Comfort food, p.21
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       Comfort Food, p.21

           Kate Jacobs
 
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  “I can’t believe this,” she said. “How did you find out?”

  “The story broke this morning. Some reporter called me for background. And let me assure you, there are far bigger names caught in this guy’s trap than you and me.”

  Alan squatted on his heels to be at Gus’s eye level. “Call your lawyer immediately,” he said, ticking off an imaginary list with his fingers. “Aimee, I want you to help your mother take stock of what’s where. Go through her papers. The good thing is that you’ve got the house, and you’ve still got the show.”

  “There’s only a handful of episodes left in this ridiculous mini-season you ordained,” said Gus. “Then what?”

  “Then anything you want,” said Alan. “You’re a smart one, Gus. Use this anger to fuel the show to new heights of ratings glory.”

  “How?”

  “Hey, I’m just the president of the channel.” Alan stood up. “You’re the creative around here.”

  “What about Carmen?”

  “She adds a certain spice to the show, don’t you think? I’ve made a lot of mistakes but she’s not one of them.”

  “So you’re serious about her, then?”

  Alan shrugged. “I guess,” he said. “But right now I’ve got to focus on the situation at hand. We both just lost a heckuva lot of zeros and I’d like to make some back.”

  Chutes and Ladders. That was the game Sabrina had been trying to rememberfor Gary. Going up one, two, three spaces and then oops, all the way back down.

  The memory of Christopher playing with the girls came back to her swiftly, a sudden spark in her brain. Gus opened her eyes: she was under her covers, the curtains closed. Was it night? she wondered, until she looked at the clock and saw it was only 4 PM. There was a faint scent of whiskey, waftingfrom the half-empty glass on the bedside table, and she recalled Alan, and the news, and her rapid drinking without benefit of lunch. Aimee and Sabrina had tucked her in, she recalled, and it had felt nice, being looked after. It reminded her of long ago.

  Her head throbbed.

  Christopher had been enthusiastic about Chutes and Ladders but would always—always—manage to turn the spinner so that he could land on a chute before he got to the top and then slide, slide, slide down behind the two of them. “I don’t believe in teaching my girls how to lose,” he would say over her protests. “I want them to be outrageously confident.”

  Christopher had wanted her to be outrageously confident, too. Would he have been surprised to see her on television? She thought so early on but as she’d gotten older she’d come to suspect that maybe he wouldn’t have been surprised at all. His belief in her success never wavered, and he’d seen her through all her various attempts at different careers, when she was still intent on figuring out what it all meant. Life.

  He’d converted part of the basement to a darkroom so she could do her own prints, putting in a sink and everything, and stayed up all night helping put the wicks into the swirly multicolored candles she made in her kitchen and sold in a nearby boutique. She had imagined a line of housewares even then, she thought wryly, not wishing to get out of bed now.

  All that, even after he’d abandoned his career ambitions in journalism to make supporting her and the girls his number one priority.

  “You gotta do what you gotta do,” he would say.

  She appreciated it, inasmuch as she needed to eat and sleep and buy shoes for the girls, but secretly she had judged him for giving up so easily. She’d lacked compassion, she could see that now.

  In the weeks after he died, she focused bitterly on all the ways in which he was difficult. How he was often late for work, and how he interrupted her when he felt she’d gone on too long.

  It had been simpler somehow, to hate him for abandoning her. What she hated most of all was the knowledge, deep within her bones, that he had taken so much of her happiness away with him. That even those moments of sheer joy—when Aimee won a soccer game, when Sabrina won the lead in the school play—would be accompanied by the twist in her stomach and the inevitable guilt. She hated him for leaving her behind, and she hated herself for all the moments she had been petty and selfish with him.

  She hated him for not being able to forgive her. For not being able to make her feel better. For leaving it all up to her. Gus had not been able to see her way to the future but stumbled blindly forward because there was no other direction to go.

  Her dream, when she’d been studying photography at Wellesley, wasn’t to open a gourmet shop that sold sandwiches and soup. But she liked runningThe Luncheonette well enough and the family still needed to eat and sleep and wear shoes. Ironic, really, as it gave her an entirely different insight into Christopher. He was always very good to talk to about things. He’d have had good advice about how to deal with his death.

