My mother loved to scrapbook. She had drawers full of scrapbooks, and they were all filled with pictures of cakes. It was funny because we never ate a lot of sweets. My mother said it was bad for our health, and she made us eat vegetables instead-usually boiled or chopped, whatever she preferred. We lived in a small apartment above a laundry mat, and we were lucky, because most apartments in those days didn’t have laundry mats. We lived in a small city in Kentucky, and a lot of cities back in those days were dirt poor. My mother dreamt of owning a garden. A garden or a farm, whatever we could afford. We couldn’t afford much. We got buy on bread and cabbage water and lettuce. We got by on little or nothing at all. We couldn’t find our way through the dirt-lined streets, the slowly crumbling democracy. The politicians didn’t have a clue. We listened to them on a radio. The radio was the only means of communication we had at the time. We didn’t even have a phone. We were far too poor for that. My mother said Johnathan was going to go through college, and that was final. My mother said lots of things. Lots of things didn’t matter. Johnathan-or John for short-got in trouble, sometimes. Usually, it was about a girl. He got in line with the bad guys and spent his days smoking behind bleachers at the high school, and getting chased away by the principal or Mr. McGreggar.
My mother was a superb cook. She subscribed to all the latest cooking magazines and happily watched all the cooking shows. She was a fanatic about cooking. She loved Starbuck’s. It was her favorite place to eat. We ate mostly brownies and cakes and cookies, and of course coffee. I was working nine to five at my job in San Fernando, and it was hard to go out and see my mother and hear her heartbreak about how no one came to see her. She said the magazines kept her busy. She was sixty-five and used to be a schoolteacher and now got Social Security.
To my intense horror, I found out she had a new boyfriend.
His name was Sam Simmons and he worked at a catering company out in Alcapolco Drive.
I met him and we didn’t hit it off right away; he suggested we go fishing together. I asked him what kind of fishing, and he said salmon. He loved salmon. It was his favorite fish. He had silver hair and blue eyes. They were bright as the sea, maybe even brighter, and my mother enjoyed talking to him, she said. His son died in Vietnam and he was lonely. He was fifty-nine and they hit it off very well. I wasn’t sure I liked it. I wasn’t sure about anything at that point. In the summer of ’89, my father bought a boat. Things were going smoothly in the marriage. My oldest brother, Johnathan, loved fishing and my father won five thousand dollars from the lottery. Mom was outraged he bought a fishing boat with the money and he told her to relax. That was the last straw. Mom kicked him out and he was left on the porch, with one suitcase, the fishing boat, and the car. Johnathan went to help Mom. I went to help Dad. That was the summer of ’89. I wasn’t born, yet. In ’91, I packed up my stuff and moved to Columbus, Ohio. My mother threw a fit. She whined and cried and had a big meltdown. Dad didn’t bother to care. He had a new girlfriend and was living in a trailer out in Saline, Michigan. He said he didn’t want to go back to her. They still had the boat and went out on it every day and watched the sun go down over the trees and he said he was real happy, for the very first time.
Dad said Mom liked his cakes too much and should shove them up he knew where. I thought Mom should open up a bakery. She insisted she wouldn’t be able to borrow the money; that the banks had a quarrel with her and refused to lend her money. When I asked her about it, she refused to tell me why. She was living off of Social Security, too. She said she couldn’t work because her back hurts. She said some people talked about her behind her back where she used to work at the peanut factory and they said they always had a job for her. She insisted the boss secretly hated her and refused to go back. I never knew why. I didn’t really know what she was talking about and nodded and smiled in all the right places. I lived in a nice little house. The house was white and had white trimmings and the grass was taller near the front door. I had a little car, a Volvo. It was blue. I got it for my graduation present from graduating from Stanford. I got a degree in law and child education-of course I chose neither. I don’t really know why I didn’t want to be a lawyer. Most lawyers were, at best, a mixed blessing, and nothing good could come of that. It was nearing Thanksgiving and Mom said it was about time I met Sam, her beau. He was an avid golfer and a tennis player and the apartment he lived in had a tennis court and a volleyball court.
Most of the apartments were empty; they built them in the early 90s and Sam said they were going to add on to them.
Mom said she was getting along with his daughter-her name was Amanda and she had blonde hair and blue eyes and a daughter named Arabelle.
Arabelle was bright-eyed and loved jokes.
Her mother got one of those joke books from the mall and was telling jokes to everyone she met-even people on the streets. Amanda said she had to make Arabelle stop telling jokes.
“I think we should all have dinner one day,” Mom said one morning, her face breaking into a smile. I had come over to help fix her garbage disposal. It was always on the fritz. It had just rained and a nice shimmer of rain was on the grass. The grass was green and it was spring and they were growing.
I quirked an eyebrow at her. “With who?” I echoed. “Some rock star pop group?”
She giggled and blushed. Mom put her hair up in a bun and puttered about in her garden. The wind blew. It was cold for spring. She hadn’t had time to garden in awhile; she let Mother Nature seed the grain; seed the wind; the lightning and the rain. “Sam and his family, of course,” she said, smiling. “I’d love for you to meet them.”
I shrugged. “I guess,” I replied casually. I didn’t really care. I was too busy thinking about Mom and Dad being separate-it was hard to wrap my mind around. I wanted to dig my heels into the carpet. I wanted to ball my fists and shout, “No! No! No!” I couldn’t do anything. I stood there, feeling numb. I didn’t feel anything at all. “Don’t we have to talk about politics? You know how avid you get about politics.”
