My Grandparent’s Drug Dealer – by Daniel O’Leary

I am in Noni and Pa’s kitchen deboning and deskinning two pounds of chicken thighs. I am sweating between the shoulders. I am cursing: quietly to myself and loudly in my head.

Call my life sheltered – call it soft – but this is the first time in my thirty-three years I’ve had to dress chicken thighs.

And let me tell you my amateurism shows.

Noni leans back on a counter feigning interest in the local news but I know she’s watching the spectacle her oldest grandson is staging in her kitchen. I tell myself to focus, try not to watch her watch me. Pa keeps the knives sharp and I can already imagine myself apologizing for getting blood on their flowery hand towels after slicing my pointer to the bone.

But my amateurism: Noni’s instructed to save the bones for stock.

I’m sawing, I’m ripping, I’m making canned small talk about all the trees the storm’s blown over on the tv, but I know these bones have too much meat left on them. All the same, I plunk them into one of the washed tubs of Greek yogurt my grandparents use for leftovers. I can’t address this issue; I’ve got no time.

My slapdash incisions favor speed over accuracy but I’m still way behind schedule.

I should’ve started dinner earlier, could’ve started on the thighs after breakfast.

A slick of ecru skin slides mercifully off the last thigh and I cast salt and pepper at the lot, rub snips of freshly trimmed garden-grown oregano over the wider parts of the meat and deep into the recesses.

I dispense with the paprika and red pepper flakes: no coughing fits for Pa tonight.

I exhale.

I am ready to begin cooking.

This recipe is a familiar house. It’s a touchstone. An easy one pot chicken and orzo dish with sundried tomatoes. I’ve made it for years and selected it this evening because I know it from 400° preheat to crown with rosemary (optional).

What better display of affection for my octogenarian grandparents than through a homecooked meal?

What a fool I can be.

The pot.

“Hey Noni, I need your biggest oven-safe pot.”

“Well here Danny,” she says, producing I think the first ever pot cast of metal. It would not be out of place in an exhibit marked Copper Age. The bottom appears to have been pounded first by various stone hammers then beaten moderately smooth by cloven hooves.

“Will that work?”

“Perfectly,” I say.

The electric stovetop – the fucking schmuck – is crawling along towards hot but its slothfulness gives me time to chop the garlic and shallot.

“Oh, we had garlic,” Noni says as she snoops in the reusable bag from my afternoon grocery trip, scrutinizing for further flagrant foodstuffs.

“I should have asked!” I say measuring out the orzo. I do not say that asking her about every ingredient would’ve taken an hour to complete. I approximate this figure based on the harried moments we whiled away deliberating how Dijon differs from yellow, the five fruitless minutes we spent hunting for a jar of sundried tomatoes in the garage.

“We don’t have sundried tomatoes?!” Pa had shouted from the den.

The burner takes ages to shimmer the olive oil wallowing in the concaves of the pot. Only half the chicken fits. My hands are slippery from handling the thighs.

“Dinner will be ready by the next pass of Haley’s comet!” I contemplate shouting over the faux concern of the news anchors.

“Do you want me to cut that broccoli?” my grandmother asks.

“Nearly forgot. Thanks Noni.”

After I chop the major broccoli heads into petite caricatures, I deposit them in a jumble on the cutting board. They get blasted with citrus and sodium and I don’t even consider asking Noni for a baking pan.

I don’t have the strength yet.

I remind myself that Pa is diabetic – tell myself that his blood sugar could dip if he doesn’t eat. A common example of the implausible horrors that often take root in my psyche. I deliberate ordering two pizzas from trusty Roma 2 Pizzeria (never Roma’s Pizzeria) if one more thing goes sideways but I have a grand idea instead of having a grand mal breakdown.

I ask Noni for a bottle of white.

For deglazing the pan I add nonchalantly.

I love the mysterious eroticism of deglazing. Love it almost as much as I hate the puritanical deboning.

She stomps out of the room with hustle and I’ve bought myself some space to smooth my jittery rumples.

The chicken receives the raw brunt of my brooding and I adjust the electric stovetop via the temperature slider like DJ Gourmet. The squarish meat pieces are ashen and appear formed from clay. The lid is useful for keeping my eyes from the evil thighs.

