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Spicy, Sweet, Hot, Mild, Bitter

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It was a February Saturday in the Haus. Practice was over, and lunch, and it was too early for any but the most dedicated to start drinking. Ransom and Holster had volunteered to trek to the Murder Stop-and-Shop in search of suitable beer snacks; they had also agreed to pick up some other foods bereft of sugar, too much salt, or artificial cheese flavoring.

Bitty said “And boys, if y’all could add ‘cinnamon’ to that shopping list I’d appreciate it.”

“I thought you had that big jar,” said Holster.

Bitty looked at him tolerantly. “Do you have any idea how many apple pies I’ve made since y’all last saw that? Not to mention me catching Dex offering the laX boys across the way as much as they wanted for that dumbass challenge.”

“I heard you could _die_,” said Chowder.

“No real loss,” said Holster.

“Nothing lethal,” said Jack.

“‘Plausible deniability’ is the watchword,” agreed Shitty.

“So is ‘Keep your mitts out of my spice cupboard,’” Bitty added. “Unless you want me to channel my inner Swede and put cardamom in everything.”

Chowder whispered to Dex, who shrugged. Bitty sighed and handed around the little plastic jar of ground cardamom. “Raise your aromatic intelligence.”

“Anyway Bitty, you’re not gonna get that boring generic cinnamon from Stop’n’Shop, are you?” asked Shitty.

“You’ve never objected to it before--”

“There are kinds of elitism that, while remaining exclusionary, are not entirely obnoxious,” Shitty told him. “I would have put you down for the ‘Extremism in pursuit of culinary excellence is no vice’ team.”

Bitty glared mildly at him; Jack estimated his feathers at about ten percent ruffled. “Mr. Knight, I’m a simple country boy and I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“I’m talking about Penzey’s,” said Shitty. Light broke over no one’s face at all. “Major supplier of herbs and spices to America’s pickiest kitchens? My mom’s and all my aunts’--even on my father’s side--anyway. High prices and high quality. Catalogue and web sales nationwide, and there happens to be a brick-and-mortar incarnation less than half an hour from here.” Shitty pulled the website up on his phone and passed it to Bitty. “Look.”

Bitty’s tolerant affection sharpened into attention; he scrolled and clicked and stopped as his lips parted. “Cinnamon from _four different countries_,” he breathed. “Different varieties.” His face lit up, unless that was just the sun burning through the clouds.

Something seemed to be warming up in Jack’s rib-cage too. He ignored it, until he met Shitty’s, well, eponymous grin with a small smile of his own.

“Road trip, Captain?”

Which was how Jack found himself with three other hockey players and a manager crammed into his mother’s ancient Peugeot, driving to Arlington. It was late February; sky and earth were wore coordinating dirty grey, and it seemed like half the team had cabin fever. Shitty had ruled out a convoy: “It’s not that big a store and I’m not going anywhere smaller than Shoppers’ World with you guys. We were damn lucky not to’ve been banned from Ikea.”

Lardo had invited herself and Chowder had looked so sad that Bitty had begged to include him. He was suffering now, taller than Bitty or Lardo by at least six inches and crushed into whatever space was left after Shitty had pushed his seat back. Bitty was off somewhere in his earbuds; Jack could barely see him in the mirror. Lardo was in the center seat over the transmission, teasing Jack about his taste in music.

“I will turn this car around,” Jack assured her, avoiding a minivan.

“I fuckin’ hate driving inside 128,” Shitty said.

“Suburban boy,” Lardo taunted.

“Because you’re not really a Bostonian,” Lardo said, reopening an old battle.

“You’re from Malden--”

“Stop it, you two,” said Jack. Route 2 rolled out in front of them, studded with lights and strip malls (“OOh, hydroponics--” “No.”) and passive aggressive drivers. Openly aggressive drivers. But then they were in a relatively normal town with clearly marked lanes and stop-lights, and less of the sauve qui peut atmosphere of 128.

