Here’s a Holiday story for you. I hope you enjoy it.
Auntie Dark and Crunchy
I gripped the handles of the white casserole dish over the lip of the sink, listening for my moment. In the distance came my cue, the muffled sound of the shower being turned on from the parents’ bedroom. It wouldn’t be for long, though. My mom wasn’t the type to waste water or anything else. It was either now or another twenty years of humiliation.
I tipped the handles of the casserole dish toward the sink – milky liquid, macaroni and chunks of cheddar splattered against the silver of the stainless steel down the drain. Most of it disappeared into the plastic, black mouth of the garbage disposal opening. The larger bits – macaroni noodles and cheese cubes were stuck against the silver. They needed a bit of help.
I pulled up the silver faucet handle to the right for the cold water to rush out. I used my hand to guide it the bits stuck against the sink. The water floated the remnants, the fat crescent noodles and orange, cubed cheddar cheese floating in the clear water.
I pushed down the handle, shutting off the flood of water, but not the result. Too much too fast. I didn’t have the time to wait. And there was only one way to get rid of the evidence.
Was the shower still on? I closed my eyes concentrating on the sounds of the morning. I could still hear the water. I still had time.
I flipped up the switch right next to the spray nozzle on the kitchen sink. The garbage disposal rumbled on, taking the stragglers down the drain.
Hopefully, the sound of my mom’s shower covered up the sound. Dad was in the second bedroom that he used as his office since retiring. Thank goodness his hearing was going so he wasn’t able to hear what I was doing.
Now. There was no evidence. I punched in the code 1943 into the alarm pad next to the front window. The ‘rents had the house set with door chimes that sounded throughout the house whenever anyone opened the door. It was loud enough not to be missed. The soft beep let me know they had been turned off.
I jogged outside outside to my light blue Corolla parked in the driveway. As typical in Atlanta, it was sunny and temperate on Thanksgiving morning – enough for a hoodie, but not for an all-weather coat. I wouldn’t be out there long, anyway.
What I wanted was in the trunk. I took out my keys from my pocket, unlocked the trunk and popped it open. There sat my Pyrex carrier with its packet of cold to keep the disposable aluminum container cool. Before taking it out into the open, I looked up and down the street.
Thank goodness this wasn’t the street I’d grown up on. I would have already been caught in the old ’hood. The ‘rents left that place right after I graduated from college. They said it was to downsize, that with all of us gone there was no reason to stay. I suspect it was that the ambulance alarms got too much on their ears and the split-level too much for their knees.
If we were in the old neighborhood, I’m sure Mrs. Washington next door or one of her boys would have been standing on the front stoop clocking my every move by now. There always had been a lot of movement in and out of that house. The bicycles dumped in the middle of the yard that eventually gave way to hoopties that grumbled rather than purred to life.
The Washingtons knew us. They knew my name – Kathleen. They knew where I’d gone to school – Spelman. And they knew exactly why there would be no reason on God’s green earth I would be bringing a casserole dish into the house on Thanksgiving morning.
But this new neighborhood had no history, no soul, and, no one who would rat me out. This place was full of tract homes – brick faces different enough so you can tell your house apart but similiar like they were blood related but not close.
The shower was still running when I snuck back in. My dad had not come from his office cave yet. I took my container and dumped the contents into Mama’s casserole dish.
If one looked closely, they would be able to tell the difference – the consistency was thicker than my mom’s and I used three types of cheese instead of her one chedder. Perfection, though, wasn’t what I was going after. I just needed it to look like mom’s for the first person who actually started eating. Let’s get real. After the first scoop onto the plate, it would just look like the mess anyway. I needed to fool one person – not the 20 that would be weaving in and out of my parents’ home that day. That’s what happened when “family” meant spouses of siblings, nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, cousins. The older you got, the more your family expanded until you qualified for group discounts at Braves games.
I stuffed the casserole carrier underneath the sink. My mom had one just like it so it wouldn’t be out of place. My aluminum container? I dumped it in the garbage can. By the time that bit of evidence was found, my deception would turn into my greatest triumph. No longer would I be known as Dark and Crunchy. Those days were over. Cancelled.
