Monday, January 17, 2011

Not Low Maintenance

On the very spur of the moment, I decided to post the first chapter of Not Low Maintenance.  The reason, well, I don't know.  But I'm thinking about the Bernsteins, Viva and Joel.  (Oops.  Did I just give away the ending or did you really think I'd write a story about love and the two main characters don't get together by the end?)  And it's selling quite nicely at Amazon.  I'm thinking about it because whenever I need a lawyer in one of my books, a character will invariably shriek in a panic "Get me Joel Bernstein!"  He's my go-to lawyer, and for good reason.  He's a wonderful character and by all reports, a great lawyer.   I like crossover characters.  Bringing in someone from elsewhere helps me because we already have a history.  I know them, they know me.  We know what to expect from each other.

Here I am writing Bad Apple #3 and finding the Bernsteins insinuating themselves surprisingly into a book that they wouldn't have been involved in if I had stopped at Bad Apple #1.

I suppose I should say something about the title.  It seems like it'll be about a woman bragging about her high maintenancy.  Shop till you drop.  Credit card debt.  It's not.   It's the opposite.  It essentially says that kind of life is shallow and that what matters most in someone's life is their relationships.  Relationships need to be tended, they are not low maintenance.  You can't expect to have a great, profound love when you care more about shoes than the man in your life.  You will not be on your deathbed regretting the pair of Christian Leboutin shoes you didn't buy, but you might regret the distance between you and the people you claim to have loved yet brushed off for a shopping excursion.


Chapter 1

“You’re really an attractive woman, Viva,” Reston began.
I wasn’t even paying attention.  We were three days behind on the photo shoot and everything on the table was either melting, wilting or turning green when it shouldn’t.  I was in approximately the same condition because the persistent Sundowner winds were blowing and no amount of a/c seemed to counteract them.  The green stain on my hands was food coloring that I had used in a vain attempt to keep what was green from going brown.
“Reston, will you just take the shots?”  I asked.
“I want to say this because...”
I stood back.  The watermelon was balanced into its precarious position and still red.  “Because why?”
“Because I care about you.”
“Well, I care about you, too, take the shot.”
“You put men off,” Reston continued.
I stopped primping the food--that was my job, I was a food stylist--and looked at him in astonishment.  Where was this coming from?  And how was it supposed to be helpful?
“You’re so...,” he floundered for words.
“What am I?”
“You’re so competent, you’re so sure of yourself.  It’s very magnetic but...”
I glanced back at the table of food under the hot lights and saw I was losing everything.  These breaks in concentration were why we were three days behind.
“You scare men.”
This kind of information was not worth taking seriously.  I’d heard it all before.  “I wish I could scare you into getting behind that camera and taking these shots because we’re going to lose this account.”
“And I wish you would listen to me.  I don’t want to see you alone for your whole life but that’s what’s going to happen.”
“Oh, I’m going to be an old maid?  A spinster?”  I was hot, I was tired and I was fed up with this mañana attitude of his.  Yesterday it was surf’s up and today it was psychological counseling from the original Beach Nut.
“It could happen.”
“And Atlantis could rise up off Bermuda,” I replied.
He nodded seriously.
A glance at the clock confirmed what I already suspected.  The workday was over.  “I’m done here.  We’ll pick up where we left off tomorrow.”
“That’s good.  I have a date at the Casa Senorita in an hour anyway.”
The Casa was the newest hot spot on State Street, bringing everyone down from the hills and I’m sure Reston hoped he’d get lucky and he probably would.  There were so many college girls in town and he was a photographer.  We needn’t be so honest to announce up front that he specialized in food not models or actresses although some of these sweet things were pretty delectable.
When I got the job, working for one of the country’s preeminent food photographers seemed like a terrific opportunity.  A first-class photographer, the shots Reston took made you want to eat the paper the photos were printed on.  He was in demand for books, magazines and print.  We flew from one end of the country to the other and often went to Australia where many coffee table books were commissioned.  He was booked solid for the next eighteen months.  But you couldn’t get him to concentrate for more than four hours at a time.
Luckily, if he was on, he could get a lot done in four hours.  But once the Sundowners started blowing, he was prone to the negative ionization created by the winds’ magnetic currents.  Something.  He had an explanation for it.  What it really meant was that he wanted to play.
Since I was not from California, but was born on the East Coast, I was immune to negative ionizations, telluric currents and assorted other maladies that randomly befell Reston Crane at a moment’s notice.
“Viva,” he started.
“Take what I’ve said to heart.  I’ve said it for your own good.”
So many criticisms are cloaked as beneficial advisories.  “You know I will.”
I left the food where it was.  My day really was over.  Throwing things in my bag, I walked out of the studio and into the warm California pre-evening.  Santa Barbara had to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world I thought heading to the rented cottage I called home.  It also had to be one of the most distracting.  Why work when there was the ocean on the other side of the highway?  Why work when you could sit under the jacarandas and sip a citron pressé?  Why work when there was a parade, a street festival, an art exhibit, a surfing competition, a horse show, a polo match or any one of a hundred other activities that flowed naturally here?
My good solid reason was that I was not independently wealthy and needed the money.
The cottage I rented was up in the foothills, under some live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, and on the steps were flowerpots bursting at the seams with geraniums.
My answering machine was blinking when I entered and I pushed the button as I walked past to the refrigerator.
The playback began.  “Aviva?”  It was my sister, Bel.  “Call.”
I poured a tall glass of water, picked up the receiver and keyed in the number.  Her phone rang a few times and then was answered.
“Bel, it’s me.  What’s up?”
She burst into tears.
And that was my last day in California.

