I found my late husband in a book about how to construct an outdoor shower. Oh, there was no photograph of him, soaped up and singing. He wasn’t the book’s author, either. And it was not one of those personal ads that have become all the rage lately on the internet. Had you told me 20 years ago that people would one day run want ads for lovers or advertise their sexual preferences online — a word that didn’t even exist then — I would have told you straight up you had a screw loose … or two. But I’m pushing 80 now, and I’ve seen a good many things that boggle the brain.
At any rate, what led me to my husband, who has been dead now two years next month, was, quite simply, a recipe for peach pie scrawled on a scrap of brown grocery bag — so unremarkable, really, that I could just as easily have tossed it into my trash basket and moved on with my work of re-shelving.
You see, for 41 years, I worked at the local library. Which means I’ve touched many thousands of books, held millions and millions of words in my hands, shelved and re-shelved tons of literature — and when I say tons, I do mean the measure of weight as opposed to the figure of speech for “a lot of.” Some books I probably re-shelved hundreds of times, the most popular titles. I enjoy handling books that other people have held and read and loved so dearly that the corners of the hardcovers wear through like the ear tips of a child’s favorite stuffed animal, or the Skin Horse in The Velveteen Rabbit. Funny I should say that, as I’ve never had children. By the time I found the peach pie recipe, I was well past my child-bearing years and headed for hot flashes. But that’s another story.
The scrap of paper on which the recipe was written was limp and soft as suede. Running up the left edge, I noticed, were nine other words, these written in a different hand. They read: She loved this. SAVE. The word SAVE was in all caps, underlined twice, and encircled. I lifted the paper to my nose and inhaled, thinking perhaps I might discern the aroma of peaches or buttery crust. But I quickly lowered it again, my face flushing a little, afraid a coworker might have seen me in the act of sniffing a well-used bookmark. I started to drop it into my trash basket, when I noticed something on the back. It was a crude sketch of an outdoor shower, based on one from the book. And below the sketch were a few more words: She always wanted one of these, followed by an arrow arcing up toward the sketch, and below that, five more words: And now it’s too late.
Those last words were what made me surreptitiously slip the recipe into my purse. Normally, I would not dwell on a well-fingered scrap of grocery bag that god-knows-who-all had used as a bookmark. But on that particular day, November seventh to be exact, I was closing in on 50 and had resigned myself to being single the rest of my days. Or so I thought.
Now let me say right here that as a librarian you find a lot of interesting items forgotten in returned books. The usual grocery lists, business cards, and ratty receipts. Sometimes it’s one of those fast-food ketchup packets, squeezed empty of course, but still disgusting: a foodstuff in such close proximity to a book. Now and then it’s money, usually well-circulated singles, although I once found a Benjamin — a crisp $100 bill that smelled brand new. Then there are the unusual objects: strands of long hairs braided together, a single key sandwiched inside a folded sticky note, broken off fingernails with the polish still intact, segments of dental floss, some cinnamon flavored, a gold necklace made of links so miniscule it bordered on thread. One time, I found a male prophylactic — unused, thank goodness — but lying there like some deflated, fish-shaped balloon. I slammed the book shut fast, but the little tip poked up — air-filled now and bulging above the pages for all to see. I hurried to the trash and shook it off, then washed my hands in the staff bathroom — several times.
At any rate, when I found the peach pie recipe, I decided to do a little research on this person who had saved a scrap of grocery sack that obviously meant so much and then managed to lose it in the book return. I also wondered about the affiliated she, who liked peach pie, had always wanted an outdoor shower, and was, apparently, now gone. Quite possibly dead. It was a silly notion, I know, but everybody longs for a little love in their life.
Now, many people assume all librarians to be boring, bookwormish types, wearing our hair up in too-tight buns, spectacles perched upon our bony noses, down which we peer at patrons while pursing our thin lips. Well, I do prefer a bun, I’ll admit that right here, but it’s because a bun kept my hair — now all gone gray, of course — from getting caught up in my work: stacks of books, card catalogue drawers, pencil sharpeners, those ink pads we once used to stamp return dates. But I don’t consider myself boring. And I’ve known more than one librarian who might have looked the prudish part, but could let her hair down — literally and figuratively — at the right moment. One Sunday shortly before I came across the pie recipe, I walked in on a younger coworker “assisting” a patron atop the desk in the second-floor reading room. I closed the door quietly, returned downstairs, and didn’t say a word to anyone. But I must confess I felt a slight twinge of envy. I’d always been terribly awkward around men, no doubt the reason I was pushing 50 and still single.
To start with, I looked up in the library records the name of the borrower who’d most recently checked out the book about outdoor showers. The name was Jack O’Donnell — clearly a male, and most likely Irish. I recall feeling a small thrill rise in my abdomen. Oddly, there was no mailing address listed, which was most unusual, because back then we sent late notices via post, instead of by email. Had the internet been available, I would have Googled this Mr. O’Donnell, as they say these days. (How does such an odd name become a household verb that sounds very close to giggle, but means nothing of the sort?) But back then, I turned next to the phone book, another relic of the pre-digital era. No listing. At one point, I panicked, thinking perhaps he was dead. After all, there was no date on the recipe. It could have been languishing in the book for years, this Jack O’Donnell having nothing at all to do with it. But by then I’d built up this ridiculous image in my head of a handsome middle-aged Irishman standing in a newly constructed outdoor shower — singing, smelling of wet cedar, and slippery with soap. I’m embarrassed to even admit that. But it gets worse. I actually rode my bicycle around town on cold mornings scanning the air above houses for a telltale column of rising steam that I hoped would reveal the location of the outdoor shower, with the occupant engaged in the act. Alas, no luck.
