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Lily and Grady's first date--or is it?
Just as I was about to grab my purse, Grady came up and asked, “Lily, where do you keep all those take-out menus?”
I fumbled around in the shelf below the counter and brought up four or five grubby menus. Grady leafed through them, finally selected one. “How’s the Thai Garden?” he asked. “You’ve eaten there, I guess.”
“If you aren’t a fan of really hot food, I’d pick something else,” I said.
Grady put the menu down. “I thought I’d just pick up something for dinner tonight, but I can’t decide what I’m in the mood for.”
“Not cooking?” I asked.
“No, Mom and Dad were invited out for dinner with some friends. They’ll play bridge afterward.”
“I’m glad your mother is feeling well enough to go out,” I said.
He gave a non-committal little shrug. “Any suggestions?”
“What do you—” I started, and then said, “Gosh, I’m such a dope.”
He raised an eyebrow.
“I have a big dinner all prepared for tonight, and a half-hour ago Dee called and cancelled. Tim Junior is sick. So here I have all this food and, well, why don’t you come and help me eat it?”
He hesitated. “Are you sure? I don’t want to just barge in.”
“Don’t be silly,” I said, more sharply than I intended. I realized I was taking my frustration out on Grady, and made an effort to soften my tone. “You aren’t barging in, I invited you. All I have to do is put the food in the oven, so if you come over in about an hour it’ll be ready. Or you can follow me home now and we can have a glass of wine while it cooks. Whatever.”
It wasn’t the most elegant invitation ever extended, but Grady’s face lit up anyway.
“Thanks. Let me get the wine. I have some …”
“Upstairs,” I finished. “Which you bought at an estate sale and then didn’t know what to do with it.”
His jaw dropped. “Uncanny. How did you know that?”
I almost answered, and then saw the teasing glint in his eyes. “Pick something that goes with chicken,” I suggested.
We walked to my house, Grady carrying the bottle of wine. When we got there, he suggested he chill it first, so I dumped some ice cubes in a large aluminum mixing bowl—the nearest thing I had to an ice bucket.
I took the chicken out of the refrigerator and laid it on a bed of the other half of the rosemary branches. I arranged the potatoes around it and put the roaster in the oven, setting the timer for twenty minutes.
Grady watched. “Twenty minutes? Is that a convection oven?”
“No, the timer is to remind me to turn the temperature down. It’ll take about an hour after that.”
I tossed the salad and put a couple of the rolls in a paper bag, to be warmed at the last minute. I had set the table earlier, but I decided to leave the third place setting where it was until I cleaned up all the dishes later on. If Tim Junior had been able to come, Tim Senior would have brought his portable high chair and his Peter Rabbit dish and cup.
I found the two wine glasses Jill and I had used the night before, sparkling clean, in the cupboard. Grady said he thought the wine was cool enough by now, and poured us each a glass.
“Cheers,” I said, and he raised his glass in a half-salute. I led the way into the living room and we sat, looking at each other.
We both starting talking at once, and then laughed..
I told Grady a little about growing up in a small town and he told me what it was like to grow up in a large metropolitan area. We talked about college and our best and worst professors. We talked about siblings. I didn’t tell him about my relationship with Jill, only that she was still living with me and hadn’t yet seen a lawyer. I didn’t add that unless something drastic happened to alter the status quo, she never would.
Grady said that it must be nice for me to have her so close, although the situation was a sad one for her. I didn’t contradict him. I could be open about everything else, but I didn’t want to drag Grady into the sorry past I had with Jill and Paul.
The timer rang, and I jumped up and turned the temperature to three hundred fifty degrees. Then I sat back down and the conversation resumed.
Grady said he hadn’t seen his brother or sister in over a year, but that they kept in touch by e-mail and telephone. He sounded a little detached, and I wondered if he resented the fact that he had all of the care of their parents while they offered second-hand advice. But he didn’t complain and I didn’t ask.
