of that seems like much of an answer.
You and I are fickle gourmets, tastes ever changing.
I am not sure how many more place settings we have left at this table.
— Sean O’Connell
* * *
I remember that I once had a mother and that there was open space. Then I was taken away, ground into pieces and wrapped in plastic, not feeling a thing. I spent a long time resting in a white box. It seemed as if the weather had ceased to change and the sun no longer set. This was where I first met them, as the lights were starting to dim. She talked excitedly as he mumbled responses. Without even looking, he grabbed and threw me into a rolling metal basket. I won’t bore you all with the details about the rolling floor or the trail of lasers I had to pass through. All that mattered was that I had a home.
He prepared me lovingly, humming to himself as he tossed numerous spices onto me. I could even consider myself smitten by his great care as he pulled me apart and tossed me into the searing hot pan. The humming turned into a song as I could see parts of me becoming brown. After a short amount of time, he took me off the heat and I was dumped into a red liquid. There was more stirring and finagling and then I met my final resting place on a bed of moist white sticks. There would be no more waiting and no more changing. I had finally reached my destiny.
I sat in the pot, waiting to be scooped out, but it didn’t happen. Her voice wasn’t the same as it was before. It was much more calculated and serious. They both shouted. A mountain of grain next to me was thrown against the wall. She stormed out and he spent hours pacing. He covered the pot and shoved me into the back of a frigid box, where I have been for a long time. I can feel the sticks harden as they stab through my pieces. Sometimes, I can hear the faint sound of him sobbing. He’ll open the door, but then close it without ever looking at me. I can feel myself starting to rot, as some pieces are turning green. I don’t want to see the look on his face when he finally sees me. I know that some deaths don’t end well, but I could never fathom that it would be like this. Rotting inside a dark cave as my owner dies of a broken heart.
— Troy Turnwald
* * *
At the back of the freezer, lurking among the brisket and the frozen corn, is a sliver of birthday cake from your first birthday. Your mother has kept it for decades. Accessible at all times, it is the eminent emblem of your irretrievable past. It looks delicate in its cryogenic state, as smooth and light as the day it was frosted.
Like most of your distant past, it is colorless. White frosting, white batter. The only hint of its larger whole is a speck of blue at the edge, a tip of the tail of the cake’s bright well-wishing. There are no signs of a candle, because there was a time when the landscape of your birthday cakes was unblemished by candles, just a clean expanse of icing you weren’t afraid to eat.
For years, as your age became more than a number, you tried to convince your mother to throw it out, but she was adamant. She could not bear the thought. The cake remained through seven moves, endured multiple power outages and the searching fingers of other children. It has earned its place beside the ice maker, the only venerable item in the whole refrigerator. But you don’t want it there. When you visit your mother, when you make yourself a drink in the kitchen, you can feel it just a few feet away. More and more it has become the one tangible landmark on the receding shore of your life, which in turn bears your thoughts toward another shore, still distant but advancing all the time. More and more, there are days when all you’d rather see is water.
And so, one day when your mother is out Christmas shopping and you’re alone in the old house that smells like litter box and cigarettes, you find yourself standing in front of her freezer door. You find the cake, unwrapped, on a small dish at the dining room table. With one of your mother’s slender silver dessert forks that never once was used until now, you consume the slice in tiny, hesitant bites. It is cold, of course, and it sounds like crushed ice between your teeth. But something like a taste is still there in the icing. A taste of what you aren’t sure, but it is there.
You think, this is the closest I have ever come to having it all back. And then you think, now there isn’t any more.
— Christopher Green
* * *
Traditionally leftovers translate as a primarily holiday foodstuff regathering or recomposition of a primary meal, but in reality leftovers are pretty much wherever you find them— in food, clothing, even real estate. Hailing from New Orleans and rebuilding post Katrina, scavenging the leftovers of pretty much anything for years thereafter made me a (now recovering) hoarder. As the city dried out and returnees started over, invariably the entire contents of homes were routinely emptied curbside. Furniture, sheetrock, insulation, doors, fridges, art, whatever! Over and over again and day after day, the leftovers of our floodwater ravaged city mostly became landfill fill but when they didn’t . . . voila! A new to me patio set! Or perhaps a baker’s dozen of milled cypress doors. Deemed garbage. Unusable. Unwanted. Part of this renewal exercise of course was founded in perception that some things are just ruined. “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” I was always taught. The other part of this renewal exercise had a more cerebral journey, an emotional cleansing. Start over. Begin again. As opposed to our regional notion of lagniappe, or a little something extra, leftovers inadvertatently become defined by sheer math and the application of subtraction: whatever remains.
