New Ceres: Now Serving Delicious!
I press my face to the cold glass separating me from space as my mother docks The Flying Potato to New Ceres Station. The outer hull of their marketplace level is transparent, revealing a line of people waiting for our ship to arrive. My hair smells like peanut oil and I want to shower, but there’s no time.
I flip the small switch from “Sorry We Missed You!” to “Now Serving Delicious!” The neon light changes from drowsy amber to animated green and the potato in the window—previously sleeping—is now dancing.
I’ve never known anything so excited to be eaten.
Once the ship is docked, I have about ten minutes to unpack the front of the restaurant. Tables fold out, chairs unstack, and chopsticks lie at the ready, our jovial potato staring up from the paper sleeves, wide-eyed, as if asking suggestively, “How do you want me?” Beside him, a laminated menu and small, fresh marigold flowers in a tiny cup of water go in the center of every table. The restaurant space inside our ship is small but cozy and ready to welcome our first customers.
My mother has made her way from her captain’s chair to the kitchen, and she gives me a thumbs-up. Breathing deeply, I unbolt the hatch and step into the decompression chamber. My hand hesitates on the door handle.
The anxiety I feel isn’t new, but that doesn’t make it any easier to manage, and I swallow it along with thoughts of what I could be doing instead. Growing experimental crops at the Botanists’ Colony? Captaining my own library ship? The truth is, I’m not sure, and that nebulousness makes it easier to keep moving in the same direction. The small window next to the door shows that the line is growing, and I finally open the door.
My mouth remembers a smile I wore well for yesterday’s crowd, and I raise my arms and call out to the crowd, “The Flying Potato is open!” Everyone replies, “Now serving delicious!” For a moment, my smile becomes genuine.
Then, it’s time to work.
• • •
The day passes quickly as I take orders, refill hot barley tea, and replenish pickled cabbage and potato side dishes. When a large group enters the restaurant, I arrange tables into a long row and wait as they sit, wondering how they choose who goes where. Families of this size are always strange to me, as it’s just been my mother and me for so long. My mother always reminds me that our customers are our family too, and when we bring them into our restaurant, we’re bringing them into our home. “When space travel was finally real, finally possible, no one could’ve imagined how quickly people wanted to get off Earth,” my mother once said, wistfully. “I don’t think anyone understood how it would fracture families.”
I think about that a lot. The way she said it, the way she felt it. At the time, I thought, Why didn’t they all just fly off together? Now, I wonder what it would be like to go off and explore the universe on my own.
When it’s time to close, the large family is the last to leave, and they savor the final slurps of meaty broth and polish off the last of the potato offerings. They are warm and full of thank-yous with their full bellies and tipsy smiles. After I lock up, I turn off our fluorescent, hardworking potato to let him rest. He sleeps in that quiet amber light with an earnest “Sorry We Missed You!” above his head, and I sag a little, realizing how tired I am.
In the kitchen, my mother looks small sitting on the floor, peeling a mountain of potatoes. She doesn’t look up as I enter.
“I thought we’d prep together tonight,” she says.
“I know we’re a potato restaurant, but you’re peeling an awfully large amount of them,” I say, grabbing a knife and sitting beside her. I pick up a large, smooth potato for an easy start.
She stops peeling, and when she looks up at me, I know something is wrong. “We’re only serving potatoes tomorrow,” she says. “We have to leave the station early.”
A thousand worries filter through me. Is there something wrong with the ship? Is she sick? Instead, I just ask, “Why?”
Her smile looks as if it has been formed first by grief and then shaped by resolve.
“The nursing home sent a message—your grandma isn’t doing well. We’re leaving for Earth tonight.”
I can’t remember the last time the words Earth or grandma came out of her mouth, and I’m dazed until the hum of the ship reminds me I exist.
“Will she be alright?” feels like the right thing to say.
She shakes her head. “I don’t know.”
When she doesn’t offer more, I turn on some low, upbeat music to counter the mood and start peeling potatoes in earnest. The music fills the silence as our minds wander different worlds.
• • •
Galaxy Mark 2.75: Now Serving Delicious! Special: Sweet Braised Potatoes
After a quick shower, I find my mother in our living room, sitting in the center of stacked boxes, just a peek of her head visible. An old smell wafts from them—must?—and I navigate carefully until I’m beside her. She’s buried in stacks of photographs.
I have never seen so many, and I’m not sure I’ve ever held one myself.
“We’re on our way to Galaxy,” she says to me. “Autopilot is working fine and I checked the sensors you fixed. You did a good job.”
“Thanks,” I murmur. I’m pleased by the rare compliment, but feel uneasy. The photographs tower around me like stacks of secrets, and I don’t know whether to touch them or pretend I don’t see them.
