The Val & Kit Mystery Series

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Deck the Halls

“Tell me again why we’re doing this.” Tom did not look up from his iPhone.

“Because it’s Christmas, and people expect a successful business like ours to be decorated for Christmas.”

“What people?”

“People. Mortgage companies, other Realtors.” I could see I wasn’t convincing my boss, since he apparently couldn’t be bothered to look up. I tried some more. “Okay, clients, Tom. Our clients.”

“All right, Pankowski,” he mumbled. “You’ve convinced me. But don’t go nuts, and keep it tasteful.” Then his face broke into a wide grin as he held up his phone to show me two svelte ladies mud wrestling.

“Right, tasteful; I’ll keep that in mind.”

I left the office and drove immediately to Kit’s house, where I found my best friend in the process of supervising the decoration of her own home for Christmas. This meant an army of professionals in her living room assembling a twelve-foot Christmas tree and adorning it with priceless ornaments. Outside in her yard, I’d passed another team wrapping her roof and windows with garland and silvery lights. The pièce de résistance was a display of three oversize deer, silver with monster red velvet bows, forever caught in the headlights of passing cars.

“Phew, this is so exhausting.” Kit took my hand and led me into her chaotic living room. “You are so lucky that you don’t have to decorate.”

“Well, since I’ll be in Door County for Christmas, I don’t see the point.”

“Exactly. Lucky, lucky, lucky.” She steered me through the room into the kitchen, where she picked up an ornate crystal jug and filled two glasses with a creamy yellow liquid. “Here, drink this—first eggnog of the season.” She sprinkled some nutmeg from a silver shaker over each glass.

I took a sip. “Delicious, Kitty Kat. Cheers. Merry Christmas.”

She sipped from her own glass after offering the same toast.

“So, Tom finally agreed to let me decorate the office for Christmas,” I said, relaxing into the high-backed stool at her counter.

“Oh goody. Does that mean carte blanche at the Dollar Store?”

“Of course not.” I smiled. “He said—”

“Wait, don’t tell me. Is he having you actually make the decorations? Ya know, by hand and stuff, out of old newspapers?”

“Kit, really, you are terrible. I’ll probably go to Hobby Lobby or somewhere.”

Hobby Lobby?” she repeated, as if I’d suggested going to a landfill. “Hey, go easy, go easy.” I realized her remarks were now aimed at the hapless individual standing at the kitchen door swinging a glass ornament precariously in his left hand. “That’s Waterford,” she yelled. “You break it, you buy it.”

I finished my eggnog and said good-bye. It was a little too late to begin shopping for seasonal knickknacks, so instead I went home to my tiny apartment, where I donned my cozy jammies, got comfy on the couch, and cradled a cup of cocoa in my hands. It wasn’t exactly true that I hadn’t decorated my home for Christmas. Quite the contrary, in fact. I stretched out my legs so that my feet could reach the coffee table, and took a look around.

From my vantage point I could take in all the decorations I had displayed, all handmade in another lifetime by my daughter, Emily, who is now grown and married and living in California: a papier-mȃché snowman who was unfortunately no longer white, but an unflattering shade of yellow, his stovepipe hat long since lost; a garland of silver bells, sadly missing a couple of its clappers; and a poor Santa made from clay, his head way out of proportion to his body, but still able to give a jolly smile that showcased his rosy cheeks.

I’d go to Hobby Lobby in the days to come, but I decided I’d take Santa with his oddly misshapen physique and give him pride of place on my desk at the office.

Kit was right about one thing: I was lucky, lucky, lucky.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (Thanksgiving 1975)

“Mom!” I ran into the kitchen, where my mother was stirring cranberries in a small pan. “Buddy says you invited his friend for Thanksgiving.”

My mother looked up. “Why aren’t you dressed, Valerie?”

“I’m dressed,” I said, running my hand over my new, and totally awesome, polyester pants, which not only looked terrific but were so comfortable. “And why didn’t you tell me you were inviting Tom Haskins?”

“Oh, excuse me,” she said, not taking her eyes from the dark-red glob to which she was now adding walnuts. “I didn’t realize I had to check with my fourteen-year-old daughter before extending invitations to my very own house.” Was she being sarcastic? If so, it was a new side of her, and one I didn’t like.

