Authors: Barbara Valentin
Mattie sat back in her chair and stared at her faux marriage prop, watching the prism of colors dance off of it before giving it a quick buff against her pant leg.
Narrowing her eyes, she mulled which email to open first.
Only two piqued her interest. One was a request for the chicken recipe that she mentioned in last week's column. The other was a plea for advice from "Stressed in Sycamore."
Since she had left her mother's delectable chicken recipe at home, she decided to go with Stressed—a wise choice since the guilt-ridden, corporate-ladder-climbing mommy's letter proved to be far more entertaining.
Mattie hammered out what she thought was a fitting response.
"Dear Stressed—It is not for me to judge whether you are a bad mother for missing your daughter's third grade poetry recital. Who could blame you for prioritizing your contribution to a high-profile corporate merger over sitting in a tiny chair next to other grinning parents, knees tucked under their chins while their little ones recited rhymes that took them days, if not weeks, to memorize? Truth be told, you have effectively taught her a valuable lesson: in life, we all experience rejection at one point or another. Better that she learn to get over the sting of it while she's young. If hurt feelings persist, perhaps you can parlay some of that handsome bonus you received into a new American Girl doll."
"Boy are we gonna hear about that one."
Startled, Mattie turned to see her editor, Dianne Devane, peering over her shoulder.
While she dished out the advice, Dianne had the pleasure of fielding the inevitable rebuttals from parenting organizations, the American Pediatric Association, and high-ranking school district officials.
And this response would be no exception.
"That's the goal, isn't it?" Mattie quipped. Looking back at her laptop, she asked, "Any openings in Metro yet?"
The transplanted Manhattanite leaned against the edge of Mattie's desk careful not to knock over more props—several framed pictures of smiling children and a ruggedly handsome man.
Ignoring her question, Dianne asked, "Is everything all right, Sweetie? You seem out of sorts."
Dianne called everyone "Sweetie" unless she didn't like them, and then it was "Putz."
"I've been writing this column for almost two years, Dianne. When you hired me, you said it would be temporary." She lowered her voice and added, "Until you could find someone who was really married and had kids."
"Has it been two years already? Time flies when your circulation just keeps growing."
Mattie sat up in her chair. "Dianne, I'm serious. I'll be the first to admit that I needed a place to hide out for a while after, well, you know. And I'm grateful you hired me. I am. But I'm ready to come out of hiding. You know, with my own byline. My own life…"
She studied Mattie and gave her back a quick rub. "Sorry. No can do, sweetie. Your problem is that you're too good at what you do."
Standing up, Dianne announced, "Come on. Let's celebrate your success at the spa this Saturday. My treat. We can spend the whole day there. Massages, hair, nails. What do you say? Blake and the kids are going to visit his parents in the Hamptons this weekend. This would give me the perfect excuse not to join them."
Mattie mulled the veiled bribe while she twirled a strand of her untamed curls. She knew she could definitely use some pampering, but with the added weight she'd put on since her rather traumatic humiliation, the thought of letting a stranger knead her bare skin made her shudder.
Through an apologetic smile, Mattie said, "Thanks, but you know what would really help me?"
"A raise." Plastering a big cheesy grin across her face, she clasped her hands in front of her and added, "Please, please, please."
Dianne chuckled. "Sorry, sweetie. I don't hold the purse strings. You want a raise, you're going to have to take it up with the big guy." She pointed her finger towards the ceiling.
"God?" Mattie teased.
"Close enough," Dianne laughed. "You know I mean Lester Crenshaw. Although, if you ask me, he's more devil than deity."
A shiver went down Mattie's spine at the mere mention of the publisher's name. While she had never met him, she did not relish the thought of confronting such a powerful figure.
"And heaven help you finding an open slot on his calendar," Dianne continued. "That man has more appointments than the Pope."
She had just turned to leave the already cramped cubicle when a slight delivery boy blocked her exit. Fumbling with a large box and a clipboard, he asked, "Plate Spinner?"
Dianne looked down on him and said, "No, not even close. Here's your girl."
Mattie stood up, took the parcel from him, jiggled it slightly, and then set it on her desk. "Oh goodie. Another slow cooker."
Mystified, Dianne asked, "How can you be so sure? Judging by the size of the box, it could be a Smart Car."
"Because it's the fourth one I've gotten since I wrote that column on how my life would be so much easier if I could just get my hands on a programmable slow cooker."
"What was it last month? Blenders?"
"Smoothie makers," Mattie corrected. "My apartment is starting to look like an appliance store. And I hate carrying these things home on the train."
"Donate them," Dianne laughed. "Or, better yet, sell them on eBay."
And just like that, she turned and left, reminding Mattie of the Cheshire Cat in
Alice in Wonderland
* * *
Arriving at her train stop that evening, Mattie hoisted the slow cooker box into her arms and apologized to everyone she bumped into on her way down the steps that deposited her at the corner of Fullerton and Sheffield.
Her cheeks burned in the cool fall air that carried with it the tantalizing aroma of basil-laced tomato sauce, covered with imported mozzarella on a crispy bed of butter and cornmeal crust.
Her inner food slut moaned, "Melvin's."
Ducking into the purveyor of the best deep-dish pizza in the city, she set the box on the counter with a huff.
A perky blonde greeted her with a sugary smack of enthusiasm, "Hey Mattie. What can I get you today?"
"Hi Trish. The usual. Only this time, make it a large and could you ask one of the guys to bring it by?" Patting the box, she stated the obvious. "I've got my hands full tonight."
Handing over her credit card, she added, "And throw in a pint of gelato too, please."
Holding the card in midair, Trish asked. "Chocolate or pistachio?"
Mattie gave her a knowing look.
