Pinch of Love (9781101558638) (3 page)

BOOK: Pinch of Love (9781101558638)
9.66Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
“Of course there's nothing in it,” says Dennis. “Now, cover up your feet before they get all frostbit.”
I sit back down on the steps and wrap my feet in the blanket. I set the cube in my lap and finger the lid, melted and gnarled like a swollen lip. Ahab whines and steps toward me. I stroke his head and lower my face to kiss him. A tear sneaks from my eye and is absorbed in the dense, whiskered pucker of fur that is the equivalent of a dog eyebrow.
“Ay, Chief!” EJ calls from inside.
“Can you please get EJ out of my kitchen?” I say. “I just can't—I'm sorry, but—”
“Sure,” Chief says. “Sure thing, Zell.” He sighs and goes inside.
Dennis unclips his press pass and stuffs it into his pocket. He grips my shoulder in a fatherly gesture. “Be well,” he says. A moment later, I watch his car bounce down the road.
Soon EJ and Chief emerge from my house and tromp down the steps.
“Zell?” Chief says—meaning, good-bye.
EJ doesn't speak to me, of course—he hasn't since The Trip. I think he's afraid of me. I can't blame him, because since Nick died, I haven't exactly been approachable, despite my efforts.
EJ stoops and softly tugs the blanket from my feet. Our eyes don't meet.
He and Chief join the other firefighters aboard Engine 1747. Russ drives, skinny, bare-armed Russ at the oversize steering wheel, bouncing down potholed High Street. Engine 1747 turns the corner. Puffs of gray, greasy exhaust hang over the street and fade, and the world is quiet again.
And save for Ahab, I'm alone. Just like that.
Ahab follows me into the kitchen, where I admit the new guy was right: There's no damage at all. The odors of smoke and fire extinguisher linger, but the room doesn't look any different than it did before the fire, except maybe a bit cleaner, somehow.
I smell something else. Coffee. Apparently, EJ brewed a half pot. Not for himself, I know, because I don't find any used mugs in the sink or dishwasher. He brewed it for me. I pour some and drink it black.
Ahab wants cookie dough. He cocks his head, dipping the eye-patch side of his face toward the floor. He doesn't really have an eye patch, but his fur's Holstein pattern makes it look so.
I pinch a dollop of dough and drop it into his elevated dish. He laps it up and nudges my hand for more, so I give him another peanut-buttery blob.
“Arr, Zell. I woulda chowed
yer treats. Cooked or uncooked. Every last bloody one. With or without a noggin o' rum. Yarr.”
I think of Garrett Knox's daughter and her peanut allergy. She doesn't know what she's missing: peanut butter's salty-sweet creaminess. I'll bet she doesn't even have a memory of peanuts—no memory, no taste. A clean slate, a blank wall.
I put Nick's camo apron back where I found it, under the sink. And there I discover, in the trash can, heaps of soot-blackened paper towels. EJ, all that time, was cleaning my oven, cleaning my kitchen.
I notice the magnetic notepad on my refrigerator. The top sheet bears slanted, blocky man-handwriting: HEY, ZELL, TIME WE TALKED, COME DOWN TO THE MUFFINRY, ANYTIME, PLEASE.
EJ's business card is tucked under the magnet, as if I don't know where the Muffinry is. The card reads,
EJ “The Muffin Man” Murtonen!
Come to Murtonen's Muffinry at 900 Main Street in beautiful Wippamunk, Mass., for the best muffins and coffee west of 495, or your money back!
FOR A COUPLE OF YEARS NOW, my heart does this weird thing, at weird times. Like now: four in the morning. The weird heart thing is sort of like being a widow—familiar by now, and yet completely foreign.
My heart thumps fast and hard. I sit up, gasping, and press my back against the headboard, which Nick trash picked and I painted midnight blue with silver stars of different sizes. Next to me, Ahab lifts his head. His eyes flash in the dark.
I count the seconds that pass during the spastic beats: six. Then the beats stop altogether, and I count the seconds that lapse during that weightless absence of internal thump: five.
My heart goes back to normal, plodding along steadily, calmly, unremarkably.
I turn on the light; I won't sleep. Ahab knows it, too, so he stands and eases himself down, daintily stepping on the footstool Nick trash picked for Ahab's exclusive use because, as he got older, jumping from our bed proved challenging, and a few times he slid right off the mattress and crashed to the floor, his legs splayed beneath him.