“Mom, are you sure you meant to invite Tom?” I tried a new approach. “He’s wild, you know.” I knew she hated wildness, in any form, but prayed she didn’t want an example of Tom’s particular wildness, because I’d be hard-pressed to come up with one.

“How so, Valerie?” she asked. “Because I find that hard to believe. When he was here on Saturday, he helped me bring groceries in from the car, without my asking, and it was such a pleasure—especially since I have to pay my own children a small fortune in order to get them to lift a finger around here.” Okay, that surely was sarcasm, or maybe it was cynicism; either way, it was totally untrue.

Last Saturday, when I had watched my brother, Buddy, and his pal Tom from my bedroom window, I had hoped they wouldn’t linger. I was in no shape to be seen by Tom. My new winged hairstyle, à la Farrah Fawcett, refused to flip back correctly, even though I had clipped it in place while sleeping.

“And your hair?” my mother continued. “What is that supposed to be? Why is it sticking out?”

“It’s not done yet,” I said, although it was more than done. But if Tom Haskins was coming to dinner, I'd have to redo it.

My mother poured the cranberry contents from the pan into a glass dish shaped like a swan. “Go change, Valerie,” she said. “Wear a dress or a skirt, not pants.”

An hour later I reappeared in the kitchen, where my Mom was now peeling potatoes. I was wearing my fabulous new brown corduroy jumper and cream-colored turtleneck. “That’s a little better,” she said, glancing in my direction. “Now go start setting the table.”

She’d already set the table, of course, probably the night before, while I was in my room listening to “Born to Run,” which actually belonged to my brother, and talking on the phone to Kit, my best friend. But now I wandered around the dining room imagining Tom Haskins eating turkey and green bean casserole in my house.

No doubt about it, Tom was the coolest boy in our school. Even if he did make me very nervous whenever he spoke directly to me, which wasn’t that often. I tried to make it sound like no big deal to the other girls at school that he was best friends with my brother, but I knew that gave me a little extra clout. With everyone except Kit, of course, who told me she thought he was obnoxious.

“What is that smell?” My mother wrinkled her nose as she came into the dining room with an empty bread basket. Obviously, she was referring to my Charlie perfume, which I may have gone a little overboard with; but I loved it so.

“Where shall we seat Tom?” I asked, ignoring her still-wrinkled nose. “In between Buddy and me,” I answered my own question, but I immediately began feeling even more nervous. What would I talk about?

“For heaven’s sake, he can sit anywhere he wants, although he might need a surgical face mask to combat that cologne you’re wearing.”

In the remaining few hours before our guests (fourteen in total) were due to arrive, I scoured my dad’s newspaper for interesting topics to chat with Tom about, changed clothes twice (settling on my mom’s new Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress, which was a little too tight for me, but pleased my mother), and then for good measure, I resprayed some more Charlie.

At two o’clock, the appointed hour, everyone had arrived except Buddy and his pal. When I heard the back door in the kitchen open, I elegantly made my way toward it, tugging at my mother’s dress, which I noticed rode up unflatteringly when I sat down.

Buddy was alone.

“Where’s Tom?” I tried not to appear disappointed. “I thought he was with you.”

“Yeah,” Buddy said. “He couldn’t make it.”

First, I let out a huge sigh of relief, then immediately regretted the time I’d wasted learning interesting facts about the Vietnam War, Patty Hearst, and the plot of Jaws. “He’s not coming?” I asked.

“He went skiing. Last-minute thing. No big deal.

“How rude,” I said. But I was already heading up to my bedroom to change back into my polyester pants.

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Imperfectionist Helps Val & Kit Pack for London

We’re going to let our guest blogger introduce herself (since we love her way with words!):

Hi! I’m Kira, a recovering perfectionist with a penchant for pasta and strong (black) coffee. Not together, obviously. I adore food, interior design, and red lipstick. I dream about moving to Florence on the regular. You’ll probably catch me drooling over Carrera marble or swooning over correct grammar. I’m a native Chicagoan and now reside in Lincoln Park with my husband Thomas. I strive to live a life of authenticity and love (not always successfully). Join me (on the imperfectionist blog site) as I try to quell my obsession with perfection and embrace life as it is, rather than as I think it should be.

