Rachel and Sam are expecting her mother and Aunt Esther any minute. It’s early spring, but they’re having a brutal cold snap. “I didn’t think Ohio could get this cold,” Rachel says. “It’s a good thing we live over Piccolo’s.” They’d come to depend on the pizza ovens sending up heat in the afternoon and evening.
“Chicago gets even colder. Your mom and aunt should be used to it,” Sam calls out. He’s trimming his beard—the bathroom door is ajar—it opens to the living room.
“Sure, they’re used to it, but I don’t know if they can take this.” Rachel goes over to the red fake metal fireplace—the heater for the living room. She holds her hand over the logs. There’s not much radiating from the hidden electric coils. Oscar, their orange striped cat, is curled on the metal hearth, trying for some warmth. Not only is the room large in area, but the ceiling goes way up—maybe fifteen feet—and there’s a skylight, which is great to have in summer, but in cold months they suspect that half of whatever meager heat they have disappears through the cracks above.
There’s one reliably cozy room—the bedroom, and that’s where they plan to put their visitors. An ancient gas heater churns out the warm. They often wonder if it emits toxic gases. Rachel’s grad school salary for teaching a composition class, and Sam’s part time work at the library don’t allow for hiring people to do maintenance.
Rachel and her mother often would gaze at the full page image of the sculpted head of Queen Nefertiti in the Egypt book, her face still flecked with gold paint, her eyes elaborately outlined in black and staring across centuries. “More years than you can ever imagine,” her mother told her. One afternoon when they were looking at the book, her mother said, “I know what I’m going to do.”
There’s no bell, and she doesn’t want to chance not hearing her mother knocking on the door, so she waits downstairs for the taxi to arrive from the train station. She hears a door slam outside. “Sam,” she calls, her voice echoing up the steps. He appears at the top of the stairs. “Coming, babe.”
She opens the outside door to see her mother and aunt tugging at their suitcases from where the driver has left them on the sidewalk. “Mom,” she exclaims. “Aunt Essie. Welcome.” She runs over and gives them a group hug.
Aunt Esther is short and bent over from childhood scoliosis. Her hair is gray and permed, poking out from a hat with a veil. “Your mother practically died getting off the train,” she says. “There was a steep ramp. I didn’t think she would make it, what with her emphysema.”
“Mom, I’m so sorry. We should have met you at the train.”
“Well, going back, it’ll be downhill,” her mother says. She’s wearing a babushka, her usual winter headgear, and one of her rain-shine coats that she’s partial to. All of them have zip out furry linings, and once she discovered them, they became her trademark. This one is black and white houndstooth. Her face is sagging and pale with more wrinkles than Rachel remembers from six months before. Her arms reach out. “Let me hug you again, sweetie. It’s so good to see you.”
Her mother briefly went into the bathroom off the kitchen to rein in her thick black hair which usually tumbled down her back. She was all business, coiling it into a bun and pushing hairpins in to secure it.
Sam appears and reaches for the suitcases. “Hi, ladies,” he says. He smiles at Aunt Esther—he’s never met her.
“Sam,” Rachel’s mother cries out, opening her arms. “Essie, this is Sam Fraser.”
He leans into her hug. “Good to see you, Iris. Let’s get out of this wind. I’ll get the bags.”
“Oh my god,” Iris says, looking up at the long staircase.
“What?” Esther asks, crowding in behind her.
Rachel glances up, realizing that the stairs that she takes two at a time, do seem steep.
“They go on forever,” Esther comments, peering around her sister.
“Mom, you can stop half-way. C’mon, I’ll take your arm and we’ll go slowly.”
“But there’s no landing. On a landing, I can rest, catch my breath.”
Their kitchen was her mother’s clay studio. The Egypt book was propped on a counter. Her mother mentioned that she was making a pitcher of sorts. The bottom of it was a perfect cylinder that narrowed as it rose up, very much like the temperature cones shaped like Hershey’s kisses that went into the kiln.
Inside the apartment finally, her mother collapses on a chair near the metal fireplace. Essie made it upstairs sooner, so Sam has shown her where the bedroom is. He comes into the main room.
“HELP!” They hear a loud yell.
Iris turns in her chair, about to prop herself up. “Aunt Essie?” Rachel calls. She gestures to her mother to stay put, and she and Sam hurry to the bedroom. Esther is flat against the wall by the heater, with a look of agony twisting her face. “What is it, Aunt Essie?”
