SANDRA CLOUGH - THE PHANTOM BAKER
THE PHANTOM BAKER
People still talk about the Summer of ’66. It was the year temperatures barreled into the upper-nineties in early May and mostly just stayed there, setting meteorological records that still stand.
It was also the summer the Mathersons moved in.
My parents and I lived in a bedroom community. The men worked in the city during the day and in their yards in the evening. Most of the women were homemakers. They managed the household and the kids and joined the Ladies Club.
Our house sat at the edge of a development of modest ramblers built on small lots. There was little variety in the floorplans, but the homeowners had individualized their exteriors and their landscaping, and the houses were well-maintained. It was an attractive area…except for a dilapidated farmhouse and ramshackle garage that sat directly across the road, behind us. My dad complained about them constantly.
When the houses in our neighborhood were being built, the owner over there hung onto his land and continued farming for several more years. When he retired, he sold most of his ground to a developer, but he and his wife kept the family home to live in.
The developer divided his acquisition into large lots and built fancy houses with driveways that led to interior streets. From our vantage point, we only saw the backs of the big houses and their sprawling lawns. The farmhouse and garage had been eyesores even when they were nestled into a backdrop of row crops. Now they stuck out even more.
Needless to say, when word got around that the old folks’ daughter had convinced them to move closer to her, my dad was ecstatic. Whoever bought the property, he said, was sure to bulldoze the place and build something akin to everything else over there.
But that wasn’t what happened.
Immediately after the SOLD sign went up, work-vans bearing the logos of plumbers and electricians and cabinetry installers started coming and going. At the same time, painters and roofers worked on the exteriors, and landscapers trimmed shrubbery and took down dead trees.
My dad groused that they would have been better off starting from scratch, but he conceded that a remodel and spiff-up were better than nothing.
My mother was pleased to see what was happening. She had been saying for a long time that the Ladies Club needed some fresh blood, but she never thought the women living in the fancy houses would be interested. When she saw that the new owners of the farmhouse were simply going to fix it up (as opposed to building some outlandish, new one), she figured the woman might be the type who would fit nicely into their group.
I hoped the new family might include an interesting teenage son because most of the boys my age in our town were dopes.
A moving van arrived the first week of June and a few days later my mother made a batch of bran muffins to welcome the newcomers. That, in itself, was a big gesture because the heat-wave of 1966 was well underway and running the oven made the house even hotter. But Mother said the time was right – the wife should be ready, at that point, to sit and chat for a bit. And, if it felt appropriate, she would go ahead and bring up the Ladies Club, even though they wouldn’t be meeting again until fall.
Plus, she was dying to see what had been done to the house.
(I should mention here that my mother has always been a keen observer, and even though she recalls the Summer of ’66 through a scrim of hazy heat and humidity, she remembers everything that happened, starting with the details of her hospitality-visit.)
She scurried across the road that morning and up the lane, her basket of warm muffins in hand. Before knocking, she took a deep breath, patted her hair and smoothed her skirt – she certainly didn’t want to look like she’d been running a race.
A moment later, hard-soled shoes could be heard clipping down an uncarpeted hallway, then a door slammed, and everything went quiet. As Mother dithered about whether to knock again or come back later, the front door opened a crack – enough to reveal an older, ample-hipped woman wearing a non-descript housedress. Her grey hair was cut unfashionably short – indicating, perhaps, that ease of maintenance was more important to her than style. Furrows between her eyebrows gave her a wary expression, but when she saw that Mother had come bearing gifts, she smiled, tentatively, and opened the door a little wider.
Mother quickly introduced herself and explained where we lived, extending the basket of muffins and a welcome to the neighborhood. The woman thanked her and said they were the Mathersons – Dorothy and her daughter, Lucille – and asked Mother to step inside.
Seeing that her new neighbor was another older woman, Mother says she might have been disappointed, had she not been overwhelmed by the heavenly smell of cinnamon rolls, and by the fact that the house had been air-conditioned. Not many homes were at that time.
The women chatted a few minutes about the heat and the novelty of climate control. Then, as Mother had hoped, Mrs. Matherson asked if she could take time for a cup of coffee and led the way down the afore-mentioned uncarpeted hallway to the living room.
Only a few pieces of furniture occupied the good-sized space. A nondescript sofa with flimsy cushions, and upholstered in fabric that looked stiff and scratchy, sat along the far wall. In front of it was a small coffee table with a scuffed top. An old-fashioned, wooden rocker was positioned at the end of the table and a console television with a tiny screen sat across the room, facing the sofa.
The walls were bare and there were no knick-knacks sitting around, but no half-empty boxes indicated they were still unpacking.
A sheet, blanket and bed-pillow were strewn across the sofa. Mrs. Matherson apologized for the mess, saying they were still short a bed. She set Mother’s muffins on top of the television and began folding up the bedding.
Mother wondered about that later – why, exactly, they would have been a bed short – but at the time, she was caught up in the whirlwind of Mrs. Matherson’s nervous chatter. Her husband had died recently, she said, and she and her daughter wanted to settle someplace quiet. Our little berg seemed perfect.
Mother expressed her condolences and asked where they’d moved from, but Mrs. Matherson had a blanket anchored under her chin and didn’t respond.
After she finished straightening up, Mrs. Matherson said she had just taken some cinnamon rolls out of the oven and asked if Mother would like one with her coffee. (As my mother’s muffins always tended to be a bit dry and crumbly, she didn’t mind that they had been forgotten.) She said a cinnamon roll sounded lovely and complimented the newcomer on having already organized her kitchen to the point of being able to bake.
Mrs. Matherson paused and looked out the window. “Lucille made them,” she said, “before she went out to work on her garden.”
Mother followed Mrs. Matherson’s gaze and saw the daughter digging up sod along the fence line. She had protected herself from the sun with a large-brimmed hat, a long-sleeved shirt and long pants. Mother thought she would have been unbearably hot and hoped Mrs. Matherson would call Lucille to come inside and join them, but instead she told Mother to have a seat while she got their refreshments.
Mother started to sit, then thought it only polite that she offer to help.
Mrs. Matherson jumped when Mother came through the kitchen door. Mother would have apologized, except that she was dumb-struck by her surroundings. It was, she said, like she’d walked into a completely different house.
Whereas, the floors and woodwork in the living room were badly in need of refinishing, and the buff-colored walls were dotted with dark rectangles where pictures had been removed after having hung in the same spot for years, the kitchen was gleaming and modern.
Sleek metal cabinets and counters had replaced the originals; the walls were painted a stark white; and new, powerful lighting had been installed. The effect was...well, startling.
“Oh my, isn’t this…” Mother didn’t know how to finish.