— Jean-Paul Villere
* * *
Whiskey comes off the still in three phases, something I’ve learned while hanging around our local craft distillery. Heads drip out first and contain chemicals like acetone—drink at your own risk. Hearts follow—this is the actual whiskey spirit. Tails are last out of the condenser, consisting largely of fusel oil, fusel being German for “bad liquor.” Think of whiskey like a loaf of bread: Picture heads and tails as the butt ends and hearts as all the good stuff in between. I don’t know about your family, but in mine, those butt ends were the slices my mom always fell on her martyr’s sword and ate.
My grandpa liked his whiskey blended—Seagram’s, Canadian Club, Crown Royal if someone gifted him with it—perfect for the Manhattans he served up on the summer Sundays when my extended family gathered around my grandparents’ pool. Those were golden afternoons, filled with boisterous raft races, cannonball contests and games of Marco Polo, capped off by Gramps’ patented belly flop from the diving board. “Happy hour” then commenced with trays of cheese and crackers, bowls of peanuts and pretzels, Manhattans for the grown-ups and soda pop for the kids. Later, while the adults distractedly prepped for dinner, we older cousins would hunt down our parents’ discarded cocktail glasses and fish out abandoned ice cubes and maraschino cherries, sucking on the remaining traces of alcohol that tasted like the promise of someday.
Turning water and grain into alcohol is a science, yet distillers rely on their senses, namely taste and smell, to determine when heads become hearts become tails, to know when to make the cut between what’s worth keeping and what to toss. Heads give off a whiff of nail polish; hearts are sweet, smooth and pleasant; tails turn bitter.
The last time I saw my grandfather I fed him pineapple and cottage cheese. It dribbled, half chewed, down his chin.
The thing about tails is that they contain a lingering flavor of whiskey, a hint of the hearts they trailed. Distillers can salvage residual tails by giving these dregs a second run through the still, turning bitter into sweet.
I filter my own unwanted scraps of memory. A mash of pineapple and cottage cheese becomes the clink of ice against glass, whiskey-soaked cherries, a belly flop. The actual spirit itself.
— Patty Wetli
* * *
Just a bundle of yellowed postcards zipped neatly in a plastic bag, what bag leftover folded over the top of itself, doubled up against the weather of the world. I found it in the belly of a toolbox, latch rusted shut, a chip off the black plastic handle where a palm goes.
I found the toolbox in the partially open trunk of an Impala, crook necked over the short rise of a long hill, once crested, revealing hundreds of cars in various states of disrepair. So much mettle for metal. The focus of rot is time.
As if you’d asked yourself for the explanation, I blew a tire a quarter mile up the road or so. Nothing serious. That surprise, the car lowers some but you sit up, the car instantly veers toward the source of trauma but wants to be steered the other direction.
I waited there, with faded phone service, sole driver in a field of crashed and abandoned cars, for hours listening to the shear whispers, the sodium light of a fading day, the dreamer drawn to wade out into a field of unrequited dreams. I, island.
Stared at that toolbox.
With time to spend and the whispers of so many ghosts about, begging to be first, howling for the language to be spoken aloud after so much sound bouncing back at themselves, each leaning in plea, louder than the gravity of the actual message, “did I forget to turn the stove down . . .” (you’d have asked me for an example, love) and the direction, the magnetism of that toolbox quickly drew me to crack the lock and unfold my decision to investigate.
I won’t bother with the smell of must. Insinuating it is enough to move along, and I am anxious to deliver the first card to you. Written on the back:
“Halley hoo and Dalley day,
A signal fire’s lost her way, but found within the fog
so fair a merchant bent on puncture repair,”
and a response, directly underneath, written in blue:
“On poetry’s perch where heliotropes
like sunny cards in language spokes
have lost the will to set them free
she sent her letters back to me.”
I’ll deliver the rest to you in person, and we can sort out what to do from there. How am I excited, sad and alive all at once? I’m thankful for you. For my earth.
— Jeffrey Bennett
* * *
“Can I reconstruct it from the artifacts collected here?” you wonder.
(And then you spend a moment breathing.)
“Can I disinter the past through the prism of these parts?”
(You consider the parts.)
“They did not taste like the past, when eating them,” you say,
“they tasted new.”
