Authors: Joan Hess
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For my beloved grandchildren,
Annabelle Hadley and Jack Benton
Born July 8, 2010
“Why's your shirt covered in blood?” Caron asked as she sat down at the kitchen island and held up her cell phone to capture the moment.
“It's mostly tomato sauce,” I said, peering at the recipe. There were twenty-two ingredients, and I was facing number sixteen: “easy aioli.” Apparently, it was too easy to suggest directions. I did not have Julia Child on speed dial. Number seventeen in the recipe was one cup of dry white wine. An excellent idea. I poured myself a cup and leaned against the counter, temporarily stymied but not yet defeated.
I waggled my index finger, which sported an adhesive strip. “I'm working on my knife skills. Cooking is not for sissies.”
My darling daughter wrinkled her nose. “It smells fishy in here. What on earth are you making?”
It's a classic French fish stew. I intend to serve it tonight with”âI glanced at the cookbookâ“crusty bread and a salad with homemade vinaigrette. For dessert, Riesling-poached pears.”
“Are we eating at midnight?”
I refused to look back at the horrendous mess that encompassed all the counters, the sink filled with bowls and utensils, the vegetable debris, open jars and bottles, and a splatter of tomato sauce, sweat, and tears. “I'm making progress,” I said loftily.
“Whatever.” She took a few more photos, then put down her cell. “You will be relieved to know that I may be able to go to college in a year, despite your lack of guidance. Otherwise, I'm doomed to survive on an annual income of less than twenty-five thousand. I won't be able to go to the dentist, so all my teeth will fall out. No matter how badly I'm bleeding, I'll have to tie a dirty rag around the wound and limp into work. My last manicure will be for graduation. Do you know how expensive fingernail polish isâeven at discount stores?”
“I have no idea.” I went into the library and looked up “aioli” in a dictionary. “Garlic, egg yolk, lemon juice, olive oil,” I chanted as I returned to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. Once I'd found eggs and lemons, I set them on the counter. “What specific lack of maternal guidance has imperiled your future education?”
“Community serviceâand I don't mean the kind that some judge orders you to do. It has to be voluntary. You didn't tell me that you have to show the college admissions boards that you're committed to helping the less fortunate.”
“I applied to college in the Mesozoic era. I did so by filling out a form and submitting my transcript and ACT scores.” I paused to replay what she'd said. “Shall I assume you're planning to fill that gap in your rÃ©sumÃ©? Did you volunteer at the homeless shelter or a soup kitchen? I can't quite see you adopting a mile of highway and picking up litter in an orange vest.”
“Inez found this really cool place where we can volunteer to teach English as a second language to foreigners. It's like four hours a week, and we arrange our own schedules. I figure that if we're there from eleven to noon, we'll have plenty of time to go to the lake and the mall.” Having rescued herself from a lifetime of cosmetology or auto mechanics, she moved on to a more crucial topic. “Can I have a pool party this Saturday afternoon? I want everybody to see our new house. I may even invite Rhonda Maguire and her band of clueless cheerleaders.”
“Our new house” was also known as my perfect houseâa hundred-and-fifty-year-old Victorian gem, spacious yet cozy, with bits of gingerbread trim, hardwood floors that gleamed with sunshine, and twenty-first century indulgences. It was located at the far edge of Farberville, with a stream, a meadow dotted with wildflowers, and an apple orchard. There had been a few problems with the resident Hollow Valley family members involving malfeasance and murder, but I'd solved the case for the Farberville Police Department (and vacated the valley of the majority of its occupants). We'd moved in two weeks earlier. Now Peter, my divinely handsome husband who had been blessed with molasses-colored eyes and an aristocratic nose, had his own tie rack, his own wine cellar, and his own chaise longue on the terrace overlooking the pool. I'd claimed the library as my haven and spent a lot of time playing on the rolling ladder that allowed access to the highest shelves of books. I'd also arranged the contents of the walk-in closets, added artwork, located most of the light switches, and mastered the washing machine and the dryer. I'd barely seen my beloved bookstore, the Book Depot, since Peter hired a grad student to be the clerk. My presence was tolerated as long as I approved orders and invoices and signed checks. Lingering was not encouraged.
After a few days of reading poetry in the meadow, I felt the need to do something of importance. It was too early to make cider, and the idea of knitting made me queasy. Thus I had decided to master the art of French cooking. My
had been a success, as had the
coq au vin;
terrine de filets de sole
had been less so. My
soufflÃ© au chocolat
had sunk. My
petites crÃªpes aux deux fromages
had been met with derision.
C'est la vie.
“Yes, you may have a party,” I said as I attempted to separate an egg. “You handle the foodâunless you want to serve
mousse de saumon.
“How do you say âyuck' in French?” Caron was too busy texting to wait for a response. “Do you care how many people I invite?”
