—The Book of Kringle
Ellen McClarety was thinking about serendipity, more particularly about serendipitous encounters, on her way into the shop this morning. The snow fell in heavy, leafy flakes, their distinct edges outlined against the car’s windshield before evaporating on the glass. A blanket of black stretched on either side of her. It was a darkness she’d grown accustomed to with her three a.m. risings for work, but this morning, the dark had a softness to it. No wind cutting through her parka to her clavicle, just enormous flakes drifting down from the sky. The weatherman had predicted up to a foot of snow, all of this in April, but that was Wisconsin weather. Just when a person thought she was well on her way to spring, the gods of winter doled out a blizzard.
She was looking forward to a day’s swift business. More people dropped by the bakery during a storm, the plowers who’d been out all night and those hoping for early news on the cagey weather. Plenty of serendipitous encounters to be had, a thought that made her smile as she drove along slowly, wiping condensation from the windshield with the back of her hand. She would need to make extra coffee this morning, extra dark.
As she turned down Curtis Road, she could see that a thin topcoat already skimmed the fields, like a wide expanse of flour. A light shone from the Curtis barn, where they were well into the early-morning milking, and she could just glimpse a handful of black-and-white Holsteins gathered outside, looking bewildered by the snow. Cows were dense animals; she knew that much from her grandfather, a farmer. They would stand in a snowstorm and freeze to death if you didn’t move them to shelter. God’s saddest creatures, her grandfather had called them.
“Look into their eyes,” he once said. “Have you ever seen a more mournful face than that?”
And Ellen, only twelve at the time, had to admit they did look pretty depressed. But who could blame them? They were destined for the milk machine or the butcher block. No wonder they never demonstrated much enthusiasm.
But her granddad also helped her appreciate their beauty. He bought only Black Angus cows, the stocky, sturdy bovines that typically sold for meat, and whose dark, silky coats she loved to run her hands over. It was her first lesson that in nature, as in so many things in life, there was both inexplicable beauty and sadness.
• • • •
She turned down the main street into town, the pavement growing slick beneath the wheels. At the third light, she turned right and pulled into the back lot. White funnels spiraled in the air as she exhaled, braced herself for the freeze beyond the door. Gingerly she let herself out and walked around the corner to the storefront, where bright green stems poking up from her window boxes greeted her. Daffodils under snow in April! It didn’t seem right. Inside she stomped the snow from her boots, flicked on the lights—and inhaled: the scent of yesterday’s kringle, raspberry and pecan, lingered blissfully in the air.
“Good morning, store,” she called out. Such words were her mantra before beginning each day. She believed the greeting, like a yogic blessing, whisked away any demons that might be lurking in the shop’s corners. She found an old broom in the closet and used it to sweep off the front steps, then tried her best to brush the snow from the budding daffodils with her hand. She was tempted to wrap her scarf around their stems but thought better of it: She needed to get started on the kringle if she was going to be ready for the hungry masses today.
In the back room, she removed her snowy parka, her hat, her boots and shoved them all into the closet. She tied on a fresh apron, slid on her clogs, and smoothed her hair into a ponytail. After washing her hands, she went to pull out the dough that had been chilling overnight. Before leaving yesterday afternoon, she’d rolled out the dough, shaped it into squares, and then smoothed a sheet of pure Wisconsin butter over the middle of each. After that, it was a matter of folding up the sides of each square to cover the butter, then turning the dough a quarter of the way around, and rolling and folding it again. Rolling and folding, rolling and folding, it was a delicious process, her own personal meditation as she felt her arm muscles working. She could work through any worries of the day—Had she ordered enough supplies for the week? Did her sister seem overtired yesterday? Did she pay the electricity bill?—and feel refreshed, her world righted again. By the time she was finished, each square was larded with twenty to thirty layers of scrumptious butter, while her mind was emptied, momentarily free of any burdens.
Now, when she released the doughy cakes from their cool confines, she smiled to see that yesterday’s hard work had paid off. They had puffed up pleasingly, each a work of art. She set the oven and began the process of feeding the chilled dough through the sheeter, an industrial, steel contraption that stretched it even further, yielding a large paper-thin swath. She knew that the dough’s thinness determined whether she got a heavenly puff confection or, like a batch last week, a heavy, chewy disaster. From there, it was a rhythmic routine that she fell into easily each morning; stretch the dough across the long wooden table to yield four rows of eight narrow rectangles; add the day’s filling—today it was apple and blueberry—fold the sides over, and seal with egg, until the table was lined with thirty-two loaves, each resembling a jelly roll.
Then, with a quick flick of the wrist, she knitted together the ends of each to create an oval-shaped kringle, which got tossed onto the baking board—and voilà! The morning’s work was nearly complete. She still had a ways to go before she was as skilled as Erik, the pastry chef under whom she’d apprenticed for three summers in Racine when she was a teenager. When Erik worked, it was as if each kringle got shaped in midair, the ends magically adhering in the short trip from the table to the baking board, the finished pastry delectably flaky and light.
She set the timer for seventeen minutes and checked her watch. Five thirty. Soon her customers would be arriving.
