|Rowena's Page, Rowena Gets a Life.||Rowena Moves Closer, Part 14|
Rowena took a deep breath. “Maralynne,” she said. “Why do you want to do this at your place?”
“I have to prove to her I'm—that I can do something.”
“Do you know how long it'll take to get your place clean enough for Mom? For her birthday party, of all things?” Rowena moved the phone to her other ear. “Why don't you just bring her some cookies or something?”
“Well, it wouldn't have to be—”
“Cookies are not gonna cut it. An entire roast turkey wouldn't cut it.”
“She thinks I'm living in some kind of Din of Inequity. She thinks I'm lazy and dis-dis . . .”
“Can you imagine? Me?”
Rowena was trying not to imagine. “Even if I do help you, it'll take—”
“You'll help me,” Maralynne said. “You have to.”
Rowena took another deep breath and shut her eyes. She wished her sister had some other skills besides getting her to do her favors.
“Make any progress?” Sammy asked her.
“We threw away the garbage and junk mail and I dusted as much of her furniture as I could without choking to death. She doesn't have any access to a vacuum cleaner, by the way, so I'll have to bring mine when we're ready for it.”
“When you're ready?”
“We figure we'll wash the dishes first. I actually wanted to start with the dishes, but Maralynne's just had her hair done and she doesn't want the steam to take the curl out of it.”
“She has a Special Technique for taking showers.”
“Do I want to hear it?”
“All I can tell you,” Rowena said, “is that cold water is very healthy.” Sammy let out a low groan and then laughed just a bit. “She does give herself steam treatments,” Rowena went on, “but they're carefully timed for before she goes to the beauty parlor. I'm told,” said Rowena, “that it's all very scientific.”
“Glad to hear it.”
“And then, of course, there's the food. I've explained to her about foods you can fix ahead of time, and she wanted me to help with some of the things the night before. Unfortunately, instant mashed potatoes are really not in that category. So I'll go there that morning, well before the party begins, help with the appetizers and the main course, clean up a little more, and then go home so that when Mom and Dad arrive Maralynne gets to call me up and yell at me for being late so we'll know to go over. That way Mom can find Maralynne there all alone and obviously doing everything herself.”
Sammy sighed. “After all that, I hope she learns something.”
“I hope so,” Rowena said. “And frankly I hope I'll learn something about not getting suckered again.” She paused. “At least it's only one day. The party itself, I mean.”
“I hope,” said Sammy, “you're not volunteering to clean up again afterwards.”
“Me, too,” Rowena said. “Actually, I can't imagine that the place will look worse after the party than it did, say, today. Or tomorrow night. Or any day since the last time I helped her clean up for a party.”
“This is so exciting!” her mother said, on the phone. “A party for me! Thrown by my own daughters!”
Rowena wondered, just for a moment, whose daughters besides her own would give a party for her mother. “Maralynne's the hostess,” she said. “I'm just bringing the cake.”
“A birthday cake baked by my own daughter! What kind is it? Is it fattening? Because I've decided to eat healthy things, and—and your father should really be on a diet.”
Rowena looked at the ceiling. “I was going to make lemon chiffon,” she said.
“Oh, my! Lemon chiffon!” There was a pause; Rowena could almost see her mother reeling, on the other end of the line. “Is lemon chiffon fattening?”
“Well, the cake itself doesn't have any butter in it; you use oil instead . . . and not a huge amount, either . . . but it's got about half a dozen egg yolks in it; I could look it up and see . . .”
“Oh, don't trouble yourself. If it's fattening, I don't want to know.”
“The cookbook is right—”
“No, no. Don't bother. I'm sure it'll be just fine. You, uh—have you made a lemon chiffon cake before?”
“Yes. And it came out very nice. Don't worry about it.”
“Worry? About a cake? Me?” And her mother laughed gaily. “Now, you be sure and come to the party. Don't forget.”
