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Edited to Death
By Linda Lee Peterson
Prospect Park BooksCopyright © 2013 Linda Lee Peterson
All rights reserved.
BEYOND BOOKS AND COOKS
Here's something I can count on: If the phone rings twice before nine on a Friday morning, neither one of those calls is likely to be from the California State Lottery.
It'll be some carpool rearrangement or the automated voice at Sears telling me that, at long last, that extra special drill bit is in. That's about as good as early morning news gets.
At our house, we've got the bell turned up to dangerous decibel levels in order to hear it over the early morning racket—plummy voices on National Public Radio doing stories about imperiled loons or loony voices doing stories about imperiled plums, the kids squabbling over the last onion bagel, dogs and cats complaining about breakfast—right here, right now, and make it snappy!—and Anya, our melancholic Nordic au pair caroling from upstairs, "Maggie! Have you black tights without runners? Mine are too holey."
A person could get a headache. But through the din one fine fall morning, I heard that brrring! brrring! and Michael shouting, "Let the machine pick it up. It's nobody good. I know it."
But I couldn't. Not in the morning. Could be the lottery. The first caller was my freshman-year roommate, Sara Jenkins. She lives in London now, with her brilliant-but-dithery investment banker husband. When I picked up the phone she whispered, "Maggie, it's me. I need to know something quick."
"Sara? What's wrong?"
"Listen carefully," she said. "What happens eight days after the Nones of each month?"
"Thanks, you're great. I knew you'd know."
Through the transatlantic crackle, I could tell Sara had her hand cupped around the receiver. I pictured her, dressed in her respectable English matron sweater and skirt, huddled in a corner of their elegant but drafty Sloane Square house, making surreptitious phone calls.
"Why? Why are you whispering? What's going on?"
"We're entertaining some business chums of Richard's—all weekend. By teatime I'd run out of small talk, so we broke out the Trivial Pursuit. I'm supposed to be upstairs searching out a sweater—it's like Siberia in the house, as usual. I've got to go."
"You spent Richard's cold, hard cash to cheat?"
"To get a wedge? You bet." She giggled. "Richard's money? What kind of a feminist are you, Maggie? Besides, it's English money—it's not worth anything anyway."
And she was gone. Without looking up from the paper, Michael said, "What's wrong with Sara? Her hollandaise separating again?"
"Nope. She was cheating at Trivial Pursuit."
Michael lowered the paper and shook his head. "That woman needs to get a job. Take her mind off all this domestic competition."
"She said it didn't matter. English money isn't worth anything. Is that right? I thought it was our money or Malaysian ringgits or something that isn't worth anything."
Michael said, "Mmmm," and returned to the sports page. He looked like a man who should be reading the business page. Six feet of respectability, packaged as usual in a starched white shirt with French cuffs. Gray suit, red silk tie, and his father's watch on a chain. Of course, when he wasn't dressed like this—as he was every work day of his life—he looked like a not-very-successful panhandler. Threadbare blue jeans or cords and an unfortunate collection of ratty sweatshirts. Michael was a man who'd missed out on the entire retail concept of casual clothes. But he wasn't reading the business page; he was deep in some bloodthirsty recounting of an ice hockey game, wondering if it was still too late to try out for the San Jose Sharks.
But about Sara, he had a point. She thought nothing of picking up the telephone to ask me if making hollandaise in a blender would keep it from separating, or to read me Colin's sonnet for school so I could fix the rhyme scheme. Since my major accomplishment in life is accumulating useless bits of information, we talked almost weekly. Sara carries almost no peripheral information around in her head, preserving all that space for life on a higher plane. She volunteers for underfunded pacifist groups and tutors graduate students in calculus.
Half an hour later, I was enjoying five minutes of the kind of solitude and silence only mothers with young children can appreciate. Lunches made, arguments mediated, socks found, animals fed, family out the door.
Josh was in school, developing interpersonal skills, experimenting with spatial relationships, and learning an occasional fact about history or grammar on the side. When I was ten, I was busy trying to wrest the four-square court away from Elise McElroy, who outweighed me by twenty-two pounds. If I wasn't locked in combat with Elise, I was trying to figure out why Dick and Jane never watched television, the activity of choice among my peers. Josh is the worrier in the family. If something troubles his serene environment, he develops brutal stomach cramps or throws up, usually without warning. Just as well he's not wrestling to the death over four square.
Zachary, my darling youngest, was in kindergarten. It was Friday. That meant he was acting out his hostile fantasies about me with the fantasy facilitator who came in once a week. Of course, when I was five and foolish enough to act on a hostile fantasy, I got sent to my room.
Michael was off giving obscure and probably un-followable tax advice to the undeserving rich.
