The real problem is getting good help. Denise is not warm and fuzzy by nature. She had to learn how to make people feel good about themselves. She also had to learn to be forgiving. And most of all, how to be patient. This was not easy for her. She was always something of a drill sergeant, even as a child. This could have been because her mother was so indulgent and because her father, who was more of a disciplinarian, was often away on job sites. Running a coffee shop is not what a lot of people think it is. Knowing when and what to order is critical to making money. Denise once had a manager who ordered ten gallons of cream when one gallon would have done. That cost a week’s profits. And when Denise broke her leg and her husband filled in for her, it took Denise months to set things right. Once, stuff like this would send Denise into screaming fits. Not anymore. Is she on medications? No. One answer might be that Denise had a baby. This was after she and her husband had tried for ten years. Whatever the reason, Denise rarely gets angry these days. Everything seems to be running more smoothly for her. She smiles more. And on top of that, where Denise was an active, and willful child, her daughter, Teresa, is bookish, easy-going quiet, and, apparently, very bright. Denise was just told they were thinking about having Teresa skip a grade. No one can figure where this comes from. Certainly not for Denise. She did well in school but was never interested in going beyond high school. And certainly not from Denise’s husband. Roland is bright enough but, like Denise, is anything but bookish. His real skill is with his hands. Runs a furniture upholstery business out of the garage out back their house. So, he sees what he calls Teresa’s “brainiacs” as some kind of freak of nature. Maybe. Maybe not. Denise works long hours and some of her customers come in and sit around for hours. There’s this one guy who comes in late in the day, two or three times a week. Gets a coffee, always sits at the same table near the cash register, and reads scientific papers. Now and again, he helps Denise brew coffee. He’s been doing this for about eight or nine years now. A biochemist by profession and something of a loner, he enjoys Denise’s company and, when she lets him, a chance to be useful. As he points out, making coffee and doing biochemistry aren’t all that different. And Denise has to admit to herself that, when he shows up, her day seems more than a bit brighter. So, you never know.
The Rev. Dinsworthy is a hard egg to crack. A tall man with a florid complexion and, these days, with a slight tremor, he might be blown over by a stiff breeze. And yet a man with a steady and commanding gaze, often softened by a friendly wink. And if you’re lucky a welcoming grin. That’s because he has been serving one flock or another for decades and as he would say in his orotund way, “In the course of the fulness of time, one sees much and endures much with all the compassion and fervor that the soul can muster.” Some make fun of him and his flowery manner. Some assume that he is a man in a very dark and deep closet. Some doubt that he is serious, a running joke that only he is in on. And some have no idea what he is talking about but love him despite it. But whatever anyone might think, Reverend Osmond Dinsworthy is, deep down, a highly intelligent, serious, and extremely shy man who came by his calling while still a teenager. The visions that he saw as a youth no longer occur much anymore but, to Dinsworthy, they are the evidence on which his faith rests. And he practices that faith not just in performing the normal priestly duties – celebrating mass, baptisms, funerals, hearing confessions, visiting the sick, teaching classes on scripture, coaching the parochial school’s wrestling team – but also by being a strong advocate for social services and charities in his community. As more than one of his more affluent parishioners has said, “When you see Old Ozzie coming around the bend, watch out. He’s going to have his hand in your pocket quicker than you know. He can drag a donation out of a stone.” But most would also agree that these donation visits are also a lot of fun. There are wisecracks, sharing of a Scotch or two, and some thought-provoking sermonizing. Dinsworthy has also been known to drive city officials around the bend by pointing out social problems that are going unserved. It’s got him in a bit of trouble from time to time. “Priest Labelled Busybody” was a headline in the local paper. Church authorities don’t always like that kind of publicity and Dinsworthy was “spoken to.” Now in what he describes as “the twilight of my earthly service to my Lord and his only beloved Son,” the Rev. Osmond Dinsworthy is looking forward to a time of personal introspection and spiritual renovation in anticipation of a peaceful transition to a better world. He is also looking forward to the final confession of his sins. He has had temptations and has not always been able to resist them.
