By Sally Bunch
Ellie liked to see one useful item become another. In the October issue of Real Simple, you could turn old forks and spoons into coat hooks by drilling a hole in the handle and heating the metal to bend it. Cocooned in her fleece blanket on the living room couch, Ellie imagined showing them to her friend Megan the next time she came over to play and seeing if she could guess what they once were. She knew that her mother had a hair dryer that could substitute for a heat gun, but the silverware was in short supply since her dad moved out nearly a year ago and took half the kitchen stuff with him.
Ellie’s mother came in from the front porch and passed through the living room to the dining room, where she put Ellie’s dead sister Sloane’s ceramic dish back in its prominent spot in the cabinet. It was her project at Plaster Fun Time, where Sloane’s tenth and last birthday party was held three years ago, and they were warned that the glazed pieces could not be used for food. Sloane had intended it for candy, but her mother repurposed it to hold cigarette butts. Bet you wouldn’t find that idea in Real Simple. Ellie had given up on trying to get her mother to quit smoking and dumping her ashes on the pink flower Sloane had painted at the bottom of the small bowl.
Before her mother closed the glass cabinet door she reached for a wineglass, which she only ever used as a wineglass. Ellie heard the familiar cork popping, signaling the delay of dinner.
“What do you love most about your kitchen?” read the title on the next page, and readers from across the country weighed in. “I became a cook here,” wrote one. Another complained about how hers needed a makeover, but she still found it “full of love, energy, and enthusiasm.”
Ellie’s mother appeared with a glass of wine and small bowl of chips and sat in the easy chair across from her. She was wearing a T-shirt and the same black drawstring pants she wore most days, since she wasn’t working and her other pants were too tight. Ellie had once shown her an article titled “The well-balanced wardrobe,” but her mother dismissed it because the magazine was five years old, which meant that everything had gone out of style. She waved her hand down at her rubber flip-flops and said, “My look is timeless.”
Ellie held up the article. “Mom? What do you love most about our kitchen?”
“What?” Her mother clutched the TV remote in one hand, looking as if she had forgotten why she picked it up.
Ellie repeated the question.
“I don’t know.” Her mother sipped her wine. “I never thought about it.” Another sip. “What do you like about it?”
“I don’t know,” Ellie said. She scanned the readers’ responses, particularly the bold print that she came to learn was the most important part. Nothing fit her situation. “It has…food?”
“Good answer!” Her mother flashed a smile. “I agree. Maybe not the best food, but food.”
This was one her mother’s ideas of humor—put-herself-down jokes. Ellie chuckled out of respect.
Her mother got up for a wine refill. The sun was low enough to cast light on the coffee table, revealing a patch where the glass had disturbed the dust. Ellie returned to the magazine, to photos of the pretty pink items that you could buy to support cancer research.
Ellie had come across her first issue of Real Simple in the giveaway box of magazine back issues next to the library exit. Even though they weighed down her backpack she always looked out for new ones. The librarian asked Ellie what a ten-year-old got out of reading the magazine, but began to put them aside for her anyway. Adults always felt bad for her, Megan liked to remind her. Megan’s mom took her with them to the library on those afternoons though Ellie’s mother rarely returned the favor.
When her mother reappeared Ellie skipped forward and showed her the page about candy apples.
“Mom, can we make these with Megan tomorrow?”
Her mother bobbed her head from side to side, which Ellie recognized as a joke about to come out. “Yeah, sure, and why don’t we make Dr. Jenson a rich man treating all your cavities while we’re at it?”
“Come on, Mom, I’ll brush my teeth after, I will!”
Her mother leaned over the coffee table and sipped her wine as she glanced at the open pages Ellie held up. “We’ll see. I’ll look for a kit at Foodworld.”
“They have kits?” Ellie asked. While she made a mental note to look for the kit during their next shopping trip, her mother got up to return the chip bowl to the kitchen, and reappeared with another glass of wine.
Next, an article about hairbrushes recommended a paddle brush with boar bristles for Ellie’s long straight hair—were the bristles really made from a wild pig’s fur? Sloane had the same type of hair before it all fell out. So did their mother, though lately she wore it short—one less thing to take care of.
A little while later her mother rose and reached across the coffee table to pick up the remote, maybe to actually turn on the TV this time. But instead of putting her glass down she continued to hold onto it, and her unsteadiness caused some of the wine to slosh out and spill on the light gray-colored arm of the chair. She chuckled as she wet her thumb and rubbed at the stain. “Maybe it’s time to switch to white wine!”
Ellie lifted the magazine to cover her face up to her eyes, and glared at the mark. Not even the seltzer water method she read about in another issue could get that out.
As she headed back into the kitchen, her mother added, “Or maybe that magazine can show us how to make some burgundy slipcovers.” She stopped in the doorway and spun around to face Ellie. “Maybe even a new chair, maybe we can make a chair out of a table, or a bathtub!”
