“Sure,” I said. “And no muumuus. At least, not with this first child.”
,” she replied, giving a slight shudder. My fashionista friend had returned.
“How about this?” I pulled out a black-and-white dress that appeared a little more boxy in the waist.
She nodded. “It’s an early January, but it’ll have to do.” She slipped out of the gray silk and took the black-and-white dress from me. This time, the zipper slid up without a hitch.
“This was always big on me,” she said. “That’s why I usually wear it in January. In case I ate too many of Mama’s tamales over the holidays.”
“Good, now let’s concentrate on my problems.”
“Talk to me while I fix my hair.”
I followed her into the master bedroom decorated in a classy burgundy and deep navy Victorian style that matched the house. I sat on the edge of their king-size bed and moaned out loud. “Amtrak is delivering Kathryn today, and I’m nowhere near ready for her.”
Kathryn Smith Ortiz, my husband, Gabe’s, long-widowed mother, was a retired fifth grade schoolteacher. We’d met a few years ago when Gabe and I were first married and we’d flown back to Wichita so I could be officially presented to his mother, his twin sisters and a large array of friends and family. It was a second marriage for both Gabe and me. Because it happened so quickly and without her knowledge of my existence, Kathryn had, with great reluctance, accepted me as her new daughter-in-law. This year, when his two sisters ended up having other plans for Christmas, Gabe, in an uncharacteristically impulsive moment, invited Kathryn to our house here in San Celina on the Central Coast of California.
“Come spend the holidays with Benni and me. It’ll be great,” he’d said on the phone to her last week while I stared at him in unbelieving horror. He completely ignored my frantic finger-across-the-throat gesture.
“You’ll love San Celina at Christmas,” he continued. “There’s no snow, but the town really goes all out for the holidays. If you arrive on Friday, you’ll be able to see the Christmas parade Saturday morning. Benni and her dad are riding their horses in it.” When he hung up, his handsome brown face was animated with boyish excitement. “My mom’s coming here for Christmas!”
“Did it ever occur to you to ask
before you asked her?” My tone and expression were somewhere between snappish and whining. It was not, I know, an attractive combination.
He cocked his head, his blue-gray eyes confused and slightly hurt. “You don’t want my mom to come to our home for Christmas?”
I sighed, shook my head and lied my socks off. “Of course I do. It’s just that it was so . . . unplanned.” I’m certain my smile was less than convincing.
She’s my mother-in-law,
I wanted to scream.
Do you have any idea what kind of preparation is necessary to get ready for her visit?
It occurred to me at that moment that she was arriving on Friday the thirteenth. How appropriate. The Wicked Witch of the West music from
The Wizard of Oz
echoed through my brain.
“You’re always saying I need to be more spontaneous,” he said, his tone accusing.
I smiled at him again, trying to tune out the ominous music in my head. To be honest, it was good to see my normally stressed-out, police chief husband excited about something. He’d been sad and quiet since the death of his cousin Luis last month. We’d both come through a tough time because of the tragic circumstances surrounding it and were just now tentatively talking about what happened. I’d been looking forward to a peaceful holiday at my dad’s ranch with my gramma Dove in charge of the whole shebang, something she still loved to do. Now, it looked like I’d have to switch to warp speed to prepare our house for my mother-in-law’s arrival.
“It’ll be fun,” I lied again, wrapping my arms around his waist. What was that saying, fake it until you make it? Maybe I could fake it until I felt it.
“Kathryn arrives at the Amtrak station at six p.m.,” I said to Elvia, lying back on her bed and throwing my forearm over my eyes. “Can I just stay here until New Year’s?”
“Is she bringing her dog?” Elvia faced me, her hair fashioned into a classy French twist.
“Bite your tongue!” I said, horrified at the thought. “If God has any compassion for me at all, that animal will not leave the state of Kansas. You know I love dogs, but I make an exception for Daphne. To be honest, I don’t think she’s really a dog. She’s a gargoyle come to life.”
My mother-in-law’s Boston terrier, Daphne, had taken an instant dislike to me the minute I stepped over the threshold of Gabe’s childhood home in Derby, Kansas. Nothing I tried could win that dog over, which had made Kathryn even more suspicious of the woman her only son had married.
“It’s very odd,” Elvia said. “Aren’t Boston terriers called America’s gentlemen?”
