The next door pregnant lady’s name is Elizabeth, and every time I see her I’m afraid she’ll have her baby right that very moment. She is huge.
I see her a lot too. For one thing, since school these days is virtual, I’m always home. For another, she takes a lot of walks. My desk faces a window in my bedroom, and almost every day Elizabeth leaves to go for a walk. Mornings, afternoons, and in the evenings, with her husband, Peter.
“Probably trying to get that baby to come out,” my mom says today as the two of us watch Elizabeth walk out her front door and waddle down the street.
“Mom, ew. Stop,” I say. “Gross.”
“You won’t always think that,” my mom says, placing a load of laundry next to my desk.
“I will always think that,” I say, scootching the laundry to a corner of my room with my foot.
“Fold and put that away before dinner,” is her answer.
She’s making steaks on the grill, smashed potatoes, and homemade french bread. It might be a bit dramatic to call my mom’s french bread famous, but anyone who’s had it pleads for the recipe. It’s delicious. There’s something slightly tangy about the crust, and the inside is soft but sturdy enough for jams or chutneys or cheeses. I don’t know how she does it.
What’s funny is she doesn’t know either. I’ve been around when people ask for her recipe, and she’ll say, “You know? I don’t really know. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.”
“Well, what ingredients do you put in it?” they’ll ask.
“Flour, yeast, water,” she’ll begin, but then go off on how hard it is to make sure the water is just the right temperature to proof the yeast. This can take anywhere from five minutes to a half an hour because my mom will have a story for just about every time the water wasn’t the right temperature as well as for when it was.
I’ve watched her in the kitchen while she makes it to see if I can solve the mystery that is the world’s most delicious french bread. No success. For one thing, my mom doesn’t use teaspoons or tablespoons or cup measurers. She pours salt into her cupped palm or sprinkles sugar above the bowl, one hand on her hip, sometimes bopping along to Motown, sometimes singing along — loudly — to H.M.S. Pinafore.
She puts warm milk in her french bread. And butter. She’s happy when the dough is shaggy because she knows it makes a better crust. She knows it’s done baking when it makes a nice thunk when she tests it with the flick of her thumb and index finger.
Since I’ve been in kindergarten, my mom has made every one of my teachers a loaf of french bread for winter break. She’ll wrap it in a new kitchen towel and tie ribbon around it.
Not this year, I think as I look out the window to make sure Elizabeth hasn’t fallen down or gone into labor or something terrifying like that.
I love babies. Before COVID, I was babysitting at least once a weekend and had a regular after-school gig twice a week for a mom who went to a coffeeshop to write for a few hours. Easy money, and the kids were so cute and fun. It’s their entrance into the world that freaks me out. I have zero interest in being a part of it.
Which is why I wish Elizabeth wouldn’t take so many walks. I’m afraid she’ll go into labor and I’ll have to do something like leave math and go and help.
I mean, what would I even do? Probably just yell for Peter, but what if he isn’t home? Would I have to hold her hand or tell her to breathe or something? I feel like that’s what’s always happening on TV and in the movies.
Anyway, I don’t want to think about it.
My mom would hate it if she knew I used that word, but there is not a better word for being a Sophomore in high school these days. I know the teachers are trying their best, but I miss the hallways and the bus rides and the locker doors slamming. I would love to hear a locker door slam.
Last year, before the world shut down, Charlie and I would have this competition going on between classes. Our lockers were next to the gym, and the doors to it were always left open so classes could come and go quickly. Charlie and I would throw our books in our lockers, run to the gym, and race to see who could shoot more free throws in a minute, run back to our lockers, grab the next classes’ books, and run to class. Well, walk as fast as possible because you can’t run in school.
I don’t know which of us was ahead in free throws before we stopped going to school. Charlie would say it was him, and I would argue and say it was me because that’s what we do.
Or that’s what we did.
I still get to see him because the weather is still nice, and we are allowed to hang out outside. Autumn lasts forever in Washington, D.C. Everyone says spring is its best season, but I think it’s the fall. And sometimes after school Charlie and I meet at the Starbucks on Connecticut across form the National Zoo. We get a drink and walk around the zoo but it’s kind of weird now. Like, it feels like a date, and I’m not sure either of us wants that.
