Authors: Ellen Hart
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General, #Nonfiction
After parking her car on the grass next to the Washburn’s garage, Sophie slid out of the front seat and followed Milton past the clothesline and a wide patch of vegetable garden to the back door. Walking up the three steps, she glanced at a woodpile stacked in front of what looked like a small addition to the back of the house. The white stucco and green trim made her think of her grandparent’s home in Grand Rapids. Luxuriating finally in the cool stillness of the kitchen, Sophie was grateful for the central air. Outside, the evening was thick with heat and humidity, just the kind of summer night likely to spawn a storm.
While Milton switched on the lights, Sophie scoped out the lay of the land. A long living room dominated the downstairs, with two picture windows capping off either end. Toward the front of the house, an archway opened onto the front hall. Peering into the dimness, Sophie could make out a beautiful old wooden stairway leading up to the second floor. It hugged the far wall, a remnant of the house as it had once looked, before the interior had been modernized. The furniture in the living room seemed comfortable and functional, neither antique nor modern. None of the furnishings were particularly tasteful. Two brown plush recliner rockers faced the TV, as did a nondescript gold-and-green couch. The dominant colors in the room were gold, green, and brown, with orange accents scattered here and there. Family photos and oil paintings of flowers lined the brownpaneled walls. All in all, the house seemed homey. It smelled of coffee and contentment.
Sophie didn’t really want to spend the night in Rose Hill, but she saw the wisdom in not heading back to St. Paul in a potential storm. Still, she hated to impose on the Washburns, especially at a time like this. She could easily have found a motel for the night, but Bernice wouldn’t hear of it.
“Hey, Sophie,” Milton called from the kitchen. “You want a beer?”
“Sure,” she said. She found him bent over with his head in the refrigerator. The small, round breakfast table behind him was overflowing with opened Tupperware bowls. The spread looked like a church basement feast, everything from deviled eggs to potato salad, coleslaw, fried chicken, carrots and green peppers pickled in a tomato sauce, Jell-O with canned fruit and Cool Whip, pickled cucumbers, tuna macaroni salad, cornbread, tiny bran muffins, the ubiquitous “overnight salad,” and a cold ham loaf. Sophie did a double take at the couscous salad. Someone in town was clearly a budding gourmet. On the counter next to the table were paper plates filled with brownies, chocolate chip blondies, lemon bars, spice bars, two homemade berry pies, seven-layer bars, a rhubarb crisp, and slices of pumpkin bread.
“Help yourself,” said Milton, handing her an uncapped beer bottle, then chugging half of his before he sat down. “Just thought I’d get out a few things for us. I’m famished.” He pointed to some paper plates and plastic forks on the counter, then bit hungrily into a chicken leg.
Sophie heaped a small plate with food. She sat down on the other side of the table and took a bite of a deviled egg. She’d always loved them, but rarely ate them anymore. Nobody did these days, what with eggs in general being frowned upon by the nutritional powers that be. Perhaps people in small towns weren’t as impressed by “experts” as their fellow city dwellers.
“I’m beat,” said Milton, scooping out some potato salad and pickled carrots.
“Have you been spending long hours at the hospital?”
“And then some. I’m worried about Mary. She’s pushing too hard.”
“Sounds like her husband made some major progress today.”
Milton’s eyes flicked to her, then away. “Yeah. At least he’s out of his coma. Funny, you’d think that if anybody would have had a stroke, it would have been me. My eating habits are deplorable. Always have been. By all rights, I’m the one who should be lying in that bed, not John.” He shook his head, then added, “He’s worth two of me, Sophie. John was the good brother, the responsible one. He settled down with Mary, raised a family, and became a pillar of the community. I got lucky in life, but John made his own luck.”
He seemed to want to talk. Sophie was more than happy to let him. “Are you from Minnesota originally?”
“No, Indiana. John and I were both born in Kokomo, but we moved to South Bend in ’47 when my father changed jobs. John moved in with a buddy of his in Minneapolis after kicking around Indiana for a while. His first real job was here. He sold Camel cigarettes. Mary grew up in Marshall. They met at a party and were married a year later, in the spring of ’58. That’s when they bought this house. They’ve been living here ever since.”
“What about you?”
