Beat Them to the Flame

Climb on the counter, ignite the gas burner. The class quiets down, confused, alarmed. It’s their first day of eighth grade. It’s my thirty-eighth first day of eighth grade. I’m not as naive as I look.

Roll to my side, pull my left leg to my stomach like a can opener. The girls go stone-silent; the boys in the back snicker. Carmine — arched eyebrows; trouble — mutters, “This old bag’s lost the plot,” and his crew chuckles in deference to their leader.

But this is my home economics classroom and they’re about to find out why I’ve ruled unchallenged over this domain since before their parents were born. I gasp so hard I scare the girls; suck in mouthful after mouthful of air, swallowing until my apron knot strains against my inflated back. “Look at all these flames,” Carmine whispers, bouncing his shoulders and slicking back his long, black hair. “Might have to rip a big one into ’em and scare Grandma.” His boys bite their fists with wide-eyed shock, holding in their laughter at what, to them, seems an original idea.

I lean back, pull my right leg to my stomach, my LL Bean blue jeans well broken in for this stunt, assume the angle Dr. Stein taught me for delivering my seven children. I close my eyes, whisper three Hail Marys. Carmine murmurs, “Grandma’s snoozin’ up there,” and his boys howl, all of them with loam for brains, unware of their surroundings, of their place in the world, of what power and dominance look like. Oblivious to the lesson they will learn today and hold with them forever: that a woman of my stature must not be prejudged.

My stomach’s ready to burst and I hear Carmine crawl on top of the cooktop opposite mine. Girls whisper for him to get down, to stop it. His boys urge him on. “This dusty old crone has no idea what hell she’s in for with Big C in her class,” Carmine says, struggling to operate the stove. Hands on the knobs, he paws at something firm, something real, believing he’s gripping the throne. My eyes are shut but I see he approaches the guillotine.

Squeeze my eyes, bite my lip. Rip. I moan an exorcism’s growl as I push this demon from my bowels. A dirigible’s worth of hot methane squeals around every corner of my insides, exploding out through the worn-white seat of my blue jeans and making miraculous contact with the blue gas flame of the cooktop stove and firing laser-straight across the kitchen — girls leaping to the left, boys to the right — until the tip of the furthest orange flare kisses Carmine’s rotten, smug face, Satan’s fiery tongue licking the frightened boy’s eyebrows clean off, sparking his gel-slicked hair into a wicked blaze. He moans, groans, emits embarrassing noises of terror that will haunt him through high school as he races to the sink to extinguish his hair-do.

He emerges from the sink missing half his hair; odd patches gone, like a mean child’s doll. His boys point at his face and scream laughter. Carmine’s lip quivers and he says nothing.

“Welcome to home ec,” I say to the rapt class. “Sit down, zip your lips, and listen closely to learn the difference between a teaspoon and a tablespoon.”

All of them pull out their notebooks — Carmine, head still smoking, works the fastest — and write down every word. They understand now how this works. They know that in this classroom, I am the father, the son, and the holy spirit. I am ten steps ahead. Lord, king, and sovereign. Out there in their other classes, they can pull off juvenile stunts all day long. But in here, Mrs. Bunch is in charge.