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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 says.

"I know."

"You should get another," he says.

"Know someone?"

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 fingers.

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 says.

"He's a bottomless pit," I say.

She sits on the edge of the sofa. "How's work?"

"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

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