Excerpt from Hungry Spirits

   
     When I learned who was on the other end of the wire, I stared at Billy, who was drinking his coffee at the breakfast table in the kitchen. I know my eyes opened wide and my eyebrows must have soared, because Billy looked slightly alarmed. I shook my head to let him know it wasn't anything serious.
     Ha. Silly me.
     It took me a minute or two to shoo the worst of our party-line neighbors, Mrs. Barrow, off the wire. As I did so, I tried to think of something to say to Stacy Kincaid, who, to my utter astonishment and dismay, was the caller. No luck. "Um... Stacy, I'm not the one to whom you should be talking. I'm not a good cook. My aunt Vi is, as you know, but not I."
     "Yes, yes, I know about your aunt, but she's busy all the time. I thought you might have more time."
     Of all the nerve! As if I didn't work just as hard as Aunt Vi. My working schedule, moreover, wasn't restricted to the daylight hours, as was Vi's. Why, many's the time I'd had to work day and night, as spiritualism is often a nighttime pursuit. And I made more money than Vi. Still, Stacy was a fool if she didn't know I was a working woman with limited time in which to play games devised by her. I opened my mouth to tell her so, but she forestalled me.
     "I know you work hard, too, Daisy, but this is important."
     Nuts. I'd been going to throw my status as a hardworking, beleaguered breadwinner in her face, and now I couldn't do it. Still and all, I also couldn't cook, and that was that. "I truly can't help you, Stacy. I'm a lousy cook."
     "Oh, but Daisy, this is for such a good cause."
     If anyone had asked me as much as six months before if I thought Stacy Kincaid would ever be interested in assisting a worthy cause, I'd have said no after I stopped laughing. That day I only said, "Oh?" politely. Although I'd blown up at Stacy once and told her exactly what I thought of her and her selfishness, I'd tried since that one slip to be polite just in case any of my customers got wind of my behavior.
     "Yes. Don't you see? People need your help."
     I was already helping people, darn it, and decided to say so. "I always try to help people, Stacy. And I do it using the one talent I have. You need to find someone who can cook. The notion of me teaching a cooking class is...." I couldn't think of an appropriate word that wouldn't ruin my somber spiritualist image. "Um, it's just ludicrous. Trust me. You don't want me teaching your class."
     "Yes I do."
     Oh, brother. Making the face I wished I could make at Stacy, I looked at Billy. He only smiled back at me. Big help.
     "No," I said more forcefully, "you don't."
     "But, Daisy, I do!"
     Somber spiritualist or no, I was beginning to lose my temper. "Stacy, there are undoubtedly hundreds of women in the City of Pasadena who would be better at teaching a cooking class than I would be. In fact, I'd wager that most of Pasadena's matrons are better cooks than I am. Why, I can't even fix toast without burning it."
     I heard Billy snicker in the background, but I paid him no mind.
     "Really?"
     She sounded pleased to hear about this failure on my part, and I regretted my honesty. Still, nonsense was nonsense, and Stacy was full of it. Among other things. "Yes."
     After the slightest of hesitations, Stacy said, "Well, be that as it may, we still need you to do it."
     This made no sense whatsoever. I felt like banging the receiver against the wall in an effort to make the words come out of it in another way. But I knew banging wouldn't have made any difference. It seemed that Stacy was still the bane of my existence, whether she was a Bright Young Thing or a Salvation Army maiden. Blast!
     "But why?" The faintest hint of a whine had crept into my voice, and I told myself to stop doing that. I had long ago determined never to show Stacy the least hint of weakness. She was the type who'd pounce on a weakling and rip her to shreds with her well-manicured fingernails. Kind of like a lioness in the jungle who preys on the youngest, oldest or feeblest. She was that type. I didn't trust this religious transformation of hers one teensy bit.
     "Because Captain Buckingham said you were the only one who would do."
     My mouth fell open for a second. When my wits returned, I all but screamed, "Johnny? Johnny said that?"
     "Yes. He did."
     I couldn't believe that my friend Johnny Buckingham, bosom pal of my Billy for many long years, had sold me out to the enemy. Johnny, of all people! Why, I'd found a wife for him not very many months ago! And he'd turned on me in this unaccountable way! Well. We'd just see about this.
     "Let me get back to you, Stacy. I really can't imagine teaching a cooking class."
     "Captain Buckingham said you were the only one who could do it."
     "So you said." The rat. I never in a million years would have thought Johnny Buckingham to be such a scoundrel.
     "He did."
     Sez you. "I'll call you back."
     "Thank you, Daisy." The way she said it made me think she thought I'd agreed to her idiotic plan.
     "I haven't said yes yet."
     "You will," said Stacy. And she hung up the receiver, sounding as happy as the proverbial lark in springtime.