She made a face at me. “The president is such a coot!” she declared, and shook her head. “I don’t know what Americans see in him.”
“We voted for him fair and square.”
“Don’t be silly, you never vote.”
“Right. Didn’t think about that one.” I snorted, and shook my head.
I had a hard time keeping up with my mother. I agreed to come to dinner, and brought my wife with me. Her name was Anna. We met in our freshman year of college. She got a degree in biology and was a biologist at the local aquarium. She made sure the fish were fed. And the algae was kept at bay.
Sam came over to the house the next week.
He brought Amanda, his daughter, and her daughter, his granddaughter; Arabelle was only five. She had some bubble toys and was blowing bubbles with the bubble blower. I didn’t know what those things were called. I took the toy away from her. She laughed. That was odd. Most babies cried when I took their toys away. Good for Arabelle. Don’t listen to what everyone else says. I set her in the high chair and she blew bubbles in my face and giggled and laughed and squirmed, trying to get out of her high chair. Her mother gave her a cup of pudding and she laughed and banged her spoon on the tray. I forgot to mention, Johnathan was here, too. My brother. I forgot if he was still married. I was going to have to check on that. Maybe he wasn’t. He was getting bald and fat and his art store was going under. I bought a rocking chair from him last year because I felt sorry for him.
“Charming child,” I muttered, and made a face at her.
She abruptly burst into tears.
“Isn’t she, though?” Johnathan banged me on the back and hacked another cough. Yeah, my brother was good with children.
Good smells wafted from the kitchen. My brother didn’t bother consoling the child. He assured me she was fine, and plopped on the old brown couch in the living room and turned on the television set. Yeah, right. That’s my brother, Mr. Sensitive.
I loved the smell of food. The smell of hamburger frying on the stove; of mashed potatoes being fried in a sauce pan.
Sam was watching football in the bed room-Johnathan was watching golf.
The smells were intriguing, and the heaviness of the smells filled inside everything. The food was ready and all at once, everything was put on the table-the mashed potatoes; the roast beef; the baked beans; and, the lemon cake. My mom’s famous lemon cake. Everything smelled delicious, and I told her as much. She beamed at me and patted my head. I didn’t like.
My head. Being. Patted.
We started to eat dinner. Salad. She said it wasn’t the only thing she was serving. She wanted to prepare us for the meal.
Conversation was light at first; Johnathan mumbled to Sam about politics around a mouthful of mashed potatoes; my mother talked about the quilt she was sewing. Normal family conversation, except we weren’t really a normal family. Not yet. She and Sam weren’t married, and we weren’t really getting along that well. It would change, I was sure. We would do better.
Johnathan tried to smile at me. Well, that was a first. My big brother never offered me a kind word. A consolidation. Or even eye contact.
Arabelle babbled about Aladdin and the princess. Her mother talked to me about cheese, but I wasn’t listening. Finally, my mother broke the silence.
“Nathan,” she scolded me.
I looked up from my mashed potatoes, a weird expression on my face. I wanted to be anywhere but there, no offense to my family. I felt left out. Misplaced. Used up like an old car at a lot. “Yeah?” I said, trying not to wince.
“Don’t you have something to say?” she asked gently.
I looked startled. I looked back at her, incredulously. “What do you mean?” I asked her. I was an adult. I didn’t have to be talked to like a child.
“You’ve been quiet all evening,” she said, her mouth turned downward. “You’ve been frosty towards Sam, and his daughter and granddaughter. I think you owe them an apology.”
Sam waved it away. “Nonsense, we were having an engaging conversation.”
“No!” she insisted. “I don’t like how things are between you two. I want it to stop. Now.” She put down her fork and glared at me. Boy, when she wanted to, she could glare a whole ocean. Whatever.
I wasn’t sure how long I could stand these people another minute. Sam was okay if he didn’t talk. His daughter was okay if I didn’t see her. And his granddaughter was just a crazy nut. She was five. What did I expect from a five-year-old?
“I’m sorry,” I sighed.
“Guess what else I’m serving!” Mom exclaimed, her cheeks a bright pink.
She came in and put a big plate full of hamburgers on the table. She used her expensive china for the event.
I frowned. “I thought we were eating salad,” I said, frowning.
She laughed. “That’s not the main course.”
Since when did we start eating main courses? Oh yeah, since Sam. I remember now. That guy.
Arabelle burst into tears and threw her spoon onto the floor. It made a loud racket; her mother laughed and patted her on the head. I didn’t think she liked being patted on the head. Her mother thought she did.
Dinner was a terror. Arabelle cried the whole time. Johnathan argued with me about politics. I was surprised he even came to the dinner-he usually spent time with his girlfriend, or at work. He didn’t have time for the family. Anna was quiet through dinner, I patted her hand and she smiled at me and said later she didn’t feel like talking, that Arabelle seemed to do it for her. My girlfriend was a real sweetheart. She took care of the kid through most of the meal. Mom was impressed, afterwards.