‘We have arrived at our destination,” Shitty mimicked the Maps voice. “Our destination is on the LEFT--”

“Is that a wooden hockey player?” Chowder asked. It was a few doors up from ‘their destination’.

“Later,” Lardo promised.

“There’s parking, look,” Shitty informed Jack gratuitously.

“It’s not very big,” Bitty said.

“One to talk.” Jack parked on the left of the little grey building. He and Shitty and Chowder unfolded themselves out of the car and stretched, emerging from their chrysalis, and caught up with the other two. The scented air hit them before they were past the inner door.

“Wow,” said Chowder.

“Is this what colonialism smells like?” Shitty wondered.

“No,” Lardo told him. "It's the scent of a nation of immigrants."

"Thank God they brought their recipes."

The shop was barely the size of the living room at the Haus: traffic pattern weaving through an archipelago of shelving and endcaps; tasteful track lighting; understated labels in Times Roman (more or less); and, fortunately, only a couple of other customers. Jack and Shitty and Chowder towered over them.

“My goodness,” said the woman behind the counter. She was about the right age to be their mother, Jack estimated. Her badge said she was ‘Allison’.

“Hi, ma’am,” said Shitty. “We are the Samwell Men’s Hockey team--”

“--Part of it,” Jack said as the woman looked anxiously toward the door.

“--We come in peace, seeking condiments.”

“We’re more of an _ingredients_ store, actually--”

Jack gave her a lot of credit for standing up to Shitty’s grandiloquence. He gestured toward Bitty, motionless in front of an array of salad dressing packets. “He bakes. Shitty told him you had better cinnamon than Stop'n'Stop.”

“We do. Is he ... all right?”

“You all right, Bitty?”

“Oh! Ah. Yes, thank you, ma’am, I’m just a little overcome--I’ve never been to a store like this before, I’m from a little town in Georgia--”

“I think there’s a Penzey’s near Atlanta--”

“Didn’t get up that way much--”

“Hey Bitty, there’s _more_ than four kinds of cinnamon here, they have _blends_ and what do you think the difference between pie spice and cake spice would be? Would it really taste wrong--”

“People vary. Your ‘Cinnamon’ might not be my ‘Cinnamon’ at all.” Lardo giggled.

Shitty looked over to her. “How do you manage to make that sound dirty, Lards?”

“It’s a fanfic thing, you wouldn’t understand.”

“Someday you have to link me to some of that, I hear it subverts all kinds of paradigms--”

“Not gonna happen.”

Bitty gave up trying to prowl the store alphabetically to go stare, mesmerized, at the cinnamon standalone. “I’d probably mix my own ‘pie spice’, because it’s different for every pie--”

“Different roots for different fruits?” suggested Shitty. Lardo and Bitty gave him a look.

“Cinnamon is bark, wherever it comes from,” Lardo told him. “You should get Vietnamese, Bitty.”

“I’m going to get some of each, don’t worry, Lardo; you’ll have to get me some recipes--”

“I can’t think of anything that would make my grandmother happier. Well, not anything that I’m ever gonna do--”

“You don’t really have much for Chinese cooking, do you?” Chowder said sadly to Allison the cashier.

“We do, just most of them aren’t labelled that way.” She came out from behind the counter. “A nice Szechuan peppercorn salt… I don’t necessarily recommend our Five Spice powder but we have everything to make several different blends that qualify--”

“It isn’t the same five spices every time?” Shitty asked, and Jack lost them in a discussion of cooking philosophy. Something he would never have known was a Thing before taking that class with Bitty. Bittle.

“Double-strength vanilla,” he was murmuring. “I’m resisting the urge to dab it on behind my ears.” He offered the vanilla tester to Jack. “Sniff.” Jack sniffed. “Like...childhood and cookies in a bottle?”

Bitty nodded. "Every good and wholesome thing ever."

“There’s a place on the way to Montréal--well, on the scenic route-- you should go some time. King Arthur Flour?”

