by Anthony V. Toscano
I found the book lying on the counter after I’d closed up shop for the day. At first, I thought I might have left it there out of pure carelessness. Or maybe a customer had spilled it from the crate of tattered volumes she’d brought to me for selling or for trading.
TOY WITH COOKING read the title in bright orange, foil-embossed capital letters. Nothing else on the cover, just a plain white background. No bar-code or other indication of price, no publisher’s logo, not even an author’s name.
I own a used-book store called Yellowed Pages. It’s situated on a backstreet of the small rural town of Railford, Pennsylvania. I manage to attract a few patrons each day only because the surrounding neighborhoods are populated, for the most part, by old, retired people who still read the paper versions of books because they can’t afford to buy computers and don’t feel as if enough of life is left to them to warrant learning new technologies anyway. They’re probably right. What little is left of my hair is gray, my stomach is pudgy, and my testicles hang low, so I figure I know how it feels to grow old.
I have no use for putting cookbooks on my shop’s mahogany shelves. Sure enough, cookbooks are right up there with romance novels and New Age nonsense when it comes to sales at the warehouse chain stores and supermarkets; but I’m not in business to earn all that much money or to sell food. I opened my place after spending twenty-five years as a real estate trader. I saved just about enough to provide for me, Ruthie, Tad and Melissa, until the two kids leave home and either Ruthie or me dies.
I’m no literary scholar, that’s for sure, but I’m more of a collector of rare-edition tales of the supernatural than a book salesman. I don’t read these books much, but I enjoy the way they look and feel when you hold onto them. Give me Arthur Machen, L.P. Hartley, Robert Aickman and Algernon Blackwood. Maybe some of Edith Wharton’s weirder stories. Certainly M.R. James and LeFanu.
But collections of recipes? Not unless we’re talking about poisons undetectable during the nineteenth century.
So maybe it was the book’s odd cover, maybe I chuckled when I read the title, or maybe I just felt tired at the end of a rainy day in late October. For whatever reason, I flipped through the book, and truth being stranger than fiction, I saw that the pages were blank. I fanned the paper sheets backward and forward a few more times, until I discovered one page that at first seemed to fade in and out with printed letters, and then cleared up enough to reveal a recipe for Pumpkin Buttermilk Pudding. I skimmed the directions, but the sun was going down fast, it was beginning to sprinkle raindrops outside, and the light inside my shop was growing dim. So I tossed TOY WITH COOKING into my leather satchel and carried it home.
I like the rain, and I stopped driving cars when I left the workaday world. Yellowed Pages is only a few blocks away from my house.
I curled myself into my hooded overcoat, lifted my satchel, listened to the bell above the doorjamb jingle as I locked up, and I walked home at a slow pace.
Maple trees, elms and oaks were fast losing their foliage to the season and the storm. Rainwater ran fast toward curbside gutter grills, leaving behind the crenulated imprints of leaves on the sidewalk. I breathed in deep the aroma of what smelled to me like a mellow blend of fresh fertilizer and sex. I don’t know why I always associate the two, but I do, and I can live with that.
I pushed aside my carnal fantasies when I approached my front porch. No use frustrating myself with dreams of days gone by forever. I could see by the light that bled through the turned-down window shades that someone was home. The smoke that wafted from the chimney told me that at least Ruthie was inside; we wouldn’t allow Tad or Melissa to light a fire in the hearth, no matter how grown up they both thought they were.
“Hello, I’m home,” I said.
“So what else is new?” yelled Ruthie from the kitchen.
“Is that onions you’re frying?”
“Burgers again for dinner,” she said. “I’m tired of burgers, but on the money you earn, we can’t afford much more than ground chuck and orange cheese these days.”
“Business will pick up soon, what with the holiday coming on. Wait and see. The old ladies and gents get themselves in the mood for ghost stories this time of year.”
“You’re dripping rain all over the floor, John. Get changed. Melissa’s going to a friend’s house to work on a science project, but you know how Tad is. He’s hungry. Again.”
I changed into my sweats and then knocked on the bathroom door.
“You still in there, Sweetie?” I said.
