THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE
Expecting a pleasant time with old friends and acquaintances, Emma finds herself again dealing with death. From the moment I began this book to the final paragraph, I was unwilling to put it down.
This third of the EG series didn't disappoint. Again, we are treated to a core group of independent women who are the centerpiece of this latest mystery. It is refreshing to read such a book, especially in these days of vapid "chick lit". The Oregon wine country serves as a compelling setting for this mystery; with an insider's keen sense of history and detail, it comes alive as a fascinating subplot.
This mystery was great fun to read. I enjoyed visualizing the Oregon wine country. Emma is a very real character and I feel I know her. The dialog is well done and the book moves along at a good clip.
Thoroughly enjoyed this book and the prior one, A Difficult Sister. Emma feels like someone I've known and I'll miss her until the next book. The pace of action suits me and kept me reading late into the night. Loved the Oregon setting - I lived there many years and the descriptions triggered lovely memories. Highly recommend.
My favorite part was the main character, Emma Golden. She is a middle-aged divorcee who acts as a real person would act. She is put out by a friend volunteering her to help a sick acquaintance but she is busybody enough to try and figure out who killed the acquaintance's husband. This is the first book in the series that I have read but I will look for the others so I can spend more time with Emma.
It’s difficult to enjoy oneself or anything else when it’s 102 degrees, but I was giving it my best shot. I’d been invited, and I was thrilled to be mingling in the excitement, people, and the promise of delicious food. I was out of my usual milieu and I was going to enjoy myself.
I took another sip of the fancy label sparkling mineral water I’d taken from the ice-filled bucket near my feet and wondered how the people around me could drink wine in this heat. Yet, in the old days I would have been right there with them.
Everything looked the same at the annual International Pinot Noir Celebration, except, perhaps, for the celebrants. They were all a little younger, perhaps a little more scholarly, healthier. My blurred memories were of a somewhat more debauched event, but hey, that could have been my condition at the time.
The fire pits were the same. Huge sides of salmon, bound onto cedar bough racks, sizzled over banked, amber coals. Nearby, a temporary bocce ball court was occupied by local and international chefs who took turns playing while they tended to the fish and other details of the upcoming feast. Occasionally one of them would throw another hunk of wood into the fire pits. Fat from the salmon dripped onto the bright coals and fragrant smoke wafted upward, filling the air with mouthwatering aromas. This was the night of the traditional Indian Salmon Bake—an event that dazzled winemakers, chefs, wine connoisseurs, and journalists from around the world.
It’s the food, rather than wine, that attracted me to this year’s event. My name is Emma Golden, and I’d hung up my tastevin nearly eight years ago. In the years prior, I’d done some of my best work at the IPNC, which is held the last weekend in July on the Linfield College campus in McMinnville, Oregon. Standing beside my friend Cat Millet, I watched as attendees sipped some of the world’s best wines and either zoned in on the chefs or mingled near the shaded wine tables. Did I miss it or not? The drinking? I guess I missed aspects of it. I missed the fun. But by the time I quit, it no longer was any fun. When the alcohol quits working, the real hell begins. And in the end, alcohol had stolen my life.
I’d always had a difficult time at social events, particularly in the years before and after wine, so it was nice to have someone here with me. “Why do they do it that way?” Cat asked, gesturing toward the salmon.
We moved farther from the heat of the fire pits and I took another gulp of water while she slowly and delicately worked on a glass of chilled pinot gris. “That’s how the local tribes used to cook them at their feasts,” I said. Wild salmon, now practically an endangered species on the West Coast, once had filled western rivers all the way to their headwaters. It had been the Indians’ primary food source, symbol of both spirituality and prosperity. Today both the Indian and the salmon populations were severely decimated. Fish the size of those on the stakes were rare. For out-of-staters, seeing wild salmon cooked in this manner amounted to a one-of-a-kind experience.
My eyes roamed the crowd for familiar faces. I’d lived in in Yamhill County for twenty years. My former husband and I raised our children here, we started a vineyard and later a winery. For many years I chronicled the Northwest wine industry in local and national publications. Then wine became my master and it was quit or die. Eight years ago I sobered up, divorced, and moved back to Portland, where I’ve been living ever since.
