B ut her home in Hermosa would have to wait. The cell phone made its “ A1A Beachfront Avenue!” shoutout. “Jacki needs you to come over for dinner,” Raoul told her. So she kept going, starting to feel pretty beat up now, her back melding with the Echo’s seat as the miles in the car piled up. The moon hung like a gibbous pumpkin over the freeway. At least the traffic had cleared.
Raoul answered the door. His glasses were crooked and her mother’s pear apron, well-splattered, was tied around his waist over a pair of canvas shorts. A fan whirred on the floor. “The a/c’s out. Jacki’s in the bedroom. See if you can do something for her. She won’t talk to me.” He padded behind the kitchen counter to stir tomato sauce.
“What’s for dinner?”
“Spaghetti cheers her up.”
“Me, too.” She kicked off her shoes, and, going barefoot to the bedroom door, pushed it open.
“Get lost,” said the voice within.
Drapes darkened the room. Two fans blew toward the bed. Kat’s eyes adjusted and landed on her sister, who lay curled on one side on the mussed-up king-sized bed, face splotched with tears. “What’s the matter?”
“I am a whale preparing to give birth to a whale. The only thing missing is the part where you float in water, weightless, and all’s well.”
“Can’t get comfortable?”
“My liver has merged with my stomach. My kidneys are squished between two sharp bones in my back. My heart is constricted to walnut-size. Food squirts up in acid form in my throat. On this, the hottest night of the year, our air-conditioning has quit.”
“We should call your doctor.”
“What did she say?”
“What she always says. It’s normal.”
Kat took two pillows from the head of the bed. She tucked one under Jacki’s back, and another under her stomach. “Better?”
“Kat, remember that time Ma asked you to stop at the store and buy some meat and instead you spent the money on a bouquet of daisies?”
“I thought we needed them more.”
“Well, this is like that. I need to give birth, and you bring me pillows. Still, it’s a kindness and better than Raoul could manage.”
“He knew to call me, didn’t he? He does his best, Jacki,” Kat said.
Which set off another spate of tears. “Of course he does. He’s great. Fantastic. I don’t deserve him!”
Kat got up and went to the bathroom for a washrag. She soaked it in cold water, folded it over, and returned to place it on her sister’s forehead. “You rest. We’ll call you when the food’s ready.”
“He’s messing up my kitchen in there.”
Jacki groaned and closed her eyes.
Kat went into the kitchen to help Raoul, which primarily consisted of wiping up after him.
“Will she go back to work when the baby’s born?” Kat asked.
“She says no,” Raoul answered.
“Do they know she plans to quit?”
“She says she’s got three months paid maternity leave and just wants to keep her options open.”
“In other words, no.”
Handing her four forks, he said, “Who knows? After a few months at home, she might beg them to take her back.”
Kat pulled out place mats from the drawer and started to put them around, crowding the three into a corner of the large dining room table. “Set for four,” Raoul said. “Jacki insists she’s going to get up, and we have another guest.”
Kat found another mat. “Who’s coming?”
“It’s a surprise.”
“You both know I hate surprises.”
“Somebody Jacki dredged up. I mean, invited.”
“No, no. I’m not supposed to say.”
“Tell me or I’m out of here.”
Raoul untied the apron, leaving it in a heap on the floor. Setting candles on the table, he said, “It’s a guy I work with who she wants you to meet.”
“My God, she’s crying all day, wailing all night, and she plans to roll out of bed just to set me up? Call him and cancel. She’s in no shape-”
“She wanted to, Kat.”
“Don’t tell me she enlisted you in this latest campaign to get me settled down.”
“Seriously.” He poured himself a glass of wine and offered her one. She waved it off and sat down at the table. “Have you thought about therapy?”
Kat gave him The Look. “Well, Raoul, this is an ugly turn. I’ve endured your lectures on psychology as a pseudoscience. Yet you feel the need to direct me toward what you called, if I may quote you, Professor, ‘a potion of bull crap and nonsense’? Plus, reports of my mad sex life are greatly exaggerated. I should know. I’m the exaggerator.”
“I’ve known you, what, eight years? Since you were twenty-seven.”
“So.” His words measured, his voice gentle, he said, “Jacki’s worried. I want her happy, too.”
Kat took a deep breath. “Tell Jacki to stop interfering.”
“Tell her yourself,” Jacki said, smiling and peach-cheeked again, emerging from the bedroom in a blue princess-style shirred shirt that splayed out alarmingly. She sat down hard next to her husband, took his hand in hers, and kissed it.
