If you heard our most recent podcast episode, you heard Barry and me read our holiday flash fiction stories. Here are the stories if you’d like to take a closer look.
Cranberry Sauce in the Time of Keto
By Drēma Drudge
The formerly white kitchen wall is now dotted with red, the semi set globs of sugar free Jell-O slowly making their way down the surface like kids in red jackets on a sleigh flowing down a snowy bank. But it wasn’t a child who launched the food at the wall. It was me.
I dump the remainder in the sink, because this batch didn’t work out, either. You have to be a special brand of a shit cook to not even be able to get Jell-O to set. True, I tried the speed set, so maybe that’s where I went wrong, because they can say use X amount of ice cubes all they want and goddamn it, everyone’s ice trays are different. Specificity, please!
I don’t do great with directions, in case you hadn’t noticed. All I’ve gotten is a semi set batch, and a semi is never any good, I say.
These keto fiends who swear it’s possible to make it past the holidays with nary a slip haven’t met me. I have two gears: good and not-so. Moderation has never been my strong suit. Not that my body hides the fact.
I am wearing a ring of fat around my middle that is thicker than a hula hoop but sways about as much. Okay, I exaggerate, but have you been home for the past nine months with your husband the way I have? Did you know you can freakin’ order chocolate and have it delivered? Did you know you can use your bread maker for, get this, baking bread? And did you further know that nothing tops the smell of bread permeating a house? Warm bread, butter. Tell me you can think of anything else now. I doubt it.
Speaking of the husband, he makes an appearance in the doorway holding his saxophone and I try not to make the same old phallic reference, try not to mention the “saxy” saxophonists. We are done entertaining one another. Those charming, sweet things we loved about one another? Gone the way of regular Jell-O, gone the way of that soft, white bread.
So it’s not fair that I’m blaming the gelatin. I’m aware. But I don’t have to live with it.
Someone once asked if you lived with, say, Barbara Streisand, would you ever get sick of her singing? I know the answer to that.
Maybe one of the reasons I am failing on the Jell-O front (I heat more water, open two brown packs from boxes and dump the gelatin into the metal bowl (It gels better in metal, at least if you don’t try speed setting it) and the scent more of raspberry Kool-Aid than anything puffs up (Because I couldn’t find sugar-free cranberry flavored; yes, I looked.) is because I don’t want it.
Cranberry gelatin would not be like cranberry sauce anyway. Cranberry sauce has a peculiar texture that is found nowhere else. If you’ve ever had the canned stuff, tell me what you’ve ever sunk your teeth into that compares? The outside is almost porous, but if you slice it, it’s sleek and shiny. When you fork into it, you’re still asking yourself if it’s a dessert or a punishment for bad children not deserving better. It’s not a food that children like or ever ask for. If you’re wondering why, see above.
Then there’s the color: cranberry colored. Obviously. A blood color. A rich, saturated color. Placental. If someone told you this is what you’re supposed to eat after birth, (pun intended), you would believe them and say it “wasn’t so bad.”
Except if you’re me (and you’re not, but imagination is required when reading), you have grown up eating cranberry sauce as both a medicine and as love given to you by your cold, loathsome mother who became Nurse Nightingale when you (I mean me) were sick.
Bitter and sweet, like your mother. Like life turns out to be. It was actually a good lesson to learn.
The color of the set of cups she bought from Sears and Roebuck, the cup she’d bring me water in when I was coughing in bed late at night to get her attention.
The husband says that maybe if I measured the ice…
The mansplaining alone right now, oh Christ. Enough to make you wish you’d get the ‘rona. (Oh, that’s right, I’m not supposed to joke because it’s not goddamned funny; people are dying. And I’m aware, okay? I know, but dammit to hell, if I’m to not feel as if I want to die, you’ve gotta give me a release, right?)
A release. Of course. Of course I’m bringing sex into it, he says, because I’m all about the sex. Well damn, says a man who plays a sax. Looks like I’m not the only one who likes peen. What? I’m joking, joking.
Maybe not a smart thing to say when you’re making Jell-O. Except he didn’t throw it on the walls. That was me, all me.
And to be fair, neither of us wants much sex right now. The world is dying, remember? We’re disinfecting everything, each other, like mo fo’s. And Lysol is not an aphrodisiac.
All over the country, the world, families sit down or don’t in honor or rejection of the day, either culturally or philosophically repulsed or not; maybe indifferent. Maybe they just want the goddamned ham and cheesy potatoes. Maybe they, like me, want the cranberry sauce. But no, we are the keto nation, trying to better ourselves even while there are those among us ailing and dying. No cranberry sauce for us. Except.
That’s how I end up in the car at 11:30 pm, headed to the grocery store, risking health and diet (wearing my mask) to buy a can of cranberry sauce that I will immediately put in the refrigerator because it’s only any good chilled.
And I dare you to judge me.
The Jingle All The Way Café
People are driving back and forth down Main Street as if to confirm what they’re seeing. What had been an empty parking lot next to the Lutheran church when the sun set Friday night is now a wooden building designed to look like a gingerbread house—complete with a fluffy-white roof, piping that looks like white icing, and gumball shrubs accenting a path to the front door. On street corner there is a tall, multi-lighted sign in cotton candy snow: The Jingle All The Way Café.
