Snowshoeing is a trance. I lift one foot, then the other. My legs become heavy. The sun bakes my back. Sweat drips under my boobs, down into my bellybutton and waistband.
Twenty minutes up, Garrett veers off the road. Our legs sink deeper here, just above the knees. When you snowshoe, you're supposed to navigate these off-trail places where the snow seems forbiddingly deep.
To the left the ground pitches sharply, drops away into iced cliffs.
“Don't fall,” Garrett calls.
I glance behind me; Ingrid's air drumming.
We enter a clearing. He stoops, unstraps his snowshoes, and scrambles up a six-foot-tall boulder. After kicking all the snow from the top, he turns, crouches, and offers a hand.
Ingrid kicks off her snowshoes. She throws herself at the boulder, and he pulls her up as if she's light as a bedsheet.
“Zell?” Garrett says. He grins down at me.
I shake my head vigorously. “I am not going up there.”
“Oh, yes you are,” Ingrid belts. “Doo-doo-doo, all you needâIS A PINCH!”
“It's a beautiful view.” Garrett offers both hands. “Trust me.”
Ingrid tosses her red hat high and catches it. She rummages through Garrett's backpack and pulls out a silver-wrapped cereal bar. She sings between bites: “Doo-doo-doo, all you needâIS A PINCH!”
I unstrap my snowshoes. “I'm heavier than I look,” I say.
“I'm stronger than I look,” he says. “Get a running start, and jump as high as you can.”
I do, and he catches my forearms, leans back on the boulder, and hauls me up. I collapse onto his thighs.
“See? No sweat,” he says.
“Yeah,” I say, a little out of breath. “Thanks.” I sit and help myself to a half-crushed cereal bar, which Garrett holds out to me.
The view is south and west, sunny and clear, deep and wide, a view that would bring Nick to his knees. Foothills and streams roll below us. They make me think of torn bits of tissue paper flattened into a collage. Turkey vultures soar, black
s against the brilliant sky. The breeze blowsâslight, then strong, then slight again.
Garrett smirks as Ingrid points out landmarks.
“Long Pond in Rutland,” she says. “Wippamunk Reservoir. The city of Worcester. And way out there? Wicked way out? Mount Greylock. See it?”
“Yeah,” I say. “I actually do.”
In the western distance the ridge of Mount Greylock stretches long, like the back of a sperm whaleâthe sight that inspired Herman Melville to write
Or so the legend tells us.
Ingrid pokes a straw into a juice box. “Aren't I a little old for juice boxes, Dad?” she asks.
“I don't know. How old is too old for a juice box? You're nine.”
“Exactly.” Her face glistens with sweat. She sucks down all the juice, until the cardboard becomes indented. “Here.” She shows Garrett the empty box.
“Do I look like a trash can?” he says.
He yanks her hat down over her eyes, and she giggles. “Carry in, carry out, remember?” Garrett says.
“I know, I know.” She puts the empty box in the backpack, then goes back to singing while tossing and catching her hat.
“Stop singing that, Ingrid,” Garrett says. He's on his second cereal bar. “Sing anything but that. Please.”
“Dad. Zell and I are going to enter the Warm the Soul baking contest together.”
“You are, huh?”
“Uhâ,” I say. When I pinkie swore that she could help me, I didn't really think about Garrett's reaction, or whether he would even allow it. But he doesn't seem irritated. Actually, he seems amused.
“Yup,” says Ingrid.
thinking about entering it,” I say. “The other day, with the fire truck? I was . . . baking.”
“So I heard,” he says. “I'm not much of a cook, either.”
“You get twenty thousand dollars if you win,” I say. “And an all-expenses-paidâ”
“That's a lot of money,” Ingrid says. “Right?”
She says it so quickly, I wonder if she doesn't want Garrett to know about getting to meet Polly on the set.
“What would you do with the money if you won?” he asks her.
“I would save it so that when I grow up I could go to France and study at the famous Cordon Blur cooking school.”
Garrett leans back, rests his head on his backpack, and throws an arm over his eyes. “What would you do with the money, Zell?”
