Authors: Diane Mott Davidson
CATERING TO NOBODY
DIANE MOTT DAVIDSON
COLD BUFFET FOR FORTY Poached salmon Mayonnaise mixed with wild Maine blueberries Asparagus vinaigrette with minced tomatoes Wild rice salad Herb rolls and honey muffins Strawberry shortcake buffet Vouvray, lemonade, coffee and tea
-1- Catering a wake was not my idea of fun. First of all, there was the short notice. A person died. Three days later there was a funeral. In this case the body had been discovered on a Monday, autopsy Tuesday, funeral Saturday, seven days after the presumed day of death. In Colorado we didn't call the buffet after the funeral a wake. But whether you called it a reception or coming over for a bite to eat afterward, it still meant food for forty mourners.
I dumped a mound of risen dough as soft as flesh onto the oak countertop. Eating, I reflected, was a way of denying death.
I had known her. I did not want to think about it now. My fingers modeled soft dough around dill sprigs, then dropped the little rolls onto a baking sheet, where they looked like rows of miniature green-and- white sofa pillows. This was the last two dozen. I rubbed bits of yeasty mixture off my hands and let cold water gush over them.
A professional caterer has to keep her mind on the job, not the reason for the job. October was generally a slow month for parties in Aspen Meadow. Despite the fact that Goldilocks' Catering, Where Everything Is Just Right! provided the town's only professional food service, making a living here was always a precarious enterprise. Like it or not, I needed the income from this postfuneral meal.
Still. I would rather have had Laura Smiley alive. She had been Arch's fifth- grade teacher last year. She also had taught him third, when he was recovering from the divorce. They had become special friends, had worked on games and outdoor projects. They had written letters over the summers. I could picture Laura Smiley with my son, her arm around his slender shoulders, her cascade of brown- blond curls just touching the top of his head.
Psychologists and social workers had come into the elementary school to work with the students after the news of Ms. Smiley's death broke on Monday. Arch had not spoken much about it. I did not know what the counselors had said to him, nor he to them. All during the week he had come home from school, taken snack food into his room, and closed the door. Sometimes I could hear him on the phone, acting as dungeon master or playing television trivia games. Perhaps losing Ms. Smiley was not much on his mind. It was hard to tell.
But now because of her death we had this job, which would help pay the bills for October. Laura Smiley's aunt from Illinois, acting in place of parents long dead, had ordered the food and sent me an express mail cheque for eight hundred dollars. This covered my second problem, usually my first, and that was money.
Above the steel hand-washing sink, one of several required by the county for commercial food service, the booking calendar showed only two parties between tomorrow, October tenth, and the thirty- first. Clearing four hundred dollars on each of those plus four hundred for tomorrow's buffet would take us to the Halloween-to- Christmas season, where I made almost enough money to get Arch and me through May. Long ago I had learned to stop depending on regular child support payments from Arch's father, even if he did have an ob-gyn practice with an income as dependable as procreation. The payments were invariably wrong and invariably late. But arguments between us were bad for Arch and dangerous for me. Peace was worth a lower income. I stared grimly at the calendar. Lots of parties between Halloween and Christmas. That was the ticket to financial security.
Problem number three after short notice and money was getting all the supplies for a job. My meat and produce supplier was doing an extra run for me because she, too, had known the financial strains of single motherhood. Her truck was supposed to be rumbling up from Denver right now bringing a salmon and out-of- season asparagus and strawberries. After she delivered them, she'd give me a lecture on going out. She'd say, It's not that tough to have fun.
But tough was like a roll in the microwave. I didn't have time for a harangue about my social life because in addition to needing the supplies, I'd just used the last of the honey to make the rolls. This meant the muffins were on hold. The local honey supplier was a handsome fellow named Pomeroy, lusted after by every unattached woman in the county, a fact my supplier usually did not fail to mention. Unfortunately Pomeroy had said he wouldn't be able to get over for a while to resupply my stock. The unusually warm weather had brought out a predator that had raided one of the hives. And he had his hands full.
Of what, I had wanted to say, but hadn't. Sugar would do for the muffins.
The phone rang.
"Goldilocks' Catering," I said into the receiver, "where everything is just-"
"Spare me the greeting, Goldy," came the voice of Alicia, my supplier. "I called Northwest Seafood. Fish's all yours."
"You're great." She mm-hmmed and then said nothing.
I-said, "What is it?"
"How well did you know this Laura?"
"She was Arch's teacher. For a couple of grades."
"Early forties," I said. "She acted young." I paused. "I knew her."
She grunted and said she would be up in an hour.
I opened the refrigerator, a walk-in needed for the business. John Richard Korman, my ex-husband, had found the cost of this item ridiculous. Ditto the van and the required new sinks and shelves to store food above insect level. Other purchases out of my sixty-thousand- dollar divorce settlement had included a six- burner stove, extra oven and freezer, and enough cooking equipment to outfit Sears. Retrofitting our old house off Aspen Meadow's Main Street had not been terribly difficult.
What had been difficult was hanging up on John Richard's alternately shrieking and pleading voice, and then finally getting the locks changed when he had shown up repeatedly to do one of two things. At first, even though we were separated, he would try to seduce me. Sometimes successfully, I was ashamed to admit. Or he would start a fight to demonstrate his opposition to my financial independence. And by demonstrate, I don't mean like Gandhi.
In the walk-in I reached for the butter, eggs, and cream. I backed out and whacked the door with my foot, then regarded my balancing act in the mirror- black surface. Blond curly hair. Freckles on a face unbruised for three years. Brown eyes. These stared back at me, saying, Don't think about it now, just cook. At thirty I was doing okay, single but with good friends, and only slightly pudgy from all the fancy cooking that made the living for Arch and me.
