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By Kathryn H. Kidd
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I learned about my new church calling from Carol Ann Little, the ward mouthpiece. Carol Ann wasn't a gossip, but she had one gift that set her apart from everyone else I knew. Without being told, she knew who was going to be called to a job before most people knew there was a vacancy. The woman was never wrong, unless you count the time she told the bishop who he was going to choose for the Young Women's presidency the week before the fact. When the callings were announced, Carol Ann missed every one. Ironically, the presidency Carol Ann picked was so much better than the one that was sustained, the whole ward just assumed the bishop had changed his mind to take her down a peg. Stranger things have happened.
If anybody else had told me I was going to be the new homemaking counselor, I would have laughed. Education counselor, yes. But I was the only person I knew who couldn't even get butter to spread. I didn't have a Relief Society wreath on my door, and the only thing standing between my house and the Board of Health was the housekeeper that came in on Tuesdays. So even hearing it from Carol Ann didn't convince me.
Almost before I had my eyebrows raised, Carol Ann added, "Alex Roundy will be president, and the education counselor will be Bess Monson." She leaned back and took a sip of Diet Coke, looking pleased with herself, but I had my doubts. If Carol Ann was right on this one, it would be a coup even for her. Calling Alex to be a Relief Society president was about as likely as making her an apostle. And Bess Monson, education counselor? Bess was the Jell-O Queen of North America. She and her four little girls were always scrubbed and wearing dresses, and she never had so much as a hair out of place. But she had the I.Q. of a pencil sharpener. The only book she'd ever read was written by Mormon. Carol Ann was headed for major humiliation.
I'd almost forgotten Carol Ann's prediction two days later, when I opened my front door to find the bishop on the doorstep. He took one look at me in my pajamas - at 6 p.m. - and decided not to come in. Samson hissed at him malevolently, but I kicked him inside and went out on the porch.
"I've come to ask you to accept a position," he said, squinting in the sunset, and I knew Carol Ann was right. "This may sound a little unorthodox, but I've prayed about it and you're the one. I'd like you to be homemaking counselor of the Relief Society."
"With Alex as president and Bess Monson the education counselor," I said. I lifted my Pepsi in salute. "Carol Ann strikes again."
He sighed. "You know, Amy, half the fun in being bishop is calling people to outlandish jobs in the ward and looking at the shock on their faces. Carol Ann is a thorn in my side. Just once I wish somebody would pretend they hadn't talked to her first."
"You may be in luck on this one," I said. "Carol Ann didn't have any guesses for secretary."
Now that it was official, I had to talk to Alex. I usually went to see her several times a week, but the timing was tricky. She didn't get up until nine, but she liked to schedule appointments at 9:30. Then she was liable to go anywhere. But I had to catch her before the first of her soap operas came on at one. No true friend visited Alex after "Days of Our Lives" began.
I opted for a 9:30 visit and walked in the back door, grabbing a soft drink on the way downstairs. Alex was in her workshop, sanding the walnut case of a regulator clock. She had a lot of time for projects, with both her children grown, and she'd taught herself how to build clocks. I'd gotten her third clock, a big oak thing. It had a personality all its own, since the hour hand was Maltese style and the minute hand was serpentine. Alex was big on craftsmanship, but details escaped her.
I grabbed a chair and sat backwards. Alex said, "Hah!" It was her word for hello, and it was so uniquely Alex that half the ward had picked it up. People liked to imitate Alex. They did it so much that it seemed like she constantly had to invent new Alexisms to stay unique.
"Hah!" I said back. I was as guilty of imitating Alex as anyone. "Homemaking counselor? Is this a joke?"
"That's what the church is all about, Sweetie. We're put into these jobs to learn 'em. If you can do 'em already, what's the point? Besides, people surprise you sometimes. You may be cut out for this."
"I won't surprise you. I'm too old to learn how to make Jell-O."
"You're thirty-three years old."
"Whatever. You don't have any children. You're rich. You don't even have a job, and you still keep a filthy house."
"I'm an artist. That's my job."
"Yep. You're an artist. Tell me one thing you've sold. You keep everything you like, and no one would buy the rest of it. You might as well put that energy somewhere useful."
"I put that energy into loving my husband." That sounded pious even to me, but Alex knew what I meant. We'd been friends a long time.
"Your husband's been dead for six years. You're not exactly picking up his socks."
She had a point, but the whole idea of homemaking counselor was still foreign. "And Bess as education counselor? This presidency's going to be a real funfest."
