Missing Enough to Feel All Right by Janelle Bassett

I’ve recently been forced to become a morning person, and I think this shift is rearranging other parts of me. Suddenly I crave citrus and can only sleep on my back. I wake up to the still-dark and drink coffee while lying down in front of a sun lamp. My neck is covered with scalds and my pajamas are covered in stains, but I can’t seem to sit up until I’ve had half a cup and ten minutes of LED shine.

I used to wake up and lie still, refusing to open the blinds, pitying the many people who were already standing up and buttoning their shirts in the mirror like idiots. I didn’t have a job to get to, no one was waiting for me to crack their eggs, my day started when I felt ready. But now, thanks to my sister, I have become something so much worse than a daylight buttoner: a person with a coffee pot on her bedside table.

Amy asked me to take over her catering business for six weeks, during her maternity leave. She has five employees. She could have asked any one of them to step up, yet she felt none were capable of being in charge—so our Amy either has trust issues or is truly very bad at hiring. My only qualification is her trust in me. She knows that I follow directions and hate letting people down. I can cook, sure, but it’s not the kind of food you charge money for, unless it’s dumped on a buffet counter and paid for by the pound.

There was an implication in Amy’s request that I wasn’t doing anything important with my life, that I could drop everything and be her stand-in for a month and a half, no problem. This wasn’t true—I had to cancel two weekend trips with friends I used to like, postpone a laser hair removal appointment, and fully bow out of my happy hour spin class. I had prepaid for sixteen weeks, which is practically a full-term pregnancy.

Amy and I have always operated at different speeds. She’s all in, she sprints, and I get there eventually, right when I have to. Just because Amy enjoys doing too much too quickly and without necessity, she treats me like I’m not doing enough. Sometimes I wonder if she handed me her business to show me, first-hand, what the early risers and the go-getters of the world can accomplish.

To help with my lack of catering expertise, Amy maintains a constant digital presence. She’s either FaceTiming in with that baby on her breast to berate me as I stir gravy, or she’s sending WhatsApp messages about proper basting or the risk of underseasoning. The chain-of-command in the kitchen is: Amy-on-my-phone, then me, then the five employees who resent my unearned authority. I’ve overheard them making fun of my inability to chop vegetables finely. “I’m sure the client was hoping for potatoes cut like thick toenails.”

But, two weeks in, I’m rolling along with this catering gig. Very few clients have asked for a refund. I’ve learned to pronounce cumin properly and have loudly proclaimed that aprons are the mullets of clothing—dull in front, cheeky in back.

This morning I get to Plenty of Dish at 6:30 to unlock the door and warm the ovens. (Amy swears she was forced to keep this name when she bought the bakery from her mentor—to preserve the name recognition they’d built up—but I’ve heard her tell people about the business and she delights in saying it aloud. She does an eyebrow thing with “dish,” as if to help the pun along.)

There’s a bridal shower order to fill today. They want forty lemon muffins with blackberry buttercream icing and uncircumcised penises stenciled on top. Last week, when we got the order, I messaged Amy, “Where do you keep the uncircumcised penis stencils? Near the whisks?”

It turns out I had to draw one, freehand, then cut it into a stencil myself. This took seven attempts. One of those attempts ended up looking like a thorny rose, which won’t go to waste, as we get more and more clients throwing divorce parties.

I turn on the lights and all the cake stands gleam “good morning.” It’s all open shelving in here, which means the drawers are stuffed full of unsightly items like meat thermometers, paper plates, and twisty ties. To maintain that clean, sleek look, we keep the paper towels in the refrigerator door.

Amy sent me today’s agenda at 2:30 in the morning. She has no night mode. Any correspondence is answered immediately and desperately and comes with a photo of the baby against her “I’m the BRIDE” sweatpants, which she’s been wearing ever since childbirth left her with a third-degree tear. We call the baby Rip Torn for now, but we will transition into calling him Anthony as the entrance wound he made in my sister heals.

The first item on Amy’s agenda is: “Line up ingredients on kitchen island, ensuring complete inventory and correct amounts.” I get out the flour, vanilla, and baking powder, the sugar and lemons. As I step toward the refrigerator for butter, my phone pings. Amy says, “the unsalted.”

I grab the eggs and unsalted butter. Now Amy is calling on FaceTime. I answer, but point the phone toward the egg carton because it’s too early for faces. “I’m following the directions. What do you want?”

