by Stephen Dean Ingram
Eastern Kansas, 1974
His forearm grazes the inside of the oven as he pulls out the baking sheet. On the sheet are ten hard brown disks. Nothing like the golden-topped flaky biscuits he remembers. He puts the baking sheet on top of the stove and watches them. They look like a collection of small flat river stones. Maybe they just need more time. Then they will expand. But they stay the same. On the third thump of his finger, they’re even harder.
He never pays close attention when his mother cooks in the kitchen. She rarely follows recipes, talks to herself to remind herself of the next ingredient, doesn’t measure things out, uses her fingers instead of a spoon to mix things in a bowl. The meals just seem to appear at dinnertime, with little thought given by him or his father as to how they got there. But she’s away, and he needs to figure something out for them to eat.
The biscuits clack together as they slide off the baking sheet into the trash. Why biscuits? He doesn’t know, really. Maybe they represent some connection with his mother, to the foods from her Southern upbringing, ordinary yet enchanting. He had imagined his father coming home from work and praising him for the hot, steaming biscuits he’d baked. Now he is having doubts. He sighs and looks back at the recipe. It’s in his mother’s handwriting, in blue ink, on a crusted index card, darkened in spots from being handled by shortening-smudged fingers. OK, flour, salt, shortening, milk, baking powder.
He forgot that. Where is it? It’s a red and white can with a little girl on the label. He remembers it sitting on the counter when his mother bakes something. He needs that. Small pink fingers push around cans and boxes in the cabinet: Italian seasoning—she uses that when she makes lasagna, he knows that; chili powder—she makes chili with that; curry powder—he doesn’t know what that is. He finds the red and white can-there’s the little girl. He opens the top and looks in. Nothing magical, just white powder, looks like the flour. What makes it so special?
* * *
The elevator doesn’t stop at the psychiatric ward at Stormont-Vail unless the attendant accompanies you and inserts a special key. The elevator is full when he and his father get in. Some get off on the second floor, which bustles with people, carts, flowers and signs. A young doctor with longish hair and wire-rim glasses gets off on the third floor. The doors part to reveal fast-moving nurses and orderlies. The rest get off on the fourth floor. As the elevator proceeds to the top floor—the psych floor—it’s just him and his father alone with the attendant.
The attendant pulls out the key and they step into the ward. As opposed to the lower floors, movements are slower here. The air is stale. Occasional shouts from down the hall pierce the quiet. A middle-aged man and a teenaged girl sit in lounge chairs in the TV room on one side of the hallway. The picture grainy black-and-white, helmets and rice paddies, the newsman burbling about the latest North Vietnamese offensive. Both the man and the girl are in street clothes. They look like visitors, at first. The man has a grizzled chin and hooded eyes and wears a plaid western shirt with pearl buttons. But then he notices a hospital wristband below the man’s shirt cuff, a small note of his confinement. The girl wears a flowered top and appliqued jeans. Her left forearm is bandaged, a wristband circling the bandage. Her eyes don’t seem focused on the TV screen. He watches her as he walks by.
The girl looks up at him. He looks forward and quickens his pace down the hall.
It’s a Saturday, their weekly visit day. His father walks beside him, breathing loudly through his nose, which he does when he’s impatient or annoyed. He’s been doing that a lot lately.
They haven’t spoken since they left Emporia for the drive to Topeka. To pass the time, he counts the sinkholes in the prairie along the way. Cattle graze around the edges of the depressions. He heard that sometimes one will drop in and break a leg. A cottonwood tree clings to the side of one sinkhole, awaiting its inevitable demise. His father’s country station on the radio twangs along the way. Jim Reeves and Marty Robbins are his favorites, the deep-voiced crooners. His father snuffs out one Marlboro red and immediately lights another. He enjoys watching the electric lighter pop out of the lighter socket and hearing the crisp burning sound as his father touches the glowing orange coil to the end of the next cigarette. The bite of burning tobacco in the air makes his nose twitch.
His mother comes out of the art therapy room, holding whatever their latest art project is. This one looks like a ceramic ashtray, but it’s hard to tell. She wears a sweatshirt and slacks, her hair roughly brushed, her expression dazed, as if she had just walked into sunlight from a darkened room. She doesn’t look like this at home, she doesn’t wear sweatshirts, she’s always made up, her hair is always done. His mother looks up and sees them coming down the hall.
“Bobby,” she murmurs. She pulls him toward her, wraps her arms tightly around him, and starts weeping, like she does every time. “I’m so glad you’re here.”
