It’s the thought that counts.
Wonder what Albert Einstein might have made of that one. Would he have dropped quantum theory and devoted his life to crafting fine sachertortes and punschkrapfens? We’d all still know his kindly, fuzzy mug from the Harry and David’s fall catalogue, but we’d gobble Al’s pastries for that “little taste of prewar Vienna” rather than to assuage our postwar nuclear angst.
I wouldn’t have entertained that thought if I hadn’t been hangry when I ran into Deanngela Hofstra at the Gemm’s Mart. St. Patty’s had passed leaving a quarter pound of leftover corned beef, so it was Reuben Tuesday at the Dodges. I’d just tossed my Bavarian rye in the cart when the Millington Youth Arts director called out from the fresh pasta case. I projected delighted surprise.
“Been thinking about you,” Deanngela opened, and my hangry gut mewled. I’d done design for Youth Arts for nearly five years before Hofstra opted for something more more raw, more “synergistic with MYA’s emerging energy and vision” – in short, not so old dude. I’d seen the last fundraising flyer. It looked like the MYA inkjets had exploded in mid-spray, but I realized there is a season to gather stones and a season to resist straining your geriatric ACL.
“You have?” I replied.
“Thea from the West Side Help Center was at the Latin Hip Hop Fusion Monday, and commented on your ArtsBlast in the Park poster. The Center’s doing a multicultural cookbook to fund the summer veggie pantry, and nobody there knows graphics or editing.”
So far, so good. Thea’s predecessor had shitcanned my idea three years ago, when I was working with the township to score a grant WSHC also coveted. Said predecessor authored the grant commission’s majority opinion all but indicting Millington Township for Watergate and casting me as Haldeman looking for a payday in the lucrative field of homeless health.
“I forgot ArtsBlast was before we hired Donrelle, and I lost his contact after he quit last fall. The new art director’s all clocked up with the summer arts materials and her classes and her job and softball practice, so she wasn’t available. Then I realized you did all the ArtsBlast shit, and told Thea I thought you still did stuff. You do, right?”
“Until the day Sarah has to change my Depends,” I assured Deanngela. After all, it’s the thought that counts.
“So, let me tell you what I’m thinking,” Thea began, as I straddled the repurposed park bench that served as the West Side Help Center’s command center.
I’d located the .docx with my original cookbook proposal, but Thea had broken out the plant-based gluten-free organic chocolate chip flax cookies for the occasion, so no use confusing the custody chain. A few west-siders were exploring the WSHC’s tool “library,” and a seemingly lost gentrifier was Ann Taylor-ing the free seed rack.
Suddenly, Thea simply stopped. Thirty years of in-law relations had trained me to fill the vacuum quickly before more sounds.
“Of course, we want to keep things affordable and accessible, right?” I suggested. “When I was doing ESL, one of the students brought some fumbwa -- Congolese spinach stew with ground peanuts. Except Juste used dollar store peanut butter. We’d probably want to replace the palm oil with sunflower or canola oil. Catfish is reasonably cheap …”
Thea made a sound like a hamster who’d hammied on the exercise wheel. “Um. Here’s the thing. Do we have to have meat?”
“Well,” I noted, weakly. “I see where you’re going, but I gotta warn you – if you’re going to solicit traditional cultural recipes, you’re probably going to find a lot of fish and chicken and other… stuff...”
I suspected I was about to meet whatever passed for WSHC’s bouncer. Then Thea rebooted. “So, we were thinking your role in this would be more like editorial – photos, maybe collecting the recipes…”
“Or physically. I don’t really have a car, and I don’t know how many families around here even have Internet.”
I did. “Almost everybody has a phone. Maybe Facebook would be a good place to start…”
Thea blinked tolerantly, as if I’d suggested cranking up the old AOL. I admittedly did not know how to TikTok, consulted YouTube mainly to safely change a planet-friendly bulb, and was a little Alan Arkin-y for Instagram.
“So how would that work?” she asked.
