My grandma cut her biscuits with a sharp-edge tin can. It had wavy walls like a washboard so it was easy to hold, even for my hands when they were very small, when I was very small. I lived for the moment she handed that can to me.
“Be careful,” she’d say, “it’s sharp.”
“I know,” I’d say. I already knew how things that seemed easy to hold could cut you.
I had to kneel on a chair to get the right angle. You had to push the can into the dough from straight up above, and I wasn’t tall enough yet to do it standing. I was a chubby little girl with a rats nest of thick brown hair, my tongue sticking out the side of my mouth in concentration.
First you dip the edges of the can in flour, just a little, then you cut the circle into the dough. You could cut only a few biscuits before you had to reapply flour or the edges of the can would get gummy and the edges of the biscuits would be fuzzy.
It didn’t matter if the edges of the biscuit dough were neat or not, they’d bake up nice just the same. But I liked the pale edges of the dough to be clean, to look like something that was already finished, even though it was raw and inedible. “You don’t have to be so careful,” my grandma would say.
“I know,” I’d say, even though I didn’t.
I would gauge the hand-hand-flattened (never rolled) dough carefully. Cutting the most biscuits was a complex domestic geometry that I loved. I would line up the can from above, right next to the last I had cut, but not so close that the edges would overlap. There’s nothing worse than a biscuit cut too close, a whole upper case C missing from its side.
Grandma stooped close by. I would see her out of the corner of my eyes, high cheeks sharp as razors, lips partly formed into words. There would be a quick turn at the edge of her lip, an almost smile and sunlight glinting her gaze. She was never staring, but she was never not watching either. Her arms were always reaching towards me, ready fingers floating nearby but never touching.
If I took too too long with my measurements, she’d say, “Tracey Anne, I reckon I’d better do it if you’re gonna take all day,” and then I’d fluster and make a show of working quicker.
After they were cut, the biscuits had to be fit into the cast iron skillet for baking. I hated that they had to touch, but they did. “It helps them rise,” my grandma said, but it put a gulp in my throat every time to know that the crisp round discs would come out squared off no matter how carefully I had cut them.
For whole years of my life, I only ate biscuits. Biscuits with jam, biscuits with beans, biscuits with fried eggs dripping with yolk and bacon grease. Sometimes in the summer I’d put tomatoes on them, but I hated the way the juice sogged.
When I became a teenager and didn’t have time to visit anymore, my grandma would send giant bags of frozen biscuits home with my mother and I would eat them out of the bag with no butter or jam, watching Kids in the Hall for hours, my floured fingers pinching the ends of a Marlboro Red.
When my grandmother died, my mother gave me my grandma’s cast iron skillet. We were in the kitchen, alone even though the house was full of people.
“Where’s the can?” I asked, “I really want the can she used to cut the biscuits.”
“Oh, honey,” my mom said, sad and slurring, “someone prolly threw it away.”
“It was just an old tin can, sweetie. We’ll get you a new one.”
“I don’t want a new one. I want that one.”
“Sweetie,” my mom said, “there’s not just one can. She must have had a thousand of those.”
“No,” I said. I turned my back to her and walked into the dining room with the sloping roof and wood burning stove. There were pictures of family all over the table and a yellowing album with cracked edges. I flicked through the photos.
I pointed to one of my mother with her son, a half brother named Chris that I’ve never met, sitting in a car on the gravel drive in front of the house. I asked my cousin Mel if I could have it. Her lips were a thick line of resentment. “Mom’s saving them,” she said. “You can’t have them.”
I could see my mom through the living room window, roughhousing with her brothers in the patchy dirt yard. She stumbled and half fell into a ditch. When Mel turned her back, I slid my fingers into the crunchy plastic photo sleeve and pulled the Polaroid off its sticky back. I put the picture in the back pocket of my designer jeans and walked onto the back porch.
“Well shit y’all,” my mom said, looking towards me but too drunk with grief to make eye contact. “I think I broke my ankle.”