He follows me down the hall. I stand in the doorway of my office—I draw medical illustrations for a living—and inhale the scents of wood, wax, and eraser. I caress the slack jaw of the skeleton that hangs from a wheeled stand just inside the door. “Hi, Hank,” I whisper.
Hank was Nick's name for the skeleton.
I'm hit with a Memory Smack; they plague me quite frequently. I was erasing something—an errant pencil mark alongside a tibia, or maybe I misspelled “brachiocephalic”—when Nick poked his head in my office door.
“You need a break,” he said. He sang “Welcome to the Jungle.” He took Hank down, held his wrists, and made him dance like Axl Rose: legs kicking out to the side, arms waving, hips swaying.
That was when we first moved in.
As so often happens when you're a widow, one Memory Smack leads to another, without regard to sequencing or time, and this second Memory Smack is from a trash night not so long ago: Nick beeped the horn and backed our crappy blue car into the driveway. Ahab and I watched from the door as he filled his arms with loot from the trunk. He smiled, took the porch steps two at a time, and planted a noisy kiss on my lips.
“Hope we like Gladys,” he said.
That sharp autumnal smell clung to his dark hair. That smell of outside things receding into cold air. We in Wippamunk appreciate that process—it could be said we
it—the annual beauty of fading, withering, and disappearing. That's our New England style.
Nick dropped his trash-night loot on the couch. We inspected it: a turntable, and a milk crate containing a complete collection of vinyl records by Gladys Knight and the Pips—in total, thirty-six albums.
The turntable and the albums were the very last things he trash picked.
The Memory Smack ends. Its edges turn black, and the scene shrinks until I can no longer see it, or smell it, or hear it.
Real time, real place.
Next to me, Ahab sniffs Hank's kneecap.
“Blimey, Hank!” I say softly, in Ahab Voice.
We continue downstairs, leaving Hank swaying slightly.
I Velcro Ahab into his gray fleece coat and tuck his ears into the elastic face hole. I tug a neoprene booty over each paw.
I zip my boots over my pajama pants, bundle my coat and scarf tight. I retrieve the warped, singed cube from a shelf in the living room, where I left it among Nick's dad's pottery. Even as the cube's contents knock around inside, I tell myself it's empty. The present feels heavy, though it probably weighs only a couple of pounds. I tuck it under one arm and clip on Ahab's leash.
We step outside, and the cold knifes through the thin cotton covering my legs. We slip and slide down High Street, past a uniform row of prefab colonial-style homes, all painted shades of tan, though in the dark they're a luminous, moonish color.
We pass Bedard's Orchard. Here Ahab sniffs expectantly for Mr. B.'s fat orange cat, which he loves to try to chase, but the cat's not around tonight.
We pass the three-room police station and turn left onto Main Street. Ahab tries to cross because he thinks we're headed for the high school football field, where I let him off leash to run around. But we aren't headed for the high school tonight. Instead we climb Main Street, past the junction of Route 331. No cars. No traffic to speak of.
I feel the skin on my face tighten. I try to smile. I try to frown. It's so cold, I can't do either.
We pass the town hall and the town common and the cemetery, where gravestones from the eighteenth century tilt like bad teeth.
Ahab has no idea where we're going, but he takes the lead anyway, heading past the Congregational church, the Cumberland Farms, Wippamunk Gift Shoppe, Big Yum Donuts, and the gas station.
Main Street is dark, still, and lifeless—except ahead, where a traffic light blinks in front of Murtonen's Muffinry. Its windows are steamed. The smells of coffee, warm butter, and sugar waft into the empty gravel parking lot, and inside, yellow lights glow. From behind the building the butt end of the Muffinry van sticks out. I can just make out its edible-looking letters, the bite marks in the
EJ's massive shape moves inside the Muffinry's big bay window. He takes chairs down from tables.
Ahab and I continue on. But I stop abruptly when he growls. He never growls.
I scan my surroundings, trying to see what he sees—what makes him growl. But it's so dark, I can't see much, even with the blinking light. I realize I shouldn't have stopped, because now—standing in the parking lot with my breath hovering over me in icy puffs, stupidly gawping at Murtonen's Muffinry's gray-and-maroon-striped awning—I lose my nerve. Maybe I'm not ready to talk to EJ. Maybe I'm not ready to open Nick's present.
