Watching–The Fall

You slide the knife’s edge across the top of the cup, making sure there is not one speck of flour more nor less than called for in the recipe. Now you wipe the counter, clearing the pale dust from the granite before you move to the next step. Daughter or changeling? I don’t recognize you.

Cookies today? I want to ask. Angel food cake? Haven’t had one of those in a while, not since that last birthday of your grandmother’s, last spring. Didn’t rise as it should have, and I said it was probably because of your refusal to measure anything. You ate a big piece, served up seconds for her when she insisted, laughing, that she’d had no “firsts”—happy, both of you, in spite of deflated cake, deflated memory. Your sisters had honed skills of avoidance soon after she moved in with us, unable to bear answering the same questions over and over (“How old are you, dear?” “Now, whose child are you?”), but you seemed to favor the absence of a rulebook. To enjoy explaining the point of Monopoly to your grandmother with each roll of the dice. You’d add a new rule now and then—“That property is half price today!”—or hide the Chance cards that demanded taxes. If the game threatened to go on forever, you’d take a muffin break in the kitchen, and all would be forgotten.

She missed you when you were gone, at school for the day, or at work in the nature camp, where you made up children’s games about the monarch migrations through North America to Mexico. You’d bring the butterflies home sometimes, in tents, put them in her room and tell her about how every autumn the people of the mountains welcome the souls of their ancestors arriving on dappled wings—Día de los Muertos, Day of the Dead. The day of her death—is that when this started? That summer morning, those few months back, that we stood sentry on either side of her? We, neither of us, had ever heard a last gasp. You gasped, too, then went back to work, to the camp, as if nothing had happened. But something happened. I need to know, to understand. “Stop,” you said that day in the doctor’s office, your hands pushed over your ears. You don’t want me to talk about it. You don’t want me to talk.

You cheat slightly, like an actress, and I see the egg cupped in your hand. The recipe says it should be at room temperature, and you’ve left it out, touching it periodically. Now you hold it close, as if trying to extract heat from the tepid ovum. Like your turtles at camp, cold-blooded, you seem to crave external sources of warmth now: flames, ovens, cigarettes, thick sweatshirts straight from the dryer. The fleet-foot of Nike adorns the back of the one you wear now, a wing from his sandal just barely touching your name— those same stenciled letters that helped me last winter to find you in the current of runners at Saturday morning track meets. You’d peel the sweatshirt off in the dank chill of the sports barn, and I was the one who always shivered, pulling my coat around me in the stands while you shot off the running block, oblivious to the cold. Sometimes you’d bring the other mid-distance runners home, nap in front of movies, make pancakes, leave slippery eggshells on the counter. You tap the white orb gently now with the knife, all the way around, making a fragile waistline of a crack, then you let the insides spill into the bowl.

The old green cookbook, you’re using that today, I see. The one with the chapters at the end that we used to read aloud to each other. My favorite was “War Time Frugality,” yours the one on proper table etiquette. “How ridiculous!” you’d say, pointing at the illustrations. You thought it was funny, absurd, all that order, all that control over forks and spoons and knives. The colcannon recipe in there—that’s what got me wanting to know more about my own grandmother. Somehow, I’d never eaten that, even though the griminess of the page proved she had cooked it often enough. I started picturing her out at her Brooklyn markets buying kale and potatoes. If she were fixing a Sunday dinner, I’d imagine her a couple of blocks over in the Jewish neighborhood, where she could find stores open after her morning at mass. She called me “bubbula” when she hugged me, used “schmuck” to describe bigots. Yiddish words, I came to realize those were, probably picked up along with her food purchases. Her own grandparents, immigrants, would have spoken Irish, but she didn’t seem to pass down any of their expressions. That day I took all of you up to find that place where she cooked colcannon, I was so saddened by how feeble the house looked there on its crime-riddled block. It was hardly recognizable from the picture we held, a terrier in the foreground, sitting pretty on the same sidewalk that was now cracked and pitted under our feet. You said that I shouldn’t feel bad, though, because if the neighborhood had been prosperous, someone would have torn down the whole block to build something new, and then we wouldn’t be seeing the house at all. And I hugged you and called you “bubbula,” and you looked at me in a puzzled sort of way, because I guess I didn’t pass down my grandparents’ expressions either.

You’re washing your hands again. You, the always-licking-fingers kid who drove your sisters crazy. You’d tell them it was nature’s way, that their immune systems would be boosted by exposure to microorganisms. They’d say they weren’t going to eat your cakes or brownies, but they could never resist, would scamper into the kitchen when you weren’t watching. It annoyed me, all that. “Just wash your hands,” I’d say, impatiently. But if I could revisit one of those days, I’d just smile and eat a brownie, lick my own fingers. Or maybe a better do-over would be that day in Brooklyn, standing on the broken sidewalk, you pointing out that we were lucky to see that house. (I’d freeze the frame there in mid-hug for a while, because I am forgetting how it feels to touch you.) But I have to live with what I said next: That maybe it would have been better if the house had been torn down, if it were gone, so it would stay in our memory as the sturdy thing it was in the picture, instead of the skin and bones of its former self. Yes, I said “skin and bones,” and I want to take those words back. If I could, I’d buy that house and fix it up, make it strong again. That’s what I’d say instead.

You chop so thoroughly, turning to tiny splinters dark chocolate, and then you push the cutting board off to the side. Now you run the mixer, blend the dry and wet ingredients into dough. You used to do all this by hand, tell me the physical effort was an important part of cooking. Kneading the breads at Christmas, you scoffed at my dough hooks. You hated the sound of the mixer. Now you stand there as if you don’t hear it, watch the beaters spin, mesmerized, then scrape them meticulously. You fold the chocolate in, then dollop precisely measured spoonfuls of dough onto the baking sheet—yes, cookies it is today—and you feed the tray into the oven, then clear the counter of all but the bowl, carefully setting utensils into the sink. You scrub, slowly, gently, and I watch for the occasional straight edge poking through the suds like shark fins as you prepare the bowls and blades for their next tasks.

The buzzer drones, and the smell of chocolate and butter melting into flour and sugar wafts through the room. You reach into the oven for the tray and turn to the table where the cooling rack is, where I am. You are a little late catching it this time, that expression of bliss you try to keep me from seeing, that otherworldliness that floats with the aroma. You hold out a hot cookie, centered perfectly on the gleaming steel of the spatula, and I am poised to take it, to play along, to act as if this were all very normal. But today your beautiful little creation somehow drops to the table, and you startle, reach for it, and when you do I get a glimpse inside the baggy sleeve of the sweatshirt. Your scrawny arm, spotted and striped with your punishments for eating. And I want to shriek, louder than I have ever before, loon-like bellows of a mother’s fear and mourning. But I’m hearing the doctor telling me to be calm, to take this fall day by day, to not “make things worse.” It’s really simple, she may as well be saying. Just pull out your tongue.

Maybe I should. Maybe you would think me mad and take pity on me, get out the Monopoly board and tell me what to do when I pick a “Get out of jail free card.” Then tell me again.

Jane Harrington has written books for children and young adults (Scholastic, Lerner) and is now crafting literary fiction and creative nonfiction in Virginia’s Blue Ridge, where she lives, writes and teaches college writing. Recent work has been accepted or published by Chautauqua, Mom Egg Review, C-Ville Weekly (as the winner of the 2014 Writerhouse Creative Nonfiction Contest), and the Anthology of Appalachian Writers. She has been short-listed and long-listed for Irish literary awards, including Fish Publishing contests and the Sean O’Faolain International Short Story Prize. Jane is a fellow with the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.