The baby is screaming. He sounds red and like he’d like to go back where he came from. I pivot the phone, so I can see Amy’s face. She’s blank, desolate—she looks like she’s just seen the next four years of her life and they were as loud and insistent as that current moment.

I tell her not to worry, to get some sleep, that I have everything under control, that Deidre will be in soon to belittle and correct me, to give me some credit—I’ve been doing this for two whole weeks.

Amy is bouncing now. She’s set the phone down and is bending her knees over and over to jostle the baby into being soothed. Her head goes in and out of the frame as she says, “I just wanted to see the light in the kitchen as the sun came up. And oh, I see the stacks of saucers behind you. My saucers. Can you walk over and show me the magnetic knife holder?”

I consider saying no, but her face is a convincing counter argument. I carry my phone across the room and hold it in front of the wall-mounted knives.

Amy sighs. “I had zero stitches in my panties when I bought that.”

The baby (I really need to start thinking of him as my nephew) is still loudly hating his existence. The two of them are going up and down but staying the same.  “Do you… want me to show you the mixer?”

“Please.” I set the phone down temporarily, so I can move the stand mixer from the shelf onto the counter. It’s heavy—high-end, comparison shopped-for. I put my hand in the frame for the reveal, gliding it along the base, like I’m either selling the mixer or am about to make it disappear. “Here it is.”

“Could you turn it on? I want to see it go.”

I affix the beater and plug the cord into the wall. “You ready?”

She’s bouncing harder, blurry. “Do it.”

I turn the mixer up to ten—full speed—and point the phone down into the mixing bowl. I can’t see Amy, but I know she’s going faster still, that she’s whirring and full-speeding to keep up with all her babies.

(She bought this place at twenty-seven. She repainted, designed a logo, took the doors off the cabinets and worked every weekend. She developed a ricotta pineapple pie that was featured on a local news segment. She changed her pants daily. Her eyebrows only conveyed a fraction of her delight.)

Deidre is here. She calls over the noise, “If you’re making an ASMR video, you should put on some lipstick.”

I switch off the mixer and the baby stops crying. No. Amy has hung up. I don’t know whether to hope that my sister, suddenly alone, has stilled or that she hasn’t slowed down at all.

I eye my ingredients on the island, trying to act like I wasn’t caught participating in a digital postpartum appliance trance. “Amy wanted to see her kitchen. I don’t think she and the baby are getting along.”

Deidre nods. She’s had babies. “It’s an adjustment period. They’ve both been forced out.”

She picks up the penis stencil I’d set near the sink. “Divorce party today?”

“No! That’s my best penis! Amy approved it.”

Deidre puts the penis back where she found it and starts her ring-removing routine. She can’t bake with rings on, she says, and yet can’t leave the house bare-handed. “That’s clearly a thorny rose. Or a rumbled pug? Amy must be underslept.”

“Do you think I should go over there and check on her?”

Deidre looks up from her hands. “You haven’t gone to see her since she had the baby?”

“I’ve been running her business!” I suppress the image of my sister’s pleading, bobbing face. If Amy wanted my help or my company, she would ask, right? I try to think of a single time when she made herself vulnerable to me, or showed any strain from traveling at the speed at which she thrives.

Deidre is no longer looking at me, the bad sister, the thick slicer. She’s stacking her rings one by one, so she can slip them into a zippered pocket of her purse with one movement.

“I’ll go to her today,” I tell Deidre, trying to work out how many appliances I can fit in my trunk and whether I can seatbelt a stack of twenty saucers.

 

Janelle Bassett’s writing has appeared in The Offing, American Literary Review, The Rumpus, Smokelong Quarterly, VIDA Review, and Slice Magazine. She lives in St. Louis and is an Assistant Fiction Editor at Split Lip Magazine.

 

Fly Fishing with God by Andrew Bertaina

In the first lonesome years after college, the man used to fly fish with God. They’d met through a friend of a friend, a mutual interest sort of thing. God didn’t have a car, and the man did. God wasn’t a freeloader. He just didn’t have an interest in learning to drive. Sometimes the man wanted to ask if God was a New Yorker, but the accent didn’t fit. 

On days they fished, the man awoke early, careful not to disturb his wife; her hair splayed across the pillow. She stayed awake late, staring into her phone, in the way of contemporary unhappily married couples. Sometimes she kept the lamp on late, read poems by a local author she’d met at the library. The man kissed her quietly and left.

