(Sorry to be posting late! Monday holiday confused me. But here we are! -ctan)
The next day Remo left and Claire declared it was Cookie Baking Day. I didn’t realize that the traditional holiday calendar had Cookie Baking Day, Christmas Eve, Christmas, and Boxing Day, but to hear Claire tell it, we would have been committing some kind of sacrilege not to observe it.
“You need to get more butter. We’re going to need more butter than this,” Claire harangued Janine as Janine was on her way out the door to work, opening and closing the fridge, the cabinets. “And flour. This probably isn’t enough flour.”
“Mother. I’m not coming back until ten o’clock tonight.” In other words, if you want to bake before midnight this is not my problem. Janine kissed Landon on the forehead and told him, “You be good, okay? Bedtime is eight o’clock. I’ll come kiss you while you’re sleeping when I get home, all right?”
“But it’s Christmas vacation,” he said. “Why do you have to go to work?”
“Just because your school has vacation doesn’t mean my work does. I’m off tomorrow and the day after that, though, okay?”
“Oh, okay.” He trudged away from the door dramatically, though. Yeah, kid, day jobs suck. He climbed into the kitchen chair next to me and folded his arms.
Claire went to work on his mood immediately. “Landon, do you want to bake cookies today? Today is the day we bake all the Christmas cookies. Do you like cookies?”
It worked. He brightened right up. “I like cookies! I like Oreos and fudge stripes and–”
“Oh, these will be different because we’re going to make them ourselves, all right?” Claire leaned down to talk to him. “That is, if we can get enough butter and flour…”
Courtney rolled her eyes. “Oh, come on, Mom. We have a car and money. There’s not, like, a wartime shortage on flour going on or something. There’s no suspense about fricking baking. Don’t make the kid worry.”
Claire straightened up into her soprano-solo pose. “Cookie Baking Day is important to me, so I am anxious about it. You had best learn that the way to help me with my anxiety is not to dismiss it.”
Courtney’s reply to that was to roll her eyes again.
It was not a large kitchen so pretty much all of this was going on right in front of my face. I was sitting at the table nursing my second coffee of the morning. “Make a shopping list and I’ll go,” I said.
“We’ll need some things for Christmas dinner, too,” she said.
“Make a long list, then,” I said and Landon giggled.
“Yeah, grocery run!” Courtney said to him and tickled him from behind his chair. “You want to come help us with the epic quest to get all the groceries, Lanny?”
So that was how me and Courtney took a fired-up five-year-old to the store. Claire came with us, too.
The list Claire had made was quite long and included most of the things you’d expect for an American Christmas dinner: turkey, stuffing, potatoes, and other beige/brown foods. Courtney kept Landon entertained on the quest by tearing things off the bottom of the list, and then the two of them would swoop around the store finding them and bringing them back to the cart, while Claire and I just started at one end of the store and zigzagged our way up and down the aisles like a very small combine harvester.
We started in the meat department with the turkey, and while we were there I grabbed bacon and other things I thought we’d need since the stores would be closed on Christmas. It was somewhat crowded but it wasn’t like we were in a hurry.
“Does Remo give you financial advice?” Claire asked me as we were moving on to eggs and dairy.
“Some, yeah. Why?”
“I’m just curious who you’re getting advice from, I mean, that you’re getting any at all. It’s not like you work a nine-to-five,” she said matter-of-factly.
“Yeah. Digger used to give me advice but it was mostly bad advice,” I said.
She let out a wry “ha” as she checked a carton of eggs for damage.
“Or you know, good for him, bad for me.” Oh, man. I’d managed to go a few days without thinking about how Sarah’s mother might be suing me for my father’s sins. Remembering it now made my spine itch. I’d have to worry about that later. “My drummer and I bought a house–”
“Bought it outright?”
“Well, we got a mortgage. But then at least we’re paying the money to own it and not just rent it with nothing to show for it. Carynne, my manager, handles most of the cash flow stuff, including paying for Courtney’s college tuition.”
“I admit that one surprised me,” Claire said, as I pushed the cart into an aisle of pasta and canned goods.
“What, that I’d put her through college?”
“I mean, your sister surprised me. Oh, here she comes.” Claire clammed up as Courtney and Landon weaved through the other carts and people in the aisle to deposit a box of Stove Top stuffing and then ran away again, giggling like mad. “She never told me that the school we sent her to was a brainwashing camp. I had no idea.”
I didn’t know whether to refute that or not, so I said nothing, and just listened as she went on. “Of course, there were a lot of things I had no idea about, or I never would have married him.” She never said her second husband’s name, by the way, as if speaking it aloud was some kind of taboo. “I suppose it is possible I was willingly blind to some of his faults, but it was the only way to escape your father.”
That sounded as close to a confession as Claire had probably ever spoken–outside of to a priest, anyway. I was still curious, though. “The only way?”
“Well, it’s not as if we had family who would have taken me and Courtney in.” She pulled some macaroni off the shelf and added it to the cart, then glanced back at me. “And I don’t mean that as a criticism of you, by the way. You were, what, eighteen and living in a dormitory on your scholarship at the time?”
Somehow it didn’t sound like a criticism until she said that last bit, as if it were my fault I was only a kid. My whole scalp prickled and I said quietly, “Like I said before, some of us couldn’t marry out.”
She turned and looked at me, like, really stared me down, right there by the Prego sauces.
Then her expression softened. “No. I don’t suppose you could’ve.” She took a jar off the shelf, made a show of reading the label, then put it back. “You didn’t stay in school, though.”
“It was my way of getting out,” I said. “And then when that wasn’t the best thing for me anymore, I found a way to get out of that. I moved to Boston and scrounged up an apartment and a retail job and I busked for money when I wasn’t working.”
She turned away, pretending to look at the items on the shelf but I think just trying to walk away from me. “And you think that’s what I should have done instead of marrying him?”
“Yes. Get myself some job like Jan has now, or scrub floors or something?” With the tilt of her head I could almost hear the words “beneath my dignity” tacked on at the end there.
We made the U-turn into the baking goods aisle. I couldn’t think of anything to say but the truth, “Well, aside from the fact that getting played by an adultering preacher is probably a much bigger blow to your dignity than working a job, were you in love with him?”
“Oh, that,” she said, like it was a rash or a insect bite she had to deal with. “Yes, there was that.” Her eyes lit up as she came to the rack of jars of sprinkles. “Oh, look, silver and gold ones.” Into the cart they went. She also bent down for a bag of flour and set it carefully next to the frozen turkey in the bottom of the cart. “This is the thing about love. I was in love with the man I thought he was. The person he showed to me and seduced me with. As soon as he proved that wasn’t who he was, poof, it’s gone. Love was just an illusion.” She brushed the flour from her hands.
“So you’re disillusioned now, I guess?”
“Is that what that means?” she asked. “I suppose so. I don’t miss him at all. Poof.”
“Did you miss Digger?”
“Oh, lord, child, are you serious? Your father had worn out his welcome years before. I gave him so many chances. I let him woo me and fool me into letting him have his way too many times. Did you miss him?”
I was not ready for the question to be turned back on me, but there was definitely only one answer. “No. Not at all. Remo’s the one I missed.”
Her “ha!” was much more high-pitched and she put a hand over her mouth to hide her smile. “Well. Me too.”