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Success can kill you.
So my best friend had been telling me, anyway. Too much success is like arsenic in chocolate cake. Eat a slice a day, Marla announced with a sweep of her plump, bejeweled fingers, and you'll get cancer. Gobble the whole cake? You'll keel over and die on the spot.
These observations, made over the course of a snowy March, had not cheered me. Besides, I'd have thought that Marla, with her inherited wealth and passion for shopping, would applaud the upward leap of my catering business. But she said she was worried about me.
Frankly, I was worried about me, too.
In mid-March I'd invited Marla over to taste cookies. Despite a sudden but typical Colorado blizzard, she'd roared over to our small house off Aspen Meadow's Main Street in her shiny new BMW four-wheel drive. Sitting in our commercial kitchen, she'd munched on ginger snaps and spice cookies, and harped on the fact that the newly frantic pace of my work had coincided with my fourteen-year-old son Arch's increasingly rotten behavior. I knew Marla doted on Arch.
But in this, too, she was right.
Arch's foray into athletics, begun that winter with snowboarding and a stint on his school's fencing team, had ended with a trophy, a sprained ankle, and an unprecedented burst of physical self-confidence. He'd been eager to plunge into spring sports. When he'd decided on lacrosse, I'd been happy for him. That changed when I attended the first game. Watching my son forcefully shove an opponent aside and steal the ball, I'd felt queasy. With Arch's fathera rich doctor who'd had many violent episodes himselfnow serving time for parole violation, all that slashing and hitting was more than I could take.
But even more worrisome than the sport itself, Marla and I agreed, were Arch's new teammates: an unrepentant gang of spoiled, acquisitive brats. Unfortunately, Arch thought the lacrosse guys were beyond cool. He spent hours with them, claiming that he "forgot" to tell us where he was going after practice. We could have sent him an e-mail telling him to call, Arch protested, if he only had what all his pals had, to wit, Internet-access watches. Your own watch could have told you what time it was, I'd told him, when I picked him up from the country-club estate where the senior who was supposed to drive him home had left him off.
Arch ignored me. These new friends, he'd announced glumly, also had Global Positioning System calculators, Model Bezillion Palm pilots, and electric-acoustic guitars that cost eight hundred dollarsand up. These litanies were always accompanied with not-so-tactful reminders that his fifteenth birthday was right around the corner. He wanted everything on his list, he announced as he tucked a scroll of paper into my purse. After all, with all the parties I'd booked, I could finally afford to get him some really good stuff.
And no telling what'll happen if I don't get what I want, he'd added darkly. (Marla informed me that he'd already given her a list.) I'd shrugged as Arch clopped into the house ahead of me. I'd started stuffing sauteed chicken breasts with wild rice and spinach. The next day, Tom had picked up Arch at another friend's house. When my son waltzed into the kitchen, I almost didn't recognize him.
His head was shaved.
"They Bic'd me," he declared, tossing a lime into the air and catching it in the net of his lacrosse stick.
"They bicked you?" I exclaimed incredulously.
"Bic, Mom. Like the razor." He rubbed his bare scalp, then flipped the lime again. "And I would have been home on time, if you'd bought me the Palm, to remind me to tell the guy shaving my head that I had to go."
I snagged the lime in midair. "Go start on your homework, buster. You got a C on the last anatomy test. And from now on, either Tom or I will pick you up right from practice."
On his way out of the kitchen, he whacked his lacrosse stick on the floor. I called after him please not to do that. I got no reply. The next day, much to Arch's sulking chagrin, Tom had picked him up directly from practice. If being athletic is what success at that school looks like, Tom told me, then maybe Arch should take up painting. I kept mum. The next day, I was ashamed to admit, I'd pulled out Arch's birthday list and bought him the Palm pilot.
Call it working mom's guilt, I'd thought, as I stuffed tiny cream puffs with shrimp salad. Still, I was not sorry I was making more money than ever before. I did not regret that Goldilocks' Catering, Where Everything Is Just Right! had gone from booked to overbooked. Finally, I was giving those caterers in Denver, forty miles to the east, a run for their shrimp rolls. This was what I'd always wanted, right?
