Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: Cooking or Baking (01/04/07)
By Jan Ackerson
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Billy glances toward his mother’s bed, unsure if the silence from her corner is because she is unconscious or simply gone. Her grayish sheet is crumpled, her bed empty. Billy lets out his breath and walks barefooted to the window.
A car cruises by, speakers booming. In the distance, a siren screams. The sky is pale, the sun invisible behind the city’s haze. Two big boys walk past Billy’s building wearing identical orange sneakers. One of them tosses a basketball from hand to hand. Billy watches as the boys turn the corner.
A gnawing emptiness draws Billy to the kitchen. Sam and Nicky are both awake now, whimpering and rubbing their eyes. Pulling a chair over to the counter, Billy stretches toward the cupboard and peers inside.
An opened bag of flour. A bottle of vegetable oil. Canned beets. One waxy square juice box. Spaghetti noodles. Green Jell-o in an envelope. A nearly empty jar of peanut butter.
Billy’s mouth floods at the thought of spaghetti, but he is afraid to boil a pot of water. It will take hours to make Jell-o, he knows, and his brothers have begun to cry, their stomachs as empty as his. He fumbles in the drawer for a can opener, but he only finds a wooden spoon and a little knife. He pokes timidly at the can of beets.
When the crying from the mattress increases, Billy knows that he must feed his brothers soon. If he cannot quiet them, the neighbors will be angry, may even call the police. And if the police come, they might take him away from Sam and Nicky.
So it comes down to flour and oil. Billy takes a cereal bowl and sets it on the counter, then picks a few bugs out of the flour. He spoons flour into the bowl, stopping occasionally to pinch out another mealy intruder. Uncapping the oil, he cautiously pours a thin drizzle which forms a golden pool in the mound of white. He stirs and stirs with the wooden spoon until he has a pasty dough.
Sam wanders into the kitchen, sucking his thumb and clutching a plastic car—a treasure from a Happy Meal eaten weeks ago. He tugs on Billy’s shirt with a wet and grimy hand, whining for food. To quiet his brother, Billy hands him the peanut butter jar and sends him back to Nicky. Soon both little boys are still, and Billy can see that Sam has offered the baby one chubby finger.
With his brothers silent, Billy returns to his task. He finds the skillet and places it on a burner, the blue flame low. The flame worries him a little—his mother would be angry if she caught him using the stove. But his brothers will not be satisfied with peanut butter for long, and they could be alone for hours. He adds a bit of water to the flour and oil and pours the batter into the skillet, where it pops and sizzles. A hot, wheaty odor fills the apartment.
When the smell begins to tickle Billy’s nostrils, he cuts his flatbread into smaller pieces, turning them over in the skillet. A few burnt sections stick to the pan, but he ends up with six oddly-shaped chunks, golden brown and specked with black. He upends the skillet onto the table and blows on the bread with quick puffs. After a few seconds, he takes one of the chunks over to his brothers, who are following his movements with wide eyes.
Billy breaks off a bit of bread and hands some to Sam. It seems to have cooled enough, so he kneels next to Nicky and pushes a few crumbs between his baby brother’s lips.
Twice he returns to the kitchen—once to collect the remaining chunks of flatbread and once for the juice box. The little boys sit side by side on the mattress, and Billy silently holds the purple box as Nicky and Sam drink grape juice from their brother’s hands.
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