     In his own quiet way, Billy was laughing when I slammed the receiver onto the hook and turned toward the kitchen table.
     "I can't believe it," I told him as I went back to the table, sank into a chair, and picked up my coffee cup. After taking a big swallow—its contents were cold by then, thanks to Stacy Kincaid; I swear, the girl wouldn't get out of my life, no matter what—I said grumpily, "It's not funny," since Billy still appeared amused.
     "Sure it is," said my beloved.
     I glared at him. "It is not. And I'm going to call Johnny Buckingham right this very minute and tell him so, too. I don't believe Stacy Kincaid for a second. She wouldn't know the truth if it bit her on the hind leg. Besides, Johnny couldn't have recommended me to teach a cooking class. Why, do you remember the time I tried to pack a picnic for us when we were kids?"
     Billy laughed harder. It was kind of hard to tell, since he didn't dare laugh out loud or he'd fall into a coughing fit, but I had become an expert at deciphering his moods. His laughter didn't endear him to me that morning. Nor did his next words.
     "The eggs turned out to be soft-boiled and the chicken was raw!"
     He'd be rolling on the ground if he were still a healthy man.
     Angry and hurt, I said, "It wasn't funny then, and it isn't funny now, Billy Majesty."
     "Yes it was. And it still is."
     "Bother."
     "Face it, Daisy. You're a wonderful woman in many ways, but cooking isn't one of them."
     I huffed and got up, intending to telephone Johnny Buckingham instantly and clear this whole thing up.
     But before I got to the telephone hanging on the kitchen wall, it rang again. With an aggrieved sigh, I yanked the receiver off the hook and almost barked into it. Recollecting myself, not to mention my livelihood, I sweetened my tone just in time to say, "Gumm-Majesty residence. Mrs. Majesty speaking."
     "Hey, Daisy." Johnny Buckingham.
     "You beast!" I hollered into the receiver. "How could you do this to me?"
     His laughter in my right ear and Billy's in my left almost made me shriek.
     "Calm down, Daisy. I know you don't want to teach the class."
     "It's not so much that I don't want to do it as it is that I can't do it, blast it, Johnny! You know almost as well as Billy that I can't cook a bean, much less a meal."
     "You can learn. In fact, I have a book here I got just for you."
     I didn't understand this. Pleading for clarification, I said, "Why are you doing this to me, Johnny? There simply have to be people better qualified than I to teach other people to cook."
     "I'm sure there are."
     Now this is when things got really stupid. I was hurt by his words. I. Who can't boil an egg. Was crushed because Johnny Buckingham, an old friend, had just told me the truth.
     "But that's not the point," he went on to say.
     "Oh? What, pray, is the point then?" I told myself it was no use getting mad at Johnny. He was another good man. And they, as has been pointed out before, are few and far between.
     "We don't need a good cook, Daisy. What we need is someone who is kind, honest and good-hearted, and who can teach frightened women in a gentle and generous manner. We need you."
     It was nice to hear those things spoken about my humble self, but still I said, "How do you figure that?"
     "For Pete's sake, Daisy, you saved my Flossie's life. And you did it not because you're a reformer, but because you're a kind woman with a genuine open heart. You know good and well that if it weren't for you, Flossie would still be in the clutches of those dirty criminals. You're the one who gave her the self-respect to better herself. You're the one who helped her see she could have a better life if she tried to find it. You know where she came from. Don't you realize that without your help, she'd still think of herself as dirt? You're the one who taught her to care for herself. You're the one who showed her there was a better way."
     Good Lord. I had? This was news to me. Mind you, it is true that I'd helped Flossie tone down her manner of dress so she didn't stick out in a bunch of respectable people like a black beetle on a white sheet. And I guess I had kind of tried to bolster her self-confidence and tell her she was too good for the likes of Jinx Jenkins, the brute she used to live with and who used her as a punching bag. But I'd only done that because....
     Shoot, I'm not sure why I'd done it. Actually, I guess I'd helped her because she'd asked me to. She had shown up on our doorstep one miserable February morning, black and blue and with her eyes swollen almost shut, clad in a startling orange dress, and asked me to help her. So I had.
     And now, because of that one good deed, Johnny was asking me to help others. Cook, of all things!
     See? This is what happens when you allow your good intentions to override your good sense.
     Nevertheless, I knew when I was defeated.
     With a deep and heartfelt sigh, I surrendered.
     "All right, Johnny." Wanting him to understand just how idiotic his idea was, I added, "But I'll hate every minute of it. And, what's more, it won't do any good. I'm a lousy cook, and you're only going to end up with a class full of lousy cooks if they take after me."
     He laughed. How come all the men in my life were laughing at me that morning? "I know you are, Daisy, believe me. So consider this an opportunity for you to learn, too. I'll bring over that book I told you about in a few minutes."
     Aw, crumb.
 
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