A New Romantic Comedy Coming Soon!
Winnow’s latest gig is to forage and cook for a week at Rainy Bay rez’s inaugural Indigenous Food Days. A reservation-wide celebration of the local food systems, Indigenous Food Days welcomes guests from Native Nations across the continent. Winnow arrives to Rainy Bay the day after deciding to leave her fiancé Chris, who’s out of town with his childhood friend Amy and unaware of her intentions. While the village of Rainy Bay works out the kinks with its first Indigenous Food Days, Winnow works out the kinks in her love life.
Excerpt: Chapter One
Winnow turns the jar holding the fist-sized, crusty black and brown, hard-as-rock pieces of birch fungus slowly. Morning sunshine from the window beside her, dances through the cracks between the fungus, commonly known as chaga. The light scatter creates a sparkling kaleidoscope effect on the walls and counters of the nearly cleared-out kitchen. This sparkle reminds her of the glittering, knee-cutting deep snow she had trudged through alone to hatchet the fungus off an old birch tree in the winter past. She smiles, remembering how she had stubbornly insisted on going out that day in twenty below with the wind howling. The smile sours; her fiancé Chris had stayed home to play card games with his friend Amy. They had asked her to join them, but the collective sound of their laughter over the prior few weeks had come to make her skin crawl.
She lets her thoughts of Chris go before they can turn from a simmer to a full boil atop her internally inflamed emotional burner. She focuses on the thrill and joy of the harvest instead; the subzero smell of the red and woody interior of the chaga, suppressed by the cold but still detectable. She sighs deeply and grabs the last piece of brown kraft paper, wraps the jar with it before drawing on a little red heart, signifying the importance of it accompanying her on the next leg of her life’s journey.
She grabs another large jar, this one filled with wild rice she harvested with a friend from Leech Lake last ricing season. She opens the lid and takes a deep breath with her eyes closed. She watches the rice grow on the water with anticipation and awe, feels the sunshine and sore muscles from the weeks of harvest, smells the fire and parched rice. Her stomach growls and is followed by a hunger in her heart. Chris had always turned her down when she asked him to be her ricing partner. Not because he was unable to go with her, but because he didn’t think there was real value in it if they couldn’t make a big profit from the work. She closes the lid and wraps the jar in a kitchen towel. Her cousin Melanie takes it from her, to put next to the chaga in the biggest of all the boxes now occupying the house, labeled ‘kitchen.’ Most of her personal items are ‘kitchen’ or ‘camping’ related.
It will feel so good when all of these beautiful things aren’t connected to my bum out memories of Chris anymore Winnow thinks.
Melanie tucks the jar in the box and continues reading aloud the texts on Winnow’s phone, “‘I’ve always known you love blondes best. Kissy face emoji.’ Yuck. What a bitch.”
“Can you please stop reading that out loud?” The texts have been flying wildly through her mind since the night before when she received them by accident in a group chat between her, Chris and Amy. It wasn’t just texts. There were pictures, too.
Melanie shakes her head, her darkly shadowed eyelids enlarge as her eyes squint, “I’m so fucking mad at Chris. He done fucked up beyond all repair, Win. I’m glad you’re leaving his ass. You need some joy in your life. I’m so happy we’re gonna be roommates. It’ll be like when we used to spend our summers together, remember? But now we’ll never have to go home—wait, we’ll be home together!” She squeals in delight, putting the phone face down on the counter.
“Thanks, Mel. What would I do without you? If you weren’t coming with me, I don’t know if I’d be able to do the Rainy Bay job this week, with everything that’s going on. I’d be a wreck if I had to go it alone.” She hands Melanie a clear sack of dried wild bergamot, a gift one of her Indigenous foodie friends had given her last year, gone but for a bit of herb left in the corner.
