Read an Excerpt
Hello, It's Me
By Wendy Markham
Warner ForeverCopyright © 2005 Wendy Corsi Staub
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHey, you've reached Andre. You know what to do. Wait for the beep and don't forget to leave your number." Clutching the phone between her shoulder and her ear, Annie pipes another stripe of red icing along a rectangular sugar cookie, wondering how many stripes an American flag has, anyway.
Not that it matters. There aren't fifty white dabs of icing on the square of blue to the left of the stripe. Who cares whether a flag cookie is historically accurate, as long as it tastes good? Beep.
Annie sets down the tube of icing and presses a button to disconnect the call.
Someday, maybe she'll leave a message, just for the hell of it. Even though Andre's phone, its battery long dead, is lying useless in a drawer, along with the other personal effects the hospital handed her that awful day. Or maybe someday, she'll stop calling Andre's cell phone just to hear the sound of his voice. Yes, someday, she'll stop paying the bill just so she can do that.
After all, it's not as though she can afford it. She can't afford much of anything these days. The Widow Harlowe is in dire straits, reduced to decorating cookies for some wealthy Hamptonite's Flag Day soiree tomorrow night, just to earn enough cash to keep her kids in Fritos and Lunchables.
She's lucky, she supposes, that her friend Merlin's catering business has taken off so quickly. With the summer season about to kick into full swing, she can probably count on enough cookie-decorating gigs to carry them through the summer.
Then what? Come September, the rich New Yorkers will flee back to the city, leaving the eastern end of Long Island to the hardy natives once again.
As much as she cherishes warm days in the sun and surf, Annie has always preferred the off-season. She may not have grown up here as Andre did, but she learned early on to resent the "outsiders" who clog the roads and restaurants and beaches from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
Now, she resents that they've become her livelihood. Hell, what-and who-doesn't she resent at this point?
The summer people, the bill collectors who call incessantly, even her friends-especially those who are happily attached.
The Widow Harlowe can't help but notice that the world is one big Noah's Ark, made up of twosomes, which leaves her ... Alone. You're all alone, Annie.
A tear drops into the icing stripe, bleeding red across the white buttercream background.
Annie is instantly reminded of Milo losing his tooth in the apple the day her world turned upside down. The day that began as happily as the endless string of others before it, and concluded with sirens and a uniformed policeman at her door.
And now ... Well, now she's all alone. Everything happens for a reason, Annie. Andre said those words frequently-usually, whenever she was complaining about something that hadn't gone the way it was supposed to. Everything happens for a reason. Yeah. Right.
What reason could there possibly be for this? For Andre dying, for Annie being left alone to- Thud.
Annie looks up at the water-stained kitchen ceiling. Okay, not quite alone.
In fact, never alone. Never, ever alone. Being with her children 24-7 has taken some getting used to. She still isn't accustomed to not having a minute to herself during the day; nary a reprieve from her maternal watch.
Andre always liked to take Milo and Trixie off on adventures, leaving Annie with time to herself. She hasn't had that in almost a year now, but was too caught up in her grief to realize how much she craved relaxing solitude until recently.
"What are you doing up there, Milo?" she calls, even as she wonders whether the teardrop will make this cookie taste salty. She can always toss it aside ... but then she won't have a full sixteen dozen, and Merlin-or his snooty client-are sure to notice.
Not that she's even met the man who's throwing the Flag Day shindig. But it's safe to assume that anyone with a waterfront estate in Southampton is snooty. "I'm practicing, Mommy," Milo shouts down the stairs.
Practicing. Of course. "Just be careful, okay?" she calls wearily, wiping her eyes on the hem of the violet-sprigged vintage apron she's wearing.
She pipes another, slightly jagged red stripe on the slightly soggy cookie and concludes somewhat illogically that it'll serve the snooty Southamptonite right to taste the tears of the Widow Harlowe.
Thud. "Be careful, Milo!" she calls again. "I will, Mommy," comes the reply. "That time I almost did it."
Sure he did. He almost flew.
That, after all, is what he's been trying to do for months. Blanket/cape tucked in at his neck, arms outstretched, he attempts to take off on a daily-all right, an hourly-basis. His mission: to fly up to heaven so that he can tell his dad about his lost tooth and his new superhero action figures and his first year of elementary school and everything else Andre has missed in the dozen months since he died.
Annie hasn't the heart to tell her son that his mission is futile. How can she, when she herself spends every day longing for one last chance to tell her husband that she loves him?