Johnathan said Ross Perot should never have been elected; all I asked was for him to pass me the ketchup. Mom said I shouldn’t waste the ketchup, and wondered how she could make her own. I didn’t think you could make ketchup at home. It wasn’t the kind of thing you could make. Mom brought out a store bought cake and Sam threw a fit. “You mean you didn’t make it yourself?” he asked. He sounded disappointed, and maybe a little annoyed. Someone annoyed by Mom’s desserts, I couldn’t handle it. Mom made excellent baked goods. She was really good at it, too. She loved to cook. It was her favorite thing to do, besides scrapbooking. I was surprised she was still with
I stared at him incredulously.
I couldn’t believe he would say such a thing to my mother. It was very rude and insensitive. She thought it wasn’t a bother. She let him say whatever he wanted, it seemed. I didn’t know if I liked it or not.
Johnathan said I was being insensitive about Mother’s needs and wishes, when I told him that. I wanted to punch him in the face. Big brother.
“I would have,” she said sadly. “But, my favorite recipe is gone. It’s the only kind of cake I like to make by hand.” She sniffed and looked down at her hands. They were faded; worn; very smooth and almost pearly white. She used to be a carpenter. Those years had faded, too, leaving nothing behind but memories. She wanted to pack everything up, start a new life. I could see it in her eyes. It hurt, but it was the truth.
He looked startled. That really changed his tune. He didn’t like it when my mother was sad. “Recipe?” he asked, leaning forward. “You have your own recipe? That’s great!”
She made a face at him. “Yes, sweetheart,” she said in exasperation. “Don’t you remember how we met at the cookie bake-off and my cookies won third place? I had a whole stack of recipes. I don’t go anywhere without them. The only cake I make for my family is bun cake. Everything was going fine. Poof. Then, I lost my cake recipe.”
“This changes everything,” he said, putting a hand on her shoulder. “We’re going to have to move heaven and earth to find it.” He glanced with me. “You with me on this, chubs?” He laughed and clapped me on the back. I wanted to punch him in the face-no one had called me chubs since high school.
* * *
“Well,” Mom said, and yawned. She stretched her head over her shoulders, signifying her tiredness. “That’s it. We called all the people we know-no one has seen my recipe.” It was the next day. Johnathan had gone home to Brunswick. I lived right near her and could come over whenever I wanted-a son’s dream come true.
“Tony seemed weirded out by your call,” I pointed out. “He hung up the phone after you mentioned bun cakes.”
She winced. “Actually, he was giggling the whole time. Tony’s gay.”
I raised an eyebrow at her. “Oh? What does that mean?”
“Gay means unusually happy,” she explained, wincing. I snorted. It wasn’t what I meant, but I’ll take it.
“Do you remember anything about the night your recipe disappeared?”
She frowned, thinking hard. “I’d just gotten home from a date with Sam-” I ignored the comment, it was the jealousy in me this time-“and I was watching television in the living room. The telephone rang, and I went to pick it up. It was Anna. She was talking about her tax return; she said they didn’t give her nearly enough.”
“That’s my Anna,” I said fondly, and reveled in wonderment. “Always thinking about others. She wants to be Mayor one day.”
“That’s not what I said at all!” Mom snapped, glaring at me.
I shook my head. “I was just joking!” I scowled. “Go on.”
She continued to stare at me. We sat cross-legged on the floor in the living room of my apartment, looking through her scrapbooks. I felt like such a sissy, looking at pictures of cakes. I was intensely disturbed. I shouldn’t be scrapbooking. It was a woman’s thing. I should be out hiking, or bike riding, although bike riding was not a man’s sport, at least it was a sport of some kind. Geez.
She hunched her shoulders. “I don’t want to,” she muttered. “There’s nothing else to say. I talked to Elisa, hung up the phone, and looked for the recipe in my scrapbook. It was gone.” She spread her arms, looking sullen. She looked like she was ready to fly away.
“Really,” I said.
She nodded. “Yes, really,” she said. She rose to her feet; a piece of paper fluttered out of the scrapbook she held in her arms. “I’m sorry, but I’ve got to make dinner.” As an afterthought, she added: “At home, I guess.” She patted my head. “Sorry, son, but your kitchen just doesn’t do the trick.” She laughed. It was an interesting sound, like a tickle at the back of the throat.
I reached for the piece of paper and picked it up eagerly. I studied it eagerly, hoping for clues about the whereabouts of Mom’s missing recipe. The clue gave me nothing-it wasn’t the recipe, anyway.
It looked like somebody’s grocery list, either Mom’s or Sam’s.
The handwriting looked like my mother’s, but I hadn’t seen Sam’s yet, and assumed it was Mom’s. I tucked it into my pocket and helped Mom pick up the scrapbooks and shelve them in the bookcase. I smiled. I was getting hungry, myself. She made raisin muffins-it wasn’t homemade, she told me she didn’t have time to get the ingredients. That was odd in itself. Mom always had time to go grocery shopping. It was one of her favorite things to do. The only thing she did, nowadays. I was comforted by Mom’s routine.
Comforted, but not put out. I ran a hand through my hair and looked around the living room. It was small, but comfortable.
Dad got a lot of money after he was in the army. He’d had a hard time getting a job, and got a house, instead. Mom got the house; Dad got the boat; and the car. Sam had his own car, a silver ’93 Oldsmobile. They weren’t married, that I knew of. Mom had the tenacity to do things outside of the norm, because it was fun to do, and she would have told me if they were going to elope. She didn’t know anything else besides routine.
Her father was a businessman, and an artist-he was known for his eccentricity and had sold quite a few pieces to local museums. Nothing big, not really.
