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Especially Babe

Babe watched Mel flit around the kitchen, peering into cupboards and slamming drawers closed with her bony hip. “Pathetic,” Mel said. “Worse than the third world.” She poured two mugs of coffee, using the waitress pour, a foot above the counter. “You trying to stage a famine?”

Babe eyed the inky brew Mel set in front of her. “I’m just not hungry.” The coffee smelled exactly like the black, viscous stuff cooked up by roofers.

“Try this.” Mel lifted a big yellow muffin from a bakery box on the table. “It’s your favorite.”

A whiff of sugary lemon caused Babe’s tongue to swell and flatten against the roof of her mouth. She fought back a gag.

“You look awful,” Mel said, sipping her coffee. “All droopy and folded in.”

 Babe pushed the muffin away. “Everything tastes like those biscuits babies teethe on.”

Mel sat down and pulled out a cigarette. “Grief does that. You have to eat anyway, automatically.” She looked at Babe over the flame of her lighter. “Like breathing.”

“Automatic eating,” Babe snorted. “Bring in the trough.”

Mel stood. “Come on down to the restaurant, okay? Have some clam chowder.” She blew a stream of smoke. “You’re gonna get sick, Babe.”

 Babe didn’t go. In the evening she carried a glass of milk out to the deck and sat in a lawn chair to watch the sun sink over the ocean. Strands of scent hung in the air: salt, the tang of seaweed and fish, the deep inchoate smell of the water itself, brimming with things unborn and things taken in. Morro Bay’s fishing fleet rocked in the swell along the dock. Johnny’s boat was there, too. But not Johnny; he was in the water somewhere, his grave the whole Pacific. Babe inhaled deeply. Maybe something of her husband floated in those marine strands, his molecules part of the big mix. 

That night Babe dreamed she answered a knock at the door and found Johnny there in his wet clothes. “The key wasn’t under the mat,” he said peevishly. His flannel shirt clung to his chest.

“You’ve been gone so long I gave up hope, Johnny.” Babe wanted to hug him, but he pushed past her.

Johnny’s bare feet were frosted with fish scales that dropped off and lay winking on the carpet like sequins.

“That’s not all you gave up,” he said, pointing at her. “You gave up food. How could you do that, Babe?” He sat down and regarded her mournfully. “Remember those fancy dinners you used to make? That was pure love.”

Babe rushed to the refrigerator. “What can I fix you, Johnny?”

“Southern fried chicken. Make me some of that.”

Babe flung open the refrigerator door. Cartons of Mel’s cigarettes filled the shelves. Panicked, she turned back to Johnny, but he was gone.

In the morning, Babe got down on her hands and knees, looking for fish scales. When she stood, her head spun and the room turned black. She sank to a chair to catch her breath. On the table, the muffin reposed like a little golden temple.  Babe seized it, peeled away the paper cup and bit in. She detected a hint of flavor, as if she were just getting over a cold.

 

  Babe cruised the supermarket aisles, stopping to heft boxes of cereal and airy bags of chips, squeezing artichokes and grapefruit, and dropping them back in their piles. She lifted a tray of chicken from the meat case and sniffed it.

A stout, dark-bearded man stopped beside her. “Why do you smell it?” He picked up a tray and brought it to his nose. “In this package, it is impossible.”

Italian, Babe thought, watching him choose another package. “Here is the fresher one,” he said, handing it to her. “Less of the yellow.”

He gave a little bow and moved on.  Babe sniffed the second tray.  Through the plastic came the scent of clean, cold chicken.

At home, she dredged the chicken in egg and flour, followed by herb-flavored crumbs. She fried the pieces carefully, skimming the oil to keep it clear. A heavenly cloud hovered over the skillet, tickling her nostrils, filling the back of her mouth with saliva. She forked up  a drumstick, wrapped it in a napkin like a pop sickle, and took a bite. The hot crust crumbled under her teeth, releasing a stream of juice and crumbs that she caught with her tongue. She closed her eyes and chewed.

Mel let herself in as Babe was cleaning up. She wore her waitress outfit and high-topped red tennis shoes. “What’s that smell?” she asked.

Babe set the skillet in the sink. “Chicken. But there’s none left.”

“About time,” Mel said.

“I dreamed about Johnny. He wanted me to cook for him.”

Mel took out a cigarette. “So you made him a little lunch, huh?”

“You can be cruel sometimes, Mel.”

Mel put the cigarette back. “I’m sorry.  It’s the restaurant business—too many guys with big balls and little wallets. Makes you cynical.” She pinched the worn fleece of Babe’s sweatshirt. “Aren’t you getting tired of this uniform? Maybe want to opt for a little color?”

“You think I should have red tennis shoes?”

“Now who’s being cruel? You know I got bunions, Babe.”

“I’m sorry, Mel. It’s this widow business. Makes you indifferent.”

 

Babe dreamed that Johnny came up behind her and opened the refrigerator. A fishing net hung from his shoulders like a shawl. “What’s for dinner?” he asked.

