These days, Earl only felt a little out of place in Cecil’s apartment. There was an empty space in the row of shoes by the door where his would be, an empty spot on the coat rack in case he was wearing a jacket.
There was, usually, an empty spot at the table for him to sit, with room for a cup of coffee. But not today.
The apartment smelled terrible. The table and counter were cluttered with scorched pans and mixing bowls and everything seemed to have a fine coating of flour, including Cecil, whose hair was greyed with it.
Cecil was at the stove, staring angrily into a box of recipe cards, as though preparing to scold them.
“I don’t understand,” he burst out, before Earl even finished getting the second shoe off, “they always came out fine when my mother made them. These are her stupid recipes anyway.” He gestured at Earl with a wooden spoon. “There is no reason why this place shouldn’t be absolutely filled with beautiful cookies and smell like homey holiday commercials.”
“Wait, back up.” Earl crossed into the kitchen with delicate steps and pulled the recipe card from Cecil’s hands. “What do you need all these cookies for again?”
“Bake sale,” he spat. “Steve Carlsberg is probably going to make those stupid scones and say something like ‘oh heh heh Cecil why don’t you ever home-bake anything’ and I am not going to endure his mockery again, Earl, I have had enough of that.”
“Okay.” Earl did not ask why Cecil was so irrationally opposed to his brother-in-law again, because last time Cecil had screamed himself hoarse and hissed his name on air so venomously that even Telly the Barber, out in the sand wastes, had glowered menacingly at him. No need to put himself on the wrong end of the power of suggestion.
He squinted at the card, then the knob on the stove. “Okay, first of all, you don’t need to bake cookies over the fires of hell.”
“I thought a higher temperature would cook them faster.”
“Cecil. No. That is not at all how baking works. Turn it down to 375.”
He continued reading, pretending he didn’t notice Cecil’s expectant eyes on him. “Also, your mom’s recipe uses…wheat flour. And you have–rice flour. You can’t just use straight rice flour, Cecil. Not all flour behaves the same way. What other options do you have?”
Earl dug through the cabinets, and gave Cecil a crash-course in non-wheat flours and separating eggs and how long one must chant over light brown sugar to make it dark.
“Baking is science, Cecil,” Earl said as they rolled the dough into little balls.
“I thought it was art.” Cecil sounded vaguely accusing. “You said it was art.”
“Well, yeah, but it’s also science. The art comes later. Keep rolling.”
The apartment still smelled like things that had recently been on fire. Cecil opened a window while Earl readjusted the spacing of the spheres and started pressing the thumbprints.
Cecil followed, spooning jam into the little dips he left behind.
“Very pretty,” Earl mumbled. He opened the oven, which had probably cooled enough by now, and when he stood up from putting the tray on the rack he ran into the open beer bottle he was being handed.
“Sorry!” Cecil brushed the bits of foam out of his hair and extended his hand more cautiously. “Here. I think we’ve earned these. They’re Carlos’, but I don’t think he’ll mind.”
Carlos is so far away, he did not say. I get terribly lonely, he also did not say. He said, “Thanks for your help,” and Earl knew just how much he was being thanked for.
[This is the thing.]