With a trembling hand, she pipes another strip of red frosting, this one more wobbly than the last, on the cookie. Oh, hell. It looks like a zigzag, not a stripe. Annie tosses aside the icing tube and reaches again for the phone.
She dials the familiar number and waits as it rings once ...
He's not going to answer. You know that. Even when he was alive and remembered to turn on his cell phone, he never picked it up on the first ring. Twice ...
Usually, he didn't even grab it on the second. Remember how you used to picture him fumbling around, looking for it in his pocket, or the glove compartment, or at the bottom of his beach bag or tackle box? Three times ...
He's not going to answer it. Not ever again. Why do you keep doing this to yourself, Annie? Fifty bucks a month just so that you can hear his voice? Four ...
There's a click, and then the inevitable: "Hey, you've reached Andre. You know what to do ..."
She waits for the beep. This time, when she hears it, she doesn't hang up. This time, heedless of the tears streaming down her face and plopping like raindrops onto the half-finished flag, Annie leaves a message. "No, Andre," she wails, "you're wrong. I don't. I don't know what to do. I need you so badly ..."
Unable to force another word past the aching lump in her throat, Annie hangs up and stares bleakly into space. Raising a crystal flute to his mouth, Thomas Brannock IV takes a sip of champagne. It's odd, he thinks, to be drinking champagne when the afternoon sunlight is still beaming through the tall paned windows of his dining room. Happy hour is a few hours away. But then, this isn't pleasure; it's business. These days, what isn't? "What do you think? Too dry?" the stereotypically buff, good-looking, and effeminate caterer asks, hovering at his elbow.
"Too fruity," Thom pronounces, biting back the urge to add, "No offense." He sets the flute on the freshly polished surface of the eight-foot table that once graced his grandmother's Newport dining room. "Can I try the other one again?" "Of course."
The caterer-Marvin? Myron?-flits back to the first bottle and pours sparkling amber liquid into a clean flute. "Keep your menu in mind."
Thom nods, sipping the champagne. What is the menu again? By the time he's finished selecting the beverages that will be served, will he even remember? Or care? Did he ever care in the first place? "Dry enough?" Marvin or Myron asks.
It isn't, but Thom declares it just right. If he doesn't stop now, he won't be able to focus on his work. And when one is at the helm of a major financial institution and in the midst of yet another corporate takeover bid, one cannot afford not to focus.
"You're working again tonight?" Joyce pouted earlier when he informed her that he couldn't join her for dinner after all. "I thought you were on vacation." Vacation. Yeah, right.
He might be spending as many long weekends as he can at his sprawling seven-bedroom summer house complete with tennis court, pool, and private beach, but he doesn't really use the amenities. His mind is rarely far from his Wall Street office.
He watches the caterer make a note on a clipboard, then look up with a brisk smile. "We'll do the red wine next."
"Actually, Marvin-" "It's Merlin." Oops. "Actually, Merlin, I'll leave that up to you." "But-" "I'm sure you'll choose the right wine." "But-" "If you'll excuse me, I'd better get back to work," Thom says in his best class-dismissed tone, pushing back his chair.
I could have been a teacher in another life, he thinks, watching as Merlin takes his cue and begins clearing away the wineglasses and bottles. A teacher. Sure.
That would have gone over well with Mother. About as well as Thom's sister Susan's temporary engagement to an actor a few years ago. An Oscar nomination and a Beverly Hills mansion meant little to Mother. What counted more than anything, as far as she was-and is-concerned, is breeding. Susan's former fianc? didn't have it. The man she eventually married does. And so, Thom thinks with a twinge of resentment, does Joyce.
Like him, she grew up on Park Avenue and in Southampton. Like him, she went to all the right schools, rubbed shoulders with all the right people. Like him, she's attractive and intelligent.
Unlike him, she's thinking that it's time to settle down. As far as Thom is concerned, his whole life has been settled down. He can't help longing to ... well, unsettle. "I'll just need to go over a few more details with you, and then I'll be out of your hair," Merlin announces, breaking into Thom's errant thought pattern.
Which is for the best, of course. There's little time for daydreaming when you're in the midst of putting together a multibillion-dollar corporate takeover bid to acquire a New England-based seafood packaging company and hosting a political fund-raiser for two hundred of your-make that your mother's and sister's-closest friends.