She turns over a picture in her hand and I see writing in a language I can’t read. “Your grandmother was beautiful. I think she still has this dress in storage.”
She hands me the photograph, and I accept it tentatively. My grandmother is very young in the picture, and she is beautiful. She looks exactly like my mother. Tangible evidence of a history that ties me to somewhere like this ship ties me to my mother. I’m afraid to crinkle it, and maybe it’s obvious, because my mom laughs.
“It’s fine. You’re not going to break it. It’s just paper.”
I grimace at that, because paper has been scarce for ages.
She hands me another one: a grey-toned picture of my grandmother standing in front of a building. The strong, proud expression is one I’ve often seen on my mother’s face.
“She had a restaurant, too.” My mother sighs as she rifles through some other photographs. “She cooked many things from back home, before her country was divided.”
“She wasn’t allowed to go back. She had a lot of land, too. Family.”
“Why couldn’t she go back?”
“Things changed. And then she made a life somewhere else.” My mother hands me another photograph. The delicate paper I’m holding is heavy with history, and I wonder about all the stories my grandmother never told me.
The memory begins to lift gently from my hand, and I’m captivated as the photograph rises before me. From the depths of the ship, I can hear a series of agitated sighs turning into one long buzz—then silence.
The low hum of the artificial gravity component is gone.
Everything that isn’t bolted to the ship slowly ascends. We hover, hundreds of square memories suspended between us. Flashes of faces from another time float and frame themselves around my mother, people she’s never told me about and places I’ve never been.
“I’ll fix the arti,” I say quickly, and float off, dodging my mother’s secrets.
• • •
The boxes of photographs have disappeared by the time I’ve fixed the arti-grav’s switch. My mother is gone, too. I spend the quiet night picking up things scattered by our failed arti-grav, making up incredible stories to go with the unknown faces in those little paper squares.
• • •
The ship makes contact with the dock. I wake the potato man, open the hatch, and prepare my smile. Galaxy Mark 2.75 isn’t made of glass and I can’t see the line waiting for us, so I imagine it in my head. I wonder how my mother is doing for a moment before the customers rush in.
• • •
Service happens quickly with a short menu. The sticky-sweet and savory potatoes, lightly sprinkled with sesame seeds, leave our customers in a dreamy reverie and all of the plates polished clean. When it’s time to close, there’s only one table left to clear.
“Thank you for bringing back these potatoes.” From the corner, a man wearing a crisp white shirt and a youthful expression places his napkin on the table and adjusts his tie. His shirt is as spotless as his plate.
“You’re welcome,” I say. “They’re my favorite.”
He hesitates. “I didn’t used to like them.”
I tuck my cleaning cloth in my back pocket. I’m not sure what to say, so I wait.
“I used to bring my mom here,” he says. His voice is pressed by gravity, like it could break at any moment. “It wasn’t always on your menu, but she’d ask your mother for it every time. I was always a little embarrassed, but now that she’s gone, it reminds me of her.”
“I’m sorry,” I say. About his mother, not the food. Looking at his features, I remember her, the ghost of her face an echo of his.
“I was busy, but we’d always schedule time to visit when your restaurant came to the station. This is my first time eating here alone. I don’t know how, but this meal brought back so many things I’d forgotten. Once, she brought whole jars of pickled vegetables to trade with your mother. The cart she brought them in was missing a wheel, and the folks on the station didn’t know what that smell was.”
“I remember,” I say. “You had to carry it inside.” Before we know it, we’re both laughing, and my eyes are wet. When our laughs leave us breathless, I look to the kitchen, to my mother hunched over the dishes. “What was her name?”
“June,” he replies, as he stands, his mouth wide with a smile. “I needed that laugh. Thank you. And thank your mother.” He bows his head and leaves.
Later, my mother and I stand quietly in the kitchen, eating the leftovers from the day. She asks me to clean and prep, then disappears deeper into the ship.
Feeling wistful and full as I clean the kitchen, I think about June. About my mom and her mom. The man looked smaller without his mother, and I wonder if that’s how my mother feels right now. Is she shrinking even at the possibility of losing her own? If she loses her, what will be left? If I lost mine—
I swallow the thought and tuck it away in the bin with potato peelings.
• • •
Aries 12: Now Serving Delicious! Special: Potato Noodles in Cold Broth
When my father died, I saw my mother more clearly. Like he’d been a thick, angry fog that dissipated when he left this world. Our family was so small; it was hard to understand who I was without him until I saw my mother for the first time.