God usually waited at the bus stop, smoking a cigarette and staring pensively into the middle distance, coins of light flickering on the underside of leaves, low slung clouds, pigeons bobbing about like buoys. 

The rides were strangely silent. God wasn’t much of a morning person. 

Let there be light, He said, But not so goddamn early. 

The man turned up the radio.  

Eventually, they climbed into the mountains and up an old road, which crossed, via a series of bridges, the raging torrent of the river, glittering blue green below. The sun arrived through the skinny trunks of lodgepole pines—diagonal strips of light, the sort of thing Vermeer would have really nailed. At road’s end, was a waterfall and a small pool, where they’d unload the cooler, sandwiches, beer, and gear. 

In the few months that these trips took place, the man and his wife started to fight. At first, they’d been small fights, but now they were saying unforgivable things to one another. Lately, after the fights, she’d drive her car off into the night, and he’d stand outside, watching the fireflies seemingly flicker in and out of existence.  

As they fished, he found himself wanting to ask God about heaven or what his wife thought of him. But God seemed exhausted, distant.

The mornings after fights, she’d always be there, breathing heavily in the clean linen sheets. The man loved her tenderly, as deeply as he’d thought possible.

Do you need anything, today?

She pretended to sleep.

He drank coffee in the kitchen, waited for her to wake. Squirrels dare-deviled through oaks in the yard. She was a locket, and he had lost the key. Sometimes he dreamed himself in search of the key, swimming through rivers, prying open the mouths of fish, looking for that glittering piece of metal that would free them both.

God frowned and cast again. The man felt lonely and sad, a child lost on the playground.

At least I brought the loaves, God said. I’ll make a million of them, and we can feed the ducks.

The man didn’t know whether to laugh. He was thinking of his wife, of how much she held him in disdain. The wind bent the leaves, ran through the grass. An hour passed.

Fuck all, God said, and walked across the water, feet dimpling the surface. He plunged His fist into the white rapids and pulled out a wriggling salmon. As they cooked the fish over the camp stove, neither of them mentioned the feat. God seemed embarrassed as though he’d made platypuses again.

When the man returned with fish and desperately tired, his wife would ask if the trips were worth it. He could hear the admonishment, time they weren’t spending. Sometimes he stayed awake, bleary eyed, to ask after her day. Once, he’d picked up the poems she read, mostly nonsense about old lovers reincarnated as dogs, geese, pebbles of light, train sounds in the distance. The poems were like koans who’s answer was sadness.

In this dream-like state, he thought of his father, who had been incredibly loving, so smothering in his love that the man had been desperate to leave. Now he understood that he was searching for someone like his father, now dead, a soul to love him fiercely. He thought about telling his wife, but her brow was knit tightly, foreclosing questions.

Eventually, God told him He was no longer interested in fishing. He said He wanted to work on a low crossover dribble that flowed into a step-back jumper. Like James Harden, God said, but with a longer beard. 

The man was home every Saturday now, mowing the lawn and watching college football. His wife stayed in the kitchen, reading poems, voraciously now. Sometimes, he swore he saw her slip scraps of paper into her mouth.

Late at night, when he thought she was sleeping, sometimes he’d catch her reciting the poems she’d surreptitiously eaten, scraps of lines floating in the air above them. He shook her awake.

What are you doing?

You were reciting poetry.

Don’t be silly, she answered, rolling over.

He looked at the crease where hip met thigh, longed for her. He stood at the window. The moon lay on the grass in the yard. He prayed.

* * * *

Months later, long after his wife had moved in with the writer across town, the man ran into God at the gas station. God tried hiding behind a row of candy bars. The man stood behind God in line, staring at Him intently. Finally, God turned and said, I couldn’t take all the damned silence. 

The man nodded, understanding he’d missed the opportunity to ask questions about meaning, love, the shape of the universe, time’s flow, questions that would plague him for the rest of his life. The same kinds of questions, he understood now, his wife so desperately wanted him to ask. 

At the register, a middle-aged man with a wrinkled brow rang him up and asked if he wanted anything else. The man looked up at the row of cigarettes behind the counter, the bits of amber colored whiskey. He wanted so many goddamn things he didn’t know how to ask for.

 

Andrew Bertaina received his MFA in creative writing from American University. His work has appeared in many publications including:  The ThreePenny Review, Witness Magazine, Redivider, Orion, and The Best American Poetry 2018. More of his work is available on his website at www.andrewbertaina.com.