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Short Story: "Kneading"

By Micaela Myers

    “I don’t like butter,” Jesse said. She looked at the gooey kisses it left on each of her fingertips.

            “Butter is an amazing thing,” her mom said. Her hands were deep into the bread dough. “It makes all this hold together. Without butter, we’d have no bread, no cookies, and no cakes. A baker must love butter.”

            “Maybe I’m not a baker,” Jesse said.

            “Not yet, you’re not. Bakers must be like little boys, unafraid to get dirty!” Grinning, her mom lifted up her hands covered in dough and flour.

            Jesse had never liked getting dirty. Her mom said that as a toddler she wouldn’t even step off the beach blanket. She just stood there looking at the sand like it was poison.

            “Bring your buttery fingers over here and knead this dough for a while.”

            Jesse walked over to the bowl and pressed her fingers gently against it. It felt soft and spongy, but little pieces followed her fingers out. “Can’t we just use a big spoon?”

            “No. It will stick to a spoon.” Her mom stood beside her, doughy hands in the air.

            “Can’t we use a non-stick spoon?” Jesse said. She stared down at the glob of dough.

            Her mom laughed. “There is no such thing. Plus you need to really work it. Be rough with it. Get into it. You’ll love it once you do.”

            Her mom placed her hands over the backs of Jesse’s. Jesse could feel the dry flour and sticky butter from her mom’s hands. The dough rose up through her fingers, through her mom’s fingers, between their hands, making everything twice as messy. When Jesse pulled her hands up, her mom’s came too, along with half the dough in the bowl.

            “There’s a loaf on our hands!” Jesse said. “This has to be the wrong way to do it.”

            “It’s not. I grew up on a farm, remember. I know how to make things from scratch.”

            “Then why haven’t you before?” Jesse said. Of course, she knew the answer. Her mom hadn’t had time before. She’d been working as a secretary at a law firm since Jesse was little. Her mom had gotten pregnant her senior year in high school and proudly raised and supported Jesse on her own, packed her up when Jesse was a year old, and driven across the country from her parents, who didn’t believe she could unscrew up her life. Jesse had heard the story many times. Now that she was eleven, starting middle school and practically grown up, her mom had decided to marry her lawyer boyfriend, Rob, and be a stay-at-home mom. At first, Jesse had liked the thought of getting away from all the rules and forced activities of the YMCA after-school program, but her mom had more activities planned than they did, and she missed her best friends at the Y.

            “Before I was working, working, working. But now I get to play with my beautiful baby girl.” She put a doughy arm around Jesse. Jesse shrank away, trying to avoid getting dough on her shoulder, which the matching Winnie the Pooh aprons didn’t cover.

            “I’m not a baby anymore, Mom,” Jesse said.

            “You’re my baby. Now come here and knead this dough.” Her mom waved her closer and took her hands again. Their fingers squeezed through the dough, collecting it as they went and becoming too heavy to work it. “Scrape it off with one hand and then the other.” Her mom demonstrated. “Good. Now work it some more on your own. Flip it. Hit it. Beat it up. Really work it.”

            As Jesse squeezed the dough, her mom leaned against her. “My baby,” she said again.

            “Mom!” Jesse said. She kept her hands in the bowl but tried to move her body to the side.

Her mom leaned over the counter beside Jesse, holding her dirty hands together and looking up at her. “Speaking of babies,” she said. “Would you like having a little brother or sister? I know you did when you were younger. You were always asking me for a little brother or sister.”

            Jesse had figured this would happen. She had friends at school whose parents got remarried and had new half kids. Most of them were fathers, though, so her friends only had to see the half kids every other weekend. Jesse had never met her father. She didn’t really want to either. Her mom said he wasn’t much— whatever that meant. But if he didn’t want to meet her all these years, then she didn’t want to make him.

            “I guess. Are you pregnant already?” Jesse asked.

            “No! Do you even know about that stuff?”

            “Of course. We had that class on periods and stuff last year at school, remember?” She recalled handing her mom the permission slip. She had been paying bills, read the slip on top of her checkbook and said, “Oh good. I’m glad they’re doing this nowadays.”

Jesse was beating up the dough like her mom had said—watching it as she did so, feeling it under her fingernails, where it would dry, and she’d have to dig in far to get it out, wedging little dry pieces and causing an infection. She didn’t look at her mom, even though she could tell she was staring at her, smiling, waiting, the way she did when she asked Rob if they could all go on a picnic that Saturday or see a movie Friday night. Rob was okay, but he worked a lot and thought everything should be a certain way. Back when her mom worked and they had their own apartment, her mom would say things like, we need a bright painting there to lighten it up, don’t you think? Or, this weekend we’re staying in. But since they’d moved into Rob’s house, her mom cared more what he thought, saying, is this okay here, hon, would you mind, hon? Jesse knew it was his house, but it was also her mom’s house now. Some of her friends’ moms were that way, too. Maybe her mom had to be that way now.

            “Yes, that’s right, you did have that class,” her mom said. “I guess that should be another one of our mother-daughter afternoons, though—you know, the whole sex talk and stuff.”