The Flying Potato was her Impossible Dream because he said so. Once it was just a Dream, we made it happen. I’m not sure either of us expected it to succeed, but it was ours, and we were free to explore the universe together, across the galaxy and back again, forging a new life in the space where my father once existed.
Now, we’re hurtling towards Aries Station.
“We just got a message from the vendor director,” my mom says while scooting behind me with a stack of large, silver bowls. As she puts them in the freezer, I realize we’re changing our menu. “There’s an issue with the cooling system in our quadrant, so we’re gonna have to keep our air on and try not to let the kitchen overheat.”
“Cold noodles?” I ask as my mind feels around for an old memory.
“Yep. I called in some extra help, so hopefully it won’t be too bad.” My mom smiles. “I hope I remember how to get the noodles just right. I haven’t made this in so long.”
I grin. “They’ll be perfect.”
• • •
When I was a kid, when we were still on Earth, those hot summers would roll in, and we’d sit and drink cold broth she’d put in the freezer to make it icy and refreshing. This was our summer ritual, and even after we left Earth and moved to the station, we tried to observe the seasons.
Now, the restaurant does its best impression of a sweltering summer on Earth. The customers are too enamoured with the icy slush of broth in their cold bowls to notice. As they fan themselves and eat the yellow radish that garnishes the noodles, their eyes grow wide with delight.
More than once, someone stops me to ask me if the noodles are really made from potatoes and if my mother will trade them the recipe for any number of things. I wink and tell them I’ll see what I can do, but I know that even if they had the recipe, it wouldn’t taste the same.
My mother helps me close, and before I get to the last table, she sets two bowls of noodles on the table and gestures for me to sit. “Let’s rest tonight. Like we did back when you were little. We earned it.”
My heart swells. I’d wondered if she remembered. “It felt just like summer today,” I say, and I wonder if she can hear everything I’m thinking. I wonder if she knows how much I’ve missed these quiet moments together.
“Yes, it was so hot!” She passes me the spicy mustard and vinegar and watches as I squeeze a little bit of both in, taste, repeat. “Like when we were on Earth. Like on the station.”
I’m not sure if I’ve put too much spicy mustard into my broth, but my cheeks are warm, and I’m overcome with longing. The fresh breath of life cutting through thick humidity before my father died, the crisp air of possibility rolling away the heat before I tied myself to the restaurant, back when she was just my mother and I was just her kid. My eyes water and I try to blink the tears away so she doesn’t know I’m crying.
“Did you put too much in?” She says this as she pours an unmeasured, inordinate amount of spice into her broth.
“No, it’s perfect,” I say, biting into the long noodles and memorizing every slice of meat and crunchy radish. When I look up, her eyes are watery, too—not from the mustard, because it’s never too spicy—and I reach over and squeeze her hand.
“You’re the best,” I say.
“No, you are.”
We both laugh and cry into our bowls of broth, and it’s perfect and the best.
• • •
Atmos 5 Station: Now Serving Delicious! Special: Mom’s Special Potato Salad Sandwich
When I wake up in my small cot, it’s still early, hours until we reach the next station. I close my eyes and try to fall asleep again, knowing the busy day ahead of me, but my mind is crowded. We’re heading to our last stop before Earth, and it’s a whirlwind. Where normally we would spend at least a week at each station, often longer, we’re only spending a single day as we hop through the Outer Earth Cycle to make our way back to Earth.
My mother hasn’t brought up Grandma at all since the day we started heading back, and I’ve been too cowardly to ask.
I remember my grandmother as a series of photographs in my mind, never as young as she was in the papery photographs I held. She was always ancient, always a mystery. We didn’t speak the same language, but we managed with nods and smiles and my mother acting as interpreter—except when we ate together. Then, we didn’t need words.
When I make my way into the kitchen, my mother is already prepping.
“It’s so early,” I say.
She laughs. “Yes. Why—no—how are you up?”
I grin and enter the kitchen, still in my pajamas. “What’s on the menu?”
She’s prepping common ingredients and portioning out the soft rice cake we’ll need for the stews eternally on our menu. “I’m not sure yet. We’ve been through most of our specials and…” She looks to me, her eyes red-rimmed. “I made a mistake with our potato supply. We’re running out.”
Peeking into the pantry, I see a very small mound of potatoes left, certainly not enough for noodles. Maybe one potato per person.
“I’ve been up all night trying to figure out what to do. I can’t believe I didn’t order enough potatoes.”
“You’ve had a lot on your mind,” I say. “Everything is a lot right now.”
I can smell bread in the oven, which is unusual because not many of our dishes use it. When I look inside, I see rows of rolls baking in both ovens. “Wow.”
“You know what happens when I can’t sleep,” she says. Moving to the large pantry, she shows me two carts of rolls. Hundreds of vulnerable, soft breads just waiting for our arti-grav to give out. “I’m trying to think of what we can make with this.”
