Wednesday, March 31, 2010
Tuesday, March 30, 2010
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
Monday, March 22, 2010
May 14 Monday evening
This evening Billie and I sat on her slip of a porch drinking iced white wine and teasing her new black kitten with slips of paper on which were scrawled old recipes. Perhaps they retained the scent of butter and vanilla. Instead of dangling these over little Ink’s head, we were supposed to be sorting and culling for the cookbook project. I’d collected my own and hers.
“We’re going to need twice as many recipes as we can actually use,” said Billie, thumbing through a dog-eared copy of Ramblin’ Chefs from Georgia Tech. “If everyone sends in just their favorite recipe, we’ll wind up with desserts, casseroles and a five-bean salad.”
“I think we’re going to have to use everyone we get,” I said. “If we get too particular, we won’t sell as many.” And the project will spiral out of control. “Once we see what we can gather, we can go back to the best contributors and ask them to fill in. Or we can pull from these.”
“No, we can’t, these aren’t from the University.”
“Mmmnn. I bet Phoebe, Veronica and Mrs. Moth have cookbooks like these. It might be cool to pull from some of theirs,maybe update stuff, do some microwave and low-fat conversions…what do you think?”
“That’s fine. Plus, we can ask contributors for favorites from their own association cookbooks…”
“Sorority cookbooks…” I interrupted.
“Right and the alumni association. And the recipes tucked into cookbooks.”
“Veronica has a good collection,” I said.
“I never thought of her as a cook.”
I am an idiot! How am I supposed to know Veronica has a lot of cookbooks! I just remembered them because they were wedged on her bookshelf next to the Gone With the Wind first edition.
“Uh, well, she was a gardener once, she must have done some cooking as well.”
I sat back and waited for Billie to ask me how I knew about Veronica’s personal library. Was it silly to feel so guilty about my activities with Professor Sargeant? Would Billie think that I would break into her apartment as easily? I would not.
The cat Allan had christened Ink curled up on Billie’s lap and slept. I let the wine ease into my fraught mind. A few minutes of silences always seems longer when both sit back and let the heat and the green intrude, as one must in a garden or a hot climate. There’s no point in having a garden, in living under old trees, if you don’t let them distract you now and then with their whishing and their forecasts.
“Does John still think Veronica killed Astible?” asked Billie.
It took me a second to remember Professor Sargeant’s first name was John.
“How did you know that?”
“I was at the vet’s when he came by for the report.”
“You were just there?”
“Right. Friday, when I brought Ink in for her shots.”
“But, Astible died weeks ago. He got news then that said the death was from the brownies. From the chocolate.”
“The chocolate probably did kill her, but John found out two days ago that the brownies Astible ate were laced with digitalis.”
“Witch’s bells. Someone mixed up a batch of brownies with foxglove leaves and brought it to the game,” said Billie, looking grim. “I thought you knew. I thought you were helping him figure out if it was Veronica.”
“I thought I was helping him. But he seemed to take it for granted it was Veronica. She did bring those brownies,” I said, wondering if I should mention that Prof. S. had not told me about the foxglove. Digitalis, or foxglove, is a heart stimulant. It can keep you alive, or it can kill you.
“My father takes digitalis,” I said. “He started it in his sixties. When I was in high school I almost took some just for the hell of it.”
“You must have been a happy teen,” she said with the quiet sympathy I was beginning to find unnerving.
“Not particularly. I was just short of stupid; I know that. Something made me look it up in the dictionary.” The old blue Webster that lived on the floor of the hall closet. Our library.
“So you know what it can do.”
“I learned enough not to mess with it.”
“Actually, a lot of people drink foxglove tea with no bad effect,” said Billie. “But I think it’s very dangerous.”
This explained a good bit of the professor’s behavior in Veronica’s apartment. While I was supposed to be keeping an eye out the window (but was in fact trolling her books for first editions, he opened and closed every cabinet, rummaged through her spice rack, twisting jars and bottles of seasonings, offering me a sniff at a decorative jar labeled “Herbs de Province” that I could assure him was probably a souvenir of France.
In Veronica’s freezer---a fairly small space in need of defrosting---we found a stack of aluminum wrapped pans with no labels.
“They looked like leftovers,” I told Billie. “Or extras from the senior center or church.” Veronica often returned home clutching a bag or a styrofoam container.
“Did you leave it there or take it with you?”
“We were afraid to spend too much time so John took one packet and left the rest behind. He’s bringing it somewhere for analysis. Maybe back to the vet?”
Billie sighed and stood, stretching her arms, which held the kitten, high overhead. She tucked it under her arm. “Time for his pill,” she said and left me staring into space.
Friday, March 19, 2010
Monday, March 15, 2010
It's Monday. I don't know about the others (what shall we call each other? The uncubed?) but Mondays are potentially the deadliest days of the unemployed year. Because I'm working part time, for several months now, Monday's have been anxiety provoking but also artistically satisfying. I don't have to grade papers, I go to the Hang 'n Fold late in the afternoon for a short shift, so really, Monday's are kind of my day to just be.