But I was preparing a wake for someone I'd known. : Early forties. Also single. Had been.
For the dessert shortcakes I used an old trick: make giant scones. Another thing I'd learned in this business: involve the clients with the food. Make the spread good to look at, smell, touch, taste. Gauge action by needs. At a bridal shower, don't give the guests much to do with the food since they're already involved with the presents. But keeping people active at a wake was essential. Being busy, like working, allayed grief. By splitting cakes and heaping on berries and cream, the mourners could start to get their minds off death.
Getting one's mind off it. Not easy.
Laura had smiled broadly and flourished papers with Arch's drawings of mountain wildlife at our parent conferences, which I'd always attended alone, as John Richard couldn't be bothered. Arch is so talented, Laura had said, one of the most unusual students I've ever had. It's too bad he doesn't have more friends.
The food processor blade whirred and bit through the butter and flour. Soon the kitchen would smell divine. Arch could have a hot scone when he came in from school. Maybe he would eat it in the kitchen instead of heading off to his room.
The phone rang again. "Goldilocks'-" I began, but was interrupted.
"Shut up, it's me!" shouted Marla Korman, John Richard's other ex-wife, now a good friend of mine. "Arch home yet?"
I strained to see out the window that overlooked Main Street, then listened for the bus. Yellow aspen leaves as bright as lemon disks shook in the warm breeze. No children's shouts announced the bus's afternoon rounds. Instead there was only the roar of a motorcycle and the rushing sound of Cottonwood Creek, already frigid with October snow melt from the high mountains.
I said, "Not yet. Ten minutes or so."
"I've been shopping," Marla said, "because I don't want to think about Laura. The stores are empty now that the tourists have gone. They didn't leave much."
"Maybe we didn't have much in the first place," I said.
"This place," wailed Marla.
I poured a cup of coffee and steeled myself for the coming barrage of complaints. The town would be the warm- up for the ex-husband.
She said, "How demoralizing to live in a terminally quaint western village."
I made sympathetic noises.
"Of course, I don't know why I would need a size sixteen cowgirl dress anyway," Marla complained, "since I'm not coming to this shindig tomorrow. The Jerk's going to be there, isn't he?"
"He certainly is," I said. "But I'm leaving the rolling pin at home."
Bad joke, but we chuckled anyway. The Jerk was what Marla had dubbed our mutual ex, for his personality and his initials, J.R.K Marla so intensely disliked seeing John Richard that it was hard to understand why she talked about him so much. Seven months after my divorce was final, John Richard ended a fling with a married woman who sang in the church choir and wedded Marla's bulk and wealth. They were divorced fifteen months later and she and I promptly became partners in anger. But before that point Marla's disgust with his extramarital antics had ballooned her up another thirty pounds, weight she'd used to good advantage when he came at her with a rolling pin. She had managed to heave him into a hanging plant, dislocating his shoulder.
I looked down at my right thumb, which still would not bend properly after John Richard had broken it in three places with a hammer.
"That rolling pin," Marla was saying between giggles, "that damn rolling pin. You could use it to fix him green tomato pie."
Without thinking, I looked at the menu. Tomatoes. Damn. Amid all the other grousing he had done, John Richard had been at pains to remind me of his allergies . to chocolate and tomatoes. I was planning to mince some of the latter and sprinkle the red bits on the asparagus vinaigrette, for color. John Richard would have to get mushrooms if I didn't want to make him sick. Oh, I thought as I poured my coffee down the sink and finished mixing the scones, the adjustments we make after divorce.
Marla had stopped laughing. "I have news," she announced. "He's bringing his new girlfriend. . ."
I shook my head and began to spoon mounds of batter onto cookie sheets.
"Think of it," Marla went on, "you could poison both of them."
"Wouldn't you just love that," I muttered.
"On second thought, maybe one death is enough for a while," said Marla. "Since the funeral's tomorrow, I guess our women's group won't meet tonight."
"I'm swamped," I said truthfully. "How about later in the month?"
"Don't know if I can wait that long. I need to order some cookies." I said, "Can we talk about it later? I'm awful busy right now." I wedged the phone between my chin and shoulder and scraped the last of the scone-shortcake batter out. It made a sucking noise before plopping on the sheet.
"The cookies can wait. My pantries are full, anyway. You're getting upset because we've been talking about you-know-who. Sorry."
"Not to worry," I said. "If I hadn't wanted a family so badly, I'd never have made the mistake of marrying him in the first place."
Marla sighed. "Oh God, think of Laura. She didn't even, have the chance to get married."
I checked inside the proofing box; the dill rolls had risen. I snapped the other oven button to Preheat.
I said, "I am thinking about it. I am thinking about her. I'm fixing all the food, aren't I?"
"Where's your housemate? What's her name, Patty Sue? Can't she help you? What about Arch? You going to draft him to serve?"
"Patty Sue will help tomorrow," I said. "She's at the doctor now. Korman senior. Arch is going to have to help. I hate to do that to him since he was so close to Laura. Plus the aunt decided to have this reception over at Laura's house, all the worse. Just a sec." I grunted. I was thrusting my free hand through my dry goods shelves. "Oh my God," I said, "I've let my supplies get too low, even if this is the slow season. I'm out of honey and sugar."
"No honey and no sugar," observed Marla. "You're not doing very well. And as Laura would have said, you're not acting too sweet either, Goldy. I'll call when you're in a better mood. Let me know how the affair goes." She suppressed a laugh. "Laura would think it was all a big joke, you know. She'd say, Man, this party is dead."
The front door swept open and let in a gust of aspen-sweet October air. Arch traipsed into the kitchen and threw his backpack onto one of the counters before heading for the refrigerator.