Undead sublet, p.6
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       Undead Sublet, p.6

         Part #2. 5 of Half Moon Hollow series by Molly Harper  
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Page 6


  With an emphasis on carnivorous delights, the Three Little Pigs seemed to be primarily a sandwich shop. If it once had a pulse, it could be grilled, fried, braised, or roasted, then slapped between two slices of bread and delivered to your table. I was trying to decide between the house specialty—pork chop on wheat, topped with grilled ham and bacon—or starting off small with a turkey club, when a dill pickle flew over the opposite side of my booth and smacked me square in the eye.

  “Sonofa—” I yelped, turning to see the adorable strawberry blond toddler who had blinded me with dill brine. “Gun,” I finished lamely.

  “I’m so sorry!” a beautiful auburn-haired woman gushed, stepping around the booth and handing me a napkin to dab at my stinging, stinky eye. Her tinny country twang contrasted sharply with the fierce elegance of her face, but I doubted the sandy-haired man sitting with her minded all that much. “We’re still workin’ on hand-eye coordination and table manners. Trust me, they normally don’t waste a bite. ”

  “That really stings,” I marveled as she hovered.

  “I know, it’s the vinegar,” she said, clucking her tongue and offering more napkins. “I’m so sorry. ”

  I snorted a little. “That’s OK. ‘Blinded by flying pickles’ goes nicely with the rest of my week. ”

  “I’m Jolene Lavelle, and this is my husband, Zeb. ” She gestured to the sandy-haired man, who was currently scrubbing barbecue sauce from the boy twin’s face. “And these are our twins, Janelyn and Joe. ”

  “Nice to meet you,” I said, swiping at my eye one last time. “Tess Maitland. ”

  “You new in town?” Jolene drawled.

  “Yeah, how can you tell?”

  “The accent. You don’t have one. ”

  I chuckled. “I’m from Chicago. I’m just visiting the area for a while. ”

  “And you’re not having a very good time?” Zeb asked, his big brown doe eyes sympathetic. “You said a pickle to the eye went with the rest of your week. That can’t be a good vacation. ”

  “Come on over here, honey, and tell us all about it,” Jolene said, dragging me out of my booth. Geez, this girl was crazy strong for someone so slight. As she pushed me into the seat opposite Joe the pickle flinger, she yelled for someone named Maybelline to bring her a “tall blue. ”

  I really hoped that was some sort of home-brewed moonshine, because I could have used a drink right about then.

  Imagine my surprise when a tall blue turned out to be a large blue glass bottle of homemade root beer, which Jolene swore would cheer me right up. It was tasty, with strong undertones of sassafras and ginger. The lack of carbonation was a little weird, but it settled my stomach almost instantly, and the lift in blood sugar helped my outlook considerably.

  Jolene took the kids behind the counter and handed them off to two equally pretty waitresses, who bore a strong resemblance to my new friend. The ladies bobbed the babies on their hips and fed them bits of smoked sausage, which could not possibly be good for them. Then again, those kids seemed to have a lot of teeth.

  Jolene snapped me out of my thoughts by sliding onto the bench seat next to me. “OK, now you have my full attention. Let’s hear it. ” I lifted my eyebrows at her commanding tone. “Oh, come on, you look like your head’s about to pop off. You’re dyin’ to talk to someone. Now, spill. ”

  I looked to Zeb, who smiled at his wife fondly. “It’s best to just do what she asks. She’ll get it out of you somehow. ”

  I sighed. “It’s just, this house I’m renting, I have an ‘unexpected’ roommate. I would feel sorry for him, but he’s kind of rude and prickly. And I can’t get rid of him because I don’t have superstrength. ”

  On and on, I rambled about the house, which I loved, and Lindy, whom I didn’t have any fond feelings for, about Sam and Phillip and talking arugula, until I finished with “My professional reputation is in shreds. I haven’t had sex in six months, and I’m starting to think that after a certain period of disuse, everything grows over down there. Plus, I don’t know if I have a job or health insurance to go back to, so how am I going to afford the reconstructive hooha surgery?”

  “Wow,” Jolene marveled. “That was an impressive rant. ” She shot a look to her husband. “That was a Jane rant. ”

  Zeb grinned and shrugged, as if answering some unspoken question from his wife. There was a nonverbal coziness to their communication that made my chest ache a bit. I’d never had that kind of intimacy with any of my boyfriends.

  “It’s all going to be just fine, Tess. You’ll see. You just relax now, while I get us a little lunch. ”

  Jolene returned to the table with two trays piled high with all sorts of foods that I didn’t recognize—colorful casseroles and fried mystery items and ribs.

  “There’s no way the three of us could eat all this!” I cried, rising to help her heft the trays. “Please let me know what the check total is, so I can cover my share. ”

  “Pay?” Zeb scoffed. “McClaines eat free at the Three Little Pigs. Otherwise, we wouldn’t get access to Aunt Lulu’s special seven-layer salad. She doesn’t give that to just anybody. ”

  Without responding, I poked at the mayonnaise-covered bowl skeptically. “Why don’t I see any green vegetables in that salad?”

  “Surrounded by beautiful smartasses, that’s my lot in life. ” Zeb sighed, lifting his eyes to the ceiling.

  “Everything you see here was made by my family, except for the pulled pork and the ribs,” Jolene said, unloading her culinary treasures with a practiced hand. “It’s on special, provided by the Volunteer Fire Department. They’re hosting a barbecue booth at Burley Days, and they needed the practice. My uncles don’t handle barbecue very well, which is why they don’t usually serve it here. Something about the smokers and fire—they get all wound up bein’ manly men and end up overcookin’ the meat. ”

  “Outdoor cooking has been known to do that. So, seven-layer salad?” I said, lifting a brow and staring at some well-disguised romaine lettuce that seemed to be topped with mayonnaise and bacon.

