Nobody knew how old the Luboneks were, but they’d lived at the top of Pecan Hill since before Cumberland was built, and the town grew up around them. Mr. Lubonek had a voice like gravel and always smelled of engine grease, sweat, and the gritty scent of someone whose friends were machines and whose family were the tools he kept in the shed. Mrs. Lubonek was airy as a bird and every bit as flighty, yet there was a sharp, witty glint in her eye that you only caught if you were looking for it.
The Luboneks lived a simple, dusty life atop Pecan Hill. Mr. Lubonek ran a small mechanic shop out of his garage and Mrs. Lubonek sold baked goods. Despite their humble background they were moderately successful in Cumberland, but you could never tell. Most people said they hid all their income in a ratty black doctor’s bag Mr. Lubonek kept just inside the front door. Or maybe the bag held Mrs. Lubonek’s pie recipes. Or maybe it held a treasure map or a severed hand or the secret to the universe or whatever else happened to be on an imaginative child’s mind that day.
I grew up three houses down from the Luboneks, and sometimes I helped Mrs. Lubonek with her pies and cakes and cookies. She paid me more than a skinny teenager deserved, but money wasn’t the reason I stuck around.
It was Mrs. Lubonek. Or, more specifically, what she baked.
Mrs. Lubonek named her pies and cakes according to how she felt or what situation she imagined would be a fitting time to eat something sweet. For example, on the anniversary of her daughter’s death, Mrs. Lubonek baked a blueberry pie called Save the Baby Pie. She sold it to Mamie Dildredge, whose daughter had been in a coma since June from a car accident—and Anna Dildredge woke up the next day. Something similar happened later that spring, when the Barker family lost their home in a fire, and the neighborhood put together a care package. Mrs. Lubonek included her Tomorrow is Golden Cupcakes, and next thing you know we got word that Mr. Barker’s father whom he hadn’t spoken to in twenty years had a change of heart before his heart gave out and left Mr. Barker half a million. If life left you a hole somewhere, Mrs. Lubonek always had a pastry or two to fill it. There were Strawberry Tarts for Lonely Hearts, Butter Cream for Bad Dreams, Cheer Me Up Cheesecake, Marry Me Meringue, and Cupid’s Arrow Cupcakes. Eventually people realized that there was something special about Mrs. Lubonek’s pastries, even if they couldn’t quite put their finger on what.
“It’s always nice to have something sweet when things go sour,” Mrs. Lubonek would say in that chirpy voice of hers. She’d give me a dainty smile, but that clever spark would appear in her eye, as if she were laughing at a secret joke.
“Hrmph,” Mr. Lubonek would agree. He mostly communicated in grunts. I knew the Luboneks for most of my childhood and I never quite figured out how the two of them ended up together.
When I started working there regularly, I was at that awkward stage in life where my limbs were growing and I was a lot taller than I was used to. My bony elbows knocked pots and pans off counters and I tripped every three steps. For some reason Mrs. Lubonek decided to put me in charge of the kitchen.
“Someday when you’re ready,” she whispered conspiratorially, “I’ll tell you the secret to becoming the greatest baker in the world.”
“There’s a secret?” I wondered.
“Oh, I keep it with me at all times so no one will steal it,” Mrs. Lubonek replied.
“So that’s what’s in the doctor’s bag,” I muttered.
“Well, no, but even if it were, it wouldn’t be the only thing. My husband and I keep everything in that bag. We once carried an entire dining room set across the Alps in that bag.”
Sometimes Mrs. Lubonek said things where you weren’t sure if she was serious or not. When you get to a certain age, I guess you say what you want, because if you don’t, you won’t have much time to say it later. I usually just played along.
“You’ve been to the Alps?” I asked. I couldn’t think of a single time the Luboneks had left Cumberland. Mr. Lubonek hated people here, so why would he like people somewhere else?
