Because the wedge salad dressing didn’t have the right ratio of bacon bits to blue cheese, not even close to the perfection he’d had in Petaluma a couple of years ago, the day was turning out to be a disappointment for Charles.
The setting for lunch had been everything he’d hoped for. The quaintness of the seaside restaurant, the postcard view of the lobster boats in the cove, the delightful Down East accent of the waitress, and the fine August weather were near perfection.
The lunch had begun well. The limited-edition IPA from a local microbrewery was properly served chilled and in a mug at room temperature. The beer had a firm, hop-driven flavor and aroma, with malt playing a strictly backing role. The chowder bowl had just the right size, curve, and thickness to match the proportions of the salt and pepper shakers, so that they appeared neither too tall nor too short, and the perfectly off-white glaze reminded Charles of the craftwork he’d become accustomed to in Taos and Santa Fe.
Although he preferred the reddish color of Manhattan clam chowder and found the thicker, creamy looking New England version plain and without subtlety, the feel in the mouth was favorably palatable. He had to ask for a glass of water, which was slightly annoying, but at least it came in a gracefully tapered glass and without the unsightly jumble of ice that impedes dignified sipping.
All was pretty much to his liking until the fried oysters were served. The dish was breaded, deeply fried, and piled in a vulgar heap on a common ceramic plate. A little bit of Charles died on the inside when it was set before him. Still, Charles had hoped that the wedge salad would compensate, but it did not, and now the twenty miles drive back inland.
“Shelley, do you remember the wedge salad I had at that place in Petaluma? Wasn’t that great?”
“The salad or the restaurant or both?” Shelley asked from the backseat.
Charles, riding shotgun, turned his head slightly to speak over his left shoulder, still keeping his eyes ahead. “Both were great, but that salad was the best I’ve ever had in my life.”
“Yeah, sweetie, I remember how you just raved about it.”
“It was so fresh, and the blue cheese dressing had just the right amount of bacon bits,” Charles said with conviction.
“That place had some great cocktails too,” Shelley said, voice now rising with excitement to match Charles’ firm opinion on the matter. “What was that one called I had; something ‘alizarin crimson’ something? I remember that the woman at the table next to us suggested it. That was so neat. She was a total stranger, but she was so friendly, and remember, she had a friend who had been in Bali during the same three weeks we were.”
“That was the best wedge salad I’ve ever had,” Charles said in a quieter voice.
Shelley glanced down at her brightly colored hand-woven frock. She loved the way the purple, yellow, and green stood out so boldly against the more deeply hued purple of her blouse. She’d never thought of matching the two before that morning when she was dressing for the family outing for lunch and wondered how something with such beauty had escaped her. Peeking out from the fashionably hemmed cuff of her black sequined jeans were the soft leather brown boots she’d picked up in southern Italy the spring before. The mauve wool pakols with black tacking rested at a jaunty angle, tipping toward her right eyebrow.
Now, sitting in the backseat between her sister and mother, she thought about the Peruvian woman in that little village who surrounded herself with such vividly colored, beautiful fabrics even though she and her large family lived in such primitive conditions. She wondered why poor Americans didn’t appreciate beauty like that. She wondered if her sister really, really understood her. More than that, did she really appreciate what she was doing to make the world a better place? “Fashion makes people happy,” she thought.
The stark differences between her and Carla were on full display. How could you miss the well-worn “Life is Good” t-shirt, faded jeans, and sneakers? She was a very nice person and all, Shelley thought, and mother was happy living with her and Ray, but her friends can’t believe how different the two are. They get a real kick out of some of the stories, like the time the sole of one of Carla’s shoes came unglued and how she just repaired it with super glue and wore the pair practically weekly for years after.
They couldn’t believe it when she told them about Carla’s “eclectic” sense of décor; strings of feathers and brass bells hanging next to a sketch of a winsome milk maid in the kitchen, garage sale prints of famous paintings hanging in faux gold frames from Target, plastic grocery bags stuffed into and draped over the sides of cheap straw waste baskets in every room of the house, badly mismatched bedroom furniture including a 1940’s era mahogany dresser and a 1980’s vintage pine book shelf, heaving with a jumble of mismatched books.
“I’d die if Carla ever found out how much fun they had at her expense,” thought Shelley.
Gwendolyn, the girls’ mother, had been thinking since before Charles and Shelley arrived that the family should visit their father in the nursing home and was about to suggest that they stop by on the way back. She had mentioned a visit a couple of times earlier in the week, and everyone agreed that it was a great idea, but there hadn’t been a convenient time.
Waiting for Charles and Shelley to settle the matter about the wedge salad, she couldn’t help but think about her girls and their spouses. It takes Shelley a couple of hours in the morning to apply makeup and then to select jewelry and the right outfit, and that was just to sit around the house reading and playing cards. Ray had to get his precious run in every morning, and by the time he stretched and showered, it was often close to lunch. Hardly a concern for him, since he had such odd eating habits, but a handful of almonds and dry whole-wheat toast for the noon meal? And then the way he goes around straightening every picture so it hangs just so, like a guy on Dr. Phil.
