REPORT A PROBLEM
Mrs. Plotnick waits by the front door for her husband to come home, her favorite rolling pin grasped tightly in her pudgy palm. He missed dinner (meat loaf with mashed potatoes). He missed their favorite sitcom (a "Happy Days" rerun). He missed her new outfit, the one that shows off her good feature (her legs! still!), the one that she got on sale ($34.99).
He won't miss dessert, though, she thinks. The cookie dough waits in the refrigerator, ready to be rolled out on the counter and cut out into perfect hearts.
She can wait all night, and she will!
Solomon "Solly" Plotnick has been at his desk for 15 hours. He arrived at 7:00, brewed a pot of extra-strong coffee in the percolator housed in his file cabinet, and didn't get up once (not even to pee!) until 10:00, when the janitor told him it was "lights out". He didn't go to the "gentleman's club" with Basil "Buzz" Rappaport and the others, but he may as well. After all, Ruth would never believe he was at the office this late. How was it, she'd wonder, that Solly worked non-stop outside the house but couldn't even change lightbulbs at home?
"There were 152 candles on his cake, and he knew that the breath he'd use to extinguish them would be his last. So he beamed at his family -- his children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and so on – filled his lungs with air that smelled of pot roast and parsley paprika potatoes (his favorite meal), and blew out the candles, as one-by-one as he could, feeling the life drain from his withered body. Everyone applauded. No one – not even Selma, his wife of 130 years – noticed he wasn't breathing until he didn't smile when handed a huge piece of the cake (German chocolate!)."
Solly's two kids loved the "old guy and the cake" story. But as Lucy often said when he tried to tell it to her and Benjamin more than once a month, "No, not yet! Too much and you'll ruin it!" So he saved it for special occasions. He knew if he reached "candles" without interruption, it was safe to continue without fear of destroying the excitement.
Lucy always asked if someone could really live to be 152 years old. Solly would raise an eyebrow and gaze at her face without blinking, the corners of his mouth turning up almost imperceptibly.
"No one lives to be 152 years old," Benjamin says. "Everyone knows that."
He tips the box of Raisin Bran on one corner, peers in, and shoves his hand inside the box.
"What about that guy in Daddy's story?" Lucy asks through a mouthful of milk and barely chewed cereal.
"He's not real. Duh."
"Yes, he is too."
And then there's a "No, he isn't, and it goes back and forth until Mrs. Plotnick can't stand it anymore.
"I don't know" she says. "There's a man in a yogurt commercial who's more than 100 years old."
"Yogurt's gross," Ben says.
Mr. Plotnick bore the responsibility of his family like the cushioned lead blanket the dental hygienist placed over his torso before taking X-rays of his mouth. On one hand, it was comforting to feel its weight pressing solidly against his body. On the other, it was nerve-wracking to feel that weight crushing him into the blue and chrome vinyl chair.
"At least taking care of my family isn't as bad as getting a tooth drilled," he thought.
Missy re-entered the room with his X-rays.
"I'm afraid I have bad news, Solly," she said. "You're going to need a root canal."
He'd heard of it before. He'd heard people talk about it and seen others react by bringing fingers up to their jaws and frowning in remembered or imagined pain. But he didn't quite know what it was. What it entailed. He imagined a world beneath his teeth, housed in his gums, resembling the labyrinthine tunnels of the ant farms with which he was enamored when he was his son's age. He imagined a tooth reclining in a tiny gondola, escorted through a narrow canal in his jaw, from one side of his mouth to the other.
Ruth relished her almost-daily cookie-baking sessions. So what if the other mothers had "better" things to do, like pursue fast-paced careers and usher their kids to and from soccer games and ballet lessons? She was thankful to have her kids at home where they were safe and quiet. Lucy would be in her room, reading as always. And Ben ... well, she didn't even want to know. What he did was his business, and Solly already had "that talk" with him.
She took great pride in her decorated cookies. Everyone in the family loved biting the heads off their cookie likenesses!
Benjamin had yesterday's cookie in his room, propped up against two pillows on his bed. He had Lucy's (they'd swapped), so this one was wearing a short blue dress made of frosting and wore its yellow frosting hair in twin pigtails. Its pink lips smiled at him and him alone as he gazed into its non-pareil eyes. He unzipped his jeans and took matters into his own hands.
If only the Victoria's Secret catalogues kept coming to his house, he wouldn't have to resort to doing this in front of a girl-shaped gingerbread cookie instead of the amazing Tyra Banks!
Lucy didn't mind swapping cookies with Benjamin once in a while. She didn't see the point in refusing, since she learned long ago that the frosting tasted the same no matter what color it was. Pink, yellow, blue, green, white. It didn't matter.
The only part of the cookies she ate anyway were the heads. Sometimes she snapped the head off between her teeth. Other times she snapped it off with her fingers. But either way, she placed the head face-down on her tongue and let it dissolve until all that was left was a frosting face in smeary reverse.
