Who checks for lumps before age fifty? I was only seventeen when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. My breasts more closely resembled moon pies than actual boobs. The round hockey-puck-like protrusions had grown a mass, and I never even noticed. It spread to the lymph nodes and then it was everywhere. After months of chemo and radiation, I was bald but in remission. About the time my eyebrows decided to grow in (right after I got good at drawing them on), I got run over by a UPS truck. I was pulling a box turtle from the road in early June and then everything went brown—then black. Damn UPS truck. I didn’t die instantly, though. I lingered while my parents and sister held a bedside vigil of hope. Every day after her shift, the UPS driver came by to see how I was. Had I opened my eyes? Had I squeezed anyone’s hand? Had I wiggled my toes? Each day was more waiting, more hoping that I’d suddenly come to life and ask for some nachos, a Pepsi, and my cell phone. Then, on day ten, I flatlined.
What a relief that was! The constant sobbing and reminiscing and profuse apologies from the driver depressed me, and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it but lie in the bed and listen. And I heard it all. I heard my sister on her cell phone with her boyfriend—not her husband, her boyfriend. Who knew? I heard my dad squeal like a little girl when he landed tickets to the Masters golf tournament and then listened to him practice his speech (the one he’d give to my mother) over and over. He cleared his throat and tried various tones of “disappointed yet excited” and “somber yet ecstatic” so she’d understand that while it was their silver anniversary, this was the chance of a lifetime (!!!). Maybe she’d like to come too. Then I listened as my mother said yes and later cried on the phone to her best friend about the anniversary party that would never happen. Then there was the whole living will disagreement. My sister and mother wanted me to remain hooked up to the life-sustaining machines, while my father argued I would never have wanted to live like a vegetable.
“But she’s come so far! She fought the cancer and she won! Against all odds!” My mother’s crescendo of defiance filled the ICU.
“Yes, Marion, I know. You say it like I wasn’t there! I just don’t think Rachel would want this! I know she wouldn’t.”
“Oh really, Jack? And how do you know that? Did you ask her, ‘Hey, Rachel, if you were in a coma and hooked up to machines that were keeping you alive, would you care whether we pulled the plug?” My mother’s voice disappeared into muffled sobs.
But none of that mattered. I died anyway.
I was buried in the family tomb in New Orleans in the Lafayette Cemetery, and before I even had time to fully decompose, I came back. And despite common reincarnation folklore, I remembered who I’d been in my previous life. Reincarnation is funny like that. Stranger still, I’m living in the same city on the same street, attending the same school. Some days I go over to the cemetery and pull weeds from around the tomb where my old bones are slowly baking to dust. No one else in the family has passed away, so I’m still on the top shelf of the tomb. Just the other day, I watched a caterpillar on the marble tableau weave in and out of the date on which I’d died—June 11. He walked up the first one and down the second one and over to the first two in 2012. I left him sitting in the center of the zero, where he evidently decided to take a siesta. I walked home, past my old house and my old family with my old mom cutting roses in the front and my old dad working on a new charbroil grill. They smiled and waved and so did I. They’d no idea and I didn’t want to freak them out, but I could have.
“Hey, Mom, remember the day you taught me how to ride a bike without trainers? A storm was coming, but I was so excited because I was sooo close, and so we stayed on the sidewalk in the pouring rain, and later we went out for milkshakes to celebrate? Chocolate mint!” Or “Hey, Dad, remember when I fell off my bed and busted my chin and got stitches on your birthday and then four days later when it was my birthday, you cut yourself and had to get stitches too? And the nurse took our photos, mine with my stitched chin—I got seven and you with your stitched-up hand, you got eleven—and hung them on the bulletin board at the nurses’ station? How funny was that?”
I admit I think about saying something, but they were good parents, and I just can’t bring myself to creep them out. But there is something… My former sister, the one with the husband and the boyfriend, both of whom happened to be named Jerry, now runs a bakery in the Garden District and, well, I applied and got the job. And maybe I cheated a little. I said how I loved gingerbread, and she said, “Me too!” and how my favorite color was yellow, and she said, “Me too!” and then I said my favorite soup was the shrimp bisque at Commander’s Palace, and that was that. I was hired on the spot. But I hate gingerbread. And yellow. And shrimp bisque. I’m a gumbo kinda girl. I was then, and I am now. But I do have real boobs this time, not those old moon pies like before. The apron I wear at La Bon Bakery stretches nicely over them. It’s been years—sixteen to be exact—and Jerry the boyfriend is gone and it’s just Jerry the husband now. Still, on the days we bake cherry pies, I always sing, “Cherry-cherry double Jerry-Jerry,” and watch for any sign that she gets it. She doesn’t.
She does talk about me from time to time. How great I was, how perfect I was, and how sad she was when I died. She’d go in my room and lie on my pillow and bury her nose and smell. It smelled like Moroccan oil. That’s what I always used on my hair. She listened to my iPod and after that, she said she’d listen to rap music at least one day a week just to remember me. She’s told everyone about how I died pulling a box turtle from the road and how the UPS driver was never able to forgive herself and how she no longer drives. Instead, she works at Fresh Market grocery in their deli. Rides her bike there and back and, every Tuesday, brings my old sister a pound of London broil and a pound of smoked turkey. In exchange, my sister bakes a cake shaped and iced like a box turtle. I can’t imagine that’s consoling, but whatever, right?
