“What are your plans this morning?”
Odera applied eyeliner in front of a mirror.
Hauling up my jeans, I said, “Laundry and some writing. How about lunch before we go to your grandmother’s?”
“Would you get this zipper? I’m sorry honey, but I want to surprise Dad with lunch. We’re overdue.”
“I envy you that. I thought that I had come to terms with my folks. It was easier when I pretended that I didn’t care what anybody thought and that their disappointment did not affect me.”
“That was self-deception.” Odera stepped in close to offer a hug. “When you are ready, sit them down. They’ll understand.”
Our reflection caught my attention. Odera hugged a stranger. Accepting solace would have felt anathema a year ago. Now, only thin bands of tightness swept across my chest. Trading skepticism for trust, I squeezed her close, embattled. Everything was a struggle these days. Odera pecked my cheek and stepped back. After discerning my conflicting emotions, she bestowed a small smile and turned for the door.
“Odera.” When she looked back, I intoned, “Thanks.”
“For not asking.”
Warmth and love transformed her visage.
“This conversation isn’t over. I’m only letting it settle in.”
“Ruthless, that’s what you are. An emotional vampire. If not for my gentle and kind aunt, I’d call you Ruth.”
We walked in silence to the parking lot.
Odera asked, “Should I meet you at Gram’s, or pick you up?”
“Pick me up. Yellow Birch wouldn’t appreciate loud pipes, though it would be an opportunity to get to know her better, to divide and conquer.”
“Just remember that I read ‘Art of War’ as well. Come say goodbye.” When our lips parted and she sat behind the steering wheel, she said, “Pick you up at one. Kay? Do you mind if I call while you’re writing?”
“Would it make a difference if I said yes?”
The engine of my bike roared to life.
From a distance, as Odera straightened her wheels, she called out laughingly, “No. I was just being polite. Girlfriends have certain inalienable rights. I’ll let you know what they are as we go.”
* * * * * * *
On her twelfth birthday, Odera’s parents introduced her to the Pied Piper, and to its proprietors, Harry and Helga Fielding. Harry often came out of the kitchen to say hello and Helga always found an extra chair during peak hours. While the years had deposited extra weight on Harry and Helga, their warm personalities matched their jolly physiques. No less energetic, despite greying, wavy auburn hair, laugh lines and crow’s feet that framed warm brown eyes, Helga swarmed out from behind the greeter’s desk to welcome Odera and her father. It was like being swept up by a warm tropical wave full of love and security.
“It’s been so long.” Helga embraced Odera like a long-lost niece. “I’ve missed you terribly. What’s kept you away? Was it Harry’s cooking?”
“Harry’s a wonderful chef.” Odera felt a twinge of guilt. She dared not bring Bruce. One visit and Helga would ask after him forevermore. “I’m sorry Helga. I should have returned sooner.”
“You’ve come home. That’s all that matters.” Turning to Robert, Helga said, “It’s been more than a month since you’ve dropped by.”
“It’s Harry’s cooking.”
“I knew it.” Helga took Odera by the arm. “I’ve repeatedly told that miserable camp cook to go easy on spices. Shall I log a complaint?” Helga raised her voice, “Harry Fielding! Come out here immediately. We have a customer complaint.”
“What is it, Mother?”
Harry rolled through the saloon doors wearing a clean apron slung around a bull neck, which in no way reduced the size of his jocular girth. A long and floppy chef’s hat hid a lack of hair that started thinning in his twenties. But for a four-inch tonsure circling his pate with monastic propriety, Harry was bald as an egg.
“My little strawberry! How wonderful to see you again. I feared that you left the country without saying goodbye,” announced Harry upon sighting Odera.
She met Harry’s ambling figure partway and returned his embrace. When she stepped back, Harry took her hands into his and cast a slanted look in his wife’s direction.
“Did Mother’s mean temper keep you away? The truth now, I’ve been waiting for a reason to fire her. Forgetful is what she’s become. There’ll be a job opening soon. Are you interested?”
