by Maureen Mancini Amaturo
Jim Beam argued against a camping trip. Not that he hated nature, he just preferred a more organized environment: clothes on hangers, a place to store toiletries in the order that he would use them, tiled bathrooms with fresh towels stacked according to size — bath, then hand, then washcloth. “And you know,” he said, “I need a fridge for my ginger ale.” He wrapped both hands around his bourbon with a lemon twist. He begged his buddies over the din in the crowded pub, “What about a nice beach hotel in south Jersey? Beautiful in October, no crowds.”
“You’re a wee scunner.” Johnnie Walker downed his drink. “Not agin, lad. Three years in a row is enough for me. And you don’t even swim.” He signaled to the bartender for a refill. “Time to go somewhere new.”
“New sounds real nice,” Jack Daniels said. “I reckon time in the woods’ll do us good, y’all. Opens the mind. Frees the spirit, ya know?” He closed his eyes as if experiencing a message from beyond. “It’s good to be one with nature, all the green stuff growin’ everywhere, hills and cliffs and rivers. I read somewhere that standin’ barefoot on soil refreshes ya, even brings yer blood pressure down. Somethin’ about the vibes, yeah, in sync with nature.”
“I just wanna try me new bow,” Johnnie said. “Maybe get a wee bit hunting done. I have all the camping equipment we’ll need and jackets and gear to loan ya, if ya like.”
Jim shook his head. “Oh, no. You’re not talking about that ridiculous hat and the red jacket, are you?”
“Not for this trip.” Johnnie took a sip of his scotch, which the waiter had just delivered. “And if ya don’t want to do any hunting wi’ me, the woods can be quite relaxing — laying by the burn, looking out over the glen, a fire burning in the gloaming. We could all use relaxing. I say camping.”
Jack agreed. “I’m down for that.”
Jim folded his arms and leaned back in his chair. “I’m outnumbered. You win.” He looked at Johnnie. “How big is your tent?”
“Big enough. Eight by eight.”
Jim tapped his straw on the table. “I’m going to the Container Store.”
“For what?” both of his friends asked.
“A plastic two-drawer for my clothes. Can’t hang them up in a tent, and I don’t want them crushed in a suitcase the whole trip.”
Jack smiled. “Do what ya gotta do, man. We’ll have what we need, and it’ll all work out finer than a frog’s hair. Gonna be a great get-away.”
Two weeks later, Jim and Jack met at Johnnie’s house just before six on a Friday morning. They packed Johnnie’s Land Rover. Johnnie’s plaid canvas bag, the tent, two coolers, and other equipment were already in the back. Johnnie grabbed the plastic two-drawer and Jim’s luggage.
“Careful with that,” Jim said.
“Not much harm I can do to hard luggage, laddie.”
“Keep all my bags together, please. I’ve marked them all so you know which are mine.” Jim rearranged his bags so his sticker, a gold ribbon with the image of a red wax seal, was visible.
Jack Daniels tossed in his gunnysack tied with a rope. “Ain’t but the three of us. Not likely we’ll get mixed up. And ain’t that too many bags for four days in the woods?”
“I just brought the necessities.” Jim aligned his luggage so the corners sat atop each other.
Jack cleared his throat. “They say you can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy. I’ll be damned. They sure took the country outta you. Your Kentucky kin wouldn’t recognize ya.”
“Folks change,” Jim said. “It’s called growth.”
Jack mumbled, “It’s called snoot, if you ask me.” He climbed in the Land Rover after Jim, and they were off.
Heading to the camping area he always visited with his hunting buddies, Johnnie Walker chose a clearing just outside the hunting grounds. Four hours later, the guys unloaded the Land Rover and pitched the tent. They moved the plastic two-drawer and two coolers inside — one filled with beer, bottled water, and ginger ale and the other with food. As they carried in the bags and luggage, Johnnie said, “There’s a bonnie waterfall just out that way, lads. And up that path, a cliff with a real belter of a view. Plenty of rocks to sit on and enjoy the surroundings.”
