Out of Control
Tuesday, July 26, 2011
Wagon wheels rumbled over the hard earth and stones along the Ohio trail before dipping down to splash through a creek. Rain clouds swathed the hot sky, pacifying the intense sunrays for seconds and sometimes minutes at a time. Nature’s game of hide-and-seek was welcome relief from the heat that had trailed the Inspirationists since they left New York. Two long weeks ago.
Water seeped through Amalie Wiese’s boots as she stepped into the creek. The coldness bathed her stockings and chilled her toes. If only she could take a bath tonight. Clean the dust and sweat off her skin and soothe the aches that rippled up her legs and back and settled into her shoulders.
Beside her Karoline Baumer picked up her skirt and stepped into the creek. She squealed with delight as the cold water soaked her bare toes and splashed on her legs. Her friend’s pale yellow hair was hidden under a lilac-colored sunbonnet, the same sunbonnet all of the women in their community wore. Even with the head covering draped over her ears and shoulders, hiding her cheeks, Amalie could see the freckles that dotted the nose of the lively girl who’d been working beside her for the past two years.
Karoline was barely twenty, but she was one of the hardest workers Amalie knew. And there was nothing Amalie respected more than a man or a woman who worked hard.
For the past ten of her twenty-four years, Amalie had cooked and cleaned six and a half days a week as a helper and then as the assistant baas in one of the colony’s communal kitchens. She didn’t mind the cooking or cleaning. It was the wilderness she hated. The dirt and the bramble and the vicious mosquitoes that liked to feed on her skin. Her kitchen was clean. Controlled. With a bit of scrubbing, she could eradi¬cate any sign of disorder in the kitchen, but out here on the trail, there was no way to keep the dirt off her clothes, her skin, or her dishes.
She wouldn’t grumble about the long journey through the trees and hills, at least not with her lips, but it comforted her to know that the elders would never ask any of them to travel the states between New York and Iowa again. Once they reached the new Kolonie, they would be home.
“How are your feet?” Karoline asked.
Karoline actually giggled. “Mine too.”
“I wish I could laugh about it.”
“You should take off your shoes,” Karoline said, but Amalie shook her head. Even if she could hide her bare feet under her long dress, she didn’t want her toes to touch the dirt.
“It’s all part of the adventure,” Karoline insisted.
“I’m having enough of an adventure with my shoes on.”
Copper boilers, kettles, and skillets clanged in the wagon beside the women, and behind them was another wagon filled with barrels of flour and sugar, flatware, tablecloths, and ceramic jars to start the new Kolonie kitchen. The barrels and crates rattled together as they forged the creek.
They were going to replenish their food supply in the town of Lisbon tonight with meat from the butchery and fresh fruit and vegetables. And if they made it to Lisbon before dark, she was secretly hoping for a hot meal as well, along with a bath at a hotel instead of another night in a tent.
The hooves of two oxen beside them plodded back onto dry ground, and she and Karoline both hopped up onto the bank as another wagon rode into the water. In front of them were two wagons with nine other wagons following behind, all of them filled with supplies and clothing and family heirlooms. On their way to paradise.
The elders had written in great detail about the twenty-six thou¬sand acres they had purchased in the Iowa River Valley. They wrote about the timberland and pastures for their animals and plenty of sandstone and clay to build their villages. They described the lush hills and pristine river and rich soil in the land.
Amana is what they named the land, from the Song of Solomon. To remain true. It would be the perfect place for their community, the Community of the True Inspiration.
And it would be the perfect place for her and Friedrich to begin their marriage.
In her dreams, she imagined a private reunion with Friedrich away from the crowds in the new Kolonie. Friedrich had never kissed her before, but in the darkness of her tent, on the long nights when she couldn’t sleep, she imagined what it would feel like to finally be in his arms.
She wouldn’t care then about the sweat and dirt and the endless walking on this journey. The three years of waiting would melt away in his embrace, and if God blessed them with a long life, their bond would be strong sixty or even seventy years from now as they told the story of their move to grandchildren and perhaps even to great-grandchildren. The Inspirationists had been migrating slowly to the new Kolonie for eight years now. Friedrich and several hundred other men had built six villages on the land, and the elders purchased a seventh village two years ago—a railroad town named Homestead. Their Kolonie was a harbor from the rough world around them, a protected place far removed from the cities in this big country and the strains of materialism that tempted their people. The community would keep all of them from falling away from their devotion to the spiritual life. They would be bound together as a people who promised to remain true to God and to each other.
Amalie and Karoline were the only two women on this journey west—the rest of the women and children remained at the Inspiration¬ist colony in New York called Ebenezer. If she and Karoline had waited, they would have been able to travel by steamship across Lake Erie and then by iron train with Friedrich’s family and the rest of the group coming to Iowa in the autumn months. Instead, Amalie had convinced the elders that the men escorting the dozen wagons with supplies to Iowa needed a couple of women to cook for them.
At the time, traveling by wagon seemed like a good idea. She and Karoline had both been excited to see a bit of America, and she was ready to take a respite from her parents’ influence. Her mother was a midwife in Ebenezer and assisted the doctor whenever he needed her. Amalie’s father was one of the elders helping secure the sale of the property in New York. They would leave Ebenezer with the final group moving west, probably in a year or two.
More than anything else, though, Amalie had chosen to go with the wagon train because she would see Friedrich two months earlier than if she had waited.
The Wiese name was one of strength, of men and women who escaped persecution in Germany and traveled the rough seas from Europe so they and their families could worship God in freedom. Herancestors and even her parents faced many more trials than she ever had. Surely she could finish this journey to Iowa.
Karoline looked up at the trees above them. “Isn’t God’s creation beautiful?”