I still have a few friends out here, and one of those is Melody Wyatt. After I took issue with some of Melody’s behavior last winter, I’d given her wide berth. I’d needed time to let some of the wounds from our adventure together heal. Then she called me up and offered me tickets to the IPNC Salmon Bake. Wide berth notwithstanding, I willingly took the bait. Who could resist such an offer, an opportunity to see who from my old life was doing what? I love great food, and these days I seem to eat too little of it. Melody knows my weak spots. This really was too good to pass up. She even offered to put me and Cat up in her posh B&B, the Westerly.
Cat shoved her wine glass into my hand. “Pit stop,” she said under her breath.
I pointed to a row of Honey Buckets across the lawn from the oak grove. “You could always fight your way to the ladies’ in the Administration Building,” I said. “But you’d probably have to stand in a long line.”
“I’ll take the Honey Buckets,” she said. I watched as she began hiking across the broad lawn. Her long legs ate up the distance. Her hair, a professionally cut and highlighted bob, swayed as she walked. Little waves of heat rose from the lawn. I backed farther into the shade and wondered how long it would stay so unbearably hot. I wiped beads of sweat from my upper lip.
A lot of people I’d known from the old days were here tonight, even if I didn’t recognize most of them. In the years I’d been away from the wine business, we’d all gotten older, which for some meant big changes. A couple of my favorite friends from the past had died. I’d made it out for their funerals, but had never lingered to chat. I’d felt myself a little out of place. I no longer was involved in the food and wine scene, I no longer was practicing the craft I’d loved so much. There had been, and was tonight, the haunting discomfort I’ve always felt in crowds of people, when not self-medicated.
I needed to pause and remind myself of the truth. I had done a hell of a job helping to make Oregon wines familiar to aficionados both within and outside the local area. God knows, it hadn’t been easy, but it had been fun and worthwhile, and if anything I should at least allow myself a little pat on the back. Before I’d had to quit, I’d accomplished quite a lot.
Eight years later, the scene had changed to a barely recognizable new reality. Rapid growth in the wine industry plus several stunning back-to-back vintages had brought media people streaming through Oregon. In this new environment, one fewer wine writer was nothing to remark upon.
I was watching Cat as she made her way back across the lawn when I noticed man walking behind her, a big guy with hair close-cropped on his balding head and a lumbering gait like Tony Soprano. He wore a linen summer shirt and jeans, and he looked pretty tough. I suddenly realized I knew that guy!
Cat sidled up beside me, but I only noticed the man behind her. “Florian?” I called. “Florian Craig?”
The big man’s head popped up. He looked in my direction. Yes, it was himself. For a second he looked confused, and then he focused on me and broke into a huge smile. He bounded up to us, hand outstretched. We shook enthusiastically before he wrapped me into a bear-like hug. “What a wonderful surprise, darling! I was hoping I’d get to see you.”
Florian looked like a former linebacker, but if he played any sport it would have been soccer or rugby, and that a long time ago. He hailed from England, he always looked a little shady, and he could talk like a roughneck—hilariously so. But he also cleaned up real nice, and enjoyed the distinction of being wine columnist for the New York Times. I’d always thought we had a lot in common—only he wrote for the Times and I didn’t. “Bloody hell, it’s hot!” he said as he released me. I introduced him to Cat and he reached out with his meaty paw. “Lovely to meet you, darling. Please excuse the language.”
Cat shook hands and blushed. In less than thirty seconds she’d melted, and it wasn’t because of the heat. Florian Craig had charmed her off her feet—not easy, as we women of a certain age are a somewhat jaded lot. But Florian did it so easily. It’s nice to be called darling or sweetheart by someone other than a sales clerk. And no matter what else one can say about him, the man oozes a protective maleness. Had she had the same effect on him? Hard to tell. Florian was good at keeping secrets, and I couldn’t discern a clue.
I hadn’t seen him in ten years and I took in the look of him—tall, broad-shouldered, and thick, with a bullet-shaped head that ran straight into his shoulders. His forearms were the size of hams, he had broad hands and fingers like sausages. He was my age, give or take a couple years, and had put on a bit of weight since I’d last seen him. He was a formidable presence, and yet he moved gracefully, almost lightly, like a dancer in his large frame.
“Will you join us at dinner?” I asked. “And you’re here because?”