Take my best upcoming week, I'd explained to Marla as she moved on to test my cheesecake bars and raspberry brownies. The second week of April, I would make close to ten thousand dollarsa record. I'd booked an upscale cocktail party at Westside Mall, a wedding reception, and two big luncheons. Once I survived all that, Friday, April the fifteenth, was Arch's birthday. By then, I'd finally have the cash to buy him something, as Arch himself had said, really good.
"Goldy, don't do all that," Marla warned as she downed one of my new Spice-of-Life Cookies. The buttery cookies featured large amounts of ginger, cinnamon, and freshly grated nutmeg, and were as comforting as anything from Grandma's kitchen. "You'll be too exhausted even to make a birthday cake. Listen to me, now. You need to decrease your bookings, hire some help, be stricter with Arch, and take care of yourself for a change. If you don't, you're going to die."
Marla was always one for the insightful observation.
I didn't listen. At least, not soon enough.
The time leading up to that lucrative week in April became even busier and more frenetic. Arch occasionally slipped away from practice before Tom, coming up from his investigative work at the sheriff's department, could snag him. I was unable to remember the last time I'd had a decent night's sleep. So I suppose it was inevitable that, at ten-twenty on the morning of April eleventh, I had what's known in the shrink business as a crisis. At least, that's what they'd called it years ago, during my pursuit of a singularly unhelpful degree in psychology.
I was inside our walk-in refrigerator when I blacked out. Just before hitting the walk-in's cold floor, I grabbed a metal shelf. Plastic bags of tomatoes, scallions, celery, shallots, and gingerroot spewed in every direction, and my bottom thumped the floor. I thought, I don't have time for this.
I struggled to get up, and belatedly realized this meltdown wasn't that hard to figure out. I'd been up since five a.m. With one of the luncheon preps done, I was focusing on the mall cocktail party that evening. Or at least I had been focusing on it, before my eyes, legs, and back gave out.
I groaned and quickly gathered the plastic bags. My back ached. My mind threw out the realization that I still did not know where Arch had been for three hours the previous afternoon, when lacrosse practice had been canceled. Neither Tom nor I had been aware of the calendar change. Tom had finally collected Arch from a seedy section of Denver's Colfax Avenue. So what had this about-to-turn-fifteen-year-old been up to this time? Arch had refused to say.
"Just do the catering," I announced to the empty refrigerator. I replaced the plastic bags and asked the Almighty for perspective. Arch would get the third degree when he came down for breakfast. Meanwhile, I had work to do.
Before falling on my behind, I'd been working on a concoction I'd dubbed Shoppers' Chocolate Truffles. These rich goodies featured a dense, smooth chocolate interior coated with more satiny chocolate. So what had I been looking for in the refrigerator? I had no idea. I stomped out and slammed the door.
I sagged against the counter and told myself the problem was fatigue. Or maybe my agethirty-fourwas kicking in. What would Marla say? She'd waggle a fork in my face and preach about the wages of success.
I brushed myself off and quick-stepped to the sink. As water gushed over my hands, I remembered I'd been searching for the scoops of ganache, that sinfully rich melange of melted bittersweet chocolate, heavy cream, and liqueur that made up the heart of the truffles.
I dried my hands and resolved to concentrate on dark chocolate, not the darker side of success. After all, I had followed one of Marla's suggestions: I had hired help. But I had not cut back on parties. I'd forgotten what taking care of myself even felt like. And I seemed incapable of being stricter with Arch.
I scanned the kitchen. The ganache balls, still wrapped, sat pristinely on the marble counter. Next to it, my double boiler steamed on the stovetop. OK, so I'd already taken them out. I'd simply forgotten.
I hustled over to my new kitchen computer and booted it up, intent on checking that evening's assignment. Soon my new printer was spitting out lists of needed foodstuffs, floor plans, and scheduled setup. I may have lost my mind, but I'd picked it right up again.
"This is what happens when you give up caffeine!" I snarled at the ganache balls. Oopsthat was twice I'd talked to myself in the last five minutes. Marla would not approve.
