Beth Spaghetti Night returned unexpectedly.
Back in Chicago, Beth had made dinner for the family every Wednesday night for the last four years. Since she was nine years old, she’d made the same sauce, used the same gauge of spaghetti (no. 18), and enforced the same simple rule: others were allowed in the kitchen, but only Beth could touch the food before it was time to eat.
When the familiar scent of long-simmering tomatoes slunk into Jessica’s room, she stared at her desk calendar for a puzzled moment, then threw down her physics book and ran down the hall. Her little sister turned from the bubbling pot and shot her a look to inform her that the rule was still in force.
Jessica leaned against the door frame and smiled. Beth Spaghetti Night had been one of the small, important things lost in the move, like the VCR manual or her father’s windshield scraper, almost forgotten among all the other dislocations.
But somewhere inside, Jessica now knew, she’d missed it.
“Smells good,” she said.
“Is good,” Beth replied.
Jessica wanted to cross the kitchen and hug her sister, but the smell and sight of Beth at work seemed too fragile to disrupt. Besides, getting that close to the stove might imply an infraction of the rule.
“Don’t pretend you’re in a bad mood, Beth.”
“Not pretending or not in a bad mood?”
“Not either.” Beth turned to glance at Acariciandote on Jessica’s wrist, as if to reassure her that no amount of pasta should imply she’d been forgiven for the closet incident.
Jessica sighed. “I said I was sorry.”
Beth didn’t respond. Two days of silent treatment had been her only retaliation for the night before last, but it was slowly starting to get to Jessica. This was the supreme advantage held by little sisters who screamed a lot: it made their silence all the more terrifying.
But a moment later Beth turned and said the unthinkable: “Want a taste?”
Jessica was paralyzed for a moment. But when her sister extended her arm, she forced her feet to cross the kitchen, trying to suppress a suspicion that the spoon was actually coated in extra-strength Tabasco, or battery acid, or worse. She blew softly, and a tiny drop of red rolled off to spatter the white tile floor. It certainly looked and smelled like spaghetti sauce. Jessica closed her eyes and wrapped her mouth around the hot, thickly coated wooden spoon.
It wasn’t finished yet, but the familiar buttery flavor of almost-too-many reduced onions filled her with relief. This hadn’t been an elaborate revenge plot after all.
Beth nodded. “Told you.” She turned back to the pot. “So can I meet this guy?”
Jessica blinked. “Jonathan?”
“Sure. Of course. You could’ve today. He drove me home from school.” The last words brought up a momentary image of Ernesto Grayfoot, but Jessica forced it from her mind, not wanting to wreck the moment.
“Next time he comes by, have him say hi. You know, if I’m not locked in a closet or something.”
She smiled. “Okay, Beth.” Forgiven at last.
The tinkle of keys in the front door caught both their ears, and the subject was dropped. But Jessica felt it between them, a shared secret after all.
The sounds of approach stopped short at the kitchen door, and Jessica turned to enjoy her mother’s look of surprise. A grocery bag slumped against her hip, jutting celery stalks suggesting some planned meal now being hurriedly abandoned in Mom’s head.
“Oh… I bought…”
“Not on the counter.”
Jessica lifted the offending groceries from her mother’s grip and removed them to the safety of the living room.
* * * * *
“Mom, could I spend the night at Dess’s this Friday?”
Beth turned from her cooking. “You have a friend called Dess, Jess?”
“Yeah, it’s a mess,” she said with a grin. “Her real name’s Desdemona. She’s in my trig class, and it would be really great if we could hang out and, you know, study?” Jessica leaned both elbows on the kitchen table and smiled, wondering if her emphasis on the last word had been too obvious. The study angle was the easiest way to work her mother’s guilt. It had been her idea to sign Jessica up for all advanced classes after the move.
But Mom’s engineering side took over. “Didn’t you already spend Sunday studying with Rex?”
“Yeah, that was history.”
“Yes, but you used up your ungrounded day to go over there, Jessica.”
“No, ‘history’ as in last week.”
“I thought your father said it counted as this week’s.” She pointed at the calendar on the kitchen wall, where the weeks started on Sunday and ended on Saturday.
Jessica squinted at it. “No way! Sunday is the weekend, so that week ended and now it’s this week.”
Her mother opened her mouth but only an exhausted sigh emerged. She spread her hands. “Sure. Fine.”
