She had begun to be convinced of Middi's sincere attachment to her father that night in the hospital. The woman had been transformed, as if by magic, from a hateful gold-digger to a nearly kindred soul. Another person who loved her father.
The rain was heavy as she drove to Santa Cruz, heavy enough to actually make people slow down on Highway 17 as it wound up the mountains and precipitously down again. Emily remembered the revelation of humanity in the hospital room six years ago with wonder and humility, when she had learned that Mildred Storm was not an enemy.
Not an enemy at all, how did that happen so smoothly? In a sense, Emily was on the run with a high-priced antique that she had broken and needed to replace in her husband's garden museum, and her father and her father's wife were offering her help and haven. Even if Mark did notice the missing dwarf from the garden, she wasn't there to reap the whirlwind. Where the hell was that quote from? Reaping the whirlwind, more like being on the receiving end of a fog horn when Mark gets himself going. She'd grown used to heading him off when she sensed a shouting episode impending, knowing how to stroke him or distract him to keep him happy. They'd had so many years together, grown so smooth in their interactions. She could tell when he was in a mood to work himself up to a pitch, and had become adept at sidestepping his pitches by complimenting him on some -- any -- comment or personality strength or point of argument. A survival skill. Her stomach roiled briefly, reminding her that New Year's Eve was not so long past. Should marriage have to build survival skills to alleviate the interaction of one's spouse? Yeah, when you managed to drop the forty thousand dollar goddamned Stein Dwarf onto the concrete, you better have some hefty survival skills.
Emily turned onto Center Street in the downpour of rain, and followed the street to West Cliff Drive. In some respects, Santa Cruz paralleled Port Laughton with its ritzy cliff top residences overlooking the ocean and the mountains which isolated it from the rest of the state. But Santa Cruz didn't take itself as seriously as Port Laughton did. Maybe because the University of California campus was not the be-all and end-all of Santa Cruz' existence -- some people in the world actually didn't know there was a university campus in Santa Cruz. Most people came for the beach and the boardwalk. In Port Laughton, on the other hand, the university (a private university) was everything. Port Laughton had a cute little marina (no longer used for major commercial fishing, although some of the local markets were still supplied from the fresh catches) on its tiny bay, but no beaches to speak of. Santa Cruz had a beautiful sheltered beach; Port Laughton was mostly rocks tumbling down to the water's edge. Santa Cruz had a boardwalk with amusement park rides and an arcade; Port Laughton had a small boardwalk which led from the public pier to a restaurant and a natural history display intermittently updated by Port Laughton University students as punishment assignments.
Is that the same thing as saying that Santa Cruz is beautiful and fun, and Port Laughton really needs to get over itself? Emily pulled into the driveway of her father's house. But was it her father's house? He'd bought it because Middi loved it here, so shouldn't she refer to it as Middi's house? Middi was suited to Santa Cruz. She was outrageous and bold, and her father laughed more with Middi than Emily could ever remember him laughing with her mother. She was also quite a looker, with her copper colored hair and salon tan, which she was not above exposing in arms, shoulders, and legs. And she can get away with it. She works out as though being buff and beautiful was her profession. Emily considered ruefully that such a thought made Middi sound like a professional concubine. And if her profession is to be gorgeous to catch and keep my father's interest, what's mine? She's beautiful and fun, like Santa Cruz -- do I need to really get over myself like Port Laughton? She wondered what Middi and her dad would have made of New Year's Eve, and wondered exactly how she would go about bringing up the subject to find out. She smiled a little, thinking that explaining why she was staggering around in the dark to knock over Mr. Frank and Stein would be as good an opener as any. I guess that stupid gnome will turn out to be a conversation piece, after all.
The rain eased up just a little; Emily could no longer see the drops splashing up four inches off the concrete. She climbed out of the car, opened the back door, and hauled her heavy bag off the car seat. As she reached the porch, the front door of the house opened and her father stood there, gesturing her inside, a broad smile lifting the corners of his white moustache.
He took her suitcase from her. "Say, how much does that damn dwarf weigh, anyway?" Middi appeared at his shoulder and took the bag away from him.
"Don't start, Nathan," she admonished him. "Hello, Emily, hello! It's good to see you." She gave Emily a quick hug. "Did you want the same bedroom as last time? I can carry this in for you."
"That would be fine, Middi, but you don't have to carry that for me," Emily said.
"How was your trip, Angel? Damned weather, isn't it? We've got water on for tea, do you want decaf, herbs, or regular?"
"And there's a pound cake with cherry topping," Middi called back over her shoulder.
"Regular, Dad, please," Emily said, starting to follow her father up the steps to the second floor kitchen.
"Do you need to unpack your little cement buddy so he doesn't chip any more?" called Middi.
Emily paused on the stairs. "Oh! I didn't think of that!" she walked back down the stairs.
"Middi! Make sure she doesn't drop kick the damned thing again!" shouted her father from upstairs.
"Nathan, shut up!" Middi yelled. "Honest to God, you'd think breaking that statue was as good as a circus come to town for that man. Here, here's a blanket to set it on." She unfolded a clean blanket on top of the dresser.
Emily pulled out the sweaters and slacks and underwear onto the futon bed, then carefully lifted out the dwarf's legs, head, and torso and set them on the dresser. She and Middi looked at the pieces.
