Some lovely smelling roses peaking over the side-fence at Beatrice’s house.
I choked on my on the coffee. I was going to kill Wood – he’s such a liar – he never talked to her. Trying to compose a suitable answer in my head on the fly, while calculating the amount of money it would take to replace the titles of mine in his possession (I decided yelling at him would be more economical) when Beatrice started laughing.
“That was mean, forgive me. I wasn’t sure if Dourwood told you he tried to set us up the other night. I am glad he did, so I can clear the air – I am not looking for a girlfriend, I am looking for a roommate.”
Wheezing I nodded and waved for her to go on. Trying to listen, laugh and cough discreetly didn’t allow for much contribution to the subject at the moment. It also mitigated the relief I felt at the moment, since choking tends to drown out most everything else.
“You remember I told you about my break-in a few weeks back?” I nodded for her to continue, my power of speech not quite there yet.
“The thing is, the break-in made my landlady, Ms. Hettie, nervous – especially since I travel frequently. And when she gets nervous she gets cranky. Well, crankier. So I thought having a roommate might maker her feel more secure. I can offer a discounted rent; if you’re willing to grab stuff I send to a P.O. Box and coordinate your travel with mine, so we can have someone home most nights. What do you think?” She regarded me with a hopeful look, but there was that competitive gleam as well – like this was her master stroke in keeping the house breakers at bay. Once again I wondered if she regarded thwarting them as a competitive sport.
Working past my speculation into stupefaction, I’m not sure why I thought we were meeting but I never saw this coming. My shoulders started to relax for the first time since Ben dropped by. I swear she felt my natural hesitation of moving in with a practical stranger melting under the thought of an affordable rent or in fact simply a roof over my head. Twelve days to find a place and move into it seemed daunting, “Plus all the books you can read.” She knew her audience – I wavered, “Months before they are released.” Now she was playing hardball.
Practicality replaced surprise and the odd suspicion. Buying a bit of time I hedged, ”Can I see your place and my room first before I decide?” Making sure I didn’t commit to some dark, depressing house at the end of a dank lane. Though I am not sure I would turn it down even then (later I thought this a bit rich, since I lived in a cemetery), the specter of pleading for a place with Aunt Pearl – even short term – haunted me.
“No problem. Do you want to see it now?” she asked while she got ready to head out.
“Don’t you have to go back to work?” Mirroring her movements I put on my jacket and scarf.
“The joy of my job is the built-in flexibility. As long as I get my work done on time my boss doesn’t care when I come in.”
I asked for a to go cup and we left The Altar.
I counted myself lucky when we decided to take separate cars. It allowed me to call Wood while I followed her home (using a hands-free device, of course). He verified that as far as he knew Beatrice didn’t harbor any latent axe murdering tendencies. Or mental instabilities which would again lead her towards the aforementioned axe wielding predilections. Or general flakiness which would find her trunk filled with all my first editions, heading to New York with dreams of starring in A Chorus Line inadvertently financed by me (You laugh but my early twenties were weird and expensive). Wood assured me that these possibilities were extremely remote. The most unusual thing he knew of Beatrice happened twelve years previous and featured a herd of goats, a sorority house and the staging of an epic prank. When Wood hung up I felt reassured about Beatrice’s character, despite the goats.
The heady scents of coffee, sugar and bacon enveloped me when I entered The Altar of the Bean (or The Altar as it is known amongst the regulars, neighborhood and social media). The controlled chaos of baristas, cashiers and bakers behind the counter snagged my attention first, the pastry case came second and when I spotted the espresso machine in all its glory, I stood transfixed – I’d been absent from here for far to long. When finally I snapped out of the hypnotic reverie which gripped me, I spied Beatrice tucked in the best lit corner of the cafe reading a book with an impressively large cup in front of her.
I made my way to the marble-topped table, feeling a bit awkward. I always feel odd when meeting a friend of a another friend without said original friend there – acting as a translator or referee? You never want to put the original friend in an weird fix if it turns out you actual loathe each other (I am exceptional at borrowing trouble). Fortunately Beatrice glanced up from her book before I reached her and smiled.
“Hey. Mind if I get coffee before I sit down?” I deposited my outerwear accoutrements on the chair opposite her while she answered, “Not at all.”