He shrugged. “I kicked around a lot, too, when I was young. I didn’t really settle down until I was in my forties. That’s when I met my wife, Doris. I used to call her the mother superior. She really straightened me out.” He laughed. “But sadly, she died a few years back, so I’m on my own now. John called me right after they got Mary’s cancer diagnosis. I told him I’d do anything to help. A few months later he called again and asked if I’d come stay with them for a while. John was having a hard time dealing with Mary’s illness. I think maybe his age was starting to catch up with him, not that any of us are that old. But the idea that he might lose Mary made him face his own mortality and . . . well, it was too much. On top of that, he had to take her to the hospital three times a week, do all the shopping, make all the meals, clean the house, hold everything together. Mary was too sick to help. And he had to stay positive, for Mary’s sake. He tried to be a good soldier, but by the time I arrived, I could see he was in terrible shape. My brother’s always been an in-charge, can-do kind of guy. He takes his responsibilities seriously.”
Milton glanced up at a cupboard above the sink. “Look at this,” he said, rising and opening the cupboard door, revealing shelf after shelf of vitamin and mineral supplements. “And this,” he continued, bending over and opening a lower cupboard. “In case you’re wondering, that big machine is a juicer. John began making vegetable juices for everyone in the family about a year ago, insisting we all drink it. He stopped eating regular food and started on a diet of organic raw vegetables, fruits, and supplements. No meat. No dairy. No sugar. No salt. He was going to get healthy. Live forever. He’d lost control of Mary’s life; he wasn’t going to lose control of his.”
Sitting back down at the table, Milton added, “But he did. He exercised every day. Walked miles. He used to be a big man, but before the stroke, he weighed just over a hundred and twenty pounds. He read constantly, all these books on nutrition, health, additives in the food, the toxins all around us. He came to the conclusion that everything we eat is polluted in some major way. All this occurred just as Mary started to get better, as she began to want to go out again, have dinner in a restaurant, see friends, go to a movie, live a little. John demanded that they stay home and eat wheat grass. So much of the way we socialize is based around food, and John wouldn’t give an inch. This may sound far out, but I think my brother was so deeply into control, he lost his ability to enjoy life. Everything was a threat. The air. The water. He told Bernice she couldn’t stay at the house if she wore hair spray. He threw out all his aftershave and deodorant, made Mary get rid of her perfume. Before the stroke, he was just about starving himself. ” Bowing his head, Milton said, “It was a nightmare. Something had to give.”
It did sound like a horror story, Sophie thought, and yet she understood John’s motivation. With his wife ill, possibly dying, he must have felt powerless. In similar situations, other people might have turned to religion or meditation or booze. John simply chose another route, one that on the surface might have looked like a good choice, except that he went too far.
Milton finished his beer, then wiped his mouth with a napkin. Stroking his beard for a moment, he said, “I think I better hit the sack. Would you mind putting the food away?”
“Not at all,” said Sophie. She followed him into the living room, where he pointed out the guest bedroom and the bathroom, telling her that she would find fresh towels in the closet next to the sink. He also told her that several clean bathrobes were kept in the closet in the guest room, and any toiletries she might need could be found in the top of the bureau.
“Unless the roof blows off,” he added, already on his way up the stairs, “I intend to sleep through the storm. Make yourself at home, Sophie. See you in the morning.”
After finishing her dinner, she rearranged the refrigerator so she could stuff everything back inside. Selecting a lemon bar from the kitchen counter, she drifted into the living room and turned on the TV. The best way to keep track of the weather was by tuning in to a local station. After learning that a thunderstorm was supposed to hit the area within the next hour, she decided to call Bram. She wasn’t supposed to be home until ten, so he probably wasn’t worrying yet, unless he’d heard the weather report.
“I’m still in Rose Hill,” said Sophie, as soon as he’d picked up the phone.
“Thank God,” said Bram, sounding relieved. “You’ve heard about the storm then.”
“I’m spending the night.”
“Good. Did you find a decent motel?”
“No, I’m staying at Bernice’s parents’ house. They have a guest bedroom.” She could hear glasses rattling. “Are you eating?”
“I’m mixing myself a Campari and soda.”
“Ah.” Being privy to his habits, she knew that this was a cocktail. Dinner would follow.
“I’m having a salad sent up from the Fountain Grill.”
