Green Pepper Standoff
I refused to eat it. No matter what my father said, no matter what my father did, no matter how much he yelled or promised to punish me, that green pepper patty would come nowhere near my lips. No way. Not ever.
I sat alone at the kitchen table staring at it, the circular algae-colored blob my father had prepared for dinner, either to use up the peppers from his garden or to make this week’s ground beef stretch a little further. Or maybe he made them just to torture me.
I detested green peppers back then, and I’m not exactly fond of them now, 37 years later. I can tolerate them raw, chopped in a salad or dipped into hummus or ranch dressing. Lightly baked on a pizza is okay, too; but overly cooked, they make me gag. It’s not just the grassy, bitter flavor. It’s also the way they feel in my mouth. Limp, wet, slippery. To my 10-year-old self there was nothing more gross to put on her tongue, chew up, and force down her throat.
My parents, on the other hand, could eat anything. Fiddleheads, beet greens, mushrooms, creamed corn in a can. They’d already finished their green pepper patties, no problem, and my little brother had, too. But not me. My patty lay on my plate like a slug.
“Eat it,” my father said. He stood by the stove, his temper simmering somewhere near medium-low. My dad wasn’t a large man, but he posed an intimidating figure, partly because of his dark hair and dark eyes and partly because of how angry he got when one of us didn’t do what we were told.
In the next room, the television blared the local news, first weather, then sports. I picked up my fork and stabbed the patty, soft and mushy, growing colder by the minute. It resembled a hamburger without the bun. No ketchup. No mustard. Nothing to disguise its hideous taste. I put the fork down and turned away. Dad steamed, then returned to the TV.
Back then, he and my mother shared cooking duty. They both had jobs, so convenience foods ruled the day. On weeknights, we ate Hamburger Helper, Banquet fried chicken, Prince spaghetti with jarred tomato sauce. On weekends, we had New England boiled dinner, sometimes lasagna. When Dad was in charge, things got weirder. He’d make sandwiches out of leftover lasagna and something called shit on a shingle – basically, meat covered with gravy on top of toast. He’d scramble eggs in the same pan with bacon grease, rendering them black. His macaroni and cheese looked more like soup, while his barbecued chicken legs were burned like charcoal on the outside but raw on the inside, leaving the tendons long, stringy, and pink.
But that green pepper patty was by far his worst concoction. I could only guess it contained beef, breadcrumbs, diced onion, and far too many of those chopped-up green bell peppers, all cooked to the point of sponginess.
“Eat it,” he said. “Or you can’t go outside.”
I thought of my neighborhood friends riding their bikes, of my brother riding behind, all of them pedaling up to the middle school and circling back around without me. Then I thought of those greasy, mushy peppers sliding down my throat.
I folded my arms in protest.
Dad went back to the TV, his temper rising. He wasn’t the kind of guy who heard no very often, and certainly not from his kids; not from his wife, either. He told us what to do, and we all did it. No questions, no sass. I spent much of my childhood grounded – not because I talked back, but because I slipped up. I’d forget to fold the laundry or turn off the bathroom light. I might leave water on the floor after my shower or touch something that didn’t belong to me, like his flashlight or his record albums. That’s when the punishments came down. He’d ground me for a week. If I messed up again, the punishment doubled. One week became two, two became four. One year, I spent the entire summer confined to the driveway.
When the news ended, he came back to the kitchen and found my green pepper patty right where it had been, untouched.
“Eat it,” he said. “Or you can’t go to Girl Scouts.”
With that, he’d thrown down the gauntlet. I enjoyed biking outside with my friends, but I lived for Girl Scouts. Every week, a dozen of us gathered in the Methodist Church basement to earn badges for sewing, baking, planting flowers, or practicing first aid. We ate cookies and drank juice, the really sugary kind. Sometimes the older girls huddled in the corner to gossip about boys and boobs, about first kisses and slow dances. If I weren’t there, what badge would they earn without me? What salacious chatter would I miss?
I looked down at my green pepper patty, then glanced up at the kitchen clock. In minutes, my troop mates would begin arriving at the church. They’d sit on the floor, cross one arm over the other and clasp hands for friendship circle. I wanted to go to that meeting more than I wanted to do anything else, but this was my chance to show my father that I meant business, that while he was in charge of most things in my life, he wasn’t in charge of everything. What I ate and when I ate it still belonged to me.
I tightened the squeeze of my folded arms and tilted my chin in defiance. Surely the punishments would begin now, another week stuck in the house, another Saturday full of chores. I braced myself for the inevitable. But Dad only turned and left again, leaving me at the table to watch the clock tick the evening away. First the little hand, then the big hand. Outside, the sun set. The world went dark. Bedtime came and went.
Finally, he returned. I hadn’t eaten a single bite of my dinner. Not a nibble, not even a peck. Normally, Dad’s wrath came quickly and loudly, with a fury that could not be erased. But this time, something felt different. He didn’t seem all that mad. His blood was hot all right, but it didn’t spill over the way it usually did. I felt a jolt of exhausted elation. Had I actually won this battle? Had I actually made my point? Dad took my plate and put it in the refrigerator. Then he sent me to my room, promising that my dinner would be there again tomorrow, waiting for me. That I’d eat nothing else until I ate the green pepper patty. And yet, when I got home from school the next day, the plate and the patty were gone.
Wendy Fontaine is a multi-genre writer whose work has appeared in dozens of literary journals including Hippocampus Magazine, Pithead Chapel, Jet Fuel Review, Sweet Lit and Yemassee. She’s been nominated for the Pushcart and Best of the Net anthologies and awarded the Tiferet Prize and the Hunger Mountain Prize for nonfiction. A native New Englander, she currently resides in southern California and holds a master’s degree in creative writing.