Eligible bachelors

Alex scanned the room to see if anyone she knew was in attendance. It was not unusual for Will to leave her alone for long periods of time at these kinds of events, where her role was two-fold: she was a prop that made him appear to be a normal, functional 28-year-old insurance salesman who just happened to be able to enjoy five consecutive Jack-with-a-splashes over a two-hour period, and afterward, she was his designated driver.

With a girlfriend like Alex, a respectable, hardworking college grad with a shoulder-length blond bob exactly like his mother’s, no one would imagine that Will would leave the reception and then demand to be driven to a bar. If Alex refused, he’d have her stop at the store and pick up a case of beer for the long night ahead.

Naturally, Alex had met Will in a bar. It never struck her as strange that he seemed to know everyone in the room. It was part of his natural charisma, she had first thought.

Will seemed to know everyone in Waterford, where he’d grown up among a close-knit group of friends who all lived in and around Chestnut Street in the small city’s most exclusive neighborhood. They swam at the country club on the weekends while their parents played golf and ate lunch.

“I’ve never been to the county fair before,” Will told Alex once when she asked if he wanted to go for a funnel cake. Alex had been astounded.

“Where did your parents take you for fun when you were little?” she asked.

“I don’t know. Skiing, I guess,” had been his reply.

Tonight they were attending the wedding reception of his friend Carlisle Preston, who graduated the same year as Will from Fauquier Country Day School. Will had followed Carlisle to the University of Virginia, where they both played rugby. It was not unusual for Will and Carlisle to carry on for hours, reliving the glory days of their college years.

Since graduation, Carlisle had dabbled in real estate and opened a number of turn-key businesses around town. Will worked for his father’s insurance company, although Alex had surmised that he didn’t actually earn enough to cover the cost of his own rent, much less his vacations and running tabs at every yuppie bar in town.

Alex was following Will to the bar at Carlisle’s reception when they were intercepted by a man in his 40s who looked a bit like Matt Damon with a receding hairline.

“Hello Roger,” Will said. “How’s business?”

Alex had noticed that Will deepened his southern accent and spoke a little more slowly whenever he was talking to a native Waterford resident. It was an effect that had probably added to his charm when they’d met, when she was under the influence herself. But under the cold glare of sobriety, it seemed contrived.

“Roger, this is my friend Alex,” Will said. He always introduced her as his friend, even though they had been dating for nine months. Will thought of himself as one of Waterford’s most eligible bachelors. Not only was he good-looking, but any girl would be lucky to marry into his family, he’d said. Moreover, whomever he chose would be an exceptional beauty, highly intelligent and preferably well-bred.

Most of Will’s long-term adult relationships had been with girls like Alex, girls who had attended public high schools and whose fathers did not own stock in any company. This was one of the reasons the relationships had not worked out, he had said. Those girls were entirely too eager to marry, perhaps hoping to escape their lackluster Berkshire County existences.

As a result, Alex never brought up marriage. On the contrary, she avoided the topic. She didn’t like the way he seemed to dangle commitment in front of her like a carrot. Besides, her relationship to him was more maternal than romantic most of the time. She was his chauffeur. She changed the sheets on his bed and picked up his shirts from the dry cleaner. She cleaned up the vomit when Will ate something that didn’t agree with him. He never drank anything that didn’t agree.

They had long friendly conversations when they were alone, but Alex felt like she disappeared as soon as someone turned on the tap in public. Once he’d had a few drinks, Will was someone else entirely. He was like a politician currying favor with a room full of constituents. Only his constituents were young suburban barflies.

“Alex,” Roger said, extending a hand, “What’s your last name? Do I know your parents?”

Alex was used to this line of questioning in and around Waterford. Older people usually asked about her parents. They assumed that as a 20-something female, all her assets and merits were readily apparent.

“Last name’s Chang,” Alex said, flashing a sardonic, snaggle-toothed grin. “Father’s a dentist.”

Roger looked at Will and issued a nervous chuff.