“Yes, they are known for being easygoing and loving. I think Daphne needs some queen-size Prozac pills.”
“Or you will, if Kathryn brings her,” Elvia said, laughing.
I was happy to see my small-fry troubles had made my friend temporarily forget her hormonally induced emotions. “My family doctor is on speed dial. How’re things looking at the bookstore?” Elvia owned Blind Harry’s Bookstore, the last independent bookstore between Santa Barbara and San Francisco.
She picked up a square black leather briefcase. “It looks like it’s going to be a good holiday season. Sales are up from this time last year.”
“Did my shipment of outsider art books come in yet?” I asked.
Elvia had ordered some books for the museum’s two gift shops. One was located in the museum’s small lobby and the other, our new shop, called Local Hands, was downtown on Lopez Street, not far from Blind Harry’s. A special exhibit of California outsider art was opening this Wednesday at the museum. I always liked stocking a few books on whatever folk art we were highlighting at the museum.
“Yes, you can pick them up today. Did the Finch painting finally arrive?”
The star of our California Outsider Art exhibit was an original painting donated by a popular, fairly new member of San Celina society, Nola Maxwell Finch. She was the great-niece of the famous and reclusive Nevada outsider artist, Abe Adam Finch, whose arresting and original paintings captivated the art scene ten years ago. Some of his original paintings now sold for close to thirty thousand dollars.
“I signed for it this morning,” I said, sitting down on a silk-covered dressing stool and retying the laces of my New Balance tennis shoes. No flat-heeled Justin boots for me today. I had a dozen places to go in less than eight hours, and my arches would need some major support. “It’s incredible. The details are amazing.”
The painting, called
Abraham’s Tree of Life Equal and Everlasting Amen
, was an eleven-by-fourteen depiction of a fantasy tree, part oak, part pine. It had the thick, swirly trunk of an oak and dark green leaves that appeared to have pine needles poking out from them. A riotous combination of unlikely fruits, birds and animals lived in the tree—zebras, dogs, cats, rabbits, moles, bears, blue jays, magpies—animals and birds from all over the world and some, it appeared, not even of this planet. The colors were both bold and muted, the background a soft golden glow, like the sun setting or rising. It was an odd combination of naive and sophisticated, which made the viewer wonder about the artist. Was he a visionary, a true genius, or was this the art of the insane? So little was known about Abe Adam Finch that it was speculated that he was a painting savant, locked away somewhere painting his colorful, haunting paintings that were promoted tirelessly by his great-niece, Nola Finch. He was not represented by any art gallery, something Nola said he insisted on, which only added to the speculation of who he was. His signature was small, almost childlike, printed as if with great care. All the letters were of the same small case size.
“Right now,” I told Elvia, “it’s locked in my bedroom closet being watched over by the best four-legged security system in San Celina. But Gabe’s probably picked it up by now. We’ll keep it in his office until D-Daddy checks the museum’s security system one more time.”
“Is Scout feeling better?” she asked, snapping her purse closed.
I followed her out the bedroom door and down the long staircase. My chocolate-colored, half-Lab, half-German shepherd dog had jumped a little too enthusiastically for a Frisbee last week at the dog park. “The vet said it was just a strain. No rough play for a couple of weeks and some anti-inflammatory drugs. I bought him an orthopedic bed that cost a fortune, but it’ll be worth it if he sleeps better.”
“I can sympathize,” Elvia said. “I can’t seem to find a comfortable position to sleep in myself. I feel so offkilter. Emory offered to buy us a new mattress set, but I’m not sure that’ll do any good.”
We parted ways at the sidewalk. I headed for my purple Ford Ranger truck parked two blocks away in front of my and Gabe’s California Craftsman bungalow that I’d been frantically cleaning since that fateful phone call a week ago. I’d also baked pies, biscuits, muffins and casseroles, frozen now and ready to cook each night. I couldn’t make too much fun of my friend’s obsession with her clothes, because I’d planned for this visit from Gabe’s mother like it was Sherman’s march into Atlanta. Gabe had wisely moved out of my way and did whatever I commanded without one syllable of back talk.
“You know,” he’d said, when he walked in on me earlier this week in the kitchen marking pages in my Cattlewomen’s Association and San Celina First Baptist Church Women’s Missionary Union cookbooks, “we could just eat out like we usually do.”
