And I bring no one together. Least of all myself. Nick wanted me to mother his children, yet I can't even operate an ovenâor bake a single, normal cookie. A shameful loneliness carves into my chest, hollowing it out. I
the enormous lump I've created: a quivering, unidentifiable mess.
“Who goes through her whole life without cooking, Captain?” I ask. “Without cooking a thing?”
Ahab lifts his head and watches as I stand, wrap a dish towel around my hand, and grasp the heavy baking sheet. It clatters onto the stovetop.
“How did Nick stand it?” I howl. “How did he stand
?” A single tear splashes onto the half-cooked lump. And I spill over, big hot tears everywhereâmy cheeks and chin, the ends of my hair, the apron. Even the top of Ahab's head, as he leans against my thigh.
The doorbell wheezes: w-h-e-e-z-e.
“Crap.” I press an apron corner to my eyes and decide to ignore the doorbell until whoever is ringing it gives up and goes away.
MR. GARRETT KNOX WAITS ON THE PORCH, loosening his tie. “Am I . . . interrupting you?” he asks.
I'm not sure what to say because technically he is.
“Smells great,” he says.
“Really?” I say. “Thanks a lot. I was just baking some . . . cookies.” I smooth the apron over my belly and stand a little straighter.
He peers at me, and I wonder whether he can tell I was just bawling my eyes out over the stove. I try to smile a little.
“You bake a lot?” he asks.
“Oh, every now and again. Sure.”
“No wonder my daughter likes you so much.” He laughs and reaches for my hand. “Garrett,” he says. His palm is soft, like that of a man who works at a desk. “Yeah, Ingrid sure is a fan of you.”
“Really? Well, she seems like a great kid,” I say.
“Thanks. She really is something else. Uh, you have . . .” He pretends to wipe the area under his left eye.
I mirror him; chocolaty butter comes off on my fingertips. “Oh. Nice.” I force a smile. “My name's Rose-Ellen, but I go by Zell.”
“Zell,” he says. “Well, this is awkward.”
“No, I mean, what I'm about to say is awkward. Because I'm in a bit of a bind and I need to ask you a favor. A huge favor, actually.”
Ahab comes to the door and leans against me. He eyes Garrettâthat's actually pretty sociable for a greyhound, because typically they ignore strangers.
“Nice dog.” Garrett scratches Ahab's head, then notices a streak of cinnamon on the nipple area of my apron and quickly looks back at my eyes, which I'm sure are puffy and bloodshot from crying.
“So what's up?” I ask, as Ahab licks my apron hem.
“Well, my nanny bailed on me,” Garrett says. “She's been watching Ingrid while I'm in Boston Tuesday nights, and all day on some Saturdays. She got a real job, apparently. Left me in the lurch. I mean, I'm happy for her. But I really don't know what to do for child care now. And here we are, Tuesday night already, and I have to leave for class, like . . . twenty minutes ago. I've dragged Ingrid to class with me a couple times, but it's just awful for her.”
“Why don't you send her to a friend's house for the night?” I say, trying to sound helpful.
“A friend's house?” he says. “I uh . . . I guess I didn't think of that option. That's a really good idea. For the next time, I mean. But, well. I was wondering if
could watch her. Tonight. Like, right now.”
I want to say, You're kidding me, right? I want to tell him about the me of just a few moments ago, when I sobbed into my failed dessert. Is it my moral obligation to inform Garrett that I'm so depressed as to be unfit to look after a child, even for a night?
Again I try to smile, but I'm sure I look just plain fearful.
Garrett stares at me. His mouth is grim, his eyes sincere. “I'm begging you. We just moved here from the other side of town. And it's been really hectic. I'm sorry to bother you. I am. But I'm begging, here.”
Babysitting? At thirty-four years old? Well, maybe that's my widow style. My awesome widow style.
I shrug and say, “I guess so?”
“Oh, you're a lifesaver. Listen, Ingrid'll come right over to your house. She's on her way, actually. She'll do her homework, no problem. We already had dinner, so you don't have to worry about that either. And then she'll watch TV.”
“What's okay for her to watch?”
“She only watches one show.” He smirks. “I'll be home late. Like,
How about you just let her fall asleep on your couch, and I'll scoop her up when I get home? She'll fall asleep anywhere, that one.”
“I usually go to bed around ten thirty,” I say.
“Shoot. Really? I'll be much later than that.”
“I don't leave my door unlocked at night.” Not a lie. Nick never locked the door; a lot of Munkers don't. But I do because I'm a widow.
Garrett bites his lower lip. “No, no. Of course not.”
Ingrid comes out of their house. She drops her backpack over the porch railing and climbs over. “Well?” she says. “What's the plan?”
He glances at his watch. “I was thinking you'd be much more comfortable in your own house. Gosh, I hate imposing on people like this. Do you mind babysitting at our house?”
“Hold on?” I say. “Just a second.”
I duck inside. Nick's Guns N' Roses key chain hangs on a little set of hooks just inside the door. I squeeze the cold keys and hold them to my lips.
Back on the porch, Ingrid hugs Garrett, and he strokes her head.
“Look,” he says when he notices me standing there. “Never mind. I'm sorry to have bothered you. I'll take Ingrid with me to school tonight. So don't worry about it.”
I hand him the keys. “Let yourself in when you get back.”
“Yessss.” Ingrid snatches her backpack and brushes past me; Ahab follows.
Garrett eyes the keys. “Are you sure?”
“It'll be fine.”
“Guns N' Roses, huh?”
“ âSweet Child O' Mine,'” I say, smiling.
