Hustle for Russell

In Produce the five o’clock shoppers swim around us as June studies the list of ingredients for her husband Russell’s birthday surprise: a complicated dark chocolate lemon layer cake she settled on after endless internet searches. Misters mist heads of lettuce—once, twice, three times. Manager to Customer Service. Clean up in aisle four. Butcher needed in meats. An androgenous co-ed draped in a UAlbany hoodie munches down a Honeycrisp apple then hides its mangled core among the grapes.

I finally ask to see the list, and start pointing: “Lemons and limes over here,” I say. “Buttermilk and eggs in the refrigerators lining the back wall.”

Vanilla extract, kosher salt, Brazil nuts—June fills her red basket with the ingredients I hand her to the point of overflowing. A package of rainbow sprinkles topples. A can of condensed milk speeds away across waxy checkerboard floors. The list stretches on.

“C’mon, let’s hustle for Russell,” I say, pulling her along. He will be home from his parttime janitorial job in just a couple hours.

Mostly, June isn’t ambitious. Mostly, June outsources her responsibilities to me. When I remind her to water the bonsai her 100-year-old mother gave her, she feigns indifference, as if prepared to let the miniature tree die. She allows her laundry to grow high and stinky, to the point of a health concern I cannot ignore. She fakes stomach aches, migraines, vertigo to avoid what needs to be done, and if she wants to try/probably fail to bake such an ambitious cake for her husband, how can I refuse to help her?

Her quiet concentration carries through the registers, however. Through the tar smell of the parking lot, and into the passenger van, which concerns me, because I know about birthdays: the high expectations they can set, and the atrocities often committed in their names.

“You ever eat a pastry that tasted spiritual?” I say, hoping to bring her back from where she’d gone: “Tasted the unpasteurized milk of a two-headed cow?”

“How long do you think a human being could survive under ideal circumstances?” I continue. “Laid out in a womb-like bed, pumped full of essential vitamins and nutrients, and humming with top-of-the-line stress-reducing drugs? A century? Two? More?”

Any other day: queue June’s laughter. Any other day: queue June playfully looking at me like what-in-the-heck? But all I hear is the grating of brake pads, the bull-frogging of rush hour horns; in the rearview she taps her chin: “You sure everything’s alright?” I say.

To which, June offers up a single, curt nod. No eye contact. An affirmation clearly masquerading as a negation.

“Are you sure?” I almost say, then catch myself—because I know people tend to double down in these situations, how they like to swap you in for what they’d prefer to swap out. And instead, I say: “You ever go truffle hunting with a pregnant hog?”

The slam of the sliding side door punctuates the silence, the void into which I had spent the rest of our drive fruitlessly hurling the safety line of so many silly questions. As she stomps across the yellowing yard and into the house, I still don’t understand what the problem could be.

I don’t have to wait long to find out, however. When I enter the living room, the other aid, Eduardo, fills me in. Pitted there on the sunken couch among the other residents, he relays all the insults June had called me: An itch, a pest, an old crone, a rule dispenser, a human CCTV camera. She called me a coddler.

“A coddler!?” I say.

“The coddler,” Eduardo corrects. A ridiculous statement.

If anyone is the coddler, it’s Eduardo: He indulges the residents every whim! Cooks meals with salt and butter! Allows dirty laundry to grow to unimaginable heights! He lets their plants die! If given the chance, I am certain, he would strap each resident to a bed with a halo of cathodes plucking their pleasure centers with the dulling power of a thousand orgasms while he sat there, watching TV, until he clocked out!

“The coddler,” Eduardo says again, blue TV light staining his teeth. 

“And all this in the thirty seconds I took to walk in behind her?”

“Took less than that,” he says, grinning, and the residents that flank him all nod.

In the kitchen, I find June baking. Sort of. The cabinet’s state of chaos—stuffed with the dietary necessities of five other developmentally disabled adults—complicates her searching. The eggs, the buttermilk, the bag of lemons and limes, along with the rest of the crowd of ingredients, watch her bang open and shut the cabinet doors from the counter. 

She finds a mixing bowl. Non-stick spray. A pie tin. But where’s the electric mixer? What of the wax paper? The pipe bag for her French buttercream frosting?

A new silence announces itself, and she stands there, tapping her chin red. Her eyes panning slow-like across the mess she’s already made until landing on the oven’s digital clock to confirm what she already knows: that the likelihood of her having this cake done is zero.

But the likelihood was always zero, wasn’t it? That two unskilled bakers could even pull off such an outrageous cake? Give us a hundred trial attempts, a James Beard level kitchen, a Sous Chef, and maybe. But even then, probably not even close. Not in time for Russell’s birthday party tonight, anyway. And never anything close to resembling the photo-shopped depictions she poured over online. 

Her chin blotch is purpling, and her tapping shows no sign of stopping. Soon, the swelling will start. The blisters. The Neosporin and anti-inflammation creams.

All June’s prep, all June’s shopping, her hard-earned dollars; all for nothing.

How she must crave a new recipe of life, a new list of personal ingredients to work with, a combination to produce a pristine cake that not only knows where the ingredients are located, but the cookware as well. But, no, you cannot place a birthday on your tongue like a communion wafer. You cannot serve a slice to your husband, have him swallow, and start your life from scratch .

Now an idea strikes me, and I know what I must do. Without a thought, I feel myself morphing: My head turns into a CCTV camera, and I grow little tubes that dispense rules. These little PA systems that shout: “Water your bonsai! Do your laundry! Hurry up, hurry up!” as I fill with the urge to coddle, to hold June close and anticipate her every need before she can fulfill those needs herself. “June,” I say: “Are you sure everything’s alright?”

And when she says she’s fine, I say: “Pinky promise?”

And then, when she ignores me, I say, “The mixer is over there in the cabinet, Junebug.”

Then I preheat the oven. I remove a measuring cup and measure out the flour. I measure out a little more, then, fuck-it, dump in the whole bag. I open the egg carton and get to cracking—one, two, three, then, oh what the hell, a fourth.

The tapping of her purpling chins slows now, and her eyes quicken as they inspect my work: “You’ve gotten eggshells in the batter,” she says, pointing at the mess I made: “For Christ sake, you didn’t even measure out any of this. We’ll never have this done in time.”

She says, “You can’t you do anything right, can you?” 

“What did you say?” I say and ready the mixer.

Then I push the button before she can respond, and a whirring enters my hands, traveling up to my elbows. The flour launches skyward from the bowl in a tornado; a thin vortex that I hold aloft with the mixer’s thumping. Through which I can still make out June’s mouth moving, her words muffled by the beaters but clear enough, as she unburdens herself at me, for what might’ve been millennia or thirty seconds, until she’s done. 

Harris Lahti is a fiction editor at Fence.
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