  Eventually it became hard, really, to remember any of the bad. Nothing he’d done seemed so terrible anymore.

  She even forgave him for dying.

  Gus became a better mother—more organized, more efficient, more capable—than she’d ever been in the years beforehand. She pledged to Christopherthat she would keep their daughters safe and happy, no matter what.

  Only now, apparently, they weren’t.

  And the money was all gone.

  It was as though she’d landed on a giant chute and slid, unable to stop, all the way back to where she’d been twenty years ago, with two emotional daughters and financial woes and nothing but questions and uncertainty. Wash, rinse, repeat: her life on an endless spin cycle.

  “Oh, God help me,” Gus said aloud. “We’re broke.”

  spilled milk

  20

  The rest of the group had loitered in the lobby for a while after Gus went upstairs with her girls, a residue of awkwardness in the air.

  Hannah, who’d pulled up the hood on her sweatshirt, had whipped a pack of Fruit Stripe gum out of her pocket. She packed an entire duffel of treats, just in case she stayed for the weekend. Just in case she had to hide out in her room.

  Oliver had a piece, even going so far as to try to put the temporary tattoo from the bubblegum wrapper onto his skin. Carmen declined and went off in search of carrots, she said, though Troy seemed to waver.

  “No thanks,” he said. “I’m kind of anti-candy. Vending competition and all that.”

  “Right, of course,” Hannah said, thinking of the Velvet Crumbles and Aeros and Flake bars she had waiting upstairs. Her years on the tennis circuithad left her with a strong desire for international candy.

  She popped two sticks of gum into her mouth.

  “I’ll have yours, then,” she said to Troy.

  “Damn,” he said. “I was just about to change my mind.”

  Oliver showed off his tattoo of a striped zebra. “I think I like the gum with the jokes better,” he said.

  “Bazooka Joe,” said Troy. “Don’t let Gary hear us or we’ll get caught sharingcandy memories.”

  “That was intense today,” said Oliver. “It was a lot to handle.”

  “You’re worried about Gary Rose?” Hannah tried to blow a bubble.

  “Not so much,” said Oliver. “But I can imagine there’s some serious chattergoing on upstairs.”

  “That was hard on Sabrina,” said Troy.

  “And Gus,” said Hannah.

  “And Aimee,” said Oliver. “All three of them. They’ve lived through some rough stuff.”

  He looked again at his tattoo. “How long does this thing last?” he asked Hannah.

  “If you don’t go near water, possibly a day,” she said. “Maybe even two.”

  “Good enough,” he said. “I want to put one on my other hand. See if anyone notices.”

  “Whatever you say, man,” said Troy. “You’re unusual.”

  “Nah,” Oliver said. “Just a free spirit.” He waved behind him as he went off to get something to eat from the lunch buffet.

  “Well, that leaves just us,” said Troy. “I can’t promise they have more bubblegum in th
e dining room but we could grab a bite. I’d love some company.Sabrina’s up with her mom.”

  “No, I can’t go in there,” said Hannah. “Too many people.”

  “But we’re standing right here in the lobby,” Troy said. “You aren’t invisible.”

  “I’m harder to recognize with the hood,” Hannah explained.

  “Um, only in your own mind. Look, I hate to eat alone. Let me go in, get a couple of sandwiches, and then we can take them outside. Find somewhere to hide and have some chow.”

  Hannah agreed because she loved being outdoors again and because, with Gus busy, she had no one else to talk to. It wasn’t as though she and Carmen had become bosom buddies in a night, though Carmen had given Hannah a second toothbrush that she had packed. That was nice.

  Troy returned with turkey on white, chicken salad on rye, and a nice selection of fruits.

  “That’s not candy,” said Hannah. “I’m allergic.”

  “I got you something good.” He pointed to the cans of soda sticking out of the pockets of his shorts.

  “How can you drink cola? They have those in vending machines, too, you know.”