“Mom,” I said. I got up to look at her. “What do you think happened to the recipe?” Her face was worn and had wrinkles. Her eyes were a piercing blue, and had a depthness to it that was like the bowels of the ocean. That reminded me, I hadn’t gone fishing with Dad in awhile.
She frowned and looked at me. “I must have thrown it out by accident,” she answered. “That’s the only thing that makes sense, I guess. It doesn’t sound like me, but you never know. It’s not a big deal.” She stretched and yawned. I was upset by our loss of my mother’s famous recipe. I wanted to get it back for her. I vowed to search the end’s of the earth for her recipe, and return it to her. I guess it could be her Mother’s Day gift.
I watched her waddle out the door and get into her car. The engine started. She drove away. I stumbled to my feet and decided to give Anna a call. She was never reluctant to talk to me-it was one of the reasons why I was attracted to her. We were both talkers. We talked about everything. Things that didn’t make sense to other people made sense to us.
“That’s sad,” I muttered.
I picked up the phone and called Alan D. Patterson (he liked to use his middle name), my lifelong friend. We met in elementary school. I moved in high school, and turned out his parents moved him to the same city as I had moved to. It was the perfect coincidence. “Alan,” I said.
“Yeah, buddy?” He had a thick Hispanic accent. He was from New Jersey.
“What do you think about helping me with something?” I asked. I thought he would laugh when I told him about Mom’s missing recipe, but he didn’t laugh. He was right on board with the entire thing. “I’m not trying to give you something to do. I have an actual problem.”
“Which is?” He sounded interested. Good. I was glad he was interested in helping me. I knew I could count on Alan. Alan had been my friend since college-we lost touch off and on, but we always managed to find our way back.
“My mother lost her recipe,” I replied. “I think we’re going to have to go her house and look for it. You game?”
He thought about it for a minute. “I have to make sure the neighbor’s dog stays out of my garden,” he began. “We’ve been having trouble with him again. He just won’t stay out. Leaves muddy paw prints all over my driveway. It’s a heinous crime. Such a tragedy.”
I rolled my eyes. “We have bigger things to worry about,” I assured him. “You can come over and we’ll go in the same car.”
“Your car?” he asked me suspiciously. “Don’t you have a clunker?” My car had been totaled three times in the past seven years. It had to get fixed five times. It was my baby, next to Anna. Anna and I were planning a date later in the evening. We were going to play golf. We were going to go to Starbuck’s on the weekend, after she got out of work.
I nodded. “Yeah, the very same.”
He hung up the phone, and a few minutes later, Alan’s beat-up truck pulled into my driveway. He stumbled out. He had red hair and a stubble of a beard. He knocked on my door and we got into my car and drove to my mother’s house. I knocked on the door. It took a few minutes, and she finally answered. She wore a pink shirt and blue pants. She smelled like dough.
She smiled at me. “Hello, dear,” she said absently. A wisp of hair curled around her ear. She didn’t bother to push it back. “I see you’ve brought a friend. I haven’t seen you in ten years, or more.” She chuckled. “Come in, come in. We already ate. No leftovers.”
“Where’s Sam?” Sam, her boyfriend, had moved in three months prior. He was probably at work, or out with his granddaughter.
“Nice place you got here,” Alan remarked.
Mom chuckled, and patted his hand. “Thanks, dear,” she said, smiling. “We’ve worked on it for quite a long time. Haven’t we?”
“Mother.” I cocked my head to look at her. She wasn’t listening. She continued to knead the dough-her hands were covered in the stuff. She wiped her hands on her apron and smiled at me.
“Yes, dear?” she asked, smiling.
“Are you sure nothing else happened on the day the recipe disappeared?” I was trying not to sound too impatient. Alan looked bored. He wandered over to her cookie cutter and started picking at the dough. I looked at him and blinked, wondering what he was doing here. It wasn’t for show, that was for sure.
Mom hit his hand. “Stop that!” she scolded, and made a face at him.
Alan chuckled. “Just hungry.”
She glanced at him, raised her eyebrows, and started kneading the dough again. “Why didn’t you say so?” she demanded, scowling. “We have cold chicken in the fridge. Had chicken salad last night. You can make a sandwich or eat it plain. Sam eats it plan.”
“Mom,” I urged gently. I put my hand on her shoulders.
“What? Oh, right. The day the recipe disappeared.” She put her hand to her temples. A smudge of dough stuck to the skin. She frowned. “I was making brownies, I remember. I put them in the oven and then wrapped them in the fridge. They were nice and cold in a couple of hours. I love cold brownies. They aren’t the same as my bun cake recipe, though. I add cinnamon and spice to make it extra good.” She pursed her lips. “I went into the living room because the telephone rang. I picked it up. It was Elisa Johnson, my very best friend. I turned back and the recipe was gone. The window was open-funny, I thought it was closed.” She shook her head. “You’d think I’d remember that. I thought I would.” She put her head in her hands and sniffed. “I didn’t think I would lose my recipe. I’m always so careful.” She wiped her face with her apron. Tears sparkled her eyes. It was a stupid thing to cry over. She couldn’t help it. She missed the recipe. It was in her mother’s handwriting. Her mother, long gone. She missed her mother, I could see it in her eyes.
“Sorry, Mom,” I said. “We’ll find the recipe.”
