The skeletal remains after the fire
Removing one ingredient from the stew
Fear of being boring
Why are our children assholes?
She rinsed out the hot sauce bottle her son had left on the side of the sink. Casey always left the empty vessels on the side of the sink, no matter how often Janie said, hey, rinse those out and put them in the recycling, don’t leave them there. Sure, Mom, sorry, he always replied, but here was the hot sauce bottle, a ring of red crusted around the top and some must have smeared on her hand when she rinsed it because when she rubbed her eye right now, it burned and the tears turned to ones of physical pain.
After pouring most of a bottle of eye wash across her face and crying some more and blinking a whole bunch and smashing her brow into a washcloth for a good long while, Janie squared her shoulders, tossed the cloth into the laundry basket and returned to the kitchen. She ran her hands over the granite counter. Looked out the window. Three, no four hummingbirds zipped around the feeder, seeking the nectar, well, red dye #40 and corn syrup, Janie supposed, lighting into stillness for the briefest of moments, then vanishing into the dusk.
She texted Casey. “You and Len still coming for dinner?”
“Ya,” he responded.
“6ish?” she typed.
“Ya,” he answered.
“Can you bring some bread?” she texted.
“Not really eating bread.”
“Oh, I didn’t know… I was going to make black bean soup, is that okay?”
Three dots marched across the bottom of her screen. Janie waited. They disappeared. She turned the ringer on so she wouldn’t miss his text, opened the music app, selected her “Cooking” playlist, a combination of classic jazz and recent indie rock, a perfect balance of catchy and forgettable – catchy enough to make her happy, forgettable enough to not distract her while she put dinner together.
Janie tugged the knife off the magnetic strip, sliced the onion into translucent strips, diced a garlic clove, then another, threw them into the heated cast iron pot. Leaned over to eye the flame, turned the heat down a notch.
She added some sweet potato, stirred, shook in some salt, glanced at the dog-eared, oil-splattered cookbook that she hadn’t needed to open, why she even pulled it out she didn’t know, habit she supposed. Black bean soup with sweet potatoes held the prize for the most cooked dinner in Janie’s once-limited, now expansive repertoire of warm, healthy options to feed her son. Faster to make than people thought and relatively cheap. The trick, Janie knew, was to take out a cup of the soup before serving, blend it and pour it back in. Without time to do it the traditional way, one had to make the flavors meld by force.
Two cans of beans, four cups of veggie stock. Ding! Casey had texted back. “Len doesn’t like sweet potatoes.”
“Yes he does, he has had this soup a bunch of times,” Janie responded.
She stared at her phone.
“I’ve already added them,” she texted.
She stared at her phone.
She wiped up some broth that had splashed on the stove top, noticed the lack of bubbling, turned the flames back up a smidge.
Janie called her son.
“Hey, what do you mean Len doesn’t like sweet potatoes.”
“I dunno, he’s doing some thing where he doesn’t eat nightshades.”
“Are sweet potatoes nightshades? I don’t think they are.”
“Mom, I don’t know. He just doesn’t eat them, OK? Look, we don’t have to come over if it’s a problem.”
“It’s fine, I’ll adjust, see you guys” – the line disconnected – “later.”
I should not cater to them, Janie scolded herself. You spoil him, her friend Monica had noted, not for the first time, last time she was over. True, Janie was folding the laundry Casey had left behind when Monica had said it, so she had to admit Monica’s point, but she knew it wasn’t spoiling exactly. Janie loved being the mom at the house where the kids gathered. Casey’s friends had always been cool to her, cheering when she’d delivered cookies to the playroom back in the elementary school days, greeting her with a hey Mz J when they’d lounge across the living room couches in the high school era, the smell of weed confirming what their senseless laughter had already given away. She’d rolled her eyes and made sure to always keep Butterfingers ice cream bars stocked in the freezer. She was the mom they could call for a ride if they were too drunk, the one who kept a giant box of condoms under the bathroom sink. Len had borrowed her car for his drivers license test, for fuck’s sake.
Memories flew across her mind as she dug around the soup, using the long-handled spoon to dig out sweet potato chunks. It wasn’t until she’d removed about a third of the offending tubers that she noticed the burning dishtowel. Shit, Janie cried. Shit, shit, shit. She tried to grab the towel to throw it in the sink, but the heat was too much and she let it fall on the counter, where it lit up the roll of paper towels like a tiny bonfire. She whirled around. Shit, shit, shit. The smoke alarm opened up, blaring at her. I know, I know, she yelled back. Would the cabinet catch on fire? She had nothing. Maybe a bath towel to smother it, she thought. Why didn’t she have a fire extinguisher, she thought, racing to the bathroom. The firefighter would ask her the same thing later, kindly. Oh my god, Mom, Casey would say. Are you all right, Mz J, Len would ask, brown eyes wide and marveling at the destruction. They’d manage to stop the fire before it spread to the rest of the house, thank god, but no one would be making dinner in what was left of the kitchen for a long while.
Casey would put his arms around Janie and hug her harder than he had in a long while, decades Janie would muse, his beard mussing her hair. God, you reek of smoke, he would declare. I’m so glad you’re okay, Mom. Janie would breathe him in, steady herself and joke to Len, well, pretty dramatic way to avoid serving you sweet potatoes, I guess. What? Len would answer. I love sweet potatoes. I thought you weren’t eating them, Casey would say. You’re crazy, Len would respond. Janie would feel a fury fill her from nowhere, breathe again, extricate herself from her son, thank the firefighters again, sign the papers, promise to get fire extinguishers, think about the phone calls she’d have to make, not make them, instead turning to the boys and announcing, through tears, OK, you guys are taking me out to dinner.