“Would you like a refill?” She shook her head no and I went to wait in line. I dithered over my selection while waiting, lemon Danish? A bear claw? Croissant? Or chuck it all and get a bacon, egg and cheese on pita? I glanced back at Beatrice, sucked into her book again. Hazard of the job I suppose.
My vacillating was interrupted by the barista at the counter asking what I wanted to order – a raspberry croissant and caramel latte, please. When my order was up, I rejoined Beatrice at the table where she held up her index finger while her eyes moved swiftly over the page, “One page to the next chapter.”
“No worries.” Which was fine by me as the croissant was proving to be a challenge. The raspberry jam squished out of the end onto my chin and fingers with such precision I could only conclude the Altar some how worked out a way to turn a dollop of jam into a guided missile whose sole focus was to besmirch a shirt front. Perhaps if I light a candle and offer up a coffee bean as penance for my long absence from this holy place, my shirts will be safe again…. (Yes they have an actual altar, they’ve adopted the Greek god Dionysus as their patron. Like I said, they take their coffee very seriously, or perhaps the owners are Greek. Could go either way.).
Placing an index card in the book to hold her place, Beatrice set it aside and tried not to laugh at my struggles. I must admit the mound of napkins in front of me was impressive, but I won the day and managed to keep my shirt front free from stains.
I started with a soft pitch, “What book are you reading?” There was no cover art and I didn’t see who the author was before she put it away.
“The new Ernest Cline, due out next year. Pretty good so far.” She finished her coffee and arched her eyebrow at me. New Ernie Cline? Seriously? She’d put the book back in her bag so filching it was out of the question. Well that an our passing familiarity. I ruled out mugging her in the parking for the same reason. Curses! (You may ask why my go-to strategy for acquiring the book features a criminal element? One night of fun did not mean we were on book borrowing terms with one another – Wood and I took twenty years to achieve this level. I mean what if we stopped talking right after I lent my favorite out? Tragedy. Is theft the obvious answer? Perhaps my bibliophile priorities may need tweaking…not that I would really resorted to these methods…).
Focusing back on real life again, ”And while this is a fine book, I did ask you to meet me here for a slightly different reason.” Smiling I appreciated her directness, since the jam incident and my larcenous heart didn’t make me feel any less awkward and I was intrigued to figure out where this conversation was going. I picked up my latte and blew on it while I waited for her to continue.
“You mentioned the other night that you needed to move out your house at Nevermore rather quickly. Have you found a new place yet?” Her fingers tapped the the edge of her saucer while she spoke.
“Not yet. It’s number two on my list. Why?”, taking my first sip of coffee.
“I was wondering if you’d move in with me?”
My very adult breakfast before meeting Beatrice!
Achievement unlocked! Gainful employment! My second job ever! Aunt Pearl isn’t going to brag about this one either! Never underestimate the small bonus of annoying your nearest and dearest with life choices which don’t fit their well-placed parameters of life.
Ok, so maybe it isn’t the steadiest of jobs, but I figured I could eke it out until I could figure out a more permanent solution.
The only downside to my morning of adulting was the unfortunate issue of forgetting my phone at home (even more adult? I didn’t cross three lanes of traffic to whip a u-turn at speed on an arterial to go back and pick it up before my appointment!) which resulted in a seven day delay in starting my new means of earning my daily bread. Apparently their paperless process is batched once a week and I just missed the cutoff – because I couldn’t return their emailed forms straight away (my previous adult driving started to annoy me). However I did leave the office with my FLIT sticker, ID number, lapel pin and assurances that the Pink Princess and I have a bright future with the company. I think the interviewer had drunk too much corporate koolaid with that last one – but since they didn’t even blink at my previous employment, who am I to judge? Seriously they seemed more concerned with my criminal record -or lack there of- and the Princess’s brake pads, than in my sparkling personality.
Since I was on a roll, I ran some errands, mainly grabbing packing supplies. When I got home I found my phone right where I left it – right next to the box of Froot Loops on the kitchen counter. Ignoring everything else, I finished all the forms FLIT sent me, hoping against hope someone would slip it through early and I could start driving sooner than next week. Hope springs eternal.
When I finished with those, I delved into my other email – mostly adverts. It was my texts which held something interesting: an unknown number. Well not as unknown as I first thought…
Good morning, Phoebe, this is Beatrice. We met the other night at dinner. Dourwood gave me your number and I have a proposition for you. Give me a call at ***-***-*****.
