A Tale of the Curious Cookbook
Three months after losing his parents in a car crash, Denver weatherman Daniel Whitaker returns to Laramie, Wyoming. It’s bad enough dealing with the death of his parents and his failing relationship of fifteen years, but when he finds his childhood home full of clutter, Daniel is at a loss. He enlists Landon, his parents’ sexy neighbor, to help him sort through the mess. Landon Kushner is a study in contradictions. He builds wind sculptures out of scrap metal and loves the outdoors, but he also rides a mint-green Vespa and has an affinity for knitting and fortune-telling. He's been friends with Daniel's parents for years, and he's more than willing to lend a hand.
Their plan is simple: clean the house so Daniel can sell it and get back to his life in Denver. But when a strange cookbook comes into Landon’s possession, Daniel begins to realize that the universe – and Granny B – may have other plans.
IT WAS not a dark and stormy night. Somehow that would have been appropriate. It certainly would have suited my mood on the day I was fated to return to my hometown to deal with my parents’ cluttered house, but it simply wasn’t the case. Instead, the sun shone bright in the cloudless Colorado sky as if to spite me.
I wrapped up my shift at the news station, smiling as I gave the afternoon weather report for the Denver area—10 percent chance of showers in the evening, cooling to the high fifties overnight—and a forecast for the next day of mostly clear skies, 30 percent chance of afternoon storms, highs in the midseventies. All in all a typical day for late May. Then I made my way to my office with my heart full of dread.
I didn’t want to do this, but I’d already put it off too long. Landon had generously taken care of it for me since their deaths, but it was time for me to deal with it, once and for all.
Chase called at four o’clock, just as I was removing my makeup with a baby wipe. He often teased me about having to wear it, as if it was only about covering up the wrinkles that were beginning to form at the corners of my eyes, but it was more than that. The camera could be brutal.
“I thought I’d grill some burgers for dinner,” he said. “We’re out of buns, though. Can you stop on your way home?”
“You bet.” An early dinner would be perfect. We could be on the road before six.
“Get some coffee too.”
“Are you leaving soon?”
“In a few minutes.”
“Good. See you in a few.”
The conversation took less than twenty seconds and was as routine for me as drinking a cup of coffee in the morning. Although the law prevented Chase and me from being legally married, we’d called each other “husband” for the last fifteen years.
No, I wasn’t looking forward to returning to Laramie, but at least I’d have Chase by my side. We’d been floundering lately. Not arguing, exactly. We didn’t talk enough to argue. But we’d become depressingly mechanical and complacent in our relationship. We’d become little more than roommates. I hoped a few days away from our normal routine would shake us out of it.
I stopped at Safeway on my way home as requested. Hamburger buns were easy, but as I stood debating the shelves and shelves of coffee—caramel cream or hazelnut biscotti?—I felt a tap on my elbow.
“Are you Daniel Whitaker?” a middle-aged woman in jogging clothes asked.
“The Channel 9 weatherman?”
“Meteorologist,” I said, as my heart sank. I could tell by her tone this was going to hurt.
“It was supposed to rain yesterday, and it never did. I missed my afternoon run because you said it was going to rain.”
“I said 70 percent chance of afternoon showers.” And personally, I’d argued for lowering our prediction to 60 percent, but I’d been overridden by the senior meteorologist at the station.
She crossed her arms and tapped her toe. “But it didn’t.”
“It did. It just didn’t reach this far north. It was more in Castle Rock and Parker.”
“But not here.”
I resisted the urge to sigh, or to explain to her that “70 percent chance of showers” meant only that the predicted probability of more than a measurable amount of precipitation—defined as more than one one-hundredth of an inch—in any one point of the forecast area averaged out to 70 percent. We’d been 90 percent sure of rain in the southeastern portion of the city, but only 40 to 50 percent sure in the northwestern regions, which boiled down to a glib “70 percent chance” for the forecast.
“We can put a man on the moon, but we can’t predict tomorrow’s weather,” she grumbled as she walked away. “Maybe one of these days you’ll get it right.”
