by Elaine Crauder
The banana bread would not bake. Maddy had followed the recipe to a T, only substituting canola oil for half the butter, honey for half the sugar, skim for whole milk, and nutmeg for cinnamon. Putting on long oven mitts and pulling the door open, she checked the loaf again. Three hundred and fifty degree heat swept into the kitchen, already filled with late summer swelter. Not wanting to take the time to lift the single bread pan onto the top of the stove, she pulled out the rack, took off one mitt and stuck a toothpick into the loaf. Raising it straight up, it was plain to the naked eye—her reading glasses were sitting idle on the kitchen table—that raw batter clung to the sliver of wood for dear life. If it had been at all cooperative it would let the toothpick withdraw, leaving no trace on the twig, as if untouched by the experience.
She knew that there was a brief moment between when the middle was raw and when the entire loaf was done, but dry as August crabgrass. It was a narrow window and she wanted to catch it, having missed the moment between seeing her husband standing next to his suitcase—mouthing words, dropping keys on the kitchen table—and when he stepped out of the front door. He had looked at her, holding his duffle bag in his hand. His briefcase leaned against his leg. A large roller suitcase rested by his rear. “My keys.” He held them out as though in full explanation.
She wanted to say, What? You’re leaving? Leaving me? But she looked at him quizzically instead, not reaching for the keys.
He cleared his throat, as if disgusted to have to explain. “I was on a ski lift and fell, tumbling airborne. Afraid of falling, of hitting hard. Then I realized—you know you can realize things in a dream—that the snow was soft and I let myself go. Falling. Free.” He nodded. When she didn’t respond likewise he continued, “I woke up and caught myself almost rolling out of bed. Then I knew: it would be okay. I’d be okay.”
She wanted to say, That’s what you want to tell me? That you’ll be okay? But what came out was, “Ung,” and another, “Ung?” She would have given anything to be someone else—a woman in a sitcom, perhaps, with a smart answer followed by a laugh track and a younger boyfriend. “Ung,” she’d said again. “Ung.”
Now Maddy rechecked the bread. She flipped the finally golden-brown loaf onto a cooling rack on the counter, next to Tad’s first letter. It had been nine days and four hours since he’d left. She skimmed the first apology— “it’s not you”—and the second one—“it’s me.” Near the end was what she had waited for, and didn’t want to know, and didn’t want to go on not knowing. No one else. She didn’t believe it but appreciated the effort. Maybe four years hadn’t been completely wasted.
The spacious Philadelphia row house that they had shared sold quickly in early fall, before the housing market completely dropped. She would have felt bad for the young couple who bought high, but they were both lawyers and should have known better. The street that was now her street—with the narrow row house in her name only—was in walking distance of the old place. Maddy once ran into the buyers at the Italian Market. They were bargaining with a merchant, offering half the listed price for bok choy. She turned into DiBruno’s slip of a shop, inhaling pungent molecules of cheese and olives, heavy and thick as ricotta in a cannoli. She’d bought a quarter pound of one of the specials and determined that she should have asked for—that she and Tad should have asked for—more when they sold. Let the lawyers swim underwater.
A surprise October snow brought slush to her cobblestone street and ice to the front stairs. The slush turned brown and, in spots, black with hints of hunter green. Her boots came to her knees and thankfully so, for the brick sidewalk was pocketed with dips and trenches of the icy mix.
The next day was her thirty-ninth birthday. Feeling both industrious and a bit lonely, she joined a Tuesday night knitting club, admiring the creations of women who had been knitting and talking together since before she met Tad. She stitched a couple of scarfs and came to the realization that the women let her sit with them—let her knit with them, accepted her contributions of every other item for Appalachian orphans—and talked as though she wasn’t there. Not a question about her life.
At first, she appreciated being around new people and not having to say anything. When she shared a story or added a comment the others seemed to enjoy her anecdotes about her first-grade students. The knitters listened and nodded, as they twisted alpaca and mohair and worsted wool and clacked titanium needles in a rhythm steady as a cow chewing its cud, hour in and hour out. Their even rows grew with inattention, from balls of yarn into sleeves and backs; knit skirts with silk linings; and what might have been ordinary gloves and hats and scarves, save for a contrasting splash of orange or red against chocolate and navy.