Saturday, March 13, 2010
Sunday night, a few days later (May 13)
Our gardens are established. Rain last night made weeding easy this morning. When I wandered out early this morning, coffee cup in hand, I found Prof. S.
“The weeds are quick,” he said, showing me a handful of tiny growth.
I bent to my own packed plot.
“I’ve got too much good stuff for weeds to find any room,” I said.
“Don’t you believe it,” he said, pointing at what I thought was the penny royal beginning to spread.
As we stood there arguing about it, watching Juniper follow her nose, Veronica emerged in a cloud of Chanel No. 5, dressed for church. It’s a comforting sight, say what you will, to see an elderly lady dressed up in hydrangea blue on a Sunday morning. Even if she is jangling a silver bracelet with one small charm.
Across the courtyard, Mrs. Moth emerged, slightly less crisp, but in a soft dress and matching bag and shoes.
As they walked off together, the professor and I exchanged glances.
“How long is their service?” I asked.
“Including donuts? Hour and a half.”
“Plenty of time.”
But the key, which Prof. S. had replaced under the hall radiator, was no longer there.
I turned to him. “Didn’t you return it?”
“Of course I did.” He looked frustrated and angry. Sitting next to him on the steps as close as we were I could feel a buzzing energy emanating from him. His heels tapped, his right knee jiggered annoyingly and he was starting to rub his hands together as if conjuring up images of Veronica plotting to kill his beloved dog. But even as the frown deepened across his face, he did not look defeated. He looked grim and determined.
“Do you think she knew we used it?”
“Looks like it,” he snapped.
“She might have used it and left it in a pocket.”
Or she might have lent it out or had the locks changed. She might have switched hiding places. I had a shrink once tell me there were a hundred reasons for anyone to do something. The one we’re so sure about is rarely it.
But the professor was sure Veronica had killed his little dog.
“Why are you so sure about this?”
But he just shook his head. “I can’t get it out of my head that she brought Dowling and Reverend Garland over the day I buried Astible and made such a fuss about our planting gardens. About my garden.”
“Well, it did throw the whole look of the place out of whack. But when she told me about the sale, she said that was why the gardens didn’t matter.”
“No body’s cared what this place has looked like for thirty years.”
In a way this was true. The church has kept up with maintenance and very very basic lawn care, but no investment has been made. I’d found my apartment through a referral, subletting it from a graduating design major in a hurry to get to New York. When I went for the key, walking down 12th street from the university strip, I almost missed it. Yet, the property is quite sizable.
“There’s something almost invisible about this place,” I said.
“It’s the institutional brick,” he said. “It looks like part of Bryce or the U.”
We sat on the steps like a couple of ten year olds at the end of a dull summer. Church- goers parked along 12th Street seemed to look at us askance. Prof. S. didn’t seem to notice, but I always feel a childish guilt. I do not go to church anymore. I don’t know why. I might have pondered this for the rest of the afternoon, but another thought intruded.
“So, why do you think that bracelet is so important?” I asked, when at exactly the same time, Prof. S said,
“Let’s check the back door.”
And we rose in unity, refreshed by the thoughtful interlude. You gotta let yourself dither now and again.
Juniper, locked in my apartment and annoyed at being left out, set up a racket at the kitchen door, which Prof. S. quelled with a word. He has the gift.
The common entry to the upstairs apartment was unlocked.
The stairs were clean and free of clutter. Veronica’s neighbor, a law student named Scott Hermosa, kept this back area for his bicycle, but it was not hanging in its usual space high on the landing. Scott usually left for the weekends, driving home to Mobile with his fiancée.
“He’s the perfect neighbor,” I said. “I never hear him.”
Prof. S. just grunted.
“I’ll bet he hears you.”
I wasn’t sure how to take this and did not reply. With an almost choreographed motion we both reached for the mat in front of Veronica’s kitchen door.
Prof. S. tried the door, but Veronica had been careful. Then he ran a hand over the top of the door jamb. Also nothing.
I ran a hand over Scot’s doorjamb. Ah ha! I was beginning to understand how Veronica thought. Though I didn’t know why she made the decisions she did.
When it did not fit Scott’s door, we looked at each other. Prof. S.’s narrow chest moved visibly. As his grin dawned, a kind of veil melted and I saw him 30 years younger. When the key slid into the lock and turned, a chuckle escaped him, its breath on my neck. He practically pushed me into the room.
Searching Veronica’s apartment was turning into an addictive pleasure. Like searching your parents’ room when they’re not around. You do it once to look for a birthday present and find an old photo. You don’t get caught and the thrill of unchartered territory in your own house compels you to return. You go back and uncover a letter, a spent bullet, a bankbook. You start to dream about the creases in the house; the blue and white suitcase in the crawl space behind your closet that one day isn’t there anymore. Had it ever been there?
