“She's fine. Just needs a couple stitches; that's all. A friend's with her at the emergency room. I have an exam this morning.”
Ingrid murmurs in her sleep.
“You're my only backup,” he says.
“I'll take her,” I say. “I'll watch her. But I'm baking. I mean, I'm doing Polly Pinch stuff. Today's the deadline. I'm perfecting.”
Garrett nods. “Consider the ban lifted.” Gently he drapes Ingrid on my couch. I take her backpack from him.
“You're a goddess, Zell. Anyone ever tell you that?”
“You're the first,” I say, smiling. “But you won't be the last.”
He chuckles, and Ingrid stirs and looks around. “Dad?”
“The ban's lifted, boo-boo,” he says. He kisses her forehead.
“The ban's lifted?”
“Yes. Now I gotta run.”
She stands and grins sleepily. They do a quick version of their kissing game; he looks around nonchalantly, then suddenly swoops down to kiss her. She giggles and tries to avoid him, but he smacks her once on the nose and once on the neck.
“Wait.” Ingrid yawns. “Does this mean you'll definitely let me go on
Pinch of Love Live
with Zell, if we win?”
Garrett smirks. “Sure. If you're a finalist, you can be a special guest on the show.”
“Pinkie swear. Gotta go. Love ya 'n' like ya.”
“Love ya 'n'
ya,” Ingrid says.
SHE CHANGES INTO CLOTHES, and we hop into the car. I drive to the grocery store with a deep sheet print still slicing my cheek. In the produce aisle, Ingrid and I sniff seven different pineapples before selecting the most fragrant one.
“Better get two,” she says as I load the heavy fruit into the shopping basket.
“Because you're Zell; that's why. You need backup. In case something crazy happens with the first pineapple.”
“Like smoke. Or flames. Or explosions.”
I hesitate, wondering whether I should be insulted. But when she nods and grins, I grab another pineapple and hand it to her. “You're absolutely right, Ing.”
We stock up on raspberries and honey, limes and pepper, too. In the checkout aisle, Ingrid tosses two chocolate bars onto the conveyer belt. “This brand's safe for kids with peanut allergies,” she says.
“Is that your breakfast?”
“Breakfast? No, it's for the Scrumpy Delight. Don't you know what my mother always says? âJust about every dessert is improved by chocolate.' ”
At home, we set about creating Scrumpy Delight, Prototype II. I grumble about making a crust, but Ingrid bats her hand. “Just whip up a Super Simp Flaky.”
I steady a cutting board and slice the top off the pineapple. “I forgot Polly Pinch has a piecrust recipe.”
“I'll go find it online.” She pounds upstairs to use the laptop in my office and minutes later skips back into the kitchen waving a printout. “Found it.”
“I have an idea,” I say. “We're going to grill the pineapple.” That trash-picked old grill was Nick's domain, but I don't think he'd mind if I used it now.
“Grill it?” Ingrid says. “
Out back, I'm amazed the coals ignite. I scrape some flaky black gunk off the metal and lay fresh pineapple rings across it. Before long, juice drips and sizzles, and brown grooves form in the fruit.
Back inside, I chop the pineapple into small chunks and stir it with softened goat cheese, honey, and a little lime juice. Ingrid grinds pepper into the mixture, singing a little ditty about how she loves pepper grinders. We prepare a Super Simp Flakyâwhich lives up to its nameâput an entire chocolate bar in the center, and spoon the pineapple mixture on top. I attempt to fold it into a heart shape. But the crust rips, and the baking sheet just isn't big enough, and the pineapple mixture oozes everywhere. I try to salvage some, but a big blob slips to the floor and splatters.
“Aren't you glad I made you get a second pineapple?” Ingrid says.
Round two. I slice the second pineapple into spears and grill them. When we've got another Super Simp Flaky ready to go, I whip up more pineapple-cheese mixture and spoon it on top of the chocolate bar.
“Now what?” I wonder. “Should I try making a heart again?”
“Try something different,” says Ingrid.