“Keynote speaker, darling. They wanted to hear me rave about pinot noir, and I didn’t disappoint. I’ve been following yours for some time, as you know.”
“By mine do you mean my former husband’s?” I wondered, referring to StoneGate, the winery owned by my ex, Dwight McCourt.
“I mean Oregon’s, darling. The wines here are spectacular. And yes, I’d be honored to join you for the feast.”
Then, just as quickly as he’d appeared, Craig glided away and melted into a group of people, with an over-the-shoulder promise to find us at dinner.
“He’s pretty cute,” said Cat when he was out of hearing range.
“He’s a lot of fun,” I said. “We drank together at all the wine competitions.”
Cat’s eyes followed Florian as he receded through clusters of people. “You must know him pretty well then?”
“Nobody knows Florian Craig very well,” I told her. “Even when he’s drinking, which is most of the time, it’s all small talk with him. Great small talk, don’t get me wrong. He knows everything about food and wine, not to mention all the players. He’s dragged me kicking and screaming to several of New York’s finest little-known restaurants, and I’ve always enjoyed his company.”
Cat raised her eyebrows at me. “Strictly platonic, darling,” I said, taking a stab at Craig’s English accent.
“Maybe you’ll have better luck.”
She laughed. “Yes, maybe I will,” she said, more to herself than to me.
As the sun moved behind the Coast Range we transitioned into a hot and airless evening that was nearly as miserable as the day had been. Fairy lights strung between the trees flickered overhead. Luscious food aromas, voices, and laughter filled the air. In the center of the Oak Grove, a band began setting up. Good as his word, Florian caught up with Cat and me in time to eat. Plates loaded with grilled salmon, salads, and butter-soaked sweet corn on the cob, we staked out a table at the edge of the grove. Florian pulled three bottles of high-pedigree Burgundy out of a black canvas wine carrier, set them on the table, and commenced opening. It appeared that we were in for a perfect, albeit hot, evening.
I’d no sooner tucked into my food when a voice I’d know anywhere said, “Mind if we join you?” It was my former husband Dwight McCourt, and he was with a woman. As it turns out, it was a woman I didn’t have much use for. Pamela Fontaine, aka the Bitch. I kicked Cat under the table and she took her eyes off Florian long enough to take note of the interlopers. She knew Dwight, and I’m pretty certain I’d told her about Pamela. Introductions were performed all around. Pamela and I acknowledged each other with slitty-eyed glares.
Dwight, of course, also had brought along his own secret stash of wine—a couple of StoneGate Winery’s finest pinots plus a fine, aged chardonnay from a vintage I remembered well. I took another bite of salmon and surveyed the scene. It was turning out to be quite the affair. There was Dwight, almost as big as Florian, with his thick red-going-to-gray hair. He looked less rumpled than usual, and his hair and beard had been respectably trimmed. Then I looked at Pamela the Bitch—living proof that one can never be too rich nor too thin—with her tiny frame, expensive clothes, and expertly coiffed cap of silver hair.
Were they living together? Is that why Dwight looked so civilized? I could feel my brain racing, trying to wrap itself around that idea, all the while silently saying the Serenity Prayer. Maybe I’d get lucky and accept the things I couldn’t change. Several months ago, I’d learned that Pamela had ignored her then-husband’s sexual abuse of their daughter, and I’d told her in my usual tactful way what I thought about that. There’d been no love lost between us since then. I couldn’t believe that someone I’d once been married to would fall for the likes of Pamela, but she’s good looking and very rich. More important, the world is a very strange place.
I was getting ready to whisper something snarky in Cat’s ear when someone pulled out the chair to my left. Two more bottles of wine appeared on the table. “Is this seat taken?” James Ryder, one of the founding fathers of the Oregon wine industry, stood at the table, plate in hand, expression akin to that of Oliver Twist asking for more gruel. Beside him stood his youngest daughter Stephanie.
“Sit,” I ordered. James Ryder and I had been each other’s biggest fans in the old days. I knew he’d round out the table. He’d been one of my first interviews as a wine writer, and over the years had become a good friend. I knew he wasn’t sitting here just to catch up with me. His motive for choosing our table to get Florian Craig’s ear.