The aroma of the bread lures me into the pantry, and I can feel the edges of a memory begging to be found.
“We need this last day of sales.” My mother doesn’t elaborate, but I imagine her tallying fuel costs, docking fees, Earth permits. The edge of her voice is crisp, like the rice at the bottom of a cooker, and I want to pour comfort and transform it into something good.
“It reminds me of something,” I say, taking one of the warm rolls and pressing it to my nose. The top is pillowy and the bottom is crusty, and I tear it and give her half.
She inhales deeply and doesn’t say what it reminds her of, but her face is different. Softer.
“You’ve got flour on your nose,” she says, laughter rising slowly.
“So do you!” I’m trying not to laugh with my full mouth.
And then I remember.
• • •
I am young again. Eight or nine. We are on our space station, but I still remember Earth.
“Potatoes… apples… onions…” I am listing what goes into my mother’s special potato salad sandwich. My mother watches me with a smile, arranging bowls and pots like planets in our food universe. She is younger, too, still clouded by my father’s death but becoming vibrant, like a sunrise unfolding.
“Cabbage. Carrots. Hot dogs. Mayo!” As she says each of these things, she pulls them out from behind her back, like a magic trick.
Because I am young, I believe in her sorcery and squeal with delight.
As we prep and cook sandwich ingredients together, my mother and I, we talk about everything and nothing. It’s a perfect moment framed like a photo, shaped by sandwiches. I don’t know what else goes into the sandwich that makes it taste so good, and even though she tells me, I don’t quite understand.
“It’s hard to explain,” she says, “but it’s kind of like love.”
I nod like I know, like I understand, because in my child-mind, at that moment, I do, even if it’s not exactly what she means.
Once the ingredients have cooled and the sandwiches are made, I hesitate. I remember a time on Earth when I was even younger, when we ate beneath the sycamore trees.
“You don’t want it anymore?”
I shake my nine-year-old head. “I do, but… what if it doesn’t taste like how I remember?”
“It will,” she says as she slides a plate over to me. “I promise.”
• • •
We are standing shoulder to shoulder, cutting and cooking, with only a few hours to prep before service. I lean into her.
She pats my back. “What?”
“What was the special ingredient in this sandwich? You told me a long time ago, but I didn’t understand.”
She laughs. “Magic.”
“What do you mean?”
She turns the stove off and moves the huge pot off the burner.
“Every dish I make is filled with a memory. Maybe happy, maybe wistful. When I cook, I take every bit of that memory and hold it in my heart, and as I’m cooking, it finds its way into the food.”
I can tell from her tone that she isn’t joking, but I don’t know what to say.
“My mother taught me when I was young,” my mother continues. “How to imbue food with magic. How to let this perfect vessel capture and hold a feeling.” She leans against the counter and looks at me. “It’s a natural kind of spell, and everyone does it whether they mean to or not. Think about it. Every food you’ve eaten, you can associate with a memory, sometimes many, and every food you cook is in memory of something else. Even if you’ve never cooked it before, you’re drawing on something inside of you.”
She moves to a batch of cooled filling and folds it over with a spatula to make sure it’s evenly coated. “I didn’t believe it was real until she taught me, but even then, I wasn’t sure I could do it until I was older. When we opened this restaurant, you and me.”
“Will you teach me?” I ask, thinking about the man in a tie and his mother, June.
“Yes.” Her eyes sparkle, and maybe they’re tears or maybe it’s the way the light illuminates her. She hands me a plate. “But first, your sandwich.”
• • •
Earth: Sorry We Missed You!
Earth is beautiful in a way I couldn’t have remembered. News outlets announced that, with the departure of so many humans, the Earth was growing wild. I’m not sure what that means, since I understand ships and space stations, not planets, but as we wait for a taxi to take us to my grandmother’s hospital, I capture pictures in my mind, storing these moments of my mother and me together in this new world. I want to save every picture, every moment, for the magic I might create one day.
In the taxi, my mother squeezes my hand. She looks at the stretch of blue sky outside the window.
“I’m nervous. It’s been too long,” she says
I put my arm around her, and she smells gently of peanut oil and magnolias. It’s comforting, centering, especially with the difficult adjustment to Earth’s gravity.
“I should’ve come back sooner.” Her voice is soft, thick with guilt and fear. “Do you think she’ll remember me?” In her lap, she tightly clutches a glass container filled with braised potatoes. She cooked right before we left the ship, so it must be hot. The glass is foggy from steam and magic, and the soft scent of sweet and salty stirs my memories.
“Yes,” I say. “I promise.”