“Oh yes. I’ve been many places. My husband and I, when we stay in a place so long we gather dust, we have to pack up everything in our black bag and head out to start over again. There are so many things to see in this world, you know, and even when you’ve seen them all the world’s changed so much you might as well go back and see it all over again.”
I couldn’t argue with that. I’d been stuck in a small town my whole life. Part of me wanted to move to a city and start a business, maybe a quaint bakery on a quiet street corner. I was a shy kid, and since I wasn’t always the best with words, I tried to express myself through baking.
And bake I did. Word of Mrs. Lubonek’s wonderful pastries spread like wildfire throughout the county, and people from all over flocked to Pecan Hill to meet the dainty little Mrs. Lubonek and try her delicious cakes. Suddenly girls who bought Cupid’s Arrow Cupcakes were married the next season and requested them at their weddings, and when their bridesmaids ate them they too found husbands the following seasons and the cycle continued. Mrs. Lubonek invented Busy Bee Baklava and when shop owners and storekeepers bought them, their business increased threefold. Pretty soon we were getting individual requests—Can you make me a Lottery Ticket Tiramisu? Can I have a Hot Girlfriend Hotcake? Do you sell Ferrari Florentines?
Mr. Lubonek got grumpier by the day. He yelled at kids who made too much noise and customers who threw their napkins and wrappers on his lawn. The place was so hectic he couldn’t work on his cars anymore.
“Oh dear,” sighed Mrs. Lubonek. “It appears as though he’s getting dusty.”
“Why did you marry him?” I asked. “You two are nothing alike.” Normally I wouldn’t say something so personal but the harried business had worn me thin.
Mrs. Lubonek laughed. “We’ve been together a long time, dearie! And love isn’t about being like someone. It’s about understanding them. It’s like baking—the work you put into it, the patience you must have, and how sometimes things just don’t turn out the way you want, but you keeping trying anyway because you know some things are sweet enough to be worth the trouble. You can follow a recipe to the letter but in the end you could get something you never expected.” She pinched my cheek and although her smile was distant there was that spark in her wrinkled eyes, the spark that knew something I didn’t.
The small bakery only got busier. I usually stumbled home at about eleven each night and worked weekends, but Mrs. Lubonek refused to hire anyone else and even declined offers from investors to build an actual store rather than run the business from her living room. The Luboneks’ house was always packed with people, and instead of our usual Butter Cream for Bad Dreams and Cheer Me Up Cheesecake, people wanted things like Pass a Test Torte and Make Me Beautiful Brownies and Slim Me Down Strudels. Pretty soon, we had huge crowds but not a single person was coming for the pastries.
After that, whatever secret ingredient Mrs. Lubonek put in her food stopped working. The Cupid’s Arrow Cupcakes missed the mark and the Busy Bee Baklava lost its buzz. The wonderful things that had happened to people after eating Mrs. Lubonek’s pastries stopped happening, and the huge crowds we had seen dwindled down to our usual suspects, the people who had been coming here since the beginning. The future of the business was unclear: Mr. Lubonek had fallen into bad health due to stress, and I was going off to college in the fall.
The August before I left, Mrs. Lubonek knocked on my door. It was pouring rain that day, but there she was with her flowery pink umbrella and cheerful smile and untidy silver hair.
“I do like the rain,” she told me. “It washes everything clean so that you can start over fresh.” Her voice was airy as usual, but Mrs. Lubonek treated goodbyes like hellos and I knew she was leaving by how happy she sounded. She reached into her coat and handed me two things: the first was a New Beginning Nut Brittle she’d made this morning, and the second a book of recipes she had compiled for me. Part of me wondered if any of the recipes still held the same power they once had.
Seeing my expression, Mrs. Lubonek said, “I think you’re ready to hear the secret to being the best baker in the world. You need a secret ingredient.” She pointed to me. “You.”
