Episode 1: 86 the Cow Paste



Sketch No. 1: White-haired Imp as Café Mistress, Smuggling Key Lime Tart


Please, please, grab a coffee. Or whatever your beverage of choice: tea, Scotch, whatever it is, that drink you like to cradle in your hands and sip. If you were here, and I wish you were, here at my favorite table across from Café Confictura’s front counter, you’d be getting that drink on the house because first-time customers drink free (well, you’d have to bring your own Scotch, or just ask the owner nicely for a shot from her private stash). “You gotta give to get”: that’s one of Mrs. Phillipa Creaverton’s rules of business. Her rules have kept Confictura up and running for nearly forty-five years. “You gotta give to get.” It’s sort of like “you’ve got to spend money to make money,” only a little more Dale Carnegie. And Mrs. Creaverton knows her Dale Carnegie. Although, he asked her in ’67 to please stop calling him “her” Dale Carnegie because even though their friendship was entirely innocent he was concerned people might get the wrong idea.


In the more general sense, “here” is our little Applewood, Connecticut, right smack in the heart of the state. If you have occasion to come through town, don’t mind our main street, Beech Street--they’re working on fixing it up after what happened a couple Novembers ago. Maybe you saw it on the news? We netted a minute and fifty seconds on the nationals: “freak geological event.” We even made it to Canada: “mysterious orogeny.” Whatever you want to call it, it means we all woke up that November fifth to shards of asphalt heaving upward, leaving the street impassable.

Thing is, though--and this is what none of the news reports understood--it wasn’t just geological, and Beech Street wasn’t the only place affected, though it was hit the worst. Storefronts all over town were suddenly chipped, stinking of mold. You know those grassy strips between the curb and the sidewalk? Those turned dry as straw. Café Confictura was one of two businesses spared, even though it’s right on Beech Street too. The other was Ambrosia, a bakery across town. Bizzaro. But that’s Applewood’s only weird thing, I promise.

Oh, and the ghosts. I mean, we’re a small town in Connecticut. Of course we have ghosts. But ever since the “mysterious orogeny” they’ve kicked the hauntings up a few notches, from freaking out cats and knocking over Hummels to all-out Amityville. Even Mrs. Creaverton’s husband has reportedly popped up, and he’s been gone four years.

For the most part, though, Mrs. Creaverton has other things on her mind than the inevitable visits from her deader half. Her own mortality, for one. Case in point, the scene from earlier today:

Morning rush. A glut of customers at the counter, these poor folks squished together in their usual bulging glob. One part of the glob evidently bathed in lily of the valley; one part had garlic last night. It’s impossible to identify individual voices: “I’ll have a nonfat latte cruller with that order up for Anna I said nonfat can I get the small instead of Anna I’m Anne no whip? yeah that’s mine Napkins!”

Only since the quake has the glob been a glob. Before that they were Anne and Christopher and Maria. They’d stop a minute en route to their morning tea or coffee and talk to each other, debate each other. They were unique and had thoughtful things to say. Now when they come in they’re mechanical and quick, their faces brief afterimages floating, and then lost in the crowd. When they do talk, it’s like they’re in a fog, or drugged. They parrot each other. I miss their different voices. All of us who haven’t been affected wish there’s something we could do for them, especially for those who get flickers in their eyes, a moment of recognition of what’s happened to them, a moment of yearning to be who they once were.

No one knows what caused this affliction. All we know is it started the same night as the quake, and in the fourteen months since then, it’s spread.

But we go on. What else can we do?

Behind the café’s front counter, there’s a stairway heading up to Mrs. Creaverton’s apartment. This morning, on the fifth stair up was Mrs. C herself, a puffed zeppola of a woman with a dollop of white hair. On the third stair was her steadfast cashier, Violet, a living, breathing fashion sketch--angular, yet she can get her whole body to pout. Violet’s hand reached out, its demanding palm up, toward the plastic takeout box of key lime tart that Mrs. C had not very successfully hidden behind her back.

Since the two women were raised up above the crowd, I think that’s probably how I could hear them. Mrs. C said to Violet, “You know that Nessie brings tarts to every Merchants Association meeting. I took one to keep the peace. That’s what you do when--here, business lesson, write this down--that’s what you do when a shaky alliance is all that’s standing between you and catastrophe. You keep the peace. End of story.”

Mrs. Creaverton knew full well that Violet would not write that down. She never writes down Mrs. C’s lessons in café proprietorship. When it comes to committing things to memory, Violet lets her inner child hold all the pencils, and that kid’s got a single mind for couture.

“Not end of story,” said Violet. She has a French accent. She’s from Wisconsin, but she has a French accent. “Every month Nessie brings the tarts and every month you tell her, ‘No, I have a disease. I am on pills for my heart, pre-diabetes, and chronic pain associated with my diet. If I eat a tart or a cake or some other thing that lists ‘fat’ and ‘sugar’ as its first two ingredients, I might die.’ Nessie knows this.”

Mrs. C tried again: “It’s not for me. I brought it back as a surprise for you. I was just putting it upstairs for safe keeping.” She tilted her head and made her eyes twinkle. So help me, the woman can make her eyes twinkle--bright enough, mind you, for me to see it from where I sat. I glanced away instinctively. It might be a cool trick, but a little while after Mrs. C twinkles at you, your head clears and you realize she’s recruited you for doing inventory, cleaning refrigerators, or sneaking into the crooked preacher Sweeney’s penthouse to spell out “666” in ’Nilla Wafers on his kitchen table.

Violet’s no slouch; she glanced away too before the twinkle could take hold. “Nice try, old woman,” she said.

Mrs. Creaverton said, “Alfred Hitchcock once told me he’d give his chin for really good key limes. You know why? Secret to longevity. Poor guy didn’t get enough key limes. And now he’s dead.”

“Oh, come on. Hitchcock would be 117 years old.”

“He would be if he’d had more key limes.”

“Enough, now,” said Violet. She shook a ripple through her short black waterfall of hair. “Tell me what is wrong.”

“Why do you think anything’s wrong?”

“Because you took a tart. You don’t bring home a noose just to see how it looks sitting on the kitchen table.”