Amalie glanced up. Light filtered through the web of branches and leaves and spilled over them, but her toes were too cold to appreciate the beauty.
“I’m hot one minute and then freezing the next.”
Karoline laughed. “You don’t like nature much, do you?”
“It’s not that,” she started but then caught herself. There was no reason for her to be untruthful with Karoline. “I just miss my kitchen.”
“That’s why you will make such a good kitchen baas,” Karoline replied. “You actually enjoy the work.”
“You’d make a good kitchen baas if you wanted to do it.”
Karoline shook her head. “I’d much rather plant the food than cook it.”
“Maybe one day you will work in the gardens,” Amalie said. “But you’re not allowed to start gardening until next year.”
She needed Karoline’s capable hands to help her start the new kitchen in Amana.
“Not until next year,” Karoline assured her.
The ox snorted beside her, and Amalie reached out her hand and patted its back. She could feel his ribs through his warm skin. He was probably hungry too.
“Don’t distract him,” Christoph Faust commanded in German. The man rode up on the other side of the oxen, towering over them from his saddle. Karoline slowed her pace to walk behind Amalie.
Mr. Faust was an immigrant from Prussia, and because of his knowledge of the German language and his experience leading pio¬neers west, the elders had hired him as a wagon master to lead their rain to Iowa. The wide brim on his hat circled his head like a rugged halo. He reminded Amalie of the mighty angels of the Bible, the ones who could strike down the disobedient with a wave of their hand.
“I wasn’t distracting him. I was encouraging him.” Amalie glanced away from the wagon master, down to the wet hem of her skirt. One of the rules of their conduct was to be polite and friendly towards every¬one, but she didn’t feel comfortable being too friendly with Mr. Faust. “We all want to get to Lisbon tonight for a decent meal.”
“I don’t know why, Miss Wiese,” he said. “Your cooking is the best I’ve ever tasted on the trail.”
She kept her eyes focused on the jagged rocks and patches of clover that garnished the trail. Some women might blush at a compliment like that, but Amalie knew that flattery only led to an inflated view of one’s self. A false view. Each person was created equal in God’s sight. Their skills and talents contributed to God’s kingdom, not to building up a kingdom that would crumble the day they left this world.
She could feel Mr. Faust’s gaze still on her, awaiting her response from atop his horse.
“What do you usually eat on the trail?”
“Anything we can catch,” he said with a grin. “Sometimes a squir¬rel or a snake.”
Her stomach rolled at the thought of eating a snake. No wonder he liked her food. “I’m glad to know my stew tastes better than squirrel meat.”
Mr. Faust leaned down over the oxen, and his gaze locked onto her. “I’d ask you to marry me, Miss Wiese, if I was the kinda man to settle down.”
Heat climbed up her neck at the thought of marrying an unruly man like Mr. Faust. She couldn’t imagine it nor would she honor the absurdity of his statement with a reply.
Marriage should be discussed behind closed doors, not out in the open with Karoline beside her and so many of her fellow community members listening to their conversation. Mr. Faust’s foolish words were sure to travel to Iowa. To Friedrich. Then she would have to answer questions about why she was even talking to this man.
He continued, seemingly oblivious to her discomfort. Or perhaps he was enjoying it.
“I might even think about joining your community,” he said. “If you’d marry me.”
She lifted her chin a bit higher. “There are plenty of women who could cook a decent meal for you, Mr. Faust.”
“But few of them are as pretty as you.”
Her chest quivered. Not because she held any interest in Christoph Faust or any man like him, but because of his close attention to her. His scrutiny. None of the women in their community were ever singled out for their beauty or their talents except on the occasion when a man was serious about a marriage. Then he would ask her permission, along with the permission of the elders, to marry her.
She tugged at her sunbonnet until it hid her face.
Was she pretty Or was Mr. Faust flattering her with idle words in hopes that she would continue cooking for him?
It didn’t matter what his reason. She scolded herself for entertain¬ing even a moment of his flattery.
Do not love the world and do not follow the customs of the world. Do not love beauty nor daintiness of dress, much less boast in them.
She must battle against the flattery. Against the wiles of the devil that would tempt her to seek beauty or the pride that would ensue if she believed herself to be pretty. Not that Mr. Faust was the devil, but as she’d learned in Lehrschule, the evil one used the unsuspecting to draw members away from the tight bonds of their society.
“It doesn’t matter, Mr. Faust,” she said, venturing a glance at him from the side of her bonnet. His gaze was intent on her face. “I’ve already promised to marry a man in Iowa.”
The smile on his face fell. “He’s a lucky fella.”
“I’m the blessed one.”
He tipped his brim toward her. “Blessed, indeed.”
In front of them, the wagons disappeared around a bend in the road, and the oxen hauling the kitchen wagon followed them in the endless parade. But when the road straightened again, Amalie coughed as a cloud of smoke hovered in the trees around them. She scanned the forest on both sides to search for a clearing where fellow travelers had built a campfire to cook their supper.
“What is it?” Karoline whispered behind her.
She shook her head. “I don’t know.”
Instead of a campfire, black coils of smoke rose above the trees to their left, quickly turning the sky into a dark haze. She coughed again and covered her mouth with the calico from her bonnet.
“Whoa!” Mr. Faust shouted to the oxen.
He kicked his heels against his horse’s flanks to urge it ahead, yell¬ing for the oxen to stop. The animals were like children obeying their teacher—some of them stopped immediately while others delayed just a bit. But in a minute’s time, they’d all complied, and the wagons stopped on the path, waiting for direction from their captain.
Mr. Faust rode back to her, the teasing erased from his eyes and lips.
“Gather everyone together,” Mr. Faust told her. “Tell them to wait here until I return.”
