Bill vs. the Popcorn


You should’ve seen the look on his face. It was priceless.

That summer was especially fun for me. Bill was there visiting, as usual, but he was a bit older, a little wiser, more … I don’t know. Worldly, I guess. He was just somehow cooler.

And I knew that meant that, by the time he went home, I’d be cooler too.

Bill had that indescribable ability within his person to bring you to his level. He was a born leader. He could get you to do things you didn’t think you could do, try things you wouldn’t normally try. He made me believe in myself by believing in me. He knew more about what I could do as a person than I did, and he had that part of his nature that called that out, egged it on and made you a better person in the end for it.

I knew when he left I’d be more than I was when he got there. I was always, secretly, looking forward to it.

That summer was coming of age in independence. It was the summer that I learned to do things for myself without the input or assistance of a parent.

That night was a shade different. We became more or less nocturnal when summer rolled through. There wasn’t any reason to get up early and get going. School was out. With no routine, we fell into that kid pattern of uselessness and wiling time away with meaningless preoccupations we called “fun”. Or we’d bitch about being bored. Whatever.

The difference was, my parents were gone. They didn’t have much of a social life, but every time Bill came around, they managed to find things to do and places to go. It might have been shopping at the large mall over the hill from our town, a half-hour trip by any route. Or it may have been going out to dinner, something that was a lot easier without kids in tow. Wherever it was, they were out relatively late that night, and it’d been a long time since we’d eaten anything.

That was the trigger for a lot of events. Bill was a growing boy, with his hormones ramping up to carry him through his teen years. Being more active and athletic than we were anyway, he ate more. A lot more. And whenever he was around, we ate with him. He seemed to always be hungry, and there was nothing different about this night than any other.

It had to be around 11 o’clock. The windows were pitch black and reflecting like mirrors. The soft blue glow of the TV was the only light in the family room, which butted against the dining nook. The nook was separated from the kitchen by the peninsula counter overhung with cabinets, and both were floored with that tract home linoleum so prevalent in the 70s. We dressed in our sweat pants and t-shirts, the sleepwear uniform Bill brought to us and that we wore religiously. The sleeping bags were unfurled in the living room, ready for that wee hour when we finally ran out of things to do and went to bed.

I couldn’t have been more than 11 at the time, but I think I was more like 10. Bill was a year a month and a day older than me. I don’t remember if this was the same summer as the toilet war, but it may have been. All I do remember is that Bill got hungry, and he decided to find something to eat.

He padded away to the kitchen and I followed. That was me – always following him. He opened the floor-to-ceiling pantry and stuck his nose in, moving things around looking for that snack that would scratch the itch in his belly. He fished around for a minute, moving some cans, the bowl of sugar stored there, a couple of boxed food items, then whirled around to me with something in his hand.

I was under another section of the counter, rummaging through boxes of cereal. “Want some Lucky Charms?” I asked.

“Nah,” he said definitively. “How ’bout this?”

I looked up and saw the jar of popcorn he held in his hand.

“Oh,” I said, disappointed. “I don’t know how to work the popcorn popper.” Working the corn popper wasn’t brain surgery, but I’d never been shown or allowed to work it, so I had no idea how. It was one of those domed affairs with a hot plate element at the base. You’d add a touch of oil and put a pat of butter in the top section of the lid so that as the inside of the dome got hot with the popping corn, the butter would melt and run down through holes to coat the pop corn. It was an electric one, and my brother and I hadn’t been allowed to use it.

Until Bill got there, and then it didn’t matter anymore.

“We don’t need a popper,” he announced confidently. “I know how to make popcorn.”

“You do? With no popper?” I asked, eyes wide with amazement.

He chuckled. “Duh. We don’t even have one at my house. It’s easier in a pot.”

“A pot?”

“Yeah. Do you have one? I’ll show you how.”

I was in awe as I dug through the cupboards where the cookware was. “What kind of pot?”

“Well,” he said thoughtfully, taking on his teacher’s voice, “it should be one with a lid. Just a regular one, you know, like for spaghetti or somethin’.”

I, of course, only had my mother’s cooking as the experience to draw from, so I pulled out an old silver pot and its lid. It was a stock pot I know now; I had no idea what it was then. What he wanted was a sauce pan, but he didn’t know what to call it. Even if he had, I wouldn’t have known what it was.

“How’s this one?” I said, looking at him expectantly. “Is this too big? Mom uses this one for spaghetti, I think.”

He narrowed his eyes and knit his brows, considering the offering. “No,” he said with great finality. “It’s perfect. I’m starving, and that’ll let us make more. Good thinkin’!”

I smiled. I hadn’t thought about it at all. I just grabbed a pot.