“Now you’ve got this sweet and otherwise supremely rational man suggesting witchcraft, you scary bruja,” Kat said. “You know I like you, Raoul, but I’m not sure I like my sister getting you involved in my life.”
Raoul looked at her, then at his wife.
“It’s not like he’ll tell anyone, Kat. It’s not like he has friends”-Jacki ruffled his hair fondly-“except me, of course.” She checked the clock on the wall. “Before Zak gets here-did you get hold of Leigh?”
Immensely relieved at the change of subject, Raoul excused himself, saying he needed to change and wash up before their guest arrived.
They moved to the couch, where Jacki struggled to find a comfortable spot, failed, and sank back into the cushions with a resigned sigh.
“I’ll help you when you need to get up,” Kat said.
“Fuck. You know?”
“Raoul just made a delicious homemade sauce. Did you even know he could cook?”
“He reads recipes and follows directions exactly. A robot could do what he does in the kitchen.”
“Ah. Like mixing chemicals in a lab.”
“Right,” Jacki said. “He’s creative in his own field, of course. Oh hell, he’s a god. Why not admit it?” Jacki loved her husband too much. Was there a word like “uxorious” which referred to the male part of the couple? “So did you talk to Leigh?”
Kat began with a detailed description of Ray Jackson’s house and finished with the muddled conversation.
“You got too personal too fast,” Jacki said.
“He’s good-looking, you say?”
“Give it a rest.”
“You think Leigh walked out on him?”
“What else could it be?”
Jacki stuck out her tongue. “So what next?”
“Nothing much. Leigh’s employee will get paid. I got the impression Ray wants me to think Leigh went on a little vacation without her husband. Women do that, you know. He didn’t go into details. She’s at a resort in Cabo San Lucas or walking on Moonstone Beach in Cambria or in Paris in a lovely pension on the Boul’ Mich, drinking Sancerre, strolling the banks of the Seine, wearing designer heels and not tripping, either. She always liked to travel and she likes Sancerre and high heels and it’s none of my business. She’ll call if she wants to when she gets my note. Or not. Maybe she pulled another Tom. Dumped Ray Jackson and he’s saving face with a little story. Who can blame him for that? I wouldn’t put it past her.”
“You’re kidding. You’d leave things like this?”
“I don’t like it. Women may walk out on their husbands, but they don’t walk out on businesses they have built over a period of years. The husband is evasive.” Her mouth firmed and she rendered her opinion. “Unh-unh. Something’s wrong.”
“You think something’s happened to her? You’re the one who needs therapy!”
“You’re an exasperating person, Jacki.”
“You owe it to yourself. And you owe it to Leigh, your best friend ever. Don’t tell Raoul about this superstitious streak of mine-”
“As if he doesn’t know it.”
“But it all happened for a reason, me finding that clipping. Me worrying about you being too lonely. My dream. You’re supposed to find her, if only to make sure she’s taken a runner from a bad scene at home. You may be the only one checking up.”
Jacki sat up straighter, put her hand behind to support her back, and made a face. “Well?” she said.
Kat decided, with a shiver, Jacki was right.
Because she felt nervous about the tone in her son’s voice when he called wanting to come over, Esm'e decided to make a pineapple upside-down cake, one of Ray’s childhood favorites. She had time to make something relatively complicated.
Leigh didn’t like her pineapple cake. Leigh. She didn’t like thinking about what Ray was going through, and all because of that woman. Well, she had tried to warn him about the heart, and how marriage meant troubles and sorrows. Heartache. She ought to know.
Mixing butter with brown sugar, she considered this thought. She coated a nine-inch-round cake pan with grease and flour. A mother with a child to raise cooked thousands of boring meals, thousands of macaroni casseroles, burritos, and hamburgers. Esm'e had never enjoyed that kind of cooking, which was such a chore when you worked all day checking out other people’s boring groceries. Ray’s father, Henry, had preferred fast food to her cooking. How had she ever thought to marry such a man?
Such a man. She creamed together butter and sugar until the mixture fluffed up, then added the eggs one at a time, beating them harder than she needed, seeing Henry before her, thinking about life’s turns.
Trying to obliterate the image of him that suddenly hovered before her, she beat in vanilla, and alternated adding the flour and milk, trying not to ruin the dough by thumping away too hard, watching for the smooth, shiny look that meant she had beaten the batter properly. Finished, she took a long knife out of the butcher block holder and set a pineapple on a cutting board, proceeding first to peel it, then cut it into neat half-inch-thick slices.