I looked over the kitchen for a final check. It was in neutrals like the rest of the house – brown cabinets and even a beige refrigerator. Mom thought stainless steel appliances were just a fad. You wanted to get something that would last she said. The small kitchen table held four chairs that reminded me of the chairs at my grandmother’s house – classic and sturdy. There was a formal table in the dining room that had turned into a family table over the years as the family grew. The plain, brown circle in the kitchen, though, was where most business was conducted. On the middle of the floor was a large area rug there specifically to soak up any spills. It looked exactly like I’d left it.
And it was all going to plan. I just needed to set the timer on the oven. I closed the lid on the garbage can and turned around to find the first hiccup on my way to mac and cheese redemption.
There – in his Grandpa uniform of gray sweatshirt, navy sweat pants and yes, a Falcons cap topping his head, was my dad. “Whatcha doing, Kay?” he asked.
He couldn’t have known. He didn’t. The casserole was in the oven, right? Except that it wasn’t. It was there sitting on the counter. I’d worried so much about getting rid of the evidence that I hadn’t actually put the doggone thing in the oven. He turned as my gaze fell on the incriminating dish.
“Nothing,” I said. “Just tossing something away. In the garbage.” OK. That didn’t sound incriminating, at all.
“You can handle putting a mac and cheese in the oven?”
“Yes, Sir,” I said, inching toward the counter. “Of course, I can.” There was no way that I would be able to fool Dad. He had been eating my mom’s mac and cheese for the forty years they’d been married. “It’s just 350 degrees. Mom said that she would know when it was ready to take it out. I’ll just go ahead and slip it in the oven now.” I kept my face straight as I casually, casually was a word in my brain and just reached the counter and opened the oven.
And that was my mistake.
Dad looked over it and turned his head like he was a dog that had heard a whistle or a man who realized that the mac and cheese in the casserole dish was not the one that he had been eating for over forty years. “This don’t look like Mom’s.”
Admit nothing. Act quickly.
“Really?” I asked shoving it into the oven and closing it. I stood in front of the oven so that he wouldn’t be able to see inside it. How to say something without lying about it… “It looked the same to me.” It did. I made sure that it did. I had been experimenting with being able to make a mac and cheese to look the same, but not taste the same – so that it would have my own mark. It was a Trojan horse kind of mac and cheese.
He straightened his head. “You sure? You sure that you haven’t tried to do anything?”
Evade the question. “Why would I do that?”
“I know you’re upset that you’re still on cups and napkins duty since” he held his fingers to to do the quotes thing, “the incident.”
“That was 20 years ago.”
“And you’re still on cups and napkins duty.”
“You have to admit it’s a bit ridiculous not to give someone another chance. I mean, what about forgiveness? We’re Christian, right? Our religion was founded on second chances. I mean, you make one wrong dish -”
“So what if it was at Christmas? Doesn’t that mean that grace should be extended? We are, after all, all sinners.” I could have quoted the Bible chapter and verse (all those Wednesday night choir rehearsals that became Bible studies over the years) but I thought that would be over the top.
“You been begging to bring mac and cheese for the past five years. Said you have been, uh, and here the fingers quotes went up again ‘practicing’.”
I could tell that he was holding in the laughter in as they all did with his cheeks puffing out.
“I had,” I said.
“All right, Dark and Crunchy,” he said.
And then I said the thing that ruined everything, “I’ll show them.”
He looked closely at me, a little bit too close. I took after him rather than my mom. We had the same features even if we didn’t have the same skin color and we thought the same way.
“Move on and let me take a look at that mac and cheese in the oven.”
And I knew that it was over. My whole plan hinged on the first person who saw the casserole dish being too involved to notice if there were any differences. But between my dad’s intimate knowledge of mac and cheese combined with the time that it would take to inspect it… In his former life, he was a quality control engineer. It was his job to find stuff that was out of order.
Or maybe not. Maybe he wouldn’t notice. I simply wasn’t going to give up the game before I had to.
I moved away from the oven door. Dad opened it. His eyes narrowed in inspection. He slid the oven rack out and hovered for a moment over the casserole dish. His face relaxed and then slid the rack back into place and closed the oven door.
My shoulders relaxed. Maybe it had been good enough –
“Kathleen you know darn well that that’s not your mother’s macaroni and cheese.”