I tugged the plastic wrap off the globes of ganache and spooned up a sample to check the consistency. The smooth, intense dark chocolate sent a zing of pleasure up my back. I moved to the stovetop, stirred the luxurious pool of melting chocolate, and took a whiff of the intoxicatingly rich scent. I told myselfsilentlythat everything was going to be all right. The party-goers were going to love me.
The client for that night's cocktail party was Barry Dean, an old friend who was now manager of Westside Mall, an upscale shopping center abutting the foothills west of Denver. I'd previously put on successful catered parties at Westside. Each time, the store-owners had raved. But Barry Dean, who'd only been managing the mall for six months, had seemed worried about the party's dessert offering. I'd promised him his high-end spenders, for whom the party was geared, would flip over the truffles.
Maybe I'd even get a big tip, I thought as I scraped down the sides of the double boiler. I could spend it on a new mattress. On it, I might eventually get some sleep.
I stopped and took three deep breaths. My system craved coffee. Of course, I hadn't given up espresso entirely. I was just trying to cut back from nine shots a day to two. Too much caffeine was causing my sleeplessness, Marla had declared. Of course, since we'd both been married to the same doctorconsecutively, not concurrentlyshe and I were self-proclaimed experts on all physical ailments. (Med Wives 101, we called it.) So I'd actually heeded her advice. My plan had been to have one shot at eight in the morning (a distant memory), another at four in the afternoon (too far in the future). Now my resolve was melting faster than the dark chocolate.
I fired up the espresso machine and wondered how I'd gotten into such a mental and physical mess.
Innocently enough, my mind replied. Without warning, right after Valentine's Day, my catering business had taken off. An influx of ultrawealthy folks to Denver and the mountain area west of the Mile High City had translated into massive construction of trophy homes, purchases of multiple upscale cars, and doubling of prices for just about everything. Most important from my viewpoint, the demand for big-ticket catered events had skyrocketed. From mid-February to the beginning of April, a normally slow season, my assignments had exploded. I'd thought I'd entered a zone, as they say in Boulder, of bliss.
I pulled a double shot of espresso, then took a sip and felt infinitely better.
I rolled the first silky scoop of ganache into a ball, and set it aside. What had I been thinking about? Ah, yes. Success.
I downed more coffee and set aside the porcelain bought-on-clearance cup, a remnant of my financial dark days. Those days had lasted a long time, a fact that Arch had seemed to block out.
When I began divorce proceedings against the ultra-cute, ultra-vicious Doctor John Richard Korman, I'd been so determined that he would support our son well that I'd become an Official Nosy Person. Files, tax returns, credit card receipts, check stubs, bank depositsI'd found and studied them all. My zealous curiosity had metamorphosed into a decent settlement. Wasn't it Benjamin Franklin who'd said, God helps those who help themselves? Old Ben had been right.
I bathed the first dark ganache globe in chocolate. OK, I'd replaced marital bitterness with bittersweet chocolate and bitter orange marmalade, right? And my life had turned around. Two years ago, I'd married Tom Schulz. As unreal as my newly-minted financial success might seem, I did not doubt the miracle of my relationship with Tom, whose work as a police investigator had actually brought us together in the first place. Tom was bighearted and open-armed toward both Arch and me. So far, Tom and I had passed the tests that had been flung our way, and emerged still together. In this day and age, I thought, such commitment was commendable.
And yet, I reflected as I placed the sumptuous truffle on a rack to dry, one of the reasons I'd been so happy about my sudden financial success was that I'd vowed never to depend on Tom's income. My earnings were now on a par with Tom's. After the money battles with The Jerk, financial independence was a phenomenon I'd sworn to attain and keep. Unfortunately, before marrying Tom, my profits had stayed in a zone between Can feed Arch and keep gas in van to Going down fast; write for law school catalogs.
I rolled ganache balls, bathed them in chocolate, and set them aside to dry. Scoop, bathe, set aside. Marla could grouse all she wanted; I savored my new success. I was even considering purchasing a new set of springform pans, since I'd already bought a new computer, printer, and copier, not to mention new tableware, flatware, and knivesa shining set of silver Henckels. I relished no longer renting plates, silverware, and linens! I laughed aloud when I finished the twentieth truffle, and made myself another espresso. The dark drink tasted divine. No wonder they called financial solvency liquidity.