Halfway through the process, she realized the knife needed sharpening. She slipped it across a ten-inch diamond steel sharpener until when she touched the blade to her finger, the skin didn’t give, but broke.
No blood, fortunately.
Whack. So much better.
The pineapple slices made a pretty layer of circles, and she filled in the holes with chunks arranged in a pattern, then poured the batter gently over it, popped the pan into the old oven, set the timer, and shut the door.
She made a pot of coffee, intending to tidy up before Ray arrived, but settled into the one really comfortable chair in the living room and got lost in an article about the space shuttle.
The doorbell rang.
She rose, folding the newspaper, and put it into the holder by the fireplace. Ray liked the house neat, and she liked pleasing him. Glancing around as she walked toward the entryway, she assured herself that only the kitchen looked bad at the moment, and she’d soon fix that.
How grateful she was that they were still close. The bond between a single mother and an only son outlasted almost everything. Tidying her hair with her hands, she answered the door. “Honey,” she said, hugging him. She still loved the way he smelled.
But he took no notice of the house, rushing through to the kitchen and plopping down at the kitchen counter on a stool. She had pans to clear, bowls to clean. Since the sink was in the middle of the island, she could work and visit with Ray. She began washing out the cake pans. “You sounded upset on the phone. Is this-something about Leigh?”
He shook his head. “We have to talk, Mom.”
“Sure, honey.” She still had twenty minutes on the timer, so she shrugged a little and went back to her sink. She reached under the sink for bleach. Nothing else cleaned the old almond-colored porcelain sink as well as bleach. She didn’t want him at the sink, checking on that damn persistent leak, getting on her case about it yet again, but he stayed away, tapping his fingers on the counter, apparently thinking hard.
“I went to Norwalk, Mom.”
“A new commission?”
“To Bombardier Avenue. The old house.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake. Why would you do that?”
“Because I believe you’ve lied to me, Mom.” He stood and put his hands in his pockets, walked to the window, and faced her again. “All that moving. I think you were running all those years, and I ran with you. I’m an adult now, and I can see things don’t make sense. I don’t believe you anymore.”
She swiped at the crumbs on the tablecloth. “I knew right away you were in a bad mood about something. But do we have to-”
“Why? Why did we move so much?”
Sighing, Esm'e said, “You were so young and made friends easily. I guess it was kind of callous, dragging you around so much, but what I don’t understand is why-” She paused, thinking, why can’t you leave it alone! “What do you want from me, honey? Details? We moved from Norwalk because I didn’t like the traffic there. We moved from Redondo Beach because the chill bothered me. We moved from Downey because I found a place with cheaper rent.”
“The house on Bombardier? I went inside.”
Shocked, she sat down. “You did? How?”
“I kept the key.”
“You still have that old key collection?”
“I just remembered. You used to call me keeper of the keys.” He looked surprised by the memory.
She nodded. “Like the Roman god. Janus.”
“He had two faces, one looking toward the past, the other toward the future. You were such a serious boy. Ray, please don’t tell me you found the key and used it to break into the house.”
“That’s exactly what I did.”
“My God! Have you gone crazy? You really have been so strange lately-”
“I was invited in by the residents, actually.” He held up a hand. “Forget about that. That’s not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about a tape I found there.”
She flashed back to the tract house in Norwalk, the porch, his worst tantrum ever, the circus tent she put up in the living room at Christmas, her first safe place. “A tape,” she repeated to buy herself a moment.
“Yeah, remember that loose board? Under the rug in your bedroom? You hid things.”
“You knew about that?”
“I paid attention.”
Esm'e said nothing for a few moments. Ray had phases. Every few years he would start pestering her about the moves, bringing this up, bringing that up, and now he was back into it, and it was apparently worse than ever. Now he had broken into somebody’s house and retrieved a tape she had forgotten all about.
Her life for so many years had had a serenity and peace lacking in her early years as a mother. She felt like someone peacefully gazing at a lovely view, when a lunatic appeared out of nowhere to push her over a waterfall.
“You and a guy talk,” Ray said.
The oven beeped. Her cake had finished. Esm'e reached into a drawer for hot pads. Carefully opening the oven door, she pulled a round pan out. Perfect. She set the pan on a wire rack. The crusty yellow surface, evenly toasty, smelled of the brown sugar and savory fruit that lurked on the bottom. Carefully, she turned the cake upside down onto a platter.
“Invert it right away,” Ray said.
“I taught my boy right.”
