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Authors: Joanna Campbell Slan

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I mused over this info about Sissy Gilchrist’s ex. I needed to tell Detweiler about what I’d learned. The sooner the better. But there was no way I could call him now.

It was time to get started. I suggested we introduce ourselves, since we had a newcomer in the group. Everyone said her piece and then I turned to Patricia.

“I’m Patricia Krupp Bigler. My daughter Elizabeth goes to CALA with Kiki’s and Ella’s children.” Her voice was barely above a whisper. “I’m working on an album to give Coach Bosch. I was hoping to get to it this evening.”

I explained she might have time after we completed our project. If not, she was welcome to drop by the store anytime and use our cropping area. I then directed the women to assemble their materials. We started the project by working on tags. These we labeled with the names of family members. Then we colored the tags with chalk.

Bonnie seemed unusually quiet as she worked. Finally, she turned to Patricia and said, “Is your brother Donald Krupp? The attorney?”

Patricia nodded. Her face should have been lovely with its long oval shape, its cool blue eyes, and its unwrinkled forehead. But she missed the mark, and as I studied her, I wondered why. Taken separately, her features were perfect. But together, she was just … blah. Maybe it was her nearly non-existent chin.

Patricia studied Bonnie. “Are you that woman attorney who defended that … Mexican?”

Her tone caused all of us to freeze.

“You must mean Dr. Juan Salvador. He’s a U.S. citizen, and he was unfairly accused,” said Bonnie. “Which is why the jury found him innocent. I was proud to represent him.”

I decided to step in. “Wait until you see how cute this family tree project is. It’s a terrific way to display the various branches and how we come together. At the foot, the soil represents the countries of our origins, because most of us are of immigrant stock. We’ll label the different mounds with the names of countries of origin.”

“How’d you come up with this, Kiki?” asked LaShana.

I explained how Anya brought home her American history book, and I’d read to my shock that Virginia Dare was the first person born in this country. “This can’t possibly be right,” I pointed out. “There were Indians here. The stork didn’t bring them. So maybe she was the first European, but even that’s wrong because the Vikings explored Newfoundland and Greenland nearly five hundred years before Columbus.”

“Hmm,” Patricia brought me back to the present. “I’m not convinced that all this mixing of cultures is always a good thing. Adults get to decide who they socialize with. But our children depend on us to make good decisions. Perhaps it’s best for all concerned to socialize with their own kind.”

“That can be really hard,” said Mert. “Cause I ain’t seen no special gathering spot just for turkeys.”

___

I have no idea how we managed to work the rest of the evening without incident, but we did. Perhaps it was because everyone had to concentrate on tearing apart their sheets of words and pasting them to their trees.

True, I wound up copying more sheets because our guests kept complaining, “I ruined mine.” I counted six pieces of shredded paper a win, compared to the sort of disaster we’d narrowly avoided. I walked around giving pointers and helping. I admit, I wanted to avoid Patricia, but my job was to be the hostess so I sucked it up and acted as if nothing happened. The group loved the project, added their flowers and a few leaves.

“Aren’t you missing one?” Patricia pointed to the tags on Ella’s tree.

Ella stiffened.

“I have these sad blank tags. They represent all the miscarriages I had. Remember, Ella? It was awful. I wanted another baby so bad.”

“Yes, I remember. That was a very bad time for you.”

I did feel a surge of sympathy for our newcomer. I knew I wasn’t alone in thinking that to lose a child is the worst thing that could ever happen to anyone. I could see the other women’s body stances softening a bit toward Patricia.

“Your tree looks fabulous!” I said cheerily to Ella. Her tags read “Ella, Walter, Frederick, Natalie.” She palmed one empty tag.

I tried to dredge up a compliment for Patricia, too, or a sincere comment of condolence, but I couldn’t find it within myself. Her tree turned out okay, but a bit sloppy.

Her poor outcome amazed me. But that’s how it goes. Oddly enough, I could give the same instructions and products to twenty people and get twenty variations on a theme. A few would always be plug-ugly, no matter what.

“Are you all right?” I asked Ella when I saw her shoulders sagging.

“Just worried about what’s happening in the school. How about you? Is Anya okay?”

It was the proverbial elephant in the living room. No one had mentioned the crime during the crop, and I had purposely compartmentalized my thoughts. But I couldn’t hold back any longer. “Anya’s all right, I guess.”

“What do you mean?” Ella perked up.

I reached up to rub my temples. “Sorry,” I apologized. “Of course, the situation is upsetting.”