“I only ask because my daughter Casey is graduating from college this year. I was wondering if you knew her.”

“No,” Alex said. “I graduated in 2007.”

“What do you do then? Are you in insurance?”

“No,” Alex replied. “I work for Waterford Media Relations. I’m called a copywriter, but I do a little bit of everything. What about you?”

“I’m a real estate developer,” Roger said. “I buy farmland and then, well, we build on it.”

“Do you sell it first or build on it and sell the houses?” Alex asked. Attending parties with Will had at least helped her hone her small-talking skills.

“It depends. There are different ways we do it,” Roger said.

Will intervened, asking Alex if she would mind fetching him a Jack and Coke. She was grateful for the exit card.

When Alex returned 10 minutes later, Will was sitting at a table with Roger, Carlisle’s sister Melanie and another girl Alex had never met. Alex put Will’s drink down beside him and stood behind him for a few minutes. There were no seats left at the table and Will was engrossed in conversation with this new girl. They were talking about a mutual friend who lived in Colorado, and Will was saying he was planning a trip out there the week of Thanksgiving.

“I’ll probably go by myself,” he said. “Alex has to work. It’s always a good time if you like skiing. Do you ski?”

Alex wandered away in search of a familiar face. Will didn’t like when she read or played with her phone at social functions. It wasn’t classy, he said.

In the car afterward, Will lectured Alex on her rudeness.

“You know, you really ought to be nicer to my friends,” he said. “A lot of them could really help you, you know, with your career.”

Alex rolled her eyes. It wasn’t the first time he’d insinuated that she was lucky to know him and his friends. But deep down, she had to admit that on some level, he was right. Sad as she was about not being anyone’s true love, she knew she could never compete with Jack Daniels and ski bunnies. And any of his friends’ parents was a potential client for her firm. Alex had to earn her keep in the world and she didn’t want to spend the rest of her life functioning as Will’s chauffeur regardless of his plans. She vowed to take his advice and learn to schmooze like him.

When Roger Holloway called her the following week and asked her to have dinner with him, she agreed, knowing Will would approve.

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The surprise

A westerly breeze blew in just as Tom finished the last strokes of the starry scene he had painted on the side of their new mailbox. He had been working on the project for several weeks, sneaking into the garage to paint while Sara and the kids were busy. Painting the mailbox had been a welcome distraction from the stress of a new school year. He could not have guessed that going from assistant principal to principal of Berkshire County High would be such a large leap requiring so many answers he did not have on a daily basis. Today he’d had 10 calls from parents, 150 emails, a fight that resulted in a black eye at lunchtime, and two calls from the superintendent.

He couldn’t wait until Sara got home. For years she had been coveting a lovely scenic mailbox like those of so many neighbors in Sunnybrook Meadows. Mr. and Mrs. Preineke had a different mailbox for every season – one painted with purple pansies, another featuring a river snaking through the mountains, a fall mailbox adorned with red and golden leaves, and a winter box all decorated with snowmen.

Sara pulled up in her pink hybrid, which Tom disliked immensely. It was unusually selfish of Sara to choose a car barely big enough to accommodate her family. A car that he was embarrassed to drive. Tom shuddered as he imagined himself pulling into the school parking lot in Sara’s car.

But hadn’t Sara been doing lots of selfish things lately? Like going back to work full-time during the biggest transition of his career.

Tom looked at his watch. It was 6:45 p.m. Sara was late, as usual. He watched her park the car and walk inside.

“Hi,” Tom said petulantly, following her in.

“Hi, Tom,” she said, not looking back at him as she continued into the dining room, where she slung several bags onto a chair. She went into the kitchen, poured a glass of water, and sat down at the table.

“Where have you been? I tried to call you,” he said.

“Murder trial,” she replied. “I wrote 900 words in 45 minutes. I hope I spelled everyone’s name right.”

