“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?”
“Bouillabaisse. It’s a classic French fish stew. I intend to serve it tonight with”—I glanced at the cookbook—“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 is—even 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 service—and 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 résumé? 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 house—a 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 boeuf bourguignon had been a success, as had the coq au vin; the terrine de filets de sole had been less so. My soufflé au chocolat had sunk. My petites crêpes 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 food—unless you want to serve tapenade noire and mousse de saumon.”
“How do you say ‘yuck’ 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, ‘Apple.’ 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.”
* * *
During the week, I attempted to conquer, with varying results, gratin de coquilles St.-Jacques, quiche Lorraine, and vichyssoise. My second soufflé 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 we 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 students—and 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 très 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 bouillabaisse. 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 syndrome—which 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 year—not five more years.
“All right, girls,” I said as I returned to the living room, “here’s my best offer. I will volunteer at the Literacy Council and take one student from each of you. You can decide which ones after you’ve worked out your schedules.”
Caron pondered this. “That means you only have to be there for four hours a week, while we have to be there for—” She stopped as Inez elbowed her in the ribs. “Ow, why’d you do that?”
“I think that’s a fine idea,” Inez said to me. “You have to do the training, though, and I don’t know how often it’s offered.”
I shrugged. “I have a graduate degree in English, and I was a substitute teacher at the high school. My grammar is impeccable, and my vocabulary is extensive. I’m likely to be better qualified than this teacher you had yesterday. This will not be a problem. Trust me.”
* * *
The adolescent Japanese girl purported to be the program director gave me a dimply smile. Her deep brown eyes twinkled as she said, “I am so sorry, Ms. Marroy, but the next training session will not be held until the third week in August. I hope to see you then. Now if you will be so kind to excuse me, I must return some phone calls.”
“If you want me to read a manual and discuss the material, I will do so, although it’s a waste of time for both of us.” I kept my voice modulated and free of frustration, although I was damned if I was going to twinkle at her. “I speak English. Your students want to learn to speak English. I fail to see the need for eight hours of training to grasp the concept.”
“It’s our policy.”
This was the third round of the same dialogue. Keiko Sakamoto, as her nameplate claimed, had feinted and dodged my well-presented arguments with “our policy.” I felt as if I were at the White House, trying to persuade the secretary of state to abandon the prevailing foreign policy. My chances in either situation fell between wretched and nil.
Keiko picked up the telephone receiver and with yet another twinkle said, “We always need volunteers for our fund-raisers. Please take this brochure with information about our program. Have a nice day, Ms. Marroy.”
I left her office with as much dignity as I could rally. The Farberville Literacy Council occupied a redbrick building in the vicinity of the college campus and had been designed well. The central area had clusters of cubicles equipped with computers, and a lounging area with chairs, tables, and freestanding bookshelves. On one side of the front door was a reception desk, unoccupied. On the other, the interior of Keiko’s office was visible behind a large plate-glass window. Rooms with closed doors lined the periphery. The passageways had black metal file cabinets under piles of boxes, books, and unfiled files. Everything was well lit and clean. As I hesitated, a classroom door opened and a dozen students emerged, talking to each other in several different languages. I recognized Spanish, German, and Arabic. Three young Asian women stared at me and giggled.
A tall, lean, fortyish woman shooed them out of the doorway, then hesitated when she spotted me. Her white blouse and khaki trousers would have suited her perfectly on safari, although Farberville had a dearth of exotic animals. I suspected she was trying to determine my native tongue as she walked across the main room. I was interested to find out how she would address me, so it was a letdown when she merely said, “May I help you?”
“My daughter and her friend are new tutors. They’re still trying to get in touch with their students. I was hoping that I could help out, but the next training session isn’t until the end of the summer.”
“You must be Caron’s mother. I’m Leslie Barnes, and I was the trainer on Saturday. It was a very, very long day for all of us.”
I had no trouble interpreting her look, but I wasn’t about to apologize. “The girls are excited about meeting their students, but leery of calling them on the phone because of the language barrier.”
“All of their students speak some English, as I told them. However, if they want to come here this afternoon, Keiko can help them make the calls and set up their schedules. I have another class in a few minutes. Nice to meet you, Ms. Malloy.” She went into a corner office and closed the door. I hoped her residual scars from the training session had not driven her to drink in the middle of the morning.
Two people emerged from an office beyond the reception desk. The man wore a dark suit, a red tie, and an annoyed expression. His hairline was beginning to recede, and his features seemed small on his tanned face. The woman had short blond hair, blue eyes, and deft makeup. She was wearing a tailored skirt and jacket and high heels, and she carried a briefcase. “Gregory,” she said as though speaking to a wayward child, “we’re still waiting for the receipts from your trip to D.C. two months ago. Are you going to claim your dog ate them? If so, you’d better have that dog at the next meeting.”