She nods her head. Rachel sees the culprit—Oscar is planted on the bed, facing her aunt. “That’s our cat, Oscar. Oscar, this is Aunt Essie.” She goes to pick him up, and heads toward her aunt.
“Noooo—Iris, get in here, RIGHT NOW.”
Sam intervenes, snatching Oscar from Rachel and backing away. “Would you rather we put him somewhere out of reach?”
Esther’s face melts into a smile. “Oh, yes. I would much rather that.”
Iris comes to the doorway and spies Oscar riding in Sam’s arms. “Oh, my. Essie doesn’t like cats. She has what you call a phobia about them. You know, like Rachel’s afraid of heights, well Essie has that with cats.”
“We’re discovering that,” Sam says. “We just have to find a place to put him.”
“We can’t put him where the litter box is,” Rachel says to him.
“And why not?” Iris asks. “Seems like that would be a perfect place.”
“It’s in the bathroom.”
Esther, who has found a safe spot on the edge of the bed, looks as if she will cry. “Do you only have one bathroom?”
Sam holds the cat with one arm and holds up the other. He tells them he has the solution, so they shouldn’t worry. “We’ll put Oscar, with his box, in Rachel’s study.” He nods to the closed door off the bedroom. “He might meow, but he won’t get out.” Oscar slaps his tail against Sam’s arm, and yawns.
“What sharp teeth he has,” Iris says.
“Mom, that isn’t exactly helpful. Never mind, I’ll go retrieve the box.”
Sam already is opening the study door and letting Oscar sail off his arm into captivity. “It’s only for the weekend, bud,” he says, closing the door.
“It looks exactly like her picture,” Rachel said. She was at the round kitchen table working on her own project: a boat.
“Well, not really. I don’t have gold glaze to use.”
Her mother smiled. “We’ll see. Right now she’s just gray clay.”
Nefertiti was wearing her headdress, and the very top of that was the spout for the pitcher. Even though the face was small, the nose, eyes and mouth were precisely done. Aunt Esther stayed over, as she often did on the weekend, and she admired it, saying, “Iris, you have real talent. All I can do is teach school, but you are a true artist. Sometimes I wonder if Cliff even knows this about you.”
Rachel has splurged on a roast, and it’s in the oven. Both visitors are happily snuggled into chairs by the red heater, sipping brandy, thanks to the bottle that Sam picked up earlier. “I love your haircut,” Iris says to Rachel. “But you took off so much all at once.”
Rachel fluffs her short brown hair. “I went to a pageboy first, then a little shorter, and then to this,” she says. “It didn’t seem so all-at-once that way.”
“It’s very European,” Aunt Esther says. “You look like a little gamin. Very cute.” She was proud of her several trips she had made across the ocean, and loved to tell of the time she saw Mussolini speak in Rome. “A man lifted me up and put me on a camp stool so I could see. It was exciting, even though Mussolini was a very, very bad man.”
They eat dinner in the kitchen, with the pizza oven heat from below warming the space well. Both women have a second brandy, and Sam tells them the plans for tomorrow, that they’ll have a tour of the town, by car. When Rachel looks surprised, he explains that he talked to Jerry, the pizza owner about borrowing a delivery car. “The sign on top is removable, and I figure it beats walking.”
“That’s very clever of you,” Iris says.
“What? That we’re going to drive?” Sam asks.
“No, that you can remove the sign.”
The kiln sat in the corner behind the stove. It was a round, firebrick structure that her mother had built and wired herself. The clay had turned from dark gray to light gray in the drying process, and now it fired to a light brown. When the pitcher was cool to the touch, her mother began the glazing process, making the inside dark blue and the outside yellow. “It’s the closest thing to gold that I have,” she said, studying the jars of glaze on the shelves in the kitchen.
For years the pitcher took up residence on a shelf in the dining room, among other fragile pieces, and it stayed there until they moved after the divorce. When Rachel left Chicago, she did not leave empty-handed. Nefertiti, wrapped in a soft velvet cloth inside a box, traveled with her. “She’s better off with you,” her mother said. “Why should you wait till die?”
They accompany the women to the bedroom for any last minute help. Iris has the double bed, and Esther’s on a rollaway, another loaner from Jerry the pizza guy. It’s warm and pleasant in the room. Rachel takes Oscar some food and checks the box. When she comes out, she reports that he’s frantic, but he’ll definitely survive a day or so in captivity. She leans over to give her mother a big hug. “I’m so happy you’re here,” she tells her. “I’m sorry we live so high up.”