Sara could be such a resentful witch. Of course it would be all his fault if she had made a mistake because she was rushing to get home to help him. Not that he needed any help. Over the years he’d worked hard to support her so-called career, serving fish sticks to toddlers while she interviewed an octogenarian about his stamp collection. At times it had seemed to him more like a very inconvenient hobby. But this murder trial stuff was really ridiculous. Why would a 38-year-old woman who loved blue hydrangeas want to spend her days surrounded by thugs and convicts and cops and lawyers?

“I don’t suppose you had time to pick up Hailey’s prescription?”

“Yes,” Sara replied. “I did.”

“I have to meet with Fred Hodges tomorrow after school. I need those tax forms I told you to find,” Tom said.

“I don’t know where they are, Tom, and I don’t care. You don’t even need them. You’re just being a paranoid maniac.”

“This is exactly why we never have any money. It’s because you don’t pay any attention to details. You don’t keep records. You are completely disorganized. You are just like your mother,” Tom said.

Sara had already gotten up from the table and started walking up the stairs.

“You wouldn’t last a day in my job,” he continued until Sara slammed the door.

Sara wilted back on the bed and thought about where she might have put the forms. Her head was pounding. She thought of the women standing outside the courthouse with their signs.

She hated Tom. If ever she believed in herself for five minutes he was there to tear her down with what Dr. Phil called character assassination. At work people said “thank you” when she did things correctly even though she was being paid. At home no one noticed what she did correctly, only what she did not do. Later, she thought, I’ll look at the classified ads and see how much apartments cost.

For the rest of the evening Tom and Sara avoided eye contact with one another, putting Hailey and Kyle to bed separately. Sara read to Kyle; Tom to Hailey.

After the children were asleep, Tom opened a beer and sat in front of the television watching two grown men punch each other. He thought briefly how odd it was that the same act that had caused his blood pressure to skyrocket at 1:30 p.m. was helping him relax at 10:30 p.m. Finally he finished his beer and went to bed.

In the basement, Sara folded laundry. Hailey was supposed to wear something blue tomorrow and bring a toy that started with the letter ‘B.’

Tom had forgotten to take his pants out of the dryer again. She got them out and folded them carefully, stacking them on top of the ironing board. Then she noticed the shirt and tie he had hung meticulously by the stairs. Surely he planned to wear them tomorrow, for as much grief as he gave her about not planning, he was the one always washing his clothes the night before he wanted to wear them. If he washed his own clothing at all.

She looked closely at the tie, a fraying orange and brown hand-me-down circa 1976 bestowed upon Tom by his father. This probably had something to do with Spirit Day. She took the tie off the hanger, walked upstairs, put it in the trash, and replaced it with the blue silk one she had gotten him last year for Christmas. There was no way she was letting that self-important tyrant show up at work tomorrow looking like a sad clown who just been laid off from the circus.

Cake snub

Jennifer had been up since 4 a.m., when Madeleine had kicked her in the back for the fourth time since they had fallen asleep at 9. She was at her computer scanning in transcripts and test scores when the girl came down the stairs carrying her Hello Kitty blanket, stood beside Jennifer’s desk, and asked for a soy ice cream sandwich.

“No you may not have an ice cream sandwich, young lady. That is unacceptable. How about a pop tart?” was Jennifer’s answer.

“A brown one,” Madeleine said.

Jennifer got up, poured another cup of coffee, and opened the box of pop tarts.

Madeleine sat down at the table and waited for her breakfast.

“Can we make the cupcakes today?”

“Maddy, I don’t have time today. I have that interview at the bakery this morning. You are going to Grandma’s house.”

“But you said we’d make the cupcakes,” Madeleine cried, burying her face in her hands.

Jennifer put the pop tart down on a plate in front of the crying girl, got out a bowl and a measuring cup. Together they made the cupcakes, omitting the butter and eggs and substituting oil and applesauce. These were to be healthy “vegan” cupcakes, not because Jennifer was a healthy vegan, but because Madeleine was allergic to eggs and dairy products.

She began to melt the soy butter for the frosting and soon realized that she only had half the suggested amount of confectioner’s sugar. What would happen if she used miniature marshmallows in place of sugar?  