“You can do anything. I know you can. I’ve always thought that about you, even when we were kids, you were my hero,” Melanie looks at the bag with uncertainty but doesn’t ask. If she were to inquire about everything in Winnow’s personal effects that she was curious about, they’d be packing well into next week.
A faint smile, “I’m only 2 months older than you.”
“A very practical hero, but a hero,” Mel gives her a cheeky smile.
Seeing Mel’s dimples always makes Winnow feel she’s in good company.
Mel tucks the bergamot into the last crevice of available space in the box and closes it up, “There. Last one.”
They stand looking at the boxes amounting to Winnow’s accumulated ‘stuff.’ It’s not much: enough clothes to fill a small dresser, most things found in a kitchen, some basic catering equipment, and camping gear.
“Just my knife roll left.” Winnow walks to the kitchen counter and opens the army-green roll. She plucks her favorite santoku from the magnetic block on the wall. The light from the window gleams off the razor-sharp blade, cutting across the room to land on a half-eaten bag of greasy potato chips. Sitting forlorn and no doubt, stale due to not being closed properly; one of Chris’ habits that have always irked her. She gives the chips a death-stare over the edge of the knife, and imagines stabbing the bag, greasy crumbs flying about until they cover every surface. Chris is bad at cleaning. He’d probably be stuck with the grease until he moves out of this place. She smiles.
Winnow is torn from her daydream by her phone chirping like a cricket. She points to the chips with the knife, the chips safe for the moment. She carefully tucks the blade into the knife roll; both of which she had acquired several years prior as gifts from a mentor.
She takes a deep breath and then grabs the phone from Melanie, who had quickly snatched it up and was eyeballing it hard.
It’s Amy. Hey, Winnow. Hey, good morning. Did you get the pictures I sent last night? I see you haven’t responded so I was wondering if they went through or not.
Winnow’s eyes narrow, “Is this bitch serious? How much you wanna bet they were drinking last night and just woke up and are now freaking out?”
Her thumbs fly to get out a reply. I didn’t get any pictures. Can you send them again? My phone has been acting up for weeks. Thx!
It was true that her phone had been acting up, but not in this case. She puts it down and grabs the cleaver off the holder.
Yep, cleaver is sharp, she thinks to herself, hefting on it with both hands to get it unstuck from the wooden cutting board on the counter.
The next message is from Chris. Morning babe! How was your night? Did you sleep good? I’m not sure what I did to my neck but it’s fucking killing me. Probably these hard ass hotel pillows. I might take some Ibuprofen and skip the first session this morning and just chill in my room until I can move it. Love you.
“I know what you did, you disgusting piece of garbage!” She yells at the phone that’s now laying back on the counter, while pulling the cleaver out again and hurling the cutting board across the kitchen. The crockpot shatters in several pieces on the opposite counter, sending the lid crashing to the floor.
She speaks out loud with an ingenuine sweet, mocking tone as she types Morning babe! I just woke up. Crashed out early last night. I’m sorry you’re not feeling well. I’m going to start packing for my trip after I make coffee. Hope you feel better soon.
Winnow and Melanie stare at the phone. Alas, it lights up again. It’s Amy.
I’m sorry I can’t send them again, I took them with the camera while in messages and they’re glitching so I can’t open them now. ☹ No biggie, was just some cool architecture of the city.
Winnow’s hands ball into fists. She slumps her upper body over the counter and becomes limp. The coolness of the stone countertop chills her cheek and seems to calm her for a moment. She springs up. She grabs her phone again but this time she scrolls back further in her messages.
She types feverishly, Has the position been filled?
A reply comes almost immediately, Winnow! Good to hear from you! No, it hasn’t… would it help you decide… if I beg?
Winnow smiles slyly. She knows Jeff has had a thing for her for years. Maybe now’s the time to give in a little.
Perhaps 😉 How about I come down after my gig up north and you can beg then?
Really?! YES, PLEASE!!! Just let me know when you’re on your way. I’ll do…whatever it takes to bring you on board 😉
She tucks the phone into the pocket of her jeans and smiles, happy with herself.