Looking around the family room, I notice the crucifix and the long shivs of palm tucked into the hollow behind Christ’s bent and scraped knees. The light palm green has drained from the fronds and they, too, assume the color of unfired pottery. Spring’s around the corner and Noni will be able to replenish her stock of Palm Sunday trimmings come the beginning of Holy Week.

Ash Wednesday should be any day now.

Why is this information still in my head?

I begrudgingly admit twelve years of Catholic schooling left its guilt-shaped imprint in my brain and in homage to the petty beseeching prayers I offered up on the lone chair before the principal’s office, I ask the holy powers for a blessing.

Render these chicken thighs tender and juicy oh gentle Jesus.

That poor godman – never even got to try a buttery, toothsome white wine orzo.

Noni arrives with just that ingredient, the crucial elixir, the Chardonnay. Unasked, she unscrews the cap and asserts, “This is good for cooking.”

She lets it breathe for three or four seconds before filling a glass – complete with a fistful of ice cubes – and I ask if she can pour me one as well.

“Don’t tell your father we drank this. He don’t like the cheap stuff.”

“It’s just us tonight, Noni,” I say and we clink beside the muffled, sputtering chicken. I wrap her in a half-hug and am surprised, as always, at her sturdiness. She’s not as marked by what she’s lost in her eighty-fifth year as by what she still has: a Clydesdale’s posture and clomp, a fine cap of snowy hair, and the flexibility of flour – she can still put her palms flat on the floor.

It’s true she’s aged, but who hasn’t?

A couple sips of the white on an empty stomach and I’m tempted to ask her about some of the legends my mother has shared. About the afternoons at Cal Expo betting dimes on the ponies, about the charity crab feeds, about the parties my mother surreptitiously threw. I resign myself instead to cooking the rest of the chicken: out comes the first shift and in goes the swing.

With an attentive eye turned to Noni, I clamp the lid tight lest she catch sight of the meaty muck encrusted on the bottom of her pot.

I lap up a sip of wine and let it deglaze the underdog crud baked on my own mind.

I’ve got this dinner in hand.

Noni heads to the den and a general discussion about sundried tomatoes unfolds between her and Pa. They’ve elected to forgo hearing aids with the expected results.

Even though this has been a calamitous run up to dinner for me (and, honestly, for Noni as well), I’m glad I’m here to celebrate the occasion with my grandparents.

Last night over a gluttonous dinner at El Novillero, my grandparents, parents, and I clinked glasses and toasted their sixty-fifth anniversary.

Sixty-five years of marriage!

Six and a half decades!

Years and years and careers and retirement and a mountain cabin and children then grandchildren then one single great grandchild and finally a table for five at their favorite Mexican haunt, El Novillero.

What was supposed to be a gathering of their progeny had been winnowed by the violent and windy Sunday storm down to my mother, my father, and myself.

Smaller and subdued, yes, but no less important. We’d reminisced and shared some of the familial fables one expects to have gathered over the years and years and after the waiter had slipped the plates onto the table, my mother had brought up the hallowed topic of sleep.

Most on my mother’s side have serious complications with falling or staying asleep so a natural note to play at any gathering is, “How’s your sleep been?”

My mother and grandfather have been especially drained by the insomnia leech. Perhaps it’s an issue of genetics. Perhaps years working nights in the NICU for my mother. Perhaps living under an any-hour-of-the-night alarm – a Sword of Damocles – as a fireman then fire captain for my grandfather.

“Oh, Daniel,” my mother had said forking pollo onto a corn tortilla. “I hit the yam-yam a little too hard the other night.”

With my infinite medical knowledge, I’d recently prescribed then bought my mother cannabis edibles to help her insomnia. She’d used them with wonderful results, conking herself out with tasty gummies on nights she couldn’t sleep.

But at the anniversary dinner she’d shared a cautionary tale: don’t over imbibe or you’ll be a helpless, titling victim of a spinning ceiling.

With barely contained glee, I had trotted out a line she’d hammered into my head when I was a rakish juvenile. I’d said, “You dance with Mary Jane, Mom, she’ll step on your toes.”

Even Pa had chuckled at that one.

But the rest of the chicken is ready to come out.

There is certainly a spirit beside me now.

Mirth, a ghost, the holy essence?

It must be Jesus come down to caress the pot and bless the thighs.