“I get their catalogue. They have a store?”

“I went there once with my billet family in Juniors. I think you’d like it.”

Bitty shook his head. “The East Coast is too much. I really am a simple country boy.”

“You’re not that simple, Bittle.” Jack avoided eye contact, looked for something less personal. “You have any opinions about salad dressing?”

“Fat-free is a crock,” called Shitty helpfully.

“I _know_ that,” Jack and Bitty responded in unison.

 

It was the sort of place where Bitty needed time to think, but it was clear he was happy. He stopped to read labels, carried away into some rarefied culinary zone, thinking. Menu-planning, perhaps. Jack wandered the aisles, keeping an ear open as Shitty and Lardo tasted the amazingly hot Jamaican chili mixture. He wondered what his cousin would think of the Wedding Crate assortment.

Chowder left to check out the wooden hockey player up the street, came tearing back moments later. “It’s really neat! It’s like, a pro shop for kids! They have a case full of autographed hockey sticks from all the different teams! They have one of Wayne Gretzky’s! I bet they have one of Bad Bob’s! And stuff for street hockey!”

“You need to get out more often,” Shitty told him.

“Seriously, I’ve never seen so much brand-new equipment in one place, it was all used in my neighborhood! You should come!”

“No,” Jack almost subvocalized, shaking his head. Lardo took pity on the frog and went off with him. Shitty watched her go; Jack watched him watching her.

Shitty glared back at him.“What?” he demanded, keeping his voice low.

“You gonna talk to her?” asked Jack.

Shitty shrugged.

“Well, why not? Damn it, Shitty, you’ve got everything. You’re going to be a great lawyer; you’ll be rich if you can avoid pissing off your dad; your mom loves her. You love her.”

“What makes you think any of those are something she wants?”

“Maybe she doesn’t, but I think she’ll cope with them because I think she loves _you_.”

Shitty sighed. “For the next three years I’m gonna be in a program that makes double-majoring at Samwell with varsity hockey look like half-time. And then I’m probably going to be someone’s peon for another few years, if I can find someone I want to work for who I can impress sufficiently to make them want to work with me. I don’t know, Jack, I really don’t. What if Samwell and Harvard Fucking Law instead of Harvard Fucking B-school is as far away as I can get from becoming my father? ‘The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.’ I hope I don’t just become another fucking tool.”

“The right person in your life might help you with that, too.”

Shitty registered faint distaste. “People are ends not means, man. And I‘m fairly sure she’d think it was just another way for me to fight off my family.”

“She knows you better than that, Shitty. She’d never think you’d--” Jack trailed off, unable to phrase it nicely.

“Sleep with her just to fuck with my father?”

“I didn’t want to put it that way.”

Shitty grinned at Jack’s discomfiture. “Chicken.” He raised his eyebrows. “And you?”

“What?”

“You know. I can feel little little wiggly lines of Unresolved Sexual Tension when you’re in the same room with him.”

“Fuck you, Shitty.”

“I’ve offered, but when push comes to shove, Jacky-me-lad--”

Another pair of customers, two women, came in, greeting the woman behind the counter. “Men!” said one of the newcomers, seeing Jack and Shitty skulking. “Don’t you have a gift bag for them, Allie?”

The Penzey’s lady rolled her eyes. “These are some of the Samwell Men’s Hockey Team, Celine. One of them bakes, be nice.”

Bitty looked up and half-waved.

“Wait, the _Samwell_ hockey team?” asked Celine. “Are you...Eric Bittle? You are! I watch your YouTube, you answered one of my questions about phyllo dough last month, ‘SereneCeline’?”

Bitty flushed bright red and went over to shake hands. “I remember, um, hi, pleased to meet you--”

“Seriously, Allie,” said Celine’s friend. “You really ought to have a gift bag for Eric, he’s internet-famous--”

Bitty looked to Jack as though he might just sink through the floor. Why be embarrassed? Jack wondered. No one’s going to ask you about your overdose or your father or--

“And these are your _teammates_, who actually get to eat the things you bake--?”