So here's the skinny: in the soon-to-be-released Foreign Relations, No. 6 in The Val & Kit Mystery Series, the lifelong friends are headed to foggy London-town to hit up some super-tourist-y attractions before making their way to Little Dipping, the village where Val's daughter Emily lives. If you haven't read the books (which you should - they are so good!) fret not, as I think you can grasp a pretty accurate picture of their personalities based solely on their packing lists (above). So let's jump right in to their fun-filled four days of sightseeing, pastry-eating, and champagne-drinking, shall we?

As you can imagine, Kit likes to travel in style. High style. She actually sometimes mistakes herself for Princess Kate, and thinks the world should treat her accordingly. Needless to say, an 8-hour plane ride across the big blue ocean isn't going to keep her from sporting something fabulous (hence, the Valentino studded flats), while also managing to make a sleep mask look chic (not pictured: ear plugs to drown out the annoying children and talkative neighbors). After downing her complimentary glass of champagne (what, you thought she was traveling coach?!) she cozies up in her cashmere sweater and falls fast asleep.

Val, on the other hand, is a no-nonsense traveler. Comfort is the name of her game, as I'm sure you've gathered from the chic gym-shoe-plus-yoga-pants look she's sporting for the long flight. Other necessities include a shot of Nyquil and some highly educational and thought-provoking reading material. Grateful for her dear friend's generous offer to bump them both up to first class, she tucks her polyester airplane blanket under her chin and is soon softly snoring.

Our girls have got their priorities straight: after landing at Heathrow Airport, they cab it to their hotel, order room service, and lie in bed watching The Great British Bake Off while scarfing down creme brulee. Gotta eat up, we've got a big day tomorrow!

After a luxurious breakfast of fresh-baked croissants (Val may have had two, but who's counting) and the best damn cafe au lait either woman has ever tried, the pair made their way to Buckingham Palace, where Kit mistakenly felt a little too at home (no, Kit, you can't touch the suits of armor just because they're shiny and pretty). Clearly a women of comfort, Kit's attire included 4-inch leopard stilettos and leather pants, obvious choices for perusing the streets of London (what cobblestones?).

Val's still rocking her Nike sneakers, seeing as her ankles are swollen from the plane ride (or was it the second croissant?). Boyfriend jeans and a cozy sweater are her uniform for the day - along with her $24 cross-body purse from Target, which Kit insists has got to go ("But it's the perfect size for traveling!!" says Val). Highlights of the day include watching Kit getting kicked out of the Queen's bedroom for trying to lie on the bed and that second glass of delicious bordeaux at lunch.

Ok, so by now our girls are finally getting over the jet-lag and are ready to do some serious sightseeing. Or in Kit's case, shopping (you mean Chanel doesn't count as a monument?!). So their morning started off with another one of those deliciously addictive cafe au laits and a thick slice of brioche (with clotted cream for Val). Then it was off to the races! First stop was Kensington Gardens, where the girls lucked out weather-wise. They toured the gardens and picked up a second cafe au lait (calories don't count, it's vacation!!). Val was enamored by the beauty but Kit admittedly found it a little dull. So dull, in fact, she may have wandered off to the shops down the street. Which meant the girls missed their scheduled red tour bus ride!! (Val had been so looking forward to sitting down for a bit.) Kit promised to make it up to Val, so she did the only thing she knew how: steered them straight to Harrod's (where she may have done some serious damage with her credit card). They wrapped up their evening with dinner in a classic English pub, stuffing their faces with fish and chips. Like I said, calories don't count when you're on vacation!

With a hearty meal and a good night's rest, the gals are up and at 'em early today. No one is missing any scheduled tours on Val's watch! Unfortunately, the weather has taken a turn for the worse, and it's raining cats and dogs. But that doesn't stop our girl Kit from donning her Louboutin's, now does it? Practical-minded Val opts instead for a pair of duck boots and a waterproof parka, just like any sane person would do. They make their way to Big Ben for their scheduled tour and somehow Kit manages to still look chic as ever, even after their trek in the rain. Val, on the other hand, is sporting a sort of drowned-rat look, since the wind broke her umbrella on the way there. After their very long, very dry tour of good old Benny Boy, the girls opt for another meal in a warm and cozy pub. On a whim, they decide to take a tour of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre (Kit's always sworn she was an actress in another life). A stage rehearsal of Twelfth Night was taking place, and our girls couldn't help eyeing the strapping young lads on stage. Hey, there's no harm in looking! Back to the hotel after for a hot shower. It's room service tonight, as both gals have to pack up for tomorrow's big trip to Little Dipping.

