She ushered me across the gravel barnyard, past the Jaguar and onto the service porch, with Misty hovering beside me the entire time. Mrs. Valera stopped on the porch before letting herself open the back door and turned to look down at Misty again.
“You being a good girl today?” But then Mrs. Valera seemed puzzled and asked me with an odd humor: “Is she following me? Or are you the one she is shadowing?” She didn’t wait for my answer and answered the question herself while giving me a clever smile: “I think it is you, Senor.” She then turned back to open the door and led me into the house.
We entered the service hallway with Misty at my side. The first ten feet of the long straight hall was outfitted as a mud room with the left wall sporting an old wooden bench with coat hooks on either side of it. Across from the bench, to my right, hung an alcove/coat rack full of coats, overshoes, lots of pairs of more Wellington boots, and even a few sets of snowshoes. Beyond that coat rack on the right stretched an unbroken succession of counter-height, multi-paned glass windows separating the hallway from some interior room. And then opposite all those windows, the left-side wall revealed three open doorways into actual rooms. Daylight spilled forth from all the windows and doors ahead of us, illuminating the long runner that lined the hardwood floor of the hallway. We walked along this hallway and I glanced both left and right to take in the view of each room. On our right, through the multi-paned windows, I beheld a large food storage pantry with a food prep area. On our left I glanced into each of the three left-side rooms as we passed by: the first one was a large sunny laundry room, the next was a full bathroom, and the last one was a break room (for “the help,” or so I imagined).
We passed by all the right-hand interior windows of the large room which I now realized was an office with a pantry. If we had kept walking all the way down the hall we would have entered he kitchen itself. Instead we only almost entered the kitchen. Mrs. Valera stopped barely a foot short of the kitchen and took a right-hand turn into the room with the interior glass windows.
I stayed out in the hallway and watched her snatch up a phone (which was identical to the phone I had seen near the cat in the basement TV room). As she dialed into the voice mail, I glanced sideways into the spacious kitchen to check out its impressive design.
The upper cabinets were in the style of 1930’s glass paneled cupboards and nickel plated pulls, and the glass panels revealed beautiful dishes and glassware. The lower cabinets were of the same style only with wooden panels hiding their contents. A long counter peninsula divided the kitchen into two distinct zones. The larger zone was the kitchen’s main work area where “mother” would operate. The work area boasted two sinks, a stainless steel industrial grade oven rage complete with a pancake griddle, a double-wide stainless steel refrigerator, a regular dishwasher plus two drawer-sized dishwashers, and oodles of cabinet space. The smaller zone was a breakfast bar, but that side also had its own small fridge, its own microwave, and even a small sink and counter area and a drawer-sized dishwasher for family to use. The design of the kitchen was to allow “mother” to have exclusive reign over the true kitchen on her side of that peninsula while keeping pesky family out of her hair, yet still allow her kids access to an alternate kitchen arrangement of a sink, fridge and microwave where they could all indulge in the occasional can of soda or microwaved Hot Pockets.
I had seen that exact kitchen design only once before, and that was in the home of some high powered corporate lawyer in the village of Bala Cynwood just outside of Philadelphia. The lawyer’s wife hired me to install the additional drawer-sized dishwasher and the small sink found on the “family” side of the counter peninsula. But as I worked, the teenagers of the family (with their friends watching) stood in the next room with their mother complaining to her that “that stupid plumber” was ruining their afternoon because I was blocking access to “their” microwave where they always made an afternoon snack of nachos with melted cheese. I quietly did my work while I very painfully overheard the mother trying to placate her children with the explanation that when I was done, the “kid’s kitchen” would be all the better, so they needed to be patient and forego their nachos with melted cheese for just one afternoon. But the teenagers kept hasseling their mother, demanding that she allow them to use the microwave found on “her” side of the counter peninsula. But she kept refusing that demand, insisting that she was already making dinner and that no one used that side of the kitchen except for her. I then heard the teenagers start to quote some sections of the law to her -- actual statutes from the Pennsylvania code -- concerning “reasonable expectation” and “lack of fair warning” and “personal distress,” and “compensatory damages.” They were arguing with their own mother like a bunch of courtroom lawyers! She finally sighed with that exasperated sigh that only a mother can muster, and then she caved in and agreed to pay each of her kids “compensatory damages” of fifty bucks apiece for the inconvenience of ruining their afternoon without fair warning. Then I heard her high heels clomp angrily through the house to another room where she opened a wall safe -- I could hear her turning the dial to the combination lock -- and removed the cash. As she was off raiding the family vault, I heard her kids snickering to their friends about their success. Then her high heels clomped back through the house and she handed them the money. After the kids all left the house together with their court case winnings, (supposedly heading to a movie) I shook my head and vowed I’d never allow Jason (who was just seven years old at the time) to become such a morally bankrupt little monster.
