I watch her gather ingredients on the table: she measures two cups of sugar and pours it into a clear bowl. She breaks eggs, using her hands to separate the yolks and whites into two porcelain mixing bowls. She melts chunks of butter in a small pan and pours the golden liquid into a smaller mixing bowl, scraping it all with a spatula. She pours milk into a glass measuring cup, water into another, heavy cream into yet another. She’s efficient as she unwraps six more sticks of refrigerated butter, dumping them naked into another, still larger bowl, carefully setting the wrappings next to it. She grates graham crackers into crumbs in a small blender, dumping the light-brown mix into another bowl. She unwraps cream cheese from its silver paper and presses her fingers into the substance to test its softness. I don’t know what she’s planning to make but realize that she’s intending to make several cakes, maybe a cheesecake and something else. Maybe cookies. I anticipate licking the bowls, especially if she’s making whipped cream or something with chocolate, but she doesn’t see me watching or waiting and places the bowls into the dishwasher. It’s as if she’s in a trance, channeling her inner Betty Crocker, her body moving on automatic pilot while her mind has escaped elsewhere, away from the tiny, cramped kitchen with its ugly, avocado-green tiles and matching refrigerator. She keeps an eye on the clock.
She’s following recipes handwritten on a paper, barely glancing at them because she knows them by heart. Whatever she’s making is both for a baking contest and for a customer. The first prize is a mega amount of money and a new kitchen renovation. She told me she doesn’t care about the kitchen renovation and hopes to win the money.
“Nothin’ like cold, hard cash right here, babydoll,” she says, smacking the palm of her hand.
Who knows what the customer wants or when she wants it, but I know that Ma intends to finish this cake before Dad comes home from work. He fails to appreciate the baking contests, says they are a waste of money due to the cost of the ingredients, and he doesn’t get to eat any of goodies. He’s deadly serious when he says it, his tone the opposite of joking. He mocks the effort she makes at the contests, and doesn’t realize that she’s been baking and selling cakes out of her kitchen for months now. I don’t know where she hides the money, but I do know she hides the cake and pie orders in plain sight in a black-and-white marble notebook, written in shorthand, a skill left over from the days she worked in an office. The pages look like lines of scribbles with doodles. While she’s on the phone discussing things with customers, she doodles feet, high-heeled shoes, faces, flowers, plants in pots, cats and dogs. He looked inside once and tossed it at her, shaking his head as if only a dolt would fill a notebook with nonsense.
“This is what you do all day?”
“I see you are still filled with so much joy and light today,” she said.
She flashed him a wide, fake smile. “More like piss and vinegar,” she told Aunt Mary later on the phone.
For months Aunt Mary has been urging her to leave and move in with her and her cats.
With Ma’s network of friends and church ladies, she’s a wizard at hiding all kinds of things: bags of flours and sugars, boxes of powdered sugar, cases of eggs and butter. I heard her on the phone telling Aunt Mary that she doesn’t want the right hand to know what the left hand is doing at the moment, especially when the wrong hands mistake her for Muhammad Ali.
“I’m thinking about it,” she says when Aunt Mary suggests we come stay with her.
She puts the phone on speaker so she can talk to Aunt Mary and still bake, which is how she spends every morning.
“I just want the bad parts to stop.”
“Whatever happened to the Boom-Boom Becky in you?”
I want to know about the “Boom-Boom” too but I don’t ask.
“Time to resurrect Boom-Boom, MoJo Mary,” Ma says and laughs her head off.
The last time I hear him mistaking Ma for Muhammad Ali, like always the sounds of cracks and thuds race up the stairs like horses stampeding. Usually I hide under covers, trying not to tremble, though this particular night something changes; something different happens. After the slaps, instead of her whimpering or crying like usual, she roars like a lion. Her voice booms from her belly, loud, and reverberates up the stairs.
“NO! YOU! DON’T. I’m NOT your fucking punching bag.”
Glass crashes and breaks, and something else thuds, a different kind of thudding, like balls bouncing off a wall, the thudding repeating itself in quick succession—thud-thudthudthud—thud. I hide deeper under covers and pull the blanket over my head. Will she run up the stairs and order me to get dressed like she did the last time, when we went to Aunt Mary’s for a week? That night electricity energizes the air in the house, a crackling. No one runs up the stairs. After the thudding ends, silence drapes the house, quieting everything except the sounds of my heart beating in my ears.
The next day an aluminum colander filled with peeled, boiled potatoes sits on the counter, leaning forward on a crooked foot and wearing dents along its sides like a series of dimples. A large bowl overflows with peeled and sliced apples covered with cinnamon and sugar. On the kitchen table stands a large, dusty trophy, a shiny, blue column taller than my wooden ruler holding up a golden girl with her arm pulled back, a ball in her hand. A giant, golden star surrounds the figure, and it’s the first time I see her softball championship trophy from her high school years.