“I won't forget,” Rowena said. “I wouldn't miss it.” She would be in trouble if she did, she thought; even if she hadn't promised a cake.
“And bring Sammy, and the cake.”
“I will bring Sammy and the cake.”
“This is so exciting!” her mother said.
“I'm glad you're looking forward to it,” Rowena said. She wished she could sound enthusiastic herself, but she was far too tired.
Maralynne opened the door and peered out at her. “Come in,” she whispered, looking furtively towards the street.
“Really, Maralynne.” She got through the door and into her sister's apartment. Maralynne shut the door behind her.
“I don't want them to know you're here,” she said.
“They're not due for hours,” Rowena pointed out. She looked around. “Let's see; your windows, your shades, and the bathroom sink, floor, and rug.” Rowena had cleaned the toilet the night before, and the bathroom mirror was already spotless; all of Maralynne's mirrors always were.
“And the kitchen sink and the kitchen floor.”
“Right. And then we make the deviled eggs and the carrot sticks and then we get the chicken ready for the oven and maybe take one more swipe at the counter.” Rowena looked around. “Well, let's get started.”
Because Rowena actually wanted the job finished, she set Maralynne to wiping the blinds (the smooth, pull-down type, luckily) and tackled the bathroom herself. She scrubbed and scrubbed at the sink, found some spots on the wall and wiped them off. She scrubbed a bit at the bath enclosure, which wasn't so bad as Maralynne actually cleaned it before each of her pre-hairdresser soaks. She had another look at the toilet, then bundled the towels into the hamper and carried out the rug.
Maralynne was wiping dreamily at the same shade Rowena had started her on.
“Maralynne,” Rowena said, and her sister jumped and wiped a little faster. Rowena decided to ignore this. “Could you wash this, please?”
Maralynne turned and looked at her. “You said you were doing the bathroom things.”
“I don't know where your laundry room is. Please, Maralynne.”
“It's down by the—”
“Maralynne. Please.” Maralynne sighed heavily and put down her paper towel.
“God,” she said. “I have to do everything.” She trudged into the kitchen, returned with a bottle of laundry detergent. “Everything,” she said. Rowena handed her the rug, which Maralynne tried to take in two fingers and nearly dropped.
“Thank you,” Rowena said, and opened the door.
“Geez, get away from there,” Maralynne said, suddenly remembering. “You want them to see you?” Rowena moved back without reminding her sister that their parents were not there yet; she was only too happy to play along with Maralynne's paranoia if it meant that both of them would actually get something done.
“See you in a couple of minutes,” she said, wishing that Maralynne were leaving to do something a little more time-consuming. Rowena had got up early to bake the cake, now cooling on her table at home, and she had a long day ahead of her. She closed the door and leaned against it a moment, then went back to the sink and washed her hands. The kitchen blind, she decided—the kitchen blind was next.
“We've got a couple extra hours,” Rowena told Sammy on the phone, “if you don't mind.”
Rowena sighed. “By the time we got everything else done, it was about time to put the chicken in the oven.”
“But you got it all done.”
“We got it all done, though it's a good thing she has a decadent bedroom and my parents aren't allowed in it.” Sammy laughed. “Though I don't know; she might actually keep the bedroom reasonably clean. She manages to do the mirror, after all, and the bedroom is . . .”
“Of similar import,” Sammy said.
“Something like that. Anyway, we only had about 45 minutes before our parents were due to arrive, so she pushed the party back two hours so she'd have just enough time to shower, put the bird in the oven, and spiff herself up.”
“She needs two hours and forty-five minutes to take a shower and get dressed up for her parents.”
“Must take her five hours when she's got a date.” Rowena put her hand over her eyes. “I shouldn't complain; it got me some breathing space, after all, and I could use a shower myself.”
“And you get to make some frosting.”
“I get to make some frosting,” Rowena said, “and put it on the cake, too.”
