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Reveille, Retreat, Taps
By Jenn Bouchard

The sounds of “Reveille” poured through my closed windows. The rousing, energetic bugle tune, even though it was from a recording, told me it was time to finally haul myself out of bed. If the men and women at the Air Force base across the street could go to work, I could at least walk a few feet into the apartment kitchen and make coffee.

I hadn’t slept at all. I had known that I wouldn’t be able to sleep with the story about to go to print, and once it was posted to the Boston Globe website in the wee small hours of the morning, it was a lost cause. I kept checking the linked GoFundMe page to watch a few dollars trickle in every five minutes or so, but it probably wouldn’t ever be enough. The building was sold, and Good Gruyère was gone, at least for the near future.

My coffee maker was one of the only things that wasn’t still in a box. I didn’t need much that May; the world was still mostly closed, and there really wasn’t anywhere to go. Despite the fact that I had lived in the military housing on the other side of the gate for my last two years of high school, I hadn’t run into anyone who I knew yet since returning to the suburbs. That said, I had only left my new fortress twice to go to the grocery store, and you often couldn’t recognize people who you hadn’t seen in seventeen years in masks that covered much of their faces.

I had left my phone in the bedroom on purpose; I knew my tendencies and the likelihood of becoming immediately obsessed with checking the comments of the news story as well as the fundraising website. There were several who were quick to chime in with unnecessary, stinging remarks such as “Her place was awful anyway. Who needs that much cheese?” and “If I needed to have a heart attack, I could go somewhere with a waitstaff.” Still, I went back for more. There were several kind words amidst those left by the trolls, and I decided to focus on those. My favorite comments centered around “Where will I go for biscuits? I dream of those biscuits!” and “Best of luck, Harper. We’re all pulling for you.” In the five years that I had owned Good Gruyère – or GG, as I referred to it as – I had mostly encountered grateful, happy customers. You really couldn’t be grouchy when you were eating good cheese.

I shifted over to my email, just in case there was anything interesting in my inbox beyond the dozens of offers from every place I had ever shopped. Suddenly everyone was having a sale, every merchant was making a mask, and every restaurant that was still open was offering takeout, delivery, and dry goods such as flour and yeast. I hit delete on each one until I saw a message from an unfamiliar name – Jake Hampton – with a subject that read “Good Gruyère.” The Globe article had included my email address, so I had figured I might get a few emails. I braced myself as I opened it, hoping Jake was nice and not looking for some sketchy business partnership. There were scams happening all over the restaurant sphere, and I wanted to be careful.

“Dear Harper: I was a regular customer. I worked across the street and always got the breakfast biscuit, no matter what it was. Well, except for the time there was cilantro in the guacamole that was on it, because for me it tastes like soap. I’m one of those people. I swear it wasn’t personal.” I couldn’t help but smile. I had a vague recollection of this conversation. I talked to so many people every day at GG, and I couldn’t recall what Jake Hampton looked like, but this rang a bell. “Anyway, I am a big fan, and I’m so sorry about you losing your business. I read the article in the Globe this morning, and although this won’t save Good Gruyère, I’d like to help you if I can. Could we chat about a catering possibility? Sincerely, Jake Hampton.”

It was a nice email, but I was also a bit taken aback that he wanted to cater an event in a pandemic. Still, I had absolutely nothing going on. I knew that I could do things safely on my end and just drop food off somewhere. If these people wanted their event, they would do it with or without me. I wrote back to Jake. “Sure, let’s talk.”

 

*****

 

The apartment complex where I was living was across the street from several office buildings, many of which were completely empty, as almost everyone was working from home. There were picnic tables outside of one, so I told Jake to meet me there at 5 PM. It was close enough to the road that I felt safe and could literally run up to the heavily guarded Air Force base gate if he turned out to be a lunatic. I hadn’t talked to anyone in person in weeks, and masks made everyone look like a bank robber. I felt like I had lost all ability to think rationally, but I strapped on my most friendly-looking mask – light pink with fuchsia flowers – and walked over to the empty bench with a notebook and pen. I took a few deep breaths as I saw an Audi sedan pull up and a man with medium brown hair and hints of facial hair peeking out from his mask get out and walk towards me. He wore sunglasses and a pullover and jeans. He looked incredibly normal, and when he took off his sunglasses, I loosened the grip on my notebook a bit.

“I remember you,” I said. “Breakfast sandwich with a hot tea, lemon slice. Honey if it was really cold out.” Did that sound stalkerish? Nah, I just knew my customers. “Harper Burke. I would shake your hand if this was a few months ago. Nice to meet you.”

Jake sat down at the other end of the table, so we were sitting diagonally across from each other. “This is weird, right? Jake Hampton. Wow, we are right across from Hanscom. I grew up on bases, so this is pretty wild.”