Tall and lean, with a head of thick white hair, at nearly seventy he still was very handsome. However, as with all of us, gravity would have its way. I noticed his age particularly around his eyes and neck. He leaned down and kissed me on the cheek. He absolutely reeked of booze and stale cigarette smoke.
Stephanie seated herself beside him without saying a word to anyone. She was the winemaker at Ryder Estate now, gifted in her profession but odd. Stephanie was the youngest of three daughters, and from the get-go had been inseparable from her father, even going so far as to become a winemaker in his footsteps.
While she might be a vintner extraordinaire, she didn’t have a socially adept bone in her body. She’d always kept to herself, when not following her dad around. Tonight she looked well beyond anti-social. Her dark blond hair hung long and greasy, past her shoulders. A tight tank top revealed rolls of midriff and belly fat. She wore a too-short skirt and flip-flops. She looked like a train wreck and I wondered if there wasn’t something going on with her—something more than simple reclusiveness.
“So good to see you, Emma,” James said, his attention still focused on Florian. Once he’d parked his plate, he made his way around the table to shake hands with the rest of the group while Stephanie, expression surly, hunched over her food and commenced shoveling it into her mouth. Once more, I leaned toward Cat. “You’ve met him haven’t you?”
“Of course,” she said. “At your place ages ago. Remember? Where’s his wife?”
I watched as James made his way from person to person, pausing especially to chat with Florian Craig. He looked different. He’d gained belly weight, but more than that he sported an encroaching seediness I wasn’t quite ready to acknowledge. His eyes, once always bright with adventure and mischief, had dulled. “Good question,” I answered under my breath. “He’s gotten a pot gut.”
“Good grief, Emma! Behave yourself.”
The heat must have gotten to me, not to mention that truckload of wine. I had no intention of behaving myself. It struck me that something was very off with James. My mind raced and I felt a mixture of uncomfortable feelings—the feelings I get in large gatherings where I feel like I’m spinning out of control. In my mind, I was back in it again, part of this life. Yet I knew that wasn’t true. Irritability nagged at me leaving me feeling desperately out of place. Coming out to an event like this, with all its triggers and my own special mix of uncertainties, had been a huge mistake.
Then James was back, and seated next to me. It took only a few seconds of sitting in close proximity to realize that the man was drunk on his lips. I watched as he carefully, unsteadily, opened one of his bottles of wine. Here was the visionary who had worked hard physically and mentally to bring Ryder Estate to the top back when nobody who was anybody thought Oregon could produce decent wine. It had remained at the top because he’d continued on, relentless, to keep it there. And he’d helped to bring the rest of Oregon’s once-motley crew with him. A premier wine estate, Ryder consistently showed among the best pinot noir in the world. It didn’t hurt that its owner also was a great salesman.
There had always been a fun side to James, too. I remembered the many times over the years when we’d gathered in his office for an interview and shared a bottle of wine. He’d been my pipeline, guiding me to many breaking stories about the wine industry. Now, nearing seventy, all the years of hard work and steady drinking were catching up with him. Pot gut, puffy eyes, tiny red veins on his nose and cheeks. He’d always told me he’d put quality of life over quantity any day. Watching him, I wondered how much of either he had left. He did not look like a healthy man.
I tried to suspend judgement. A man was entitled to a good drunk once in a while, and James certainly was no exception. Even drunk, he still managed that easy elegance he’d always shown around people. I could have been the only one at the table who noticed how impaired he was. To people who saw him regularly he probably looked just fine. Calm down, I told myself, and quit taking the world’s inventory. You’re not in charge. Just have fun.
I mulled those thoughts as he opened another bottle of wine. He poured for Florian Craig, dumped a generous amount into his own glass, and passed the bottle down the table. Finally he was finished with his ritual. I leaned toward him. “James, it’s been ages. What’s going on out here that’s new and dirty?”
His red face turned purple and, voice raised, he answered almost before the words were out of my mouth. “I’ll tell you what’s going on out here,” he said, his voice a shade louder than necessary. “There’s a shyster up here from Las Vegas who thinks he’s going to put a destination resort up the hill from me. That little shithead is here tonight, and when I find him I’m going to straighten him out.”
General conversation at our table ceased, as it did at the tables nearest ours. Obviously I was out of the loop. I lowered my voice. “Does he own the property?” I asked.
