The Indie Ink Writing Challenge this week comes to me from wondrous Wendryn, who asks me to write about cooking something I love. Stereotype alert: I am both a terrible cook and awfully immature about what I eat. (Among other things!) If it were up to me, I'd have the same meal three times a day, and it would most likely be something nutirionally horrifying. (I have long maintained, and continue to do so, that if I were not married, I would be dead of cholesterol poisoning by now.)
So, that being said, here it is. It is yet another extract from my novel in progress, as yet untitled, which is a sequel to a novel no longer in progress, available for sale in this very sidebar, if you are so inclined.
For the unitiated, Kate is 3. The narrator is Ray, who has wound up, through a series of events described in the first book (available at a low low price right over to the right there), becoming one of Kate's primary caretakers. Mom Mom is Kate's grandmother, Ange (Angela) is Kate's aunt, and Wendy is Kate's mother.
(Amy got my challenge.)
I call this "Say Hello To Heaven".
"Can I watch TV?"
"Sure, kiddo," I said. Her mind, as creative as it was, sometimes seemed like a box with three raisins in it. She could hold onto a thought, but she was ever willing to exchange it for a more exciting or newer concept. PBS was showing Sesame Street, which amused her enough for me to get dinner started. As my apartment evolved into Kate's half home, I had learned to keep certain provisions close at hand- acetaminophen, band aids, juice, white bread, American cheese, frozen chicken nuggets.
"What do you want for dinner, Kate?" I waited for the words to settle through the TV haze. Like any kid, she went into another world when the idiot box was on. She didn't respond for a beat, so I went with choices. "Mac and cheese or grilled cheese, baby?"
"Grilled cheese, please?" That got through.
I started the oven. As a sop to a balanced diet, I was going to serve her chicken nuggets, too. That would start a little fight, but I was prepared for it. Kate was a monochromatic eater- she wanted one thing and one thing only on her plate. I admired the purity of her feelings. The empty old oven made little bangs and pops, as I imagined the metal changing shape very slightly as the heat built up. I took out a baking sheet, one of Mom Mom's old ones, and got out the bag of nuggets from the freezer. They were animal shapes, and I tried not to think about documentaries I've seen about how these little beauties are put together. I tore the bag open and spread the nuggets out amongst the ice shavings and bits and pieces of breading that came out.
"Unca Ray?" Kate had walked over to watch me.
"Don't want chicken."
"I know, Kate. But we have to eat a balanced diet. We can't always have the same thing."
"But I like same thing." I couldn't argue with that logic.
"I know. But if we want you to grow up big and strong like your Auntie, you need to eat lots of things. Not just one thing."
"Don't like chicken."
"Now, Kate, I've seen you eat chicken a dozen times. You do like chicken."
"I don't." She frowned slightly and walked back to the TV. That move reminded me of her mother, the wounded retreat, but always getting in the last word. The chicken in the oven and the timer set, I turned my attention to grilled cheese. I had made grilled cheese since I was 12 years old, but there was a method to making it the way Kate wanted, which Mom Mom had dutifully showed me. She didn't like any of the characteristic brownness of a grilled cheese sandwich- Kate would pronounce that "burned" and refuse to eat it. She could show her mother's stubbornness when pressed, too.
I got out the equipment- battered frying pan (another refugee from Mom Mom's kitchen, blackened from long ago hamburgers), tub of butter, American cheese, and plain white bread. Simple, straightforward, pure. I let the pan heat up, and then added the first buttered slice of bread. There was something musical about the sizzle of butter on a hot frying pan. It promised that good things were about to happen. I built the sandwich quickly on top of the sizzling slice, cheese and then an opposite slice of buttered bread. It burbled away happily.
Kate stopped singing along with the television and marched over, watching me cook again.
"You not gonna burn it?"
"No, baby, Mom Mom taught me."
She seemed to think about that for a moment. "Ava said she's going to have a little baby sister soon." No segue, just another thought popping into place. Wheels were turning. I could see the thoughts working their way across her pensive face. "I wish I could have a little sister, too."
The sandwich was reaching its critical point. You had to let it get soft, but not to the point the butter would turn golden brown. I tried flipping it, smiling inwardly as I noted the moist whiteness of the bread. Not a hint of brownness. Perfect.
I held my voice in the steady, slightly cheerful tone I tried to always maintain with her. "I wish you could, too."
She didn't know how much I wished that. I missed her mother every day, someone who had lurked around my periphery, then entered my life suddenly, turning it inside out and disrupting it gloriously, then leaving, violently, as abruptly as she arrived. I had Kate, of course, and that was a million blessings. But to not be able to share it with Wendy was a constant dagger of regret sticking out of my back. As great as Joe DiMaggio was, he wasn't Babe Ruth- as special as Kate was, it wasn't the same as having her mother here.
The sandwich was done, and I slid it off, checking the bottom for brownness, and onto a plastic plate with a cheerful looking whale on it. She was back in front of the TV again. I wondered if she was going to continue along this line of questioning, or if I had satisfied her with that non answer. The nuggets were done, so I slid them out and added six to her plate. I knew she would only eat four, but I was optimistic. I quickly made another sandwich, properly browning each side and adding tomato slices from last night's takeout salad leftovers. Once I added the rest of the nuggets onto my side, our plates were complete. I added a circle of ketchup on Kate's, without being asked. Sometimes you just know.
I set the plates on the table, adding a glass of water for me and another juice box for her, and then came up behind her. Baby Bear, one of the more cloying Sesame Street characters, was in bed, being talked to soothingly by Mama and Papa Bear. I heard a sound effect clap of thunder, and sussed out that Baby Bear was frightened of the storm on Sesame Street. Kate was looking on, rapt. I watched the light from the screen reflect on her face, and she reminded me of her mother so much at times like this it felt like I would break.
"Unca Ray?" she said when the sketch ended.
"Say that again?" Theology?, I thought, panicking.
"Mom Mom said my Mommy's in heaven. Where is heaven?"
"Heaven? Well, nobody knows where it is, baby. I know it's safe there, and I know your Mommy can see us. I know she's watching you, because she used to talk about you all the time." I felt my voice breaking on the shoals of that sentence, and I steeled myself to continue. It was true- we had long conversations about proto-Kate, worrying about clothes and food and how life would change for all of us.
"Oh," she said softly. "Is dinner ready?" She could smell the cheese sandwiches, the smell of fat and bread, satisfaction and care. The apartment smelled like family.
"Yes, baby." Subject change, I thought jubilantly.
"Unca Ray, I'm not a baby."
We sat down over the cooling plates.
"You make good dinner, Unca Ray."
"Thanks, kiddo." I felt satisfied, competent. We ate quietly, both of us missing Wendy in our own private way. Like any parent, I hoped I was doing the right thing, wound up, and threw the pitch, hoping for the best.