I picked up another egg. “I suppose not, as long as you clean up afterward. I don't see what's so easy about aioli. Is there a utensil to crush the garlic? What's wrong with garlic powder?”
“Oh, no!” she shrieked so loudly that my hand clutched the egg with excessive force. “I can't believe this! I've already sent thirty e-vites. Everybody's going to think I'm an idiot!”
I held my hand under the tap and let the gloppy mess dribble down the drain. “What's wrong? Did Rhonda decline?”
“I got a text from Inez. We have to attend a training session at the Literacy Council on Saturday from ten in the morning until six. Eight hours of training to point at a picture and say, âApple.' It's not like I'm going to explain the difference between the pluperfect and the imperfect. I don't care, so why should they?”
“You can always be an aromatherapist.”
Caron gave me a contemptuous look over her cell phone. “You are so Not Funny.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
During the week, I attempted to conquer, with varying results,
gratin de coquilles St.-Jacques, quiche Lorraine,
went into the garbage disposal. Peter was so impressed by my relentless enthusiasm that he insisted on taking me out to dinner on Saturday. As we lingered over
bifteck et pommes de terre
(aka steaks and baked potatoes), he suggested that I might want to spend more time at the Book Depot, learn to play bridge, take a class at the college, or volunteer for a worthy cause. It was very dear of him to worry that I was expending too much time on housewife duties and would enjoy a respite. I gazed into his eyes and assured him that I was having a lovely time in the kitchen, although cooking and cleaning up could be wearisome. My eyes almost welled with tears as he spoke of the wealth of knowledge and experience I could share with the community, were I to sacrifice my nascent culinary goal.
I was thinking about our conversation the next day when Caron and Inez slunk in and collapsed on the sofa. Caron was fuming. Inez, her best friend, looked pale and distressed, and she was blinking rapidly behind the thick lenses of her glasses. I wiped my damp hands on a dish towel and joined them. “Problems at the Literacy Council yesterday?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Caron muttered. “The training session was interminable. The teacher basically read aloud from the manual while we followed along, like
were illiterate. We broke for pizza and then listened to her drone on for another four hours. After that, the executive director, some pompous guy named Gregory Whistler, came in and thanked us for volunteering. I was so thrilled that I almost woke up.”
“Then it got worse,” Inez said. “The program director, who's Japanese and looks like she's a teenager, told us that because of the shortage of volunteers in the summer we would each get four studentsâand meet with them twice a week for an hour.”
“For a total of Eight Hours.” Caron's sigh evolved into an agonized moan. “We have to call them and find a time that's mutually convenient. It could be six in the morning or four in the afternoon. We may never make it to the lake.”
I noticed that her lower lip was trembling. It was oddly comforting to realize that she was still susceptible to postpubescent angst at the
sophisticated age of seventeen. Caron and Inez had provided me with much amusement in recent years, along with more than a few gray hairs and headaches. Their antics had been inventive, to put it mildly, and always under the guise of righteous indignation. Or so they claimed, anyway. In the last month alone, they'd figured out a way to bypass a security system to get inside a residence. They'd abetted a runaway, hacked into a computer, and perfected the art of lying by omission. There may have been a genetic predisposition for that last one.
“Do you know who your students will be?” I asked.
Inez consulted a piece of paper. “We have their names and telephone numbers. We're supposed to call them and schedule our sessions. I have a woman from Colombia, a woman from Egypt, and a man and woman from Mexico. I wish I'd taken Spanish instead of Latin.”
“And I,” Caron said, rolling her eyes, “have to tutor an old lady from Poland, a Chinese man, an Iranian woman, and a woman from Russia. How am I supposed to call them on the phone? They don't speak English. Like I speak Polish, Chinese, Russian, and whatever they speak in Iran. This is a nightmare, and I think we ought to just quit now. I say we set up a lemonade stand and donate the proceeds to some charity.”
I looked at her. “That'll impress the admissions boards at Bryn Mawr and Vanderbilt. Of course, you can always stay here and attend Farber College.”
She looked right back at me. “Yes, and I can live here the entire four years. Imagine the size of the pool parties when I meet all the freshmen. They can come out here to do their laundry and graze on
You'll be like a sorority and fraternity housemother. Won't that be great?”
I went into the kitchen and leaned against the counter. I do not sweat, but there may have been the faintest perspiration glinting on my flawless brow. I'd created some lovely fantasies to explore after I recovered from the empty nest syndromeâwhich would be measured in hours, if not minutes. In the foreseeable future, scissors and tape would be in their designated drawer, my clothes would remain in my closet unless I was washing or wearing them, my makeup would lie serenely on the bathroom counter, and I could cease putting aside cash for bail money. I'd resigned myself to one more yearânot five more years.