Out front she gave the counters a fresh wipe and started brewing the coffee. She pulled the bright-blue chairs off the tables, setting them right-side-up. On the board behind the register under Today’s Drips & Tips she wrote:
Drips: Hazelnut; Vanilla; Almond Decaf
Tips: Contrary to popular opinion, IRREGARDLESS is not a word. However, you might say: “Regardless of this weather, we still have plenty of delicious kringle to eat.”
She didn’t even need to consult her edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, the well-thumbed paperback crammed between the cash register and her cookbooks. The news guy on the radio had said irregardless this morning, and it made her skin prickle as it did anytime she heard someone abuse the English language with such abandon. She was proud that her customers had come to expect a grammar tip from her each day, even though her sister, Lanie, chided her that it was condescending. The way Ellen saw it, she was linking the gustatory to the literary; her daily tip was her one small contribution to making the world a better place. So what if she put off a new customer every now and then?
At the front of the counter near the register, she kept a glass candy bowl that was currently filled with bits of paper. The sign on its front read: GIVE US YOUR WORST GRAMMAR; WE’LL GIVE YOU OUR BEST! She encouraged customers to contribute their sightings of egregious usage, and once every few weeks she’d sift through the folded-over papers, like tiny fortunes, and pick one for the board.
She had come a long way from the day she’d rediscovered her mother’s battered copy of The Book of Kringle, buried in a box of her things in the attic. For some reason she’d held on to it all these years, even though her mom had passed away when Ellen was just sixteen. What she had been searching for originally in those dusty old boxes she couldn’t recall, but when she thumbed through the book of Danish recipes and folk wisdom, the scent of her mother’s baking came wafting off the pages. And there, at that very moment, shortly after her husband had left, the first kernel of an idea for a kringle shop was planted.
When the abandoned old pizza place went up for sale downtown shortly thereafter, Ellen knew it was a sign. Serendipity inviting her in. She could almost feel her mother brush up against her shoulder, giving her a little shove. “Go for it,” Ellen imagined her saying. “You’ve always wanted to create something of your own. This, my love, could be it.”
And so, without further thought, Ellen McClarety, recent divorcèe, former university secretary, bought the store. She revamped the entire space, scrubbing the grease off the walls with bleach, giving the place, not to mention her soul, a full cleanse. Each swish of the sponge wiped away years of caked-on dirt and grime. How easy! she thought to herself at the time, to rid herself of a husband and most of her savings in one fell swoop. She installed new ovens in the back and transformed the storefront from a high glimmer, red-and-white pizza motif into a cozy cafè, the fake sheen of her marriage tidily tossed off for more humble beginnings.
Perhaps the divorce would be the catalyst she needed to begin the life she was meant to live. Ten long years ago, she’d been drawn to Max like wind to a hurricane, the attraction so intense, but eventually the hurricane had hit land. She’d assumed marriage was about two people caring for each other, but Max never seemed to fully reciprocate. Whenever she’d needed him, he would perpetually come up short—or disappear. And then there had been the baby: After years of trying they’d lost their only child, just two months along, in a miscarriage. Ellen didn’t know if she’d ever recover, but Max had moved on so easily, as if it were no big deal. Maybe it was part of his happy-go-lucky nature, though Ellen had come to see it as selfishness. Max, a dreamer, could always see the forest for the trees, imagining what could be; it just seemed that after ten years of marriage, he kept running into trees.
Ellen woke up one morning and thought, Enough.
Her sister, Lanie, joked that she should christen the store The Midlife Crisis, but a friend suggested The Singular Kringle—and it stuck. He designed an elegant sign for above the door, festooned with a single pretzel shape—the traditional Danish kringle form—and the store’s name in swirling blue letters. Her dream made real at last.
For the first few weeks only a handful of customers dropped by, and Ellen busied herself by rereading the classics, a lending library soon blossoming in her shop. She had forgotten how funny Nick was in The Great Gatsby, or was it just that she’d never noticed when she first read it in college? Pride and Prejudice and Little Women were still as heartbreaking as ever, and she’d rediscovered one of her favorites, Middlemarch. She couldn’t help but to both pity and be angry with Dorothea all over again.
But then, word of mouth traveled, and the next thing she knew, her local customers were joined by farmers from their outposts, their wives, and professors who commuted the twenty miles to the university but made their homes in Amelia, population 5,320. Suddenly, she could barely keep up.
Amazing how time flew.
A fresh cup of coffee in hand, she went out back to check the kringle and was greeted by the sweet scent of apple mingling with blueberry. She pulled the piping-hot pastries from the oven and set them on a cooling rack.
“Perfect,” she announced to no one in particular.
The secret to a perfect kringle, she knew, was balance: When a person bit into a true kringle, she should taste equal parts pastry, filling, and icing. So many of the imitation kringles these days were all chewy dough, laden with frosting. But Ellen understood that no one element should overwhelm or supersede another.
When the bell on the front door jingled, she started. She’d almost forgotten she’d flipped over the OPEN sign out front; it was so easy to get lost in the wee hours in the back room while baking. Jack Singer, her punctual first customer each day, had been running the hardware store down the street since before anyone could remember. If she described a leak below her basin, he knew exactly which washer or screw she needed. She heard him stomp the snow from his boots, take a paper, and find his way to a table by the cash register.
