RUDY'S EXPECTING US,” says Ingrid, buckling her seat belt. It's a dark afternoon, and as I drive up Route 331, I imagine mixing bowls lining Trudy's kitchen counter smallest to biggest, measuring cups neatly arranged alongside a stand-up electric mixer with its metal and plastic attachments. I imagine Trudy wearing a starched, freshly ironed apron. In my fantasy, we bake, but it's not like Ye Olde Home Ec Witch days. It's more like cooking with Polly Pinchâstress free, with an air of spontaneity and unconventionality. We stick our fingers in the bowl and lick them. We joke. We sing Gladys Knight and the Pips songs. We aren't graded, or tested, or even observed.
But when I clank the fairy knocker, no one answers. The door is unlocked, so we let ourselves in. The kitchen is stark. A tepid saucepan of liquid chocolate waits on a back burner.
“Truuu-deee?” Ingrid calls.
“Hello?” I call. “She must have forgotten we were coming over.”
We hear a chain saw whine. Ingrid smilesâa mischievous expression, one I've seen on Garrett's face, too. She grabs my hand and pulls me through the rooms toward the Barn. Her beaded braids flop against her back.
In the hallway we smell gasoline fumes and wood shavings. When the whine of the chain saw halts, Ingrid raps on the door.
“Hello?” Trudy calls.
“It's me and Zell,” calls Ingrid.
“Hang on just a sec. Don't come in yet. Wait
We hear rustling.
“She must be covering up her secret project,” Ingrid whispers.
“Okay,” Trudy finally calls. “Come on in, Pumpkin Pie.”
I push open the door and follow Ingrid into the Barn. Trudy cinches a cord over the blue tarps that hide the immense top secret project.
Ingrid runs but stops when Trudy commands, “No running!” just like Ye Olde Home Ec Witch.
“Sorry,” says Ingrid.
“Come 'ere,” Trudy saysâonce again Trudy. She kneels and spreads her arms. Her goggles restrain her poodlish curls, and her glasses slip toward the tip of her sweaty nose. “Come 'ere, Pumpkin Pie.” Trudy smacks kisses all over Ingrid's little beautiful golden face.
“I told you we were coming over,” Ingrid says. “To bake. Remember?”
“It doesn't do any good to make plans with me, Pump. I'm old!”
Trudy covers the chain saws, and I brush her from head to toe with the dust brush. We go to the kitchen and slurp reheated hot chocolate. Ingrid and I sit side by side on the stools; Trudy's opposite us, leaning against the counter.
“So,” Trudy says. “What do we got?”
“We got a baking contest to win,” I say.
“And time is ticking,” Ingrid adds.
The deadline is March 10, I explain; you have to submit your entries by then, and judges choose winners after an unspecified waiting period.
Ingrid tears into her backpack and shows the magazine to Trudy, who holds the special foldout page at arm's length, tips her chin, and reads.
“Polly Pinch,” she declares when she's done, sliding the magazine toward Ingrid. “She's the hot new thing, huh?”
“She's my mother,” Ingrid says.
Trudy's eyes dart from Ingrid's face to mine. I pretend to take a long swallow. I want to ask Trudy who Ingrid's mother really is. Or was. She must know. But of course I don't ask.
Trudy shrugs. “Okay. And?”
to win this contest,” Ingrid says.
“And why is that?”
“Because her dead husband wanted to give the people of New Orleans twenty thousand dollars to rebuild their houses after they were destroyed in the Hurricane Katrina flooding. And if you win this contest”âshe taps the magazineâ“you get twenty thousand dollars. So it's fate. Plus, Zell would get to bring a guest onto the show to meet Polly Pinch, and that guest would be me. So it's like fate times two.”
Trudy sucks her dentures. “Fate times two. Gotcha.”
“Can you help us?” Ingrid puts her hands together as if she's praying.
“Would it be cheating if I helped you? I'm a retired professional, after all.”
Ingrid chews her lip nervously, as if she hadn't thought of this. Two little wings of hot chocolate stain the corners of her mouth.
“Not cheating,” I say. “We're just looking for a little guidance. A little inspiration.”
“My baking days are over, of course,” says Trudy. “But I suppose I can give you pointers. And I can supervise. I'm sure good at supervising.” She winks.
“Our experiments haven't gone too well so far.” I recap all our failures, starting with Oatmeal Brownie Upside-Down Cake and ending with our most recent disasters: Sin-namon Macaroon Yum-Yums, which proved way too complicated; Toffee Pudding Pound Cake, which was raw in the middle and which Russ deemed “too conventional” when I served it to him after lunch one Friday; and Mini Key Lime Custards, so tart they made Ingrid's face contort, and which Russ later refused to eat, proclaiming them “unmanly.”
Trudy rubs her face with both hands. “Desserts that warm the soul,” she muses; she pronounces it “wahm.” “I just don't think I have that kind of thing in me, girls. Now, I can make snickerdoodles in my sleep. A cup of butter, one and a third cups of sugar, two eggs, two and a half cups of flour, two teaspoonsâ” She sighs. “Look. Retired home ec teachers don't
things. Recipes, sewing patterns. The likes of me just don't
Not when it comes to the kitchen, anyway.”
“But Trudy,” Ingrid says, “Zell and I suck.”
Trudy tips her head back and laughs. Her narrow shoulders bob up and down before she composes herself and mildly scolds Ingrid for “foul language.”
“I'll tell you what you're going to do,” says Trudy. “You're going to do what any self-respecting, sensible, goal-oriented woman would do.”
“Which is?” I say.
She flings the magazine over her shoulder. It flutters and lands in a tentlike heap in front of the sink. “Trail blaze,” she says. “You're going to trail blaze.”
