Lillian stood at the restaurant kitchen counter, considering the empty expanse in front of her. It was a Monday morning at the end of December and the restaurant held the calm that occurred only after the onslaught of holiday feasts, the culmination of a culinary season that began in the fall. In those months of ever shorter days, sometimes the only ingredients Lillian’s customers could be bothered to take from their own kitchen cabinets were boxes of macaroni and cheese, bread for toast, and the restaurant provided both memory and inspiration—golden half-globes of squash awash in butter, a lamb shank braised with the patience it would take to get through winter. After the exhilaration that was summer in the Pacific Northwest, autumn was like the sigh of an adolescent who realizes he must indeed grow up. It was Lillian’s job to remind the people who sat at her tables that being an adult, the passing of a season or a year, was about more than just being older.
Still, Lillian thought, sometimes it was nice to be in the hush of an empty kitchen, without the heat of the ovens, the extra bodies of prep cooks and dishwashers and bussers and servers. This was what fed her—this moment of stillness, the long, cool stretch of the counters and the give of the thick rubber mat beneath her feet.
She decided she’d make a chowder, something simple and nourishing to take for her end-of-the-year appointment with Al, her accountant. Al wasn’t quite old enough to be her father, but in many respects he had acted as one for her—a steady hand and mind when she was first opening the restaurant and a dispenser of reliable advice in the eight years since. Their nonfinancial conversations revolved mainly around food; Lillian didn’t know too much about Al’s wife, and his silence regarding children led her to believe there were none. Al always seemed happiest when he was sitting at a table in the restaurant, or eating the lunches she brought to their appointments in his office. It was a small thing she could give him in return for all his insights, and she was glad to do it.
Lillian collected the salt pork and butter and heavy cream from the walk-in refrigerator, thyme from a pot on the windowsill, dried bay leaves from a glass jar in the row arranged along the wall. She turned on the heat under the pot and added the salt pork, which softened and began to brown. Her stomach grumbled; she remembered she hadn’t eaten breakfast and cut a slice of bread, taking occasional bites as she sliced through the hard white flesh of the potatoes.
She removed the cracklings from the pot and added butter and chopped onion, the smells rising up—onion never her favorite thing in the morning, but sometimes a chef didn’t have a choice. She poured in chicken stock and then dropped in the potatoes, bringing the liquid to a boil and stepping away while they cooked. No point in pot-watching.
She returned to the walk-in refrigerator, using the intervening minutes to assess the food inside while her mind played with menus for the week. Leftover roasted red peppers and zucchini could be the beginnings of a pasta sauce; extra polenta could be sliced and fried in butter and sage. For all the glamour of restaurants, the underlying secret of the successful ones was their ability to magically repurpose ingredients, a culinary sleight of hand that kept them financially afloat and would have made any depression-era housewife proud.
Sensing the time, Lillian grabbed a package wrapped in butcher paper and headed back out to the prep area. The chunks of potatoes had softened. She smashed one against the side of the pot to thicken the broth, and then unwrapped the package.
As the white paper folded back, the smell of cod rose sinuously toward her, briny and green, the essence of old fishing nets and ocean waves. Nausea rolled up from Lillian’s gut; she took one look at the fish and bolted for the back door.
Outside, she stood at the top of the stairs, gulping in the cold winter air.
“What was that?” she said to herself. And then she stopped and looked down at her stomach.
“Oh,” she said. “Oh.”
The Book of Rituals
When Al was a child, his mother was always showing him books with shapes in red and blue and yellow and green. Triangles. Squares. Circles, she said, pointing. But what he really liked were the shapes his mother called numbers—the way the tall stick of a 1 seemed to be hiding its face from the elegant contours of the 2, the way the grandmotherly 3 nestled up to the stick-and-starch lines of the 4. Al’s mother reminded him of a 7. If she had had bigger feet, she could have been a 2, he thought, but his mother always seemed to be floating a bit, or leaning—against a countertop in the kitchen, the wall of the living room. Never quite sitting, never quite straight.
Over the weeks of Al’s fourth summer, his mother taught him about counting, using ten straight sticks they collected from the backyard. Al paid attention dutifully, but he still thought that perhaps his mother had it all wrong. The straight sticks had their own purposes, but it was so much more fun to let your eyes slide up and around the slopes of a 9, the banister-curl of a 6. Even if you broke all the straight sticks up into tiny pieces, you could never recreate those curves.
The year Al turned five, his parents divorced and his mother relocated the two of them to Los Angeles. Compared with St. Louis, a land of thunderstorms that cracked the skies wide open and of snow that stopped the world into quiet, Los Angeles was almost overwhelming in its constancy, Monday passing the baton of hazy blue skies to Tuesday with unwavering tenacity. As Al’s mother drove him around the city, checking out one apartment after another, Al began to believe that the buildings, the streets, the people, were like the weather, each one indistinguishable from the one before it, everything in shades of gray and beige.