Back home during the planning phase, in a moment of pure panic, Val decided Kit should be the one to rent the car and she would navigate. Need I remind you, in England they drive on the other side of the car. On the other side of the road. I don't even want to imagine how that ride is going to go. Hey, at least she'll look good going in the ditch. Heck, maybe they'll even be rescued by a handsome English countryman enjoying his estate for the weekend.

Our girls can dream.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Start of a Beautiful Friendship (Val & Kit, Circa 1971)

“I’m waiting, Valerie.”

I didn’t dare to even look up at Miss Lovegrove. I could hear Cissy Reynolds in the desk behind me laughing, even though she must have had her hand over her mouth, covering her huge horse teeth. I kept my head down and yanked uselessly on the bangs my mother had taken the hedge trimmers to the night before.

There, my mother had declared with satisfaction. Now you’ll be the neatest girl in fifth grade.

“Answer the question. At once,” Miss Lovegrove said.

“I . . . er . . . I . . .”

“We can’t hear you, Valerie. It’s quite a simple question. Or would you prefer I check your homework—oh, wait. I just remembered, you didn’t turn in your homework assignment.” She did a good job of feigning surprise, making me think she’d be better suited to teach drama than geography.

“I’m sorry, Miss Lovegrove. I somehow lost my paper . . .” I kept my head bent.

“Did your dog eat it?” James Turner, two rows ahead, turned in my direction and smirked. Even without looking at him, I knew his nose was probably running and he’d soon wipe it with the sleeve of his sweater.

“Young lady, we will discuss your so-called missing homework after class,” Miss Lovegrove continued, “but right now I need you to tell me the capital of Greece.”

“That’s soooooo easy,” someone at a desk behind me whispered loudly.

“Everyone knows that,” another voice wafted in my direction.

“What an airhead,” floated from my right.

“Valerie Caldwell, come to the front of the class at once,” I heard Miss Lovegrove say.

But before I could move, another voice, from the very back row, filled the room. “Oh, for crying out loud. Athens. It’s Athens, you stupid woman.”  

I turned my head. Katherine Juckett was leaning back in her chair, tapping her desk with a pencil. I didn’t know her very well, but I did admire her bangs, which were long, past her eyebrows, and similar to Olivia Newton-John’s. I gave her a weak smile, and she in turn gave me a wink.


Later, after we left the principal’s office, and after Mr. Clemmings had doled out a suitable punishment (more for Kit than for me), we walked home together for the first time.

“I did know Athens was the capital,” I said.

“Of course you did. My mom was there last summer. She loves ouzo, ya know.”

“Ooo…?” I tried to repeat the word.

“It’s some kind of Greek booze. My mom can’t get enough.”

“Oh,” I said. I wanted to thank her for her outburst in class, but I wasn’t sure quite how to say it.

“Hey, have you seen Love Story? I’ve seen it already, but I’d go again in a heartbeat. I think I might marry Ryan O’Neal. Let’s go on Saturday. My mom will drive us.”

“I . . . er . . .”

But before I could finish my sentence, we were at the next street corner. She stopped and waved at me. “I live down here. See you tomorrow, Valerie.”

Monday, August 1, 2016

A Note from Roz: You Know It’s Hot When . . .

. . . your electric-service provider contacts you to advise that your bill is too high. Huh? Are they making too much money? And, then, when you ignore them (sorry, I refuse to set my air conditioner any higher), they send you a follow-up e-mail, just in case you had passed out from the heat and didn’t get the first dispatch.

So, what should I expect from Houston in the summer? Has it always been this hot? Did I somehow miss the temperature readings last year? This week my phone told me it was 99 degrees at 8:00 p.m. (totally my own fault for being out so late).

The good news on the horizon (is there even a horizon, or does the sun just refuse to go down?) is that I will be spending much of August in England. I just checked the long-range temperature for London and surrounding areas for the next thirty days. Temperatures are expected to hover in the 70s, and it’s sounding positively brrrrr (i.e., chilly). But I’m skeptical; is the UK playing a joke on me, lulling me into a false sense of weather-related security?

Either way, the trip is a must. Not just to see my beloved family, but also to assume the role of as many Disney characters as I can while playing with my six-year-old grand-niece. I am usually relegated to being a servant, nanny, or generally unscrupulous person, while Emily transforms into a variety of delightful princesses. She definitely gets the better wardrobe. (I’m Val to her Kit in the as-yet-untitled No. 6 of The Val & Kit Mystery Series, to be published later this year.)