Ryder treated the table to another terse, again louder than necessary response. “Yes he does—he and a group of crooks from Nevada are trying to buy off our county commissioners, who don’t have a brain among them. I don’t object to a spa. The valley could use a classy resort, but why do they think they have to build it up the hill from my vineyard? Think of the traffic. Think of the idiots who are going to stop their cars and walk into my vineyard to take a nice picture, and spread disease in the Ryder vineyards while they’re at it. And what do they think they’re going to do for water up there? Dig into my well?”
By now, everyone within range had stopped eating and talking. All eyes were on our table. My former husband intervened. “James,” he said, as he walked around the table to calm my dining partner. “This isn’t really the place. How about we get together and talk this over later?”
Ryder stood, turned on him and swung a fist, which Dwight deflected easily but with a nervous laugh. Ryder stumbled, but caught himself on the back of my chair. He nearly flipped me. Florian jumped to his feet, but I managed to catch hold of the table and keep myself upright before he reached me.
James shook himself like a wet dog. He momentarily looked bewildered. “Bullshit,” he said to no one in particular. “All bullshit. I’ll put a stop to those crooks.” He absently patted me on the shoulder, but I didn’t turn around to look at him. “Just see if I don’t.” And with that, James Ryder grabbed his wine glass and one of his open bottles of wine from the table, and marched off through the crowded tables filled with staring diners.
The rest of us looked at each other. “What just happened?” said Cat.
“He’s always been passionate,” I said, trying to collect myself.
Dwight returned to his seat next to Pamela. I took another bite of the lovely salmon, but the meal had been ruined. For me it had lost its flavor. Feelings welled up in me for this man I’d so admired over the years. I’d often seen him angry, or tipsy, but never a bumbling fool.
“What was that resort stuff he was talking about?” I asked. “Is something being built out here that I don’t know about?” I had been out interviewing people for a book the preceding autumn—a book that would be out in a few short months—but not a soul had mentioned a destination resort.
Dwight, who usually keeps his nose out of everybody’s business, supplied the answer. “There’s an outfit from Henderson, Nevada, realtors and lawyers mostly. Their front man is a guy named Max Weatherman. He’s a lawyer, and he’s gotten into some trouble with the law down in Henderson regarding some of his properties. I saw him here tonight.” Then he looked in the direction James had headed. “Oh, shit. I hope James doesn’t find him.”
“Yes, but what about the resort?” I prodded.
Dwight shot me a look. “The plan is for a destination resort—hotel, spa, restaurant, the works—up the hill behind Ryder’s property. Ryder doesn’t want it on principle, and everybody in Yamhill County knows there’s no water up there.”
“Why can’t they just put it in the valley?”
“Obviously, these developer folks think it would be romantic”—Dwight made quote marks with his fingers while Pamela managed to look bored—“to have the thing up on a hillside with a view of the valley and the mountains, overlooking vineyards, et cetera. They are pushing the county hard about how building it will create jobs, tourism, economic growth, the usual stuff.”
“Which translates into wrecking the landscape and adding a bunch of minimum wage jobs,” I said. “No wonder he’s angry.”
I was about to say something else when yelling erupted several tables away. From the sound of it, James Ryder had located Max Weatherman and was about to “straighten him out”. Automatically, several of us jumped to our feet and dashed in the direction of the noise.
When we closed in on the fracas and could see what it was all about, I drew in my breath sharply. James and a somewhat younger man stood about five feet apart, face-to-face, like two roosters waiting to be loosed so they could kill each other.
Once again, James Ryder’s complexion had turned an unhealthy shade of purple. A shank of his perfect white hair had fallen into his face. The man I assumed to be Max Weatherman, appeared to be red with anger as well, but it could have been his fake tan, which gave him an overall orange cast. He was shorter than James, and trim. His razor-cut, sandy blond hair stuck to his forehead. He tried to look calm, but sweat dribbled in little rivulets down his face and his bright Hawaiian shirt clung to his torso, announcing to one and all that he was anything but serene. He appeared to be early fifties, and he wore a big gold chain around his neck.
What was James thinking to get himself into such a tawdry situation? It was none of my business. He didn’t seem the least bit concerned to be making an ass of himself. “You son of a bitch!” he screamed at Weatherman, voice cracking. He was beyond drunk, he was insane.