She had frosted the cake, had showered and changed into a dress, had let Sammy into her apartment and had almost managed to relax when Maralynne finally called.
“Where are you?” Maralynne demanded, theatrically. “We're waiting.”
“Don't be so rude.” Rowena heard her mother faintly over the wire. “She's not that late.”
“Mom, it's your birthday,” Maralynne objected.
“We're ready,” Rowena said, before this could go on any longer. “See you soon.”
Rowena discovered upon arrival that her mother's birthday party happened to coincide with two vital baseball games, a paternal crisis the birthday girl's husband had chosen to deal with by bringing along a small portable television, which he'd set up on top of Maralynne's TV.
“Ya bum!” he yelled as Rowena and Sammy came in. “Ya bum!”
“Hi, Daddy.” She didn't expect him to hear her.
“Grand slam!” he roared, clapping his hands. “Yes! You show 'em! Oh! What's the matter with you? Ya stink!”
“One of his teams is winning,” said Chester solemnly, “and the other one is losing.”
“How's it going, Chester?” Sammy asked.
“All right,” Chester said. “The terminal emulator started barfing on Wednesday, but I managed—”
Rowena set her present down on the coffee table. “Where's Mom?” she asked Maralynne, who reappeared now after depositing Rowena's cake somewhere in the kitchen.
“In the bathroom,” Maralynne said. “But don't tell her I said that.”
“Don't tell who you said what?” asked their mother.
“Umm . . . I . . .”
“She said not to tell you she told us you look at least twenty years younger than you are,” Sammy interrupted. “She said you would never believe it, so we shouldn't bother telling you.”
“Right,” said Maralynne, vastly relieved. “That's what I said.”
“Oh, you kids.” Rowena's mother beamed at them.
“Ya bums!” roared Rowena's father. “That shoulda been a double play! Ya BUMS!”
Rowena looked from him to Sammy, who smiled at her with his eyes.
Maralynne finally allowed her sister and their easily-offended mother to help her in the kitchen when the former told her what a grand tradition it was, all the women gathered in the kitchen helping out. She picked up her apron a bit grumpily, then brightened. “You like my apron, Mom?”
“Very nice,” said her mother vaguely. Rowena immediately recognized it as the Chow Hall apron her sister had sent away for.
“You ever watch Chow Hall, Mom? Joe and Harry? It's the greatest show; they're teaching me how to cook and everything.” She tied the apron around herself.
“You say there are two men on this show?”
“Joe and Harry. See, this is the Chow Hall apron I'm wearing. And there's the Chow Hall trivet—I have my own trivet, Mom—and I've got the oven mitts and the coffee mug and the book . . .”
“Joe and Harry,” said her mother. “Are they cute?”
“Oh, they are,” Maralynne told her. “Right, Rowena?”
Rowena turned her eyes to the ceiling. “You'd like them, Mom,” she said. Maralynne chattered on about the show while they worked; Rowena tried not to listen too closely, but her mother seemed fascinated. They basted the chicken and put the salad together. They prepared the instant mashed potatoes and the frozen peas, and heated up the refrigerated rolls Rowena had brought over the night before. They basted the chicken again and pronounced it done. They set the table and put out the food.
Maralynne went to make the big announcement, nearly breathless with excitement. “Dinner's ready!”
“We'll be right there,” Sammy said, and they were; the two younger men willing enough to eat, the elder still fussing over his games. Maralynne's television was already turned so that it could be watched from the table, but the smaller set was not very visible from that distance. Luckily, one of the games ended while Rowena's mother was trying to insist that no, the set could not go on the table like a centerpiece.
“What a wonderful dinner, Maralynne! What a good cook you are!”
“Isn't it wonderful, Rowena?”
“It's great.” The potatoes were still warm, the rolls and peas had not been overcooked, the salad was nice and fresh, if a bit unimaginative; and the roast chicken, seasoned with spices Rowena had brought, nice and moist. She might have said more about it, but Maralynne started up again explaining all about Chow Hall and its hosts, Joe and Harry.
