The Bandbox Hat
The voice floated on a fog and I whisked it away with a hand swipe.
“Auntie SJ, wake up.”
Now my shoulder shook and I couldn’t ignore the summons. “What?” I rolled over in bed to stare at the intruder.
Watery blue eyes glared at me and a lip quivered. “You forgot?”
“What time is it?”
Now the miniature extortionist added an artful sniffle, as if holding back a tear. “Almost seven o’clock.”
“Ahhh…” I rolled over and faced my bedroom wall. “I didn’t forget. I said I’d fix Rollkuchen for you and I will. The dough is in the fridge, ready to go.”
“I have to catch the school bus at 7:30.”
I heaved a sigh and threw the covers off. “I’ll start them now and if you miss the bus, you can ride to school with me.”
April smiled and the gap waiting for her front teeth showed. “Thank you, Auntie SJ.”
I slid my feet into my slippers and trudged to the kitchen. My sister-in-law works part-time at the packing shed and since the early varieties were already coming off, she’d been at work since five.
Nathan dropped me off at home after last night’s Farmer’s Market. I sat on the steps of the wraparound porch for a few minutes. April caught me feeling melancholy and nostalgic and she dropped broad hints about how boring cold cereal was for breakfast on days her mom worked early. I’d fallen for it and volunteered to make her favorite deep-fried rolls for her.
I’m a teacher. I know breakfast is the most important meal of the day, how it helps kids concentrate and learn better. Did I volunteer to make omelets? Or oatmeal? Even to pick up some bagels?
No. I promised a second grader a deep-fried carb fest for breakfast. Sans protein. Because that’s what beloved aunties do for tow-head nieces with gap-toothed smiles.
After starting the oil heating, I pulled pieces of dough off the big lump, twisted and knotted them, ready for frying. Rollkuchen is often served with watermelon for a summer supper, but we kids could never get enough and Mom often made it for breakfast, sprinkled with powdered sugar. My brother and sister-in-law, April’s parents, didn’t mind that I continued the tradition. In fact, Jake would sometimes drop hints that he wouldn’t turn down a bit of deep-fried dough. I usually do a double batch because they freeze well.
The oil had a few bubbles around the edges, so I dropped in the first piece to test. The dough immediately began to sizzle and pop and I stepped back to avoid getting hot oil on my sleep tee. I learned the hard way not to fix rollkuchen in anything resembling nice clothes.
The kuchen drifted to the top of the oil and the phone rang. I grabbed the slotted spatula and pushed the Talk button. “Hello.”
“May I speak with Sarah Jane, please?”
I spent hours talking to the owner of that deep voice all through high school. If I knew his the moment he spoke, shouldn’t he know mine as well? Obviously he’d been a bigger part of my life than I was of his.
“Jesse. It’s me,” I said as I scooped up the hot dough twist and moved it to the paper towel-covered plate. “What do you want?”
“I know it’s been a while since we talked—”
“No, we spoke yesterday. It hasn’t even been twenty-four hours.”
He laughed and I smiled in response. Apparently I was ignoring the lecture I’d given myself last night on the porch about Jesse being part of my past and should just stay there, unpoked and unprodded to life. I dropped three more twists of dough into the hot oil.
“Anyway, I’d like to ask you something. Can I take you to lunch?”
And right there in Jake and Anna’s kitchen, with me in my PJs, hot oil sizzling and rollkuchen frying, I was forced to acknowledge that even though Jesse was part of my past, I’d never really left him behind. I’m not sure if it was my inability to breathe or the fact that the kuchen was turning from golden and delicious to dark and burnt that clued me in.
“Sarah Jane? Are you there?”
“Uh … sorry. Frying rollkuchen for April.”
“How she is? She must be, what, four now?”
“Try seven, almost eight.”
He was silent and I pictured him sitting at the bottom of the stairs in his mom’s house, the old-fashioned black rotary dial phone perched on his knees as he worked the math.
“Yes, she was a baby when you left. She kept growing even if you weren’t here to see it.”
He cleared his throat. “So, lunch?”
His obvious discomfort at my calling his desertion what it was made it easier for me to say what I knew I had to. “No. I have to be at school all day. Thanks for the offer though. Have a good day.” I stabbed the disconnect button and turned back to my burning kuchen. I had to get these on the table for April and then get myself ready.