“Good morning, sweetness,” he said as she swung through the kitchen doors. “Looks like the weatherman got it right for once . . . that’s quite a storm we’ve got brewing out there. No pun intended.” He laughed at his own joke.
Ellen knew she should be offended by his endearments, but over the past year they’d grown on her, like a familiar hangnail that wouldn’t go away.
“Looks that way,” she said as she arranged the mugs into neat rows on the counter and poured him a cup of coffee. She knew such would be the opening line for every conversation today. “Can I get you apple or blueberry? It’ll be just a few more minutes, I’m afraid.”
“Blueberry sounds perfect.” He unfolded his paper, then added, “Please.”
After tidying up a bit more, she went back to decorate the pastries with icing. The blueberry was bursting with fat, purple fruit, and the apple looked invitingly tart. Carefully, she inched them onto the baker’s board and carried them out to the display counter, where she eased them onto delicate, pretty doilies.
“Mmm. . . . If that doesn’t warm my belly, nothing will.” Jack winked at her as she cut him a slice. She noticed that his paper was open to the horoscopes. Lately, she’d grown tired of their platitudes, and more particularly, of their pessimism. It seemed to her that horoscopes should buoy someone first thing in the morning, not send him off in search of a life raft. Still, she couldn’t help but listen when Jack started reading aloud from the “Cancer” section.
“Today’s forecast: ‘You may be tempted to come out of your shell, but it’s best to keep your head down for a few days. Don’t make any rash decisions as you’re bound to regret them.’ ”
She laughed out loud. “Honestly, what kind of horoscope is that?” Jack shrugged. She wondered if astrologers—and she used the word loosely because, after all, what kind of training did you have to have to become a certified astrologer?—could be sued for dispensing bad advice. It seemed they should be.
Slowly more customers began to trickle in, looking snow-shocked, not so unlike the cows earlier this morning. They brushed the white powder from their spring jackets and shivered their way to a table, nodding a hello in her general direction. One young woman, bundled in a navy pea coat, peeked out from behind a green scarf, her eyes seemingly frozen in a permanent expression of surprise.
When Henry Moon came in, Ellen grabbed his coffee and kringle right away. A gardener who ran the town nursery, he was a bit of an odd duck, but Ellen maintained he was more sensitive than odd, a wounded soul. He’d seemed a tad off ever since his wife died in a car accident more than a year ago. Each day between seven and eight, like clockwork, he stepped into the store. His hair and clothes always looked disheveled, as if he’d lost not just a wife but also a mother, someone who’d iron his pants, tuck in his shirt.
“Henry, will my daffodils survive in this snow?” she asked him while pouring a cup.
He took a sip, rubbed his lips together. “Who was it that said: ‘And then my heart with pleasure fills / And dances with the daffodils?’ ”
She put her hand on her hip and looked at him. “You surprise me, Henry. That’s lovely. Was it Shakespeare?”
“Wordsworth, I believe. But your daffodils should be fine—and dancing in no time. They’re hardy plants. They expect a little snow once in a while.”
She liked how he made it sound as if flowers had interior lives, vibrant souls. As much as she loved literature, Ellen couldn’t recite lyrics to save her life. She was a bit jealous, not to mention humbled.
“Well, that’s good to know. Thank you.”
Henry nodded, said, “You bet.”
Larry and Erin came through the door just then, covered in white. Recent UW grads trying to make a living in the theater, they helped Ellen out at the store five days a week. Loyal customers, they’d come in and sold her on why she needed the help—her store was growing; the long hours were too much for one person to handle; they’d attract the younger clientele (though as far as she could see most of the young people went straight to Madison and didn’t waste their time in a town like Amelia).
She had to admit, though, they had a point. Larry, with his hair down to his shoulders, was handsome in a hippie-rocker kind of way, with striking green eyes and a sense of humor that immediately set customers at ease. Erin was more refined, but quietly lovely. Most days she wore her long brown hair in a ponytail, high on the back of her head.
“Busy day today,” Ellen warned as they began taking off their coats. “Better get your game face on.”
“You mean you think we’ll actually get some customers besides Henry and Jack?” Larry asked and tied on his apron.
Ellen slapped him on the arm.
“Better be careful what you wish for,” said Henry.
“We do have other customers in the store, you know.” She nodded to the undergrads and the two men in the corner, farmers in their hats and overalls huddled over steaming drinks and talking in hushed tones.
When a fresh group of customers burst into the store, Larry shouted “Morning!” and hurried to help them with their jackets. She liked that about him; he always seemed to go the extra mile. She supposed when she was younger she would have been drawn to Larry since she’d always been a sucker for that rocker-poet mystique. It made her a little sad to think that he probably considered her old enough to be his mom. Ellen liked to think of herself as hip and attractive but knew better: She was a middle-aged divorcèe without so much as a sugar daddy. Indeed with nary a prospect in sight.
As she twirled such depressing facts over in her mind, she noticed Erin’s eyes follow Larry, a slight smile gracing her lips. When she caught Ellen looking at her, she quickly turned away to refill the cream canisters. But Ellen was sure she had seen it: a crimson flare bursting onto the girl’s cheeks. Just for a moment, but long enough.