I sat up a little straighter. It was so rare that I meant anyone – especially in the Boston area – with my background. I glanced at his left hand as quickly as I could. No ring. “Me, too. I actually lived on this one for my junior and senior year of high school. When I had to give up GG – that’s what I call Good Gruyère – and my apartment in the North End, I didn’t know where else to go. I could swing an apartment here, um, near here, for at least a few months. It felt familiar, even if I don’t know anyone here anymore. What about you? Are you in the city?”

Jake gave me a brief overview of his situation; he lived in Cambridge but worked for a small web design firm in Back Bay, which was operating out of a condo across the street from GG. They sent everyone to work from home for now and likely forever. “My boss literally sleeps on a Murphy bed in what was our company’s base of operations. I guess he gets his bedroom back now,” he mused. He had grown up in a Navy family, living all over the world and ultimately graduating from high school outside of Washington, D.C. “I got out of there as fast as I could,” he said. “Boston might feel like a competitive place to some, but it’s nothing like the rat race of D.C.” He moved north for college at Boston University and never left.

It felt so good to talk to someone in person, and I even forgot I was wearing a mask from time to time. “So, what’s the event? I used to do a lot of catering back before I had GG, but it’s been a while. I might be a little rusty, but I am sure I can figure it out.”

Jake zipped up his fleece; it may have been May, but Boston was notoriously late to start true spring weather. Just as he was about to begin talking, “Retreat” blasted over the base speakers. With most other people, I would have uncomfortably either forged ahead with conversation, but Jake paused, and so did I. It was both eerie and reassuring to be in the presence of someone else who understood this. We sat in slightly awkward silence, as I doodled a bit on the page in front of me, recalling how many times in my life I had stopped what I was doing or pulled the car over if I was driving on base when I heard that.

Once the national anthem was over, Jake cleared his throat. “It’s been a long time since I’ve heard that,” he said, referring to the music that signaled the end of the duty day on military bases. “Okay, so it’s my mom’s wedding. My dad was a lot older than her – fifteen years older – and passed away three years ago. She’s 70 and head over heels for a guy in her golf league. I know everyone’s postponing their weddings, but she’s like I’m 70, why wait, and I can’t say I blame her.”

We went through the plans, how they had paired it down to only eight people, “including her fiancé’s son, who is also the officiant,” and that it would just be in her backyard in nearby Lincoln. Jake pointed towards the base and said, “literally, as the crow flies, on the other side of the airfield that way.” I jotted everything down, including his thoughts on the food. “Of course, the gruyère biscuits as a must. What about the bacon mac and cheese?”

I thought about it, wanting to make sure that everything was offered individually and not in a classic family-style sort of manner, given the circumstances. It sounded like the guests were taking precautions, but I wanted to be as careful as I could. “I can put that in cups, that’s easy,” I replied. “How about one more sort of main item? Any thoughts?”

Jake smiled. He had a nice smile. “I loved that cheesesteak special you had last year. One of my coworkers brought them over at lunch and went back to get more. What could we do with something like that?”

Those had been delicious. Caramelized onions, thinly sliced grilled New York strip steaks, shaved gruyère, tangy mustard sauce, a fresh roll…my mouth watered thinking about it. “What about a crostini? I could put everything on a toasted baguette slice.” It really did sound good.

Jake clasped his hands together as if he about to dig into a big meal. “That’s perfect. This is going to be great. And honestly, I’ve missed GG – do you mind if I call it that? Is that too familiar?”

“By all means, be familiar,” I replied, wondering if he could tell that I was flirting with him just a little. I had no idea what this guy’s situation was. “So, um, who is coming to the wedding? Just family?”

Jake began counting off on his fingers. “Mom, Joe – that’s fiancé…my little sister and her husband…my uncle who is driving up from Florida in his RV as we speak, and who we will immediately make quarantine in Mom’s driveway…Joe’s son, who is officiating, and his girlfriend. And me. That’s eight.”

Yes, it was. I smiled underneath my mask, for once grateful that I was wearing it. “Okay, this will be fun. I’ll throw in some veggie and fruit kebabs, because even I know that this is a lot of cheese.” I stood up. It was getting chillier and as much as I enjoyed talking to Jake, I didn’t want to overplay my hand. “This was nice, you know, actually talking to someone in person. I’ll be in touch as I work on this.”

He also stood. “This is going to be great. They’re going to love this.” He shifted on his feet a bit. “I think this was what my sister would call a ‘meet cute.’ Did I say that right? Or is it called something else?”

I laughed. “No, I think that’s it. I’ll see you next Saturday.” I started walking across the parking lot towards the street.

“Where are you going?” yelled Jake.

“There!” I said, pointing up at the cream-colored buildings. “I really did move across the street from the base.” I heard him laugh as I ran across the street, excited to get to work.