“Not on your life, mister,” I’d replied, pulling out another favorite source of recipes, Dove’s stained and ancient Sugartree, Arkansas, Cemetery Association cook-book. There was a hashed brown potato casserole I’d remembered was really good. “Going out to eat every night would really give your mama a month of stories to tell her friends back in Derby.”
“What could she say?”
“That you’d married a woman who couldn’t—or worse, wouldn’t—cook for her husband.”
“What do you care what a bunch of old biddies back in Derby think about you?” he foolishly asked.
I looked up and stared at him, not blinking.
“Go rake the leaves in the backyard,” I finally replied. There was no way a man could ever understand why it was crucial for a woman to make at least a modicum of a good impression on his mother, the first, some say the most important, woman in a man’s life. “And clean up the dog poop. Your turn.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, saluting me and grinning with an easiness I hadn’t seen in a few months. “Anything you say, ma’am. I live to serve.”
I couldn’t help smiling at his teasing. His toothpaste-commercial white teeth against his beautiful copper skin were among the first things that attracted me to him. He hadn’t been smiling much since his cousin died, so if me going emotionally bananas over impressing his mother made him laugh, it seemed a small price to pay. “Get lost, Joe Friday. I’ve got important things to do.”
He left whistling, always loving it when I called him by the nickname I’d bestowed upon him the first time we met.
I thought about his smile this morning as I drove from Elvia’s house toward the folk art museum. It made me feel hopeful on this perfect Central Coast winter day. The sun was bright, but we’d had some early November rain, which turned the hills surrounding San Celina into a mixed salad of shaded greens that brought joy to every rancher’s heart. The more rain, the less hay we’d have to buy. Not to mention that it decorated the town with a natural Christmas cheer that had to gladden even the most cynical holiday Scrooge.
On Lopez Street, San Celina’s main drag, the downtown merchants had gone all out this year with the old-fashioned streetlamps twisted with artificial pine boughs and twinkling white lights. More than one pickup truck passed me sporting a wreath on its grill; a couple had menorahs in the wreaths’ centers. Today, Elvia had told me, was the judging of the holiday window displays. The folk art museum’s new downtown store, Local Hands, was giving Blind Harry’s a run for the ribbon this year.
I turned into the parking lot of the folk art museum, pleased by its neat-as-a-fried-pie appearance. Not a red tile was out of place on the old hacienda’s Spanish-style roof, and the whitewashed adobe walls were spotless. My underpaid assistant, D-Daddy Boudreaux, was out front watering the whiskey barrel planters overflowing with native winter wildflowers. I would have to talk to Constance about giving him a raise. Since he’d become not only my assistant but virtually the museum and co-op’s facilities manager, the grounds looked perfect. He deserved a raise, even if I had to have it taken from my own paycheck.
“Hey, D-Daddy,” I called, climbing down from my truck.
“How’s your old hound?” he asked, turning his trickling hose to another barrel filled with wild mustard and sky-blue columbine.
“He’s doing okay. The vet gave him pills to relieve most of the pain, but he’s more than happy to lie in his new bed. I’ve put it on the front porch so he can watch the neighborhood between naps.”
“He be a good dog, him,” D-Daddy said, reaching around to turn off the spigot. “Miz Constance, she called. On her way down she say to talk ’bout some important bizness.”
I sighed. With Constance, I never knew if what she wanted to talk about was actually important or just a burr under her very expensive, custom-made saddle. But she was our biggest, most dependable patron, so catering to her burrs was part of my job. “Did she give a hint about what was bothering her?”
He shook his head no, his head of pure white hair glinting in the bright morning sun. “She be huntin’ bear sound like.”
“You know, that’s the second time I’ve heard that comment this morning. I think bears are getting a bad rap.”
He glanced over my shoulder and gave a cheerful wave. “Your buddy’s here,
I turned to look at the bright red Dodge Ram pickup parking next to my Ranger. The driver was something to me, though I’m not sure the term
covered it. Detective Ford “Hud” Hudson and I had a sort of friendship. Our relationship had its share of tension and sometimes outright animosity, but something in it had shifted when we’d gone through some heavy stress together last month when his daughter, Maisie, and I were involved in a hostage situation. The incident had moved our relationship past its teasing, semiflirtatious mode into something I’d not yet been able to classify.