Death by Eggplant

Susan Heyboer O'Keefe

Square Fish

DAY ONE

"And for his extraordinary culinary skills, the world’s first-ever Nobel Prize in Cooking goes to—Bertram Hooks!"

It was last-period math, with summer vacation close enough to touch. My daydream was just getting to the part where the cute cooking groupies show me around Stockholm after the awards dinner. Then Mrs. Menendez’s voice went up a notch, and the groupies vanished. Algebra could scare anyone away.

The incredible chef Jacques Pépin was only thirteen, my age, when he began his cooking apprenticeship, but that was France. They knew what was important over there. Over here, they believe in stupid things like taking algebra, graduating from junior high, and then enduring four more years of physical, mental, and emotional torture.

"I said, ‘Mr. Hooks?’" Mrs. Menendez repeated.

Without opening my eyes, I guessed.

"X equals 42?"

"Mr. Hooks."

Mrs. M. was holding a brown paper bag. It was bigger than a lunch bag, unless you were a jock who ate multiple hoagies and a first grader every noon.

"What is it?" I asked. I didn’t remember any math problems involving brown paper bags, but it might have been a trick question.

Mrs. Menendez smiled her very special I’m-so-pleased-with-myself smile. That usually meant I was in big trouble. The expression made a creepy combination with her everyday uniform of navy skirt, navy jacket, white shirt, and navy tie. Before coming here, she must have worked in a prison. And she must have smiled that same smile at the prisoners.

"Why, it’s your baby, Mr. Hooks. I believe it’s a girl. Please come and take her."

"Oooooh, Aunt Bertha has a baaaa-by!" Nicholas Dekker cooed.

Nick Dekker and I were what you would call mortal enemies. Had been ever since kindergarten. Once, he had mouthed off so badly, the teacher had taken away his job of clapping erasers and given it to "that nice polite boy, Bertie Hooks." That was when Dekker decided he hated me. I had done my best to ignore him over the years. Then he twisted my name from Bertie to Bertha.

Now he cooed again. "Ooooh, Aunt Bertha and her bay-yay-by."

"That’s enough, Mr. Dekker," Mrs. Menendez warned. She held the bag out toward me.

"Mr. Hooks?" she said impatiently.

"There’s a baby in the bag?" I asked.

She didn’t answer. She only smiled and waited.

From my seat in the last desk of the last row, the walk to the front of the room seemed longer than usual.

"Very good, Mr. Hooks," she said, when I was at her side. "Here she is."

She opened the bag and carefully tilted the contents into my hands. Out fell a squarish white package, soft, much heavier than I expected, and powdery to the touch.

"Is this a joke?" I asked. "It’s a five-pound sack of flour."

"This is not a joke," Mrs. Menendez said. "It is your brand-new baby girl. Now then, Mr. Hooks, today is Wednesday. Your little bundle here will be in your care for the next ten days, till the end of the final marking period."

Mrs. Menendez gently stroked the top of the flour sack.

"In that time," she continued, "you are not to let her out of your sight—ever. When I take attendance, I’ll be taking her attendance, too. If she’s not here, I won’t consider you here. When I see you outside of school, I’d better see her. And when the assignment is over, she must be returned in perfect condition. Do you understand me?"

This was like a bad sitcom. Heck, there are even books about flour-sack babies. Why couldn’t I just read one of those books and write a report on it?

Mrs. Menendez sat back at her desk and began to thumb through her math text, ready to move on. I started to panic.

"This is all because I let Harry escape last week, isn’t it?"

Harry was Miss Rogers’s newt. Miss Rogers used to teach second grade, then was promoted this year to junior high. She thought it would be cute to have a class pet for science. Last week I had taken Harry out of his bowl to teach him little newt tricks, like how to roll over and beg. I guess I forgot to put the lid back on, and Harry ended up learning how to play dead. I wondered if Miss Rogers had asked to be transferred back yet.