“That’s not funny, Mom,” Ellie blurted out.
She stopped in the doorway. “What did you say?”
Ellie rested the Real Simple issue on her lap. “I don’t think that’s funny.”
Her mom grasped the doorframe and leaned forward. “Of course you don’t think that’s funny. All you do is read those stupid magazines, like they have the answers to everything.”
Ellie trembled and threw off her blanket, wishing she had a snappy comeback. They looked at each other then at the floor, mouths agape, until her mother swung backward into the kitchen like a door with a hinge broken. Ellie’s suspicion that her mother was getting a refill was confirmed by the glug-glug sound. Though her body felt like a lead weight on the couch, something rose up from inside her, a loud vomit of words.
“Well, what do you do all day?”
Her mother then reappeared at the door, cradling her glass, menacing eyes shifting and at moments boring into Ellie. Those “check-ins” in which the school counselor asked if she had ever felt unsafe hadn’t made sense until now. Ellie did her best statue, fearing her mother would interpret the slightest move as another provocation.
But the drunken eyes stumbled to focus and sustain anger. As Ellie realized that her mother wasn’t going to throw her glass or take a swing, her body cooled to normal, and she covered it again with the blanket. Her mother stepped into the dining room and contemplated the glass cabinet.
“Don’t even think of it,” Ellie muttered under her breath, thinking about Sloane’s bowl, her mother’s disrespectful cigarette ashes. She pulled the blanket over her eyes.
After what seemed like ten minutes of silence she heard her mother say, “Look, honey, I’m not feeling well, I’m going to go lie down.”
“Okay.” Ellie tried not to groan, though her stomach was beginning to make the noise for her. Sometimes her mother wouldn’t come back down until around Ellie’s bedtime, or Ellie would have to rouse her.
When she heard the bedroom door close Ellie emerged from hiding. She was tired of relying on snacks or microwaved soup for dinner. The kitchen floor crunched under her feet and she winced as she refilled her mother’s chip bowl for herself. Ellie had finally succumbed to the temptation to tell off her mother. But her mother wasn’t strong enough to deserve conquering, and Ellie wondered if she would even remember what happened.
Ellie pushed an empty wine bottle and a dirty cereal bowl aside and reached into the cabinet for a water glass. She closed her eyes and imagined standing in the “well-organized kitchen” she had just seen in the magazine. Spotless counters, wicker baskets holding oils and spices, a cutting board shaped like a fish, colorful nesting bowls, orange walls. Her father pouring coffee, her mother supervising Ellie as she flipped pancakes, as she once did with Sloane. Maybe Sloane would be there with her homework at the kitchen table because her living was a condition for the other good things. The only feature her real kitchen shared with the Real Simple version was the white of the cabinets, as long as you didn’t look too closely at the grime around the handles.
Ellie returned to the couch, paged through some more ads and came across the article “friends in need.” Titles were always in lower case, something her teachers would frown upon, though no other mechanics rules were ever broken.
The author stated that just asking a person going through hard times, “What are you doing?” or “Is there anything I can do to help?” was not the helpful thing to say. Ellie remembered the times people asked these questions, but not how her parents answered them. She flipped the page and scanned the subheadings: divorce, serious illness, sick family member, death in the family, job loss. Titles of the chapters in her family history.
As she read on, she realized that some people did know what to do. Much of Ellie’s memories during the time of her sister’s death involved receiving lots of stuffed animals and cooked food, and being passed around to other people.
“How are you feeling?” Ellie’s counselor asked her each week, until she complained enough about being pulled out of gym class. “Resilient,” she heard someone once call her. When she asked her father what it meant he said something about bouncing back or when something returned to its original shape. Later she spotted the word used in Real Simple articles when something terrible happened to somebody, usually a child.
“Maybe you don’t remember,” said a friend of her mother’s who brought casseroles every time she visited. Which was kind of true. Without looking at the photos on the mantle, Ellie had trouble constructing a mental image of Sloane’s face, even though people often said that they had the same thin nose and bushy eyebrows.
And she pictured her mother lying on the bed upstairs. Sick family member. Serious illness.
Ellie wondered if the counselor would take her back.
She piled the dirty dishes into the sink and found some shells in the cabinet and a pot to fill with water. She wasn’t allowed to use the stove, but knew how to turn on the burner, and had a vague memory of Sloane around her age being allowed to add the pasta to the boiling water and stir it with a wooden spoon.
Ellie would stick some twigs in the wine bottle for décor and surprise her mother with a pasta dinner. Then, as Real Simple suggested, she would ask, “How are you feeling today?” but not, “What have you been doing?”
Sally Bunch lives in Boston with her daughter, works as a grant writer, and plays guitar in the rock band Thrust Club. Her short fiction has appeared in The Binnacle, Wilderness House Literary Review, and elsewhere.