“Okay,” he said, moving back to instruction mode, “now we need some oil.”

“Oil?”

“Yeah, you know … cooking oil. Vegetable oil or somethin’ like that.”

“Oh!” I pointed to the pantry. “It’s in there.”

He turned and went back to the pantry, and after a second or two of rooting around, he produced a bottle of Wesson. “Awright,” he said, “got it.”

He moved to the stove without shutting the pantry and put the stock pot on the biggest forward burner. “So, whatcha do is, you put some oil in the pot.”

Uncapping the glass bottle, he poured a tiny stream of the golden fluid into the bottom of the pot. He eased up after a moment, waiting for the viscous fluid to spread over the stained aluminum surface. When it didn’t completely coat, he poured in another stream. Still unsatisfied, he poured in a bit more.

“Okay,” he said finally, “that’s enough. That’ll make a bunch.”

“Okay,” I said, trying to take note of each step. “Now what?”

“Now we turn on the stove,” he said authoritatively. “The oil’s gotta be hot. So, we throw a couple o’ popcorn things in it and when they pop, we add the rest.”

“Hmm,” I said. “Okay.”

He tried to open the jar of dried corn and found it firmly sealed. He grit his teeth and wrenched harder on the lid, but his knuckles turned white and the lid didn’t budge.

“Damn,” he swore, and I got a giddy little thrill. I always did when he swore. It was “bad” — which of course was “cool”.

“Get me a towel, willya?” he said. “I got oil on my hands and can’t open the jar.”

I pulled a kitchen towel out of a drawer and handed it to him. He wrapped it around the jar’s lid and torqued on it with all his might, his face turning radish red with effort. Still the lid wouldn’t give.

“Damn!” he said through gritted teeth. “Still can’t get it!”

“Let’s hit it with a knife!” I injected happily. “I saw my grandma do it. You knock the lid with the knife until it gets loose.

“Awright,” he said, and he started opening drawers looking for silverware. I opened the one that had it for him and pointed to the butter knife array.

“So I just hit the lid with the knife?” he said, dubious.

“No, no,” I said, “you hit the lid with the back o’ the knife thing, but hit it the way it has to go.”

“Oh, like this?” he said, and he soundly smacked the lid with the knife, leaving a tiny divot on the edge of the metal lid.

“Yeah,” I said, “only don’t wake up Ryan or he’s gonna want some.”

He clipped the edge of the jar again, and again, and again. One last swing and the jar popped open, the lid skittering across the slick linoleum and spinning on edge to drop in front of the pantry.

“There!” he said. “Got it!” He beamed proudly and approached the open pot.

“Okay,” I said, “what do we do now?”

“Once those pop we pour in the rest,” he said. We both stared into the pot, watching tiny boiling bubbles start to cradle the floating kernels in the oil. They shook and danced in the hot fluid, and at long last, the first one burst open in a fluffy white cloud, jumping up high toward us.

We both started hard and stepped back, looked at each other and burst out laughing.

“Awright,” he said, “now we pour in more.”

“How do you know how much?” I said, watching as he carefully poured out kernels into the pot.

“You just guess,” he shrugged. “It’s not that important.”

The kernels bounced and slid over the bottom of the pot. He had a flat, even layer in it, and he screwed up his face in doubt.

“Is that enough?” I asked.

“Nah,” he said, pouring again. “I’m gonna eat a LOT. How ’bout you?”

“I can probably eat a lot, too,” I said.

“Okay,” he said, tipping the jar over again. He inspected the contents once more, then poured a third time. The kernels stood over the oil now, the bottom of the big vessel hidden under the mound of brown little pods.

“There,” he announced. “that should do it. We can always make more if we want.”

“Yeah,” I agreed, smiling. “Now what?”

“We just wait. In a couple o’ minutes, they’ll start popping. Then we get to shake the pot and make sure they’re all popped.” He took a last look then dropped the lid in place on the pot.

He started out of the kitchen, and I followed blindly, trusting fully he knew what he was doing. We headed back to the family room and dropped in front of the TV on the couch to watch the rest of Wonder Woman. Lynda Carter held our attention rapt until a hollow, metallic ring caught Bill’s attention.

“It’s popping,” he said, getting up. “I’ll go shake it.”

“Okay,” I said, still ogling Lynda.

I watched for a moment or two, waiting for Bill.

POP! POP POP! POPOPOP! POP! The kernels burst in rapid succession, and I heard the sound of the aluminum scraping over the electric stove element as Bill shook the pot to settle more kernels into the hot oil.

POPPOPOPOPOP! POPOPPPOPPPOPOPOPOPPPPOPOPOPPP! POPOPOPPOPPOPPOPPOPOP!

More shaking.

