The older one screams, flings his body across the couch, jumping from one end to the other. The younger one wraps himself around her legs in front of the stove, pulling at her sweatpants, wiping his snot and saliva down the length of her calves like the gummy trails of snails. He hooks his right arm around her knee and pulls hard, her knee bowing in protest. The oil in the frying pan pops onto her fingers and burns the insides of her wrists and she shouts for the younger one to back away and for the older one to stop jumping, but neither one listens. The younger one yips as the oil leaps out and hits his skin, tears shining in his eyes. She leans down with a sigh and grabs him, balances him on her hip and turns her body to shield him from the pan. He grabs her hair and reaches for the strainer in her hand. As he does so, the oil pops again and hits his arm. He wails into her ear and she wonders why she thought fried chicken was a good idea.
It’s her husband’s birthday and she wanted to, surprise him with something rich and greasy, something that would make the house smell so good that when he opened the door his mouth would water. She wanted to do something opposite of what she normally did which was heating up frozen vegetables and throwing chicken breasts into a pan with something saucy. They had spent the morning making a cake- the boys wanted to help. The older one had dropped all three eggs onto the floor, watched as their delicate shells smashed and the yolks spread across the tile. While she cleaned that up, the younger one, who had been standing on a kitchen chair she had dragged over to the counter for a stool, had lost his balance and fell off leaving a bruise on his head that looked like a black and blue strawberry. The older one had then tried to pick up the eggs and carry them to the sink, leaving trails of egg whites splattered across the cupboard doors.
She had let them help with the frosting, let them pour the powdered sugar covering the counters and dusting their skin in a layer so thick that they tried to write their names in it. When they had finished icing the cake, the older one had run his finger across the top and popped icing into his mouth before she could stop him. Then, the younger one had shrieked until she let him have some too. He scooped some up and stuck his finger in his mouth like a lollipop. She watched them make trails in the icing, the corners of their mouths crusted with sugar. She spent naptime remaking frosting and smoothing out each layer, their fingerprints like dimples across the top.
Now, the older one is supposed to be making a card, but he wants her to help him and no matter how many times she explains that she is cooking, that his younger brother won’t let her put him down, he just keeps shouting “Mama, Mama, Mama.” She takes the chicken out of the oil, lets it drip onto a wad of paper towels. The younger one reaches for it and she quickly sets it down which makes him scream. She locks herself in her bedroom, the two of them kicking the door, jiggling the knob, screaming her name. She lies down on the floor and covers her head with a pillow and screams until she can’t hear their voices above their own.
Once she can breathe again, she comes back out. The pan on the stove is smoking, the oil burnt to the bottom. The smoke alarm starts shrieking and both boys’ eyes grow wide before shrieking back at it. She grabs the smoking frying pan and flings it into the backyard, the solid thunk of it against the grass so soothing. Back inside, she grabs a magazine from the counter and furiously fans the air in front of the smoke detector, the boys’ bodies pushed against her legs, begging her to make the noise stop. When her husband gets home, the three of them are sitting on the couch. He asks her what that smell is.
It’s dinner, she tells him. Oh, and happy birthday.