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by Claire Oleson

When your mother shattered her car through that sea-glass morning and left us standing in a wake of exhaust, I realized exactly what had to be done with the strawberries. We took out small knifes and sliced into them, scattering white-veined disks along the countertop. A few of the wafer-thin coins were set over our tongues while we worked, ringing out miniature symphonies in carmine between clenched teeth. Your mother, in a manic surge, had bought six large cartons of strawberries before she went screeching off without us. We felt abandoned and stranded, sure, but we also felt like we should make use of what red she’d left us with.

I mixed batter in the teal bowl without a lid and got drips of it on your mother’s apron. I heard her scoff from fifty miles away in my head, the tires hot and loud under her disgust. She had hated dirty aprons and napkins and towels. I anointed my shoulders with a palmful of flour to chase away her lingering disapproval and carried on. Her irrationalities weren’t here any longer. There was only us, having small hands and open fruit, grappling with our own insanities. I frothed egg-whites and you almost nicked your thumb. We were doing really well.

We baked. We baked and you cried once, right into the meringue, so we tossed it and made cream frosting instead. It wasn’t alright yet. It wasn’t alright but there was a lot of sugar in the pantry so we got by. I drew out the cake at the right time and you hummed the frosting over it with a bent spoon and you laughed, right into the cream, so we added more. Your mother’s kitchen was laced with baking soda and egg shells and her daughters cut wild from a cruel stalk.

It became clear once we set the confection near the strawberry cross-sections that there was too much fruit for the pastry. We embellished the white with scarlet circles, pressing raw ruby into the foam of white-gold. The frosting rose up around the seeded edges, lapsing onto the surface, fastening the fruit to butter and sugar in a little marriage you could swallow.

It would be three hours before we got the call about the crushed hood and the crumpled dashboard of a red car dangling off the side of the interstate. Three hours before the phone rang to tell us about metal crinkled up like tissue-paper. Three hours before we would take the cake out and cut small slices and keep the table very clean even though she was not there. Or anywhere. I could not help thinking about the snow off the side of the road, the ivory heaps of cold, rising up around the red car. There are things that are supposed to be beautiful: cake without justification clogged with too much fruit. And then there are things that are supposed to terrify us into respect and awe: cars thrown off roads by odd neural connections coughing up too much dopamine for one skull to carry.

Red anatomies over white hills. Sugar on sugar. We passed both under our teeth and bit them off. Your mother, our mother, though calling her that hurt me, had gone too quickly over iced roads. You had cried into meringue. Everyone fell in places, we were just lucky we didn’t do our collapsings at seventy miles an hour down winter-edited asphalt. We stuttered tongues over strawberries. That’s as dangerous as we got that afternoon, with different reds and a different icing, falling into our shared genes for comfort. I laid mint leaves on the waning gibbous of our cake, hoping it would look different than that phone call felt like. It helped a little, but my genome was still thrumming in my ears, tying me to a slick embankment where your mother had stopped being our mother.

Mint leaves or not, the colors and even the aftertaste, they felt so close. Married. You had called them married.

We gave the half-cake to our neighbors. It’s too bad that our mother didn’t go with it, somewhere wedged in the layers, angry at the flour for its granulation. I could see her scrawling out a will in between the calories, ignoring her own postmortem for one more set of burning tires.

 

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