"Is he all right?" Emily quietly asked Middi when Nathan elected to head straight to the bedroom to take a nap upon their return to Santa Cruz.
"Yes, why? You think he looks like something's wrong?" Middi looked after his retreating back with concern. "I see him all the time, I could miss something. Does something about him look different?"
"No. I mean yes, he looks better than he did when Mom was dying. He looks great. But I haven't ever seen him take a nap in my whole life."
"Oh, the nap thing is fairly recent. I'm afraid I got him started on that. We fell asleep talking about our day once, after we'd walked the whole length of West Cliff, all the way to the Park and back, and woke up feeling like we had another whole day ahead of us. We even had what we called Breakfast Two at six in the evening. We do that most of the time now. And Emily, he is going to be seventy-five this August. I think he deserves to nap whenever he feels like it."
"Middi, if you want to nap, too, go right ahead. I can entertain myself."
"I'll bet you would. You'd sit curled up in a chair and drive yourself crazy thinking about that damn fake statue, don't tell me you wouldn't." She grinned. "Besides, I'm too wound up to nap! I had so much fun dragging you around to the shops today, I wish you were going to Las Vegas with us! Nathan tolerates shopping, but he doesn't enjoy it like a woman can. When he needs clothes, he just shuts his eyes and says, 'Dress me, Woman.' Doesn't even want to check out what's out there."
"He wore blue jeans and a dark khaki shirt every day that I can remember him working at the mine. He used to say that khaki was invented to keep dirt from showing." Emily opened the shopping bag from the silk shop and pulled out the rich pink pajama set she'd fallen in love with the moment she set eyes on it. It was opulent, heavy, dripping with comfort and drowsiness. "I hate shopping, but then I only go to the malls, usually. Less chance of running into people I know."
"Why don't you like running into people?" asked Middi.
"They always want to gossip," Emily said. "I hate that. I don't pay attention to what other people are doing, and when they tell me what they're doing, or what someone else is doing, it just goes in one ear and out the other. Sometimes it doesn't even go in at all, like at New Year's, when Sondra Bredcast was talking to me and all I could think of was that there were beads missing from the design on the bodice of her dress, and wonder how she could wear it with pieces missing and the threads sticking out. I have no idea what she said, didn't know then. She had lipstick on her front teeth, too."
Her father's wife laughed loudly. "Maybe the beads were in one of your bedrooms after someone ripped her clothes off!"
Emily jumped, remembering the jumbled bedclothes, and then giggled. "No way, this woman is the size of a Brahma bull with bosoms down to her bellybutton. I never wear red if she's a guest at a party." She blushed. "Now I'm the one who's talking about people."
"And what did Miz Sondra say to start the conversation that made you tune out?" Middi said, scattering tissue paper in her search for something in the bottom of the shopping bag.
"Oh, she started going off about this lesbian in the Psychology Department and how her church had gathered signatures and sent a letter to the University that said they didn't want her teaching there, and how lesbians recruit young girls ... " Emily sighed and rolled her eyes. "I hear enough about that lesbian from Mark as it is. She's friends with one of the professors in the Anthropology Department, and every time she sets foot on his turf, he wigs out for days."
"Well, that's Mark. He's still wigging out about the trashy slut who led your father astray, I'm sure."
Emily was unsure what to reply to that, since it was quite true. Mark was convinced to the core that Middi had seduced Nathan Storm simply, only, for no other reason than to inherit his wealth when she managed to kill the man with poison, over-exercise, or kinky sex, thereby cutting Emily out of the will. He'd pressed Emily to ask Nathan when he married Middi about the intended disposition of his legacy, and she had angrily refused. "If all that my father leaves me is the memory of what a wonderful father he was, I'll be quite content," she'd told him coldly. Immediately Mark had countered with an argument that accused Emily of allowing this new harlot to squander all that her late mother had thriftily, painfully accrued, an argument that he pursued to the present day.
"Mark wigs out about everything," she said tiredly, somehow surprised to find that the statement was true. He wigged about Middi, about the lesbian, about the cost of water plants her fish systematically nibbled to bits, about the weather, and "trash" was one of his favorite words while wigging.
"He must have been berserk about the state of the house on New Year's, then," said Middi, chuckling. "Did he ask everyone for DNA samples at the door?"
"No, he didn't know anything about it until the next evening. And he didn't wig about anything. That is unusual, isn't it? I fully expected him to go postal and call Phil Henderson and shout at him -- I mean, football season is over, the team stank again this year, and Marl Bloch is such a nitwit I can't imagine anyone thinking that he's of value to the University. He really deserves to be fired for having sex with the University president's wife on the sly." She refolded the luscious pink outfit and cradled it with tissue paper.
Middi had been plying a corkscrew on a wine bottle while Emily spoke. The cork came loose from the bottle neck with a faint 'pop.' "You're so funny, Emily. You think that your president person is going to fire anyone for boinking his wife. He'd probably just hope her boinker wanted to marry her so he could avoid alimony." She motioned Emily towards the stairs. "Come on up to the kitchen before we wake Nathan."
She took some wine glasses from the cupboard. "Here, have a glass of this, tell me what you think. The winery is just up the coast a few miles."
