Before Sam Rothstein measured the weight of each blueberry, he would carefully remove the stem, examine the surface for indentations or imperfections. He would check for mold or the juicy beginnings of rot. Would check for color and firmness, gently squeezing each between thumb and middle finger, careful to alternate hands with each berry so as to preserve perfect balance. Everything must be divided evenly. After ensuring the quality of each blueberry, he would place it on the kitchen scale and record its weight in his tan notebook. The book was full of numbers—gradations of weight. The acceptable berries he would place in one basket, the unacceptable in another. Each muffin would be perfectly equal, leaving no one out in the cold, blueberry-wise. He would not be made a fool of again. His mother had recently visited the casino and had lodged a complaint with him concerning inequity in fruit distribution re: the muffins. Sam upended everything, closed the floor down until he got this right. He recalled his mother earnestly slicing the backfat for him and Jimmy so each of her children received identically sized strips of bacon. She had kept her eye on the marbling of fat, as well, alternating who got slices from which end. After Jimmy drowned while the two of them were out fishing, Sam’s mother stopped caring about equilibrium.
When he was satisfied with this method of blueberry evaluation, Sam moved on to the batter. Each batch must be equal, the flour sifted perfectly, the eggs each identically cracked precisely along the center, the milk so exquisitely measured one would never be able to tell the difference between one muffin and the next. The day came when he would debut this new blueberry muffin to the world. He sat his mother at her place of honor in the dining room and returned to the kitchen. He personally made the first three batches, watched them as they baked in two perfectly identical ovens set to perfectly identical temperatures. When they emerged from the oven, their sides had spilled over the edge of the muffin tin just a skosh, just enough. The perfect amount. He removed the few that were a touch overdone and plated the rest. Before he would take the muffins to the table—before practicing holding the plate equally between both hands—he went to the bathroom. Smiled at himself in the mirror as he washed his hands and saw that the smile was a little crooked. The teeth angled oddly in his gums. He shifted the smile, curling the right half of his upper lip to compensate. Achieving equilibrium was desired above all. As he looked into the mirror, Sam thought, as he often did, that it should have been him that drowned, not his brother. Sam could have dived into the cold water to search for Jimmy, dragged to the bottom by heavy boots, but Sam had tarried too long—the balance was lost, his brother gone forever, to be dredged up by divers later, face bloated, the skin split haphazardly from the right cheekbone to the jaw so that the incisor bared as an animal’s would.
Sam stood there in front of the mirror for nearly an hour, at one point hearing the searching voice of his mother outside, but he did not know if this were real or imagined. I love you both equally, she would say, but he didn’t believe it, couldn’t believe it. He kept practicing his smile in front of the mirror, determined to get—if nothing else—this one thing exactly right. Just this one thing. On this simple act, everything depended.