“It's really great,” she said, over the sound of a beer commercial.
“Chow Hall?” asked Rowena's father. Everybody turned to look at him. “They gonna teach you Army food? Shit on a Shingle? Bull—”
“Wilder! Watch your language! Besides, nothing here is on toast.”
“What are you talking about?” Maralynne demanded. “They taught me how to do the mashed potatoes, how to—how to do lots of things.”
“Not Army food?”
“So why do they call it Chow Hall, then?”
“I expect they have a good sense of humor,” said Rowena's mother. Her husband grumbled something, but the commercials ended and he returned his attention to the TV.
“Such a good dinner,” Rowena's mother said. She turned to Chester, who was happily stuffing himself.
“Chester?” she asked, significantly. Rowena, hearing this, looked over at Sammy; here it comes. “Isn't Maralynne a good cook, Chester?”
“It's meals like this that make a person glad to have a family. Mother, father, children—nothing better than that.”
“Children with their cousins . . .” Rowena kept her eyes on her plate. “Don't you agree, Sammy?”
“I always liked visiting with my cousins.”
Chester swallowed, manfully. “Sure.”
“Did you know that married men are happier than single ones? It's a scientific fact.” She looked around the table. “Did you know that, Sammy?”
“Yes,” Sammy said. Under the table he patted Rowena's leg, just above the knee: There, there.
Chester managed to swallow what must have been a very impressive mouthful. “Does that include men who are cohabiting?” he asked.
“Chester!” Rowena's mother gasped.
“I mean, is it marriage per se, or just not living alone? Or what if you have a, like, platonic roommate, like another guy, or your mom or somebody? Or a pet; they say pets are good for you.” Rowena bit her lip and stared hard at her plate; she was sure that if she looked at her mother or at Chester she would die laughing. She could feel Sammy's hand on her leg again; a firm pressure this time, though whether this was for her sake or his own she couldn't tell.
“What a lovely blouse!” Rowena's mother cried. “And, look! It's blue!” She lifted it all the way out of the box and, having ascertained that everyone else had admired it, tried waving it at her husband. “Wilder, look! It's from Rowena!”
“Idiot,” muttered Rowena's father, eyes on the screen.
Unperturbed, Rowena's mother thanked her and turned to Maralynne's gift. “What a lovely blouse!” she cried, on seeing it. “Look! It's pink!” She held it up a moment, then lowered it a bit. “I'm too old to wear pink.”
“Oh, no, you're not.”
“Don't be ridiculous,” Maralynne said.
“Of course you can wear it,” said Rowena.
“Well . . . if you say so . . .” Their mother waved the blouse in the general direction of the television. “Wilder! Look what Maralynne gave me!”
“Mmmm,” he said, eyes on the game. She put the blouse back into the box, satisfied that he'd noticed. She looked from the one gift to the other.
“Oh, my, ” she said suddenly. “Pink and blue.” And she giggled.
“Well, Maralynne,” said Rowena, reversing her pronouncement of a few minutes ago, “I think I'm ready for some cake.”
“I'll go get it.” And Maralynne jumped up. This time she wouldn't allow anyone to come with her, and when they were finally summoned to the kitchen table Rowena saw why.
“Maralynne,” she said. “That isn't the cake I brought.” It was a two-layer cake, taller on one side than the other, with unevenly-applied chocolate frosting and a large “M” picked out in candles on the top. Their mother's name was Babette; whether the M stood for “Mom” or “Maralynne” Rowena couldn't be sure.
Rowena's lemon chiffon was nowhere in sight.
“No,” said Maralynne, “I made it.”
“You made—you knew I was bringing a cake.”
“Yours was for in case this one didn't work out. But I bought a box of cake mix and a can of frosting and did just what Joe and Harry told me to last week, and here it is!”
