The Orange Sun and the Smell of Chocolate Chip Cookies

The sweet smell of chocolate, one of the warm and soft cookies melting on my tongue. My grandmother smiled, then turned back towards the sink to clean the tray.

The orange sun rained warmth on us. With my fingers still sticky I sneaked up to her side, grabbed a cookie from the white plate and quickly ran back to my chair.

“Hey,” she said. Then she laughed.

I reclined on my chair with both hands on the cookie. The backrest knocked against the only wood-paneled kitchen wall. A dull, hollow sound. Then my chair slipped.

During those two weeks in the hospital the orange sun and sweet chocolate air filled my head. That might be why this moment still lives so vividly in my wind. Whenever I remember that moment I can place my hand back into the scene; the coldness of the wooden chair and the warmth of the sunrays on my skin. It is the last memory in which I can still see my grandmother with brown hair. The movie that lives in my head just lacks the end; the fall. The best of hundreds of memories in that kitchen.

My grandparents’ landlord was a surgeon who himself had lived in the house for years. After nearly ten years of renting his house Dr. Valmer, world renowned for his experience with lungs and hearts, had become their friend. By then I was nineteen and she was two years younger than me. I didn’t dare to speak to her but from the moment that she appeared near the buffet until the moment that she miraculously disappeared from the living room I watched her. My eyes could not leave her face. The white dress danced around her body with her every move. I watched as she smiled and laughed and glanced at me and leaned over to whisper in my grandmother’s ear.

It would be another year, at my grandfather’s next birthday, before I talked to Mr. Valmer’s daughter. She said “Hello” and stretched her hand out. I struggled to decide whether to say “Hello” or “Hi” and said “He” instead.

That night, just when my grandfather said goodbye to her father, she gave me a kiss on the cheek.

Four years later a priest with a purple scarf stood to my left. He asked a question I could not hear. I said “I do.” He told me that I should kiss my bride and he didn’t need to say it a second time.

When we turned around they were all there, applauding and cheering. My grandparents sat in the first row, right between Mr. Valmer and my parents.

Dozens of times I sat together with him at the dinner table. I would joke that his meat cutting skills were far from the level I would expect of somebody that professionally cut meat for most of his day. He would laugh and say that yes, students practice on animals, but cutting into a human body is far removed from that practice.

“How did you get so good then?”

“Plenty of practice.”

The meals I shared with him. The pieces of meat that he handed me. Even the innocence and love in his daughter’s eyes – all that seems absurd now.

My grandparents died a year ago. Within just a week, first my grandmother from a heart attack, then my grandfather from another. Dr. Valmer said that happens often, that a broken heart does not want to be alone.

We removed their belongings from the house. Some were sold, some donated, the rest went to my sister and me. Boxes of memories.

Since then the house had been empty. I asked three or four times why he didn’t rent it out again. He said that he didn’t want to; that the house should stay as it is.

It was an accident that I found their rental contract. It somehow must have gotten between the photo albums. I was going to throw it out. Then I saw the number on the line that specified the rent.

$1.

For nearly twenty years he let the house to them for just a dollar per month.

First I marveled at his generosity. A waterfall of kind things he had done streamed into my consciousness.

But over the hours and days, the more my mind rambled to itself, the weirder it seemed.

My grandparents had never been poor; they never would have needed charity. They both had just unskilled jobs. They didn’t earn well but they were thrifty. If anything, they always seemed to have too much money.

For a few weeks the thought rambled through my mind; ideas ran wild, here images of his selfless kindness and there things they might have done for him, what secrets they might have held.

Then he called me. He wanted to demolish it. Father-in-law asked son-in-law to check the house one more time for anything forgotten.

There was no arguing with him about whether or not the house would be destroyed.

“We don’t need it anymore”, he said. “We can build something nicer instead.”

The house looked derelict and older than its age. Windows were broken, paint was peeling, the fence had been run over by what must have been a heavy car. The year of abandonment hadn’t done the house well.

I made my way slowly through the house. Memories of cookies filled the kitchen, the living room had an invisible sofa with seven year old me cuddling between his grandparents. The garden had a real hole.

It was covered by a black tarp. At least ten meters deep, nearly straight down. The soil was still moist – the hole still fresh.

Suddenly giddy I nearly ran through the house. From corner to corner I looked and felt and tried to remember anything, just anything that could be a key to the secret.

The bedrooms were just gray memories of toys and large beds. The bathrooms reminded me of how they had smelled in their last days. But nothing was a hint; nothing told me what must have happened in the garden.

I took a deep breath and slowed down. The mission was to find whether anything else was in the house that needed to be salvaged. The wallpaper – no. The remaining empty frames and broken shelves – no. There was nothing at all to the rooms, nothing that could be worth even a dime.

The kitchen cupboards had long been removed. Still I saw my grandmother working her way from side to side, taking flour from one cupboard and a mixing bowl from the other. Chocolate chips rained into the plastic bowl. A handmixer whisked the mass to a smooth, sweet and buttery mix. She pulled the tray from the side of the pot cupboard. Baking paper. Spoonfulls of batter on top of the paper. The oven felt warm. She smiled when the tray disappeared inside. Then without pause, she pulled it back out. The smell invaded my nose; made my arm hair stand on end.

She handed me the cookie. Just cooled down enough so that it wouldn’t hurt my fingers. I sat down on the chair. The cookie disappeared and I got up to steal another one while she cleaned the tray.

“Hey,” she said. Then she laughed.

I sat back down. The chair reclined. The backrest knocked against the only wood-paneled wall in the kitchen. A dull sound.

A dull, hollow sound.

The fall. I grabbed for a metal bar. A light. Pain in my arms and head. Dr. Valmer. Something white on my face. Darkness.

The adult me understood.

First i tried to push and pull, but to no avail. Then I just slammed my shoulder into the wall until the first boards gave in, then they broke.

One board fell to the ground. A metal door handle.

My adult hand on the door handle. A loud squeak. The door pushed open. Stairs.

The light switch worked.

When I saw the metal table I saw him again. Dr. Valmer, right in front of the table. He turned around. Something shiny was in his right hand.

On the table a naked man. Gray skin. The eyes closed. A wide hole in his chest.

I walked two steps down the stairs There were empty shelves at each side of the room. A dirty cloth lay on the metal table. The gagging smell of rot.

There was no thought or decision. I turned around and tapped on the light switch. A cold feeling followed me up the stairs and out into the kitchen. I closed the door and replaced the plank in front of the handle.

The orange light of the setting sun drew my shadow long and thin.

The house is demolished now; just a large and empty hole between patches of grass.

The cold feeling followed me out of that kitchen. It still sits on my back.

It sits there to remind me of the smell of chocolate chip cookies.

It sits there to remind me of the things my grandparents knew.

And it sits there to ask me a question, again and again:

In that room, in the far corner, near the feet of the naked man – was that my grandfather’s face?

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