“You’re being overdramatic.”

“I am not,” said Violet. “Forget a moment about your health. Forget all the people who care about you who do not want to see you get a paper cut let alone get sick. Do you not see that this is exactly what Nessie wants?”

“To unload key lime tarts that, admittedly, probably contain neither limes nor anything else resembling fruit?”

“She wants Confictura.”

“All right,” said Mrs. Creaverton, “you really need to get back on the register, Vi. Denny’s fine at making bread pudding but I think he just charged seventy-three dollars for a muffin.”

Violet ignored her. “More than that, she wants the Merchants Association.”

“And so she’s planning to what? Pastry me to death so she can get me out of her way?”

Eyes down and chin stuck out, Violet dug her thumbnail into the dark wood banister. “Let’s say I were an evil queen who wanted the royal Merchants Association to pass new rules that seemed to help everyone but really just made my business richer, until I could buy up all the other businesses that are struggling since the quake. But a princess stood in the way of my plans, a princess who also owns Confictura, the only competition in town to my Ambrosia bakery. Perhaps, then, at every royal Merchants Association meeting, I would wheel in my dessert cart of deception until I wore the heroine down and convinced her that eating just one tart wouldn’t be so bad…” Slowly, she lifted her eyes. “Then all of a sudden it’s thirty tarts later, and the princess is gone, and I am free and clear to rule over all.”

Mrs. Creaverton came down a step, reached out, and delicately moved a few strands of hair from Violet’s face. “Aw, honey,” she said. “What the hell kind of freaky bedtime stories did your parents read you?”

Now within striking distance, Violet didn’t hesitate. She nabbed the takeout box. “This goes in the garbage,” she said, and started down toward the front counter. “It should feel right at home there.”

She didn’t get far before Mrs. Creaverton blurted out, “I’m dead anyway. That’s why I took the damned tart. I just thought I could enjoy a last supper.” Angry footfalls beat the remaining stairs up to her apartment.

The tart forgotten in her hand, Violet followed Mrs. C. I followed Violet.

By the way, I’m Clarissa. I’m one of the regulars at this crazy place we call Confictura. I hope you’ll be a regular too.

Sketch No. 2: Kitchen in Pockets and Chalk Dust



When the sun’s out, it beads the eaves of Confictura’s A-frame, like lemon drops on a gingerbread house. That was the view from one of the kitchen windows in Mrs. C’s apartment. She’s got the same feel going on up there as in the café, the same eclectic blend of furniture. A melting pot of lines and colors and generations, that. Tea and bistro tables of wonderfully different heights cascade through rooms down the building’s long reach. Bookshelves are as overstuffed as the armchairs. In Mrs. C’s apartment, the kitchen proper carries the café’s strong scent; the moment you walk in you’re swaddled in java and chocolate-cinnamon.

But then there are pockets, alcoves and closets and maybe even whole other rooms behind doors, just as there are downstairs. Secret pockets. I know of at least one tunnel you can get to from the café’s Fireplace Room. The walls of Mrs. C’s kitchen seem to be all pockets, and while the paint is daisy yellow, there’s chalk dust everywhere, a coating transient yet clinging, like powdered sugar. Blackboards of all sizes are propped up on shelves or on the floor, with ever-changing recipes and notes written over years of eraser swipes. The biggest board has Shopping List printed at the top.

We found Mrs. C sitting at her little round kitchen table. Violet said, “And what does this mean, you’re dead anyway?”

“I had my physical yesterday,” said Mrs. C. “Since being on the prescriptions, cutting out sugar and red meat, and switching to low-fat dairy, I have actually gained weight, my arthritis has gotten worse--which I could’ve told you, pain’s bad all the time now--and the pre-diabetes is apparently over and regular season has begun.”

Violet took a deep breath, slowly ingesting this. “All right. Then you’re not doing enough to get healthy.”

“Not enough?” yipped Mrs. C. “I’ve done everything my doctor has told me to do.”

“Which is what?” said Violet. “Stop eating red meat and junk food? That’s like telling a smoker he will avoid lung cancer by cutting back to only one pack a day.” She turned to me. “You are not wishing to back me up?”

I raised my hands. “I’m just a spectator.”

Mrs. C said, “See, this is why I was willing to settle for one of Nessie’s tarts. They may be full of chemicals, but I was pretty sure they’re better for my blood pressure than taking something from my own display case right in front of you and having to hear about it.”

“Ah…well…” I said, considering this.

“Well what?” said Mrs. C.

“You did a pretty bad job of hiding the tart for someone who didn’t want to get caught,” I said. “I mean, you kind of marched the thing right in front of Violet, I saw you.”

“Right,” said Mrs. C. “Because you’re just a spectator. Who’s suddenly feeling very chatty.”

Violet lit up. “I think, then, it is your subconscious telling you you’re ready to eighty-six the cow paste.”

“Wow,” I said. “That sounds disgusting.”

Mrs. Creaverton said, “It’s diner-speak. Cow paste is butter, technically. Eighty-six means nix it, throw it out. When Violet went all-natural health nut on me she started saying it as a euphemism for cutting out everything except, I don’t know, whatever the hell she still eats. The lawn? Life’s too short, thanks.”

“Yes, life is short,” said Violet. “So why spend what little time you have hooked to machines or lying in bed, in agony?”

“Would I rather not wake up with a foot tingling or a joint flaring up? Sure. Would I rather weigh one-thirty again? Of course. But what’s the point of living if you can’t have the things you love? A good steak. A slice of pie.”

“But this is not what you love,” said Violet, holding out the tart. “Café Confictura, your regulars, the townsfolk who hurt from what this quake has done, moi, this is what you love. Food is to keep you running, so you can be with the people you love. Food is not the object of your love. Do not say such sad things.”

“Besides,” I said, “Violet’s right about Nessie. If one of you alienates or attacks the other, the Merchants Association would be bitterly divided on everything from business regulations to the town’s reconstruction. That’d tear Applewood apart. The only thing worse is if we don’t have you around at all.”

Mrs. C looked up. I know she saw herself reflected in my eyes. Her lips moved silently, before she shook her head. “It’s too much. It’s all…too much.”