“I'd start a charity organization or something, for the people in New Orleans who are rebuilding their homes and communities in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and the flood. That was Nick's last wish,” I add.
“Dad?” says Ingrid. “I changed my mind. I would give my twenty thousand dollars to the people of New Orleans.”
He sits up halfway and strokes her cheek. “You're a good girl,” he says softly.
She sings some more: “All you need IS A PINCH. PINCH OF LOVE!”
“If you're going to keep singing, could you please do so quietly?”
“Sorry.” She skips to the other end of the boulder and sits cross-legged. She slaps her thighs, humming the theme song.
“So you've got a bit of a Polly Pinch obsession yourself,” he says. “No wonder Ingrid likes you so much.”
“It's my new thing.” The stupid truth is, I absolutely cannot wait to get home, watch
Pinch of Love,
and experiment with another batch of cookies. “Polly Pinch is pretty addicting,” I say, “once you give her a chance.”
“I don't encourage the Polly Pinch stuff. Believe me.”
“About that contest. Ingrid offered to help me, so I said she could. I hope that's okay.”
“Of course,” he says. “I mean, as long as you realize that all she's going to want to do when you're around is bake, and bake, and bake some more.”
I try to smile, and I think I succeed this time, because Garrett smiles back. I want to mention that Ingrid told me Polly Pinch is her mother but decide against it.
He hums a bar of the Polly Pinch song, then catches himself and clears his throat. “I remember reading about your husband in
last year. That was a nice article.”
“Yeah. Dennis and my husband worked together at
for about ten years, so they knew each other pretty well.”
“I'm sorry about your husband.”
“Thanks.” I scrape at some dead lichen on the boulder with my fingernail. “You married?”
“Nope. Never.” He wipes his sweaty face on his sleeve. He takes my water bottle out of his backpack and offers it to me.
“Oh no, you first,” I say. “You carried it.”
He unscrews the lid, gulps almost half the water, and hands me the bottle.
Suddenly Ingrid runs up to us; tears dampen her cheeks. “Dad?”
“What is it, boo-boo? What's wrong?”
Ingrid points beyond the cliffs toward the sky. Her red hat is caught on the branch of an oak tree twenty feet out. Maybe thirty. A deep gulch and icy cliffs separate us from the oak, centuries old, a hundred feet tall, with peeling elephant-skin bark.
Garrett shades his eyes and studies Ingrid. “How did you manage that one?”
“I was trying to see how high I could throw it,” she says. “And the wind came and took it.”
“Looks like it's gone now.”
“But it's not gone. It's right there.”
High in the tree the red hat seems to shiver. Twigs poke it. It looks like some lanky-limbed creature is trying to rend the yarns and be born.
“Time to let it go, boo-boo.” Garrett stands and shoulders into his backpack. “Maybe the wind will blow it down, and the next time we come here it will be on the ground, and we can get it then.”
“But I want it now,” she says. “I
“Let me try something,” he says. He claps a snowball together. He cocks his arm back and hurls it forward, and the snowball shoots upâwhite dot against blue sky. It loses momentum six feet from the hat and plummets to the ground. He tries again, packing a smaller snowball. He flings his arm even harder this time but misses.
“I can't reach it, Ing.” He sighs. “I tried. I'm sorry.” He drops from the boulder and toes into his snowshoes. “Let's get moving. Time to head back to the truck. We'll get you another hat, okay?”
“Will you get it for me?” asks Ingrid, tugging my arm. A tearful hiccup escapes her mouth. “You have to get it for me. It belonged to myâ”
“Time to head back,” says Garrett, but not impatiently.
“Get it for me, Zell?”
The hat is impossible to reach, of course. She and I watch it for a moment. I will the wind to release it, but the hat stays fixed.
The cool breeze whips my hair across my mouth. I glance down at Garrett; I can't tell if he's looking at Ingrid or at me.
“I think it's gone for now,” I tell Ingrid. I swig from my water bottle and offer some to her, but she shakes her head. “But like your dad said, maybe when you come back in the spring, it'll be on the ground.”
“In the spring?”
“Yeah. In the spring.”
I guide her toward the edge of the boulder. “And until then,” I say, “you'll know exactly where it is.”