“They’re in my office somewhere,” he said. “Why don’t you ask Rick where they are? He’s been coming by after work to paw through the files. It’s a friggin’ miracle I can find my desk, much less the manila envelope with the receipts. You’ve got the credit card statement. I don’t see why you want a bunch of bits of paper.”
“Willie wants them, not me,” she said.
The man now identified as Gregory took her elbow and tried to steer her toward the front door. “You can’t have a meeting until you have enough board members present to make a quorum. That won’t be until August, will it? I’ll find the receipts before then—okay?” There was a hint of mockery in his voice.
The woman stopped and pulled herself free. “I suppose so. I need to have a word with Keiko before I leave.” She swept past me and into the office, muttering under her breath.
Gregory glanced at me before he returned to what I presumed was his office. I stood there for a moment, feeling as inconsequential as I did at the Book Depot. It might be the time for the third stab at a soufflé, I finally decided and headed for the door. Purportedly, it was the charm.
Before I could get into my car, the blond woman came outside and said, “Claire Malloy?” When I nodded, she held out her hand and said, “I’m delighted to meet you. I’ve read all about your involvement with the local police. Tell me, what’s it like to confront a murderer?”
“Unpleasant,” I replied. “And you are…?”
“Sonya Emerson. I’m on the board of the FLC—the Farberville Literacy Council. In my spare time, I work for Sell-Mart in the corporate office in the Human Resources Department. What’s more fun than a sixty-hour workweek?”
I wondered if Mattel had released MBA Barbie in the last few years. “It’s nice to meet you, Sonya. I came by to apply to be a tutor. It appears that I’ll have to wait for the next training session.” I opened my car door, but the subtlety escaped her.
“Keiko mentioned it. She’d love to make an exception in your case, but our executive director is adamant about sticking to our policy. We have to be certain that our tutors are committed. Some of them sign up, but then lose interest and abandon their students.” She frowned faintly and then brightened. “We’d love to have you volunteer in some other capacity. You’re so well-known and respected in Farberville. Having you involved in the FLC would enhance our reputation in the community, as well as in the state organization. You’re so intelligent and articulate.”
I enjoy flattery, but she was shoveling it on. “If you have a bake sale, let me know and I’ll whip up a batch of profiteroles au chocolat.” I waved as I got in my car and drove away at a speed appropriate for someone who was well-known, respected, intelligent, and articulate. If I ever needed a letter of recommendation, I’d call Sonya.
In the meantime, I was all dressed up with nowhere to volunteer. I parked in the Book Depot lot and went inside. The clerk, Jacob, gazed morosely at me from his perch behind the counter. “Good morning, Ms. Malloy. A shipment came in Friday, paperbacks for the freshman lit classes. They sent fifty copies of Omoo instead of Typee. I’ve already sent them back. Everything else was as ordered. Shall we have a sale for the remaining stock of beach books? Perhaps twenty percent off or three for the price of two?” His lugubrious voice reminded me of a funeral director displaying pastel coffins to the mourners.
“Whatever you think, Jacob.” I went into my office, which was disturbingly neat and sanitized. Even the cockroaches had lost interest. I thumbed through a pile of invoices, but nothing required my scrutiny. I toyed with the idea of stopping by the grocery store to pick up the ingredients for profiteroles au chocolat (after I found a recipe online), but I envisioned the mess I’d make and therefore be obliged to clean up. Volunteering at the public library was not an option; everything was computerized except me. I pulled out the telephone directory and found a list of organizations under the heading “Social Services.” Safety Net, the battered women’s shelter, declined my offer and suggested that I send a check. The Red Cross suggested that I take a class in first aid. The thrift stores suggested that I send gently used clothes and a check. Residential facilities for children and at-risk teenagers declined my offers—and, yes, suggested that I send a check.
It seemed as if my only option was to operate a charitable trust fund. I would have spare time to perfect magret de canard and galette des rois. Admitting failure to Peter would be painful. To distract myself, I called Caron and left a message on her voice mail, telling her what Leslie Barnes had said about making the calls. Which, I have to admit, sounded daunting even to Ms. Marroy.
Having devised no clever way in which to make a meaningful contribution to the community, I drove home and read a book by the pool.
* * *
Peter came home early and invited me for a swim. Since Caron wasn’t around, we indulged in some adult hanky-panky in the shallow end. After we were more modestly attired and armed with wine in the chaise longues, I told Peter about my dismal excursion into volunteerism. He commiserated, although I detected an undertone of amusement. I gave him a cool look and said, “I think I’ll talk to the police chief about setting up a victims advocacy program at the department. Someone needs to listen to them and steer them to the proper agencies. We can have lunch together. Is there a vacant office next to yours?”
“Not one in the entire building,” he said in a strangled voice.