Violet said, “And when did you ever run from too much? You have never cowered away from change. Just because you fear getting older does not mean you should begin fearing everything else.”

Mrs. C banged a fist on her table, making Violet and me jump. “You’re not a shrink,” she rasped. “Contrary to what you might believe, you don’t know everything, so why don’t you just leave me the hell alone.”

Violet’s eyes widened at such a hit. A soft knock came at the door. One of the baristas announced that Nessie was downstairs, looking for Mrs. Creaverton. I’ve never known Nessie to come here before today. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one surprised.

“Nessie’s here?” said Mrs. C.

“Isn’t that a little like Russia dropping by the White House during the height of the Cold War?” I asked.

Mrs. C got up. At the door, she paused. “Look,” she said to Violet with a sigh, “how ’bout you and me play hooky next Saturday, have a little time out? We can take Manhattan. Twelve hours of Seventh Avenue and not a second less, as many stores as you want.”

Coolly, Violet said, “You should see what Nessie wants. You don’t want to keep Madame Hell Hound waiting.”

Mrs. C put her smile away. Violet stayed put. Down once more Mrs. C and I went, to see what Nessie Fyne had brought to the café’s door.

Sketch No. 3: The Three Heads of Nessie Fyne, Baring Teeth


Nessie likes to say in a joking tone that her heart is almost as big as her belly. Of course, she says a lot in joking tones. Like: “People are too sensitive these days. What am I supposed to do when I send out my Christmas cards, write in every possible holiday so I don’t offend someone? Should I write in all the holidays? ‘Merry Flag Day and a Happy New Year’?” Or, when she first met Violet: “Don’t you lose that French accent, dear. It’ll give your dates a funny story to tell their friends!” Then Nessie follows her jokes with her unfortunate smile. You know Mister Ed’s teeth when he’d “talk”? Whether Nessie is joking or serious, all eight of those incisors jump right out at you and they don’t let go.

When Mrs. C and I got downstairs, Nessie was picking through the To-Go’s: these are takeaway sheets that Mrs. C keeps in three pamphlet holders by the register. One holder is for Mrs. Creaverton’s featured recipe of the week. Then, one is for Violet, and one is for the café’s resident retired English professor, Roscoe Belesprit. Violet does fashion consulting here on her nights off; Roscoe runs a writing salon in the Riverview Room. Their To-Go’s advertise a taste of whatever they’ve covered with their clients that week. Nessie, however, apparently didn’t catch on that there were three pamphlet holders for a reason. She plucked a batch of Mrs. C’s “Yummy Nutmeg Snickerdoodles” and shoved them in front of Violet’s “Pencil Skirt with Pizzazz.”

Morning rush had calmed, the bell over the door slowing its tempo to adagio. Mrs. C said hello to Nessie, and ushered her to one of the front tables. I hung back to fix the To-Go’s and, of course, to eavesdrop.

They’d barely sat when Nessie reached into her oversized purse. “I came to bring you another tart,” she said, presenting it. “I was very happy you finally decided to try one.”

“Golly,” said Mrs. C with a laugh. “You trying to do me in, Nessie?”

And, hello, Mister Ed! “I’ll bring it to my next shift at the hospital. The children see me coming with treats and it’s all hugs and ‘Miss Fyne, we love you!’” She set the takeout box down in front of Mrs. C. “Did you like it?”

“Hmm?” said Mrs. C.

“Did you like the tart you took from the meeting this morning?”

“Oh,” said Mrs. C. “It was delicious.”

“Good, good.” Nessie leaned in. “Phil, can I admit something?”

“You know,” said Mrs. C, “that reminds me of my old friend Jimmy. He also used to forget how much I hate being called Phil. No matter how many times I told him, it just flew right out of his head.”

“Right, I’m so sorry I keep forgetting,” said Nessie. “Jimmy Bantam, over on Maple?”

“No,” said Mrs. C. “Hoffa. But he hasn’t bugged me in a while now, has he?” She laughed. Nessie did too, sort of. “You said you wanted to admit something?”

Nessie regrouped. “Well,” she said, “I wanted to say I’m happy you treated yourself today. Go on and take this tart too. I’ll be happy to bring you another tomorrow. My bakers are like machines, churning out so many goodies so quickly, I don’t know where to put them all. I’m just happy you’re letting yourself enjoy life a little.”

“I always enjoy my life,” said Mrs. C. “The food’s just there to keep me running.”

“Just do me a favor,” said Nessie, “and don’t wither away into one of these size-four monstrosities. Walking skeletons. Turns my stomach to have to look at them.”

She shoved in even closer to Mrs. C. “I think the mind starves, too, when you’re skinny,” she said, “because they actually start thinking they’re better than us normal folks. It seems they hate us. You see them plotting against us: wanting to label our food, posting nutritional information everywhere. They probably have a secret society that comes up with how to shove it in our faces all the time! But, you know, maybe it’s themselves they really hate. I mean, they’re practically anorexic. That’s psychological. Maybe they need professional help. Or at least a cheeseburger! It’s like, for God’s sake, be normal!”

I didn’t miss her glances at me. I once had some of the same health issues as Mrs. C. Then I took Violet’s advice, and I dropped forty-four pounds in the last few years. I happen to be built small so, yeah, I’m a smaller size. I get weird looks at restaurants sometimes if all I order is a black bean burger and a side of roasted veggies, even though I happen to like black bean burgers and roasted veggies. When Violet and I hang out we get smirks or the occasional “eat a sandwich.” But that doesn’t make me hate people. Makes me want to chuck a Brussels sprout at them sometimes, but I rarely ever do that. Also, I know there’s no Evil Society of Vegans and Vegetarians. I know this because if there were one I’d join just so I could put that on a business card. I almost told Nessie all this but, you know, I’m sure she was only joking.

Besides, Mrs. C had it covered.

