We’re deep into our routine when quarantine hits. Once a week, chocolate cake and instant coffee. Black with two white sugars, never brown. He’s always taken it this way. “Since the war.” Since his wife made him buttered toast with homemade marmalade in those pre-dawn hours when everything is silent, and they were in love. “We had a good deal. She made the toast, and I made the coffee.” She’s been gone seven years now and he misses her. Every last strand of her wiry, dyed red hair. Every goofy laugh. Every goodnight kiss. He calls me “Chauncy” and I don’t correct him. We’ve been friends since I moved to Oregon the first time, in November of 2017. It was snowing and I was freezing, sobbing in my new Subaru with my head resting on the steering wheel, listening to my favorite 80’s mix from high school in a futile attempt to make myself feel better with sophomoric nostalgia. I knew I’d made a huge mistake moving from the Bay Area in the winter, all alone. What was I thinking? He hobbled down the icy driveway with a mug of lukewarm coffee and a stale, off-brand Oreo. “Hey neighbor, you can’t stay out here. It’s winter. And this ain’t California.” His eye contact was strong, his voice was gentle, and his smile was comforting and kind – like a big relief or a satisfying sigh. As he motioned for me to get out of the car, coffee sloshing atop his boots, I remember thinking, how does he know I’m from California? Looking back, it was pretty obvious. He still likes to tease me about our first meeting, proudly recounting his chivalry with a coy wink. “Oregonians don’t sit in their cars in winter, yapping on the phone. They know better.” We shared a common wall – my bathroom, and his living room. Before we met, I would soak in the tub every night, fretting silently about my middle-aged belly and drowning my sorrows in cheap red wine, and expensive bath products. I’d listen to the late-night talk shows blasting at full volume just beyond my bubbles and wonder, who’s behind the 1950’s peeling plaster and pink tile? Have they fallen asleep? Are they dead? Are they all alone? Alone, lonely, cold, (and slightly buzzed with a perimenopausal belly), like me?
After six months, I left Oregon without a trace, something I regretted every day but never resolved. No phone calls, no postcards. He called me on my birthday and every holiday without fail, leaving especially lengthy messages on Valentine’s Day and Thanksgiving. He always led with the same intro. “Hi Chauncy, this is your old neighbor in Bend, I’m not sure you remember me.” His voice strained and distant. “I’m calling to make sure you’re ok, and that you’re not crying somewhere in your car, alone.” I had driven back home to California, naively thinking that I wouldn’t miss anything about Oregon, but I was wrong. And now, three years later I was back in Bend and I would make things right. Fresh eyes and a renewed perspective. No more French exits. I found an apartment just down the street from my old place on Riverside Blvd, one block south towards Mirror Pond, and one block away from my old neighbor and dear friend. Our reunion was sweet and familiar and his response to my homecoming was as if I hadn’t left, almost as if he didn’t realize that I had gone. I wondered if his grieving soul had obscured his sense of time. When my mom passed away, my father was so heartbroken that he seemed to suspend himself in another universe, a happier one – coddled in a soft cloud of denial where everything was still ok, where my mom was healthy and alive, and they were still together.
We settle into our old routine. I bring him cake and he makes us coffee. Always instant. Always lukewarm. I never refuse it, and despite being surrounded by a multitude of coffee roasters in the Pacific Northwest, I never try to sway him towards a better blend. I walk over to his place every Sunday afternoon with homemade cake, and the occasional plate of leftovers or loaf of bread. I finally master my baking routine, thanks to a brilliant tip from my Aunt Sandy. I freeze the freshly baked cake in single servings and thaw out the pieces on Saturday night. To this day, I’ve never told my neighbor my culinary secret. I know he likes to imagine that I bake a fresh chocolate cake every week, like his wife used to do. He’s always so gracious and kind, welcoming me at the door with wide open arms and a giant smile as if we were reuniting after decades apart. He smells like Ivory soap and freshly chopped wood. He’s strong and wide, with thick arthritic fingers and bright blue eyes that light up when he sees the foil-wrapped plate of cake, or when he talks about his wife. “It was the football Chauncy, and I was the quarterback in high school. She used to come to all the home games in Portland. And then one day, I asked her out for ice cream, and she said yes.”
