I scrub harder under the faucet, the metal sponge stinging into my palm. A black something flies into the sink. Char from an old meal? A piece of the electric stove coil?
“What do you remember, Mama?”
The television lights the person who was my Mama in changing technicolor as ads flow one into another. In the dusklight, all I can see in the frame of the door is her in that chair. She rocks, rocks, watches, and calls out a thing that hits me in my heart every few cycles.
I shut the water and could hear the ad better. “…specialized in installing custom and curved stair lifts for over 25 years. Make access to your second floor a breeze with—”
“Mama, what do you remember?”
I look around for the recipe card. I don’t know how many times I’d looked at it in the past week, but I look for it again. Deep in the grocery bag, sticking to the small bottle of milk, wet from the water that pooled off it. Shit.
Pinching a corner, I peel it away and rub hard against my flannel before slowing to press the card to my chest. I close my eyes for a moment. Please, God. What did it say, again? Where did it start? The milk, or the flour? I can’t remember. The cold. It’s in my chest now, I feel it back again.
A soft one.
I fold my hand back and let the card fall into an open palm. Not a single letter smudged or out of place. The sheen from decades of smoke and life keeping it just the same as I first saw it last week.
Butter. Then flour, then milk. Right.
I take them out of the bag and search my pockets for the keys. Unlocking a nearby drawer gives me a couple spoons to work with. Taking the key to a cabinet, I pick salt, pepper, and cayenne. Bending down to open another, I grab a pan. Eyes on the index card again. A final cabinet shares a few pieces of bread for—
I can hear it, a rerun of I Love Lucy. No more colors, just grays and blacks to fill my window into the living room. Gushing laughter as Lucy reads off Ricky’s horoscope. A good day to get a haircut.
Setting the stovetop back in place, I crank the heat. No, wait. I flip the card. Turn the heat down a bit.
When was the last time I cooked in this kitchen? Christmas, maybe. At least ten years ago. Kev was 3 or 4, and Dara said it’d be the first one he’d remember. Mama, Dara, and I in the kitchen, making roasted turkey, glazed ham, candied yams, green bean casserole, pecan pie, a whole day we spent in that kitchen, with Kev coming in to mix a bowl and dash away. Kev. He’s nearly off to college now, wants to be a…wait, okay, nearly off to college. That made things—
The pan. I toss the stick of butter in and get a gratifying sizzle. Do I want a sizzle? The card offers no answers. The sizzle drops away as the butter fades into a yellow puddle as I realize I don’t know how much flour 1/4 cup is. The measuring cups were in one of these...
I almost reach for the keys, but drop my hand to the bag of flour. Ripping it open, I pour a small white mound over the puddle. That’s probably a quarter cup.
Grabbing a spoon, I shuffle the two together. The card tells me to move it around for a few. I keep my arm moving as I twist around the kitchen. Yellow walls, brown spots on the ceiling like a cow was inked and thrown against it, and not a clock to be found.
Until, there. Leaning on the far counter against the wall. Cracked glass or plastic on the face, the hands give me 2:47. 2:47? Either way, the twitching forward tells me it works.
The cold is gone from my chest. A sun is there now, spreading rays up my left arm and into fingers that clench a fist.
“Mama, what do you remember. What? What is it?”
“…and we’ll reach all the areas you can’t! Call Your Time to Shine window and gutter services today.”
The doctor’s visit comes back to me in waves of shame. I choke and call back in a lower tone.
“I’m sorry Mama, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. Oh God, what can I do, Mama?”
The clock slinks past 2:54.
“God damn it.”
The mix in the pan is a blotchy dark caramel color, with snowcaps of white poking up near the edges. I grab for the card. Black pepper, cayenne, add the milk a few pours at a time.
God, why did I do this? Why am I in this kitchen? Why did that card reach me, from the bottom of the boxes? Why did I keep it in my pocket, put it on my bed stand, take it to the store? Why couldn’t it have been Dara?
Too much pepper flies out after I shake it harder to loosen the pebbled clumps. It’s fine, it’s fine. A smaller touch of cayenne. And then milk, I let flow in. It carves a hole in the center of the pan, a geyser of white with small puddles forming on top of brown grains around it.
I swirl gently, then harder. It turns more the color of the walls, at least.
Letting the spoon rest on the inside lip, I reach back into the grocery bag for the last jar. Amour sliced dried beef. I twist the lid to open it — and feel my hand give way first. Fine. Draping my shirt over the top, I grip it again. The sun is all around now, my hands are fire. I rip it to the left, and hear the pop.
Bent pucks of beef are folded in the jar, speckled with God knows what. I pluck a stack and put the jar on the counter, shoving it away with the tips of my fingers. It reaches the edge of the sink and topples in with a wet clang.
I rip the beef pucks in half and toss them into my smoke-stained-yellow mush. The card lies next to the stove, a new small splotch added to it. Let it bubble around for a few minutes, then give it the salt. A sideways scribble next to that says, And more pepper!
I turn back to Mama to see her looking at me.
Her eyes are white from the kitchen lights and catch mine straight on. Her lips, pale, curved in, wrinkled valleys pointing at them, are trembling as she rocks back and up and back and up.
Mama looked at me when she said it, and she keeps looking at me.
Cold. Cold in my cheeks that I try to swallow away.
I pivot on my feet.
“The stove is on Mama, I need to watch the stove.”
Sweat falls down my back as I feel those eyes looking through the doorway. My Mama had eyes that flew all around, a mouth that laughed and gaped and stained you with reds and purples. Her in the living room, rocking to the television, face an old projector sheet in the wind. I don’t know that Mama.
I find the keys in my back pocket, unlocking a final cabinet to take out a plate. Laying the bread in shingles, I grab the handle of the pan and let it drip over. Peppered yellow soup with red floes.
Pepper! I grab the salt and pepper and shake them over the plate.
Reaching between the fridge and the counter, I grab a TV tray. Tray and spoon in one hand and a plate of steaming something in the other, I kick my feet to get them moving.
Mama wasn’t rocking anymore. Her face a stone, her eyes a lighthouse, I step over the sill and into the living room. Flipping open the tray, I lay the plate in front of her and reach for the remote to turn off the television, silencing Lucy’s plan to have Ethel pose as a fortune teller. I grab at the light switch before the dark can reach me.
“I made you some dinner, Mama.”
I guide the spoon into her hand, closing it with both of mine. She’s cold and loose. I try to burn the sun and give it to her.
“I’m sorry Mama, I don’t know what it is. I don’t know what it is. But it was in your kitchen box, Mama.”
Mama is silent as I move her hand down to cut beyond the yellow and through the bread, hitting the bottom of the plate. Rolling her arm, we cut out a soaked piece. I pick a slice of drowned beef from across the plate and drop it on the spoon that I move to her lips.
“You need to eat, Mama. I’m sorry, you need to eat.”
But she jerks her hand in before I could go further, moving it into her mouth. Free and chewing, she moves her eyes down to the plate, over to the kitchen, and back to lock with mine. Brown eyes. Wet eyes.
“Joey, honey. I remember.”
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My god! This is one of the best pieces I've ever seen on here. You pulled my emotions many places in a perfect way. Amazing work!
Yes! A shortlist! I knew this would happen!
Thank you so much for reading, and your kind words. I really appreciate it, and it helps my drive to write more! And always get better.
The imagery in this piece is stunning. I love the urgency and the immediacy of how you thrust us into each moment. Congratulations on the shortlist.
You guys must have appeared from the blues. Two submissions and a mentioned already. I am learning for sure.