Mrs. Matherson was clearly flustered and mumbled something like, “We like a nice kitchen.” She kept her eyes averted as she forked the rolls onto individual serving plates and looked in several drawers before finding napkins. Mother saw that the older woman’s hands trembled slightly as she poured the coffee and Mother offered to carry it so her hostess could take the rolls. Once they were back in the living room, Mrs. Matherson visibly relaxed.
Mother recalls that first, awkward visit quite clearly, but it’s the cinnamon rolls she remembers most vividly. Yeasty, pillowy, pinwheeled dough, she said when she described them to me after she got home, filled with butter and cinnamon and sugar, and topped with a melty vanilla icing that made the whole thing feel like it was dissolving in your mouth before you even started chewing.
(I accused her of torturing me because I refused to go on her welcome-wagon call that morning. Later, of course, I came to realize they would have been just as delicious as she made them sound, and not going with her was my loss.)
For someone who was always watching her figure or trying to reduce, Mother was powerless to resist when Mrs. Matherson offered her a second roll, and she asked her to tell Lucille they were delicious.
Mrs. Matherson smiled – a little sadly, mother thought – and said cooking was all her daughter really cared about.
Mother grew thoughtful when she told me that part. Given Mrs. Matherson’s (probable) age, she said, Lucille wouldn’t have been terribly young. How odd that she was sleeping on the couch and cooking for her mother.
Despite the fact that Mrs. Matherson wasn’t interested in joining Mother’s club, the two women became friends and settled into the habit of getting together a couple times a week.
At first, they alternated houses, then Mrs. Matherson started insisting Mother come there.
Mother was happy to be relieved of the burden of hosting. Not only was our house miserably hot, but Mother is not (nor ever was, as she is the first to admit) an adventuresome cook or skilled baker and she became anxious every time she had to come up with something to serve.
And everything Mrs. Matherson served – made by the elusive Lucille (Mother still hadn’t met her) – was as delicious as the cinnamon rolls. Mother worried about all the extra calories the new friendship was adding to her diet, but she adjusted by skipping lunch on her visiting days, and I don’t think she actually gained more than a pound or two during the time she knew Mrs. Matherson.
On the face of things, you wouldn’t have thought the two women had much in common, but they both enjoyed doing fancywork. Mother put her needlepoint away after the weather turned hot, saying the embroidery floss stuck to her hands and turned what should have been a relaxing pastime into an exercise in frustration. The air-conditioning at the Mathersons’ made it fun again.
While they sewed, the ladies chatted. I asked Mother, once, what exactly they talked about while they worked on their pieces; or, I teased, did she just go for the food? She said they liked a lot of the same things – The Edge of Night and The Ed Sullivan Show were mutual favorites.
But Mother may also have felt a bit sorry for the older woman. She said Dorothy never talked about having any other friends, and apparently didn’t go out – except for frequent trips to the grocery store for Lucille.
Once Mrs. Matherson told Mother she’d driven all over creation the pervious afternoon looking for strawberries that would suit her daughter. The refreshment that day was fresh strawberry pie. It was about six inches tall and slathered in sweet, whipped cream. When Mother was ready to leave, Mrs. Matherson insisted she take what was left of it for Daddy and me, saying, “It won’t last long enough for us to finish.” She made it seem like Mother was doing her a favor.
The same thing happened the next time Mother was there. Mrs. Matherson handed her a bag containing several of the chocolate croissants they’d just had. “You take these to your family,” she said.
This time, Mother started to protest, but Mrs. Matherson cut her off. “I kept one,” she said, “but Lucille hardly eats anything.” She gave an exasperated little shake of her head, as though Lucille were a precocious child, “All that girl wants to do is cook.”
When Mother told me about the exchange, I could only mumble my astonishment, in response, as I devoured one of the pastries.
Back at the beginning of their acquaintanceship, Mother asked Mrs. Matherson if Lucille would like to come with her to our house. Mrs. Matherson thanked her but said her daughter didn’t really go out. Then, perhaps sensing that her new friend was owed a bit more of an explanation, she said, “Lucille gets nervous meeting new people.” Mother assured Dorothy that she understood, and it was quite alright.
I, on the other hand, was dying to get out, so when Mrs. Matherson said to my mother, “See if Gail wants to come with you on Friday,” I jumped at the chance. I had been at loose ends since school let out. The only job an almost-fifteen-year-old could get was an occasional babysitting gig; and my best pal, Cheryl, was spending time with her grandparents in Iowa.
Sitting in air-conditioning and eating fabulous refreshments sounded like heaven. Plus, I had become obsessed with the Mystery of Lucille.
Mother still hadn’t caught more than that first glimpse of her, and a vague picture had formed in my head of a sort-of-faceless, big-boned gal. That was Mother’s impression of her size, but it might have been unfair since Lucille had been wearing sun-protective clothing that day.
I thought there must be some way I could get a peek at her. But, just as Mother said, the door to the kitchen was always closed.
One day, I came right out and asked Dorothy if Lucille would teach me to make the imaginative shortbread cookies we’d just had (full of tart, dried apricots and rimmed with chopped, toasted pistachios).
She didn’t skip a beat. “Oh no, dear,” she responded, “Lucille doesn’t share her secrets.”
Mother and I speculated, later, as to what kind of secrets she was talking about. Magical ingredients…or something more sinister?
But given the end products, we wouldn’t have cared if she was experimenting with a new form of mind control. Who could have resisted the fancy chocolate layer cake with a creamy filling that was flavored with what Mother later decided was rum? (She claimed I acted goofy all afternoon.) Or the silky, homemade ice cream with tangy raspberry sauce? (We ran all the way home to get Daddy’s into the freezer before it melted, then ended up eating it ourselves, vowing to never admit our gluttony.)
Even though the kitchen door stayed closed and Lucille remained out of sight, there was always the muted clatter of pans and bowls and utensils, and sometimes we smelled meat roasting, or bread baking, or more exotic aromas we couldn’t identify. Mrs. Matherson never made any mention of why Lucille was doing so much cooking. At first, Mother and I wondered if they were preparing for a party (to which we hadn’t been invited), but there was never any indication the women entertained.
Gradually, I realized I was thinking less about Lucille and more about the food she produced. The idea that food could be so enticing was new to me. Mother found cooking and baking a chore in any weather and seldom attempted anything remotely fancy. Now, the heat wave had her alternating between tuna salad and baloney sandwiches, rounding out our cold suppers with potato chips and cottage cheese, and opening a tin of peaches or fruit cocktail for dessert. Usually, I was fine with our picnic meals, but sometimes I found myself wondering what the Matherson women were having.
I even started reading the food sections of my mother’s Better Homes and Gardens and Redbook magazines. The photos and descriptions of casseroles and desserts had my mouth watering, but the ingredient lists went on forever and the instructions were complicated. Besides, anything that looked like it might fit my skill set required using the oven, and Mother said it was just too hot to turn it on.