Mrs. Valera finished dialing into the voice mail then she hit the speaker on the phone. I turned my gaze back to her and the phone. We listened:
“Yes, hello. Mrs. Warren. This is Bill Pryor from Pryor’s Limousines. We got your voice mail asking that we please pick up Mr. Valchick from the tack room of your barn over at Seventeen Maple Street. Unfortunately we’re unable to service any of our clients right now. We’re having fuel delivery problems so we’re unable to refuel any of the vehicles in our fleet. I’m sure this is a terrible inconvenience for you. But please don’t hold it against us because it’s not just us who can’t get fuel -- it’s everybody! So it’s sauce for the goose. I regret the inconvenience. I apologize to you and to Mr. Valchick. You’ve always been a great customer, Mrs. Warren, and I hope to do business with you again. But this whole situation is out of our hands. Call me with any questions. Thanks.”
I stood there in a mixture of surprise and hope: having an excuse to linger in Catherine’s house and possibly even see her again delighted me to no end.
“Now what?” I asked Mrs. Valera.
“You have been here all night?” She asked that with a compassionate lilt to her voice.
“Um, yeah. In the tack room.”
“I will see if I can arrange a ride for you, Mr. Valchick. How far do you need to go?”
“I have to get back to my vehicle. It’s parked at a 24-hour diner on Lincoln Highway out in Interlochen.”
“I will see what I can do. Meanwhile, would you like some breakfast?”
She walked past me into the hallway and led me across the hall into the small break room where a casual dining table sat with just a napkin holder and a salt and pepper shaker. She set down a large bowl of fruit in the middle of the table and gestured for me to sit down. As soon as I did, Misty crawled under the table and, to my surprise, lay down upon the floor with her head upon my feet. Mrs. Valera cocked her head sideways to get a better look at Misty.
“What are trying to say, Misty? What are you saying to us with this behavior?” she asked with a grin. I even caught a glint of knowingness in her eyes as she straightened up again.
“How do you like your eggs, Senor?”
“Um, eggs? That’s a real bother. You don’t have to go to all that trouble to make eggs just for me.”
“You are a guest of this household. I would bring shame to Mrs. Warren if I did not treat you well. How do you take your eggs, Senor?”
I prefer my eggs over-medium, but to keep things simple I asked for scrambled. She left, and I dug into the bowl of fruit for a pear. I bit into it and instantly experienced a two-part surprise. First it was one of the sweetest and juiciest pears I tasted in my life. Second, while I still had my teeth in its flesh, a sizeable measure of juice ran in a rapid stream down my chin, my hand, and even down my arm all the way to my elbow -- it was more like biting into a watermelon. I was so startled I unintentionally shifted my feet somewhat and poor Misty had to reposition her head upon my shoes. At the time I didn’t know what variety of pear it was. But I imagined it was something rare and exotic and impossible to find at the local ACME supermarket. I pulled the fruit from my mouth and with my free hand wiped the juice from my chin while I held my dripping forearm up over the table. I took a small wad of napkins and started wiping my face, my arm and the tabletop.
With minor apologies to Misty, I stood with my soiled napkins, searching for a trash can to discard them into. I spotted yet another landline telephone -- identical to the one in the basement and the one in the kitchen office -- sitting on a wall-mounted podium. If this was the “servant’s break room” I wondered if perhaps I could ask Mrs. Valera’s permission to call my voice mail on that telephone and remotely retrieve my messages.
As I stood there wondering this, Mrs. Valera returned, bearing a tray with a full coffee service and a small glass of orange juice. “The eggs are almost ready, Senor. They will be out in a few more minutes,” she smiled as she set the tray down on the table.
I thanked her and asked about the phone, explaining I didn’t have a cell phone at the moment. She said, “Certainly. Dial 9 to get out.” Then she left.
Before making my phone call I walked from the break room into the bathroom and washed my hands, Misty again shadowing me. When I finally called my voice mail, I thankfully found no messages. I sat down again. After Misty plopped her warm head upon my shoes, I began to set up my coffee.
I noticed my food tray was lined with a linen napkin, the cutlery was a reproduction of Colonial-era pewter flatware, and the place setting included a small arrangement of fresh flowers in a tiny vase of water. I was both flattered and unnerved at how much trouble Mrs. Valera was going to for me.
As I waited for my coffee to cool I took a sip of orange juice. The moment I tasted it I knew right away it was fresh squeezed.
The eggs arrived with buttered toast as well. I marveled at Mrs. Valera’s skill at timing the eggs and toast so that they both hit the table visibly hot and steaming. I took my first bite, and she proved herself to be a top flight chef. I thanked her and started eating. She promptly exited and I heard her dash down the hallway toward the mud room, run out the back door to the service porch, and stomp across the gravel into the barn.