She looked up at me, her eyes bright with tears. She rubbed her eyes with her apron. “It’s okay, honey,” she babbled. “We can always get a new recipe. It’s not a big deal.”
I vowed to find the recipe. She was happy about it, and was glad I was going to try, but she warned me not to hold my breath. It was an unsolvable case.
“It’s a mystery,” I told Jacob Simmons later that afternoon. I was talking on the cell phone, and paced the brightly-lit kitchen. A clock hung above the oven, and ticked softly. The ticking of the clock. How quaint. The ticking of the hour upon the hour, and the hour was at hand. Jacob Mospry was my other best friend, next to Alan. Jacob and Alan had never met. I would like to see that. It would be interesting, no doubt. Probably more interesting than first thought.
“Neighborhood Watch is tonight,” Jacob said. We sat on the sofa in my living room, watching ESPN. I don’t know why I watched the shit. I didn’t particularly enjoy sports of any kind.
“Why are you telling me that?” I demanded.
“Because of your mother,” he explained. He shifted his gaze to the television and wouldn’t dare look at me. He knew the talk of the bun cake recipe was very sensitive for me. I didn’t want to talk about it. I looked down at my knuckles. They were turning white. I unclenched them.
Realization dawned on me. “You mean, maybe they saw something the day the bun cake recipe disappeared?” I asked hopefully.
Jacob nodded seriously. “It’s not a sure-fire answer,” he explained, “but, it’ll do. We could check it out tonight.”
“What time is it?” I asked quickly.
“Eleven-oh-clock, at Peter Warhall’s house. Do you know where his house is?”
“Yeah, it’s down the street. It’s right near my mother’s house! Maybe they did see something. I wonder why they didn’t say anything.”
“Maybe they only saw somebody,” he corrected me.
“How long do we have to wait?”
“About three hours.”
I hunched my shoulders. “Okay. Wanna play Parcheeze until then?”
“Yeah, I guess. Unless you wanna get some icecream,” he said.
“I may never eat dessert again.” I couldn’t believe it. Bun cake was my favorite. We would find the recipe. Soon. I made the promise to myself. My mother was devastated without it. It was her pride and joy. Her baby. I pulled out the board game and placed it on the floor. Jacob scooted over and we played Parcheeze for about two hours and watched tv again. Mom called once. I didn’t tell her we were going to Neighborhood Watch. Everyone in the neighborhood was invited. Most of the time, I didn’t go. I thought it was boring. Everybody else said they understood. I hung up the phone and we put on our jackets and headed outside to Peter’s house. It was getting chilly, and it was spring. I rubbed my hands. We were supposed to get spring storms. A lot of them, from the looks of the sky. We walked up the driveway to Peter Warhall’s house and knocked on the door. The house was small and pink and lilacs burst in the corners of the yard. An elderly old man opened the door-I was surprised he was so old. He had dentures and messed up hair. He looked like he had been sleeping, but I peered around his shoulder and realized the living room was full of people. I swallowed hard. I didn’t expect an audience.
“Howdy,” I began, and blinked.
“Howdy,” he returned. He glanced up at the sky and back down at me.
Peter Warhall was chewing his gum, and popped it. He looked at me up and down. Studied me expectantly. I noticed his wide forehead, piercing eyes. His ears were round like saucers.
“We wanna know somethin’,” Jacob said.
He quirked his eyebrow. “You’ve come to join Neighborhood Watch?” His voice was gruff. He ran a hand through his thick, dark hair. He looked mean, but he wasn’t. He was from Ohio.
I shook my head and laughed. “Too much work for me. My joints aren’t what they used to be.” I pointed at my kneecap to prove a point.
Jacob leaned around the man’s shoulders and looked into the living room. He didn’t recognize anyone.
The man out of place wore a black hat-he thought it was strange. It wasn’t a baseball cap. It was a hunter’s cap. He frowned. “Anyway, we were wonderin’ if you heard anything weird about two weeks ago. Some strange man come by? Or my friend’s mother’s house?”
“Why?” He used the gruff voice again.
“Her bun cake recipe is missing,” I explained.
We both watched his expression. It was an exclamation of surprise.
“You don’t say!” he exclaimed. He took off his hat and wiped his forehead, then put it back on again. “I’ve had it before. It tastes delicious.” He smacked his lips to prove a point.
He scratched his chin and shook his head, and frowned. “Can’t think of a thing.”
“Oh,” Jacob said. “Sorry to have bothered you.” We turned around to go.
“Wait!” he said.
We turned back around. I raised an eyebrow. “Yeah?”
“We did hear somethin’ around six at your mom’s house two weeks ago, on Tuesday, the sixteenth,” he answered. “I forgot about it because somebody’s car alarm went off. We’ve been having trouble with the horses on Hoarch’s ranch-somehow, they keep getting out of their stalls. We’ve been trying to figure out how to keep them in their stalls.”
“Leashes,” Jacob muttered.
I nudged him in the ribs and told him to hush.
“Anyway, I looked outside and saw somethin’ in your mother’s front yard. I thought it was the shadow of a tree, turned out, there was a tree right near the window. It looked like a person to me. Tall, and long.” He shrugged. “Dunno if there are any footprints. I didn’t look. Might be. I hope she finds her recipe-let me know if you need help.”
He shut the door.
