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Death is Semisweet
By Lou Jane Temple
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2002 Lou Jane Temple
All rights reserved.
Heaven Lee woke with a start. Sections of the Kansas City Star and the New York Times Sunday papers were on her chest, on the bed, on the floor. She stretched and looked around contentedly, then pulled a variety of pillows toward her and arranged them as a back rest, organizing the scattered papers into two piles, separating the Times from the Star. It was 10:30 on Sunday morning and she was still in bed.
Sunday was the only day Café Heaven was closed so it was the only day of the week staying in bed late with the paper was a possibility. She had the Kansas City paper delivered every day but the New York Times only on Sunday. She didn't have enough time to read two newspapers every morning. Half the time she didn't have time to read one in the morning, reading the Star when she got home from the restaurant late at night. Today she'd gotten through the arts and editorial sections before dozing off again. Lazy Sundays didn't come around too often.
Heaven hopped out of bed and went downstairs for another cup of coffee. She'd gotten up with Hank Wing, had her first cup then. Hank had gone around the corner to spend some time with his mother and attend mass at Holy Rosary Catholic Church with her. Heaven was never invited on these outings. She wasn't Catholic and Hank's mother didn't approve of her, a fact of life Hank accepted better than Heaven did.
Heaven's home in the Columbus Park district of Kansas City was a storefront. The first floor was one big commercial kitchen, laundry room, dining room and entertaining area, with lots of storage places for foodstuffs and dishes and platters and baskets and wine glasses. Before Heaven opened the restaurant, she'd run a catering business out of this floor.
She poured more coffee and also got a Diet Coke out of the big reach-in refrigerator, anticipating the move to a cold form of caffeine soon. She spotted a big chunk of chocolate sheet cake in the refrigerator and added it to her tray. She returned to the bed upstairs, took a bite of cake and followed it with coffee. Then she grabbed the phone from the bedside table.
She dialed and when someone answered, broke into a big smile. "Hi, honey, it's your mom."
"Mom, I'm so glad you called. What are you doing?" The voice on the other end of the line was hesitant, reserved. It was Iris, Heaven's daughter. Iris had finished her last year at Oxford and was still living in England with her father, the rock musician Dennis McGuinne. She was launching herself as a writer and she was in love.
"I have the day off and I'm still in bed. It's absolutely glorious. Hank went to church with his mom and I made coffee and got back in bed. In fact, I've already had my first nap."
"Why don't you just stay there all day. I'm sure Hank will come back and join you," Iris said, teasing, then felt embarrassed about making a sexual crack to her mom. She was glad her mother couldn't see her turning red.
Heaven wasn't going to bite. "I can't stay in bed because I have a brunch date with Stephanie Simpson. She's going to teach me about chocolate. But then I'm coming home and staying here. It's probably the last time this month I'll get to do this. It's been busy at the restaurant since Thanksgiving and even though we're not open on Sundays, it seems like I have stuff to do on Sundays the rest of the month. When will you be home?"
Iris had been firm last year when she explained to her mother that after college, she wasn't coming back to live in Kansas City. It had been rough to accept, but Heaven couldn't blame her daughter. Iris had a world view. Heaven just wanted her to remember where her emotional "home" was. After all, Iris had grown up in Kansas City, moving to Cambridge and her father only for her college years. The last four years had been good for Iris and Dennis, or so they both said. Heaven had accepted the separation until this year, when it led to Iris falling in love with a man of whom Heaven was afraid.
"Well, I'm coming on the 20th and today is the 10th, so only ten more days," Iris said, still with the hesitation in her voice. "I'm really looking forward to it, Mom."
"Oh, honey, so am I. I told my brother we'd come out to the farm on Christmas Day, but Christmas Eve we'll have a get-together here, or at the restaurant, I'm not sure where yet. ..."
"Mom," Iris said more sharply than she'd meant to, cutting off her mother's chattering mid-stream. "Stuart is coming with me."
Silence for at least ten seconds.
"Mom, are you still there?"
"Gosh, Iris, I would think Mr. Watts would want to spend Christmas with some of his children. How about the ones that are older than you? Doesn't he even have a grandchild?" Heaven's voice dripped with sarcasm.
"Mother, I thought we'd gotten to the point where you accept that I love this man. Now I've tried to respect your wishes, and Dad's too, as far as that goes, and not move in with him. But he's coming with me to Kansas City and that's that."
Silence again, but only for a couple of seconds, while Heaven figured out her next move. "Well, then, shall I book him a room at the Fairmont Hotel?" she asked archly, knowing she was fighting a losing battle.
This time there was a good solid pause on the other end of the line.
Heaven didn't want this to become a battle royale but the idea of that aging rock star and her daughter sharing her daughter's childhood bedroom was pretty hard to take.
"Why is it just fine for you to have a boyfriend just a few years older than I am, but I can't have a boyfriend in your age category?" Iris asked bluntly.
