At 2:35 on Wednesday afternoon John added a final comment to the Dawson file, placed it on his supervisor's desk and left the office. Each step he took down the long hallway, each floor that rushed by the elevator doors was an incremental release, like watching a dream rock skipping across a dark blue pond. Once, twice, five times, seven, twelve, eighteen skips… The last time he'd left the office this early was maybe two and a half years ago, with a bad case of flu. When he reached the sidewalk his suit jacket was already off and his tie was rolled around his left fist. He stuffed it in a pocket of the jacket. The temperature had to be at least eighty in the sun. The lunch crowds were back in the office by now and the streets were as empty as a school corridor mid-class. The Dawson file was as potent an excuse as the notes from home he'd forged in high school excusing him from fifth and sixth periods for a bogus dental appointment.
Traffic was fluid on the expressway at such an early hour. The wide green station wagon cruised forward proudly, for once the most powerful vehicle on the road, the lowered windows letting the gritty hot air race over his body like ocean spray. He suddenly saw why his sons called the car the Boat. Waves slapping against the hull, a beer in his hand, a clear horizon. Damn, it would be good to be out on the water right now.
Thirty minutes later John saw that he was low on fuel and pulled off at the next exit. At the gas station he got out to stretch his legs. His polyester shirt was stuck to his back in patches and the acrid odor from the sweat-stained cloth was worsened by the gas fumes. Cars whipped by, but standing on the bright green island of grass near the pumps, John felt everything suddenly freeze. As if he were looking at the June photo on a promotional calendar for Sunoco, he saw his rusting pastel station wagon, the gas pumps standing at attention, the string of tiny party-colored flags that linked them and finally himself: a tired, white shirted middle-aged commuter under a blue sky crossed by a lone fair weather cloud. As he pulled out of the service station John noticed a handmade sign posted on a mile marker, "Pick your own strawberries, 1 mile."
• • •
Since lunch, he'd thumbed through two issues of National Geographic and one Better Homes and Gardens. They were all several years old, since his parents had tightened their belts permanently when The Ant was born. As his father explained, one child was costly, two was even worse, but three children was highway robbery. Ending all the family's magazine subscriptions was perhaps a small economy, but every little bit counted. Six years ago his brother Paul had read about the Suya Indian tribe in Brazil and how they trained their lips to grow out of their faces horizontally like dinner plates. Earl read about them three years ago and The Ant had just discovered them today. It was a fairly difficult article for a ten-year old, but he was a better reader than anyone else in his class. To relax, he read an article in one of his Mom's home decoration magazines, "The Best Christmas Ever", in a December issue from 1968. Thinking back, he couldn't remember if it had actually turned out to be the best Christmas ever, but it was probably a good one. To make sure, he pulled out all the photo albums from the sideboard in the kitchen and found Christmas 1968. They'd dressed him in a Santa suit, which he didn't remember wearing. When his Mom found him there with all the albums spread out on table, countertops and floor, she started to yell.
"Anthony, it's about a hundred degrees out, the sun is shining, there's a nice little breeze, the bees are buzzing and you're sitting inside plowing through snapshots. We're not going to go through another summer like last year. You should be outside, running around, playing ball, swimming…"
"You know I can't."
She sat down next to him and reached out to touch his head. "Ant, honey, sorry. You'll learn how to swim when you're good and ready. Did you know that lots of sailors and sea captains don't know how to swim? It's a fact. Make sure to put all these away when you're done, okay? And maybe try to find a project for outside?"
His Dad, Paul and Earl all thought it was funny that The Ant didn't know how to swim. His Dad had even announced the fact to the neighbors at last year's Fourth of July cocktail party. If he did know how to swim, he could have ridden his bike with Earl to the beach this afternoon. He wasn't sure he'd really want to, but maybe he should find out how you became a sea captain.
When his father had told the neighbors about The Ant's one and only swimming lesson, "sank like a dead weight when I pulled my hands out from under his stomach", The Ant had been offering a plate of pineapple cubes coated with toasted, shredded coconut to the guests. It might be a good project to study recipes for cocktail snacks, since the Fourth of July was just around the corner. Probably the Betty Crocker Kids Cookbook would have some holiday themed recipes and pictures to show you how to make them, although The Joy of Cooking would have more adult recipes.