“Like an eagle’s nest,” Iris says. But she smiles, pleased with the embrace, not wanting to let go. “Sit a minute,” she says, tapping the mattress next to her. “I want to see her.”
Rachel’s genuinely confused. “See who?”
“You know, my lady on the pitcher. My Egyptian queen.”
“Oh . . . .”
Esther’s been searching for something in her case. “Your mother really wants to see it. I do too. I haven’t seen it in years.”
Rachel bites down on her lip. “All that’s stored away—I don’t think I could get it down.”
“What? You don’t display it? After she went and gave it to you?”
“Hush, that’s okay,” Iris says. “I just wanted to see it again. But I understand. If it’s packed away.”
Rachel hugs her again, then leaves to join Sam in a sleeping bag in front of the metal hearth in the living room aglow with the moon shining in through the skylight. In the morning she tells Sam, “I didn’t sleep well.”
“It’s the hard floor and the freezing temperature,” he says. “Come closer, Rachel Silver. Let me hug you.”
“No—it wasn’t the floor or the temperature.” She gulps in some air realizing she’s about to cry.
The next day they tour the town. Jerry lends them a car with a non-removable sign. At least, they can’t figure out how to remove it, so they drive around with a huge red triangle on top that says PICCOLO’S PIZZA 456-1891. The car is filled with pungent aromas from recent sausage and pepperoni creations that even someone indifferent to pizza would find hard to resist. They show them the courthouse and the university and a favorite pub that serves grilled sandwiches. The women insist on eating there, and somehow they end up with a pitcher of beer, surrounded by college students. Sam and Rachel drink out of mugs, and her mother and aunt use smaller glasses. All in all, it’s a good afternoon of touring. Later at the apartment, Rachel makes a salad and they all agree that pizza from downstairs is a great idea.
That night, the last with their visitors, Sam and Rachel again cuddle in the sleeping bag in front of the red metal living room heater. They’ve tried to make it more comfortable by putting pillows beneath them, but it’s lumpy and uneven. They cling to each other for warmth. “Have you told her?” Sam asks.
Rachel blinks in the dark. She knows exactly what he means, but she remains quiet for a minute. Finally she says, “No, I haven’t. But I plan to.”
“They’re leaving by noon—you don’t have much time.”
“I know it, damnit. I’m going to.”
“Well, make sure you do.”
“God, what are you my conscience or something?”
“Or something.” He kisses her ear, and snuggles even closer.
Technically, Rachel didn’t do it. Technically, Oscar did. Rachel twines her legs around Sam’s in the dark, wincing with the memory. They were moving into the pizza shop apartment, and she was organizing her little office next to the bedroom, site of the current Oscar prison. She had an old oak table set up as her desk. After unpacking several boxes, she put the contents all over the table top. One of the items was the Nefertiti pitcher.
She has gone over the scene in her office countless times in the past two years. At first she didn’t even notice the twelve pounds of orange striped fur jumping up. When she did spot him, she was across the room, putting books on a shelf as she saw him walking toward the pitcher. “NO. OSCAR.” He regarded her with scorn as he put a paw out, tipping her mother’s masterpiece over the side, breaking it into too many pieces to ever resurrect.
Miraculously, the head itself wasn’t damaged, but the rest of it was, and that’s Rachel’s second regret, after the first of wondering why she placed it so close to disaster. She could have at least saved the head, but she didn’t. Instead, she swept the whole mess into a dustpan and listened with dismay as the pieces clattered into the garbage bag. How she wishes she still had Nefertiti’s face. It was her mother’s best work—she sculpted it by hand just using the photograph as a guide. And now a third regret worms its way into her thoughts. What possessed her to invite her mother and aunt here? If she hadn’t, the pitcher would have never come up. She should have gone back to Chicago to visit. Clearly this was a physically difficult trip for her mother—she should have realized that and saved them all several varieties of misery. What you don’t know, won’t hurt you. Wise words from her mother. She wishes she had remembered them sooner.
