Fiction From AGNI, Web Issue 4


Bake at 350º

The summer before my senior year in high school I made the mistake of working for my mother and my aunt Margot's catering business, the address of which happened to be our kitchen. It was the most scorching summer ever recorded in New York State. Elderly people were being warned not to venture outside; there wasn't a single air- conditioner or fan to be bought at Sears or any of the hardware stores up on the Turnpike, not at any price. No rain had fallen for ten weeks, and the air had turned crackly with dry heat. When you snapped your fingers, little whited sparks skidded off your skin. When birds took flight they singed their feathers and in no time fell to the ground.
       But the heat couldn't stop weddings and bar mitzvahs and christenings, not in our town, and my aunt and mother were doing so well they decided to give their business a name and have cards printed up. They called themselves TWO WIDOWS, a big joke since both their husbands were not only alive but married to younger women. Margot, especially cooked with such passion you'd have thought it was the heart of her ex she was sautéing instead of mushrooms for a strudel. Margot was ten years younger than my mother and fifteen years older than me, and she'd been through a lot. She'd married in her senior year of high school, like a dope, she always said. But the truth was, when she spoke of Tony, her ex, her face got so misty and vulnerable I couldn't stand to look.
       "Hey, I'll get over it," she insisted, but frankly neither my mother nor I were convinced. Margot still telephoned Tony half a dozen times a day. If Tony answered she'd simply hang up, then lock herself in the bathroom and cry. But if it was the new wife, she'd start with a string of curses you wouldn't believe.
       "Where'd you learn that stuff?" I asked her. Some of the curses weren't even in English but you could easily get their drift. That new wife's skin was probably crawling; she'd probably checked all the windows and double-locked all her doors.
       "That's for me to know and for you to never find out," Margot said. "Just be careful when you pick a husband. Remember what happened to me and your mother."
       We were making noodle kugel that week for the Grossmans' engagement party and the oven was always turned on high. It was so hot that I'd lost six pounds without even trying. If I kept drinking tap water and sweating, I'd reach my ideal weight by September. Maybe then, my life would start. Something would finally happen to me. I'd fall in love. I'd move a thousand miles away. I'd wake every day and know there was a reason to get out of bed.
       Lately, I'd been thinking a lot about love and marriage. My best friend, Jill, had gotten married in the spring, and her baby was due in August. Jill hadn't bothered to finish eleventh grade and now she and Eddie Lo Paca--I still couldn't think of him and the word husband in the same sentence-were living in the basement of her parents house. Was this love? That's what I wanted to know. Was this marriage? Whenever I went over, Eddie was out with his friends and Jill was reading magazines with a glazed look in her eyes. Sometimes, she didn't even bother to look up when I spoke. Whatever world she had entered, it was definitely a scary place.
       The last few times I'd gone over, I'd sat upstairs in the kitchen with Jill's mother, who was folding laundry and crying. Jill's mother was fanatically neat, and her new son-in-law redefined the concept of slob. You could smell his dirty socks from two rooms away; it didn't matter how great looking he was, all Jill's mother could see were the rims of permanent grease under his fingernails and the chewed up toothpicks he left on her newly sponged counter tops.
       "Is this what she wanted?" Jill's mother had asked the last time I sat with her in the kitchen.
       Well, frankly, the answer was yes. Jill had wanted a baby forever, though I'd never been certain why, and I guess Eddie was a part of that bargain. Or maybe she loved him, who was I to say? I, who knew nothing, was the last to sit in judgment of another's happiness and joy, even if it did include Eddie and a lot of morning sickness. I was only beginning to figure things out, and I obviously needed a great deal of help.
       "How do you know the difference between a good kisser and a bad kisser?" I asked Margot, my personal expert on love. We had pulled all the noodle kugels out of the oven. They were supposed to be cooling on the linoleum counter top, but it was so hot in the kitchen they still appeared to be baking, each pan bubbled and sizzled like a swarm of bees.
