"What's on the docket today?" Alex said.
"Unit test. What about you?"
"Arraignments," Alex replied. She squinted across the table, trying to read Josie's textbook upside down. "Chemistry?"
"Catalysts." Josie rubbed her temples. "Substances that speed up a reaction, but stay unchanged by it. Like if you've got carbon monoxide gas and hydrogen gas and you toss in zinc and chromium oxide, and...what's the matter?"
"Just having a little flashback of why I got a C in Orgo. Have you had breakfast?"
"Coffee," Josie said.
"Coffee doesn't count."
"It does when you're in a rush," Josie pointed out.
Alex weighed the costs of being even five minutes later, or getting another black mark against her in the cosmic good-parenting tally. Shouldn't a seventeen-year-old be able to take care of herself in the morning? Alex started pulling items out of the refrigerator: eggs, milk, bacon. "I once presided over an involuntary emergency admission at the state mental hospital for a woman who thought she was Emeril. Her husband had her committed when she put a pound of bacon in the blender and chased him around the kitchen with a knife, yelling Bam!"
Josie glanced up from her textbook. "For real?"
"Oh, believe me, I can't make these things up." Alex cracked an egg into a skillet. "When I asked her why she'd put a pound of bacon in the blender, she looked at me and said that she and I must just cook differently."
Josie stood up and leaned against the counter, watching her mother cook. Domesticity wasn't Alex's strong point -- she didn't know how to make a pot roast but was proud to have memorized the phone numbers of every pizza place and Chinese restaurant in Sterling that offered free delivery. "Relax," Alex said dryly. "I think I can do this without setting the house on fire."
But Josie took the skillet out of her hands and laid the strips of bacon in it, like sailors bunking tightly together. "How come you dress like that?" she asked.
Alex glanced down at her skirt, blouse, and heels and frowned. "Why? Is it too Margaret Thatcher?"
"No, I mean...why do you bother? No one knows what you have on under your robe. You could wear, like, pajama pants. Or that sweater you have from college that's got holes in the elbows."
"Whether or not people see it, I'm still expected to dress...well, judiciously."
A cloud passed over Josie's face, and she busied herself over the stove, as if Alex had somehow given the wrong answer. Alex stared at her daughter -- the bitten half-moon fingernails, the freckle behind her ear, the zigzag part in her hair -- and saw instead the toddler who'd wait at the babysitter's window at sundown, because she knew that was when Alex came to get her. "I've never worn pajamas to work," Alex admitted, "but I do sometimes close the door to chambers and take a nap on the floor."
A slow, surprised smile played over Josie's face. She held her mother's admission as if it were a butterfly lighting on her hand by accident: an event so startling you could not call attention to it without risking its loss. But there were miles to drive and defendants to arraign and chemical equations to interpret, and by the time Josie had set the bacon to drain on a pad of paper toweling, the moment had winged away.
"I still don't get why I have to eat breakfast if you don't," Josie muttered.
"Because you have to be a certain age to earn the right to ruin your own life." Alex pointed at the scrambled eggs Josie was mixing in the skillet. "Promise me you'll finish that?"
Josie met her gaze. "Promise."
"Then I'm headed out."
Alex grabbed her travel mug of coffee. By the time she backed her car out of the garage, her head was already focused on the decision she had to write that afternoon; the number of arraignments the clerk would have stuffed onto her docket; the motions that would have fallen like shadows across her desk between Friday afternoon and this morning. She was caught up in a world far away from home, where at that very moment her daughter scraped the scrambled eggs from the skillet into the trash can without ever taking a single bite.
Copyright © Jodi Picoult, 2007. Reproduced with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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