• • •
Laura's head was feeling fuzzy, the way your tongue felt when you woke up from an afternoon nap. She'd been reading a library book in the laundry room while she waited for the washing machine to finish its cycle, a title her younger sister who worked in the city had raved about. She must have nodded off what with the machine chugging away and her poor brain trying to find its way into the text. The more she read the more depressed she became. The writing was scintillating, the plot enthralling, but on the whole the book blinded her. Reading, no by God, just plain thinking, was beyond her these days. Like trying to eat peanut brittle with a mouthful of broken teeth. Her brain felt as washed out and gray as the hand-me-down socks she'd just balled up. At what point had she become so dull? The last time she'd renewed the book at the library the librarian had suggested that after four three-week renewals, "maybe we should let another reader have a chance at this one, sweetie."
Ant had been reading a Better Homes and Gardens magazine after lunch. Poor thing, he must be as bored as she was. Thank God the subscription for the magazine had run out years ago. John must have told his mother not to repeat such a misguided birthday gift to her daughter-in-law. It would be even harder to find the time to read anything now, with the three boys out of school for the summer and at loose ends, although Earl had a part-time job mowing lawns. But the other two. And that damned Fourth of July barbecue John insisted on. She'd have to start calling to invite people. Tomorrow afternoon maybe, after grocery shopping.
"Do we have any Rock Fort cheese and Worcestershire sauce, Mom?" Ant called out from the kitchen.
"No honey, we don't and you don't pronounce the 't' on Roquefort and the first 'o' is a long 'o'. Laura moved into the kitchen and was about to compliment her son on his pronunciation of Worcestershire when he cut her off.
"Well if we don't then I can't make any Nut Cheese Balls. What about Swiss cheese and sherry?"
"Yes for the cheese, but no sherry, guy."
"So I can't make Fried Cheese Dreams, either. There's nothing to do, Mom."
"Sorry Anthony, I can't make it to the supermarket every day of the week to pick up all your special ingredients. Are you planning a party?"
She sat down at the table with her youngest son. He was turning the pages of The Joy of Cooking sadly, muttering to himself, "no paprika, no capers, no lime juice…" A back issue of National Geographic was open in front of Laura, to an article about the Suya Indians of Brazil.
"What about making some Ants in Honey? A rare delicacy enjoyed by the Suya tribe when celebrating the initiation of young boys into manhood. I've got you, Ant, and we must have some honey in the back of the cupboard."
• • •
"Strawberries, all U can pick, ½ mile". He slowed to fifteen miles per hour on the narrow road that poked its way through dense thickets of wilting brambles and scrub oak, like a hot gray macadam slug inching away from the expressway into an unexpected Arcadia that still smelt slightly of exhaust fumes. Suddenly the grit and clash of the day disappeared as a bird streaked across his line of vision and the improbable scent of strawberries chased the last of his deadness away
"Berries, turn here."
John did, parked the station wagon and got out of the car. The heat was velvet soft. He walked toward a maple tree that shaded a weathered picnic table covered with plastic buckets, a pile of folded brown paper bags and a tin box. A note taped to the box listed prices. "One quart, 1 dollar, one pint, 50 cents." On each bucket, pint and quart delineations had been indicated with a felt marker.
The strawberry plants grew over an area of about two acres, he'd guess. Beyond the expanse of low-lying plants he could see a large house and garden, but no sign of life, other than butterflies flitting about an airy hedge of cosmos flowers. Laura grew those, didn't she? Putting a hand up to shade his eyes, he could make out a crouching female figure wearing a straw hat on the far edge of the patch. She looked over at John and waved him on to pick.