“Only some of them,” said Shitty. “He likes to bribe professors.”

Bitty sputtered.

“Let’s give him some space,” said Jack, dragging Shitty off toward the gift box alcove.

“We pick the weirdest damn closets for ourselves,” Shitty mused. “You’re afraid to go to the sporting goods store and Bitty has an internet presence he doesn’t want us to know about. Apparently being queer is less transgressive than baking. Samwell, what have you done?”

“Everyone knows about the pies. Have you ever seen his, um, YouTubes?” asked Jack.

“I may have looked,” said Shitty. “I won’t admit a thing, though. If a man doesn’t want input about his production values from his nearest and dearest, I’m not gonna push my way in.”

“Not even his mom, he said?”

Shitty shrugged. “If she watched ‘em he wouldn’t have to worry about coming out to her.”

Crisse,” Jack said.

“I think the vlog started as youthful rebellion, a way to disclose family recipes without immediate repercussion, a way to be queer as fuck in an oppressive community and find like-minded--”

“You think he’s found like-minded--? Those women look like soccer moms to me.”

“Whoa, who took _you_ to practice--?”

“My father or the live-in, mostly. I wasn’t meaning anything bad, Shitty, I just don’t think they look like um, queer allies...although one of them is wearing a lot of scarves--” Jack gave up. “Ah shit, I’m an asshole. I just was thinking the kind of internet community people think of for closetted teenagers looks more like…”

“Amyl nitrate and glitter?”

Jack nodded.

“You have some serious internalized shit going on, man. Not that that’s exactly news.”

Jack kicked Shitty’s ankle more or less gently. For it was true.

“Whatever, he looks like he’s ‘in his community’ now.” They looked at Bitty’s back; he still looked tense to Jack, used to seeing Bitty laughing in the kitchen at the Haus. But he had recovered from the first crippling shyness of being recognized in his vlog persona; he seemed to be autographing a quart bottle of vanilla. Allison was talking to her manager on the phone.

“Maya’s a fan, too,” she told Bitty. “She says she hopes you’ll come back sometime when she’s here, but I am supposed to give you some freebies and see if you’d like to give some away to your viewers? Apparently that’s a thing vuh-vloggers do?”

“I think I’d rather give them away than accept freebies for myself, if you don’t mind, ma’am,” said Bitty. “I mean, I like it here, but I haven’t really used any of your merchandise yet, this was Shitty’s idea. Um, sorry, that’s his name.”

Shitty waved as they all looked over at him and Jack. “Hi. Not his fault. I’ll take any freebies you have to offer; my family’ve been loyal customers for years and we have no integrity left to lose.”

“Oh, now, honey--,” said Celine.

Shitty shook his head sadly and pointed to himself. “Pre-law.”

“Well, that _will_ make it more difficult--”

“Bittle, would you let me and Shitty pick up the tab?” Jack asked. “You already do all the work.”

“Yeah, Bitty, I’m the one who insisted you visit this den of iniquity and it’s traditional for the first one to be free--”

Bitty shook his head. “My baking, my seasoning. Y’all want to, check out the meat rubs. And the hot chocolate mixture. And decide which chili powder we should have, and I wouldn’t object to some of the curry powder--”

Shitty murmured something about “--creation of the Raj anyway--”

“So what do you think you’d like to give your viewers?” Allison asked.

Bitty looked at Celine and her friend. “Well, sample packs of the different cinnamon, of course-- what do you think?”

It was another ten minutes before Bitty was sorted out, and then Jack and Shitty made their own selections--Jack ended up getting one of each of the meat rubs. “Does ‘Wisconsin Northwoods’ make you think of chipolte--?”
“Chip-PO-Tlay,” Shitty corrected him. “Mind your Aztec consonant clusters.”
“Okay fine, Tchi-Po-Tlé, but I still don’t think it calls to mind Joliet et Marquette, exactly.”