“Have you spoken to your detective friend?” asked Bonnie. She knew Detweiler from last year when he’d investigated my husband’s murder.

“Um, he was at the scene.” I didn’t want to say more so I averted my eyes and busied myself picking up stray scraps of paper.

“Thank goodness they have the man in custody,” broke in Patricia.

Ella rustled in her purse for her keys. “I need to get home. Will I see you Tuesday at the mothers’ book club?”

“Oh, yes,” said Dodie. “Kiki is making adorable bookmarks for each of you.”

I tried to smile and seem enthusiastic. While my visit to the book club was ostensibly to pass out bookmarks, these would be tucked into an envelope with class listings. So, attending the book club meeting was a job requirement, not a social event for me.

Dodie continued, “Remember, everyone, we’re doing a special crop with a special homecoming project. Let me show you.” With a ta-dah, she whisked out a layout filled with paper flowers in CALA school colors, royal blue and gold. “Of course, for other schools, the colors will be different, but you can imagine how gorgeous they’ll all be. Kiki will teach you to use punches and inks to create this floral display. I’ll pass around a clipboard and you can sign up now.”

“I can’t wait. I promise you that you’ll enjoy the homecoming project.” And I smiled hard, even though my head split with pain.

How To Make Kiki’s Family Tree

This is an adorable project that you can put on a shelf or tabletop to display. It’s particularly terrific for the spring.

1. Color copy a page from an old book with the word “family” on it several times. (A children’s book is good because of the large type.) Also stamp the word “family” and “love” and “together” in warm brown on a creamy piece of paper or a white piece of paper stained with dark tea.

2. Tear the words apart and glue them to a die cut of a tree with bare branches. (This should be made of brown cardstock, the rougher the paper the better.) Do this on one side only and don’t worry if the words stick out past the die cut. Once the words dry, trim them so they are the same shape as your die cut.

3. When the tree is completely covered, dip it in melted beeswax. You can melt the beeswax in the microwave oven very carefully.

4. Twist together several strands of brown wire. This will go on the back of your tree and function as a stand. Adhere the wire to the tree. (The easiest way is to sew it on with a thread that matches.)

5. Add silk flowers to your tree.

6. Add tiny tags with names of family members.

After our guests left,
I let Gracie out of the playpen and snapped on her leash. I turned to the sound of Dodie’s heavy footfalls. She had a habit of clomping along, letting her heavy bulk hit the ground hard with each step. Tonight, she was walking more slowly and awkwardly than usual. I let Gracie out the back, and she quickly did her business.

Dodie stood in the doorway to the stockroom, watching us, and stroking her chin.

“I had a root canal last fall,” she said. “It was a whole lot more fun than this evening.”

“With any luck, Patricia will never come back.”

Dodie gave me a stern look. “Everyone is welcome here.”

Oops.

Dodie continued, “But some are more welcome than others.”

I laughed.

Mert stepped into the backroom. “You cain’t stop people like her. She don’t have a subtle bone in that body of hers.”

“That’s because prejudice and ignorance go hand in hand,” said Dodie. “Like chicken fat and matzo meal.”

Not the metaphor that sprang to my mind.

Mert leaned against the wall and shook her head. “You know, folks forget that the father of the American Nazi Party was born right across that river over in Illinois.”

This was news to me. Gracie whimpered by my side.

Dodie sighed. “Ladies, I need to call this a night.”

Mert jingled her keys. “Me, too. Let’s all walk out together, okay?”

That was our new safety routine, one recommended by the local Richmond Heights P.D. While I’d never ask anyone to go with me—I didn’t care to be thought a chicken—I felt much more comfortable when we left as a group. As Dodie turned the lock, Mert said, “I got a new pooch for you to babysit. I’m picking him up tomorrow. His name is Mr. Gibbes. Is the kid at Sheila’s?”

“Yes.” I didn’t tell Mert I needed to chat with Detweiler. I knew I should just call him and leave a message. But I thought it possible he’d drop by to hear what I’d learned, and I struggled to come up with a reasonable excuse for why he should. “How about you call me first? Make sure I’m home?”

My friend gave me a long thoughtful stare as we stood beside our cars. “You got plans?”

I blushed. “Uh, no.”

Dodie climbed into hers and turned on her lights.

“I’ll call first,” my best friend said. Her eyes were narrow as she swept them over me.

Mert. She could see through me like I was an acetate overlay.

Drat.

