Sweet

Rebecca Rosenblum

Rebecca Rosenblum

Syl had put up pictures of Brian in every room in the house – she had the ones Evan and Angie emailed printed at Blacks because she wanted the baby around all the time, as if he lived in their house instead of so far away. The snapshot in the kitchen was from the boy’s first moments on earth, flushed and scrunched, pink and blue, wailing and naked. Even Laurence could admit he smiled at the little striver whenever he opened the fridge.

Under the gaze of the magneted picture, Syl had been cooking all day. Margarine tubs of stew, lasagna, and taco casserole, labeled in ballpoint on masking tape, were bricked in the freezer, fortifications against her husband’s ruin.

When Laurence finally, slowly came downstairs from the office, Syl was at the counter, chopping vegetables. The room smelled of unseen fruit and sugar. “Get everything done?” She began plopping celery sticks into an orange Tupperware half-full of water.

He sat awkwardly at the kitchen table: left hip canted up, weight on the cane, watching her. “Mainly. Muellers’ dog barked for a while. Got a couple emails to write up tonight.”

“I hate that damn dog. Those boys take advantage of you; you retired so you wouldn’t have to write emails in the evenings.”

Laurence grunted.

Syl sighed. “So there’s celery in the orange and carrots in the blue one, and I’ll do just one salad because that will wilt after the second day . . .”

“The travel agent got back to you?”

“It’s booked.” She hacked sharply through the flared part of a celery stalk. “Direct to Seoul. The lady said I got a good deal for $1200.”

Laurence whistled. “If you say so. I still don’t see – ”

“It’s not like we can’t afford it.” Syl waved her hand, seemingly dismissing the whole abundant house, thick drapes and satellite radio and all. “Angie called me in tears, Laurence, and Evan could barely form a sentence, he was so tired. Brian cried nearly the whole night. Again. At least I can sit up with him.”

“Evan and Angie are almost 30. They’ll survive.”

“Well, of course. But we could help them do a little better than that.”

Laurence watched her snap the lid onto the orange container. “We?

“There’s still room on the flight . . .?”

He pictured his webmail homepage, all those bold-faced unread messages, the nuclear-bright streets of Korea.

“I’m still healing.” He gestured down at the knob of swell and bandages bulging through the knee of his trousers. “And the boys at the office, you know . . .”

“It’s been healing a while now. And Ev is your own boy.”

“Sanjeet and Mark ask for my help. Ev, thus far, has not.”

The oven timer dinged, turning her towards it.

“You’re really going to go, just cross the world? Do you even know about the lunatic in the north and his missiles? How are you going to get to Evan’s place? You can’t just expect everyone to understand English.” He imagined Seoul ominous and vague, narrow streets, shouted strangeness, labyrinthine confusion.

She gripped the oven door. Blue veins showed in her thin white skin, but it was still smooth. She was three years younger than Laurence; if she’d worked, she wouldn’t have been retired yet. “Ev will meet me at the airport.” She opened the oven, bent her round bottom towards him. “Well, at least the pie turned out.”

“You know I’ve never cared for sweets.” For some reason, this had always been a lie he enjoyed telling. “And if I needed something, I’m sure I could make it myself.” That one was new.

“Well.” Syl straightened with the pie and hipped the oven shut, hard. “This one cherry pie is for Mr. Carbone. Not sweets, just sweet.”

“Corey Carbone?”

“You can take it over tomorrow. I saw him go out this morning, and with the Muellers’ cats around, I hate to leave it on the step.”

Laurence leaned back in the chair and a gentle pain swabbed at his knee. “Those cats are a menace – should be able to leave a pie for a few hours without fear. I’m gonna plant some marigolds next year.”

“It’s bugs that hate marigolds. You’ll take the pie to Mr. Carbone?”

“Fine. But what do cats hate, then?”

“You, I’d imagine. We have to leave in three hours.”

*

The afternoon was cool and bright, deep sunny fall. He couldn’t drive her with the knee still weak, but he went along in the taxi, through baggage check and all the way to customs. When they came to the “Passengers with boarding passes only” sign, Syl had a crisis of conscience. Laurence sighed and fiddled with her carry-on. Always when things were paid for, she regretted.