 

*****

 

It had been a long time since I had felt invigorated to do much of anything, let alone plan and cook. The previous couple of months had been miserable, from the moment we had to close GG to discovering that the owner of the building was selling to a real estate developer who wanted to build a high-end condo complex. It felt eerily similar to the fall after I had graduated from college, when I was teaching middle school science and felt beyond dismal. I finally started coming home from work and cooking, to the point where I was calling in sick so that I could perfect recipes. One of my roommates finally called me out on it and posed, “Why aren’t you looking for restaurant jobs? What are you doing teaching when you obviously don’t like it?” These were the painful questions I needed to be asked, and although I didn’t feel any pride in quitting my first real job, it was ultimately the right thing to do. Years of prep cook work, catering, and eventually line cook work – plus stashing away every extra dollar – led me to the point where I could start GG on my own, hiring a small staff and making the best food I could dream up.

I would be lying if I didn’t feel highly motivated in this wedding project by the fact that I was working on it with Jake. What started as texts and phone calls centered around planning evolved into frequent FaceTimes that branched off in different directions as we commiserated about our military brat childhoods and moves from place to place, as well as how it has affected us as adults. I admitted to him that I struggled in relationships, always wondering if it was time to move on. I normally wouldn’t have told a potential partner something like this so early on – before even dating someone – but with Jake, it felt safe. He seemed to get it and disclosed some of his own post-military brat stories.

“I once flew across the country to San Diego to meet up with a girl I had a crush on in elementary school. We reconnected on Facebook.”

I laughed at his eager expression on my phone screen. “And how was that?”

“Terrible,” he replied. “We really had nothing to talk about after we reminisced about fifth grade. I flew back here the next day. I have no idea what I was thinking.”

By the time it was Saturday, I felt ready and excited. Jake had taken care of the backyard décor, with a large tent set up filled with white lights and battery-powered pillar candles. As he helped me to unload the supplies, he said, “I hope this wasn’t too much work. I know you’re used to having a staff, and this probably involved a lot of logistics.”

I carried the tray full of biscuits towards one of the tables. “Not at all. Keep in mind that we were open seven days a week, and I usually only had a few other people working there at a time. This felt very relaxed and enjoyable.”

I had planned to stand in the back during the very short ceremony, but Jake had a chair reserved for me with my name on it. The whole event was very sweet, and his mom and her fiancé were beyond ecstatic to be marrying each other. I would have loved to see that meet-cute on the golf course. Meeting Jake’s family members was delightful, and I especially felt fantastic to see them enjoy GG classics in pandemic party-ready form. And the cheesesteaks really did reach next-level greatness reimagined as crostini.

As Jake’s mom and Joe danced to the music playing from a Bluetooth speaker, Jake wandered over to where I was standing on the edge of the tent, watching everything from a distance. “This has been really beautiful,” I said to him. “Thanks for including me.” I meant it; it felt nice to be involved in something so meaningful and joyous in a time that often felt so empty.

He reached for my hand, and we walked out into the yard, which was finally starting to show some signs of impending summer, with softer grass and a few dandelions sprouting. The breeze picked up, and the sounds of “Taps” chimed from the base, not too far away.

“RRT,” I said softly as the music ended. “Another day done.”

“RRT?” he asked.

“Reveille, Retreat, Taps,” I answered. “It’s how I have been measuring each day since I moved out of the city. Just going through the motions. Until this past week. This past week has been much better.”

Jake started fiddling with his phone. “Have you bothered to look at the GoFundMe, Harper? I kind of get the impression that you haven’t.”

I honestly had forgotten about it, focusing on wedding preparation and FaceTime calls with Jake. I took the phone from him and looked at it, almost dropping it in the process. “What? I mean, how? This is crazy.”

“Everyone loves your food,” he said, squeezing the hand that wasn’t holding his phone. “Exhibit A is right over there,” he said, pointing to his family. “They had never even been to Good Gruyère. They just know that what they’re eating is awesome.”

I walked back towards the edge of the tent, so I could see everyone enjoy the mini cheesecakes topped with fresh strawberries that I had managed to pick from the very first crop of the year. Jake came up alongside me and asked, “I never asked you. Why did you call it Good Gruyère?”

I sighed. “I wanted it to be ‘Good Gruyère!’ with an exclamation point, like Charlie Brown saying, ‘Good Grief!’ But the sign got messed up and they left it off. I had barely enough money to open my doors, so I couldn’t get it remade in time. But here’s my second chance.”

Jake gestured out into the distance, “So you’re thinking…”

I closed my eyes and listened to the sounds of laughter and people enjoying my creations once again. “The suburbs are ready for some really good, no, some great gruyère.” I put my arm around Jake’s waist and settled in a bit. “We’ll make sure there’s an exclamation point this time.”

Jenn Bouchard's debut novel First Course was published by TouchPoint Press in 2021. Her short stories have appeared in the Bookends Review, Litbreak Magazine, the Penmen Review, and the Little Patuxent Review. She recently finished writing her second novel, titled Palms on the Cape. She is a graduate of Bates College and Tufts University. A high school social studies teacher of twenty-two years, she lives with her husband and two children in the Boston suburbs.