Garrett's deep sigh seems to warm my palm. A different man in scrubs enters the waiting room and approaches him. “Mr. Knox?”
“Is she okay?” says Garrett.
“Ingrid's going to be just fine,” the man in scrubs says. “We gave her an adrenaline shot, and she's recovering. We're running some tests, and after she rests a bit, we'll let you in to see her.”
Garrett opens his mouth, but no words come out. He covers his face with his hands.
The man in scrubs shoots me a kind smile before turning and leaving the waiting room.
“Garrett?” I say. I think he might be crying.
I sit with him for what feels like a long time. He doesn't move or make a sound, just hunches over in the chair. Finally his hands drop to his lap. “Wanna hear something ironic?” he says. “I didn't tell her the truth about her mother because I didn't want her to become distracted by it.” We both laugh, but softly, so as not to disturb the others in the waiting room, whose problems might be bigger than ours.
“Anyway,” he says. “I'm sorry I lied to you about all this.”
“I understand,” I say. “I really do. Hey, there's a vending machine out near the restrooms. You want anything?”
“A coffee'd be great. Get yourself one, too.” He takes a few dollar bills from the wallet in his back pocket and waves them at me.
“Keep your money,” I say, standing and straightening my skirt. I'm about to push through the door when he says, “Zell?”
He's watching me now, his eyes brimmed red. “Nice boots.”
“Thanks. Not mine.”
He sighs again and blubbers his lips. “Well, you looked pretty slammin' on that set today, Zell. If you don't mind me saying so.”
“I don't mind.” I smile. A real smile, teeth showing and everything.
I PASS THE VENDING MACHINES, trying not to inhale the scents of urine and disinfectant, dirty sheets and Jell-O. I pause at the bubbler and slurp the cold, metallic-tasting water. Water from the Wippamunk Reservoir, I think, as I wipe the back of my hand across my mouth.
Someone rushes toward meâa lurching, high-heeled run. Polly Pinch, nÃ©e Anita Pinchelman. Rivulets forged by tears stain her foundation. “Rose-Ellen,” she says.
“Ingrid's fine,” I say. “But they don't want anyone to see her just yet. They're running some tests.”
“I came as soon as we finished taping.
shouldn't have happened. I reprimanded my staff. We will have EpiPens on the premises from now on. I'm so sorry. She's all right?”
“She's all right.”
Polly bends at the waist, drops her head between her knees, and breathes once, twice, through her nostrils. When she flips upright, her face is composed and attractively blushed. She smiles the TV smile I'm used toâvaguely prim yet vaguely seductive. “Good, good,” she says. “And how do you know Ingrid?”
“She's my neighbor.”
Polly chews her top lip. “Really.”
“He's in the waiting room.” I point down the hall.
She tilts her head. “Really?”
Again she bends at the waist, breathing loudly. She flips back up. Smiles.
“Before you go in there.” I fish around in my bag. “Ingrid was going to give you this.” I find the envelopeâthe one containing Ingrid's letter to Polly, and Ingrid's life's savings.
Polly fingers it.
“Careful,” I say. “There's money in there.”
She nods and stuffs it in her leather handbag. “Thank you,” she says, clicking off down the hall. Before she enters the waiting room she turns. “By the way. You didn't win after all.”
“The Hamill guy from San Diego won. Despite the . . . interruption, it was a successful episode. Even though I was a complete train wreck. Even though Spike teamed up with a camera operator to physically prevent me from following the EMTs to the ambulance. The bastards. But they were right. It would have been career suicide to leave. So I pulled myself together. You have to when you're live.
“Hamill took your place as my kitchen helper when I baked Scrumpy Delight. What a dessert, Rose-Ellen. I mean, it's not your ordinary tart. Chocolate? And goat cheese? And a citrus fruit? And
? Now, that's original.”
“So you really liked it?” I say.
“Of course I liked it. But, well, the judges didn't choose it. I'm sorry.” Her arms fly out and drop to her sides.
I nod. “It's okay. I'm just glad Ingrid's all right.”
She smiles wanly and continues to the waiting room.
I get two coffees from the vending machine and fix Garrett's the way he likes it: lots of cream, no sugar. I'm about to push through the door when I hear his and Polly's voices.
“So what kind of a stunt was that?” Polly says.
“I thought it was time you had some contact with her,” he says.
“I send money. In fact, I've been very consistent with sending checks. And you've been very consistent in depositing them.”
“Money isn't contact. She wants you, Anita. She needs you.”
“It's not that I don't want anything at all to do with her. In fact, recently, I've thought quite a bit about getting back in touch. But honestly, I didn't think you'd welcome that. And the
of all thisâ”
“When would be a good time for you? Sometime in the
There's a pause, and I hear a deep exhalation, but I'm not sure who exhales.
“This is a lot for me to take in right now,” Polly finally says. “I'm sorry.”
“You're goddamn right you're sorry.”
“I was so young. I was so scared.”
“You were scared?
“I was very wrong. A coward, even. But I can't change the past.”
“A restraining order, Anita?
“I wanted a clean break. But I'm a different person now.”
“I'mâI don't know. I'm different. I'm sure you are, too. I just can't believe you let her come on my show.”
“You'd believe it if you knew how much she adored you,” Garrett says. “Besides, I promised her she could go, if Zell was a finalist. And I want my daughter to know me as a man of my word. I've lied to her long enough.”
Paging Dr. Turner,
comes a voice over the intercom.
Dr. Turner, line two.
“Do you really think you were acting in Ingrid's best interest?” says Polly.
“I don't believe you know the first thing about acting in a child's best interest, Anita.”
Neither of them speaks for a while. I hear Polly stand and clear her throat. “Listen,” she says. “I've got to run. But here's my card. When she's readyâwhen
readyâcall me. We'll hang out or something, the three of us. Or maybe just me and Ingrid, or whatever. We'll see how it goes. How would that be?”