“You know you can’t put the margarine tubs in the microwave, right? You have to dump them out on a plate, and then drape a paper towel over so it doesn’t splatter.”

“I live in the house, Sylvia. I know how things work.”

“Are you sure you’ll manage? I mean – ” she held up a hand “ – with your knee and all.”

He was bent over, one hand raised above his head to grip the cane, the other tugging her bag’s zipper tight. He gazed up innocently. “And if I wouldn’t?”

She relaxed at this, rolled her eyes. Then he straightened and hugged her with his hands tight at her shoulderblades. When she walked away down the long blue-carpeted hallway, he felt as if the plane had crashed into the sea.

*

The evening was much the same as any. He showered and checked his email in his bathrobe (his brother updating his birding life list; lawyer-joke forward from former colleague; thanks from the young turks at the office for projections he’d sent). Then he watched The National while sitting on the foot of the bed, until there was a story about Kim Jong Il’s plutonium stores. Laurence shivered, and flipped off the set before the human-interest story about llamas, which weren’t human anyway, and slept quietly on his side of the bed. He dreamt of kimchi, a food he had never eaten but was surely vile.

But it was only the next morning that things really started to go to hell.

He did seven crossword clues waiting for toast before recalling that Syl kept the toaster was unplugged for fear of electrical fires. Straight from the fridge, the butter was hard and punctured the bread. He forgot to make the tea until he wanted to drink it, and then the first bag he found turned out to be utterly not Earl Grey but something gingery that promised, upon inspection of the packet, to ease gas pains with natural effectiveness. He didn’t know what that meant or what this product was doing in his home.

Tea slopped down the sink, Laurence was halfway to the door and a roll-up-the-rim-to-win tea before he recalled he’d had his right knee replaced six weeks ago and couldn’t press the gas or brake. He was, as usual, devastated.

After the newly found and brewed Earl Grey (in the back of the cupboard, behind the celery salt – why?) and torn-up cold toast, the day clenched before him, thick and dense as rain forest. He did ten across – “megaton” – read a few lines of a movie review – “compelling fluff.” Finally Laurence hauled himself up, nodded at enraged and distant Brian (in actual fact, he spoke to the baby, as he often did when alone. This time it was, “Why you gotta cause us all such heartache, huh?”) and went to the kitchen window.

On both sides of the street, neighbours were departing on their days of useful employment. He could only see a few driveways through the oak leaves, but with the dual-income trend, he got to witness seven individuals striding down their driveways with purpose, energy, briefcases.

Then it was 9:30, on a weekday morning in Indian summer. His inbox had no new messages and he couldn’t walk even as far as Tim Hortons and everyone he loved was in Korea, where it was the middle of the night. Laurence Brunswick was a 66-year-old man with all of his mental faculties, and most of his physical ones, intact, who was only 4 crossword clues away from utter redundancy.

Corey Carbone lived four houses down from the Brunwicks. He was in his eighties, though Laurence couldn’t fathom who in the 1920s would have named a boy-child Corey. The Carbone mailbox, with an orange cardinal painted on it, seemed to have always been a fixture of the street, but in decades of four-houses-downness, the two men had only exchanged half-waves over car roofs and muttered apologies over windblown recycle bins. Syl took the neighbours all their misdirected mail, did all the chatting about tulip bulbs, all the neighbourly surveillance from the veranda. She had always been more than equal to all the block parties and yard sales and, until retirement, Laurence’s work had been so richly complex and demanding that his own four walls were as much beyond it as he could handle.

One summer morning about eight years prior, Syl had been watering the freesia when she realized that Corey Carbone had not come out to check his hummingbird feeder by 11:30, an event that traditionally marked the endpoint in her gardening mornings. Syl had noted over the past several years that the gentleman four houses down had become, if not infirm, then perhaps “less active.” But he always minded the birdfeeders – hummingbird syrup in summer, finch seeds in winter – once before noon and once after. Until the day that he didn’t.

