by Dayle Gaetz
*Note: My apologies that the formatting was lost in copying this text from my documents. To be honest, I'm a little on the tech-challenged end of the spectrum. But in hopes of making Chapter One read less like a long run-on paragraph I have placed an em dash at the beginning of most paragraphs, with exception of the 'one-liners'. I hope you read and enjoy!
Inge placed both hands on the table, side by side, palms down, fingers displayed like an uneven row of breakfast sausages. She did this in a casual way as if she had been reaching for the salt and got sidetracked. For a long moment Inge gazed at her hands with a faint air of surprise, as if noticing her fingernails for the first time. Long, curved like talons, red like blood. She looked up at Darla, inviting her to observe. To envy.
—This Inge did every week as if it were something new, out of the blue, a drive-by-manicuring.
—Darla ignored her friend’s performance and focused instead on her own hands, fingers lined up along the table edge to reveal nails so short the pink flesh of her fingertips swelled above the nails like tiny bulbous foreheads over curious little faces. Knowing Inge would spend an hour and who knew how much money having her nails manicured, Darla couldn’t help herself. She took the clippers to her own nails every Wednesday morning before stepping out the door.
—Darla checked her watch, betting against herself how long it would take for Inge to mention she had once been a model. Five minutes? Ten? Would she wait for Maureen to show up before working this little gem into the conversation as if they might have forgotten over the past seven days? Darla hoped not. Maureen had never been patient with Inge’s petty little concerns. Lately she had turned downright hostile.
Something touched Darla’s wrist. Light but sharp, it scraped across her skin like a shiver. She glanced down to see a scarlet talon, quickly withdrawn. Sneaky like a cat. Darla braced herself to hear Inge’s, You do realize I once worked as a model? spiel. To which Darla would reply, I think you may have mentioned it once or twice. You were a hand model, right?
—But today Inge had other things on her mind. “Are you in there?” she asked, with the faintest hint of a Dutch accent. She curled her fingers around her wine glass, the pinky crooked just so, as if she were guest of honor at a tea party in the Empress Hotel. “You must give me de scoop.”
—“Of course. On your big date wit’ your sexy French friend you are hiding from us.” Inge smiled, a watery smile that wrinkled her cheeks. That little smile combined with the accent was not a good sign, it foreshadowed a shift into news Inge was bursting to share. News Darla did not want to hear.
—“I told you it wasn’t a date.” Darla kept her tone light, masking a knot of anger. “Gérard is an old friend of ours — of mine and Mike’s. He flew into town last week, literally — did I mention he pilots his own seaplane? He uses it in his work constructing houses and buildings in remote areas up the coast. Anyway, we went hiking, we talked about old times. And he’s not French, he’s from Quebec. That’s it. End of story.”
“Methinks thou dost protest too much.”
“Methinks thou dost not know of which ye speak.”
Inge looked blank.
“Not every woman needs a man in her life, Inge. I’m perfectly happy on my own. Honestly.”
Inge focused on Darla’s face as if waiting for the punch line.
—Darla considered explaining that her life was full and rich, but she had told Inge this so many times over the past year she was sick of hearing herself repeat the same tired words. She missed Mike of course, but at the same time she was enjoying her newfound freedom more than she ever believed possible. She even joined a hiking club and a ski club — not because she craved companionship but because her daughter insisted she needed watching over, that she wasn’t safe outdoors alone. At her age.
Like Inge, Haley could never understand how she reveled in wilderness for its quiet solitude, for the absolute joy of being alone with nature. Darla joined these clubs to keep her daughter happy, so she would leave her alone. And for that same reason Darla neglected to mention that she always went out alone anyway. Cross-country skiing, the silence, snow softly falling, wouldn’t be the same in a chattering group. Darla preferred the company of nature to that of humans.
—She saw nothing wrong in this little deception. Don't ask, don’t tell, right?And Haley hadn’t asked. One day she’d break the news about her latest sport, stand-up paddle boarding. Or not. There was a lot to be said for keeping her daughter on a need-to-know basis. So far there was nothing she needed to know.
—On cool winter evenings Darla curled up in front of her gas fireplace, in warm weather on her sundeck, nursing a glass of wine, reading a novel or solving a Sudoku — a game she had become addicted to since Mike died so unexpectedly last year. She ate dinner whenever she felt like it or not at all. Sometimes a peanut butter and banana sandwich was perfect. Other days a huge bowl of yogurt and blueberries mixed with walnuts and a sliced banana filled the bill.
—None of this made one speck of sense to Inge. And yet Darla felt compelled to try again because you never knew, this time it might take. “Listen…” she began.
—Inge’s phone rang and Darla released a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. Inge leaned close across the table, pointing at her phone. “It is the airhead,” she mouthed. “Did I not tell you she would forget?”
Had she said that? Today? Maybe. But Inge said the same thing every time Maureen was late and these days Maureen was always late.
