Sarah dragged the chrome-legged chair to the kitchen counter. Chili called for chili powder and it resided on the second shelf just beyond her 9-year old reach. Climbing up on the formica-topped surface, she stood and rummaged through the spices. She grabbed one, hopped down to the chair and set it on the counter.
The hamburger already simmered in the skillet as she poured a bit of spice in but it didn’t smell right. Examining the label she realized she had chosen cinnamon instead. Mumbling to herself she mounted the chair again, moving the mis-matched tins and bottles until she discovered the chili powder in the back corner.
Once again, she made the trek down from the counter and poured in a teaspoon of the right thing. Stirring the meat, she added salt, pepper and some dried onion. The meat mixture began to smell like her mother’s chili. Next, she’d add the beans.
Several coupons and bread wrappers fell out of the drawer as she opened it. Cooking spoons, a spatula and knives lay scattered among the debris in the drawer. Finally,, she found the hand-operated can opener. This tended to be the hardest part for Sarah. She set the cans and can opener on the table and sat down. She placed a can between her legs on the chair. Holding the can with her knees, she used both hands to crank the can opener around the lid.
“Waah, waah!” Sarah’s sister Amy began crying.
“Hold your horses,” Sarah called. “I’ll be there in a minute. I got to finish this.”
Amy didn’t understand and kept crying.
“Geez Louise, Amy. Be quiet.”
An odor began rising from the stove. Sarah screeched as she dropped the can opener and the half-opened can. Smoke rose from the skillet. Amy kept crying.
“What do I do?” she yelled to no one.
“Calm down,” she said aloud. “First a hot pad.” She grabbed two yellow and green pot holders she had made from loops woven in her small loom. They had been Christmas presents to her mother.
“Now turn off the heat. Using the pot holders grab the skillet handle and move it off the burner.” She did as she commanded herself.
“There that wasn’t so bad.”
Smoke filled the kitchen. Fan,” she told herself. She knew there was a blue one in her parent’s bedroom. Amy screamed as she walked by. Sarah ignored her. She found the fan. It took both hands for her to carry it into the kitchen.
“Plug-in,” she said. “Oh, there’s one behind the door.” One of the larger rooms in the house, the kitchen held a washer, dryer, table, five chairs, a high chair, stove, refrigerator and kitchen counter. It seemed tiny.
A door led out of the kitchen to what used to be the back porch. Her father had remodeled it when they moved here four years ago. Behind the door existed the only available unused plug in the room. Sarah moved the boxes that were behind the door, plugged the fan in, turned it to high and hoped it would blow the smoke away.
Amy screamed still. Sarah made sure the front door and all the windows were open and then went to her baby sister’s crib in the front room. Amy had pulled up using the crib railing and stood tears falling down her chubby cheeks. She held her hands out to her big sister.
Sarah hugged her and rubbed her back but didn’t pick her up. “I’ll be all right,” she said. “I can’t pick you up right now because I’m still fixing supper. I almost ruined it you know. So, I have to see if I can fix it but I’ll come back, I promise.”
At eight months old, Amy probably wanted a bottle or her diaper changed. Sarah had no time for either. Amy’s tears almost caused her to give in but glancing at the clock she knew she only had 15 minutes before her Dad would be home. She wanted him to think she had everything under control.
Sarah ran back into the kitchen as Amy unleashed another round of dismay. The smoke had cleared some. She stirred the meat. It was quite a bit browner than she wanted it to be and the onions much crisper but she couldn’t help that.
She finished opening all three cans of chili beans and poured them in the skillet. Discovering there were no canned tomatoes, she took a bottle of catsup and poured some in along with a cup of water. Her Dad and brother wouldn’t mind. They’d eat anything.
She stirred the ingredients. Her surprise ingredient would probably just add a bit of flavor to the dish even if she’d poured in a lot. She was sure it be all right. She loved cinnamon. She moved the skillet back on the burner and turned it down. It smelled good and looked like chili. Now, all it needed was some simmer time.
Finding Amy’s bottle in the refrigerator, she sat a pan of water on another burner and put the bottle in to heat.
