The new stove came this week. Momma always said if we got a new one she would teach me how to cook. I’m only seven now, so my arms barely reach the stove’s back burners. It’s an electro-gas kind, she tells me. Our old gas one had a bad pilot light or something and was too dangerous to learn.
I wrote about learning to cook in my school diary today. I’m usually too embarrassed to write about what really happens at our house on the weekends. Tomorrow, Daddy’s friends will come over. They will grill yummy meat and drink beer and talk at “full volume” (as Momma puts it) from noon to dark. Pink Floyd and Eagles and Led Zeppelin will echo across the small street.
But tonight all eyes will be on me, because I am going to cook the best Hamburger Helper ever! I’ll make those canned green beans super awesome. No squeakiness for us. (Momma hates squeaky green beans.) Little brother and sister will love it, and everyone will tell me how great I am. For once dinner won’t be about just eating. It’ll be like Christmas and Thanksgiving or my birthday when Grandma spoils me with meatloaf and mashed potatoes.
Momma shows me how to fry the beef, so I break it up and watch it turn from frozen to red then brown. I read the instructions on the box three times before I start adding the milk, water, pasta, and cheese. I don’t want it to burn, so I turn it every two seconds.
Momma tells me I don’t have to over watch it, though. Something about a watched pot. So I stop as she leaves me in charge.
I look at the kitchen table. We never eat there. I think it’s time we did. Instead of eating our meals on the living room couch, I want to be like those people on TV eating around the kitchen table and talking about our day. I have a great story to tell. I’ve been practicing it all day.
The table is covered in trash – old bags from the fried chicken we get from Kroger, cans of near-empty beer, pots and pans still coated with grease and food, old containers of store-bought potato salad from last weekend, and so much more. Flies and gnats circle the mess, too. I’ve grown used to it by now. I don’t even notice the smell anymore.
I can fix it, though. If I move just enough stuff back or to the sink or trash, I can make room for all five of us.
Momma calls out to me to see if I’m okay, and I tell her I’m fine. She’s busy in the living room cleaning up my science project. Daddy won’t like it if he comes home to a messy living room.
I pick up four bags and walk over to the trash, tip-toeing around the cockroaches running across the kitchen linoleum. I take five plates out of the cupboard and head back to the table. I can see the tabletop now, and I have just enough space on the edge to put the stack there.
Some kind of food is stuck to the table. I can’t tell what it is, but the bags must have hid it well. I lift an upside-down plastic cup and scrunch my nose. Something was under it. It’s old and sour smelling and white in color. Then I see movement.
Maggots. Lots of them are crawling around! I throw up a little in my mouth and decide the best course of action is to just hide it for now. I put the cup back down and hear Daddy’s car skid into the driveway.
Daddy shuffles through the front door.
Oh, no! I gasp. I haven’t checked the Hamburger Helper.
He takes one whiff and screams, “Have you burnt dinner?”
I race over to the pot, and Momma does as well. She sees only a tiny layer of burn on the bottom and says that it can be saved.
But that doesn’t settle Daddy. He slams his keys on the floor and stomps into the dining room.
I stand helpless against the wall of the tiny room and cry and say I’m sorry, but it’s not enough. I have ruined his dinner and his night.
I’ve ruined everyone’s night!
My knees give way, and I shake all over. Clinching my fists, I push my nails into my palm.
He picks up a plate and throws it against the wall beside me.
I wrap my arms around my legs and put my head into my knees, but he keeps going until all five plates are shattered to pieces on both sides of me. None of the shards hit me, but I can’t move. I sob into my dirty knees. His words – useless, stupid, ungrateful, pathetic – echo in my ears.
He grabs his keys, slams the door, and screeches down the street in his old clunker, leaving Momma to clean up the mess, finish dinner, calm me down, and put everyone to bed.
I realize now my life will never be like TV.