“Daaad! Can’t a girl get any privacy around here?” said Melissa. “Go away. You’ll know I’m out of here when I’m out.”
She was out of there just in the nick of time, because I was almost ready to piss through an open window when I heard the bathroom door creak on its hinges.
Melissa ran in one direction, and I ran in the opposite one. That’s pretty much the way things became between the two of us soon after she got her period and began to grow breasts. Real life isn’t like TV. Real life on occasion smells bad. Dads like me make awkward remarks sometimes, just because we have to pee and can’t afford to think about being polite.
I walked back into the kitchen, feeling somewhat relieved of the day’s burdens, but in some ways wishing I were back inside my shop. Tad was already chomping down into a hamburger. Tad’s upper body is so much longer than the part of him that reaches from his waist to the bottoms of his feet that he gives the impression of a limp rubber band when he’s tucked in at the table. His face is a map of pus and pimples, and he mumbles more than he talks.
Ruthie dished me up a pile of food. The three of us sat in silence under the warm, glowing overhead lamp, and we fast got down to business and ate our meal.
“Got a lot of homework,” said Tad after he’d cleaned his plate of every last crumb and kicked back his chair. His words sounded more like “gottalolahumwerk,” but Ruthie and I understood him.
Ruthie leaned against the sink washing dishes. I stared at her wide behind, until I got to feeling depressed again.
“I’m tired, John. And look here, you left your briefcase beside the refrigerator, right where I can trip over it.”
I got up from the kitchen table, nudged my way around her and grabbed the bag’s leather handles. When I sat back down, I slipped my hand inside the satchel and touched the book. I pulled it out and stared at the cover. Looking back now, I guess it was the bright orange lettering, all mixed up with the sound of pattering raindrops on the windows and thoughts of the holiday season that intrigued me. But as I reread the title, TOY WITH COOKING, and listened to Ruthie complain, on an impulse I told her that I’d make something for dessert the next day.
“You’re shittin’ me,” she said.
“No, Ruthie. You told me you’re tired, and it’s about time I contributed, and I think I have a perfect recipe right here inside this book.”
“So what’s it gonna be, then?”
Surprise for me, too, I thought to myself. I hadn’t cooked anything in years, and I never was much of a pudding maker. But what the hell.
I helped Ruthie by drying the dishes, and then we retired for the night, as the saying goes.
There’s an invisible barrier that divides my side of the bed from Ruthie’s. I’m not sure when we began to build it. But we’re kind of old now, and I suspect you just sort of settle in to things. The few times we do make love — and I wouldn’t really call it making love come to think about it — are after we’ve been to a neighbor’s house to watch a game and drink a bit too much wine from a jug.
“You feel like it?” I asked her.
“Maybe. Why not? But remember, I have a long day tomorrow. I have an appointment with my gynecologist.”
Sweet Jesus, I thought. No wonder I can’t find truth in romance novels.
Next morning was a Friday. Tad and Melissa had already left for school, and Ruthie was out of the house before I opened my eyes to the sight of black clouds hanging so close to the bedroom window that I felt like I was inside one of them. So I got out of bed and prepared myself to go shopping for some ingredients before I walked over to the book shop.
Eggs, buttermilk, unsalted butter, flour, baking soda, ground cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, pumpkin puree and whipped cream. I found most of the stuff on my own, but for the buttermilk and the pumpkin puree I had to ask a guy who wore a manager’s badge, and he had to ask one of the female employees.
“Wife gonna make you a Halloween pie?” asked the young girl who pointed out the cans of pumpkin. She looked to be not too much more than Melissa’s age, but she smiled where Melissa frowned.
“Actually, I’m making a pudding tonight.” I said.
“Wow.” She stretched out the ‘ow’ part. “Wish my man would take his eyes off the football game long enough to cook for me. Lucky wife you have.”
You’re too young to understand that marriage has nothing to do with luck, I thought. But to her I just grinned.
When I walked out of Granger’s Giant Foods, the rain was really pouring down. Like I said, I enjoy the rain, but I quick figured that no one would likely be out in that weather looking to buy rare editions, so I decided not to open Yellowed Pages that day, but instead to head straight home and begin my cooking adventure.
