It sounded like I was in the shower. I love when God sends his cleaning lady washing my front porch for this perfect day. I’m just gonna stay right here under the covers for ten more minutes. Karo is coming home. She calls herself, Kara, now, but that’s not her birth name. It’s Karo, just like my beloved corn syrup. I agreed when she turned sixteen to only call her Karo inside the house. It was my birthday present to her along with pink marshmallow cupcakes, caramel bars, chocolate pudding parfait and, at her request, carrot cake made from Mr. Fred’s carrots. I cannot wait until she sees what all will be waiting for her today. I prepared a lemon merengue pie with the center so high it beats my three layer vanilla cake with chocolate fudge frosting. There’s even a giant snickerdoodle in the shape of Vermont.
My name is Miranda Cully, fourth generation on Tola Island. We always made our living with our hands: gardening, fishing, cooking and in my case, baking. All the restaurants in town want my goods, but I’m picky about who gets to sell Miranda Cully’s Culinary Treats. Jed at the Diner has had an ironclad agreement with me for years because 1) he has those gorgeous glass cake and pie holders from his grandmother and I like the way my art, yes, I call it art, looks inside them and 2) he brews good, strong coffee. ~~~
Karo. Kara looked at the bottle on the tray and thought “one letter and I’d be corn syrup.” The train rustled as it sped around the corner. She was on her way to her grandmother’s island in South Carolina. The funny thing was her grandmother did name her after corn syrup. When she filled out the birth certificate, her unsteady handwriting made the “o” look like an “a.”
It had been three years since she’d been back to Tola Island. The train would take her close to the ferry landing. She bet Mr. Fred would be waiting for her. He had been courting Miranda Cully for twenty-seven years since her husband died of complications from his diabetes. See, corn syrup, molasses, brown sugar, white sugar, they all had a special place in Grandmother’s kitchen. Kara grew up with red velvet pancakes for breakfast, cherry pie for lunch and brownie towers for dessert. For most kids, this would be a dream come true, but Kara longed for carrots, radishes, even the pearl onions she used to pull from Mr. Fred’s garden.
Kara hadn’t visited since she left for Castleton College in Vermont. She loved the sunset leaves and the open sky that felt different from being surrounded by water. Her mother was supposed to have gone to Vermont for college but then she got pregnant the summer before her senior year in high school and died in childbirth. That’s how Kara came to be raised on desserts and her grandmother’s wisdoms. “Don’t leave the sheets drying in the wind too long or you’ll have flying dreams and wake up tired.” “Before you eat breakfast, turn your chair clockwise three times so the spirits work in your favor ‘til sundown.”
Some of Grandmother’s wisdoms were so ingrained that Kara just gave up resisting. Her freshman year she used to discreetly turn her chair in the cafeteria at breakfast by hanging her jacket on the back of the chair and fooling with it. Finally she gave up. Her friends didn’t care about her habits since a lot of them were kids that had been treated for things like OCD. The train was nearing her stop.
Just as she was getting up from her seat, she looked across the aisle and found a notebook. It was gold with a Gustav Klimt painting on it.
“Take it.” She heard a voice. “Take it.”
Kara had enough time in Grandmother Cully’s kitchen to know a sign when she saw one, so she took it. She slipped it inside her bookbag and forgot about it almost immediately as she descended to the platform, and saw his gray handlebar mustache perfectly trimmed, his thick full mane glowing in the afternoon sun.
“Kara, bella! I can see the evergreens in your eyes. Come here child and give me a hug.” Kara smiled at this gentle soul who loved her with his whole heart.
“Mr. Fred, you look just like the day you took me to the train.”
“Come now child, there’s some surprises for you in the car.”
When Kara leaned into the passenger window, she saw the most beautiful basket of vegetables all washed and waiting for her: snow peas, carrots, pearl onions, tomatoes and red peppers. Kara smiled and lifted the basket onto her lap. She couldn’t wait to bite into one of Mr. Fred’s pearl onions. They’d fortify her for the onslaught of desserts Grandmother Cully would have waiting. Mr. Fred even wove sprigs of fresh rosemary into the handle. Kara pulled off several leaves and rubbed them between her fingers inhaling their oily perfume. She bit into an onion, imagining roasted red potatoes doused in olive oil.
Mr. Fred pulled up to Grandmother Cully’s, and it was as if Kara had just left. She looked at the Easter egg blue siding, the worn white porches on the first and second floors, and those steps, those white steps where she and her best friend, Jelly had played everything. Spy, jacks, pots and pans and where Grandmother Cully made them each drink a whole bottle of Boon’s Farm on empty stomachs when they were teenagers. Grandmother had overheard the two of them hatching plans to buy their first bottle. So she went to the store right then and there, handed then each a brown bag, and sat right in between them as they drank. The next day she woke them at 6:00am with chocolate chip pecan pancakes and vanilla malt milk shakes. Jelly and Kara ran out the front door and vomited right on Grandmother Cully’s boxwoods. And she wouldn’t let Mr. Fred hose them down for weeks so the girls had to see their dried up vomit as a reminder.