“You made . . .” Rowena thought of all the time she'd spent, going out to the store for ingredients the night before—late, after cleaning up Maralynne's apartment—getting up early to sift, measure, beat egg whites and grate a lemon; an hour in the oven for the cake and a sinkful of dishes—her sinkful, on top of all of Maralynne's—for her. Then off to Maralynne's to clean some more, and back home to remove the cake from the pan and to grate and squeeze another lemon and make the frosting . . .
“Hurry up; the ice cream is gonna melt,” said Rowena's father, one eye on the television. Everyone sat down but the birthday girl, who blew out the candles (sixteen of them) and then began scooping ice cream as Maralynne, beside her, proudly cut and served the cake.
“And here's yours,” Maralynne told Rowena, as if she were awarding her the best one.
“What a good cake!” their mother said. “Joe and Harry taught you to do this?” Rowena let her ask more bubbly questions about the show, and let Maralynne answer them. Chow Hall, indeed. She felt she would never escape Chow Hall. She ate her slice of cake and her scoop of ice cream and helped clear the dishes away. The men went back to the living room and the women washed the dishes; Maralynne didn't really want to, but she was outvoted by her mother.
“I'll do them tomorrow,” Maralynne promised.
“Oh, but it's so much nicer to do them now, with your mother and your sister. Isn't it, Rowena?”
“You see, Maralynne?” Maralynne sighed and reluctantly picked up the clean dishcloth Rowena had set out that morning. “Now,” her mother continued, “tell me more about your cooking show.”
All Rowena wanted to do was take her untouched cake and go home. She loaned her mother a piece of paper on which to write down some vital information: the time Chow Hall aired and its channel. I should have known, Rowena thought. I bet she'll love that stupid show.
“Well,” her mother was saying, “it's time we were off. Looks like your father's bowling tournament is over, so we might as well go.”
With that Rowena could agree. “Are you about ready to leave, Sammy?”
Sammy, who'd had his viewing interrupted from time to time by Chester's computer anecdotes, was ready to go. Rowena went and got her purse, and returned to find her mother gathering up her new blouses—and Rowena's cake.
“Mother?” asked Rowena. “The cake?”
“Thank you so much for baking it for me, dear.”
“Why, Rowena, it's for my birthday, isn't it?”
“Well, yes, but—but I was wondering if I could have just a taste? I mean, just to see—”
“Rowena, I'm expecting The Girls tomorrow—well, most of them: Libby Antwerp, Marie Wilcox, Emmy Paix, and Wilma Chase. They're coming over for my birthday and I thought I'd take this nice lemon chiffon—”
“You can have it, but I'd like—”
“And of course I can't serve them a used cake.”
“It was so thoughtful of you, dear,” her mother said, and gave her a peck on the cheek. “I have such clever, talented daughters!” She put on her coat and picked everything up. “Could you bring the car around, Wilder?” she called. “And, Sammy, maybe you can bring yours around for Rowena.”
“Sure,” Sammy said. Rowena looked from her mother to Sammy; Rowena did not object to walking, and Sammy never “brought the car around” unless she felt ill or had some other problem.
“And if you could carry these things out, dear, and help Wilder put them in the car?”
“Sure,” said Sammy again; he must have noticed that she'd called him “dear,” but he gave no sign. “Just let me say goodbye to everybody first, and thank the hostess.”
Eventually he and Rowena's father left, with cake and presents, and after only a minute or so Rowena and her mother stepped out into the night as well, Maralynne and Chester waving from the doorway.
“I just want you to know,” her mother said, as they came to a stop on the sidewalk, “how proud I am of you, helping your sister like that.”
“Well, I . . .”
“All that cooking,” her mother went on. “And all that cleaning! My.”
Rowena stared at her. “How did you know about that?”
Her mother gave a shrug that was supposed to signify indifference towards a great gift. “A mother knows,” she said.
“How?” Rowena asked.