"Poor Harry," Mrs. Menendez murmured. "Yes, it’s about Harry, and it’s about the Spanish vocabulary words you should have memorized this weekend but didn’t—"

"But—" I had been practicing my pastries.

"—and it’s about the biography of Enrico Fermi you were assigned to write for English class, but which you changed on your own to Santa Claus so you could make it all up—yes, I heard about that—"

"But—" I wanted to protest that Santa was a major force in American culture. Somehow I didn’t think she would buy it.

"—and it’s about the math work you promised to bring Indra Sahir in January when she broke her leg, but which you forgot to—"

"But—" I felt myself turn neon pink. Forget to go to Indra’s? It would be easier to forget how to breathe. Three separate times this winter, I trudged nine and a half blocks, past countless leafless trees, past snow-covered houses on wide snow-covered lawns, past collies and shepherds and Rottweilers, all out on their own for a quick icy wee, and stood outside Indra’s house, shivering, and not just from the cold. All the years we were in school together, I had never really talked to her. What if she invited me in now? What if she didn’t invite me in? What if she said, "Who are you?" after I had silently worshiped her for so long?

"—and it’s about the extra credit you nagged and nagged and nagged me for," Mrs. M. went on, "then ended up not even trying, and it’s about the—"

"All right," I said. "I think I see a pattern here."

"It’s really about your just being born, Bertha."

Mrs. Menendez pointed another warning at Nick, but talked to me.

"Well, you wanted extra credit, Mr. Hooks. This is it. And this time you’d better do it. I believe you have a few academic areas that could use help."

What she meant, though she didn’t know it, was that I’d had a better-than-average cooking year, devoting hours and hours to technique, craft, and original recipes. Unfortunately, since there are only twenty-four hours in a day, this also meant a worse-than-average school year. I was just getting by in most subjects, doing worse in Spanish, and outright failing math. Coincidentally, these were the two classes I had with Mrs. Menendez, plus homeroom. At least homeroom wasn’t graded, though I suspected that, even now, a suggestion in her eerily perfect penmanship was sitting in the principal’s in-box.

"Take care of your baby for ten days," she continued, "bring her back unharmed, and I’ll add . . . three points each to your math and your Spanish grades. Miss Rogers has agreed to do the same for science. She thinks you need a lesson in responsibility."

"Miss Rogers would do that for me, after Harry?"

"What did you expect, revenge? None of us, yourself included, I’m sure, want you back here next year."

I looked down at the bag. Did I want to do it? Absolutely not! But three points each would bring Spanish and science up to my usual C. Most important, it would bring math up to a D. If I didn’t do it, I faced summer school for sure, maybe even repeating eighth grade.

Not go to high school next year? It was unthinkable. How could I get early admission into the Culinary Institute of America if I had to repeat eighth grade? I bet Emeril passed eighth grade . . . Wolfgang Puck . . . Julia Child. . . .

My mental roll call of cooking greats was interrupted by a nasal whine.

"Can we all get the same extra credit?" Judy Boynton waved her hand eagerly.

With Mrs. M. as teacher, Judy’s grades had nose-dived this year, too—from A+ to A. She had cried at every report card. Now her eyes were shiny with envy as she stared at the flour sack.

"Why, yes," Mrs. Menendez said. "Everyone is eligible for extra credit. You do realize, however, that each of you has a different lesson that needs to be learned. Tell me, Miss Boynton, do you want me to think of a very special project, just for you?"

Thinking about what "very special" might actually mean, Judy lost that hopeful, shiny expression. She dropped her hand. "Uh, no, thank you, Mrs. Menendez."

"Good." She turned back to me. "Last chance, Mr. Hooks."

I stared at the bag.

"You’ll thank me for it," she continued. "Meeting a challenge like this could mean the difference between no college and one of the country’s best schools."

Like the Culinary Institute. Reluctantly, I nodded.

"No, don’t let him have her, Mrs. M.!" Dekker pleaded. "Don’t put that sweet little baby in danger just to teach Bertha a lesson. She’ll never make it out alive!" Nick grabbed his throat, gagged, then fell out of his desk onto the floor. Kids gaped openmouthed. All year, Nick had been in trouble, but he had never gone this far. Maybe it was the heat. Or maybe it was the prospect of summer vacation, just two weeks away.