He showed me pictures of his two nephews and niece. They were nice-looking teenagers, with Grady’s height and dark curls. I didn’t have a picture of Ashley. If Grady wondered why, he didn’t ask.
We were as careful not to tread on any toes as two strangers on a crowded bus.
Then Grady poured us another glass of wine and the conversation veered to movies we’d seen and favorite books we’d read. Books led naturally to The Book Nook and Grady volunteered that profits had been up, just slightly, in the past few months.
The timer went off again, and we took our glasses to the kitchen, where I popped the rolls into the oven and mixed brown sugar with balsamic vinegar to drizzle over the chicken, which I put on a platter with the potatoes. I set out the salad with vinegar and oil cruets, and put the rolls in a basket. Grady emptied the bottle, sharing evenly between our two glasses, and we sat down. Grady carved the chicken and I dished up the salad.
I found myself really wishing Dee was here. Everything was delicious. I was as proud of myself as a hen who had laid her first egg, but I didn’t dare brag. I wanted Grady to think that I had always been an accomplished chef. I’d had just enough wine not to know that my notebook, labeled “Take-Out” in large letters and prominently displayed on the counter, gave me away.
The food and wine had relaxed both of us, and we no longer were talking at each other, but to each other. Grady had a dry wit that he allowed full reign as we discussed our customers and their foibles until ears must have been burning all across town.
I was laughing at his imitation of Mr. Kennesaw’s proprietary attitude toward the coffee machine and wondering if there was any of the Shiraz left in the refrigerator when the door opened and Jill walked in.
Grady started to stand up, but Jill waved him back and plunked herself in the chair by the unused plate. “Looks good,” she said.
“Please help yourself,” I offered. If Jill detected the note of irony in my voice, she didn’t react to it.
“Thanks.” She took a piece of chicken and the remnants of salad.
We watched as she ate as if she were a judge on Iron Chef and we were awaiting her opinion. Eventually she put her fork down. “In case you’re wondering why I’m home so early—” she started, and I nodded because I was, in fact, wondering that very thing “—I got fired.”
“Fired? Why am I not surprised?” I said. “Frankly, I’ve been expecting this.” Both Grady and Jill glared at me.
“I should have known you were waiting for me to fall on my face,” Jill said as Grady said “Gosh, Lily” to me and “Now, now,” to Jill like a father comforting twins with teething problems.
“Wait a second! I wasn’t criticizing you, Jill. It’s just that—think for a minute. How long have you work at Tubs and Towels, anyway?”
“Almost three months,” Jill said, her lips tight in anger.
“And didn’t you tell me they said you’d get a raise and be put on the company insurance plan after three months?”
She nodded. “And?”
“They’ve just saved themselves a lot of money. Tomorrow they’ll hire someone else eager to work for minimum wage. That’s all I meant,” I said, trying for a conciliatory tone.
“They told me it was because I didn’t make my sales quota,” she mumbled.
“Well, they had to give some excuse other than the truth,” I told her. “And, you just verified my suspicions about their clerks. I bet they get paid commission for any sales over a stated amount, right?”
“Yeah, but I never collected,” Jill said. “I hate trying to force people to buy something they don’t want.”
Sensing that Grady was feeling left out, I turned to face him. “That’s why I don’t even go inside the door at Tubs and Towels. I went in once for a jar of lotion and the clerk badgered me the whole time to buy all the related products in that line: bath soap, powder, after-bath spritz, shampoo, conditioner … ” I spread my fingers to show how many products I hadn’t purchased.
I turned back to Jill. “And, the quota was probably set so high no one could make it. It’s just an excuse to keep their salespeople going through a revolving door and saving them a lot of money.”
For some insane reason, Jill seemed determined to defend her former employers. “They said it cost them a lot to train sales staff and they hated to see anyone go.”
I laughed. “Sure, like how long did it take you to figure out how to use the cash register? A day?”
