“Ham and Starch” a short story by Claire Oleson


Slowly, with her voice pointed down towards the snow, she starts.

“That we aren’t for the morning/ that we aren’t for house-fires./ That if you lit a match in your basement/ and it caught on/ and grew a mouth for itself and swallowed/ and you got gone, behind teeth,/ even then/ even if you fit in the stomach of a poorly written obit/ you wouldn’t be able to do anything but breathe/ on purpose.” Her mouth looks pink when she talks like this, when she reads things she wrote out loud. I’m pretty sure that she closes her teeth at the line breaks; I can see those little cuts, where she bites off a sentence and makes the decision “poetry” over and over, breaking bones.

“I don’t think I like it,” I tell her, “I think I am for the morning. I get up early. Eat something. And then I go and then I’m gone. I think I’m really for it,”

“Morning? Sun and cheerios from the box? Milk of questionable age that you drink anyway because getting in the car is too hard in the moment? That kind of morning?” I’m nodding, “No, no that’s not what I wrote,” she hands me the paper, she’s pointing to the beginning. Her hands are pink too, it’s cold, that’s why, the poetry isn’t making her hands pink — I would hate that.

“Oh you wrote mourning, not morning. You wrote that we aren’t for the mourning,” After I dig my hands out of my pockets to hold the page, they get a little red. I hate it.

“Yes, that’s what I wrote.” Her hands slip back into her coat.

“Homonyms,” I say once, but mean twice. I keep looking at the little poem. We’re walking, the sky’s a nice color, inside my uncle’s left femur, a cancer cell metastasizes, the sky is still a nice color. The blood pools into my hands, trying to make heat. The red collects and breathes a sort of pink onto the skin. It’s biology, not poetry, it’s for homeostasis and has nothing to do with homonyms. This is what I say so don’t throw the paper into the snow because she wouldn’t like that, even though that’s exactly what she does with her voice when she reads.

“So, do you like it? Now that it’s about being sad and not about daybreak?” She’s looking at me, or maybe a few inches past me, between pine trees, groping the cold for some version of love.

“What’s it mean? What do you mean by it?” I answer. I half expect her to let the conversation eat itself there, for the opposing questions to go cannibal and leave us in a molar-dented quiet. But she talks back, she’s reliable like that. No one knows about my uncle’s bone cancer yet, not him, not me, not the doctors. Nothing has been done, it’s a secret inside the calcium itself.

“I think, and I could be very wrong, but I think I want it to be about how disaster and dying and the loss of a person can’t possibly be explained well. That we still don’t know what to do about dead people. That no one knows how to say ‘gone’ the right way.” She manages. The sky, it’s lodged between shale -grey and vein-blue and then softened. It looks like it’s sort of waiting to be more, but doesn’t really plan on getting shaper or darker or better. It’s like one of those people who keeps talking about cutting their hair and never does, the people who just love looking at scissors and thinking about those two sharp things happening to them.

“Emily, I don’t think it’s very good. Sorry, but I think that there have been good eulogies. and I think people can understand what “gone” is. I think it’s a little too melodramatic to be dramatic. But that doesn’t mean it’s not actually good, it just means I don’t like it, Emily, that’s all.” Now it’s quiet. We’ve started to move uphill. The cancer cell, the one humming up questions to feed to my uncle, has this outer edge of blue that looks a bit like the sky right now. Of course, no one will ever know about that, but it’s just as true as anything else I could say. I like to think about it though, even though I can’t, because my uncle hasn’t been diagnosed yet, I like to think that maybe the sky got into him a little bit and was just trying to open him up like a nimbus cloud. That nothing actually tried to kill my uncle. That it was just the sky that mistook him for rain. Emily looks unhappy with me.

“Emily, it’s just that it’s writing about writing. The fact that you try to explain how things can’t be explained, well, it just feels a little cheap. Writing about writing, about poetry, I think, it bothers me.” I take a moment to look at the woods. It’s nice here. It’s cold and everything around us is very tall and the dark has started to spill in places. I know I can’t mop up the night from in between the trees, but some piece of me feels like cleaning, like scrubbing all the bruise from the snow and letting everything go taller and whiter.

“Can I still come for dinner?” Emily is not very tall.

