This time when it started, I so totally wasn't expecting it.
You would think I'd have figured it out by now. I mean, after all this time. But apparently not. Apparently, in spite of everything, I am just as big an idiot as I ever was.
This time when it started, it wasn't with a phone call, or a letter in the mail. This time it was the doorbell. It rang right in the middle of Thanksgiving dinner.
This wasn't so unusual. I mean, lately, our doorbell? Yeah, it's been ringing a lot. That's because a couple of months ago, one of my parents' restaurants burned down, and our neighbors -- we live in a pretty small town -- wanted to show their sympathy for our loss by bringing over beef Stroganoff and the occasional persimmon pie.
Seriously. As if someone had died. People always bring over gifts of food when someone has died, because the grieving family isn't supposed to feel up to cooking, and would starve to death if friends and neighbors didn't come over all the time with lemon squares or whatever.
Like there was no such thing as Dominos.
Only in our case, it wasn't a person who had died. It was Mastriani's, an Establishment for Fine Dining -- the choice for pre-prom dinner, or catering local weddings or bar mitzvahs -- which got burned down thanks to some juvenile delinquents who'd wanted to show me just how much they didn't appreciate the way I was poking my nose into their business.
Yeah. It was my fault the family business got torched.
Never mind the fact that I'd been trying to stop a killer. Never mind that the folks this guy had been trying to kill weren't just, you know, strangers to me, but people I actually knew, who went to my school.
What was I supposed to do, just sit back and let him off my friends?
Whatever. The cops nailed the guy in the end. And it wasn't like Mastriani's wasn't insured, or that we don't own two other restaurants that didn't get incinerated.
I'm not saying it wasn't a terrible loss, or anything. Mastriani's was my dad's baby, not to mention the best restaurant in town. I'm just saying, you know, the persimmon pies weren't strictly necessary. We were bummed and all, but it wasn't like we didn't feel like cooking. Not in my family. I mean, you grow up around a bunch of restaurants, you learn how to cook -- among other things, like how to drain a steam table or make sure the perch is fresh and that the fish guy isn't trying to rip you off again. There was never a shortage of food in my house.
That Thanksgiving, in fact, the table was groaning with it. Food, I mean. There was barely room for our plates, there were so many serving dishes stacked with turkey, sweet potatoes, cranberry relish, two kinds of dressing, string beans, salad, rolls, scalloped potatoes, garlic mashed potatoes, glazed carrots, turnip puree, and creamed spinach in front of us.
And it wasn't like we were expected to take, you know, just a little bit of everything. No way. Not with my mom and dad around. It was like, if you didn't pile your plate sky-high with stuff, you were insulting them.
Which was a very big problem, you see, because I had a second Thanksgiving dinner to attend -- something I hadn't exactly mentioned to them, on account of how I knew they wouldn't exactly be too thrilled about it. I was just trying to save a little room, you know?
dOnly maybe I should have said something. Because certain people at the table observed my apparent lack of appetite and felt obligated to comment upon it.
"What's wrong with Jessica?" my great-aunt Rose, who was down from Chicago for the holiday, wanted to know. "How come she's not eating? She sick?"
"No, Aunt Rose," I said, from between gritted teeth. "I am not sick. I'm just not that hungry right now."
"Not that hungry?" Great-aunt Rose looked at my mother. "Who's not hungry at Thanksgiving? Your mother and father slaved all day making this delicious meal. Now you eat up."
My mother broke off her conversation with Mr. Abramowitz to say, "She's eating, Rose."
"I'm eating, Aunt Rose," I said, sticking some sweet potato in my mouth to prove it. "See?"
"You know what the problem with her is," Great-aunt Rose said conspiratorially to Claire Lippman's mother, but in a voice still loud enough for the guys working down at the Stop and Shop on First Street to hear. "She's got one of those eating disorders. You know. That anorexia."