       "Oh, my God , that's so easy," Margot said. She took off her apron and pursed her mouth, considering how best to explain. "If he closes his eyes, he's good. And the bigger the tongue the better. Size-wise, it will let you know how big his equipment is." Margot lit a Salem and fanned the smoke into the brutal air. "You do know what I'm talking about, right?"
       "Of course I do," I said haughtily, as though I actually did.
       "Some people don't believe in the tongue measurement system. They think the size of a man's doo-dah relates to the size of his heart, but you can't prove that by me. It certainly wasn't true in Tony's case. He didn't even have a heart.
       I could tell by the dreamy look on my aunt's face that she wouldn't notice if I took one of her Salems, so I did. I had the feeling I knew what a doo-dah was, but I wasn't absolutely positive. The kitchen smelled of sugar and raisins and smoke. I wanted to know everything. I wanted to be prepared for what I was to face, hopefully, in September, when I reached my ideal weight and boys who never even noticed me before fell madly in love after just one look.
       "Well, what if you're already in love with someone and then you find out their a terrible kisser?"
       "You'll dump him," Margot said. Of this, she was certain. "And if you're too shy to do it, I'll call him, and dump him for you."
       "Don't talk to Margot about love," my mother said to me when she came into the room.
       But, of course, my mother was a romantic, in spite of all she'd been through. She smiled when she saw couples kissing out by the creek; her skin became rosy and flushed when she caught a glimpse of a new born baby in its carriage.
       That day, in the kitchen, my mother grabbed the Salem from my hand and put it out in the sink. "Love is real," she told me. "Do you understand what I'm saying? It's like a plate or a cup or a night table. That's how real it is," she said.
       "Yeah, right." Margot laughed out loud. "It's as real as the lasagna we have to fix for the Dorrio's wedding. His second," she whispered to me. "And no one knows what happened to wife #1."
       "She's a travel agent in Lynbrook," my mother told Margot. "For your information."
       "Well, goody for her." Margot had never wanted to do weddings in the first place. It was my mother who had insisted. "I'll bet you the way her feet hurt at the end of a day is realer to her than love ever was."
       Margot could talk as tough as she wanted, but I knew she was looking for love. Just the week before we'd done a 50th anniversary party at the Franconia Steak House, providing the petit fours and the sheet cakes, and Margot had chatted up all the good-looking waiters. Every time we went to Jones Beach, she'd check her lip stick in the rear-view mirror before getting out of the car, just in case.
       "So is Eddie a really good kisser?" I asked Jill, later that day, when the purple dusk was falling between the poplar trees and the temperature was still past ninety.
       "Compared to what?" Jill said.
       "We were out in her parents' backyard, sitting in a wading pool we'd dragged out of the garage and filled with cold water from the hose. With Jill's belly so big, we filled up the whole pool, and had to take turns stretching out our legs.
       "Okay, tell me this." I was smoking a Salem I'd stolen from Margot, and I held the cigarette between my thumb and forefinger, the way Margot did when she wanted to make a point. "What do you think about when he kisses you?"
       "Are you doing a survey?" Jill said. She'd gained about fifty pounds, but the weird thing was she was just as beautiful as ever, so pale in the dusky light that she almost glowed. "All right. When he kisses me my mind goes completely blank."
       "Maybe that's why I married him. Maybe I didn't want to think."
       We mulled that over as fireflies appeared on the lawn.
       "I wish I was ten years old," Jill said.
       "Me, too," I said. But that was a lie. I couldn't wait till September when I'd be a senior and my entire world would change.
       Jill wrinkled her beautiful nose. "The whole neighborhood smells like tomato sauce."
       "We're doing lasagna. There's a wedding at the Knights of Columbus Hall tonight."
       We heard Eddie pull into the driveway. He had the Camaro that drove Jill's mother crazy, and to be honest it did sound more like a jet than a Chevrolet. Eddie worked down a the food star with my brother Jason, and I couldn't bring myself to tell Jill that everyone in the deli department spent his lunch hour smoking pot in the parking lot. She thought he was working so hard, cutting up bologna or whatever it was they did in the deli, and I was fairly certain that given time, she'd be disappointed enough in Eddie without my reports.