Carla comes up with little tasks and projects on the spare of the moment that end up taking hours to complete, like yesterday, when she spent the afternoon making a mini-terrarium and antiquing that old chair, and then she started filling all her missing mate socks with sunflower seeds before either the terrarium or chair project was finished. Charles spends hours buried deep in whatever he was reading in those massive hard cover books he always had with him. Does he ever actually do anything? She wondered how in the world her daughters ended up so different than her, so impractical and liberal. Didn’t they know that the money for all the government giveaways doesn’t grow on trees, that the taxpayers have to foot the bill? So many rip offs, like hospice and those bone density scans. And then there’s Charles and Ray. At least the girls are happy with them.
“Ray, why don’t you stop by the nursing home, since we’ll be so close? That way we won’t have to get out again,” said Gwendolyn. “Poor Daddy,” she thought. “He had always been such a competent man, and now, this—help with dressing, help with eating, help with going to the bathroom.”
Although fronting a studied nonchalance, Ray was disgusted with the driver of the minivan in front of him whose was dawdling along between 7 and 12 miles per hour below the speed limit. The “crawler” didn’t have the decency to consistently hold the speed limit. This was unacceptable to Ray. “That passive aggressive son-of-a-bitch,” he thought.
“Ray, why don’t you stop by the nursing home, since we’ll be so close? That way we won’t have to get out again,” Gwendolyn repeated.
“Ray, Mom asked you a question,” Carla said.
“I know. Sorry. Sure, no problem. Hello, Tranquility Base.”
Carla rolled her eyes. “That’s not clever.”
“No? ‘Tranquility Base’, nursing home, get it?”
“Oh, I get it. Just keep it to yourself and get us to the nursing home.”
“As you wish. You’re the decider in the family.”
Charles and Shelley chuckled.
Carla didn’t think ‘tranquil’ was a good description of the nursing home, and Ray’s incessant wise cracks annoyed her. It was a “Q” word though, a good one for Scrabble. Peaceful? Calm? Serene? Soothing? Restful? No, none of those fit either. Maybe fetid, melancholy, woeful, poignant, touching, wretched, heartbreaking would be more like it. Ray just says things to hear himself talk half the time. The funny to stupid ratio is about 1:20.
All five were hoping the nursing home stop wouldn’t take long. Each had a compelling reason. Ray wanted to get home to finish mowing the lawn before the Red Sox game. He kept a log of each cutting and each Sox game watched, and had already missed three of each during the calendar year. Gwendolyn and Charles were already missing the Masters. Carla had decided during lunch to decoupage the chest of drawers in the attic, and Shelley had been in the middle of captioning the pictures of door handles she’d taken during the Estonia trip before they’d left for lunch. There were 1,067 of them, so she’d need every spare second for the rest of the visit. It was a labor of love.
“Why don’t we just visit Daddy in the morning? He’s usually more with it then,” Gwendolyn suggested.
Ray was quick to reply. “That makes sense.”
“Okay, maybe we could go out to breakfast on the way,” Carla suggested.
“Or maybe lunch after,” Shelley said.
Charles liked that idea. “Is there another place around that has wedge salad?”
The week was packed with activity: daily walks and runs, golf, rummy, reading, grilling, slide shows, arts and crafts, and sightseeing. A visit to the nursing home was hardly mentioned, though at one time or another the notion crossed the mind of each family member. It was true that the girls’ father didn’t recognize any of them anymore, but when Shelley pointed this out, Carla replied, “We still know who he is though.” There was a brief, awkward silence before Ray spoke up to change the subject, and the rummy game resumed without another mention of the nursing home visit.
At Gwendolyn’s request, they agreed to turn their phones off for the two-hour drive to the airport, but hardly a word was spoken among the family. Charles dreaded the long flight home and knew that he and Shelley would be stuck there for the next three weeks before leaving on their Uruguay trip. Shelley had not been able to find the blue howlite necklace with the pink and yellow butterfly pendant that she thought she’d packed, specifically to wear around the ankle of her black ostrich cowboy boots on the flight back. Ray ruminated on how he had run short on powdered creamer for his coffee at breakfast. Rather than three regular and one rounded teaspoon, he was forced to settle for only four regular ones. Carla’s eyes teared as she read a story in the morning newspaper about a family with 10 children in Mozambique who had donated cassava they’d raised in a small garden plot to their starving neighbors. Gwendolyn was fixated once more on the money taken from her by state and federal governments.
When Ray pulled up curbside in front of the entrance door for the departing gate, the farewell ritual began immediately and was completed in seconds. There were light hugs among mother and daughters and a one-pump handshake between Charles and Ray. While Ray and Gwendolyn stayed put, Carla followed Shelley out of the back seat to help with the luggage, but Charles had already begun removing all six pieces and had hailed a skycap.
“Well, I guess we’re all set. Thanks for everything. We had a great time,” said Shelley.
After she and Charles had disappeared into the terminal, and just as Ray began to pull away from the curb, Shelley burst through the terminal door, waving her right hand over her head, like she was hailing a cab.
“Wait, Ray,” said Carla, as she rolled down the car window.
Ray, from the driver’s side, and Gwendolyn, from the backseat, leaned toward the window, to better hear.
“I almost forgot,” yelled Shelley. “Tell Daddy I said hello.”
After Ray pulled away from the curb into the lane for exiting the airport, Carla checked her phone and noticed a message. At almost the same moment, Shelly stopped just inside the rotating doors of the terminal and did the same. The sisters listened to identical messages from the nursing home chaplain.
“I’m so sorry,” he began.