She turned to ring up a customer’s order and smiled to hear the register’s old-fashioned bell echo her satisfaction. At a certain age, she had come to understand, a person made her peace with living vicariously. She’d have to tell Lanie about the new lovebirds. When the phone interrupted her thoughts, she picked it up expecting to hear her sister’s voice.
“Hello, Singular Kringle,” she said with a smile. She would have never guessed in a million years who would return the hello.
• • • •
“Quiet!” Lanie rolled over and hit the snooze button for the second time that morning. Benjamin had woken three times last night, and the third time she’d been unable to get him back to sleep for an hour. She had tried all her tricks, rocking him, giving him an extra bottle, singing, then finally pulling him into bed with her and Rob. She loved the warm snuggle of his body close to hers, feeling his weight shift and get heavier in her arms as he finally drifted off to sleep. But it had made for a hell of a night.
Rob groaned next to her. “How can it possibly be morning already?”
It was seven thirty. Benjamin lay sound asleep between them, his belly going up and down between breaths. His round little face, slightly parted lips, and long, dark eyelashes, all the image of idyllic sleep.
“Speak for yourself,” she quipped. Rob hadn’t gotten up once to help.
“Someone’s a little cranky.” He rolled over and kissed her cheek. “If you haven’t noticed, I sleep in this bed, too.”
“Shh . . . you’ll wake the baby.”
Lanie’s eyelids felt like sandpaper. The muscles in her lower back ached. How she was going to win her plea in court today was beyond her.
The radio alarm came on again, the disc jockey reminding folks to drive carefully.
“Oh, no. I forgot about the snow.” They had been forecasting a spring blizzard last night, not so uncommon for this part of the country, but Lanie had hoped the meteorologists would get it wrong. “Perfect. Just perfect.”
“I’ll scrape the windows, get the cars warmed up.” She could smell Rob’s breath, slightly sour. She knew this was the closest she’d get to an apology or a thanks for the fact that she’d had only a few hours’ sleep, while he’d had a blissful night.
Benjamin stirred beside her, smacked his lips. He was still the cutest baby ever, even if he was responsible for the immense sleep deprivation in their lives over the past ten months. The pediatrician had assured her that eventually he’d fall into his own nocturnal rhythms after she’d asked, with swollen eyes, if she’d ever sleep again. And it was true, most nights the baby slept soundly now, but every so often came a night when he was inconsolable.
“It’s probably his teeth, huh?” Rob tried.
“That or he’s trying to kill us.” They were still waiting for his top front teeth to poke through. And true, it wasn’t until she’d smoothed some gel onto Benjamin’s gums last night that the baby had finally settled in her arms.
She pushed herself out of bed and pulled the curtain back. At least three inches of snow coated the driveway. She groaned. “Doesn’t God know it’s April?”
“Yeah, and he’s got an excellent sense of humor.”
“Shh!” She shushed him again, then whispered, “Very funny.” Lanie could feel herself being crabby, but she couldn’t help it. She was too tired.
“Watch Benjamin for a minute, will you?” She sleepwalked out of the bedroom, down the hall to the bathroom. The toothpaste tube still lay on the counter from last night, the blue gel oozing out in an unappealing zigzag. She squeezed a small dab onto her toothbrush and brushed, then splashed cool water onto her face.
God, she looked awful. What was it that Ellen said? God made babies cute to distract everyone from looking at their exhausted mothers? Something like that. But Benjamin wouldn’t be in court with her today. The judge wouldn’t care that she’d been up half the night or that she’d more than likely have washed drool off her blouse minutes before entering the courtroom. She slathered on her trusty concealer, her one “can’t-go-without” make-up trick. She always laughed at the celebrities who said they wouldn’t step foot outside without curling their eyelashes or applying self-tanner. Lanie was lucky if she remembered to apply mascara. She did so this morning, though, the black liquid coming out in uneven clumps. She frowned. Already, faint lines were starting to show around her eyes and lips. Random sunspots bloomed on her fair skin.
She brushed her hair behind her ears with her fingers. Shortly after Benjamin had been born, she’d acquiesced, done what she swore she’d never do but that Rob had predicted all along: cut off her long, curly auburn locks to tame them into something resembling the “mom bob.” Some days she missed the sexy feel of long hair, but mostly she was just glad not to have to bother with it. Practicality, she’d discovered, was highly underrated. She pulled silver loop earrings through her earlobes, added a touch of gloss to her lips. Ready to go.
No time for a shower this morning, but nothing that her favorite navy suit wouldn’t fix. She was damned if she was going to lose this plea, a motion for a restraining order against a twenty-three-year-old loser who’d beaten both his ex-girlfriend and his toddler and was now making noises he’d do the same unless they moved back in with him. The woman had come to Lanie’s office in tears yesterday, saying she feared that the next time he beat her he’d kill her.
It was almost impossible to believe that such things happened in the evolved city of Madison that prided itself on its bohemian, liberated culture. But they did on a daily basis. Lanie loved being able to help, but more often these days she found herself carrying her clients’ stories back home, despite her promises to Rob not to. Work was like a bruise that she couldn’t help pushing on again and again to see if it still hurt.