POPPOPOPPPOPOPPOPPPOPOPOOPPPPOPOPOPOPPPOPOPOPPOPOPPOPPOPPOP!

The sound was getting loud. I couldn’t hear the television anymore, and the sound of the shaking pot grew more aggressive, then became constant.

POPOPPOPPOPPOPPPOPOPPOPPOPOPOPOPOPOPOPOPOPOPOPOPOPOPOPOPOPOPOPOP! POPOPOPOPOPOPPPPOPOPOPOPOPOPPPOPPOP-POPOP-POPOP-POPOPOP!

The shaking of the pot went from constant to frantic, and quickly deteriorated to desperate.

POPPPOPOPPOPOPOPOP! POPOPPOPPOPOPPOPPOPPOPPPOPPOPPOPOPOPOPOP-POPOWPOWPOPPOPPAPAPAPAPOWPOPOPPOWPOPP!

“JD, get a bowl! JDGETABOWL!!” The cry was more pleading than commanding, and I turned and looked over the top of the couch into the kitchen.

The lid to the stock pot slowly was rising on a column of fluffy, oil-coated popcorn, and those light morsels started spilling over the sides of the pot onto the stovetop like a rockslide. Bill was frantically slamming cabinets, looking for a serving bowl, but he kept trying to shake the pot, forcing more of the kernels to spill and scatter over the stove and onto the floor. Popcorn was flying out of the pot now, the lid sliding off and to the side, clattering like a cymbal onto the counter.

JDHELPHELPGETABOWL!!” Bill cried, oily puffs of popcorn fog rolling over his hands, down the front of the stove, across the smooth floor, over the counter.

I jumped over the back of the couch and raced to help my friend, but as I skirted around him to get into the galley kitchen I nudged him into the pot and it spilled a mother-lode of popcorn everywhere. Each tiny kernel was caked over with oil, and the linoleum was getting coated with it. White rain fell like water out of a fountain, coming faster and faster. I tore open the cabinet with the serving bowls and pulled out my mother’s ancient green Tupperware bowl, the one she always used for potato and macaroni salad and popcorn. Bill snatched it from my hands and I saw his cheeks, puffed like a squirrel’s, packed with popcorn, eyes wide as dinner plates and panic stamped comically over the top of it all. He swept the counter with his arm, trying to push the multiplying popcorn into the bowl, but the pot behind him kept swelling and overflowing with endless mountains of creeping, swarming, slippery kernels of invading snack food.

“Get another one!” he muffled through his full mouth. “Eat it! Eat it!!”

I tried to shove popcorn in my mouth, but it was like trying to drain the ocean with a teaspoon. With my cheeks packed and stretched, I dropped onto my hands and knees and grabbed fistfuls of the food and tossed it into the bowl. It was filling up fast, and the avalanche of popcorn kept coming from the pot, kernels leaping down on us to bury us beneath their weight.

I tried to stand, but the oil on the linoleum made the slick floor hazardous and I slipped. I reached my hand up into the open pantry and tried to grab the shelf, but my desperate fingers wrapped about the rim of the sugar bowl and it snowed down over me, the popcorn, the oily floor and splashed out in a graceful fan over a three-foot area.

The cacophony of popping kernels gradually began to die, and the avalanche began to subside. Bill was still shoving popcorn in his mouth, and putting more in the overflowing bowl, as I crawled over the mounds of white to reach the serving bowls again. I pulled another out, and another, and Bill was throwing popcorn into it furiously, sliding and slapping his hands down through the piles to find the floor. He still had his cheeks puffed out with food when he stopped.

“Whaffatmell?” he said through the mouthful of popcorn.

“Huh?” I said. “Hey, what’s that smell??”

We both looked up to see smoke rising out of the stock pot in a white, thickening column.

Bill gasped loudly and leaped to shut off the stove, but his oil-slicked hands passed uselessly over the knobs on the range and his face smacked solidly against the oven door, ringing it like a Chinese gong. He cursed through his mouthful of mashed popcorn, and pushed the pot off the element with his bare hand.

He instantly grabbed his wrist in agony and tipped his head back, a guttural cry smothered under the mush in his mouth. I watched wide-eyed and helpless for a moment, but managed to reach and extinguish the stove.

And just then, the door leading into the garage opened. Mom and Dad were home.

-JDT-

One thought on “Bill vs. the Popcorn

  1. I love this this! It’s fantastic and wonderful, heartfelt and joyfully deliciously. Made my day. Needs to be the first in My Friend Bill. Great job JD!

    Thank you so much Sara! I’m really happy you found it amusing. This is one of my fondest memories of that period in my childhood. Thanks for reading through all these stories and letting me know you found them to your liking!

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