“They would probably have liked it --”

“I don’t think so. My father says the only spice his grandmother used was salt--”

While they were paying, Bitty went down the block to the hockey gear store to get Lardo and Chowder. He came back with pictures of them abusing the life-size wooden hockey player and Chowder standing as close as he could get to Wayne Gretzky’s autograph. “They didn’t have any goalie sticks in their trophy case,” Lardo complained. “His people need more representation.”

“Chowder, you have shotgun,” Jack said.

“Oh, gosh, Jack, thanks, but, you know, Shitty’s older than I am--”

“And you’re taller than he is, get in the front.”

Shitty was putting a sticker on the back of the car. Jack went around to look. He groaned. “You had to?”

“The bumper sticker was free!”

“I don’t think it originally read ‘Love People. Cook Them; Tasty Food!’ ”

“It was punctuation waiting to happen!”

“Just get in the back.”

--Jack, don’ need to be coy, Roy--,/em>”

“Shut it.”

Bitty opened his mouth to offer Lardo a change from the seat over the transmission, but Jack silenced him with a look. Even by way of the rear-view mirror, it worked. Bitty settled back against the driver’s-side window with a small smirk. For whatever reason, it was quieter on the way home. Lardo, curled into Shitty, looked pleased with her life; Shitty was covertly smelling Lardo’s hair; and Bitty was flicking through the Penzey’s catalogue.

“Umm, Jack, I hate to ask after the way you you up-ended whatever plans you had for this afternoon, but --”

“Spit it out, Bittle.”

“Can we stop at a grocery store on the way home?”

“Didn’t you just give Ransom and Holster a list?” asked Lardo.

“That was before--” Bitty began to explain. “Now I need--and there’s a recipe for beef stew with Asian spices in the catalogue--”

“Of course we can,” Jack told him. “You mind if it’s Whole Paycheck?”

“Actually yes--”

“See, Bitty, if we go there you won’t give me any back-talk when I pick up the bill. Which, by the way, Chowder, you’re assigned to keep Shitty out of the 'bath and beauty' aisle--”

“But Jack, he needs all the help he can get,” Lardo protested.

“This flow wants Argan Oil in the worst way--”

“And it certainly gets it, but on your debit card, not mine.”

It was another hour before they reached campus with a full trunk and a bag full of apples on Bitty’s lap. He gave them to Lardo along with the small, expensive sack from Penzey’s and fought Chowder to an equitable share of the heavier items.

“Team Upper Body Strength,” Shitty said. “You want any help putting all this away, Bitty?” Ransom and Holster had thoughtfully left all the imperishables from their run on the counter.

“Not unless you’re willing to honor the system, so no, thank you, Shitty.” Bitty switched on the oven, watching it apprehensively as Betsy's lights flickered into life. “Y’all run off and inhale one for me. And thank you for suggesting I check that place out--”

“Ruining lives one herb or spice at a time.”

Chowder was an initiate of Bitty’s system, or at least a trusted novice. Jack emptied the dishwasher while they worked around him. Bitty didn’t notice until they had finished, and Jack was wiping out the now-empty sink.

“Aw, Jack--”

“Clean sweep for battle stations. You good to go, now?”

“There’s a Soc. essay calling my name but I reckon it can wait long enough for a few control pies.”

“Mind if I--?” Jack indicated the kitchen table; he knew Bitty mixed and chopped on the counters.

“It’s always delightful to have your company, if you don’t mind my cooking music--?”

By this point Jack had studied along with Bitty's cooking music enough that he expected the whole 19th Century to sound like Beyoncé. He settled down with his computer and a pile of library books, well out of the way. There was measuring and slicing and rolling; thawing a precious bag of frozen peaches (brought up from Georgia last fall in an insulated bag among Bitty’s cold-weather gear); and finally, a relieved noise as Betsy achieved preheat temperature and Bitty slid eight small pies into the oven. It was like watching some kind of curiously productive dance routine, Jack thought: Bitty totally concentrated in the moment, sure of his every move, economical and elegant as he was on ice. He tried not to stare; but Bitty’s calm, contained peace was contagious and paying attention to the moment was Jack’s aim in life. It was a good moment.