A couple weeks before my birthday in mid-July, I came across a recipe for Black Forest Gateau.
Layers of chocolate sponge cake sandwiched with
whipped cream and cherries, then decorated with additional
whipped cream, maraschino cherries, and chocolate shavings.
Oh, my lord! That cake sounded so delicious I dreamed about it.
I begged Mother to hire Lucille to bake it for my birthday, but she poo-poo’ed the idea. She always made her One Bowl Chocolate Cake for special occasions and delighted in telling people the secret ingredient was vinegar.
A few days before my birthday, our heat wave broke with an unexpected thunderstorm. The simple pleasure of breathing fresh air again was, itself, a gift. The rain and the reprieve from the heat made Mother so giddy she asked Grandma and Grandpa, and Uncle Bob and Aunt Janice, to come – not only for cake and presents – but, also for supper. Then she agonized about what to cook.
That gave Daddy an excuse to buy the barbeque grill he’d been eyeing. Mother had argued against it – saying he’d use it a few times, then it would just sit on the patio and get rusty – but when he offered to cook hamburgers and hotdogs for the party, and said we’d use paper plates and eat outside at the picnic table, and all she’d have to make was potato salad and birthday cake, she changed her tune.
The hamburgers were crispy, and the hot dogs were shriveled, but as they say, everything tastes better outdoors. Everyone said the charcoal flavor was delicious, and even Mother’s potato salad garnered compliments – no matter that the dressing was watery.
When we finished eating, Mother had us move inside to the dining room table for cake and presents.
Once we were settled, she disappeared into the kitchen, closing the door between the two rooms. That door was rarely closed, and I gave Daddy a quizzical look, but he only grinned and winked at me.
Mother was gone so long, conversation started to lag, and my curiosity was beginning to get the better of me. When the door finally opened again, Mother inched her way through, backside first, before turning to face us.
The cake she revealed was even prettier than the picture – sky-high, with whipped cream swirled into perfect flourishes on the sides; and on the top, piped into little nests that held red, glossy cherries. And just like in the photograph, tissue-thin chocolate shavings had been showered over the whole thing. Wisely, Mother hadn’t adulterated its beauty with tacky birthday candles.
Uncle Bob gasped, as she set the masterpiece in the center of the table. “You did not make that, Lorraine!”
Mother acted offended and pretended for a minute that she had; but in the end, she gave her brother a swat and admitted the truth – a baker lived across the road, in the farmhouse. She had slipped out the back door and over to the Mathersons’ to get the cake.
Everyone said it was too pretty to cut, but Mother did, and when she carefully extricated the first slender wedge (which, of course, went to the Birthday Girl), we could see four perfectly even layers of chocolate sponge separated by equally perfect layers of whipped cream, dotted with chunks of juicy cherries.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that cake was so beautiful to look at, and so luscious tasting, it might have made someone considering suicide think life was worth living again.
After everyone left, I threw my arms around my mother and thanked her for getting Lucille to bake my cake. She said Dorothy hadn’t hesitated at all in accepting on her daughter’s behalf – in fact, she seemed thrilled with idea. Mother paid for the ingredients and threw in a little something for Lucille.
I spent a long time that night writing in my diary, trying to capture the magic of the
evening – and, especially, the cake. Even then, I knew I’d never be a skilled enough baker (nor have the patience) to create something like that, but it was the first time I was conscious of the effect food could have on a group of people, and I liked the idea that, with words, I could capture all the sensations and emotions it evoked. And I knew that, if I described it well enough, years later I would re-read what I’d written and experience it all over again.
Mother, of course, couldn’t help sharing the story of the cake with her friends, and some of the women wondered if this Lucille would be interested in doing any baking for them. One woman was looking for someone to make her daughter’s wedding cake. Another had to throw a baby shower and couldn’t stand the thought of making dozens of cookies in the summer heat.
Given Dorothy’s introverted personality, Mother didn’t want to hand out her phone number without permission, but she agreed to talk to her about it. Mother’s friends peevishly accused her of trying to keep her find all to herself, but she held her ground.
As it turned out, though, Mrs. Matherson found the idea intriguing and called the very next morning to say Lucille would do it.
Mother was back in her friends’ good graces, and – as word spread – Lucille became quite busy. And so did Dorothy, because in addition to doing all the shopping, she was the one who took the orders and scheduled pickups and deliveries. She also set the prices, insisting that everything be paid for in cash. (The ladies laughed and said that was a given. Cancelled checks would have brought the fact that they were paying for baking – something they should have had plenty of time to do themselves – to the attention of their husbands.)
Lucille, as always, stayed behind the scenes and her customers took to calling her the Phantom Baker.
The treats Mrs. Matherson now served on our visiting days were no longer as lavish as they had been in the beginning – often, just a few cookies, delicious as always, just not over-the-top fancy. She apologized for the plain fare. Lucille’s little baking business, she said, was keeping them hopping.
Mother took some pride in the fact that she had helped start the whole thing – having no idea, of course, how much she would later come to regret it.
At the time, though, we only regretted that Lucille was no longer our secret.
Not long after my birthday the weather turned foul again. Temperatures shot back up, even higher this time. Lawns went dormant once more and tempers grew short. Our brief reprieve made the new round of heat even more difficult to bare.
Everyone stayed inside as much as possible, but as I mentioned before, few homes had air-conditioning at that time and our oscillating fans did little more than move the hot air around.
Our visits to the Mathersons’ got Mother and I out of the house, but I’m not sure whether that kept us from going stir-crazy or made matters worse. Once the novelty of their air-conditioning wore off, we admitted that their house was a little too cold and it felt clammy. We would sort-of-adjust to it, then it would be time to go back to our hot house. We always seemed to be snippy with each other in the afternoons after we’d been there.
I continued reading the Food sections of Mother’s magazines. The enticingly worded descriptions – in addition to the alluring smells we were subjected to at the Mathersons’ – had me carping at Mother about our cold meals. But even on the nights we had hamburgers or hotdogs on the grill, the heat had extinguished any real appetite we might have had.
Still, I sometimes wondered what Dorothy and Lucille were having for supper.
The rest of July and the first couple weeks of August seemed interminable; but finally, my friend Cheryl returned from her grandparents. After that, she and I spent nearly every day together. We’d work on organizing our wardrobes for the start of the school year or stretch out on our stomachs in front of the fan and pour over Seventeen Magazine, making lists of all the wonderful things we’d never be able to afford.
My mother, by then, was walking across the road less often. Mrs. Matherson, she said, was so busy helping Lucille with her baking business, she felt like she was intruding. And even though she missed their chats, Mother said it was good for Dorothy – having something to do.
Traditionally, school started in our district the last week of August. It always felt like the beginning of fall, even though there was a month of summer left, according to the calendar. We usually had a few hot days that made it hard to sit still in class, but everyone expected them, and they soon passed.