Jack peeked out the tent’s door. “Sure sounds pretty. I say we go explore ‘til dinner time. Then we come back here and fix ourselves up a meat and three.”
“Is there a gym nearby?” Jim Beam asked.
Johnnie nodded and pointed east. “Aye, just out there. For some cardio, run up and down the hill. Get your heart racing. Over to the waterfall, Mother Nature set up a nice rock wall to climb. Then, you can chop some wood for the fire. Good for the upper body. After that, you can take a swim in the lake.”
“Never mind.” Jim clipped a pedometer to his waist. “I’ll take a hike.”
When Johnnie stopped laughing, he said, “Was about to tell you to go do that.”
“I’ll come along,” Jack said.
Johnnie waved at them. “You lads enjoy. I’ll get a fire going and finish setting things up here so we’re set for the night. I’ll dig a toilet first, though.”
“Dig what?” Jim took his hands out of his pockets and stood at attention.
“Out there, laddie. Would be more than a wee bit hard on us all if you used your sleeping bag for a toilet.”
Jim pointed to the tent door. “So, I’m supposed to go in the woods?”
“Like a bear,” Jack said, “and bring a trowel to cover the evidence.” He grabbed a water bottle. “You comin’?” He headed for the trail with a grumbling Jim behind him.
An hour later, Jim returned. He was scratching and brushing leaves off his sleeves. He stomped to loosen the mud from his boots. He swatted at the back of his neck. “What I wouldn’t give for a parquet floor. And a spa.”
“Ya say something?” Johnnie zipped up his bow case. “Where’s Jack?”
“On the rocks.” Jim put his thumb up like a hitchhiker. “‘To chill,’ he said.”
Johnnie set his bow case on the floor. “Why didn’t ya stay with him?”
“A spider wanted my seat. It was bigger than me, so I gave it to him.” Jim shuddered. “I don’t think I can do this.”
“Och! Already with the crabbit talk. Ya been here less than a day, man. Give it a fair go.”
“Is there a Starbucks around here?” Jim slapped at a mosquito. “I gotta find something to do while Jack is out there being one with the trees and you’re out hunting things.”
“Here’s what you can do,” Johnnie said. “Help with the dinner.”
When Jack returned, they heated up the homemade lentil chili he had brought and freed the profiteroles Jim had sealed in Tupperware. After diner, they lined up the whiskies — scotch, bourbon, and Tennessee and listened to music until the long day got the better of them.
At the dawn of a fresh morning, Johnnie and his bow quietly left the tent. Jack decided to try his luck fishing. Alone, Jim had no choice but to sit in the tent or explore. He explored. While dodging flying things and stepping over crawling things and pushing pinching branches of wet leaves out of his way, he detected a familiar scent. Waffles? He stopped to inhale the aroma. Cupcakes? “Impossible.” But smells delicious. “It can’t even be possible to bake in the woods.”
He followed his nose. The sweet dough scent lead him to a campsite that was set up like a photo shoot — two long tables with tablecloths, dishes, bowls, spatulas, spoons, and every other kind of cooking utensil. Smoke rose from two different fire pits and a large, green, egg-shaped barbecue. Jim watched quietly. A woman with chin-length brown hair was stirring, chopping, whisking, and measuring ingredients. She was wearing an apron over a red blazer and white blouse. She looks familiar, Jim thought. He saw a cooler nearby with an open laptop sitting on it. Every now and then, she would run over and type something then return to the cooking. After watching her for a while, Jim approached. “Hello.”
The woman jumped. He extended his hand. “Jim, Jim Beam. My friends and I are up that way, about thirty minutes up the path.”
“Hello.” She nodded. “Betty.” She turned her powdery hands palms up. “You won’t mind if I don’t shake your hand.”
Jim rubbed his hands against his thighs as if to cleanse them of flour that wasn’t there. “Nice to meet you. Whatever you’re making, it smells heavenly. I can’t believe you’re doing all this in the middle of nowhere.”