I just have fun with him. That’s all I know. Or I used to have fun with him.
You know what else I’d love to hear? Harmony in the band room. Or drums. Or even a squeak from a clarinet or oboe. I miss making music.
Ms. Hopler used to tell us if we worked hard all class, she’d let our drummer, Sasha, play while we cleaned up. It seems like something only kindergarteners would be pumped to work toward, but Sasha is good. Like, she’s Chris Dave good. She’s Janet Weiss good. It won’t surprise any of us if she ends up in a real band someday. Those last five minutes were a dance party as we all cleaned up our instruments and bopped our heads to Sasha’s intricate beats.
Now we meet on Zoom and we just practice scales and solos, which is so boring because I play the tuba and no tuba in the history of ever has had a solo. We’re the bass. We’re the backup, the support. What I play these days sounds like monotony set to music.
In an effort to be creative, I guess, Ms. Hopler came up with a Shakespeare Symphony Project. We have to compose a song for one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. I guess it’s kind of cool. We get to work in groups, which is fun, but Ms. Hopler is making us do all this extra stuff with our assigned sonnet. We have to memorize it, for one thing. What in the world does memorization have to do with making music?
That’s what I asked Ms. Hopler, and she told me it’d help us “hear the music” of the poem.
I rolled my eyes.
We’re suppose to get our assigned sonnet and groups tomorrow. I hope I’m in a group with Sasha.
Besides looking out for Elizabeth during my school day, I check the progress of the tree in my front yard. I never noticed how bright the leaves get during the fall, but lately I haven’t felt the need to turn on the light in my bedroom because the leaves are that yellow.
Last week my dad caught me staring at the tree and said, “Beautiful last gasp, huh Carter?”
“What?” I asked.
“The leaves,” he said, nodding his head at the tree. “They turn those brilliant colors when they’re dying.”
“Dad, this is so depressing.”
“It’s science,” he said.
My dad acts like if something is fact, it can’t possibly be sad. Science is sad and scary. Take the leaves for example. Or hurricanes! Or COVID! Or Elizabeth giving birth! There are lots of emotions involved in science, is all I’m saying.
I don’t like thinking that something is at its most brilliant before it is no longer, but I’m thinking of the sounds of the lockers slamming, or the bounce of the basketball, or the harmony in the band room, and probably I would’ve taken them for granted had it not been for the pandemic.
Same with the leaves.
They’ll come back again next year. I’m hoping everything else will too.
Fall Means Fiction!
Writing Prompt: What lessons is Carter learning? Who is she learning them from? Write a chapter where your main character begins to learn something from someone else.
Recipe for Carter’s Mom’s Slightly Famous French Bread
Time Required: Anywhere from 3-4 hours, to a week depending on how much you mess up.
Serves: I don’t know. It depends on how hungry everyone is.
Preheat oven at: I don’t know. It should be hot.
1 package dry yeast
3 tablespoons of melted butter
a dash or two of salt
couple tablespoons of canola oil
at least 3 cups of flour, but sometimes you’ll need 6
some warm milk
Proof the yeast by putting it in a mixing bowl, sprinkling with sugar — sometimes — and pouring less than a half cup of HOT (too hot to touch but not boiling) water. Stir and after a few minutes, it should rise. If it doesn’t, you’re gonna need to start over.
Now sprinkle the salt over the yeast and stir.
Alternate the butter, milk, oil, and flour, mix all the ingredients until not sticky but hard to stir. Use your hands or a wooden spoon. After stirring, put the dough on a greased cookie sheet and cover with a kitchen towel. I splash a bit of water on the towel and keep it out of drafts. Let it rise for about a half an hour. Sometimes more. It needs to be about double in size.
Punch it down and let it rise again.
You can preheat the oven at this point. Maybe to 375. I just don’t remember.
After another half an hour, roll the dough out flat and then, beginning at one end, roll it into a giant cigar. Cut 3-4 slashes in the top and bake until it’s a nice brown and makes a hollow thump.
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