"You're just jealous of Bess. You'll like her when you get over it." She picked up a fresh piece of sandpaper and attacked a mitered corner. "It's the secretary who's going to kill you. Emma Austen."
She waited for a reaction, and she got one. Emma was a fingernail on the chalkboard of life. She'd been my nemesis for years. I didn't like to be in the same room with Emma Austen.
Emma was a real knockout, and nobody knew it better than she did. Her best friend was her mirror, and her favorite pastime was comparing other people to herself. No stranger on the street was safe from her eagle eye. With Emma as judge, everyone else always came up short. But for some reason, she seemed to have half the ward fooled. All her meanness was excused because she was pretty and she smiled. She had as many followers as Alex did, but the people who imitated Alex were not the same people who idolized Emma.
"Spiffy," I said. "The secretary from hell. Whatever inspired you?"
"It was an answer to prayer. Every time I prayed about it, Emma's name came up. She wouldn't have been my first dibs, either, but I didn't have a choice. You'll support her, won't you?"
"Not until I raise my hand on Sunday. After that, I'll do my best. For your sake, I'll try to keep my mouth shut. Don't ask for more than that."
Alex bit a splinter from the tip of her thumb and sucked on the wound. "It could be worse. She's in court all day, and that hot dating schedule keeps her busy at night. She'll probably be secretary in name only.
"By the way," she added, wiping a smear of blood from the clock cabinet, "leave Thursday open. Before we get sustained, I want to spend one last afternoon as a person. Let's take Bess and Emma out to lunch."
"Let me guess. Don Antonio's. You do know how to throw a party."
Alex picked me up on Thursday morning. She didn't look like a Relief Society president. Her jeans were paint-stained and torn, but she was wearing three rings, her Rolex, and a ruby necklace. Even without all the jewelry, her person looked tanned and expensive. Compared with Alex, I was woefully inadequate.
We stopped by to pick up Bess. From the moment she got in the car she looked nervous. Alex and I were virtual strangers to Bess, who had always had jobs in the Primary, away from the body of women in the ward. I could understand how being in the car with two strangers would intimidate her, especially when one of the strangers was Alex.
Alex turned toward town, and Bess panicked. "Where's Emma?" she asked quickly. "Aren't we stopping for Emma?"
"Emma can't get off work," Alex said. "In fact, anything that's done in the daytime will probably have to be done by the three of us."
Bess said "oh" in a small voice, and settled quietly into the back seat. I caught a glimpse of her in the rear-view mirror, and she looked as trapped as a hamster in a cage. Nobody said anything, so Alex put some Scarlatti on the cassette player. We listened to the music the rest of the way to Don Antonio's.
Don Antonio's was going to be the official restaurant of Alex's Relief Society presidency, I could tell. She went there so often the owner once offered her a job as hostess. Alex said no. She didn't tell the owner, but she could have bought Don Antonio's if she wanted; she didn't need to work there.
Don Antonio's wasn't my favorite restaurant. I liked Cafe Pierpont or Marie Callender's or any one of a dozen other places better. But Alex liked the security of routine. Don Antonio's was like going to McDonald's without having to go to McDonald's. The food was always the same. Everyone recognized Alex and treated her like an old friend. She even parked in the back and walked through the kitchen to get there - a habit that did nothing to improve my appetite. But Alex said walking through the back door made Don Antonio's feel like home. It was part of the Don Antonio's experience.
When we opened the screen door to go inside, Bess blanched. It was then I realized she probably didn't even eat enchiladas. Suddenly I thought Bess was working just as hard to go to lunch with Alex and me as I'd have to work to teach a Primary class. It was a sobering idea.
The first thing Bess said when she looked at the menu was, "Don't they have anything besides Mexican food?" Alex's eyes widened. It obviously hadn't occurred to her that someone might not like Don Antonio's. I suggested a taco salad, and Bess looked relieved.
When the chips came, Bess wouldn't even eat those. "These are just tortilla chips and sauce," Alex said. "You don't like salsa?"
"I have an ulcer," Bess said apologetically.
Alex changed the subject by mentioning Relief Society, but that also went nowhere. We hadn't been sustained yet, and she didn't want to mention any specific ideas she had until then. When the talk flagged, I asked her how her husband was doing. She seemed grateful for the opening.
"I don't know if Ethan loves me anymore," she said. One thing about Alex I admired but couldn't emulate was that she wasn't ashamed to confide in her friends. I didn't consider Bess a friend, but Alex apparently figured we'd be working so closely that we shouldn't try to keep secrets from each other.
"That's ridiculous," I said. "He took you to Austria in April. He sends you flowers every month on your anniversary."