She stepped forward. “Where are you going?”
“To see what is burning.” He wiped his forearm over his mustache. “And to find out who set the fire.”
“Are we in danger?”
A glimmer of pity washed through his eyes. “There’s danger all around us, Miss Wiese.”
Her aching shoulders stiffened at the urgency in his words. And the condescension.
The villages of Ebenezer weren’t as isolated as the new Kolonie, but they’d been sheltered from most of the evils in the world. The crimes she’d heard rumored about in the cities never touched their commu¬nity. But now, even though they traveled as one, they were no longer separated from evil. The western world, like the Ohio trail, was full of ruts and thorns threatening to ensnare them. People and problems she didn’t understand.
She sniffed the smoky air and stepped back from Mr. Faust.
The world didn’t frighten her—at least, not as much as her fear of how she would survive if she were thrown into it. The untamed wilder¬ness was not her friend. She belonged in her neat kitchen, managing her assistants, feeding her people. In her world, she could ward off dan¬ger with her tongue.
“Amalie!” Mr. Faust demanded, and she snapped back to him. She would have reprimanded him for the use of her given name, but his hazel eyes had turned as dark as the night sky, piercing her with their intensity. It wasn’t the time to confront him or dwell on her fears about the world. It was time to stop the danger here from infecting all of them.
“I need you to take charge,” he said.
Instead of waiting to give commands to Brother John or Niklas or one of the other men, he steered his horse toward the fire and rode off.
Amalie patted the ox beside her one more time, trying to assimi¬late her scattered thoughts. She had no problem being in charge, but she wasn’t sure how the men would respond to her. Though if Mr. Faust were able to ride toward the danger instead of away from it, she supposed she could organize the group as well as any of the men on this journey.
Karoline nudged her arm. “What can I do?”
She took a deep breath. “Go get the men at the back of the train and bring them here.”
As Karoline scurried off, Amalie turned to the wagon in front of her. “Brother Niklas!” she shouted. “Brother John!”
Twenty-two-year-old Niklas Keller and his father rushed to her side.
Niklas rubbed his hands together. His eyes were on the black smoke funneling into the sky, his voice passionate. “Someone needs our help.”
She shook her head. “Mr. Faust said there might be danger.”
He skimmed the forest line and glanced at the wagons behind them. “I see no danger.”
“He said we should group together and wait for him.”
Niklas leaned back against the rear of the wagon. The elders had put Mr. Faust in authority over them for this trip. If he said to wait, they would all wait. But the minutes crept past and Mr. Faust didn’t return.
A low rumble echoed through the tangled forest on the left side of their train, like the roar of hooves in a stampede. Amalie squinted into the shadows of the foliage and shuddered.
Maybe it was a stampede.
The men and Karoline thronged around Amalie’s wagon. Peace filled each of their eyes, a peace that passed understanding, and she wondered if she was the only one whose heart raced.
“We will pray,” Brother John announced, and he began petitioning their Lord for wisdom and for His hand of protection.
The roar drew closer, and her heart beat even faster.
What were they supposed to do? Christian Metz spoke regular tes¬timonies to them in Ebenezer, inspired words from the Spirit to give them direction, but Brother Metz wasn’t with them on this journey.
She glanced up at the sky, as if God would write His direction for them in the clouds, but God was silent for the moment. A gunshot blasted through the trees, the sound echoing around them. She looked into the faces surrounding her. Fear flickered in some of their eyes. Questions. Several of the men had shotguns to hunt game, but they would never use a gun on their fellow man. They had only one choice.
Amalie steadied her voice, pointing toward the trees. “We need to run. Hide.”
A second shot rang out and the people around her didn’t hesitate this time. Karoline vanished into the forest along with most of the men standing around Amalie.
She looked at her wagon one last time, at the pots and kettles she’d spent hours cleaning and polishing and preparing for this trip. Kettles that were supposed to feed her brothers and sisters in the new kitchen.
Niklas pressed his hand on her shoulder. “Run, Amalie.”
She looked back at the wagon one last time. And then she ran.
Posted by Bonnie S. Calhoun at 11:22 PM
Sunday, July 24, 2011
“Dime con quién andas y te diré quién eres.”
“Tell me with whom you walk, and I will tell you who you are.”
The wedding coordinator calmly placed her hand on Carolyn’s back and whispered, “Not yet. Wait for your song.”
Carolyn lowered her chin and listened. All the planning, all the stress, all the tiffs with her twin sister fell away. She drew in a grateful breath and listened. This was it. The long-awaited moment had arrived.
Self-consciously fingering the nape of her neck, Carolyn checked to make sure her coffee-colored hair still complied with the hairpins holding her French twist in place. All was as it should be. She was ready—more than ready—for this day and all the changes it would bring.
The airy-fairy harp music that had subdued the guests as they were being seated came to a resonating pause. From the balcony the first decisive notes of “Air” from Handel’s Water
Music flitted about the cavernous space of the beautiful, landmark San Francisco church.
“Okay, this is it.” The wedding coordinator nudged Carolyn forward. “This is your song.”
Carolyn squared her bare shoulders. Inwardly she corrected the wedding coordinator. No, this is not my song. This is my sister’s song.
Leading with her left foot, Carolyn trekked down the white runner, keeping pace with the song Marilyn had insisted be used as the processional music. The seventy-five guests, who were gathered in the first twelve rows, turned their heads. Carolyn was aware of their gaze as she made her way forward in her tight-fitting satin dress.
Larry, the perspiring groom, stood by the altar with his hands firmly clasped and his quivering smile fixed in place. Carolyn gave her soon-to-be brother-in-law a confidence-boosting grin, and he responded with a nod of acknowledgment.
