The Mechanical Mind of John Coggin (9 page)

BOOK: The Mechanical Mind of John Coggin
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soon discovered, looked mighty different when you worked in a bakery.

Gone were the splinters and the saws and the planks.

In were the chickens.

Every morning John followed the same routine. First he would rise early, far earlier than Page, and run downstairs to the kitchen.

“Hello, Maria!” he'd cry.

Hard at work by the oven, Maria would usually pretend to be startled and throw her oven mitts up in the air.

“Harry, Harry, quite contrary,” she'd say with a broad smile that put the lie to her complaint. “You ought to be in the army with a cannonade like that.”

“Reporting for egg duty!”

Maria would laugh and hand him an old willow basket.
“Well, then, Captain Harry, I expect a full complement.”

“Yes, sir!”

“Wait,” Maria never failed to say. “You'll take something for the road?”

Then she might present him with a piping hot roll or a cup of oatmeal. John would use them to warm his belly as he walked down the narrow backyard to the chicken coop. There, in an incubator of feathers and nests, he collected the eggs from Maria's special breed of Henrietta hens.

By the time he got back, Page would be opening up the front door of the Rise and Shine Bakery and Maria would be calling out to the street: “It's a beautiful brand-new day. Come and be welcome!”

Come and be welcome.

If there was one phrase that summed up a human being, this was the moral, motto, and fluttering flag of Miss Maria Persimmons.

John and Page could not believe their luck. Their new landlady never ceased to smell of cinnamon and warm dough, nor lose the flour from her nose, no matter how hard she scrubbed. She was as delectable as the food she made—and the food she made was the best in Littlemere.

Which, of course, meant customers. Lots of them. During those first few hours of the morning, the Coggins ran marathons behind the bakery counters. John
fetched and Page bagged. Page took the orders and John distributed change. They soon became popular fixtures.

“Why, if it isn't the muffin man!” puffed the limping butcher.

“Show me that sunny smile!” cooed the cross-eyed seamstress.

“Hop to it, stubby, I'm starved!” cried the Romanesque matron.

There were questions, to be sure. Who were these unusual newcomers, the customers asked Maria, the girl with the golden hair and the undersized boy with the quivery lip? Why were they here?

But Maria had a story to beat back the most inquisitive residents.

“This is Harry and this is Nora. They're Patsy's kids—did you never meet my friend Patsy? She's having a rough time of it. Had to go overseas for . . . treatment.” Maria wiped away a false tear. “Seems I've been blessed where others have been cursed.”

John always smiled when he heard this tale. Great-Aunt Beauregard would never be posting a “Wanted!” notice for poor Patsy's kids.

After the breakfast rush, the day relaxed into a more regular routine. While Maria cleaned and prepared her bread for the dinner crowd, the Coggins went through Maria's old lesson books at the kitchen table. John found himself reciting facts and figures to the rhythmic creak
ing of the rolling pin. Six and a quarter, igneous rock, king of the gods. The world rolled on, and John rolled with it.

One morning in early October, John discovered a thin, green book among his pile of lessons.

“What's this?” he asked Maria.

“Have a look,” Maria said, kicking the door of the oven, a door that permanently refused to close. “My father wrote it.”

John opened the book. It was called
The Theory of Energy
. Maria's father had apparently been obsessed with the subject, since he'd scribbled handwritten notes alongside his printed text and illustrations.

“I thought it might be fun to look at,” Maria noted.

John paused for a long moment . . . and pushed the book away.

“No, thanks.”

Maria glanced at Page. Page crossed her eyes.

“Okay.” Maria shrugged. “If you change your mind, I'll stick it on the shelf next to the cookbooks. You can take it out anytime.”

It was a torment for John to watch his new employer close the book. There, right in front of him(!), were the secrets of steam and oil and fire. There, perhaps(!), lay the answers to his problems with the malfunctioning Autopsy.

But after the disastrous ending with the Wayfarers,
John was bound and determined to be practical. His old dreams had gotten him into exceedingly hot water. No, the smartest thing to do, he told himself, was to learn a craft that wasn't so potentially hazardous.

Fortunately Maria was happy to oblige. Her lessons in cooking took place, without fail, in the late afternoon, after John and Page had run themselves ragged making deliveries.

“Now, you know,” Maria warned them at the beginning, “this is secret family stuff I'm showing you. If my competitors get their hands on this”—she drew her finger across her throat—“I'm a cooked goose.”