He rolled up his sleeves, grabbed a bucket off the table and moved into the field. As he hunkered down to pluck the berries, he felt as if he were sinking down into the waters of a hot tidal pool at the beach. Hypnotized by the warmth. He moved down a row of plants, finding the best way to pull at the berries, the best way to lay them in the bucket without damaging the fruit. In the first minutes he crushed half of what he picked and automatically ate the bruised berries, wiping his juice-stained fingers on his pants. No matter, Laura had all sorts of stain removers in the laundry room and he really didn't give a damn. How many men were willing to get down on their knees in the dirt and pick fruit for their families? He thought back to a recent dinner with Laura and the kids. For dessert Laura had bought supermarket strawberries, a winy-looking mess smashed into a bright green cardboard box and shrouded in cellophane. John had seen the fruit on the counter as she prepared the meal and it made him fume. The plastic nation they'd become. The supermarket strawberries, washed, hulled, sliced and slathered with squirts of whipped cream from a can, were a great success with his young sons.
"Damned ersatz food. I work like hell and this is what you put on my children's plates." Laura had shrugged and added an extra squirt of cream to his bowl.
So this was an act of love towards his family. Real strawberries, with real leaves, real taste, real scent. And he'd God-damned well picked them on his forty-two-year-old polyester-clad knees.
One bucket was already full. John carried it back to the picnic table and picked up a second bucket. By the time he'd filled it his shirt was soaking wet, his hands were sticky and stained and his head was light from the smell of the fruit and dehydration.
When he returned to the picnic table to pay for what turned out to be half a bushel of strawberries, he found the woman with the straw hat seated behind the table. She took his money and offered him a glass of water.
She smiled. "I thought I'd be the only person picking my berries today. S'too hot for people to stop. But if no one picks them, they'll just rot, so out I go. You've sweat up a storm there. Not many people pick so many, usually just enough for a strawberry shortcake for the family. What are you planning on doing with them?"
"My wife makes good jam." With the woman's help John carefully transferred the berries from the buckets into doubled brown paper bags. The ripe fruit was bleeding juice profusely now, the sheer weight of the upper berries crushing the lower layers. The scent was cloying, intoxicating, but John hardly noticed. His gaze was fixed on a neat dream vision of glass jars full of deep garnet-red jam. He imagined Laura leaning against the counter, one hand holding a dishtowel spattered with red, the fingers of the other atop a paraffin-coated jam jar, her face lucent, soft and smiling, adorably pink from the heat of the kitchen.
"It's kind of hot for jam-making, but seems like they're already halfway to being jam already."
He panicked a little in the car. The misshapen bags splayed on the passenger side floor seemed grotesque, as if he were an ax murderer transporting a dismembered body in grocery bags. Carrying the bags over to the car, he'd managed to let the juice seep onto the front of his shirt and now it had coagulated with his sweat into a sweet crust that no chemical miracle in the laundry room would ever erase.
• • •
At 6:37 by the kitchen stove clock, 6:40 by the grandfather clock and 6:33 by the Timex watch he'd received for his last birthday, The Ant saw his father's station wagon pull into the driveway. He slammed The Joy of Cooking shut and crumpled up the list of ingredients he'd need for the Independence Day hors d'œuvres he wanted to test. Dad didn't like him reading cookbooks.
There was no answering car door slam. Usually his father was out of the car in an instant, unbuttoning his dress shirt before he'd made it halfway across the front lawn and ranting about the traffic on the expressway to whomever was within hearing range and swatting at them with his sweaty tie. Even if it was only to Rita, their marmalade cat, sunning herself on the brick path or chewing viciously at the insides of her flea-ridden legs.
The Ant shoved the balled up list into his shorts' pocket and opened the front door. His father was half in, half out of the car with two bloody-looking bags by his feet. A wave of nausea swept over The Ant and congealed in his stomach. His dad must have stopped off at the butcher's on Route 14. He was always going on about his grandmother's steak and kidney pie and how supermarkets never sold kidneys, how "Civilization" meant eating cardboard hamburgers and Twinkies. The Ant closed his eyes, and visualized page 502 of The Joy of Cooking. He'd vomited when Dad had forced him to eat a home-made meat pie last February. Since then, The Ant had memorized the recipe as a protection device. As Dad said, "Know thine enemy." He whispered, "Wash, skin and slice thin: ¾ lb veal or lamb kidneys" and imagined inhaling the metallic scent of blood.
"Get a whiff of these, kid."
The smell of strawberry bubble gum cut across The Ant's nausea and settled his stomach instantly. He opened his eyes to see his father in the doorway, a crazed smile on his face, his shirt heavily splotched with red.