The next morning Rachel gets up early and showers before anyone is awake. It’s completely freezing in the apartment—the pizza ovens won’t be on for hours. She realizes that if she bakes something, it will at least make the kitchen warm, so she takes out her Joy of Cooking, another leaving-Chicago present from her mother, and mixes a complicated coffee cake involving poppy seeds and sour cream. Poppy seeds she somehow has, and she uses yogurt for the sour cream, remembering that you can do that, though she can’t recall where the information came from. She warms the oven and leaves it on for a while before baking, trying to take the chill out of the air.
She decides to make an egg and cheese casserole—a sort of quiche, but instead of a crust, you put slices of bread in the bottom of the pan. By the time Sam finds her in the kitchen she has three intricate dishes—the third one involving fruit and sausages—while waiting for her mother and aunt.
He comes up behind her and kisses the back of her neck. She’s sure he’s going to say something about the elaborate meal. Maybe he’ll say so these are restitution dishes or something like that. Instead, he says, “Using the oven was a really good idea. I’m sure the ladies will appreciate it. This must be the coldest indoor place in Ohio.”
Esther is all agog over the food. She’s wearing two cardigans and her hat with the veil. Rachel’s never seen her aunt wear a hat like this indoors, so she assumes it’s because she’s cold. The veil rides above her eyes like a cloud of tiny insects. She’s in the kitchen first, and takes a seat next to the window where there’s a clear view of the main street, in particular, the public library where Sam works. “You’ve certainly gone to too much trouble, Rachel,” her aunt says. “Were you up all night making this?”
“Only since seven a.m. Not a big deal. I wanted to start the oven to get some heat going. Do you want coffee?”
“If you have it made. Your mother drinks it too.”
“I know that. I only lived with her for twenty-some years.”
Her mother appears in the doorway. “Ah, it’s warm in here.” She rubs her hands together.
“Here, Mom. I’ve got your coffee poured. Black, just how you like it.” Her mother is wearing a white blouse and a gray pleated skirt. Shopworn is what comes to Rachel’s mind as she takes an inventory of the clothes with frayed collar and hem. They’re the clothes she wore to her bookkeeping job at the bank, only she gave up the job several years back. Most likely, there are similar skirts in different colors still hanging in her closet. Her mother sits across from Essie. Rachel wriggles out of her sweater, and without saying anything, puts it around her mother’s shoulders. Her mother smiles at her.
“We have a regular feast here, Iris.” Essie sips her coffee, reaching to put sugar in it. She watches Iris take up her cup. “Now only have one cup of that. You know how cranky it makes you.”
“My god, Es. I’m on vacation. I can have two cups of coffee if I feel like it. Keep your eyes on your own plate, okay?”
“Well, I have to ride on the train with you.”
“So sit across the aisle. Sit in another car, for all I care.” Iris puts her cup hard into her saucer, causing some of the coffee to spring over the sides.
“Now look what you’ve done.” Esther shakes her head.
Rachel is already dabbing up the spill with a sponge. “There is no harm done. What’s the saying? Don’t cry over spilt coffee?”
“Very funny.” Her mother gives her a pat on the arm.
“I don’t think that’s how it goes,” Essie says.
They eat what’s now brunch with Sam regaling them with stories growing up in rural downstate Illinois. His talk of raising bull calves and butchering them for dinner is about as foreign to Aunt Esther and her mom as meeting a Martian. Rachel considers herself an insider, having visited where Sam grew up. The women listen with rapt attention. At one point Esther says, “I just cannot imagine living that way, in the country. In Chicago I can take the bus and get anywhere.”
Sam smiles, not really knowing what to say. Iris shakes her finger, and when she finishes swallowing a piece of coffee cake, she says, “You know, we all come from farms. Every one of us. It’s just farther back for some. Essie’s and my mother grew up in a manor house in Russia. It was surrounded by farmland. They were wealthy enough that they had peasants working the land, but our father grew up on a farm, and he did the backbreaking work.” She coughs, and takes a sip of coffee, her second cup.
Soon enough it’s noon, and Sam reminds them that there’s a train to catch.
Downstairs, he asks Iris to sit in the back seat. He comes around to help Essie in. “I thought you could sit in front and tell me some stories about where you taught in Chicago.”
She peers into the car. “But I thought I was sitting next to Iris.”
“It’s just till we get to the train. That way Rachel can visit with her mom.”
Essie frowns, but she lets Sam open the front door. After he closes it, he opens the back door for Rachel. “Mademoiselle, please enter at your own risk.” He bows and sweeps his arm out.