The air smells of gasoline, salt, and sand from the road, and EJ's muffins. EJ “The Muffin Man” Murtonen's delicious, cakey, moist, huge, Best of Wippamunk Award–winning muffins.
In my chest, the bottom drops out again, and my heart is suspended in beatless silence. Four frozen seconds. Five frozen seconds. Six. I really should call back Dr. Carrie Fung. But maybe if I don't, something bad—bad enough—will happen. After all, there's a lot for the human body to sabotage, so many gloriously fatal mistakes it can make. If I never return Dr. Fung's calls, some bad-enough heart episode might occur, and the event will lift me right off my feet, straight from this parking lot, straight up from Wippamunk, straight up from life. I'll float around beautifully—like dandelion fuzz spinning off a stem, like a tangle of Ahab's fur swept along the kitchen baseboard by cold wind when I open the back door to let him in. I'll be reunited with Nick. And we'll float around together, stunningly.
But the heartbeats return, as they always do: fast at first, then normal.
I'll walk home. I'll cue Gladys and the boys and fall asleep with my lips resting in the little indentation behind Ahab's ear.
“Ahab!” I whisper. “Come on, Cap'n.”
He growls once more toward the parking lot, but he comes to me, because he always comes to me. And we head out again, back the way we came, toward High Street. Toward home.
“Harr, Zell, yer a yellow-bellied milksop,” I say.
Three and a half hours past midnight. Main Street is a black-and-blue ghost-town version of its daylight self. It's a strange time to know the world—firmly settled in neither night nor day. And just as the Muffinry van groans with protest when he turns the key, EJ himself needs a little coaxing. He rubs his face with both hands, allows a few body-shuddering yawns, and forces his palms to grip the numbingly cold steering wheel. (Finnish Americans are too tough for gloves, his dad always said.) He lets the engine idle for a few minutes, backs from his driveway into the bruised-looking world, and drives to the Muffinry.
Once there, he preheats the ovens. Turning the knobs—slippery with grease even after a good cleaning—he thinks of Zell's sooty oven. He'd known for years that Nick hid Zell's presents there. EJ knew she wasn't much of a cook, but he didn't know she
cooked. And the fact that it took her, presumably, at least a year and three months to discover this particular present, whatever it is—the fact that she hadn't touched the oven in that long—well, that fact makes him feel for her even more.
He mixes the blueberry muffin batter (sugar, flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, eggs, butter, vegetable oil, milk, and frozen blueberries that he picked himself in July at Wippamunk Farms). He pours the batter into extra-large muffin tins. At Murtonen's Muffinry, there are no bulk orders of premixed batter squeezed from plastic bags. He didn't graduate first in his class at Johnson and Wales for nothing.
He repeats the process for the corn muffins, then oat bran, chocolate, pancake, cinnamon apple, and zucchini tomato. He slides the trays into the ovens and sets the timers. A quick survey of supplies satisfies him that everything is stocked: cups, napkins, sugar packets. In an effort to impress Charlene—and she was impressed, because her last letter included a postscript that said, “Good boy for going green!!”—EJ recently switched to eighty percent recycled paper cups, unbleached napkins, and raw sugar. Organic ingredients are the next step, he thinks. Or maybe Fair Trade. He makes a mental note to learn the difference.
At the coffee station he tears open a bag of regular and takes a deep sniff as he dumps the grains into the filter. He repeats the process for decaf and all the winter flavors: eggnog spice, crème de menthe, butterscotch. Then he makes a pot of his own invention: New Orleans. He dumps regular grains into the filter and lays a few roots of chicory over the top.
He buys the chicory root from Charlene. Before he even stepped foot inside her café he knew she baked from scratch; he could tell by the aroma out front, on the sidewalk. The aroma of real butter, real flour. When the bells tinkled his arrival, she emerged from a back room. A taut apron accentuated her soft belly and ample hips. The body of a real woman, he thought; the body of a woman who takes her sweets seriously.
He ordered eight coffees. She laughed—eight coffees!—and set to pouring. He admired the exaggerated concavity of the small of her back, which made her round butt protrude invitingly. Black shiny hair curled around her pale ears and gave her the look of an imp.
BOOK: Pinch of Love (9781101558638)
9.66Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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