"A tax lawyer does God's work," he announced to the children many a morning over breakfast. "Especially if he's a Democrat." Since the boys weren't yet up to ambiguous antecedents, they never called him on whether the Democratic "he" was God or the tax lawyer. Nor, for that matter, did I. I like a certain amount of peace with my bagel. Besides, Michael took such pure, undiluted pleasure in cooking up tax dodges for his foundation and nonprofit clients, I figured he deserved to deliver a self-righteous soliloquy or two over the breakfast table. Plus, he dressed the part.
So was I enjoying the bliss of post-breakfast solitude? Of course not. I was fretting over magazine deadlines. Should I go up to the computer waiting in the den and finish the research on "The Literate Manager: Role Models in Literature for Contemporary Business People," do an outline for "Maturely Mozart: Learning to Love Amadeus Late in Life," write a book review on a promising, if inaccessible, first novel (lots of sentence fragments and nanotech allusions) or do a first draft on "Goldilox: A Guided Tour through the Bay Area's Lox-and-Bagel Emporia." Of the four, only the Goldilox piece really stirred me. But that was probably because my bagel and cream cheese cried out for a little company.
I sighed. There were some non-work alternatives. But they seemed like worse work than work; there were bulbs to plant, the checkbook to balance, and flea collars ready and waiting for our menagerie of three cats (Batman, Robin, and the Riddler) and a dog. Raider, a German shepherd, named for Oakland's silver and black football hooligans, came and put his head in my lap and whimpered. He was bored, too.
I looked around the sunny kitchen. It was too nice a day to do any of those things. Fall in Oakland is inspiring, as it is all over Northern California. Crisp, warm days, with just enough trees turning and shedding to give the place atmosphere. Not enough, on the other hand, to make even the most dutiful householder haul out a rake each and every weekend.
With all the shortcomings of our sixty-year-old, five-bedroom, permanently disordered house, there were beautiful views from every room.
I decided the choices needed further study, poured another cup of Ethiopian Mocha Harrar (to live in the Bay Area any time in the last quarter-century and not be into coffee was to risk treatment as a social leper) and settled down to an intensive study of the jumbled word game in the San Francisco Chronicle. I looked around for a clean spoon to stir with, settled for the handle end of a knife, and took a sip. I figured I had another hour of peace before Anya, our au pair-cum-art student, breezed in from her "Painter-as-Poet" class with still another insight about the references to textiles in Amy Lowell's poetry.
Then the phone rang again.
American-born and Oxford-educated Quentin Hart was the only person who ever called me Margaret. Of course, he was also the only person I've ever known who gargled with mineral water, honestly feared for the souls of people who wore manmade fabrics, and refused to wear contact lenses because they seemed spiritually dishonest. I was Quentin's "discovery." He was my editor at Small Town magazine—and my friend.
"Quentin. God, it's good to hear from you."
"Any particular reason?"
I looked around the kitchen, still cluttered with Peter Rabbit dishes, two sick philodendra that needed re-potting, and a week's worth of newspapers. Quentin lived in impeccable near-solitude. Having understood—and then transcended—the need to marry well, he had systematically divested himself of clutter, both physical and emotional. He and his wife owned Small Town, California's chicest city magazine. Actually, Claire owned the magazine, or almost; she stood to inherit it from her ghastly and ever-so-healthy Uncle Alf. Quentin, after a few years of laboring in the journalistic vineyards, married the owner's niece and settled in to editing the magazine, with minimal meddling from both Claire and Uncle Alf. His gift for finding and nurturing good writers with original voices had rescued the magazine from near-collapse. Under his guidance, Small Town developed style, and even a little substance.
Advertisers, shocked by finding a vehicle people actually read, responded with enthusiasm. The magazine grew fat with advertising pages that peddled spectacularly useless stuff to the privileged. Those of us who scribbled for Small Town were grateful.
Almost two years ago, Claire and Quentin separated. Quentin cleared every trace of Claire out of their flat, lived alone for a year, and then invited his companion/assistant/friend Stuart to live in. Most people assumed that Quentin and Stuart's relationship had sexual overtones; but as Michael once observed early in his acquaintance with Quentin, "How could that guy have sex with anyone? Surely he doesn't actually undress. Don't you think he just goes to the dry cleaners along with his blazers to get his carnal desires attended to?" I didn't respond to Michael's speculation. I saw nothing good coming out of a discussion about what I knew about Quentin's antiseptic-but-complex love life.
"Well, my dear, I'm glad you're glad I called," Quentin was saying. "Can you come by? I have a thing or two for the January issue."
"Terrific," I said, sensing rescue from the computer, the garden, and the kitchen. "You mean besides the lox piece?"
"How's that coming?"
"It's just fine. I have a first draft on the screen," I lied. "It's fun, kind of, um, salty," I improvised.
Quentin sighed. "You haven't started yet, I take it."
Feeling courageous, I pressed on. "Listen, don't you think I could do something besides books and food for a bit? I'm up to it—you know that."