Bel met me at the airport, her eyes red, on the verge of more tears.  We grabbed the couple bags I had packed and went out to her car.  I drove.
“Okay.  Explain to me what happened and don’t leave anything out.”
About a year ago, Bel had met a quite handsome entrepreneurial type who had an MBA from the Wharton School and seemed to be serious about her.  Maybe more serious about her nuts.  Bel had a way with nutmeats where she crystallized them in demerara sugar and liqueur so they were practically addictive.  Topher thought this was perfect for the gourmet niche market and soon began to put together a proposal for a business.  Nut Noshes.  That would just be the beginning.
Everything seemed to be going along according to the business plan and according to schedule.  They rented a building, built a kitchen, bought a Hobart industrial size mixer, bought hundreds of pounds of nuts, cases of jars, cases of liqueur and had labels designed.  Bel labored over the hot stove while Topher labored over the hot computer spreadsheet.
They hit all the trade food shows, nearly got mentioned in Bon Appetit, almost got picked up by Bloomingdale’s and generally met with a lot more almosts than legitimate orders.  Topher seemed to be doing everything right and he certainly wasn’t a surfer dude like Reston.  The website was almost complete.  They were coming into the Christmas gift-giving season.  Food baskets stuffed with Nut Noshes were an ideal present and he had made a presentation to QVC along with 30,000 other entrepreneurs.
Last week, out of the blue, he took a job with Neiman-Marcus in Boston.  With just enough time to say goodbye, he handed Bel the paperwork, the business projections, the names of all the suppliers, wished her all the best luck and left her twenty-five thousand dollars in debt.
“I don’t want to file bankruptcy,” Bel managed to get out between cascades of tears.  “My credit will be ruined and I’ll never be able to start another business or buy a house.”
“Not never,” I pointed out.
“But a long time.”
Your life changes on a dime.  Or in this instance, two hundred and fifty thousand of them. 
“What am I going to do?”
“We’ll figure it out,” I assured her.
Bel lived in the carriage house of some rich people she had never met.  The caretaker, a former fashion model, rented her the place and it was adorable, right out of Country Living.  There were bunches of lavender, lunaria and lobelia hanging from the hand-hewn beams.  There was a small quilt hanging on the wall behind the sofa, a wooden rooster with artistically chipped paint was positioned by the large fireplace and old, yellowed prints graced the walls.  The galley kitchen was marvelously new and efficient but was not discordant with the rest of the home.  The rooms were small but filled with simple, functional antiques.  Someone had obviously liked antiquing a great deal and had scoured the New England countryside for these gems.
That evening after a light dinner, we sat down at the oak dining room table with all the paperwork in front of us and tried to make sense of it.
Finally, at about ten, I shook my head.  “I’m not a mathematician; we’ll have to get an accountant in here.  The figures don’t add up, kiddo,” I said.
“The loan’s due.  I don’t have the money.”
“I have money to cover the bills this month but we need to do something immediately.”
“Don’t drop the nuts.  You look like you’re close to getting the thing off the ground but we have to generate money until that happens.”
“Was I an idiot?”  Bel began crying again.
I put my arms around her.  “You certainly were not and are not.  He’s a skel, you remember that.”
I talked to her until she felt better.  We made up the bed in the spare room, and called it a day.  Even though I was three hours behind, I felt exhausted and was glad to snuggle into the soft sheets and feel a breeze coming in the window that wasn’t charged with negative ions and miasmic particles.
That night I had a very long dream about meeting Carl Sagan–yes, I know he’s dead–and learning a secret that put my life in danger.
You can’t fight well-equipped spies with a piece of costume jewelry which was what I had apparently tried to do in the dream so I decided on the way to the kitchen that Bel and I had to be prepared for this battle.  As I waited for the water to boil, I picked up one of her wooden spoons and realized that was as good a weapon as any.
Bel heard me banging around and roused herself.
“We’re going to do what we know how to do,” I said.
“What’s that?”
“You cook, I organize.  Presentation is everything.”
“Cook what?”
“Anything people want.  We’ll be professional party-givers.”
“What?  I must not be awake yet.  You hate parties.”
“I’ll survive it.”
“Who are we going to give parties for?”
“Lots of people around here must need party planners and caterers.”
“Noni Mahoney is the big time caterer up here.  We can’t compete with her.  She’s been doing it for ages.”
“We do the complete package and with a twist.”
“What twist?”
“I don’t know.  Yet.  You’ll have to start calling people today to get the word out.  You’re going to make up some of your lemon bars laced with Limoncello, and take them to the specialty food shop around here and become the supplier.  Then you’re going to, I’ll go, you start the biggest farm market in the wealthiest community around and push your Apple Dapples on them.”
Bel sighed.  “Okay.  We need a name for this new business.”
I held up the wooded spoon.
“The Spoons?”
“Spoon and June.”
“What’s that nursery rhyme?  The cat ran away with the spoon?”
“That’s a long time ago, I don’t really remember.”
“The bowl ran away with the spoon?”
“Bowls don’t have legs.”
We both looked around the small kitchen for clues.
“The wooden spoon.  The spoon and apron.  The wooden apron.  That’s good.”  Bel began laughing for the first time since I’d been back.
I poured water for her tea.  “I’ve got it.  Feastivities.”

