“One dollar says you won’t do it,” Gracie said.
“Will too,” I answered. What else could I have said back then?
“Mama will kill us,” Gracie warned.
“She will not.”
“You ain’t never seen my mama mad,” Gracie said, cocking her head forward and looking at me through her bangs.
“I know. But she won’t kill us.”
“So you’ll do it?”
“Sure I will,” I said, even though I knew betting against Gracie was a dumb idea. Even back in kindergarten, I’d figured out that doing anything against Gracie was doomed to fail. I knew that, of course, but back in the heat of July, the bet was on.
“You mean it?” Gracie asked, poking her chin in the air.
“Will your mama make me eat peas?” I asked.
“Nah, Mama don’t care nothing about you eating no peas. She likes you, Brenda. When did she ever make you eat peas?
“Then I’ll do it.”
“It’s a bet then. First one finishes slinging their mashed potatoes wins the war.”
“No eating the mashed potatoes, right? That’s against the rules, right?”
“Right. No eating allowed.”
And so, what years later we called “The Great Mashed Potato War of 1964” was on.
Gracie plopped the jumbo blue bowl of her mother’s best, whole-milk, real-butter, smooth-as-Ponds-cold-cream leftover mashed potatoes in front of me and handed me the two biggish bowls we ate cereal out of most of the time.
“Divvy it up, Brenda,” Gracie said. “Equal parts for you and me.”
I thought about that years later. “Equal parts for you and me,” and how it hadn’t worked out that way, but I didn’t know that then. Back then, I only knew I loved Gracie. That she was what made my life one long string of adventures I never would have had without her and how much I owed her for that.
“You ready?” Gracie said when I handed her the two bowls piled high with cold, creamy mashed potatoes and the two spoons we’d used that very morning to shovel Sugar Pops in our mouths in front of Saturday morning cartoons.
At the count of three, Gracie set the two bowls in the middle of the kitchen floor between us, and we’d gone at each other like chimpanzees on a rampage.
Gracie hit me between the eyes, and I retaliated with a glob on Gracie’s grin. An overhand spoonful hit me in the chest, and an underhand hurl clobbered Gracie on the butt. Gracie took her position on top of the double sink, pulling her mama’s ruffled kitchen curtain in front of her for protection, and I hid behind the Mix-Master from whence the mashed weaponry had come a day before. On and on The Great Mashed Potato War raged until all the potatoes were gone, and we—and the kitchen and everything in it—were pockmarked like pancake batter ready to be flipped.
I could never in a thousand years ever, ever have done this in my own mama’s kitchen. The halls of propriety would have come tumbling, crashing, exploding down, and my calm, lean Yankee mama would have screeched the screech I always knew she had in her.
I didn’t really think that we could do this in Gracie’s mama’s kitchen either, even though it was Gracie’s idea and, like I said, I didn’t argue with Gracie. Not ever. I didn’t really argue with anyone back then. Arguing, heck, even speaking in public outside my house or Gracie’s house or once or twice at Sunday School, was way, way beyond me. Giggle, yes, I giggled a lot at stuff the other 5th graders did or said.
But mostly I just laughed with Gracie, great, deep, fall-over belly laughs. Like when we’d sneak into the Bayou Drive-In Movie Theater in the trunk of Gracie’s mama’s car, me curled up in the well for the spare tire that Gracie’s sisters had taken out to make room for us, annoying as we were. I’d curl up inside the hole with my feet sticking up in Gracie’s face, and she would start tickling my toes between my flip flops just when we got to the ticket gate, and I would bite down hard on my plastic oval money case that looked like flattened Silly Putty with my one and only dollar inside, trying not to laugh and get us all in trouble. And then Gracie’s mama would park and open the trunk, and Gracie and I would bust open laughing, and fall out of the trunk onto the ground, and I’d be so happy I’d blow my whole dollar buying us both jumbo Milk Duds from the concession stand.
Turned out, I’d been right all along. We really couldn’t wage a Great Mashed Potato War in Gracie’s mama’s kitchen after all. Not after she got home.
It took us all night to scrub the floors and walls and countertops, and weeks of extra chores at Gracie’s house or my house that had nothing to do with the Mashed Potato War, but we finally got back to the business of summer right before the fall came and our last year of elementary school began. By holiday time all was forgiven, and everything was once more right with the world.
When the Christmas season came Gracie’s mama was cooking peas again, winking at me one cool December night ’cause she knew I still didn’t like peas. Didn’t like the way they popped open in my mouth and mushed green all over my tongue. But big green peas were Gracie’s daddy’s favorite, and for once he was home from the high seas, a Merchant Marine on holiday, and so big green peas it was.
Peas and mashed potatoes.