Betty pointed to the laptop. “That’s the point. I’m out here to write my next cookbook, Camping Cuisine. Trying out the recipes.”
“Cookbook?” He thought of the author’s photo on the jacket flap of several cookbooks he owned. I knew she looked familiar. “I can’t believe it.” Jim walked closer to the table. “Wait, did you write Simple Meals for Snobs?”
She nodded while sifting flour into a yellow plastic bowl.
“I have that book,” Jim said. “And your Elite Easy Eats.”
Betty smiled. “How nice. I guess your wife likes to cook.”
“Wife?” Jim folded his arms. “Divorced. I cook for myself.”
“Oops.” Betty blushed.
Jim waved away her discomfort. “I have all your cookbooks. Use them all the time.”
“Well, thank you.” Betty’s hands were in a bowl of dough, so she pointed with her elbow. “Please, could you measure out a teaspoon of vanilla?”
“My pleasure.” Jim brought it to her. “Your husband is one lucky man.”
Betty didn’t answer.
“Can he cook, too?”
“He wasn’t much of a cook.” Betty shook her head. “He passed three years ago.”
Jim’s muscles tightened. He bit his lip. “I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be. You had nothing to do with it.” Betty wiped the dot of dough on her cheek with her forearm.
Hours passed. Jim and Betty were deep in conversation and flour. Not until Jim cleaned the face of his Rolex did he notice how late it was. “The guys are going think I died out here. I better get back to our site. Hey, since you’re out here alone, would you like to come back with me? Have dinner with us? Won’t be anywhere near what you might cook up, but Johnnie’s an experienced camper, and Jack is a pretty good fisherman. Probably got a fresh catch ready to go on the fire.”
“I think I will.”
“I’ll help you clean up.” Jim snapped Tupperware bowels closed, screwed caps on spices, oil, and other ingredients.
Betty put the eggs back in the cooler. “Give me a minute to wash these bowls and recharge my mixer.” Then, she went to her tent and brought out a roll of plastic wrap. “I never go anywhere empty-handed. Do you think your friends like pineapple pound cake?” She wrapped the one she and Jim had baked that afternoon.
They walked the path back to his camp site. This went well, he thought as they stepped over tree roots and avoided ditches. Of all places, I meet someone like her in the woods. And we connected. I think there’s something…or could be something between us. Jim balanced the pineapple pound cake in one hand and grabbed Betty’s elbow with his free-hand to keep her from stumbling over a large rock. “You know, I was the one who didn’t want to come here. I always hated this outdoors stuff. Never liked the woods. But I think I changed my mind. The woods aren’t so bad. Who would have thought I’d meet you in a place like this?”
Betty smiled. “Maybe that’s why fairy tales always call forests enchanted.”
“I never thought of that.” Jim held her hand. Yep, a connection.
As they neared Johnnie’s tent, they heard laughing and beer tops popping and glasses clinking and ice tinkling. Jim heard a new voice. Who the hell is that?
“There ya are, mate.” Johnnie held up his glass. “We worried for ya, but now that this bottle here is near the bottom, I ain’t so much worried anymore.” He drained his glass. “I see you found a friend, too.” He put a hand on the shoulder of the guy sitting next to him. “Meet Duncan. Didn’t know he’d be out here this weekend. I heard an arrow go by out there when I was scouting deer, and who do you think fired it? My old hunting buddy here. Johnnie pointed at Jim, “Duncan, meet the other of our trio, Jim Beam.”
Jim nodded hello. Duncan raised his beer.
“And Duncan’s quite the cook,” Jack said. “Worked magic on the bass I reeled in.” Jack stood and extended his hand to Betty. “Excuse my manners, m’am. I’m Jack. And if he ain’t gonna introduce you, I guess I’ll just have to ask myself. What’s your name?”
“Pleasure, Miss Betty.”
Johnnie brought another folding chair from the back of his Land Rover. “Have a seat, Betty. I’m Johnnie, by the way. If ya haven’t eaten, we have leftovers.”
