Pia Z. Ehrhardt
My father's in the kitchen helping
Claire make dinner. They've discovered this way of cooking from an
infomercial: you throw meat and vegetables in a plastic bag, lock it
with a black twist, put it in a 350 degree oven for fifty minutes.
I'm in the living room watching X-Treme
Ski-Doo with my eight-year-old half-brother, Benny. During the
commercial, he shows me how much popcorn he can stuff in his mouth. He
crams handfuls in until he can no longer close it.
"How're you going to swallow all that if
you can't chew?" I say.
I kneel in front of Benny, hold his chin
in my hand and pry kernels out with my finger. They fall on the carpet.
"You're a goofball," I say, and kiss his hair. He smells like salt and
butter. I wish I had a child.
Benny's got a crew cut and I can see
freckles on his scalp. He has Claire's long, pretty lashes. She'd been
my friend in college, and we'd taken my father's class together in
collegeó"Acting on the Spot." It met twice a week in the theater.
Claire and I sat in the second row,
middle. He was a popular teacher with the students and I was proud to be
his daughter. He walked back and forth and lectured, and stopped to
write phrases on a moveable blackboard in his scribbledy-scratch.
He wrote "improvisation" on the board,
and then "free fall." He singled kids out to get up on stage and
improvise. "You're a juggler with only two objects," he said, and one by
one the students got up and pantomimed the awkward tossing of two
oranges, two bowling pins, two knives. When it was Claire's turn she
pretended she was tossing two big rocks and convinced all of us that
they were twenty pounds each and craggy. When one dropped on her foot my
father ran over and heaved the invisible rocks out of the way, like he
was her protector. The class roared. He supported her, let her drape her
arm around his neck, and she hobbled perfectly off stage.
"He told me I was brilliant," she said,
sitting back down.
"You were convincing," I said.
When it came to my turn I didn't want to
get up. I crouched low in my seat, said, "Pick someone else."
He said, "No, I want you to do this."
I said, "I can't."
And he said, "What are you afraid of?"
The class had begun to chant for me to
get up, so I took the stage and juggled. I was a terrible actress. I
couldn't pretend I wasn't jealous. I half-heartedly tossed two eggs up
and down, worrying the whole time about how I looked. Not knowing how to
end my routine, I threw the eggs at Claire, who didn't pretend-duck. I
left the theater and didn't go back.
My father called that night. He said,
"Actors can't be self-conscious, Lydia. Improvisation is dangerous, a
leap of faith." I understood. I thanked him and moved to another state
to finish my degree. My father left my mother a year later and married
Claire and they had Benny, and now I visited them during Christmas.
Benny helps me pick the popcorn up from
the rug. "My wish is that I get a go-kart this year and I don't have to
wait until I'm ten," he says.
I whisper loud in his ear. "Well, I want
to have a kid like you but I don't want to wait until I'm forty."
"You don't have a husband anymore," he
"You should get another," he says.
He sits close to me on the sofa and we
watch the daredevils on ski-doos fly over thousand-foot crevices.
"Instant death," I say, snapping my
Benny doesn't understand. "Why doesn't
he drop his ski-doo?" he says. "It's heavy."
"I can't explain centrifugal force," I
say. "It's something you get when you're going fast enough."
Claire comes in with a plate of cheese
and crackers and Benny dives in. "Offer some to your sister, first," she
"He's a bottomless pit," I say.
She sits on the edge of the sofa. "How's
"Busy, but fine," I say. Since she's
been with my father her tone with me has become maternal, like she's
twenty years older.
"Turn that down, Benny." She puts cheese
on a cracker and passes it to me. "Are you dating anyone nice?"
The timer goes off in the kitchen and
the roast is ready to come out of the bag. "Come see," my father says.
"The plastic doesn't melt."
We gather around as Claire cuts the bag
open. "It's magic," she says, but it's something more wonderful and much
less than that. Steam gushes out and the kitchen smells like a holiday.
I make my junk salad, throw in cashews,
black olives, crispy chow mein. Benny opens little boxes of raisins and
dumps those in the big white bowl. My father carves the roast, and
Claire pours gravy in the boat, and transfers homemade mashed potatoes
to a serving dish.
We take our places at the table and I
light the ivory candlesticks wrapped in holly. The salt and pepper are
snowmen. Benny puts his carrots on my plate and I eat them quickly. The
crusty loaf of bread needs to be passed, and I hold it like a football,
yell "Catch," and toss it to my father. He looks at me like I'm nuts but
makes the play. "Spontaneous eruption," I say. I cut my roast and when
Claire isn't looking give Benny the crispy fat edges he loves.
Pia Z. Ehrhardt studied at the
University of Southern Mississippi and lives in New Orleans. Her stories
have been published in many magazines, including McSweeney's and
Pindledyboz. See more at