I brooded over the conversation all the way home. Everybody knows the jokes about meteorologists: Why did the weatherman get fired? Because the climate didn’t agree with him. What do you do when you get every answer wrong on your SAT? Become a weatherman. Who does everybody listen to, but nobody believe? You guessed it.
As usual it wasn’t that our forecast had been inaccurate, but many viewers don’t understand basic forecast terminology. They also don’t seem to realize how difficult it could be to take massive meteorological and climatological events in an area as large and geographically varied as ours and boil them down to a three-minute forecast. If we’d only had to predict the weather for the one hundred fifty-five square miles that made up the City of Denver, it would have been easy, but our forecast area covered the entire state of Colorado—an impressive one hundred four thousand square miles—and stretched as far north as Laramie, Wyoming. Even in the greater metro area of Denver, what happened in one suburb could be vastly different than what happened in the others. It was the most frustrating part of my job. We were predicting the future, for fuck sake. Even though we got it right 90 percent of the time, people only ever talked about the 10 percent of the time when we didn’t.
I was still replaying the conversation in my head, imagining all the ways I could have contradicted the jogger, as I pulled into my driveway. Before going inside, I strolled down to the sidewalk to check the mail. My neighbor was there as well, just locking the little square door on her box.
“Evening, Daniel,” she said, without glancing up at me. She was flipping through her stack of envelopes.
“Not going to get any hail tonight, are we?” Lydia had moved to Colorado from San Diego only a few months before and seemed to live in fear of one of Colorado’s outlandish hailstorms shattering the skylight in her bedroom as she slept. Never mind that the worst hail usually stayed northeast of us, where Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska collided in an area known to weather buffs as Hail Alley. Denver had apparently seen enough golf ball-sized hail over the years to make Lydia nervous.
“Thank goodness.” She sighed and waved her stack of envelopes at me. “All junk. Every single piece.”
“Isn’t that always the way?”
Lydia was three steps away when she stopped and turned back. “I meant to tell you, Daniel. You might want to get your engine checked.”
“I was walking Rio the other day, and I noticed there was oil in your driveway, right where you usually park.”
“Oh. Thanks for letting me know.”
Back at the house, I tried to spot the oil stain, but with my Subaru parked right on top of it, there wasn’t much to see. My car was only a few years old. None of the little alert lights had been on, and I’d had all the usual maintenance done at prescribed intervals. I didn’t know the first thing about cars, and Lydia’s warning about the oil leak worried me. Laramie was only a two-and-a-half-hour drive from my home in Westminster, but the last thing I needed was engine trouble along the way.
I found Chase in the kitchen, patting ground beef into patties.
“How was your day?” he asked as I set the bag from the grocery store onto the counter.
“Wonderful. I had another argument with Grant about the five-day forecast. I was reminded that my job is to read off his prediction rather than formulating my own.” I ticked the points off on my fingers. “The station manager suggested I lose a few pounds. The makeup girl told me the wrinkles around my eyes are now so pronounced she needs the extraheavy concealer to cover them. And I was ambushed in the coffee aisle by a fair-weather jogger.”
“All in a day’s work.” He pushed the plate of patties aside and used his wrist to nudge the faucet handle on the kitchen sink in order to wash his hands, which were coated with congealed fat from the raw hamburger. I stepped forward to squirt a drop of dish soap into his palm.
“Are you packed and ready to go?” I asked.
“Well, no. I needed to talk to you about that.” He kept his eyes on his hands as he washed. “The restaurant called today. One of the waitresses broke her collarbone in a bicycle accident—”
“—and now they’re short-staffed for the weekend.”
My heart sank. “But you asked for the time off. We already have plans.”
He turned off the water and finally faced me as he dried his hands on a kitchen towel. “I know, hun. I’m sorry. But I’m low man on the pole, and after the row I had with the manager last weekend, I can’t afford to push my luck.” He set the towel aside and stepped forward to put his hand on my arm. “It’s not like this’ll be your only trip back. I’ll request a weekend off at the beginning of July, okay?”