From the end of the second row, Carolyn’s twenty-three-year- old daughter, Tikki, leaned out into the aisle with her camera ready. She gave her mom a wink and snapped a picture.
Carolyn smiled back and noticed that Tikki’s boyfriend wasn’t with her. Where’s Matthew? Why isn’t he here?
A familiar ache and longing came over Carolyn as she thought of Jeff. He should be here today too. But he was gone. The weighted memories of Jeff’s death threatened to take Carolyn into a deep, dark place. She refused to go there. Not today.
Casting aside all thoughts except the ones essential for the moment, Carolyn took the next few steps slowly and reverently. She found her masking tape mark on the burgundy carpet. She pivoted toward the congregation just in time to see Marilyn’s two teenage daughters making their way down the aisle in their bubble-gum pink bridesmaid’s dresses. Once again Carolyn was aware that her forty-five-year-old figure didn’t pull off the ensemble the way her nieces’ adolescent bodies did. But this was Marilyn’s day, and all the choices were hers, as they should be.
The Water Music faded. The organist took her cue and played the familiar bridal march as Marilyn came into view. Her sequined wedding gown caught the light and shimmered. Marilyn promenaded down the aisle, every inch the stunning bride she had worked so hard to be.
The congregation came to their feet and turned toward the bride. With a full-lipped smile, Marilyn came forward beaming. She placed her hand in Larry’s and proceeded to the altar.
As the vows were recited, Carolyn bit the inside of her cheek. She couldn’t stop thinking about Jeff. During the exchange of rings, she curled and uncurled her toes. When the soloist sang out from the balcony in clear soprano notes that pierced the air, Carolyn blinked back the tears and swallowed several times in quick succession. Larry and Marilyn kissed, and the organist played the recessional march, going after the keys and foot pedals with gusto as the newlyweds stepped forward into their life together.
Carolyn took the arm of her assigned groomsman and proceeded down the aisle with the broadest smile she could muster. Her heart was pounding fiercely, and her throat was tightening. She pushed against the intense feelings with well-disciplined determination and reminded herself that this was a celebration.
Marilyn and Larry had stepped to the side, where they posed for the photographer. Carolyn wanted to slip away to the hidden refuge of the restroom so she could give way to the tears that kept rising up in her with such a bittersweet persistence. But she wasn’t allowed the luxury. The photographer’s assistant directed Carolyn to take her place beside her sister, lean in close, and lift her bouquet up to her chin.
With a resolve that had grown in her spirit over the past seven years, Carolyn folded her private grief the way her mother used to fold her valued linen tablecloth. All the corners matched neatly. All the wrinkles were smoothed away. Then, in the same way that her mother would place the tablecloth into her bottom dresser drawer, Carolyn tucked her personal pain back inside where no one would see it. She smiled for the photos and whispered to her sister, “I’m so happy for you. You look radiant, Marilyn.”
Marilyn turned to her and lowered her chin. “How’s my eye makeup? Did I smear it?”
“No. You look good.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure.”
“Would you mind clearing out things from the bridal room before you leave for the reception? And bring my purse, will you? We’re going to dash for the limo now before everyone comes out.”
“Sure.” Carolyn trotted down the hall in her not-so comfortable shoes, ready to dutifully fulfill another errand for her twin. This was good. As long as she was busy, she felt balanced.
Using a trash bag as a catchall, Carolyn cleared their belongings from the bridal room. She was just gathering up the last sweater and a pair of her niece’s flip-flops when Tikki appeared.
“I thought I’d find you here.” Slim, vivacious Tikki looked around the room. “Do you need help with anything?”
“No, I’m done. I just need to put this in my car and head for the reception. Remind me to take Marilyn’s purse in with me when we reach the restaurant.”
Tikki took the trash bag from her mom. “Just think, you won’t be cleaning up after the little princesses anymore.”
“Tikki, be kind. They’re your cousins.”
“I know. I’m just saying that, when Aunt Marilyn returns from her honeymoon, they’ll all move into Larry’s town house, and you’ll have your home to yourself finally after . . . how many years?”
“They moved in about six years ago.”
Tikki opened her hazel eyes wide in response to her mother’s reply. “Has it been that long?”
Carolyn noticed the way the thin February sunlight coming through the thick-paned window rested a moment on Tikki’s face, touching her eyes with flecks of amber. Years ago, on a golden beach far away, Carolyn had been told that her hazel eyes did the same thing—they captured the sunlight and “were sprinkled with gold dust.”
With a gathering boldness in her voice, Carolyn said, “We are Women of the Canaries. And Women of the Canaries stick together.”
Tikki laughed. “Now you sound like your mom or Aunt Frieda.”
“Well, it’s true. I was there for Marilyn when she needed me, and one day, if I ever need her assistance and support, she’ll be there for me.”
Tikki gave her mom a skeptical glance and flipped her long brown hair over her shoulder. She gripped the trash bag and linked her arm through Carolyn’s. “I wish your mom could have come today. I know it’s a long way from the Canary Islands, but it felt as if someone were missing without her here. When it was time for Aunt Marilyn to come down the aisle, it didn’t feel right seeing Aunt Frieda stand instead of Abuela Teresa.”
Carolyn was glad Tikki felt that way. She was also glad that Tikki still referred to her grandmother by her Spanish title of “Abuela Teresa,” complete with the proper accents. It had been
more than three years since Abuela’s last visit to California. She had planned to come to the wedding up until a week ago, when a virus got the best of her and settled in her ears. Her trusted doctor in the Canary Islands advised her not to fly because her eardrums might burst.
“I wish she had been able to come too. I really miss her.” Carolyn tried to make a smooth transition to her next comment. “What about Matthew? I was looking forward to seeing him today too.”