Jelly loved the house so much that she practically lived there. And that was good because her mom was dead too and so Grandmother Cully made both the girls feel like sisters.
When Grandmother Cully came out on the front porch, she was wearing a silver-sequined dress that shimmered in the rainbow sun so she looked like a prom queen.
“Wow, Grandmother, you look stupendous!”
Grandmother Cully blushed then hitched up the front silver sequined panel covering her right breast. The open back meant you could see the small tires around her waist. It didn’t matter. The glitter of her dress and her matching silver shoes only set off her beaming smile.
“Karo, come here sweet child. Look how skinny you are! They don’t make you desserts up there in New England, do they? Come child. See what I made you.”
When Kara approached the front door, she touched the letters around the doorframe, “YLIMHAYDEPR” was written over and over all the way around it in gray paint. “You live in my heart and you don’t even pay rent.” That’s what Grandmother Cully painted the day before she brought Kara home from the hospital. When Kara was growing up, whenever she had a bad day at school, somebody making fun of her name or saying she was an orphan, her grandmother would bring her through that door and recite, “You live in my heart and you don’t even pay rent” again and again until Kara stopped crying. Even though Kara never knew her mom, she knew a fierce mama love that had taken her through every day so far.
Kara braced herself for the smells of cinnamon, lemon, butter, caramel, vanilla, chocolate and coffee. Mr. Fred just stood at the bottom of the steps beaming up at his silver wonder.
“Come on now, Fred, stop your staring and come have some treats.”
Kara swore she saw Mr. Fred’s mustache curl even tighter with his smile. Soon it was the three of them around the kitchen table with Grandmother’s best silver spoons and serving spatulas.
Seeing all those desserts reminded Kara of her last birthday before she left for college. It was February 17 and every year she knew that Grandmother would be bone tired after Valentine’s rush orders and yet she still pushed herself with a manic fury to bake for Kara’s birthday. Kara knows her birthday is always a reminder of her mom’s death. She didn’t like seeing Grandmother work herself into a frenzy because she felt all kinds of joy and sorrow at the same time. Kara looked more like her mother every year. She knew she should feel more sad, but she never knew her mother and Grandmother had always been her mom. Grandmother couldn’t get any more fresh eggs from Haley’s Hen House since she almost wiped out her supply with her Valentine’s orders. So she sent Kara out to get supermarket eggs. When she got back, Grandmother was on the front steps with the amaretto for her amaretto cookies. She wasn’t drunk. She was just crying those kind of tears that just pour, it felt like Kara could sandbag a levee around her ankles.
“Oh child, I don’t want you to see me like this. I’m happy for your birthday. I just miss my little Domino.”
Yes, Kara’s mother was named after a brand of brown sugar.
“Grandmother, you need rest. Come to bed.”
She took Kara’s hand like a little girl and they walked through the front door reciting, “You live in my heart and you don’t even pay rent.”
They climbed the stairs. It was hard not to smile walking into Grandmother’s room because she had a clementine comforter on her king size bed, a violet easy chair and tiny statues of elves, nymphs and leprechauns all over her room. Kara tucked her in and slipped over to her own room. She picked up her birthday jar of Mr. Fred’s pickled carrots. Mr. Fred leaves them at their front door every year on Kara’s birthday at dawn. He knows how she misses his carrots in the winter and he makes them just for her. They also have onions, garlic and tiny hot “sport peppers” which he orders from his hometown Chicago, so it’s a wake up and antidote to the house full of sweets. Kara brought the jar to Grandmother’s room and filled up two glasses from the water pitcher she keeps on her dresser.
“Now Grandmother, let’s just eat one carrot. You need to come down off of all of that sugar and sorrow. Taste Mr. Fred’s careful cultivation, his love for us in each delicate crunch.”
She gave Kara a half-smile and feigned reluctance since it was a vegetable, but Kara knew Miranda Cully could actually feel Mr. Fred’s heart sending out his waves through his fingers in the soil pulling those carrots. Kara climbed under that giant orange blanket and snuggled up with the only mother she ever knew.
“I cannot believe how full I feel. I never eat like this anymore. Oh, it was good to taste that merengue toasted to perfection and that Vermont shaped snickerdoodle broke my heart. It’s good to be back in my old room.”