While in the UK, I plan to brush up on the Queen’s English in preparation for that next mystery, which is set in jolly old England. And in terms of weather, it’s gonna be perfect. But just in case anything untoward should happen, I will remember to keep calm and stay out of the heat.

Friday, July 1, 2016

EMMA (Two Hundred Years Later)

The 200th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s novel Emma got us to thinking. As Austen heroines go, Emma is a slight departure. She is not sitting by the window waiting for a prospective husband to ride up and change her family fortunes with a healthy yearly stipend. Instead, she has appointed herself as a sort of regency matchmaker, willing to forgo the undeniable pleasure and stability of marriage that most 19th-century young ladies aspire to.

While Emma is not quite our favorite Austen heroine (we slightly prefer Miss Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice for no other reason than her levelheadedness), we admire Emma’s tenacity at what might be considered her modern-day approach to playing Cupid with her friends and acquaintances. She does still, however, carry the Austen gene of not recognizing her own true love even though he is right under her nose.

Patty's granddaughter Emma with Jane Austen's Emma.

Emma’s story was brilliantly retold in the movie Clueless (1995), but even that could do with a little up-to-date tweaking. So, as modern women go, how much easier would Emma’s task have been if she had some 21st-century tools to help her? Tinder comes to mind for the millennials, while is perhaps more suitable for the baby boomers.

Emma could pack up her parasol, don her white gloves, and sashay off in her empire-waist gown (via Uber, of course) to the nearest Starbucks. She might remove her bonnet, trimmed with flowers, and take out her tiny notebook with its pencil attached by a ribbon, as she flicks through candidates for love on her smartphone. After a suitable length of time devoted to her project, and a delightful caffè mocha or two, she could return home and catch an episode of The Bachelor.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Listen Up: Patty Has a Word with Roz

This was Roz’s idea, for us to interview each other. So now that she’s in the hot seat, we’ll see if she still thinks it’s fun. Of course I’ve yet to do anything with Rozzie that hasn’t been fun (and just to set the record straight, our long-ago fun included far more Dairy Queen sundaes than rum slushes, contrary to what she reported in last month’s blog).

So now for some more fun! Let’s see what my BFF has to say for herself:

How hard was it to leave your homeland and move to America?
It was very hard to leave my family behind, but I was always fascinated by America and all things American (still am). I do, however, miss a good steak and kidney pie.

Who was your first celebrity crush?
Steve McQueen. I had a poster of him in my bedroom riding that darn motorcycle of his. Geesh! He was so cool.

How do you feel about birthdays?
Extremely grateful. I celebrated my last one at lunch with dear friends, including this little guy, Mr. Duke Brooks.

What frightens you the most?
Some of my fellow mankind. I’m also not crazy about flying, especially over the ocean.

Which do you prefer writing, blog posts or books—and why?
Definitely writing books.  For one thing, I have a partner, and she’s pretty awesome. Finding relevant blog subjects can be pretty daunting.

Which of the Val & Kit books is your favorite—and why?
A hard question, since I really love all our books. But if that gun wielded at you last month was turned on me, then I would answer the same way: Death in Door County. It was the first book where we went “on location,” and it was such a blast to write about places we actually visited. A case in point is Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant & Butik: good food, amazing company, and goats grazing on the roof.

Since it is June, the month we celebrate fathers, what do you most cherish about yours?
Everything. I have a picture of him on my desk taken when he was in his twenties, long before I was born. It reminds me how witty and handsome he was. I cherish how much laughter he brought to my life.
Roz's father, John Burgess

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Listen In: Roz Has a Word with Patty

I have known Patty for over forty years. During that time we've discussed everything, even though in the early years some of it was fueled by her famous rum slushes. But time goes by, and stuff needs to be updated. So, when looking for a candidate to interview, I could think of no better person (plus my landscaper doesn't speak English, and the cat won't sit still . . . )

Here come six burning questions:

What advice would you give today to the 20-year-old Patty?
Was she ever really that young? Well, as a matter of fact, she was married already and only a year away from becoming a mother. And since she proceeded to see all her dreams come true, I probably wouldn’t bother trying to advise her. But if you put a gun to my head (which in our genre is not that unlikely), I’d tell her to own who she is and not worry what others think of her. Well—very well—into her 60s, she seems to have finally learned that.