And that’s how I wound up on Shawn Taylor’s doorstep. I had connections at the University and through community projects, and I’d already accumulated close to 100 recipes from across five continents when Taylor responded to my WSHC Facebook post.
“Dee met Mom back when she was helping me learn computers,” the slight, serious young man told me as he waved me into a plain but pretty home a few blocks west of the old Millington Rail Yards. “Weren’t for Youth Arts, wouldn’t have got into community college. Dee says you want recipes to help the Center? Well, you hit the lottery.”
Taylor worked across town at the mega-insurance corporation that for 40 years had employed Sarah. I’d had to hang loose for about 20 minutes on the porch because as Taylor’d warned, the bus line tended to run late.
Shawn’s mother had died little more than a year ago, reportedly during a break-in, but a framed sepia portrait of Dr. King shared space with Jesus on the paneled living room wall and the couch was draped in floral velveteen. The TV was the 71-inch elephant in the room, topped with a PSP and a cable box, and a pair of controllers lay haphazardly on the sofa. A laptop was open on a miniscule Goodwill desk to the side, three or four CPUs disassembled on the brown shag carpet.
“After Mom passed, this was pretty much just a place to crash,” Shawn explained. “This way.”
This way was a sunny kitchen/dining room with a gold-flecked formica dinette and a counter filled with vintage appliances and gadgets now gathering dust. A toaster-sized walnut box sat next to the white-tiled backsplash in the center of the once-energized space, flanked by a trio of old-school milk-glass spice bottles. Cumin, paprika, oregano – waiting futilely for the mistress of the home to return.
“Only cooking I do is nuking Lean Cuisine, so just take the whole thing,” Shawn announced, mildly. “Grandma was from the islands, and Dad’s people came up from Mississippi, so you got like the United Nations there: Caribbean, Cuban, African, a little bit of soul. Used to make us this island stew, sancocho, I brought home good grades or Dad got more money at work. I got nobody to make it any more.”
I hadn’t touched the box – I’d fixed on a point beyond the dinette where a section of wall had been patched and repainted. Rose Taylor had squeezed off one shot at her prowler before suffering a cardiac shutdown that night. She’d had debilitating diabetes and recurring renal crises, and Shawn and a neighbor took turns caring for her over their staggered shifts. According to the Register-Gazette story, Shawn had caught a ride home from a coworker after resolving an attempted cyberhack to find his mother on the linoleum floor, unbloodied but with the house gun inches from her rigored fingers.
I stroked the sturdy, dovetailed box. “Look, I’ll just copy these, get ‘em back in a couple days--”
“Mr. Dodge,” Shawn said, crisply. “Help Center looked in on Mom, took care of us when the house needed repairs I didn’t have time for. Mom would wanna help, and I got no need.”
“So how’s he doing?”
I was halfway to my SUV by the nearly non-existent curb. She was short, sporting a tight, nearly translucent crop of graying curls and navy scrubs with the Ecumena Hospital logo.
“Shawn,” the woman clarified. “You were just there, right?”
“Yeah. I don’t really know him….”
The nurse approached. “That Rose’s recipes?”
The tone almost made me bolt. “Shawn gave ‘em to me, for the Help Center.” I started to describe the project, but she waved it off.
“Sorry. Toni, I live next door. Shawn’s folks and mine were friends for like 20 years – their folks came here from the islands, and after my folks died and Rose took a turn, I’d stop in on her off-shift, help Shawn with the shopping. We thought maybe she was getting better, but the excitement of that break-in – Shawn tell you about it? – must’ve been too much. Any rate, Shawn’s been real withdrawn since. Man can’t cook worth shit, and I worry.”
“Mi-chael,” Aaliyah squealed, pressing Rose Taylor’s recipe box nearly into my abdominal cavity. WSHC’s assistant director had about six inches and 50 pounds on me, and a shared affinity for meta horror and Rick and Morty. I hadn’t seen her since the grant fiasco.