It was like living in fog, Al thought as he stared out the car window. He remembered one night, not long before everything had fallen apart; he had snuck into the living room when his parents thought he was sleeping. They had been watching a movie where there was a lot of screaming and fog and a bad man who would come out of it and hurt people. But the heroine was smart; she found her way home by counting the doors along the street until she came to her own.
So Al began to count.
It was relaxing, he found. 6 buttons on his shirt and they were ready to go. 15 miles on the odometer, one clicking over to the next, and they were at their destination. It didn’t matter that the destination looked no different from the other (9) apartments they had seen. The same (12) exterior steps from the first- to the second-floor units, the same (6) kitchen cabinet doors. Al couldn’t figure out what his mother was looking for but one day they entered an apartment courtyard and his mother simply stopped.
“This is it,” she said. Al looked up at her. There were 3 sparkling stones at the corner of her glasses. A curl had come loose from the waves of her hair and dangled across her forehead.
“OK” he said. He liked that word. It was solid and simple and stood on its own 2 feet.
* * * * *
Life in St. Louis had been leaf-drenched sycamore trees outside his bedroom window. A yard with grass that only got more and more green during the week, until Al’s father went out on Sunday afternoon and the lawn mower roared into life, cutting the grass in long, straight rows, back and forth, back and forth, turning green into a smell that stayed on his father until he showered, an event that was always too far in the future for Al’s mother and too soon for Al, who would follow his father around, breathing in the scent of sweat and gasoline and the moment when tall grass became short.
Los Angeles was a 2-room apartment with a nook of a kitchen. Al’s mother slept on the foldout couch, and often Al did as well, for the bedroom, where she had carefully made the bed with his favorite sheets and painted the walls a friendly blue, still seemed too far away for him most nights. He didn’t like the idea that there was nothing between his mother and the front door.
In this new city, Al’s school was 3 blocks away. His mother would walk him in the morning, telling him he would have fun that day, although he wasn’t sure either of them believed it. He would spend the morning with the other kids, drawing pictures of houses (which he didn’t have) and families (ditto). Sometimes they played with puzzles whose pieces were made of numbers, and Al leaned into their familiarity with relief. More than once, his teacher had scolded him when she found the 7 hidden in his pocket. She told him the numbers belonged to all the children, but he didn’t quite believe her. He could tell they cared only for the sound of the piece clicking into place. They didn’t understand the way numbers could hold your life in their curves.
* * * * *
One night in January, as Al’s mother was tucking him into bed, she told him she had gotten a job.
“The thing is,” she said, “it’s a special job and I need to be there in the evenings. But you’re a big boy.” She brushed his bangs back from his forehead. “You’ll be okay by yourself. I’ll leave you dinner on a plate and then all you have to do is eat and put yourself to bed and when you wake up in the morning I’ll be here.”
Al wanted to tell his mother that he wouldn’t be okay by himself—that OK stood on its own 2 feet but all he wanted to do was curl up next to her on the couch. After his mother left that first evening, he stood in the middle of their apartment, listening carefully to the noises around him. He counted the cars and trucks driving by on the road until rush hour turned them into a stream too fast and thick for numbers, then he listened to steps walking along the corridor and the click of the lock as old Mrs. Cohen entered her apartment next door. It was quiet in Al’s living room, the only sound the ticking of the baseboard heater that his mother said would eat his coat if he left it nearby.
The bad man in the movie always found people by their breathing. They would be hiding, in a shed or behind a door, and the bad man would hear the air racing in and out of their lungs and he would move forward, a smile slowly forming on his face. Al tried to stop breathing, but it didn’t work—and no matter all the other sounds of the world outside, you could still hear it.
Al looked around the living room and spotted the pink vacuum cleaner propped against the closet door. His mother hadn’t even unplugged it in her hurry that day. Al knew he wasn’t supposed to touch the machine, but he went over and flicked its switch and the roar blocked out everything else. He released the handle the way he’d seen his mother do, and lined the machine up carefully, aiming straight at the other side of the room. Then he started pushing it in a straight row, back and forth across the green of the carpet.
After a while he heard a pounding on the door. He tried to ignore it, but it didn’t stop and he finally turned off the vacuum cleaner.
“That thing’s been going for over an hour.” Al recognized Mrs. Cohen’s voice.
“Is it too much to ask for a little peace?” she continued.
Al stood, uncertain. His mother had said not to answer the door, but she didn’t say anything about questions.
“No,” he said.
“Al, I’d like to talk with your mother.”
This was not a question. Nor was it something that could happen.
“Al? Are you there?”