“We have not eaten,” Jim said. He looked at Betty. “I’ll fix a dish for us.” He looked at the guys and held up the cake. “This is for us. Betty made this pineapple pound cake right on her grill, right at her camp site just this afternoon in the middle of the woods.”
“Thank you kindly, Miss Betty.” Jack took the cake. “I’ll find us a knife and round up another glass. Bourbon? Scotch? Tennessee? What’s your pleasure?”
“Water, please,” Betty said. Jack went into the tent.
“Jim, grab some dinner for you two while I break up more wood for the fire. A wee bit cold out here tonight. But with some logs and scotch, we should be fine.”
That left Duncan and Betty alone by the fire. She asked, “So, you’re a good cook?”
“I should be. Make my living at it.”
“So, do I.”
Duncan popped another beer and handed it to Betty.
“No thank you.” She looked to see where Jack was with her water.
“Where do you work?”
Betty tugged at the hem of her blazer. “I run my own business. Managed to build up a healthy distribution for my products. And I’ve written a few cookbooks to fill in the finances.”
“So, we have a lot in common. Wonder if your line of products and my line of products might be in the same places — supermarkets, large and small, on line, pretty much everywhere.”
Betty nodded. “What kind of products do you sell?”
“Mostly baking — cake mixes, cookie mix, frostings.”
“Uh-oh, a competitor. I think we might share a shelf here or there. I do all kinds of cooking and have a website with lots of recipes for all kinds of meals, but frankly, I’m best known for my baking line.”
“Betty, did you say?” Duncan rubbed his chin. “Crocker, by any chance?”
“That’s me. And don’t tell me — Duncan Hines.”
“Bingo.” Duncan shook her hand. “I welcome competition when it’s as beautiful as you.”
Betty smiled. Hmmm…if I can switch him to whiskey, I might get him to spill a few secrets. He has no idea how competitive this beautiful competition can be.
Jack, Jim, and Johnnie returned. “Who needs a refill?” Jack asked as he handed Betty her water. Johnnie poked the fire. Jim, standing with a plate of fish and potatoes in each hand, wondered how Betty and Duncan got so cozy in such a short time.
Jack served slices of pineapple pound cake all around. Betty handed Duncan another beer. As he shared recipes and told stories to the group about life in the baking business, Betty recorded his every word on her phone and was grateful he described his new holiday line in detail. Before the moon was at its highest that night, they were leaning into each other, hands on each other’s knees, whispering in each other’s ear. Betty put her head on Duncan’s shoulder. She glanced down at her phone to be sure she had enough battery left to keep recording. “So, when does the holiday line launch? Nationwide or a targeted launch? Why spice cake instead of pumpkin bread?” She kept Duncan engaged, and he answered everything.
“Mates, ol’ Johnnie just may be blootered. A few more glasses here, and I’ll be boke for sure. Feelin’ a bit peely-wally. Time for this lad to get some sleep,” Johnnie said.
Jack stood and stretched. “Shut-eye sounds good to me.” He collected the empty beer cans, paper dishes, and separated the recycling from the trash. “How ‘bout you, guys?” He looked at Duncan and Betty. “Welcome to stay here for the night.”
Snuggled together with a blanket around them, Betty answered, “We’re going to stay out here under the stars for a while longer.” There’s just a little more information I need.
Duncan looked at Betty. “Maybe sleep by the fire.” He held out his dish toward Jack. “And I’ll have another slice of that before you wrap it up.”
Jack put the pound cake on a folding table. “Help yourself.” He brought the trash to the pile. He turned to Jim. “I’d say the woods were good to you. Great day.”
“For a minute.” Jim turned his back to him.
Jack put his hand on Jim’s shoulder. “Fresh air, a fine lady like Betty, this here pineapple cake…you still don’t like the woods?”
Jim looked over his shoulder. The site of Betty’s head on Duncan’s arm, both of them giggling and smiling like sophomores, sent lava through his veins. He grabbed his bottle of bourbon. “Next year, I say we go somewhere different. Really different. Far from here.”
“Like…like…Gdańsk. I hate the woods.”