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“I’d kill to get into Stanford.”
A you’ve-got-to-be-kidding laugh snorted across one of the dining tables at the headmaster’s house. “Start playing football,” whispered another voice. “Then they’ll kill to get you.”
At the moment of that sage advice, I was desperately balancing a platter of Early Decision Dumplings and Ivy League Ice Cream Pies, praying silently that the whole thing didn’t land on the royal blue Aubusson carpet. My job catering the first college advisory dinner for Colorado’s most famous prep school was almost over. It had been a long evening, and the only thing I would have killed to get into was a bathtub.
“Shut up, you guys!” came the voice of another student. “The only kid who’s going to Stanford is Saint Andrews. They’d kill to get him.”
Saint …? Using the school’s silver cutter, I scooped out the last three slices of pie. Thick layers of peppermint ice cream cascaded into dark puddles of fudge sauce. I scooted up to the last group of elegantly dressed teenagers.
Ultra-athletic Greer Dawson, who wore a forest-green watered-silk suit, moved primly in her ladder-back chair to get a better view of the head table. Greer, the school’s volleyball star, was an occasional helper with my business: Goldilocks’ Catering: Where Everything Is Just Right! Apparently Greer thought listing power serve and power lunch on her Princeton application would make her appear diversified. But she was not serving tonight. Tonight, Greer and the other seniors were concentrating on looking spiffy and acting unruffled as they heard about upcoming tests and college reps visiting the school. I needed to be careful with her slice of pie. Watered silk was one thing; ice-creamed, another. With my left hand I lowered plates to two boys before I balanced the tray on my hip and gingerly placed the last dessert in front of Greer.
“I’m in training, Goldy,” she announced without looking at me, and pushed the plate away.
The headmaster stood, leaned into the microphone, and cleared his throat. A gargling noise echoed like thunder. The bubbling chatter flattened. For a moment the only sound was the wind spitting pellets of snow against the rows of century-old wavy-glassed windows.
I zipped back out to the kitchen. Fatigue racked my bones. The dinner had been hellish. Not only that, but we were just starting the speeches. I looked at my watch: 8:30. Along with two helpers, I had been setting up and serving at the headmaster’s house since four o’clock. Cocktails had begun at six. Holding crystal glasses of Chardonnay and skewers of plump shrimp, the parents had talked in brave tones about Tyler being a shoe-in at Amherst (Granddad was an alum), and Kimberley going to Michigan (with those AP scores, what did you expect?). Most of the parents had ignored me, but one mother, anorexically thin Rhoda Marensky, had chosen to confide.
“You know, Goldy,” she said, stooping from her height with a rustle of her fur-trimmed taffeta dress, “our Brad has his heart set on Columbia.”
Greeted with my unimpressed look and decimated platter of shrimp, Rhoda’s towering husband, Stan Marensky, elaborated: “Columbia’s in New York.”
I said, “No kidding! I thought it was in South America.”
Refilling the appetizer platter a little later, I berated myself to act more charming. Five years ago, Stan Marensky’s fast-paced, long-legged stalk along the sidelines, as well as his blood-curdling screams, had been the hallmark of the Aspen Meadow Junior Soccer League. Stan had intimidated referees, opponents, and his team, the Marensky Maulers, of which my son, Arch, had been a hapless member for one miserable spring.
I walked back out to the dining room with more skewers of shrimp. I avoided the Marenskys. After that painful soccer season, Arch had decided to drop team sports. I didn’t blame him. Now twelve, my son had quickly replaced athletics with passions for fantasy-role-playing games, magic, and learning French. I’d tripped over more dungeon figures, trick handcuffs, and miniature Eiffel Towers than I cared to remember. These days, however, Arch had dual obsessions with astronomical maps and the fiction of C. S. Lewis. I figured as long as he grew up to write intergalactic travel novels, he’d be okay. With my career as the mother of an athlete over, I had heard only through the town grapevine that the shrill-voiced Stan Marensky had moved on to coaching junior basketball. Maybe he liked the way his threats reverberated off the gym walls.