This year, though, the Summer of ’66, we couldn’t imagine heading back to our classrooms while temperatures continued to settle in between ninety-five and a hundred nearly every day. Not only were our schools not air-conditioned, we had dress-codes back then: skirts and blouses, or dresses, for the girls; trousers with belts and button-shirts for the boys. Sitting in a classroom would have been torture for everyone and there would certainly have been no learning going on.
Finally, three days before school was scheduled to start, the Board of Education called it. No classes until the weather cooled off.
We didn’t have sophisticated, long-range forecasting at that time – like we (supposedly) have now – and it felt like there was no end in sight. Sometimes it clouded up just before sunset. We would hear faint rumbles of thunder and see distant flashes of lightning, but they never produced any rain.
Stories about dying farm animals appeared on the front page of the newspaper and the governor implored everyone to curtail their water usage. Each morning when we dragged ourselves out of bed, the air seemed more laden than it had been the day before. Any hint of a breeze was stifled by humidity; but paradoxically, the haze that dimmed the horizon did nothing to blunt the scorch of the sun. Everyone was exhausted, unable to remember their last decent night’s sleep.
Of course, a few people clucked their tongues and whispered that something Biblical was happening. Far-fetched, perhaps, but even on a less epic level, our lives were grim.
Mother was suffering from what she called heat-headaches and had stopped going across the road to the Mathersons’ altogether; the Ladies Club had decided to continue their summer hiatus; and Daddy arrived home every evening, after his forty-five-minute commute, rumpled and uncommunicative. Even Cheryl and I had argued over something silly and weren’t speaking to each other.
Underlying it all, there was a growing sense of dread – a feeling that if something didn’t change soon, we’d never recover. Whether it would be our minds or our bodies that gave in first, no one knew.
We only knew we couldn’t take much more.
In the end, most of our minds and bodies managed to hang on. The weather surrendered. But not without a parting shot.
Around noon – three weeks, to the day, after school was supposed to have started – we heard faint rumbles in the distance. We assumed it was the same mocking kind of thunder we’d heard so many times that summer, which was never the precursor of anything in the way of relief.
This time, though, the rumbles gradually grew a bit louder, and we detected a stirring in the air. These changes were so subtle, so slow in developing, we hardly dared hope anything would come of them. If a heat-breaking storm was brewing, its development was nothing like that of the storm before my birthday.
That morning, two months ago, clouds rolled in early; the wind started to blow; thunder boomed, and lightning slashed the sky. Once the rain began, temperatures dropped twenty-five degrees in a matter of minutes. Even after the flash and crash of the storm passed, the rain continued all day, gently replenishing streams and rivers, revitalizing lawns and fields, and restoring our sanity. The next morning, it was like we awakened to a new world.
We naively hoped the heat would break in the same way this time.
Now, clouds continued building in the west all afternoon. The thunder grew louder, and lightning pierced the sky – occasionally, then with more regularity. As the breeze picked up, we started allowing ourselves to think this might actually amount to something. Even though it was hot, just the movement of the air felt so good Mother threw open the curtains and windows she’d kept tightly closed for weeks in a vain attempt to keep the heat and humidity out.
Daddy didn’t get home until almost suppertime that day. People were watching the sky, he said, when they should have been watching the road, and several accidents had snarled traffic.
Mother kept saying she should go make sandwiches; but it seemed to me, a collective excitement was building, and nobody was hungry.
By a little past seven, it looked like night was falling. Daddy went out to move the grill under the carport and, when he came back inside, he told Mother to call Dorothy and tell her to put her car in the garage. “And get the box of important papers.” he said.
It was time to go to the basement.
Suddenly, as if on cue, the cafe curtains in the kitchen blew straight out from the rods and the thunder rumbles became sharp cracks, separated by only seconds. (Mother forgot all about calling Dorothy, but it didn’t matter – Dorothy had once told her the garage door was too heavy to deal with.)
Most people who have never been through a bad storm will admit to a certain thrill when one rolls in, and I felt more alive than I had in weeks.
While Mother pushed coats and boots aside in the hall closet to get to the metal file that contained the bank book, the title to the car and documents pertaining to the house, I rummaged in the junk drawer in the kitchen to find a candle and matches, in case the electricity went out.
Daddy was closing windows in the bedroom and yelled for us to go on downstairs. He’d run and get the Kellys – the elderly couple, next door, who didn’t have a basement.
I also grabbed a box of saltines off the counter – there was no telling how long we’d be holed up and I was starting to feel peckish – even though my heart was thumping from excitement.
Mother and I were about half-way down the steep, narrow stairway when I began to understand this wasn’t a lark. A monumental crash of thunder coincided with the lights going out. I gasped and instinctively tried to cover my ears. As shocking as the sound and the sudden darkness were, though, it was my mother – who never swore – loudly taking the Lord’s name in vain that started a cold lump of dread coalescing in my stomach.
The cracker box had gotten away from me and bumped down the pitch-black stairwell. I tried to regain my bearings, but Mother dropped the important-papers box on the step behind her and I started again. She told me to hand her the box of matches so she could light the candle (which I had, luckily, managed to hang on to), but she broke several of the matches, and I said let me try. As we awkwardly traded, I felt how badly her hands were shaking – Daddy had just gone outside.
Once I got the candle lit, Mother passed it back to me so she could reclaim her file and we made our way down the steps in the dim, flickering light. At the bottom, my foot grazed the box of crackers and I carefully bent to pick it up so Mother wouldn’t trip.
We rounded the corner into the rec-room and saw – through the narrow windows at the top of the end wall – that lightning now flashed and sizzled in a near-constant display. And, even being in the basement, we could hear the ominous, accompanying sound effects – staccato cracks of thunder and the bellow of the wind.
Mother found a Mason jar to hold the candle and placed it on our makeshift ping-pong table. We sat down on the worn-out sofa along the wall. Our backs were stiff and straight, and our feet were braced, as though we thought that would keep us in place if the house above us blew away.
Even though I finally understood how childish it was to have thought we might want a nosh while we waited out the storm, I clasped the box of saltines in my lap as if it was as valuable as Mother’s box of important papers. Both of us needed something to hang onto.
We were nearly hypnotized by the melting wax that dripped onto the plywood tabletop when a clap of thunder – louder than any that had come before – brought us abruptly back to consciousness. It was followed by a creaking noise and a deafening crash that drowned out even the roar of the wind. Mother and I gasped in unison and she grabbed my hand.
From our subterranean safe-space we had no way of knowing what had happened, and neither of us had the courage to ask aloud why Daddy still hadn’t come back with the Kellys.
As the storm raged on, my imagination conjured up unbearable explanations, but they were left unspoken.