I opened “TOY WITH COOKING” and searched through the blank pages until the recipe came into gradual focus on page 427. I put a heavy glass ash tray on one side of the book and an iron trivet on the other to keep it spread open.
1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Click and turn the knob. No problem.
2. Whisk four eggs in a large bowl. Oh, Ruthie? Where the hell did you put the, what’s it called, a whisk? Okay, that looks like a whisk. Got it.
3. Whisk in — again the damned whisk — 2 1/2 cups buttermilk, 1/2 stick melted butter. Oh, yeah, melt the butter first. Don’t burn it. I remember now. Whisk, whisk. Looking good so far.
4. Whisk together in a separate bowl — they shoulda’ called this Whisk Pudding — 1 1/2 cups sugar, 1 1/2 cups flour, 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder — go get a friggin’ teaspoon, John — 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda — looks just like the powder stuff to me, but what the hey — 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon — I like cinnamon, so I’ll give it another dash or two — 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg, and last but not least, 1/2 teaspoon of salt. What’s that? Salt? Sounds strange to me to put salt in pudding, but what do I know?
5. Add dry ingredients to pumpkin mixture. Nice and goopey, John, old boy, and it smells good.
6. Stir the mixture with your fucking finger and taste it. So I stirred and tasted, but there was no flavor. Huh? I reread step number six, and as I stared at the words they seemed to curl, fade and then come back into focus on the page. But different this time. Not that finger! Your fucking finger! Took me a second, but then I realized and counted one, two, three from my thumb. I stirred again, this time with my longest finger, and tasted. That did the trick. Yum.
7. Bake in a water bath — see bottom of page for “water bath” — Damn, what have I gotten myself into? — until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, 35 to 45 minutes.
While the pudding baked, I ransacked Ruthie’s kitchen, until I found a toothpick way at the back of the silverware drawer. Then I cleaned up the floury mess and sat back to enjoy the sweet perfume of cinnamon and nutmeg as it filled the house’s atmosphere.
“I’m home,” said Ruthie.
I felt tempted to say ‘So what else is new?’ but instead I nodded and asked her how her doctor’s appointment went.
“Smells good in here, John. My god, is that your dessert?”
“Not much, I suppose. But I think it turned out well enough. So your day was okay?”
“Busy. Exhausting, actually. But right now I’m feeling hungry. Is that nutmeg I smell?”
“That and cinnamon. I’ve always been a master with cinnamon. Maybe I never told you that. No matter how much you think you know about another person, there’s still things left to discover.”
Just then the front door banged open and hit the living room wall. I could tell by the stomping sound that it was Tad and not Melissa. Tad stomps in much the same way as he mumbles. Clumsy, inconsiderate mongrel of a kid; and to think I’ve got to claim him.
“Mind burgers for one more night?” said Ruthie. “I was just too damned tired after talking with my gynecologist to go food shopping.”
Holy Mother of God, I thought, what an appetizing teaser for a meal. But what I said was, “Hey, Ruthie, you make the best burgers this side of the Columbia River.”
“Shit, Mom,” said Tad. And then he slumped into his chair and plugged music into his jugged ears.
I heard the toilet flushing, and I knew that somehow Melissa had sneaked into the house unnoticed. When she walked into the kitchen, she headed straight for the refrigerator and yanked open its door.
“Yuck, what is that mess?” she said. “Don’t tell me, puhleeze, that that’s supposed to be food.”
“It’s your father’s cake, Sweetie,” said Ruthie.
“Pudding,” I said. “It’s chilled pumpkin pudding, and who knows, you might like it.”
Melissa huffed and shrugged her shoulders. I noticed that she’d changed the color of the lipstick she smeared on her mouth every day, from her usual blood-red paint to a murky shade of purple. I wanted to scream, but I kept my mouth shut. I hated the way she looked, but I’d long ago learned that any comment I made about my daughter, positive or negative, led to arguments and nothing more.
