T'S A RAINY, RAW MAY 5. By the time I hop into Garrett's pickup, Ingrid's already air drumming and belting along to Hannah Montana tunes. The plan is that Garrett will drop us off at Scrump Studios and park, and then join the
Pinch of Love Live
audience; Spike Miller was nice enough to send him a ticket.
We drive to Boston. Garrett seems to glance at Ingrid in the rearview more often than usual. When he catches her eye, he winks at her.
“Nervous?” he asks me, as we cruise along the Mass Pike.
“Yeah,” I say. “I have to admit, I kind of am.”
“Me, too,” he says.
When we reach Boston, we pull over to the Scrump Studios building, near Quincy Market. “Remember, Ingrid,” Garrett says to the rearview mirror. “Not a word to Polly about her being your mother.”
Ingrid salutes him.
Outside, a slight, spiky-haired man hurries to the truck. He clutches a clipboard to his chest. A Bluetooth earpiece hugs his ear.
I roll down my window. “I'm Rose-Ellen Roy. Am I in the right spot forâ“
“I've been waiting for you. You're late,” he says. He jabs his hand inside the truck to shake my hand. “Spike Miller. Let's go.”
Ingrid hops out the back. “Bye, Dad!”
“Don't I get a kiss?” Garrett says.
“We're late.” She stands next to Spike and grasps his hand.
“Break a leg,” Garrett says. I'm about to hop out when he says, “Wait. Shut the door? I think I should tell you something. Roll up the window, too.”
“What?” I say. “What's wrong?”
Garrett sighs. “Fact is,
been a better mother to her, Zell. You.” He opens the glove compartment and extracts an envelope decorated with stickers. I recognize it: the letter Ingrid wrote to Polly Pinch, which he intercepted.
“Give this to her?” he says. “Make sure she gets it, okay? I'll explain it all to you later. I promise.”
“Give it to who?”
He grips the steering wheel and stares at it.
“Oh no,” I say. “Don't do this to me now, Garrett. You've got to be kidding me.” I glance at the sidewalk, where Ingrid is telling Spike some animated story. He nods absently and examines his clipboard, looking mildly dyspeptic.
I lower my voice. “Is Polly Pinch Ingrid'sâ”
“I'm not kidding you,” Garrett says. “That story I told you before, about the look-alike? It wasâjust don't tell her anything, okay? Just let it unfold.”
“Don't tell who what-ything?” I want to ask more; I feel like I might bubble over with questions. “Let
Spike taps my window. “Let's go, people!”
“You'll be great, Zell,” Garrett says. He looks at me, his eyes a mix of anxiousness, regret, and need. “I'll be watching. You'll be great. You'll both be great.” He squeezes my thigh.
“Why?” I say. “What are you hoping to accomplish by letting this happen?”
He shrugs. “It's time Anita saw her daughter.”
“Polly. Her real name's Anita.”
“You drop this on me
?” I stare at him; my mouth hangs open. Not only do I have to worry about appearing on live television, and making it back to Wippamunk on time for this mysterious tribute to my dead husband that apparently the whole town knew about before I did, but I also have to worry about a celebrity chef's unrehearsed reaction to meeting the daughter she apparently gave up on almost nine years ago.
“Don't worry,” says Garrett. “I'm sure it will all go smoothly.”
“Right. I'm sure it will all be super simp.” I tuck the envelope in my bagâa huge fairy-patterned bag, courtesy of Trudy.
“I'm sorry I lied,” he says. “This is all so complicated, and I guess I just wasn't ready to face the truth. But Ingrid
ready. I think she's been ready for a long time.”
I take a deep breath. “I understand,” I say. And it's true; I understand what it's like to lie, in order to get through just one day; what it's like to not want to face the truth.
“I didn't expect things would get this far, Zell. Television and everything.”
“It's okay. Neither did I.” I squeeze his hand. I get out of the truck, and he pulls away from the curb.
