It was a Monday, I remember that, because we’d just come from Bingo at the Senior Center and Earl was in a big mood because he thought Anna May had cheated. We were in the car and he’d bounced off the curb (this was before they finally took away his license and angels must have been watching over us) and Earl kept saying over and over, “I saw her board and she had B-18! Rog called G-18! And she hugged her board to her chest so no one could see and screamed Bingo! I tell you! What’s this world coming to!”
When Earl was in one of his big moods, the best thing to do was ignore him until you can’t take it any longer and then change the subject. But it has to be a subject that’d catch his interest more than the thing he’s ranting on and on about, something shiny you wave in front of his face he can’t resist. Spending money usually did it pretty quick. “Hey, Earl, turn into the Dig ’n’ Save. Birdie told me she saw a Clarice Cliff teapot in there the other day.” Birdie had said no such thing, and if Vonna at the Dig ’n’ Save had seen a Clarice Cliff teapot come in, she would have whisked it off for her ownself. Have you seen what those go for on eBay? Anyway, that derailed Earl’s Bingo-and-the-state-of-the-world monologue.
“I swear, Elsie, we are going to drown in tea if you ever decide to fill up all those damn teapots you keep buying. I don’t know what you think we need so many for. None of the kids even drinks tea. When we die, those are all headed to the landfill.”
Earl was such a positive thinker. Anyway, this was easier to tune out than the other, and he was pulling into a parking space (well, two parking spaces if you want to be precise about it but no way was I going to comment on that again) and as soon as he’d come to a stop, I was out of the car.
“Goddamn it, Elsie, you walk too fast. Showing off that hip and knee replacement. Not all of us are bionic people forgodsake.”
“Meet you in kitchenware, Earl!” I called as I powerwalked to the door. Let me tell you, those water aerobics look funny but I was in better shape at seventy-eight than I was fifty years before. If Earl did more than lift the TV remote and his beer bottle for exercise, he wouldn’t have been so far behind.
Vonna was at the door. Her official title was Greeter, but really she was there to suss out the shoplifters. I learned the word “suss” from my granddaughter Charlie. She’s the cutest thing even if she does dress all in black and has her hair hanging in her face. Smart kid. I have a picture here somewhere—
Anyway, Vonna asked me if Earl was in one of his big moods and I nodded and rolled my eyes. “Oh Lord,” she sympathized. Her Ricky died five years ago may he rest in peace and it was a real blessing for her. She looked ten years younger once she wasn’t putting up with his nonsense anymore. She was in my water aerobics class, too. I don’t like to pry, but that heart condition of Ricky’s came on real sudden and those Vonna’s garden had some funny-looking plants in it. But I don’t judge. Sometimes a woman’s got to have some peace.
I headed to kitchenware because it’s in the back corner of the store and Earl can’t navigate around too well being as he can only boil water if I remind him to plug in the kettle. I stopped cooking his meals two years before he went. I was headed into the kitchen to make meatloaf because we always had meatloaf on Tuesdays and I thought, Elsie, you’ve been making this man meatloaf every Tuesday for sixty-one years, and that’s three thousand one hundred and seventy-two meatloaves (more or less, because that day wasn’t exactly the anniversary of the first meatloaf) and he got to retire from his job, and why can’t you? I felt like a nice Caesar salad, so I made that, and boy was Earl mad. I told him he didn’t have to eat it if he didn’t want to, but that was dinner, just like I did when the kids were little. And that was that. He eats a lot of sandwiches now because putting meat between slices of bread is about his speed.
Anyway, I was there in kitchenware when I spotted it, marked down to a dollar. Now, I hadn’t actually gone in there meaning to buy anything, but my grandson Breck (don’t get me started on my daughter’s ideas of kids’ names) had gotten a Pop-Tart stuck in our toaster when he was staying the week before and shorted out the toaster, and here was one for a dollar. I picked it up. It was the shiny chrome kind I’ve always liked the look of and it looked to be in good shape. Either the style was retro or it was antique. I hadn’t heard of the brand, Old Nick Small Appliance Co. It had a nice heft.
“Did you find something else to spend my money on?” Earl had finally made it back there and he was red in the face from hurrying.
“It’s our money, Earl, as you know full well. And we need a toaster and it’s only a dollar. Look, it’s got those extra-wide slots for bagels.”
He huffed. “I suppose that’s all right then.”
I rolled my eyes. Honestly, that man. Anyway, we made it home okay and Earl only took out one mailbox on the way. I hid his keys again and by then I had worked up an appetite listening to him complain about Bingo and the neighbor’s dog and I wanted a bagel. But would you believe it, Earl had eaten the last one. “Earl! You know you need to put things on the list when you finish a package. How many times?” But he was already zoned out in his recliner with the remote and his beer and I wasn’t going to get any sense out of him. I dug out two slices of the whole wheat bread I buy for my digestion and jammed them in the toaster, grumbling, “I’d sell my soul for a sesame bagel with cream cheese.”
When the toaster popped, I had my plate ready and I was resigned to buttering my toast with that low-cholesterol spread (Earl had eaten the last of the marmalade too and not put that on the list) but guess what I pulled out? It was a perfectly toasted sesame bagel with cream cheese already on it. And not that gummy fat-free stuff they have at the Senior Center for breakfast, real cream cheese. I peered into the toaster. The coils were still glowing faintly red. Had I just sold my soul for a bagel?