I nodded jerkily, trying not to take it personally. After all it wasn’t Chase’s fault somebody had broken their collarbone.
No, said a small voice in my head, but he sure jumped at the chance to stay home, didn’t he?
Well, I couldn’t blame him for that, either. Who wanted to spend an entire weekend locked in a musty old house, sorting through boxes of who knew what, dwelling on somebody else’s memories? Even I would have jumped at the opportunity to stay home. And as he’d said, cleaning out my parents’ house and getting it ready to sell would probably take several weekends.
Still, I was disappointed. Having a couple of days away with Chase had been the only bright spot for me in an otherwise depressing weekend. But there was nothing to be done about it now.
“You’re right,” I said at last. “There’ll be plenty of other weekends.”
THERE ARE two options when driving from Colorado to Laramie, assuming one doesn’t want to take single-lane county roads the whole way. One is to go straight north on I-25 to Cheyenne, then take I-80 west. The interstates are fast, direct, and boring as hell. The other option is to cut through Fort Collins on Highway 287. The latter route is shorter by about thirty miles, but the drive times are about the same. If I’d been driving at night, I probably would have opted for the interstates, where I was less likely to have deer, antelope, or coyote jumping into my path, but with daylight still left, I decided to take the more scenic option.
It’d been nearly fifteen years since I’d driven this road, and I was struck by how perfectly familiar and welcoming it felt, winding my way through the rolling, dusty foothills. A few trees in the creek beds and a lot of sagebrush were the only hints of green. The reddish-gray earth contrasted with the bright blue sky. Huge stone outcroppings pierced the blue sky, the wind having stripped away the flesh of the earth, leaving her bones bare and exposed. It was harsh and barren, and yet hauntingly beautiful too. Some piece of me, long buried and denied, seemed to open up and rejoice of the sight.
I was going home.
It was a disconcerting thought. I hadn’t called Laramie home since I was eighteen. But I’d spent my formative years there. I’d ridden my bike through her streets as a preteen, and cruised those same streets in a beat-up Ford truck as a teenager. Hung out downtown with my friends. I’d dated a few girls. I’d even gone to bed with one, and all the while, the dawning realization that I was different gnawed at my gut. And yet I never felt out of place so much as I felt lost.
I’d left Laramie when I was eighteen, moving south to Fort Collins to attend CSU, and I’d immediately felt reborn. College was a whole new world, wide and educated and open to diversity. GLBT resources were abundant on campus, and the words “I’m gay” suddenly became easy to say to myself and my open-minded dormmate, if not to my parents. Fall of ’98, shortly before beginning my senior year at CSU, I’d finally rallied my nerve and come out to them. My father had raged. It wasn’t so much that he disliked the idea of homosexuality as that he hated the idea of his son not being “normal.” My mother had assured me over and over again it was only a stage. She was sure some girl had broken my heart, but eventually I’d meet a new girl. A different girl. A girl who would inspire me in ways I’d never been inspired before. My protestations fell on deaf ears, and I’d returned to Colorado for my senior year of college without even saying good-bye to my parents.
Two months later a young man was found tied to a fence in Wyoming, beaten nearly to death. He was rushed to Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, only a few miles from campus. Facts were slower to emerge in those days, but rumors have always moved like wildfire. The boy was gay. That was the one thing everybody seemed to know. There were stories he’d been barhopping in downtown Fort Collins the night he was ambushed. On the CSU campus, there was a shared heartache, and a looming feeling of guilt. A deep-seated dread that something so vile could happen there, in that place where we celebrated life so freely. We couldn’t have done this, the refrain went. We’re not bigots.
When the truth finally emerged that Matthew Shepard was from Laramie, we’d all felt vindicated. It was with a sense of hesitant righteousness and a great deal of relief that we aligned ourselves with the rest of the country, pointing our fingers accusingly at my hometown.
