August 19, 2006 • 6:30 a.m.
Marguerite didn’t know where to start.
Each and every summer evening for nearly twenty years, she had cooked for a restaurant full of people, yet here she was in her own kitchen on a crystalline morning with a seemingly simple mission—dinner for two that evening at seven thirty—and she didn’t know where to start. Her mind spun like the pedals of a bicycle without any brakes. Candace coming here, after all these years. Immediately Marguerite corrected herself. Not Candace. Candace was dead. Renata was coming tonight. The baby.
Marguerite’s hands quivered as she brought her coffee mug to her lips. The grandfather clock chimed just as it had every fifteen minutes of its distinguished life—but this time, the sound startled Marguerite. She pictured a monkey inside, with two small cymbals and a voice screeching, Marguerite! Earth to Marguerite!
Marguerite chuckled. I am an old bat, she thought. I’ll start by writing a list.
The phone call had come at eleven o’clock the night before. Marguerite was in bed, reading Hemingway. Whereas once Marguerite had been obsessed with food—with heirloom tomatoes and lamb shanks and farmhouse cheeses, and fish still flopping on the counter, and eggs and chocolate and black truffles and foie gras and rare white nectarines—now the only thing that gave her genuine pleasure was reading. The people of Nantucket wondered—oh yes, she knew they wondered—what Marguerite did all day, hermited in her house on Quince Street, secreted away from the eyes of the curious. Although there was always something—the laundry, the garden, the articles for the newspaper in Calgary (deadline every other Friday)—the answer was: reading. Marguerite had three books going at any one time. That was the chef in her, the proverbial more-than-one-pot-on-the-stove. She read contemporary fiction in the mornings, though she was very picky. She liked Philip Roth, Penelope Lively, as a rule no one under the age of fifty, for what could they possibly have to say about the world that Marguerite hadn’t already learned? In the afternoons, she enriched herself with biographies or books of European history, if they weren’t too dense. Her evenings were reserved for the classics, and when the phone rang the night before Marguerite had been reading Hemingway. Hemingway was the perfect choice for late at night because his sentences were clear and easy to understand, though Marguerite stopped every few pages and asked herself, Is that all he means? Might he mean something else? This insecurity was a result of attending the Culinary Institute instead of a proper university—and all those years with Porter didn’t help. An education makes you good company for yourself, Porter had liked to tell his students, and Marguerite, when he was trying to convince her to read something other than Larousse Gastronomique. Wouldn’t he be proud of her now.
The phone, much like the muted toll of the clock a few seconds ago, had scared Marguerite out of her wits. She gasped, and her book slid off her lap to the floor, where it lay with its pages folded unnaturally under, like a person with a broken limb. The phone, a rotary, continued its cranky, mechanical whine while Marguerite groped her nightstand for her watch. Eleven o’clock. Marguerite could name on one hand the phone calls she’d received in the past twelve months: There was a call or two from the editorial assistant at the Calgary paper; there was a call from the Culinary Institute each spring asking for a donation; there was always a call from Porter on November 3, her birthday. None of these people would ever think to call her at eleven o’clock at night—not even Porter, drunk (not even if he’d split from the nubile young graduate assistant who had become his late-in-life wife), would dare call Marguerite at this hour. So it was a wrong number. Marguerite decided to let it ring. She had no answering machine to put the phone out of its misery; it just rang and rang, as pleading and insistent as a crying baby. Marguerite picked it up, clearing her throat first. She occasionally went a week without speaking.
“Aunt Daisy?” The voice had been light and cheerful; there was background noise—people talking, jazz music, the familiar clink and clatter of glasses and plates—was it restaurant noise? It threw Marguerite off. And then there was the nickname: Daisy. Only three people had ever used it.
“It’s Renata.” There was an expectant pause. “Renata Knox.”
Marguerite’s eyes landed across the room, on her desk. Taped to her computer was Renata Knox’s e-mail address; Marguerite beheld it every day as she binged guiltily on the Internet for an hour, but she had never sent a single message. Because what could she possibly say? A casual hello would be pointless and anything more, dangerous. Marguerite’s eyes skittered from her desk to her dresser. On top of her dresser were two precious framed photographs. She dusted them carefully each week, though she rarely lingered over them anymore. Years ago she had scrutinized them so intensely that they imprinted themselves on her brain. She knew them by heart, the way she knew the streets in the sixth arrondissement, the way she knew the temperament of a soufflé. One picture was of Marguerite and Candace taken at Les Parapluies on the occasion of Renata’s christening. In it, Marguerite was holding Renata, her goddaughter. How well she remembered that moment. It had taken a magnum of Veuve Clicquot and several glasses of thirty-year port to get Dan to relinquish his grip on his newborn daughter, and when he did, it was only to Candace so that the baby could nurse. Marguerite sat with Candace on the west banquette as the party thundered around them. Marguerite knew little of babies, or lactation; she fed people every day, but nothing was as captivating as watching Candace feed her daughter. When Candace finished, she eased the baby up over her shoulder until the baby burped. Then Candace passed her over to Marguerite casually, like she was a loaf of bread.