She leaned away from Nessie’s confederate posturing. “You know my cashier, Violet?” said Mrs. C. “She’s a good girl. Looks out for me. Like with this damned disease. Doc can’t cure it. He doesn’t even have a real name for it. ‘Unspecified cardiac and endocrine affliction.’ I mean, what the hell is that? But Vi’s one of the folks I know who actually had it, and she cured herself. It wasn’t the easiest thing in the world, but she did it, because she’s no coward. She doesn’t fear change, or a little hard work. Or, in my case, a little hardhead. I think she cares more about getting me healthy than she cared even about getting herself healthy. Now, that girl is what normal should be. Loves talking to people, helping them feel their best. Sees the good in just about everybody. Of course, she’s not one of these size fours you’re talking about.”

Nessie had been looking a little uneasy there. “Oh. Of course she’s not.”

Mrs. Creaverton glared at her. “She’s a two.”

Nessie stuttered, “I hope you know I was only joking—”

“This is a serious disease, Nessie, I take it seriously, so I’d thank you kindly not to joke about it.”

“Of…of course,” she said through her teeth.

“Okay.” Mrs. C stood and ushered her back to the door.

Mrs. C really could have left it at that. The point was made, diplomatic ties had not snapped. Alas, it seemed one way or another Mrs. C was destined to have a tart tongue today.

She said pleasantly, “And please, for my waistline’s sake, don’t bring your surplus baked goods here anymore. I’m glad your bakers make so much you hardly know what to do with it all. I always seem to sell everything we make here. But if you still find yourself needing suggestions for where to put your leftovers, I’ve got an idea or two.”

A few customers giggled. Mrs. C looked satisfied.

Nessie froze at the door. “You know, you’re right,” she said. “So often it’s those little tastes of self-indulgence that can blow up into a world of regret. ‘A moment on the lips…’ right?” She left then.

I was about to ask Mrs. C if Nessie meant by that what I thought she meant; but I put my question on pause when we noticed that her huge Shopping List chalkboard, newly erased, had grown legs clad in stylish linen and stood on the stairs.

It said in a meek, French voice: “I would like for us to call a truce.”

“Truce for what?” said Mrs. C. “I’m the one who owes you an apology.”

“Well,” said Violet, poking her head over the board and coming the rest of the way down, “I have done a thing to further--how did you say?--look out for you.”

“Oh, God,” said Mrs. C. “What did you do?”

“Before, you did not have much in your fridge and freezer,” said Violet. “Now, you do not have anything.”

“What?”

“And I am purging your cupboards next, old woman. Later we shop for new, healthy things, and find new, healthy recipes you will try.”

“And you didn’t care how mad it might make me to find my entire kitchen purged?”

With a pout, Violet said, “Hate me or don’t. At least you will be alive to make the choice.”

They had a moment. Nobody rushed into a hug or anything; that’s not their bag. But they had a moment.

Violet pressed, “Come, now. This is our starting point. After that, we take it one day at a time. We do our best with whatever comes.”

Mrs. C paced around, her Violet-approved sneakers squeaking a score to her contemplation. She landed in front of the main display case, which houses all manner of sweets: cherry Danish, apple pie, apple cake, spice cake, gingerbread, tartlets, biscuits, Swiss rolls, cupcakes, cake balls, devil’s food, angel food, Blondies, brownies, cookies, doughnuts, Parkin, strudel, Bundt. Mrs. C stared at it all, and then she turned around.

“I’ll give it two months,” she said. “No meat, no junk, and whatever other rules you follow. If there’s not enough improvement by then, or if you try making me swallow even one blade of grass, I’m eating my weight in bacon.”

Violet grinned. “Oui. C’est bon.”

The three of us were halfway through making the new shopping list and we were up to our elbows in chalk dust when I remembered my question: “Did Nessie threaten you today? Just because you made a crack about where to put her leftovers?”

Mrs. C kept writing. “I think it’s more what I said than how I said it, actually. She can’t ply me with junk. If she is trying to get rid of me she’ll have to come up with another plan. And I don’t think she just threatened me…” She looked at us both.

“I think she declared war.”


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Episode 2: Cashew Chicken with a Twist

Sketch No. 4: Maverick Doctor, Skillet in Hand

The 11/5 quake left Beech Street with shards of road sticking up like a punk rocker’s over-gelled hair. I’m not sure if it’s because the street, home to Applewood’s business center, is impassable, or if the town’s residents are just suffering from some form of fatigue, but since the quake, our nightlife is little more than crickets. Used to be, come Saturday night, you could find folks out at arthouse screenings, antique shows, book readings. We had live music everywhere; people would go out dancing. Now all we have is karaoke night at the Sloshed Guzzler, which, as you can probably guess from the name, is the type of bar with sticky floors and that stale beer smell that stays with you for the rest of your life. Sort of like if I say, “high school biology lab where you had to dissect a frog,” you can still smell the formaldehyde.

A couple weeks ago, Mrs. Creaverton started bustling around the Café Confictura, brainstorming ideas about how to breathe a little life back into Saturday nights. Partly, I’m sure, she’s feeling amped since she’s at the start of this new diet makeover/lifestyle change, whatever you want to call it. Partly, she’s ever the businesswoman, and she knows that “Happy Fun Night sponsored by Café Confictura” is a nice bit of advertising for her. But mostly, I think, she wants to help folks.

Those whose minds were affected somehow by the quake have been automatons in their own lives. No joy, no ambition. They roll through one day after the last, numb and foggy, where once they shone. I miss how they brightened the café, the town. Most of us who haven’t been affected keep trying to reach them, calling their names in whatever dark forest has swallowed them, hoping to catch a glimpse of their light. And Mrs. C’s contribution right now is to turn quiet Saturday night on its ear.

She kicked her party-planning mode into high gear and got the county Historic and Tourism Commission to donate an evening in this barn that is Applewood’s contribution to the long list of New England’s places George Washington supposedly slept. “Dancin’ through the Decades” was Mrs. C’s idea, a town dance designed for everyone to stop sitting on their booties and start shaking them, from the Charleston to the Hustle to the Time Warp to the Bus Stop. Within a few days, the coffee wasn’t the only thing causing a buzz at the café.

My guess is that, with so many people excited about the idea, we would’ve had a decent turnout no matter what. But Mrs. C got it in her head to pester the entertainment reporter from the Applewood Timber for a story, for exposure. Mark Raynid is his name, and she finally got him to come into the café for an interview this past Friday, the day before the dance.

