Eighty-two years ago, Isabelle Mercer was a girl like many other girls of the day. She was about to be married. Her father had just become mayor of New Kassel and she read the St. Louis society pages every day. Faithfully,” Rachel said. She stood in my living room, wrapped in a shower curtain and wearing her hair piled on top of her head in a big loose bun. “Her fiancé came from the glitzy world of Westmoreland and Portland in St. Louis, and Isabelle Mercer wanted to fit in terribly. Then one night after she had spent the evening at her friend Verna’s house, Isabelle disappeared into the night, never to be seen again.”
When my daughter had finished her little spiel, she looked at me with a mixture of triumph and hope. That is until her younger sister, Mary, rolled her eyes and said, “Loser.”
“Mom!” Rachel screeched. “Don’t listen to her.”
“I’m not listening to her,” I said.
“You know as well as I that I did good. I did good, didn’t I? Say it?”
“Yes, you did good.”
“Good enough to get the job?” she asked. If possible, she made her big brown eyes even bigger. That works on her dad, but since my mom has the same brown eyes, I’ve been immune for a while.
I was in the middle of trying to find somebody to give tours of the historical homes of our native New Kassel, Missouri. It’s a nice, very small tourist town located on the Mississippi River, and people come from miles around for our festivals, food, and antiques. I am the owner of two historical landmarks, the Gaheimer House and the Kendall House, and I’m also head of the historical society. It’s my job to hire people for this sort of thing, and Rachel desperately wanted to be hired.
“So do I get the job?” she asked. “You know I can do it. I even did all that research on my own.”
“What?” Mary screeched. “You liar. I helped!”
“Did you even know about Isabelle Mercer?” Rachel asked, ignoring Mary’s indignant cries. “Huh?”
“No, actually,” I admitted. Rachel acted as if I knew the name of every single person who had ever lived in this town. It was nice to know that she still thought of me as being nearly supernatural. I had thought of my mother as having supernatural powers until I was about twenty.
Another look of triumph swept across Rachel’s face.
“Rachel,” I said. “You’re wearing my shower curtain.”
“It was the only thing I could find that was long.”
“You are the biggest loser,” Mary said again. Mary, however, had never thought I possessed those “secret” superpowers that parents seem to have. She’d pretty much realized on the way out of the birth canal that I was just human.
“I needed something that looked like a long dress. You know, like the costumes that you use when you give tours,” Rachel said to me.
“You never thought of a sheet?” I asked.
“Oh,” she said. “Well, you can’t hold that against me.”
“Rachel—” I began.
“No, no, no. Anytime you start a sentence with my name in that tone of voice, it means I’m about to be disappointed,” she said, holding up one of her hands, while the other one clutched at the curtain. “I can do this job. It’ll be like I’m following in your footsteps. Come on. I graduate in May, and I need some extra cash for college.”
This would be the exact reason I didn’t want her to have the job. I didn’t want her to have any job. I didn’t want her to be seventeen and ready to leave the nest. I mean, I did want her to grow up and leave the nest and get married and have babies and become like, I don’t know, a leading scientist in the search for cures of horrible diseases, but . . . Not. Yet. Not yet, not yet, not yet! She may have been ready, but I wasn’t.
Where had the time gone? I still needed to be her mom. I know, I was being selfish. I realized that. I figured I earned brownie points for at least admitting it—but I still felt it.
“Mom?” she asked.
“You’re not seriously going to give her this job,” Mary said. Mary, my second child, who was in that horrible age of not being a child anymore but not quite comfortable in her newfound skin and her C cup, could be quite a challenge to her siblings—and her parents. And, well, anybody, really. She was at that age of not being able to drive, work, vote, or do anything, but yet physiologically and intellectually she was so beyond Barbie and cartoons that it was nearly painful to watch. I always thought Rachel was like seventeen going on thirty. With Mary, it was like she was fourteen going on four, some days, and twenty-five the next—then back to four. It was enough to give me a nosebleed. “You can’t give her this job.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because, she’ll, like, embarrass us all. Not to mention I helped her with that research and she didn’t give me any credit!”
“She won’t embarrass us,” I said.
“She’s a doofus. You’re wearing a shower curtain, you doofus,” Mary pointed out.
“Well, at least I care about something,” Rachel countered.
Oh, here we go, I thought. An all-out catfight. Teenagers do not need reasons to be hateful to one another or have a big knock-down-drag-out fight. I’ve seen my daughters fight over who sits on what side of the car, who got more mashed potatoes, and even who would be least likely to eat a cockroach. I kid you not. They’d argue for three hours over a hypothetical situation that would never happen. But then, there were times they fought over real things, too. Mary had recently become more withdrawn and full of angst—I write that off as hormones, and please don’t tell me any different, because I’m all right with it being hormones, because that means that someday she’ll grow out of it—and she resented her older sister’s perfectness with a passion, not that I could blame her.
