A scream, more like a battle cry, accompanied the cast-iron skillet as it flew across the kitchen, missing my father by inches as he slipped out the front door.
I sat motionless on an oversized beanbag chair, which, although ragged and worn, was the most coveted seat in the house for watching Saturday-morning cartoons. On the screen Bugs Bunny was dressed like a Southern belle, leading a couple of lovesick hillbillies on a wild-goose hunt, each of them hoping to win favor of the cross-dressing bunny, even if it meant pain and suffering — such as being hit on the head with a frying pan.
The beanbag chair was covered with a velvety material that had been worn threadbare, and finger-sized gaps were accessible at most of the seams. Coming through these holes in the fabric were BB-sized white Styrofoam balls that made up the chair’s interior. Why call it a beanbag chair when it was full of Styrofoam and not beans, I often wondered as I dug out the small balls and rolled them between my fingers.
Moments before I’d stopped watching the TV and had become transfixed with a sliver of light that shone through the curtains as my parents talked in the next room. The light made a long, thin wedge of gold on the floor, and its path from the window illuminated hundreds, maybe thousands, millions, of tiny floating objects in the air. I’d often spend long periods of time just looking at these slivers of light and wonder what on earth all this material floating in the air was made of. “Dust,” my mother would usually say. “It’s just dust — let it go.”
“But what is dust?” I would ask.
She would shake her head and then sometimes laugh quietly.
“My little scientist,” she might say, and when she did I felt special, like I was the only one in the world that might one day become a scientist.
The term “dust,” I came to understand, mostly through conversations with my neighborhood friends, was made up of bits of animal “dander” (bits of dried and flaked-off skin), pulverized bug carcasses, dehydrated poop particles and a collection of other unattractive and potentially harmful elements, all of which were just floating there in the air unseen until being illuminated by a certain angle of light.
“You can’t help who you love,” she yelled.
“Of course you can,” he yelled back.
He sat at the kitchen table, the blond wood in contrast to the brown of his shirt, a large red “S” embroidered on his silk tie.
She leaned over the kitchen sink, her blue bathrobe hanging off slumped shoulders, her dark, newly short-cropped haircut highlighting patches of gray. To her right lay a black cast-iron skillet that we used on camping trips for roasting potatoes or making blackberry cobbler over a campfire. The fire’s pine-scented smoke would become mixed with the sweet, jammy aroma of cooked berries and the vanilla-cakey smells of the batter that became crispy at the edges.
Next to the skillet stood three glass jars: one full of powdered citric acid, the other full of tiny white pellets of saccharin and the third brimming with shiny-brown coffee beans. For the last year or so my mother had stopped using aluminum pans and sugar, having read that both contributed to dementia, a condition my grandmother had slipped into slowly over the years. She’d also read that high doses of the vitamin C in citric acid and the caffeine in coffee might ward off everything from cancer to loss of mental function.
“Be very careful what you put in your body,” she warned me one day as we rummaged through the camping gear. “Cast iron provides both an excellent cooking surface and even a bit of iron that your body can use to build and maintain healthy cells,” she continued once we located the pan, so heavy I needed two hands to cart it back to the kitchen.
I sat on the soft chair, watching bits float through the light while I squeezed one of the balls of Styrofoam flat and then felt it reinflate slowly until it was nearly back to its original shape. The sing-song voice of Bugs Bunny was in sharp contrast to my parents’ voices in the adjacent room.
“No, you can’t,” she finally said, her body stiffening.
My father stood to go.
“You could if you wanted to,” he said.
She reached for the skillet, hesitant, grabbing the handle and then releasing it slowly.
“You don’t understand,” she said. “I want something that is just mine.”
“Don’t be so selfish,” he said.
She turned, lifting the heavy pan as she did. He backed toward the door.
“I’m sorry,” he said reaching for the door handle.
“Me, too,” she screamed as she turned and released the pan into the dust-filled air between them.
Originally published in the St. Helena Star, May 2017