A few days passed and still Milenka hadn’t been able to share any of her cooking secrets with her granddaughter. It was even difficult to get the girl to sit down and eat a decent home-cooked meal. Half the time, Alema wanted chicken in buckets and hoagies wrapped in paper. She picked up pizza dripping grease from the chain restaurant two towns over that was built to look like a red hat. She ignored the local market and drove herself to the grocery store, bringing back slender cardboard boxes that she stacked in the freezer. Milenka read these boxes late at night, hovering outside the freezer while everyone else slept. Lean Cuisine, the stiff cardboard read. She peeled back one of the corners and saw that the contents came in narrow plastic dishes and were nothing but mush. It must be so cold, Milenka thought, to be a modern woman.
“We can make lentil soup,” Milenka said, “with a nice chicken broth and a fresh loaf of bread. Hot and filling. It’s easy to make, Alema. You’ll see.”
Alema was on her cell phone, speaking that complex plant code and sighing as if the stress of the world was too much for her to bear. “I have to work,” she said. “And you shouldn’t go through all that trouble. I can just eat some cereal.”
Milenka turned away and stared at her clean stove. She’d noticed that Alema had eaten one of Lida’s scones that morning with her coffee. Milenka had watched them, noticing Lida’s eager hands, and remembered the years she spent raising Max. Lida held him and coddled him, but in the end he always came back to Milenka. In the end, Lida returned home to no husband, no children. Always.
During the day Alema consulted with colleagues, standing on the front porch where the calls came through most clearly. She had the view of a sad scrub of front lawn, the tumbling chain link fences, the cracked concrete of a town long gone. At night, she slept in a powder-soft bed in the green guestroom, photographs of her dead grandfather dusting the bureaus. Not a wedding picture of her parents anywhere, she noticed. Grandma Milenka had always resented Alema’s mother, who spoke three languages and was a journalist turned politician. She was still in Harrisburg, busy this week with a campaign, so maybe it was better Alema had come to Carbon County after all.
In the morning, Alema squeaked her way down the staircase and entered the kitchen to find Milenka making pancakes. She set a stack in front of Lida and cranked a snowfall of confectioner’s sugar across the top.
“Pancakes,” Milenka said. “Hot breakfast will be good for you. Good for your work.”
“I don’t know,” Alema said doubtfully. “That seems like kind of a heavy breakfast.” The pancakes smelled like her childhood, of womahood. Lida was already at the table cutting a fork through her stack, the utensil buried in softness. She took a bite and smiled.
“You’ll have pancakes,” Milenka said. “At least come watch me make them. What will happen when your husband wants breakfast? I know you think this is impossible, Alema, but it’s not. Your father tells me you have a beau. Come sit down and tell us about him.”
Alema poured herself a cup of coffee before crossing the kitchen to sit next to Lida. Lida was always alone. Alema wondered if she had a trail of men in her past, maybe even someone like Alema had in Kalim: a man for the nighttime, for the dark. Milenka and Lida didn’t need to know about Kalim. It was best not to speak of him at all, or mention that he viewed marriage just as she did. Provincial, sad. Full of dead dreams.
Alema ran her finger across the oilcloth on the table. “He’s nobody,” she said. “Nobody important.” She decided that Lida must sit over there in her duplex and remember past lovers – their hands on her skin, their breath, their smells. It was the least Alema could do for Lida now, to eat her desserts and to remind her of what she might have had.
Milenka slammed a plate of pancakes down at Alema’s place. “Tonight,” she said, “I cook. You help.”
Alema opened her mouth but her grandmother was already at the kitchen sink, scrubbing dishes. The tie of her apron sat in a bow at the small of her back, her shoulders shaking from her movements. Wash, rinse, dry. In her motions were decades of practice, of cleaning and creating and giving. Alema sat, silenced. Her grandmother clattered dishes in the sink, as strong-willed and stubborn as Kalim or any number of the men Alema had kept company with.