Mark sort of looks like a stick figure someone might doodle on a Sloshed Guzzler napkin. His limbs are flimsy; his hair is scant. He and Mrs. Creaverton were at one of the front tables next to where I happened to be sitting, finishing up the interview and lattes, when in walked Roscoe Belesprit followed by a man I’d never met.

Roscoe’s trying to grow his hair out. When he was younger--I’ve seen a picture--it was thick, strikingly beautifully black against his brown skin. It’s thinner now, and mostly gray, and I’m hoping he doesn’t cut it anytime soon. The man following him was closer to my age, late thirties maybe, Mediterranean white, slender but with a good build. He wore a red quilted baseball cap made of that shiny puffer jacket material.

Roscoe made a beeline for Mrs. C. If one day he were to walk into the café to find a time machine has landed with Hemingway waiting to ask Roscoe’s advice on dialogue, our retired English professor would still make a beeline for Mrs. C before even noticing anything else. “Phillipa,” he said, the Boston Brahmin wafting smooth as smoke from his lips, “lovely as always to see you.”

“How ya doing, hon?” she said. To Roscoe’s blanketed dismay, Mrs. C calls everyone hon. “Those kids of yours stop with the prank calls yet?”

“They are not kids. They are twenty-somethings who partake in my most serious writing salon.” He sighed. “They’re still phoning at two a.m. pretending to be Shakespeare, although I highly doubt the Bard ever used the term ‘dude.’ I’m hoping this week to put an end to their disagreement with me.” He gestured to the younger man. “In the meantime, may I present Dr. Teek.”

The doctor shook hands with me, and Mark. “Please, call me Graham,” he said. When he extended his hand to Mrs. C, she hesitated before taking it into a halfhearted shake.

“Roscoe,” she said, “is this one of your academic doctor friends? Or a doctor doctor?”

Roscoe said, “I’ve asked Dr. Teek to speak to you about your . . . concerns.”

“Concerns?” said Mrs. C. “What concerns?”

His hands in front of him, Roscoe started kneading his fingers, a nervous tell. “When we spoke yesterday about your new diet, I got the feeling you might need a little guidance.”

“From a doctor?”

“Medical guidance, yes.”

She smiled at the doc. “My apologies for your wasted time. I already have a doctor.”

The doc smiled wider. “No apology necessary. I’m glad you have someone who’s willing to work with you on this new treatment plan.”

“I wouldn’t call it a treatment,” she said. “I’m supposed to eat broccoli ten times a day and live at the gym. That’s not a treatment.”

I jumped in. “I thought you were all gung-ho about this. You’ve seemed, you know, energized, in better spirits.”

“She was,” said Roscoe. “Then she disclosed to me that she was thinking of sneaking out for some Buffalo wings.”

I gasped. “Mrs. C!”

“Look,” said Mrs. C, her eyes moving among the three of us, “I’m in the middle of an interview, so—”

Mark said, “Actually, we’re all done here. This’ll run in tomorrow’s evening edition, paper’s out by six p.m., gives folks plenty of time to get to the dance at seven-thirty.” He lifted his meager chin to the doc. “My advice? Bug her a little while longer and she’ll give you tickets to the monster truck rally in Hartford to get what she wants.”

Mrs. C sighed. “No, Mark. You’re the only one around here who’s motivated solely by bribery.”

“I am not motivated solely by bribery,” Mark said mockingly. “Blackmail works too.”

While Mark stayed at the table, scribbling as he clarified his notes, Mrs. C excused herself to the café’s kitchen. Roscoe, the doc, and I followed through the swing door. The room is a small but spotless burrow of stainless-steel appliances with a matching island. This time of day, mid-afternoon, no one was in here baking or warming or whipping pastry with their sugar-cream accoutrements, so we had some privacy.

“What are you people doing?” said Mrs. C, turning when she realized we were behind her. “Employees only.”

Roscoe and I ignored her. Mrs. C only pays attention to that rule when it suits her. I can’t tell you the number of times she’s needed some help or is in the middle of telling a story and doesn’t want to lose her place, so she just waves us on back there and lets us stand around as long as we don’t touch anything, steal bites of pastry, or sneeze.

Only the doc replied. “Mrs. Creaverton, have you ever heard the phrase ‘Let food be thy medicine’?”

“Lemme guess, fortune cookie?”

“Actually,” he said, “it’s the original Western medicine. Greek, to be exact. Hippocrates taught that, and that’s what I teach my patients nowadays. Since I started teaching it, it’s never steered me wrong.”

Mrs. C gave him a puckered smile. “That was a good story, dear. On your way now.”

“See,” he continued, “I guess I’ve always seen myself as kind of a rebel. Certainly an individual, not one willing to just go blindly along with the crowd. That said, I used to practice the way I was always taught. You gave patients your best advice—‘watch your diet, up your exercise’—sort of vague guidance but it’s all we really had, and then you give them their pill or their surgery date and that’s it. Schedule their follow-up. Next. That’s how it was, up until a couple years ago.”

“Mm. And what happened a couple years ago?” She said it with a roll of her eyes, like she knew she was expected to ask the question, like she was just filling in a blank. But when her gaze settled back on the doc, there was a glimmer of true curiosity in them.

“A rep from a pharmaceutical company came to me. He’d heard about me. I was doing well in the field, working for a fairly big hospital up in Hartford. He told me he was prepared to help me get to the next level: my own private practice, a few trips a year to Hawaii or Cancun, all expenses paid, to speak at week-long conferences. He called it a ‘beach-teach.’ Basically talk for a half hour and spend the rest of the time in the sun. Of course, he said, he couldn’t do any of it unless I was giving my patients access to the latest and best meds on the market . . . which he happened to sell.”

“Well,” said Mrs. C., “I know you didn’t take the bribe. Roscoe wouldn’t be friends with you if you did.”

An almost imperceptible smile twitched on Roscoe’s lips.

“It was a wake-up call for me,” said the doc. “How could I call myself a rebel—hell, even an independent thinker—if I was just going to go along with this guy and do exactly what he wanted, push his pills on my patients? That got me thinking about all the meds I prescribed, and how none of my patients really ever seem to get better. I mean, they’d survive, but barely, and they really had no quality of life.