We had no context with which to judge how much time passed, but gradually we became aware that it was growing calmer outside. Still, it was endless minutes longer before we heard the back door open.
The candle had slumped into the jar but was still burning. I grabbed it and we stumbled up the stairs. Even though the wind had died down, and the thunder and lightning had mostly played out, rain still poured down. In the dim light we saw that Daddy and the Kellys were drenched – but they were all in one piece.
My mother, uncharacteristically, threw herself into my father’s arms and our neighbors enveloped me in a hug that almost doused the candle. Once we’d calmed ourselves, Daddy told us lightning had split the big cottonwood in the yard next door right down the middle. He couldn’t tell how much damage had been done, but it wasn’t safe to go wandering around in the dark to find out.
Even though we had no electricity, Mother tried the phone in the faint hope she could reach Grandpa and Grandma and Uncle Bob, but of course, it was dead. She replaced the receiver but kept her hand on it for a second, as if gathering her stamina, then she took a deep breath and told me to get some bath towels. After Daddy dried off, he took the candle to do a room-by-room inspection of the house – to be sure water wasn’t leaking in in some corner.
It was a relief to know that everything looked okay, but there was no sense of jubilation as we sopped up the puddles on the floor, then spread peanut butter on saltines and called that supper. We still didn’t know how our family and friends had fared.
My parents convinced the Kellys to stay overnight. They took my bed and I curled up on the couch. When I awakened the next morning, to sunshine streaming in through the picture window, it was as though I was coming out of a coma.
Before I had time to work out why I was sleeping in the living room, I realized I was not hot. For the first time in weeks, I hadn’t woken up in a puddle of sweat. Then I remembered the storm.
I got up quietly and tiptoed to the window. The downed cottonwood from next door lay like an overturned boxcar, taking up half our yard and part of the street in front of our house. Leaves and branches, shingles and pieces of siding, as well as odd bits of lawn furniture and flower pots, were strewn everywhere.
Incongruously, the sky was pristine – brilliant blue and clear, without a trace of haze.
Mother and Daddy emerged from their bedroom, looking as groggy and disoriented as I felt. When they saw the scene outside, Mother inhaled sharply and pressed her fingers to her lips; Daddy shook his head and racked his fingers through his hair.
By then the Kellys had come into the living room and their reactions were similar. They were anxious to get back to their own house to check on things in the light of day, and Daddy said he’d walk them over and make sure it was safe to be there.
Mother and I went to the kitchen. She flipped a light switch, before remembering that we didn’t have power. Her thoughts must have been as jumbled as mine – so thankful that we were safe, and our house was spared, but praying the same be true for our family and all our friends.
When Daddy came back, Mother asked him to go across the road and check on Dorothy and Lucille, even though it didn’t look like any trees or limbs had hit their house or garage – or the car, still in the driveway.
He reported that Dorothy assured him they were fine. “But,” he added, “she looked pretty shaken up.”
“Well, goodness,” Mother said, “two women, alone like that – of course, they would have been scared!”
No one was quite sure whether we’d had an actual tornado, or just strong winds. It didn’t seem to me that it really mattered. Even though we knew how lucky we’d been – according to the paper, there had been no deaths or even serious injuries – things were still a mess.
Anyone with a chainsaw or a truck was called on to help remove downed trees and haul debris. As soon as the streets were passable, linemen from the phone and power companies worked day and night to restore service. Still, it took some time to get everything up and running.
Once Mother was able to talk to Grandma and Uncle Bob, she relaxed. She would have called Dorothy, but now her car was gone, and Mother speculated that she and Lucille had gone to stay with someone until services were restored.
Most of the houses in our neighborhood had some sort of damage. Anyone who could take time off work stayed home to join the crew that formed to go house-to-house making repairs. Mother and several neighborhood ladies took lunches to the men at noon, so they could work as quickly as possible. There was almost an air of festivity about the project and Mother said it warmed her heart to see what good neighbors could do for each other.
After a few days, Daddy went back to work, and the school board announced classes would begin the next Monday. Cheryl and I had been so relieved we were both okay, after the storm, we completely forgot our spat, and now we were excited about school starting.
Except for the fact that Dorothy’s car still wasn’t in the driveway across the road, everything seemed to be getting back to normal.
A couple nights later, we were having scalloped potatoes and ham for supper. It was the first oven-dish Mother had fixed in months, so it was no wonder she looked perturbed when we heard a knock on the front door. Daddy said he’d get it.
A second later, we heard him say, “Harold, what can I do for you?”
The only Harold we knew was Robinson – the county sheriff and also the husband of one of Mother’s Ladies Club friends. We laid our forks down and stopped chewing, so we could hear. At the name Matherson, we shot out of our seats and into the living room.
Sheriff Robinson stepped inside and nodded to Mother and me as Daddy closed the door.
More than likely, he said, there was nothing to worry about. It was just that – after the storm – the electrical company needed to test everybody’s meters. They’d tried calling Mrs. Matherson several times, and even stopped by, but could never catch her at home. The manager of the electrical substation mentioned the situation to Harold; Harold’s wife was the one who needed cookies for a baby shower a while back; and she suggested Mother might know what the story was.
Mother felt guilty at having to admit that she hadn’t seen or talked to Dorothy for weeks and had no idea what was going on. When she noticed, right after the storm, that the car was gone, she’d assumed they went to stay with someone.
The sheriff said that made sense. He’d tell the electrical folks to keep trying – the women would surely be home soon.
Mother nodded, but I knew what she was thinking: The power had been back on for a week – would Lucille stay away from her kitchen that long?
Over the next several days, my attention was consumed with new classes and all the things that went along with a new school year. Mother, however, had time to stew. She wished she’d done a better job of staying in touch with Dorothy, but it had seemed that, when Lucille (and by extension, Dorothy) got so busy with baking orders, her visits were somewhat of an imposition. The heat had given her a good reason not to intrude.
Daddy said she shouldn’t worry, but Mother reiterated: something didn’t feel right.
As September slid into October – and the weather turned from mild to crisp, and the leaves started to change – it began to seem as if our crazy-hot summer had just been a bad dream – and the Matherson women, a figment of our imagination.
Then, Harold showed up again. He looked harried and said he needed to use our phone. He told us to wait in the living room until he was done. When he came back, he was pale and shaken.
Harold stammered as he searched for the right words to tell us why he was there.
The electric company had never been able to reach Mrs. Matherson, but since there wasn’t any indication of a problem with their meter, they let the matter slide – until a couple days ago, when some reading-or-other at the substation looked off. A serviceman was dispatched; but again, couldn’t raise anyone. This time, though, he peeked in the window of the small door at the side of the garage – and saw a car.
He reported this to the manager, who remembered that Mother had assumed – because the car was gone – that the women were out of town.