I mean wtf? “Hey, here’s a cake in the form of a box turtle just like the one Rachel was pulling from the road the day you ran her down in the street like a dog…” Too dramatic? Maybe, but I wouldn’t want some sordid reminder and at 750 calories a slice to boot. No thanks. I must admit I found the whole fixation on the turtle rather odd. I mean, it was just a small part of my story. Just a thing I was getting out of the road. Me, the one who had survived breast cancer. At age seventeen, against the odds, only to be run over by a UPS truck. If I’d died at the hands of a drunk driver who’d been drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon, would they toast my memory with PBR?
My old sister’s not half bad as a boss. She’s fair when I need a night off and she always lets me take home a dozen or so cookies. My favorite, the snickerdoodles, are especially good. I’ve never had a better cookie anywhere. They are crisp on the outside with a soft center and the perfect amount of spices. Last week, a guy drove three hours from Mississippi just for the snickerdoodles. He bought all we had, and I had to take home oatmeal raisin that night. Bastard. And the regulars, the ones with discerning tastes, and the local foodies all come for the snickerdoodles. I’ve no idea what is in them, but I imagine it’s a lot like crack cocaine. Try them once and you’re hooked.
At the bakery, I don’t actually mix them—that is to say, I don’t know the recipe. I just plop them out in tablespoon-sized dollops for baking. But I imagine baking them at home until my tiny apartment has permanently captured the aroma, storing it in my curtains and walls, and each day when I come home, that incredible smell greets me like an old friendly dog. I figure there must be some secret ingredient that makes them so delicious; I suspect it’s something odd, like a dash of black pepper or walnut oil or some exotic ingredient she has imported. I’ve asked but she always pantomimes the zippered, buttoned-up lip and smiles. Only she knows the recipes for everything she bakes, and she guards them like the NSA guards classified documents.
I guess if I ran a bakery with cookies that good, I’d guard them too. But I was her sister. Even now, I’m [still] practically family, right? I was family and the only thing that has kept me from having that recipe as far as I’m concerned is that UPS driver! If you were going to share a recipe, wouldn’t you do so with a family member? How much closer can you get than me, former sister, previously Rachel? She keeps her office locked up like a bank vault and she’s good at keeping secrets; we know that already, right? Cherry-cherry double Jerry-Jerry. But I just keep imagining my apartment filling with the smells of baking snickerdoodles, and I wouldn’t mind that red velvet cake or the million-dollar pound cake recipe while I’m at it. Or the pumpkin roll she makes only in October and November.
Here’s my plan (it’s not foolproof, but stay with me). One day while old sister’s busy in the freezer with inventory, I’ll sneak into her office, pick the locks on her cabinets (I’ve researched lock-picking extensively), quickly photograph the recipes with my phone, and be out before she can count three sticks of butter. That’s my plan. Part A. Part B is where things get sketchy. If she catches me digging through her files, I’m going all out with the freak show. I’m going to dredge up every last thing she did when I was Rachel—those things only Rachel would know…like how she accidentally broke Mom’s antique washing bowl that had belonged to her great-great-grandmother circa Civil War era. Or how she burned down the garage and everything in it one time when she was sneaking a cigarette—Dad’s golf clubs (including his lucky driver), Mom’s antique dresser, my childhood books and dolls all nothing but ashes (nothing against ashes—lots of really good stuff ends up ashes). Conveniently, it’d occurred around the Fourth of July, and so “fireworks were the obvious culprit.” Uh huh. I’m with ya, sister. Cherry-cherry double Jerry-Jerry. Marlboro Lights and bottle rockets are hardly the same. Shoplifting. Skipping school. Losing her virginity at fourteen. Underage drinking. I know all of her sins, and if my hand is forced, I’ll have to do it, and it will be greater than any sideshow at any circus. I will try my best to avoid the freak show route. I like my gig here, and old sister is not so bad. In fact, I much prefer her to my brother I have now. But I need that recipe. I need to know what is in those snickerdoodles.
It was indeed a freak show. FREAK SHOW. I waited until she was in the freezer counting eggs and butter, and I went into her office and picked the lock to the cabinet. I went straight to the S’s for snickerdoodles, and without even reading the recipe, I photographed it. Then the million-dollar pound cake, then the red velvet cake, the Italian cream, the fresh coconut, and the pumpkin roll. I lost focus and got greedy, and I would’ve been fine except I noticed cabinet number two. I hadn’t counted on that. With the precision of a seasoned thief, I picked the lock, and that’s when the freak show started. I opened that cabinet to a shrine of sorts. In the center, a single turtle shell and around it, a few candles, some incense, an urn (???), and photos of me everywhere. Well, technically, of Rachel. Photos of me on my bike, me and old Dad with stitches, me at graduation, me on chemo with my drawn-on eyebrows. I examined the turtle shell closely. It had to be the one. Had to be. There were grooves in the shell where it had sailed across the asphalt. I ran my fingertips over the scratches. Without thinking, I shut the cabinet door, turtle shell in hand, and headed toward the front. As I stepped out into the hall, there she stood, old sister. Her mouth dropped and I knew it was coming. The wtf are you doing with my turtle-shell-shrine-shit? But I never gave her the chance. I figured the best I could do was try to get away. So I made a run for it, and the last thing she said was “Butter!” As I turned to look at her, I slipped in a puddle of butter and went down, snapping my neck on the counter as I went. The turtle shell popped out of my arms (once again), and in my peripheral vision, I watched as it skidded across the floor and eventually sputtered to a stop.
I could’ve wasted my final words on “I was Rachel, your sister who beat cancer and died saving a turtle, and I hope the cigarette was worth the garage burning to the ground,” but all I managed before I went was “I love your snickerdoodles. What’s in them?”