What Women Want: To be loved, to be listened to, to be
to be respected, to be needed, to be trusted, and sometimes,
just to be held. What Men Want: Tickets for the World Series. —DAVE BARRY
A re you okay, Mrs. Horton?”
“Oh!” The question yanked Joan from her brooding daydream.
“Of course. Sure.”
She almost bit her tongue at the lie. Little Anna DeBoer looked up at her sideways from her perch on the piano bench, her cute little feet not quite reaching the pedals.
“When I get that way,” said Anna, eyes wide and innocent, “my mom tells me that I need more sleep and that I should get to bed.”
“Smart mom you have.” Joan smiled and returned her attention to the lesson. If daydreams were felonies, she would soon be under arrest. “So why don’t you try the right hand through to measure six this time?”
Her youngest piano student willingly attacked the keyboard, blending sour notes with sweet. Mostly sour. This time Joan did her best to keep time as Anna struggled through “Itsy Bitsy Yellow Bug,” a simple tune in Anderson’s Basic Piano: Book One.
So sorry, Anna, but today your piano teacher can concentrate on only one thing at a time: you, the lesson, or the letter. Not all three at once. Thoughts of the letter threatened to take over every minute of her time.
Joan glanced furtively down at her watch and wondered how in the world her concentration had eroded so much and so quickly this afternoon. Is this what happens to multitasking when people approach sixty? Never mind.
She would survive this lesson, the last of a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day—as a well-loved children’s book put it. Then she would finish heating the Cajun chicken-and-sausage casserole she’d started and enjoy a nice dinner with Gerrit. Or as nice as it could be, given the circumstances.
In any case, Gerrit would probably show up at her doorstep any minute now. But no matter what, she would not let herself worry about how she would respond to the letter, the offer she’d received in the mail this afternoon. Not now; not today.
“We’re getting it right, aren’t we?” Anna had no idea how close her teacher was to screaming.
“Almost.” Joan couldn’t help wincing at the C-natural that should have been a C-sharp.
“Stop?” asked Anna.
While stopping would have been wonderful, Joan shook her head.
“No, no,” she told her student. “Keep going, please.”
As Anna continued, Joan battled her own poor attitude. God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, she prayed. Anna, for her part, still couldn’t seem to get the rhythm down. She sniffed and looked around, mightily distracted herself. Joan wondered for a moment if they shouldn’t just end the lesson a few merciful minutes early after all and call it a day. Enough damage had already been done.
“Do you smell something burning, Mrs. Horton?”
Joan turned the page and paused. Anna’s mother charged through the front door just then, punctual as usual. Instead of her usual polite smile, though, Mrs. DeBoer wore a panicked expression as she dashed in and grabbed her daughter.
“Where’s the fire?” cried Mrs. DeBoer.
“Oh no! ” Joan leaped to her feet at the sound of the smoke alarm, nearly knocking Anna down. The music book flew off its perch. “My dinner!”
Joan was too busy rushing into her smoke-filled kitchen to answer Mrs. DeBoer’s questions. All she could think to do was open the oven to find out what was going on, which turned out to be Mistake Number One.
A cloud of thick black smoke poured from the oven, hitting Joan in the face.
“Call 911!” shrieked Anna, but her mother held her back. Smart mom, Joan thought. “No!” Joan said, coughing. She could handle this…maybe. She tried to wave a towel at the disaster, which only splattered smoking Cajun sauce all over the hot oven, making matters worse. She should have closed the oven and shut off the gas, but that would have been a levelheaded response, and at the moment, there were no level heads in Joan Horton’s kitchen. Besides, it was too late now.
Where was a man when you needed him?
Baking soda! Long ago some home-economics teacher had told her that baking soda would put out a fire like this. Joan covered her mouth and nose with the towel while she tried to remember where the baking soda was. Meanwhile, the smoke alarm kept up its insistent skreeee-ing, and little Anna added to the noise level any way she could with unintelligible shouts and yelps. Her mother wasn’t much better, skipping at the edge of the linoleum and waving a music book in the air in a feeble attempt to circulate the smoke away from the alarm’s sensor.