I drag the edges of the crust toward one another, forming a sort of rectangular shape. The baking tray accommodates it perfectly, and the dough stays intact.
“Perf!” says Ingrid. “It looks like an envelope.”
“An envelope of deliciousness.”
Twenty-five minutes later, as I pull the tray from the oven, she gasps. “It smells so good,” she says. We wait for the quasi tart to cool a bit. Ingrid stands on a footstool and edges the crust with raspberries. Then she sprinkles the whole thing with brown sugar and love.
“I wish Ahab were here to sample this,” she says.
“Do you think he would be proud of us?”
“I do.” She nods. “I do.”
“Me, too. Well, time to write all this down.”
“Aren't we going to taste test it?”
“We are, but not just yet.”
We march upstairs. Following a traditional recipe format as best I can, I type exactly what we did into a Word document. She watches over my shoulder, saying, “Good job, Zell,” every few minutes.
“Now for the true test,” I say when I'm done. “The Muffin Man.”
Ingrid does a few pliÃ©s. “Awesome. I can't wait.”
“I'll let him know we're coming.”
Travis answers the phone: “Thanks for calling the Muffinry for the best coffee and muffins west of 495,” he says. He pronounces it “faw-niney-fy.” “Can you hold?”
“Travis, it's Rose-Ellen. EJ's friend. Is he there?”
“He's wicked busy. Saturday morning and all.”
“Tell him I think I've got something.”
“Just please tell him I think I've got something.”
There's some muffled noises.
“Zell?” It's EJ. “You got something?”
“I got something.”
“Well, what the hell are you waiting for? Get over here and let me sample it.”
INGRID SITS IN THE BACKSEAT as I drive to Murtonen's Muffinry. Under my thigh I tuck an envelope addressed to the contest judges at Scrump Studios in Boston. The envelope is unsealed, so we can show EJ the recipe before we mail it.
I watch Ingrid in the rearview mirror. She's holding the platter of Scrumpy Delight on her lap.
“Don't breathe on it,” I say.
“I'm not breathing on it,” she says. “I'm not even breathing.”
“Don't touch it.”
“Just drive, woman.”
THE MUFFINRY BUSTLES. The bell jingles almost constantly as customers come and go. The only available table is the one in the corner, near the register. Here EJ waits. He's dressed in his usual garb: clogs, checkered pants, Bruins bandana. He stands when he spots us and grandly gestures for Ingrid to set the platter on the table.
Travis emerges from the kitchen and hands EJ a dessert fork and a small, sharp knife.
“Wow,” Travis says. He raises his eyebrows and nods at the platter. “Nice presentation.”
EJ points to the register, where a line of customers waits.
“I'm going, hey,” Travis says. “I'm going.”
“Now, then,” EJ says. He carves out a piece of Scrumpy Delight, sniffs it, and pops it into his mouth. He chews slowly, tipping his chin and exhaling heavily through his nose. He strokes his goatee and swallows.
“The raspberries are a nice touch,” he says.
Ingrid punches the air. “Yessss! The raspberries were Zell's call. For color.”
He places another piece of Scrumpy Delight on the center of his tongue and closes his lips around it. He runs his tongue along the insides of his cheeks. He swallows and smacks his lips, tasting his mouth. “Goat cheese?”
“Yesss!” Ingrid punches the air again.
“Organic.” I nod. “Made right here in town.”
“By my step-grandmother.” Ingrid shadowboxes EJ's stomach.
He laughs and waves her away. “That?” he says, pointing to the dessert. “Whatever that is? It makes me silent.”
“Silent?” says Ingrid. She's unsure whether that's good.
EJ swipes off his bandana and holds it over his heart. “Silent out of respect.”
“It's good?” I say.
“It's excellent.” He refits his bandana. “I think you've turned a corner with this dessert, Zell. And, as we used to say at Johnson and Wales”âhe covers Ingrid's ears with his handsâ“this dessert is going to put asses in seats.”
“I heard you,” Ingrid says.
EJ feeds her a bite, and her eyes grow huge. “Mmm,” she says, nodding.