Syl had sat on a lawnchair with a glass of lemonade (Laurence was imagining now; he didn’t know this part of the story) waiting for Corey Carbone to emerge. And he hadn’t and he hadn’t and that afternoon Sylvia Brunswick chopped extra apples and kneaded extra pastry and baked an extra pie for Corey Carbone. And extended her lunch break long enough to bring it over to him, and discovered him lying behind the azaleas, having suffered a stroke on the way to the bird feeder. His clothes were covered with sticky red syrup.

Laurence came to know of this only because that night at dinner, their own pie seemed less full of apples than usual. Syl replied that the doubled recipe had not quite worked out, and that she had spent three hours in the emergency room with the man four houses down because he’d had a medium-severity stroke. This, in addition to causing Laurence to doubt his wife’s arithmetic skills, had given him some confusion. The other pie, it turned out, had been left at the nurses’ station.

Laurence accepted a tiny piece of pie, to calm her. He could not imagine his wife at the bedside of a stranger – would she be teary, or as firmly practical as she was on family vacations? He pictured the same sort of chaos, uncertainty, with gurneys instead of roller-coasters.

When Laurence had been wheeled down the hall with a cartilage knee and returned with a plastic one, he learned how Syl behaved in a hospital – just as he’d suspected, as she did at Disneyworld – but he still could not picture her with this stranger, Corey Carbone. But this was not a comment on Corey Carbone; Laurence had difficulty seeing Syl anywhere he himself was not present.

Now, Laurence was accountable to this stranger for one pie. He peered into the fridge at slightly fogged saran over the pink-and-white lattice. Syl’s handiwork was solid and elegant, both saran and pastry. The kitchen still smelled of ginger. At Disneyworld she clutched the purple-shaded map and grinned at Evan’s excitement and refused to go on any of the rides herself. He missed her.

He shut the fridge and did a limping lap of the house, observing the dead hang of curtains, mounds of molted shoes in the bottoms of closets. Syl’s white handbag, the summer one, was on top of the hamper in the guest bathroom, like hidden treasure. He sat down on the toilet lid to open it, but it was only fully of bobby pins.

One more lap and back to the kitchen window to gaze at Syl’s dead fall flowerbed, of all the years past, until he was good and depressed. Back at the fridge, Brian silently shrieked at the injustice of his exile from his homeland, his people, his grandfather. Laurence balanced the pie on his free palm, and, leaning heavily on his cane, shuffled to the door.

*

Corey Carbone’s lawn was smooth as a tucked-in bedsheet, but the flowerbeds were all woodchipped over, the birdfeeder empty, and the cement of the third stairs had cracked. By the time Laurence reached the porch, Corey Carbone was standing behind his screen-door, leaning leftwards on something out of view, watching him.

“Hello, Brunswick.” Corey Carbone was short, jowly and bald; it was hard to make out finer details through the screen. The hem of his fawn-coloured bowling shirt hung several inches in front of his fly, suspended by a stiff spherical gut. His voice was nervous, high-pitched, and slightly slurred; like a drunk waiting to get hit. “What brings you by?”

“Well, I don’t mean to bother you, Mr. Carbone.”

“Oh, oh, no.” He still did not open the door.

“You know how Syl loves to bake.” Laurence gestured with the pie, but the head beyond the screen remained impassive. Suddenly furious for Syl’s wasted effort, his own wasted painful walk, Laurence bent awkwardly to set the pie on a Muskoka chair. “She baked you this pie, asked me to drop it off. The pie is from Syl. Hope you enjoy.”

“Thank you,” said Corey Carbone, voice even squeakier than before.

Laurence nodded sharply, pivoted on the canetip, and called, “You’re welcome. It’s cherry,” as he staggered down the steps. For all he knew, Corey Carbone watched him stump all the way to the sidewalk. So what if he did?