I turned to look at Jacob in excitement. “You hear that? Something did happen around the time her bun cake went missing!” I said, doing a dance in the driveway. “Let’s go see if there are footprints.” We left Peter’s house and hurried down the street. I waved at Peter’s neighbor, Jenni Morgan. She was planting lilacs in her garden. She waved back and blew a kiss.
Jacob said she had a crush on me. I doubted it. She was being nice. We walked across the road in the dark. The lights in the street lamps were on. Shadows stretched long down the road. We went up to Mom’s house and didn’t knock on the door. She wouldn’t care what we were doing-she and Sam were at bingo night, anyway, and I knew where the extra key was. I wasn’t looking for no darn key. I was looking for evidence.
Jacob squatted next to a begonia, and squinted his eyes. “What are we lookin’ for?” he asked casually. He had a thick, Southern accent, a smooth drawl. I liked it.
I shrugged. “Clues.”
The man didn’t know how to shut up and think for a bit. He was always yappin’ about somethin’ or other, about stuff that wasn’t important.
“You think somebody let the horses out?” he asked me.
I shrugged. “I think it’s just a coincidence,” I replied, shaking my head. “Don’t make no sense.”
“You’re right.” He nodded and looked at the sky, then back down at the ground. “We need to look around before night comes out.”
We walked further, closer towards Mom’s window. It was right next to the kitchen counter. Someone could have easily snatched it. I peered into the window. The house was dark. She was still gone, even though I already knew the car wasn’t in the driveway. Sometimes, she lets Sam borrow her car. Don’t ask me why. He has an old clunker. Probably for that reason.
“Look!” Jacob exclaimed. He squatted below the window, frowning. I bent close to him. His clothes smelled like cologne. I was surprised. He didn’t seem to be the type.
“What are we looking at?”
“Fresh footprints,” he replied.
“I never saw those before. I’ve been here the whole time.”
“What kinda shoes are they?”
“How the heck should I know?” He threw his arms up in exasperation. “I’d say they’re sneakers. We can’t tell who it is by the shoes. They don’t look like a woman’s. Not your mom’s. A stranger.”
“It could be anybody.” I rubbed my face. I was tired. Very tired. “Maybe my mom misplaced her recipe.”
“Could be.” He frowned. “It just don’t seem right,” he began.
“What don’t seem right?” We were talking like fools. I snorted. I hated being foolish. Didn’t seem to have any point to it. We could get her another bun cake recipe. The Internet was full of them. Did I mention I had Internet access? A real laptop.
Jacob answered my question. “That she would misplace somethin’ that important to her. I never lost my most favorite baseball card of all time, and I got it when I was in ninth grade.” He scratched his head. He was gonna get a bald spot with all that scratchin.’ I decided not to comment. It was for the best. Sometimes, when I really wanted to talk, I could be mean-not intentional. Just on accident.
I shook my head. “You must know my mom better than me,” I said musingly. “I never would have thought of that. We’ll add the footprints to our list of clues.”
“Okay,” Jacob said. He was looking tired and stressed and I sent him home. Jacob had diabetes, and it meant his blood sugar don’t work right. I felt bad for him. He was hungry all the time, and couldn’t eat sugar, not even my mother’s bun cake. She vowed to find a sugar free bun cake, and was looking for one online. Hadn’t found the right one, poor girl. Didn’t need to.
We were gonna find that recipe and have it in her hands by the end of the month-I hoped.
“What are you doing, Jacob?” I asked him the next day. Did I forget to mention? He lived across the street from me. Mom lived down the street. Sam lived downtown. Anna was in Brooksville. Everything was going real fine, except for the missing recipe. We were doing our best. Trying to help people and find somethin’ important all at the same time.
“Nothin’,” he answered. “Thinkin.’”
I looked around. “I don’t see your truck nowhere.”
“I sold it to two men who came to town this mornin’,” he explained. “I didn’t want to. I had to.”
“Why did you have to?” Jacob asked, scratching his head.
His lip trembled. He wiped a tear from his eye. “I’m behind on my house payments. I thought I could afford it. I thought I could get over this nonsense from college. I paid back my college loan. I’m a car mechanic on the side, don’t got no good business.” He sniffed.
“I don’t even have a car,” I said, still staring at him. “Otherwise, I would pay you to fix it. I walk everywhere. Take the bus. Got me a bus card.”
He patted my hand. “I know you don’t. I know you don’t.” He was having trouble seeing through the tears in his eyes. He wiped it away.
I patted his hand. “We’ll fix things,” I told him. “We’ll be okay. We’ll find the recipe and we’ll find you another job. You’ll see. You wanna get some dinner out?”
He shrugged and nodded, ran a hand through his shoulder-length brown hair. He was one of those men who let his hair grow out. We piled into my car and we drove downtown and got out at Paula’s Diner. The place was jumping. I spotted Carla Robbins, my old beau. She was looking fine in a pink sweater and blue pants. She smiled at me. I pretended I didn’t see her. I didn’t want to start anything. I grabbed a menu from the waitress and stalked to a table and sat down. We ate dinner and went back home. The next day was the same-and, the one after that. Not a lot was happenin.’ We talked to Peter again. No more news. Someone stole somebody’s car, no one we knew, a William Somebody. The sheriff took care of that sort of thing.
One early day in May, something happened.
Peter banged on my door. “We caught him!” he crowed.
“What?” I was startled and pulled open the door. I was taking a nap. I wanted to make an apple pie. Mom had gotten herself a new recipe-an apple pie, instead of a bun cake. It made me sad to think about it. It couldn’t be helped.