This morning inside a Junior League of Tuscaloosa cookbook, I found the deed to this property. In the kitchen Prof. S. stared into the open freezer from which he pulled two trays of frozen brownies and cried, “Bonanza!”
Saturday, March 6, 2010
More photos of seducing a cat with ham and cheese on many-grain bread.
Friday, March 5, 2010
Thursday May 10
“Have you been sitting in for the receptionist again?” Billie asked.
I flashed her a look full of frustration.
“How do you know?”
“Because it always seems to put you in a bad mood,” she said.
We were lolling on the verandah steps tickling Juniper’s belly and watching Jacob and Allen set up the court. They had decided to stretch the official boundaries, which would mean playing across the whole of our scruffy lawn.
“We don’t know each other well enough for you to know that,” I cracked, then bit my lip. We don’t know each other well enough for me to snap at her like that. “I’m sorry,” I said. “And you’re right. I’m not even supposed to be doing it.”
“She’s martyrs herself,” said Kate.
“I do not!”
“You do, too. You get lonely in your office, so you wander out and start gossiping with Betty Sheffield —
— the office mom,” I explained to Billie.
“— and she manipulates you into working for her.”
“Maxine was out all day.”
“Of course she was, and old Betty’s not about to sit in for her. So she sees you and knows you’ll do it. Admit it.”
Instead of admitting anything I changed the subject.
“You can’t just ask a group of people to stop talking about food without having another topic.”
“Why do you want them to talk about?”
“Oh, anything interesting,” I said. “Me.”
We all laughed.
“It’s just that every morning they talk about what they made for dinner the night before or what they’re looking forward to tonight. They always seem to be eating or talking about food.”
“Well, think about it. It’s safe. Everyone eats. It’s not political until you walk in the room.”
A scary thought, but true. Whenever I join an office group I turn out to be the token tacky bitch.
“You’re bored,” said Kate. “If you were engrossed in your job, then office conversation wouldn’t bother you. You wouldn’t even hear it.”
“I wouldn’t be a secretary again if my life depended on it,” said Billie.
“You’re in a tough situation,” said Kate. “You’re not faculty and you’re not really staff. You have to keep yourself separate.”
“I know, but it does get lonely.”
“Maybe there’s a way to get together with some other publications people and faculty,” said Billie.
“At Tech we had a women’s forum,” I said. “We had a different speakers each month and raised funds for a scholarship.”
“Quick and dirty bake sales, raffles. Then we put together a cookbook and made a ton of money.”
“That’s an idea!” said Billie. “You could put together a cookbook for the college.”
“Who do you want to benefit?”
We thought about this.
“Who were the scholarships at Tech for?” asked Kate.
“Female working their way through. You had to have a certain GPA. Above a 3.0, I think. And you had to be paying your own way.”
“But how did you choose from there?”
“They had a cook-off,” laughed Kate.
“No. The girls wrote essays describing how wonderful they were. Hardly anyone read the assignment.”
“Oh, there’s a shock,” said Kate.
I wasn’t sure what I was looking for. Finally, I got to one that wasn’t even typed, but written in a notebook as if she’d just dashed it off. But it wasn’t. She just spilled it all out. Her four waitress jobs, her studies, her upcoming wedding. She wanted the money to rent a wedding dress and give a big reception. She couldn’t believe it when I picked her.”
“What was she studying?” asked Billie, reaching for her mallet.
“You’re saying you have to be a rocket scientist to win an essay contest,” joked Kate. We all stood, ready to play.
“Yeah, that dime didn’t drop until the interview.”
“Let’s do it,” said Billie. “Let’s make a cookbook.”
“It would mean talking about food,” said Kate.
“True, but there would be a point,” I said. I imagined the new conversations in the office that would end with nods and determined steps instead of the sighing drifts as the women floated back to their desks.
“That’s the important thing,” said Billie.
“Kate! You’re slowing the game,” called Jacob. I wondered again how such a pleasant woman could be married to such a miserable crab. But Kate seems always to take him in stride, accepting his bad temper, which tonight seemed directed, once again, at Peter.
“So which of you is going to organize this?” she asked, swallowing the last of her gin and tonic.
Simultaneously, Billie and I pointed to each other.
One of us will. By the end of the evening, Billie had outlined the categories of food. I had remembered the need to keep the entries balanced and we’d both begun a list of women we knew on campus who could provide the core of our network. Like all cooperative ventures this one would center around a handful of women who knew the most people, who had the most time or energy to spare and who enjoyed the bustle of involvement.
And I would have a way of connecting to the people around me. I could almost feel the threads, like a spider’s web, issuing from my fingertips. Only this time, the image didn’t feel like a trap. This time, on this fine clear evening, free of the cloying heat and scents that would descend within the month, the threads of all the possible connections—interest, commitment, effort—inspired me.