The soft, smooth mound of Idaho’s finest were piled high that night in Gracie’s mother’s best serving bowl next to the Wonder Bread and Heinz Ketchup on the table in front of Gracie’s daddy. I took a heaping spoonful and plopped it steaming on my plate. I’d always loved mashed potatoes, even before the famous Mashed Potato War. I loved the way you could create a crater lake in the middle and melt a whole wad of butter inside it and then make little breaks in the crater with the side of your fork and watch the melted butter flow down like golden lava and spread out over the turquoise Fiesta Ware Gracie’s grandmamma had brought from Mobile, Alabama, before she died.
I made a perfect, smooth little crater in my potatoes, more like an empty birdbath, really, than a real lake, but no matter. I nudged Gracie to pass the butter, then took a long swig of sweet tea, so sweet it made my head pound a little. Gracie picked up the butter plate and handed it to me, but then she wouldn’t let go. I looked at her, and she smiled her big toothy smile and let mashed potatoes ooze out between her teeth, and I practically choked right then and there, trying not to spew sweet tea all over Gracie’s mother’s dinner table, all nice with its red flowered tablecloth.
Gracie’s daddy grinned at us and tilted his head and crossed his eyes and stuck out his tongue. Gracie and I cracked up all over again, and even Gracie’s mom laughed her deep belly laugh, though Gracie’s sisters just looked at each other and shook their heads and muttered “juvenile” under their breath, but no one noticed.
Gracie’s mom passed them the meatloaf, and they both took a slice. Gracie pounded more Heinz Ketchup over hers and squirted some onto mine, too. I took a big bite of meatloaf—I loved Gracie’s mama’s meatloaf with its sweet layer of baked ketchup on top like cherry icing—and was just about to dive into my mashed potato mountain when Gracie’s daddy began to cough a kind of low, goosey, honking cough. He grabbed his chest and slumped across the table, knocking the salt and pepper shakers over, and flecks of white and grey trickled out.
Gracie’s mother turned ashen, and she jumped up and rushed to her husband’s side at the head of the kitchen table. She felt his head and grabbed his shoulders and started screaming and shaking him. Someone, most likely Gracie’s older sister, grabbed the phone on the wall and called for help.
Everything else blurred together. Suddenly, there were flashing lights and ambulance men rushing in. My mama appeared and somehow got Gracie and me back down the street to our house where my daddy was on the phone.
He took off his glasses and nodded once, then hung up the phone and leaned over and whispered to my mama, who closed her eyes and shook her head and pulled me and Gracie to her and gave us a long and silent hug.
Gracie couldn’t stop pacing that night, swinging her skinny arms across her chest, flat as it was, still on the brink of adolescence. My mama helped us build a fire in the fireplace and make up beds with blankets and a couple of my granny’s crocheted Afghans in front of the fireplace in the living room. My mama brought us two pairs of flannel pajamas, but Gracie said she didn’t want to change just in case, so I said I didn’t either, and my mama put the PJs down and let us have the living room to ourselves.
Gracie finally sat down in front of the fire, and I went to the kitchen and got two long barbeque forks and some marshmallows and sat toasting marshmallows for us both, but Gracie didn’t want to eat anything, and it was the only time I could remember since we’d started being best friends in kindergarten that Gracie didn’t have anything to say at all.
I just sat there roasting marshmallows and letting the soft blobs of sugar turn brown and crispy on the outside. I was sliding them off onto the plastic picnic plate I’d picked up from the kitchen when Gracie started to cry, big sucking sobs like the vacuum cleaner at a car wash.
My mama came rushing in with more blankets and a glass of water, but I just pulled Gracie to me and rocked her back and forth the way my mama did when I woke up frightened in the night. My mama sat down on one of the straight-backed chairs at the dining room table and watched us for a time, then she left us alone.
Gracie and I sat there rocking like that, still in our clothes, the fireplace fire burning down and the crispy marshmallows flattening like melting scoops of ice cream, until Gracie stopped sobbing and just sat there next to me.
I pulled a blanket over us and reached into my pocket.
“Here,” I said and held out a wrinkled dollar bill.
Gracie looked at me in confusion.
“I never paid up on our bet last summer, but I figure you won the Great Mashed Potato War hands down, so here you go,” I said.
“Keep it,” Gracie said, running her shirt sleeve over her face. “I’d say it was a draw.”
And with that Gracie pulled her knees up under her chin and wrapped her arms around her legs and put her head down and closed her eyes.
I sat there watching her pull into herself, and for the first time, the fearless Gracie I would have followed anywhere, Gracie who was so much stronger and taller and more beautiful than me, looked small and frail and frightened. I took the blanket off my shoulders and wrapped it around her.
I stuffed the dollar back in my pocket and reached for one of the Afghans my granny had crocheted. I pulled it up under my chin and closed my eyes and cried.