An Old Family Recipe
By Benjamin J. Gohs
“I have to do something before he kills me.” Smoke rose gently from mom’s mouth. She leaned in her chair and peeked out the curtain which cast a shard of sunshine into the darkness. “Maybe I’ll just leave.”
Brandon bit a hard-boiled egg in half and poured more Kool-Aid. Little Abe held up his cup.
“I just don’t know.” Mom winced as she dabbed her eyes and blew her nose. Moaned and lit another cigarette.
“Let’s leave.” Brandon sprayed egg crumbles as he spoke. “Please. Let’s just go before…”
“How?” Soft sadness in her face turned to anger, ridicule. “Go where? I don’t have any money.”
Brandon flinched and waited for the slap. But she just sat there and stared with a look of helplessness—her go-to expression when the kids would ask for a movie ticket, new pants, dinner. He knew she would have given if she had … but they were a million miles from having.
Abe finished his toast and cleared his place. Lower cupboard door squeaked loud on rusted hinges as he put his paper plate in the trash and threw his cup into the sink.
“Ooh, I hate him.” Brandon growled and bit the back of his hand and Abe parroted the sentiment.
Mom snapped her fingers and pointed the floor. “Come here.”
Abe went cautiously.
She hugged him tight. “I know things are bad, but they’ll be better soon. I promise.”
Noon whistle blew. Brandon switched on the little black and white set in the back corner of the kitchen table.
“Turn it off.” Mom put out her smoke and lit another.
“But we’ll miss it.”
“Fine but turn the fan down. Already too loud in here.”
Brandon hunched over the table, aluminum band around the imitation marble nice and cool on his arms. He sat through a rundown of the news and two commercial breaks and droning about the heatwave before the cooking segment began.
Aside from wanting his father gone, Brandon wanted only to someday be a world-famous chef.
“Can we have that?” Abe rubbed his stomach and bugged his eyes at the chef’s gourmet fried chicken. “Dee-lish-us.”
“Sometime.” Mom spoke in her automated thousand-miles-away voice.
“I could make it. Easy.” Brandon got up on his knees on his chair and leaned across the table. “With potato salad and buttermilk biscuits.”
Biscuits were Brandon’s specialty. Even had a recipe written on one of the special flour-dusted, butter-stained cards in the wooden box handcrafted by grampa. “Brandon’s Buttermilk Biscuits,” borrowed from an old family recipe handed down by some German great-grandmother.
“Sometime.” Mom patted Brandon’s shoulder.
He flinched a little and sat back down. Sometime, he thought, was her answer to everything. But sometime never came.
Cooking segment ended. Brandon crumpled his plate and fake threw it at Abe, who screamed, and mom slapped them both lightly on the back of the head.
“Knock it off.”
The duet crooned their sorries.
Brandon rinsed the crusty washcloth on the back of the sink and wiped the table. He sniffed the rag. Mushrooms and dog. Whole house smelled like mushrooms and dog. Watched his mother’s face while he cleaned. Her mouth moved in silence, lips quivering frantically, eyes darted around and through him.
Brandon hesitated before speaking again. “Why can’t we just go back to grampa’s?”
His mother’s desperate prayer continued.
He said mom again with more authority.
“What?” She looked more afraid than annoyed.
“I said why can’t we stay with grampa?”
“No. We can’t go back.”
Abe said he missed grampa and Brandon agreed. How could she not want to live with someone so nice and funny and who always had food?
Brandon wiped his hands on his shirt. “When we’re done um cleaning up, can we go read comics?”
“Fine. But use a lamp. S’posed to be hot again so keep the shades down and don’t leave any doors or windows hangin open.”
Brandon flipped through superhero adventures he’d already read at least three times each. And anyway, his mind was downstairs, was yesterday, was tomorrow. They’d always argued. Fought 350 days out of the year. But this last two weeks—with broken picture frames, thrown dishes, screaming at all hours—was especially rough. Mom had talked about going before but Brandon hoped this time she really meant it.
Why couldn’t they just pack up and go? Brandon couldn’t understand it. Such a simple plan. She could get a job and find a new town with friends who didn’t hear the shouting and never saw a cop car in the driveway and never heard the trash clink with empty bottles … someplace where they all didn’t bruise so easily.
Little later. Brandon was drawing a picture of a machine gun firing at a space alien and didn’t hear mom come up the stairs.
“I have an idea.” She whispered it from the door.
Brandon and Abe jumped off their bunkbeds and stood at attention.
“Maybe you guys could do me a favor?”
Doing favors for mom was Brandon’s specialty. Nothing made him feel more important or beloved. Besides, if she had an idea, maybe it was to get the heck out of there and never come back.
“You have any your lawn mowing money left?”
