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San Francisco, 1997
Catherine Wardwell Winslow spent a week last winter at a time management seminar where the experts stood up on a big stage and told her that Wednesday was the slowest day of the work week.
Catherine rested her chin in her hand and stared at her phone. It was a Wednesday, barely nine in the morning, and already four of the five phone lines were frantically blinking. She didn't know which one to answer first. So she didn't answer any of them.
Her life would be so much easier if she were one of those robots you see in the cartoons, the kind with slot machine eyes, a ball-bearing nose, and those spindly metal arms and slinky legs that jerk with every movement.
Like Rosie the Robot in The Jetsons.
But Catherine wasn't in a space-age home that looked like the Space Needle. She was in her San Francisco office on the third floor of a restored Victorian. The building was just one of many candy-colored, gabled houses on a steep and narrow street that now held offices for dentists, attorneys and other professionals.
The last line buzzed obnoxiously and began to blink like the others. She groaned and closed her eyes to escape. Her imagination took over. In her mind's eye she was Catherine the Robot rolling around her office on feet made of rollers that looked like brass sofa balls. She jammed report folders under her robot arms with the clawlike hands of a carnival toy machine, then she spun around her messy office, grabbing files and reports, adding up cost sheets and filing.
But the more paperwork she handled, the larger the piles on her desk grew. So the faster she rolled, here and there.
Hectic. Hectic. Hectic.
The desk phone suddenly morphed into an old fashioned black switchboard. The switchboard was filled with little glowing golden dots that blinked and buzzed and only stopped if she stuck one of a hundred black spiderlike plug cords into them. No matter how fast she plugged in the cords, the telephone lines kept flashing away like those warning lights at railroad crossings.
Warning overload! Warning! Warning!
She suddenly blew up in a cloud of springs, bolts and flying nuts.
"Are you all right?"
Catherine sat upright in her desk chair, startled. She blinked. Myrtle Martin, her secretary of fifteen years, was standing in the doorway, staring at her.
"I'm fine." Catherine quickly looked down, embarrassed. She busied herself by shuffling the papers all over her desk.
Myrtle gave Catherine's desk a pointed look, then shifted her gaze to the blinking lines. "You aren't answering the phone."
"I know." Catherine spent an inordinate amount of time fiddling with an already neat stack of the papers. She felt as if she had just blown up, like her nuts and bolts were scattered from here to kingdom come.
"What are you doing?"
"Looking for my nuts," Catherine muttered.
"You divorced your nuts eight years ago," Myrtle said without a beat, then closed the connecting door.
Catherine shook her head and bit back a smile. She picked up a handful of papers and tapped them on the desk until their corners were neatly aligned.
Myrtle was staring at her.
She glanced up trying to look calm and collected and in complete control, as if nothing was out of the ordinary.
Her secretary just stood there with her rigid back pressed against the door jamb, a knowing look on her face.
It was impossible to ignore her. Impossible because Myrtle Martin had a new hair color. Orange. Blindingly bright orange.
Catherine never knew a hair color could actually hurt your eyes. For just one instant she had the sudden urge to whip out her sunglasses.
Back in January Myrtle had dyed her hair jet black, painted a mole on her cheek and drawn on thickly-arched, Night-of-the-Iguana eyebrows, then wore animal prints and huge faux diamonds. At the time she was dating a Welshman named Richard.
Myrtle walked toward her with one of her "you-need-me-to-tell-you-exactly-what-you-need-to-do" looks. She had been gone for two weeks and the office looked as if she'd been gone for a year.
Catherine braced herself for a lecture, but instead Myrtle just hitched her hip on the desk corner, picked up the phone, and began pressing buttons. "Ms. Winslow is unavailable today."
Poof! Line one was gone.
"Ms. Winslow is in a meeting and cannot be disturbed."
Line two gone.
"Ms. Winslow will get back to you as soon as possible."
Line three gone.
Line four got the same treatment.