“Is your mother there?”
* * * * *
When Al’s mother had come home that night to find her son sleeping on Mrs. Cohen’s big blue couch, there had been a discussion between the two women that Al was luckily too sound asleep to follow. But afterward Al started going to Mrs. Cohen’s apartment in the evenings while his mother was at work.
Al loved being at Mrs. Cohen’s. Her whole apartment was blue—carpet, furniture, walls, each of them a slight variation in hue until Al felt as if he was underwater or in the sky, or both. She had a long hallway lined with family photographs, and every night she took Al on her “memory walk” as she called it, strolling down the length of the hall while she told him stories about each person. Al liked the small stories best, the ones about her children and husband—the time Rachel put a frog in her mouth, the summer Eli decided he was Captain Hook and walked around for two weeks with his sleeve pulled down over his hand. How Mr. and Mrs. Cohen first met on a ship coming from Europe when he was fourteen and she was twelve; the way he had taught her to sway with the boat so she wouldn’t get seasick. Mrs. Cohen would always shift her feet back and forth when she told that story, and Al would join her, feeling the boat beneath them.
Mrs. Cohen cooked, too—beef stew that had simmered all day, pancakes that weren’t pancakes but a combination of potatoes and onions and warmth that floated through the apartment and snuck into the pockets of his coat. And something she called a kugel, its name as playful as the smell of vanilla and sugar and cinnamon that came from the oven. But Al’s favorite thing about being with Mrs. Cohen was Friday night. When he arrived, the apartment would be filled with fragrance of chicken soup and there was always fresh-baked bread, its surface brown and glistening, lying in a fancy braid across the counter. At dinnertime, she would light one candle and let Al light the other, and before they ate she sang an almost-song in a secret language just for them. Al didn’t know what the words meant, but he loved how peaceful they felt, as if the phrases themselves were setting down the weight of the days behind them. Al looked forward to Friday all week long.
And then, one day when Al was ten, his mother told him they would be moving. He would have a new father, she said. They would live in a house again, wouldn’t that be lovely? And it wasn’t so far away. But the neighborhood they moved to was different than anything he had seen before—cul-de-sacs lined with white and beige rectangles set low to the ground. No stairs to count, the windows uninterrupted sheets of glass. And worst of all, no Mrs. Cohen, because no matter how many times his mother said they weren’t moving far, it was apparently too far to visit, and Fridays were date night for his mother and her new husband. Al would sit in his room with the door closed, trying to talk in Mrs. Cohen’s secret language, while the babysitter cooked frozen TV dinners until the apple cobbler transformed into a fruit brick.
Al’s math classes were the one place where the world made sense during the eight years that followed. Solve for x, the teacher would say, and Al could almost hear the numbers whispering in anticipation, ready to dive under the bar of a fraction, disappear down the trap door of a subtraction sign. It could make you feel almost sorry for the x, Al thought, with everybody staring at it, concentrating, their only goal to leave it standing alone.
* * * * *
When Al went to college, he took classes in accounting. He could have studied mathematical theory; he had been tempted more than once by the silence of a 0, or the challenge of how to hold an imaginary number in your hand. But in the end, the hidden stories in accounting numbers always intrigued him more.
He tried to explain it to the girl he saw reading an Agatha Christie novel over lunch in the cafeteria. She held a tuna sandwich in her upraised left hand, one bite missing from the end. Al liked that about her, the way she didn’t just start in the middle.
“Accounting can be like solving a murder, without the blood,” he said. “Give me the numbers and I can tell you why a business died or a marriage fell apart.”
She looked at him, unconvinced.
“Can you make money at it?” she asked, her smooth blond hair falling around her shoulders.
“Yes,” said Al.
“All the time?”
“You know what they say,” he answered, “about death and taxes.”
“How do you feel about children?” she asked.
While most of the girls Al had met in college wanted a man who wanted children, it was clear that Louise was not a member of that club. Her question was a gauntlet thrown down on the cafeteria table between them, the price of admission into her life. But Louise alone would be more family than he had come to believe he would ever have.
“I don’t need them,” he said, although he knew even as he said it that he was wrong.
“I’m Louise,” she said, holding out her hand.
* * * * *
Years later, he would wonder why he had wanted her so badly. Perhaps it was the hair, so blond that the sun would set it glittering. Perhaps it was as simple as the bite out of her tuna fish sandwich, although Al was later to learn that people could begin at the beginning of something for many reasons, and not all of them had to do with respect or kindness. Sometimes they were just being thorough.
By their twenty-ninth year of marriage, Al had come to accept that Louise took the balancing of accounts to a level far more literal than he had ever believed possible. Every gesture and moment of affection was scrutinized, tallied up on the lopsided balance sheet of their union. For weeks at a time he would watch her complaints silently building, making her every word and action brittle, her skin shrinking back from his touch as if refusing to give him something he had not paid for. He waited, feeling the dry heat accumulate in their bed as every night she would turn resolutely away from him. This, her back seemed to say, is not for you.