Brandon hesitated. “A little.”
“How much is a little?”
Abe repeated the figure in astonishment.
“Wow.” Mom stepped into the room. Her face brightened. “That’s not a little. That’s a lot.”
“What do you need it for?” Brandon could feel the new school clothes and shoes he’d been saving for all summer slipping from his calloused hands.
“Well, I think I only need about twenty. I was thinking we could make that fried chicken.”
Boys broke into dance before she had time to finish her thought, and before Brandon had time to realize it was his money, and they wouldn’t be moving to a new town.
Brandon went into the back of his closet and dug two crumpled tens out of the can under a pile of clothes in his toy box. Sniffed them. Coffee and tin and sweat from his constant handling and counting and dreaming of how they’d be spent come end of August.
They followed mom downstairs. She sat the kitchen table and wrote a list by TV light. “It’s a surprise for daddy.” She handed Brandon the slip of paper and took one of the tens.
Enough for two bottles of dad’s whiskey, he thought.
“I need some things from the pharmacy so I was hoping you guys could…”
“I’ll go. I’ll go.” Abe yanked the list away.
Brandon took it back. “Can’t go by yourself, doofus.”
Brandon tied his shoes, hot sting of anger in his face and belly. Giving up his hard-earned dollars to move was fine. He was even pretty alright with using some for a special dinner. But so the asshole could drink it away?
Brandon waited by the door and looked over the list: buttermilk, whole chicken, bag potatoes, canister lard.
“OK, mom, were going.” Brandon opened the door.
Abe came squealing after. “Wait for me! Wait for me!”
Mom hollered and Brandon went back in the kitchen.
“Take a rag for your brother.”
Brandon took the cloth out of the sink and stuffed it into his pocket.
Mom was worried Abe might have one of his nosebleeds, which could be quite serious. Though, only time he seemed to get them was when dad was around. But no point arguing.
Mom’s promises to pay back the money echoed in Brandon’s head while Abe gabbed about action figures.
“Let’s build a fortress.” Abe put a hand to his forehead and squinted at Brandon. “We can have a war. But I get to be the good guys.”
Seemed like a good idea to Brandon and he forgot about the money and the moving.
They chatted all the way to the store and groaned with pleasure once inside the chilly oasis. Took their time shopping, soaking up as much of the cool air as they could before heading back with heavy brown bag. Out of the change, Brandon bought fruit pies—chocolate for Abe and lemon for himself—which they ate at the halfway point, on the crumbling sidewalk of an abandoned pizzeria.
Boys heard a rock-n-roll song as they turned up the gravel drive. Mom was already back from the pharmacy and in the kitchen laying out all the tools they would need. Radio was on loud and now the windows and curtains were open. First real daylight allowed indoors since school let out.
“My boys.” Mom danced happily over to relieve them of the groceries. “Looks like somebody had a snack.”
Brandon started to apologize.
“It’s OK. Today is a happy day … so we should do things that make us happy.”
Brandon looked over at Abe, who was at the sink rinsing chocolate off his face. “Why is it a happy day?”
“Because I’m tired of having sad days. That alright with you?”
Still confused, he nodded.
“Now, c’mon. Wash your hands and get to work.”
That afternoon, Brandon thought, was a different family in a different house. Mom sang along with the radio while she mixed seasonings. She washed the chicken then made it dance and talk in a funny voice.
“Say, you fellers ain’t a-goin ta fry me up an eat me, is you?”
Boys giggled like mad.
“You want help with the biscuits or you think you can do it?”
“I kin!” Brandon pushed a chair up the stove and got the recipe box down from the shelf and flipped through cards in their plastic sheets, past fruitcake and tamale pie, homemade bread and molasses cookies and picnic burgers, until he found Brandon’s Buttermilk Biscuits.
He showed Abe how to measure ingredients and chop in cold butter between two knives and sprinkle ice water and gently mix. Brandon rolled the dough and used a tin canning ring to cut biscuits and he slid them onto the spatula and placed them on the warped black cookie sheet with its thousand knife dents and decades of baked in grit from Christmases, Thanksgivings, and pizza nights.
Brandon put the tray in the oven and set the timer and cleared the mess. “There’s room over here, now.”
“I’m fine.” Mom was at the counter soaking the chicken in buttermilk.
Once the table was cleared, Abe went and got the army guys and some guns and cars and trucks. Mood was too festive to hide upstairs in the dark.
Mom scraped the old can of lard into the Dutch oven and added the new. While the oil heated, she rolled the legs and wings and thighs in seasoned flour and back into buttermilk and once again into the flour. She hummed and rolled her head playfully. Brandon had never seen her so.