"Hank is a perfectly respectable doctor, thank you very much. Stuart Watts, on the other hand, is the most flagrant violator of every rule in the book and then some. He makes your father's escapades look tame."
"He used to act like that but he doesn't now. Father too. Everyone has a past, Mother," Iris said with a very sharp edge to her voice. "Do you want me to start in on yours?"
"No, but —"
Iris broke in before her mother said something that really made her mad. So far the conversation had been entirely predictable. "Good. Then let's just discuss what a wonderful time we're all going to have. Stuart will fly in with me, stay at our house until the 24th, then fly to San Francisco where, yes, like the devoted father and grandfather he is, he will have Christmas with his daughter Lana and her husband and his darling granddaughter, Lucretia, who will be one year old the day after Christmas. His son Webb, the director, will come up from LA. His other daughter, the older one, you know, the one that's actually thirty, is doing some relief work in Ecuador or someplace. He'll see her later. Are you still paying attention?"
"Like a teacher's pet," Heaven snapped.
"Then Stuart will come back to Kansas City so we can spend New Year's Eve together. He wanted to go to Bali for New Year's but I said it would be more fun to be with you, that you always had something wild going on at the restaurant and then everyone came over to our house and danced and carried on until dawn. So we'll go to Bali on the third or fourth of January. So there."
"Talk about having your cake and eating it too," Heaven cracked, trying to pout but not really having the heart for it. "When do you have time to write, missy? What with Kansas City in December and Bali in January. What happens in February, a space shuttle trip?"
Iris, relieved the boyfriend issue had been supplanted with the when-are-you-going-to-get-a-real-job issue, ignored the travel schedule jab. "I have a new piece that will be in Tattler next month. You remember I covered Iris Murdoch's memorial service at school? I wrote about how you and Dad had named me after her and how it had had a profound effect on my life and about meeting her and all."
"Where is my copy of the article? I want to have it bronzed," Heaven said, only half joking.
"I'll bring one to Kansas City if it's out. I can't believe it takes two weeks for the Brit magazines to get there. But my next piece will be easy for you to go buy for yourself. It's going to be in Rolling Stone," Iris said with triumph.
Heaven didn't want to spoil Iris's moment by saying something mean like, of course Rolling Stone would give the daughter of Dennis McGuinne a shot at writing something. They both knew that was how the world worked. She also knew Iris had the talent to do a good job and get the second assignment on merit. "Congratulations, honey. What are you writing about?"
"I'm going on tour with two new English bands, kind of retro punk with some world beat thrown in. I know it sounds like a bizarre combination but actually it's quite brilliant. I'll do the on-the-road piece. Then I get to do a Jazz in Paris piece, because of the Kansas City connection, by the way. I may need your help on that, since you know more about jazz than I do and you helped with that big jazz party last spring."
Heaven looked at the clock. It was a little past eleven and she had to meet Stephanie Simpson on the Plaza at noon. "We'll look up Jim Dittmar when you get here. He'll know what's going on if he isn't over in Paris playing gigs himself."
"Isn't that the piano player you thought was a jewel thief, Mom?"
"It's his shifty friends that led me to that conclusion. You see, just another reason not to get involved with a musician. Bye, honey. I'm going out to shop for twin beds for your room now. I'll talk to you next week."
"Mother!" Iris thought her mom was kidding about the beds but you could never be sure.
"I really am looking forward to you being home for Christmas, and old what's-his-name, too. I'm hanging up now," Heaven said and she did.
Heaven raced for the shower and after a good ten minutes of various shampoos and antioxidant scrubs and loofah rubs, she was positively a new woman. Even though she'd rinsed off in the shower when she got home from work the night before, her hair had still smelled like a pu-pu platter of the cafe's menu selections, at least to her. She was very sensitive to food smells on her clothes and hair and body. Hank always said she just smelled like someone who worked around food and that he liked it. Hank was always so positive.
Now came the task of finding something clean to wear. Laundry was definitely on the agenda for the afternoon. Heaven had purchased new underwear last week, instead of doing laundry. She had to face the music this week. Pulling a big black cashmere turtleneck sweater out of a drawer, her only expensive sweater, she found a pair of ribbed leggings, some red cowboy boots to celebrate the season, and she was set, except for her hair, which was drying in an unruly red mop. She spent a few minutes with the hair dryer, then decided to go all the way and put on lipstick and mascara. It was during this last delicate procedure that a crash from the first floor made her blink, causing a deposit of black gunk on her face under the lashes. "Damn," Heaven exclaimed.
"Heaven, are you all right?" Hank yelled from the kitchen. "And if you are, can you come help me?"
"Just a second," Heaven yelled as she quickly repaired the damage she'd done to her face. She'd just never really gotten the hang of the makeup thing. It was a good thing too, as she'd chosen a career that required a clean face most of the time. Makeup just melted in a hot professional- kitchen situation.