When the burgers were done, we settled into our familiar silence and ate. One of Tad’s pimples, a big one at the tip of his nose, had burst and leaked white goo to join the food he chewed. Melissa’s hamburger bun had a purple bruise where she bit into it. Ruthie clacked her tongue against her teeth. I turned my face away from all of them and imagined that the top of my bald head shone fiery red under the lamp’s glare.
“I’ll clear away the dirty dishes, Ruthie. You set yourself down, what with sweating over the stove and all.”
Tad shoved his chair back and away from the table. Melissa turned her body sideways.
“Oh, no you don’t, kids,” I said. “I want you to at least try my dessert.”
“Mom, do we have to?” said Tad, which sounded like “Mawmduhwehafta?”
“Daaad!” said Melissa.
“Your father worked hard for us today. Let’s all of us give his cake a chance,” said Ruthie.
“Pudding,” I said. “Pumpkin pudding.”
I pulled the dish from the fridge and served one heaping pile of pudding to each member of my happy family. I squirted plenty of whipped cream on top of each helping. Looked sort of pretty.
“Go on now, dig in,” I said.
Tad shoveled a scoop’s worth into his mouth. Melissa closed her eyes and quick slid her share between her purple lips. Ruthie licked at the dab of pudding she had on the tip of her teaspoon. I sat back and waited.
They all began to glance around the table, from one person to another. And what happened next, I couldn’t quite believe. Grins broke out on their faces.
“Hey, dare I say it? This pudding is downright dee-li-shus!” said Ruthie.
“Purtyguhd,” said Tad.
“Not baad, Daad,” said Melissa. “I kinda like it.”
First words, then full sentences, and last a full-blown conversation exploded at the table. Our table.
What’s this all about? I wondered. I no longer recognized my family. As they chattered and giggled, they ate second helpings and then thirds. Serving spoons, spatulas, tablespoons and forks whirled through the air as if witches were riding their brooms and phantoms were floating fast through the air. The clack and clatter of silverware tapping against plates kept a rapid rhythm and left me dizzy with the dance.
“Scrumptious!” said Ruthie, and she wiggled her behind in her chair.
“Tasty!” said Tad, this time chewing just the pudding and not his words.
“Divine, Daad!” said Melissa, and her mouth turned up into the shape of a smile.
“Well, hey, I’m glad you enjoyed it,” I said. “I’ll clean up.” I noticed, though, that not one dish, spoon or fork would need much scrubbing. Their tongues had left the dinnerware gleaming.
“Now my face feels all sticky and sweet,” said Melissa. “Want to use the bathroom first, Daad? Cause I need to wash up.”
“No, you go ahead, Sweetie,” I said.
“How about you, Tad?” said Melissa.
“I have what I need in my room, but thanks for asking,” said Tad.
“Well, if you’re sure you have enough energy for scrubbing up here, I think I’ll make my way to bed,” said Ruthie, and she winked at me.
Maybe twenty minutes later, I walked down the hallway and bumped into my son. He wrapped his arms around me, patted me man-like on my back and whispered, “Thanks, Dad.” As we separated, I saw that his face looked somehow different. He noticed me staring and said, “Acne medication. Need to clear up these pimples.”
Melissa came bounding out of the bathroom. She moved her face close to my cheek and kissed me. “Night, Daad.” Out of habit, I touched my fingers to my cheek so as to wipe away the smear I’d come to expect. But my skin wasn’t gummy. I watched her face as she backed away. Her lips were pink. A natural shade of pink.
I undressed and slid into bed. Ruthie moved backward across our imaginary line. She pushed her rear end close enough to touch me where it counts. And I admit that right then I didn’t think about the width of her hips; I just savored the good sensation. Soon enough, we were at it like a couple of kids.
Afterward, we cuddled up together in the shape of two spoons, one spoon snuggling inside the other.
“Mmmm,” said Ruthie. “You smell like nutmeg.”
“You smell like cinnamon.”
As I drifted off to sleep, I said a prayer. One of those prayers you’re not really supposed to say. I asked the Lord for a favor. But to be fair, I made a promise, as well. “Dear Lord,” I begged, “If you’ll take care to see that TOY WITH COOKING shows me another recipe tomorrow, then I’ll dedicate an entire set of shelves inside Yellowed Pages to cookbooks.”