I took a bite and decided it was worth it. This was the best bagel I’d had in all my life. “Thank you,” I whispered to the toaster. I felt like I should give something back. “Do you like Pop-Tarts? My grandson left some here. I think I have Frosted Brown Sugar Cinnamon and he says those are the best.” I opened a packet and dropped them in. I pushed down the lever and with a puff of smoke, they were gone.
I’d watched a lot of The Twilight Zone as a child and while this was surprising to me, of course, it also made some sense. My toaster was clearly a portal of some kind. I didn’t know exactly how it worked, but if it gave me bagels like that, I didn’t need to. And I had another one the next morning. This time I asked for cinnamon raisin and boy, was that good. I offered up the last packet of Pop-Tarts. “I’ll have to get more at the store,” I told the toaster. “Huh. I wonder if you’d like a different kind. You must like the brown sugar if they’re disappearing, but variety can be nice. I’ll see what they have.”
So I bought every kind of Pop-Tart they had at the Readi-Mart and started experimenting. Anything without frosting came back to me intact. That was fair, I thought. The frosting was the good part. Blueberry, Cherry, Chocolate, and Confetti Cake always disappeared. Grape and Strawberry came back with one bite out. The limited edition flavors were pretty hit or miss but I figured the novelty was worth it. One morning, I put in the Pop-Tarts first and my bagel popped up after and I realized I didn’t have to be wasting all that bread. I could just make an even trade. That toaster made an asiago bagel with scallion cream cheese that was to die for. And once when I hadn’t gone shopping and asked if it could do lunch, it took my S’mores Pop-Tart and gave me an amazing bagel sandwich with three kinds of cheese and that dark ruffly lettuce and even some thinly sliced avocado. You have to pay extra for avocado at Susie’s Delicatessen.
Earl hated that toaster. It burned his bread every time. He didn’t understand why I wouldn’t get a new one. “You leave that toaster alone, Earl,” I told him. “I like that toaster more than I like you.” I’d like to say that was just an expression, but I’m not sure it was at that point. I was pretty fed up with Earl and that toaster was making me breakfast every morning. I’d made people meals for decades and now that I thought about it, no one had taken care of me like this since I was a child.
One day, I’d just come home from the Readi-Mart with a box of Limited-Edition Gingerbread House Pop-Tarts and I was wondering how I’d get the instructions for how to build the house in. Surely the cardboard in the toaster would make a fire? Except it wasn’t a toaster, was it? It was a portal. I was still debating with myself when I got into the kitchen and saw the empty spot on the counter. “EARL!” I yelled so loud he even heard it over the television. “What did you do with my toaster?”
He came shuffling into the kitchen, looking guilty. “Elsie, I tried making toast again and the damn thing keeps burning the bread. I couldn’t take it anymore and I threw it in the bin.” He set his jaw like he was spoiling for a fight but I just headed around back. I got there just as the garbage truck was pulling up. I lifted the lid off the bin and there was my shiny toaster sitting right on top.
“I’ve had it with that man,” I mumbled as I marched the toaster back to its rightful spot. I polished it off with a clean sponge. “I’m about ready to ask Vonna for some of those funny leaves from her garden.”
I popped in all the gingerbread-flavored Pop-Tarts and then the instructions. “I don’t suppose you’re big on Christmas, but a Pop-Tart gingerbread house has to be fun anyway,” I said.
Up popped a bagel sandwich. Now, I hadn’t asked for a bagel sandwich, so that was a little strange. I looked more closely and I saw roast beef. I hadn’t eaten meat in years. I’d thought the toaster knew that. And then I saw that the lettuce looked a little unusual. “Ohhhhhhh,” I breathed. “Well, then.”
“Elsie, I want some lunch,” Earl called from his recliner.
I looked at the sandwich and thought hard.
“Elsie! Have you gone deaf? The doctor said I’m supposed to take it easy on this leg and that means I need you to bring me a sandwich.”
I plopped it on a plate and added a handful of his favorite chips. “Right here, Earl.”
Well, I had a few more good years after that but a stroke got me in the end. It was quick though, that’s a blessing. And I didn’t see Earl when I got to the other side, thank—well, thank everything. But the big guy was here to greet me personally. He wanted to say thank you for all the Pop-Tarts. He said he didn’t see me in a being-tortured kind of capacity here, so he put me in charge of welcoming newcomers and serving breakfast. And between you and me, making all those meatloaves for Earl was worse than this! I get lots of time to myself and all the bagels I can eat. And I can talk to interesting new people, like you.
I do wonder if one of my kids ended up with that toaster. They’re such goody-goodies, I don’t suppose I’ll see any of them again otherwise. Maybe a couple of the grandkids. I thought about giving it to someone in my will, but it seemed like one of those “if it’s meant to be, they’ll find it” kind of things. Anyway, enough about me. I’ll top up your tea and you can tell me all about yourself before you head to your new home. Looks like you’ll be in a lava-adjacent bungalow, but it won’t be ready for a few hours so we’ve got loads of time. Now, Mr. DiCaprio, exactly how old was your last girlfriend, because the news is pretty spotty down here, and we’ve got a pool going on the age of whoever you’re with when you—well, you know. I put down nineteen and three quarters and I really want to beat that Vonna after she won over whether or not Tom Cruise was coming here or being carried off by aliens or somesuch. So let’s hear it.