By this time they had succeeded in attracting the attention of the Van Dalen Fire Department. No doubt Mrs. DeLeeuw next door had called in the alarm. She’d never missed a thing before, especially not after Gerrit had started visiting Joan on occasions other than his own piano lessons and those of his granddaughter, Mallory. Sure enough, even above the smoke alarm, Joan could now hear Van Dalen’s finest hurrying up Delft Street in her direction, coming to the rescue of the poor widow from New York who still didn’t know how to cook anything that wasn’t store boughten. Oh yes, Joan thought, she was sure to make the front page of the next Van Dalen Sentinel.
“Burned-Out Music Teacher Torches House with Scorched Dinner.”
I played, like, a year of piano until I learned the Pink
theme. That was my goal. Once I was good enough, I quit.
Now my music has to have some rock.—JACK BLACK
G omer the Truck groaned and protested as Gerrit pressed the gas pedal to the floor and careened around a corner, headed toward town and his dinner date with Joan Horton—a date for which he was terribly late. The thought occurred to him that a ticket with his name on it might be in store for him if Jed Vanderstraat was lying in wait at the city limits in his black-and-white police cruiser. And that made Gerrit ease up on the gas just a little. Joan had probably eaten and washed the dishes by now anyway.
Gomer backfired, and Gerrit patted him on the dashboard. “Not now, old guy.”
Now might have been a good time to have one of those cell phones Joan’s grown son, Randy, was always saying Gerrit should get. And “only” sixty-five a month for the nationwide plan! No self-respecting Dutchman would pay that much for a toy that had buttons designed for the fingertips of thirteen-year-old girls. Besides, the last thing Gerrit wanted to do was call Joan to say that he was going to be late. So forget the cell phone for now. Just get to Joan’s ASAP.
Maybe she’d serve him some of her fancy New York–style coffee and one of her “eye-talian” desserts, and they’d laugh about his being late. One of them senior moments, right? The two widowed seniors would talk about their kids again, about how much things had changed in the past year since Gerrit had turned sixty, since his heart had started acting up and he’d had to hand over the family farm to his son Warney, who ended up selling the place because he’d gotten himself so deeply in debt.
Gerrit slowed down as he drove by Al Bovenklein’s farm. Pretty nice place, actually. The Bovenkleins were Dairy Family of the Year back when people still awarded that kind of thing. They were good Calvinists, faithful attenders of First Dutch Reformed, and they had raised their kids right. In fact, young Darrell was still sticking around the farm to help his dad, which was how life ought to be. Not like his own had been, though a man shouldn’t complain about the will of God.
Gerrit rolled down the window to catch the once-familiar sounds of the evening milking in the barn, the lowing of the cows, the whine of the milking machine, the thrump of a tractor. The swallows had discovered this place, too, and they looked just as busy here as they had at the tractor dealership where he worked: some catching dinner on the fly, and others looking under the rafters for a nesting place. Which reminded him of the decision he had to make.
Yes or no? He gripped the steering wheel until his knuckles turned white and went once more through his mental loop-the-loops, kind of like the swallows that circled the barn trolling for bugs.
“Is this your will, God?” he asked aloud once again. He figured God must be getting a little tired of the question Gerrit had been asking over the past couple of months—or ever since he’d met Joan Horton, really.
The Almighty didn’t seem inclined to answer—well, not in ways that Gerrit wished He might.
It made no sense—at least not from the cheap seats where he usually sat—because if he’d set out to find a woman any more different from him, he wouldn’t have been able to. Retired dairy farmer—a little rough around the edges—and a sophisticated, big-city piano professor, polished and professional. He was a homebody who’d lived on the farm all his life— until just recently—and she, a world traveler. He, a true-blue Calvinist, and she…not.
