We're tired of Candyland and any game born inside a cardboard box. "Auntie J, can we do something else? I'm bored." I need to stretch, get off the floor. "Of course," I say. "How about we bake some chocolate chip cookies?" I see the dull and vacant look in Chelsea's eyes. "Slice & Bakes that come in tubes?" she whispers sideways to the air. "No, heaven's no, not that kind, the real ones with softened butter, flour on the countertop, which makes a cloud each time you sneeze, which makes you laugh, laugh some more. We'll use extract from vanilla beans, various ingredients you'll have to climb a ladder for. You'll be the one who gathers all the things we need, arrange the cookies on the pan. I'll just do the measuring." Her eyes return to spiraling lights of blue topaz. She does a little Oh boy, goodie, goodie! dance, which draws a smile between the wrinkles on my face, softly grinning wild flowers in some Monet packed with blossoms lingering. She is six. I am almost sixty-eight, broken and too near the edge of do it now—later won't be soon enough.
Our cookies turn out perfectly, the kitchen turned upside down, the way I liked it years ago, when patience wasn't stabbed by pain. Flour is everywhere I look, snow drifts in the August heat. Not sure what the season is—I like it here. Her little fingers dipped in butter, then in dough developing—with chocolate chips, extra ones, toffee bits that soften as the cookies bake. I put her on a stepstool, let her turn the mixer on—she pushes High and what a lovely mess we have. White dandruff of some deity. "Auntie J, can I eat some chocolate chips?" I let her loose—doing whatever she wants, give her yogurt and a spoon to level out the glucose rise and cranky dip. We bake four dozen, eat enough, leave disasters where they wait, they can wait, dishes piled in the sink. A little soap, a little water, then we head outside to sit beneath her favorite tree, a birch that guards the health of infants sleeping in a crib.
She's too grown up for car seats or a cradle now; I have to improvise with dreams, even though I know she'll see her share of suffering, like anyone who skips a stair to stay ahead of some unwelcome destiny. We shake the excess flour off our shirts, hand it over to the grass. My yard is full of ferns and roses, hanging baskets, the basic plethora of color that lifts the darkness just a notch. "Honey, want to play a different game? One made by making up the rules, not reading them?" She's interested, very, very interested. Her eyebrows lift in crescent, horizontal loops of just plain curiosity. Chelsea loves imaginings. Her best, best friend in this wide world is the mouse in the book: Stuart Little. I've given her three copies now, one for every room she frequents in her home. "Can Stuart play along?" she asks. I nod and say, "Of course he can." Chelsea's such a charm for bracelets on an aging wrist, one broken, both arthritic now.
"Here's the plan"— I say to her, eager to get started with whatever's new—“it might not work; it crossed my mind like wind chimes on a breezy day." She looks confused. I tell her this: "We're going to try 'n match the colors, shapes, the smells, and textures of the garden—all the stones, the sky above, trees lined up on distant hills—any, some, or all of it to foods you love, or even ones you wouldn't touch even if your mother said, 'Eat it now and I mean Now, or you are going to your room!'" Chelsea winces: "Mommy does that all the time, but you just let me eat dessert as long I have other stuff along with it." I went too far. I know too much about her mother's rituals, despise her for her attitude, hide it like some slimy snail beneath a rock. Hate the times it shows its face. "Let's get started with our game. I've got a pen and notepad here; I'll take notes for both of us. And if you want to really study blossoms in the yard, go ahead, snatch the heads right off the stems. You're too young for scissors now. Chelsea stands with so much pleading dignity, hands on hips, "I am not!" but I refuse to take the risk. I'd rather lose a wad of flowers pulled from dirt, than see her missing half a thumb or have some scar, even though she ogles mine as if they're inked-in colored signs of some tattoo she'd want someday. Chelsea's way too young to know they aren't just bumps on skin on shoulder blades, wants to touch them, find a spark of reasoning behind them all. She knows too much and questions them as if they'll answer back to her.
This little girl looks at glazes of a puffy cloud and off we go—she goes first:
"I see frosting on a birthday cake, not much is left; I ate it all."
(I have to keep my laughter in a box for now, let her think.)
I tell her, "I see vichyssoise that's dark, like someone poured in soy sauce by accident." (I'm pretty sure a storm is coming from the south, but cannot bear to break the spell.)
"Auntie J, my tummy hurts."
"I think you had a little too much cookie dough. I did too. I'll get us Tums and be right back."
Meanwhile Chelsea raids the garden for its symbols, takes no more than just one bud from every plant, puts them on the picnic table, pats one with a fingertip, shoots a look: it could die because of touch. We split a Tums, dart into our little game. She tells me Stuart needs a column on the page for what he says. "I'm so sorry, I forgot. You get points for everything that Stuart says."
Chelsea looks incredulous, as if a brand new station wagon sits outside a falling shack. Someone who is very poor, who can't afford a car at all, is standing there—then there it is, metallic blue. I love her look of gratitude.
"Auntie J, this yellow flower—it's a slice of pie right off the sun, but pretty small. Stuart says it's whole sun, all of it, from where he sits, since he is itty bitty—you know that!"
"It could be a slice off bitter lemon rinds, but I prefer your photograph."