A few browsers collected their greens or moved on to the root veggies amid the clamor. The pantry was a Saturday afternoon institution at the former storefront that served as WSHC’s repository/community center. A variety of end-of-life produce filtered in from the downtown Farmer’s Market and the upscale organic co-op market, which had received a shit-ton of tax incentives to quench the west side food desert – that is, if you could hoof it a half-mile past the desert rim into the gentrified jungle.
“Heard my girl finally okayed your cookbook,” Aaliyah grinned.
“We don’t use that pronoun,” I corrected. I brandished Rose’s Box of Delights; she snatched it like it was the Grail.
“Oh, I know what this is,” Aaliyah declared. “We replaced Rose’s gutters couple years back, and she made us a backyard feast! Shit, I was here day she passed, and even with her bad legs and diabetes, she walked the three blocks to get what she needed for supper.”
She tugged the lid from the box, exposing three inches of 5X7 index cards peeking an inch above the grooved base. The front card was yellowed, block-labeled “Sancocho,” a single fingerprint in the corner embossed in gravy residue. The bloc behind it was clean and even…and gleamingly white. I uttered an unpleasantry, and Aaliyah looked first at me, then into the box.
She wound up saying it better, depending on your perspective.
My café chair scraped cement. “So you remember the Taylor break-in last year, over near Russell and Mickler?”
Curtis swirled his Americano. “You really think I’m the only cop in town, don’t you?”
I nodded apology, sipping my own macchiato on the sidewalk between Coffee Dawg and Hella Tattoo. “You know who handled it?”
“Woulda been me. Bullet in the dining room wall from a gun registered to the victim’s deceased husband, victim dead of a massive heart attack. Son verified the gun was kept in the silverware drawer, but they’d never had need of it. Maybe Mrs. Taylor’d never fired a gun before. That might be enough to bring on a heart attack, especially in her condition.
“Any rate, there was no real evidence of an intruder, much less a second gun. Prints gave us nothing, back door was unlocked, no tampering, and we couldn’t rule out the possibly the intruder was a product of Mrs. Taylor’s imagination. Old, sick, alone in a house in a higher-crime area. Why you asking?”
I told him about The Case of the Missing Recipes. Curtis nursed his caffeine.
“So, what, we put out a bulletin for any sudden wave of jerk chicken in the tri-county area?”
“That’s kinda specific,” I observed.
“We go — or I guess went — to Mrs. Taylor’s church. Whenever the A.M.E. had a potluck, everybody’d make a beeline for Rose’s big green Corningware casserole.”
“She probably had friends stop by to check on her. You think one of the church women might have…? I mean, you know, not to accuse…”
“Don’t herniate yourself,” Curtis said. “Cop, remember? Thing is, Mrs. Taylor was always happy to share her secrets with anybody who asked. I make her hummingbird coffee cake weekends. Why I hesitate to raise an alternate possibility. What if Mrs. Taylor kept something more important than gumbo and greens in her recipe box? Or Shawn? We have raided a few dealers in that area.”
“Shawn volunteered those recipes, and can you picture Rose Taylor running a meth distribution center?”
“I cannot, though like I said, cop.”
“That’s crazy,” Shawn breathed.
“Even weirder, replacing them with blank cards. Lemme ask —you or your mom keep index cards around?”
Shawn smiled. “I’m totally digitized. Mom, now? Well, you just have to see this. C’mon.”
This time, he ushered me into a small bedroom equipped for care but reflecting years of diligent self-maintenance. An ancient dresser held a dozen gem-cut bottles of fragrances that went out with the rotary phone. Tucked into a corner was an empty aluminum TV tray anchoring a tall corkboard covered in index cards.
Web and email addresses. Reminders to defrag and disk-clean instructions on everything from mobile banking to tracking Amazon goodies. Detailed alphanumeric passwords.
“Company sells off outdated laptops every couple years, and I thought Mom might be less lonesome she could play cards online. She found this Spades group — folks all over the world — then found out she could pay the gas and electric online. I created a monster. Hey, Mr. Dodge, gotta fly if I’m gonna make my bus.”