When I left Connecticut, I wasn’t thinking about coming back, I was just thinking about getting away as fast as possible.  Now two years later, I was having an unpleasant déjà vu sensation.  This was where X happened.  This is where Y happened.  I didn’t have time for memories pleasant or unpleasant.  I had to sell Bel as a master chef.
Luckily, she was.
I wasn’t particularly.
She was, though, and once people got one of those Apple Dapples in their mouths, word would get around fast enough.
Bel was extremely creative but somewhat unconventional in the kitchen so any of her attempts to cook professionally had fallen as flat as a soufflé disturbed at the peak of its elevation.  She couldn’t leave anything the way it was supposed to be, so getting a position cooking under someone else also never worked.  Bel always tinkered with the recipes, changed something, changed everything.  You never knew what it was going to be.  It was the equivalent of a gustatory wheel of fortune.
I had been surprised to learn Bel was willing to make hundreds of pounds of the Nut Noshes.  That would mean she’d be doing the same boring thing, endlessly.  That went completely against her nature.
By the second day of tooling around the foothills of the Berkshires, I had Apple Dapples placed at a tony farm market that catered to weekenders and Lemon Barcellos at the Cupboard, the ritziest little eatery around.  I handed out fistfuls of flyers and business cards we had quickly made up on the computer.  Instabusiness.  Feastivities.  Your full service party planner.