*

Once the pie was gone, that and his family became all that Laurence craved. He regretted letting Syl’s beautiful pastry go to that ingrate with the silly name, and he regretted Brian’s unseen colic across the ocean, and his son and daughter-in-law’s stress and distress. He regretted the boys at the office, Mark and Sanjeet, their nervous idiocy driving the company closer and closer to ordinary. He supposed his own life had been ordinary, in some ways. Many ways. It hadn’t seemed so at the time.

He thought about all the cakes and pies Syl had baked for Evan. There was so much less after the boy moved out, because of Laurence’s insistence on not liking sweets. Now he pictured sloppy swirls of blue icing on a birthday cupcake, imagined the creamy grit of cocoanut cream. He remembered Evan sticky and greedy, reaching for more while Laurence nibbled unnoticed on a “sliver.”

To Brian’s snapshot, he revealed his years of sugar dishonesty. “Chocolate-chip cake, gingersnaps, black-bottom pie, peach coffee cake . . .they’re all sublime, when she makes them. Every birthday, she made herself a lemon pie, shaved little bits of the rind onto the meringue.” The microwave pinged, interrupting Laurence’s chat with the fridge door and embarrassing him somehow. He silently took his reheated lasagna to the table. Throughout the meal, Laurence mourned the pie he could not eat for dessert. There was nothing suitably sweet in the pantry, not even boxed cookies or a tin of pears – he’d already checked.

When Syl called – he had just closed his still-empty inbox – he was spellbound at his desk for 45 minutes, listening to her tales of flight delays, kimchi, baby wipes. He could hear Brian rioting in the background, a fierce soprano siren. She described this fat angry grandson, then her emaciated son and his 80-hour workweeks, exhausted Angie’s obsession with Dr. Spock.

Despite knowing the per-minute costs, Laurence asked about the city, the luggage, her health (but not the ginger tea), their meals. Then he asked, casually, chattily, almost academically, about pie. It was only when she said the baby was spitting up that Laurence consented to let her go.

The next morning, he dug through the basement deep freeze, frost beading his cheeks, until he found the cottage-cheese container marked “Pie cherr. 09” in Syl’s tight cursive. The pastry recipe on the back of the lard box took most of the morning, but it finally cohered into something resembling a pie shell. It was early afternoon before Laurence finally put the fruit into a saucepan. After twenty minutes of ardent stirring, medium heat, and a half pound of sugar, the cherries showed no evidence of a will to be pie. There was a tap at the back door.

Once again, Laurence saw Corey Carbone’s big baby face through a screen door. This time, though, his arm was draped around a small Filipina woman.

It was Laurence’s turn to say, “Yeesss?”

The woman beamed blankly until Corey Carbone said, “Came to thank you. For the pie.”

“It was from Syl.” Laurence waved his wooden spoon absently.

The woman took this as invitation to open the door wide and gracefully pilot the big man through. She looked like a nymph dancing with a tree. Laurence let his irritation go as soon as he saw the sweat glistening on the side of Corey Carbone’s neck.

Laurence set the spoon in the spoon rest, and padded (still barefoot at 2pm, with company!) over to the woman who was manipulating Corey Carbone into the kitchen chair closest to the stove. It was not Laurence’s dinner seat, but it was the one he sat in when Syl was cooking and he was watching her. His guest looked so thankful to finally be safely seated that Laurence could not begrudge him the spot. The woman began backing away.

“I come later?”

“Yes, Ciara, thanks.” Corey Carbone leaned back cautiously Without the screen door intervening, Laurence could see that Corey Carbone’s face was smooth-shaven as a baby’s, with the right side mannequin-still. If there were such things as old-man mannequins.

“When I come back? How long?”

“I won’t stay long, Brunswick.”

Laurence breathed in deeply through his nose. “I’ll take you home, Mr. Carbone. No need to trouble . . . her.” He had forgotten the name already. Pathetic.

When the woman was gone, Corey Carbone shrugged and smiled, and his tiny voice said, “ Sorry about this. She tries to get me out of the house regular. But she don’t think too much about where besides out. Sorry.”