“It’s too thick. Not milky enough. What are you up to?”
“Forgiveness,” I said. “A, uh, chance at redemption.”
“What did you do with your mom’s mac and cheese?”
He wasn’t going to let it go. He wouldn’t. I took in a big breath and let it out. “I put it down the drain using the garbage disposal.”
“You threw away food? You threw away good money and you know Unous been looking forward to her Gramma’s mac and cheese.”
Unous was my niece visiting from school in North Carolina. She always asked for my mom’s macaroni and cheese. I might have felt bad but she attended my school’s arch rival based partly on what dad called ‘the incident’, so I wasn’t feeling gracious. Or guilty.
“It’s good, I promise,” I said. “I been practicing. I brought it into work -”
“Those people who you said would eat anything?”
“They liked it, Dad. Even the Black people.”
“How do you sound? Even the Black people. Edna!” he called out but my mom was still in the shower.
“Come on, Dad,” I said. “Give me a chance. Give it a chance. We all make mistakes. I just need them to try it one time and I’ll never be on cups and napkins again.”
“You don’t even like to cook. Why is this important to you?”
“It’s one thing not to want to cook. It’s another to be told not to cook.”
“If you had just told me,” he moved over to the kitchen table to sit down. “I might have been able to help you.”
There was hope. There was a light at the end of the tunnel – “So, you’ll help me now?”
- and it was an oncoming train.
“People should be able to know what they’re getting. If you want redemption, you’re going to have to earn it and not through deceit.”
I read his face, those features so familiar. He’d retired from 30 years in corporate America, well versed in deceit. He wasn’t telling the whole story.
“You’re not going to eat that mac and cheese either, are you?”
“Not on your life.”
Of course I had to hear the same thing from my mom as soon as she came out the shower. If I got my features from my dad, everything else came from my mom. At first glance, we looked alike with the same brown skin and hair, but that’s where it ends. I let my grown in a natural puff that sat on top of my head whereas my mom dared her hair to kink up. She looked like she could have belonged in a doo-wop group in the 60s and always wore her hair parted and bumped under and always, always dressed for company.
It was Thanksgiving morning, but she was wearing a dress, a house one that was knit, red and would look good in pictures. Now, though, standing in the kitchen with the mac and cheese, my mac and cheese in the oven, she didn’t look as if she’d want any pictures.
Her hands were on her hips. “What did you do?”
“Edna,” my father, the traitor started. “She done switched the mac and cheese. The confederate mac and cheese is in the oven.”
Mom narrowed her eyes and then opened the door of the oven, the steam coming forth doing something else to heat my face from the coolness of the morning. The door returned to its place with a thump.
“Kay,” she said.
“Yes, ma’am,” I said. “I just wanted to have a chance.”
“I’ma tell you what you’re doing to do. You’re going to go right on up to Publix and get what we need for my mac and cheese.” She looked at me for a moment and I guess what she saw there wasn’t something that she liked because she shook her head. “Nope,” she said. “Nope. I’ll go. I don’t trust you.”
“Awww, Edna,” my dad said, his arm around her shoulders rocking and squeezing her until she smiled. “You have to admit that it almost worked.”
“Hmm,” she said.
“Will you at least try it?” I asked. “I practiced. I did. And if the problem was that I burnt the mac and cheese the first time, then it won’t hurt because, because you’ll pull it out this time, right?”
I hunched my shoulders and looked down. I missed the class on manipulating parents with a puppy dog look just like I missed the class on how to pose for pictures. I knew I looked ridiculous. I hoped that by seeking to manipulate her and failing it would be enough to convince her to give me a try.
She sighed. I fought to keep the smile off my lips. She didn’t say no. She was breaking.
“Can you try just a spoonful?” I asked. “I did work on it.”
Dad said. “The folks at her job ate it.”
Yes! Dad with the assist. Unless he just said that to get out of eating it himself. My eyes narrowed at him. He returned a blank stare.
“Well,” Mom said. “I can try a spoonful. You did go through all the trouble.” She stepped to me, taking my hands in hers. “It can be like the … back up mac and cheese.” The last word punctuated with a nod.
What? Was this like an award for participation?
It was like she assured me that those stick figures I drew in kindergarten with a sun in the corner were real art. Let’s just keep the little one’s hopes up. That’s what it really said.