"That doesn't mean anything." Bess's voice came out in a squeak. She took a small sip of water, and her voice deepened again. "Outward displays like that sometimes cover up other feelings."
That was just what Alex didn't need to hear. For years she'd been telling me Ethan was stepping out on her. She never had any proof, and I didn't think she ever would have. But she was resolute in her suspicions, sure she was unworthy of Ethan's love.
"That's not true with Ethan and Alex," I said. "Alex just spends her lifetime in paranoia."
But Alex didn't want comfort. "I shouldn't blame Ethan," she said. "You can't stay in love forever. When you live with a person day in and day out, you see all the warts and the flaws. Little by little, the mystery is solved and the romance fades."
"So what if the romance fades?" I asked. "You're friends now. Friendship is better." Tim and I had been best friends, and I knew what I was saying.
Bess said, "I don't agree. There are different types of love. For most people, maybe you're right. But some people have something stronger, something different. For those people, passion never dies."
That annoyed me, and I didn't let it go unanswered. "Who's in love like that? Name one person. If you give me an example outside the movies, maybe I'll believe you."
"I can't name any names," Bess said. "But I knew of a case like that once. The love never went away."
I thought then that she was talking about her own marriage, and the comparison bothered me. It wasn't enough that her husband, Rick, was the handsomest man I'd ever seen. Now she was telling me the way he loved her was better than the way Tim had loved me.
I didn't believe Bess for a minute, but Alex reacted differently. Once she had a testimonial that other people had that kind of love, she immediately blamed herself. "Then Ethan needs someone better than I am," she said sadly. "He needs somebody who won't let the romance die out."
Alex and I had had this conversation a dozen times before, and it always made me angry. I gave the answer I always gave. "Ethan couldn't be looking for anyone else," I said. "He couldn't find anybody better than you."
After lunch, Alex drove aimlessly toward town. She seemed disturbed, and I thought she was still worrying about Ethan. But finally she turned off the tape player and said, "I'm not up to this."
"You're not up to what?" I asked.
"Being Relief Society president," Bess said, and Alex nodded. I felt annoyed that Bess had read my best friend better than I had, but Bess had annoyed me a lot today.
Alex turned left on Third South and continued, "It was one thing to work with the Young Women. We understood each other. We all had fun together. But I'm not Relief Society president material. Everybody knows it. I'm afraid all this is going to change me, and I don't know if I want to change. What if Ethan likes the new Alex even less?"
Bess said, "Has it occurred to you Ethan may like the new Alex even more?"
Alex thought about that for a minute. Then she shook her head as if dismissing it. "I don't know. I just feel so trapped. Everyone will be watching me to see if I slip up. I'll always have to be an example. That scares me. People shouldn't be looking to me for spiritual guidance. I can't even guide myself."
She stopped the car at a light and drummed her fingers on the steering wheel, waiting for the light to change. Then she eased the car across the intersection. "I feel so restless today. This is the last time, maybe for years, that we'll be real people. I want to do something wild and irresponsible today. I just don't know what it is."
Suddenly the car screeched to a halt. I'd been watching Alex, and I turned quickly to see if she'd braked to avoid an accident. But nothing was in the street. A driver behind us honked and then passed us when Alex didn't start moving again. She was staring at a storefront on the north side of the street. A sign in the window said, "palm reader."
"This is it!" she said, with more animation than I'd heard from her in days. "I've always wanted to get my palm read. Today we're going to do it." She parked her car right outside the store and started removing her rings. She hid all her expensive jewelry in her purse and then a found quarter to feed the meter. One infuriating thing about Alex was that wherever she wanted to park, there was always an open spot.
"We're not supposed to be doing this," Bess said, as Alex and I opened our car doors. "We can't do it."
Alex glared at Bess. "We're not the Relief Society presidency for three days," she said. "This is our last chance to do it."
Bess didn't budge, and Alex got a pleading tone in her voice. "Nobody believes in fortune telling. It's a trick. It's done with mirrors or something. I just want us to do something crazy before we have to start serving Jell-O at funerals."
Bess looked at me for support, but I was silent. I'd never met a palm reader, and I wanted to see if she wore a bandanna and smoked filter tips. I also wanted to see if she took MasterCard. The official witch of Salem, Massachusetts, takes MasterCard.
With Bess lagging behind us, we walked inside. A bell above the door announced us, and a decrepit woman shuffled out from a back room. She hitched up her skirt when she saw us and flicked ashes off her cigarette. I'd been right about the filter tips.