Maddy also joined a papermaking class that met on Wednesday evenings and it wasn’t long before trees trumped sheep. She loved the rough textures, and draining color from carrots and beets and spinach to make dyes. After a few more weeks, however, she realized she had both a scarf and a set of note cards for her entire gift list.
Christmas came and went, with her gifts appreciated—though no more than store-bought—which confirmed the rightness of moving on. There was no future in wool, no tomorrow in paper.
Decisions became more rather than less bewildering. She stuck with cereal for breakfast, yogurt for lunch, cereal for dinner, with an occasional candy bar thrown in when hunger appeared between meals. Evenings of industry devolved from arts and crafts into weeknights of dinner for one in front of the TV, which evolved into lost weeks, then months.
She noted all her anniversaries, but couldn’t bring herself to celebrate any of them. The original one—her wedding day? When he left? The day they sold the house? The date on the divorce papers? Her friends took note of none of these. They came in two varieties. Her oldest ones had known her growing up. They never had liked Tad, naming him JustaTad after the first time she introduced him over a barbeque and he wore loafers without socks. Just a tad not like them, and not trying to fit in. Her newer friends, from college and work, were concerned about the breakup and wondered if she’d considered counseling.
Spring was lost on her. The tulips could have saved their petals of yellow and red, the azaleas bypassed their blossoms and turned their brown twigs into coverings of green leaves without pausing to show off in pink, red, and glittering white. She saw none of it, and was surprised to see flyers advertising strawberry festivals at churches. June, she thought, It must be June.
Back at school on the teachers’ last day, the janitor had vacuumed each classroom but by the time he reached the end of the first-grade hallway the canister in his machine was full and he gave her room more of a symbolic cleaning than an actual one. Using her own supplies, she swept and mopped the linoleum; wiped the windows with vinegar and crumpled newspaper; sanitized the desktops and chairs; and lovingly rinsed the green board of layer after layer of chalk dust. After four rinses the water ran clear and there were no streaks on the board.
Alone in her classroom, Maddy spun around in the middle of the room, her arms reaching for the walls, then the windows, and admired the way the room sparkled. Catching her breath, she pulled a fresh box of colored chalk out of her desk. WELCOME MAPLE LEAVES she printed neatly across the top of the green board. YOUR TEACHER IS MISS JONES. She read the words aloud dramatically and made a large sweeping motion as though it were fall and the new students were entering her room for the first time.
“Why thank you. Don’t mind if I do,” the other first grade teacher, Annie, said, stepping into the classroom.
“I thought I was the only teacher still here.” Maddy laughed self-consciously. “Don’t you love the way the room smells, clean but with a hint of chalk?”
“Incorrigible,” Annie said, and also laughed. She waited while Maddy closed up her room and they walked down the long hall. The cement walls had been hastily painted and were waiting for fall artwork. “Beading,” Annie said as they approached the parking lot.
“The kids would love that,” Maddy said. She had a vision of a classroom full of six-year-olds stringing beads that they’d made out of clay into bracelets and anklets and necklaces.
Annie pulled Maddy away from her future students. “A bunch of us—” Annie said. “I promised I would get you to come. All year you’ve begged off joining us for a sushi Friday or a Saturday matinee. Tonight, you’re coming. It’s Chinese and I know you like it.”
Maddy thought about Annie’s group of single women in their mid-thirties, hanging out while they waited. Too old to be laissez-faire, too young to give up: determined to be single and happy, whether they were or not.
“Dinner’s at seven,” Annie said in her no-nonsense teacher’s voice.
Maddy decided she’d go once—and kept on going into July, enjoying the low-key momentum of idle drinks and afternoon movies with tubs of buttered popcorn. Returning from the outings she would hesitate with the key in the lock, bracing herself. Her rooms had taken on the stale bouquet that she remembered from her grandma’s musty apartment, though Maddy had no mothballs.
Weeks into her newfound social life, Maddy paused, unlocked, stepped inside and quickly relocked. This time there was nothing, no aroma of aloneness, of having been left. Maybe they’re onto something, she thought, though the admission cost a little pride.
Approaching forty had been fine when she was married, but she didn’t like being on the old side of Annie’s group. She wasn’t sure if she belonged. Her quiet apartment told her she did, her dinners for one drove home the point.
She’d been busy trying on marriage—as if it were a jeweled necklace that looked desirable through the window, but upon closer examination was far too expensive, and made with stones that weren’t precious at all. While she’d been tied to Tad, the others had formed tight friendships, vacationed together and worked out whose homes to go to for Thanksgivings and other holidays.
