A doo-wop theme song plays, and Polly pinches her cheeks and bustles to her diner booth. The green APPLAUSE! sign flashes. The audience erupts: clapping, whistling, woo-hooing.
Polly smiles, showing her teeth. Her voice sounds shaky. “Welcome back to
Pinch of Love Live.
I'm your host, Polly Pinch.”
Much of Wippamunk watches
Pinch of Love Live
in the town hall. Chief Kent won't allow more than three hundred people insideâthat's the maximum number the fire code permits. So he sends the overflow to the Blue Plate Lounge, Orbit Pizza, and Murtonen's Muffinry.
People occupy every available space in the Muffinry. EJ's modest little shop is standing room only, with many more patrons than chairs. It's the best day of business he can remember.
Travis brings a big television from his house and sets it up in the bay window. He sits next to EJ behind the cash register. They survey the crowd, and Travis blathers about how hot Polly Pinch is. Finally the credits roll and the theme song starts playing, and the Muffinry goes from loud chatter to total silence.
On the screen, Polly moistens her lips. Her eyes follow the trolling camera. EJ thinks she looks rather like a deer in the headlights; maybe live television just isn't her bag.
“I have some guests here with me onstage,” TV-Polly says. “And
of them is the winner of twenty thousand dollars, and my first-ever international baking contest, Desserts That Warm the Soul.”
The camera trains on a bouffanted woman dressed like a 1950s diner waitress. She displays an issue of
Meals in a Cinch with Polly Pinch
magazine and vogues it with her hands. The television audience claps.
“Let's taste one of our winners,” Polly says.
Laughter murmurs through the television audience. In the Muffinry, an old guy shouts, “She can taste
if she wants.”
“Oh, excuse me,” says Polly. She giggles and touches her fingertips to her lips. “I meant, of course, let's taste one of our winning
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Hamill Harding of San Diego, California, whose delectable cookies were deemed by the expert panel of judges asâand I quoteâirresistible, and light as a cloud, yet boldly flavorful.”
The camera shows Hamill Harding, an old cowboy-looking guy. He does a little seated bow and rolls an imaginary top hat down his arm and off his fingers. “Thanks, Polly,” he says.
The bouffanted diner waitress now vogues Hamill's cookies. They're square and arranged on a silver tray.
“Little Miss Ingrid? Honey?” Polly shoots a frozen glance at Ingrid, whom the camera shows for the first time. The Muffinry explodes in applause and whistles. Zell sits next to her. She looks good, EJ thinks. She looks good.
“Would you do us the honor of having the first delectable bite of Hamill Harding's Hidden Cranberry Spice-eez?” Polly's gaze trains on the camera again. “Ingrid is . . . the . . . special helper of our
guest, whom I'll introduce to the world in just a second.”
Ingrid winks at Polly, then at the camera, as it zooms in on her face.
“That little girl's a natural!” says the old-timer in the Muffinry.
Ingrid selects a thick cookie from the tray on Hamill's knees. She lets her lips linger on the cookie, Polly Pinch style. She swallows and takes another bite. “Mmm,” she says. “Scrump.” She licks her lips and gazes at the camera.
The television audience laughs, and the Muffinry erupts in whistles and laughter, too.
Ingrid finishes the cookie. Polly addresses Hamill Harding with another frozen smile. “Now, Hamill. Before we move into the kitchen and get baking these bee'yoots, care to share your inspiration for your Hidden Cranberry Spice-eez?”
Hamill rubs the knees of his khakis and clears his phlegmy throat. “Well, I was inspired by the cranberry bogs in New Jersey, where I spent my summers as a kid, visiting my second cousins. I love cranberries, and I always cook with them. Most people are used to dried and sugared cranberries, but I cook with fresh cranberries whenever possible.”
“Mmm. Fresh cranberries,” says Polly. “They're so crisp and tart, and their color is just bee'yootiful. What else do you want to tell us, Hamill?”