I finally resorted to running a slightly white-lie want-ad in the local newspaper, advertising fresh baked peach pies, above my phone number. And what do you know? The ad worked! The phone rang one evening as I was just finishing supper.
“I’m calling about your pies,” a man’s voice said.
“Peach?” I chirped, almost choking on a mouthful of mashed potatoes.
“Are there other flavors?” he asked.
“Oh, no. No. Just peach. Is that your favorite?” I immediately regretted adding the last bit, and, hearing silence, feared he might hang up.
“Yes, I like peach,” the voice continued. “But where are you getting them fresh this time of year? The peaches?” My face went hot. I’d not thought that through. It was November, the peach season long gone. My ad had indeed read, Fresh Baked Peach Pies.
“Oh, well, I, uh …” I stammered.
“Canned?” he offered.
“Oh, yes! That’s it! Canned!”
“They’re not as good.” His voice had gone flat.
“Oh, I know. You’re absolutely right. Nothing like being fresh. Peaches, I mean!”
Another long pause, then he said, “Can I get one? Tomorrow?”
“By all means. I’ll have it ready, still warm. With whipped cream, too, on the side, if you like.”
“Do you deliver?”
A blade of fear knifed up inside me. What if this was some sort of sexual deviant? I regretted my addendum about whipping cream. Shoot! How to reply?
“Hello?” he said.
“Sure!” I squeaked. “I can deliver it. Where? And what time?”
“Six p.m. would be ideal,” he said, then rattled off an address and a few quick directions. I thanked him and hung up, my heart loud in my ears. Then I realized I’d forgotten to ask his name.
The next morning, I called in sick, exaggerating a nasty cough, then drove around town procuring ingredients while wearing sunglasses and a floppy hat in case I ran into a coworker. I’d never made a peach pie, and my track record with pies of any sort was less than exemplary, so I purchased enough ingredients to make a half-dozen, in hopes one might border on perfection. Flying around my kitchen, I dropped a cube of butter, dumped a can of peaches into the sink instead of the colander, managed to mangle three different crusts, and spilled flour all over the floor. But by five thirty, I had two pies that looked passable. I decided to take them both; at the rate I was going I figured the chance of dropping one on the way was quite high.
I showered, dressed, and set off a few minutes before six. It was bitter cold out and getting dark. I feared the pies sitting beside me on the vinyl seat of my Gremlin would be ice cold by the time I arrived. When I pulled up at the house and saw a wisp of steam rising above the far side of the roof, I lowered the window fast, to get a better view, and some fresh air. My breath drifted off white down the street, but I was perspiring. The windows of the house held yellow light. My fear about this man being some sort of serial sexual predator resurfaced, and I considered driving away with my cooling pies. But I told myself I had nothing to fear; the man simply liked peach pies. I decided to take a quick peek in the backyard to determine the source of the steam. But what I saw was not my fantasy man soaped up and singing. It was some sort of small fishpond, the water aglow with an underwater light, and steam rising from its surface. No sign of an outdoor shower at all. I returned to the street, confirmed the address, composed myself, then ascended the front porch steps — one pie balanced on each palm. I pressed the doorbell with my elbow and stepped back.
The porch light popped on, and a red-headed man about my age opened the door. I recognized his voice as soon as he said, “Must be my pie, and right on time.”
“I brought two,” I blurted. “Just in case.” I held the pies up, as if he couldn’t see them just fine where they were. That’s when I realized how foolish I must have appeared: bringing two pies when he’d ordered only one, and probably lived alone. So I quickly added: “But you don’t need to take them both, of course. I just thought, well, you know, peach might be your favorite. Pie, I mean. That’s what you said, right? Canned, of course. I mean fresh. I mean …” I shrugged, both pies going up, then down.
He smiled and dug for his wallet. “What do I owe you?”
I’d not thought this far. What was a pie worth? I’d never purchased one. My mind tangled. Words backed up at the base of my throat. This was why I was still single — I seized up around males. Then I remembered the sketch on the bookmark and blurted: “An outdoor shower?” His eyebrows rose. His head pulled back. And I felt my face flush red and hot. My mouth started spouting apologies through my teeth. I almost dropped one of the pies, but he caught it. “Free!” I blurted, handing him the other one, too. “Both! On me. I’m so sorry.”
I was halfway down the steps when I felt the paper in my coat pocket and stopped. For some reason, at that moment, I thought of the prophylactic I’d found in that book, of my coworker in the reading room, and of the fact I would be 50 in a few weeks. I pulled the scrap of paper out, turned, and went back up. “Here,” I said, placing it on one of the pies. “I work at the library and found this in a book I believe you borrowed about how to build an outdoor shower. I’m terribly sorry.” I hurried back down the steps.
As I approached my car, I heard him call out, “I haven’t built the shower yet, but I have a koi pond in the back yard, if you’d care to see it, and stay for some pie. It appears I have plenty.” He was standing silhouetted by the porch light, his arms spread wide, a pie in each hand.
So there you have it. How I met Jack O’Donnell, who became my husband for nearly 25 years. I miss him, every day. On nice mornings, I sit out back and watch the koi. Now and then, I bake a pie, in his honor. Peach, of course. And I use the outdoor shower we built all the time. One day last winter when it snowed, I stood in the steaming shower eating a slice of warm pie with vanilla ice cream, crying. It was fabulous.