There are fences aplenty here, but there is also a fair-sized yard and a school and a park just down the block. Other than that, “The house really wasn’t anything we were looking for.” The garage had been converted to a family room — a good, usable space, but not what Chris had hoped for. As for Laura, “I wanted a square eat-in kitchen that looked out on the backyard, like the kitchens where I grew up.” What she got was a reasonably wide galley kitchen that opens onto the dining and living rooms on one end and the family room on the other. (She is able to look through the living room’s sliding-glass door into the backyard, but most of her view is obscured by the exterior decking.)
She also got one of the most remarkable fake old-timey ovens ever produced, courtesy of the Country Charm Company of Rogers, Arkansas. There it stands, just next to the door into the dining room — a ponderous, pot-bellied cast-iron stove, just like the ones used by our foremothers — except it’s wired. One of the white enamel doors on the front of the stove — the kind you might expect to open onto a separate bread oven — conceals burner controls; the one below it hides the knobs for the oven proper. Four electric burners coil on the stovetop in front of the enamel backsplash. A “stovepipe” — really a hood vent — runs up and into the wall. On top of the hood, an ersatz (and permanently fixed) food mill houses a timer that Laura has never been able to operate. Otherwise, it’s an impossibly heavy, fully functional electric oven.
At the kitchen’s other end is a wall oven, housed in brick and looking for all the world like a proper barbecue wood pit. But behind the cast-iron door, more electric. The top broiler element broke a couple of years ago, “And since then, I’ve learned to cook by adjusting the rack and using foil to reflect heat. I’ve called a thousand different repair people; they come out and they can’t fix it. They basically can’t get it out, and they have no idea where to order parts from. I’m, like, ‘But it’s an oven! It’s not really an antique!’” The lower door, where you might load the logs on a real pit, “is just where I store my pots and pans. It’s a big, huge hole; it goes way back.”
But for all its fakery, she likes the kitchen. “I like the brick,” which lines the walls. “And the old-timey stuff was stuff that we hadn’t seen before, and that made us like the house.” The kitchen is a warm space, with dark wood-laminate flooring and dark wooden cabinets accented by white porcelain knobs and white Formica counters. The window, flanked by brown-and-red floral-patterned curtains, looks out onto the side yard.
Laura is not using the ovens tonight, nor is she warming the stovetop — yet. Instead, she hauls out an electric wok and begins preparation on a pork stir-fry. “I’m the only person I know who has one of these old woks. I took it from my mom when I moved out. I love this thing, because I’ve never had a frying pan this big; whatever I was making, I could make it in there. We have stir-fry about once a week. Most of the time, we have it with chicken, but we had chicken twice in a row this past weekend. We had it one night on the grill, with the beer can up in the cavity, and then I made chicken soup with the leftovers the next day. So we’re chickened out.”
She slices pork into strips, slices green peppers, onions, and baby carrots, washes mushrooms and slices them. Everything goes into the wok with Mr. Yoshida’s Hawaiian sweet-and-sour sauce. “I haven’t tried that stuff before. I saw it at the grocery store — it was kind of on sale, and that’s how I try new things.”
She also starts the rice; now the stovetop is called into action. “One of my friends from work said that I was making rice wrong when they were over at my place one time and I was cooking. She said, ‘This is how you make rice. You put the rice in the bottom of the pan. You put water in. You stick your finger in the center of the rice. You put a paper towel over the top of the pan, and you turn it on just below high. When all the water has boiled, you’ll have perfect rice.’ It makes it not sticky; the towel gets all of the sticky stuff.” She stretches a paper towel over the top of a stock pot, then places the lid over the paper towel. As the water begins to boil, the steam raises the lid and begins to send starchy white sputter-bubbles down the side of the pot. “That’s how I know when it’s done, when it stops spitting out. It’s very messy, yes, but I don’t care. That’s not the only thing that’s messy in my life. I have a lot of cleaning products that can take care of that.”
“You can have this baseball,” says Junior, coming in from the backyard and holding a ball aloft.
“Thanks. I’ll hold on to it.”
“Want to come look at our backyard?”
We step out through the door in the family room into the long side yard. Lizzie’s new bike is near the door, but she is still shy of me and does not come over to show it off. A small toy backhoe sits at the bottom of a fair-sized pit — maybe three feet wide and a foot deep.
“Did this digger dig this whole big hole?”
“That’s a lot of digging.”
“Yep. It goes at nighttime; it digs.”
“At nighttime? When you’re asleep?”
“Yes, but not in the morning — but sometimes at night. You can hear it, because it has a motor on it.”