“NICE TO MEET YOU,” I say to Spike.
He forces a tight smile. “Follow me.”
He leads Ingrid and me into the lobby of the skyscraper, through a shiny hall where the hard-soled shoes of serious women and men echo off tiled walls and floors. No one looks at us. We pass a big gleaming reception/security desk and ride an elevator. Spike's beady eyes rove my outfitâ“Wippamunk Loves New Orleans” shirt, jeans, big shoulder bag. The beady eyes move to Ingrid, whose red hat swallows her forehead.
Ingrid offers Spike a wide grin. “If Zell here wins the contest,” she says, “she's going to donate all the money to New Orleans so they can rebuild the city.”
Spike says nothing.
She keeps talking: about hundreds of thousands of abandoned cars in New Orleans, and thousands of houses that need gutting, and overcrowded “femur” trailers and nonexistent libraries, all of which she knows because I've told her about Nick's e-mails.
“Ingrid.” I hold a finger to my lips. “Shh.”
“But it's important,” she says.
I smile at Spike. He clears his throat and inspects papers on his clipboard.
We exit the elevator, cross a hall, and step into another elevator. Ingrid chews her thumbnail the whole time.
The second elevator ride ends. We follow Spike down more halls. These halls are somewhat dingy. Closed doors are labeled CONTROL ROOM, BOOTH, DO NOT ENTER, DO NOT ENTERâEVER, GREEN ROOM, MAKEUP, and WARDROBE.
Finally we pass a short row of doors all labeled GUEST, and in one of these small rooms, Spike deposits us.
“Sit.” He points to a threadbare upholstered couch against the wall. “Wait.”
Ingrid and I exchange glances.
“Mr. Spike?” Ingrid says. She plops onto the couch. “What's happening?”
“Makeup's coming to you. So's Wardrobe.” He's in such a hurry, he slams the door.
HALF AN HOUR LATER I wear knee-high leather boots, a pencil skirt, and a collared, sleeveless shirt. My lips are painted a deep brick red. Wet black outlines my eyes. Fake glasses rest on my nose, and my hair is shellacked into unmoving waves.
Ingrid inspects me. She lifts my arms and circles under them. “You lookâ”
“âlike a freak?” I say.
“No. Like a cool librarian.”
“Thanks. I think.”
“How do I look?” Ingrid, in royal blue, does a little tap dance. She wears ballet flats, leggings, a tunic cinched low around her pre-hips with a thick plastic belt. Two basketball-size Afro-puffs dominate either side of the zigzag part in her scalp. Her lips and eyelids shimmer with sparkles.
“You look like you could perform alongside Hannah Montana,” I say.
“Oh my God. Are you even serious?”
“No. Wait. You look like Hannah Montana would be your two-bit
Spike pokes his head in the door and claps crisply. “Ladies, Ms. Pinch regrets that she's unable to introduce herself to you before the show, so she's going to have to do it later.”
I don't have time to worry about what that exchange will be like, because Spike keeps talking. “Here's what'll happen. You'll do everything I say. After that, if Ms. Pinch asks you a question, answer it, but don't talk too much.” He looks directly at Ingrid. “Get that?”
“When you're seated onstage you'll be fitted with a microphone,” Spike says. “Once that microphone's on, don't fidget, and don't frown.
“And remember,” he adds. “We're
so mind your language.” He turns on his heel and zips down the hall. “Follow me.”
We speed walk to the set. “Stay,” he orders, seating us in metal folding chairs against a wall.
Ingrid points at a white ON THE AIR sign. We squint at the stage until our eyes make sense of the bright, bright lights: We have a side view of Polly Pinch, who wears a frilly apron and addresses a huge camera labeled CAMERA 1. She appears to occupy an old boxcar diner. Stools ring a chrome counter lined with malted milkshakes; glass jars of gumdrops, striped straws, coconut shavings, and licorice laces; and the infamous LOVE canister. Beyond the boxcar a luminous kitchen awaits: black-and-white tile floor, chrome table, six-burner gas stove, bulbous-looking refrigerator.