The manager called Harold and said it was time for the sheriff to get a warrant to access the house.
After it was processed, Harold and the substation manager drove to the property. As expected, there was no answer when Harold knocked and called out. The door was locked, but Harold was a big man and it didn’t take much of a shoulder-bump to force it open.
Here, the sheriff looked so bad my father had him sit down and told Mother to get a glass of water. After he’d taken a few sips and some of his color returned, Harold continued.
The instant the door cracked open, they were assaulted by an unmistakable stench. The poor fellow from the electric company barely made it to the edge of the porch before he got sick.
Knowing what he’d find, Harold held his handkerchief over his nose and mouth and inched his way inside – far enough to see two bodies on the kitchen floor. One lay face down, in a wide circle of dried-to-black blood. The other was slumped to the floor against a cupboard, head hanging down, soaked in what appeared to be gallons more of the inky substance. A blackened butcher’s knife lay between them.
The color drained from Mother’s face and she nearly collapsed before Daddy got her to the sofa. She kept saying, “Oh, my Lord. Oh, my Lord,” as though it were a mantra. We grabbed each other’s hands as I slumped down beside her.
Harold apologized over and over for having to tell us this, but he’d had to call the State Bureau of Criminal Investigation, he said, as soon as possible (murder was not in his job description) and he wanted us to know before they got there.
The news tore through our community like a rampaging bull. The possibility that a cold-blooded killer was on the loose shook people to their core. SBCI investigators swarmed into town and, even though they issued statements about staying calm, people took to their houses in the same way they had during the heat wave. Now, though, everybody kept their doors locked day and night – and no one went anywhere alone.
It was ascertained pretty quickly that my mother was the only person who actually knew anything about the Matherson women. Lucille’s baking customers sometimes picked up their orders at the house, but they were never invited inside and their interaction with Mrs. Matherson was brief and impersonal. There was no getting-to-know-you chit-chat.
The more questions the state people asked Mother, though, the more apparent it became that she didn’t actually know much either. Dorothy had revealed nothing of substance about her situation. She’d never even said exactly where she and Lucille had come from.
Mother hadn’t pried, of course, and perhaps never really realized how truly superficial hers and Dorothy’s conversations had been.
A few days later Harold was at our door once again. He wanted to tell us the conclusion the state investigators had come to before it was made public.
Murder/suicide. It was an older woman who was killed, he said, and a male, who had cut his own throat with the same knife.
The news that there wasn’t a killer on the loose was, of course, a relief to the general public, but it provided no solace to my Mother. She was horrified, then sickened, then confounded.
Still, she felt a modicum of relief that Lucille had escaped, and she implored Harold to find Dorothy’s daughter.
He assured her that’s what the investigators were now focused on.
The SBCI didn’t publicize their findings. Harold would probably, eventually, have told Mother what they learned, but his wife, Barbara – who was Mother’s friend (and perhaps looser-lipped than her husband would have liked) – loved having a story to tell.
She kept Mother abreast.
Dorothy, it seemed, had been determined not to leave a footprint. She didn’t receive any mail, and she hadn’t established a bank account. Her only reoccurring bills were for electricity and the telephone – and she paid those in cash, several months ahead.
The purchase of the house and the repairs that were done were handled by an attorney in the city who hemmed and hawed about ethics and privacy. But when told that his cooperation was vital to the investigation of a murder/suicide and another woman’s disappearance, he abandoned his qualms and directed investigators to his client.
A short time later, they asked James Miller about his relationship to Dorothy and Lucille Matherson. He staggered backwards, groping for the wall.
“I’m… Dorothy’s husband.”
As James Miller listened to what the detectives had come to tell him, he gripped the arms of his chair until his hands turned white. His face became a mask and his eyes went vacant. He knew, he whispered, he knew something would go wrong.
The story came in fits and spurts, and at first it seemed as though the shock had caused James some sort of mental confusion. But the man’s distress was such that the detectives thought it best to let him talk, hoping he’d eventually tell them something that would help them find Lucille.
James’s story started with his and Dorothy’s son. As soon as Louis was born, they decided to pronounce his name the way the French said it. “Lu-ee” sounded so much happier than the English “Lu-iss.” And as an infant and toddler, James said, Louis was the happiest, sweetest child you could imagine.
But as he got older, Louis started having… difficulties. It wasn’t all the time, mind you, James said. Sometimes he was the funny, energetic, imaginative youngster he’d always been; but the next day, he wouldn’t be able to control his emotions or his anger. If he didn’t do something perfectly, by his own standards, Louis would fly into a rage – screaming and making himself do the thing he thought was not right over and over until it suited him.
Louis’s teachers said he was high strung because of the way he lashed out when things didn’t go his way. During his last years in elementary school, James and Dorothy dealt with one incident after another when Louis fought with other students or destroyed projects in the classroom.
Before he started high school, his parents considered moving to a different part of the city, so Louis could make a fresh start in a new school. But they knew it wouldn’t make any difference. If anything, their son was getting worse. Sometimes now, they heard him in his room arguing with unseen antagonists.
(Mother could only imagine, she told Barbara, the heartbreak of having a child with such profound problems. “If the situation was that bad,” she asked, “did Dorothy send Lucille away – to live with relatives?” Barbara told her to be patient. The answers were coming.)
James had paused here to ask for water. He was shaking so badly he had to use both hands to bring the glass to his mouth, but after he drank, he continued.
He and Dorothy were exhausted and grief-stricken as they faced the fact that Louis would never have the life they had hoped he would have. They were considering taking him out of public school when Dorothy saw an article in the newspaper about a doctor who was successfully treating personality disorders with a combination of low-voltage electric shock therapy and a new drug. She made an appointment.
After much evaluation, the doctor said Louis was a good candidate for the treatment.
James and Dorothy anguished over having their son undergo something so extreme, but conceded, they had no choice.
After several shock treatments and taking some time to it get the dosage of the drug right, they began to see some improvement in Louis. Even though he still didn’t interact easily with other people, his grades and his concentration got better. And even though the good-mood part of their son’s personality wasn’t as bright or energetic or imaginative as it had once been, he no longer erupted in violent rages. James and Dorothy knew they’d made the right decision.
Eventually, James continued, some of the depressive effects of the medication lessened. One day, then-15-year-old Louis was hanging around the kitchen while Dorothy worked on dinner. She’d cut a recipe for a dessert out of the newspaper that morning and asked Louis to see if it was on the coffee table in the living room. When he didn’t come back, she found him sprawled on the sofa, as absorbed in the clipping as he would have been in a novel. When Dorothy asked if he thought it sounded good, he said he wanted to make it. She laughed and suggested he start with something less complicated.