Kara opened her bookbag and saw the gold notebook.
“I can’t believe I just took this,” she thought.
“Open it.” There was that voice again.
“Man, did I walk into this,” she murmured.
When she opened the first three pages, they were filled with one word: Remember. Remember. Remember. Kara knew better than to play with magical things before checking with Grandmother but she really missed her world of wonder here and all of that sugar was making her want to lay down. So she did what she knew she should do: she placed the book under her pillow and fell asleep.
Kara’s dreams came quickly. First there were gingko leaves swirling around her with a tornado-like force and she said, “Come on, this can’t get all Wizard of Oz on me.” At that point the gingkos dropped and Kara found herself in a city. Yet off in the distance, to her right, she saw green pastures. Almost like a country road was pasted on top of the right side of the city. Along that road was a caravan of white delivery trucks. No company names. Just white trucks. Kara started walking towards the caravan and as she got closer, she saw that they were moving so slowly that she could hop on. She managed to jump, balance and climb around the passenger door to the front seat.
“Well, hello Bella.”
“What are you doing here?”
“You tell me.”
“What is it we are supposed to remember?”
“I don’t know.”
“Karoooooo! Karo dear! Jelly’s here!” Grandmother Cully’s voice pushed through the green, the truck, Mr. Fred, so she could no longer stay asleep.
Kara’s wake-up mouth was full of pearl onions and lemon meringue. She sat up just as Jelly burst into the room, full of wild black curls and bright blue eyes. Kara felt confused. Jelly’s eyes were brown.
“Jelly, Jelly, Jelly!”
Jelly is the only person in the world allowed to call Kara, Karo, outside of Grandmother Cully. Kara hugged Jelly so hard she almost hurt herself since Jelly was all bones and muscle.
“What happened to your eyes?” Kara asked Jelly.
“Contacts! I was feeling like a blue-eyed beauty today. I can also be hazel or even violet like Elizabeth Taylor!”
“Oh Jelly! Only you!”
Kara smiled at Jelly and pulled something from her bag. It was wax paper with oak and maple leaves ironed inside. “This is so you can see me through your window during my last year at Castleton.”
Jelly smiled, then teared up.
“You’re going back? I thought you were here to stay.”
“Jelly, I tried to finish in three years, but I have more to do up there. Wait, Jelly, what are you wearing? It looks like it’s made of towels.”
“Oh do you like it? I wanted to see what I could make with whatever I found in the house. So I found these old His and Hers towels from before my mom died and made this sleeveless bolero jacket.”
Jelly and her outfits. Kara remembered Jelly’s favorite silver sweat suit when they were seven years old. Jelly called it her astronaut uniform. That’s what she was wearing that August morning that they woke up in the flatbed of Mr. Fred’s truck. Kara was wearing her favorite purple and green polka-dotted pants suit. Kara woke with dried slobber on her right cheek and Jelly had green paint on her hands. “Green paint? What was that green paint about?” Kara thought.
“Earth to Karo! Come in Karo!”
“Oh, Jelly, I was just remembering the time we went foraging in Mr. Fred’s garden. Remember you were sleeping over and we had way too many sweets. Then we got that crazy idea to sneak out and eat Mr. Fred’s collards. We ripped all his leaves off! Then we tried to paint new green leaves on newspaper and tape them on the bare stalks. I can remember those crickets singing like it was yesterday. We got so giggly and sleepy, we just crawled up on Mr. Fred’s moving blankets in the truck and fell asleep. I never could get all that paint out of my pants suit. Jelly, how have I lived without you these three years?”
“What do you know?”
“I live in your heart and I don’t even pay rent!”
And with that, Jelly and Kara fell on the bed giggling. Kara still wondered about the dream and where those delivery trucks were taking her. Were they full of something? Were they picking up something? What was she supposed to remember? Kara almost wanted to take a nap just to get back to her dream.
This story has been written with daily prompts from http://www.sarahsalecky.com — there’s a writing contest with a deadline of March 1 if you are interested. In a future post, I can share the prompts to help unravel the story. I will be writing more of the story.
Please let me know if you have ideas about plot. What do you think should happen between the characters? What do you want to know?
This story makes me feel so at home. I can see the house, Mr. Fred’s fields, and Grandma Cully’s treats. These words are comfort reading in the same way that some foods make for comfort eating. Thank you for sharing!
Wow! Thank you! That is exactly why I write! What a thrill to know that you, especially you, experienced it that way. And it just makes me think of our road trip…remember the quest for boiled peanuts? 🙂
THANK YOU .
Thank you, Liz! Hope you and the kids are well!
R., I sent you my thoughts via email. Check your hotmail when you get a chance. I Loved the story!