Last fall Sophie’s parents had retired, leaving the ownership of the Maxfield Plaza, downtown St. Paul’s most historic hotel, in Sophie’s capable hands. A few months later, Sophie and Bram had moved into an apartment at the top of the north tower. It had taken Sophie the better part of the past year to feel she had a handle on the day-to-day running of the Maxfield. Thankfully, her parents had owned the hotel since Sophie was fourteen. She’d worked the front desk when she was in high school, so she wasn’t a complete novice. When the position of restaurant review editor opened up at the
last spring, Bram was initially against it. He thought Sophie was crazy to take on a second job, even if it was only part-time. But Sophie felt confident she was up to the task. As it turned out, her son, Rudy, was hired by the paper to be her assistant, giving her the best of both worlds. She not only kept her hand in at the hotel, but she also had the chance to work with her son doing something she loved.
After some initial grumbling, Bram finally had to admit that Sophie seemed to be handling the two jobs with remarkable finesse. And he adored living at the hotel. They both did. Not only did they admire the bold art deco architecture—which Sophie’s father had worked hard to restore and maintain—but it quickly became apparent that they both appreciated having two exceptional restaurants and a famous theater bar on the premises. If Sophie didn’t feel like cooking, they’d simply order in, or dine out. They never had to brave the winter winds or the summer swelter to have a delicious gourmet meal.
“How’s Bernice’s dad?” asked Bram.
“Better, although everyone’s being pretty guarded.”
“What time will you be home in the morning?”
“I’ve got a meeting at the paper at one, but I need to do some work in my office at the hotel first. Probably around eleven.”
“If I’m not home, call me at the station to let me know you’re back safely.”
“Will do,” said Sophie. “Say, how are you feeling?”
“No reason,” she said, deciding not to pursue the grilled cheese sandwich debacle. He was eating a salad tonight, and that was good news. “While I’ve got your attention, honey, your birthday’s coming up soon. Got any ideas what you might like?” She could hear the doorbell ring.
“I’d like to have dinner.”
“Okay, we’ll talk about it later. I love you, sweetheart.”
“Ditto, babe. See you anon.”
After saying good-bye and slipping her cell phone back into her shoulder bag, Sophie rose from the couch and stepped up to the picture window overlooking the front yard. The sky had darkened almost to night during the last few minutes, and the breeze had died to a faint whisper. It was the quiet before the storm.
As she stood gazing through the heavy yellow twilight at the homes across the street, she noticed a hefty-looking man on the opposite boulevard. He was smoking a cigarette and leaning against an elm. In his dark suit, dark shirt and white tie, narrow-brimmed fedora and dark-rimmed glasses, he seemed completely out of place—sort of like finding one of the Blues Brothers in a lumber camp. Most disconcerting of all was the fact that he was staring at the house. Sophie supposed he could see her in the window, especially since the lights were on inside the living room. If so, he betrayed no awareness of her. He simply stood quietly, his hand rising with the cigarette, then falling away from his lips. Under other circumstances, she might have gone out for a short walk, or sat on the front steps and watched the storm approach, but the man’s presence put her off.
Checking her watch, she saw that it was going on eight-forty. She wasn’t tired, and she didn’t feel like watching TV. Closing the front drapes, she sat down on one of the recliner rockers and spotted what she thought was a bag of knitting next to her on the floor. Closer examination revealed that a bunch of old photographs had been stuffed inside. Instead of leaving them where they should have probably stayed, she picked the photos up and began flipping through them. Most were old snapshots of John and Mary’s kids, some at the beach, some in front of a Christmas tree, and a few with what must have been grandparents.
The last photo was a picture of a young man and a young woman standing next to a garage. Sophie recognized Mary Washburn immediately. Oddly, the man looked familiar too. Turning the photo over, she saw that someone had written, “Beauty and the Beast. June, 1959. First anniversary” on the back. Since Sophie had never met John Washburn, she flipped the photo over and studied it for a moment. John was slightly taller than Mary. He was also thin, wearing tight jeans and a white T-shirt under a wrinkled short-sleeved shirt. One arm was draped over Mary’s shoulder, while his right hand was stuffed into the pocket of his jeans. He had a James Dean look about him. Squinty-eyed. Long sideburns and a slight pompadour. He might not be as handsome as James Dean, but the picture made him look every bit as sexy.