Rob, however, was an architect who worked in the laws of right angles and degrees, in the language of square footage and arcs, levels and foyers, concrete and marble. It was not a job that required much of an emotional investment, as far as she could tell. Her husband left his work on the drawing table at the office, and when he was home with her and Benjamin, they got all of him, one hundred percent. For this, she loved him dearly, but she also envied him. He had chosen a profession that built the right-angled spaces people lived and worked in; she had chosen a career that plunged her into the messy lives inside them.
She slipped into her skirt and a sheer white blouse. She’d leave the blazer off till she dropped Benjamin at day care. The baby stirred again as Rob got up to shower. His eyes opened briefly, then closed.
“Good morning, sweet boy,” she whispered across the room. Her baby, now ten months, seemed to take up so much space. Once just a tiny infant whose feet she could barely find inside his sleeper, he had grown nearly into a toddler. Precious baby fat still coddled him in all the right places, but he was longer now, his head larger. Her little boy growing up. She felt a slight twinge in her chest at the thought. He was growing up every minute, while she spent the majority of his days working with other families. The irony did not escape her. She tried not to dwell on it.
Now he stretched his arms above his head like an old man. It was a move he’d practiced ever since they’d brought him home from the hospital. The first time Rob called her into the room, laughing and pointing to Benjamin, who reached his fingertips to the sky, his yawning mouth stretched into a perfect O. It had been miraculous as so many of those baby firsts were. Now he looked around, rolled over, and pushed himself to sit up. He gave her a big gummy smile.
“Well, hello there, sleepy boy. Did you have a good sleep in Mama and Dada’s bed?”
She leaned over to sweep him up and give him a kiss, his body still warm with sleep.
He looked at her, then pointed to the bedroom door. “Bah,” he said, his new favorite word. It was funny to her how he could go from zero to sixty in a heartbeat, ready to start the day almost as soon as he woke.
“We’ll go get your bottle in a sec,” she said. “First, we have to change your diaper and get you dressed.”
She gave him another kiss, smoothed his hair, and carried him into the nursery. She loved the cool colors of his room. She’d decorated it with a nautical theme, at odds with their Midwestern corner, but she couldn’t resist the happy blue whales that swam on the borders of a crib bumper they’d found when she was pregnant. From there an entire sea had been born. Bright tropical fish hanging from Benjamin’s mobile, a table lamp covered in starfish with smiley faces, stuffed whales for snuggling, and even a diaper holder embroidered with conch shells.
The baby fussed as she changed him, something he never liked, but was happy again the moment she sat him on the floor, his fat belly sticking out over his diaper. She pulled out warm fleece pants, as tiny as a doll’s clothing, and a red sweatshirt to cover his pint-sized turtleneck. She managed to get it all on him without too much fuss. She could hear Rob singing in the shower down the hall, some Bruce Springsteen tune, and was surprised to find herself smiling. Benjamin bounced up and down on his knees, waving his arms, his signature dance.
She hoisted him onto her hip and carried him down the stairs, twenty-three hardwood steps to be exact. She and Rob had counted them when they first moved in, after they’d made love at the top, christening the old windy farmhouse as their own.
“Brr, baby,” she said and drew Benjamin closer now. The chill of the night had settled into the lofty spaces of the high-ceilinged first floor. She turned the thermostat to eighty to get the heat cranking.
“Why don’t we live in California again?” she asked.
The truth, she reminded herself, was that while both she and Rob had lived in California for a spell, each had returned to Wisconsin, as if a rubber band had pulled them back with a snap. Lanie had always thought that a certain sense of superiority lurked in the humbleness of Midwesterners, that they were a people who weathered the blistering cold, temperatures unimaginable to most, and so were able to endure more of life’s challenges than most.
It was a mentality she’d tried to shake again and again, traveling first to Berkeley, then to a clerkship in Seattle, then to Boston, yet all roads had led back to Madison. She and Rob laughed about this peculiar fact on their first date over brats and beers on State Street: A Midwesterner spent his life trying to escape the cold winters but always ended up back home.
Though she would never admit it, she’d loved coming home. She returned in late July, fresh from a tour of the Eastern seaboard, places like Portland, Maine; Gloucester, Massachusetts; a last hurrah in New York City. She and her housemate at the time, Julia, had packed their bags, sold the rest of their belongings in a yard sale, and set out for three weeks of carefree abandon. It was a fitting farewell to a coast that had served her well. She’d been working in tax law in Boston, a job that helped pay off her loans, but she jumped at the chance to join one of Madison’s top firms.
While Lanie was expected to bill a certain number of hours at Brandt & Smith, she was in the fortunate position of being able to balance lucrative divorces with, to her mind, the more pressing family dispute and social restitution cases. When Ellen asked what compelled her to work with people whose lives were so depressing—beaten women and children, abandoned children in foster care—Lanie answered easily and with certainty: It was her calling. It was the reason she had gone to law school in the first place, to help those less fortunate. That she was able to return home to do so was only icing on the cake.
When she arrived in midsummer, three suitcases and her briefcase sitting at her feet, Ellen greeted her at the terminal, her sleeveless shirt collared with perspiration, her brown hair frizzing in the humidity. Lanie had always envied her sister her heart-shaped face, her kind eyes, and over the years Ellen had come to embody the maternal role she’d always played in Lanie’s life. Her once slim figure had morphed into that of a woman who was comfortable with a few extra pounds, her formerly slender arms now round.
