A Year and a Dayby Leslie Pietrzyk
Fifteen-year-old Alice dreams of her first kiss, has sleepovers, auditions for Our Town, and tries to pass high school biology. It's 1975, and at first look, her life would seem to be normal and unexceptional. But in the world that Leslie Pietrzyk paints, every moment she chronicles is revealed through the kaleidoscope of loss, stained by the fact that/em>
Fifteen-year-old Alice dreams of her first kiss, has sleepovers, auditions for Our Town, and tries to pass high school biology. It's 1975, and at first look, her life would seem to be normal and unexceptional. But in the world that Leslie Pietrzyk paints, every moment she chronicles is revealed through the kaleidoscope of loss, stained by the fact that Alice's mother, without warning, note, or apology, deliberately parks her car on the railroad tracks, in the path of an oncoming train.
In the emotional year that follows, Alice and her older brother find themselves in the care of their great aunt, forced to cope and move forward. Lonely and confused, Alice absorbs herself in her mother Annette's familiar rituals, trying to recapture their connection -- only to be stunned by the sound of her mother's voice speaking to her, engaging Alice in "conversations" and offering some insight into the life that she had led, beyond her role as Alice's mother.
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A Year and a Day
Mama came back three days after her funeral. That was my mother, as symbolic as they got. Three days, like she was Jesus Christ himself. "Alice," she whispered as I was frying up pancakes, willing the bubbles to pop so I could flip them, "it's Mama. I'm back."
I reached for the spatula, oddly calm. I'd read the paragraphs in Dr. Spock's baby book about the ways children cope with death. Okay, I was fifteen, not a child, but information was information. He didn't talk about hearing voices. So was this real?
She said, "You've got that syrup turned way too high."
Sure enough, a brown scorchy smell was edging into the kitchen, and the syrup's surface looked sticky and pocked. I turned the gas burner down to that barely steady level where you don't want to breathe because you're afraid you'll blow it out, then I flipped the pancakes. Maybe I should have started to panic. Instead, I stared down at the half-done pancakes, touched one with the tips of my fingers. It was warm, springy, real; I loved the shade of brown pancakes when they were done just right. There was nothing else like that color. That was something Mama had always said: What she liked best was anything there was nothing else like.
Again: "I want you to know I'm right here." Her words floated like dandelion seeds, breathy, shadowy whispers -- nothing like the way she had talked when she was alive, loud and too fast, so I always felt a sentence behind, my ears straining to catch up, not wanting to miss a word she said.
This was crazy. I yanked my germy hand off the pancake, cleared my throat."Okay." My voice felt too big in the kitchen. Maybe this was a dream, though the smell of pancakes, the rising steam, the flour splotches on the counter all seemed real enough. I poked the spatula under the edge of one pancake -- done -- then carefully stacked the pancakes on a plate, draped them with a tea towel, popped the plate into the barely warm oven.
"Aunt Aggy likes bacon at breakfast," she said.
"I know," I snapped. But I'd forgotten about the bacon. Wasn't it enough that I was making pancakes the first Sunday after my mother died? She had always made pancakes on Sunday morning, so here I was. I banged shut the oven door with one foot, then started to cry. My eyes were puffy and sore from nearly a week's worth of crying, and my nose was rubbed raw, so I tried to stop, lifting my elbow to my face so I could muffle the sobs and blow my nose into the sleeve of my brother's old Vikings sweatshirt. I had no pride about that sort of thing anymore. Last night at supper, I'd used the corner of our red-checked kitchen tablecloth after my paper napkin had gotten soaked through into damp shreds.
"Oh, dear." And then she was gone. But how could she be gone if she wasn't really there? It made no sense, like that question about the tree falling in the forest making no sound.
I smeared more tears on my sleeve, ladled batter onto the skillet, waited for the bubbles to pop, a trick Mama had told me. She knew a ton of secrets so her cookies came out perfect and the hash browns never burned, and she was such a good cook she sold wedding cakes to practically every bride in town. None of us needed to learn a thing about cooking because Mama did it all. But now and then I'd help with pancakes. She hardly slept, not like a normal person anyway, and on Sunday mornings she was slow, sleepy, overflowing with yawns and murmurs. I could ask questions that sounded desperate any other time, like, Am I pretty? Who do you love best? Do blondes really have more fun like the TV commercial says? She'd ask me questions, too, not what other mothers asked, like why was I flunking chemistry, and not what adults asked each other, dull questions about Nixon and Watergate, but what did I think was really at the center of the earth and why couldn't it be a gigantic diamond instead of boring molten lava; or how come no one made movies about people living in Iowa like us, and wouldn't a movie about us be interesting, and who would I want to play her and who me and who my brother and who Aunt Aggy? Sunday morning was my favorite time with Mama, the slow swirl of her questions coaxing out my own, worth getting up early for.
Plus now I could make pancakes that even my brother, Will, couldn't tell from hers.
The kitchen door swung open, and Aunt Aggy walked in. She was my mother's aunt, and though technically Mama had inherited this house from my grandmother, Aunt Aggy came along with it, like the brown plaid couch, the dinged-up kitchen table, and the rest of the furniture. She'd lived here when Mama was growing up and had never left. She was tall and thin and when she walked or sat, she leaned forward so much you could almost hold a protractor to her and say, "Eighty degrees." Will and I thought it was strange that Aunt Aggy had never been married even though she was already fifty-two, but Mama had said, "Not everyone fits into a happily-ever-after life." Aunt Aggy claimed she'd broken off six engagements "with the rings to prove it," not that I'd ever seen them.
"Alice," she said, surprised. She tightened the belt of her robe. "What are you doing?"
"Making pancakes for breakfast," I said ...A Year and a Day
A Novel. Copyright © by Leslie Pietrzyk. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Meet the Author
Leslie Pietrzyk is the author of Pears on a Willow Tree. Her short fiction has appeared in many literary journals, including TriQuarterly, Shenandoah, and The Iowa Review. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia.
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