The gypsy led us to folding chairs around a tilted card table, and I had a chance to look around. Other than the table and chairs, the room was bare. There was a threadbare carpet on the floor, and pet stains decorated it randomly. An obnoxious, yapping poodle appeared from the back and jumped on my lap, sniffing. I hate dogs - they're right up there on my list with children and cigarettes. But just like children and cigarette smoke, dogs always go for me first. As politely as I could, I pushed the poodle onto the floor. All dogs are bad, but poodles are the worst.
The fortune teller's name was Miriam. "Meer-iam," she said, with that hard Utah r. She discreetly looked outside, probably checking which car was ours. Little clues like that help a fortune teller. But a man in a beat-up Toyota had parked right after us, in the spot behind Alex's Jaguar. The gypsy wouldn't know which car had brought us here.
I'd always wanted to see a palm reader work, but watching this one in action was hardly dramatic. The fortunes were generic. I could have told fortunes like that - stuff about riches and travel and health and happiness.
Alex and I were disappointed, but Bess looked relieved. We shouldn't have brought her here. I knew it.
Meer-iam may not have been much on reading palms, but she could read our skepticism just fine. "As a little finale," she said when Bess's hand had been read, "I want each of you to put the first name of someone on a piece of paper. I'll tell you what you need to know about that special person." Great, I thought. Even fortune tellers use "special" when they live in Utah.
Alex went first. She rooted through her purse, discreetly pushing aside the Cross pen and pulling out a chewed stub of pencil. She also found a paper towel. Resolutely, she wrote the name Ethan. Meer-iam blew a smoke ring and read the name aloud once, then twice. She was earning her ten-dollar fee. "I see purple toenail polish," she said. "The woman who holds Ethan's heart will wear purple toenail polish. Ethan has a wandering eye, but purple toenail polish will hold him."
Alex waited for more, but that was it. She looked disappointed. What did she want? The purple toenail polish was a creative touch, but even Alex couldn't believe Meer-iam knew what she was talking about.
The pencil stub was passed to me, and I wrote Timothy on the towel. Alex gave Bess a meaningful glance I caught peripherally. So what if he's dead, I thought. It's just for fun. I grinned rakishly.
Meer-iam put her hand on Tim's name, theatrically waiting for psychic vibrations. I was not going to tip this woman. "I see a love that transcends the grave," she said. "Timothy's wife will never wed another."
Bess looked shocked, but I gave her a cynical look. That could be said about anybody. Tim could have been my son, and the fortune could have meant he'd grow up to be lucky in love. Tim could have been my gerbil, who'd been miserably celibate since Samson accidentally ate Happy last year. It was only coincidence that Tim was my dead husband, the true love of my life, and I wasn't going to remarry.
Bess didn't want to take the pencil, but Alex gave her a look that said, "I'm paying for this. Play it to the hilt." Bess wrote a calligrapher's F and put the pencil down quickly. Smart move. Meer-iam wouldn't know F stood for Frederick, Rick's real name.
But the fortune teller wasn't fooled for a minute. In fact, she didn't even touch the paper before she started speaking. "This one's vibrations are strong," she said dramatically. "He'll give up everything for you. The two of you will be happy together all your lives."
I couldn't believe Bess's luck. Even her fake fortune was perfect. She looked surprised and then blissful, forgetting for a moment this was all a bunch of garbage. Then she must have remembered, because she looked repentant and sad.
Alex paid Meer-iam $30 (Utah's witch didn't take a Visa gold card, but she did accept personal checks), and we laughed all the way home. Bess relaxed as soon as we were back in the car, and even she had a few observations about the fortune teller. By the time Alex dropped Bess off at her house, she seemed to have put the whole thing behind her.
I would have forgotten it too, if not for Alex. As soon as we got inside her house, she took off her shoes and inspected her toes. They looked like toes to me - purely functional. They were square and sturdy, and the big one on the left had a few squiggly hairs Alex had forgotten to remove. But the chief drawback was the color. Like the rest of Alex, her toes were that brownish yellow shade you get from tanning beds. They'd look putrid in purple nail polish.
Alex knew it as soon as I did. "This is ridiculous. I'd even wear the stuff if I thought it'd help, but it isn't me. I'd look like a fruitcake. Ethan doesn't notice colors. Pink is close enough." She rooted through her dresser until she found day-glo pink polish, the color she always wore. The chemical smell made my nose itch.
That was the end of the fortune teller, but it was not the end of Alex's worries about Ethan.
Copyright © 1989 by Kathryn H. Kidd