  “Shhh,” said Troy, leading the way to the gardens. “I love pop. It’s a nasty little problem I have.”

  Walking behind him, Hannah smiled to herself.

  “I prefer to drink organic, made with cane sugar and all that,” he said. “But a man’s gotta have what a man’s gotta have.”

  “Are we still talking about soda?”

  “Right, right,” he said, sitting down under a tree. “Gus would have told you all about Sabrina and me.”

  “Nope,” said Hannah. “A little. Not a lot. She’s good at keeping secrets.” She tugged off her sweatshirt to get a little sun on her arms. “Case in point.”

  “Man, do I ever remember you!” Troy said. “I was big into tennis when I was a kid. And you were all over the sports pages.”

  “Uh, thanks?” Hannah leaned against the trunk. “Don’t think I’ve forgottenyou’re the one who outed me on live television.”

  “Sorry about that,” said Troy. “I was just so excited. It’s like finding out Martina Navratilova is my meter maid or something.”

  “Funny guy,” said Hannah, getting herself settled so she could eat.

  “You must be what now? Thirty-four?”

  “You must be what? Rude?” She made a face. “I’m thirty-six. You can confirm that on Wikipedia.”

  “Actually, you look pretty young,” he said. “All that sugar must be preservingyou or something. I’m thirty-four. Do I look it?”

  “No. You look forty.” She took a big bite of the chicken salad.

  “I do not,” he said. “I play pickup basketball whenever I can. I wanted to be an NBA star.”

  Hannah narrowed her eyes and peered at him. “Exactly how tall are you? ”

  “Five-eleven,” Troy said. “I coulda done it. If I’d been better.”

  She smiled.

  “Basketball still owns my heart.”

  “And let’s not forget Sabrina.”

  “Do you know she hates basketball?” he said. “Shocking but true.”

  “They say opposites attract,” Hannah said. “Look, were you really into tennis?”

  “Totally,” he said, between bites of sandwich. “I went to tennis camp in the summer. It was the week after basketball camp.”

  “You liked it?”

  “Loved it,” he said. “I got a kick from getting out there and playing, just moving around. Always have.”

  “Me too.”

  “My idol was John McEnroe. But I had a poster of you on my wall. You were like eye candy who could also kick ass.”

  “Okay,” said Hannah. “I’ll choose to be flattered. I think.”

  “You wouldn’t have recognized me back then,” said Troy. “I didn’t grow until I was almost eighteen, and I had braces for years.”

  “Your teeth are pretty perfect,” she said. “Good gums. I did a piece on the importance of healthy gums last week.”

  “Do you ever miss it? The sport, I mean.”

  “I like health reporting,” she said. “But of course I miss tennis. It was my whole life.”

  “And it was lucrative.”

  “Yup,” agreed Hannah. “I gave my entire life over to training to get there, too. Going pro doesn’t come easy. Never had a piece of candy ever when I was training.”

  “And now you keep the Hershey company in business?”

  “Look, I had to repay all the money I won—everything was under suspicion—and it wasn’t easy. If a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down, so be it.” She wiped her mouth with a napkin. “You do know that if you rat me out to the tabloids that Gus will make sure you never see Sabrina again, right?”

  “Getting to the point,” he said, nodding. “I like it. No worries. Besides, I’m pretty much beholden to Gus in general. She invested in FarmFresh when things were down to the wire. I operate on a shoestring budget.”

  “She’s good people,” said Hannah.

  “You must be, too, if Gus likes you. And you did some pretty cool stuff when you were playing. I admire that.”

  “But how could I throw the games, right?”

  “Your father asked you to do it.”

  “So why didn’t I say no?” Hannah rubbed the bark of the tree. “That’s what you want to know, I bet.”

  “He’s your father,” Troy said. “And he asked you. That’s it. End of story. It’s the only thing about you that isn’t weird.”

  Hannah eyed him suspiciously.

  “Okay, the stuff with the German girl, that was crazy, I’ll grant you,” he said, collecting his garbage. “But obeying your father? That’s what a good kid does. I’d do anything for my old man.”

  “Yeah?”