“Well, in my Hidden Cranberry Spice-eez, the binding ingredientâand this might come as a surprise, because it doesn't seem to quite go with cranberries, and plus, you can't even really
itâbut the binding ingredient is actually peanut butter, Polly.”
The camera shows Ingrid bite another cookie. She coughs midswallow and covers her mouth with her arm. She seems to blush.
“Just a pinch, Polly.” Hamill grins and goes “heh-heh-heh” at his little joke. Polite laughter ripples through the television audience; one person claps four times. In the Muffinry, someone groans.
The camera shows Ingrid again. Her eyes grow wide. And a little wider, until they're bulging.
“Something's wrong here,” EJ says.
“Yeah, hey,” says Travis.
Raised welts form on Ingrid's neck. She slides from her stool. She gasps and presses her head spastically against the counter.
“What's going on?” people in the Muffinry ask. “What's wrong with the little girl?”
The camera shows Zell, who slaps her forehead. “Balls!”
“Dude,” Travis says in EJ's ear. “I think your friend just said âballs' on live television.”
Zell's microphone thumps as she rips it from her shirt. “Did you say there's peanut butter in those cookies?”
A little metropolitan-looking man with spiky hairâobviously someone who's supposed to be backstageâruns onto the set. He makes an urgent throat-slicing signal at Polly.
Polly turns to the camera. “We'll be right back. Don't go away.”
The white ON THE AIR sign fades.
I kneel and fan Ingrid with my hands. “There's a thing in my fairy bag,” I shout. “A pen.”
?” Polly says, her face blanched.
“An EpiPen! A friggin' EpiPen! Where's my fairy bag? Someone get my g.d. bag!”
Two of Spike's minions dash backstage.
“Garrett?” I scream. I see him dart from the back row, down the steps. He trips up onto the stage and joins me at Ingrid's side.
“What's wrong with her?” Hamill says.
“She's got a peanut allergy.” I tear off my fake glasses and fling them to the front row.
Hamill's and Polly's mouths drop open.
Ingrid appears to stop breathing.
AT THE HOSPITAL EMERGENCY ROOM, they wheel Ingrid away on a gurney. She looks so small, swamped by the oxygen mask. I wonder what she hears of the commotion around herânurses and doctors bustling and yelling.
Now the backs of my knees stick to the waiting-room chair. Garrett's next to me. His elbows rest on his knees, and his head hangs low.
“I'm sorry,” I say. “It's myâ”
“She left me.”
“She left me,” Garrett says. “She left
“Anita. Anita Pinchelman was her name. She changed her name to Polly Pinch.”
A man in scrubs enters the waiting room. Garrett and I both stand, but the man approaches a young couple seated across from us. They listen solemnly as he explains something.
Garrett and I sit back down.
“We tried to make it work,” he says. “But Anitaâ
âdecided she just didn't want to be a mother. She didn't want any of it. She really did leave me when Ingrid was a month old, for a traveling jewelry salesman. He took her down to Atlanta with him. I guess that's where she learned something about cooking. Ever notice how much Polly relies on traditional Southern flavors in her recipes? All that âratchet up the action' nonsense? Polly's taken all these soul-food classics and lightened them up a little. Made them healthier. You know, with spices instead of lard or whatever. That kind of thing.”
Garrett rests his chin on his fists. “She didn't cook jack-crap when we were together, Zell. Not even a tray of frickin' brownies. She was as hopeless as I was in the kitchen.”
The man in scrubs leaves the waiting area, and the couple across from us collapses in the chairs. I glance out the window, where a pair of sparrows flits to and from a nest under a nearby window ledge.
Garrett stares at his shoes. “When things in Atlanta didn't work out, Anita moved back to Boston, but not with me. She moved in with friends and changed her name to what she thought would work well for an actressâsomething with alliteration, that sounded like she could go from angel to go-go dancer, depending on the circumstances. She went to every audition she heard of, trying to find acting work. Her roommate told me Anita was about to move to Los Angeles when she tried out for some cooking show. She didn't even know what the audition was
And just like that”âGarrett snaps his fingersâ“she's teaching all the English-speaking world how to cook. She's got the most famous clavicles in North America. She's on cracker boxes, billboards, Big Yum Donuts commercials.”