NEXT TUESDAY AFTERNOON, Garrett stands on my porch again. The knot of his tie is loose, and a small oil stainâfrom salad dressing, maybeâdots his white shirt. The skin under his eyes looks droopy and pinched.
“I can't believe I'm asking you to do this again,” he says.
Ingrid pushes past me and drops her backpack just inside the door. “Ahab!” she calls.
“I interviewed someone last night for a nanny position,” Garrett says. “But she was . . . I mean, she was a nice girl and all, but she seemed . . .” He trails off. He glances at his watch.
I hand him Nick's keys. “Keep them this time.”
He pockets the keys, looking overwhelmed. “I'll make it up to you. I swear.” He hands me a big wad of bills.
“You don't need to pay me,” I say. “Really.”
He pauses for a second, like he's considering just stuffing the bills into my apron pocket and taking off. But instead, he nods. “Thanks, Zell.”
IN MY KITCHEN Ingrid flips through
Meals in a Cinch with Polly Pinch.
“Finished my homework,” she says before I even ask.
We brainstorm. Ingrid wants to make upside-down cake. I want to make oatmeal brownies. We draft a recipe for Oatmeal Brownie Upside-Down Cake, and I quickly realize that Ingrid is not the baking prodigy she hinted that she was. She suggests one cup of baking soda, but I convince her that's way too much. She suggests three cans of condensed evaporated milk and a dozen eggs, and I explainâgentlyâthat we're not trying to feed an entire army. Finally, we negotiate a general plan of attackâadding oatmeal to the brownie batter, then creating alternating layers of brownie mix and cake mix.
“How do you know all this stuff about baking?” she asks. “What's too much, what's not enough? How do you know all that?”
How, indeed. From Ye Olde Home Ec Witch? Perhaps. Perhaps I am the fallen soufflÃ© in Room 8 of the basement of Wippamunk High SchoolâYe Olde Home Ec Witch's classroom. Or the soggy omelet in the beat-up frying pan with rusted handle in Room 8 of the basement of the high school. Perhaps I am shavings of carrot stuck in the sudsy sink drain, to which glaring Ye Olde Home Ec Witch points with a warty finger. (Did she really have warts, or was that detail simply part of the legend?)
It's inconceivable that Polly Pinch has warts. She is the san-toku knife with forged-steel blade and slip-resistant polypropylene handle advertised on page eleven of
Meals in a Cinch.
She is the long-stemmed strawberry dipped in white chocolate fondue on page fifty-six. She is the porcelain cup of French-pressed Fair Trade organic shade-grown coffee on page ninety-nine.
And I am neither a kitchen Nazi nor a television chef with tight skin and perfect tanned boobs. I am Rose-Ellen Roy, nÃ©e Carmichael, the soggy omelet trying to win a twenty-thousand-dollar baking contest. If not with Flourless Peanut Butter Treats, if not with Oatmeal Brownie Upside-Down Cake, then with Something Else Outstanding.
“You want to know how I know all this stuff?” I say. I hold the bowl. Ingrid stands on a chair and dumps the brownie mix. It mushroom clouds in our faces, and we both cough.
“Years and years of practice.” I crack an egg with one hand.
She takes the eggshells and tosses them into the sink. “Practice?” she says. “But you said you don't cook. Like, not at all.”
I grasp the wooden spoon and stir. “Let's not split hairs, hm'kay?”
FLOURY HANDPRINTS SMUDGE THE CABINETS. Sugar dots the counter. Brownish oatmeal sticks to the wall.
Ahab licks something next to the leg of a chair. He sniffs his way to the oven door, lapping flecks of batter here and there.
The Oatmeal Brownie Upside-Down Cake cools on the stovetop. It looks like black-brown volcanic mush.
“Last year?” Ingrid says. “I went to a Halloween party at my dad's work? And they had fake throw-up on the floor.”
“Yeah?” I say.
She points to the Oatmeal Brownie Upside-Down Cake. “That looks like the fake throw-up.”
“Mmm. How appetizing.”
“So much for years and years of practice.” Ingrid drums her fingers on the table. “Hey. I know someone who can help you.”