I stood up, trying to stop this fight before it started. “Okay, stop. Mary, go brush down the horses.”
“I just did it!”
“That was yesterday. Go do it again.”
“Ugh,” she said, and threw the couch pillow at Rachel, catching her square in the face.
“God, I hate her,” Rachel said as Mary stormed past her and out of the house.
“Rachel,” I said.
“Fine, I’ll take off the shower curtain and go see if Pierre is hiring at the bakery,” she said with a crestfallen expression.
“No,” I said. “You can have the job.”
“Really, but you have to listen to me better at work than you do at home, or I’ll fire you within the first week.”
“Whatever,” she said, rolling her eyes. “You won’t be disappointed.” Then she headed upstairs to her room.
“And hang the shower curtain back up!” I yelled after her.
My son, Matthew, came in then with my binoculars in one hand and a dead squirrel in the other. “Look what Fritz brought me!” Fritz, our wiener dog, likes to bring us dead rodents. And he won’t drop the rodent on the ground. No, he must place it in our hands. I was about ready to have a panic attack then and there, since there was a dead and oozing rodent in my house. More so, because there was a dead and oozing rodent in my son’s hand! Matthew must have noticed that the blood had drained from my face, because he said, “You don’t look very good.” He’s a very observant six-year-old.
“Oh, okay. I just wanted you to see what Fritz caught!” And off he ran.
“Get back in here. No, wait. Take that squirrel outside, then get back in here so I can disinfect your hands!”
There were days I wasn’t sure how I got anything else done. As I was looking for the bleach to disinfect Matthew, the phone rang. It was one of my good friends, Helen Wickland. Helen served on the events committee of New Kassel, helping me schedule festivals and the like, and she was on the board of officers at the historical society, too. If that weren’t enough, she was a chocolatier and gave me free chocolate.
“Hi, Helen,” I said.
“Torie,” she said. “I just wanted to nail down the dates for the Christmas stuff. We’re having the Santa parade the weekend before Christmas and the choir festival the first weekend of December, right?”
“Right,” I said. “And don’t forget, we need to get bell ringers.”
“Yeah, you know. Those people who stand on the corner and ring bells in different pitches, so that they play a song.”
“Oh, bell ringers,” she said.
“Isn’t that what I said?”
“All right, what about the bird Olympics?” she asked.
Yes, you heard right. Eleanore Murdoch had somehow convinced the events committee to allow her to host a birding Olympics. “It’s this coming weekend, isn’t it?”
“Oh, I haven’t done any advertising for it,” she said with a worried tone.
“I don’t think you have to,” I said. “Eleanore sent out word via her bird people. We’ve got like fifty-something people coming, and I really don’t want any more than that, so don’t worry that you didn’t get it out on the wire.”
“I hear you’re participating,” she said.
I could hear the laughter in her voice, even though she wasn’t actually laughing. “Do you value our friendship?”
She couldn’t hold it in any longer, and she began to laugh. “How did you ever get roped into such a thing?”
“We needed at least five people from the events committee to participate. Sort of like chaperones, and she kept coming up short. So, I . . .”
“You what?” she asked.
“I have a stepfather who volunteered me. Hey, don’t laugh. I didn’t see you volunteering to help on this event. You weren’t even there for the vote!”
“Sorry, I was in Vegas. You can hardly hold that against me. So, what exactly will you be doing?” she asked.
“I’m not really sure.”
“Will the birds be doing backflips and the butterfly stroke?” She was laughing again.
“No,” I said. “I think the birders split up into groups and everybody identifies all the species they see in a twenty-four-hour period. The group with the most species wins. Or something like that. I honestly don’t know the details.”
“I thought we agreed not to let Eleanore host anything else to do with birds.”
“I know, I know, but the events committee voted. How was I supposed to know that three-fourths of the events committee members were birders? I figured, Oh, hell, they’ll shoot this down right off the bat. But they didn’t. I could have used your vote. You’re not allowed to leave town again.”
“Is there anything I need to do to prepare the town?” she asked.
“Oh, well, Daisy Rickard might need some help with the coffee and cocoa runs. And the Porta Potti—”
“I am not doing anything that involves portable bodily secretions. I’ll just tell you that right now. I love you, Torie, but not that much.”
“Well, considering you skipped town and weren’t there to help nip this in the bud, I oughta put you in charge of Porta Potti duty and make you clean them!”
“Ooooh, vindictive, aren’t we?”
“Desperate,” I said.
“Okay, so coffee and cocoa runs?”
“Yeah. I’ll tell you more after I talk with Eleanore later.”
“You know, Torie, you manage to get yourself into more trouble than anybody I know.”
“Trouble? How is this trouble?”
“You’re going to be in the woods with fifty birders. Something will happen.”