I stood frozen, terrified. James’s voice dropped to a menacing tone so that I had difficulty hearing him. “Go back to Nevada where they appreciate your ilk. We don’t want the mafia involved in our industry. I know all about you, and what you did, and why you moved up here with your tail between your legs. I’ve done my research. You won’t get away with that Las Vegas bullshit here in Oregon.” Then the once-elegant James Ryder made a quick and unexpected upper cut to Max Weatherman’s chin. It barely touched him. All around me I heard a huge, collective gasp.
In response, Weatherman lashed up and out with his right fist. Pop! It landed solidly on Ryder’s purple nose, and the next thing I knew, the two men were rolling on the ground punching and kicking, snorting and grunting, to surrounding cries of shock and horror. The fisticuffs quickly ended when several men dived into the mayhem and separated the fighters.
Weatherman scrambled to his feet, his nose bloodied and two buttons missing from his Tommy Bahama shirt. He dusted himself off, spat onto the ground, turned and walked more-or-less calmly in the direction of the porta-potties.
James, meanwhile, had crawled to his hands and knees, where he stayed for several long seconds before being helped to his feet. He shook his head as if he wasn’t sure what hit him, and looked around. Those surrounding him, myself included, watched with a combination of shock and pity. What a mess. Still in a state of disbelief, I looked to my side to find Cat next to me. I grabbed her by the arm and we stood there clutching each other. “What the hell? she said.
“This is just ridiculous,” I replied. “I can’t believe he’d stoop to that level of behavior.”
Someone wanted to call the police. Someone else said, “No, we don’t need any more trouble. It’s over.” James’s nose bled profusely. He staunched it with a white handkerchief. Despite the fact that he couldn’t stand without lurching back and forth, he still felt feisty. “I’ll get you,” he yelled hoarsely at Weatherman’s vanishing back. “I won’t forget this. You’ll pay for this!”
People slowly dropped away from him. He looked around drunkenly, a little lost. I marched over to him and stuck my face in front of his. “Shut up, James,” I said, not caring who heard me. “You’re too old for this crap. And you need to do something about that nose.”
He reached up, grasped his nose, and adjusted it slightly. I heard the crunch of cartilage and recoiled. James treated me to an off-kilter grin while his nose began to bleed with renewed vigor. He was too inebriated to feel any pain. He re-applied the bloody handkerchief, and held everything together for several seconds. “I’ll be fine,” he said when the bleeding finally subsided. “This old nose has been broken before and nobody died.”
I sighed in disgust. “Do it your way, then, you damned old fool. I’ll leave you to it. Why isn’t Lila here to keep you out of trouble?”
Ryder stood there for a moment as if thinking how to reply. “She’s not well,” he said. After a pause, he added, “The cancer is back.”
It hit me like a punch in the gut. “I am so sorry,” I said. No wonder he was behaving so badly. Anger is the first line of defense for men who don’t know how to deal with their emotions. “You need to get home to her.”
His eyes wandered away from me and he took another dab at his rapidly swelling nose. “Yes, I suppose I do,” he said. He pushed his hair back with a bloodied hand, leaving a streak across his forehead.
I kissed him on the cheek. I felt more sadness for him than anger. “Goodnight, James. I’ll come by tomorrow to see Lila.”
“She’d like that,” he said. Then, with a simple nod at me and Cat, he took his leave.
Back at our table, the ranks had increased. News of Florian Craig’s whereabouts had reached a number of winemakers. People I’d never seen before had pulled up chairs and set their best wine offerings on the table hoping to be noticed. I spotted Melody advancing upon us with a basket filled with yet more wine. So that’s how she was spending her volunteer time.
Melody is one of my oldest friends. We raised our children together and drank together in the old days. Melody never drank like me and our late friend Caroline, but she sure knew how to have fun. Back in the day, when we went into Portland together for a night on the town, we dubbed ourselves Stella, Ruby, and Viola. That way, if one of us got into minor trouble, nobody knew our real names. Caroline was Stella, I was Ruby, and Melody, of course, was Viola.