Grady cleared his throat to get our attention. “If that’s true, Lily, then how do they get away with it?”
“Because no one complains to the right people,” I said. “It’s easier to get another job than to jump through all the hoops a lawsuit would involve, especially against a big company like Tubs and Towels.”
“If it happened to enough people, they could start a class action suit,” Grady countered. “Jill, you could get the ball rolling.”
“Oh, please,” I said before I could stop myself from shoving my size seven Reebok in my mouth. “Jill won’t even get a lawyer to start divorce proceedings.”
Jill’s face went white even as her cheeks turned bright red. She looked a little like a blonde Raggedy Ann.
“Oh God, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” I said. “That was out of line.”
“But completely in character,” Jill spat. “You know very well why I haven’t hired a lawyer.”
“Maybe I’d better go,” Grady said uneasily, half rising.
“Sit still. I’ve got pie and coffee yet,” I ordered. I got up and measured coffee into the four-cup coffee maker. “It’s blueberry,” I told Grady, and he sat back down.
I cut three slices from the pie and replaced the dirty dishes with dessert.
“No thanks,” Jill said.
“You love blueberry.” I handed her a clean fork. She took it meekly.
I poured the coffee and we all ate. I couldn’t taste a thing and I don’t think Grady or Jill could either.
Finally Grady broke the silence. “I’m sure everything will work out,” he told Jill.
“Thanks.” She drank the last of her coffee. “I don’t guess you know of any job openings around here?”
Grady pursed his lips as if thinking intently. Then he let out a breath. “Not really,” he admitted.
“l’omelette had a sign they were hiring,” I mentioned.
“Waitressing?” She might as well have said, “Hooking?”
Now it was my turn to bridle. “I waited tables for almost nine years,” I said. “If you’re half-way efficient and pleasant, the tips aren’t bad. Paid my way through college.” I didn’t mention that at the time I didn’t have car payments and roomed with three other students.
“Good pie,” Grady said. “Did you make it, Lily?”
I turned to look at him. “No.” I turned back to Jill. “You could work there until something better came along.”
She laughed, but it wasn’t in mirth. “Provided I get the job.”
“Well, you won’t know unless you go down and apply,” I said. “And look, it’s closer to home. You could walk.”
“Yeah, I guess you want to stop the wear and tear on your car,” she said, her voice rising.
“I didn’t say a damn thing about my car.” I raised my voice just a notch above hers.
“Great dinner, Lily, but I guess I’d better be off.” This time Grady stood all the way up.
“Uh, yeah, thanks for the wine,” I said, remembering my manners. I stood up, too, and walked him to the door.
“Sorry about this,” I said. “I don’t know what came over me.”
“My brother and I fought all the time growing up,” Grady said. “Don’t let it bother you.”
“Growing up,” I said, leaning my forehead on the door jamb. “We’re supposed to be grown up.”
Grady just chuckled. “There’s something to be said for your siblings living several states away. When you do see them, you’re on your best behavior, and by the time old rivalries flare up, they’re on their way home again.”
I managed a grin and said goodnight. Then I went back into the kitchen. Jill was eating a second piece of pie. I remembered that she always ate when stressed, and yet never gained a pound. I was willing to bet she weighed the same as she had in high school.
I poured myself another cup of coffee. After a long silence, I muttered, “I’m sorry.”
“Oh, Lily, I am, too. I was just so upset.” She set her fork down on the empty plate. “Maybe I will go down to l’omelette tomorrow. It couldn’t hurt. Can I help you with the dishes?”
“Sure, thanks,” I said. We were almost finished when Jill said, “I thought you had invited Dee and the Tims over for dinner? What happened?”
“Tim Junior had an earache,” I explained. “Grady was at loose ends, so I invited him instead.”
“Oh.” Jill folded the dish towel and hung it over the rack. “I’m glad. For a minute there, I thought I had spoiled your date.”
“It wasn’t a date,” I assured her.