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Romantic city folk pining for an idyllic existence far from the madding crowd tend to visualize a simple life in the country good friends, picturesque small town, a few adorably domesticated animals, and a little business quiet enough to soothe the soul with sufficient remuneration to fund a 401(k) and the occasional trek back into civilization.
A bed-and-breakfast, they think as they gaze out their fifty-seventh-story window at traffic snarls and big city squalor down below. That would be just the ticket. Even better, a restaurant.
A tiny cafe, nestled in the bosom of the heartland. The kind of place where everyone gathers for homemade food and homegrown fellowship. Where people sit in the same booths every day, where the company and conversation are comfortably predictable.
A little slice of heaven, a place where everybody knows your name.
Well, as the reluctant co-owner of just such an establishment, in just such a bosomy heartland, lemme tell ya heaven ain't all it's cracked up to be.
In fact, if I had known what was coming, I'd have sold my share in the Delphi Cafe to the first idiot who made an offer and walked away without a backward glance.
Twenty-twenty hindsight being 100 percent accurate, I can see now that I shoulda stood in bed.
But I didn't.
I got up just like usual, slogged wearily through new drifts to the cafe, and spent a wonderfully rewarding, idyllic country morning dealing with frozen pipes, afaulty furnace, and booths that overflowed with energetic foreign teenagers all talking at once full blast in their own assorted languages.
"How long are we going to be stuck with the Trapp Family Singers?" Del whispered in my ear as she surveyed the chilly room, juggling plates of apple pie balanced precariously on top of glasses of Coke.
"Only a couple of days, I think," I said, suppressing a sigh and wrapping my arms around myself for warmth. It was barely 60 degrees in the cafe. "They sing day after tomorrow at the church and then they move on to Mobridge."
Where the furnaces probably functioned properly, I thought bitterly.
"Are they taking her with them when they go?" Del asked, maliciously eyeing a very pregnant Junior who tried to temper the noisy enthusiasm of her charges.
The fifteen or so kids ranged from apple-cheeked and hearty to sallow, bored smokers. They ignored the chill and pointed out the dusty sights of Delphi's main drag avidly to one another, the apple cheekers smiling, the sallow smokers wincing. Most of them laughed (probably at rather than with us) and wandered constantly from booth to booth, making it very difficult for beleaguered waitresses to remember which one was allergic to pickles and which one had insisted, in universal sign language, on fat-free margarine.
They babbled incomprehensibly to one another with their mouths full, or conversed with emphatic gestures that were both wild and dangerous to passing waitresses carrying trays filled with exotic American fare like hot beef combos and chicken fried steak.
My cousin Junior, who usually annoyed the hell out of me with her smug perfection and her Superwoman competence, looked fired and flustered. Her eyes were runny and her nose was red, which matched her mittens, which she did not remove. She seemed to be completely overwhelmed by the boundless energy of the European Traveling Lutheran Youth Choir, whose care and feeding had been dumped on her without warning after their concert in Cresbard, forty miles away, had been canceled.
Junior lumbered from booth to booth, flashing a wan imitation of her patented Minister's Wife Smile at each kid, shushing them politely and vainly trying to discourage underage smoking. In one hand she held a tissue that she used as a screen against, secondhand smoke; her other hand seemed permanently attached to her lower back, kneading obviously aching muscles.
I surprised myself by saying to Del, "She's doing the best she can with them."
As we watched from a fairly safe distance, Junior tried to sidetrack one of the few nonverbal, nongesturing teens in the bunch from recording the whole scene for posterity with a handheld video camera. Even more energetic than the rest, he zoomed in gleefully on each of our faces with abandon and then swung the camera around to capture the next fascinatingsmall-town detail.
Junior might as well have been trying to get the attention of the man in the moon. Except for a three-second close-up of her face, the young filmmaker ignored her completely, as enchanted by the texture of the gravy on the plate that Alanna Luna had just pushed through the opening from the kitchen, as he was by the scope and breadth of her chest.
Del raised an eyebrow. "Since when do you sympathize with Junior? I thought she was your mortal enemy."
Actually, she was closer to being Del's mortal enemy, though Junior's top spot on Del's hit list had been usurped by the unfortunately permanent addition of Alanna Luna to the Delphi social whirl.
"Getting mellow in my old age, I guess," I said, shrugging. Too much had happened, too much had changed drastically in the last few months for me to dwell on old grudges against Junior.
Besides which, after the intimate family supper my mother had planned for that evening, during which she intended to reveal a few nasty secrets of her own, Junior would probably slink away from Delphi in shame, never to darken our lives again.
As little as I was looking forward to Mother's revelations or their inevitable public aftermath, it would almost be worth it to watch Junior and Aunt Juanita's faces when she finally confessed.