“Maybe I’ll fall in a sinkhole.”
“There ya go. You can always hope,” she said.
I hung up with Helen and tried to find the bleach, but couldn’t. So I found a big bottle of alcohol and went outside to find my son. When he was completely disinfected, I made dinner for my family. I had dinner on the table by six o’clock, and it wasn’t even macaroni and cheese! I actually made chicken and dumplings. I had called my grandmother and asked her how to make them because I didn’t want my mother to know that I was forty and didn’t know how to make chicken and dumplings. It would have made her feel as though she’d failed as a parent. Believe me. It would. I know my mother.
When my husband, Rudy, came in and sat down, he was stunned at the spread of food on the table. “Wow, what’s the occasion?” he asked. For the record, I like my husband. I don’t just love him, and I don’t just think he’s sexy. I actually like him. He’s one of the few people who can keep me laughing even when there’s very little to laugh about, and he’s probably the only person aside from my mother who can tell me when I’m overreacting and live to tell the tale. Now, I don’t necessarily listen to him when he tells me I’m overreacting, but it sinks in eventually, and I don’t behead him, like I would anybody else.
He cautiously sniffed the food and looked around the table to see if anybody else was going to take a bite first. I can’t complain. I’m a lousy cook, and they’ve learned to be wary. When nobody else volunteered—they were waiting for big brave daddy to do the taste test—he took a very small bite. “Hey,” he said, “this is actually good.”
He smiled, and the kids dug in and ate.
“Fritz brought me a squirrel!” Matthew said.
“He’s disgusting,” Mary said.
“Can we discuss dead things at a different time?” Rachel asked.
Rudy smiled. “Yeah, save the dead rodent stories for later, okay?”
“Okay,” Matthew said, and shrugged.
“Mom gave me the job!” Rachel said, exuding happiness.
“She did?” Rudy said. “Well . . . that was . . .”
“Yes?” I said.
“What were you thinking?” he asked.
“Hey! I can do this job.”
“She can do the job,” I said. “Leave it.”
“So, Mary, what’s new with you?” Rudy asked.
“Don’t ask,” she said from behind a mound of dumplings.
“Why not?” Rudy asked. It was an innocent-enough question. Rudy hadn’t quite learned that you don’t ask innocent questions of fourteen-year-olds whose angst level is higher than their hormones.
“Because there’s either nothing to tell you, or the stuff I do have to tell you, you don’t want to hear anyway, so just drop it,” Mary replied.
“You are such a crabby witch!” Rachel spat at her sister.
“Yeah, well, being a crabby witch is part of my charm.”
“‘Charm’? Oh, I’m sorry, was that charming?” Rachel asked in the most condescending tone I’d ever heard. I mean, I couldn’t have done it better myself.
“Stop!” I said. “Not now.”
“Whatever,” Mary said. She had recently taken to wearing as much hair as she could over one eye. I think she thought it was some sort of statement, and it was. It stated that she was a grouchy, hormonal teenager who had absolutely nothing to be unhappy about and was pissed off about it. I was actually more concerned that she’d run into something one of these days from lack of depth perception than I was about any statement that she was trying to make.
“There’s a guy living in the woods,” Matthew said.
“Where?” I asked.
“Back there,” he said, and pointed in the direction of our back lot.
“It’s probably a hunter,” Rudy said. “It’s deer season, you know.”
“Oh, yeah, it’s the let’s-go-show-how-testosterone-can-make-us-act-like-idiots season,” Mary said.
“We’ve had this discussion before, Mary,” Rudy said. “Without the existence of any natural predators anymore, hunting is necessary, or else the deer will eat the forest down to the ground.”
“It’s barbaric. It’s lame. Guys just like to kill things.”
“No they don’t,” Matthew said with big worried eyes. “Daddy, do you like to kill things?”
“Yes, he does,” Mary said. “He likes to kill nosy little brat boys like you!”
“Stop!” I said, and found myself standing. “Just stop. Now, I had to call my grandmother and admit to her that I was forty years old and didn’t know how to make stupid chicken and dumplings, just so I could make this dinner for you guys and you wouldn’t have to eat out of a box, or a take-out bag, or at a restaurant or what have you! And you guys will shut up and you will eat!”
Everybody just stared at me.
“Quietly. Pleasantly. End of discussion!” I added.
Everyone shut up, probably because I was waving my fork around like a madwoman, and I sat down and ate my dinner as quickly as I could. When I was finished, I said, “Rachel you’ve got dish duty. I’m going to my office.”
That’s where I stayed until it was time for Matthew to do his homework. After I helped him, I went to bed and dreamed about a world where the only things I had to worry about were what type of massage oil I wanted and when my next infusion of chocolate would be.
Copyright © 2008 by Rett MacPherson. All rights reserved.