Her happiness subsides when she meets Melanie’s glare.
“Seriously? That guy, Win? You know he’s a perv-ball, right?”
“What does it matter if it’s Jeff or any other perv that comes next in my future?”
“It matters. If you want to help him get his restaurant going, fine, but do you really think you need all of the extra emotional baggage right now? I know you’re like, really mad right now, but come on, not Jeff,” she says his name with an ‘icky’ voice.
“Emotional baggage? It could be more like emotional clarity. Just because he’d be giving me some dick doesn’t mean I’d have to feel any kind of way about it. Besides, it kind of feels like it could be payback on Chris.”
“Ew. You’re better than this. Are you seriously gonna disappoint me like this? You gotta let Chris go. Or not, I mean the choice is yours, Win. But either way you gotta let go of that crazy energy I see building in you, because it’s only going to get you hurt. Trust me, I know. I’ve been there.”
Winnow takes slow, drawn out strides to the couch. She sits down in front of the laundry basket full of Chris’s clean but wrinkled clothes. She remembers. Melanie had been in love in her twenties and a guy had smashed her heart and her car pretty bad. She’d gone wild for a couple years afterwards until getting arrested for disorderly conduct. She decided it was time to change when she saw the look on her dad’s face when he picked her up after a long weekend in jail.
Melanie lets her mull over what she had said. She watches her dig into the laundry basket again and again and laughs, “What are you doing?”
Winnow puts the sock she was tying in a knot back down into the basket, “Making busy work for Chris,” she looks at the basket now full of knotted items of clothing, “You know what’s interesting? With every sock I knotted, the feeling of being emotionally knotted up with Chris got a little looser.”
“That’s flipping beautiful, Win.”
Winnow dumps the contents of the basket behind the couch and flops over the arm of the couch in a full-on droop. She dangles her hands for a minute. She lifts her head, “You’re right. I don’t want to have anything to do with Chris ever again. I don’t want to talk to him, I don’t want to think about him, and I sure as hell don’t want to see him. Or Amy. Fuck’em,” she reaches an arm up to Melanie, whose disappointment transforms back into her dimpled smile, “Help, please.”
Melanie pulls Winnow off of the couch by the hands. She slides over the arm of the couch on her stomach before falling on the floor. She rolls over onto her back, laughing. She lies with eyes closed, “Text him back for me. Tell him, ‘Love you.’” She pulls the phone from her pocket and slides it across the floor to Melanie, “I can’t do it.”
Melanie raises an eyebrow before typing as she’s told.
“I don’t want him to know I know anything. I want him to come home to an empty house and never see or hear from me again. That’s what he deserves. I can’t keep forgiving him for shit he totally means to do. I’m like, totally…finally…ready to do something—somebody—else with my life.” She peeks one eye open to look at Melanie.
Melanie shakes her head but can’t help but laugh, “And I’m going to help you.” She sends the message, “Want me to block his number?”
Winnow gives her a guilty look, “I’m not quite there yet.”
“So, what’s your plan for when he calls? And keeps texting?”
“I’m going to ignore it.”
Mel walks past Winnow and the pile of boxes, satisfied with her answer, to the stereo that has avoided being smashed as of yet.
The thought of smashing Chris’ beloved stereo had crossed Winnow’s mind on multiple occasions since receiving the candid photos the night before of Chris and Amy’s sexual escapades guised as an ‘education conference’ in Florida.
“Can we finally laugh at how stupid Chris’s taste in music is?” Mel’s darkly painted lips lift in a crinkled purse. Her silky, black hair, pinned in a half-up bun, bobs with sass as she tosses her head back and forth. She fixes the strap of her bra, situates her off-the-shoulder black t-shirt, and picks up a cd from a large stack of what could be any number of terrible 90’s bands, and fakes barfing. She pulls a bobby pin out of her bun, lifts the lid of the cd case, and scratches at it until she’s satisfied. She closes the case and puts it back on the stack.