The cupcakes were fantastic. Jennifer put one in a pink cardboard box to take with her to her interview with Mr. Antonelli at the bakery. She also took her portfolio, which contained all of her transcripts, test scores, lesson plans for teaching vegan cooking, the results of all her background checks, driving records and four letters of recommendation.

Her degree was in philosophy, but now she wanted to teach cooking classes three nights a week at Dough Boys, a trendy bakery downtown. What she really wanted, if ambition were no object, was to open her own bakery and offer cooking classes there. She’d start a franchise, become a millionaire and give 20 percent of her earnings to charity. And she would buy all the Pampered Chef products her little heart desired.

Mr. Antonelli tasted the cupcake.

“It’s good,” he said.

“What do you know about teaching?”

“Well,” Jennifer replied, “I’ve taught a few private cooking lessons at my home with up to eight people. Actually, I’ve been baking since I was 13. They used to sell my stuff at the Country Store on Route 629. Then in college I worked in the cafeteria and I made all the pies. I love to make pies. And since I had Madeleine I started baking at home and I’ve had a pretty good business going. I can make up to $200 a week, but of course if I get the job here, I’ll just do this. I don’t want to compete with my employer.”

“You say you’ve got a kid?” Mr. Antonelli asked.

“Yes, Madeleine, she’s 5.”

“What does your husband do?”

“He’s a restaurant manager.”

“He must work long hours.”

“Yes.”

“Who’s going to take care of your little girl while you’re teaching these classes?”

“Oh, my mother. And my husband, when he’s home,” Jennifer said.

Mr. Antonelli opened the binder Jennifer had given him, which was all decorated in cupcakes and pies. He studied her transcripts.

“A 3.5. Honors graduate?”

“That’s right,” Jennifer said, adjusting her collar. “I’ve been told I’m very organized and dependable.”

“Look, Jennifer, I’m looking for somebody who’s going to be around for a few years. Something tells me you think you’re on your way to something else. You know this job only pays $10 an hour.”

“Oh, Mr. Antonelli, I really want this job. If I get this job, I promise I’ll be here three nights a week.”

“What are you going to do when your daughter gets sick?”

Jennifer stared at Mr. Antonelli, then reached across the table and took her portfolio. She stood up and headed for the door, but before she left, she turned to face him one last time.

“You know that question is illegal, don’t you?”

When Jennifer got home, she poured a glass of wine and started to cry. She had done it to herself. She’d said too much. She’d tried too hard. It seemed like if there was a choice between trying too hard and not trying hard enough, you were much better off to err on the side of laziness. At least then you didn’t face the rejection. You knew the what, but you didn’t know why.

The door opened and Madeleine came bursting in with a bag from the Dollar Store.

“I’m sorry,” Jennifer’s mother said, keys in hand. “I needed cat food.”

Madeleine emptied a bag of trinkets that included dice, a Minnie Mouse figurine, and a plastic cylinder containing glow-in-the-dark bugs.

“Let’s use these to decorate the cupcakes,” Madeleine said.

Together they put the bugs on the cupcakes. Jennifer left one out for Paul to eat when he got home. She and Madeleine went to bed.

The next morning, Paul asked her what she used in the frosting.

“Brown sugar, butter and marshmallows,” she told him.

“They were great. Might have to get that recipe for the restaurant,” he said.

“You know, Jenn, you’re a good baker, but doing something isn’t the same as teaching it,” Paul said.

She agreed. He was right. She should quit screwing around and stick to baking, to doing what she knew she was good at. She’d probably make more money that way anyhow.

For two days, Jennifer did nothing but dishes and laundry and baking and deliveries. And she cried. Not a steady, nervous breakdown kind of crying, but the kind where you stare into the refrigerator and forget what you’re looking for, then realize your eyes are full of tears.

On the third morning, when Madeleine kicked her in the back at 4 a.m., Jennifer got up, turned on her computer, and started filling out a loan application. Waterford needed a new bakery.