Zero Mile – Strawberries and Bombs

The Zero Mile Post marked the meeting of two railway lines and possibly the beginning of the city of Atlanta. Zero Mile is a series of sometimes fictionalized and sometimes real stories based on life in Atlanta, Georgia.

By Nicki Salcedo, contributor 

She asks me to help her with her lunch. Normally she makes it on her own, but I don’t mind helping her. It is nearly 10 o’clock at night. A school night. We are tired. She smells like outside and sweat.

I think she would cope well in difficult situations. She doesn’t have a mature palate even though she is the oldest. She likes bread. She likes water. She doesn’t like much more than that. And yet she survives.

“Mommy, can you make strawberry chips?”

I have no idea what that is. She shows me.

“Cut the strawberries on the short side. The slices will make circles. The circles are strawberry chips.”

I see what she means. We normally slice strawberries the long way. Each slice looks like a heart. Sometimes we put them in the oven on low heat to make crisps. They are never sweet.

I get two sharp knives. She and I sit at the table.

“You have to slice them very thin,” she adds.

We start slicing. She shrieks in delight. She isn’t a shrieking kind of kid. She’s like me. Part cyborg. It is almost impossible to elicit a response from her. It isn’t teenage apathy. She’s always been this way. Indifference, I think, is a blessing.

Her sudden, obvious, happiness surprises me.

“They are so cute,” she says. The last time she told me something was cute was Christmas. I’d given her Darth Vader. “He’s so cute, he almost doesn’t look evil.” That seems more normal to me. Happiness served with a side of foreboding doom.

I look at the strawberries and wonder what makes this kid shine with pure happiness.

We are both holding knives. There are discarded stems. There is red strawberry juice on our hands and on the table. Everywhere.

I am thinking about a 20 ton bomb with a 10 ton blast radius. She doesn’t know this. I smile at her. We are seldom alone, just the two of us. I remember how much I liked being near my mom as a kid. I still wonder if I’ll ever be as smart as my mom. I think about how my heart has been beating the wrong way for more than three years. It hurts every day. I think of all the 13-year-old kids in America who rarely, if ever, see fresh fruit.

I think about the bombs they don’t report. The girls who are stolen. Cities destroyed.

I think about the kids who have felt bombs. Kids who have seen the blasts. Kids who died in flames. The end of the world as we know it, is the day you die. I wish I could feel indifferent to this. I wish I felt fine.

I get up and get a bowl. It is white ceramic with a delicate band of blue and a stripe of gold. I bought them secondhand. Every dish in my house had a life before us. We don’t have a complete set of matching plates. As soon as I see a crack or chip, I throw the dish away.

The first bowl I touch has a dried bit of food on it. I grab another and place the dirty one in the sink. This is normal, I tell myself. I try to take the focus away from what worries me. A dirty dish in the cupboard cannot worry me. Neither can the strawberry juice now staining my hands.

I have learned that a smile is a kind of lie. I do it regularly. But I love smiling. It is the beginning of something good. I smile at my daughter again and put the bowl between us.

“I love the slices. I think strawberries taste better this way,” she says. “I can’t wait for lunch tomorrow.”

Tomorrow is a good thing.

I say a prayer and ask that I never become the kind of person who rejoices in anyone’s death. I say a prayer of thanksgiving for this moment in honor of the people who will never know the taste strawberries.

I nod and smile a real smile. I love how this child smells even when she is covered in dirt. I need her unexpected happiness. She rushes up to bed, and I sit alone. Ten minutes is all it took to heal me a little bit. I tell myself to focus on the strawberries. A strange sour fruit that sometimes surprises us with its sweetness.

Nicki Salcedo knows the loops and the backroads of Atlanta. She is a novelist, blogger and working mom. Zero Mile stories will appear on the Atlanta Loop on Wednesdays.