Laurence smiled – the second apology was all he needed to feel generous. “No trouble at all. Syl’s more the stickler for scheduling than I am.” Another lie from the clear blue. Laurence felt like cupping it fondly in his palm.

“Whatcha making? Another pie?”

Laurence considered. Finally: “Bake sale. Church. Syl wouldn’t want them to miss the donation, just because she had to go out of town.” He was staring into the pot of bubbling watery cherries. It looked liquid, drinkable, utterly unpielike.

A shift of chair legs. “Things all right, Brunswick? Syl’s ok?”

He saw an expectation of tragedy in Corey Carbone’s leftside features – not smug, only fearful “A celebration, actually. Our first granbaby got born. How ’bout that?” Where had the slang come from? To match Corey Carbone’s happy-hour slur, perhaps.

“How ’bout that? Fantastic, Brunswick.” Corey Carbone slapped his right knee and Laurence winced. “Boy or girl?”

“Boy. Brian. Seven weeks.” Laurence pointed at the fridge picture – the fat mottled face and blue-veined skull. All children were ugly at birth, but Brian looked like a champion anyway. The cherries were making little splashing noises. “Syl’s gone to help out a bit.” When Laurence bent over the pot, red bubbles popped and splattered his arm.

“Glad for the quiet? Or you miss ’er?”

Laurence turned down the burner, frowning.

“I could never stand it, myself. Rysa and I spent maybe ten nights apart, all told. Maybe less.”

“Rysa?” Laurence searched his mind for an image of a woman in the Carbone driveway, but he came up empty. It was another strange name, or perhaps only a standard one that Corey Carbone’s tongue could no longer render. He hoped she wouldn’t turn out to be a Doberman as he asked, “You folks were married a long time?”

“Thirty-five years, but that don’t seem long when you start at eighteen.”

Laurence did the math from the apparent age of the man – Corey Carbone had likely been a widower for twenty years. The cherries were starting to sink in the goop. He stirred forlornly. “In all those years of married life, Rysa ever tell you how to make a cherry pie?”

“Well, no, not that I . . . . Why?”

Why? What do you – That’s what I’m doing here. Trying to do.”

Silence. Laurence looked up. Corey Carbone sat with both legs kicked forwards, one elbow on the chair arm, the other hand rested atop his cane, which was leaning on his thigh. It should have been a casual pose, but for Corey Carbone’s stiff body, it looked like the rack. “Sorry, Brunswick.” He shrugged; only the left shoulder rose.

Laurence sighed. “Sorry, man, sorry. Tough morning.”

“What’s gone wrong? Smells good.”

Laurence sniffed dismissively. To him, the smell was oversweet, syrupy, wrong. “Thank you. But it’s not like a pie filling. From here, it’s like cherry soup.”

“Such a thing, y’know. Cherry soup. Had it on a cruise once.”

“A cruise?” Laurence abandoned the question. “I don’t want soup. I want pie. I was trying to boil down the juice to . . . gel, you know. But it won’t.”

Corey Carbone shook his head, and his jowls wobbled equally on both sides. “Too much juice? Or not enough thickner?”

Laurence stood completely still and felt his neck crack. “Thickener?”

Corey Carbone’s good eye squinted. “Whaddya put in?”

“Cherries. Frozen ones.” The pebbly piecrust looked grayish in the slight sun through the kitchen window.

“And . . . ?” Corey Carbone nodded stiffly, left-leaning, encouraging.

“Sugar. Because they weren’t all that sweet.”

“Pie cherries are, uh, sour cherries, yeah. You hafta add the sugar . . .and . . .”

“And . . . ?” Laurence asked. He set the spoon on the spoonrest. A little of pink dripped on the white stovetop.

“Dunno . . .flour?” Another uneven shrug.

“Flour? Flour goes in the crust, I found a recipe for the crust.”

“Didja find one for the filling?”

Laurence turned off the stove. “I don’t think she uses one. Anyway, I couldn’t find it. Her files are a mess.” He went over and took a seat at the table.

“First time she’s been away in how long?”

“Not that long.” Laurence slouched forward, arms on the placemat, chest pressing down. “I used to travel a lot, on business. I only just retired.”