"Who'd you kill dad?"
"Help me get these into the kitchen sink Anthony, they're a bit messy. Where's your mother? Laura, I've got a surprise."
The Ant transported the bags of leaky berries to the sink without getting a drop of fruit gut on his clothes. Not that his Dad noticed how much skill that required. He was too busy peeling off his shirt, balling it up and telling his wife that for Christ's sake it's just a shirt Laura. His undershirt was a palely stained copy of his work short, gentle baby pink splotches instead of chain saw red.
The Ant could tell his mom was mad even before she started to speak.
"Well John, five bags of over-ripe strawberries leaching onto my kitchen work surfaces just asking to be made into jam in the face of imminent rot and all this to do before I start preparing dinner for five that of course you'll want on the table at the latest at seven-thirty certainly is unexpected. I'll just tie on apron and start enjoying my surprise. Sweet Jesus John, I need this like I need a hole in the head."
"I was thinking home-made strawberry shortcake as a celebration dessert. You do good biscuits Lo."
"Were you thinking strawberry shortcake John? I wasn't. More along the line of frozen Popsicles for everyone. They were on special last week, no cooking involved. Just tear off the wrapper and there you are"
"Jesus, Laura. I was on my hands and knees picking this fruit for you."
"So I should do what? Get out the spot remover for your pants? Dream on John."
The Ant's ears were big while he made himself small at the kitchen table and thumbed through The Joy of Cooking. Towards the end of the book there was a chapter titled "Jellies, Jams, Preserves and Marmalades". The Ant knew enough about the ways of the authors to understand that the fine print should be read. He plunged into the explanation of the fundamentals of sterilizing jars, weighing fruit, enamel versus copper pots, the crucial simmering stage… He always learned something reading the cookbook; he knew when to skip paragraphs, but always paid attention to the thick arrows sprinkled like salt across the instructions. The arrows meant that something really important was coming.
"Mom, it says here that '→ in making up jellies and jams, the best flavor results if you work in small quantities. → Prepare not more than 6 cups of fruit or juice at a time, preferably only about 4 cups.' So maybe we should do that, make 6 cups of jam and then do another 6 cups and then again until we use up all the strawberries? And they also say '→ Preheat the sugar while the juice comes to the boil by spreading it in baking pans and just warming it in very low oven heat.'"
"We'll definitely pass on warming the sugar in meatloaf pans, kiddo. Just sitting there in the cupboard, I'm sure the sugar is already as hot as a cup of cocoa. Give me the book, Ant honey."
His mother unclenched her fists and took the Joy of Cooking from him. Hunting through the table of contents she muttered "The Joy of Not Cooking, now there's a book I could write."
His father had poured himself a glass of beer and dropped a strawberry into it. "Better than a maraschino cherry, Anthony, no colorants or artificial sweeteners."
"Here we go Ant, page 229, 'measures and equivalents'. Now if two cups equals one pint, two pints equals one quart, and eight quarts equals one peck, four pecks equals one bushel and your dad has picked a half bushel, how many cups do we have? And if the Rombauer sisters who wrote this book advise us to only make jam in six-cup batches, how many batches will we have to make, to have truly perfect-tasting jam?"
"You just don't give up do you, Lo?"
Of course The Ant knew that he wasn't supposed to do the math. His mom was being ironic, a word she'd taught him. She and Dad were often ironic. Still, it would be ten and a half batches. Maybe only ten, since they would be cutting off the green hulls on the berries. Dinner would probably be late, then.
• • •
He was always over the top, that's who he was, extremes defined him, Laura knew that. She'd always known that, but this time he must have picked half a bathtub full of strawberries. And yes, it probably was his version of a love offering, but God damn him.
Opening a cupboard under the sink, Laura hunted through an assortment of sponges, plastic and paper bags, containers of Comet and Ivory soap, rubber gloves and aprons (pulling out a never-used gift apron covered with grinning red Santa Clauses in an automatic precautionary gesture, thinking of red jam stains), but she only came up with three empty jars, and small ones at that. Damn it! Last week she'd wanted to make space here and she'd taken most of her empty jar collection to the dump. Murphy's law.