“We won't tell anybody,” John promised.

“You wouldn't look very nice cooked,” Page added.

“Well, then,” Maria said, “let's get started.”

So all through the autumn, as lace frosted on the windows and the wind howled in the chimneys, John and Page baked. Maria taught them how to make cherry doughnuts and raisin rolls, buttery croissants and blueberry muffins. Day after day, they sweated sugar and spice and everything nice, and left trails of vanilla on the floor.

Life would have been grand if it hadn't been for one thing. John kept thinking of his mother. How could he not? She was always there—in the tilt of Maria's head, in the hand on his shoulder, in the wry corner of a grin.

Yet, in a few very important ways, she wasn't. For
example, Maria liked to wear pink. John's mother said pink made her look like a flamingo. Maria was sad when the rain fell. His mother used to run outside to stomp in the puddles. Maria adored cats, but his mother had always sneezed twice when she met one, one quick snort and then an almighty

Most telling of all, his mother had been a terrible cook.

This was the one memory that constantly tortured John: a day not long before his parents had become sick, a gunmetal morning in early winter.

Wandering into the kitchen of the old yellow house had been like stumbling into a bomb site. There was chocolate on windows, chocolate on the floor, chocolate lodged in the cracks above the sink. To make her soufflé, his mother had managed to use every dish in the cupboard, plus a couple of pots from the garden shed. It had taken four hours, but finally, she was ready to take her masterpiece out of the oven.

“It rose, John love, it rose!”

John watched her hold the soufflé high up in the air as she strutted toward the table.

Then, the fatal flaw. A nail, a board, a divot? Whatever it was, it snatched at her foot halfway across the floor.

Down she went in a tumble of elbows and knees.

went the soufflé under her chest.

For one horrible moment, John thought he might
actually witness his mother bawl.

Then she saw her son's face and burst out laughing.

“Not to worry, John love. All you have to do when you fall over is pick yourself up and brush yourself off,” and she brushed her hands down her dress. This didn't help the soufflé any.

“You've got chocolate on your tummy,” John said.

His mother slapped her hands to her cheeks in dismay.

“Now it's on your face,” John added, starting to giggle.

She grabbed her hair in despair.

“Now it's in your hair!”

“Oh, yeah?” his mother replied, taking up a chunk of gooey crumbs and spreading it through John's locks. “Now it's in yours!”

It had been a day to remember. And yet, like his father's golden ray of sun, snuffed out in an instant.

No wonder, then, that John grew increasingly morose as the year dimmed. He snipped at Page and snarled at the spruces. He retreated from his duties and stopped taking baking lessons in the afternoon. Eventually, on a cold December day, Maria braved the silence.

“Harry, what's wrong?” she asked, placing a vase of holly on the attic bureau.

John refused to answer her. He was going over and over a dull mathematical problem from one of his lesson books.

Maria sat down next to him on the bed, smoothing
the corner of his bedspread as she did. For a few minutes she said nothing. Then she took a deep breath and spoke.

“You know, you remind me a lot of my dad.”

Still John refused to reply.

“Sometimes it even hurts to look at you.”

John lifted his head.

“I don't usually talk about him,” Maria continued. Her fingers were fretting at a snarl of threads on the bedspread's hem. “He was killed in an accident when I was eighteen. But he was wonderful. Smarter than a serpent, could fix anything on the planet, never said three words when one would do. And gentle! Oh, Harry, he was a gentle man. He always promised to take care of me.” She tried to yank the knot from the hem. It wouldn't budge. “I miss him.”

This time, John knew the tears in the corners of Maria's eyes weren't fake. Not knowing what to say to help, he studied the page in front of him until the figures blurred.

Maria sniffed and pushed the knot away from her. “I guess that's why it hurts. You make me remember.”

Slowly John pulled out Colonel Joe's jackknife and severed the threads on the knot. Then . . .

“You make me remember too,” he said.

A watery smile replaced Maria's frown.

“You can't bring him back, Harry, but I'm awfully glad you're here.”

From that moment forward, John decided he would try to be more gracious. Though it was still difficult for him to contemplate chocolate soufflés, his awkwardness with Maria began to ease. She had her memories; he had his. You lived with them, or you twisted yourself into knots.

Besides, winter in a bakery could be awfully hard to resist. Especially when New Year's Day was spent in a warm kitchen with a pack of gold-rimmed playing cards.