He laughs through his nose at the reference and slides the keys into the pocket of his wool dress coat. “Oh,” he says, extracting a little green box. “I almost forgot to give you this.”
“What is it?” I take the box; it's labeled AUTO-INJECTOR.
“You shouldn't need it. But just in case.” He turns and skips down the porch steps.
“Hey,” I yell. “Garrett, I'm not qualified to give a kid an injection.”
“Just keep her out of the peanut butter. She knows what she needs to stay away from. She's an old pro. And she's really a good kid, Zell.”
He tosses his briefcase and coat on the passenger seat of his truck and gets in.
“But?” I shout.
“She likes you.” He slams the door, salutes me, and rounds the corner.
I find Ingrid in the kitchen. She's studying my now-deflated dessert. “What's going on there?” she asks.
“Oh, nothing,” I say. “Just trying to come up with something for the Warm the Soul contest.”
“Does this have peanuts in it?” she asks, about to dip a finger. “Or peanut butter?”
“No. But it does have Milky Ways in it.”
“Ooh. Better not risk it.” She takes a step back. “Well, it looks weird, but I bet it doesn't taste half-bad.”
I nod my thanks as she climbs on a stool and stacks her workbooks on the counter.
“Gonna do your homework?” I ask.
“Yep.” She chews her lip and scratches out a few math problems. I can't remember the last time I babysat. Middle school, probably, when the Pierce twins down the street were six or seven. Now, as Ingrid makes herself at home in my kitchen, I feel an odd sense of displacement, as if
the one who's never been here before.
After a minute or so, she looks up. “You don't have to watch me, you know.”
“Want me to show you around the house?”
“Well, it looks exactly like mine. So, I'm good.” She goes back to her homework.
I don't know what to say, and I don't really want her here. But there's nothing I can do about that now. “Okay if I try to get some work done in my office?” I ask.
Ingrid giggles. “I'm not a baby. I'm nine.”
“Right. I'll be upstairs if you need anything. Just yell.”
She looks up from the paper and grins. “Okeydokey.”
WHEN I COME BACK DOWN A HALF HOUR LATER, the television's on. Polly Pinch tosses silvery shrimp under a fine faucet spray. She winks at the camera. “This is gonna . . . be . . .
“Make yourself at home,” I say, a little annoyed that Ingrid's settled on my couch with her socked feet tucked underneath her.
“Thank you,” she says, missing my sarcasm. She grins wide. “Watch with me?”
I plop down on the other side of the couch.
Ingrid holds up a marker-stained hand. “Shhh.”
The camera roves over Polly Pinch. Close-up of her rounded lips, slightly parted. She drizzles her Secret Love Sauce Number 2â¢ on a wok of sugar snap peas.
Close-up of her green eyes, as big as walnuts. She confesses her obsession with a popular brand of potato chips.
Close-up of her diminutive fingers. She slices carrots on a damp wood cutting board.
Close-up of her hip bones. She rolls out a Super Simp Flakyâ¢ piecrust.
baby needs . . . is a pinch!” Polly says. She reaches into her potbellied ceramic canister labeled LOVE and flicks her fingers over the now-sizzling wok.
After a few commercials, Polly sinks a fork into her special variation on Oriental stir-fry. A
single-serving blackberry torte waits at her elbow. “Until next time, don't forget that pinch!” Her glossed lips enclose a forkful of shrimp. “Mmm! Scrump!”
Next time, it turns out, is now; the opening credits to
Pinch of Love
roll. Big loopy letters swim across the screen, and Polly sashays around her 1950s kitchen and lip-syncs the doo-wop theme song.
“Back-to-back episodes?” I say.
“Yes.” Ingrid laces her fingers behind her head. “Oh yes.”
Ahab strolls into the room. He sprawls out on the couch between Ingrid and me. He rests his chin on her lap, and she rubs his snout with the tip of her finger. I can't believe how foreign it feels to look over at this small person I barely know sitting next to me, watching a cooking show.
“Is your homework done?” I ask.
Ingrid's eyes lock on the television screen. “Yes, homework is done. All of it. Every last bit.”
Close-up of Polly's short, orange-painted nails. She massages a garlicky rub into a pork loin. “This rub'll really ratchet up the action,” she says. “It's gonnaâbeâ
“Do you ever try to make any of these recipes?” I ask Ingrid.
“No,” she whispers.
“Why not?” I whisper.
“Because she's going to teach me how to cook someday. In person, I mean.”
“Oh,” I say. “Well, that'll be nice.” Until now, I assumed Ingrid's mother simply isn't in the picture. “So, where
your mother?” I ask, trying to sound casual and not nosy.
“Right there.” She points at the TV.
“Polly Pinch is your mother?”
Close-up of Polly's square white teeth. She introduces dessert:
“Polly Pinch is your mother?” I repeat.
Ingrid looks at me. Her lips and nostrils quiver. “Nobody believes me.”
“Sure I do. I believe you.” But the truth is, I don't know what to believe. I suppose Polly Pinch
be Ingrid's mother, but then again, Ingrid could simply harbor some crazy little-girl fantasy.
Her jaw trembles as if she's holding back tears. As if she suspects I don't wholly buy her story.
baby needs . . . is a pinch!” says Polly, brandishing a bottle of whipped cream and striking a sort of
“She's perfect,” says Ingrid. “Look at her. She's beautiful, and talented, and funny, and smart.”
“You must take right after her,” I say.
“I know. I do. And I've never even met her.” Ingrid covers her face with her hands. She emits a few squeaky sounds, and I'm pretty sure she's crying, or trying not to.