The next evening found the table lean and spare, with two lonely chops adorning each of the three plates. In the center of the table, as a concession to a possible ravenous appetite, nine tomato slices lay on a gigantic white platter. Uncle Hubert bolted his chops down, ate one tomato slice, rose, bowed to the ladies, and excused himself from the table. As he left the room, he kissed Auntie Bella's cheek and murmured, "Very good dinner, Mother." Again Sophia burst into tears, and then, obviously emotionally upset from hunger, she bolted the remaining eight tomato slices and rushed out of the room. The next night the same dinner appeared, and the next, and the next. For three weeks the chops came to the table accompanied by the nine lonely tomato slices; for Sunday dinner there were twelve tomato slices.
As the flow of wonderful samples and mouthwatering tidbits stopped, so did the long kitchen visits from the mailman, the delivery boys, and the neighborhood children, who all sagged from wistful hope to mournful resignation as the weeks went by. Auntie Bella and Sophia grew as thin and sallow and nervous as the now-lean cats. Uncle Hubert remained as hearty as ever, and if he ever tired of lamb chops and tomato slices, he never said a word.
But as the fourth week began, Auntie Bella's watchful eye detected a look of desperation on Hubert's face as she brought in the eternal platter of chops. Quickly, that afternoon, she went to the kitchen and locked the door. Then she took one of the forbidden garlic cloves from under the sink, their home of exile, carefully peeled it, and sliced off a tiny quarter, which she dropped into a cup of water. She let the garlic sliver sit in the water for a scant five minutes. Then she removed the pearly little fragment and tossed it to the cats. It was snatched up by Measles, who crunched it with pleasure and fell into a purring fit.
That evening Auntie Bella broiled six mushroom caps to arrange on the platter beside the tomato slices. In the privacy of her kitchen she brushed the caps with the garlic water several times, then dotted them with butter, and put them to broil. The chops received a drop or two of the garlic water, but the tomatoes were left unseasoned.
Uncle Hubert came into the dining room, somewhat reluctantly, but when he saw the mushroom caps a broad smile shone from his face, and he rubbed his hands in anticipation. "Well, well! A special treat, eh, Mother?" he boomed, genuinely pleased.
Uncle Hubert ate all six of the mushroom caps, remarking loudly on their extreme tastiness, succulence, and remarkable flavor. He finished his chops in jig time and cast his glance around the table as though looking for more. When his eyes fell on the tomato slices, however, he rose from his chair and excused himself.
That night Auntie Bella received two kisses from her son-in-law. She smiled grimly. The plan was working. For three nights the mushroom cap tactic was repeated. Then, on Saturday at noon, she soaked half a clove of garlic in melted butter for 20 seconds. Next she injected the faintly garlicky butter into four plump baked potatoes, which accompanied the mushroom caps and the tomatoes. The chops were skillfully treated in a like manner.
Uncle Hubert fairly fell upon the baked potatoes. He became expansive after the third one had disappeared and his vest was bulging comfortably. "Those were the finest potatoes I have ever tasted, I want you to know. There was something to the flavor …" Words failed him. "Something familiar, but I can't quite put my finger on it. Mother, you're turning into a wonderful cook!" Having delivered this high accolade, Uncle Hubert speared the last potato and fell to.
Daily Auntie Bella increased the garlic dose, slipping it slyly into a green salad, smuggling a tiny pinch into a creamy tomato soup, swinging a clove of garlic on a string through a simmering sauce, and Uncle Hubert's appetite increased with the garlic dosage. He began to come to the dining room half an hour before dinner, and he would twiddle with his water glass and wonder impatiently when the food would be ready. His vests began to strain tightly across his stomach, and he occasionally told amusing stories to his mother-in-law and wife.
Auntie Bella worked with infinite caution. Never once in six months was the garlic flavor so strong that anyone possessing even the most delicate palate could announce triumphantly, "You've put garlic into this!" Just the subtlest hint, the faintest fragrance, the merest whiff, the tiniest sliver came from the kitchen. The plump garlic bulbs themselves still remained hidden under the sink, and Auntie Bella's garlic patch flourished unnoticed in the flower garden behind a thick forest of purposely neglected rambler roses. She gathered her harvests in the moonlight under the pretense of "taking a little walk."
After nearly a year of painstaking care, Auntie Bella's cooking was nearly up to the old pre-Hubert garlic standards, and the garlic bulbs themselves came out from under the sink and hung once again from the beams, sending a faint but constant reminder of their existence throughout the kitchen.
Uncle Hubert, who was not stupid and who had learned to love his meals and his mother-in-law's robust cooking, noticed them swinging gently from the beams one winter evening and remarked, "Mother, those garlic bulbs give a very quaint, old-fashioned touch to the kitchen, but watch out they don't come in contact with any of my dinner!" And he laughed uproariously and winked.
Finally Auntie Bella was quite happy because she knew the garlic had made a stubborn, bad-tempered man into a genial, good-natured one. And then, too, Sophia had given birth to twin boys almost exactly a year after the marriage—something Auntie Bella attributed solely to the garlic clusters dangling in the bedsprings. And Uncle Hubert's practice grew fat, as did he. He was constantly immersed in a mild effluvium of garlic vapors. His examinations and advice to his patients left them gasping a bit, but lonely for that little extra something they couldn't quite identify as they sat over their flavorless chops that evening.