  “Sure,” he said. “I still go back to Oregon every year to help with the harvest.And I’m running a frickin’ company in New York City that could go under at any minute. Do you know what the failure rate is for start-up ventures?But I want to help my parents, so come harvest time, I’m chief picker in the orchard. Maybe more like chief foreman, but still. I’m there.”

  “Good for you,” said Hannah. “Family is important.”

  “What about you?”

  “I’ve got Gus. All anybody needs is one good friend. Then you can take on the world.”

  “One friend,” he repeated. “It’s hard to see how things are gonna go, isn’t it? Like who would have guessed when you won your first Wimbledon that it would all end up like it did.”

  “You really should open a charm school,” said Hannah. “Your talents are wasted selling fruit.”

  “Sorry again,” said Troy. “I have this tendency to just blurt out. Comes from the whole adman brainstorming thing.”

  “Huh? I thought you were Mr. Fruity?”

  "FarmFresh,” he corrected. “Mr. FarmFresh.”

  “I know,” groaned Hannah. “I’ve seen the T-shirts.”

  “I could give you one, you know.”

  “I’d like that. I could wear it while I run on my treadmill.”

  “You still work out?” Troy was surprised. “I mean, you look good and everything, it’s just that you’re constantly eating.”

  “Rock-solid metabolism,” she said. “That, and I run for an hour every day.”

  “No way! How do you find the time?”

  Hannah threw her head back and laughed, a deep, throaty sound. “Newsflash, fruitboy,” she said, slowing her words for emphasis. "I ... never ... leave . . . the . . . house.”

  “Well, you’re not in the house right now,” Troy said, jumping up. “Let’s go do something. How about canoeing?”

  “How about canoe races?”

  “You should know a man has a stronger upper body,” said Troy. “And I play pickup basketball every chance I get.”

  “Well, you should know I do fifty push-ups when I get off that darn treadmill,” Hannah said. “And I’m not talking girl push-ups, either
.

  “Wiry, smart, and lean,” she added, waiting a beat.

  “That’s Hannah Joy Levine,” finished Troy.

  They raced down to the lake, whooping and hollering the entire way, and Hannah didn’t even stop to put on her hooded sweatshirt.

  The games resumed promptly in the afternoon, with Aimee and Sabrina, who had made such a scene in the morning, seeming curiously chummy to the rest of the crowd. They made a point to sit together in the circle, though Sabrina made sure to get a seat next to Troy, who leaned over and spoke to her for a few moments when she came in. He could tell that she’d been crying again.

  “Where’s Gus?” Carmen asked. It wasn’t like her to be late, though in truth Carmen wasn’t worried. She simply didn’t want Gus to get any special treatment that she wasn’t getting.

  “Not here,” Gary said. “Now quit being nosy.”

  Sabrina and Aimee shared a glance: had Alan said something?

  “I just want to know if she’s at the spa,” insisted Carmen.

  Gary ignored her. “Good news, everybody: we’re being joined by Porter later this afternoon. So don’t worry that we won’t have enough people for our games.”

  “Can’t we just write essays?” Aimee, drained from the day’s events, was not in a mood to play. “I feel like I’ve pretty much reconnected with my childhood.”

  “Next thing you know we’re going to be passing Life Savers on toothpicks,” grumbled Sabrina.

  “Hey, gang, Sabrina’s suggested a game,” cried Gary. “Let’s make Sabrina feel valued by playing it.”

  “No, I didn’t mean that, you—” Sabrina was frustrated. “A person can’t even make a comment without you using it against them.”

  “Am I using it against you, Sabrina? Or am I listening to you?” Gary bobbed his head up and down as though reaching an ah-ha moment.

  “I’m up for this,” Troy called out. “If I play with Sabrina.” He winked at Hannah.

  “Go get her, tiger,” she said, making a squidgy sound with her loafers.She remained half-wet from her canoe adventure but she felt more comfortable than she had in ages.

  “Put me next to Oliver,” purred Carmen.

  “Alan’s in the building,” blurted Aimee. “You might want to think about that.”

 
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