“Lemme drop you off.”
“Wow, great, yeah. Grab my shit, I’ll be ready.”
I took a last look at Rose Taylor’s online life, then, abruptly, pulled a yellowed card from my pocket.
“Ready,” Shawn called.
“You don’t mind,” I said, “I’ll give you a ride home, too.”
“Despite her own pain, your mom felt your agony, and wanted to give you a little of the comfort you’d tried to give her,” I said, eight hours later. “She pulled out the recipe box, located your favorite meal, and hit out for the ingredients she’d need.”
“Then she was interrupted. Intruder’s shot went wild, but after the shock killed your mother, they had some cleanup to do. Rose’s bullet was buried in the dining room wall, but that second bullet – the intruder’s -- was embedded too deep in the kitchen wall. A literal coverup was needed.”
Curtis glanced up from his inspection of the kitchen backsplash, “Under the cabinet here,” he murmured, tapping one of the four-inch glazed tiles. Rose had no doubt been a meticulous housekeeper, but like most single guys pressed into a caretaker role, Shawn had to pick his battles. The tile was a half-tint whiter than the rest, not as heavily speckled with sauce and splatter.
“I can see tool marks on the surrounding tiles, and the grout’s gone in a few spots,” Curtis continued. “Shooter pried the original tile up and used Gorilla Glue or some shit to replace it. Hand me that big slot driver.”
As he went surgically to work, Shawn studied the flecked formica. “The recipe box was right in the path of the bullet. But your mom had been prepping your special meal, and the lid was off to the side. The killer’s bullet punched through the exposed cards. Except your grandma’s Sancocho recipe lying on the counter.
“The intruder knew how incriminating that bullet would be, where the replacement tiles were, even after all these years. Little superglue, and nobody’d probably ever notice. But the cops might question the damage to your mom’s recipes. Rose had a big stack of index cards by her laptop, so it was easy enough to replace them and the Sancocho card, and put the lid back on the box. Left the spices on the counter, though.”
“Mr. Taylor.” Curtis was somber, respectful. Shawn grabbed a napkin, swiped his face almost angrily, then slumped back as he looked quickly away from the scorched hole in the exposed wall.
Curtis slipped the replacement tile into a plastic sleeve. “Guess is, we’re going to be able to match that bullet pretty quick, or the shooter wouldn’t have gone to all this trouble. They knew where the replacement tile and Mrs. Taylor’s file cards were.”
“And that it was likely you’d never open that recipe box again,” I added gently. “You couldn’t cook worth shit, right?”
Shawn’s wet eyes lifted, widened. He buried his head in his folded arms and shook mutely. Curtis nodded to me, I rose silently, and as we headed back toward the living room, my friend placed his palm briefly on the survivor’s back. I slipped a yellowed, spattered index card under the salt shaker. I suspected Shawn might want it, or simply need it.
“Shit,” she simply whispered as she found Curtis and I on her doorstep. “Guess I was waiting for this.”
It might not have occurred to me if I hadn’t realized that the woman who’d jotted down passwords and troubleshooting hacks was not the woman who’d lovingly preserved her own mother’s favorite island dish. Toni insisted her mother would never have shared her family’s recipes, and when she’d seen the sancoche card in her hand, she pieced together the chasm between her mother and father, the veins of ice and heat between her mother and her “friend.”
“They broke it off, and she just took it, like a keepsake to spite Mom,” the nurse rasped. “Always wondered why she quit making Daddy his favorite stew, why he never complained.”
The cookbook died in prepress. Thea deemed it “an omnivore-fest” that could be viewed as “cultural appropriation” despite being offered up by the cultures from which it was appropriated. Couple weeks ago, Shawn Taylor mailed me a mint copy of the West Millington African Methodist Episcopal Church Cookbook, dedicated to his mother and including most all the recipes she’d shared with parishioners and neighbors.
And Thea sent me two tickets to the WSHC’s Neighborhood Fall Work Day vegan chili supper/fundraising party. Guess it’s the thought that counts.