The pages of the cooking magazine are sticking together just enough to slow down her flipping. She shakes a page loose and it sprinkles her with floury dust as it falls open with a papery crackle. A photograph of yellow and pink frosting swirled into lofty mounds atop cupcakes spiraled on a stand evokes for her the gem-studded mountains in a picture book fairy land.
“Don’t you just want to stick your face in this frosting?” She angles the magazine toward her son. He chews on an erector stick and does not look up.
“I want blue frosting!” Her daughter’s brown hair whips round as she jumps back and forth between two chairs. Laura is agitated by the bouncing, foreseeing, in a world where the pink and yellow frosting have not managed to enter, a little body sprawled beneath an overturned chair. Before she begins to remark, her son looks up, “What?”
“I want blue frosting! Blue Frosting! Blue Frosting!” Each pronouncement is punctuated by a jump, hair aloft, and an increase in volume.
“NOOOO CAKE!” Her son shouts, standing and throwing the erector stick at his sister. It misses but manages to hit Laura’s can of sparkling water hard enough to splash water on the magazine pages.
Laura’s head snaps toward her son. She widens her eyes and takes a deep, obviously strained breath, pushing it out through her nose.
Her son reacts as if the breath has the force of a tsunami coming to crush him: Arm raised over his head, body leaning downward to his left, a look of horror on his face, “IT WAS AN ACCIDENT!”
Laura snaps, “I just wish you’d be more careful. And you know you could blind someone by throwing a stick too hard.” She is trying to make her tone sound calm but if she let herself go she would swat him with the magazine. Instead she dabs the magazine with a napkin that has remained stranded on the table since breakfast. A slightly damp cereal flake falls out of the napkin. She crushes the napkin back around it, squeezing to make sure the flake does not escape again.
“And can you please stop shouting. I should just not bake anything if you two are going to act like this.”
“BUT YOU KNOW I HATE CAKE!” Her son shouts. His eyes are beginning to water.
“Ok. Shall we do these cookies.” Laura tries to pretend that he didn’t just shout again and that he is not panicking at her false threat to put an end to the baking session. She knows that without the baking, the length of the Saturday afternoon would spread before them like a vast stony volcanic field. An image of Frodo in Mordor comes to her mind. Each suggestion from her for an activity they could do together would dissolve similarly into screaming between the two children about the way it ought to be done. Laura feels her own eyes watering. She considers a fantasy of running upstairs and locking herself in the bedroom. What would they do? How would they react? Would they panic? Would they raid the pantry? Would they burn paper towels on the kitchen counter like they did last week while she was sitting in the family room folding laundry? Another image oozes out from where the cake frosting does not reach: the house smoldering and the children in tattered, ash-stained clothing, holding hands and watching all their worldly goods disappear.
“What kind are they?” Asks her son.
“Sugar and cinnamon.”
The children answer simultaneously: one “yum” and one “ewww.”
Laura addresses the ewww, “But with lots of vanilla bean.”
“Unh-uh.” Her son shakes his head definitely.
“Okay, then. Not those!” Laura huffs. She cringes at her own huffing and that she has now huffed and can not take it back. She feels like a faucet in an old house where it is impossible to know exactly how to turn the handle to get the right temperature of warm. She grins wildly back to too hot to make up for the cold huffing, “Hey,” her voice is a cheerily grating organ tune, “What about these?” She points to the brown promise of delectable sweetness on the page. Double chocolate thumb-prints with ganache frosting.
“Yes!” Her son stands up and makes an arm pumping gesture as if he’s just scored a point in football.
“I want sprinkles. It doesn’t have sprinkles” Her daughter turns her back to the magazine and pushes a chair roughly away for emphasis. There are gray patches all over the wood floors from chair scrapes. Lines and lines and lines. Laura mentally adds to her list of things the house needs for improvement: 14. Refinish floors. She heaves a sigh, thinking of the curtains and the holes cut into the sofa arm by her son with his first pocket knife. That all started with reprimands from Uncle James : “It’s a tiny thing. It’s harmless! You’re too uptight. Let him have it. It’s his birthday.” And culminated with a polite in-law argument about whose fault the holes were—“Well, I didn’t expect you’d leave him unsupervised with his first knife!” A small sob from her daughter calls her back to the task at hand.
“We can add the sprinkles!” Laura enthuses, solicitous. Keep the faucet warm.
“We can do whatever we want. They’re our cookies!” Her son joins in.
Laura gently pushes her own chair back, hoping she has modeled the correct manner in which to move a chair without destroying flooring. After washing her hands she opens the pantry door and begins pulling out ingredients. “Cocoa,” she says out loud, listing them for the children. “Bittersweet chocolate, white sugar, flour. Flour, where is the flour? Don’t tell me we’re out of flour.” She begins to feel frantic as she pushes the molasses to one side and tries to move a bag of rice out of the way. There is no open space on the shelf so she begins to tentatively squeeze it between the quinoa and the noodles, but the quinoa bag slides forward and before she can stop it, spills onto the floor. “Oh, Nooo!” she moans.