“I was five when we lived there. That made you twenty-six.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“The man threatens you.”
“You listen to some old recording and you make assumptions, and they’re just plain wrong. Haven’t I warned you often enough to use your imagination to serve you, not to make your life harder? Well, I don’t know anything about any tape. I don’t remember back that far.”
“Oh, no?” Ray’s face wore the pinched look of a furious teenager, and Esm'e thought, after all I’ve done, I’ve failed my son. He’s stalled and it’s my fault.
“Enough.” She pulled the pan off a little roughly, taking some pineapple with it, Ray watching without engagement, eyes glazed. “Smell that,” she said.
He looked at the table, his hands. She became afraid for him. Not knowing what else to do, she examined the cake critically, then went to the pantry to find a jar of cherries and roasted pecans, which she used to stud the cake. “Now it looks as good as it smells,” she said into the tension.
“You tell him you’ll call the cops. He calls you a liar.”
She dropped the wire rack into the sink. The noise startled them both. Inserting clean beaters into her mixer, she whipped cream in a cold bowl, scooped some onto a piece of cake, and handed him the plate, which he took, both of them acting mechanically. The ordinary moves calmed her enough to say, “Some things parents don’t discuss with their children.”
“He scares you,” he said. “Did he hurt you, Mom?”
She slopped another glob of whipped cream onto his plate. “Needs a little more.” Why did he do it, come here like a child having a tantrum spoiling the day, the meal, the visit, trying to spoil his whole life that she, Esm'e, had worked so hard to keep safe and happy?
The anger simmering in his voice attained full boil. “Was someone stalking you? Who was it?”
“I will not discuss this any further with you. Now, do both of us a favor. Don’t go looking for some magical answer to your troubles by digging up the past, trying to make our very ordinary lives into some big adventure! Don’t ruin your life, getting into trouble with those damn keys, either! You have a future-count your blessings and focus on making it good.” She shoved the plate in front of him again. “This is best when it’s fresh. Now you eat this cake I made for you. You eat a bite of this delicious cake.”
He shook his head, all the anger appearing to drain out of him. He sat down again, took up his fork, and chewed and swallowed with all the pleasure of someone swallowing bile.
She wiped her hands on her apron, disappointed, wishing she could do something, anything, to make things right for him. She said, “I’ll pack some up for you, okay? Freeze it and eat some later. Some people say it’s even better then. Do you know I posted this recipe on the Internet? I get comments from people who have tried it, mostly complimentary. It’s the fresh pineapple. I was right, I have to say.”
Ray jumped up, knocking over the stool. His uneaten cake fell to the floor. She heard the door slam and the cat springing off the couch, wondering what was going on.
Driving home from her sister’s place through a blessedly cool and empty darkness, Kat thought about Raoul and Jacki’s pick, Zak Greenfield. Only a year older than her, he had a confidence that she rarely came across and found quite attractive. He seemed to have a firm grasp on life, a plan. Guys like him with actual professions and that air of having figured things out always had friends like Jacki, offering unsolicited, sisterly advice on future prospects.
Zak seemed to like women. He had teased Jacki, did the man-to-man work-talk thing with Raoul, made them all perk up. And he had paid a lot of attention to Kat, touching her arm, asking a lot of questions.
He was interested. Unusually, Kat’s legs had first drawn his attention, which flattered her so much she wanted to lie down on the floor and expose their entire length to his inspection and evaluation. They had laughed and talked until eleven-thirty while the fans blew air that kept Kat’s hair moving, until Jacki’s eyelids dipped closed and Raoul put his arm around her.
Time to go, and they were leaving at the same time. Kat had just decided that the evening really ought to continue, when suddenly Jacki stepped in. Her bulbous tummy came between them at the door.
“Zak has an early day tomorrow, don’t you, Zak?” Jacki nudged him out.
Zak frowned slightly, but, unable to deny a woman with such an awesome and unassailable physical presence, finally agreed, saying, “Oh. Yeah, I sure do.”
How could Kat not feel drawn to such a man, one who instantly honored Jacki’s demented sisterly requirements in spite of the fact that Kat stood panting after him not three feet away?
Once home, Kat took her shower and put on a nightie several guys had enjoyed, the white cotton one with Victorian buttons. Her little brass Buddha sat on its stand and her Zafu cushion awaited. Thirty minutes a day, she had been told to meditate. She went toward it but somehow veered off into bed instead. She had two new men to think about, and what to do about Leigh huddled like a lump of dough in her craw.