The other day, a long-standing client remarked, “Letitia, you are the most organized and classiest person I know. How did a woman named Nussbaum get a British accent and learn to make Mexican and Italian food like you do?” Letitia’s response: “You should only know.” But no one knows. And Letitia isn’t saying. Not now. Not ever. Letitia learned about Mexican food from the man she lived with for four years after running away at 14 from her ultra-orthodox Jewish family. Her father had picked out a husband for her and had a wedding date set. She wanted none of it. So, early one morning, she sneaked out of the house and got a bus to London. Lying about her age, she got a job in a Mexican restaurant and moved in with the chef. It was not a good beginning for a new life. He was a creep and she was a child. But she stayed with him until she was 18 and legally independent. She left when he threw a pot at her. She headed for Italy and, there, got famous as a chef in her own right. Customers loved her style and her food. But, outside of work, her life was a mess. She had a couple of disastrous relationships, a miscarriage, a bit of trouble with cocaine, and what she preferred to describe as a “case of nerves.” For a break, she went on holiday to New York City. It was supposed to be a ten-day get-my-head-back-on-straight interlude. But, she loved the place. And she met a man. He was everything she could have hoped for. Kind. Sophisticated. Smart. Successful. A television executive. Not bad looking either. After a whirlwind romance, she married him and took a job with a catering firm as executive chef. All of which led her to starting a company of her own, developing a strong following, and becoming, in terms of outward appearances “organized” and “classy.” The fashionably-dressed, trim owner of a well-run, efficient, and profitable company. After five years, she and her husband divorced. They were happy enough but she had this brief infatuation with a waiter. And that put an end to things. Letitia and her husband are still friends and, occasionally, spend the night together. They’ve been talking about spending a week – “Just the two of us” – on the Vineyard next fall. Beyond that, Letitia’s love life is quieter now. She has a complicated business to run and, at fifty, claims, “I’ve learned a few lessons. And with my history, I’m avoiding getting in to any new relationships.” There is one thing though. After all these years, her family has chased her down. Letitia’s father is now in his late seventies and wants to see his oldest daughter again. She’s been thinking about it. Not sure that it’s such a good idea.
“This guy is really good.” That’s the first thing most people who work with Eamon will tell you about him. “Just don’t expect much conversation,” is probably next thing they’ll say. Eamon is one of those people who “talk” with their hands. Does that mean he gets into a lot of fights? It used to be. When he was a teenager and other kids would tease him, fighting was the only way he could respond. The words just wouldn’t come. He was held back in the eighth grade. One teacher called him “simple minded” in front of the whole class. In a parent-teacher conference with Eamon sitting right there, a teacher said, “Nothing much should be expected from this boy.” Mrs. Reide took it all in stride. She knew Eamon was a good boy. Eamon’s father, a maker of fine furniture, loved having Eamon’s help in his shop. Eamon dropped out of school soon as he legally could. His father got him a job at an engineering company. He started out sweeping floors. After a year, Eamon asked if he could go to work in the company’s machine shop. When his boss balked, Eamon said he’d work for free if he could learn the job. So, they gave him six months to show if he could. He more than succeeded. He was the best they had ever seen. He quickly learned how to read a drawing and to translate it into a part. Better still, he always seemed to know what would work. And what wouldn’t. And best of all, he was happy. He was good at something. He wasn’t going to be teased, held back, or have to put up with mean teachers. He bought a big sedan and thought about moving out of his room at home and getting an apartment of his own. And then, one of the women in billing took a shine to him. He didn’t know how to deal with that. He had never dated. But she knew what to do. That was all years ago. He was skinny and gawky when he started sweeping floors. These days, he’s put on a bit of weight. He and Sheila have three children. She runs a day-care company. He still works in the machine shop only now it’s all computerized. He also manages the company’s information technology department. The funny thing is, even though he never graduated, he keeps going back to his old school for sports events and plays.
The guy with the freckles is one of her regulars. “He shows up two or three times a week. Always orders the same thing: two eggs over easy, sausages, toast, and coffee. Seems nice. Don’t know a thing about him. He’s gone by eight.” The older couple is another regular. And like the guy with freckles, they always order the same thing; they each get two short stacks of blueberry pancakes and coffee. They split an orange juice and use it to wash down their pills. Inez gives each of her regulars a big smile and always asks how they are. She always gets a perfunctory, “Fine.” And a “How are you?” No one really cares. Or pays much attention to Inez. Could any of them recognize her on the street? Probably not. And that’s just fine with Inez. She’s got a kid and an elderly mother to care for. Right after the diner stops serving breakfast, she’s off to her other job, a cashier at a pet store. By the time she’s home at the end of an eight-hour shift in the pet store, had something to eat, and spent time with her child and her mother, she’s had a long day. As Inez might tell you, if you were able to have a real conversation with her, it’s not a life filled with fun but she’s resigned to it. She is able to care for her little family, put food on the table, and pay the bills. She never really expected much more than that. Most of the girls she knew in school ended the same way. On weeknights. once the kid is in bed, the dishes and other chores are done, and her mother is dozing in a large easy chair with the TV flickering, Inez usually has a shower and then pretty much collapses in bed. But not tonight. A guy she served that morning showed a little more than the usual lack of interest in her. He ordered the Spanish omelet which almost no one ever does. And he said, “I’ve been watching you work. You are really good at your job. I have a business. You might be good at it. Give me a call if you’re interested.” His card had his name and a phone number. That was it. He ate his omelet, said thank you, and left a nice tip. Inez isn’t sure whether she will call but just that little exchange sent her mind reeling. All the things that she never let herself think about came swirling into her thoughts. Her mind went from one “what if” to another. Before she knew it, the alarm went off – time to get up and get over to the diner again to serve breakfast.