Tikki pulled her arm out of her mother’s and put a significant amount of muscle into opening the door that led to the church parking lot. “He had to work. He tried to get off, but it turned into a mess. I told him I understood, but now I’m not feeling quite so understanding. I wish he were here.”
As they drove across the Golden Gate Bridge on their way to the reception in Sausalito, Carolyn found it difficult not to ask questions about Matthew. Tikki’s relationship with Matthew had seemed strong for so long. Carolyn adored the twenty-five year- old self-starter and had thought, from their first date more than two years ago, that he was an ideal match for her only daughter. Tikki chatted about her job the whole way. Thoughts of Matthew and Jeff were neatly put aside. This was a good thing.
Carolyn turned into the parking lot of Sadie’s Garden Restaurant and walked toward the awning-covered front door.
Tikki asked, “Has this been hard for you, Mom, watching your sister get married?”
“No, of course not. I’m happy for Marilyn. Why? Am I coming across differently?”
“No, you’re coming across as your normal gracious self. It’s just that she’s married now, and I know you’re a strong woman, like Aunt Frieda always says. But I wondered if it was hard on you, or if you’re eager to move on. Because it seems to me you’re in the perfect place to make a fresh start. With Marilyn and the girls out of your house, you can focus on your own life and future instead of theirs.”
Carolyn felt her defenses rise. She would be the first to admit she had spent the past few years conveniently hiding behind her twin sister’s slightly chaotic life. It was a large enough life to hide behind. But Carolyn could admit that truthful fault only to herself. She didn’t want to discuss it with Tikki or anyone else.
They were almost to the restaurant’s door when Tikki stopped and placed her hand on Carolyn’s arm. “Mom, I hope you’re not taking any of this the wrong way. All I’m saying is that it’s time for you to get a life. Your own life.”
Tikki opened the door and entered the restaurant, leaving Carolyn alone with the uncomfortable implications of her daughter’s brashly delivered insight. Keeping her expression fixed, Carolyn entered Sadie’s Garden and made her way to the reception being held in the expansive, covered, back patio area. The walk through the restaurant allowed her time to regain her composure after Tikki’s pointed comments. She knew her daughter’s motivation was born of kindness, even if her tact was a bit undeveloped.
The wedding reception was in full swing as the two of them entered the area reserved for their private party. Carolyn smiled when she saw the beautifully decorated patio.
Everything had turned out even lovelier than she had imagined. Marilyn had left all the details of the reception to Carolyn, explaining to anyone who asked that parties weren’t her thing and that her sister had much better instincts when it came to decorating.
Carolyn had enjoyed the assignment. She had assembled a binder, complete with garden party pictures from magazines and oodles of printed-out ideas she had found online. The patio was garnished with enormous hanging baskets of white flowers. Cutout white lanterns hung from every pillar, sending out firefly twinkles as the sun set. Space heaters warmed the enclosed area on this cool February afternoon, and the cushioned chairs around the elegantly set tables invited guests to sit, relax, and enjoy.
“Wow! This is beautiful,” Tikki said. “You did this, didn’t you, Mom? You helped Aunt Marilyn pull this together.”
“I did. It was fun to work on. Marilyn wanted an enchanting ‘fireflies and fairy-tale’ reception. So what do you think? Did I capture it?”
“I think you captured it perfectly. You could do this for a living, Mom. You’re a natural.”
“Thanks.” All her earlier frustrations toward Tikki and her “get a life” comment dissolved.
Joining other guests in the buffet line, Carolyn and Tikki leisurely helped themselves to the assortment of appetizers artistically arranged on fluted seashell serving platters. Happy conversations started up as Marilyn flitted from table to table with her much more relaxed groom in tow.
Spotting Carolyn and Tikki, Marilyn made a beeline for them. Carolyn anticipated hearing her sister rave about the decorations and how everything had turned out. Instead, Marilyn said, “I’m having a lipstick crisis here. My lips are so dry they’re cracking. And I need a breath mint something terrible. Where’s my purse? You didn’t forget it, I hope.”
“No. It’s in the car. I’ll get it.”
“I’ll go, Mom.” Tikki gave Marilyn a smile before dashing off. “Don’t you think my mom did a great job with the decorations?”
“Of course she did a great job. She always does.” A tinge of adolescent envy clung to Marilyn’s words. Turning to Carolyn, her expression softened and she added, “It’s exactly what I wanted. Thanks.”
“Can you do one more favor for me?”
“Sure. What do you need?”
“When Tikki comes back, would you put my purse over by the cake table? We’re going to have our first dance and then cut the cake. They’re ready for us to cut the cake now, but I don’t want another picture taken until after I reapply my lipstick.”
Marilyn became the center of attention as she and Larry hit the dance floor. This was their debut performance after an eight-lesson crash course in ballroom dancing. The guests gathered around as the newlyweds swayed to their song, “Let It Be Me.” Carolyn knew that Larry wanted to go with the original version recorded by the Everly Brothers, but Marilyn’s preference prevailed. And here they were, dancing to David Hasselhoff crooning the lyrics.
The song concluded, and Marilyn led Larry by the hand to the cake table. Carolyn had everything ready—the purse, the lipstick, the breath mints. Tikki stood beside her, snapping pictures as the couple linked arms to sip their toast and politely offer each other their first bite of wedding cake.
The DJ turned up the volume, and the bass tones caused tiny ripples in the water in the crystal goblets around the table. Marilyn raised both arms in the air like an Olympic champion and pointed. Her gesture seemed to be a universally understood indication that the dance floor was now open for everyone to join in the fun.