“Four peach and four apple,” Bitty told Jack, setting up his own laptop across the table. “Ceylon, Korintje, China, and Vietnamese cinnamon. Or cassia, but not to offend the botanists, it’s not a very useful distinction--”

“They all smell like cinnamon to me.”

“Exactly,” said Bitty. As the fruit cooked and the crusts browned in the oven, hockey players came by to sniff the air; even more, when the pies were out and cooling. “Go AWAY, Dex, I’ll let you know when they’re ready.”

It was fully dark outside when Bitty put four plates on the table--two each for both of them, four golden-brown slivers oozing at the edges and trying to mingle. “I cut some for Shitty and Lardo and Chowder, but I’d prefer to wait before we call them. I need some quiet for paying attention.” He poured them each a glass of milk. “Thank you so much for this, Jack; I don’t think it’s part of the captain’s job to run people into Arlington for pie seasoning. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it.”

“This gets it across pretty well,” Jack said, cutting off the end of one of the apple-pie wedges. “It’s not like there’s nothing in it for me. My GOD, Bittle.” The crust melted into Jack’s mouth, literally; before meeting Bitty he’d taken that for poetic exaggeration. Maple sugar, a perfect touch of salt, a complex sweet hot spiciness-- Jack wasn’t sure he’d be able to tell all the pies one from another but Bitty had seasoned with a heavy enough hand that the cinnamon was more than a hint. He tried to eat slowly, to appreciate his friend’s care and the empirical curiosity at work, but his hindbrain just said Mange plus! Mange plus vite!

“In a perfect world I could match them with different varieties of cooking apple, too,” mused Bitty. “I don’t want to go all Alice Waters but factory-agriculture’s cost us a lot of different flavors.”

It was one of those click-refocus moments. Jack almost never saw Bitty completely at ease and completely in his own element--not vogueing, not deflecting (whether anyone was judging him or not)--as Bitty might be in a few years as an adult, secure in the world. Jack strove not to break the mood. “You could do an internship at a historical orchard or something? Monticello?”

“Good place for peaches, but they drank most of their apples back then. Kind of a niche thing, ‘Historical Microcrop Seasoning.’ It’d make more difference to more people to figure out how to get the best pies out of easily available ingredients.” Bitty grimaced. “Heck, just letting people know how easy it is to make something from scratch that really tastes better than Entenmann’s.”

“You make it look easy,” admitted Jack. “But I don’t think it really is.”

Bitty shrugged. “Anyone can learn if they pay enough attention. Not like the way you make it look easy on the ice.”

So much Jack could have said, had heard either from inside or outside his own skull-- was there a point to being really, really good at a game? To honing his whole life and body for a career that wouldn’t last as longer as it had taken him to get there (if he was lucky, and did get there)? Shitty’s rants about capitalism couldn’t help but make Jack wonder what part he was playing --the circus half of ‘bread and circuses’ didn’t sound like Part of the Solution. If there was a Solution. Shitty and Lardo, together, had tried to persuade Jack that giving people joy was not an ignoble cause (“And a reason to exercise, bro! Besides the ones promoting toxic self-image--”). Jack stuffed it all down for a moment. “When I’m old and can’t skate anymore, you’ll still be able to make pie.”

“And I’ll still make you pie while we talk about how ‘Kids today have no idea,’ “ Bitty said, studying a slice of peach.

“Really, Bittle?”

“Yes, Jack. Of course. Just give me the chance. And your address.” Bitty seemed unhappy about the peach; his voice was odd.

“I don’t deserve you,” said Jack. And that was, he felt, really the problem.