As much as she wasn’t sure that she belonged in the singles group, the singles group seemed unsure if she was one of them. She felt like an in-law: included all summer out of obligation because she was Annie’s friend.
The group always rented a house at the Jersey shore for a week in the middle of August—perfect timing for Maddy, before the school year started—but no one invited her. Maddy was okay with that until she found out there was an empty room. She said to Annie, “That week sounds fun. I’d love to go. I can pay for the extra room.”
Annie looked away. “We save that in case Katy’s sister can come. She came once, a few years ago. The lease is in Katy’s name, so she keeps it in reserve. I’m sorry.”
Katy’s sister lived in Milwaukee and the odds of her coming to the Jersey shore seemed as likely that week as Philadelphia being pleasantly cool with low humidity. Maddy knew where she stood, which left her almost as low as when Tad left. This felt bigger: if the single women’s group wouldn’t let her into their inner circle, there was no inner circle left.
Maddy hadn’t gained over the last year but her weight had redistributed in a way that said Single and Not Caring. She took to wearing pants and tops with sleeves even in the late July sauna of downtown Philly. With a scant month remaining of her lush summer vacation, she was determined to make a pattern that she’d follow throughout the school year. Work out. Buy fresh vegetables. Cook.
She started by taking an afternoon to make a grocery list and leisurely shop. Heading home, she’d accumulated a cloth bag bulging with eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, and fresh mozzarella under one arm, and a petite basil plant under the other. She leaned down to sniff the velvety green leaves. The licoricey scent made her close her eyes and inhale deeply.
She looked up, saw that it was Nick—flashed what she knew about him—fourth grade teacher, kids liked him, thick brown hair—and stepped into a pothole in the sidewalk. In the moment it took to hit the ground, she’d clenched her arms around the bags, which kept her upper body protected, but her right ankle immediately sent distress signals.
“I’m fine,” she said, trying a smile, as Nick ran to her.
“I got it.” He reached out, grabbed her packages and placed them off to the side, then knelt next to her. The first few pedestrians—who had seen her fall—walked around her, but the next few walked right up to where she sat before curving sharply to avoid her, as though wanting to be sure to communicate their disgust at the way she’d inconvenienced their passage. “I didn’t mean to startle you,” Nick said.
“Not startled at all.” Maddy looked at her ankle, which felt like it had swollen into the size of an acorn squash, but was in fact normal-sized. “It’s not purple yet or huge, so I don’t think it’s broken.” Mandatory first-aid training at school came in handy.
“Ice, that’s first,” Nick said. He’d taken the same first-aid class. “Let’s get you up.”
She leaned into him, and shrieked a bit and winced a lot on her way to upright. He asked if she wanted him to take her home. Grateful, she hobbled the couple of blocks, focused on keeping as much weight off her ankle as possible and wishing she’d already started her exercise program. She was pretty sure that his arm, which was snug around her to keep her up, and his hand, which was securely around her waist and pulling her up and toward him at every step, communicated to the rest of him that she was not recently acquainted with the gym. “I’ve been thinking of joining a gym,” she said.
“Might as well wait until your ankle’s healed. Don’t want to waste your money.”
When they got to her row house, Maddy stared at the front steps as though she’d never seen them before. She sat on the second step, facing the street. Propelling herself upwards using her good foot and hands, she scaled the six steps as though she were mounting the summit of Everest, backwards. Winded and in pain, she rested on the landing for a moment before Nick eased her to standing. Limping into her hallway, Maddy said, “Thanks, then. I can take it from here.”
Nick laughed. “I’ll get you iced and put these away.”
The Valium she’d been prescribed—but not taken—after Tad left were almost expired, but came in handy now. Nick found the bottle in the kitchen cabinet, nestled between the thyme and vanilla.
Maddy awoke in the night, stretched out on the sofa with her feet resting on a pillow, with both her foot and head throbbing, and a light on in the kitchen. Tad? She knew that wasn’t right. “Ice,” she called out. “Please?” The freezer door opened, then shut.
“Thought you’d never wake,” Nick said.
“Nick.” That’s who it was. “I fell.”
He pulled up a chair and sat next to her. “I was there.”
