From the editor:Coming of age in a drought that dries up everything it touches in Ohio—conversation, camaraderie, and cookouts—author Jen Knox’s culinary protagonist contemplates the future of her home, her family, and her next meal in “The Glass City.” Jen Knox’s literary talents and breadth of work have earned her nominations for the Pushcart, Best of the Net, and Calvino prizes.
The December sun threw white light against the SeaGate building, blanketing the Maumee River as the neighborhood discussed the West Coast droughts. I was hoping they’d switch topics by the time I was done studying. I worked and waited, shivering against the crisp air that snuck through my bedroom window.
Dad’s voice boomed, “We can’t underestimate the damage this drought can do, even here. Never you mind the Dust Bowl, people forget the late ‘80s, and—”
“People are already hoarding. Bottled water sales are through the roof,” Mom added. My parents were ganging up on someone. I glanced down to see my father starting the grill.
Mr. Henry, a quiet, plump man who lived two houses down and seemed a fixture in our backyard, stepped forward and mumbled for a long time. All I could make out were the words “Ohio” and “hope.”
My father noticed me and tipped his head before responding to Mr. Henry the same way he did when discussing the local economy and other perilous things, “That’s all we can do, I guess. Work at what we love, and wait for the good part.”
I rolled my eyes, pushed my window down a sliver to ensure it was totally sealed, then put on a heavy coat and ventured downstairs. Thick slabs of meat, freshly chopped and pulsing, were ready for me. The sun skipped along the bellies of knives that were lined up on the sink near the door.
There were always three such knives on display when the neighborhood congregated in our backyard. One was for vegetables, a smallish spear point knife with a delicate blade that required Mom’s precision. Dad referred to the other two knives as brothers; the larger, a butcher knife, was my father’s tool. He used it to prepare the steaks and chicken, but not until the grill was hot. The breaking knife, the little brother, would trim any remaining fat and was designed to cut down oversized pieces, prepare smaller portions for skewers—this was my job, to trim the fat.
A sheet of thin, cold air wrapped around me as I got to work. When I went to close the door, I saw Mom looking down at her phone. I knew what the text said by the way she shrugged and gave Dad her apologetic half-smile.
“Looks like I’ll be eating leftovers,” she said, up and through the doorway in no time, kissing me on the cheek. Mom was a surgeon then, well-respected in Toledo and unwilling to retire her scalpel, despite the threat of arthritis. I noticed the way she massaged her hands after long shifts, the increasing stock of sample-sized pain relievers living in our junk drawer.
Dad offered an appreciative smile, the smile he reserved for her alone, and turned to me. “Haley, are you getting down to work?”
“I’m on it,” I said, treating the steaks with care and piercing them, along with small onions and green peppers. I painted portabellas with butter and garlic and huddled near the fire with Dad and our neighbors, looking out at our quiet cityscape as discussions ranged from composting to cooking, then back to the droughts, not venturing inside until my toes turned to solid ice.
Later that evening, Dad told me he was impressed by the symmetry of my knife work. He had been a chef in an Italian restaurant for over a decade. It was a small and expensive restaurant that took a gut punch during the recession in 2008 but hung on longer than any other upscale restaurant nearby. It was downtown, close to the water, a favorite of most of the business men and women who worked in proximity. After downsizing from a five-person kitchen to a single chef in 2013, my father, La Trattoria closed for good.
Downtown was eerily quiet that Friday night. We were loud, arguing over what movie to see after dinner. My father paused when we approached his old restaurant. The storefront was boarded up and covered in sloppy graffiti. We were on our way to the SeaGate restaurant. It was where my birthdays were often celebrated when I was younger, and we hadn’t been in years.
“Maybe it’s time. Maybe I’ll apply at the SeaGate. I’ll consider this meal their interview,” Dad said as we walked; he fingered the short ponytail he’d grown since being out of work.
My father was hungry to cook, but despite obvious skills, no high-end restaurants were hiring. He’d accepted a job at a chain restaurant for a time, only to find himself coated in disgust for the manner in which food was prepared and served, half-hearted and half-done. He opted instead to take on construction gigs over low-end food service, but the SeaGate would fall somewhere in the middle, so it was a promising idea.
Another few blocks, and I was getting unnerved by the lack of people downtown. Toledo had been facing a recession for some time, but that night seemed extreme. When we arrived, we noticed there were no cars. A sign on the door said, “Temporarily Closed Due to Drought.”