       "Two beautiful girls, that's what I need," Eddie said.
       He was a liar, but he was a good one. He'd brought home a six pack of beer, which he dumped into the wading pool, then sat down on the grass and pulled off his boots. I could understand Jill's mother's complaint about the aroma of his socks, which he quickly pulled off so he could stick his feet into the pool.
       "Your brother's quite a pisser," Eddie said to me, as he got himself a beer. My brother, once president of the science club, had recently broken up with Eddie's sister, Terri, and now seemed to be concentrating on alcohol and illegal drugs.
       "He managed to get an entire delivery of beer into the back of his car."
       My mother's car, actually, a Ford Fairlane that would soon need resuscitation.
       "Thank you, Jason," Eddie said, raising his beer can to the sky.
       "Gretel was just asking me about the way you kissed," Jill said.
       She was that way sometimes, embarrassing you to death.
       "Jill!" I said, pretty much mortified.
       Eddie liked this information; he thought highly of himself. "Oh, yeah?" he said.
       I realized now that he was sitting too close to me, and now he leaned over closer still.
       "Want to find out?" he said.
       Jill let out a snort.
       "I mean it," Eddie said, although whether he was addressing me or Jill, I couldn't tell. Before I could figure it out, Eddie had started to kiss me. It was getting even darker by then, and from the corner of my eye I could see Jill's hair, which looked silvery against the sky. He kissed me and went on kissing me until I couldn't breathe, and then he backed away and laughed. I must have had a stupid expression on my face, because Eddie took one look and said "I must be even better than I thought I was."
       Jill was patting my leg. "Gretel?" she said in a concerned sort of voice, but I was the one who wasn't listening now. I got out of that pool fast, and went to the gate. I didn't bother to grab my shoes, although the cement was still burning hot in the driveway, even now, in the dark. I was late for the Dorrio's wedding, and my mother and Margot had already loaded up Margot's station wagon and driven over to the Knights of Columbus Hall. As I ran there, I thought that human beings really didn't have a chance. Things didn't make any sense, of that I was certain. I kept feeling Eddie's kiss, as if it was happening over and over, as I ran across lawns and headed for the Turnpike. I understood why Jill looked so dumbstruck and so glazed; how could she not be puzzled that a kiss had taken her so far? No wonder people did such stupid things for love. No wonder they wound up ruining their lives, or at least seeing them on a strange and unknown course.
       I was completely out of breath when I got to the Knights of Columbus Hall. The parking lot was full and the moon was climbing over the asphalt shingled roof. The heat seemed to be rising, and in the back room, where my mother and Margot had set up a makeshift kitchen, the temperature must have been well over a hundred.
       "Finally," my mother said when she saw me. "I was worried ."
       "I forgot the time," I said, grabbing an apron. Margot had had the TWO WIDOWS logo printed on the blue cloth.
       "It's wild out there," Margot said, coming inn from the function room with an empty tray. She'd been serving hor d'oeuvres, but she looked like she'd been doing battle. "They're drinking whiskey sours like they were water."
       I could tell by Margot's breath that she'd had one herself. I helped her load up another tray of hor d'oeuvres, little hot dogs wrapped in phylo-dough and mini knishes, while my mother got the main course ready. If I wasn't mistaken, my aunt seemed a little flushed, and when I followed her into the wedding party I could see the reason why. There was a man who was searching the room, and when he say Margot, he waved.
       "Hey, baby," he called.
       My aunt turned to me and for an instant I saw the hope in her eyes. I saw that she'd be willing to try again, she'd do anything for love, the real sort, the sort that would last.
       "Wish me luck," she whispered.
       I was standing beside the bar, which specialized in whiskey sours and rum punch, and I couldn't help but wonder what this man's history was; if he'd been married, or if he was married still. For all we knew, he could be Dorrio himself,. today's bridegroom. Not that it mattered. There he was, on the other side of the room. There she was, headed straight for him. And there I stood, barefoot, in the Knights of Columbus Hall, during the hottest summer of our lives.