"Sorry John, I hardly have enough jars to make one batch of jam."
"That suits you doesn't it? You want jars?" He wrenched open the refrigerator door.
"Not really, John. I'll make a batch of jam and we'll do a strawberry shortcake and then… Look, can we maybe take some fruit to the neighbors? And after dinner, Paul and Earl could take some over to your mother on their bikes?"
"You wanted jars?" John emerged from his violent foraging in the refrigerator, hugging an armful of condiments. Smucker's Strawberry Jelly, Welch's Grape, a family-size jar of dill pickles, horseradish sauce and two jars of mustard. He banged them down on the counter and went back for more. But this time all he could find were a tiny breast-shaped jar of maraschino cherries and a bottle of catsup.
"They're not empty, John."
"They soon will be Laura." He jerked the lid off the pickles and sloshed them into the sink, forgetting that it was already full of strawberries. Plunging his hands into the slimy green disks, he transferred them into the trash bin with a wet toss. "I'll clean it up. Just make the jam, will you?"
Laura tied the Santa apron around her waist and pulled out the largest saucepan she had from a drawer under the stove. "Ant honey, when Daddy finishes with the pickles, could you start washing the strawberries? Fill the sink with cold water, and float the berries in it to rinse them off."
He'd been looking for a project all day, poor kid, hadn't he? Talking about Fried Cheese Dreams and Roquefort Nut Whips? Well better late than never. At least someone would enjoy the fruit.
"Ant, could you look in the cupboard to your right? The middle shelf, behind the baking powder and spices. Do you see a small box that says artificial pectin?"
"They're two of them. What's artificial pectin, Mom?"
"Pectin is what makes fruit jell, honey. It's present in the fruit itself, but some fruit has a low pectin content, so it doesn't always jell when you make jam or jelly. So you add artificial pectin to do the trick. Otherwise you just have really thick juice, kind of like watery catsup. Not too good for spreading on toast. If I remember correctly, strawberries are low on pectin. Maybe you could check that for me in the cookbook."
"Just hand those over here, Anthony." John removed the boxes of pectin from his son's hands and tossed them into the trash bin, atop a multi-colored mound of pickles, horseradish sauce and diverse jellies. "Those strawberries are pure, unadulterated products of Nature. I pulled them out of the dirt an hour ago and your mother wants to boil them up with a box of chemicals. We'd be better off eating…" He paused and looked at the half-full jar of grape jelly he hadn't yet emptied into the trash. "Welch's grape jelly. Bet that's got a good dose of artificial pectin, but maybe not two boxes worth."
"Dad, Paul and Earl only like grape jelly. Maybe you shouldn't throw it out."
"Ant, could you go to the laundry room and hunt me up some clean tea towels? First off, you're going to need to tie one around your waist if you're going to help me boil all this stuff up. But take a little break, honey. Your dad and I will get the jam-making underway. Thanks Ant-man"
"His name is Anthony, Lo. Stop babying him with pet names and encouraging him to put on an apron and play Betty Crocker with you."
Laura crossed over to the trash, removed the pectin boxes, and wiped them off on her apron. "I'll make the jam. I'll use pectin. When Paul and Earl get home, take them out for dinner at the hamburger place on Route 39. Bring home something for Ant and me. Make mine fried clams, hamburger for him. We'll be hungry after making jam. And watch it with the Ant, John. He's the only one in the house who's got enough love for you to warm sugar in baking pans in a barely heated oven just so your God-damned strawberries will reveal their full flavor. He'd do anything for you if you'd just give him half a chance."
• • •
Paul and Earl were eating ice cream cones at the picnic tables under the pine trees behind the restaurant with some other boys from their school. John brought his ice cream back to the station wagon and sat sideways in the driver's seat, both legs splayed out the open car door, feet on the crushed clam shells that covered the restaurant parking lot. The shells were just about the only authentic ingredient the place used, he thought grimly as he bit into the nothingness of his waffle cone. The take-out order of fried clams for Laura in its cardboard container on the passenger seat gave off a smell of grease—maybe the grease was real, but were there any clams under the batter coating? John stopped himself. Frankly, did he really care anymore? Ersatz or natural, let it pass. He wiped at the sweet film of melted ice cream on his hands with the transparent slip of paper napkin the waitress had wrapped around the bottom of the cone. A soft laundered linen napkin would work better, absorbing the mess as napkins were intended to do, but if he was honest with himself, every once in a while John liked soft cones and roadside fast food dives and he liked the feeling of the melted ice cream glazing his finger pads. An artificial chocolate sprinkle lodged under a fingernail was something you could nibble at, after all. Why couldn't he admit things like that to Lo and the boys?