“We caught him,” he repeated. “He confessed to the whole thing! We got her recipe back. It was on the ground behind a man’s shack. We found footprints and followed them and caught him.”
I stared at him. “A man was living in a shack in Hope Springs?” I asked him. “That’s weird. I’ve never heard of that before. Take me to him.” I peered at the man standing in the driveway. “Who’s that?” I asked him.
“Todd Simmons,” he answered. “He saw you at the Neighborhood Watch the other day.” He looked apologetic. “I was so excited, I accidently told him what was going on.”
I frowned. “It’s okay, I guess. Just don’t let it happen again. Let me call Jacob and the sheriff.” The sheriff’s name was Biff, and he was real nice. All Southern.
He waited inside my living room for Jacob and Biff to come. Biff came first, in his rumbling old truck; Jacob hurried over. He led us to his house. It was a small shack, in between two fields. It had one little room and a toilet. The toilet was old, cracked. A cot was in the corner. A man in a hunter’s hat sat on the cot, his head in his hands. We stood in front of him, real quiet. I had my arms over my chest. I looked down at him, my face stern. He needed a talking to. “Well,” I said.
“I didn’t mean it,” he said.
“What’s your name?” Todd Simmons asked quietly. He was a part of the Neighborhood Watch and asked to come to the shack. The sheriff begrudgingly obliged.
“Harper Roe,” he answered.
“I ain’t ever seen you before, Harper Roe,” Jacob said, cocking his head to look at him. “You new in town?” He was suspicious. Jacob decided to come along. I figured it was okay. Jacob was not too bright in the brains department, but he did all right. He was quick enough, anyway. Could draw a gun faster than I had ever seen a man.
“Yeah,” he answered, a smile flickered across his face. “I bought the Towner ranch.”
I glanced at Jacob. If he bought the ranch, what was he livin’ in a dumb old shack for?
“You did?” My eyes were wide. I shook my head. I couldn’t believe they actually sold the thing. The ranch was a million years old-at least three hundred years old. Somethin’ of the sort. I wasn’t paying attention when the sheriff told me. It was a big house. Gray and had forest green shudders. “Why’d you come all the way over here? Just to bother my mother?”
He ducked his head. “Actually, I guess I was. I wasn’t thinkin’ straight. My wife left me and I wanted a new recipe. I’m really a cook and wantin’ to open a restaurant.” He looked down at his large, brown hands. A tear squeezed out of the corner of his eye. “You know, I think maybe I did a bad thing. My last restaurant closed. I lost my house. My father died and I bought the old house. It was my first piece of good luck since gettin’ the money.” He sniffed and wiped his eyes. “Sorry, partners. No harm done?”
The sheriff frowned. “You stole a recipe,” he scolded, shaking his head like he couldn’t believe someone would do such a crazy thing. “That’s first degree theft, on my account.” Biff McBride put his hands on his holster. He wasn’t going to use it. I knew the sheriff well. He liked to scare criminals into doing the right thing. It wasn’t always right, but it was his way. Some people had their way, and the sheriff had his way.
I stood up. “Let’s leave this up to my mother, Biff. She was the one who thought it was lost-in a way, it was lost. If you look at it closely. He didn’t do no real harm. Didn’t hurt nobody.” I glanced at him. “Right?”
“No, sir,” he answered, shaking his head. “At least I got that much sense.”
“Where’s that recipe?”
The man pulled it from his pocket and handed it to him. “Here you go,” he said. “I gave it to you before, but you dropped it.”
Biff had clumsy hands, from arthritis. He called them clumsy fingers.
Jacob took it from his outstretched hand. I was afraid to touch it. Afraid it wasn’t real. As strange as it sounded. “It’s her handwriting,” he reported.
I nodded, pleased. “Good. He can’t be too bad of a lot. Smart and quick, that’s for sure.”
“Not to mention dumb as a brick,” Peter muttered, shaking his head.
I stared at him in surprise. I forgot he had come with us-after all, he was President of the Neighborhood Watch’s Association. Catching somebody was a big deal for him. Making criminals pay was even a bigger deal. I clapped him on the back. “Be nice,” he warned.
Peter nodded. “Sure as heck will,” he said cheerfully.
Biff stared at him. He wasn’t totally convinced. Neither was I. He was going to chew the man out as soon as he got to my mom’s house. “You should be a sheriff,” he said to Peter.
He shrugged. “I was thinkin’ about it. Thinkin’ about it real hard.”
“And?” Biff asked. The sheriff scratched his head. He was bald around the ears. His ears were bright pink. His eyes a pure green.
“What else?” His voice echoed. “Nothin’ else but the truth. And to take the recipe back to the woman. She was missin’ it.” He looked around the shack. “She needs it back.”
“Why can’t she just get a new recipe?” Harper asked.
I glared at him. “You’ve done enough damage!” I scolded him. “You shush. We’ll do the talking. Maybe we can get you out of prison time.”
“How much would that be, five years?” His voice was sarcastic. I had the urge to punch him. I massaged my knuckles. I didn’t want things to go down like that. Especially not when my mother was concerned-nobody hurt my mother. Especially not me.
I smiled brightly. Or tried to. “Let’s go,” I said. “Mom’s house isn’t far. We don’t want to be talkin’ in this creepy shack all night. It smells like piss.”