            Jesse picked up the dough and dropped it hard in the bowl. “That’s okay, Mom. I’d rather not. They have classes for all that in school.”

            “So you wouldn’t mind a little brother or sister?”

            “No. I figured you’d want a baby. You’re still young enough, I guess,” Jesse said.

            “Well, thanks a lot!” Her mom was all smiling and happy. She acted like baking bread was the most fun she could possibly have. Jesse couldn’t stand one more minute of it.

            “Is it done?” Jesse asked.

            “Form it into a nice ball, and we’ll let it rise,” her mom said.

            Jesse spent a long time rolling the bread into a ball. Little stray bits of dough kept running away, falling down around the bottom of the bowl, and getting stuck to the sides.

            “That’s good enough,” her mom said.

            “No. It’s not all in a ball yet,” Jesse said. Her mom reached to take the bowl, but Jesse put her elbow out toward her. “Wait. It’s not done.”

            Her mom stopped smiling her big smile. Jesse knew she’d sounded a bit grouchy with her, but if her mom was going to spend the whole day on this bread thing, she shouldn’t leave little pieces all around the edges.

            When the bread was covered with a damp cloth and sitting in the warmed oven, Jesse asked, “What do we do now?”

            “We wait an hour for it to rise,” her mom said. She reached out and untied Jesse’s apron. “What do you want to do while we wait? Want to help me with the garden? I used to help my mom with the garden when I was your age.”

            “We have a garden?” Jesse asked, although she half remembered her mom asking Rob if she could put one in behind the tool shed. “No. I think I’ll call Becca and see if she’s home.”

            “She won’t be home yet,” her mom said. She was gathering the loose flour from the counter into a pile, but she swept the sponge too far and the flour scattered to the ground. Her mom made a hissing sound and threw the sponge on the counter. She ripped a paper towel off the holder and held it under the faucet. Jesse knew all that happy-about-baking-bread stuff wouldn’t last. “Becca’s mother always picks her up at the same time I picked you up, which isn’t for another half hour,” her mom said. She got down to wipe up the spilt flour.

            “I think I’ll watch some TV then, unless you really need my help or something.”

            “Fine. Go watch TV.” Then she stood up and gave a little fake smile, smoothing out her apron.

            Her mom came back in when the last “Simpsons” rerun had ended. She said the bread was done rising.

            Jesse couldn’t believe how it filled the whole bowl, like a giant dough balloon. It was stretched as far as it could go, and it had a little ugly pucker in the middle that looked like a belly button.

            “Now we knead it a tiny bit and then put it in pans,” her mom said.

            “Then are we done?” Jesse asked. She thought the dough looked disgusting.

            Her mom looked at her the way she used to when Jesse would ask if she could go somewhere or do something after school, when her mom was tired from work.

            “Maybe my next kid will like spending time with me,” her mom said.

            Jesse balled her hand up and punched it into the dough. She thought about throwing it, but just watched it deflate around her hand. “That’s what your next kid might do. That’s what little kids do. They run around getting into everything and wrecking it.”

            Her mom took the bowl from her. Her face was all wrinkled up, like she might yell or else start to cry. Jesse would rather she yelled. Her mom didn’t do either; she took in a big loud breath and then set the bowl down behind her. “I see the idea of having a little brother or sister does bother you,” she said.

            “No, it doesn’t,” Jesse said. “I was just informing you, since you think it’ll be all perfect.”

            They stood there in silence for a while. Jesse couldn’t believe they were both wearing the stupid matching aprons again. She had left the TV on and heard “Entertainment Tonight” starting. She looked down the hall, remembering many nights watching it with her mom while they ate TV dinners. Jesse had always liked that, even though she knew she was supposed to like this more. Her mom was looking at her, waiting for her to say she was sorry. But Jessie didn’t want to. She didn’t want to wear aprons or make bread or any of it. She just stared back at her mom. They both stood their looking at each other. Jesse heard Liza Gibbons saying something about Tom Cruise from the other room.

            “You don’t have to help with the bread anymore,” her mom said. “I need to get dinner started.”

            Jesse walked away from the counter, and then stopped a minute. “Mom,” she said.

            “Yes, hon.” She was slowly getting the bread pans out, brand-new bread pans, already put away in their new spot.

            “Can I stay at the Y again this year after school?” Her mom didn’t say anything. “Just some of the time? I miss my friends and stuff there.”

Finally her mom said, “Sure. I guess. If that’s what you want.” She was staring at the dough and then the bread pans, back and forth between the two, like she didn’t know what to do next. Jessie could hear the commercial break ending. She knew a new segment would be starting.

“What time is it?” her mom asked. It sounded like she was talking to herself. “Move out of the way, Jesse, so I can see the clock,” she said. She looked up at Jesse and motioned for her to step aside. Jesse scooted over but didn’t leave.

Her mom frowned and then went back to looking at the bread. “Maybe we’ll just order pizza or something for dinner,” she said. “I won’t have time to make anything else now.”

 “Kneading” was originally published in the spring 2004 issue of Spire