"If I were you, I'd turn his head around so he's not looking at you when you put on your pajamas," Middi observed. "He's got weird-looking eyes."
"Good thinking," agreed Emily, and turned the head so that it faced the wall. "I'd have wakened in the night and saw him staring at me and probably thrown a shoe at him."
As they returned to the stairs, Emily said, "It's really kind of you to invite me down when you're getting ready for a trip."
"No biggie, Em. We're just packing carry-ons. We'll see what the weather's like there and buy what we need. I love an excuse to go shopping, and I hate lugging suitcases around. I can't wait to see what passes for fine lingerie in Las Vegas these days. It's been years since I've been there." She giggled. "The place we're staying has the most gorgeous pool! I'm going to buy myself a bikini -- anyone who doesn't want to see a fifty-five year old woman in a bikini can move to another hotel!" she threw her head back and laughed, silhouetted against the bright gray light of the kitchen's big windows.
Emily laughed, too. "You'll look great in it, are you kidding? I didn't have a figure like yours when I was sixteen."
"Oh, bullshit," said Nathan. "You were a beautiful girl. Just no one could ever convince you of that. Here's your tea, there's the honey."
'Were a beautiful girl,'were. What am I now? Just a dowdy old woman, I guess. A dowdy daughter with a broken dwarf visits her father and his hottie in a kitchen overlooking the ocean. How surreal is that? "Thanks, Dad. No, no cake, not right now, I'm still jittering from the drive. Mark said to make sure I said 'Hi' for him as soon as I got here, by the way."
"He didn't give you a raft of shit about coming to visit?" asked her father suspiciously.
"No, not at all. He's planning on working late today -- says the department is a mess after winter break. He's been kind of down since New Year's Eve, actually." Emily sipped her tea. Are you going to ask me what happened New Year's Eve that I ended up with a broken gnome and a depressed husband?
Nathan chuckled evilly. "Maybe he broke one of the other dwarves and is afraid to tell you about it."
Emily smiled, in spite of the feeling that her father was taking this all too lightly. "I think he was a little disappointed in the behavior of some of his colleagues at our party."
"Well, he always ran after the names, not the personalities, so that isn't surprising," grumbled Nathan, passing by the opening in the conversation. "We have an appointment with this art dealer in Carmel tomorrow just before lunch. You up for another drive? The guy specializes in antique statuary, and even knew about Schroeder's work when I mentioned it."
"Oh, that's great!" Emily cried, "Thank you so much! God, this is a relief!"
"Thank Middi, he's one of her old boyfriends. I'm just going along to make sure he doesn't make a pass at her." Nathan stood. "Excuse me, ladies, I'll be back in a minute."
When Nathan left the room, Middi leaned towards Emily. "Okay, I keep hearing this voice over on you that says, 'Ask me about New Year's.' Am I right? What happened? Did somebody get drunk and trash your house?"
"Oh, God, Middi, I really wanted to talk about it, but I didn't know about saying anything in front of Dad, it's so disgusting. Both our guest bedrooms were used for some secret sex encounters by God knows who, but that was capped completely by the football coach doing it with the university president's wife in my laundry room."
"Aaackkk!" blurted Middi before she clapped her hand over her mouth. She laughed hard for a second before gasping, "The laundry room?"
"I walked in on them," Emily said drily.
"Oh, yuck, you poor girl! Did you scream and scare them to death?"
"No, I just shut the door and went outside, it made me so sick. That's when I knocked the dwarf into the koi pond, just in time for midnight champagne."
Nathan returned to the room, narrowed his eyes at Middi wiping tears from her eyes, and set a small package on the table. "The statue was in with the koi? For how long?"
"Just from midnight until morning," Emily said, "Why?"
"Lead in the paint on the statue, Em. Back then nobody thought about it."
She felt the blood drain from her face. "But they seemed all right."
"Is that when the thing broke?"
"No, I dropped it after I fished it out. It fell onto the containers that hold the water lily plants, so it was cushioned in there."
"Good," Nathan nodded. "Then there most likely weren't any chips of paint off it in the water for the fish to eat. I still think the thing's a fake myself. Your fish are probably worth a lot more money." He tapped the package. "Here, this is a late Christmas gift or an early birthday gift, however you want to look at it. Merry Christmas and or happy birthday."
Emily unwrapped the white paper to reveal a jewelry store box. She opened it, and said, "Ooohh!" her eyes dazzled by the necklace and earrings. Rose quartz and amethyst stones were set between leaves of bright gold in a length just long enough to rest under the center of her collar bones. It was beautiful to look at, although Emily couldn't see herself wearing a necklace with stones that large to church or shopping.
"We wanted to get you something you would never buy for yourself," Middi said, winking a little wink at Emily. "Just something to wear when you feel adventurous or need a little cheering up. It doesn't always have to be about looking like everyone else."
Emily blushed. They had her pegged, coming and going. She suddenly could see herself wearing this jewelry while cozily secreted in her rosy bedroom. But not in a flannel nightgown. "I'm going to have to go shopping to find something to wear with this now. Thank you both. I love rose and amethyst." She got up and gave both her father and his wife a hug.
"Oh, good, I know this place in Carmel you have got to check out!" Middi said, rubbing her hands together briskly.
"Oh, no," groaned Nathan. "Can I stay home instead?"
Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2017-03-20
Image(s) © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.