The audience watches, enraptured, from sleek seats that slope up thirty rows.
Men in black shirts operate cameras that slide around like robotic limbs. Polly takes turns addressing each camera. She talks about the two prize-winning desserts and about the meal she'll cook later: her own special twist on traditional chicken and waffles.
Ingrid cups her hand around my ear and whispers, “Chicken and
“I think it's a Southern thing,” I whisper, just as Polly says, “. . . and boy, is this dish
! So don't go away. We'll be right back.”
A green APPLAUSE! sign flashes. The audience claps.
The white ON THE AIR sign fades.
Three women surround Polly. One adjusts the frills of her apron. Another spritzes her hair. The third attacks her forehead with a makeup sponge.
“What's soul food?” Ingrid says. “Is Scrumpy Delight soul food?”
“Hell yeah,” I say.
“You said a bad word.”
“I know. Sorry. I'm a little nervous.”
“Good. You shouldn't be.”
“I can't find my dad.” She shades her eyes and searches the audience.
“He's there,” I say. “He's somewhere. We just can't see him because of the lights.”
Spike reappears and crouches next to me. He wears a headset now. “Go time,” he says. “Ready?”
Ingrid nods. Her Afro-puffs bounce all around.
Onstage, Spike's wordless minions swarm us. They position us on the diner stools. After they disband and disappear backstage, Ingrid and I have wires down our backs and pea-size microphones clipped to our collars.
Spike taps my mic, then Ingrid's. “Remember my four rules?” he says.
Ingrid counts them on her fingers. “Don't talk too much, don't fidget, don't frown, and mind your language.”
“Good girl.” He darts away.
“Remember the other rule?” I ask Ingrid. “Your dad's rule?”
“Don't worry. I'm not gonna say anything.” She elbows me as Polly Pinch approaches the stools.
“Play it cool,” I whisper.
Ingrid makes a ring with her thumb and index finger. “Playin' it cool,” she mouths.
Polly stops at the stool next to Ingrid. On it slumps a scraggly, barrel-chested guy in a cowboy shirtâthe other contest winner. A few inches of white hair ring his otherwise bald scalp. His spine straightens when Polly Pinch stands before him and offers her perfect hand.
The lights are so bright that the tiny hairs on the back of my hands look as dark and defined as pencil marks. My underboobs are sweating. A lot. My knees feel drafty and too exposed.
Nonbeats. Fierce beats. Balls.
“Hi.” That familiar, inviting voice, warm and thick, like maple syrup. Before me, the famously sharp jaw accentuates famously sharp collarbones. Perfectly round boobs bust from the frilly apron. Green eyes electrify smooth tan skin. Freckles dot her nose, cheeks, and cleavage, like sprays of ground cinnamon.
“Hi. Polly Pinch.” She pumps my hand. “Congratulations on your Hidden Cranberry Spice-eez.”
“Oh, thanks,” I say. “Pleasure to meet you. I'm . . . uh . . . I'm Scrumpy Delight, though.”
“Oh, right. Right. You're Rose-Ellen. And who's your little helper here?” Polly shines her gorgeous face at Ingrid.
Ingrid's jaw quivers. She mutters something, but it's inaudible.
I hold Ingrid's hand in my lap and squeeze it. “This is Ingrid,” I say.
Polly scrunches up her eyebrows.
Ingrid lifts her head and stares at Polly. And then, on Polly, I see a face that television land never sees: one totally void of expression, like an open-eyed sleepwalker.
Spike waves his clipboard. “People!” he yells. “We are live in five, four, threeâ” He mouths, “Two, one,” jabbing the air with his fingers. He sweeps his closed fist toward Polly and scoots offstage like a villain in a musical.