Maybe it was the last thing that bugged him the most. Even though he sometimes wondered whose faith was stronger, Gerrit couldn’t decide how much it mattered that they came from such different church backgrounds.
Folks from Joan’s denomination tended to be a little more chummy with the Holy Spirit than Gerrit figured was proper, and they did a bit of hand waving in their services. He still wasn’t quite sure about all that. On the other hand, Gerrit could bank on Joan Horton holding her own every time they argued Scripture.
He loved the way she had treated his granddaughter Mallory before Warney and Liz had moved off to Olympia after the farm sale. He loved Joan’s spunk, too. The way she’d come to a small town like Van Dalen by herself a few years after her husband had died, just to be with her pregnant daughter, Alison. He loved the way she didn’t just lie down and let life roll over her. He loved the way she threw herself at problems, as if they had no choice but to move away. He loved the way she protected her own, the way she’d been there for her son, Randy. And Gerrit loved the way she made him feel—like maybe he wasn’t ready for a lifetime membership in the AARP just yet.
He could go on, but would it be enough to outweigh all their differences?
More than the stuff on that list, he loved her, plain and simple, more than he ever thought he could love someone after his Miriam had died. And it didn’t really matter that Joan was beautiful and dark-haired like some kind of Greek goddess, though, of course, he wasn’t complaining about that for a minute.
Bottom line was that he loved Joan Horton. Period.
“There,” he announced to the world, “does everybody hear that? I love Joan Horton.” He raised his voice. “Do you hear me? I LOVE JOAN HORTON!”
And maybe that was enough—or maybe it wasn’t. What about it, Lord? He prayed, trying hard not to close his eyes the way he felt he ought to. God kept quiet.
Thunk! Something hit Gomer’s fender from the side, like a stray snowball in winter. Only this was springtime, so Gerrit stopped the truck, backed up, and got out for a look-see.
“Hey, little guy.” He knelt down in the middle of the gravel road for a closer look at a young swallow that had connected with the truck. The bird lay face up—panting and stunned, but not dead.
“You’re okay.” Gerrit cupped his big, rough farm-boy hands and gently scooped up the frightened little bird. For a moment the bird looked as if it knew Gerrit. “Not your time to die yet. You’ve got a nest to build, huh? Go on.”
As if the little bird understood, it fluttered its wings and was gone in a flurry of feathers, one of which remained in Gerrit’s hand as a souvenir. e watched the flash of iridescent blue and finally understood the answer to his question.
“Okay, Lord,” he whispered, tucking the feather into his shirt pocket as a reminder. “I see Your point. I guess I’m not getting any younger either.”
And he knew he would not let another day go by before he found out from Joan, one way or the other. If she said yes, then praise the Lord. If she said no, then praise the Lord anyway. He didn’t feel all that comforted at the moment, but it was the best answer he could come up with and probably one that the rest of the deacons at First Church would have approved.
All in favor?
“Aye.” He gave the barn one last look as he jumped back in the truck, jammed the gearshift into first, and hurried down Fishtrap Creek Road. He figured he’d better hustle—Jed Vanderstraat or no Jed Vanderstraat— or he’d lose his nerve. Shoot, Jed was probably home eating dinner with his family, not lurking about for speeders. A couple of minutes later, still praying that God had predestined Joan to forget all about his tardiness, Gerrit screeched around the corner onto Joan’s street.
“What in the world?” He slammed on the brakes, glad he’d had them serviced recently. Or maybe that had been back when Warney was a little kid. Which, come to think of it, probably meant the brakes had been serviced sometime in the last century and maybe not so recently after all. But he didn’t have time to worry about brake jobs just then, focused as he was on not rear-ending the Van Dalen Fire Department’s bright red ladder truck. When he saw he couldn’t stop in time, he did the next best thing, swerving to the side at the last minute, jumping the curb, and plowing into the corner of Lulu DeLeeuw’s tulip bed.