His breath is more labored than before, and he’s using a walker to get around now. “The nurse dropped it off. She’s a sweet gal like you, Chauncy.” He’s especially fond of the built-in padded chair and the deep basket hidden underneath, perfect for storing small pinecones for his cat, and a copy of his wife’s favorite cookbook, the Joy of Cooking, a wedding gift from her grandmother in 1953. When it’s not in his basket, he keeps her cookbook on his bedside table. “It’s my bible Chauncy, it reminds me of her.” His eyes soften with a warm glow, and he smiles. “Boy, she was a wonderful cook. I wish you two could have met.” The cookbook is tattered and worn, with scraps of paper and index cards sticking out from all sides. The spine is broken and the pages that have gotten loose are tucked neatly in the back. His wife’s handwriting is scattered throughout the book, amongst grease stains and bits of sugar stuck to the pages. The recipes are marked in pencil with personal notes and symbols – hearts and the occasional sad face. “Add more oregano.” “Delicious!” “Use less salt.” “Double the vanilla.” “Didn’t like.” My mom used to do the same thing in her favorite cookbooks, occasionally adding the dates she prepared the recipe, or who she made it for. If the dish was a big hit, she’d mark it with a cluster of stars, three or more signifying a huge success, “a keeper!” She loved to bake, and every year for my birthday, she used to make the banana cake recipe from her edition of Joy of Cooking, a wedding gift from her mother in 1964. Although my mom has been gone for over ten years, I still get teary-eyed every time I open one of her cookbooks and see her scribbled notes next to a recipe. Even though I’ve wanted to make the banana cake so many times since she passed away, I just can’t bring myself to look up the recipe because I know what I’ll find and I’m just not ready to face it – four big stars drawn next to the title and a note in my mom’s cursive handwriting that says, “Shanti’s favorite!”
I was rifling through my freezer for two pieces of cake when he called with the news. “My doctor said no more visitors on account of my age.” His voice was weak, and he sounded bewildered and slightly despondent. “I guess I’m old, Chauncy. And, I have asthma. Covid doesn’t like guys like me.” Although I never asked his age, I deduced from his stories that he must be somewhere in his late eighties. “We’ll figure it out, we’ll find a way to keep meeting!” I did my best to keep my response upbeat and optimistic, despite my sense of impending doom as Covid cases in Central Oregon were steadily rising. After a few moments of silence, he let out a big sigh, his voice cracking after a long pause. “You promise?” I could hear it in his voice, he sounded sad. He wasn’t manic or gripped with fear like so many people around me. He was calm, almost resolved to accept our fate. It was as if he had bypassed panic mode and was already settling into a deep melancholy. I figured it was probably his age, he’d been through so much in his life already. Surely, he could weather this new storm, this “new normal.” He had outlived the love of his life, existing solely in the shadow of his own sorrow, depleted by grief. He’s alone, heartbroken, and already isolated enough as it is. And now, we faced the threat of quarantine looming over our Sunday afternoon routine. It broke my heart wide open.
It wasn’t exactly a warm afternoon. “Spring” in Central Oregon is still pretty cold by California standards (we’re not as hearty as Oregonians). The snow had melted, and the sun was shining with a little chill in the air – perfect weather for baking. I needed to get my mind off Covid, if only for a few hours as I was already mourning the impending loss of my Sunday afternoon cake date. What were we going to do? My apartment was on the second floor above the garage. I flung open the French doors leading from the kitchen out to a small deck when I heard him. “Chauncy! It’s me, it’s your neighbor!” He’s slowly shuffling across the driveway, wheels crunching over the gravel. He’s barely standing upright, leaning against his walker for support. “Are you up there?” He’s out of breath, panting heavily as he pushes his walker over a patch of weeds with Olympiad will, narrowly dodging dog poop, pieces of plywood, and power tools strewn across the yard. He precariously maneuvers his walker in place to rest on a tiny patch of dirt below my deck. He reaches in his basket and pulls out a vintage glass Thermos, two small paper cups, four packets of white sugar, and a plastic spoon. “Chauncy, I made it!” He exclaims triumphantly, firmly planting himself atop his padded seat. “I brought coffee, did you bake a chocolate cake?”
We settle into our new routine, our new normal. Once a week, chocolate cake and instant coffee. He rolls up every Sunday afternoon under my deck, and I perch above him. We chat, we drink coffee, and we eat cake. And then day, I have an idea. A craving really, for banana cake. It’s time to shake things up a bit. But not just any banana cake. I wanted to make him my mom’s recipe, the one she used to make me for my birthday, “Shanti’s favorite!” I ask my neighbor if I could borrow his wife’s copy of Joy of Cooking and tell him it’s a surprise for our next Sunday afternoon.Of course, he obliges. I search the glossary for “Banana Cake” and Bingo. There it is! Page 630. His wife’s banana cake recipe is completely clean, a virginal page. Void of handwritten notes or symbols. No bits of sugar or splotches of grease. “I have a surprise for you today!” I call down to him as he settles into his seat below my deck. I bring down his wife’s cookbook and a thick slice of banana cake with vanilla frosting. I pull up a bench and sit six feet across from my dear friend and neighbor as he takes his first bite. His eyes light up and he smiles as he goes in for another. “Delicious, just delicious, Chauncy! Can we have this again next week?” He holds out his wife’s cookbook, motioning for me to take it back. “You’ll need a pencil.” He says, as he stands up and rummages around the basket under his seat. “Here you go Chauncy.” He winks. “You’ll need to make some notes.” I open the book to page 630 and write today’s date, both of our names, the word “Delicious!” in cursive, and draw three big hearts next to the title. And then, I take my first bite.
Shanti Nelson: As a visual artist, there is a constant, streaming narrative of imagery and words flashing through my mind all the time. I’m fascinated by how images create words, and how words create images. As someone who has been primarily immersed in the visual arts, I am challenged by the power that writing has to create images, and vice versa.