Melody loved to make fashion statements. Tonight she was outfitted as Carmen Miranda with a puffy sleeved white peasant blouse and a big poufy skirt that could have doubled as a tablecloth. A straw hat topped with large pieces of plastic fruit completed the ensemble. Ridiculous but fun, and she pulled it off. Crowds parted and heads turned as she moved toward us. Even under all that skirt you could see her hips rolling seductively. Her makeup was perfect, as was her dark, wavy, silver-shot hair. Her brilliant red lips were parted revealing sparkling white teeth. Though I have observed her for years, I still manage to get caught up in her performance art.
“How y’all doing here?” she asked, affecting her departed mother’s West Texas drawl. She surveyed the table. “Anybody need anything?” She put her arm around Dwight—they’d always been buddies, plus she knew how much it would bother Pamela the Bitch. There was no love lost between the two of them, either. In fact, Melody was the one responsible for Pamela’s moniker well before she and Dwight were an item. Pamela had always treated Melody like she was a hayseed, and Melody was real good at getting even.
While Pamela fumed, the men sorted through Melody’s wine offerings and managed to unearth another treasure or two. I stood up and looked over the table. Several more folks were sidling up with their chairs and glasses, hoping for an audience with Mr. New York Times. It was going to be a long evening, but not for me.
“Happy trails,” I said, to nobody in particular. Florian noticed me and looked up. He waved a pinky at me and winked. Cat stood up as if to leave. “Stay here,” I told her. I could hear the band rocking the oldies behind us. “The evening’s young. You might get a chance to dance, and Florian can give you a ride back. He’s staying at the Westerly.” She grinned at me and sat back down.
Every recovering drunk who hopes to remain sober has an escape plan. I’d known going into this party that, if I suddenly had to disappear, Cat could ride home with Melody. The reason I’d been offered tickets in the first place was because she was volunteering for the Salmon Bake food committee and her husband Dan was fishing in Alaska so they couldn’t use theirs. Melody would be here late, until things shut down for the night. But then along came Florian. I smiled to myself.
But I was done for the night. First, there’d been all that exposure to Dwight and Pamela. Not that I wanted him back, I told myself. But couldn’t he have found someone nice? And then James—to see him falling apart and to witness his behavior had been unpleasant to say the least. I was worried about the old bird. And Lila? As if I didn’t know what cancer coming back could mean? She had a rough road ahead. She’d never been my best friend, or even close to it. Over the years I’d found I had more in common with James. But she had been a friend when I lived in Yamhill County, and I knew she would need a lot of support in the upcoming months. I hoped I’d find a way to step up and offer at least some assistance.
I made my way toward my car, stopping briefly to dig a tissue out of my handbag. I was sweaty and my face was sticky, a fact I hadn’t noticed until that moment. I dabbed at my face with the tissue. The evening still clung to the day’s heat, but it had cooled somewhat. The sun had set and the western sky glowed deep purple. Once off the valley floor, it would be a pleasant drive up the hill to the Westerly, and my air-conditioned room.
The Honey Buckets loomed ahead of me in the falling dusk. As much as I hate those things, I also realized once I relaxed and caught my breath, that I needed one. It was nearly dark, and the fairy lights hadn’t made it this far from the Oak Grove. Fortunately, I only needed to reach into my bag for that tiny flashlight I always carry. At least I’d know up front if the toilets were really gross. In that likely event, there was a nice stand of bushes behind them that might prove useful.
I shined my little light on the doors. In use. In use. In use. Vacant. The empty one beckoned me, but my eyes flicked to the bank of shrubs behind it. For some reason I have had a lifelong phobia about dark, empty public restrooms.
I looked around again. At the far end of the bank of latrines a man approached. By this time, I‘d gotten myself pretty worked up at the thought of entering one of them. If it was dark out here, it would be really dark in there. There’d be pee on the seats. I just knew it! But since lots of folks like that man were wandering around out here in the twilight with me, the bushes probably weren’t such a great idea.
Time to man up, I told myself. I grabbed the handle and twisted it with one hand, flashlight at the ready in the other. At first the door wouldn’t open. I shook it a little without pulling it open, in case someone had someone forgotten to lock it. “Anybody in there?” I said, and stepped back. The door burst open. A huge figure jumped out of the Honey Bucket and onto me. I fell backward, but not before managing one very loud scream as we both crumpled into a heap on the ground.