“I read every legit medical article I could get my hands on that had studied less conventional medicine. Vitamins, functional medicine, acupuncture, physical therapy . . . but what seemed most effective overall was a diet that wasn’t just about everything in moderation, but actually cutting out meat, dairy, and processed foods. I did my own little trial, asking some of my patients if they’d be willing to try it.” He ducked his head and smiled. “None of them wanted to, until I reminded them they’d be bucking the system if they just gave it a try. Seems I wasn’t the only one who didn’t like blindly falling in line.”

Mrs. C shook her head tersely. “I’m not blindly falling in line because I want some wings.”

“Why do you want to backslide?” asked Roscoe.

She ignored him. To the doc, she said, “What happened to your test group?”

With a wide, triumphant grin, he said, “Every single one of them was cured.”

“Cured?” she spat out dubiously.

“Cured. Not a little better. Not merely surviving. One woman who hadn’t been off crutches for a year was eventually able to walk in a marathon. One man could run after his grandkids without getting winded. These were people who kind of hated vegetables and swore by pizza and steak. I think a few of them participated in my trial to shut me up, prove me wrong that even by cutting these things out, they wouldn’t be themselves again, the selves they remembered from years before.”

“And they ended up being the ones who were proved wrong,” Mrs. C mumbled to herself. Her hand went to her stud earring, an alabaster rose the same color as her short hair. She twirled it in the same agitated way as Roscoe had kneaded his fingers before.

Then her hand dropped. “I need protein,” she blurted out.

“I see,” the doc said slowly. “And that’s why the Buffalo wings?”

“I can’t fill up,” she said. “I can only eat so many chickpeas and kidney beans and quinoa. I need protein, and more than that, I need flavor, or so help me God, Doc, I’m going straight to Stoody Jones’s Wing Shack and setting to win the ‘Eat a Whole Frickin’ Chicken’ challenge.”

Before he could respond, she whirled around to one of the stainless-steel refrigerators and opened it. Her back to us, she said, “Far as I can see, I’ve got one more thing I can try, or else I have to go back to meat and my pills. I just can’t imagine how I’m gonna choke it down. Now, you gonna strike me down if I try this, hate it, and have no other choice but to go back to my pills?”

Graham laughed; it was an easy sound that just sort of tumbled out. “I’m willing to bet you’ve got more choices than those two. But no one’s striking anyone down. I’m just a doctor, Mrs. Creaverton. I’m supposed to be a guide, not a god.”

With a decisive nod, Mrs. C dug inside the fridge. She tossed a small plastic container on the counter. I gasped at the sight of it. Mrs. C closed her eyes and pressed her lips together, as though just speaking the name of this most evil stuff would conjure plagues of frogs and locusts.

Finally, she rasped, “Tofu. How the hell am I supposed to eat tofu?”

The doc smiled. “Got a couple skillets?”

*

Question: when you prepare meat, do you ever just cook it, with no spices, no seasonings or sauces?

That’s what Doc Graham asked us as he started in on his tofu recipe. Mrs. C asked why anyone in the world would want to do that. She said sometimes she’d tolerate the meat just so she could get the sauce, which was the good part anyway. And I have to admit, naked meat, especially poultry, has always smelled kind of skunky to me, like that smell when you open a can of chicken soup.

Tofu, said the doc, serves as the same vehicle for flavors as any other protein, except that you get a healthier version of the same dish, no veins or cartilage or gristle, and no salmonella lurking on your countertops. He made cashew chicken, only with the tofu instead: rich, spicy-sweet sauce, veggie fried rice on the side. Mrs. C took just about the tiniest bite possible at first. Then, with huge, disbelieving eyes, she said, “This is better than when Julia Child made me the Szechuan tasting meal she learned from a Chinese spy!”  She loved the recipe so much, and was so relieved and grateful to the doc, she put it on one of her To-Gos—her recipe fliers for customers to take home—which I included following this post.

All in all, the dish took Graham about an hour to make, and that’s why, when we emerged from the kitchen chattering, we all quieted suddenly, surprised that Mark Raynid was still sitting at his table. We were even more surprised when he flew out of the café upon seeing us.

As Mark ran out, the front bell giving a startled peal when he whipped open the door, he had roughly the same look on his face as Mrs. C and I did a little while ago, before our tofu phobia (tofobia?) was cured. It was a look of fear. None of us could figure what was wrong with him.

I wish we’d never found out.

Sketch No. 5: Raynid on the Parade

Applewood’s “Washington Slept Here” barn feels like the sort of place where a big, loving family would sit down at a long table and have a holiday meal together. Even when it’s practically empty, you know that, soon, it will be full of home. It crowns the hill that overlooks the elementary school. Teachers are always bringing their students out here in the good weather for that special break from the classroom. The wood floors and body have been refurbished a few times over. Empty stables are to one end, and a platform stage has been built into the other. It still smells faintly, pleasantly, of hay.

Mrs. C knew what she was doing when she decorated for the dance. The woman had practically no time to work with, but when Mrs. C sets her mind to a job, she finds a way to make it happen. The barn is warm, in temperature and demeanor, so she brought in amber lamps that played up the cozy factor. She hung shamrock streamers from the rafters in honor of the four-leaf clovers that grow outside the western wall in spring. (If you pick one of those and keep it until the following March 17, St. Patty’s Day, you have the strangest lucky streaks in money. But this is harder than it sounds, since most of these clovers have a specific lifespan, and dry up into dust every March 14).

The dance started at seven thirty, but Violet and I got there around eight, since Violet, of course, had to be fashionably late. We could hear the bass of the music before we reached the barn door. Inside, a DJ on the platform stage bobbed to the beat, making adjustments on a mixing board, clutching his headphones to one ear. Two portable lighting rigs—probably donated for the evening by Mrs. C’s costar from a stint off-Broadway, who now owns Black Box Theatre Supplies over in the neighboring town of Speroton—flashed multicolored spots over the floor. A selection of coffee, pastry, and punch were at the ready on a side table, next to which Doc Graham and Mrs. C stood talking.

And the rest of the place was completely empty.