Missing the ladder truck was good. Plowing into Lulu’s tulips, not so good.
Even worse than dispatching a few of the neighbor’s flowers, though, was the fact that Van Dalen’s fire department had surrounded Joan’s little house with what seemed to be about every piece of their equipment.
Besides the ladder truck, they’d called out the big pumper (new in ’72, but still as shiny now as then), the chief ’s red and white SUV, and an ambulance. Never mind the truck and light display. This was very, very not good.
“Maybe it’s just a drill,” he told himself as he jumped out of the truck and started running for the house. The black smoke he saw pouring out of Joan’s open kitchen window told him otherwise. So did the bevy of neighbors standing on Joan’s front lawn. He recognized all of them— including Lulu, of course, and one of Joan’s young piano students. One person was even holding an armful of sheet music, as if she’d thought the house were about to burn to the ground. Of course, Lulu came at him first, fire in her eyes. Funny thing was, she didn’t even seem to notice what he’d done to her flowers.
“I saw the smoke and just knew something terrible was happening. So I called 911.” Now she was hyperventilating, too. Good thing the ambulance was here already.
Gerrit held up his hand and kept walking.
“Joan!” he shouted even before he’d reached the open front door. Two burly firefighters in full rescue gear met him on their way out.
“Whoa! Hang on there, big guy.” The younger of the two put a hand on Gerrit’s arm as he pushed up his helmet visor with his other hand. “I think you’d better wait outside.”
“No way,” Gerrit sputtered, looking for a way around the two rescuers.
“It’s okay, guys!” a voice boomed from inside. “Let him in.”
Chief Larry Spoelstra appeared behind the two men, and he waved at Gerrit to enter. At least that meant the house probably wasn’t about to burn up. But what, then? The guy who had held him off shrugged and stepped aside.
Only one little girl was allowed to call him that. The young bucks must have been new on the force, but that was happening more and more these days. Where did all these new people come from? Gerrit let the comment go and hurried into the house.
“Joan?” He could feel all his panic buttons going off and his heart pounding in his ears. “Are you in here, Joan?” And as silly as it was, he couldn’t shake the memory of that little swallow gasping for life in the middle of the gravel road.
Joan was sitting at her kitchen table, hands cradling her cheeks and staring at the black mess on the floor that used to be dinner. Fireextinguisher foam dripped from around the maw of the oven like toothpaste that should have been spit out a long time ago. The last of a cloud of black smoke was still clearing from the room just as the smoke alarm ceased its bleating. Gerrit hadn’t even realized it had been on as he rushed to see if Joan was okay.
“I just feel so silly.” She clamped on to his hand pretty tightly when he sat down next to her. “I did everything you aren’t supposed to do: opened the oven, and then splattered sauce all over the place, and then I knocked the dish over, and it shattered, and the place almost caught fire, and—”
“You sure you’re okay?”
“Just embarrassed, that’s all… I can’t believe all these men came just for a burned casserole.” She shook her head. “But I suppose it could have been a lot worse.”
“Amen to that.” Chief Spoelstra entered, picked up his official-looking fire extinguisher, and headed for the front door. “Next time just make sure you’re not late for dinner, Gerrit, so you don’t miss all the excitement.”
“Right.” Gerrit saluted. “Thanks, Chief.”
Joan thanked the man too, but Gerrit stared at the floor.
“I’m really sorry, Joan.” The apology tumbled out. “But Randy and I got to talking back at the dealership, and I lost track—”
“Shh.” She raised a finger for him to stop. “It’s my fault, not yours.”
“I should have been here a half hour ago.”
“No. But you should have seen little Anna in here, screaming her little head off before the neighbor called 911.”
“Yeah, I saw Lulu outside.” Now he had to grin. “She must have told them the house was burning down.”
The laugh was a good way to ease the stress of the moment. And just looking at Joan Horton cracking jokes in her mess of a kitchen made Gerrit all the more sure of his decision.