"Jessica doesn't have anorexia, Rose," my mom said, looking annoyed. "Douglas, pass the string beans to Ruth, will you?"
Douglas, who in the best of circumstances does not like to have attention drawn to him, quickly passed the string beans to my best friend Ruth, as if he thought he could ward off Great-aunt Rose's evil death glare by doing so.
"You know what they call that?" Great-aunt Rose asked Mrs. Lippman, in a chummy sort of way.
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Mastriani," Mrs. Lippman said. I gathered from her slightly harassed tone that, in accepting my mother's invitation to Thanksgiving dinner, Mr. and Mrs. Lippman had not known what they were getting themselves into. Clearly, no warning had been issued about Great-aunt Rose. "I don't know what you mean."
"Denial," Great-aunt Rose said, snapping her fingers triumphantly. "I saw that on Oprah. I suppose you're just going to let Jessica pick at that dressing, Antonia, and not make her eat it, just like you let her get away with everything. Those disgraceful dungarees she goes around in, and that hair...and don't even get me started on that whole business last spring. You know, nice girls don't have armed federal officers following them around -- "
Thankfully, at that moment, the doorbell rang. I threw my napkin down and got up so fast, I nearly knocked over my chair.
"I'll get it!" I yelled, then tore for the foyer.
Well, you would have run out of there, too. I mean, who wanted to hear that whole thing -- about how I'd been struck by lightning and consequently developed the psychic power to find missing people; how I'd been more or less kidnapped by a less-than-savory arm of the government, who'd wanted me to come work for them; and how some friends of mine sort of had to blow up a few things in order to get me safely back home -- again? I mean, hello, that subject is way tired, can we change it, please?
"Now, who could that be?" my mother wondered, as I rushed for the door. "Everyone we know is right here at this table."
This was pretty much true. Besides Great-aunt Rose and me and my mom and dad, there were my two older brothers, Douglas and Michael, Michael's new girlfriend (it still felt weird to call her that, since for years Mikey had only dreamed that Claire Lippman might one day glance in his direction, and now, flying in the face of societal convention, they were going together -- the Beauty and the Geek), and her family, as well as my best friend Ruth Abramowitz and her twin brother Skip and their parents. In all, there were thirteen people gathered around our dining room table. It sure didn't seem to me like anyone was missing.
But when I got to the door, I found out someone was. Oh, not from our dinner table. But from someone else's.
It was dark outside -- it gets dark early in November in Indiana -- but the porch light was on. As I approached the front door, which was partly glass, I saw a large, African-American man standing there, looking out onto the street while he waited for someone to answer the bell.
I knew who he was right away. Like I said, our town is pretty small, and up until a few weeks ago, there hadn't been a single African American living in it. That had changed when the old Hoadley place across the street from our house was finally bought by Dr. Thompkins, a physician who'd taken a job as chief surgeon at our county hospital, relocating his family, which included a wife, son, and daughter, from Chicago.
I opened the door and said, "Hey, Dr. Thompkins."
He turned around and smiled. "Hello, Jessica. Er, I mean, hey." In Indiana, hey is what you say instead of hello. Dr. Thompkins, you could tell, was still trying to adjust to the lingo.
"Come on in," I said, moving out of the way so he could get out of the cold. It hadn't started to snow yet, but on the Weather Channel they'd said it was going to. Not enough snow was expected, however, for them to cancel school on Monday, much to my chagrin.
"Thanks, Jessica," Dr. Thompkins said, looking past me through the foyer, to where he could see everybody gathered in the dining room. "Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to interrupt your meal."
"No biggie," I said. "Want some turkey? We have plenty."
"Oh, no. No, thank you," Dr. Thompkins said. "I just stopped by because I was hoping...well, it's sort of embarrassing, but I wanted to see if..."