For my parents, the tragic death of Matthew Shepard six days later only proved how dangerous my newfound “lifestyle” could be. For me, it was an excuse to turn my back on my roots. If people asked where I was from, I lied and said Cheyenne. And yet I watched with secret pride as Laramie rallied to its own defense, holding candlelight vigils for Matthew and suddenly declaring themselves on the right side of love. When one of my high school classmates came out on national TV, I’d fought the urge to run home and shake her hand.
Yes, I assured my mother when she called me in tears. I was still gay. Matthew Shepard hadn’t changed that. If anything, the tragedy had driven the fact of my sexuality home.
Not long afterward, I met Chase, and my life changed forever. I knew immediately this wasn’t a dalliance or a fling. This was love, strong and pure and so undeniable it sometimes brought tears to my eyes. I went home for Christmas that year and told my parents all about Chase. I wanted them to meet him, but they refused. They insisted I was going through a phase. I just needed to try harder. Date more women. They offered to pay for a psychiatrist. They begged me to move back home, away from the university and its dangerous ways. Needless to say, I’d refused.
That’d been my final trip to Laramie. Even after their deaths, there hadn’t been a reason to return since the service had been held in Omaha.
Now, I had no choice but to go back.
In my mind, Laramie remained forever unchanged, solid and serene, quiet yet proud, somehow untouched by time. In some ways it was true, and yet everything was different too. I recognized her form and her foundation, but new buildings and businesses now rose above the old, testaments to forward progress and growth, even here in the dusty regions of southern Wyoming.
The speed limit decreased. The highway narrowed and transformed into Laramie’s main drive, Third Street. I turned right before entering the downtown district. My parents’ subdivision lay just south of the University, a large neighborhood of sprawling ranch homes on wide green lawns, built before the oil boom and the rise of cookie-cutter architecture. Here I found myself smiling with fond remembrance. The trees were taller, and a few of the houses showed signs of having been taken over by property management companies and leased to college students, but most of the homes were well maintained, the lawns neatly cropped, the flowerbeds just starting to show promise. My smile broadened as I passed Washington Park, with its old-fashioned band shell. I wondered if they still used it.
Part of me wanted to drive right past my parents’ house and explore more of the neighborhood I’d grown up in. I wanted to know if the jungle gym at my old elementary school was the same, or if modern safety concerns had forced them to remove it. Spring Creek and LaPrele Park lay a block or two to the south, and I wondered if the weeds and wild grasses still grew lush and unchecked along the stream’s banks.
But it was almost eight thirty. There’d be time for reminiscence another day. In truth, I was only delaying the inevitable.
I stopped in front of my parents’ house, staring open-mouthed at their front lawn. In its center sat a strange contraption constructed of shining metal. Loops and slender rods formed circles, some of them ending in strange scoop-shaped ovals. The others held metal birds aloft, their wings outstretched, ready to catch the next breeze that came by. It was relatively still at this time of the evening, but I imagined the entire contraption would spin when the wind hit it. I shook my head, expecting the vision to disappear, but no. It remained, incomprehensibly, in my parents’ yard.
“My father must have lost his mind,” I said to myself. The structure itself was oddly beautiful, but it seemed out of character for my somewhat conservative parents, and especially for my father, who normally found such things ostentatious.
I pulled into the driveway, killed the ignition, and sat for a moment studying the house. My parents had repainted it at some point, covering the pale yellow I remembered with tan, but my mom’s horrid gold curtains still hung in the front window. I’d paid for the power and water to remain on all this time. Landon had volunteered to keep the lawn mowed, an offer I’d gladly accepted, but I could see he’d done more than that. The yard was gorgeous, with lush green grass and full flowerbeds, although not much was in bloom yet. They looked better than they ever had when my mother had tended them.
I dragged my duffel from the car and found the key that had remained on my key ring all these years, untouched, and yet somehow a talisman of my past. It still fit in the lock. Muscle memory made me reach out and flick the light switch without having to hunt for it as I stepped inside. My jaw dropped at the sight in front of me.
“Your parents have collected a lot of stuff over the years,” Landon had said during one of our brief phone calls. I marveled at what an understatement it was.