Harper couldn’t help it. He chuckled.
“I’ve been there,” Biff replied, smiling. “Had her apple pie.”
“It’s good, isn’t it?” Jacob asked.
He nodded in agreement.
We trooped out of the shack, one by one, and the door swung shut. That was the last time I’d be in the shack. The last time I’d be anywhere near it. It smelled and it was probably most likely haunted.
* * *
All four of us went to my mother’s house. It was a ten minute walk, and the sky was bright and full of stars. The stars were big and beautiful and the wind was loud and haunted. Jacob knocked on the front door. Mom opened it, wearing a flannel pink shirt and blue pants. She looked surprised to see us. “What are you doing here?” she exclaimed. Her cheeks flushed. She was pleased.
“We’ve found your recipe, Mom,” I said. I held it out to her. “It’s for you.”
“You found it!” she exclaimed. “That’s wonderful.” She took it from my outstretched hand, and examined it. “That’s the recipe all right-sugar-molasses-flour.” She ran her hand over her mother’s handwriting. “That’s my mother’s handwriting. The very same recipe. I copied it a dozen times.”
I looked surprised. “I thought that was your handwriting.”
She blushed. “No, I have copies. This is the original-the one she made up on June 9th, 1987.”
“Why didn’t you tell us this before?” Jacob asked in exasperation.
We went outside. Harper stood motionless on the front stoop. Sweat dripped from his forehead. Good. He should be sweating. He was with Peter. The sheriff had gone back to the station to get the papers ready.
“What on earth could you possibly do with my mother’s recipe?” I asked Harper Roe, looking incredulously at his balding head and shining eyes inside his spectacles.
He smiled primly. “To sell, of course,” he answered. He paused for a second, withdrew his handkerchief, and patted his forehead with it. “I was having trouble making money for awhile. I went from bank to bank, friend to friend, until finally I just had it. I was able to get unemployment for awhile. I was able to scrap by, but not enough. I got skinny. I was eating little or not at all. It was hard. I saw your mother’s recipe through the window. She was talking on the phone to somebody. I saw the perfect opportunity. I climbed in through the window, snagged the recipe, and quickly left again.” He smiled, and chuckled. “It was the perfect crime.”
I wanted to slap him. I didn’t. I clenched and unclenched my fists. My knuckles were turning white. I looked up. “Here comes Biff,” I said excitedly. A police cruiser turned into the driveway and the police officer-Biff was in the passenger seat-turned off the engine and stepped out of the car.
“It was just a recipe,” Harper protested. His cheeks were pink. He was just like me, and yet, he had stolen something important from someone I cared about. It was a two-way street. Be kind, or get the hell out of here.
The police officer, whose name was William Jones, looked at him. “Don’t worry,” he said. “It’s not a major crime. You won’t even have to go to trial.”
His eyes bulged. He gagged. “Trial?” The words came out in a strangled squeak.
After the police ushered Harper to the police cruiser, Jacob and I went into the house. Mom sat on the couch, hands folded in her lap. “I didn’t go out with you,” she said. “I didn’t want to see him.”
“It’s okay,” I assured her. “He’s not a bad guy, once you get to know him.”
“Thank you for finding my bun cake recipe,” she told me.
“It wasn’t me. It was Jacob.”
“Oh, that changes everything,” she said. She looked at Jacob. “Thank you for finding my bun cake recipe,” she told him. “It was such a sweet thing to do.”
He blushed and looked down at the floor, scuffing his toe. “Tweren’t nothin’, ma’m,” he muttered, blushing. “You would have done the same thing for me.”
She chuckled. “A little old lady like me?” she asked him. “Hardly.” She smiled with her eyes. The smell of bun cake filled the entire house. I was glad to smell that smell again. It filled my nose. My entire being. I felt all warm and teary-eyed and Jacob was looking at me like I was crazy. Maybe I had somethin’ in my eye. I pretended to wipe it away. Jacob grinned at me. He was startled; he had never seen me cry before. “Tell you what. I wanna do somethin’ for you, since you’ve been so kind to me and my boy,” she said.
“Mom!” She didn’t need to get all sappy on me or somethin’. It wasn’t what I was lookin’ for. I didn’t know what I was lookin’ for, but it wasn’t that.
“I was thinking of gathering up all my recipes and opening a bakery with the inheritance money,” she began. “I got a call from Uncle John’s lawyer. He died in his sleep last week. He gave me twenty thousand dollars.” A smile fell on her lips. “I was thinkin’ of runnin’ it myself, but I’m a little old lady. I’m tired. I need to rest. To hang out with Sam and his granddaughter. I wanna do that more than anything in the world.” She wrung her hands nervously. They were covered in dough. She had been different since the lawyer called and told her about the inheritance money. Not better, just different-I kind of liked it. I got up and hugged her around the middle. I kissed the tip of her nose. It was cold.
“It’s okay, Mama,” I said. I rested a hand on her shoulder. “You don’t have to say anything.”
She pushed me away. “Yes, I do,” she insisted. “I want something to be done with the money. Something good. Opening the bakery will help. I’ve heard of Jacob’s money troubles and I want to give it to him. I’m tired of seein’ him sad.” She glanced at me. “With your permission, sweetheart.”
I was surprised. I didn’t know what to say. I got all teary-eyed and tried to wipe the tears away. Oh hell, I let them fall anyway.