Ingrid hangs her head. Her hands twist in her lap. “But that's what we've been doing. Trailblazing.”
Trudy takes Ingrid's face in her gnarly hands. “Keep
trailblazing, Pumpkin Pie. Nobody ever cleared a path for themselves by giving up.”
“What do you mean?” Ingrid asks.
“I mean, the only way out is through.”
“I don't know what you're talking about.”
“Zell does,” Trudy says. “Zell understands.”
Ingrid's gaze swings from Trudy to me. “You do, Zell?” she asks.
I think about Trudy's wordsâthe only way out is through. The phrase sounds like something Yoda would say, or Mr. Miyagi. Nick might have said something like that, teasingly, when I complained about a common choreâvacuuming, taking out the recycling.
“We should go,” I say. “I'm sorry we interrupted you, Trudy.”
She shakes her head. “Nonsense. I've got some chain-saw art to work on. A commission for Rota Springs Creamery. And I love an appreciative audience. Interested?”
Ingrid hesitates, picking a hangnail. But soon her frown evolves into that mischievous grin, and she gives her stool one quick spin. Her braids fling up around her. And then I'm following her again as she skips through the rooms of the big old farmhouse.
In the Barn, Ingrid and I don goggles and earplugs. We sit side by side on the floor, watching as Trudy converts a towering hunk of wood into a glistening jimmy-studded six-scoop ice-cream cone.
A GLOOMY SATURDAY. Garrett hurries inside carrying Ingrid in one arm and a bag of groceries in the other. “I have a presentation this morning,” he says. “Can't be late. Listen, Zell, we're going to be paying for all these baking experiments from now on.”
Ingrid slides down his side and envelops Ahab in a hug.
“It's only right.” Garrett sets groceries on the counter, fishes out a wad of bills, and stuffs them into my apron pocket. “This is extra, to cover your previous grocery bills. Ing told me about some of your experimentsâbuttermilk and lemons and oatmeal and cinnamon and on and on. I never really thought about how much money you were investing in this Polly Pinch contest.”
“You don't have to pay for myâ”
“Nonsense. You're the best babysitter in Wippamunk.” He winks, then stoops to peck Ingrid. “Wish me luck,” he says.
“Oh, Zell, I got you a present.” From the grocery bag he pulls two oversize camouflage oven mitts. “Ingrid said you didn't own any, so.”
“They match my apron,” I say, slipping my hands into the mitts. “Thanks.”
“Gotta love the dollar store.” Garrett heads for the door. “Have a good time.”
Mitts off, I rummage through the grocery bag and line the contentsâgingerbread mix, licorice extract, eggs, condensed evaporated milk (“evap,” Ingrid calls it, because that's what Polly Pinch calls it)âon the counter. “What are we making, Ing?”
She shows me a page torn from her notebook.
Gingerbread Women Cookie Samwitches with Licorish Filling,
For the samwitches we need gingerbread, not the crunchy kind and not the cakey kind either but something in between and for the filling we need licorish and frosting to blend together to make licorish frosting.
“Great idea,” I say. “Where'd you come up with this one?”
She shrugs. “Made it up in math class the other day.”
“What? You have to pay attention during school,” I say. “You can't be playing Polly Pinch during math class.”
She drags her toe across the floor, tracing an arc. “The contest isn't
“During math class, you should be doing
She sighs. “I know.”
I imagine her doodling gingerbread women while her classmates dutifully scratch out long division, and I feel irresponsible, and unsure, and a little guilty. But soon Ingrid's bopping around the kitchen, singing an impromptu ditty about how she did all her homework, and outside it starts to sleetâfat silver slashesâand baking Gingerbread Women Cookie Samwitches seems like the perfect activity.
I start reading the instructions on the box of gingerbread mix.
“Don't bother,” Ingrid says. “Remember what Trudy said? We're gonna trail blaze it, woman. The mix is just to get us started.”
She insists that if we doctor up the mix just right, we'll strike the perfect consistency for gingerbread women cookiesâhalfway between crunchy and cakey. And she's so confident and enthusiastic that I start to believe we really can.
So, in the spirit of trailblazing, I add a little cornstarch to the mix, and fewer eggs than are called for, and milk. I fold over the ingredients with a spatula.
On a cookie sheet, Ingrid shapes the dough into two gingerbread women: a tall one for me, with wild hair, and a shorter one with braids and boots and a big hat.
While they bake, we make the licorice frosting, blending together sugar, butter, and a half teaspoon of licorice extract with an old-fashioned manual beater Nick used for his annual batch of eggnog from scratch. I hold the beater upright in the bowl while Ingrid cranks the wheel. “I wanted to buy licorice, but my dad said they probably have licorice
instead, you know, like vanilla extract,” she says. “And they did.”
The frosting is successfulâsmooth and creamy, and actually pretty flavorful, if you like licorice. (I doubt licorice and ginger are two great tastes that go great together, but I keep this to myself.)
When the timer dings, I pull the cookie sheet from the oven. Gingerbread Cookie Me and Gingerbread Cookie Ingrid are indistinguishable blobs.
“Dang it,” Ingrid says. She bangs a fist on the table as I set the sheet on a rack to cool.
“Nobody said this would be easy,” I say. “No sense getting frustrated. We can always try again.”
Ingrid drums her fingers on the table. “Can we have a food fight?”
“A food fight?” I say, wondering where she came up with that idea. “No way.”
“Because then we'd have to clean it all up.”
“They're wasteful, too, right?”
“Yes, that's right. They're very wasteful.”
She plops into a chair. “What are we going to do? We're never going to win the contest. At the rate we're going, we might not even
“We're getting closer.”