She punched line five. "Yes? Uh-huh. That's right. Who? Oh, hi! Yes, I'm just fine. Uh-huh. Uh-huh I changed it last night." Myrtle smiled and patted her French twist. "Red Flambeaux. Yes, it's very vibrant. I like color, too. Catherine? Yes, she's right here." Myrtle studied Catherine for a long moment. "She's wearing a suit of course. Black," she added as if she were describing cockroaches.
Catherine glanced down at her tailored black suit and frowned. She liked this outfit; it fit her mood.
"What's she doing?" Myrtle repeated, then gave Catherine a wicked smile. "Your daughter is looking for her nuts."
Catherine snatched the phone out of Myrtle's hand and glared at her.
Ignoring her, Myrtle just sank into a chair opposite the desk and began rifling through the papers on Catherine's desk.
"Hi, Mom. Myrtle was just being funny. No, I don't need any almonds. Yes, I'm sure."
Catherine paused, listening to her mom because she was her mom. There were some things you never outgrew.
Finally she took a long breath and said, "I know almond oil is good for the skin." She covered the mouthpiece and made shooting noises and gestures at Myrtle while her mother listed all the reasons nutsalmonds in particularwere good for her.
Five minutes later, when her eyes were glazed over and she now knew the complete history of the almond, she said, "Yes, I heard the whole thing. Every word, Mom." She took a deep breath and spoke rapidly to sneak a few words in, "I have to go now. Have a good trip, okay? No, I don't want any smoked almonds."
She winced and rubbed a hand over her pounding forehead. "I remember they were Dad's favorite. I love you, too. I promise I won't forget to tell the girls." She paused and added more softly, "Almonds make me cry, too, Mom."
She sighed. "You don't have anything to worry about. They give out pretzels on planes nowadays." She paused and pinched the bridge of her nose. "I don't know why." She stared down at her desk blotter. "I know Dad hated pretzels.
"No!" She jerked upright in her chair. "Don't cancel your flight!" She looked up at Myrtle, panicking. She ran a hand through her hair in frustration, then said more calmly, "Please, Mom. You need to go. This trip will be good for you."
There was a long, drawn out pause. Catherine sat still, holding her breath while she listened to the silence on the other end. Then her mother agreed.
Catherine exhaled and sagged back against her chair. "Yes, it would be difficult to cancel now. You'll have a good time. And the girls will miss you, too. Bye, Mom." She hung up the phone and gave Myrtle a look that should have cooked her.
Myrtle leaned forward and slapped some money on the desk. "Ten bucks says a case of almonds arrives before the week is out."
Catherine opened her desk drawer and threw out a wadded-up bill. "Twenty says it arrives tomorrow morning." She paused, then added pointedly, "About the same time you get your pink slip."
"You? Fire me?" Myrtle just ignored her. "Anyone else would bore you to death. Besides which, you need me."
"I also needed hard labor to give birth."
Myrtle burst out laughing.
Firing Myrtle was a ludicrous threat, since they both knew Catherine would be lost without her. Just one look at the cluttered office was proof enough.
Over the years she and Myrtle had become more than business associates; they had become friends. Catherine's daughters called Myrtle Martin "Aunt Mickie." It was Myrtle Martin who'd kept Catherine laughing through each difficult day after her husband, Tom, had walked away from her, and even more heart-wrenchingly, walked away from his young daughters because they caused too many complications in his life. Myrtle was the first person Catherine called when her ex-husband died two years after the divorce, and just six months ago, when her father was killed suddenly in an accident.
While Myrtle set about cleaning the office and filing papers, Catherine shoved away from her desk and stood. She crossed the room and opened the door to her small bath, where she dumped out an old cup of coffee, then rested both palms flat on the edges of the pedestal sink. She leaned into the mirror and wondered if that was really her face staring back.
She looked like her mother. And her grandmother. Blonde hair, brown eyes. Just like theirs except she had a dash of freckles across her nose that had never faded, even though her skin hadn't been exposed to the sun for years. They just stayed there, reminders of a summer when she had been badly burned.
She heard Myrtle mumbling out in the office and stepped into the doorway. "Are you talking to me?"
"Yes." Myrtle looked over her shoulder at Catherine. "I was saying that you're the one who needs a trip to the Greek Isles."