“Yes, of course. It doesn’t matter what you write, you can always come for dinner with me and my alcoholic relatives. Actually, it’s just my uncle tonight, my mother is somewhere else I think. But yes, of course, please come, please sit down and eat things that a man named Roger cooked for us. He’s so bad at cooking, Emily. Please come.” We’re almost to the hilltop and I run out of breath just as we hit the crest, so I have to stop inviting her to get my lungs back. There is a valley below, it dips and pools as the night drips into it, almost like an IV.

“What are we having?” Emily turns around and starts to go back downhill. I want to tell her that we’re having a night with a man who, in a month, will be in the hospital with his long hair coming out of him like cut fishing lines cut in the cold. But no one knows about that yet, that he’s a man about to perform a self catch-and-release that will leave him skinny and bald and with these eyes that look they belong somewhere way more beautiful than sunken into that man who burns pasta, Roger.

“Potatoes and some part of some animal, that’s probably what we’re having,” I tell her. Roger drinks every night and has a great liver. He will never have a single problem with his liver, because of the cancer, it’ll cut him off from getting problems, sort of like a line break.

“Hey, will you take this back?” I hand her the poem, my hands are red and chapped now. She takes it back, folds it, and puts it in her pockets with her hands.

“So meat and potatoes, huh. Meat and potatoes,” she holds up the word potatoes and lifts it from the snow, looking at me. “Here’s something interesting, I think every time we hit a new week, you sort of just forget that I’m a vegetarian,” she finishes.

“Oh shit, yeah, you are, aren’t you? Well. Potatoes I guess. No one hunted them, they never felt pain, they don’t have names, they’re just round things from the dirt. You can have potatoes and I think we maybe have some cauliflower and also there’s definitely at least a half-serving of oatmeal in the fridge. So.”

“Oh great, oatmeal and potatoes and then maybe cauliflower. You spoil me. Your house is a mess. And also, potatoes can have names. Potatoes can definitely have names if you name them.”

“Emily, Roger’s really bad at cooking but he really likes to cook. So we let him. He burns everything and he gets his post-hippie hair in all the food. All the food, Emily. I swear I had something long and blonde crawl out of the salt shaker once. But you said you wanted to come over, and tonight, Roger is home and Roger is cooking.” I wait for her to say she doesn’t want to come after all, or maybe that she’ll cook her own food, or maybe that she’s even a little sorry.

“Spudnik,” she says, her mouth is pink.

“Okay, what?”

“Spudnik, Spudnik is what I’m naming my potato.”

“As in the Russian satellite?”

“Yeah,” she breathes and a slip of heat curls out from her speech, white and dissolving,             “But not Sputnik, Spudnik, like a spud, so it all comes back to potatoes.”

After the white is done spooling out from her mouth, a line of red creeps over her bottom lip.

“Oh, you’re bleeding.” I point and she stops for a moment. The house is in view now. My uncle is smoking and shoveling snow from the driveway. His lungs are fine. His lungs will never have a problem. He inhales all the way in and breathes out something bigger and wider than I ever will. When we stop like this, the cold cuts in. The cold cuts and the blood goes up to meet it and you can make any sort of disease up in the numbness you’re left with. We’re both quite healthy though.

“I am bleeding,” Emily agrees after testing her lips with a finger and coming back with red. “Well, it’s from the poetry. I bite my cheek in between the lines. It’s a habit.”

“It’s not from the poetry. It’s from practice or anxiety but the words didn’t actually make you bite yourself.”

“No, it’s from the poetry,” she counters slowly. We are both looking at Roger now. He is tall and dying but that second thing is something none of us get to know yet. His dying is really small right now, it’s only a couple of cells thick, and it looks like the sky today. I always thought He would die big and maybe red and definitely drunk. But that’s not what happens.

“Hello Mr. Simmons!” Emily calls, the back of her now ungloved hand is trying to push the blood back into her mouth.

“It’s fucking Roger, dear, Mr. Simmons is dead!” He shouts back. He’s affectionate with my friends. The cigarette is in between his teeth, he bites down and calls out from the rectangle of space the addiction affords him. The snow is collecting in his hair. It’s coming down big now, huge blank spaces moving across what you can see. We come down too, down the hill carefully and it takes us longer than the going up did. And then we’re there.