My dad’s old recliner, a bit more worn and significantly droopier in the seat than when I’d last seen it, still afforded the best view of the television, a big, black, clunky box purchased right before I left for college. The couch was new, and the cushion on the end closest to my father’s chair had a bit of a dent in it, exactly as the old one had, indicating the place my mother had spent so much of her time. But the rest of the room was a surprise to me. Every bit of space around the perimeter had been filled with shelves of some kind, and each shelf was covered with bric-a-brac. In some places stacks of banker boxes loomed in front of the shelves, their tops covered with knickknacks. My mother had never been interested in such things when I’d lived with them. I was stunned to see so much of it collected here now.
The kitchen was as tidy and clean as it had always been. My parents’ bedroom looked lived-in, but not unreasonably so. Maybe the living room was some kind of anomaly? Maybe they’d been in the middle of a project? But the guest bedroom was worse than the living room. Stacks of lidded boxes and similarly sized Rubbermaid containers filled the space, piled four or five deep in some places. The bed was buried beneath boxes and bags, as were the dressers and bedside tables. My dad’s office and the garage were the same. I didn’t dare check the attic.
It was with some trepidation that I opened the door to my own room. To my relief the space was completely devoid of clutter, looking exactly as it had last time I’d stayed there. My twin-sized bed had the same blue bedspread it’d had when I left. Abandoned books filled about half the shelves. A couple of old action figures and a spelling bee trophy remained, but many of the shelves were empty because I’d taken most of my treasured items with me at some point. An ancient Rolling Stone magazine and a thin layer of dust covered the desk. A couple of posters still clung to the walls—Nirvana, even though I’d never liked them as much as kids my age were supposed to, and Wayne’s World, because all my friends thought it was great. I was too embarrassed to admit I’d liked A League of Their Own more.
I wandered back into the living room, stunned by the enormity of the task ahead of me. I’d stupidly assumed a few weekends at home would be enough to clear the house. Now I feared it would take months.
I glanced around and received the biggest shock yet.
The mantel had always held framed photographs. A few of cousins or aunts and uncles. A couple of my late grandparents. A whole lot more of me, from bald baby to high school graduation. Now, a new photo sat front and center. It was Chase and me, squinting into the sun, my arm draped casually around his shoulder. I was smiling at the camera, but Chase had been distracted just before the shutter clicked. He appeared to be looking at somebody or something over the photographer’s left shoulder. The sunlight shone like gold on his dark blond hair, and his lips were parted as if he was about to speak.
I recognized the photo immediately. It’d been taken by our neighbor at a barbecue, two years earlier. It was a digital image, stored on my laptop, shared on social media, but I’d never printed a single copy. I’d certainly never sent one to my parents. Yet here it was, bright and in full color in their living room.
I ran my finger down the side of the frame, wondering at how my mother had come across it. I imagined her shopping for the frame, then rearranging all the other photos on the mantel to make room for us, in the place of honor. The sight brought tears to my eyes.
Better late than never.
Review by Wendy
Sometimes it takes a startling event to make you realize that you’ve been adrift in your own life, that time is passing you by, that you’ve missed important clues, that you have regrets, and that if you can just muster the courage, things can change for the better. It took the death of his parents in a tragic car accident to start the wheels in motion for Daniel to realize all of these things, and it took a uniquely contradictory man along with just a hint of magic to propel him into action.
I loved the pace of this story and how it was a slow build up to the realization of something more between Daniel and Landon. I loved that Daniel was a character with integrity, and that even though his partner was the one who wronged him, the author still let things head down an amicable parting of ways. I loved the significance of the tie to Laramie, WY and how it shaped Daniel’s childhood home and memories (the story of Matthew Shepard).
All in all, the angst, the progression of Daniel’s new relationship, and the ending all make for a believable story that will take you on a journey from tragedy and sorrow to hope and happiness. The mystical Granny B adds that little extra element of mystery and surprise that made this story such a pleasure to read, and I’m pretty confident that you may never think of your recipes in quite the same way again!
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