“You’re full of surprises, Mr. Fraser.” She smiles and slides in beside her mother.
Sam turns on a station with music, and it causes Essie to concentrate harder on what he’s saying, and makes it near to impossible for her to listen to conversation behind her.
“Rachel,” her mother says, holding out her hand, which Rachel swears is still stained with red bookkeeping ink. Her mother’s hand enfolds hers. When she feels her mother’s touch, tears well up in her eyes.
“Mama,” she says. “I’m glad you could visit. Even if it was a short time. I’m glad you saw where we live. I’m so sorry,” she blurts out.
“Sorry? About what?” Iris presses her hand.
“Can you forgive me?” Rachel looks out the window, afraid to look in her mother’s direction.
“Forgive? What’s to forgive? What’s wrong, sweetie?”
Rachel shakes her head, not answering.
“Oh,” her mother says. “Oh—I get it.”
“It’s the worst thing I’ve ever done.” Rachel glances at her mother, then looks away.
“I’m sure you didn’t do it.”
“You’re too forgiving, Mom. It was my responsibility, my mistake.”
“So she’s— gone?” There’s a break in Iris’s voice.
“Do you want to know—?”
Iris sighs, a heavy breath. “No, I never want to know the particulars. I only regret that I can’t make another. I’m way too old, and I can’t be around clay—too much dust when it comes dry in the sack, and then when I have to sand it. Working with clay is a regular dust storm. How I miss all that wet clay under my hands.”
“What are you two talking about?” Esther asks, craning around for a moment. Sam quickly points out horses in a field.
“Do you ever want to see me again?” Rachel asks.
“What are you being so melodramatic for? You’re my daughter. Maybe you and Sam can visit in the summer when you’re not so busy with classes.” Iris sits, unbuttoning, then buttoning her coat, nervously. Rachel leans her head against her shoulder.
“Mom, I was so afraid to tell you.”
“You don’t have to be afraid to tell me anything.”
“Even if I’m pregnant?”
“WHAT? Essie, my god. Listen to this.”
“Mom, I’m not pregnant. I’ve never been pregnant. I was just giving you a for instance. I’m not even married.”
Essie is turning around, asking what the commotion is. Sam looks in the rearview mirror. “You okay back there?”
“This girl needs to get married,” Iris announces.
“Mom, I’m not pregnant.”
“Pregnant?” Sam asks in a loud voice.
“This is getting way out of hand,” Rachel says.
“There are other reasons to get married besides being pregnant. I’m not saying another word.” Iris holds up her hand to ward off further discussion.
At the train station, they wait with their departing company. As they walk them to their train, Esther puts her arm through Rachel’s for a moment. “I knew about the pitcher,” she said. “I knew from the second you said it was packed away what happened.”
“I feel terrible,” Rachel says.
“It was irreplaceable,” she says.
“You’re making me feel worse than terrible. Thanks for reminding me.” Rachel brushed away a tear from under her glasses.
Esther sniffs. “Sarcasm won’t get you far in life, young lady. Let’s go, Iris.”
Rachel and her mother embrace, and then the two women hug Sam goodbye. She watches her aunt and mother walk down the ramp arm in arm. She can hear them bickering—something about walking too fast or too slowly. She watches until her mother’s black and white houndstooth coat disappears inside the train car.
In the daydream that she replays over and over, Rachel scoops the clay pieces up from the dustpan. Instead of throwing them in the trash, she spreads them on the table in her workroom. There are large pieces and tiny pieces. So many tiny pieces. But maybe if she takes the time, she can get them all together again, though she knows it’s out of the realm of possibility. The childhood rhyme taunts her: All the king’s horses and all the king’s men / Couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again. Nefertiti’s head lies there on its side. How do you glue dust together? Rachel asks her. She considers numbering each piece, and for a while this works, but then the pieces are too small and crumbly. Still, she has to try. She begins, first with the larger, recognizable pieces. Perhaps if she gets those into place, the others will show her how they fit together.
Karen Loeb finished a two-year run as Eau Claire, Wisconsin’s writer-in-residence. Her poetry and fiction have won contests in Wisconsin People and Ideas and have appeared in the Gyroscope Review, Pinyon, Hanging Loose, Halfway Down the Stairs, and other magazines. Her “Pandemic Cycle” poems will be in Volume One, and you can find her poem “The Agility of Chopsticks” online here.
© 2020, Karen Loeb