“She’s nothing of the sort. Shame on you.”
“I thought that I might have reached you in time, but I see she’s already cast her spell over you.” Harry looked over Odera’s head. “Hello, Robert. Don’t mind Mother. Memory isn’t what it used to be. Did she remember your name?”
“Hot spices kept the poor darling away.” Helga waved an accusing finger at Harry. “Back to your kitchen. We’ve company to feed.” Turning to Odera, Helga alleged, “He’s drinking more and more of his cooking wine.”
Before Harry complied, Robert leaned conspiratorially toward him with one hand blocking his mouth from Helga’s view.
“Does the lamb stew have some kick today?”
“Like a mule.”
“Away with you now; you lazy sloth. Off you go.” Helga shoed Harry into the kitchen with both hands while announcing, “You’ll frighten our customers off if they learn you went bald from eating your own cooking.”
Odera and Robert laughed.
“Remember, my little strawberry, you’ll let me know if the wicked woman is mean to you. We’ll send her packing this time. By God, we will!”
“I will,” promised Odera and received a wink in return.
“Don’t forget to give them a menu,” Harry quipped as he retreated, “and the cheque!” he added, evoking laughter from nearby patrons.
“Our menu hasn’t changed in ten years.” Helga led them to a booth with leather benches. “He doesn’t know how to cook anything else, though if you have a request that’s not on the menu, we’ll give it a try.” Issuing embossed, leather-bound menus, she critiqued, “The lamb stew is adequate, but the vegetable soup and freshly baked dinner rolls are simply scrumptious. I prepared them last night while the wretch was passed out drunker than a skunk.” Softly chiming bells knelled a party of four. “I’ll give you a few minutes to brave an order.”
As Helga crossed the dining room floor, calling out names, Odera looked up from her menu.
“We should come more often. I forgot how wonderful Harry and Helga are.”
“They never change, do they? It doesn’t matter if it’s a week, or a month, they have a way of making you feel missed.”
“Bruce would get a kick out of the Harry and Helga show. I can’t wait to bring him by.”
That matter-of-fact declaration hung in the air between them while Robert measured his daughter’s look, logged the casual certainty in her words and noted her heartfelt cheerfulness. Borne out of her new happiness, he set down his menu on the table and met Odera’s gaze.
“Then we must invite him to join us for lunch next week. Mustn’t we?”
“We must? I mean. Yes. You don’t mind?”
“Why on Earth should I?”
“No reason. It’s just that you and Bruce seldom talk. Beyond his work performance and the worries you’ve expressed, rarely do you speak of him. I’ve always had the impression that you didn’t really care for him overly much.”
“I don’t know him, honey, but I want to. Lunch would be an excellent forum to remedy that.” A curtain of joy crossed his daughter’s face. “You’re rather fond of him, aren’t you?”
“Yes. We are very close.”
“And your talks, they still make you feel better?”
“More all the time. You cannot imagine how important Bruce is to me if you would just set aside your prejudice. He’s not the person you see at work. Truly.” Odera paused, hesitant to go further. “If he comes across as closed and private, that’s because he distrusts. Let yourself know him and you may see him differently.”
“This seems important to you,” he said, noting the depth of feeling in her voice, “that I take time to understand him.”
Warning bells sounded. She had pleaded her wishes too strongly and now felt torn between the two most important men in her life. Silence slid between them as she found the right words to save her conscience from one or the other burden.
“It is important to me. Don’t be fooled by what he shows the world. All I ask is that you give him a chance.”
“I knew the two of you were close, but I never suspected you felt so strongly.”
“Move past your biases and you will discover shared country. I promise.”
Robert sat up straighter and sipped his water. He looked at his daughter over the rim of his glass. Any shadow born out of yesterday’s violence was missing from her expression. Clear blue eyes beseeched him to abide by her reasonable request and grant Bruce the benefit of doubt.
