“No, you don’t. Stop being ridiculous.” She took the box from my hand and shouldered it. “Where to?”
“My car. I had to park a ways away because of the market.”
We walked down the main boulevard in silence. I’d never been good with silence. I had to fill it. “Who’s watching your tent?”
“No one,” she said, grinning. “I have faith in my fellow humans.”
Good luck with that, I thought, and refrained from saying anything else until I spotted my car. “That’s me,” I shouted in a way I hoped meant, you can go now.
She didn’t take the hint, but waited patiently until I opened the trunk, and carefully tucked the box inside. “You’re gonna love that cake.”
“Did you make it?”
“I sure did.”
“Is it . . . good?”
“I’ll let you decide. I will say this, though—some people call me a magician when it comes to cooking what I grow.”
Magician. That could be interesting. Inspiration wasn’t exactly knocking, but it was definitely lurking. “Are you? How so?”
“I can do anything with vegetables,” she said, and somehow it didn’t sound like a boast, just a simple, unadorned fact. “I’ll serve you something you’ll swear is this buttery, flavorful steak, and it turns out to be a slab of butternut squash. I’m this seasoning guru. Like, an alchemist.”
The ideas flipped through my head like cards in a Rolodex. Magician, guru, creation . . . “Thanks,” I said, opening my car door. “Do you want a ride back?”
“Do I want to ride for three blocks?” She laughed. “No. I’d start worrying about my priorities if I agreed to that.”
Before I could come up with a retort, she’d loped down the block, arms swinging, escaped curls bouncing, not a care in the world.
I kind of hated her.
Excerpt from Petra Polly: Chapter 1—Maintain Fighting Weight at All Times
When a company is carrying a spare tire around the middle, it sinks to the bottom of the pool, becomes depressed, earthbound, slow moving. To avoid this, exercise your employees regularly—host competitions and contests, keep their creative muscles taut, promote competition that is friendly and fierce. Burn the fat away with mental interval training—tear those muscles down, and build them back stronger and more resilient!
The vegan flourless cake—dense, chocolaty, delicious—was a marvelous surprise. I didn’t care if it was created from tree sludge and sawdust—it tasted amazing. I’d scarfed nearly half of it as I read Petra’s book. Take that, Petra, and your fighting weight, I thought, bending to search our pantry for a bottle of wine, my knees protesting. I found one slightly covered in dust, by the cans of tuna fish Trey had taken to eating every day after school until someone warned him about the evils of mercury poisoning, and he’d sworn never to touch them again. A stack of them formed a mini skyscraper in my pantry, and behind it, treasure. A nice Bordeaux given to Jesse by a client. I’d been saving it, but for what? Jesse would never be back to share it with me. I heard his voice so clearly, though, telling me I’d better get drinking before it turned to vinegar. I popped the cork from the bottle and didn’t pause to let it breathe. My need to breathe was stronger.
I poured the wine and took a sip. Heavenly.
Odd choice of word, I thought. Did I believe Jesse was somewhere in the clouds, looking down at what had become of his wife? I wasn’t sure. I kind of hoped not. When Jesse died (I’d stopped using the euphemistic “passed away” after about a year), there were two things people said to me with regularity—he’s always with you and he’s in a better place. Try as I might, I couldn’t see how both of those could be true at the same time. When I was honest with myself, I hoped neither was accurate. If he were with me, then he could see my tears, my depression, my zombielike inability to engage with the life we’d built together. And how could anyone think there was a better place for Jesse than with his wife and child? That thought, meant to comfort, seemed unnecessarily cruel.
I forced my thoughts to shift—what would Jesse’s version of heaven be? Probably a glorified Container Store. Jesse was seriously organized—we both were. Every single thing in our house had a place. We both took great pleasure in our community, a gated, private subdivision on the outskirts of Willow Falls, with its own rules and bylaws. Jesse and I loved rules and bylaws. We loved order. For us, the best day could be described as one that ran “smoothly.”
I glanced at the wineglass, and there was only a swallow left, as my grandmother used to say. Jesse and I used to open a bottle every Friday night. We’d each have two glasses, then two glasses on Saturday, with dinner we ordered from our favorite Italian restaurant. I held up the bottle and poured myself another generous drink.
The second glass was going down way too easily when I remembered that Trey was staying at Colin’s place, and I hadn’t yet spoken to his mother. Jesse and I tried hard to avoid helicoptering Trey, but our rough childhoods made it difficult to avoid making automatic assumptions about others. Trust was not given readily; it was earned only after careful observation and analysis of actions. I’d never met this woman, and Trey would be sleeping under her roof. The prevailing attitude around here seemed to be if you could afford to live in Willow Falls, you at least checked some of the boxes on the list of “good person” attributes. But Jesse and I knew we could never buy into that kind of naïveté. We’d seen too many folks from places like Willow Falls cruising our old neighborhood, looking for drugs and trouble. They usually bought the first and caused a great deal of the latter.
I found my cell phone after much fishing around in my purse and checked to see if Trey texted me her number. He had, and I smiled to myself like I always did when Trey did something he should be doing, like keeping a promise.
Her name was Charlene.
She answered just before it switched over to voice mail with a clipped, “Yes.”
I introduced myself and thanked her for hosting Trey.
Silence. I thought my phone had gone out when she said, “Trey says you have no running water in your home.”
“We have water!” I said defensively. “Just not hot. I meant to call the guy, but today’s been craz—”
“Trey devoured his dinner. He said there’s often not any food in your house.”
I took a deep breath. Wasn’t this the woman who was supposed to be a hands-off, you-guys-are-now-adults kind of mother? What had Trey been telling her?
“I’m doing the best I can since my husband died.” I didn’t often play the widow card, but if there was a situation that called for it, this was it.
“Trey said that was two years ago.” It was a statement, but also an accusation.
She waited for my response—did she want an apology? I thought of something Big Frank said to me after Jesse died: You’re gonna have to deal with people who’ve never had to grieve before. “I’m doing the best I can,” I said, struggling to keep my voice even.
“I’m sure you are,” she responded, her tone softening a smidge. “And I can . . . sympathize. I’ve been married for twenty years, and I can’t imagine.”
No, I thought. You can’t.
“Perhaps you need to be a little more open to help,” Charlene said. “Have you tried therapy?”