I didn’t see the Marenskys for the rest of the dinner. I didn’t even think of Arch again until I was fixing the desserts and happened to glance out the kitchen windows. My heart sank. What had started that afternoon as an innocent-looking flurry had developed into the first full-blown snowstorm of the season. This promised icy roads and delays getting back to Aspen Meadow, where my son, at his insistence, was at home without a sitter. Arch had said it would make him happy if I didn’t worry about him any more than he worried about me. So the only things I actually needed to be concerned about were finishing up with the preppies and their parents, then coaxing my snowtireless van around seven lethal miles of curved mountain road.
The last two rows of Early Decision Dumplings beckoned. These were actually chômeurs—rich biscuit dough-drops that had puffed in a hot butter and brown sugar syrup. I had added oats at the behest of the headmaster, who insisted even the desserts have something healthful about them or there would be criticism. The parents would use any excuse to complain, he told me regretfully. I ladled each dumpling along with a thick ribbon of steaming caramelized sauce into small bowls, then poured cold whipping cream over each. I handed the tray to Audrey Coopersmith, my paid helper this evening. Audrey was a recently divorced mother who had a daughter in the senior class. Gripping her platter of china bowls chattering against their saucers, she gave me a wan smile beneath her tightly curled Annette Funicello–style hairdo. Audrey wouldn’t dream of complaining about the healthfulness of the chômeurs; she spent every spare breath complaining about her ex-husband.
“I just have so much anxiety, Goldy, I can’t stand it. This is such an important night for Heather. And of course Carl couldn’t be bothered to come.”
“Everything’s going to be fine,” I soothed, “except that whipping cream might curdle if it doesn’t get served soon.”
She made a whimpering noise, turned on her heel, and sidled out to the living room with her tray.
The chômeurs had steamed up the kitchen windows. I rubbed a pane of glass with my palm to check on the storm. Brown eyes like pennies, then my slightly freckled thirty-one-year-old face came into view, along with blond curly hair that had gone predictably haywire in the kitchen’s humidity. Did I look like someone who didn’t know Columbia was in New York? Well, those folks weren’t the only ones with high SAT scores. I’d gone to prep school, I’d even spent a year at a Seven Sisters college. Not that it had done me any good, but that was another story.
Outside the headmaster’s house, a stone mansion that had been erected by a Colorado silver baron in the 1880s, lamps dotting a walk illuminated waves of falling snow. The snowbound setting was idyllic, and gave no indication of Elk Park’s tumultuous history. After the silver veins gave out, the property had been sold to a Swiss hotelier who had built the nearby Elk Park Hotel. A day’s carriage ride from Denver, the hotel had been a posh retreat for wealthy Denverites until interstate highways and roadside motels rendered it obsolete. In the fifties the hotel had been remodeled into the Elk Park Preparatory School. The school had been through erratic financial times until recently, when Headmaster Alfred Perkins’ elimination of the boarding department, all-out PR campaign, and successful courtship of wealthy benefactors had put “the Andover of the West” (as Perkins liked to call it) on secure footing. Of course, one of the benefits of being a fund-raising whiz had been the current headmaster’s decade-long residency in the silver baron’s mansion.
The wind swept sudden, white torrents between the pine trees near the house. During the college advisory dinner we’d gotten at least another four inches. Late October in the Colorado high country often brought these heavy snowfalls, much to the delight of early-season skiers. Early snow, like a winning season for the Broncos, also helped yours truly. Wealthy skiers and football fans needed large-scale catered events to fuel them on the slopes or in front of their wide-screen TVs.
The coffeepots on the counters gurgled and hissed. Headmaster Perkins had given me a dire warning about the old house: any sudden electrical drain would bring the wrath of blown fuses down on us all. For safety, I had brought six drip pots instead of two large ones, then had spent forty minutes before the cocktail hour snaking extension cords around the kitchen and down the halls to various outlets. The parents had found the old house—with its Oriental rugs, antique furnishings, and higgledy-piggledy remodeling—charming. Clearly they had never had to prepare a meal for eighty in its kitchen.
After the cord caper, my next problem was finding room for salad plates and platters of roast beef as they teetered, askew, on buckled linoleum counters. But the real challenge had come in making Yorkshire puddings in ovens with no thermostats and no windows through which to check the dishes’ progress. When the puddings emerged moistly browned and puffed, I knew the true meaning of the word miracle.
From the dining room came the ponderous throat-clearing again. I nipped around the corner with the last row of dumplings as the headmaster began to speak.
Excerpt From: Diane Mott Davidson. “The Cereal Murders.” iBooks.