“Guess what, you two?” said Maria, removing a tray of muffins and kicking at the oven door. “I have a surprise.”

“Is it a new recipe?” Page asked eagerly.

“Nope,” Maria said, “it's a new inmate. Leslie is returning next week.”

“That's your cousin, right?”

“That's right, Nora. My late aunt's only son.”

“He's been gone a long time,” John noted.

“Yes,” answered Maria. “But he's eager to be back. I'm sure you'll like him, Harry. He's very smart and very nice.”

Nice, as John well knew, was a word that adults used when they didn't know what else to say. He studied his cards. Leslie was an unknown commodity, a person who might or might not have questions about Maria's new employees. A seed of uneasiness began to form in John's stomach.

“What are you going to tell him about us?”

“I've already written to him about Patsy being away. He said he didn't mind. But, please, both of you, please try to make him feel at home.”

There was a strange undercurrent flowing beneath this conversation. All the time she was talking, Maria kept trying to push her hair behind her ears or scratch her elbows. John knew the signs. Maria was worried.

“What's wrong, Johnny?” Page whispered as Maria dashed out to the shop to tend to a customer.

“Nothing,” John said, squeezing his cards tight in his hands. He wasn't sure he was going to like Leslie at all.


dears, Leslie is here!”

Two enormous duffel bags came flying through the air and hit John square in the chest.

“Cousin Maria, you're looking positively peachy. If I were ten years older and unrelated, I'd carry you off to church.” Leslie slobbered a kiss on Maria's hand.

“That's very kind of you to say.” Maria wiped her fingers on her apron. “Leslie, this is Harry and Nora, Patsy's kids. Harry and Nora, this is Leslie.”

Leslie smiled a syrupy smile.

“Pleased to meetcha.”

It was incredible, John thought, but Leslie really did look like a tall, sixteen-year-old version of Frank.

It wasn't just the flaring nostrils and the wires that dangled from the interior of his nose that did it. Nor
was it the coarse hair on his head or the straggly fringe that fluttered on his upper lip. It was the whole of him, from his sharp, pointed ears to his thick, stocky body to his thin, stubbly legs. Yes, there was no doubt about it. Leslie looked like a pig.

Still, John reminded himself, even pigs have their good points.

“Harry, do you mind helping Leslie to his room?” Maria said. “I want to get Nora to bed.”

John nodded and picked up a bag. It appeared to be weighted with rocks. Large ones. “You've got clean sheets,” he managed to gasp out as he dragged Leslie's bag up the stairs.

“Good-o,” Leslie said, pausing a moment when they reached the landing. “I'd give you a hand, but I've strained my back.” He brought out an embroidered handkerchief and delicately wiped it across his forehead. “So you won't object to bringing up the other one? There's a good chap.”


In dropping the bag on the floor of the spare room, John had dropped it right on his toe.

“Whoops! Clumsy wumsy.” Leslie giggled as he removed his jacket. “I see I'll have to be careful with you in the kitchen. Wouldn't want you to set yourself on fire.”

John's toe was throbbing too intensely for him to be able to answer.

“But you should know, Harry Hornblower, that I run
a tight ship.” Leslie sucked in his stomach so he could admire his profile in the full-length mirror. His man breasts stuck out proudly from his chest. “I know what little boys are like. Remember—there'll be no stealing of sweets when I'm in charge.”

He wagged a teasing finger at John in the mirror.


Oh, I understand, John thought. I understand you completely.

Unfortunately for John, Maria did not. For the very next morning, Leslie was in front of the counter greeting customers.

“Mrs. Potts, how does your husband resist you in that sinfully becoming dress?”

This to a woman wearing a potato sack.

“Miss Templeton, I do declare you are getting younger by the moment. A girl of fourteen could not hope to compete with such dewiness.” This to a woman who was pushing sixty well past its limits.

“Madame Lacoste, I did not expect to be touched by an angel from heaven today!”

This to a woman who had about as much warmth as a hunk of frozen quartz.

“He's terrible!” John whispered to Page during the morning rush.

“And he's a liar,” she whispered back. “He told Gappy Preese that he could weave a curtain for the gods from
her hair.” Gabby Preese was practically bald. “We should tell Maria!” Page insisted.

After Leslie had retreated to his morning bath, the Coggins took their observations to their benefactress. But Maria would hear nothing against her cousin.

“It's nice to give someone a compliment.”