“Ah.” Corey Carbone grinned. His eyelid and mouth stayed flaccid on the right, but both eyes were bright. “First time she’s been away in . . . ?”

Laurence whistled. “Ever, I suppose.”

“Why didn’t you go?”

The pink smell of cherries was starting to stifle. Laurence wondered if it would be rude to open a window. “I had work to . . . cover.”

“I thought you retired.”

“The new team, they need a little saving, sometimes.” Laurence had said this dozens of times, always in a hearty, resigned tone. Today, the words sounded almost violent.

Laurence had a momentary flash of Syl’s perfect puff of white hair wandering down an ugly alley of thugs and thieves. “Plus, it’s hard to travel, laid up like this.” He waved his cane, then glanced at Carbone’s own and felt bizarrely guilty.

“Oh, well, I’m sure you’ve seen enough of the world.” Corey Carbone squirmed in his chair, both hands pressed on the cane top as he hauled his butt forward, then shifted his weight onto his left hip.

“You all right?”

“Sok,” Corey Carbone said tightly. It was several seconds before he finally leaned back again and relaxed his grip on the cane. “If yer giving up on that pie, we could just eat the cherries, you know. With spoons.”

“Pretty sad thing to offer a guest.”

“Well, I’ll take what I can get. Be a proper dessert with a little ice-cream, if you got it.”

Laurence got obediently to his feet, though he felt himself listing far more leftward than usual, white-knuckling his own cane. An apology for inhospitality fished around in his brain, but all that came out was, “I think we might have, not ice-cream but sherbet – ” he opened the freezer and foam-white air fogged his glasses “ – shoot, sorry, Corey Carbone, it’s raspberry.” He shut the freezer with a sad thump.

“You think I care about clashing shades of pink?”

“Right.” Laurence nodded and reopened the freezer.

“And whatcha call me by my full name for? Think some other Corey will pop in, demand ice cream – sherbet?”

Laurence jolted again. “No, sorry, Carbone. Your name just sorta slides off the tongue all in one piece, you know?”

“Never heard that one. Course, nothing slides off my tongue, these days.”

Laurence tried to picture the pre-stroke Corery Carbone, sober-spoken and smooth, or at least not sounding quite so boozily meek. He couldn’t.The thin red juice dribbled to the bottom of the bowl, and the cherries clung like slugs to the sherbet. It looked revolting. Laurence took the dishes and spoons to the table, sat and asked, “What was your profession, Carbone? Before you retired?”

Corey Carbone swallowed his first bite and smiled. “Professor. Physics. Quantum. The way I worked, no one does any more. But then, I don’t do it either.”

The cherries were sickeningly sweet; Laurence figured he’d overdone the sugar in his frustration. Corey Carbone’s pants were a shade of an unripe banana, pulled up topside of his gut. He did not look like an intellectual. “You miss it?”

“Must’ve, once, I guess. Twenty years ago now. Too much else to miss, in the meantime. I miss Rysa, smartest lady in Weston and a damn fine ornithologist. I miss walking to the can without having to hang off that little girl like a lecher.” Corey Carbone dug his spoon into his pink mess again. “This is damn good, like that spun sugar crap kids get at the fair.” His speech was smoothing out, slightly.

“Cotton candy.”

They were silent a moment, eating. Finally, Laurence had to ask, “Corey Carbone, do you remember what happened when you had that stroke, and Syl came over, all that? Could you see her?”

“Sure I remember, sure I saw her, sorta.” Corey Carbone smacked his lips, glanced down at his empty bowl, then over at Laurence’s, still mainly full. “Sorta long to explain, I guess.”

Laurence pushed the pink swirl towards him. “Me, I got nothing but time. You don’t mind?”

There was a pink drip of raspberry on Corey Carbone’s lower lip that he made no move to lick. It seemed suitable just there, like a beauty mark or a freckle. “You got it right – nothing but time.”

One Response to Sweet

  1. Corinna says:

    A wonderful story, as usual, Becky. Love it.

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