If you had to get out of your house permanently and in a hurry, what one item would you take with you?
My computer, because it holds most of my pictures and writings. And although I back it up regularly, most of the backup is in my office with my computer! (Really must explore that Cloud one day . . . )

If you could interview one living person, who would it be and why?
Well, after YOU—which is next month’s blog post—I would say my 94-year-old mother, a veritable fount of wisdom and family history. But I already interviewed her and need only transcribe the tapes from our decade-ago drive from Palm Desert to San Francisco. SO, I guess I would choose to interview Herman Wouk, my favorite living author. I know he has a thing or two he could teach me.

Betty Phelps Obermeier also taught her daughter, Patty, to crochet.

If you could live anywhere, and take your loved ones with you, where would it be?
Hmmm . . . that’s a tough one because there are so many places I love, none more so than where I live right now. So I might as well make it easy on myself and have all of them move to Door County, Wisconsin! (That means you’d have to start packing, too, Rozzie!)

We both know what the joy of writing is, but what's the most frustrating thing about it?
Definitely finding mistakes after multiple proofreadings. This explains why I love our beta readers and proofreaders so much. It takes many, many eyes. I mean, have you seen the challenges on Facebook where you’re asked to read something with more than half the letters missing? How our eyes see what they are supposed to see? Still, that’s not how we want to present our books to our readers!

What's your favorite book in The Val & Kit Mystery Series, and why?
Ah, the toughest question yet. Truly, it’s whichever book I’m reading at the moment. (And yes, unlike all the actors who say they never watch themselves on the screen, I do read and reread our books. Still looking for missing letters! And still enjoying our girls and their antics J! ) But if you wielded that gun again, I’d probably say Death in Door County. Always, it’s the humor I like best, but also there’s an extra dose of intrigue, and it spans generations of family and friends. What could be better? Oh, and I love the setting J

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Roz Meets Her New Neighbors

My neighbors moved out about two months ago, and their house remains empty. In the two years they had lived next door to me, I spoke to them only twice: once on the day they moved in and again on the day they moved out. That wasn’t planned. I just happened to catch them coming, and literally going. But they seemed nice—a mother, father, two rambunctious young boys, and a dog with a deep, gravelly bark. The rambunctiousness of the boys I had witnessed many times, and heard from my side of the fence that separated our small yards. To be fair, their dog barked only when I was dog-sitting, and the pooch under my charge, and on my side of the fence, was generally the instigator. It was a typical canine a canine to determine which dog could bark the loudest, and brought to a conclusion by me waving a box of Milk-Bones in the air.

I don’t spend much time sitting in my yard, but several days ago, when the Houston weather was at its most perfect (a brief period when it doesn’t feel like you are on the surface of the actual sun), I was enjoying my deck. And that’s when I noticed my new neighbors moving in, but so quietly, I was lucky to have even spotted them.

On the corner of the roof there is a missing triangular piece of wood trim. A perfect spot to build a new house—or in this case, a nest. There was a dove visible at the front entrance of the hidey-hole. Behind him or her I could see what looked like bird furniture (i.e., small branches and sticks). The dove seemed to be ignoring me, and I gave him or her the same courtesy. But come on, we both had one eye on each other.

Not long later Dove #2 appeared, carefully walking along the top of the fence that was the route to the nest. In its mouth was a piece of lumber for the new construction. As soon as it reached its new address, it moved inside and out of view, and then Dove #1 took off. Pretty soon, Dove #2 took up the surveillance at what could possibly be the proposed bay window. #2 remained there until its partner returned with another piece of building material. I watched them for over an hour, so impressed with their efficiency and work ethic.

I’ve now taken to having my morning coffee out on the deck. My new neighbors are still building. As neighbors go, they are quite perfect. We still don’t make eye contact, but I believe they are okay with me.

It occurs to me that I’ve spent more time with my new neighbors (admittedly from afar) than I ever did with the old human ones. I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing. But whereas I’ve never been a bird watcher and really know nothing about birds, I’m so enjoying this new couple. In fact, I’m their biggest fan!

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Spring Break Plans, 1979

First step: getting it past Mom.

“I don’t know why you have to go all the way to Mexico for spring break.”

