Comfort

My bare toes sting from the cold coming from under the kitchen door. I hop
from one foot to the other, stumbling closer to the warmth of the cook stove where a
cast iron kettle bubbles with melted lard. Ma stands at the kitchen table, her back to
the stove, flour coated fingers tugging the dough – pulling, squeezing, folding. The
bib apron wrapped around her soft, squat body is covered by faded pink flowers and
splotches of old food.

I’m three years old and know some of my colors. When she turns to the stove,
I look for the red on the back of the apron, where the ties meet and the flowers
aren’t as faded. She grabs two small pieces of wood from the wood box, chunking
them into the flames. Turning back to the table, she grunts as she stretches over the
table, rolling pin in hand. Pulling it back and forth, she smooths and flattens the
cinnamon and nutmeg flecked dough.

I move to stand beside her, my back warming from the heat of the stove. Ma’s
elbow brushes against the top of my head “C-c-c can I- I- I have one?” I ask.
Ma shifts away from me. “Not now,” she mutters. “Why don’t you go play?”
I whimper, “Hungry.”
She sighs. “You’re always hungry.”

The metal cutter topped by a worn, wooden knob, pushes into the dough,
over and over, forming perfect round donuts. I move away a few steps, turning so I
can watch Ma, the heat from the stove making the side of my body warm. Carefully
lifting some of the cutout dough onto a plate, she turns to the stove, slipping the
circles one at a time into the hot oil. When they turn light brown, she scoops them
out and adds more dough to the oil.

Still not looking at me, she says, “I’m not going to be able to do this much
longer, you know.” I stay quiet; watching as she piles the donut holes onto the plate
and dumps them into the pan where they bob in the oil.
She glances down at me. Sighing again, she says, “You’re too young to
understand.” The red in her blue eyes and the puffiness of her face scare me. She
whispers, “I have to go back to teaching.”
“I-I-I I’m hungry,” I repeat.

Ma ignores me and rolls the scraps of dough into short strips, lacing them
together in a crisscross pattern. When she turns to the stove, I grab a hunk of dough
and stuff it into my mouth. It’s mostly flour. It doesn’t taste good. I swallow it
anyway. My feet are still cold. I wonder if they would get warm if I stuck them on the
stove.

Putting some of the fresh donuts into a paper bag with a little sugar, Ma
shakes it before tipping them out onto the table. She hands me one. “Only one,” she
says. I curl my fingers around it. It’s soft and warm.

Huddled close to the stove, my teeth still coated with the colorless taste of
flour, I take a big bite and use my tongue to push the cakey substance to the roof of
my mouth. It forms a lump, just the right size for sucking. I hold it there until it
mushes into fatty, sugary goo, disintegrating and sliding down my throat. Then I fill
my mouth again. Ma shakes her head, “Never enough sucking for you,” she mutters.
“Guess I shouldn’t have thrown your bottle away.” She sounds angry.

She moves the pan off the stove and cleans the table, scraping the flour into a
grain bag, ignoring what dribbles onto the floor. Her shoes, with the outside of the
heels worn away, leave white footprints on the linoleum as she finds paper bags to
put the donuts in.

The door bangs open. Cold air rushes into the kitchen as Father steps inside.
Behind him are my brothers, eight-year-old Lance and five-year-old Ward. Pa sways
and grabs the back of a chair. Taking a deep breath, he looks at Ma and says softly, “I
need help in the barn.”

Moving quickly, Ma takes two donuts from one of the paper bags and hands
one each to Ward and Lance before folding the bag closed and doing the same with
the other five bags. Streaks of flour smear onto the floor as she walks to the door
and slips her shoes off. Pulling on a worn pair of gum rubber boots, the tops bite into
her flesh where they don’t stretch enough to fit her heavy legs. Pulling her coat from
the wooden peg near the door, she follows Pa and the boys outside. She reaches to
steady Father with one hand, the other one holding the edges of the coat together
where the buttons are missing.
I’m alone.

I pull a donut from one of the bags, trying to fold the brown paper closed
exactly right so no one will know. I stuff it in my mouth. I don’t chew. I suck.

I take another donut; again carefully folding the bag closed and move to
stand next to the stove.

I suck and swallow until my tummy feels full.

Going back to the table, I take two more donuts, doing my best to leave the
bag just the way Ma left it. But the paper has wrinkles that weren’t there before.

I climb into the chair closest to the stove, a donut in each hand. Tucking my
feet under me, I eat/suck one donut at a time.

My tummy is heavy and warm. My feet are still cold.



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