Earl and Paul had been unusually silent and well-behaved this evening. They'd both returned home to witness the tail end of the chaos in the kitchen. Their arrival had cut short the argument. Laura and Anthony had gotten to work in the kitchen while John changed into clean clothes. Laura sterilized the jars he'd so recently emptied, Anthony washed the fruit. When Earl, Paul and John had left the house to go out for dinner, Anthony was kneeling on a heavy dining room chair he'd dragged over to the stove. He was timing the simmering strawberries. Seventeen minutes according to the recipe. He'd laid his Timex watch on the counter next to the stove and had set the kitchen timer as well. Laura had given him a large, shallow slotted spoon to scrape off the foam that was slowly accumulating on the surface of the cooking fruit. The boy raised the spoon in a salute to his brothers. His face was flushed and bits of his hair stuck to his shining forehead.
"Fruit scum, Earl. Want to try some?"
"Looks like dog spit to me Ant, but good-smelling spit, maybe later."
John hadn't seen his youngest son so animated in ages.
Remembering Anthony's goofy aproned grin, he sighed and looked over to where Earl and Paul were sitting now, joking with their friends. Were they telling them about their old man maniacally slapping mayonnaise, relish and pickled onions into the trash in the kitchen that afternoon, missing the plastic bin more often than not and spraying the cupboards with an impressionistic mess of liquid food? He who demanded impeccable table manners from them had been caught out at last. Caught in an undershirt tie-died with sweat and strawberry juice, small gobs of mustard delicately clinging to the hairs of his forearms like morning dew on leaves.
Would they ever believe how euphoric he'd felt when he'd been sprung from the office so early this afternoon? He'd known then what his children felt, gathered around the kitchen radio on dark January mornings, listening to the announcer's litany of schools closed for a Snow Day. No, Earl and Paul probably wouldn't believe their father could understand that kind of joy. They'd just remember him in his winter suit and wool overcoat, rubber galoshes over his dress shoes, bearing down on them with snow shovels. "You may have a Snow Day, but I've got a job to get to."
The heat of the evening was thick, as syrupy as a Softcone dripping down through your fingers. But it would break soon, he could smell rain on the air. He turned his palms toward the evening sky and placed his hands on his knees to wait for the first drops.
• • •
The Ant raised his right hand to his face to stifle a yawn, forgetting that he still held the slotted spoon for skimming the foam off the strawberries. Strawberry mousse slapped into his hair and a fat drop plopped onto his T-shirt. The fourth batch of jam was about half-way through the crucial "17 minutes of simmering for very ripe berries" that Irma Rombauer insisted on. It would be the last batch they would make. His mother had managed to foist half of the berries his Dad had brought home onto their neighbor Mrs. Kemprecos in exchange for two dozen empty jam jars. His mom said that Mrs. Kemprecos bought brand new empty jam jars on purpose, probably hoping her husband would have the gumption to pick a bushel of fruit someday and oblige her to make jam. "In a parallel universe, she'd be married to your dad and have a whole cellar full of home-made fruit preserves, while I'd be having a beer with Mr. Kemprecos and watching "Columbo" on television."
Instead of which, she was pouring melted paraffin on the jars they'd filled from the third batch of jam. When she'd finished sealing the jars with wax, she dipped a teaspoon into the remaining paraffin and delicately poured a small amount onto her index fingernail.
"Don't ever do this, honey, it's dangerous and stupid. But I love the way it feels when the wax hardens on your fingernail."
"You can do the same thing with candle wax."