Curious. Three days had passed since our fungus-laden dinner. Two since Wood’d promised to talk to her. Now she was propositioning me – business or personal? Business, please be business.
Speed dial number two activated.
Me: “Did you talk to Beatrice?”
Wood (indignant): “She isn’t a vegetarian either! She agrees with you about Laney’s cooking!”
Me: “Focus! Did she think it was a date?”
Wood: “Nope. Didn’t cross her mind, apparently.”
Wood: “Hey! Laney comes home on Friday, want to grab dinner on Thursday?”
Me: “Sounds good, text me where you want to go. No fungus!”
I hung up before more questions about Beatrice or his wife’s cooking came up again.
So I was free of one awkward conversation; the Cupid known as Dourwood missed his shot. So what proposition did she have for me I wonder? I gave her a call and we agree to meet a a little coffee shop near Pulp, The Altar of the Bean.
They take their coffee really seriously.
Sunday morning during my rounds at Nevermore (redundant I might be, but vandals are my nemesis, nemisii? In any case, they get my goat) when Wood texted me…
Dourwood: Did you get the high score after I left?
Me: Nope, wasted a multi-ball opportunity.
Dourwood: Too bad, your name will be up in lights again, Benedict doesn’t stand a chance! How did you like Bee?
(btw Wood is taking about the Addams Family pinball machine – recently someone dethroned my high score – I am determined to regain my title)
Me: She seems nice.
Dourwood: Good! I gave her your phone number.
Me (texts are so limiting – sarcasm, suspicion, all tonal quality is missing. But Wood didn’t need to hear me huffing and puffing my way through Nevermore): Why?
Dourwood: Well she asked…and I was hoping you guys would hit it off…
Lightning speed dial, they should have something faster than just plain speed dial when you need it – opting for currently available technology I hit speed dial on my phone, stopping to watch the leaves fall around me while I switched my oxygen priorities. Wood answered on the third ring (I could practically hear the gears turning in his head).
Before I even got a word out Wood cut me off.
Dourwood: “I didn’t set you up with a guy, and I stayed and supervised so you wouldn’t move someone’s house again…”
Dourwood: “…you’ve had such bad luck with guys recently I thought you might want to see if you’d be happy with someone different…”
Dourwood: “…and you guys have so much in common books, music and sense of macabre I thought you would hit it off…”
I wondered how long he’d continue.
Dourwood: “…plus you’re both novice vegetarians…”
Me: “WOOD! I AM NOT A VEGETARIAN!”
Dourwood: “But you told Laney you’d stopped eating meat.”
Me: “No, last Christmas Laney assumed I’d become a vegetarian because I wasn’t eating any of the turkey. I just didn’t contradict her. Wood, honestly, I love Laney but she either burns or boils ever piece of meat she cooks. I just couldn’t take it anymore…”
Dourwood: “That’s genius!”
Me: (I laughed): “I don’t think that strategy will work for you.”
Dourwood (A glum note in his voice): “Probably not.”
Me: “Wood, I am not interested dating anyone right now. Presently my life is filled with entirely too much chaos. Promise me no more set ups – with anyone. And you need to fix this with Beatrice.”
Dourwood: “I promise, I promise. But there isn’t much to fix with Bee, I didn’t tell her it was a set-up either.”
Me: “Then why did she want my number?”
Dourwood: “I was hoping for date number two. But really I have no idea.”
Dourwood: “Really, Really.”
After extracting further assurances he’d call Beatrice, I finished checking in with my regulars on my rounds – nothing but an aggressive squirrel to report – and headed back home. I didn’t look forward to telling them I wouldn’t be around as much soon, but that was tomorrows problem.
Today’s problem, I mean opportunity for personal growth, filling out my second ever job application and vehicle evaluation.
(To Be Clear – this is not The Fungus House!)
Random ordering is not a sound strategy in a place called The Fungus House.
Beatrice’s mushroom pho looked like a pretty piece of modern art in a bowl.
Wood’s portobello burger looked like an actual burger with cheese, ketchup and lettuce – I think a special sauce might have made an appearance as well.
My lentil and mushroom shepherds pie looked like a sick topiary covered in week old snow.
