Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Strange Plots 8


As the evening wrapped up and the final stories were finished and Kay was giving me a farewell squeeze, she said, “Dan, shouldn’t Erin come up and help us with the pie making?”

Dan’s face glowed in hospitable ecstasy. “Oh, you’ve gotta come!” he begged. “Every year we do this thing where make a bunch of pies for the homeless vets’ Thanksgiving dinner at the VFW hall. We always make a big party of it, have a bonfire and moonshine and everything.”

“It’s an old family recipe, but you’re one of the family now,” Kay told me.

I was all for joining in the family activity, but honesty forced me to confess that I was no great shakes as a baker and that they might not want me anywhere near their family heirloom pies. But I wasn’t really about to turn down another chance to go up to Titusville, and a glimpse of Vin’s face as I said yes confirmed me in my decision.

“If you get tired of mangling pies, we could always go through Grandma’s box of old family photographs,” he said. “Maybe we’d be able to figure out where we should look next for clues.”

“I’m sold,” I declared. “I can’t think of anything I’d rather do on a Fall weekend than bake and look at the mountain scenery and go sleuthing through all the family dysfunctions.”

“Sounds like standard holiday fare, to be honest,” Vin said.

Kay had instructed me to bring nothing but myself, but I thought I should have an apron for heavy kitchen duty. My mother’s pair had political slogans which even I wasn’t brazen enough to bring to holiday festivities, even if they’d expressed my own views, which they didn’t. So I stopped by the parish craft bazaar after the vigil mass, hoping to find something which projected both “sexy chef” and “past master of all the kitchen arts”. At one cinnamon-scented booth, I browsed through a rack of aprons, testing each one for Vin compatibility.

The lady at the booth, seeing I came prepared with cash money, got into the spirit.

“This is my favorite for complete functionality,” she said, holding up a large bib apron in a hideous blue tartan. “It will protect everything you’re wearing, and it never shows any stains. Just toss it in the wash — nothing can hurt it. And look at these pockets!”

But I was captivated by a sheer muslin creation that nipped in my waist beautifully. Who cared about functionality when I could get an hourglass figure by tying a bow? The lady was disappointed that I didn’t love her favorite, but the booth was packed with shoppers. She was probably going to sell enough craftage that day to pay off her grandkids’ Christmas presents. I didn’t feel too bad as I extricated myself from the crowd with my apron wrapped up in kraft paper and tied with twine. I am never one to turn down free gift wrapping.

So, once again I found myself going up into the woods, and this time the weather cooperated beautifully. The day was clear and gusty. What was left of the fall color glowed through the welter of bare branches. As I piloted Steed through the passes, leaves drifted down through shafts of sunlight in a slow crunchy shower. I hoped Kay’s pie recipe was absolutely foolproof, because I was determined to have a perfect day.

The festivities were at the house of Vin’s parents. I’d met Dan, but I was curious about Vin’s mom. He hadn't talked much about her, yet I knew his parents were the first generation of marital stability in nearly a century of Titus history. Vin, for all his constant need to put himself in the wrong, seemed a healthy employable American boy, so something must have gone right at home. Maybe his mom was another Kay, keeping the family in line with the sheer force of her personality.

I drove through Titusville again, passing the diner, nodding to the Sacred Hearts. Vin’s parents lived just out of town, on some acreage. As I rumbled down the gravel drive, I was looking for a rustic lodge buried in the trees, or an ancient farmhouse set amid amber waves of grain, but what came into view was a tidy 60s-era ranch already strung with white holiday lights. Smoke behind the house announced a handsome bonfire in progress. I grabbed my apron package and rang the doorbell.

You know how you read in books about “perfectly coiffed hair”, and you wonder, “what on earth is a coif?” I had a revelation about coifs and their perfectibility when Vin’s mother opened the door. Each strand of her messy bun was carefully disheveled just so to project the impression of someone letting her hair down, if you will. Her jeans and flannel shirt announced, “We are relaxing here, and we are having a good time.”

“Erin, hi!” she cooed. “I’m Heather, Vin’s mom. Come on in. Vin is out back with his dad building up the fire. I’m so glad Kay invited you to our house. We love having people join in our traditions. The more the merrier, I always say!”

I followed her in through the front door hung with the traditional harvest wreath, and hung my coat in the closet with the traditional doorknob ornament, and had the powder room with the traditional towel pointed out to me.

“We’re still just getting settled in — did Vin tell you that we only just moved in? — so everything is a mess, but you can just relax and make yourself at home. We’re pretty informal here.”

The aggressive homeyness of the living room seemed never to have been disturbed by actual human activity.

“Come on in the kitchen and we’ll get those guys in and get started. We’re remodeling, so it’s kind of a mess, but we’re just going to bake around it.”