“Um, Mrs. Lubonek, most societies frown on people baking themselves into their own pies—”
“Oh, don’t be ridiculous. Why do you think my pastries did what they did for people? They lost their touch because no one was touched by them. I wasn’t touched by them. Pastries are just mounds of dough, but you have to add the secret ingredient. You have to put heart into what you do, otherwise you’re just filling up space with empty actions.” She sighed. “Also, add butter. Lots and lots of butter.”
I smiled. “Thank you, Mrs. Lubonek. For, you know, everything.”
She grinned, and there was that playful glint in her eyes I had grown to love.
With that, she headed off to where Mr. Lubonek was waiting for her, carrying the black doctor’s bag. His eyes were squinted and his mouth was warped into a scowl, but when Mrs. Lubonek took his hand his whole face brightened and for a second I saw the real Mr. Lubonek, the one she loved, the one she was so different from yet totally alike. I watched them disappear into the rain, thinking it was strange how they were bringing only the black bag with them.
A few days later the neighbors discovered the Luboneks’ house completely empty, even the furniture. Nobody had seen any moving vans or heard anything from them, and they hadn’t left a forwarding address. They had simply vanished.
For a long time after in Cumberland, people talked about Mrs. Lubonek’s pastries, describing the taste, the smell, and how there was something else in the pies and cakes and cookies that they couldn’t put their finger on. Whenever I visited home, I walked to their old empty house, sometimes picturing Mrs. Lubonek whipping up some cupcakes or Mr. Lubonek stuffing everything they owned into that ratty black doctor’s bag. Maybe Mrs. Lubonek wasn’t joking when she said they could fit everything in that bag. Or maybe she was. You could never tell—even though she had told me how to be the world’s greatest baker, I knew she was hiding something bigger, some secret joke she shared only with her husband. People in Cumberland were certain both the Luboneks were dead by now, but I didn’t think that was possible. Perhaps they were still out there somewhere, starting over and seeing the world anew. Folks like the Luboneks don’t really die, they find something better to do.
Years later, I did manage to open a bakery on the only quiet street corner in a small city. I had kept the recipe book all this time; Mrs. Lubonek had only filled up half the pages and left the others blank so I could start writing my own recipes. Some of Mrs. Lubonek’s old classics I kept on display in the store’s front window: the Strawberry Tarts for Lonely Hearts were popular, and the Butter Cream for Bad Dreams sold like the hotcakes they were. Some of my own creations were there too: Small Town Sticky Buns, When Life Gives You Lemon Squares, and my favorite, Lubonek Crumble Cakes.
I tried to pay it forward and help aspiring bakers whip up their dreams in my kitchen, like Mrs. Lubonek had for me. I had kids all over the place filling muffin tins, creating flowers out of icing, and in general making a big mess. My star chef was a little girl named Cara, who like a certain friend of mine was airy and ditzy, but when you looked her in the eye you saw genuine wit there, as if she knew something no one else did. One rainy Saturday she was helping me clean up after everyone else was gone, and wouldn’t stop talking about how she was in love with a boy who was going to walk her home and tomorrow they were going to run away to Paris.
“You should see if you can slip him a Cupid’s Arrow Cupcake,” I told her, grinning.
“I might not need one at this point,” Cara replied with a wink. “We’ve been together a very long time, you know. He’s going to love France, I just know it, and I’m so glad we can start over again. I’ve been here so long I’m dusty—oh look, there he is now!” She pointed excitedly out the window, where a grumpy-looking kid her age was waiting in the downpour. He looked like he wanted to be anywhere else in the world, but when his eyes met hers, they lit up. Cara raced out of the store and nearly knocked him into a puddle when she hugged him. I stood in the window and laughed, thinking there was not a single pastry in this world as sweet as moments like this.
They set off down the street and faded into the rain. Cara’s boyfriend held her in one hand and a black doctor’s bag in his other. I smiled to myself and went back into the kitchen, thinking that I still had time to make myself some New Beginning Nut Brittle before I closed up shop.