When their own mom passed and Lanie was just six, Ellen had become like a second mother to her. Their father, on the edge of his own despair, was helpless to guide her. So Ellen, just sixteen, moved from her own room back into her sister’s. Ten years later it was Ellen who rode in the jolting car up and down the school parking lot when Lanie got her learner’s permit; Ellen who pressed their mother’s letter into her hands on the night of Lanie’s high school graduation, saying, “Mom wanted me to hold on to this until you graduated. I’ve done my best to preserve it. It’s a little battered around the edges, but it still has her scent.”
And, indeed, when she held the envelope to her face, Lanie could detect the sweet aroma of lilacs, her mother’s perfume. Later, after a celebration under a sweeping white tent in their backyard, she opened the letter in the privacy of her bedroom and cried to see the faint pink of her mom’s lipstick on the edges of the inside seal. It was as if her mother were sitting there on her bed, rubbing her back again, and Lanie, still six.
She had ridden home with Ellen from the airport that July day nearly six years ago. A thunderstorm had recently passed through, and she rolled down the window to open herself to the sweet scent of sugar corn and wild grass hovering over the fields in fat droplets of humidity.
“Hmmm,” she said. “That smells nice.” She stretched her arm out the window, as if she could reach the dewy drops, bottle them up like the lemonade they’d sold in Mason jars when they were little girls. The stretches of country road brought her back to days of eating cherry popsicles on the front porch, so cold they’d stuck to her tongue, and of catching fireflies late into the night till the stars popped out and their mother called them in, once, twice, three times, her voice more insistent on her third trip to the door. Then she’d strip Lanie’s body of her sweaty clothes and throw her into the bathtub, right after Ellen, the dirt from her sister still ringing the tub.
“There’s no sense in wasting water,” their mother always explained when they inquired why they shared the same water. Their mom, a farmer’s daughter, possessed a farm girl’s practicality when it came to husbanding resources.
Lanie smiled at her memories while they drove along, the telephone poles ticking by, Queen Anne’s Lace and wild blue chicory dotting the roadside. She remembered many things about Harriet McClarety. Like the way she would bite into a tomato, whole, like an apple, or the way she’d make lemonade with fresh lemons, never concentrate, but would add so much sugar that all they could taste was the sweetness, not the tart. Lanie remembered, too, the hot summer nights they’d sit on the front porch swing, her mom patiently combing through her wet tangles while they swung back and forth, Ellen acting out tales of great kingdoms on the porch’s grainy floor. Her mom would work out all the knots, one by one, as if it was the easiest thing in the world to do, and laugh her sweet laugh at her sister’s antics.
On that hot summer day, her sister driving her back to her childhood town, Lanie knew she’d come home at last. It felt right. She wondered if she’d ever have her own child’s tangled hair to smooth out, her own little girl or boy to whisper to, “Now just sit still; this won’t hurt a lick.”
• • • •
Now she went to fix Benjamin’s bottle. They had switched to formula once she went back to work, three short months after he was born. The whole breast-pumping thing was beyond her. She couldn’t imagine toting a pump back and forth to work, having to pump behind closed doors, or even worse, in the bathroom stall at the courthouse every few hours. She knew that studies claimed breast-feeding up to a year was best for babies, but she tried to convince herself that Benjamin had gotten a full dose of antibodies in those first few months. Her pediatrician reassured her that it was okay, that the most important thing to remember was that “a happy mom meant a happy baby.”
She threw the afghan around him now and watched as his lips fastened hungrily onto the bottle’s nipple. She rocked him gently and clicked on the news with the remote. Up to a foot of snow, maybe more, they were predicting. Rob came down the stairs whistling, dressed in a navy jacket, khaki pants, and the yellow tie that Lanie had laid out for him the night before. He seemed happy, as if all the snow was cause for celebration. She, on the other hand, fretted over the practicalities—getting Benjamin to day care safely, making it to court on time, her clients’ making it to court on time.
“I’ll get the car warmed up and ready,” Rob said as he slipped into his coat. “You guys will be toasty.”
“Thanks,” she offered.
“Benjamin, baby, when’s this snow going to stop?”
He looked into her eyes, wide-eyed and knowing, but didn’t offer a word. His lips puckered around the nipple, sucking away.
When Rob came back in, he seemed surprised by the strength of the storm.
“Be careful out there. It’s pretty slick. I’ve sanded the driveway, but it looks like the plows came through a while ago.”
“Okay.” She nodded, half-hearing. “Thanks, honey.”
She could feel him hesitating by the front door. Benjamin sat up to look.
“Do you think day care will even be open today?”
“No cancellations yet.” Lanie had been watching the closings scroll across the bottom of the screen. Still just a few. There was a local joke that the schools in Wisconsin didn’t close unless the snow was piled so high that you couldn’t open your front door.
“Do you want me to drive you guys this morning?” She could tell from the timbre of his voice that her husband was being kind.
“No, you go. I know you’ve got a big day ahead of you, too. We’ll be fine.”
He came to give her a kiss and picked up Benjamin. “Bye, buddy. Have fun at school today. Maybe you’ll go sledding, huh?”
Benjamin kicked his feet, waved bye-bye. He’d come to know that these early-morning rituals, including a kiss on the forehead, meant daddy was going to work. “It’s a caffeine kind of day,” Rob said on his way out the door. “See you tonight.”