Evidently, Bel had worked the phone very successfully as well because the next day we got a call from a woman who was on the verge of hysterics.  She has just learned/gotten orders from her boyfriend that all the arrangements for a hunt breakfast just three weeks away had become her sole responsibility.  Ricki Whitney had no idea where to begin.  This was important to her future, to her position in this new community.  She needed help!
I watched as Bel very professionally reassured the woman, took down all the necessary information on a large piece of paper in handwriting we could later decipher and ask what kind of food would Ms. Whitney like served.  No preferences.  Bel asked where to send the bill and she froze.
I knew something was drastically wrong.
After the closing amenities, Bel put the phone down.  “I don’t know if we can take this job.”
“If they’re not using Monopoly money, we can’t turn them away.”
Bel looked so sad.
“Send the bill to her boyfriend.  Attorney David J. Resnick.”
I quickly whirled and grimaced then turned back to her, with a freshly composed expression.  “You’re positive?”
“Here’s the address.”  Bel pushed the notes across the table.
“Beggars can’t be choosers, the first lesson you learn in business.  This is a service industry after all and I’m sure we’ll have other clients who we wish would be encased live in a vat of concrete while we watch on the sidelines selling tickets and laughing.”
“Viva, I’m so sorry.”
“We’re not going to talk about him.  We’re just going to take the job and parlay it into others so we can pay off your debt.  Whatever happens after that will be a great surprise.”
“We can wait for another job.”
“I don’t have to work with him.  I don’t have to see him.”  I looked around the house for a moment.  “I think I’ll go take a walk.”
Going out the door, I hurried down the steps, crossed the driveway and headed toward the large pond framed by weeping willows.
I had been wrong.  The negative ionizations had affected me.  I had come back to Connecticut completely delusional because it had never occurred to me that I would even have to try to avoid him.  I didn’t think of him at all.  Two years away and he was the last thing on my mind.  Now there he was.  Or at least his new girlfriend.
Of course, her boyfriend had suddenly announced this huge party was her responsibility.  How David of him.
Two years ago, just before leaving, I had been talking about this to the hunk who was helping me pack my furniture in a truck to send it to auction.  (All my things, collected over years-–gone.)  He said that for $500 I could have David taken care of.
Oh, not killed!  I don’t believe in murder for personal satisfaction.  Just running his overpriced Mercedes off the road into a big ugly ditch where it would sustain lots of damage to its expensive undercarriage was sufficient.  Since David cared more about his car than just about anything else in the world, that was such an attractive offer but I was using my last $500 to get away from him.
A girl must be practical.  What if this hunk got caught and ratted me out?  David would sue.  He was the kind of lawyer not into negotiation but instead favored punishing lawsuits big time.  I would have been stuck in a courtroom looking at him for weeks while he filed motions and pontificated from one end of the room to the other.  Endlessly, endlessly having to listen to him yammer when I never wanted to hear his voice again.
No, it was better to hop on the first jet out of Dodge and hope some black ice during a January blizzard did the dirty work for me.
Walking for about an hour until it came to me, then I hurried back to the house.
“I have it all figured out.”
“Uh oh,” Bel replied as she turned off her Kitchen-Aid counter top mixer.
“You don’t cause any animal to suffer needlessly.”
“Right...”  She was bracing herself.
“Atty at Law David J. Resnick has no business chasing that poor little fox around the countryside making it fear for its life for his own entertainment and amusement.  It’s revolting and disgusting.”
“Don’t have us do anything that will land us in jail!”  Bel cried in consternation.
“Would I do that?”
“You know what?  We’re going to serve these animal tormentors just what they deserve for breakfast.  Blood and guts.”

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