One strip of painters tape, the only hint of any work in progress, ran artfully along the baseboards.  Otherwise, there was nothing wrong with the room that a jolt of genuine culinary energy wouldn’t have solved, and I would have said so if I could have gotten in a word edgewise. Until that moment I would have rated myself pretty highly at commandeering any conversation I pleased, but Heather’s patter was armor plated. Finally I slipped in through a pause for breath.

“I brought an apron,” I said, indicating my package. Heather’s eyes showed a flicker of genuine emotion.

“Oh, you shouldn’t have!” she said, tearing open the wrapping, and before I could explain, she’d lifted out my apron.

“I love it!” she cried, holding up to herself. “It’s so perfect. It has pockets! How did you know just my style?”

“I don’t know,” I said honestly, staring at the blue tartan apron with the pockets, wondering which lucky shopper had picked up an identical kraft-paper package containing a muslin apron and was even now enjoying the benefits of a nipped waist.

The kitchen door opened and Vin stood in the doorway, his expression suddenly rigid as his glance moved from me to his mother. I felt so acutely for him that I almost started apologizing for the situation. But I was saved from wretchedness by Heather turning her patter full force on Vin. She rhapsodized over the apron until he suggested that she go out and show it to Dan. 

“Did you really buy my mom that ugly apron?” he asked, watching her hold it out to Dan as she crossed the yard. “I didn’t think you'd dislike her until after you’d met her.”

I sat down to decompress. “Good thing the shop didn’t wrap up the sexy apron I actually bought. Who knows what your mom would have said about that.”

“You bought her a sexy apron?”

“I bought you a sexy apron. I’m a selfish jerk with no manners; I’d forgotten that some people expect a hostess gift.”

“Well, I wish you could have seen me wearing it,” said Vin, and I was ready with a reply for that, but at that moment Kay, smelling of woodsmoke this time, burst in.

“Honey, what the hell is that plaid thing?” she demanded of me. “Don’t tell me your family has some damn tradition of giving aprons at Thanksgiving. I thought at least one branch of the family might have the sense God gave a turkey.”

“If I were a better son, I’d resent that,” said Vin wearily.

“You are the better son,” said Kay. “God knows I love my boy, but he sure knows how to pick ‘em. Come on, let’s make the traditional pies before we’re stuck here all night.”

Kay pulled some wrapped dough from the refrigerator while Vin set out on the island canning jars containing a dark mixture.

“You’re going to be so disappointed, but this is all you’ll see of the old family recipe,” he said. “Do you like mincemeat?”

“It sounds disgusting,” I said, “but I bet it's traditionally delicious.”

“Somebody must have liked it at one time, because it’s been handed down from mother to mother in the Titus line.”

“And you find it so amazing that you’ll pass it down to your children too?”

“I hope I’ll spare my future children from a lot of bad traditions,” he said, sprinkling flour on the counter and my shirt. “Oops, look at that. Too bad you’re not wearing a sexy apron.”

“Oh no, I’ve repented of my worldly ways,” I said, smacking a big flour handprint on his chest. “From now on I wear only plaid aprons when I make mincemeat pies.”

Only plaid aprons,” he murmured to his rolling pin. “Well, I suppose there are bad traditions, and there are good traditions.”

Heather entered with Dan, and took in the sight of us rolling out dough. For a moment the kitchen smothered under a blanket of industrious silence.

“Well, well, you guys don’t let the grass grow under your feet!” Dan exclaimed with unforced good cheer. “Erin, did they put you to work already?”

“You’ve already started,” Heather said. Beside me, Vin’s entire attention seemed to be focused on the crust he was shaping so assiduously.

“The pies aren’t going to bake themselves,” said Kay briskly. “We thought we’d better get a move on.”

“Well, of course, you’re right!” Heather, having passed some crisis point, decided to throw herself into action, and the room breathed again. “Let’s get going! Dan, you fill the crusts. I’m going to get some cider going. Anyone want hot cider?”

“Sure, I’ll have some,” Vin said too heartily.

“Me too!” I exclaimed. “I love hot cider. Do you have an old recipe?”

Heather chatted of the custom of mulling spices as she bustled around the stove. I uncurled Vin’s fingers from his rolling pin.

“You are going to pull a muscle if you don’t relax,” I whispered.

“Sorry,” he whispered back, automatically, but he didn’t shake off my hand.

By the time the cider was boiling, our assembly line had a row of completed pies ready to bake. Vin and I took our mugs to the back porch and sat on a swing, watching the bonfire. The afternoon was turning chill, but somehow it was more appealing to shelter under a heavy throw blanket than stay in the toasty kitchen. The bonfire, just beyond warming distance, crackled peacefully.

“I’ve probably been rude to you every time we’ve met,” I remarked. “I hope you’re not going to start freezing up when I come into the room.”