“You mean, she doesn't really know how to cook?”
“She does now, apparently,” Garrett says. “But when I knew her? Like I said. Not even a tray of frickin' brownies.”
“Damn,” I say, a little too loudly.
“I tried to get in touch with her when I found out she was back in town. Before she got famous. I missed her, sure. But I also wanted Ingrid to have a mother.”
“Anita wouldn't see me. She wouldn't return my calls. Finally one day I got a letter saying that if I didn't stop calling her, she'd take out a restraining order against me. Hardly a good thing if I wanted to be a lawyer someday. So I stopped calling her. I just stopped calling her. And that was that.
“A good while later,” he says, “when I was moving to Worcester to save money on rent, I found a box of her old stuff in the attic. Old CDs she never listened to, a couple sweaters, photographs. I moved that box with me from Boston to Worcester to all the different apartments we had in Wippamunk before we moved in next door to you. I don't know why I hung on to the box for so long. Maybe I was hoping she would come back to us. That we would work it out. Someday. Eventually. In that box of Anita's old stuff? That's where Ingrid found that old picture of us. And Anita's old ski hat. Her old, ratty, ugly, red ski hat.”
I remember the first time I babysat Ingrid, and how I bribed her to move Nick's present to the top of the stairs. She said she loved attics, because they're full of secrets, history, and hidden treasure.
And truth, I think; they're often full of truth.
“So Ingrid found the box,” I say, “and those old photographs of you and Anita, and she just . . . knew?”
“How could she not know? Ingrid looks just like her. She's the little black Afro'd version of Polly Pinch. We watch
Pinch of Love
together, you know, just flipping through the channels on a Saturday night or something. I subscribe to the magazine, just to keep up with Anita, with her career.”
“It's a pretty good magazine,” I say. “I mean, it's pretty educational.”
“Yeah. Even a dummy like me can follow those recipes. Anyway, Ingrid put that hat on her beautiful little head, and it was all over.”
“You ever hear from her?”
“She sends me checks every six months or so, starting when Ingrid turned two,” says Garrett. “Pretty sizable ones, too. I put them all in a savings account for Ingrid. You know, for later in her life. In case she really does decide, someday, that she wants to move to France and study the culinary arts.”
“How much does Trudy know about all this?”
“She knows everything. She's as tight-lipped as they come about family business.”
“A true Munker,” I say.
“Trudy loves my daughter; that's for sure.”
A woman's voice comes over the intercom:
Paging Dr. Flores. Paging Dr. Flores. Line three, please. Line three.
“Am I a bad parent?” Garrett bites his lip. “Am I a terrible father?”
“What? God, no. Are you kidding me?”
“I just didn't want Ingrid to get hurt. I didn't know what to do. What does a twenty-three-year-old kid do with a little baby? A beautiful little baby girl?” His head's back in his hands, elbows on knees.
“She hasn't had a peanut reaction in so long,” he says. “I've never even had to use the EpiPen on her. Nobody has, ever. Everywhere she goes, I warn whoever's in charge that she has a peanut allergy. And I give them an EpiPen. And of all the places I
to give this warning? The set of her own mother's cooking show.
“You do the best you can, Garrett,” I say. “I think you're a great dad.”
“I almost killed her with a teaspoon of peanut butter when she was eleven months old. I was making myself PB and J, and she reached for the knife, so I dipped a spoon in the jar and handed it to her. Twenty seconds later I turn around and she's sitting there in her highchair, red as a tomato, eyes bulging, grabbing her throat. How was I supposed to know? Nowadays everybody knows about peanut allergies. But back then?”
I rest my hand on the dip between his shoulder blades. “You
supposed to know,” I say. “Sometimes I think none of us are supposed to know much of anything, in the grand scheme of things. Know what I mean?”