I mean, there was no one. We’re talking deserted. “Deserted” deserted. Like, “one of those plotlines of an eighties sitcom where none of the kids show up for a preteen’s birthday party” deserted. All we needed to complete the scene was for the DJ to start playing “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You” while a parent put an arm around Mrs. C and reminded her that true happiness comes from within.

The four of us stood together, trying to figure out what had kept everyone away:

“Maybe everyone’s just really late,” said the doc.

“Maybe they got the date wrong?” said Mrs. C.

“Maybe there was another quake somewhere in town like 11/5 and we just haven’t heard about it yet,” said I.

“Maybe they have all realized they have nothing chic to wear and they sit now at home in the dark in shame,” Violet pouted in her French accent.

We didn’t have to wait too much longer for the real reason. Roscoe came through the barn doors, the Applewood Timber weekend edition in his hand and a stern scowl on his face.

“A hack. A hack,” he said. “I’ve long thought that Mark Raynid was nothing more than a cozener, spinning glorified tabloid gossip, tossing around his press pass like beads at Mardi Gras.” He shoved the paper toward us. “I was right.”

Mrs. C took the paper and read part of it aloud: “‘Keep an eye on your orders from a certain café, folks, or soon you might find special Kool-Aid in your coffee cups and your brownies full of weed.’”

“Is that a promise?” I said.

She went on: “‘While there’s a dance tonight, information below, being hosted by Mrs. Phillipa Creaverton supposedly on the town’s behalf, one can’t help but wonder if this is, in fact, a ruse to slip her new California diet past our unsuspecting lips.’”

Violet and I shared what I believe was a warranted look of disgust at any mention of Mark Raynid’s lips.

Mrs. C skimmed, her cheeks and knuckles turning red. “It goes on to say that he overheard the whole talk we had in the kitchen. The way he talks about tofu in here you’d think we were candidates for the first witch trial New England’s had in a while.” She read further. “Dammit. He’s got a quote from Nessie.” This, Mrs. C read in a nasal, jeering whine: “‘Phil did worry me very much a couple weeks ago when she swore off sweets, meats, and dairy. I wondered how a vegan could run a café and bakery.’ Oh, sure,” she now yelled at the paper, “because that’s never been done before, you twit.”

Roscoe turned to Doc Graham. “I’m very sorry you’ve been dragged into this as well. He paints you in there as unfit to practice, swayed by the demons of alternative medicine.”

Graham just laughed. Mrs. C didn’t. “You know,” she said, “it was a different Graham who warned me years ago about yellow press when I first went into business for myself. Her name was Kate Graham, and that day I believe I met her right at the Post and we took lunch at Old Ebbitt’s . . . Yes, I remember, because that was in the thick of Woodward and Bernstein, you know, doing their thing, and Kate said, ‘Phillipa, now Bob and Carl, those are journalists. Fearless, those boys are, and only interested in reporting the truth.’”

“And they stuck to their guns,” the doc added. “And the paper backed them. And I’ll back you. I’m guessing everyone here will.”

Mrs. C’s face fell a bit. “Why is it people are badmouthing me just because I want to be healthier? Don’t they know this is hard enough?”

“They fear what they do not know,” said Violet. “Also, Nessie and Mark both buy off the rack, so really what can you expect.”

“Everyone buys off the rack,” I muttered to her. “You buy off the rack.”

She lowered her eyes at me. “We are not friends for fifteen minutes,” she declared, then glided off to the coffee carafe.

“Look,” said Graham to Mrs. C, “the people who are bothering to pass judgment on you are going to see one of two things. If they belittle you for trying to make a positive change, they’re actually not even seeing you; they’re looking inward and they don’t like what’s there. They put you down to make themselves feel better. But there are others who look at you, and they see a woman taking charge of her life, maybe even a role model. The parents whose child is heading for obesity, but they’re not exactly sure what constitutes ‘healthier diet,’ so they don’t know how to help him; the sixty-year-old who’s heard so often she’s too old to change that she’s starting to believe it. They’re looking for help. They’ll find it in you. Don’t forget those people are out there too.”

“And Violet and I are going to find at least a few of them right now,” I said. I grabbed Violet--pulled her, actually, because, you know, we weren’t friends for another fourteen minutes thirty seconds--and we set out, ready to go door to door if necessary and drag people to the dance.

As we left, Mrs. C called out to the DJ to play “The Twist,” one of her all-time favorites. I heard her tell Graham and Roscoe, “You know this song was originally a B-side to a ballad called ‘Teardrops on Your Letter’? ‘The Twist,’ a B-side. Probably one of the most famous songs ever, and it almost got buried thanks to the producers, the big boys upstairs. I guess enough folks flipped the record over and at least gave it a spin. Imagine, almost missed out on ‘The Twist’ ’cause the boys upstairs stuck us with ‘Teardrops on Your Letter.’” And with that, she started Twisting.

Sketch No. 6: Gold Woman Outside Sunday Brunch

Well, at the fourth house that Violet and I tried, we got a shoe thrown out a second-story window at us. No one bothered to answer at all at the first three houses, so I guess the shoe was an improvement, but we still gave up and trudged back to the barn. Saying you’re going to drag people from their homes and actually doing it really are two different things.

The dance was officially a bust.  I mean, we all danced. Who’s gonna waste a good DJ? Violet and the young doctor exchanged their fair share of glances, and Roscoe, Mrs. C, and I officially named them winners of the impromptu Watusi dance-off Mrs. C announced. We managed to have fun, but still Mrs. C left that night with clouds crossing her smile.

*

The good news is that Sunday brunch at Confictura is like taking repast inside a daffodil. No matter the weather or season outside, the hanging lamps turn out the midmorning sun of spring. You could be in a ghastly mood when you come in, but by the time you sit down with your fresh, full cup of coffee and your mini quiche, you feel better, and you’ll find yourself inviting time to stretch out at your table.

Brunch was, actually, quieter this morning than usual, with echoes of last night’s empty barn. A twitch or two of concern wrinkled Mrs. C’s brow as she worked with her baking assistants behind the counter. Violet rang the cash register a few times when there was no sale, just for the company of the sound. Still, though, there was a sense that if Mark’s article was going to cause lasting damage, if it needed to be combated, that was business to be dealt with tomorrow.