"What was I thinking?" Trish laughed. "Chocolate, it is."
She handed back the credit card and sent Mattie on her way with the promise of a dinner she shouldn't eat to an apartment she couldn't afford, and carrying a slow cooker she didn't want, all the while thinking of a marriage that could have been.
* * *
Nick DeRosa planted his feet on the edge of the red spray-painted line that served as the first mile marker at the Illinois High School Association's boys' cross-country state meet. Peering down the trail that wound through Peoria's Detwieler Park, he checked the stopwatch cupped in the palm of his hand. The bright green numbers flashed "4:20."
"Where are they?" he whispered.
Standing within earshot, a trim man, fiftyish with a casual, but well-appointed air about him edged closer and replied, "Must be the mud, Coach."
Nick glanced at his unofficial assistant Lester Crenshaw, publisher of the Griffin Media Group's
. Like Nick, he was a former all-American runner, but Lester was also the proud father of the team's number seven man.
Before he could respond, Nick felt the ground begin to rumble as two hundred high school boys charged toward them.
Backing away, he handed his stopwatch to Lester, pulled a pen out from behind his ear, lifted his clipboard from under his arm, and shouted, "Give me the times."
Lester didn't miss a beat.
"5:05, 5:15, 5:26, 5:45, 5:48, 6:10, 6:40."
When the last Knollwood Knight flew past them, the two men started marching across a manicured field toward the second mile marker. The sky had cleared after the early morning shower but neither took notice of the brilliant fall colors surrounding them.
"Think we'll place?" Lester ventured as he hurried after Nick whose strides were nearly double in length to his own.
Nick stopped and turned to face him. "Like I tell my guys, it's not about winning. It's about doing their best. If they place, they place. If they don't, they don't."
He watched Lester's eyes rove from his worn shoes to his frayed cap, noting the disappointment he had in his "hometown hero" almost as clearly as if Lester had spoken it out loud. "You know, Coach, some parents seem to think you're too soft on the guys. I think they miss Burt's ironfisted approach."
"Is that right? I'd like to see them survive the workouts I put these guys through."
He left Lester in his wake as he continued his stomp across the field, trying to shake off the ghost of his former coach, even if he did give him a job when no one else would.
By the time he reached the two-mile marker, Nick had calmed down enough to realize that Lester was right. Their coaching methods were not the same. Where Burt Stoltz, an iconic figure in the field of high school boys' cross-country, had focused on punishing workouts to build up his runners' physical strength, Nick believed the greater reward came from building up their emotional strength.
Catching up to Nick well before the hoards of other parents, coaches, and well-wishers, Lester checked the time on the stopwatch against the numbers flashing on the big digital timer on the opposite side of the trail.
Turning to Nick he said, "I hope you know I don't share in their opinion. I'll never be able to thank you enough for all that you've done for Bobby. For us."
Nick frowned at him. "What are ya talkin' about? Bobby's a great kid."
Lester slapped him on the back. "Yes, but you are an amazing coach. You are. I don't care what anybody else thinks. When his mother and I divorced, that was really hard on him. Just a couple of months ago, he was frail, bullied, and starting to self-destruct. But look at him now. He's a varsity cross-country runner. Never thought I'd see the day. They ought to call you 'The Transformer.'"
Nick shook his head and thought about Bobby. He first met the boy when he caught him trying to swipe a stack of hall passes from the teachers' lounge. There was something about his manner that reminded Nick of his own twin brother. Like Bobby, Eddie didn't feel that the rules applied to him, so he broke them. Often. And, like Eddie, who bought his popularity by selling exam answer sheets that he had stolen after hacking into the school district's database, Bobby thought the only way he could get people to like him was by selling them a hall pass.
Like so many high school underdogs, all they needed was the right combination of discipline and positive feedback. So, instead of regretting for the thousandth time that he didn't do more to get Eddie to join the cross-country team with him their freshman year in high school, Nick gave Bobby an ultimatum
join the team or face disciplinary action. Thankfully, Bobby chose the former.
Lester's voice sliced through the brisk autumn air like half-inch spikes through a hard-packed dirt course. "You have a tremendous gift for bringing out the very best in people, you know that?"
"Yeah, well tell that to the school board for me, will ya?"
Leaning closer, Lester asked, "Why? What happened?"
Nick lowered his voice. "If we don't finish in the top three today, they're gonna pull my contract."
Lester winced and drew a deep breath. He was well aware of the hard road Nick had to travel to get where he was. "How can they expect that after just one season?"
"Well, they hired me when no one else would, didn't they? But I know a lot of board members aren't willing to leave the past in the past."
Patting him on the shoulder, Lester did his best to sound encouraging. "Ah, screw them. Hell, you're the Comeback Kid, remember?"
Taking in a deep sigh, Nick said, "Not yet, I'm not."
Lester chuckled. "Are you kidding? Look at what you've been through. Your own twin steals your identify, you're accused of a crime you didn't commit, you lose everything, you exonerate yourself, and you manage to convince your old high school coach to let you take over when he announces his retirement. You've been to hell and back, kid."
Nick looked down at his mud-covered shoes and thought of his tiny Bucktown apartment and the fact that he still had to borrow his mother's old Buick sedan whenever he had to drive anywhere.
"No. I'm not back yet. I'm not even at the door."
Remembering the days when, as team captain, he led the same team to first place three years in a row, he mumbled, "I just need one good win."
Staring toward the spot in the woods out of which the runners would soon burst, he stood tall among the crowd of spectators surrounding him. A curious mix, to be sure. For each skinny teenage runner with a number pinned to his chest, there appeared to be at least two middle-aged adults who evidently hadn't broken a good sweat on a regular basis, on purpose for quite some time.