And then finally, one night, when the unbalance of the accounts finally reached a tipping point, she would turn toward him in bed and the reproaches would begin, one after another, knocking against him, endless as waves on the side of a docked boat. All the small moments of disaffection, the slights and missed opportunities that he hadn’t seen. Which he would have seen if he loved her, she knew. The time he could have given her a hand as she was getting out of the car. The way he didn’t come over to the stove to help her as she was cooking. The money he could have made if only he marketed himself.
Al would listen, silently. There was no particular point in responding, the cycle so well established that he could only wait for its conclusion, which would come when finally, emptied and slightly euphoric, she would lean over and kiss him and he would accept the sex he no longer felt like having.
* * * * *
A time came, a Monday morning in March. Al was fifty-one, which perhaps played a role in his increased contemplation of his life and that of others. He sat at his desk, surrounded by towering stacks of papers, personal lives waiting to be formulated into tax returns. Perusing his clients’ financial information was like reading a book in a language few people knew. By the time Al had filled in the blanks of the first page of a 1040 tax form, he already knew the security guard who was taking side jobs for cash, the frustration of the woman whose full-time occupation would always be declared a “hobby,” the midlife crises of sports cars and boats. Even in the clients who never came to his office, who never sat across the desk with pain splashed across their faces, he saw death in a sudden surge of medical expenses, a lowering in the number of dependents.
People gave him numbers, black marks on white paper, without ever realizing the secrets they were revealing. Al knew without looking what his own numbers would say: one spouse, no dependents. No hidden mysteries, no clues to unravel—the simple form, if ever there was one.
* * * * *
“I need you to pick up a book for me,” Louise told him the following Saturday, leaning across the kitchen table to hand him a piece of paper. “I called ahead; they’ll have it at the front desk for you.”
Al looked down at the note in his hand, the title of the book written in his wife’s clear, emphatic handwriting, along with directions to the big bookstore where he had, a few months earlier, bought her Christmas present.
Park on the east side of the lot, she had written at the end of the instructions, in the shade under the trees.
As if rereading the note herself, Al’s wife nodded suddenly and then reached behind her for the paper towels and pulled several off the roll.
“Sometimes there are birds in the trees,” she said, handing the towels to him. “Once it dries on the car it’s hard to get off. Make sure you wipe before you drive.”
Al stood and pushed the wad of paper towels into his jacket pocket, then got his keys from the hook labeled “Al,” by the front door, and went to his car. He had inherited it when his grandfather died, an old 1958 steel-blue Cadillac with fins that seemed to float up into the air. Driving it, he wondered sometimes if it might lift off the ground as he crossed a particularly high bridge. It would take a while before it hit the water below; perhaps it would be streamlined enough to level out, coast on the currents of air, settle into the water and simply continue on. The paper towels would likely get wet, though, he thought as he turned on the ignition.
* * * * *
The parking lot was remarkably busy, even for a Saturday. But the weather was sunny, unusual for March, and Al didn’t mind when the only spot he could find was on the other side of the lot; he walked across the black pavement, feeling the first intimations of heat rise up toward him as he watched a young couple, their hands flying in conversation as if waiting for permission to land on the sweet glide slope of the other’s body.
The book was not at the front desk after all. As Al stood at the customer service desk waiting for a young woman to track it down, a portly man with curling white hair and a black fedora walked up and introduced himself to the clerk behind the counter—the bookstore was bustling about them and Al didn’t catch the name. The clerk checked the computer screen in front of him and nodded.
“Sure,” he said to the man. “We have three in stock. I’ll go get them.”
And while Al stood, waiting for his wife’s copy of Quick Knits for a Saturday Night to appear, the clerk sped off and returned with a small stack of books.
“Can I get you a pen?” he asked as he set them down in front of the man next to Al.
The man shook his head. He pulled a shiny black pen from his jacket pocket, then took the top book from the stack and opened its cover, uncapped the pen, and signed a name in a long, lazy scrawl across the title page. He paused a moment, allowing the ink to dry, then closed the cover and placed the book carefully to one side before repeating the process two more times.
It was like watching a priest bless the head of a small child, Al thought—although the author standing next to him was perhaps more pompous than ministerial. Still, there was a reverential quality to the gesture, as if the book somehow changed its chemical composition through the process, becoming heavier with its newly granted importance. It wasn’t until he was back in his car that Al realized the clerk had never asked the author for any identification. The author could have been anyone, really.
“Huh . . .” Al said to himself as he started the car. He drove home, thinking.