“Now, tell me,” says EJ. “What do you call it?”
I show him the recipe. He scans it, underlining words with his pinkie. “Pineapple and goat cheese and chocolate and brown sugar. Genius. Absolutely brilliant.”
Ingrid bursts into a sort of hula dance. She waves her arms and chants, “Uh-
Zell's brilliant, she's genius.”
EJ high-fives me. “Did it come from a dream?” he asks.
“Indirectly. I made it right under the wire, too. This sucker's got to be postmarked today.” I reach for the fork, but EJ's staring at me. “What?”
“Wellâthen what are you doing here?” he says.
Ingrid stops hula dancing. “What do you mean?”
He points to the clock. “The post office closes at
I push my chair back from the table. Am I that out of touch with Wippamunkâwith the worldâthat I don't even know this basic fact of weekly life?
“It does not,” I say. “Please tell me the post office doesn't close at twelve.”
“Yyyyeah. It does. And it'sâeleven fifty-four.”
“What if I drop it in a collection box somewhere in town? Would it get postmarked today?”
“In theory, I suppose,” EJ says. “But you never know.”
Ingrid snatches the recipe from EJ. She and I quick step to my car. The post office isn't far. Sixty, maybe ninety seconds up the street.
In the backseat she licks the envelope and seals it. A space in the traffic opens, and I jerk the wheel left and swing into the first parking spot. Her head whacks against the window with the sudden momentum.
“Ouch?” she says.
It's eleven fifty-eight.
She sprints to the post office doors, but they're locked. She pounds on the glass as I join her at the door. Inside a bald man in a gray uniform glances at her and quickly ducks into a back room.
“Hey!” she yells. She pounds on the glass some more. “Hey, you in there!”
The inside lights turn off. “Are you kidding me, sir?” I yell. “It's not twelve yet. It's eleven fifty-eight. Okay. It's eleven fifty-nine. But it's not twelve.”
Ingrid rests a cheek on the glass and looks at me with the face of a pitiful puppy. “We could drive our entry to Boston and hand deliver it,” she says.
I bang my head. “Balls, balls, balls.”
The door Ingrid's leaning on swings open. She stumbles over the threshold, nearly into the bald man in gray, who now wears a windbreaker. He zips it to his chin and frowns. “Do you know what today is?”
I grab the envelope and thrust it at him. “I know very well what today is. It's March tenth, and it's the same date that needs to be postmarked on this envelope.
The man reaches his arm out the door, aims his car keys down the parking lot, where several other cars are parked, and pushes a button. In the back of the building an engine rumbles.
“Today, young lady, is my first golf outing of the season. I've got a two twenty-five tee time on the Cape, and I've been fantasizing about it since last fall, the last time I golfed. And I'm not gonna miss my tee time. So if you'll kindly excuse me.”
“But it's not twelve yet,” Ingrid says. She makes an exaggerated sad face.
The man looks at his watch. “Wulp, it is now. It's 12:01, in fact.” He steps outside between us, relocks the door, and marches toward his car.
I glance inside; a light remains on in the back room, where a few workers chat and sort mail.
I grab Ingrid's hand and follow the man up the sidewalk. I'm not really sure what I'm going to do or say. But from behind the building a rusty Jeep careens around the corner. Russ. He skids to a stop, rolls down his window, and toots the horn. “Hiya, Zell. Ingrid.”
“A little help here, Russ?”
He slaps the steering wheel. “Come on, Phil,” he says to the man. “Why don't you let the lovely ladies here inside? Lick their stamps and give 'em a thrill.”
“Because I've got a two twenty-five tee timeâ”
“I know, I know,” Russ says. “And you've been dreaming about it since last fall. Listen, I'll take care of them.”
Phil bats a hand at Russ, as if to say good riddance, and continues to his car.
Russ parks, and we follow him to the door. He pretends not to notice as I wipe tears from my face with my sleeve. I don't know why, but I'm crying.
“It's okay, Zell,” whispers Ingrid. She squeezes my hand. “We made it.”