Dr. Thompkins seemed pretty nervous. I assumed he needed to borrow something. Whenever anybody in the neighborhood needs to borrow something, particularly something cooking related, we are almost always their first stop. Because my parents are in the restaurant business, we pretty much have anything you could possibly need to cook with, and generally in giant bulk containers.
Since he was from a big city, and all, I guessed Dr. Thompkins wasn't aware that in a small town, it's perfectly acceptable to ask your neighbors if you can borrow something. There was actually a lot I suspected Dr. Thompkins didn't know about our town. For instance, I suspected that Dr. Thompkins wasn't aware that even though Indiana officially sided with the North during the Civil War, there were still some people -- especially in the southern half of the state, where we live -- who didn't think the Confederates were so bad.
That's why the day the Thompkinses' moving truck pulled up, my mom was over there with a big dish of manicotti, welcoming them to the neighborhood, before they'd even gotten out of the car, practically. Mrs. Abramowitz, who can't cook to save her life, brought over store-bought pastries in a big white box. And the Lippmans came over with a plate of Claire's famous chocolate-chip cookies. (Her secret? They're Tollhouse Break and Bake. All Claire does is grease the cookie pan. Seriously. I am privy to secrets like this, and many other much more interesting ones, now that Claire is my brother's girlfriend.)
Just about everybody in the neighborhood, and a lot of neighborhoods farther away, showed up to welcome the Thompkinses to our town the day they moved in. I bet, coming from Chicago and all, the Thompkinses must have thought we were a true bunch of freaks, knocking on their door all day long, and even several days after they'd gotten moved in, with brownies and eggplant parmigiana and Snickerdoodles and macaroni and cheese and Jell-O salad and homemade coffee cake.
But what the Thompkins didn't know -- and what we were all too aware of -- was that our town, like the United States a hundred and fifty years ago, had a line running through the middle of it, dividing it into two distinct parts. There was the part Lumbley Lane was on, which also held the courthouse square and most of the businesses, including the hospital and the mall and the high school and stuff. This part of the city housed what people in my school call the "Townies."
And then there was the rest of the county, outside the city limits, which consisted mostly of woods and cornfields, with the occasional trailer park and abandoned plastics factory thrown in for picturesque effect. Outside town, there were still patches of illiteracy, prejudice, and even, in the deepest backwoods, where my dad used to take us camping when we were little, moonshining. Kids at school called people who lived this far outside of town, and who had to be bused in for school, "Grits," as that is what many of them purportedly have for breakfast every morning. Grits are like oatmeal, only not as socially acceptable, and without raisins.
In my town, Grits are the ones who still sometimes drive around with Confederate flags hanging off their pickups and stuff. Grits are the ones who still say the N word sometimes, and not because they are quoting Chris Rock or Jennifer Lopez or whoever. Although I happen to know quite a few so-called Grits who would never call someone the N word, just like I happen to know, from personal experience, a few Townies who wouldn't hesitate to call a female like myself with very short hair and a tendency to be a little quick with my fists the D word, or my friend Ruth, who happens to be Jewish, the K word that rhymes with it.
So you can see why when we saw the Thompkinses moving in, some of us thought there might be trouble from other people.
But it had been almost a month, and so far, no incidents. So maybe everything was going to be all right.
That's what I thought then. Everything's different now, of course. Still, at the time, all I did was try to put Dr. Thompkins at ease as he stood there in our foyer. Hey, I didn't know. How could I possibly have known? I may be psychic, but I'm not that psychic.
"Hey, mi casa es su casa, Dr. Thompkins," I told him, which is probably about the lamest thing on earth there is to say, but whatever. I wasn't feeling real creative, thanks to Great-aunt Rose, who is a major brain drain. Also, I am taking French, not Spanish.
Dr. Thompkins smiled, but only just. Then he uttered the words that made it feel like it had started to snow after all. Only all the snow was pouring down the back of my sweater.
"It's just that I was wondering," he said, "if you'd seen my son."
Text copyright © 2002 by Meggin Cabot