“Mom, Padre Island is part of Texas; it’s nowhere near Mexico.” I wasn’t totally sure if that was true, but I’d consult a map later and find out.

“No, Valerie, I think you will find that most people there speak Spanish.”

“Well, so does Lupita Collazo who works at the dry cleaner, and she was born in Des Moines. And by the way, where is Daddy?” I had counted on my father being home for this conversation since I was sure he’d let me go.

“I sent your father to get the car washed. And furthermore, Door County is very nice. Why not go there?”

Door County? You mean the place we go nearly every other weekend? Plus, it’s like five min—” I stopped myself from continuing since the five-minutes-away argument would not further my cause. “And besides,” I hurried on, “Kit’s grandparents don’t have a condo in Door County, and they want—no, they need—us there.”

“Valerie, I don’t even know what a condo is.”

“Of course you do; it’s an apartment in a building, and all the owners share—”

“Oh, don’t go trying to blind me with real estate nonsense. Next thing you know, you’ll be calling yourself a Realtor.”

“Well, that’s the last thing I want.” I stormed out of the kitchen and went to my bedroom, where I began pulling pink curlers the size of Coke cans out of my hair.

But Jean Caldwell was not done. “The Ozarks are nice; Mrs. Bramwell told me her daughter is going there,” she continued, following me even though I had slammed my door hard.

“Really?” I pulled a curler loose and flung it onto my bed. “Cynthia Bramwell is going with her church group, The Pioneers for Christian something or other—”

“All of whom speak English, by the way.” She was sitting behind me on my bed and had picked up a copy of People magazine that displayed Rod Stewart on the cover. I snatched it away and threw it over the bed. Much as I loved Rod, he had nothing to add to this conversation.

“When’s daddy getting back, anyway?” I turned to face my dressing-table mirror. “How long does it take to get the car washed?”

“Oh, it takes a long time.” In the mirror, I could see her face had taken on the jubilant look of a kidnapper who was confident the police would never discover her lair, and the victim she was holding hostage was days from discovery. “I told him to get the deluxe package; he’ll be hours.”

“Ok, Mom. How about this? Why don’t you call Kit’s mom?”

“I did already. Surprisingly, she didn’t know anything about this little jaunt you and your pal have dreamed up.”

“But she doesn’t care, right?”

“Well, she’d have no problem with her daughter joining the Black Panthers. Doesn’t mean I have to allow it.”

That was probably true, so I went in a different direction. “How about calling Kit’s grandparents? After all, they’re the ones we’d be staying—”

“I did. I spoke to a young woman who unfortunately only converses in Spanish, so as you can imagine, we didn’t get very far—”

“Okay.” I vigorously nodded. “That makes sense. It must be their maid, or the housekeeper. See, Mom? They have a housekeeper—”

“That doesn’t impress me, Valerie.”

“Okay, how about this? Her grandparents are old. In their sixties, probably. Do you really think they’re going to let anything bad happen to their granddaughter?”

“Well, if they are old, as you so charmingly put it, Kit could probably outsmart them—”

“And do what? Mom, this is 1979. What terrible thing do you think is going to happen?”

She gave a wicked smile, and I knew her mind was whirling with any number of dastardly deeds Kit and I were surely going to fall prey to. But then, like a sign from God Himself—who, let’s face it, must have invented spring break for a reason—we heard the front door open. And seconds later, my father stood at the bedroom door.

Daddy!” I yelled, as if he’d just come home from the wars and I hadn’t seen him for a decade.

“What’s this?”

“You’re home early,” my mother said, not hiding her disappointment.

“Yes. The line was too long. I’ll go back tomorrow. And the car, by the way, does not need cleaning.”

“Well, your daughter wants to go to Mexico for spring break with that Kit friend of hers. I told her no, but she—”

“Sounds fun,” my darling, dearest, smartest, winner of The Father of the Decade award said. And there was more. “Jean, didn’t you go to Mexico once? Without your parents? When you weren’t much older than Valerie?”


Monday, February 1, 2016

The Missed Leap

“Mommy, did Daddy propose to you when you got married?” ten-year-old Emily asked me. We were driving home from her swim meet that her father had missed, yet again.

“Of course he did; why do you ask?”

“Because did you know that in a leap year a lady can ask a man to marry her?”

“A lady could ask a man any time she wants; she doesn’t have to wait for leap year.”

“No, it’s the law. Grandma told me. But did you ever ask another man to marry you?”

