Put the wrong key in the back door, first. Try every key until none but the correct remains. You want to draw this out for as long as possible, savor and repel the moments as they come. Once inside hang your keys on their customary nail, smoothing out the keychains until they lie straight. Take off your coat, next, and when the sleeves cling to your wrists and turn outside-in take a moment to put the garment to rights. Hang it on the coat rack. Your boots go next. Instead of kicking at the heels until they slip off, sit down on the linoleum tile of the laundry room floor and unlace them: first the right, then the left. Pull them off from the toe and tuck the laces back inside so they do not tangle. Stand up; brush off your pants. Study the sunlight streaming through the window above the washing machine. Trees should sway in the breeze outside. If they don't, strain your ears and listen for the sound of a mower down at the neighbor's place. Remember that they usually mow on Wednesdays—but not this Wednesday, it seems. When you realize you can’t hear the neighbor’s tractor running, try not to think of how this day is anything but ordinary.

The part where you lie to yourself is crucial.

Go to the kitchen and get a pot of water boiling. Agonize over which pot to use and which burner to ignite. Although his mother's recipe is finicky, you’ve made it so many times over the course of your fifteen-year marriage that the process is second nature. Go to the pantry and fetch the seasoning, the bouillon cubes, the wild onion hanging in bunches from the ceiling. The potatoes in the paper sack on the lowest shelf will be sprouting tiny roots from their pits-for-eyes, groping blindly in the dark for dirt and soil they’ll never taste. Take it all to the countertop. Add the bouillon and the herbs to the heating water. Cut one of the apples sitting above the microwave. Put a piece in your mouth. This will keep you from crying when you dice the onions. Spit the apple out before you peel and parse the potatoes. Slide potatoes and onions into boiling water. Jerk hands away from splash and steam.

You won’t escape in time. You will scald your thumb; ignore this pain. Focus on the cooking. Cooking is tedious. Cooking requires concentration.

Ideally, you should have set chuck roast to thawing last night. Take it from the icebox. Season it. Cube it. Brown it in a skillet. Add meat to stew. As you wait for beef and potatoes and onions to soak in the rich flavor of the broth and the herbs, put your jacket back on and lace up your boots—painstaking, slow, breath held and fingers stinging. Fetch the carrots and leeks and corn and the bottle of Old No. 7 black-label whiskey from the backseat of your pickup truck. Take them inside; fiddle with your coat again, and your shoes, and your keys. Finish assembling the stew: carrots chopped and boiled; leeks slivered and added into the mix; corn seared and skinned and bursting with sweetness.

The sweetness is key.

Set the range to simmer; let meat swim in its own juice. Pour a shot of whiskey in the little thimble-glass you bought with him in Cabo on your honeymoon. Throw back the Jack with a grimace, but pour another, and another, and then one more before you go out to the barn behind your home and wade through dust and cobwebs and old wasps’ combs, choking down sneezes that might turn to tears if you don’t mind yourself. Find the jug nesting deep within a box of broken Christmas lights. The still barn air should feel cold against your skin, but don't be surprised if the fire of the liquor keeps you warm and makes your hands hold steady. Twist off the lid. It will be stubborn; don't be afraid to get rough and feel it crack under your palm. Take the tiniest breath of the fumes within—but don't inhale too sharply, even if its scent is sweet.

            Take a moment, now, to linger in the barn. Compose yourself.

            Now screw the cap back on—hurry. Bring the jug indoors. Set it by the stew pot. Pour another shot of whiskey; feel your head start to spin, see the edges of the room blur and tilt. Unscrew the jug and pour a draft of green liquid into your shot glass. Swirl it around, hold it up to the light, a liquid study. Get to know that fluid. Memorize its slosh. Learn the tilt of the sweet green cordial that attracts and kills the rats and mice and cats that haunt the barn on cold winter nights. Don't let the alcohol and the fumes get to you as you pour the antifreeze—five shots of it, one after another, one for every drag of whiskey you threw back—into the stew, blending the sweet flavor of the meat and the sweet flavor of the poison with a wooden spoon.

The last step is most important. Set the table with his mother's china, caress the horseshoe hanging above the kitchen door for luck, and wait. If you get anxious—well. There’s always his mother’s peasant bread to steady idle hands.


Sam Butler has been previously published in The Gettysburg Review and Quiver, with work forthcoming in The Found Poetry Review. One of her personal essays received a Special Mention from The Pushcart Prize and a Notable nod from Best American Essays.

My grandmother reads everything I write. She asked upon finishing this piece: “Where did you get that stew recipe?” She didn’t ask why an unmarried twenty year old would write about poisoning one’s spouse; she figured I had my reasons. I appreciated her reaction to the story more than I did my mother’s, who reads little of what I write. I was barred from cooking in Mom’s house for months after she read “How to Make a Killer Stew”. Only after explaining that I wrote the story to combat feelings of being trapped—in my skin, by my gender, by school and life at large—were my cooking privileges restored. Writing about a woman taking control of her situation (albeit violently) gave me the strength to take control of my own.




Copyright 2009