Vin rocked the swing moodily, the flames flickering in his eyes. This time I’d pushed the banter too far. After all, a man is allowed to be sensitive about his own mother. As the pause began to drag under its own weight, the shadow of thoughts passing over his face, I felt the pang of his remoteness. He was waiting for me to apologize. I wished I wasn’t too proud to talk first. I imagined being better at saying that I was rude to insinuate anything about your mother. That I’m sorry if I offended you. That I wish you wouldn’t sit so still and inaccessible beside me. All these lines jostled together in my head, refusing to form something coherent and not too humiliating, and still Vin paid no attention to me. My breath caught as I braced myself to blurt out everything and be damned. At the sound, Vin gave a heavy sigh of decision, and slid his hand under the blanket over mine.

“I’m not freezing up,” he said.

We swung in silence, his hand perfectly still on mine and mine perfectly still under his. From the kitchen drifted the sounds of discussion.

“…my turn to host, and she always does this. She always takes over and acts like she runs my house. Inviting people over and making everything into a big party. I took my turn to host even though everything is torn up…”

“Babe, she offered to have it at her place so you wouldn’t get stressed out.”

“Yes, I know I’m a bad housekeeper and no one can stand coming over here. Even when it’s my turn.”

“No, babe, you’re fantastic. No one wants to take your turn away from you. Everyone is having a great time…”

The voices faded out of the kitchen. I felt the muscles in Vin’s leg contract and relax each time he rocked the swing.

“This isn’t the house you grew up in?” I asked, just to ask.

“I never lived here, but I know it well,” said Vin. “This was my grandparents’ house. They moved to Florida three years ago, and since Mom grew up here, she felt strongly about buying their place and keeping it in the family.” As he moved the swing, his warming fingers moved gently along my own.

“What did your dad say about it?” My knee brushed his as I rocked too.

“He was fine with it. He likes to make everyone happy, so he’s a good fit with Mom because she likes people to make her happy. Yes, I can see you’re holding in something sarcastic. Please, not on my account.”

“Do you come visit much?” I asked with perverse non-sarcasm.

“No. I hate the idea of losing my good memories of when my grandparents lived here.”

His fingers might been starting to lace with mine, but Kay came out of the house and settled heavily on the steps to light a cigarette.

“I was stuck in the bathroom until they went offstage,” she complained. “Now we’re all stuck out here until it’s safe to go back inside.”

Dan came out a moment later.

“Mom's worn out,” he told Vin. “She’s gone to lay down.”

“I’m worn out,” Kay growled. “If you all want to keep going, you can come back to my place and have a beer.”

“Sounds good,” said Vin. “What do you say, Erin?”

“I like it,” I said of his fingers between mine. “I’m not ready to quit.”

“Maybe I should come too,” Dan said wistfully. “I haven’t been to the old apartment in forever. Does Jed still live on the first floor?”

“Yeah, and Larry and Crystal are still across the hall, and we could get a fire going in a grill in the parking lot.”

“Maybe I could call some of the guys. Do you still have that card table.”

“I’ll never get rid of the card table.”

Dan’s hopeful nature warmed to the idea. “If Mike and Johnny A. and Alex are home, we could get a good thing going. Let me just check in with them, see what’s cooking…”

His phone buzzed. He read the text and stood up.

“You all go on ahead,” he said. “Mom needs me to take care a few things here while she’s down. And I’ve got to get those pies out of the oven. Maybe I can stop by later.”

“Maybe,” Kay said. She kissed her son on the cheek and brushed past him into the house.

“Goodbye, and thanks for having me over,” I said to Dan as Vin and I headed out. “I had a wonderful time,” and I meant it with every beat of my pulse in my fingertips.

“Did you?” he said, brightening. “Heather will be so glad to hear it. She loves having people over.”

At Kay’s ratty downtown apartment, a shindig was brewing in the parking lot as Vin and I squeezed next to each other on the couch and sorted photographs.

“This pile is Dad,” he said, placing on the coffee table a photo of a small cowboy on pony. “Here’s Grandma,” drawing gently from my grasp a picture of a pigtailed toddler. “This pile,” a tinted high-school portrait of a pink-cheeked girl whose hair swooped in Titian waves, “is Helen.”

“This isn’t Helen,” I said, looking at a card with an oval frame. Perhaps the delicate girl had been out of fashion in her time, the fair braids coiled neatly over each ear. Perhaps her coat was cut for modesty, not for display. Her clear sweet gaze was focused beyond the bounds of the photograph, pulling the viewer into her eyes to seek what held them.

Vin nestled his chin on my shoulder for a better look, and reached over to flip the card open.

“Lavinia Titus, 1932,” was inscribed under the photo.

“Helen was born in 1934,” Vin said.

“She didn't get her hair from her mother,” I observed. “Aaron Moore was also born in 1934, but the age gap between him and Helen doesn’t work for Lavinia to be his mother as well.”

“Wouldn't the DNA show a closer relationship then, anyway?”

“But Aaron shares a maternal connection with your family.”

“He must be connected somehow through Helen’s father,” Vin said. “Through his sister? His mother?

“How can we know if we don’t know who the father was?”

Vin looked at the photos of Lavinia and Helen. “He’s the one with the red hair.”


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