Emily took a sip, and then swallowed hard. The wine was cloyingly fruity, like grape juice with a minute amount of grain alcohol added. And yet there was a sour aftertaste that reminded her of the smell of a kitchen dishcloth gone bad. After the swallow, her eyes teared a little. "This is a local winery, you say?" she asked noncommittally.
Middi threw her head back and laughed, showing all her teeth. "Emily, you are the best! Give me that!" She upended the bottle and both their wine glasses into the kitchen sink drain.
"You didn't like it?" asked Emily, puzzled.
"I thought it tasted like a shit margarita," Middi said. "But I read in this magazine that the winery was really becoming well known for its white wines and their world class quality. I needed a second opinion before I started running it down publicly. The hotel down the street on the beach serves it. I plan on changing that. I love Santa Cruz, and it doesn't do anyone any good if a local wine is crap."
"It was pretty bad," Emily agreed.
"Now try this," urged Middi. "This is from Lodi, for God's sake. You wouldn't think a town named Lodi would have any product but cement parking meter holders." She poured a deep red wine into a clean, broad, stem glass. "Smell it first," she admonished.
Emily swirled the wine briefly and sniffed. She closed her eyes and thought of blackberries, and butter, and dark rooms in castle towers, lit only by the light of fireplaces. She sipped, and the flavor exploded through her head like a giant ocean breaker of heat and heart's blood and cherries blackberries raisins -- and then disappeared as though she had tasted nothing. "It disappeared!"
"Yep. No finish at all. But it tastes great, doesn't it?" she poured more from the bottle into Emily's glass.
"Not too much, Middi, I had the grossest hangover New Year's Day."
"This is not going to give you a hangover, I guarantee. What the hell were you drinking, anyway?"
"Grey Goose and tonic," Emily said, taking a long sniff of the red wine. "And then champagne."
"You know, every time I drink hard liquor any more it gives me a hangover. That's why I've started getting into wines. I love the taste of this Lodi stuff. If I put it into a decanter and hide the label I can stop thinking about cement bases for parking meters."
Emily burst out laughing. "Grey Goose and tonics have begun to make me think of cement overshoes! The counterfeit gnome slept with the fishes that night!"
Middi laughed, too, and reached out with her glass to tap it against Emily's. "Mafia Mixed Drinks!"
"Piña Bill Collectors," Emily cackled.
"Shot-guns," Middi suggested.
"Mai Die," Emily replied, chuckling like a sputtering lawn mower. "Oh, God, I can't believe I'm laughing after what I've found out today."
"Well, there's no point in crying over plaster knickknacks."
"No, but the money he spent on what he thought was an investment ... "
"I didn't think you cared much about money."
"I don't, but shouldn't I? Isn't that what I'm supposed to be doing, caring about income and investments?" Emily sipped at the wine, worried again.
Middi sighed. "Who told you that? The television? Money magazine? Do you read Vogue and then go out and try to dress like the supermodels? Emily, you don't have to let anyone tell you how to think, or what to worry about. That's how some people end up looking back at their lives and saying, 'But I never did what I really wanted to do.' The main thing about however much Mark spent on the collection is that it is gone. Even if the police catch the crook who sold it, there probably isn't any way to get the money back. So it's gone. You didn't need it to be cash on hand yesterday, or last week, did you? So it looks like you can live without it. Let it go, and enjoy the rest of the day. Your dad will be up soon, and you ought to just love him up every minute you can. I know I do."
She was convincing, and Emily nodded, wondering how it felt to be so confident. She could never remember a time in her life when she felt in control, except, of course, when she was with her fish, or the secret skunks, but that wasn't like being in control of anything, it was just working with what was at hand, and letting all the rest go hang itself. But that was what Middi was talking about, wasn't it? Not trying to stay on top of everything, but letting what wasn't important just disappear.
And that, she decided, was what made this house attractive. It was uncluttered. There were beautiful things everywhere one looked, but nothing looked unwanted. Emily decided to test this idea. "Middi, I think you're right. You do that with your house, too, don't you? It seems so open and airy and -- smooth, somehow."
Middi pointed a finger at her. "You got it, girl! If we don't use it, out it goes. Some stuff I sell on eBay, some of it goes to the thrift store or church raffles. But I don't keep what I don't need or love. I'm fifty-five years old, and that's already too old to be wasting time on crap when I could be spending my time on goodies." She smiled more broadly. "That's why, when your father asked me to dance, I just stood up and went. I was at Rannelly Ranch with a bunch of relatives, and I told them not to wait up, the world just turned upside down." Her expression became more serious. "And in this wonderful upside down world, every, every minute counts. Enough said."
Emily nodded. Every, every minute counts. She decided that she would write that on a piece of paper and carry it in her pocket to remind herself. She felt as though something strange was happening to her, some shift in her head that might mean something significant in her life. I'm just collecting a whole wagonload of stuff to think about when I get home.
When Nathan arose from his nap at six, they made the second breakfast of toasted chicken salad sandwiches, tomato juice, and avocados, and Emily listened and laughed while Middi and Nathan told her outrageous stories about Clive and his gallery, heedless of the confrontation that awaited her at home.