“I didn’t realize things were closing,” Mom said. The hope I’d seen in my father’s face flickered as she continued, “It hasn’t affected the hospital much, but it’s definitely hitting the news. Want to grill out?”
It was just the three of us and the still winter night, watching the river as we ate a simple dinner of chicken and corn on the cob. We discussed the movie and the test I had coming up in English, calculating our words, not mentioning how shallow the river water appeared. Even without discussion, it was the only conversation possible.
I was ten when my father got me a nylon knife set to teach me the basics. The knives were serrated with blunt tips and soft handles. They were light and efficient when it came to cutting cake but disappointing when trying to actually cut anything that was yet to be cooked.
It didn’t take long before I was using the real thing and imagining myself in the kitchen of a bustling restaurant. My father’s German knife set with its wide, heavy blades, then the Japanese set with a lighter design that slipped in my hands, became my playground.
Mom worried her hands as I learned to cut fish into thin sheets, sashimi style. After a few weeks’ practice, I was able to carve carrots into flowers. I spent every minute outside of school working with my father in the kitchen. For a while, it seemed to energize him, so even after a long shift at La Trattoria, he’d be eager to teach me something new.
I cut myself for the first time two years after picking up that first knife set. I had been trying to chop cucumber as fast as Dad did, timing myself while he set up chairs outside for company. A diagonal slice of my index finger was removed in a nanosecond, and I stared down at the piece of skin for what must have been a long time before I realized how much I was bleeding.
Mom had been napping after a complicated surgery on a woman whose tumor had been buried deep in her abdominal cavity. She’d gone over all the details when she came home. It had been a tricky surgery, and Mom had arrived around breakfast time to tell of her worry that the woman was too small to be under anesthesia for so long. Although she had survived, and the tumor was successfully removed, Mom felt she had failed.
I hadn’t wanted to wake her with my minor injury, so I did as I knew to do. I wrapped the finger tightly, putting pressure on it with a towel as I searched the cupboard for the right container for my fingertip. I filled my father’s coffee mug with ice and settled the tip inside, sure it would never be reattached, then went to find my father, who was greeting the first of our guests, a co-worker of his whom I’d never see again.
When my dad saw it, he woke Mom immediately, yelling loud and clear so that it seemed she actually bounced out of bed and into the car. They drove me to the ER immediately, quietly. Mom’s team was eager to fix me, but it was clear that the fingertip would not be salvageable. Perhaps I had looked at it too long, watching the yellow and red blob lying there like something foreign to me, until it actually became foreign to me.
By next spring, there was no denying the drought’s impact. It had moved beyond conversation. I was soon to graduate high school, and our water fountains were all out of order. People complained that those upstream were siphoning the water, and Lake Erie would dry up within a few more months. There was an inordinate amount of red algae, which thrived in the incessant heat.
There was talk of postponing my graduation, and the SeaGate still hadn’t opened. Even fast food restaurants were shutting doors, and it seemed my father’s lack of employment was becoming the norm.
I had been working all day on admissions applications to culinary schools, and one in Hawaii, a plush state unaffected by the drought, was top choice. As I hit save, I thought about what it would be like to leave. I glanced outside at the dark green river, which was low enough to reveal the tops of bicycles and various large trash dumped in over the years, and I wondered what there’d be to come back to. I heard a knock, three beats and a pause. My parents were throwing a morale boosting cookout, and I was done just in time.
I greeted Mr. Henry, who was wearing an unflattering white t-shirt, at least a size too big. Then a few other neighbors, all in tanks and t-shirts, uncharacteristic for this early in the spring, and I took my position in front of the knives. The grill was hot, and Dad nodded up at me as though we were old buds meeting in a bar.
“You’ve been working hard,” he said.
I noticed the whiteness of my father’s lips by the time Mom arrived home. There was a slight crack in his bottom lip, as though someone had made an incision. Mom unscrewed the top of a bottle of water and handed it to him without looking his way.
“No,” he said. “I had mine.” Just over the last week, the city had begun rationing water. We were all allowed two a day, and no one was allowed to buy in bulk. I’d caught my father pouring his water into my bottle more than a few times.
“They’re restricting water in the trauma unit,” Mom said sadly when talk of the drought inevitably arrived. Noticing the way our faces fell, she sat down with asparagus and sweet potatoes, a delicate blade yielding to her touch, and changed the subject. “This might be the last of our produce for some time.” She had already changed shirts but still wore her green scrubs, which were clean. Mr. Henry mumbled something about hope, and Dad smiled.