Her mother sighed. “Wilma Chase's granddaughter Casey—you remember Casey?—Casey was selling candy bars for her school, and she knocked on Maralynne's door, and the place was a pigsty. So she told Wilma and Wilma told me.”
Rowena couldn't help thinking this was none of Wilma's or Casey's business. “And?” she said. She waited. “What makes you think Maralynne didn't just clean it all up?”
Her mother shifted her weight a little. “Well, I came by the other day to see if she needed help, and I just happened to peek in the window, and there you were dusting the stereo.”
“Mother! You looked in your daughter's window?”
“Such a good sister you are,” her mother said. “I'm so proud.” She patted Rowena's arm, just above the elbow, and left her hand resting there a while. “A good sister, a good daughter . . . I can't wait to start in on that cake!”
Rowena gazed down the street. “Maralynne's got her own life to live, Mom,” she said. “Me, too, for that matter, but . . .”
“Maralynne's finally learning, I think,” her mother said. “I'm so glad you're teaching her things. She has to learn to do for herself, though; you have to be careful not to interfere too much.” Rowena stared at her. “I hope she'll be all right.”
“You're doing very well, Rowena,” her mother said. She sounded remarkably serious. “Your nice apartment, Sammy, your job . . . Sometimes I can't believe a daughter of mine went to college.”
Rowena had always taken it for granted she would go. She tried to think of something to say.
“And now you're looking after a dog and helping your sister and baking wonderful cakes . . . Do you cook dinner for Sammy?”
“What did you fix him last time?”
Her mother said nothing for a moment. “With a mix, or from scratch?”
Her mother stood there in silence. “And before that?”
Rowena's mother sighed. “What a good girl,” she said. She watched as her husband drove the car up and brought it to the curb. “Soon you won't need me any more.”
“Mom . . .” Rowena had no idea what to say. Her mother gave her a kiss on the cheek.
“And you'll make such a good wife,” she said, smiling proudly. “If only you'd get married!”
“What was all that about?” Sammy asked, as she fastened her seat belt. They were finally alone.
“Would you believe,” Rowena said, “my mother, of all people, almost admitted I have a right to live my life without her interference. Almost admitted I could.”
“Did she really?”
“And she thinks I'm a good daughter, a good sister, and, apparently, a good cook.”
“But—my mother . . . I mean, my mother. She never thinks I can do anything right. I was—I was almost wondering if she really was my mother, just now, or maybe some lookalike sent by space aliens.”
“She never admits to you that you can do anything right. She never admits you've grown up and become independent.”
Rowena looked out the window. “She just about did tonight,” she said. “She said I won't need her much longer.”
Sammy took her hand and kissed it. “And then,” Rowena said, “she told me I ought to get married.” Sammy laughed, and Rowena squeezed the hand holding hers. She wasn't sure whether she wanted to laugh or not.
“At least you know now that she really is your mother,” Sammy said. Rowena shot him an amused look.
“Some things never change, huh?” She looked out the window; Sammy, beside her, just sat quietly, his car's engine still running and the brake still on.
“What do you think?” Rowena asked, after a while. “Think she'll tell The Girls she baked the cake herself?”
“What, and risk losing the Best Offspring competition? She's gonna brag on you, Sweetheart. Whether she's going to admit it to you or not.”
“I, um—I still can't believe she's noticed I have any talents or anything.”
“A good daughter like you?” Sammy asked. “Besides, I know a case of Cake Lust when I see it.”
Rowena laughed. Sammy kissed her hand again and pulled his own away to put it on the steering wheel. He turned to look over at her.
“I think even Maralynne's impressed, down inside,” he said.
“So where do you want to go? We could go for a drive, or out for coffee, or to my place or yours . . . wherever you like.”
Rowena looked out the window a moment, then back at Sammy. She didn't have to consider long.
“Home.” She smiled at him so he would know it was an invitation. “Take me home.”
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