But Louis was determined. And even though he’d never before expressed an interest in cooking, and had no experience, the Baked Alaska they had for dessert that night was spectacular. He asked what some of the terms meant, and how to do this or that, but it all seemed to come quite naturally to him, Dorothy told James later, like when people discover they can play the piano by ear.
From then on, Louis gave his mother grocery lists every morning and cooked every day after school. Sometimes it was only one dish or a dessert, but sometimes he cooked their entire meal. James worried that Louis was becoming obsessed (and, he didn’t like having supper at nine o’clock, so close to bedtime), but Dorothy shushed him, saying something was finally bringing their boy happiness. And, she chided James, when you’re having Beef Wellington, you call it dinner.
(That made Mother wonder if it was Louis who had nurtured Lucille’s passion for cooking, but again, Barbara wouldn’t comment.)
Nearly everything Louis made was delicious, James said, but sometimes he would find faults no one else saw and become angry. Once, he threw a beautiful layer cake into the trash because, he said, the middle layer was too thin, and it looked disgusting.
When an episode like that occurred, Dorothy asked Louis if he was taking his medication. The doctor had said it should be his responsibility, but Dorothy knew the medicine made Louis tired and he didn’t like that, so she watched him carefully.
By the time Louis graduated from high school there was no question about what he wanted to do with his life. He’d already taught himself so much about cooking and baking, his parents didn’t know what else there was to learn, but they gladly paid his tuition to a cooking school.
Louis’s focus and attention to detail – in general, his quest for perfection – made him a star pupil, and when he completed the course, one of his instructors recommend him for a job in a popular restaurant.
James and Dorothy worried about how their son would cope in such a high-stress environment and if he’d be able to get along with his coworkers, but Dorothy continued reminding him to take his medication every day. And besides, Louis’s talent went a long way in making up for the peculiarities of his personality. The head chef was so impressed with Louis’s work, he put him in charge of pastries.
Louis was proud of himself and rightfully so. Now, he wanted his own apartment. James and Dorothy reluctantly agreed.
James had to wipe his nose and his eyes with a balled-up handkerchief before he could continue. The deeper into the story he got, the more haggard he looked and the slower he talked, but the detectives allowed him to proceed at his own pace.
(Mother, of course, was becoming more and more impatient to know where Lucille was while all of this was taking place. Still, Barbara would not be hurried.)
Finally, James went on. For several months, things had gone well for Louis. Often, on Mondays, when the restaurant was closed, he stopped by to see his parents, and although James and Dorothy were alert to any changes in Louis’s mood or demeanor, their son seemed generally relaxed and in good spirits.
Gradually, they allowed themselves to believe their son had finally grown into himself.
And if, once in a while, they noticed he was a bit distracted or short-tempered, they told themselves not to worry, everyone had bad days.
Then came the Monday Louis showed up before seven in the morning. Usually, he stopped by later in the day, having caught up on a bit of sleep on his day off. That morning, though, he handed his mother a box of raspberry-glazed scones that were so freshly-baked they were still warm. Obviously, Louis hadn’t been to bed. His clothes were rumpled, his hair looked greasy, and he needed a shave.
Dorothy wanted to ask him if he was taking his pills, but instead she said the rolls smelled heavenly. Then she busied herself making coffee to go with them.
Louis paced the kitchen until they were ready to sit down. The scones were every bit as delicious as they smelled, but when Dorothy said so, Louis exploded. They were crap, he said, and she was as bad as the toadies he worked with. Couldn’t anyone tell good food from garbage?
Louis stormed out, and his parents knew he was headed toward a disastrous situation, but they didn’t know what they could do about it.
When the call came in the afternoon, it was too late.
According to the police, Louis had gone straight to the restaurant, even though it was closed. A janitor named Manny was sealing the grout in the storeroom when Louis burst in. Before Manny could make himself known, Louis began muttering angrily, like some buried rage was working its way to the surface. Manny stayed where he was.
When Louis started sweeping utensils and cookware off the counters and onto the floor, Manny became more and more frightened. By the time an expensive mixer – that had been delivered only a few days earlier – crashed on the tile, Manny could no longer stand it. He made a run for the door.
Louis saw him and gave chase, demanding to know if Manny was spying – if he was going to run to the boss.
Manny tried to say no, no – he’d never do such a thing, but Louis wrestled him to the floor and held the janitor down with one arm across his neck and shoulders. A knife that Louis had swept off the counter during his fury lay near where the men scuffled. Louis grabbed for it.
Manny struggled to direct the blade away from his body, but Louis was stronger.
It may have been the sight of Manny lying so still, his eyes fixed in disbelief, or blood seeping onto the floor that brought Louis back to some semblance of reality. When he saw that his outburst, this time, hadn’t resulted in just broken dishes or a cake thrown into the trashcan, he was terrified, and he ran.
The head chef came in a few minutes later to place an order for the next day’s produce. He called for help. Before Manny lost consciousness, he was able to tell the police what had happened.
They’d both wanted to believe that Louis had his difficulties under control, James said. But Dorothy blamed herself, saying she’d been afraid Louis had stopped taking his medication, but she hadn’t had the courage to confront him. If she had, she might have prevented this horrible thing from happening.
James tried calling Louis’s apartment, but there was no answer.
The police had been adamant that James let them know if Louis got in touch, and James assured them he would. But when Louis showed up several hours later, sobbing like the nine-year-old who became hysterical with remorse after he destroyed a balsam wood model plane he’d worked on for weeks, James knew Dorothy wouldn’t let him make the call.
When Louis was young, he said, Dorothy believed that if her love was strong enough, she could fix her son’s problems. And when she held him in her arms following a destructive outburst and he calmed down, it reinforced her belief.
Holding her adult son, Dorothy told James she knew she couldn’t change what had happened, but she was going to keep Louis safe now, and make sure he never hurt anybody else.
It was apparent to the detectives that a lifetime of worry had exhausted James, and he wouldn’t have had the strength to oppose his wife. He did exactly as she said.
Dorothy’s plan may have been conceived on the fly; but, obviously, she never doubted it was right thing to do.
She rented a studio apartment, under her maiden name, and took Louis there. She refilled his prescription and saw to it he took his pill every morning – doubling the dose if he seemed agitated. If he balked, Dorothy reminded him of what happened that Monday morning in the restaurant.
Meanwhile, James looked for a place they could move to permanently. Where Louis would have a fresh start. Where it was quiet, and no one knew him. Where he wouldn’t face scrutiny or pressure.
The old farmhouse, not too far out of the city, was perfect.
James hired a lawyer to handle the sale and coordinate the work needed to get the place back in shape.
After several weeks the house was ready, and Dorothy revealed the rest of her plan. She didn’t want James to move with them – at least, not right then. Manny had survived his injuries, but if the police found Louis, they would arrest him for assault. They were still checking in with James every few days and he continued to tell them he hadn’t heard from Louis. If James moved out of their apartment, it would arouse suspicion.