The school bus honked and I ran to the front door to wave on Mr. Owens. He tooted again as he continued down the road.
“April! Breakfast,” I hollered up the stairs.
“I’m coming,” sounded from above.
I jogged back down the hallway to the kitchen, removed the last of the kuchen from the oil and set the plate on the table with a shaker of powdered sugar, a jar of Anna’s strawberry freezer jam, and a plate for April.
We passed on the stairs.
“Be ready in twenty minutes,” I said.
“I’m ready now,” she retorted. “Not like you.”
“I had to fix your breakfast,” I reminded her as I hit the top of the stairs.
Since I’d showered off the lingering dust of last night’s farmer’s market before bed, I was able to slip into my skirt and blouse and run a brush over my hair in just a few minutes and I soon joined April at the table.
“Thanks, Auntie SJ,” she said. “I love rollkuchen.” She knew to pronounce it like a real German Mennonite: rawl kue-ken. “Even in the morning. Why won’t Opa let Oma make it for breakfast?”
“Opa’s old school. He grew up having it with watermelon for supper only and he can’t change now.”
“Can’t or won’t?” April asked. Powdered sugar dusted her top lip and her chin.
“You’re pretty smart, you know that? You must be related to me—Oh wait! You are.” I ran a hand over her blonde bangs. “Wipe your mouth. By the way, I know the whole wanting kuchen for breakfast is just a ruse so you can miss the bus and ride to school with me.”
I put our plates in the dishwasher and scribbled a note to Anna that I’d finish cleaning the kitchen after school. I did half the cooking but Anna always made sure I knew it was her kitchen and she had standards that must be maintained. We’d come to a détente in the whole Rinse or not before putting dishes in the machine issue.
As soon as the early peaches were in, Jake and Nathan promised to finish my apartment over the garage and then I would have my own kitchen and I could keep it as clean or as messy as I wanted. Granted, it was going to be a miniscule kitchen, with a miniature sink, two-burner stove, and mini dishwasher, but it was all mine.
My car horn sounded and I hurried down the back steps. “I’m coming,” I called to April.
“I want to play with Tiff and Megan before the bell rings.” She stood behind the driver’s seat, an arm still stretched to give the horn another prod.
We drove down the tree-shaded lane leading from Jake and Anna’s house to the main road, dust billowed behind us.
“Dad would yell at you to slow down,” April said.
“Thanks, Miss Play-by-Play.” I looked both ways and we pulled out and headed toward town and school.
“The dust isn’t good for the peaches.”
“I grew up on a farm, too. I know about dust on the fruit.”
“Do you know how to kiss a boy?”
“April!” I slammed on the brakes and twisted to look at her. “You shouldn’t—that is, I mean, why … um.” Why is a seven year-old asking about kissing? And why is she asking me and not her mother? I took a deep breath. “Why do you ask?”
She kicked against the back of my seat. “Tiffany said she watched iCarly kiss a boy and it looked hard. They closed their eyes and scrunched up their faces.”
I patted my heart. It wasn’t racing anymore. Honestly, between being prodded awake to make Rollkuchen, then Jesse’s call, and now April’s choice of school drive-time conversation, it’s a wonder I stayed on the road.
“Tiffany’s right that kissing a boy is different from kissing your parents, but you don’t need to worry about it for a few more years. By the time you’re ready to kiss boys, you and your mom will have talked about it and I’m sure you’ll be fine.”
That seemed to satisfy April because she quit kicking and just looked out the window for the rest of the ride.
We pulled up to H.G. Bartel Elementary school and I parked in the teacher’s lot.
“Thanks, Auntie SJ!” April shouldered her backpack and waved goodbye as she headed to the playground.
I gathered my satchel with the still uncorrected papers from yesterday. I’d have to squeeze out time this morning to look them over. Twenty-six spelling tests shouldn’t take long. I could make part of the time allotted to Language Arts DEAR time and instead of dropping everything to read like the students, I’d correct their tests.
I was so engrossed in mentally tweaking my morning lesson plan that I didn’t see Jesse until he stepped in front of me.