by Valerie Borey

My sister-in-law had offered to help me chop vegetables in the kitchen, ferret eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses sizing me up. “Do you know how to chop bok choy?” I giggled. “Like celery, I think.” And Betsy, who never smiled and never laughed, pressed two books into my hands, the ones she had mentioned on the phone before they drove up from Oklahoma. My hands were wet from washing vegetables.

The thicker book was bound in the image of a sunrise, with hope gleaming yellow from its center and a crisp darkness around the edges. On the back was a picture of the lady who supposedly channeled a dead guy named Doug. Doug knew everything, it seemed: how to live the good life, how to cure disease, how to create your own reality. I flipped through the pages. They were incoherent. “This is the first book,” Betsy whispered again so my mom wouldn’t hear. “The one that explains it all.” And then, “The other one is the one that’s going to help your mom.” While she peeled carrots, I read the testimonials on the back, wet thumbprints spreading across the cover. A woman diagnosed with breast cancer who refused surgery was subsequently cured by the wisdom of Doug. A man with prostate cancer, another with liver cancer, and another with colon cancer—all cured by embracing spirituality.

“Ha, well, are the leaves edible? Do you eat the leaves? Do you know?” I talked too fast and waved the bok choy in Betsy’s face.

“I have no idea,” she replied, turning back to her carrots.

Too many carrots, but I didn’t say anything. I shot a look into the dining room. My big brother, skeleton thin in sweatpants, was leaning over his laptop. “Jim, can you google bok choy and see if the leafy part is edible?”

She was waiting for me in the kitchen, whispering urgently that she didn’t want to force anything on me.

“Right, no, absolutely. Of course not….”

“Jim really likes it, though. We’ve been doing the online seminars together.”

I put the noodles on to boil and changed the subject. “Did you ever hear about the guy who discovered tapioca was edible?” Betsy shook her head. She leaned in closer. I brought my voice down. “Evidently he was trying to kill himself and figured he’d do it with tapioca root. It’s poisonous, you know. Well, he couldn’t stand the idea of eating it raw, so he cooked it up and made it into a pudding.”

She waited.

“He didn’t die, but the pudding was delicious.”

“Is that true?” she asked.

“I don’t know. It’s a good story, though.”

We ate gluten-free, lactose-free, fat-free, sugar-free, vegetarian chow mein pasta that packed into our bowels like wet cement. Afterwards, we watched clips of Drunk History on YouTube, a show where the producers get grad students drunk and have them talk about their favorite historical moments. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass got the hiccups and we screamed with laughter, bits of egg noodle stuck to our gums. Betsy got up from the table and left, muttering something about alcohol poisoning. “None of you ever take anything seriously,” she said.

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