She gets the broom and as she bends over to sweep the spilt quinoa into the dustpan, she sees the bag of flour tucked under the lowest pantry shelf. Everything edible is usually placed above a the children’s reach ever since her son ate a whole bag of butterscotch chips and then vomited them onto the heirloom rug that had been a wedding present from her mother-in-law. “Why is the flour on the floor?” She asks– simply to convey her irritation.
“Daddy put it there after he made pancakes,” her son quickly puts in, “because he couldn’t find space on that shelf.”
15. Reorganize pantry.
The children watch her line up the ingredients. Her daughter is sitting cross legged on one corner of the large counter. Her son is kneeling on one of the dining room chairs, pushed up against the counter’s edge. She sets out two blue plastic bowls, one slightly larger than the other. Her son immediately puts his finger against the edge of one of the bowls and starts spinning it in circles. She is about to reprimand him but stops herself. After all, she has not got out the baking soda and measuring spoons. She is not using the bowl yet. There is nothing in it. Loosen up she whispers to herself. This is about having fun. This is about making memories. What is really important here. She takes a deep breath. Think Martha Stewart, she tells herself but recalls reading somewhere that Martha is impossible to work with and a bitch. Ok, think Maria Von Trapp. Nope—fictional characters cannot authentically serve as inspiration for anything. What about Mother Theresa? Imagine you are in Calcutta and your son is one of the dying. Calm down! The bowl is not going to go flying across the counter, hitting his sister in the head, and knocking her to the hard floor where she will suffer a concussion. No, that is not going to happen. Another deep breath.
She unwraps butter to soften in the microwave, separates egg whites from egg yolks, and sets a double boiler on the stove for melting the chocolate. When she turns back around her daughter is pouring vanilla from the bottle into one of the bowls and her son has the same finger that has been spinning the bowl up his nose.
UGH! “Don’t pick your nose!” She is loud. “If you need to get something out of it, USE A TISSUE!”
Her son pulls his finger out, his eyes wide. There is a large dry booger sitting exactly on the end.
“Go and wash that off, RIGHT NOW!”
Her son quickly turns to walk to the bathroom, arm stretched out, finger held upward, but as he turns around the booger goes flying off and he yelps, “I lost it! I lost it. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” Then he runs from the kitchen crying.
Now the shame of shouting rises up like a wave. Laura wants to kick all the kitchen cabinets. “Why did I shout! Why!” she repeats to herself. This fucking, fucking, fucking house is probably held together with years of boogers. The hinges would fall off the cabinets if it weren’t for all the boogers holding the fucking house together. The whole earth is soaked in human slough for heaven’s sake: dead skin cells in every inhalation, spit evaporated and turned into rain.
“Come back, sweetheart!” She calls out loud. “I’m sorry I snapped at you. I shouldn’t have been so grumpy. Come back and help me bake.”
There is a silence coming from the family room that is meaningful.
“Please come back.” She is irritated by her own whiney, pleading.
“I hate it when you are so mean.” Her daughter scolds her. She slides off the counter and runs into the family room. Laura can hear some whispering going on. She stares down at the cookie picture with all its promise of sweetness, happiness, family togetherness. Why am I giving them sugar anyhow? I’m setting them up for early onset diabetes.
Her thoughts are interrupted by a call from the family room. “Mommy?”
“Yes,” she calls back in her most tender tone.
“Can we watch an episode of Pokemon?”
“Sure. But just one. Come back when it is over.” Laura sighs. A truce of sorts. They get a more palatable caregiver for half an hour. She gets…Laura stops and shakes her head.
While the inhabitants of the Univa region battle, Laura watches the chocolate melt with the butter to form the shiny ganache. She dips a finger in and takes a lick. Lovely. She pours it into a clean bowl where the deep brown of the chocolate gleams in a pleasing contrast to the smooth white porcelain.
The batter has a similar sheen, with the fluffy egg whites and more melted chocolate. The sound of the beater momentarily drowns out the cartoon battles with a busy hum. If she were an angel she would float on just such a fluffy chocolate cloud strumming her harp shaped whisk.
The beeper sounds to let her know the oven is preheated. Laura realizes that they have started on to their second episode, but she does not interrupt them. Scooping the batter is the messiest job, after all. Despite its smooth appearance, the batter is sticky so that as she works measuring out lop-sided balls, her hands and the spatula handle become thinly coated with a layer of it. How many years of practice does it take the magazine bakers to get perfectly round cookies, she wonders. Her cookies always spread out into flat sided D’s or semi-O-shaped forms with protuberances. When the first tray goes in the oven, she stands and licks the top of her finger. She smiles, then washes her hands thoroughly.
