Grandfather’s donut shop was a magical place when I was growing up. You had to park a few blocks away on Saturdays, near the courthouse occupying the town square and walk past a procession of cars on Main Street before reaching the entrance. The bell tolled when you opened the door, but the crowd’s roar inside the small shop drowned it out. The scent of fresh donuts and coffee mingled in the air. On those days, it seemed as if the whole town came out to pay respects to Grandfather’s magnificent creations, made irresistible by his secret ingredient.
When he saw me at the front door, Grandfather would cry out, “Make way for my most important customer!” and the crowd parted as I left Mother behind and approached the gleaming case filled with multitudes of donuts.
The donuts were always thoughtfully arrayed behind the glass, the work of an orderly mind. On the top shelf were the cake donuts that I spun on my fingers before eating. Glazed donuts, the best to roll across the table, occupied the middle shelf. The bottom shelf was reserved for the heavyweights, the fritters, long johns, and everything with fillings.
I imagined I was a general inspecting the troops. With hands clasped behind my back, I walked the length of the case, head bobbing up and down the rows of white, pink, and brown donuts. When I reached the end, Grandfather would ask, “Do they pass inspection, sir?” I would smile, nod, and point to the kind I wanted. Grandfather would salute and pull out the plumpest one.
I tried them all, starting with the cakes and working my way to the grown-up bottom row. Before everything changed, my favorite was an apple fritter with a carton of thick chocolate milk. Grandfather would get one for each of us, let my mother take over behind the counter, and sit with me at a table reserved for us near the back corner.
There on the soft wood table, pitted and stained after years of use, but always meticulously clean, we would dine and play I Spy. We spied the Pevely Dairy clock on the wall with its hands rotating around a smiling milkmaid or the red bookcase filled with children’s books, paperbacks, and current newspapers. We spied the humming stainless steel cooler behind the counter with an endless supply of milk and juices, or the black and white checkerboard pattern of the shiny tiled floor.
I was ten when I first noticed the slow decline of the donut shop. It was almost imperceptible at first—a tray of cake donuts finding its way onto the glazed donut shelf, running out of chocolate long johns during the morning rush, the expired milk in the cooler. It was as if the donut shop could no longer keep up with demands placed upon it.
That summer I worked at the shop with Grandfather, and it was like having a backstage pass to a magic show. Grandfather had boundless enthusiasm. When he picked me up for work two hours before sunrise on the first day and caught me rubbing my eyes, he said, “Donuts don’t make themselves, Pie.”
I was sitting in the passenger seat of his pickup truck. “Couldn’t we make them the night before,” I said through a yawn, “and warm them up in the morning?”
His laugh loud and deep, he reached over and patted my head. “Donuts are like manna, those sweet wafers from Heaven that arrived new every morning. Save them overnight and they’re spoiled.”
“I bet you never had to get up this early when you were a kid,” I said.
“Oh, I did, Pie. Every day before dawn in the spring, I hung buckets on the maple trees to collect their sap.”
“How did you get the sap out?”
“I tapped the trees.” His voice grew soft. “It was cold and dark in the woods, noiseless except for the cry of the trees as I turned the crank on the drill.”
The lights were on in the bakery section of the donut shop when we arrived. The ingredients for the donuts were arranged on a stainless steel table in the order needed. I looked at him with suspicion. “Were you already here?”
“Maybe I have little helpers.” His eyes twinkled.
I imagined Santa was a lot like Grandfather. He whistled while he rolled the dough, and he left flour on his nose when he pushed up his glasses. He had a round belly from eating the leftovers since he would never sell day-olds. While the cake donuts were frying, he kept time by snapping his suspenders and whistling.
The last ingredient added to the donuts came from a paint can stored in the refrigerator. He would say to me before opening the can, “Now close your eyes,” and I would close them until he was done and the can was back in storage. One day I opened my eyes while he poured something golden brown from the can. Somehow, he knew I was looking and said, “You’ll spoil the magic, Pie.”
I asked my mother one time why Grandfather called me Pie. “I was his Sweetie Pie growing up,” she said. “I guess since you’re a boy he dropped the sweetie.”
“But he doesn’t even make pies.”
“It’s just a term of endearment, Matthew.”
When the first warm donuts of the day filled the case, it was my job to unlock the front door. Grandfather, by this time with his nose cleaned of flour, greeted the customers by name and asked if they wanted the usual. I was always afraid he would call me Pie in front of the customers, but instead he patted my head and asked them, “What do you think of my most important helper?”
Like the donut shop, Grandfather rested on Sundays. That’s why it was unusual when he appeared at the door on a Sunday afternoon dressed like a lumberjack and asked my mother if he could take me with him. “It’s an expedition,” was all he would tell Mother, but in his pickup truck he explained to me the purpose of our mission. Stopping the truck by the side of the road, woods all around us, he turned off the engine and looked into my eyes. “We’re going to get more maple syrup, the secret ingredient in our donuts.”