“Claire voiced nearly the same thing.”
“You talked to Grams about Bruce and me!?” Odera eyed him through narrowed eyes. “Have you been checking up on me? I’m thirty-three. What on earth were you thinking?”
Robert shifted in his seat and cleared his throat.
“I had this feeling Bruce was partly to thank for your recent spark but couldn’t quite put my finger on the reason. While at Claire’s I talked with her about it, that’s all.”
“You’ve been spying on me.”
“Spying is overstating it.”
“What would you call it? Have you secretly become a private eye in your spare time?”
“I call it concern. Parental concern. After all, we don’t know him,” he reminded her, grinning, “and he did commit a violent crime. One never knows.”
“You haven’t taken the time to get to know him, is what you are really saying. Bruce’s worked for us over two years, Dad. Has he ever given you reason to treat him so horribly? And his crime is ancient history. How long should a person pay? Have you no Christian charity, no mercy, so little forgiveness?”
“I haven’t treated him in any such way. I hired him; did I not?” This was the woman he had raised, bursting with life, ready to champion the unlikeliest causes. “Given the circumstances, you can’t blame me for being concerned. No more than a tiny case of smothering.”
“Oh, no, you don’t, you are not getting off that easily. You were spying on me. What did you say to Grams? You know she’ll tell me. You may as well come clean. Let’s have it. Spill.”
“It’s a father’s prerogative to look out for his youngest daughter.”
“That’s sweet, Daddy. You and Bruce have the same habit of trying to change the conversation when you do not want to answer a question.”
“How does he fare?”
Odera snorted lightly.
“He doesn’t have any more success than you. Now, what did you say to Grams? C’mon. Out with it.”
“Ahh, Helga, there you are. I’ll have the lamb stew and a bowl of soup.”
“You’re a courageous man, Robert, to risk road-kill stew.” Helga adopted an earnest expression. “What about you sweetheart, what’ll you have?”
“Do you serve crow?” Odera glanced at her father, who burst out laughing. Helga smiled politely. “Sorry, Helga. It has nothing to do with Harry’s cooking.”
“Better steer clear of the chicken then. It looks stringy today. No better than rundown roadrunner.”
“I’m sure it’s nothing of the kind.”
“Well, you may be fortunate to receive a decent portion if I handpick it when the wretch isn’t looking. Truth to tell, there’s not a lot available. Providing he doesn’t drown it in herb and garlic or litter your plate with broccoli blanketed in cheese sauce, and rice on the side, I may find some passable medallions of chicken breast.”
“That sounds enchanting, and a Chef’s salad. Oil and vinegar.”
“Can’t go wrong with that. Do either of you care for a drink?”
“Two cups of tea and one of Harry’s strawberry milkshakes for my daughter.”
“Make the shake to go, please.”
Odera remembered the day Harry made her the first strawberry milkshake. For years afterward, she never visited the Pied Piper without ordering one. Harry used fresh strawberries. He placed a whole one at the bottom of the glass, citing that Helga was too stingy to do likewise.
“If your stomach needs comforting, we sell Bromo. Honestly, I don’t know why discriminating folk return. The miserable man charges so much and the food’s so poor.”
Odera said, “It’s your soup, Helga.”
“Don’t let Harry hear that. It would break his heart to learn it isn’t his cooking.” Helga glanced over her shoulder and lowered her voice, “I’ve had to start scraping plates before carrying them into the kitchen. So many people leave so much of the tasteless fare behind. Even the alley cats turn their noses up. It’s a blessed miracle we haven’t gone bankrupt.”
As Helga placed their order and then later, as they ate, smiles persisted. After parting company, waves of happiness rolled through Robert. Sadness and despair seemed off Odera’s menu. She was no longer withdrawn but embraced life. Elated at his daughter’s return, he failed to see the telltale signs hinting at a different kind of union than friendship between Bruce and Odera.