“Want me to finish the shoveling?” I ask him. There’s about three yards left, and he’d never say it out loud, but I can see that he’s tired and has been drinking and still believes his long hair makes sense.

“Sure, sure. I’ll put dinner on. Get some warm stuff happening. Emily, can you boil water?”

“I sure can, fucking Roger.” He laughs at this. She’s good, occasionally she’s real very good. I watch them walk inside. I think I like them.

The shoveling is not too hard. It’s cold out and my gloves are thin but the action of it comes into me like water, like it could fit no matter what. I press myself self into the progress and forget a few things for a little while. I decide to try the poem again, it isn’t hard to remember.

“That we aren’t for the mourning” I can feel that there’s water in the snow too, “that we aren’t for house-fires./ That if you lit a match in your basement/ and it caught on/ and grew a mouth for itself and swallowed/ and you got gone,” I almost fall here and then, I don’t, “behind teeth,/ even then/ even if you fit in the stomach of a poorly written obit/ you wouldn’t be able to do anything on purpose/” the light goes on in the kitchen, “but breathe.”

The shoveling takes a few more minutes. It’s starts to snow harder, more of the world gnaws away at itself and almost half the things I can see are fast and white and snow. I can’t see into the house but I can tell, with my back to the door, what’s inside of it. I know it’s warm and it’s got a girl and a piece of casual sadness who smiles a lot and stands just a little under seven feet tall. I know it has food that’s not quite real food and a little bit of sky-grey cancer too. I don’t actually know about that last thing yet, but I’ll know it soon. I stop. It’s clear enough. I put the shovel in the garage and go to the door and open it. The cold cuts in after me. Emily is inside.

“He didn’t seem drunk.” she says. I don’t know how, but she is managing to hold a passed-out fucking Roger in her arms, and nothing is shaking.

“Never does seem drunk. He’s a very clear person. Let me help you. He has a couch.” We take Roger to his couch and lay him, face down, with his head dangling over the armrest so that if he vomits, he won’t swallow it and die. Emily asks if we should take him to a hospital.

“No. This happens. If you take him anywhere, he’ll scream after. This is just fine, this is how it goes.”

“He fell into Spudnik.”


“Lift his head,” she suggests. I do, by his hair, but gently. Half of Roger’s cheek is caked with congregations of mashed potato. His face is red and warm.

“I told him about what I wanted to name my potato,” she starts, her voice sounding far off and cold, sounding like it’s coming from the snow.

“As one does,” I encourage.

“Yeah, I told him, and then he wanted to name his Spudnik too, so I let him and then he sat down to eat it. I was standing because I was waiting because I thought we’d wait for you, but he didn’t seem to be doing that. So he sat and cut it open and then just fell right in, before butter or salt or anything. I was worried he may have burned his face.”

“He looks okay. I mean, he doesn’t look great, but I’m not sure he ever looked great. He does have Russian satellite shrapnel all over his nose, but stuff like that just suits him. Worse things have happened to better people. He’s going to be okay. I’m going to get him water. And we’ll eat. And we’ll wait. And we’ll leave the potato on him. He’ll think it’s the best thing. It’ll make him real happy.” Emily nods. She knows what I mean, or she looks like she does. Either way, it’s good enough for me for this Wednesday.

We take the remaining two lukewarm boiled potatoes and we eat them and we watch him doing his vast and important nothing. I think a lot about the snow. There is less than half a world outside now. In an hour, it will be too dark and too white to see that anyone shoveled anything.

“Hey Emily, what was the meat. Did he make any meat?” She looks at me like she had in the pine trees, a long smooth thing that goes right past me but is still definitely for me.

“It’s cold cuts. It’s deli meat. It’s not even meatloaf, it’s cold cuts.”

“It’s cold cuts?”

“It’s cold cuts.”

Claire Oleson is a student and writer hailing from Grand Rapids Michigan. She is currently absorbing her undergraduate studies in English and Creative Writing at Kenyon College in Gambier Ohio. Her work has previously appeared in Siblíní Art and Literature Journal, Potluck Magazine, Tipton Poetry Journal, HIKA Literary Journal, NEAT Magazine, Newfound Journal, and the University of Kentucky’s graduate literary journal, Limestone, where her short story “Ten Degrees Below, Convection Bake” was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Claire has a great affection for peninsulas, carb-based consumables, and language.


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