“I know. I didn’t hit my head.” But she was disoriented and tired, and didn’t want him to leave. “Thanks for helping me home. And staying. And the ice. I’m okay now. I’m sure you need to go.” She thought he was married or had a girlfriend or maybe a boyfriend—someone who would be waiting and wondering, even if he’d called to say that an uncoordinated colleague had tripped and he was being a Good Samaritan and would be home as soon as she woke up. Not that she’d kept him on purpose. The last thing she wanted was to be needy or seem needy. She stood on one foot and held onto the arm of the sofa.
He smiled and shook his head. “I know when I’m not wanted.” He made sure she had her cell phone handy and helped her to the door. “Lock up behind me. Can you get back to the sofa?”
She hadn’t thought of that. “Of course.” She could always crawl.
Ice, compression, anti-inflammatories, elevation. Repeat. In a few days she was able to get around with an ace bandage and a limp, as long as she wasn’t carrying anything. She composed a thank-you email to Nick, wanting to get the right tone. Grateful, not groveling. Hard to convey that in an email. But a call would be too much. A text was not enough. Immobilized by doubt as much as by her tender ankle, she wrote nothing. Thank you would have to wait the three weeks until teachers started back to school.
Annie—it was Annie, back from the shore with a peeling sunburn—who raised her eyebrows over coffee in Maddy’s living room. “He brought you home, found your Valium, and waited for you to wake up.” Maddy shrugged and Annie continue her gentle scolding: “We’re four days later and you haven’t said a word?”
Maddy nodded, silently appreciating Annie’s unhealthy pinkness. She would have happily sat there with her lips and heart clenched shut, but Annie was waiting. Maddy sipped delicately, barely parting her lips. “I got stuck. ‘Thank you for getting me safely home’ sounded cold—and too short. ‘Thank you for saving me from permanent humiliation on the sidewalk and an evening alone in pain’ sounded pathetic. Even desperate.”
Annie shook her head and smiled. “Try ‘thanks for helping me. I really appreciate it.’”
“Oh.” Maddy inhaled deeply. “That could work.”
“You’re like Goldilocks—only you stopped before ‘Just right.’”
Maddy composed and sent. A correspondence ensued: emailing a couple of times a day. Still unsteady on her ankle, Maddy took out a gym membership. She knew to avoid the treadmill until her ankle was healed, but she hit the weight room, lifting light barbells up, across, down, and back in burning sets of ten. She was surprised that her body responded eagerly. After only one week and three workouts her biceps reverberated with more of a ripple than a wave when she made like Popeye. Though it was possible that only she could tell the difference.
Annie, who’d been offering running advice for Maddy after each email exchange, was ecstatic when Nick suggested coffee on Saturday afternoon. She advised, “Beans to You, that’s the perfect place. Not a chain and you can sit as long as you want.”
Thrilled but cautious, Maddy said, “It’s a cup of coffee, not forever.” She could bring up how the first and fourth grades might work on a project together. Which she’d thought of but hadn’t mentioned to anyone, let alone Annie, one of the other first-grade teachers. Besides, Annie would wonder why Maddy had to have a topic to talk about with Nick, but Maddy knew herself, and she did.
Saturday morning, Maddy rose early and developed a new recipe for banana bread, with a touch of vanilla. Once again, her loaf refused to bake in the allotted time. She experimented with a second loaf: keeping vanilla, adding a sprinkle of cardamom, and doubling the bananas. She took the changes into account to calculate extra baking time. When she slipped the heavenly-scented loaf out of the oven the testing toothpick emerged clean and the top was a gorgeous light brown, with a slightly cracked crust.
Maddy checked her phone for directions. She wrapped the warm bread in a dishtowel and cradled it under her arm, excited to meet Nick and discuss her idea of class collaboration. Maddy knew where the conversation would begin; she did not need to know the ending.
Elaine Crauder’s fiction is in Scoundrel Time, The Running Wild Press Best of 2017: AWP Special Edition, The Running Wild Anthology of Short Stories, Volume 1, Cooweescoowe, Penumbra, The Boston Literary Magazine, and The Eastern Iowa Review. Another story earned The Westmoreland Award. Ten of her short stories are finalists or semi-finalists in contests, including finalists in Bellingham Review’s Tobias Wolff Award Contest and in the Mark Twain House Royal Nonesuch Humor Contest. Read more at www.elainecrauder.com.