In 1984 I was twenty-two and sporting my recently acquired engagement ring given to me unceremoniously by David Pankowski. The diamond was a lot smaller than Kit thought it should be, and my mother claimed there was a large flaw in the stone (apparently visible only to her eagle eyes). But I loved it, and even though David had made no such request, I promised him I would never take it off.

Six months later, I broke my promise. I was in an elevator on the way out of my dentist’s office, when the car stopped on the fifth floor and Tom Haskins stepped in.

“Valerie!” he said, with great delight. “Are you tailing me?”

“Well, if I am, I’m not very good at it. Aren’t people supposed to stay out of sight if they’re tailing someone?”

He stepped in and stood close to me, shoulder to shoulder. Both of us faced the elevator doors. His reflection in the metal showed him to be smiling, and that was when I slipped my left hand into my coat pocket. With great dexterity, I slid my engagement ring off my finger.

“So, didn’t I just see you a few weeks ago?” he asked.

“Actually it was five and a half months ago.” Dammit, why go into half months?

“You’re kidding.”

“No. You were on your way to sign a lease to open a travel agency.”

His smile grew wider as he nodded. “Riiiight. And you were . . . let’s see . . . shopping for . . . ice skates?”

“Actually, I was looking for bridesmaid dresses. But close enough.”

“You had some big event planned, as I recall.”

 “Bridesmaid dresses mean anything? I was planning my wedding.”

“Oh.” Tom Haskins, who would later become my boss and one of my best friends, turned toward me. I turned, too, and even though there was plenty of space in the elevator, our faces were so close that if we had been actors in a French film, we might have kissed. “How’d it go?” Luckily, the elevator stopped, and as the doors slid open, Tom gestured gallantly with his right arm for me to exit.

“It hasn’t happened yet. Six weeks to go.”

“Ah.” He looked around the spacious lobby. “Got time for coffee? That place over there is pretty good.” He indicated a tiny coffee shop, and ten minutes later we were sitting at a table with mugs in front of us. “So where’s the ring?” He shrugged off his camel-hair coat, revealing an elegant dark suit jacket underneath.

“It’s being cleaned,” I lied, and if this didn’t make any sense, he didn’t question it.

I first met him when my older brother, Buddy, started bringing the teenage Tom to our house on a regular basis. Smart and funny, he teased me with no mercy, and I lapped it up. Later, we cemented our friendship, mainly during the summer before my senior year of high school when I was a part-time waitress and he was my best customer.

“So, this Pankowski guy. What’s he like?” Tom asked.

“He’s wonderful.” This from the woman who was hiding her fiancé’s ring in her pocket. “And your wife . . .  Sorry, I’ve forgotten her name. She’s good?” I did know perfectly well that his wife’s name was Claire, that she was five foot three, born in Wyoming, and had a degree in music theory. Plus, she was gorgeous. Still, she was a complete stranger to me.

“We’re separated right now.” He took a sip of coffee and sighed, like he’d just discovered his lottery ticket had no winning numbers.

“Oh, I’m so sorry, Tom, I didn’t . . . Buddy never mentioned—”

“No big deal.” Tom smiled, like he’d just buy another ticket. “She‘s going her way, I’m going mine. I never should have said yes in the first place.”

“You mean to the separation?” I put my ring-free hand on his arm, ready to dispense something wise and comforting. “Sometimes, it’s probably best to just let—”

“I mean the proposal. She asked me, caught me at a weak moment.”

“Wow. She asked you?” I pondered that for a moment, marveling at the chutzpah of the gorgeous Wyomingite.

“And by the way, Caldwell, you do realize this is a leap year, right?”

“Yes; so?”

“So, if you don’t do it now, you’ll have to wait another four years.” He had a naughty grin on his face, reminding me of the teenager I had found so irresistible. But I took my time answering, not willing to be led into a giant leap. “Okay, I’m assuming you’re running for election. Talk to me again in four years.”

He threw back his head and laughed his hearty laugh, taking a cigar out of a holder from his inside pocket. “You’re a piece of work, Caldwell. I hope Pankowski realizes how damn lucky he is.”

“So, Mommy,” Emily begged. “Did you?”

“Propose?” I mused. “Almost. Maybe I should have. Probably I should have.”

“Mommmm! Aren’t you listening? I asked if you remembered to buy corn chips.”