Heaven grabbed a black leather jacket and an orange wool scarf and headed downstairs.
"You look nice. Very festive," Hank said as he surveyed her, then looked back at the problem. A giant Christmas tree was wedged half in the door, half out in the garage. "I think this is a two-man job," Hank said. "I'll go out in the garage and manage the heavy end if you'll pull on the top."
Heaven looked at the tree with mixed feelings. "It looks magnificent. It's probably at least twenty or thirty years old. And now it's dead so we can have a place to put our stupid Christmas presents." She stood with her hands on her hips and gave one stomp with a red cowboy boot.
Hank rolled his eyes and put his hands on Heaven's shoulders, pulling her close. He had on a beautiful vintage gabardine overcoat from the 1950s, gray, and caramel colored leather gloves that looked vintage but weren't, the kind with the stitching on the outside. His long black hair was loose on his shoulders. "We've been through this for the last four years. You agonize over whether or not to get a tree and then at the last minute you want one and we end up with some freak of nature with branches on only one side, like the one last year. I decided to go to the city market while there was still a good selection and get the kind of tree you should have — and magnificent is the word for it, just like you." He had been addressing her like the slow girl in the class. Now he bent down and kissed her.
Had it really been four years that Hank had been around at Christmas? That couldn't possibly be right. "Doesn't this killing of trees bother your ancient Buddhist sensibilities?" she asked, pulling out of the embrace reluctantly.
Hank laughed and let go of her, heading for another route to the garage through the front door, since he couldn't get back out the way he came in. "Even though I'm from Vietnam, I was raised a Catholic, remember. We love to celebrate Christmas. It's little Jesus' birthday." He stopped and turned back to Heaven. "Think about the food that you serve in your restaurant. It was raised for a purpose. The cattle, the pigs, the carrots, the lettuce, even the grains. It was all raised to be consumed, to be fuel for another life- form. These Christmas trees were raised on a farm, just like wheat. They were raised to be consumed. Just because they take longer to get to harvest, doesn't mean their purpose on earth wasn't clear from the start."
Heaven gave up. "Then let's get the damn thing in here. I'm supposed to be on the Plaza in ten minutes."
Hank grinned. "I'll get the decorations out of the basement while you're gone. Then tonight, we'll trim the tree, just the two of us."
"How corny," Heaven said, and rolled her eyes at Hank. In truth, she could hardly wait.
Chocolate Bread Pudding
1 qt. half and half
2 cups heavy cream
1 cup sugar
7 eggs, beaten
6 egg yolks, beaten
1 tsp. vanilla extract
6 oz. semisweet chocolate chips
1 loaf thin sliced white bread
My friend, professional pastry chef Susan Welling Sanchez, shared this recipe as well as the flourless torte in the next chapter. They are the best examples of two chocolate standards I've ever tasted.
Scald the half and half and cream with the sugar. Temper this into the combined beaten eggs and yolks like this: Mix a small amount of the hot cream mixture into the beaten eggs and yolks and then slowly combine the eggs and all the cream. Add vanilla and chocolate chips. The hot cream will melt the chocolate slightly.
Slice the bread in two on the diagonal. Arrange sliced triangles in a deep baking dish. Strain the custard with a wire mesh strainer over the bread slices. Put the baking dish in another pan containing enough water to reach about half way up the sides of the baking dish, a bain marie, at 325 degrees for 45 minutes or until the custard is firm.CHAPTER 2
Everywhere you looked, there was another Santa. Dozens of them were trooping along in front of the café. Some of them had on the typical Santa Claus costume: red suit, white fur trim, black belt, freshly groomed white beard and portly tummy. But others were trying a cutting-edge approach. There were red tights instead of trousers, a tie-dyed tunic, one Santa with dread locks, and several with bizarre accessories like rhinestone belts, small dogs with Santa hats, and one bratty child dressed up as an elf who stuck her tongue out at Heaven and Stephanie Simpson inside the restaurant as she marched past outside.
The Plaza, a faux Spanish shopping center built in the 1920s and '30s, was Kansas City's pride and joy. Long brick buildings with red tile roofs and fronted with elaborate statuary housed Gap and Barnes and Noble stores. There were European streetlights and a slightly shorter rendition of the Tower of Seville, Spain, the sister city of Kansas City. The Plaza was known nationwide for its elaborate Christmas decorations, which involved outlining every building for several blocks with lights. This year, that obviously wasn't enough. The Plaza seemed to be recruiting Santas by the dozens.
"I'm stuffed," Stephanie moaned as she pushed back her plate. "I can't believe I ordered dessert after corned beef hash."
Excerpted from Death is Semisweet by Lou Jane Temple. Copyright © 2002 Lou Jane Temple. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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