“Any good news?” he asked.
“No one had to be sliced open today,” Mom said. She smiled, too, attempting to lift the mood. Her eyes grazed my father’s lips. “Have you all heard about that family, a family just like us—a boy and his parents—who robbed a Sam’s Club for all its water, hauled it off in a heavy duty truck with stripped plates? I think that’s why they’re rationing here.”
“Out of control,” my father said, clapping his hands weakly as he began working the steaks. Mr. Henry set out paper plates and napkins. There a spice mixture next to the sink. No salt.
“We’ll do anything if we’re scared enough,” Jessica, who lived three houses down, said.
“Bet we’re the only people in the entire city invited to a barbeque in the middle of the Dust Bowl,” Mr. Henry chimed with an appreciative smile, then pointed to my parents.
My father gave a half smile, then reached for the butcher, and he slowly began slicing the meat along the grain. Confused, I reached out to cover his hand with my own. The angled tip of my index finger could still feel, and as it pressed down against the roughness of his knuckles, I angled his hand to reposition the knife. “Cross the muscle fibers. You taught me that,” I said.
“The lighting in here is no good,” Dad said.
“I know, Dad.” The lighting was perfect.
He examined my finger. There was only a sliver of a nail that continued to grow over the nailbed. I liked to paint it; this day it was purple. “Hey, you know I’d rob a Sam’s Club for you and your mother if it meant life or death. I’d do any absurd thing it took to keep you two hydrated.”
“I know, Dad,” I said, thinking about how quickly the term hydrated had changed meaning.
“You got all those applications in?”
Dad hadn’t gone to culinary school. He’d been taught by a surly chef he did grunt work for while he was in high school. He worried that the economy would keep me from ever making a living wage, but I knew that Toledo, once an apex of glass working techniques, was on the verge of breakthrough. I had faith in our city.
I cut a few strips up for skewers as my father watched me, and said, “I’m getting good, eh?” I pushed the water bottle his way.
Dad smiled, and as he did the crack in his lip broke, revealing the tender pink beneath it. He looked out at my mother, who was recounting her day as though a soldier coming home from war. She was massaging her hand.
Her days, even slow days, were never mundane. She’d recount the patients and their families, so many personalities converging and either stoic or panicked beyond belief when they entered her unit. She often spoke about her job as though selling it, and I saw only a fleeting hint of disappointment when I told her I was going to culinary school.
She looked back, as though sensing my father’s gaze. She looked at him the only way she could now, with gratitude and apology, then her gaze turned to me. I held up the plate of food and watched my father’s triumph.
“Let’s do what we do, kiddo. Let’s feed the masses,” he said.
The sun had no mercy as the heat wave bloomed the first few weeks of summer. We all hoarded water and squirreled away our resources. We figured out how much we needed to survive. The barbeques stopped, and we began to peek out windows before venturing anywhere, weighing the necessity of what we needed to do. There was a constant light-headedness.
My father never robbed a Sam’s Club, but he was damn near mummified by the time the rain returned. Mom was able to sneak him into a room and hook him up to an IV, but damage had been done. The hospitals had become triage centers, mal-equipped for weeks that felt like years.
The way I remember the drought clearest is by reimagining the end. Children and adults alike rushed into the street during that first rainfall, beaming up at the darkened sky and looking for open areas to outstretch arms. No driver dared upset the harmony of the rain by venturing out onto the roads, and the Maumee rose the feet it had dropped. Those who had been driving pulled over and stood outside, absorbing each drop.
The sun bounced off the wet ground and soaked the moisture quickly, but the water had already begun to heal, and forecasters expected more. As extremes blanketed the states, Toledo, once the booming Glass City, later a forgotten piece of the Midwest, became a haven. It received the first rain for hundreds of miles. The economy that had been carved open and cut to bits, would be a foundation for renewal.
“The good part is coming,” Dad said, as though he could see the future.
I saw it, too. As it continued to rain, I saw Dad tracing the spine of a fish with a paring knife in the kitchen of SeaGate. I saw my mother being called to the operating room for work only her still-nimble and practiced hands could execute. I saw our knives lined up and waiting for the day I returned from culinary school, waiting for our next meal together.
The entire neighborhood would be invited to that cookout. We’d stare out at the Maumee, our bustling reborn city, and we’d discuss something new.
This story originally appeared in Sequestrum.