"That’s it!" Mrs. Menendez stamped her foot. She began to say something, changed her mind, wrinkled her brow, and thought. Suddenly the annoyance on her face smoothed out, and she smiled. "You get your own flour sack tomorrow, Mr. Dekker."

He picked his head up from the floor and shook his thick black hair away from his face. "What for? I don’t need extra credit."

"You do now. Your ever-slipping grade for deportment just scraped bottom."

"But you said we’d each get a different project."

"I said you each needed to learn a different lesson. And the lesson you need to learn, Mr. Dekker, is that you’re no better than anyone else. You’re the same as everyone else. So you’re going to get the same assignment."

"Thanks a lot, Bertha," he hissed, as I walked back to my seat. Still on the floor, he grabbed my foot and almost tripped me as I passed. "I’ll remember this."

Of course he’ll remember it, I thought. After all, he is my mortal enemy.

When I walked home after school, the flour sack in my knapsack seemed to get heavier with each step. Every house I passed tempted me with its neatly trimmed lawn. Each was surely home to good, decent people. I could safely leave my flour sack on its doorstep and feel no guilt. But the certainty of a failing grade kept me going.

I was surprised to find my mother’s car in our drive-way. My mother was a little strange, even for a parent. Mornings, she taught courses like "Uncovering the Real You," everywhere from senior centers to executive dining rooms, when some big company president needed coaching in weirdness. Three afternoons a week, she attended classes herself. Right now she was supposed to be in "Exploring Past Lives," with the emphasis on Egypt.

For my future life, she decided I was going to be a world-class dream interpreter. Last year she had dreamed about the number 1127, and I jokingly said it was a sign she should play the lottery. She not only won, she won $1,127. The good part was that we ate dinner out for a week. I picked fancy four-star places, took notes, and within a month, produced fair duplicates of what each of us had ordered. The bad news was that, because I had told her to play the lottery, now she thought I was going to levitate in her footsteps and be a guru like her or something.

Not guru. "Professional see-er of possibilities" was what she once tried to put on her tax return. My dad convinced her to change that to "lecturer and consultant."

Whatever she was, she was always busy. Wednesdays she had class, so I hadn’t expected to find her home now, nor did I want her to be the first to check the mail. Stepping inside the door, I was even more surprised by the smell.

"Mom?" I sniffed the air. For a few seconds, I was confused, then I realized that something was cooking. Something was cooking, and I wasn’t in the kitchen. That did not make me happy.

I found her at the stove, stirring a pot so hard that goop splashed out and turned the clean enamel into a bad work of art.

"Are you okay, Mom? I mean, you’re cooking. Food and all."

"Hmmm? Oh, yes dear, I’m fine." She scooped up a bit with a wooden spoon and tasted it. A baffled look crossed her face. In that moment we probably looked a lot alike. We were both tall, blond, and average looking, though my mother was much thinner. And her hair wasn’t blond anymore. This month, with her past-life classes, she had dyed it red with something she called henna.

"Is it for us?" I asked. I sniffed again, hoping the answer was no. The mixture smelled like something you would use to disinfect gym socks.

"No, Bertie, it’s for me," she said, waving the spoon. "This is a re-creation of an ancient Egyptian meal. It’s supposed to strengthen my fledgling memories of my past life if I’ve done it right." She closed her eyes, scrunched up her face, and took another taste. "I think I’m getting something."

Worried, I opened the refrigerator to check that she hadn’t used the makings of tonight’s supper. For the main course, I was making a savory galette, which was a fancy name for an oversized tart. I found the stuffing ingredients still there—leeks, cream, and goat cheese. Good.

Excerpted from Death by Eggplant by Susan Heyboer O'Keefe.
Copyright © 2004 by Susan Heyboer O'Keefe.
Published in 2010 by Roaring Brook Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.