“See you tonight,” Lanie said, but she’d already turned back to the news and was propping the baby up for a burp, wondering how on earth she was going to make it to court in time for her nine o’clock hearing.
• • • •
Rob couldn’t help it. As he negotiated the slippery roads on the way into the office, all he felt was relief. Relief to be going to work; relief to be leaving Benjamin’s tired cries of the night behind; relief to be free of Lanie’s guilt-inspiring looks. So what if he didn’t get up last night to help with the baby? He certainly had done his fair share during those first few months. And both he and Lanie knew that the only thing Benjamin wanted at two in the morning was his momma. As much as Rob tried to be supportive—offering to get up in the middle of the night to fetch a bottle, rubbing Lanie’s back when she fell back into bed, playing with Benjamin as soon as he got home from work—sometimes it just didn’t seem like enough.
He was glad that Lanie had gone back to her firm after maternity leave. He supposed that made him a little unusual since most of his colleagues seemed to prefer that their wives stay home and raise the kids. But that was such an old-fashioned attitude, almost cavemanesque. He knew Lanie well enough to understand that she needed some kind of activity to get the wheels in her brain spinning again. She had read and reread all the baby books during the first few weeks of her maternity leave, highlighting sections, to the point where he’d taken to slipping them into the back of bookcases, hoping she’d put all that advice aside and just enjoy the mommy thing. But it was typical Lanie: wanting to get her arms around every detail she could about a case (or in this instance, their son), analyze them, and then come up with a game plan.
Of course, as they’d both come to realize quickly, there was no such thing as a game plan for a three-week-old or even a seven-month-old. Having Benjamin had taught them that all the book smarts in the world couldn’t help them when it came to giving their baby the love he needed. And, once this realization sunk in, they breathed more easily, trusted themselves. They were the two people in the world who knew their little guy best—all his little quirks and baby pet peeves. It made Rob feel powerful and indispensable in a way he’d never fathomed possible. This little human being depended on him and Lanie totally and completely. They were it. They were whom Benjamin got in this life, take it or leave it.
God, how he hoped he didn’t screw it up.
As he drove into the office, he ticked through his mental to-do checklist: Get a reservation at someplace nice for their five-year anniversary that was coming up; pick up his dry cleaning (he was out of shirts); and get the final plans for the west wing of the art institute signed off on. He was tired of waiting around for Eli’s approval. Eli had only a few years on Rob at the firm, but he always seemed to weigh in at the most inopportune moment. Because he was the lead guy on the project, Eli had to sign off on every little thing. If he didn’t like it, Rob might as well start over.
Rob pulled into the garage and turned into his assigned parking space, L01. It always looked to him like LOL, as if someone higher up knew what a joke his job was. As if Frank Hobbs himself, the president of their firm, were saying, “Poor Rob, all that hard work, and not much to show for it.” He knew he was being paranoid, but still. LOL? Really? Did he need a parking slot that mocked him each and every day?
When he stepped out of the car, the cold stung his nose immediately. His breath came out in a white arc. He buttoned his top button and made for the elevator, hearing the thwack of his boots on the pavement. The mostly empty garage made it feel like a Saturday. He’d managed to push his guilt aside on the drive into work, but now it crept up on him again as he waited for the elevator. The roads had been pretty slick. He probably should have given Lanie and Benjamin a ride. He’d feel better if he called her to check in when he got into the office.
When he stepped off the elevator into the lobby, a wall of white swirling just beyond the window greeted him. Choppy waves cut through the lake below. What was it that T. S. Eliot said about April? “April is the cruelest month”? Or was it March? Or was it Yeats who wrote that? He’d have to ask Lanie tonight. She would know and would laugh at him for pretending to know. But it would be a good laugh, one that was familiar to them, each trying to outsmart the other. It would be nice, he thought, as he headed toward his office, if they could get some of that back, even for one night.
“Good morning, boss. Glad to see you made it in.”
His assistant, Kate, was in a perpetually good mood. He found it to be an exceedingly rare quality the longer he worked in the business. Architects in general seemed to be a dour lot, always playing out worst-case scenarios. For Kate, though, the sky was unfailingly blue, even on a day like today, and while some might find her cheerfulness counterfeit, he was grateful for it. Plus, she always looked professional. He supposed that was a sexist thing to say, but again, another underrated quality as far as he could tell in the new wave of graduates coming out of the university. It was as if young women today felt they had to make a statement with their asymmetrical hairstyles, body piercings, and thrift-shop clothing. Kate, on the other hand, wore her thick black hair straight, in a neat shoulder-length cut. She wasn’t pretty in the usual way, yet everything about her exuded competence, helpfulness. He wondered for a brief moment if she had a small tattoo hidden somewhere discreet, like on her hip or the small of her back, then chided himself.
It was none of his damn business.
Once when Lanie had returned from a girls’ weekend with her college roommates, she’d asked Rob if she should get a tattoo. His name? A little bird? He’d laughed at the time. It seemed so unlike her. But maybe it had been her attempt to spice things up one last time before they started trying for a baby, a family?
Would she do it now, if he asked?