Dorothy said she would continue to go by her maiden name after she and Louis moved, and she would pay for everything in cash.
And…she would tell people her daughter lived with her.
(By then, of course, Mother had guessed what was coming, but even so, hearing Barbara say the words was shocking.)
James hadn’t seen it coming and he was aghast. Why, was it necessary to pretend she had a daughter instead of a son, he asked. Wouldn’t it just be one more deception to maintain?
Dorothy said to trust her; she knew what she was doing.
James vehemently disagreed with her, but he didn’t have the strength to challenger her. He knew that Dorothy believed that she alone could care for their son – and control his demons. And, truth be told, he was relieved to let Dorothy handle Louis.
The admission clearly cost James. He hoisted himself up out of his chair and mumbled that he needed to use the bathroom. While he was gone, the detectives looked at a grouping of photos on the mantle – a short pictorial of Louis’s growing-up years.
The first one was taken when he was a laughing toddler holding his arms up to the photographer. In another, an elementary class flashed toothy grins at the camera.
There were no pictures of Louis’s early teenage years, and it was hard to believe the last two photos were of the same boy. One was taken at high school graduation – Louis in cap and gown. And the other, when Louis completed his culinary course – he was wearing a chef’s hat and holding his certificate.
Those last pictures showed a young man whose face seemed to be carved from stone. His eyes were spiritless – completely devoid of any emotion, happiness or otherwise. The photo progression meant to show the promise of a young life, instead showed a joyful youngster that became an adult who looked like he was dead inside.
(Mother shivered at the description of the photos as it had funneled down to Barbara, and then to her. But she was grateful the detectives were so observant. She understood why Dorothy couldn’t accept what the pictures showed. She was the boy’s mother. Of course, she kept believing a part of her sweet toddler was still in there somewhere.)
James returned from the bathroom and sank back into his chair. The detectives had the information they needed to close the case and would have left the frail old man to his sorrow, but he asked them to sit down again, and they understood he needed to finish the story.
James and Dorothy arranged to meet every few weeks so he could give her cash to cover hers and Louis’s living expenses. The first time they met, Dorothy looked tired and James could see she’d lost weight. It had been stressful, she said, getting unpacked and settled. Louis had arranged and rearranged the kitchen countless times.
James’s heart broke for his wife, but a part of him was grateful not to be involved.
At their next meeting, he was relieved to see Dorothy relaxed and upbeat. She had even gained some weight. Louis, she said, finally had things set up the way he liked and was spending every waking minute in his beautiful, new kitchen doing what he loved – making complicated main course dishes and delectable baked goods. Their biggest problem, she laughed, was that she was getting fat and the freezer James had had installed in the garage was already half-full.
The next time they met, Dorothy brought James several bags of frozen food. And, she said, she was giving as many baked goods as she could (without raising too much curiosity) to a nice neighbor she’d met. (That, of course, pierced Mother’s heart.)
Still it was hard to keep up. So, when the opportunity to start a little baking business presented itself, it seemed like the perfect solution. James was concerned that filling orders and having deadlines would be stressful for Louis; but Dorothy said it would be good for him to have a real purpose again. If he became anxious or tense, she would increase his medication.
With cash coming in, Dorothy wasn’t as dependent on James as she had been; but they continued meeting – sometimes even having lunch or a glass of iced tea at a diner. It was a tremendous relief to James, seeing Dorothy cheerful and relaxed – like the girl he fell in love with so many years ago. He looked forward to their meetings and he could see Dorothy did too.
For nearly three months their secret life seemed to be working for all of them.
As the weather had gotten hotter and their tolerance to the heat had worn down, James suggested to Dorothy that they meet in the parking lot by the lake. It was one place they could find some shade, where it was a few degrees cooler.
On this morning, they sat in her car with the doors open wide in an attempt to catch any hint of a breeze. James had arrived first, and as soon as he walked to Dorothy’s car and got in, he could see that she was tense. The clenched jaw, the cryptic answers to his questions – he knew what they meant. Suddenly he felt old and tired again. He asked her what had happened.
Dorothy looked out across the lake before she answered, and when she finally did, her voice was barely audible. Louis had gotten a little wound up over all the orders he was getting.
James didn’t know if he had the energy to hear more, but Dorothy went on without being prompted. They had never expected so much business, she said, but Louis wouldn’t turn anyone down. He was working much too hard, having trouble sleeping and balking about taking his medication because he thought it slowed him down.
She continued gazing into the distance. What he needs, she said to herself as much as to James, is a break from all of it – for a while.
Dorothy fell quiet for a few minutes. Heat waves shimmered across the surface of the lake, and only the buzz of insects broke the silence. Finally, she brought her eyes back to James, but he could tell she wasn’t seeing him.
A trip, Dorothy said a little more decisively, but still to herself, would do Louis good. Maybe to the mountains – someplace cooler, where he could get outside.
Actually, she continued with more conviction, it would do them both good to get away. In fact, she went on, her eyes coming into focus now as she firmly took hold of the idea, why didn’t James join them. Surely, by now no one would notice that he was out of the apartment for a few days.
James loved his wife and he missed her, so how could he admit to her what a relief it had been these past months, to have been released of all responsibility for their troubled son. He knew he didn’t have the stamina to assume even a part of it again.
And Dorothy knew it too. She laid her hand on her husband’s arm and gave him a small, sad, understanding smile.
“Are you sure you can handle him by yourself?” James asked softly, guilt already like a lead weight on his shoulders.
“I can handle Louis,” Dorothy said, in that determined way she’d always had when it came to her son.
They sat quietly a few more minutes, then Dorothy said she must go. She and Louis would leave as soon as possible, and she would let James know when they returned. “But don’t worry if you don’t hear for a while,” she said, trying for a bit of levity. “We might find someplace so nice we’ll just stay a bit.”
This time it was James who smiled the sad smile. He covered her hand with his, unable to tell her how sorry he was.
When Dorothy didn’t get in touch, James tried to make himself believe that maybe they had found someplace nice.
But when there was still no word, James knew.
Dorothy hadn’t been able to handle Louis, after all.
As hard as it was for Mother to hear, I’m glad she learned the whole truth. The mystery of our phantom baker would have haunted her, had she not.
As for me, it was because of Lucille (it’s the only way I can think of the person I never saw) that I have a career I love, writing about food. The beautiful and delicious treats she produced and the delectable aromas that wafted from her kitchen during the Summer of ’66 captivated me. Would all of it have been as alluring had I not experienced it in the context of miserably hot weather and Mother’s cold suppers? I don’t know.
What I do know is that when I write about a dish or a dessert that’s been perfectly prepared and served, I want my readers to see the beauty and art of it, and I want them to know the pleasure it can bring.
Lucille gave me that.