With a sigh, Thom dutifully shifts his attention from fantasies about unsettling to Myron and his clipboard. The next morning, Annie is sitting on the porch swing with Trixie, a bag of cheese crackers, and a dog-eared copy of Green Eggs and Ham on her lap when she hears the rain-dampened gravel crunching at the foot of the driveway.
For a moment-the most fleeting and exhilarating of moments-she thinks, Andre's home. Then the familiar, bittersweet sound of crunching gravel gives way to the sight of a vehicle that isn't Andre's truck. No, it's Merlin's latest ridiculously extravagant purchase: a cherry red 1956 Mercedes convertible 220S.
What that cost him, Annie thinks ruefully, would probably provide a few years' college tuition for one of her kids.
Stop resenting Merlin's money, she chides herself. His money and his newfound domestic bliss with Jonathan, a Sag Harbor antiques dealer he met in January. A lifelong friendship shouldn't be tainted by the fact that Merlin is living happily ever after while Annie has become the Widow Harlowe, as Merlin himself dubbed her after one too many margaritas at a Cinco de Mayo bash last month.
Merlin's black sense of humor, along with his checkbook, have buoyed her through this stormy year. She has no right to resent his good fortune. "It's Uncle Merlin, Mommy!" Trixie shouts, leaping from Annie's lap. "Hey, Milo! Come outside! Uncle Merlin's here!"
Setting the book aside, relieved to have this morning's third round of Green Eggs and Ham curtailed, Annie rises and brushes the Goldfish crumbs from her faded cutoffs. Belatedly, she realizes that the porch floor will be covered with bugs again in no time. She had to hose it off last night after she found the remains of a grape Popsicle hosting the entire ant population of Montauk less than a foot from the screen door.
The house is falling apart inside and out. It's hard to believe that she and Andre ever pulled up in front of this nondescript two-story cedar-shingled bungalow and proclaimed it their dream home. What were they thinking? They'd have been better off in a condo or a townhouse, like her brothers said. Especially now that Annie alone is responsible for the upkeep of antique plumbing and wiring and a huge yard she actually once, in her misguided new homeowner's bliss, considered an asset.
The grass needs mowing, the shrubs need pruning, the beds need weeding, and she really should move the snowblower back into the shed. It's been sitting under a tree since she abandoned it there in the middle of last February's single significant snowstorm, after realizing she had no clue how to use it. That, like lawn mowing, was Andre's department.
Not that he ever got much practice. Splurging on that snowblower as a holiday gift for him one year was wishful thinking on Annie's part. Since childhood, she had longed for a white Christmas to rival Dickens's London, but it never happened. Not once. At least, not way out here on Long Island.
Snow rarely fell on Montauk that early in the season, and it never stuck. The big storms, if they came, were reserved for February; March, even, when crystalline drifts had been known to blanket crocus blooms and emerging daffodil spires.
"I'll get my white Christmas sooner or later," she used to tell Andre. "You'll see." "Only if we get rich enough to buy a snowmaking machine," was always his reply.
"Are we going for a Serengeti motif now?" Merlin calls, stepping out of his car in Gucci loafers and wading gingerly through the puddles by the car, then the overgrown grass on the lawn. "Should I be keeping an eye out for roaming zebra? Or their droppings?"
"Bite me," Annie retorts to the man who is more of an uncle to her children than her two married older brothers ever have been.
"How about I loan you my gardener instead?" "If I could afford a gardener, I'd trade him in for a maid."
Annie stoops to pick up a small plastic army guy; the kind that kills one's bare foot if one steps on it while blindly feeling one's way to the bathroom in the middle of the night. She's done that enough times to have declared all army guys "outside toys." She probably would have been better off banning them to the garbage while Milo was busy with his flight training in another room. "I'll loan you my gardener and my maid," Merlin offers.
Descending the porch steps, Annie laughs and says, "No, thanks." "Come on, Annie. I'm serious." "I know you are, but-" "Let me do something nice for you." "Merlin-"
He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a platinum credit card. "Here, if you won't let me loan you Enzio and Louella, take this and go shopping. It'll get your mind off your troubles. My treat. For your birthday." "My birthday was in April."
He shrugs. "I never got you a present." "You gave me a Prada bag."
"Oh, that." Merlin dismisses her with a wave of his hand. "It was a knockoff." "Yeah, right."
About as much a knockoff as Merlin's Dolce & Gabbana silk shirt.
Excerpted from Hello, It's Me by Wendy Markham Copyright © 2005 by Wendy Corsi Staub. Excerpted by permission.
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