“Now you guys stay back.” She carried a platter of chicken pieces to the stove. Pot came to angry crackling life—spit and roil, steam and foam. Time the first batch was done, biscuits were ready. Mom brought them over to the table so Brandon could put them on newspaper to cool. Rich smell of baked goods mixed with savory spice and herb of fried chicken made Brandon drool in his mouth.
Hot breeze lifted the curtains high. Too warm on any other day but nothing could steal the joy of that moment. Then, with mom tending the frying of the chicken, Abe wiggled his eyebrows and smirked before ripping off a piece of cooked skin and stuffing it into his mouth.
“Hey.” Brandon pointed.
“No!” Mom dropped her tongs and towel and shook Abe by the shoulders. “Spit it out.”
Abe hocked the brown wad onto the floor and cried. Mom slapped his face.
“I said not to touch.” She was crying now, and so was little Abe.
Seeing them both at it got Brandon started. Mom pulled Abe close and hugged him. She dragged him over to the sink and poured a glass of water.
“Rinse your mouth out and spit. And again. And again.”
Brandon backed to the entryway. “What happened?”
“What?” Mom looked startled and frazzled, confused in the heat. “It’s hot. Didn’t want him burnin his mouth.”
Brandon wiped his teary cheeks.
Mom scooped the chewed skin off the floor and threw it in the garbage. She washed her hands and Abe’s with lots of dish soap.
“I won’t say it again—don’t touch any this food til suppertime.”
Abe shivered and wailed a long sorry.
“Go, now. Pick up your toys. Naptime.”
Three by the hall clock when they headed upstairs. Two hours and Dad would be home.
Abe fell asleep right away. Brandon lay fidgeting, trying to get comfortable in the heat. More time to wish they were moving. But she was down there right now, making a nice dinner for dear old dad. He’d walk in after work and she’d be so sweet. And he would still be upset and she would sit on his lap and say how sorry she is and he’d scoff and pretend he wants her to get off and then she’d say fine I’m taking the kids to my dad’s and he’d beg her to stay and she’d say I just don’t know anymore and he’d get impatient and threaten to kill himself and she’d cry and tell him his family loves him and they’d hug and she’d whisper something in his ear and then they’d disappear into their room for a nap.
A nap. Brandon thought about what that word meant and scowled in disgust.
Or maybe dad would be drunk when he walked in. Maybe he’d throw dinner on the floor and pull his pistol because he thinks the wife and kids are working for the Vietcong.
Brandon’s chest tightened. Tried to think of something else and pulled the copy of My Side of the Mountain out from under his pillow and read until he slept.
Voice kept coming at him until he woke but even then he wasn’t sure where he was or what was happening.
“Brandon. Brandon. Brandon.”
It was Abe whispering in the dark.
“I’m sorry. Don’t tell. Please.”
“Don’t tell what?”
Abe had a thumb in the band of his shorts, holding the darkened spot away from his body.
“It’s OK.” Brandon squinted and wiped his sweaty forehead. “What time’s it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, take em off and find some clean ones.”
Brandon balled up the shorts and tiptoed downstairs. Mom asleep on the couch. Dinner on the table—three shapeless mounds covered in tinfoil.
Brandon got a flashlight from the junk drawer and went to the basement and threw Abe’s secret in with an armload of mildewed clothes from the mountain piled against the washing machine. Mom would be so happy he did a wash, she wouldn’t care why.
Brandon sat the high swivel chair behind dad’s workbench. Only clean corner of the dank tomb. Balanced the light on a roll of duct tape and went to work dragging a nail along a bastard file to watch the sparks glow. He turned off the flashlight and really gave a pull so he could watch the fireworks go off. On the third pass, one of those little buggers landed on his eyelid. He yelped and jerked, and the flashlight broke apart on the cement floor.
Brandon jumped down from the chair, panicking over what awful form of punishment might befit the malicious destruction of property. Felt around for the batteries and the plastic case and stuffed them in and screwed the top back on.
Clicked it on.
“Oh Jesus no.” Pulled the batteries out and felt for the nubs, making sure they faced toward the front of the light. Bottom battery was in backwards. Tried it again. “Oh, thank god.”
And just before he got up, Brandon noticed a brown paper grocery bag wadded on the floor in the corner under the workbench. Dad wasn’t anything if not meticulous. Brandon knew what kind of hell would be raised if he found garbage in the shop area. He tucked the bag under his arm, planning to throw it away after he switched the clothes over to the dryer.
Brandon jumped back up into the chair and put the bag on the bench. But when he set it down, it rattled. He peeked inside with the light. There was a strong, bitter, nutty smell inside. Three yellow boxes and two receipts.
At first, he thought they were for candy. But then he flipped one over and saw the logo with the dead rat. Brandon shook the bag again and a few little green pellets bounced around. Flies they had a problem with, even mosquitoes, but there was never enough food around to attract mice, let alone rats.