“And yet here (you point), cold and congealed, is just such a demonstration.”
“These parts were once a bird,” you say.
“A living bird.”
(But you don’t sound certain.)
“A thing I like to do is bury myself,” you say.
(And here you’re laughing.)
“A thing I like to do is be consumed” you confess.
“A thing I like to do with leftovers is hide them,” you say (still laughing),
“Or else trade them maybe,” you say, “with my neighbor.”
“A thing I like to do is give up absolutely,” you say.
“Surrender,” you say and then you look me in the eye.
— Theron Jacobs
* * *
In the office where I used to work, one of the daily privileges the executives enjoyed was the ability to order lunch out and have it delivered to them. Arby’s, Thai—whatever they felt like. For these men who were making between six and eight figures and had lucrative stock options and nympho wives to boot, it was just another convenient free lunch, nothing special. It seemed to me unjust that those few among us who could actually afford to independently acquire a nine dollar combo every day of the year and still pay their rent, got that shit gratis.
What was even more unfair was the kinds of delicacies they were slurping up in meetings. I’m talking real nice cuts of beef, roast potatoes, subtle cocoa tarts . . . These items, ravaged and carelessly re-foiled, would be sitting on the fold-up kitchen table on our floor, or jammed in our complimentary yoohoo fridge, and the secretaries of these great men would send out a missive to the effect of, “Alright losers, we’re full now, come’n get it.” And of course we did. We made a mad rush, stuffed our chipmunk faces, grinned like ignorant, starving babies, and shat like rajas for days.
Then one day I accidentally uncovered the secret stash of our executives’ emergency breakfast food. This was when the company was starting to go downhill, so there was not as much fresh fruit, swiss cheese, and tartar sauce around, but what I found was a twenty-pack of Jimmy Dean microwavable egg/sausage biscuits. It was up there on 3 in the big chrome fridge, and I instinctively grabbed one, raced home, and stored it for later. I froze that shit and licked my lips like a greedy cartoon eagle.
When I break the arm of the law, or play boggle with the rules, something deep inside me feels the need to justify my actions or put a positive Robin-Hoody spin on things. In the case of the JD biscuits, my reasoning was “This is just a future leftover. They’re not going to eat all these biscuits. And they probably don’t enjoy this kind of thing anyway—their palates are too refined.”
So I stole more the next day, and more after that, and I savored every single bite. Since then, I’ve never stopped stealing and enjoying future leftovers from the corporate elite, and I don’t imagine I ever will.
— Hari Raghavan
* * *
After the gluttony of the holidays, the meals always end the same—with leftovers.
Grandma: You keep it!
Ma: What am I going to do with all of this?
Grandpa: Take some. You can have it for lunch tomorrow.
You: No, no, no, we can’t eat all that. The fridge is already full.
Grandma: You have to. It’ll all just go to waste. I’ll make you a plate.
But a plate turns into a small tower, piled into a plastic bag, tied tight and handed over to a full-grown grandchild to carry.
Leftovers. They make the one-mile trek home on somebody’s warm lap, or in that semi-secure space on the floor of the back seat. Then from there, the haul across the front yard, then into the kitchen and fridge, where they stay until they’re partially eaten then forgotten, then remembered days later, the meat taking on a faint odor, the red sauce becoming pungent, the ricotta breaking down into a particle mush.
Then the trip to the barrels in the back yard, and if you’re lucky, from there to the front yard to the curb to the truck to the dump; if you’re unlucky, strewn sideways onto the frozen lawn, the plastic bag torn in more places than before, the food pulled into a half-dozen raccoon bellies, the shredded tissues and ribbon caught in the shrubs or stuck in the grass between the side of the house and the rhododendron bush.
Leftovers. Akin to the cheer-filled credit card debt that comes from your mother and aunts and godparents buying you jewelry from Macy’s and pajamas and “As Seen on TV” devices to make your life easier, all of which you need to pay extra to ship home or carry as added baggage from Connecticut to California, though every year you tell them, “Get us something small we can carry on a plane.” All this stuff—where will you fit it?
But you accept it all, because you have to. Because while there may not have been money for the big things, vacations that didn’t involve a camp site, graduate degrees, down payments on houses, there is, there has always been, this—slow cookers and mittens, manicotti and ice cream machines. So much love, so much left over, that you have no choice, in the end, but to throw most of it away. Such a waste.
— Kristen Havens
Rumpus original art by Christina Weidman.