She studied his face in the glow from the refrigerator. “I need to know what happened, Johnny, why you never came back to me.”

He slammed the door. “You already know, Babe. Boat pitched while I was untangling a line.”

Babe wrung her hands. “Didn’t I beg you stay in when there wasn’t another boat to run with?”

Johnny gave her the crooked smile that made her knees weak. “Sweet Babe ran off and left me in the water.”

“I didn’t want that boat named after me,” Babe shouted.

Johnny raised his hand. “Fettucine Alfredo.”

 

 Babe paused to sniff a cantaloupe in the market’s produce section. It gave off a green perfume, like cut grass and roses. Nearby, the Italian stopped excavating the tomato bin to stare at her.  A fussy man, she decided, replacing the melon and maneuvering her cart away.

 

Babe tossed hot noodles with grated gruyere and parmesan, blending in warm cream until the sauce grew silky and iridescent. Her olfactory nerves twitched, and she swallowed. She lifted a forkful of pasta to her mouth, pressed it  against her palate, and  chewed. She ate a plateful and felt nourished for the first time in months.

 

Mel spent a Saturday afternoon going through Babe’s closet, flinging aside oversized shirts and sweatpants. “Time for you and me to do some stomping,” she said around the cigarette in her mouth. “Have a little fun.”

Babe gathered up the pile of sweats. “I’m cooking. That’s enough.”

Mel eyed her in the dresser mirror. “It’s not healthy you fixing those big gourmet meals and eating all by yourself.”

Babe threw the bundle on the bed. “Make up your mind! Is it feast or famine?”

“Okay, okay. You’re looking better.  Pretty and plump, like your old self.” She pulled out a Polynesian print dress and held it up to her chin. “Here we go. Nice and bright.”

“You look like a crane in a fruit salad.”

 Mel hung the dress up. “You sure are touchy lately, Babe.”

Babe sat down on the bed. “I’m sorry. It’s these dreams, I guess.” She rested her head in her hands.  “It just goes on and on, Mel.  I’m still waiting for something. Maybe because there was never a body. You know, nothing to bury.”

“The waiting period is over, Honey,” Mel said, grinding out her cigarette. “Johnny’s got a marker in the cemetery. That’s as final as it gets.”

That night Babe dreamed she was in the kitchen kneading dough. Elastic and pale, it grew under her hands, draping over the counter and flowing into the sink.

Johnny appeared beside her. “Pie or cobbler?” He was surrounded by a sputtering green aura, like neon.

Babe wrestled the dough back to the counter. “You never loved me, Johnny.”

“Sure I did, Babe.” He poked the dough with his finger, and it shrank back like an anemone.

“I wanted to die, too.”

He gave her a sad, glazed look. “One dead person in the family’s enough.”

The dough rose up in a wave and covered Babe’s face.

“How about strawberry pie?” Johnny said.

“Wait,” Babe screamed, clawing the clammy softness with her nails.

She awoke, tearing at her pillow, and sat up. “This has got to end.”   

 

In the produce section, Babe lifted a plastic-domed basket of strawberries and sniffed. It gave off a cool, vegetal odor.

“Smelling again?” The Italian man stood beside her. His eyes and beard were different shades of brown, like chocolate, milk and bittersweet.

 “For what will you use these?” he asked.

“Strawberry glace cream pie,” Babe said.

“Ah, you are a cook.” He moved closer, backing her against the fruit bin. “Picked green one week ago,” he said, giving one of the domes a sharp flick with his finger. “Carried to a place of storage, then carried here. The true strawberries are in the small market on street number two.”

“Second Street?” His breath smelled like rosemary.

“Exactly,” he said. “May I carry you there?”

Babe felt dizzy. “Carry? Oh. No. No, I can drive.”

He slapped his forehead with the palm of his hand. “I am sorry. I am not a simple stranger,” he said, shaking her hand vigorously. “I am Franco Borelli, chef. What will you cook besides the pie?”

“Flounder,” Babe said, thinking fast.

“Fresh flounder?” His bittersweet eyebrows lifted.  “Where do you get this fish?”

“I know some fishermen.”

“Ah.” He brought his hands together. “I could help prepare this dish? Please. It will be a benefit for you, too. I make my promise.”

 

 Franco wrapped flounder fillets around a flaked crab mixture and set them in a buttered baking dish. “A wonderful fish,” he said to the air, as if addressing a TV audience. “With the shallots, it is a king’s dish.”

He slid the dish into the oven and came over to watch Babe spread sweetened cream cheese in a pie crust. “I am in disgust for the new cuisine which fears fats,” he said, striking his chest with his fist. “With olive oil, my grandfather became one hundred and two years.”

“Good genes,” Babe said, adding a layer of sliced berries to the cheese.

Grazie,” Franco said, looking down at his slacks. He leaned closer to examine the pie. “You have the eyes of a cook, Baby.” His breath tickled her forearm.

“Not Baby. It’s just Babe.”