When he put the question to his buddies—was it typical for the passion to wane around year five—they assured him that he was experiencing the “baby blues.” “We’ve all been there, dude,” his friends commiserated with him. Things would get back to normal soon enough. “By the time Benjamin’s five, at the latest,” his buddy Tom joked. Rob couldn’t imagine a five-year stretch of sleep deprivation and next-to-no sex. Sometimes he felt as if Lanie had forgotten he even existed, and then he felt even smaller, like a petulant child hungry for attention.
“It’s natural. She’s fallen in love with your son. Give her time. Once he hits the terrible twos, she’ll remember what a well-mannered guy you are and how much she loves a man who doesn’t throw his peas across the table.” Rob tried to take what comfort he could from those words.
“Good morning to you, too,” Kate tried again.
“Sorry. My mind’s somewhere else.” He brushed the snow from his overcoat, then rifled through the mail laid out on the ledge above her desk for his review. “Let it snow, let it snow, huh?”
“I said to Mark yesterday, it smells like snow. I bet it’s going to snow.” She took a sip of her coffee, leaving maroon lipstick marks on the rim. “I can always tell. So, do you want the good news or the bad news first?”
Rob sighed. “There’s already both?” He glanced at his watch. It was only eight thirty.
She nodded. “Bad?”
“Okay. The bad news is that Eli doesn’t like your latest tweaks to the west wing. Says it feels old-fashioned. He wants something more ‘in tune with kids today,’ whatever that means.” She rolled her eyes.
“Shit,” Rob said under his breath. Kate had lost no time in telling him what she thought of Eli a few weeks after she’d been hired. “He’s a chauvinistic pig. Looks at my boobs every time he talks to me.” (Rob had stared intently at Kate’s face when she said this.)
“It would be one thing if he was hot, but he’s just a nerdy guy.” Rob had wanted to ask how it would be different, how that would make it okay. But he bit his tongue.
True, Eli was a little pathetic in the way those kids in school who never quite fit in were. He imagined Eli wearing button-down shirts in high school, no date at the prom. But Eli was also the kind of guy who was going to end up with a boatload of money, and he’d caught Hobbs’s eye out of the gate. Rob agreed he was a smart architect, anal in his calculations and drawings, but he lacked what Rob liked to think of as architectural intuition. No sense for how the space would work once people were actually in it. Their team had been struggling to refine the plans for Madison’s new art institute for weeks. Every time it seemed as if they were in the home stretch, Eli threw them a curve ball. “Let’s get Walter on the phone, shall we?”
“I’ve already got a conference call set up for ten thirty.”
Rob smiled. “Figures.”
“Now for the good news: Lanie called. She says court is shutting down early today, and she’ll be able to pick up Benjamin from day care this afternoon. So you’re off the hook.”
“Oh,” Rob’s heart sunk just a bit. Why hadn’t she just called his cell? Then he remembered he’d forgotten to charge it last night. It was dead in his pocket.
“Not good news?” Kate asked, raising an eyebrow.
“I was looking forward to cutting out early myself today, with this crap weather.”
“Well, I’m not stopping you.” She turned back to her computer. “Don’t worry. I’ll cover for you, like I always do,” she added, her nails clicking away at the keys.
“Your boss is such an ass. I don’t know how you stand him.”
“You and me both,” Kate said matter-of-factly. Then, when Rob paused for a moment: “Well, are you going to do any work today?”
“Probably not.” He grabbed his coffee and walked into his office, directly across the way. He dropped his briefcase on the cluttered desk, hung his coat on the hook behind the door, plugged in his cell. The snow outside the window was blowing hard now, almost horizontally, and when he touched his finger to the pane he pulled it quickly back from the cold. He sat down at his drawing board and retrieved the plans from the drawer. Etching upon etching detailed all the modifications they’d already made to the west wing, meant to be devoted to a children’s museum. He’d see what he could do to appease Eli without redrafting it completely. As with so much in life, it was a matter of two steps forward, one step back. Eventually, he had faith that they would get there.
Then he remembered he’d meant to call Lanie, make sure she and Benjamin had made it in all right. He picked up his desk phone and started punching the numbers.
When he heard her voice, he smiled. “Hey,” he began.
Three Good Things
Ellen and Lanie are as close as two sisters can be, until one begins keeping a secret that could forever change both their lives. Wearing her big Midwestern heart proudly on her sleeve, Wendy Francis skillfully illuminates the emotional lives of two women with humor and compassion, weaving a story destined to be shared with a friend, a mother, or a sister.
Read an Excerpt
Reading Group Guide
Ellen McClarety, a recent divorcée who has opened a kringle shop as a creative outlet after the departure of her ex-husband, and her sister, Lanie, who juggles motherhood and a demanding career as a lawyer, are the heart and soul of Three Good Things. Ellen sees a connection with a customer from her store, but who will she choose when her past shows up unexpectedly? Meanwhile, Lanie sees her perfect life falling apart under the demands of motherhood. Both women long for the guidance of their mother, who died years ago, but left them with a wonderful piece of advice: “At the end of every day, you can always think of three good things that happened.”
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Serendipity is important to Ellen. What events are caused by serendipity in the book? Is serendipity always good, or does it sometimes have negative consequences?
2. How do you think the novel would be different if it had not been set in Wisconsin? How much does the setting influence how see more