Tikki was among the first to take Marilyn up on the invitation. Carolyn returned to her place at a table where she unstrapped the narrow band on her high heels and tucked her bare feet under the long white tablecloth. It felt good to wiggle her toes and stretch her arches. Her days of traipsing around in stylish but agonizing shoes had come to an end. Her duties for her sister were about to come to an end too. Carolyn drew in a deep breath.
Aunt Frieda came toward her carrying a piece of cake. Before taking her seat, she tilted her head at Carolyn and said, “I don’t know if anyone else has mentioned this to you, Carolina, but you should know that that shade of pink you’re wearing is not your best color.”
“I would agree, Aunt Frieda. It’s not my best color.”
“You look like you’re wearing undergarments.”
“I am wearing undergarments.”
“No, I mean the dress looks like an undergarment. If you didn’t have such nice legs, that outfit would be a complete disaster.”
“Thank you, Aunt Frieda. I’ll take that as a compliment.” Carolyn had a special place in her heart for her orange-haired aunt. Frieda insisted her stylist had done her a favor years ago by “coaxing out her inner redhead.” She refused to believe the shade was more on the orange side than the red side of the color spectrum. She also refused to believe that the quips that came out of her mouth were often more on the offensive side than the helpful side. Aunt Frieda was always herself and Carolyn liked her. Very much.
“Aunt Frieda, I’m surprised you’re not out there dancing your little heart out with Tikki and Marilyn’s girls.”
“I’m waiting for them to play the real music. Then I will show you what real dancing looks like.” Frieda lifted her arms over her head and snapped her fingers as if she were clacking a pair of castanets.
“I don’t think Marilyn requested that the DJ play any flamenco music.”
“No? Such a pity. You know, if it were not for the obvious fact that the two of you are identical twins, I would think Marilyn was your sister from another mister. You have the heart of a
Woman of the Canaries, but Marilyn . . .” Frieda gave her wrist a dismissive flip in the air.
“She’s not been there yet. She didn’t have the same advantage I did.”
“That was her choice. You know she could have gone with you and your mother the summer you were eighteen, but she refused. Refused! What teenage daughter would refuse the gift of such a trip? There is nothing of the Canaries in her spirit. But you! You are the favorite. You always have been.”
Carolyn never enjoyed being compared with Marilyn, even if she was the one coming out ahead. Even so, she offered a faint smile of appreciation for the compliment.
“Now, dígame, tell me,” Frieda said. “What do you have to say of your romantic interests?” She leaned back, poised to receive all the pertinent details, her eyes fixed. She reminded Carolyn of a cat sitting in front of a fishbowl, swishing its tail, waiting for just the right moment to make its move.
Tuesday, July 19, 2011
“So Bill punched him in the nose, Carrie!” Andi Meuller swung an arm to demonstrate and nearly clipped me. “He was wonderful!”
I leaned back and held up a hand for protection. “Easy, kiddo.” I smiled at the girl and her enthusiasm.
Andi giggled like the smitten sixteen-year-old she was. “Sorry.”
“Mmm.” I rested my elbows on the pink marble counter that ran along one wall of Carrie’s Café, located two blocks from the boardwalk in the center of Seaside, New Jersey. I was the Carrie of the café’s name, and Andi was one of my servers, in fact my only server at the moment. She’d been with me almost two months now, taking up the slack when the summer kids left to go back to college or on to real jobs.
“Let me get this straight,” I said. “On Saturday night Bill, who is your true soul mate, punched Jase, our Jase, for paying too much attention to you at a party.” I didn’t think my voice was too wry, but soul mates at sixteen made me both cynical and scared, teen hormones being what they were.
Andi just grinned with delight of the even-mentioning-his-name-gives-me-the-vapors kind and nodded as she sat on a stool at the counter. “Isn’t it romantic?”
I was hearing this tale today, Monday, because now that the season was over, Carrie’s was closed on Sunday. My staff and I had earned our day of rest over a very busy and marginally profitable summer. We might be able to stay open for another year if nothing awful happened, like the roof leaking or the dishwasher breaking.
Listening to Andi made me feel ancient. I was only thirty-three, but had I ever been as young as she? Given the trauma of my growing-up years, I probably hadn’t. I was glad that whatever her history, and there was a history, she could giggle.
“How do you expect to continue working with Jase after this encounter?” I was very interested in her answer. Jase was one of three part-time dishwashers at the café. All three were students at the local community college and set their schedules around classes. Jase worked Tuesdays and Saturdays from six in the morning until three, and the last thing I wanted was contention in the kitchen between Andi and him.
Andi looked confused. “Why should I have trouble with Jase? I didn’t punch him. Besides he an old—” She cut herself off.
I opened my mouth to pursue her half thought when the door of the café opened, and Greg Barnes walked in, all scruffy good looks and shadowed eyes. His black hair was mussed as if he hadn’t combed it, and he had a two-day stubble. He should have looked grubby, but somehow he didn’t. He looked wonderful.
All thoughts of Bill and Jase fled as my heart did the little stuttery Snoopy dance it always did at the sight of Greg. Before he could read anything in my face, assuming he noticed me as someone other than the person who fed him, I looked down at the basket of fresh-from-the-oven cinnamon swirl muffins I was arranging.
Andi glanced from me to him and, much too quick and clever, smiled with a knowing look. I held my breath. She wasn’t long on tact, and the last thing I wanted was for her to make some leading remark. I felt I could breathe again when all she did was wink at me. Safe for the moment at least.
Greg came to the counter and slid onto his favorite stool, empty now that the receding flood of summer tourists left it high and dry this third week in October, a vinyl covered Ararat post deluge.
“The usual?” I asked, my voice oh-so-casual.
He gave a nod, barely glancing my way, and opened his copy of The Philadelphia Inquirer. The Press of Atlantic City waited.