“I do not think so,” he said, straightening. “You are not just Babe. You are especially Babe.”

 

 A garlicky steam rose from the fillets as Franco lifted them onto plates. He inhaled so deeply the sides of his nose pinched in. “Food is love,” he said closing his eyes to chew. “Sometimes I think maybe the best kind. Other times, no.”

 “My husband Johnny said the same thing.”

Franco set his fork down. “And where is your Johnny?”

Babe nodded toward the bay. “Out there. Drowned.”

“I am sorry I have made you sad.”

“I’m always sad,” Babe said. “It’s a permanent condition.”

“No. As long as you breathe, there is a possibility of change.”

“So the cook is also a philosopher?”

“Of course,” he said, picking up his fork. “You cannot cook without considering why you do it, why it is a joy, what the eating of food means.”

“What does it mean, Franco?”

“Taste the fish and you will know, Cara. Mangia, mangia. Before it grows cold.”

The next morning, Babe answered a knock to find Johnny’s friend Rick Henderson at the door. He held a tall black boot. “I thought it might be Johnny’s,” he said.

Babe took the boot and turned it over. Barnacles like jagged teeth ridged the rubber sole. “Where’d you find it?”

“One of the draggers brought it up a few miles down the coast.”

She ran her fingers over a gap in the boot’s heel. “A winch took this chunk out. Johnny got so mad. His brand new boots.”

Rick took off his baseball cap. “I’m sorry, Babe.”

Babe closed the door and leaned against it, hugging the boot. She inhaled its damp, seagrass scent. Nothing of Johnny remained. She touched the black rubber with her tongue. Tears and seawater, she decided, tasted about the same.

Babe stood the boot on the table and sat down on the couch. It flopped to one side like a broken stove pipe.

Mel entered without knocking. “Hey.” She took out her cigarettes and hung her purse on a chair. “What’s this old boot doing on the table?”
            “It’s Johnny’s,” Babe said.

“My Lord.” Mel sat down next to Babe. “You gonna just leave it there?” She studied the boot as she lit her cigarette.  “Like some kind of shrine?”

Babe bit the end of her thumb. “I’m thinking I might run Johnny’s boat myself.”

Mel choked on smoke. “You haven’t been thinking at all if that’s what you’re thinking.”

“I went out with Johnny. I know what to do.”

Mel stood up and strode across the room. “Johnny knew what to do, too.”

“I can’t just sit around any more. And all I have to work with is a fishing boat.”

Mel blew out an angry stream of smoke. “Hell, you already wear his shirts. Just put this boot on, get yourself a lobotomy and you’ll be all set.”

Babe folded her arms across her chest.  “I’m tired of being told what to do. You in the day time and Johnny at night. I want to make my own decisions. Or mistakes.”

Mel stubbed out her cigarette. “Just as long as they aren’t fatal, Honey.”

 

In the evening Franco arrived. “I have prepared spaghetti alla puttanesca, as I promised,” he said. “But here is a boot on the table.”

“It’s Johnny’s,” Babe said. “They found it in the water.”

 Franco touched her shoulder. “Che tristezza.”

“Would you help me bury it, Franco?”

“You want to bury the boot?”

Babe nodded. “In the cemetery.”

“Why will you do this?”

“To lay something to rest, I guess. I dream about him. He tells me what to cook.”

Franco picked up the boot and inspected it. “Cooking should come from the belly, not from dreams.”

 

Babe drove to the cemetery and parked outside the gate. Franco bumped against her as she moved into the darkness. The spade he was carrying clanked against stone. “I am sorry,” he said. “This place scratches my nerves.”

“Here,” she whispered, stopping at a new headstone. She reached for the spade. “I have to do it.”

Babe cut a rectangle in the grass, and Franco hunkered down to lift out the clumps of dirt. She laid the boot in the hole and stepped back. Something papery rustled in Franco’s hands.

“What’s that, Franco?”

“Garlic,” he said, sprinkling the cloves. “It helps the spirit to rest.”

Babe stared down at the white dots of garlic. “That boot killed my Johnny.”

“How could this be?”

“When a fisherman falls in the water, his boots fill up and pull him under. Like sandbags.” She replaced the clods, tears falling onto her arms. “Rest now,” she said, looking toward the sea.

At the gate, Babe started to sob. Franco wiped the tears from her cheeks. His fingers smelled like garlic and earth.

“I don’t know what to do, Franco. I feel useless.”

He put his arms around her. “You are not a useless woman.” Her breasts rested on the shelf above his stomach.

 “I thought maybe I could fish. Like Johnny.”

“You think you are a fisherman?” He laughed, rocking her against him. “It is so obvious what you are.”

“It is?”  Against her cheek his beard was warm, dry grass.

“What is your expression? It takes one to recognize one?”

“Know one,” Babe said.

“No one? Who is no one? We are both someones here.”

 “You may be my first big mistake, Franco.” She drew a deep breath. A sea smell rode the breeze, an ancient odor pushing itself onto land, carrying messages of things relinquished and things bestowed.

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