“I dug it out and stuck it on the table,” Ma says.
On speaker phone Aunt Mary laughs. “Boom-Boom Becky wins the day,” she laughs.
“I won’t be erased,” Ma says.
“Plenty of room for you and Phoebe here with me,” Aunt Mary says.
I know Ma really wants to open her own bakery and talks about it all the time when she drives me to and from school, when she warns me not to tell anyone else about her dreams because whispered dreams never come true. “Imagine being surrounded by cakes and cookies, ice cream and candies all the time,” she says.
It sounds impossible. “I love chocolate candies,” I say, not believing her dream but imagining chocolate-covered caramels and chocolate-covered pretzels. “Can we stop on the way home and get some, please?”
“Of course not,” she says.
From the back seat I look through the windshield and see a herd of dinosaur-sized, puffy clouds tinged in gold and racing forward in a peacock sky. The sky is beautiful. I love watching the sky, and then I imagine something too. I imagine sketching and painting the sky, wondering the best way to capture those clouds on a paper. I imagine swirling paints into vibrant colors the way Ma mixes food coloring into buttercream and step by step, in my mind’s eye, paints the sky. We both dream in colors.
“I love the sky,” I say. “I could draw the clouds and the sky.”
She places the softened cream cheese in the large, silver mixer bowl, turns the standing mixer on to low. Slowly she adds the sugar, a spoonful at a time, and I see the cream cheese grow as creamy and fluffy as clouds. She moves nonstop, periodically glancing at the kitchen clock as if racing against it. When the phone rings, she wipes her hands on her jeans, answers it, tells Aunt Mary she’s in the middle of it and intends to finish up before Mr. Butterbeans gets home. I know she’s talking about Dad. Mr. Butterbeans sounds like a happy name, but jokes don’t make him laugh. The night after the electricity changes the air in the house, after the sounds of thudding balls hitting the walls, after the trophy—all shined up—occupying the middle of the table, they both seem different, though Ma and I stay wary.
The mixer rotates the bowl, the cheesy mixture swells. She rolls a lemon between her hands before cutting it in half and squeezes its juice into the bowl. She adds the yolks one at a time until each is folded and blended in, turning the mixture gradually into a sunshiny yellow. She uses the spatula to help blend the eggs before she grabs a dark bottle and, without measuring it, adds the vanilla extract. The mixing bowl turns by itself while she focuses on dumping the melted butter into the graham cracker crumbs. She works the butter into the crumbs and then dumps it all into a springform pan, gradually affixing it to the sides. When the pan is covered by the cracker mixture, she bakes it for a few minutes before sticking it in the refrigerator. She checks the oven, rotates the dial to 350 degrees, and grates lemon zest into the standing mixer bowl. She watches the yellow shavings disappear into the creamy mixture. Her eyebrows knit together as she turns off the stand mixer, clears the sides of the bowl with the spatula, and inhales before she glances at the kitchen clock, cleaning up as she goes. When kitchen is mostly cleaned, she pulls her roasting pan from the cabinet and fills it with water. She pours the creamy, sunshiny mixture into the springform pan, sets it into sheets of aluminum foil, and wraps it around the pan’s bottom before carefully setting it into the water-filled roasting pan. She carefully slides it into the oven.
I watch her move—graceful and swift, confident and smooth. Everything is done. The kitchen is clean. She stacks chicken pieces in a bowl and covers them with spices, herbs, and white wine and waits for the customer to come and pick up the cheesecake, packaged in a cardboard box. Ma accepts the cash and slips it into her jeans’ pocket and hands the lady the box with the cheesecake.
Later, when Mr. Butterbeans arrives home, Ma’s busy with the chicken for dinner. Dad’s hands overflow with unwrapped presents. It’s nobody’s birthday, and it’s not beers. Boom-Boom Becky’s bakery rises a few notches with the professional-level cake-decorating tips he hands her, and I step a little closer to painting the sky onto paper with the set of sketchbooks, pencils, brushes, paints, and a how-to sketch book he hands me. I dance around the house, thrilled with my new present.
“Here we go again,” Ma says and rolls her eyes. She sets the unwrapped set of decorating tips on the counter and flicks it with her pointer finger toward the wall.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Another bullshit gift after you mistake me for Muhammad Ali? It’s stuff. Just stuff.”
“Can’t you just say thank you?” Mr. Butterbeans sounds pouty.
I’m afraid he’s going to hit Ma.
