For my Excellent Colleagues who are Fired

BUTTERNUT SQUASH FOR THE SHOCKED

In the puke-green kitchenette/meeting room in Morgan Hall that winter afternoon, we didn’t talk about the provost’s plan to fire faculty.  Instead, we tried (and failed) to figure why we were meeting, then adjourned.

At home in the kitchen, I put on my greasy hoodie that doubled as an apron, and placed a heavy wooden cutting board on my favorite corner of the counter—the one that gave me a view of Tom and the kids arriving home from work or sports.  I set a butternut squash on the board. The squash was longer than my hand and one end was wider than the other.

With my 10-inch chef’s knife, I sliced off the prickly stem, then turned the squash upright, held it with my left hand, and pierced it with the knife.  I was going for an even split, which took some effort. To stay on track, I cut into one end a little, then turned the squash over and started from the other end.  I repeated this procedure until the gashes on each side met, dividing the squash in half, exposing its insides—the world split open.

I dug my fingers into the slimy cavity of squash seeds and scooped them up with my hands, but I had to use a melon baller to remove the stubborn strings that clung to the orange flesh.

This was, it occurs to me now, the last activity I was engaged in before my worldview, my confidence in democracy, my confidence in the future, began to fracture into sharp edges, like a mason jar does when filled with boiling or freezing water.

My hands were still slimy when Tom walked in.  He had been at a UPI meeting.

He was breathing quickly and he didn’t ask me how my day had gone.

I washed the slime off my hands and gave him a kiss.

“Right there in the meeting, union leaders would interrupt discussion to announce they were getting emails from faculty asking for help.”

“Sounds like your meeting was more relevant than mine,” I said, smiling, holding on to the innocence I was about to lose.

“They were forwarding messages from their deans, who were forcing them to go to layoff meetings,” he said.

Tom did not change into his Cubby hoodie.

“Check your email.” He sat down in one of the tall chairs on the other side of the counter and waited.

I threw a chunk of butter in the squash cavities where the seeds had been, salted them, slid them into the oven, sat down next to Tom, and folded back the cover of my tablet.

There was an email from my dean, but that was not unusual.

What was unusual is that she addressed me as“Dr. Stovall,” not Holly.

At first, I saw only a bunch of hard black lines—like a set of weapons—bludgeons and swords.

“Here,” I passed the tablet to Tom.  “You read it.”  I looked towards the garlic that waited for me on the cutting board, stood up, and then sat back down.

“I don’t believe it,” Tom was right next to me, but he seemed far away.

I grabbed the tablet and forced myself to read the words, but I couldn’t make sense of them.  It was a joke, a mistake.

“I don’t believe it.  I don’t believe it.”

I posted on social media that I’d been laid off.  Maybe my media friends would also comment:  “I don’t believe it.”

I didn’t know what to do next, so I minced the garlic and tossed it into the pool of melted butter in the hollows of the baking squash.

My knuckle brushed against the red heat element and turned ashen, but I didn’t say “shit,” as I usually would have when cutting or burning myself in the kitchen.

Without turning on any lights, I went upstairs and lay down.

Tom, finally in his Cubby hoodie, sat on the edge of the bed next to me.

“Why don’t you come down and eat with us?”

“Eat?”

“Have dinner.”

I was grateful that he, the kind man in my life, was requesting something from me: share a meal with us, like we always do.

The kids had set the table.

The squash was soft and sweet.  I managed to swallow a few bites.

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My chef’s knife piercing a butternut squash. I’ve had this chef’s knife for 20 years. I keep it sharp, too.  Sharper knives are safer for cutting vegetables, because they give you more control.