Go see your godmother, Candace said to the baby.
Godmother, Marguerite had thought. The last time she had been inside a church before that very morning was for Candace and Dan’s wedding, and before that the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris the year she met Porter, and so her notion of godmother came mostly from fairy tales. Marguerite had gazed down at the baby’s tiny pink mouth, which still made the motion of sucking even though the breast was gone, and thought, I will feed you your first escargot. I will pour your first glass of champagne.
“Aunt Daisy?” Renata said.
“Yes, dear,” Marguerite said. The poor girl probably thought Marguerite was as crazy as the islanders said she was—self-mutilation, months in a psychiatric hospital, gave up her restaurant—or worse, she thought Marguerite didn’t know who she was. How surprised the child would be to find out that Marguerite thought of her, and of Candace, every day. The memories ran through her veins. But enough of that! Marguerite thought. I have the girl on the phone! “I’m sorry, darling. You caught me by surprise.”
“Were you sleeping?” Renata asked. “It’s awfully late.”
“No,” Marguerite said. “Not sleeping. In bed, reading. Where are you, darling? Are you at school?”
“I don’t start back for three more weeks,” Renata said.
“Oh, right,” Marguerite said. “Silly of me.” Already she felt like the conversation was a dog she’d agreed to take for a walk, one that yanked on its chain, urging Marguerite to catch up. It was August now; when Renata went back to college she’d be a . . . sophomore? Marguerite had sent Renata five thousand dollars for her high school graduation the spring before last—an outrageous sum, though who else did Marguerite have to give her money to? Renata had graduated first in her class, and although she’d been accepted at Yale and Stanford, she’d decided on Columbia, where Porter was still chairman of the art history department. Renata had sent Marguerite a sweet little thank-you note for the money in loopy script with a lot of exclamation points—and Dan had dashed off a note as well on his office stationery. Once again, Margo, you’ve done too much. Hope you are well. Marguerite noticed he had not actually said thank you, but that would have been hoping for too much. After all these years, Dan still hadn’t forgiven her. He thought she sent the money out of guilt when really she had sent it out of love.
“Where are you then?” Marguerite asked. In his annual Christmas letter, Dan had written about Renata’s infatuation with her literature classes, her work-study job in the admissions office, and her roommate, but he had hinted nothing about her summer plans.
“I’m here on Nantucket,” Renata said. “I’m at 21 Federal.”
Marguerite suddenly felt very warm; sweat broke out on her forehead and under her arms. And menopause for her had ended sometime during the first Clinton administration.
“You’re here?” Marguerite said.
“For the weekend. Until Sunday. I’m here with my fiancé.”
“His name is Cade,” Renata said. “His family has a house on Hulbert Avenue.”
Marguerite stroked the fraying satin edge of her summer blanket. Fiancé at age nineteen? And Dan had allowed it? The boy must be rich, Marguerite thought sardonically. Hulbert Avenue. But even she had a hard time believing that Dan would give Renata away while she was still a teenager. People didn’t change that fundamentally. Daniel Knox would always be the father holding possessively on to his little girl. He had never liked to share her.
Marguerite realized Renata was waiting for an answer. “I see.”
“His parents know all about you,” Renata said. “They used to eat at the restaurant. They said it was the best place. They said they miss it.”
“That’s very nice,” Marguerite said. She wondered who Cade’s parents were. Had they been regulars or once-a-summer people? Would Marguerite recognize their names, their faces? Had they said anything else to Renata about what they knew, or thought they knew?
“I’m dying to come see you,” Renata said. “Cade wants to meet you, too, but I told him I want to come by myself.”
“Of course, dear,” Marguerite said. She straightened in bed so that her posture was as perfect as it had been nearly sixty years ago, ballet class, Madame Verge asking her students to pretend there was a wire that ran from the tops of their heads to the ceiling. Chins up, mes choux! Marguerite was so happy she thought she might levitate. Her heart was buoyant. Renata was here on Nantucket; she wanted to see Marguerite. “Come tomorrow night. For dinner. Can you?”
“Of course!” Renata said. “What time would you like me?”
“Seven thirty,” Marguerite said. At Les Parapluies, the bar had opened each night at six thirty and dinner was served at seven thirty. Marguerite had run the restaurant on that strict timetable for years without many exceptions, or much of an eye toward profitability.
“I’ll be there,” Renata said.
“Five Quince Street,” Marguerite said. “You’ll be able to find it?”
“Yes,” said Renata. In the background there was a burst of laughter. “So I’ll see you tomorrow night, Aunt Daisy, okay?”
“Okay,” Marguerite said. “Good night, dear.”
With that, Marguerite had replaced the heavy black receiver in its cradle and thought, Only for her.
Marguerite had not cooked a meal in fourteen years.
Copyright © 2006 by Elin Hilderbrand