The call came on the twenty-ninth of February: the one day in four years
when, according to antiquated custom, women may openly choose their partners
without shame. As Greenie checked her e-mail at work that morning, a small pink
box popped up on the screen: Carpe diem, ladies! Scotland, according to her
cheery, avuncular service provider, passed a law in 1288 that if a man refused a
womans proposal on this day, he must pay a fine: anything from a kiss to money
that would buy her a silk dress or a fancy pair of gloves.
If I werent hitched already, thought Greenie, I would gladly take rejection in
exchange for a lovely silk dress. Oh for the quiet, sumptuous ease of a silk
dress; oh for the weather in which to wear it!
Yet again it was sleeting. Greenie felt as if it had been sleeting for a week.
The sidewalks of Bank Street, tricky enough in their skewed antiquity, were now
glazed with ice, so that walking George to school had become a chore of matronly
scolding and pleading: Walk, honey. Please walk. What did I say, did I say
WALK? Like most four-year-old boys, George left his house like a pebble from a
slingshot, careening off parked cars, brownstone gates, fences placed to protect
young trees (apparently not just from urinating dogs), and pedestrians prickly
from too little coffee or too much workaday dread.
Greenie was just shaking off the ill effects of what she called VD whiplash: VD
as in Valentines Day, an occasion that filled her with necessary inspiration as
January waned, yet left her in its wakeif business was goodvowing she would
never, ever again bake anything shaped like a heart or a cherub or put so much
as a drop of carmine dye in a bowl of buttercream icing.
As if to confirm her fleeting disenchantment with all that stood for romantic
love, she and Alan had had another of the fruitless, bitter face-offs Greenie
could never seem to avoidand which, in their small apartment, she feared would
awaken and worry George. This one had kept her up till two in the morning. She
hadnt bothered to go to bed, since Tuesday was one of the days on which she
rose before dawn to bake brioche, scones, cinnamon rolls, andTuesdays onlya
coffee cake rich with cardamom, orange zest, and grated gingerroot: a cunningly
savory sweet that left her work kitchen smelling like a fine Indian restaurant,
a brief invigorating change from the happily married scents of butter, vanilla,
and sugar (the fragrance, to Greenie, of ordinary life).
Dead on her feet by ten in the morning, she had forgotten the telephone message
shed played back the evening before: Greenie dear, I believe youll be getting
a call from a VIP tomorrow; I wont say who and I wont say why, but I want it
on the record that it was I who told him what a genius you are. Though Ive just
now realized that he may spirit you away! Idiot me, what was I thinking! So call
me, you have to promise youll call me the minute you hear from the guy. Bya!
Pure Walter: irritating, affectionate, magnanimous, coy. Vee Aye Pee, he
intoned breathlessly, as if she were about to get a call from the Pope. More
likely some upstate apple grower whod tasted her pie and was trolling for
recipes to include in one of those springbound charity cookbooks that made their
way quickly to yard sales and thrift shops. Or maybe this: the Director of
Cheesecake from Juniors had tasted hersa thousandfold superior to theirsand
wanted to give her a better-paid but deadly monotonous job in some big seedy
kitchen down in Brooklyn. What, in Walters cozy world, constituted a VIP?
Walter was the owner and gadabout host (not the chef; he couldnt have washed a
head of lettuce to save his life) of a retro-American tavern that served
high-cholesterol, high-on-the-food-chain meals with patriarchal hubris. Aptly if
immodestly named, Walters Place felt like a living room turned pub. On the
ground floor of a brownstone down the street from Greenies apartment, it
featured two fireplaces, blue-checked tablecloths, a fashionably weary velvet
sofa, and (Board of Health be damned) a roving bulldog named The Bruce. (As in
Robert the Bruce? Greenie had wondered but never asked; more likely the dog was
named after some fetching young porn star, object of Walters cheerfully futile
longing. Hed never been too explicit about such longings, but he made
allusions.) Greenie wasnt wild about the Eisenhower-era foods with which Walter
indulged his customersindulgence, she felt, was the province of dessertbut she
had been pleased when she won the account. Over the past few years, she had come
to think of Walter as an ally more than a client.
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