___

I called Detweiler on my way home. He didn’t answer so I left a message. I hemmed and hawed around, feeling like a schoolgirl calling a boy for a date. By the time I sputtered out my thoughts, the ending beep sounded.

Gracie leaned over and licked my ear.

She knew what was up.

I felt about two inches high as I dragged my carcass out of the car. Once inside the house, I noticed I had two messages in my cell phone, one from Ben Novak, a really sweet guy I’d been keeping at arm’s length, and Johnny, Mert’s brother. Any other woman, any sensible woman, would have been glowing with joy.

Instead, I was ashamed of myself.

I stripped to my underwear and crawled into bed without removing my eye makeup or brushing my teeth. How bad was I? I couldn’t stop thinking about a married man, the one man I couldn’t have; instead of being tickled to a shade of cardstock pink, I was depressed. How did this happen? How did I let myself care?

And what was I going to do about it?

___

Sunday once had been a family day for Anya and me. I’d make a special breakfast, and we’d take Gracie for a ramble through a park. However, late last spring my darling daughter had informed me I needed to find friends of my own age. She was tired of entertaining me.

No one ever picked me for dodge ball either. But this hurt even more ’cause no one in gym class had ever given me stretch marks. A black eye once, but no stretch marks.

Sheila was up, bright and cheery, when I called. She practically chirped that Anya had spent the Saturday night at her friend Nicci Moore’s house. I rather suspected that Sheila had a “sleep over” guest of her own, but I didn’t say anything. I figured Chief Holmes wouldn’t have let Sheila “off load” my daughter unless he was sure Anya was safe.

I threw myself into a frenzy of cleaning. I scrubbed the kitchen floor, washed windows, and I was dusting the ceiling fans when a big black snake fell onto my bed.

I ran out of my bedroom screaming. I sprinted past Gracie and into the front yard, hollering for all I was worth. I was standing out there bellowing like a bull calf in one of those National Geographic specials when Mert’s truck pulled up and out hopped Johnny.

“Kiki? Calm down. You okay? You hurt?” He grabbed me and pulled me close so he could inspect me.

“Snnn-snnn—snake.” I managed.

“I’ll go kill it.”

“No!”

That was weird, I know, but see I didn’t want to hurt it. I just wanted it out of my bedroom. So I grabbed Johnny and stopped his progress. He smelled of sweet grass and fresh air, with a hint of musk, like he always does. “No, kill, no.”

He started to snicker. I had him by one of his huge biceps and I was hanging there like fruit off a tree. “Whatcha planning to do with it? You want it for a pet?”

“No,” I was catching my breath. “Just don’t kill it. Anya would be mad.”

“You beat all,” he said, pulling me close before he kissed me. Johnny has these kisses that cause your knees to go weak. Mine always do. One of these days, I’m going to wind up on the ground in a puddle afterward.

We were locked in an embrace when Detweiler pulled up, his tires spinning gravel. He stomped out of his big Impala with his eyes on fire. Johnny turned loose of me, saw the lawman glaring at us, and winked at me. “I’ll go take care of the bedroom.”

“What the … ?” Detweiler’s next word was not suitable for a PG audience.

“Snake. Big one. This long,” I made a gesture separating my hands.

Detweiler’s nostrils flared and he pawed the ground.

Oh, boy.

This was bad.

I added, “In my bedroom.”

That didn’t help. I tried to clear the situation up. “Uh, Johnny’s in my bedroom.”

Detweiler snorted. I thought I saw steam come out of his ears.

The door slammed behind us and Johnny’s feet crunched along my walkway. “I got it. Holding it in my hands. It’s big, too. Wait ’til you see this snake of mine.”

I could hear him, but I couldn’t see him.

Fortunately, Johnny couldn’t see through me to Detweiler. The cop had his hand on his gun. His expression was murderous. I could see him calculating and I could sense him pulling the gun from the holster.

“Stop. Don’t you dare!” I thought for a minute I was going to faint.

But Johnny stepped between us. He offered the detective and me a scooped-up section of my bedspread stretched between his arms. “That’s your snake, missy,” he said.

A four-foot-long piece of clotted dust.

“I’m guessing there was dust built up on the fan, and centrifugal force sort of packed all that dust together and made it thick like a piece of felt,” said Johnny, with wonder in his voice.

I wobbled toward my kitchen. “I’ve got to go sit down.”

___

Johnny brought in Mr. Gibbes. He was the cutest thing, a white puff ball with a lively expression and mischievous eyes. Detweiler stalked along behind man and dog.