Garrett doesn't reply.
“I mean, maybe you're right. Maybe it's time,” Polly says. “Maybe it's not too late to . . . I don't know. Is that what you
He still doesn't say anything.
Polly's clicky footsteps approach the door.
I dash away a few steps, then turn around and stroll, as if I'm just now coming up on the waiting area.
In the hallway Polly eyes me, sniffles, and strides toward the exit. “Keep those clothes, Rose-Ellen,” she calls over her shoulder. “You look good. And keep up with your baking, too. You never know where things will lead.”
MORE PEOPLE SIT IN THE WAITING ROOM NOW: two women in saris with perfect posture; a flat-haired teenager in tight jeans, her legs draped over an armrest; a smelly man with no front teeth stooped at the window.
Garrett leafs through a magazine and sips his coffee. “I see a lot of long conversations with Ingrid in my future,” he says. “How do you explain to a nine-year-old that you've been lying to her? That she was right all along?”
“You'll figure out a way,” I say. “Don't worry.”
“Crap. I hope so.” He shakes his head.
“So did you get what you want?” I ask. “I mean, from Polly?”
“Who knows. I don't even know what I wanted, really. I guess I just wanted Ingrid to feel less . . . restless or something. But Anita seems as unreachable as ever.” He shrugs. “I'll call her eventuallyâonce I explain things to Ingrid.”
The waiting room door bursts open. It's Dennis. “She okay?” He looks around and tucks his press pass under his lapel. The other people in the waiting room stare at him.
“She's fine,” says Garrett.
I stand and air kiss Dennis. “What are you doing here?”
“You appeared on live television,” he says, out of breath, “with the most recognizable celebrity chef in the world. This is the biggest news to hit Wippamunk since Cornelius Grambling fertilized his hay-fields with clam bellies and stunk up the whole town for weeks. And right now I've got another big story to cover, back at the town hall.”
“The tribute for Nick,” I say. I completely forgot. Judging by the look on Garrett's face, he forgot, too.
“I came looking for you here because I figured you'd need a ride,” Dennis says.
“I wish Ingrid and I could be there,” says Garrett, standing. “We were supposed to drive you back, of course, butâ”
A nurse enters and bids the two sari-clad women to follow him.
“You have other things to worry about right now,” I say. I roll on my tiptoes and kiss Garrett's cheek.
He looks surprised and sad, touched and exhausted, all at the same time. He squeezes my biceps. “Thanks.”
“Say good-bye to Ingrid for me?” I say. “Let her know I was here?”
I link my arm through Dennis's, and he speed walks through the door and down the hall. His urgency makes me laugh a little, and laughing feels good. Dennis laughs, too, and then we're running through the hospital arm in arm. Running and laughing.
PAPERS AND NOTEBOOKS occupy the passenger seat of Dennis's car. I open the door, and three old steno books and a yellowed issue of
slide out onto the wet pavement. The pages flap and pucker in the rain.
“Oh. Sorry,” Dennis says. He reaches in through the driver's side and tosses the mess into the backseat. “Just give me a second here.”
His car smells like old spilled soda. It's not long before we're cruising along on the Mass Pike. I listen to the rain and the squeaky windshield wipers.
“Dennis?” I say after a while, breaking the silence. “Thanks for the flyers. For Ahab.”
“It was nothing,” he says, not taking his eyes from the highway. His chin is prominent, his face long, almost concave, like a crescent moon. “He'll come back, don't you think? Happens all the time.”
“I hope so,” I say. “I do hope so.”
“The new guy helped me get those flyers up all over town, you know.”
“What's his name? The new guy?”
The rain kicks up, and Dennis taps on the brakes. “Allen,” he says. “He won a regional press award for his photos of the ice-fishing derby.”
“You like him? Allen?”
“I like him.” He glances at me. “But it's not the same, Zell. It'll never be the same.”
I gaze out the passenger window. “Did Nick tell you what the present was?” I ask. “The one that was in my oven?”
“Sorry,” he says, glancing over at me. “I'm afraid he didn't.”
So that's it. I've asked everyone from The TripâRuss, Pastor Sheila, Chief Kent, France, EJ, Father Chet, and finally Dennis. And none of them know the contents of the singed cube. I could ask others. Arthur, perhaps. Maybe even Terry or Gail.
But no, I decide. I'm going to confront this thing head-on.
“Haven't you opened it yet?” asks Dennis.
“I'm going to,” I say. “Soon.”
SOMEWHERE AROUND FRAMINGHAM I recline the seat and close my eyes. When I open them again, almost forty minutes have passed. It's still raining. Dennis pulls into the town hall parking lot in Wippamunk.
“You awake?” he asks. The lot is full, so he parks illegally on Main Street. “All the cops are probably inside, anyway.”
We weave through the lot to the yellow colonial-era building. Inside, rain smashes against the small wavy squares of window glass.
“After you?” he says when we reach the auditorium doors.
“I'm going to take just a little time, I think. I'll be right in.”
He nods and enters. Before the doors fall closed, I glimpse Russ, in a navy suit and soft-soled black shoes, onstage with a microphone in his hand, standing between the American flag and the Massachusetts flag.
I can't go in there. I just can't. Instead I open a little door in the corner labeled BALCONY. I feel my way up the narrow steps.
The small musty balcony is empty save for a little two-seater bench that pinches my butt when I sit on it. I'm behind the crowd. It's bigger than a hundred people. Much bigger. I pick out the usual suspects: EJ, France, Father Chet, Pastor Sheila and her family, my parents, Gail and Terry, Arthur. I recognize a few other faces. Most of these people are strangers. But not strangers to Nick, evidently; or at least, not strangers to his work.