“Can’t we buy it at the store?” I asked.
“Oh no, Pie. It’s too important. The syrup must be straight from the tree.”
The tree that the maple syrup came from was as tall as the spire on the courthouse and bigger around than Grandfather. Tubes ran from its trunk into a shed that he called a “sugar shack.” The tubes carried sap from the maple tree to a barrel, and the barrel had a spigot that, when opened, allowed the sap to run into a pan over a fire pit. Grandfather heated the sap until it became syrup, and then poured it from the pan into empty paint cans. “There’s no other maple syrup like this in the world,” he said, snapping his suspenders, “And it’s all because of that old tree.”
“Do you mean,” I said, “that all the syrup you use in the donuts comes from the tree with the tubes?”
“It has…since I cured it of heart rot before your mother was born.”
“Did the tubes cause the heart rot?”
“Oh no, Pie, the tubes are there because the tree wants to give back.”
We filled a wheelbarrow with cans of maple syrup and stopped at the tree on the way to the pickup. “Do you see any mushrooms on her?” he said, shining a flashlight beam on the bark. “That’s the sign of heart rot.”
I inspected the tree as if it were the donut case, and found a cluster of mushrooms with brown caps where the trunk met the ground. “They look like cream-filled donuts,” I said.
Grandfather knelt and removed a cork near the base of the tree. He rolled up his sleeve, pulled a syringe from his pocket, filled the syringe with blood from his arm, and injected it into the hole. When he was done, he dabbed the needle mark on his arm with sap from the tree. He replaced the cork. “That’s how you deal with heart rot.” He patted the tree like he patted my head when he introduced me as his most important helper.
I had so many questions to ask Grandfather: What’s heart rot? What do mushrooms have to do with it? What does the tree do with the blood? But I was in a daze from all the new things I had seen that day, and by the time my thoughts were coherent enough to ask the questions, another situation had arisen.
Grandfather dropped the wheelbarrow handles and fell to the ground while walking back to the pickup truck.
“Just a little woozy.” He wiped sweat from his brow with a handkerchief. “You grab one handle and I’ll take the other.” Together we pushed the wheelbarrow the rest of the way. Grandfather was back to his normal self when we drove to town. He swore me to secrecy on the entire mission before dropping me at home.
When Mother noticed the donut shop in decline, she convinced Grandfather to buy an automatic donut maker. You filled the reservoir with vegetable oil, dumped the ingredients in one end, and donuts emerged from the conveyor on the other end, glazed and all. The catalog claimed the machine “Lets you relax while it does all the work.”
“Fat chance,” said Grandfather.
But Mother said it couldn’t hurt, and then she whispered to me when Grandfather was on the phone placing the order, “This will help him slow down.”
Grandfather was already slowing down. He did everything he used to do—kneading the dough as if massaging a tired heart, replacing the newspapers on the red bookcase every day, dusting the Pevely Dairy clock from atop a ladder—except it took him longer. He was late picking me up some mornings, and his rest breaks on the sacks of flour in the back grew longer and more frequent.
“I just need more vitamin C,” he said, and I would bring him a cup of orange juice from the front.
After closing one day, while I was sweeping the front and Grandfather was dumping coffee remains, I heard a crash. I dropped the broom and ran toward the sound, bumping into our special table and knocking it down. Grandfather was sitting on the floor behind the counter, glasses askew, carafe shattered next to him.
“I got dizzy,” he said. I helped him stand and walk to a chair next to our table. The table, always sturdy while we had eaten our donuts and played I Spy, wobbled when I set it upright. By the time I cleaned up the mess behind the counter, Grandfather had fixed his glasses and was counting the money in the cash register as if nothing had happened. The last thing he said when he dropped me off at home was, “Don’t tell your mother, Pie.”
I was quiet at dinner that night. Grandfather had taught me the mysteries of the donuts. I knew how to squirt the cream filling inside the pastries, why fritters were lumpy, and the biggest secret of all—the special ingredient and the tree that produced it. Grandfather and I were fellow magicians and our secrets stayed between us. But the world was not right anymore.
While Mother tucked me into bed that night I let it slip that Grandfather fell down at the shop. I left out our earlier experience in the woods. Somehow I knew she wouldn’t understand the bond between Grandfather and the maple tree. I cried myself to sleep that night.
When Grandfather came to pick me up in the morning, Mother told me to wait inside the house. She sat in the pickup with him as I watched from the window next to the front door. The cab was dark, but I could imagine Grandfather staring sadly at me for betraying our pact. When dawn broke, Mother motioned to me and I walked to the pickup with my head low. “You’re going to the doctor with your grandfather,” she said.