Catherine closed the adjoining door and crossed the office. "What I really need is to hire someone efficient while you're out on vacation." Catherine sat down.
Myrtle turned around. "At least I take vacations."
"I take vacations."
Catherine raised her chin. "I took the girls to Disneyland."
"They were two and six."
Catherine's daughters were now eleven and fifteen. "I went to New Orleans, remember?"
"Yes, I remember."
"Reagan was president."
"He was not."
"Well " Myrtle gave her hand a dramatic wave and slapped a file drawer closed. "It must have been Bush. I know it was one of those good ol' Republican boys."
Catherine glanced down at the paperwork on her desk. She had so much to do. "I can't get away right now ." She let the last word fade out when she realized that Myrtle was silently mouthing the very same words.
Catherine stared at her, half in surprise and half in shame. Even to her own ears it sounded like something she'd said a dozen times. Nothing but the same old excuse.
She closed her eyes for a second, feeling as if she'd been hit with a huge anvil, one painted with the words Bad Mother. She ran a hand over her eyes. She could still see Aly and Dana's eager young faces as they'd stood outside Sleeping Beauty's castle.
Once upon a time they had been awestruck by Goofy, Mickey and the other Disney characters. Only last week Aly had hung a Hanson poster over her prized Beauty and the Beast print, and Dana had come home from a sleepover with a third hole pierced high in her ear.
Catherine sagged back in her chair and gave her secretary a direct look. "Has it really been that long?"
"It's been a few years since you went away with just Aly and Dana."
Her daughters' last vacations had been with their grandparents or a random week each year at summer camp. Catherine was hit hard by a working mother's guilt.
It had always sounded so perfect when her parents chose to take the girls some place special. And those trips always seemed to coincide with Catherine's important presentations. Now, in retrospect, she felt selfish.
When she was growing up, her parents had spent almost every summer in Washington, in a wonderful Victorian clapboard house on a small San Juan island. Those summers had been easy and free, a time past when the air was clean, the sky was blue, and you woke up to the aching call of the gulls or the soft sound of rain on the roof. A place where your schedule was dictated only by the rise of the sun or the moon.
On Spruce Island, when she was seven, she had learned the names of all the stars and constellations, because there was no television to teach her that stars were merely people made by Hollywood.
On dark summer nights at the water's edge, she had roasted her first marshmallow and heard her first ghost story around the golden flames of a beach fire. And on that same island, on a chilly Northwest morning she caught her first fisha six inch bottom-sucker that her father didn't make her throw back in spite of the game laws.
It was there where she had learned to swim, to sail, and to kiss, for it was on Spruce Island during a bittersweet summer in the Sixtiesthe days when she used Yardley soap, dressed like Jean Shrimpton, and ironed her long hair straightthat she had found her first love.
She felt that old wistful feeling you have when you remember something that might have been. His image was bittersweet as it formed in her mind, and she wondered if he really had been that tall, intense young man she remembered.
Michael Packard had been twenty years old, incredibly mature and mysterious to a seventeen year old late bloomer who'd had a crush on him since she was eleven.
At twenty he'd had a man's strength and a man's gentleness, qualities she had seen in her father, but never in any of the young men she knew. The boys in her hometown craved fast cars and even faster girls. They drank Colt 45 malt liquor, carried hard-packs of Marlboros in their madras-shirt pockets, and cruised the streets in shiny cars with loud engines and big tires.
But Michael was so different from those boys. Even today, some thirty years later, she could still remember things about him: his voice saying her name, his long tanned legs stretched out on the small sloop they'd sailed in the cove, his wonderful hands and the way they could haul up a boat anchor, carve her initials in a piece of wood, or just as easily wipe a tear from her cheek.
That June she had fallen hard for him, fallen hard for the dark-haired young man with a deep, quiet voice that sounded as if it came from his soul. He had a poet's eyes, the kind of eyes she had seen in black-and-white photos of Laurence Ferlinghetti and Bob Dylan, eyes that could look right through you, especially if you were only seventeen.