  Jolene shook her head in a maternal fashion. “Hold on, sweetie, we have to start you out slow. We’ll work you up to seven-layer salad. You’re new to this whole Southern comfort food thing, and I don’t want you to get sick off your first try. ”

  I scanned the table to try to find something I recognized. “How is it that I grew up just a few hundred miles from here and I’ve never heard of these dishes?”

  “We have a recipe-hoarding border patrol at the Illinois state line,” Jolene deadpanned.

  “We can’t possibly eat all of this. ”

  “Just watch,” Zeb muttered. “Jolene will mow through this in no time flat. ”

  I wondered at the crack on Jolene’s eating habits, particularly from Zeb, since she didn’t have a spare ounce on her and she’d recently given birth to his twins. But there was no malice in expression or tone. It was fond, as if he was just waiting for the word to run and get another tray full of food. The silly, love-struck look on his face made my heart ache a little.

  Jolene began systematically loading my plate with little scoops of every dish. I sampled a few familiar things—potato salad, corn casserole, three-bean salad. But when I got to the orangey-yellow substance that sort of resembled scrambled eggs with little red bits, I poked it with my fork. “I’m sorry. But what the hell is this?”

  “Homemade pimento cheese,” Jolene said. I took a little bite. “Velveeta, pimentos, and mayonnaise. Oh, and bacon. It’s Aunt Vonnie’s recipe. ”

  I swallowed, then took a huge gulp of water to wash down the gelatinous mass of funk. “Is Aunt Vonnie here?” I asked. And when they shook their heads, I shuddered, wiping at my mouth with my napkin. “Why? Oh, my God, why would anyone do that to an innocent processed food product?”

  “I believe that pimento cheese was invented as a practical joke by two mean old church ladies, but they died befo
re they could get their laugh in,” Zeb told me. “We are left with their legacy of mean-spirited hospitality. ”

  “I’m going for the seven-layer salad,” I told Jolene, aiming my fork for the bowl of lettuce, peas, bacon, shredded cheese, and purple onions, covered in a dressing consisting of mayonnaise, parmesan cheese, and sugar.

  “Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” she retorted as I forked a healthy sample into my mouth.

  Seven-layer salad was freaking amazing. Simple, fresh, and green, with a series of flavors tumbling against my tongue like dominoes. “This should not be as good as it is,” I told her, taking another huge bite.

  “It’s the great mystery of Southern cuisine,” Jolene intoned.

  “And what’s that?” I asked, stabbing through a cornflake crust to find a bubbling mixture of cheese and potatoes.

  “Hash-brown casserole—hash browns, cream of mushroom soup, cheddar cheese, and a couple of other things. ”

  I put a scoop into my mouth. It was everything that was good about comfort food, warm and cheesy and gooey and savory. I tucked more into my mouth, moaning indecently.

  “Would you two like to be alone?” Zeb asked, eyeing the casserole.

  “I think so,” I said, sighing happily as I swallowed another bite.

  “Easy, girl. ” Jolene chortled. “Pulling the full Meg Ryan is not a good way to introduce yourself to Half-Moon Hollow society. ”

  “I’ll try to contain myself,” I promised.

  This was what food was supposed to be. This was satisfying, filling, comforting. Food was supposed to feed you, body and soul. It was so simple that I felt stupid for not seeing it sooner. Pink Himalayan sea salt? Was just freaking salt. Black truffles? Stinky mushrooms, and I really never liked the taste of them anyway. Smoked extra-virgin olive oil? Well, that was pretty awesome. I couldn’t really give that up.

  Food could be simple. Food could be anything you wanted, whether the ingredients came from a farmer’s market or a convenience store. Food could be fan-freaking-tastic.

  I shook my head, as if to clear it, and took another bite of cheesy potatoes. Maybe Jolene had slipped some sort of hallucinogen into my portion.

  I didn’t care all that much.

  Zeb unwrapped a steaming aluminum-foil packet the size of a basketball. “Now, this is pulled pork shoulder. We’re going to give it to you straight, no sauce, at first, because I figure you’d appreciate it by itself. But there are three levels of sauce here in these little cups. Mild, which is basically ketchup, the sort of thing we give to the kids. Hot, which is more of a Tabasco-sauce level of heat. And nuclear, which I do not recommend, even if you enjoy spicy food. There are some intestinal consequences that cannot be undone. ”

  “Ew!” Jolene squealed. “Zeb!”

  “She ate pimento cheese in public. Her threshold for gross is pretty high,” he said, shrugging.

  “He has a point,” I conceded, placing a small bite of the pink-gray smoked meat on my tongue. I gripped the picnic table for support as a shudder of pleasure rippled up from my throat. Everything that was good about meat was currently in my mouth.

  I sincerely hoped I hadn’t just said that out loud.

  “How have I never had barbecue like this before?” I demanded, forking more meat onto my plate. I could taste garlic, white pepper, paprika, the smoky essence of cumin. My mind immediately began scanning my internal wine list to select which vintage would offset the tangy hickory flavor. “I thought barbecue was supposed to be all gloppy sauce and burned ends. But this is like a meat marshmallow, slightly caramelized on the outside, and bursting with soft, moist flavor inside. This is—” I paused to lick my fingers. “How do they do this? What temperature do they use? For how long? Are they just using hickory, or do I detect a note of applewood, too? The smoker, is it aluminum or cast-iron?”
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