by Halle Murcek
I watch my father slice into a ripe, plump tomato engorged with juice and pulp. The innards of the fruit, a slush of orange red seeds and jelly like fluid, seep onto the cutting board and between his large fingers. His hands massage the medallions of venison, loosen the meat to better absorb flavors of brine or marinade. He presses his knuckles into the malleable protein, his flesh glossy in the bright lights above him in our kitchen as he works the heels of his palms into the marbled fat and tendon then rubs it with a thin layer of pepper and salt. The exertion makes the vessels on his forearms bulge and twitch. I watch the way his face changes, kneading the seasoning into the mutton, his concentration focused on the motion of his fingers and precision of preparation.
My father’s fingers curl over curved surfaces. His large palms and length of his fingers work with machine-like precision, tying tiny but secure knots with thin twine to hold a leg of lamb together, stuffed with herb butter and breadcrumbs. The rapid pulse of his steel blade carves and minces whole vegetables into piles of petite, colorful shapes. His two hands seem to multiply, performing multiple tasks at once: chopping, scoring, arranging, molding, and crafting, a metamorphosis of dexterity. He neither rushes nor lags; patient in a meticulous way that knows no flaws. His face undulates into curves of concentration as he moves the knife in quick strokes
The ledge of the viewing window only reaches my nose. I learn the odd mini-knife he holds like a pencil between his gloved fingers is called a scalpel.
“Are you sure your daddy doesn’t mind you watching?” A passing nurse voicing concern appears in the reflection of the window behind me. I shake my head no and tell her I’ve watched before so she disappears into the hallways and returns with a plastic chair. Waving her away from helping me, I climb on top and peer into the operating room where my father is working. He creates an invisible line with his index finger guiding the slight blade across the surface of flesh, drawing the path of the incision towards him. I can hear my mother in my head: “Never cut towards yourself, Halle, always away.” The line of crimson is piercing in the O.R. light, widening until two halves of skin give way into a gaping cavity.
Knife and scalpel: my father prepares dinner the same way he works in the operating room, does not grip the knife with impatient fingers but holds the black handle as if he is holding my hand, gentle but firm. The blade slides through the supple flesh of the tomato with a clean-cut edge, sharp and unwavering. His technique lets him cleave and sever with a rhythm that picks up speed as the tomato transforms into little pieces. He shovels the soppy pile of fruit into a nearby pot, his hand ladle-like, and then swipes the cutting board with his palm to add to the rest of the mixture. He never wastes anything. Each component has a purpose.
Cooking dinner is a daylong routine for my father. Before we leave for the hospital on weekend mornings he prepares his mise en place, makes sure the meat is marinating well in a glass dish, chops herbs, dices and juliennes vegetables and places them in small metal bowls like edible confetti. The refrigerator is stuffed with the various components of dinner not yet prepared.
There are utensils and trays, bowls, containers of stainless steel, plastic, rubber, liquids, bottles, sharp instruments to sever, manipulate, cut, hack, and slice. My father deconstructs and reconstructs, recreating something he can call his own. The rooms are immaculate, then dirtied, spattered, smeared. Every necessity has a place where he can find it, all at his fingertips. Nurses hand him what he asks for with an extended palm. In the kitchen, I fetch what he needs but pretend to be one of his assistants in surgery. I imagine I am gowned and masked, careful with the supplies, handing them over placed lengthwise in my palms like a platter. He requests a peeler and I hand him forceps. He asks for a dishcloth I bestow him with a surgical sponge. He wants balsamic vinegar I give him saline. “Yes doctor. Here is your instrument Dr. Murcek.”
The lights illuminate solid instruments against supple organs, meat, and flesh, glistening and slick in water, blood, oil, and sweat. My father’s hands have a constant gloss.
“No room for error in medicine.” My father’s father told him, a surgeon in World War II.
“No such thing as error in cooking,” is my father’s credo in the kitchen.
I press my small hands against the glass that separates me from the sterile space. Bodies dressed in identical mint uniforms skew the panorama of the room and I cannot find my father, camouflaged within waves of green cloth, lost amongst the masked faces and blur of movements under the white hot light. Finally, I find him perched over a mass covered by a sterile blue sheet. A daughter knows the presence of her father even when he is in uniform: the way his forehead is void of lines even though he is concentrating for precision, movements rhythmic. He reaches up to adjust the thick surgical glasses that protect his eyes, then does the same to a headband situated over his surgical cap attached with a small light at the center of his forehead like a miner. His hands disappear into unknown territory only to be extracted for a different tool. Swift and precise, but patient, he molds, scrapes, severs and rebuilds. The vibrancy of red that coated his rubber gloves when he withdraws them from inside the body, throbs. Red beats life into the body.
He does not move from his position over the operating table and the arches of my feet ache. My father stands for ten hours at a time during his surgeries. He holds out a latex hand again, fingers dipped red, and another gloved one passes him a metal plate with rounded edges. Are his feet sore like mine? Bodies pivot away to reveal my father pulling something floppy and thick, porous, the color of ripe melon on one side, splotched maroon on the other. He stretches and folds back this slab of flesh over and over, replacing it as if making adjustments on the covered mass.
The table jostles as a green anonymous body exposes a section of the mass covered earlier. This thing is human; eyes taped shut like a damaged mannequin. What appears to be half of a nose sits above lips parted with tubes. There is another flap of skin, I now see, is the patient’s right cheek. My father adjusts the section of skin and muscle over the metal plate now secured to the patient’s face like a robot. Half of it has been sliced away. I reach up to my own cheek. Pat and poke it. My stomach squeezes into my throat like toothpaste in a tube.
The deconstructed face sticks fast in my memory. The viewing window is not a TV screen. I can’t push a button to make the image go away. It will be the last surgery of my father’s I will watch.
I bite into the leftover slices of red tomato, knowing the pieces are too large to fit into my mouth whole. But I slide the wedges in anyway like quarters into a slot machine, struggle with chewing the mushy, pulpous fruit. A small soft mass of the tomato’s guts escapes between my lips and past the corners of my mouth, down the side of my jaw. I let the liquid sit on the precipice of my chin, deciding at the last second whether or not to let it drip into unknown territory. It reminds me of what I do with an open wound. The blood swelling from a pinprick into a small nodule of red until it leaks down either side of my elbow or knee, arm or leg or finger. I like to watch it accumulate, amazed at how the body thrives, that a substance can escape from the inside out. I have no control.
Halle Murcek currently writes for online news media magazine, Tripped Media and attends The New School as a graduate student in the creative writing MFA program with a concentration in fiction. Halle currently lives in New York City.