“Thank you, Daddy,” I shout. “I love my gift!”
It’s true. I do love it and skip around the kitchen, but I don’t run to hug him. Dad nods at me but Ma acts indifferent, focused on setting chicken pieces into a pan. I wish with my whole heart that she’d smile and show appreciation.
“A little gratitude might be in order,” he says, going into the living room to turn on the TV.
“Is that a fact?” she asks.
“What the hell does that mean?”
Ma shoots him a look. “It means what it means. You’re still on notice.”
“I said ‘sorry.’”
Ma gathers a half a dozen potatoes and sets them on the counter near her.
“Sorry doesn’t feed the bulldog,” she says. “You need help. Get your ass over to the VA. I’m sick of all the I’m-sorry gifts taking up space around here.”
She does not wash or peel the potatoes.
He glances at the potatoes. Then stares at his shoes.
I feel sorry for him. He looks defeated standing in the dining room, trying to watch the TV while talking to Ma. Untrimmed, his black mustache hangs over his upper lip as if it’s trying to escape his face; whiskers shadow his chin and lower cheeks. He and I share the same dark, almond-shaped eyes, but his go black when he’s mad; the same upside-down V eyebrows (except his draw together when he’s angry) and his straight nose, except his nostrils grow larger and smaller with his breaths when he starts to get agitated. I watch for these signs—changes in his eyes, in his eyebrows, in his nose. I watch his arms and hands, now inert by his sides, knowing they can fly into action like a machine at any given moment. I watch his feet to see if they will start toward Ma in a way that’s not good. I watch because I can see that Ma is not acting grateful enough for those cake-decorating tips. Instead she eyes the chicken and moves pieces around the pan with a large fork, and acts as if she doesn’t know the man glaring at her from the other room. She glances at the potatoes sitting on the counter and at Dad in the dining room.
She holds a long moment of silence. “Or we have nothing to talk about.”
Ma continues moving the chicken around the pan. “Look, I’m not waiting forever for you to get your head on straight,” she says. “I’m done.”
“Who do you think you are?” he asks, sounding shocked that Ma is acting the way she is.
She sets the fork down. “No better or worse than you. I am who I am.”
He steps toward the kitchen as if he was going to start something.
“Not one step further,” she says. Her voice sounds like the school principal talking to unruly boys sent to her office.
He fails to listen. He steps closer to the kitchen. I want to run upstairs to my room, but my feet stay glued to their spot near the refrigerator. Mr. Butterbeans looks as if he’s going to rush at Ma, but before either of us knows what happens, she slips out a potato stored in her apron pocket, lifts her right heel, digs her left into the floor, bends over, explodes off her spot, and pitches that potato straight into Daddy’s thigh. It hits with precision and he falls to the floor, hugging his thigh. She grabs another potato and clutches it in her pitching fist.
“Get help or I’m gone. We’re gone.”
She pockets the potato and looks at me. “Phoebe, fill a plastic bag with ice and bring it to your daddy.” Her hands are shaking a little; she stares at the chicken in the pan for a few minutes without moving and takes in a few deep breaths before she lowers the heat and finishes preparing dinner.
I listen. Daddy sits on the floor, hugging his skinny leg, the potato on the floor next to him. I hand him the icebag. He moves the potato, pats the spot on the floor, and tells me to sit down next to him. I shake my head and run upstairs to my room. I don’t want to be too close in case he switches into the scary man. When we eat dinner later, no one talks. We eat mashed potatoes and chicken. We eat green beans with almonds. We eat a green salad with fancy dressing, and for dessert Ma sets an apple pie on the table, which she warms up and which we eat with vanilla ice cream.
Things are never the same after that day when Ma pitched a fast potato at Mr. Butterbeans. The next morning Ma tells him to call in sick to work. They drop me off at school, and later I learned that she dropped him off at the VA hospital “to get squared away.”
Rosalia Scalia’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Amarillo Bay; The Baltimore Review; Blue Lake Review; Crack The Spine; Door Is A Jar; Epiphany; Euphony; The Furious Gazelle; Hawaii Pacific Review; Mad River Review; moonshine Review; North Atlantic Review; Notre Dame Review; The Oklahoma Review; Pebble Lake; Pennsylvania English; The Portland Review; Quercus Review; Ragazine; Riddle Fence; Silk Road Review; Smile, Hon, You’re in Baltimore; Sweet Tree Review; South Asian Ensemble; Spout Magazine; Talking River; Taproot; Valparaiso Fiction Review; Verdad; and Willow Review. She has won numerous awards and two Pushcart nominations. Her collection Stumbling Towards Grace is forthcoming from Unsolicited Press.