“But what if the compliment isn't true?” John demanded. “Doesn't that mean that he's being a suck-up?”

Maria sighed and hung the pot she was drying on a hook above her head.

“Life is not all black and white, I'm afraid, chickadees. Sometimes people don't say what they mean or mean what they say. But that doesn't always make them bad.

“Please,” she said, “please try to get to know him.”

So John marshaled his patience and did his best at lunch to make friends. “Maria said you were traveling. Did you have a good trip?”

Leslie patted his mustache with his napkin and winked at Maria. “Most excellent.”

“Where did you go?” asked Page.

“Ooooh, all over! I was doing a tour of real estate possibilities in the south of the country.” He leaned back. “In fact, I was telling Maria about the oodles of opportunities along the Pludgett to Riverton railway line.”

“Pludgett?” asked Page. John grabbed at her elbow under the table. She made a squeak like a rusty hinge.

“Yes,” said Leslie, peering quizzically at Page. “Do you know it?”

John held his breath.

“All right, everybody, back to work!” Maria stood up and whipped a tea towel across the crumbs. “Leslie, could you help me change the sign for specials to anadama bread?”

“Of course,” Leslie cooed. “Anything for my pretty cousin.”

With a bow and a flourish, he plucked up the last roll and shepherded Maria into the shop.

“Sorry, Johnny,” muttered Page.

“It's okay,” John muttered back. “I don't think he noticed. Still, let's try to act as normal as possible.”

But, alas for John, normal was not to be. For the arrival of Leslie spelled doom to everyday life. Leslie disrupted everything—from the first moment the Coggins woke up, when he gargled his mouthwash, to the last moment before they went to sleep, when he could be heard warbling off-key arias through the floor.

He interrupted their baking lessons and curtailed their playtime. He wore pants two sizes too small and curled his hair with Vaseline. He insisted on cooking dinner, serving up meatloaf so hard and dry that Maria broke a steak knife trying to saw through it.

Even worse, after three days he decided that John and Page needed a tutor.

“You're a busy lady, Miss Maria. You shouldn't have to worry your pretty head over algebra and acronyms. Leave it to me, I'll fill these young minds with the wisdom of the ages.”

The wisdom of the ages, John was to learn, consisted of Leslie's stories about his achievements. How he scored the winning goal in a decisive hockey match. How he shamed his teacher by telling her how the Battle of Killimanjay was
won. How he astounded the citizens of Howst by purchasing their castle.

“It was built by the owner of the Riverton railway to look like the fortifications of the conquistadors. Naturally, I'm thinking of resurrecting it as a time-share rental for golfers. There's a silver mine operator in Barramesh who's simply gagging at the prospect.”

John was gagging too. At the smell of Leslie's cologne.

The situation became so dire that Page took to barricading herself in their attic room in the afternoons and talking nonstop to her bear. John's solution was to hang out with the chickens in the chicken coop. They might smell funny, but at least their conversation didn't make him want to pull his fingernails off and jab them into his ears.

The only thing stopping John from going completely around the bend was Maria. He knew she was putting up with Leslie for reasons other than family, but for the life of him, he couldn't fathom her motives. Though he
didn't understand why, he realized it was important for him and his sister to keep their tempers.

One bitterly cold night at the beginning of February, John woke to hear familiar footsteps trotting down the stairs. Being careful not to wake Page, he pulled on his sweater and followed.

When he reached the kitchen, he peeked in the door. A large leather tome was spread out on the table. With a pencil in her left hand, Maria was making forlorn stabs at the page.

“Are you okay, Maria?” John whispered.

Maria looked up from her book. Poppy seeds freckled her cheeks.

“Harry! You gave me a fright. What are you doing up so late?”

“I couldn't sleep. Are you okay?”

“I'm fine.”

“Your eyes are red.”

“Are they?” Maria laughed ruefully. “I guess all this fun is keeping me up too late.”

John sat down opposite her.

“What is it?”

Maria smiled.

“Never lose your persistence, Harry, no matter what. I love that about you.”

He waited. She sighed and turned the accounting book toward him.

“I'm worried about the spring. Coal keeps getting more expensive, and that old oven is going to bake its last cookie any day now.”

“And we're costing you money,” John said.

Maria wrinkled her forehead.

“Oh, no, that's not what I meant. I love having you and Nora here. You're the best thing that's happened to me since sourdough starter. I can't imagine what this winter would have been like without you.”