“Sure, Mom,” he says, embarrassed, like he is every time.
It’s part of their ritual of tears. Upon arriving, her tears of gratefulness that her son is with her. Upon leaving, her tears from the fear that it will be the last time she sees her son. In between, he guesses there are probably more tears he doesn’t see, from this thing that weighs on her that he wishes he could understand. He feels those tears. He’s started to numb himself to it—not that he doesn’t care, he does—but to protect himself from the hurt.
They go to her room. It’s mostly bare. No cords allowed, no glass. Fluorescent lights and gray-green walls wash out faces. He gets antsy being in her room for very long. He sits down next to her on the bed. The mattress is stiff, hard and unwelcoming like everything else in the room. His father remains standing.
“Will, I have to get out of here,” she says, her voice insistent. “I don’t belong here. I’m not like these people. You have to tell them that I can leave.”
“It’s not up to me, Dottie,” his father says, sighing loudly, as he looks out the small thick window cross-hatched with reinforcing wire.
She turns to her son. “Bobby, you have to get me out of here. Your mother is going to die if I have to stay here one more day.”
“Stop it, Dottie,” his father says.
“It’ll be all right, Mom.” Bobby never knows what to say to her in this place. He says these words to soothe her, but he doesn’t really know if it’s going to be all right. It never seems to be. How many times has she looked to him with that face, the one where she seems all balled up inside, asking him to say something, do something, that will make it better? Why is it up to him? He feels the burden, at thirteen. His gut twists a little each time he acknowledges that burden.
He holds her hand and takes the object from her other hand which she’s been absently hanging onto. He turns it over and turns it back upright. It’s lumpy, pocked with bubbles from hastily-applied bluish-green glaze, doesn’t look like a cigarette would even stay in it.
“Ashtray looks great, Mom.”
* * *
They have Mexican TV dinners instead that night. Happy Jose’s (Pronounced ‘Ho-say’ is printed on the box next to a smiling brown man with enormous mustache and sombrero). They stumbled upon it at the grocery store, it was pretty good, foolproof to cook, and became a frequent meal. His father’s shoulders sag and he says little. After dinner, he smokes and they watch TV. All in the Family is on. His father complains about the show, says it’s too preachy, but they watch it every week anyways. Bobby chuckles along with his father when Archie Bunker calls his son-in-law “Meathead.” They don’t talk about his mother. His father gets short with him if they do. It’s as if talking about it brings his mother’s sickness into the house, better to keep it shut away.
He makes the biscuits again later that week. He remembers the baking powder this time. Now the rolling is the challenge. His mother rolls the dough out on a thick plastic sheet with red circles on it that look like a target. Where does she keep that? He can’t find it and rolls the dough out on the formica counter instead. After rolling it to about a half-inch thickness, he pulls the lip up from one side of the oblong mass of dough. The mass is sticky, and the rest of it pulls back and the edge tears off in his hand. He panics, grabs a handful of flour, throws it at the remaining dough and pushes it around. He finds a spatula and scrapes the stubborn dough off the counter, heaping it back into the mixing bowl, and works it over again, sweat creasing his brow.
He pulls a biscuit off the hot baking sheet containing the reworked batch, blows on it and bites off a piece. Not much better than before—tough, dry, hard. It will be Happy Jose’s again for supper.
* * *
“I want to adopt her,” his mother says. They sit in the TV area. His father squints and looks away. She looks at her son. “Bobby, don’t you want a sister? You’re almost her age, you know.”
She started talking about this girl a few weeks before. Occasionally and vaguely at first, just one of the people in the ward she talks about, it’s hard to keep track of them. Then more often and more specifically about this one girl. She often fixates on a fellow patient during her stays in the ward, to where it becomes the only thing she talks about. There was Ron, an older truck driver with depression, another time there was Deirdre, a young Black woman from Junction City, depression and alcoholism. She makes plans, how she’s going to see him or her on the outside, what they’re going to do together, it’s all she talks about. Then she’s released, and they never hear about that person again.
This time it’s deeper. This girl is fifteen, from Lawrence, sketchy home situation. The girl sits with Dottie during art therapy, talks to her, spends time with her. His mother clings to those who pay attention to her, who are kind to her. And so his mother, in need of saving, wants to save someone else. Turns out it’s the girl he saw in the TV room a couple weeks before. His mother always wanted a girl, but couldn’t have another baby after him. She talked in the past about how she always wanted a sister for him. And here’s this girl. He’s briefly intrigued, and allows himself to think about what that would be like at home. A sister, someone he could walk to school with, who’d probably monopolize the bathroom and the telephone like the teenage girls he sees on TV, who would roll her eyes at his model airplanes and blacklight posters. Who he could talk to. But he has to be cautious about this.