Brandon checked the receipts. One was for chicken, buttermilk, potatoes, and lard. Other was from the pharmacy for three large boxes of pest control. Brandon crumpled the bag and wiped his hands off on his shorts.
Washing machine wound up like an ancient helicopter about to explode and whined to a stop. Brandon moved the clothes and went upstairs. He opened the lower cupboard door as slowly as he could but it still groaned loud with age. Threw the paper bag in the garbage can under the kitchen sink.
Mom snored softly on the couch. Brandon sat the floor and turned the volume up a little on the TV. It was ten to, almost time for the news again.
“Hey.” Mom sat up and yawned. “Time is it?”
“Where’s your father?”
“Dinner’s gotta be cold by now.”
“Can we eat?”
“Let’s give him a few more minutes.”
Seven o’clock, mom gave the boys an apple and sent them to bed. She said dad had ruined the special dinner and she wanted to save it for tomorrow.
Boys cried and grumbled until mom threatened to get the flyswatter handle and they ran stomping upstairs.
Almost as dark outside as in when tires came up the drive, spitting stones. Brandon pulled the curtain back and watched dad get out of his truck. Had a bouquet of daisies. Then he reached in for something else.
“Pizza?” Abe was at Brandon’s elbow now.
Excitement overtook them, and they ran downstairs and opened the landing door just a crack.
Mom must have been watching too because she came running from the kitchen saying no, no, no.
Boys opened the door a little wider to see her come running back the opposite direction with one of the tinfoil-covered containers. Then a loud squeak from the door under the sink followed by scraping noises and mom saying shit, shit, shit.
Brandon carefully closed the door and sat the step.
Brandon shushed Abe and whispered that he didn’t know. Through the door the boys could hear mom and dad greet each other. She squealed happily, and he grunted generously about something. Then mom yelled for the boys to come to supper.
Brandon counted thirty Mississippies before opening the door.
“I thought we hadda go sleep.” Abe sniffed at the air.
“And now we don’t.” Brandon shoved him. “C’mon. Let’s go.”
Mom leered at them from the table. “You two come sit.”
“Well, you’re eatin pizza, now. So get your asses to the table.” Dad chuckled and mom echoed with a forced laugh.
Mom served dad three slices of pizza and gave herself and Abe each one.
“Why’s it smell like fried chicken in here?” Dad looked around the dim room.
“Oh, Brandon wanted to make dinner but he accidentally burnt it.”
A shocked “What?” was all the boy could muster before mom flashed him a homicidal glower.
Her voice softened. “It was an accident, really.”
Brandon just sat there with his mouth wide open, nodding back and squinting in disbelief.
Mom loosened two pieces of pizza and held them up. Brandon wanted to throw it in her face but his stomach grumbled at the scent of tomato sauce and pepperoni. He stretched his paper plate across the table to her when dad slammed his fist down. Everything jumped and jangled, and Abe gasped, and mom dropped the pizza back in its box.
“Wasting perfectly good food?” False gaiety gone from dad’s voice. “I work all day so you can throw my money down the goddamn toilet?”
Brandon babbled in his own defense.
“He’s very sorry. It was an accident, dear. Let’s please just eat.”
“You shut up.” Dad pointed at mom before swinging his gnarled finger the boy’s direction. “Maybe he should go without. Wasting food? Absolute bullshit.”
Once again tears dripped down Brandon’s face. He stared at his mother, waiting for intervention.
“You heard your father.” Kindness gone from her voice, too. And she spoke with an insolent hair flip. “Go on up to bed.”
Dirty yellow lamplight. Brandon lay there trying to breathe in the still sweltering funk. A cinema of gore projected against the wall of his mind in every bloody fantasy he’d ever had about dad’s demise.
Pictured the son-of-a-bitch’s head exploding at the end of a twelve gauge. Brandon grinned wide thinking about taking one of dad’s own saws from his workshop. Oh, how the blood would spurt from his freshly sliced neck.
Thinking about the tools in the workshop made the image of cartoon rats pop into his mind. Dead cartoon rats. Empty yellow boxes. The chicken!
“Oh my god.” Brandon sat up and stared at the door in the dim yellow light. He replayed the scene of his mother dumping out their special dinner, the receipts in the basement. He felt scared and alone.
Brandon sneaked to the top of the stairs and could hear mom and dad laughing. Even Abe was having a good time. Pictured them all rolling around on the floor in agony after pigging out on a special family meal and a batch of Brandon’s Buttermilk Biscuits, the old family recipe now with a sinister new secret ingredient.
Thought how nice it would be to go stay with grampa, and he wondered how much rat poison could be bought for seventeen dollars.