While contemplating how to tackle the beige mountain that was my dinner (while eating as little of it as possible) I tried to shift the topic off my impending homelessness on to anything else. Wood beat me to the punch.
“So Bee how is life in the book world treating you?”
My ears perked up, “Books?”
A smile crossed her face, “I am a buyer and store promoter for Pulp. I just got back from a trade show in New York. Oh Wood, I got the new Neil Gaiman advanced reader copy for you”. She dug in her briefcase and handed Wood the aforementioned book.
I have never been so jealous of Wood as I was right this instant. I love Gaiman. Eight more months I would have to wait for his new book to hit the shelves. I wonder if Wood would loan it to me when he was finished. Now to the important question, “You get to see where books are born?”
“Something like that, publishers hold book expos to promote their hot, new or exciting titles. Pulp sends me to figure out what is the genuine article and what is just hype. The only unfortunate thing about the trip was my place was broken into while I was gone.”
“That’s no good. Did they take anything irreplaceable?” Wood asked while tucking the book next to his leg.
“No, that’s what’s weird, they only stole a couple old paperbacks and that painting you hate. But other than that, they just rifled through the place and left.” She leaned back in the booth, the conversation causing her to lose her appetite, or perhaps she was full – her bowl was nearly empty.
“Well that doesn’t sound too bad, the painting was hideous. Do you know how they got in?” Wood chimed in while I made sympathetic noises.
“The police weren’t sure. The working theory is that Ms. Hettie left a window upstairs open and they found her key to open the door and went downstairs. They left her stuff alone. If they cased the place, they would have known she would be home soon and the police would investigate immediately rather than a week later.”
Chiming in, “Did you change you locks?”.
“On all the doors and windows. I made it much harder to get in, should they decide for round two.” A hint of competitiveness (or annoyance, it was hard to tell) crept into her voice – apparently thwarting thieves was a sport?
Speaking of larceny, Wood knew I was eyeing his book (he did after all turn me onto Gaiman), when my hand started creeping towards the volume he and the book scooted away from me, “Excuse me for a minute, ladies, I need to use the facilities and put this in my car before I forget it.”
It was then that the bright pins and needles sensation began pricking my toes. Curling them in my shoes I did my best imitation of Winged Victory (you know the statue), trying not to crane my neck to spot who’d popped up into the restaurant. Fortunately I didn’t wonder long – two dancers waltzed past me and started to gliding their way through the restaurant. I tried not to stare but her dress was so beautiful. It reminded me of the wedding dress Grace Kelley’s character wore in her last movie High Society, graceful lines with lace and chiffon swishing elegantly about her knees. Her partner was harder to make out, more the idea of a tuxedo giving him form than what he actually possessed. Or perhaps his partner just sucked all the light towards her, it was hard to tell. In either case, my fellow diners ate on, oblivious to the spectacle circling through them and I lost the thread of the conversation entirely.
“Her dress is lovely isn’t it.”
Startled I refocused on the woman sitting across from me, “Her dress?”
“The couple dancing, her dress is deliciously vintage isn’t it?”
At this point my mouth did a great goldfish impression, “You see them?”
Before she could answer Wood came back to the table patting his pockets, “Beatrice do you know where my keys are?”
Distracted from the dancers by Wood’s question I asked, “Why would she know where your keys are?”
“Bee always finds my keys when I lose them.” Wood looked expectantly at Beatrice.
I could feel her eyes rolling, “You are the only person I know who loses them so regularly.”
“Please?” Wood did his best imitation of a cocker spaniel.
Beatrice closed her eyes for a moment, “They are under the table over there.” She pointed an empty table near the restrooms.
Wood hustled over to where Beatrice pointed, taking the book with him (gggrrrr!), “That’s a neat trick.” I commented, relieved the dancers had left without noticing me.
She smiled, “You think so?”
After dinner we all ended up at The Rusty Hinge, drinking beer, playing pinball and shooting the breeze (where I managed to scarf down a bacon burger with Wood being none the wiser). The Fungus House was a distant memory by the end of the night.
“I see the nickname now – since you don’t fit the mold of cantankerous old man with hygiene problems. Well they say Elvira in real life is a red head – but Morticia has more class.”