Nathan’s parents wanted him to be a doctor. It was not for him. To please them, after getting a degree in Philosophy, he went to pharmacy school. His Uncle Reuven had a pharmacy in a very nice part of town. Reuven had no sons, only daughters. And, back then, the Lensky family did not think a daughter should be in a business or in a profession, except to find a husband. So, the plan was that Nathan would eventually take over Uncle Reuven’s pharmacy and buy Reuven out. That plan went up in smoke when the big chain pharmacies began to move in. A year after Nathan graduated from pharmacy school, Reuven was out of business and he and Nathan were doing shifts in a chain drug store, filling prescriptions on a production line basis. Not what Nathan’s parents could have wished but, at least, they said, a decent profession. So, the next thing was that Nathan was supposed to find a nice girl, get married, and start giving his parents grandchildren. But Nathan didn’t seem interested. Everyone was worried that he was gay. He wasn’t. He was deeply, clinically depressed. This was not the life Nathan wanted. He hated the store he worked in. He hated filling one prescription after another. He hated the customers. And one day, it all became too much for him. He did not show up for work. He did not answer his phone or respond to text messages. His mother heard about this from Reuven and got worried. She called Nathan and got no response. She went to Nathan’s apartment. She rang the doorbell. No answer. Then, she banged on the door. No answer. And then, genuinely scared, she called the police and told them to break down the door. They found Nathan. He was in bed, surrounded by stacks of books. Nathan had been reading. Nathan’s mother got a little crazy and started to scream: “Get up, Nathan. What do you think you are doing? Embarrassing your family. Lying in bed. Reading!” Nathan turned and said quietly, “Nope. Not me. No, I won’t get up. Get out of my house and leave me alone.” The cops apologized to Nathan about the door and escorted his now hysterical mother out while getting her an ambulance. Nathan went back to reading. He was polite to the psychiatrist they sent to talk to him but told him to go away. He did the same to the rabbi they sent. It was – as his father put it – “a fine how-do-you-do.” Some weeks later, they found a new tenant living in Nathan’s apartment. Nathan had gone. As if he never was.
Louisa’s fascination with food started when she was a child. She was a chubby six-year-old and very mindful of her physique. It didn’t help that her mother kept asking her how she could expect to attract a man if she was “such a fatso.” Now, Louisa understands just how hurtful and insensitive her mother was. And she also knows that while she was never nor will be as “attractive” as her mother thinks is so important to attracting a man, she has had no problem attracting men or finding a husband who thinks she is “hot” and who most of her colleagues think is “gorgeous.” That he admires her educational attainment or her senior position in a major food company’s technical team, that he helps out with the children and household chores, and that he is a respected orthodontist only adds to his luster in their eyes. Louisa loves all this and also takes some satisfaction in knowing that her mother is now on her third divorce. But deep down, her mother’s words still drives her nuts: do I look like a truck driver? Are my breasts too small? Why is my rear end so square? And then there is Louisa’s secret sex life. She needs to travel on business once or twice a month and when she does, she invariably picks up some guy, often in the hotel bar and has a few hours of what she calls her “mental health.” Usually, it’s just some flirting at the bar, maybe a late dinner. But sometimes it’s more than that. She takes all the right precautions. Makes it clear that this is a one-time thing. An escape from reality for a brief while. And the next morning, it is back to business: Dr. Tillbaugh shows up and does food science for her company and her family as if nothing happened. So why was the last time things ended up in her hotel room so different? She’s looking forward to seeing the guy again. And she is also thinking that maybe she needs some counseling before her old ghosts take her to places she does not want to go.