I turned to place his order, but there was no need. Lindsay, my sister, partner, and the café’s baker, had been listening to Andi’s story through the serving window. She waved her acknowledgment before I said a word. She passed the order to Ricky, our short-order cook who had stayed with us longer than I expected, long enough that he had become almost as much an asset to Carrie’s as Lindsay was.
My sister gave me a sly smile, then called, “Hi, Greg.”
He looked up from his paper and gave Lindsay a very nice smile, far nicer than he ever gave me.
“The sticky buns are all gone,” he said in mild accusation, nodding toward the glass case where we kept Lindsay’s masterpieces.
She grinned. “Sorry. You’ve got to get here earlier.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Or you could make more.”
“I’ll take the suggestion under advisement,” she said agreeably.
“Haven’t you heard the adage about making your customers happy?”
He laughed and turned a page in the paper. I brought him a glass of OJ and a cup of my special blend.
“How’re you doing?” I asked, just as I did every morning.
He gave me a vague smile. “Fine.” Just as he said every morning.
But he wasn’t. Oh, he was better than, say, a year ago, definitely better than two years ago, but he wasn’t well. Even three years after the tragedy that had altered his life, he was far from his self-proclaimed fine. If you looked closely—as I did—you could see the strain never completely left his eyes, and the purple stains under them were too deep and dark, a sure sign that a good night’s sleep was still little more than a vague memory for him.
But he was sober. More than two years and counting.
“Keep talking, Andi,” Lindsay said as Ricky beat Greg’s eggs and inserted his wheat bread in the toaster. “This is better than reality TV. It’s really real.” She walked out of the kitchen into the café proper. “Bill bopped Jase,” she prompted.
“Our Jase,” I clarified.
Greg looked up. “Your dishwasher?”
“Hmm.” And he went back to his paper.
“And Jase went down for the count.” Andi’s chest swelled with pride at her beloved’s prowess.
I flinched. “Don’t you think knocking a guy out for talking to you is a bit much?”
Andi thought for almost half a second, then shook her head. “It wasn’t for just Saturday. He knows Jase and I work together, and he was staking his claim.”
I’d seen Jase and Andi talking in the kitchen, but there never seemed to be any romantic overtones. “Jase is a nice guy and a good worker. I don’t want to lose him because of your boyfriend.”
“He is and I don’t want him to go either,” Andi agreed. “I like talking to him.”
“Me too.” Lindsay rested an elbow on the counter and propped her chin in her palm. “I think he’s sad.”
“What do you mean, sad?” But I’d sensed he was weighed down with something too.
“He’s funny and open most of the time,” Lindsay said, “but sometimes when no one’s talking to him, I see this look of sorrow on his face.”
I nodded. “All the more reason to hate that he got punched.”
“Yeah.” Lindsay got a dreamy look in her dark brown eyes. “But there’s something about a guy defending you, even if what he’s defending you from isn’t really a threat.” She sighed.
“Lindsay!” I was appalled. “Get a grip.” Though if Greg ever wanted to defend me, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t mind. Of course, that presupposed he’d notice I was in trouble. I glanced at him bent over his paper. Not likely to happen. I bit back a sigh.
“Tell me, Andi. Does Bill plan to punch out any male who talks to you?”
“Come on, Carrie,” Andi said. “Don’t be mad at Bill. You know how guys can be when they’ve had a few beers.”
I did know how guys could be, beers or no beers. “What were you doing at a party where there was drinking?”
She became all prim and prissy. “I did not drink.”
“I should hope not, but you shouldn’t have been there.” Good grief. I was sounding more and more like her mother—or how her mother would have sounded if she weren’t missing in action somewhere. Part of that history I didn’t know.
“Order up,” Ricky announced as he walked to the pass-through. “The food is never better than when I plate it.”
You’d have thought he was Emeril or Wolfgang Puck or one of Paula Dean’s sons, not a stopgap cook who couldn’t find any other job after graduating from college with a psychology degree and who stayed around because he had a crush on the baker.
I served Greg’s scrambled eggs and wheat toast. He accepted them with a nod and a grunt.
“So what happened to Jase?” I asked Andi. I found myself hoping Bill had bruised a knuckle or two in his violence, though I was pretty sure it meant I was a terrible person too. I didn’t wish for a broken hand or anything that extreme, just something to remind him that punching wasn’t the way to handle a perceived rival.
Andi waved her hand vaguely. “Bill and a buddy carried Jase to his car. They only dropped him once.”
I imagined the thunk of poor Jase’s head hitting the ground and flinched in sympathy. No such thought bothered Andi. She was too busy being thrilled by Bill who rode in like her shining knight, laying waste to the enemy with knuckles instead of the more traditional lance.
“How much older than you is Bill?” Lindsay asked.
Good question, Linds.
Andi studied the cuticle of her index finger. “He’s nineteen.”
Lindsay and I exchanged a glance. Those three years from sixteen to nineteen were huge.
I couldn’t keep quiet. “So he shouldn’t have been drinking at this party either.”
Andi slid off her stool. If looks killed, Lindsay’d be sprinkling my ashes in the ocean tomorrow morning.
“What does Clooney think of you and Bill?” Lindsay asked. Clooney was Andi’s great-uncle, and she lived with him.
Andi cleared her throat. “We don’t talk about Bill.”
“Does he know about Bill?” Lindsay’s concern was obvious.
Andi stared through long bangs that hung over her hazel eyes. The silky hair sometimes caught in her lashes in a way that made me blink but didn’t seem to bother her. “Of course Clooney knows. Do you think I’d keep a secret from him?”
“I didn’t think you would.” Lindsay smiled. “I’m glad to know I was right.”
So was I. Sixteen could go in so many different directions, and I’d hate for this pixie to make wrong choices—or more wrong choices.