“I know right?” Wood chimed in, “I keep telling her it’s a great name!” I sent an arched eyebrow in his direction he studiously ducked my eye contact and resumed eating.
“So you were fired yesterday?” Beatrice asked.
“Laid off. Ben, the owner, wants to expand, so to finance it – he laid me off and served me with an eviction notice. I live in a cottage in the cemetery, to keep people from pulling any shenanigans. He thinks eliminating my salary and his personal rent – will allow him to pour that savings back into the business.”, I felt frustration levels rising – trying to distract myself I started picking at an hors d’oeuvres.
“You don’t sound convinced it will work.”
Perceptive girl. “Ben is enthusiastic and willing to try new things…but he leans towards the unorthodox. I think his common sense will switch off and in the end cause more woe than gain.”
“How bad could it be?” Beatrice missed my eye roll while she looked (rather dejectedly I thought) over the menu.
Wood started laughing now, forgetting he was avoiding me – which is difficult at a three person dinner – as this was a familiar subject which he found no end of amusement in. “Let me tell!” I nodded and he went on. “A few months ago, a courier dropped off a bag at my office filled with swag – water bottles, magnets and such. I thought it was from a pharmaceutical rep. Instead the attached note asked us to keep the cemetery in mind for our patients’ future needs. He even included several glossy magazines which outlined Nevermore’s services to put in my waiting room!” Wood finished with more laughter and a wave of his menu over the memory.
Wood found it funny now, but you should have heard the call I got when he opened that package. I fielded calls from other irked doctors over the rest of the week; Ben’d sent “swag bags” to all the local physicians to try and drum up more clients. Afterwards Big Ben, his dad and Nevermore’s owner, put his foot down – all promotions, schemes or projects needed his approval before implementation.
The fly in the ointment? Little Ben (which I am not allowed to call him) manages all the day-to-day operations and feels it is better to ask for forgiveness than permission – so I don’t foresee the straight and narrow extending far in his future. Especially since Big Ben is a snow bird and spends falls and winters in New Mexico (Arizona is too trendy). I said so to the table.
Beatrice snorted at the story and ordered her dinner, “Yes I can see why you’d be worried. However he isn’t your responsibility anymore. So where will you go from here?”
I ordered at random (you can only be so innovative when your base is mushrooms – or so I thought). “I am not sure. My only asset is my car….so maybe I’ll work for FLYT? I’ve been a caretaker for the last fifteen years, I’m not sure what my resume would qualify me for.” FLYT being the new rideshare company in town. My shoulders sagged knowing what the follow up question, the same one which kept me awake last night, would be – and there it was…
“Any clue where you will move?” Beatrice asked.
When Wood’s six foot six frame squirms it signals different things for different people. For his Gran it means he’d bought her another gadget to make her life “easier” – she likes her smart phone, tolerates her smart luggage (a suitcase which follows her around like a puppy) and is plain suspicious of her “home assistant” powered by the internet. Laney eyes him dubiously when he surprises her with a trip – Barcelona, Paris, London, Malmo or a staycation – which heralds pub fare and soccer matches are in her future (she likes soccer just fine, but a romantic walk on Seine would add a nice variety – she thanked me when I pointed this out to him).
For me? This wriggle means Wood’s set me up on a blind date.
In his defense Wood always does great job in picking interesting, witty and charming men. If you are waiting for the “but” here it is; charming doesn’t mean sincere, witty doesn’t exclude vicious and interesting doesn’t mean classy. Six out of eight of my all time worst evenings come from Wood’s setups (and I am sure I don’t sparkle in my opposition’s memory either). So for the sake of my sanity, our friendship and the lives of the men of these disasters – I made Wood promise never to set me up with any more men of his acquaintance. Which was only extracted after I told him the story of my date with his dapper coworker Sebastian.
Sebastian thoughtfully included a cardio workout component into our date – moving forty-seven boxes of his ex-girlfriend’s possessions down two flights of stairs into a truck (his ex-girlfriend left for parts unknown twenty minutes after we arrived), unloading the truck again and distributing the boxes around her new apartment according to their labels. Sebastian then thoughtfully provided a meal which was also themed to our activity – pizza and beer. He then proceeded to eat the entire pie and drink a six pack in twenty minutes which caused him to curl up like a huge hedgehog in Tiffini’s living room and pass out. He did regale me with anecdotes from his travels, but since we weren’t eating dinner in a little cafe, listening to jazz and drinking fabulous coffee (as he had with Tiffani) it was hard to relate.