After I was done with breakfast I concentrated on my coffee. Mrs. Valera returned to the house via the service porch again and stuck her head into the door.
“How was your breakfast, Senor?”
“Fantastic. Thanks so much. And this is one mighty impressive cup of coffee too. You could put Starbuck’s out of business with coffee like this.”
“Thank you, Senor. But Mrs. Warren only has me buy the very best ingredients, and that is half the secret to a good breakfast. Meanwhile, I spoke to Kyle and he said he can give you a lift back to your vehicle after he is done with his chores. It might be a few hours. Can you wait that long, Senor?”
“Yeah, sure. I don’t wanna be a bother. Whenever he can get around to it’s fine by me.”
“Very good, Senor. May I join you for coffee?”
She left and came back with her own empty mug, than sat at the table with me. She poured her mug half full, ignored the milk and sugar, and proceeded to drink hers black.
“I take it you served in the military?” she asked.
“Um, yeah,” I said, surprised that she knew. “Did Mrs. Warren tell you that?”
“No, Senor. Mrs. Warren only left me a voice mail telling me about her hospitalization. She never even mentioned you in that voice mail and I have not heard from her since. But when you walk, Senor, you walk like a soldier. And Kyle told me just now that you came last night to fix an oil tank. And I know that Mrs. Warren would never hire anyone for that job unless he was military, or former military.”
That statement intrigued me. She continued:
“You see, about eight years ago, Colonel Warren hired four young men to come here as a maintenance team full time -- sometimes they worked in the basement, sometimes out in the barn, sometimes down by the river, sometimes up on the hill. Sometimes they did work on the different real estate properties Colonel Warren owned here in town. He kept them busy. And they were good boys. I fed them lunch whenever they came -- sometimes breakfast when they came early, sometimes dinner when they stayed late. They each had different specialty skills: an electrician, a carpenter, a mechanic, and a plumber like yourself. They all answered directly to Colonel Warren. But … they were all members of the Army National Guard. And sadly, each of those poor boys got called away one by one to fight in Afghanistan. The plumber was the last one to get called overseas, and he left in January. Poor Colonel Warren -- he tried to replace those young men, but he couldn’t because he was getting too sick. I tried to suggest some people I knew --plumbers, electricians-- but Colonel Warren was stubborn. He wanted people he already knew, and he preferred they be military, or former military. He said he wouldn’t hire any replacement unless he knew he could trust him with his life.”
Again I was intrigued. Again she continued:
“Now, as for the part about Colonel Warren only wanting to hire people he already knew: tell me Senor, did he know you before?”
I hesitated at first, but saw no real harm in admitting to that part. So I did:
“He was my captain in Operation Desert Storm.”
“That makes sense then. I am glad you are here and I hope you will return. I think Misty likewise wants you to return.”
Suddenly the phone rang. Mrs. Valera excused herself, jumped up, and ignored the phone that sat there in the break room. Instead she dashed across the hallway to the office and picked up the same phone she had retrieved the voice mail from.
“Hello, Warren residence,” I heard her say those words with a quiet civility and almost no trace of her accent.
“Ah! Mrs. Warren! So good to hear your voice! How are you?”
I took in a breath and my whole body stiffened. I felt Misty lift her head from my shoes as if she too were listening. My heart kicked into high gear.
“Si, si,” Mrs. Valera continued. “The cat I fed -- he was hiding in the basement again. And the dog had already been fed this morning by Mr. Valchick.” She paused. “Yes, Mr. Valchick, he is still here, the limo driver never came for him.”
And then another long pause happened. I quietly stood up and strained to hear even more.
“Something about how the limo company cannot refuel their vehicles.”
Again she paused. I walked over toward the podium where the break room phone sat. The caller ID read “Interlochen Medical.”
“Oh! I am so sorry!” Mrs. Valera’s voice was quiet but sincere. “I did not know! He was so nice about it and never corrected me! His name is really Walczak? Okay, Senora, that is such a fine Polish name. I will get it right from now on.” I laughed at that entire portion of the conversation.
“Yes, I gave him breakfast already. He had eggs and toast.”
And then another pause.
“Si, he is very nice. I think it would be good to have him return again.”
My delusions of godhood resurfaced. The only thing on this Earth more beneficial to a man’s ego than knowing he is being spoken of well, is knowing he is being spoken of well by two women. And at that point I so very much wanted to hear Catherine’s beautiful telephone voice again, and I also wanted to hear that voice speaking well of me. So in a fit of longing I did something I later came to regret: I hit the “mute” button on the telephone in front of me, picked up the receiver, and listened.
-------------------End of Chapter 16--------------------