"See that moss, Auntie J—it covers those three rocks out there. That's parsley all chopped up for stew. Stuart says it's a blanket to keep the cold away."
"It could be mold on bricks of cheese."
"That's ucky stuff."
"You're absolutely right; you get an extra point for that. You've earned almost all the points." Chelsea carries on as if she knows that points are not the point at all.
"See this red one here, Auntie J—it's sticky, feels like cherry juice that stains your hands, from goopy cherries in a can. Stuart says it's purple robes on some old priest, but doesn't know we have to stick to food to play this game, that purple's not the same as red. Let's put him down for a little nap."
"Good idea. We could be here 'til the sun goes down."
"Fine with me," Chelsea says, "This orange Gerber daisy, 'member when you taught me that, it's a wheel of baby carrots, same as what we feed Snoopy all the time for little snacks."
"It might be an orange, missing sections same as people missing teeth."
"That's an ucky one, again, Auntie J."
We both have to pee, so Chelsea follows me into the house, the toes of her shoes touching my heels. I'm busy contemplating steps, but feel the closeness hovering—some barricade that halts the wind. We take turns peeing. She goes first, then asks if I have lemonade. "Yes, I do. We'll have some soon." I wriggle my pajama jeans down my thighs. Chelsea sees my carbon parts, the gaping knee that's not a knee, asks me for the millionth time: "Does that thing hurt? Never mind, I know it does, but you won't tell. Don't want you having ouchies everywhere. It makes me hurt—not sure where." I tell her: "I am fine—we're fine." She sees right through the cellophane, but off we go for lemonade. "Auntie J, you limp a lot, just like Spot, our doggie Daddy put to sleep forever and forever and I never saw her again. Mom said, No! but Daddy let Spot sleep with me." She's crying now—I hold her tight against my chest, tell her I won't go to sleep.
Back out on the patio, Chelsea's growing tired of flowers; they're wilted now, flat, and thin, weak as some old woman's skin that bruises at the slightest touch. She quickly throws them in a bucket next to her, with all the frazzled ones before. I deadhead when the sun comes up. She knows why the bucket's there.
"See those rows of trees up on the hill? They're stalks of fresh asparagus, my very favorite vegetables. See that little stack of wood? It's piled up like roasts inside the fridge. Daddy says he likes them rare, that Mommy cooks 'em 'til they're only good for firewood. That's exactly what he says."
"Honey, you sure won this game, hands down, of course! You got almost every point.
"Stuart helped. This is fun. I wanna play some more."
"Yes, it was. Not today. You won, but didn't gloat at all, which is good, very good. Bragging makes your head swell up like big balloons, then oops, it pops. It's getting late; you better go. Did you tell your mother where you are?"
"Said I was going to Amy's house, for Candyland."
"Why did you lie? You shouldn't lie. Lies are nests of awful wasps and you get stung. Later on, you feel really terrible."
"Well, you told a lie today. You told me that it didn't hurt, your leg, I mean."
"That's different. I didn't want to pass you pain like giving you some awful flu. Let's fix a plate, a dozen cookies for your mom. Then you need to tell her where you've been all day."
"Un un, no way. She won't care, she's not you. She might kinda' smile, then grab her wine, then turn her back. I'll be looking at her back. She'll be busy on her cell. I'll be looking at her back. Okay, I'll go. I wanna' stay." Jesus, I've just handed her some stinkin' fish eggs on a cracker round.
"Don't forget…Stuart's in the doggie bed, next to Snoopy, snoring like old men in chairs."
"Uh huh. I'll get Stuart, then I'll go, but I'll be back. Promise me, you'll still be here."
"I promise you."
"I wanna' stay. I really wanna' stay with you. Make certain you don't do, well, you know Spot's forever, ever, ever sleep."
"Okay, bye, bye. Thank you for the afternoon. It was fun—I learned a lot."
"So did I. Two opposites: what's sweet and sour. Bye, bye, sweetheart. See you soon."
So this is how it feels to be a mom, to be a voice that's needed in the dead of night, to be at all. I whisper that one when she's left—out of sight—see sugar slipping off a spoon. Cry because a child is mired in swamps of apathy, rising as her mother speaks or doesn't speak, because I've never had a choice between the hunger and the meal. I'm the hairy coconut, falling from umbrellas of a palm, spilling milk in rivers running over traveled rocks. I wash the dishes all by hand, try to save her fingerprints.
Janet Buck is a seven-time Pushcart Nominee and the author of three full-length collections of poetry. She has published more than 4,000 poems, short stories, and non-fiction essays in print and on the internet. Janet’s recent work has appeared in Antiphon, Offcourse, Zombie Logic, Boston Literary Magazine, Vine Leaves, Poetrysuperhighway, Misfit Magazine, and River Babble; more of her poems and prose are scheduled for publication in forthcoming issues of The Milo Review, The Ann Arbor Review, Abramelin, Lavender Wolves, PoetryBay, The Birmingham Arts Journal, and other journals worldwide. In 2015, Buck was a featured author in Poetrymagazine.com and Burningword. Her latest print collection of verse is Dirty Laundry (Vine Leaves Press, 2015).