Okay, I can laugh about it now, but I absolutely flabbergasted at the time.
While glaring at my friend (who was doing his level best not to make eye contact), I offered up a hasty prayer to any god who would take an interest – hoping against hope – that Wood’s sudden imitation of an eel stemmed from an acrobatic audition he’d set up for us with Cirque du Soliel after dinner. Or perhaps we were interviewing for a place in a prestigious rodeo clown school – they have those right? Maybe we were receiving our armaments for the tri-state laser tag tournament? But his wriggling butt and wringing hands told another tale, “Wood, you promised!”.
His eyes darted towards the front of The Fungus House and apparently found his salvation there since his faced cracked into a wide smile, “Beatrice, over here!”
Following his smile I saw a strawberry blonde in a three piece indigo colored suit beelining in our direction.
Okay, maybe I’m wrong?
In fourth grade I met Dourwood Utley.
We bonded over how we wanted to take over for the BFG as official dream catcher, solved mysteries with Nancy Drew and wished we could visit our friends just beyond the lamppost every weekend. If Harry Potter had existed during our tenure in Maplewood Elementary School, Wood would have profiled Dobby The House Elf in his Person You Admired Most report (if you ever want to get him going, start defending Rowling for the narrative necessity of Dobby’s fate – it is similar to watching fireworks going off – only with more expletives).
I tutored him in English, gave him half my sandwich every day (for eight years) and cheered him on in all his soccer games. He glowered at my bullies, buys me mittens every Christmas and enjoys the fact my life is odd.
Wood is a friend extraordinaire whose both best and worst quality is one in the same – he is extraordinarily helpful. His motivation?
He just wants you to be as happy as he is.
One of the few commercial zones in the city where big box retailers and homogenizing chains fear to tread (due mainly to the fact their shrinkage numbers are astronomical) is the University District. My old stomping ground. Where vintage clothing shops, art nouveau theaters and independent shops of one flavor or another reign supreme. Nestled in the U-Districts’ heart resided The Fungus House, the city’s first (and only for many, many years) vegetarian and vegan restaurant.
Saturday night’s clientele featured the usual subjects; philosophizing beret wearing students, first generation hippies (now into their late sixties) and several thirty-something couples out on date night. This well worn restaurant didn’t fit Dourwood’s normal dinner requirements… A man whose secret vice included two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce and cheese. A man who keeps a log of every meat he’s eaten off a stick. The man who during the last Premiere League Penultimate (the last day of the league) – I swear – slathered an entire pig in BBQ sauce and then ate it. Yet, despite this rather meaty resume, there he sat in a corner booth smiling his electric smile and waving at me like a crazy person.
Upon immediate entry into Wood’s orbit he enveloped me into a giant bear hug, while his voice rumbled (which btw can make the worst news sound almost nice), “I heard about Little Ben laying you off. That sucks.”.
So much for keeping the news under wraps until after dinner – it didn’t really surprise me – my Aunt and Wood’s Gran float in the same circles. I doubt Aunt Pearl could keep this kind of currency, I mean news, to herself.
“Yeah, Little Ben invited me to explore other employment and living opportunities.” Winding up, “He has been in and out of the cottage three times in two days – taking measurements, making notes and ordering new appliances. All things I gave-up asking for because he told me the company didn’t have the budget for it. Basically he’s spending all the money he’s trying to save for his schemes on renovations. He is going to run the place into the ground!”
Wood smiled and sat back waiting for me to pause in my litany of woe, “Pun intended?”
My laugh felt shaky, “Inadvertent.” Apparently I wasn’t as sanguine as my previous days imbibing had lead me to believe. (That makes my definitely not day drinking drinks sound way classier…right?)
The waitress sensing the pop of emotional pressure appeared to take our order. To my surprise (and her chagrin) Wood ordered appetizers; upside-down mushroom tartlets, marinated mushroom caps and cheesy mushroom pinwheels (are you sensing a theme here? All would benefit with the addition of bacon). Then told her we were waiting on the last person of our party to arrive.
Snapping from my unfulfilled bacon dreams, “Who are we waiting for?”’
To my horror, Wood squirmed.