“Is he going to college?” I asked. “Bill?”
“He was, but not now.” Her fingernail became even more absorbing. “He dropped out of Rutgers at the end of his freshman year.”
Uh-oh. Dropped out or failed out? “Does he plan to go back? Try again?”
She shrugged. “He doesn’t know. Right now he’s happy just being. And going to parties. And taking me.” By the time she was finished, she was bouncing at the excitement of it all, her strawberry blond ponytail leaping about her shoulders.
Greg looked up from his newspaper. “So this guy took you, a very underage girl, to a party where there was lots of drinking?”
Andi looked at him, eyes wide, acting as if he’d missed the whole point of her story. “Don’t worry about me, Mr. Barnes. Or any of you.” She included Lindsay and me with a nod of her head. “I can handle any problems that might develop at a party. Believe me, I’ve dealt with far worse.”
“Really?” I was intrigued. I’d stared down plenty of problems in my time too, and I wondered how her stare downs compared to mine.
She grinned and waved a hand as if she were wiping away her momentary seriousness. “But I’d rather talk about how great Bill is.”
“So how great is he?” Lindsay asked. “Tell me all.” At twenty-seven, she was an incurable romantic. I wasn’t sure how this had come to pass since she had every reason to be as cynical as I, but there you are.
I frowned at her. “Stop encouraging the girl.”
Lindsay just grinned.
I looked at Andi’s happy face and had to smile too. “So what’s this wonderful guy doing if he’s not in school?” Besides being and partying.
“Uh, you mean like a job or something?”
“Yeah.” Lindsay and I exchanged another glance. Greg looked up again at Andi’s reluctant tone.
“Well, he was a lifeguard over the summer. He’s got this fabulous tan, and it makes him so handsome.”
Soul mate stuff if I ever heard it. I half expected her to swoon like a nineteenth-century Southern belle with her stays laced too tightly. “What about now? Post season?”
“And he was the quarterback on the high school football team two years ago when they won the state championship.”
“Very impressive. What about now?”
“He was named Most Valuable Player.”
“Even more impressive. What about now?”
She began making sure the little stacks of sugar and sweetener packets in the holders on the counter were straight. “Right now he’s just trying to figure it all out.”
Being. Figuring. And punching guys out while he thought. “You mean he’s trying to decide what he wants to be when he grows up?”
She glared at me. In her mind he was grown up. She turned her back with a little sniff and went to clean off a dirty table.
Lindsay swallowed a laugh. “Your sarcastic streak is showing, Carrie.”
Mr. Perkins, another regular at Carrie’s Cafè and at eighty in better health than the rest of us put together, rapped his cup on the pink marble counter. He’d been sitting for several minutes with his eyes wide behind his glasses as he listened to Andi.
“No daughter of mine that age would ever have gone to a party where there was drinking,” he said. “It’s just flat out wrong.”
Since I agreed, I didn’t mention that he was a lifelong bachelor and had no daughters.
He rapped his cup again.
“Refill?” I asked, not because I didn’t know the answer, but because the old man liked to think he was calling the shots.
He nodded. “Regular too. None of that wimpy decaf. I got to keep my blood flowing, keep it pumping.”
I smiled with affection as I topped off his cup. He gave the same line every day. “Mr. Perkins, you have more energy than people half your age.”
He pointed his dripping spoon at me. “And don’t you forget it.”
“Watch it,” I said in a mock scold. “You’re getting coffee all over my counter.”
“And a fine counter it is.” He patted the pink-veined marble slab. It was way too classy and way too pricey for a place like the café. “Did I ever tell you that I remember when it was the registration counter at Seaside’s Grand Hotel? And let me tell you, it was a Grand Hotel in every sense of the word. People used to come from as far as Pittsburgh, even the president of U.S. Steel. Too bad it burned down. The hotel, not U.S. Steel.”
“Too bad,” I agreed. And yes, he’d told us the story many times.
“It was in 1943,” he said with a faraway look in his eyes. “I was thirteen.” He blinked back to the present. “It was during World War II, you know, and people said it was sabotage. Not that I ever believed that. I mean, why would the Germans burn down a resort hotel? But I’ll tell you, my father, who was an air-raid warden, about had a seizure.”
“I bet he was convinced that the flames, visible for miles up and down the coast, would bring the German subs patrolling offshore right up on our beaches,” Lindsay said with a straight face. “They might have attacked us.”
I glared at her as she repeated word for word Mr. Perkins’s line from the story. She winked unrepentantly.
Mr. Perkins nodded, delighted she was listening. “People kept their curtains drawn at night, and even the boardwalk was blacked out for the duration, the lights all covered except for the tiniest slit on the land side, so the flames from the fire seemed extra bright. All that wood, you know. Voom!” He threw his hands up in the air.
Lindsay and I shook our heads at the imagined devastation, and I thought I saw Greg’s lips twitch. He’d heard the story almost as many times as we had.
Mr. Perkins stirred his coffee. “After the war some investor bought the property.”
“I bet all that remained of the Grand was the little corner where the pink marble registration counter sat.” Lindsay pointed where I leaned. “That counter.”
Again she spoke his line with a straight face, and this time Greg definitely bit back a grin.
Mr. Perkins added another pink packet to his coffee. “That’s right. The buyer decided to open a restaurant around the counter and build a smaller, more practical hotel on the rest of the property.”
Even that hotel was gone now, replaced many years ago by private homes rented each summer to pay the exorbitant taxes on resort property.
I walked to Greg with my coffeepot. “Refill?”
He slid his mug in my direction, eyes never leaving his paper.
Be still my heart.
Posted by Bonnie S. Calhoun at 11:15 PM