“OK, Amy, your turn,” Sarah said. “Let me see about your diaper.” Sticking her hand through the crib bars, she felt around the edge of Amy’s rubber pants.
“No wonder you’re unhappy. But you need to lay down so I can change you, OK?”
Expertly she grabbed a cloth diaper out of the nearby pile.
“Lay down,” she said reaching in and playfully pulling on Amy’s legs so she sat down on the mattress.
Quickly Sarah put the crib side down and tickled Amy pushing her shoulders so she lay down. She pulled her sister’s legs up and put a rubber-backed cloth under her. Then taking off the outer pants, she unpinned the diaper and threw it in the nearby diaper pail. Placing the clean diaper under her, she sprinkled baby powder on and pinned the new diaper in place. The old rubber pants were wet on the inside so Sarah put on a new pair.
“There, feel better now?”
Amy reached up towards Sarah. “OK, I’ll hold you in a bit. I’ll get your blanket laid out on the floor with some toys and you can play while I get your bottle.”
Sarah put Amy on the floor. Satisfied Amy was taken care of, she went back to the kitchen and turned the chili down to warm. Removing the pan with the bottle, she used a hot pad to take the bottle out and ran it under cold water. She tested it on her arm and instinctively knew it was a bit hot. In a few minutes it would be just right. She set it on the kitchen table, saw that Amy was happy chewing on her baby doll’s arm and went outside to check on Stevie.
In the summer, Stevie and his friends in the neighborhood found endless things to do. Stevie needed little looking after. Every once in awhile he ran in for a drink of water or frozen kool-aid pops for him and his friends. Stevie had particular tastes so, lunch mainly consisted of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Sometimes the older kid in the neighborhood, Marvin, talked Stevie into things that weren’t the best choices like playing in the storm sewer across the street right after it rained or climbing a really tall tree in the woods. Stevie always seemed to fair well in the mix, though.
Stevie and Tank, who was the same age and twice the size of Stevie, were fielding baseballs Marvin hit them. Many went over the fence so the younger boys had to climb it or find a way around. If the ball went it Mr. Palin’s yard it necessitated going around the block to ask him to get it for them. His dog didn’t like them being in his yard. He had been known to bite. At the least, he barked up a storm at anyone who ventured into his domain.
Just as Sarah stepped out the back door, though, Stevie hopped over the fence. Sarah screamed. Marvin put his hands on his hips and scowled. “Be quiet. You’re gonna’ wake him up.” As if on cue, the big, black dog came charging full speed ahead toward Stevie. Sarah screamed again.
“Faster, faster,” Tank yelled running to the fence edge.
Stevie looked bewildered. Sarah realized he didn’t have the ball yet. “Forget the ball, run,” Sarah yelled.
Marvin stood frozen. Stevie clammered to climb the rickety wire fence with the dog at his heels. The dog appeared to be running without caring to stop at the fence. Stevie scampered up the fence but a hole in his jeans caught on one of the fence wires. He struggled to pull himself loose. Tank grabbed him under the arms and attempted to pull him over.
The dog lunged, teeth bared. He hit the fence inches below Stevie’s leg. In an adrenalin rush, Tank yanked Stevie over in the safety of his own yard. Stevie fell on Tank. Stevie’s larger friend could take any blow. One day he might be a defensive tackle. He already had a good start.
Tank and Stevie started to laugh then but Sarah didn’t think it the least bit funny.
“You get in this house, Mason Stephen Alexander,” Sarah said. That made Stevie laugh all the more.
“You ripped your best pair of jeans. You’re in so much trouble when Daddy gets home.”
“Daddy’s home.” Sarah jumped and turned to find her father with Amy on his hip. “She crawled into the kitchen and pulled the bowls out from under the cabinet.”
“I’m sorry, Daddy,” Sarah stammered.
“She’s fine, Sarah. No harm done.” Then raising his voice, he called, “Stevie, wash up for supper.”
He put his arm around Sarah and guided her into the house. Inside, Daddy asked Sarah to run the baby’s bottle under hot water. He sat down in the rocking chair with her and fed her while Sarah put the bowls away that were scattered across the floor, dished up the chili, finished setting the table and poured milk for herself and Stevie and tea for her father.