Indeed, Quentin did know. He had discovered me, as he liked to insist when people accused the magazine of precious elitism. Some suburban cousin of his had shown him a piece I'd written for a parents' community newspaper on what was wrong with most children's books. "I read this piece," Quentin recounts, "expecting to see another paean to non-sexist personal growth platitudes in children's literature; and what do I encounter? Wit, vitriol, and downright nastiness. I knew right off that Margaret belonged in our magazine's little stable of contributors."
So Quentin tracked me down and lured me out of semiretirement to write a piece for Small Town. I'd worked as managing editor of a trade magazine for nurses before the babies came along, and I'd just started itching to put words on paper again. Writing was much more fun than editing. Quentin gave me an irresistible first assignment—test driving sports cars. He'd titled the piece "June Cleaver Hits the Road." I had a memorable time, after a little coaching from the National Association of Professional Drivers. Slaloming through cones, cornering, taking "hot laps"—I did it all, and Small Town got a story with a distinctive angle. What's more, I rose miles in Josh's estimation. He still carries a photo of me in helmet and jumpsuit, taped to the inside of his lunch box, to show off to his buddies. That made up for the guilt I felt when Michael brought him to the track to watch me drive and he threw up the moment I crossed the finish line.
"Margaret," Quentin chided. "Books and cooks are two perfectly acceptable subjects. They represent my major passions—nowadays, at any rate."
"Come on, you know what I mean," I said, trying to sound more like Dorothy Thompson and less like Dorothy Parker, and not particularly eager to discuss Quentin's other passions. "Front of the book hard stuff, power plays in high places, chemical spills threatening sleepy suburbs."
Quentin interrupted, "When, precisely, was the last time Small Town investigated anything more toxic than badly made martinis?"
I conceded the point. "I don't really think the magazine ought to do that stuff. It's just that I've been watching too many reruns of The Year of Living Dangerously. I think I want to be a journalist where the action is."
"There's plenty of action here," said Quentin. "All the people in East Pumpkin Corner think this is the most dangerous place on earth. They think if you don't get AIDS from the mud baths in Calistoga or a hot tub in Marin, you'll get knocked off in the crossfire of some overdressed drug kings in Oakland or underdressed drag queens in San Francisco."
"You happen to be stereotyping the place I'm raising my children."
"Well, read the papers. I happen to think we live with more than an adequate amount of danger myself." For a moment, Quentin's arch tone had a new edge.
"What do you mean?"
"Oh, I don't know. We'll probably all die of raspberry vinaigrette poisoning in some stainless-steel, high-concept yuppie-teria next week. Listen, if you want to go cover war-torn nations and unstable dictatorships, do it. What are you waiting for?"
"Well, for openers, there's Josh and Zach. And, in my limited experience, war-torn nations rarely need tax lawyers."
"A point in their favor," said Quentin. "And that's exactly the issue. You want all your domestic bliss—and excitement, too."
I didn't respond. Quentin knew far too much about my dueling desires for domesticity and thrills.
He continued, "Life is choices, my dear. So make yours, and as you say to one and all, don't kvetch."
"You shouldn't pronounce both the k and the v with equal weight," I said. "On second thought, you just may be too WASPy to even use that word, Quentin."
"I'll bear that in mind," he replied dryly.
"Okay, I'm sorry," I said. "Last week there was a partners' dinner at Michael's firm, a bar association cocktail party, and I had to make cupcakes for Josh's class. I'm just feeling a little too wife and mommy-ish."
"You made cupcakes? You hate to bake."
"Well, actually Michael made them. But I had to frost them. Truly, I will stop kvetching. Tell me what you've got that's coming up. I'll even do a 'In Search of the Perfect Chocolate Truffle' story for Valentine's Day."
"Spare me," said Quentin. "Actually, it's quite peculiar, you raising this issue about stretching your usual repertoire. That's exactly what I've got in mind. Tell me," he paused, "what do you know about the Cock of the Walk?"
I snorted. "It's how my boys behave when they think they've pulled a fast one on me."
"Mothers," muttered Quentin. "Imagine how uninterested I am in the little darlings' psychology. So you don't know anything about the Cock of the Walk?"
I sighed, "Come on, Quentin, let's not play Twenty Questions."
"Usually you like games," he said.
I didn't want to encourage further discussion along those lines either. "Okay, okay," I said. "Sounds like a restaurant on Polk Street." Polk Street, which predated the Castro district as San Francisco's most notable gay neighborhood, featured restaurants, bars, and boutiques with relentlessly cute names that mined predictable veins—a local spirits store named Sukkers Likkers, for example.
Excerpted from Edited to Death by Linda Lee Peterson. Copyright © 2013 Linda Lee Peterson. Excerpted by permission of Prospect Park Books.
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