“It’s really, really bad,” Winnow can’t help but laugh; what else can she do? From within the crushing feeling of betrayal is an emerging sense of freedom. A great opening of space inside her, where a prior tightness, a seriousness surrounding her relationship had occupied her flesh for years. A space where spontaneous laughter now seems to spring forth from. Everything with Chris had seemed like an emergency, and if not that, then there was chaos, and always a lingering, ambient anxiety. Even with the struggle between them, he was always able to laugh. Winnow, not so.
“I hated how Chris would listen to his dumb ass music and get all pumped up and say mean shit.”
Mel plays the random cd that’s already loaded in the player and begins dancing around in as wacky a manner as possible, “We gotta break the bad association. This music may suck, but you shouldn’t have to remember Chris when you hear it. You can remember me.”
She is still damn gorgeous, Winnow thinks with a smile. Melanie has always been Winnow’s standard of beauty. Called ‘exotic’ by folks in the border towns, yet she could be anyone’s sister, cousin, or auntie on the rez.
Melanie continues to dance, and as Winnow laughs, her body’s response makes her acutely aware how little laughter it has generated. Until today. With the blooming joy of just being around Melanie, she also realizes how absent family has been in her life these last years living in Minneapolis and being away from Red Lake, where she and Melanie grew up. The renewed presence of the essential life nutrients of laughter & family causes her skin to prickle and awaken muscle memory from her youth. “I feel like I haven’t laughed—like really laughed—since we were kids.”
Mel turns the stereo off and walks over to Winnow and pulls her up to her feet, “We’re gonna get you more of that. Pretty soon, you’re not gonna remember what it’s like not to laugh,” She lets go of Winnow and exhales loudly, “It’s 9. Johnny will be here soon to help load your stuff. I think we can fit everything in his van.”
Winnow looks around slowly, then drops her head backwards, “Ugh. This is some bullshit, Mel.” She covers her face with her hands and straightens her head, smoothing her hands down over her face, “I feel like such an idiot,” she looks at her cousin and can’t help but feel better, “but I’m happy we’re going to be roommates. Thanks for letting me stay with you, Mel. Love you.” She hugs her cousin.
“That asshat Chris is the idiot,” Melanie says, face buried in Winnow’s wavy chocolate hair, “You deserve to be with someone who loves you the way you are—amazing,” she pulls her head out, “That includes your smelly feet and kool-aid mustache you’ve had since you were five, of course.”
“I was five! What do you want from me! And how is it on me that you’ve always had a fascination with smelling people’s feet?” Winnow laughs, “All I know is what I don’t want to do: stay here any longer than I have to. And I don’t know if I’m ready to face Jeff and the restaurant situation yet.”
“Fuck it. Let’s head up to Rainy Bay early.”
“Yeah, after Johnny leaves with your shit—it’ll take us no time to load—me and you will drive up, check in early, bum around, and just relax for a couple of days before starting prep for the dinner on Saturday. I hear they got a good swimming beach.”
“What about your stuff for the trip? We need to at least go back to your place and get it.”
“I’ve been packed since,” hiccup! “yesterday.” Hiccup! “My bag is already in the car, I didn’t know what I was going to find when I got here, honestly,” hiccup! “Win.”
“I swear you hiccup more than anyone I know.” She hands Mel her water bottle, “Who’ll let Johnny into your place?” Winnow realizes she’s been so occupied with what Chris has been up to, that she hasn’t asked Melanie about the logistics of the move she’d volunteered to help with.
“My neighbor—our neighbor,” Mel grins. “I told you about her,” she adds as she takes a drink, “Rebecca. She works from home, so she’s always there and she’s cool shit. Johnny’s got a mean crush on her so he’s happy to help.”
Winnow smiles, “Fuck it. Sko!”