"You shouldn't do that either, but yes it is fun and if the candle is a colored one, it's even better, like wearing nail polish. My poor Ant, I promise we won't have toast and strawberry jam for breakfast tomorrow. Cereal and milk for the kitchen help." She yawned, dipped her finger into the bowl where The Ant had been spooning out the fruit foam, and drew a mustache of mousse on his upper lip. The fruit chortled to itself in the simmering pot as they watched it thicken into jam.
Rain drummed suddenly on the roof and the screen door banged in a strong gust of wind. Mother and son swam through the fruit-drowned air of the kitchen to the door. Going out on the porch, they were instantly soaked. The coating of sugar and cooked fruit that had seemed part of The Ant's skin was flayed off in seconds. He laughed and held his arms out at his sides.
She was standing at the screen door looking in at the kitchen. Her hair streamed down her back, her bare arms brightly white against the dark gray of the wet shingled house.
"Come look inside Anthony, it's like a still life painting, isn't it? From here it's perfectly beautiful."
The oak table and all the counters were covered with tea towels: white and beige, pale yellow, washed-out blue, bright red-and-white check. And on the cloths sat dozens and dozens of jars: cylindrical and smooth, or squat and faceted, tall, small, heart or hourglass-shaped, all gleaming with the fresh red jam. The Ant's jam. He leaned against his mother.
Rain and fruit vapor met at the screen door, testing each other the way their cat Rita touched noses suspiciously with the Kemprecos' Siamese.
"Tomorrow Ant, after we stuff your dad and brothers with enough toast and strawberry jam to keep them quiet, I'm going to take you to the fruit market. I don't know if it's the right season, but if it is, we'll buy a pomegranate. The skin is pink on the outside, yellow on the inside, in texture it's a cross between vinyl and cardboard and it's very bitter tasting. But inside there are hundreds of fruit cells. They're like jewels, like rubies. Each one is the size of a pea. They glisten in their skins. You have to pick off the walls of yellow cartilage, a sort of parchmenty stuff that separates the fruit cells into several sections. It's fussy and frustrating. You have to do it, because the skin is so bitter-tasting. It's fastidious kiddo and we'll look that word up in the dictionary tomorrow. It doesn't seem worth the effort—all that work just to eat a piece of fruit. But the first time you bite into a perfect, pristine pomegranate kernel it's like looking in through this door—the color, the scent and then the taste."
The kitchen timer rang. It had been seventeen minutes. The last strawberries were now a "bubbling mass" and it was time to "tilt the pot, where you should see in the liquid at the bottom a tendency to set." The Ant pushed the screen door open and went to turn off the stove.
• • •
Laura remained outside and watched her little boy add life to the still scene before her eyes. He turned off the electric burner, used two pot warmers to slide the pot onto a cool part of the stove, spread a fresh tea towel on the wooden counter, and placed sterilized jars on the clean expanse of cloth, glass mouths gaping open hungrily like baby birds. He knew not to pour the hot jam without her help. A wise junior cook waiting for his master chef to come back into the kitchen, he wiped his fingers on a corner of the tea towel, closed his eyes and began to flip back and forth through the pages of The Joy of Cooking. Settling on a page, he opened his eyes and began to read.
Laura could sense a strange aura of concentration and excitement emanating from the boy and suddenly thought she might understand him. He'd found purpose: mixing together strawberries and sugar, he'd made something new and fine. She thought of all the recipes he'd thumbed through that afternoon: the White Chocolate Brandy Snaps and Tomato Chive Cheese Buds and Curcuma Stuffed Okra Ladies' Fingers and Eggplant Tortes, all of which required ingredients they didn't have and efforts she hadn't wanted to make. Memorizing whole pages of the well-worn Joy of Cooking, Ant had assimilated into his being the literal meaning of the title. He'd found joy in the unexpected bounty of John's strawberry hunt. He'd found joy in a hot, messy kitchen by the side of a tired and cranky mother. He'd created order and beauty where her anger had only let her see extra work and the seed of dispute. Laura wondered if Ant's domestic epiphany, his enormous joy, might be contagious.
She shivered in the rain as she watched his lips reading out the ingredients of tomorrow's recipe. She hoped they had all he needed.
Ant raised a soup ladle in her direction and called out "Mom?"