I used my napkin to blot wine off his chin. “Maybe we can share yours. All I need is a tiny little desk, a computer, and a separate telephone line. I promise I won’t eavesdrop when you’re interviewing suspects. By the way, we’re having leftover quiche for dinner. Tomorrow I’m going to try to make avocat et oeufs à la mousse de crabe. That’s avocados and eggs with crab mousse. Sounds yummy, doesn’t it?”
Peter poured himself another glass of wine.
* * *
Caron and Inez arrived as we were finishing dinner. “We already ate,” Caron said as she went into the kitchen and returned with two cans of soda and a bag of corn chips. Inez nodded and sat down at the table.
“Did you talk to your students?” I asked them.
“Sort of,” Caron said through a mouthful of chips. “We went to the Literacy Council and let Keiko help. It was weird. She understood everybody—or pretended she did, anyway. Ludmila, who’s this ninety-year-old obese woman from Poland, about five feet tall, with squinty little eyes and a voice like a leaf blower, came in the office. Guess what? She happens to be my student. Lucky me.”
“She was kind of hard to understand,” added Inez. “Maybe because she was so upset about something. Keiko took her to the break room for tea. I met my two students from Mexico, Graciela and Aladino. They both speak some English.”
“As opposed to my students,” Caron cut in deftly. “Besides Ludmila, I got to meet Jiang, who’s from China and in his twenties. He talks really fast. I smiled and nodded, but I didn’t have the faintest idea what he was saying. For all I know, he was telling me where he buried the bodies or what he did with the extraterrestrials in his attic. The Russian woman’s English is pretty good. Anyway, we both have our teaching schedules. C’mon, Inez, let’s go to the pizza place in the mall.”
“I thought you’d already eaten,” I said.
Inez lowered her eyes, but my daughter had no reservations about mendacity. “We did, Mother. Joel and some of his chess club friends are celebrating their victory at a tournament in Oklahoma. Inez has a crush on this guy who turns red when you look at him.”
“Rory’s shy,” Inez protested. “Why do you always stare at him, anyway? He thinks that you’re going to scream at him.”
“That’s absurd. I am merely waiting for him to say something coherent, which may take years.”
Peter produced a twenty-dollar bill. “Have a good time.”
After they scurried away, he insisted on cleaning up the kitchen. I sat on a stool at the island, admiring his dexterous way with plates and silverware. We were idly speculating about Inez’s potential boyfriend when the phone rang. Since Peter’s hands were soapy, I answered it.
“Is this Claire Malloy?”
“Yes,” I admitted.
“I don’t believe we’ve met, but I have encountered Deputy Chief Rosen several times,” the woman continued. “My name is Wilhelmina Constantine. I’m a member of the Farberville Literacy Council board of directors, and I was told that you might be interested in volunteering for our organization. We’re delighted.”
“I was told that I have to wait for the next training session before I can be a tutor.”
“To be a tutor, yes. However, I’d like you to consider becoming a member of the board. You’re well-known in the community and have a background in retail. Although the FLC is a nonprofit, we’re forced to run a business as well. Raising funds, making payroll, dealing with vendors, all those petty nuisances. Your experience will be invaluable.”
“I doubt that,” I said. “Today was the first time I’ve set foot in the building. After I’ve been trained and have tutored for a few months, I’ll think about the board. You may not want me. Thank you for asking, Ms. Constantine.”
“I wish you’d reconsider, Ms. Malloy. If this wasn’t an emergency, I wouldn’t be asking. I’m afraid it is, and we’re desperate.”
I made a face at Peter, who was watching me. “An emergency?”
She remained silent for a moment, then said, “I really can’t discuss it on the telephone. We have an informal board meeting tomorrow night at seven o’clock. Would you please at least attend?” Her voice began to quaver. “Otherwise, the FLC may not survive the summer. Our students will have no place to go.”
“I’ll attend the meeting,” I said, aware that I was capitulating to emotional blackmail, “but only as an observer.”
“Wonderful.” She hung up abruptly.
“Ms. Constantine?” Peter murmured. “As in Wilhelmina Constantine, better known as Willie?” I nodded. “She’s a federal judge. Tough lady.”
“Her name is familiar, but I’m not sure why.”
“She made a controversial ruling a few years ago, but at the time you were distracted by Azalea Twilight’s unseemly death.”
“I was distracted because I’d been accused of murder and was being stalked by a certain member of the police department.”
“You were never accused of murder,” Peter said.
“Well, I was most definitively stalked. No matter where I went, you were lurking in the bushes, spying on me.”
The certain member of the police department raised his eyebrows. “I was not lurking. You went to extremes to make yourself unavailable for interviews, and the few times I cornered you, you flounced away like Scarlett O’Hara.”
“Fiddle-dee-dee,” I said. “I have never flounced in my life.”
“And I’ve never lurked.”
I thought about it for a moment. “Deal.”
Copyright © 2013 by Joan Hess