Unfortunately, Nessie brought it to our doorstep today, she and a dozen followers. She looked like a gilded figurine you might get in a gift shop, thanks to her goldenrod pantsuit.

Mrs. C put on her ever-chipper customer service face. “Nessie, so good of you to come in. We’re running low on your favorite quiche, but I’ll be so happy to whip something up just for you. Do you have any food allergies, by the way? It’d be real good to know that before I get started.”

Nessie shoved her teeth into their non-smile. “I wanted to bring my friends here so they could hear you for themselves. I’m sure you are ready to clear up this misunderstanding.”

“What misunderstanding?” said Mrs. C.

“That you are swapping toffee chips for tofu cubes.” Her eyes fell on Mrs. C’s To-Go’s. “I see you haven’t had a chance to throw these out yet. Allow me.”

Mrs. C stepped between Nessie and the To-Go’s holder. “You’re right. I’m not changing any of the café’s recipes.”

Nessie’s followers murmured to each other, looking relieved. Nessie looked satisfied.

“Not yet, anyway,” continued Mrs. C. “If, however, my customers start trying the things I’ve come to enjoy, and that I have no intention of giving up, and they ask me to make changes, well, the customer is always right.”

One of Nessie’s followers, a stout librarian in her forties named Amy, shuffled forward and whispered to Mrs. C. Mrs. C said, “Of course, honey,” and rubbed Amy’s arm in a friendly and encouraging way. Mrs. C grabbed one of the tofu To-Go sheets, and handed it to her.

Nessie said, “Amy?”

Amy breathed deep, and faced Nessie. The librarian is one of the townsfolk who’s been affected by the mental fog. She’s been palling around with Nessie for a while now. She said, “I never really liked chicken. I only eat it because it’s supposed to be healthy. Maybe I’ll like tofu better.” Her voice still had that same frothy quality it’s been stuck in for months, but her words--or, more to the point, her defiance, her individuality—suddenly beamed strong. She regarded the To-Go like directions starting her on a path homeward.

Mrs. C winked at her. “We’ll make your first batch together if you’d like.”

I’ll hand it to Nessie: she can keep a poker face if she needs to. Amy’s traitorous behavior didn’t seem to ruffle her. It was only after all the other people she’d brought in took To-Go’s that Nessie puffed out her cheeks and stormed out of the café.

While the baking assistants filled a fresh batch of quiche and coffee orders for this sudden new wave of customers, I beckoned Mrs. C and Violet over to the huge front window. “Check out where Nessie’s headed,” I said.

She stalked across the street and down the half block to the church on the corner. “Straight into Pastor Sweeney’s den,” said Mrs. C.

“And why does she go in there?” Violet asked, suspicious.

We all know the man is crooked. Hell, the court knew he was crooked. He’s so crooked he knew exactly how to hide from the jury just how crooked he is. Nessie, who loves to shout from the rooftops how humble and devoted a Christian she is, had no choice when all this blew up a while back but to distance herself from the money laundering and embezzlement charges. She made this huge deal about how she’d never set foot in his congregation again.

Yet, for the first time in over a year, to any of our knowledge, that’s exactly where she went this morning. She struggled to open the heavy frosted-glass door of the church, and squeezed through.

Just before she disappeared inside, she threw a glare over her shoulder, unmistakably shot like a curse at the door of Confictura.


Veggie Fried Rice & Cashew Tofu

by Phillipa Creaverton

For the fried rice:

2 3/4 cups water

1 1/2 cups rice

1 package extra-firm tofu, drained

2 cups carrot sticks

3/4 of a small bell pepper, diced

4 scallions, sliced thin

1 cup frozen peas

Seasonings (Play with measurements to see what tastes best to you. Like Julia Child taught me, it's never wrong if it tastes right): garlic powder; black pepper; ginger; onion powder; low-sodium soy sauce

Get your rice going. While that's cooking, break out a large skillet. In here, squish the tofu with your hands until it looks like little crumbles or scrambled eggs. Add black pepper. Cook this on med-high heat, stirring occasionally, until it starts to brown (about 15 minutes). 

To the browning tofu, add the bell pepper, carrots, and scallions, along with the other seasonings. Lower that heat to medium and cover for about 7-10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Then add those peas. By now the rice should be done, so pepper it generously (I like to do it to within an inch of its life, but that's just me), and then add that rice the tofu mixture. Stir this so it's all mixed up good, and let it cook together another 2-3 minutes or until the peas are cooked through to that nice, warm, snappy texture.

For the cashew tofu:

1 package extra-firm tofu, drained and cut into large cubes

2 cups no-sodium veggie broth, split

1/4 bell pepper, diced (use the rest of the pepper you started for the rice)

3 scallions, sliced thin (use the rest of the bunch you started for the rice)

1/4 cup unsalted, dry-roasted cashews

1 Tbsp white wine vinegar

2 1/2 tsp cornstarch

2 Tbsp maple syrup

1 tsp lime juice

Seasonings: Red pepper flakes; garlic powder; black pepper; ginger; onion powder; low-sodium soy sauce

To a medium-sized skillet, add tofu cubes. Cook on med-high heat, flipping the cubes around occasionally, for about 15 minutes or until golden brown. When the cubes are brown, smaller, and firm to the touch, you're good to go. Add 1 cup of the broth to the tofu, along with the soy sauce, black pepper, bell pepper, scallions, cashews, pepper flakes, ginger, garlic powder, and onion powder. Cover, and simmer for about 7 minutes. If the broth hasn’t cooked out fully by this point, uncover and continuing simmering until it has.

Then there's my favorite part: your sauce mixture. Combine the other cup of veggie broth with the vinegar, cornstarch, maple syrup, lime juice, and soy sauce, pepper flakes, and onion powder. Whisk thoroughly with a fork so any clumps of cornstarch are dissolved.

Turn the heat on the tofu to low and add the sauce mixture. Stir this around in the pan until the sauce coats everything in that yummy gooey sweet spice. The rice and tofu should make about 4-5 servings (fewer if I'm at the table!)

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