“But we're still costing you money.”

Maria sighed and closed the tome.

“Money, schmoney. Let's not think about it anymore. Something wonderful and unexpected will happen. It always does, if you wait long enough.”


They both sprang to their feet.

“Who could that be?” Maria was clutching her accounting book to her chest.

“Someone who doesn't know how to use the bell,” John replied. But he didn't fancy seeing who that might be. Especially if their visitor happened to be sporting a taxidermied bluebird in her hat.

Holding John's hand tight in hers, Maria crept into the shop and up to the window. With the moonlight bouncing off the cobblestones, they could glimpse a figure shrouded in a high-collared cloak. A figure no taller than John himself. With blazing red hair.

“It's Boz!” John shouted, throwing open the door.

Boz—for that was who it was—did a graceful somersault into the shop and emerged, only slightly flustered, from the interior of his cloak.

Ave Caesar.
We who were about to die salute you.” Boz rose and bowed to John and Maria in turn.

“Hello.” Maria laughed. “You must be nearly frozen. Here, come and be welcome.”

As Boz entered the kitchen, and the light of the table lamp fell upon his face, John realized his erstwhile friend must have been through the wars. He was sporting a torn coat, a pair of pukey-green long johns tied with a rope, and two enormous black eyes. He looked exactly like a ginger raccoon.

“What happened to you?”

Boz twisted his feral face toward John. “Life, my dear boy. The vicissitudes of vicarious living.”

There was a mute appeal in those odd blue eyes that John was forced to acknowledge. Yes, he was still furious at Boz for ditching them in Hayseed. Yes, there were things that Boz did that drove him six ways to insanity. But beneath the bravado, John could see, his friend was very, very hungry. And maybe, just maybe, a little afraid.

A makeshift truce, it seemed, was called for.

“Maria, this is my friend, Boz. Boz, this is Maria. My sister
and I are staying with her,” he added, giving Boz a meaningful look that said, “Work with me.”

Boz nodded and swept his hair to the floor.

“Charmed, milady.”

“Where have you been? Since we met in Hayseed?” John added hastily.

“I have been where angels fear to tread. Though I rush to reassure you”—he winked at John—“far, far from the madding crowd.” He turned to Maria. “Would you, by any propitious happenstance, have a more suitable wardrobe available for a vertically challenged visitor? I appear to have left my trousers somewhere in last week.”

“I'm afraid you'll have to wear an old pair of Harry's trousers for the present. Until we can find a way to fix you up properly,” Maria said, choking back her laugh. “Harry, why don't I give Boz something to eat while you go upstairs to fetch him some clothes?”

So off John went, treading softly on the stairs. He was almost at the top when he heard “Huff, puff, huff, puff, huff,” coming from behind Leslie's door. Quietly, oh so quietly, John pushed it open.

Leslie was standing in the middle of the floor with his hands stretched to the ceiling. John saw his right eye slide to one side to examine the intruder.

“You're up late,” Leslie puffed.

“What are you doing?”

“Evening calisthenics,” Leslie huffed, leaning over and wriggling his fat bottom in the air. “Mustn't neglect my figure.”

John began to retreat.

“And what are you doing?” puffed Leslie, attempting a push-up and failing miserably.

John stopped.

“My friend Boz arrived. He needs some clothes.”

Leslie huffed. He was having trouble returning himself to an upright position.

“Is he planning to be here long?”

“I don't know,” John retorted.

“Does he eat much?”

“Not really.”

“Well, then, I suppose he can stay.” Leslie wobbled into a stand. “Only for a few days, though. I don't want my future assets being eaten away by every tomcat that starts scratching at the door.”

The seed of uneasiness that had been growing inside John now swelled to something the size of a watermelon. “What do you mean, your future assets?”

Leslie flexed his right arm and poked the nonexistent muscle beneath the flesh.

“Didn't Maria tell you?”


“If she can't pay back the money my mother loaned her, the business reverts to my ownership.” Leslie crouched into a squat and bounced his elbows up and down. “Judging by her account books, I'd give it till sometime in the spring.”

He stood and began touching his toes.

“One, two, one, two. Selling a working bakery like this should give me exactly the capital I need to convert my castle at Howst into a showpiece for investors.” He threw back his shoulders and pounded his chest for emphasis. “Harry, you may not know it yet, but you are looking at the next real estate king of this country.”

BOOK: The Mechanical Mind of John Coggin
3.29Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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