Jessica felt a forward jolt inside, as if she were in a car that had braked too quickly, her arguments piling up on each other like unbelted kids in the backseat. (First law of motion, her new physics lobe informed her.) Beth turned from the not-yet-boiling water to deliver a steely glare. Mom never would have given up so easily on a technical point back in Chicago, before the long days at Aerospace Oklahoma had begun to wear her down. Instead of a flush of victory, Jessica just felt sorry for her.
She tried to smile. “Oh, great. Cool. So, how’s work?”
A soft sigh. “Workable.”
“That’s it? Come on, Mom. You’re there like twelve hours a day. There must be something to tell.” Jessica shrugged. “How’s that runway doing?”
Her mother looked up, a little puzzled. “The runway?”
“Yeah, aren’t you on some kind of committee?” Jessica tried to sound casual, as though she always had conversations about emergency runways. “It’s just that these kids were talking at school”—not technically a lie—“about how some people in town don’t want you to build it?”
Her mother nodded tiredly, then leaned back until her head rested against the kitchen wall. “At school too? Christ. That’s what I’ve been dealing with all day. Suddenly the whole town’s gone nuts over this thing. I thought being on the committee was going to be a breeze.”
“So, tell me all about it.”
“Well…” Her mother frowned. “I’ve told you about air brakes, right?”
“Yeah, that was right after the birds and the bees,” Beth spoke up.
“Sure, Mom,” Jessica said, ignoring her sister. “That loud, scary noise right after you land, which is the engines reversing to slow the plane down.”
“Exactly. Well, and don’t get scared about this, because it almost never happens…”
“Safer than driving. Right, Mom?”
She ignored Beth. “But sometimes the air brake mechanism fails in midair. A light goes on in the cabin, so they know before landing, but they have to fly the plane to a special runway that’s really, really long. They put them all over the country but mostly in the middle. And they’re building more now because extra runways are really important if… well… if you suddenly have to land every plane in the country all at once. You know?”
“Yeah, Mom,” Jessica said reassuringly. “Beth and I know about boys, we know about drugs, and we know about terrorism.”
Her mother smiled tiredly. “Well, okay, I guess. As long as you’re saying no.”
“Two out of three,” Beth mumbled.
Jessica shot her a look, but the pot had burst into a boil, and the rasp of spaghetti sliding from its box promised that Beth would be busy for another few minutes. She turned back to her mother.
“So how could anyone be against it?”
“No one was. And then suddenly there are all these ads in the Register. We think the whole movement’s an invention of this Broken Arrow oil family who want to drill out there. They must be crazy, though.” She kicked her leather-work satchel on the floor next to her. “Our geologist says there’s nothing out in the salt flats worth drilling, mining, or even looking at.”
Jessica’s eyes drifted toward the satchel. “Geological reports? Cool.”
“I mean, um, they might be interesting to look at,” she said. Maybe not for any normal person, but Dess would die for a glimpse of something both maplike and numberish that had to do with the runway. She and Jonathan could fly over there tonight, and Dess would have half an hour or so to devour them. “It’s just that everyone’s talking about it at school. Maybe I could do a report or something.”
Her mother laughed and gave the satchel another contemptuous kick. “Knock yourself out. But the Grayfoots aren’t admitting that this is about oil. They’ve got city hall worked up about sonic booms and experimental crashes, like we’re building the runway to test transorbitals or something.”
“Sure, I think I heard that too. Hey… transorbitals?” Jessica said softly, her fingers lifting from the table one by one.
Her mother nodded. “Yeah, I told you about those. Airplanes that go into low orbit? They can fly from New York to Tokyo in just—”
Jessica’s triumphant smile faded, and she saw that Beth had turned around to stare as well. “Uh, it’s just that ‘transorbitals’ has… um, thirteen letters.”
“What?” they both asked.
“What is that fantastic smell?” Donald Day boomed from the kitchen door, dropping his golf bag to the floor with a clatter.
“I’ll set the table” Jessica said quickly. “Let me get this out of your way.”
She pulled the heavy satchel from the floor and hauled it into the living room, setting it beside the exiled non-spaghetti-related groceries. She noted its exact location for later reconnaissance and hoped that her mother would suspend all homework in celebration of the first Oklahoma edition of Beth Spaghetti Night.