“Mom, gosh, I guess that it could—”
“Dammit, Dottie,” his father hisses. “She’s suicidal. We’re not gonna have more of that in the house.”
“But, Will . . .” she says.
His father clenches his jaw. The subject is closed.
His mother burbles something and dissolves into desperate, wracking sobs. He reaches over and squeezes her hand. He glances at her arm, bruised from frequent blood draws. The girl is never brought up again.
* * *
He comes straight home from school the following Monday. He tosses his backpack onto the entryway table, which is crowded with misshapen products of his mother’s art therapy. She’s been gone for a month and he doesn’t know how much longer she’s going to be gone. And so he needs to figure this out. Time to get it right.
Flour, salt, shortening, milk, baking powder. Got it all. He finds the rolling sheet in a drawer stuffed with cut-out magazine recipes, matches and rubber bands. Brown crumbles of tobacco from his mother’s cigarettes dot the bottom of the drawer. He lays the sheet out along with the wooden rolling pin by the mixing bowl. He even remembers to turn on the oven first this time to preheat it. 350 degrees.
His mother would pinch the Crisco into the flour in fast, almost careless movements. He tries to do the same, but the dough sticks to his hand so it looks like a plastered catcher’s mitt. He scrapes the dough off his hand onto the rolling sheet. He doesn’t want to keep handling it, maybe that made the dough tougher last time. He spreads a little flour over the dough on the sheet. Just do it deliberately, no panicking. Roll it out once, then fold it over, then one more roll. Leave it a little thick. He cuts out the biscuits with a mason jar ring, like he saw her do. He peels back the wrapper from a stick of margarine, holds it like a big yellow crayon and pushes one end around the baking sheet to grease it.
He slides the pan onto the oven rack, winds his mother’s sky blue kitchen timer and sets it on the counter. Twelve minutes. He doesn’t dare leave the kitchen. His eyes are fixed on the oven door. The timer rings. He holds his breath as he withdraws the pan carefully from the oven, afraid he’ll ruin the biscuits with any disturbance, and places it on the stove top. He closes his eyes, waits a few seconds and then opens them to see the result. Not as tall as his mother’s, but light brown on top, fairly springy to the touch. He takes one off the pan and slowly pulls it apart. Flaky. Like she makes them. He smiles.
Dinner that night is biscuits, leftover ham, butter and strawberry jelly.
“Biscuits are good,” his father says. A rare compliment.
He beams as he looks down at his plate, but doesn’t look up.
“Dad, when’s Mom coming home?”
“A couple weeks, they think.”
He pauses. He’s been wanting to ask this for a long time, but is hesitant to give voice to it. “Is—is she ever going to get better?” The words sound more doubtful than he intends.
His father sighs and looks up at him for what might be the first time that evening, giving a weak smile. He sees the weariness behind his father’s eyes. This isn’t the first time she’s been away for this, and it probably won’t be the last. “I don’t know, son.” He shakes his head. “I just don’t know.”
After dinner Bobby wraps up the leftover biscuits in a kitchen towel and puts them on the counter. They’ll serve as snacks for them for the next couple days. Cold biscuit smeared with peanut butter after school, nothing better.
That night, lying in bed, he turns over in his hands the ashtray his mother made, running his fingers along the smooth glaze bubbles. A full moon floods light through the bedroom window and casts a shadow of the object against the wall. He watches the shadow change shape as he turns it over in his hands, imagining it to be a race car or an alligator or a rocket. He reaches over and sets it down on his nightstand. He winces thinking of his mother seeing that same moonlight coming through the little window in her room, those cross-hatched wires magnified against the green wall.
Stephen Dean Ingram is an author and lawyer whose work has appeared in The Palo Alto Review and professional publications. He tries cases, makes stir fries, and writes stories and novels. He lives in New Mexico with his wife, Mary, and provides a home to a demanding orange tabby.
Sofie Rosalien Deen is a multidisciplinary artist from Nijmegen, The Netherlands. Inspired by the subconscious, her work consists of abstract paintings, fine art photography and poetry. When she is not creating art she is either busy with her vintage clothing shop, working as a community organizer or playing padel.