“All right,” she said. “I’ll going to head to the store. I’ll be back soon”
“I can go or you still don’t trust me?” I asked.
“I know who I raised,” she said with a nod and then headed off to the hall closet to pick up a light jacket as she headed outside.
“Don’t be so sad, Kay,” My dad said though there was a smirk on his face. “Maybe someone will , uh,” the mouth he was trying to hold something in, “Maybe someone will yeah” and then he exploded in laughter and went down the hall to his office shaking his head.
It was just me and the mac and cheese. Well. I knew it was good. Someone would take a chance on it. Surely. Right? Maybe all of mom’s would run out and someone would be desperate. Then I thought back to my aunt who had messed over the sweet potato pie by putting too much nutmeg in it. Forty years ago. She was now in charge of bringing the store-bought lemon cake from Publix.
Still. The mac and cheese was there and it would probably be wasted if anything in her family had to do with it.
The doorbell rang. I looked up at the clock. Yep, it was right on time and no one was right on time except…
“I’ll get it Dad,” I shouted out. And there, right on time was Unous, home from school and the white boy who had made it all the way – Chad. Unous had been encouraged to go to Bennett to become a Bennett Belle instead of a Spelmanite after my mac and cheese failure. She wore her white college sweatshirt proudly.
Any guilt that I might have felt at the moment, disappeared as the plan formed in my mind.
“Come on in,” I said. Chad looked more like a John to me. He was tall and gangly – all arm and legs, but loved my niece dearly. He’d held on too, God bless him. While she was up in Greensboro, he hoofed it down taking classes down at Georgia State.
They came in. Unous gave me a hug. She smelled of Ivory soap with her clean scrubbed face. I stood back from Chad and gave him a nod. He’d get a hug when Unous got a ring.
“Are we the first ones here?” Unous asked looking around.
“You’re always the first one here.”
“Where’s Grandpa? And Gramma?”
“Grandpa is in the office and Gramma is making a grocery run.”
“We were concerned when we didn’t see the car.”
“Hmm,” I said. “You two sit down. The mac and cheese is just about ready,” I said.
She went to the over and turned it the oven light. “Gramma’s mac and cheese?”
I said nothing. Can’t get caught in a lie if you don’t say anything.
The ding beeped, “Ah, “I said. “You want some?”
I opened the door the steam hopefully coloring my face to tinge red so that she wouldn’t see my coloring. I grabbed the two oven mitts and took out the casserole.
“Shouldn’t we wait though?” Unous asked. “That’s what Gramma would have us do.”
“Gramma isn’t here. I won’t tell if you don’t. If she asks, we’ll blame it on Chad.”
“Hey,” Chad said.
I raised an eyebrow and waited. Waited.
“All right,“ she said.
I took out a slotted spoon and from the drawer next to the oven and been took down two styrofoam saucers that we used for family gatherings. They were disposable.
I dipped the spoon into the dish, then dropped a bit of the mac and cheese on the saucers. Because I plated the food, it would give her plausible deniability if it all went wrong. She was my niece after all. I added a clear spoon to each saucer on the side then set them down at the kitchen table on the brown placemats.
First, she sat down, then Chad. She took one bite and I breathed easier.
She looked up her forehead twisted. “This tastes different.”
“Hmmm,” I said.
“Are you sure this is Gramma’s?”
“Why would you ask that?” And then I went for the easy mark, someone less familiar with my mother’s dish. “Chad, what do you think?”
He finished scooping up the last of it. “Can I have some more?”
“I guess that says it all,” I said.
“I mean,” she said. “It’s good and all,” She scooped up another scoop with her spoon and I heard the sound of feet against the last that ran down the hall to protect the carpet.
“Is that Grandpa?” Unous asked.
And before I could answer, he was there. His eyes went wide and arms outstretched. “Noooooo, Unous.”
Unous moved the saucer out of reach from my dad’s clutches. “What’s wrong? This is good.”
“Your Auntie made that.”
“Auntie Dark and Crunchy?” Yes, even the children had been indoctrinated. “It’s good, actually.”
Dad crossed his arms over his chest. “Good?”
“Yeah,” she said.