Ruth wondered whether she should start shaping her gingerbread cookies somewhat more realistically. For years, her version of Solly retained the slim silhouette that he sported when they first met, but now that he'd gained a bit of weight (daily cookie consumption will do that to you, she mused), she considered adding a bit more dough to the Solly cookie to accommodate his expanded girth. And while she was at it, she thought, remembering the shocking sight of her own pudge-packed hips reflected in the mirror that morning, maybe she'd add a little more to the Ruth cookie as well.
Mr. Plotnick came home from the dentist, tired but determined. He was, as his wife sometimes said, "too pooped to pop". He wasn't in a bad mood, though, as she accused him. Just because a man refuses a sugary gingerbread cookie, does that mean he is in a bad mood? Maybe it means that he's decided that he has to watch what he eats, because not only was one of his back teeth practically crumbling out of his gums, but his gut, when he reclined in the dentist's chair, threatened to spill over his belt in a particularly unnecessary fashion.
Solly was ashamed of the turn of events that left him unable to enjoy the cookies Ruth set out on a little plate in front of him that evening. How could he tell his wife that he was in danger of losing his smile -- the feature that initially attracted her to him 18 years ago ... the feature that no matter what happened to the rest of his body (weight gain, hairy ears), never changed?
"So what if you're losing your hair? You still have your teeth," she said just a month ago when he complained of baldness.
So now what?
Despite his baldness and bit of a gut, Ruth thought, her husband was still an attractive man. He'd never been what you could call classically handsome, but there was a certain something about him that she found so irresistible! Oh, and she wasn't the only one who thought so. She saw the way those cheap tarts at the food court looked at him when they passed by with their Frederick's of Hollywood shopping bags. She saw them trying to catch his eye. Trying to get him to return their smiles. Her Solly was a catch, he was. She wasn't blind.
He had to lay off the sugar. The root canal was proof that his teeth weren't that strong anymore. And his bit of a gut was proof that he wasn't 25 years old anymore and couldn't eat whatever he liked without worry. Now he had to prove he did have strength. Strength in the form of willpower. Willpower against the oppressive force of Ruth's cookies.
Every night he wrapped his cookie in a napkin and hid it under the cushion of his chair until Ruth went to bed. He wanted to watch the late news, he said. Insomnia, he said.
"Thank you, Mr. Plotnick," Shirley, the receptionist said, admiring the decorated gingerbread man. "I love these cookies!"
That bastard McAllister didn't pay Shirley very well, and Solly knew that the money she spent every morning on a donut could be put to better use. She could use new shoes and maybe a decent haircut, and come to think of it, a visit to the dentist (he wasn't being mean, just truthful).
"Tell your wife I say thank you!" she called as Solly plodded down the hall to his office. "She's got Pepperidge Farm and the Girl Scouts beat by miles!"
Things not yet said:
1. Shirley has a sexxxy voice. However, she is by no means a head-turner.
2. Ruth Plotnick has never been to her husband's office. She has never seen Shirley. Where would she find the time, really, with all the gingerbread cookie-baking and laundry and food shopping and vacuuming and kid-chauffering?
3. Solly's bedtime story about the 152-year old man? Pure fabrication.
4. Benjamin does eat the cookies. "After". Once he even put a little extra icing on his cookie, if you know what I mean.
5. When Lucy dies, she will be 126 years old.
Time passes. Seasons change. Heavy wool is replaced by breezy cotton. Ruth sees Solly in a T-shirt that last spring fit snugly, but which now looks baggy. How is it that a man who eats those jumbo cookies manages to lose weight, when a woman who only permits herself a very small cookie daily gains as if she were eating two dozen?
Ruth calls Solly's office one afternoon. His line is forwarded to Shirley's reception desk.
"Mrs. Plotnick!" Shirley says. "Thank you for the cookies! Lord knows I don't need the sugar, but I can't resist the blue icing bowties!"
All these years of taking care of her family. All these years of neglecting herself for their sake. She used to be a good-lookin' woman! Ruth Plotnick (nee Feinberg) was the belle of many a ball!
But now ... this? Her husband so recklessly handing over the labor of her love to some cheap tart receptionist? She bakes those cookies every day for her family! Those cookies are for the Plotnicks and ONLY the Plotnicks! Solly knows that!
No wonder he got so slim. Two birds with one stone, no? He slims down and gets himself a pretty little side dish!
That night, Solly tells Lucy the 152-year-old man story. It's been a month since the last time. Lucy prods him at the usual spots. He wants to embellish, but knows she would catch him. She's a smart cookie, his daughter!
Ruth listens from the kitchen. She sees the two of them on the sofa. Lucy asks, as always, if there really were 152 little candles on the cake or just three bigger number-shaped candles in the shapes of a 1, 5, and 2.
Solly says the cake almost caught on fire, there were so many candles.
"Liar!" Ruth hisses.
"Did you say something, Mommy?" Lucy asks. She sees Ruth standing in the kitchen doorway, wiping her hands on a little towel.
"Oh, I said, ‘Fire!'" Ruth says. "I mean, that many candles would start a fire."
Lucy's shoulders slump. She looks to Solly for confirmation. "Is that true, Dad?"