“He’s just a pup,” said Johnny as he set down Mr. Gibbes’ traveling bag and handed over the pooch. “Inside is his food, dishes, leash, and something extra, I need to explain to you.”

Johnny reached into the bag and withdrew a colorful piece of fabric about a foot long and four inches wide with Velcro on each end. “This’s a wanker wrapper.”

“Huh?” Detweiler and I spoke in tandem. Gracie was leaning against the cop, taking all this in, and staring at the excited dog in my lap. Her tail was beating a double-time rhythm as she stared up at the detective with loving eyes.

“See, this guy likes to squirt. He’ll hose down your house in pee, if you let him. So you put on this belt contraption,” and here Johnny wrapped the wanker wrapper around Mr. Gibbes’ belly. “But you have to make sure his manliness is tucked in or it won’t do any good.”

All I could do was shake my head.

Detweiler muttered, “I can think of a better use for that contraption.”

I ignored him.

Johnny guided me in dressing Mr. Gibbes so he was socially acceptable. After all, I’d just mopped the floor, and I didn’t need a mess to clean up. Besides, I’ve always been house proud. Anya and I had moved in three months ago, and I was still busy fixing up and decorating our new home. I didn’t need help from an interior designer whose only color chart was yellow, darker yellow, and really, really dark yellow.

Maybe even a shade or two of brown.

At my front door, Johnny paused to kiss me again. Long and hard. Obviously for Detweiler’s viewing pleasure. (I thought it kind of funny, too, so I didn’t protest or cut it short.) “I have to run, but I’ll swing back by. And don’t forget we’re going to the Kemp Auto Museum over in Chesterfield next weekend.” I could tell by the sparkle in Johnny’s eyes that he was enjoying watching Detweiler watching us from the kitchen. That Johnny was such a scamp. According to Mert, he’d always flirted with danger. Unfortunately, it had also landed him a short stint in the slammer.

“I can’t believe you let that ex-con hang around,” fumed Detweiler after Johnny left. “Much less touch you.”

I took a deep breath. “Not your business. Not your problem. And please take note: Johnny has never lied to me.”

“At least not that you know about,” he grumbled. I walked past him over to the refrigerator. I sort of liked hearing him get honked off. I was glad he wasn’t comfortable with the situation. He deserved it. After all, he’d made a fool of me. All my friends had known he was married. And Sheila. That was the worst.

“Would you like some ice tea? I’ve made some spice bread, too. If you like cinnamon, you’ll love this.”

I served him and sat down to explain what I’d learned about Danny Gartner. Then I asked, “Any news on your end?”

“Someone stepped forward to provide legal assistance to Corey. Still no luck with the murder weapon. The Major Case Squad captain still believes we have the man who killed Sissy.”

“Sounds like you’re out there on a limb by your lonesome.”

He nodded. “Yeah. I am.”

___

My daughter missed Detweiler by fifteen minutes. Jennifer Moore dropped her off. I promised that Nicci could sleep over next Friday after we lit the Shabbas candles at Sheila’s. My mother-in-law had planned a Shabbas dinner party. Actually, it wasn’t so much a meal as a cattle call so Ben Novak’s parents could examine my teeth and decide whether I was possible daughter-in-law material.

Still, it was our turn to have Nicci over, and her presence would give me a great excuse for cutting the evening short. As soon as I mentioned the idea, though, Jennifer got a skittish expression on her face. “It’s fine for the girls to stay at our house. Besides, I still have Stevie at home.”

But Stevie was a junior in high school. Why would he be staying home on a weekend night?

Clearly, Jennifer didn’t want her daughter to spend the night at our place. I willed my face to stay neutral. I knew what she was thinking. Last year our house had been burglarized twice, and I had been wrongly imprisoned. Spending the night in the county jail had not been a career highlight—at least not yet. Worse, word about my escapades (as Sheila called them) had spread through CALA quickly. I had hoped everyone would have moved on, but once a jailbird always a jailbird. Peep, peep, peep, shoot.

So I chose to be gracious, especially as I noticed the tense way my daughter was standing behind me, hanging on every word of my conversation. I wanted Anya to have friends, a social life, and the feeling that she belonged. I could swallow my pride, put aside my ego, and do what was best for her. “That would be lovely,” I said.

“I’ll see you Tuesday right after school starts for the mothers’ book club meeting at my house,” said Jennifer. “You are coming, aren’t you?”

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