Inge spoke into the phone, her voice as friendly and caring as her face was tight and mocking. “Where are you? Darla and I are so-oo worried.” She caught Darla’s look and rolled her heavily made-up eyes. Inge, the perpetual drama queen. The famous star that never shone. The internationally acclaimed hand model.
—Darla sat back to admire her friend’s performance. Most people’s facial expressions changed to match their words. Inge’s did not. The only giveaway, if you knew her well enough to catch it, was that Inge’s accent ramped up when she was being less than honest. Or when she was angry.
“We are at de Cactus Club, as I reminded you dis very morning…”
“Yes, I very much did. I sent you a text message…”
A spectacular eye roll. “Is it my fault you did not check your phone…?”
—“Very good then, vee vill order for you…” She ran her long fingernails through her unnaturally blonde hair, short and spiked, as if she had an anemic sea urchin glued to her head. To top it off, so to speak, the tips were tinted sea urchin red. Did Inge honestly believe her crazy teenage hairdo made her look young and not simply bizarre?
—“Because, my dear, you alvays dawdle for one half hour over de menu and den you alvays order a cheeseburger and a beer…”
—Inge nodded at the phone, waving her free hand near her ear. “Alvays…”
She gave a dramatic sigh. “Unlike you and Darla, I do not have all day to sit here, I have an open house at tree-tirty. So, I vill order your lunch and you vill enjoy it.”
—Darla winced. Was there no compassion in that round little body of hers? They both knew what a rough time Maureen had been going through these past six months but Inge didn’t appear to care. Darla marvelled anew that the three of them had remained friends for so many years when they had nothing in common other than the fact that as young mothers they had lived on the same block and their children played together growing up.
Inge tapped her phone. Ended the call. No good-bye. No see you in a few minutes. She plunked the phone down. Plastering on a wide smile, she raised her right hand and waggled her perfect fingernails at their server. Why did that always work for Inge? Whenever Darla tried to get a server’s attention they scooted off in the opposite direction. Never looked back. Frightened away by close-cropped fingernails.
—“Where is she?” Darla asked after they had placed their orders.
—Inge squinted over Darla’s right shoulder and out through the window behind her. “She is right dere. Dat foolish woman vas sitting across the road at Boston Pizza.”
—“Awesome,” Darla laughed, “she’s getting better. At least she got the right area of town this week.”
—She turned to see Maureen plodding toward the restaurant, her frail body leaning forward as if pushing against a powerful wind. On impulse Darla stood and tapped against the window glass. When Maureen glanced her way Darla raised both hands, thumbs up, a silent cheer for a job well done. Maureen paused, grinned, and curtsied, laughing at her own mistake. Then she continued toward the door.
—Darla sat back down laughing. Inge scowled at her. And there it was, her mother’s voice alive and shrill inside her skull, impossible to ignore. All Dutch women are overbearing, Darla. They can’t help themselves. They are born with absolutely no sense of humor. Zip. Zero. Zilch.
—Just because you’ve met one or two Dutch women in your entire life who have like, zippo in the sense of humor department doesn’t mean none of them do, Mom, Darla countered. But it’s difficult to reason with a voice inside your head, Mom didn’t listen any better in there than when she was sitting in the same room.
—Watching Inge now, Darla wondered if her mother had been right all along. Maybe Dutch women were incapable of laughter. A side effect of living below sea level?
It’s the gravity, stupid!
—Again the little scratch on the wrist, a creepy fingernail touch that brought Darla back to the world of Inge leaning toward her like a co-collaborator.
—“Before Maureen arrives to take over de conversation I have something to tell you.” Inge sat up straighter and looked down on Darla over her ample nose.
—Darla cringed, dreading what was to come. Inge was excited about something, which could only mean she had met a man. Love at first sight. Again. How many times in the past five years? Three? Four? A half-dozen?
A smile played over Inge’s glossy red to-match-her-fingernails lips. “I have met someone.”
—“Ahh,” Darla checked her watch, wishing Maureen would hurry. —Meanwhile, she ran possible responses through her head.
—Here we go again? Nope. Too patronizing.
—Congratulations? Nope again. Too supportive and too untrue.
—I hope this one turns out better than the last three? Or is it four? Nope. Too honest. Inge would be furious.
—That’s when Maureen burst into the half-empty restaurant. She paused there, near the entrance, below the red neon sign written in a script no one could make sense of. Maureen glanced around, confused, as if she had forgotten her friends were seated by the window across the room where she had seen them two minutes earlier.
—“Here she is!” Darla waved her hand above her head, tempted to run over and grab her old friend by the arm she was so glad to see her. Maureen’s arrival provided a temporary reprieve, a brief moment to come up with an appropriate response when Inge brought up the topic of her new man again. If Darla could find the right words maybe she could prevent Maureen from saying what they both were thinking.
I see. And how old is this one?
Be careful you don’t get ripped off again, Inge.
I’m sure you both deserve each other.
Nope. Nope. And possible. Inge would never see the irony behind the words.
All the restaurants in Out to Lunch Investigations are ones I've visited often. I will review them, and many more from Prince Edward Island to Vancouver Island on this website