"I suppose it could be," he says. "But the birthday cake was huge, and the old man's family had a big red fire extinguisher under the table. Just in case." He spread his arms wide to show her how big.
That was a detail he never had to include before.
Mr. Plotnick wasn't crazy about working so much, but he did what he had to do. He'd never been one to run from hard work. He earned a decent, honest wage. He didn't (couldn't!) lie to his customers the way the other salesmen did. So if it meant having to make ten sales to match their six, money-wise, oh well.
He smiled at the framed family photo (several years old) on his desk. Ruth, thinner – and blonde! (Still a beauty.) The kids, goofier. Funny how big Benjamin's two front teeth and Lucy's ears were. "My two little rabbits!" he thought.
Solly hadn't had one of Ruth's cookies in months. He couldn't even remember the last time. He could remember the taste, though. My god, his wife could bake. Say what you will about her moodiness or pushiness, but Ruth Plotnick knew how to take care of the Plotnicks and she knew how to bake a cookie that was irresistible.
He'd had to resist, though. His teeth, you see, finally suffered. And so did his waistline. He was slim now, sure, but terrified another tooth would crumble out of his head like so many cookie crumbs if he dared indulge again.
Ruth was basically a luddite, but she was savvy enough to do Google searches on the internet. She marvelled at all the information that was literally at her flour-dusted fingertips. There was no way she'd be able to do this sort of research at a regular library without risking someone getting a little too nosy and asking why a nice suburban mom like Ruth Plotnick would be looking for something so out of the ordinary.
But she didn't have to worry with the internet. It didn't ask questions. It didn't give you strange looks and ask if everything was OK.
Solly liked the way his pants were fitting these days. Or, actually, not fitting. But Ruth didn't seem too thrilled. When, one evening after work (a rare short workday), he held out the waistband from his body and asked if she could take it in about two inches, she snapped at him and told him he'd have to be more precise.
"Sorry," she said without inflection when she jabbed him with pins.
"Don't do that," she said when he started unzipping his pants and humming the "stripper" tune.
He did look great, though, but she wasn't about to compliment him.
Ruth's seen enough Lifetime movies to know that this happens all the time. Even with husbands from whom you'd least suspect it. Actually, they were the ones you had to watch, because even though they seemed to love their families, underneath the crisp shirts their wives so lovingly ironed beat the hearts of no-good liars who didn't think twice about cheating on their families with lusty long-haired babysitters or slinky restaurant hostesses. Or throaty-voiced, cookie-munching receptionists.
Her Solly Plotnick was no Barry Bostwick or Perry King, but still. Shirley, she was sure, looked just like Melissa Gilbert, whom Solly adored.
Solly worked long hours for the family. Lucy missed him, and snuck homemade cards into his briefcase. Benjamin, in passing one night, confessed that he'd tried yogurt – and it wasn't really that gross!
He thought Ruth would be happy to see he'd lost the gut that her terrific cookies were partly responsible for. He thought that now that he was taking better care of himself (he'd even started doing calisthenics in his office!), she'd find him more attractive and would turn toward him in bed rather than face the other way with not so much as a good night kiss.
The liquid in the vial smelled like bitter almonds, just as Ruth read online. She was very careful not to take too deep a whiff, because even the fumes were extremely potent. She wore two pairs of latex gloves to make sure it didn't touch her skin and enter her bloodstream via her pores.
How symbolic, she thought, that her wedding ring caught on the first glove she tried to put on her left hand. Still, she refused to remove the ring. She was still Mrs. Solomon Plotnick, even if her husband was having an affair with that floozy Shirley!
The next day, Solly comes home early. It's only 3:00. Three o'clock? It was rare for him to be home before dark, but this early? While it's still light out? Was something wrong?
"Don't you know what today is?" Solly asks with a laugh. "Close your eyes."
She's not up for childish games, but she does as he asks. She hears him heave something onto the kitchen counter and then opens her eyes as he instructs.
"Sorry it's not wrapped," he says. "But you know, since Shirley quit, I'm on my own with this stuff. But happy anniversary anyway!"
"I told you two months ago! She and her girlfriend moved to Colorado!" Solly laughed and tapped the box containing the multi-speed mixer (bright red!) Ruth had been coveting for the past year.
Ruth dashed into the living room. Flung the seat cushion from Solly's favorite chair.
"Where's the cookie?" she yelled. "My god, where's last night's cookie??"
"Oh, so you knew I wasn't eating them!" Solly said. "I've been giving them to the kids. They've been splitting them every night for months. I couldn't bear to tell you. But my teeth –"
Ruth couldn't run up the stairs fast enough.
"Don't ask why, just show me your tongue, Lucy! Show me!"
No reverse icing face.
"It tasted funny, so I gave my part to Ben. He said if he could get used to yogurt, he could eat this cookie too!
Solly stood in the hallway. Knocked on Ben's door. Called his son's name.
"Must've been a doozy of a batch," he said.
Ben did not answer.
He hesitated to push the door open. He knew what boys did behind closed doors.
Why was his wife crying?
"Ruthie, it's just a cookie," he said "And, well, that's the way it crumbles."
The Tip Jar