A thought: a novelty apron with Jesus at the stove. Cooking God in arcing letters over the top. Cooking Son of God…Lord of the Kitchen. The idea is unraveling but it’s no matter, I’m already lost in the fantasy of being a chef.

Orzo and garlic into the pot. Tan yourselves to a healthy golden hue, you tiny pasta lovelies! What can I say about the aroma of garlic that hasn’t been repeated ad nauseum in cooking blog posts and vampire fanfiction? Regardless, the warmth of the garlic parades around the kitchen in a savory and flamboyant manner on the back of the larking steam.

And, at long last, the deglazing.

The bubbling and scraping, the loosening of all the salty morsels and oddments!

The streamers are up and the doors are open: come on in ingredients.

Let’s party.

Heavy cream and broth, Dijon and parm, the sundried tomatoes!

Get in there and get comfortable.

Noni helps me turn on her crisp, modern oven and I’m starting to feel my stomach turn over itself from hunger.

I can’t stop thinking about garlic fries.

It’s a quiet few minutes as the mixture boils and the greedy orzo soaks up the rich cocktail. I catalog my rations from the day: a sad croissant with two black cold brews at the café, a blueberry bagel with cream cheese alongside a bowl of berries, a yawning emptiness where lunch should have been, and now a glass of white wine.

I should open a food cart that exclusively sells garlic fries. I’d include a pack of gum with every tray of heavily laden fries.

“Do you like avocado on your salad?” Noni asks.

I nearly faint.

My answer is enthusiastic if sparse. With the cooking and subsequent cooling we’re still a bit away from lifting the utensils Noni laid on the table an hour ago.

As I shove the chicken back into the pot with the orzo – making sure the two are very well acquainted – Noni begins taking the skin off an avocado with a potato peeler. Another subject I refuse to broach. There’s not enough time left for any of us to get into that one. I put the pot and the broccoli into the oven and plug in an arbitrary number before sitting down at the table. It could be five minutes or five hundred, Noni will watch the oven like a cat memorizing the goings-on inside a fishtank.

With great reverence, I silently cede responsibility to pull the food from the oven and I think Noni has very generously agreed to be the conveyor of hot dishes. Also silently.

We’re both happier for it, I hope.

Pa places his glass of thickened red wine on the table and joins me. Noni prepares the salad and rallies the various dressings from fridges and pantries around the kitchen and garage.

“Now this marijuana you get for your mother,” Pa begins, lawyerly. Again, flashbacks to the insides of principals’ then deans’ offices. “She mentioned it’s in candy form?”

“Yes! Like little gummy worms.”

Noni tables the salad and we pass it around, each of us picking a bottle from the battalion of dressings.

Pa, bleu cheese, says, “That whole thing – the drugs – passed me up when I was younger but I was thinking of trying it.”

“If it’s just a gummy worm I’d like to try it too,” Noni reckons, adding ranch to her salad.

“Well I’d go out and buy them now, but we’ve been enjoying some Chardonnay,” I start. I know I could probably go online and have some low dose gummies delivered within the hour but, Christ on a bike, my grandparents would flip if someone showed up to their house – their home – with drugs! At this hour!?

No chance.

“I’ll go pick some up tomorrow,” I say. I select the tallest bottle: raspberry vinaigrette.

“Not strong ones,” Pa says.

“Of course. Nothing crazy.”

Since my mother didn’t want to “be in the system” at the dispensary, I became my mother’s drug dealer. Her strawman who knew the system. And now the moral pendulum of soft drugs has swung back at my chest: I have become my grandparents’ drug dealer.

After leaving her salad for the third or fourth time, Noni returns with the broccoli and then the pot. She removes the lid to reveal a smorgasbord of glimmering chicken and saucy orzo.

“Oh,” I rise from the table. “It might be too late now but there’s rosemary for those who partake. Optional.”

I select a few of the most fetching shoots from the shallow plastic container and arrange them aesthetically atop the still-too-hot main.

Pa clears his throat. “You know we got rosemary in the back there? Grows like a weed.”

“Do you?!” I ask sounding suspiciously fluty. “I should have asked!”

Everything tastes marvelous.

Everything is fine.

Daniel O’Leary is an MFA graduate from the Creative Writing program at Antioch University, Los Angeles. He writes in Santa Cruz, CA and spends an indefensible amount of time doodling.