We rode in silence to the hospital. It seemed as if the trees along the side of the road were shaking their wooden fingers at me.
The doctor listened to Grandfather’s heart and ordered tests. Grandfather said, “No time for tests. I need to get to the shop,” and the doctor said, “You need to get your heart fixed.”
They attached wires to his chest and the nurse explained an electrocardiogram. They took him away for a chest x-ray. When he returned, we waited in the tiny room for the results. Grandfather paced and snapped his suspenders.
“Let’s play I Spy,” I said. He stopped and stared at me, then smiled wide and held open his arms. I hugged him, and for the first time in my memory, I didn’t smell the donut shop on him.
When the doctor arrived, he said, “You need a new heart valve.” They scheduled the operation for the next week.
On the way home I said to Grandfather: “I can inject you with some of my blood and make you better. If it worked for the tree, won’t it work for you?” He patted my head.
The automatic donut maker came in five big boxes, and we spent the following day assembling it on the concrete floor in the bakery section. “If this machine works, maybe he won’t need a new heart valve,” I whispered to Mother. She bit her lip and turned away.
When the machine was assembled and sitting on the floor, Grandfather leaned his head back and furrowed his brow. With a hand stroking his chin, he said, “Contraption looks like a Mars lander.”
“The donuts won’t taste any different with the machine,” said Mother.
“Only if I can still use my secret ingredient.” He winked at me.
They replaced Grandfather’s heart valve with one from a pig. In the waiting room during the operation, I kept thinking about the hogs on my uncle’s farm wallowing in their own excrement. I wondered how a sow too big for a man to pick up could have a valve the size he needed.
Mother said, “Don’t worry, Matthew, the doctor promised fewer complications with this type of valve.”
Grandfather was groggy when we visited him in the ICU. He asked about the donut shop, and Mother explained it was closed until he recovered. He dozed, and when he awoke, he asked again. A few minutes later, his eyes half-open, he lifted his hands and moved them as if kneading dough. I said, “Grandpa, what are you doing?”
“Have to make the donuts,” he said.
We looked at the nurse. “It’s the anesthesia,” she said. “It’ll be out of his system in a few hours, and he’ll be home in no time.”
He was still in the hospital a week later. His heart rate was irregular, so the doctor installed a pacemaker. When the day of his discharge finally came, the doctor gave him a bottle of pills and said, “You’ll need to take these every day for the rest of your life.”
Grandfather studied the pill bottle in the car on the way home.
“What kind of medicine is it?” I asked.
“Rat poison,” he said.
“Your grandfather’s in a mood, Matthew,” said Mother. “The medicine will keep him from getting blood clots.”
He gradually recovered until he had even more energy than before. Then he reopened the donut shop. At the grand reopening party, he unveiled a trifecta of new donuts to delight his customers. The bookshelf now included national magazines, a jukebox rocked beneath the Pevely Dairy clock, and the place hummed with life.
“Everything will run smoothly now,” said Mother as we drove home from the party. “He can work his magic again.”
Six smooth years passed. At sixteen, some of the magic in life had worn off, but not when I was around Grandfather.
I stopped by the donut shop after school to pick up the day’s leftovers. Grandfather always closed the shop in the afternoon, so I used my key. The entry bell rang mournfully without the modulation of a crowd. I walked into the bakery section looking for Grandfather. He was sitting on a sack of flour with one pant leg rolled up, sock and shoe on the floor next to the cane he now used, inspecting his foot. It was purple and gave off a smell like the pigs on my uncle’s farm. He looked up at me and said, “Better tell your mother, Pie.”
He had stopped taking the blood thinner and a clot had formed in his foot. Without treatment, gangrene had set in. The doctor explained all this the next day before amputating his leg to stop the spread of the gangrene, but it was too late. I held my mother when the doctor told us the gangrene had caused blood poisoning and Grandfather’s organs were slowly shutting down.
“He’d spend hours making those stupid donuts,” my mother said, “but he wouldn’t swallow a pill to save his life.”
They let me visit him in the ICU. He wanted to talk before his lungs gave out and they put him on a respirator.
“Here’s my most important visitor,” he whispered to the nurse when I entered. “I can’t see well anymore, Pie,” he said. “Tell me what you spy in this room.”
“Just a bunch of machines.”
“Machines,” he said, like tears falling from a tree. Tubes ran into him everywhere and he pulled at them as if they were suspenders.
It seemed as if the whole town was present to pay respects to Grandfather. Glazeless donuts were served at the wake. The church bell tolled as the procession from the funeral home turned onto Main Street at the courthouse. Grandfather passed by the donut shop for the last time on his way to the cemetery.
t was still dark the next morning when I parked Grandfather’s pickup truck and walked into the woods. I found his tree and used a flashlight to search the ground. A crop of mushrooms surrounded the trunk. I rolled up my sleeve.