You sit in the back seat of the Galaxy 500 staring at it like it’s the greatest thing you’ve ever seen. Your parents, having angle parked facing the Kroger, have the best view.
“I sure as hell hope that we’re not paying for that in our taxes. This little town already thinks it’s a high-class city,” your dad says.
Your mom pats him on the leg, something that is a mixture of reassurance and calming him down. Turning to you, she sees your excitement. You are sitting on the edge of the seat ready to get out of the car. She shakes her head and that usually would be that. But the music, sweet glorious holiday classics, is playing from the best-sounding hifi speakers you’ve ever heard. Like Odysseus’ Sirens, you have to go visit. Maybe even Santa will be inside.
The Kroger, decked in anemic holiday fare—worn out tinsel and an aluminum tree with a strand of oversized lights—is not exactly boring but doesn’t share the pizazz that reaches from across the street. In an act of pacification, your mom grabs a popper of Jiffy Pop from the front display and puts it in the cart. Your smile, although forced, follows the rules for showing appreciation. All of this happens while you look over your shoulder and across the street. Other kids are exploring inside and out. You laugh when the one toddler tries to take a bite out of the white piping. The laugh gets bigger when he goes in for another bite. Your father moves you on. You have to look where you are going for a minute. But the laughter and music keep pulling you away.
“I have to go to the restroom,” you say.
Your father sighs. “Ok, but be quick. We don’t have all damned day.”
You head toward the back of the store, and then double back through a different isle. You hear your mom and dad arguing about which peanut butter is better (Jiff, you think). You don’t hear their decision as you run out the front door and across the street to the wonderland that beckons.
The front yard smells exactly like cotton candy—heated sugar spun into a gossamer spider web of confection. The building also contains the pungent scent of gingerbread. That’s not your favorite baked good of the Christmas season (you think it smells almost burnt) but it is fitting for the building. The chimney in back is exhaling a dark smoke that smells like hot chocolate; and the piping smells like frosting with cinnamon. The next thing you know you’ve crossed the threshold and are inside.
You are greeted by an elf baring a large mug of hot chocolate with small marshmallows and whipped cream. He extends the mug and greets you. Although the tantalizing hot chocolate might distract others from the elf, you notice how elaborate the costume and makeup are. You nod as you wonder where such small people are from.
“Please have a seat,” says the diminutive elf as you are guided to an empty booth.
The hot chocolate makes you feel warm and safe. It also makes the world seem more dream-like as if there are no worries—no fourth-grade tests, no chores, no nuclear bombs, no war in Viet-Nam, no riots in the big cities. This moment is enough. There isn’t a past or a future—just now.
Another elf (definitely female) hands you a menu and welcomes you to the Jingle All The Way Café. You don’t remember whether you have any money in your wallet, but you don’t see any prices on the menu. You’ve had breakfast, but how can runny eggs compare to the picture of Christmas pancakes (topped with powdered sugar and crushed candy cane) and a side of crisp bacon? You order without fear of repercussions.
Who is already seated, you wonder? The interior seems much bigger than the outside structure reveals—seating scores of customers. Do you see anyone from school? No? You look from table to table and note that there are only children. These children look and dress like they’re from different places around the world (your Indiana town is very farmer white). A laugh creeps out as you think of the It’s a Small World ride in Disneyland. This feels like the ride with real kids, not animatronics.
A boy comes over and sits with you in your booth.
“Where are we?” he asks in French. But you seem to understand.
“We’re in North Manchester, Indiana,” you reply.
“That’s nice,” he says. “I’m Timothée.” He extends his hand.
“I’m Craig.” You grab his hand and shake.
How can you understand one another? That is a puzzle. But one that is driven out of your mind as the elf brings you the biggest stack of pancakes you’ve ever seen.
“Mon dieu,” Timothée says, “those are huge!”
You offer him some, but he declines. “I have been eating and eating it seems.”
Question marks form on your brows. “How long have you been here?” You’re thinking he’s maybe been here for an hour or two.
“I’ve lost track of time. I think we all have.”
Rumbling and shaking outside bring you to your feet. Running to the window you expect to see the Kroger and Main Street traffic, but it appears to be clouds and mist. The café groans but most kids don’t react.
“Don’t worry,” Timothée says, “you get used to it.”
“Used to what?” you ask.
“The liftoff. I’ve lost track of how many times we’ve taken off. But we have less than a month to go.”
Goosebumps chase one another down your neck as you hear this. “Taken off?”
The female elf guides you back to your table, noting that it’s safer to be seated during takeoff. All will be explained in due time.
Sitting back down, you’re handed a mint-bark hot chocolate with pepperminty whipped cream. This makes you feel sunny. The light outside the windows goes dark as you note how pretty the twinkling lights outline the knotted-pine walls and are encompass the ten huge Christmas trees in every corner. To you, it all feels like home.
You’re on the other side of the world as your parents scramble from the Kroger hunting for you. You never see the look of shock on their faces as they realize there’s no new building across the street. Nobody seems to remember the holiday-themed café. The next time it comes to town you won’t be with it. Forgotten by this town, you’ll be busy doing other things.
Thank you so much for reading our stories, thanks for listening to the podcast. Here’s wishing us all a wonderful, pandemic-free 2021.