“Does any one want to come and lick the bowl?” She calls out.
Feet thunder back toward the kitchen. Both sets of hands reach for the bowl at the same time.
“I’ll hold it. You scrape it with your fingers.” She says.
Her son uses the entire side of his hand to scrape the bowl, then pulls it out and licks from wrist to fingertip, while her daughter carefully dips one finger in at the side, licks, dips, licks. After two minutes of silent licking they turn to run back toward the family room.
“Wash your hands first. I don’t want batter all over the furniture.” They’re already covered in boogers, she adds silently. She asks no questions about what episode they are on. She just wants to give them lovely cookies with sprinkles at the end. Maybe lovely cookies with sprinkles are not meant to be made collaboratively.
She pulls the first batch out of the oven, then places her reading glasses on to read the next steps. The lenses are smudged with some batter, though she hasn’t any idea how the batter managed to reach them. She reads around the blur to find that she is immediately supposed to move the cookies to a cooling rack and indent the center of each cookie with the handle end of a wooden spoon to make a well for the ganache. She puts the cookies on the cooling rack, then examines the end of each of her wooden spoons until she finds one to make the right sized well. Unfortunately, in the meantime, the cookies have begun to stiffen. She has to push a little harder than she expected to make wells. The indentations show a slightly wet center. Laura knits her brows. Now she is not sure about whether, somehow, they are underdone. But the thought of wells full of ganache is exciting and she quickly shifts her mind to the task of filling the cookie wells up with thick and lustrous chocolate glaze.
While the next two batches of cookies are in the oven, Laura puts away all of the baking ingredients, scrubs the counter clean, washes up the bowls and spoons (except the one with the ganache still in it) and sweeps all around the path that her son had taken to wash off the booger. She peers at the dirt in the dustpan to see if the booger is there, but she can not make it out. She hopes it did not stick to his socks, or her own. Now when the cookies are done they will be served with nice cold milk in a delightful clean kitchen. Perhaps her husband will be back from his soccer coaching in time to join them. They will sit around in a relaxed circle. They will smile at each other and nod at how yummy the cookies are.
By the time she has filled the last well in the last center of the last cookie, Laura is starting to feel uncomfortable about the amount of time the children have been in front of the TV, but she decides that she has to eat one cookie in the quiet kitchen before they come in. She picks up a spatula and starts to lift a cookie off of the cooling rack. It is stuck. Why is it stuck? She tilts the rack slightly to asses the problem from the bottom side. Ah. She has pressed too hard to make the well. The cookie dough in the center is stuck to the rack. She lifts the rack the rest of the way to see if the problem is universal to all the cookies, or just some. It is a non-stick rack, so technically, the cookie should not have stuck, she thinks, just as the whole batch of cookies (except for the one she had been looking at) slides to the floor and breaks into pieces.
Ganache has splattered across the kitchen cabinets and the front of the stove. Silver nonpareils have rolled into every corner of the room. And in the center, the cookies are no-longer even vaguely round. In her anger over the accident, Laura throws the non-stick cooling rack into the sink as hard as she can. Because of the crash, there is the thundering of feet back to the kitchen.
For a moment, the children stand transfixed by the mess on the floor. Laura is about the explain how she managed to destroy the whole batch of cookies, when both her son and her daughter dive to the ground and begin stuffing pieces into their mouths.
“Wait. Wait! Wait!” Laura tries to get their attention but the draw of the sugar is greater than the threat of her anger. This is not a disaster to them. This is a gift from providence. But with images of dialysis in her head, Laura plunges to the floor and tries to beat them at collecting cookies. Her daughter has a cheek against the floor and is licking ganache up with her tongue. Her son is chasing nonpareils flicking them at her and at his sister while stuffing handfuls of broken cookie into his mouth.
After salvaging most of the larger pieces, Laura, leans back against one of the clean cabinets. She fends off a flying nonpareil, “Would you please stop that!”
There is still time to lock herself in her bedroom and leave the kids to forage cookie off the floor unsupervised, but there would be such a mess to clean up later, when she came back out. It would all still be there, the way it was before, and maybe worse. Maybe she’d have to call 911 for a nonpareil stuck in her daughters eye. The EMT’s would probably laugh at her like they did the time her son sprayed WD-40 in her face as a joke. “Lady, do you know how much of that stuff I inhale every week while I’m fixing my boat? And I’m not dead yet.” Better to stay out of the bedroom and try to clean it all up now.
Rita Grace Atmajian delights in sunshine, squirrels, and showers. She has a strong aversion to the sight of chewed gum.
She lives in Seattle, WA.
The sight of “assess” spelled a-s-s-e-s only made me laugh louder! I miss your burnt-sugar wit!