Mr. Alexander got Amy fed. He put her in the high chair and scattered a few cheerios on her tray. He always liked for the family to all be together at supper.
“Seems like you had an interesting day, Stevie,” Mr. Alexander said.
“He ripped his jeans and almost killed himself. Plus he lost a ball.” Sarah’s brow creased and her lips pursed.
“I got another one.” Stevie stuck his tongue at his sister.
“Yeah, but its old.” Sarah liked reminding him of his lose.
Daddy chuckled and changed the subject. “This is really good chili, Sarah. What did you do different?”
“Secret ingredient.” Sarah smiled.
“I want a peanut butter sandwich.” Stevie pushed his bowl away.
“You had that for lunch. You like chili.” Sarah raised her spoon to her mouth and took a bite.
For a minute it seemed Stevie and Daddy held their breath.
Sarah put her spoon down and sighed. “Maybe, I’ll have a peanut butter sandwich, too. You want one, Daddy?”
“Sure, as long as you’re making them.” She noticed he had pushed his bowl away, as well.
Sarah rose to get the peanut butter and made them all sandwiches. After supper she threw the remaining chili over the fence to Mr. Palin’s dog. He came barreling around the counter like he would tear her head off. When he saw her offering, he stopped and eagerly lapped it up.
“Hope you gag on that.”
Back inside she cleaned up the dishes and then went to her room. “Leave It To Beaver” played on the TV but she didn’t want to watch. It only reminded her what she didn’t have.
She pulled out her Barbie dolls and began playing. “Momma, will you help me make the chili,” she mimicked in little girl voice.
“Sure,” she moved the Barbie doll as if it answered. “I love to help you make chili but I’d love it even more if you helped me make chili. Maybe we’ll make some butterscotch brownies, too. Would you like that?”
“Oh yes, Momma, I’d like that very much.”
Even with the noise from the TV, though, an absence invaded Sarah. Her mother existed but she didn’t. Sarah’s tears dropped on Barbie’s swimsuit.
“Sarah?” Her father knocked softly on the wall. “Can I come in?”
She swiped her hand across her face and nodded but didn’t look up at him.
“I’m sorry about all this.” Her Daddy sat down on the bed he had to hunker over a bit because there wasn’t much room between the bottom bunk and the top. “With your mother in the hospital this summer, I just don’t know what else to do. I don’t have money for a babysitter. It’s too much on your grandparents for you all to stay there all summer. Plus, I like having you guys around.” He tossled her hair.
“Me, too, Daddy. I love being here with you.” Tears were beginning to form in the corner of her eyes so she dared not look up. At least part of what she said was true. She loved being with her Daddy. She wanted him to think everything was fine at home.
“Marvin’s mom down the road is around most of the time. If you need something don’t hesitate to ask her.”
Sarah could feel the tear begin to slide down her cheek so, she didn’t speak. She just nodded her head. She picked up a bathing suit clad Ken and began moving the two dolls back and forth as if they were dancing.
“I’ve got to take care of Amy.” He stood up and turned to go down the hall. “You get some sleep.”
Her room didn’t have a door so she watched as he slowly walked down the hall. His footsteps sounded solemn as he made his way to the kitchen where she heard the water run and the glass clink together. Time for Amy’s last bottle.
Sarah sighed. Daddy had too much to do. She had to help him. She knew he didn’t want people to know about her mother’s problems. She would do the best she could. She wouldn’t bother Marvin’s mother unless absolutely necessary.
She turned back to Barbie and her blue swimming suit. In her mind, the suit transformed to a beautiful silver shimmering, long gown. She and Ken were attending the ball tonight.
Sarah knew how to do this and Daddy must never know any different. He worried so about Momma. If he had to worry about her and her brother and sister it would be too much for him. She was a big girl, after all she would be in fourth grade in less than a month. Yes she was old enough to take care of everything her Daddy needed. She would be really good at it.
Because if there was one thing Sarah was good at it, it was pretending.