I stood there smiling. Twenty years of shame melted away. Chad’s opinion might not count for much but Unous was an expert.
“Why don’t you try some,” I asked.
“How did you get them to eat it?”
“Just try some,” I said already headed toward the cabinet for another saucer.
A few minutes later and he nodded. “This is good. Different, but good.” He looked at me as he turned his head. ”Are you sure you made this?” He asked.
The garage door came up and my mom was there. Her hands a plastic sacks each sack.
“Edna,” my dad said. “You gotta taste this.” He held a spoon up and then she tasted it.
“You made this?”
“I told you I’d been practicing.
“I guess I, won’t need to do all of this.” She said but she hitched her shoulder.
Unous said, “I’ll have to make sure to that you’re here from now on. Two mac and cheeses.”
“Yeah,” Dad said. “You won’t have to work as hard.”
“No,” Mom said. “I guess mine can wait. Now you can make it for Christmas.”
“Christmas?” I asked.
“And next Thanksgiving.”
That mac and cheese took a ridiculous amount of time, it was just a one time thing. I didn’t plan on doing this on a regular basis. I had favored daughter status which meant that the only thing that I needed to do was to show up. All of a sudden, the cups and napkin gig didn’t seem so bad.
“Oh, yeah,“ Chad said. Chad. Even Chad.
“This was just going to be a one time gig,” I said.
Unous went back up to the stove top and dug herself another scoop. “Not when everyone gets a taste of it.” She took bite. “It tastes even better now that it’s cooled down some.”
Chad leaned back in his chair, turning toward the oven and turned. “Grab me some more, please.”
Mom put the sack of groceries on the kitchen counter. “I guess those can wait. You can whip up another batch, right? I mean I don’t know if Nous is going to let that go.”
“Whip up another?” I had plans. Plans for feeding on the tears of my familial enemies when I slayed my mac and cheese making skill. Slaving in the kitchen was not part of the plan.
“I’m sure that they’ll want your mac and cheese, Mom. I’ll even prep for you. How much cheese do you need cubed?”
“Just enough to fill up the bowl,” she said. “Now are you sure?”
“Positive,” I said.
Nous and Chad took their plates into the living room area to watch television. Dad went to his office. Mom to her room to take a phone call from her brother who lived too far away to make it down to Atlanta.
I didn’t think about the long term consequences of reaching my goal, but I did now.
“Here you go Mom,” I said. She looked at the the chopped cheese. “Looks good, Kay,” she said and her eyes drifted over to my creation sitting on the stovetop. “I’m just going to have one more taste.”
She took a teaspoon from the drawer and lifted it to her lips and then spit it out.
“Something wrong?” I asked
She rinsed the spoon, stuck it in the dishwasher and then turned on me. “What did you do, Kathleen?”
“I tasted it and actually I think that it needed more salt.”
“Something wrong with your tastebuds?”
“It tasted fine to me.”
“Unous, Bill, Chad come over here.”
Each one had their own tasting and each one had the same reaction.
“Well,” Dad said. “I guess Dark and Crunchy is better than Salty.”
Mom drained the pot that contained the noodles. “I guess it’s just good that we have a back up. You can go ahead and throw that away,” she said. “No one has to know. Just go on and pick up some cups and napkins down at Publix.”
“You don’t like it?”
“Everybody don’t have skills with everything,” she said. Then turned her back as she started making the mac and cheese. I swore I might have heard humming.
I took the casserole dish cornflower blue and dumped the casserole down the drain along with the swirl of the garbage disposal.
Chad had gone back to the living room to watch television but Unous was lookin at me and followed me out to the street where the car that had just come from Publix was getting ready to go back.
“You did that on purpose, didn’t you?”
Admit nothing. “Why would I do that?”
“You’ll give me the recipe?”
I didn’t respond, walking away from her and headed to the car and my rightful place as the cups and napkins aunt.
I was a good aunt. I could drop the recipe off by mail with a postal stamp. That would mean that it could come from anyone. No. I know that I’d do. I’d send it from the post office on Spelman’s Campus. It was worth paying for the parking to get it done.
I slid into the car and turned into the key in ignition to pick up Red Solo cups and paper napkins as the Good Lord intended. My reputation was intact.
It was going to be a good Thanksgiving.