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Book Jacket

Trade Paperback
280 pages
Jul 2005
Howard Publishing

Dying to Decorate: A Friday Afternoon Club Mystery

by Cyndy Salzmann

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Chapter One

"Yes!" I slam the phone back in its cradle, sending the dog skittering across the kitchen floor. "Don't worry, Daisy. You're not in trouble-this time! But don't think I don't know about your midnight raids in the kitchen trash. What do you think gives you the kind of gas that clears a room? I'm onto you, puppy dog, and it's only a matter of time before I catch you in the act!"

Great. Here I am, a grown woman, talking to a dog about gas. Next I'll be expecting Daisy to pull a pack of Tums from her collar. I am so ready for FAC!

Before you get the wrong idea about my sanity-or lack of it-let me introduce myself. My name is Elizabeth Harris. Liz, to most. In addition to Daisy, our precocious Westie, I share our home in Omaha, Nebraska, with a very patient husband, two teenagers, and a "tween." Once a week I write a lifestyle column for our local newspaper-even though these days my life seems to lack a significant amount of style. Let's face it. How stylish can a woman actually feel climbing out of a minivan?

It's so interesting to look back at the glamorous dreams of youth. In high school my goal was to get my hair to look like Farrah Fawcett's-a glamorous crime-fighter on the TV show Charlie's Angels. But instead of gently waving tresses, all I could produce after a frustrating session with my curling iron were two tight curls that resembled skinny sausages framing my face. In college I decided to cut my long hair and pursue a career as a newswoman like Mary Tyler Moore.

After graduating from journalism school, I landed a job as a cub reporter at the local TV station. The glamour of this profession began to wear off shortly after our first child arrived. Returning to work after maternity leave, I was determined to "have it all"-great career, fabulous marriage, wonderful family. Not even willing to give up nursing, I dutifully pumped my milk in the ladies' rest room at the station twice a day. After a long night of reporting election returns, I discovered that trying to "have it all" carries a price I wasn't sure I wanted to pay . . .

"Liz, they want to go live in two minutes," said my photographer, Andy. "Are you ready for your stand-up?"

"Sure," I replied, adjusting my earpiece. "Does Eric have my lead-in?"

"I'll check."

I composed my thoughts while Andy communicated with the station. Smoothing my hair and straightening my blouse, I suddenly felt that familiar tingling known only to nursing mothers.

No, not now. Please not now.

"OK, Liz," said Andy, holding up his fingers, "in three, two . . ." He pointed his finger at me as the little red light of the camera went on, indicating we were on the air.

I pasted a smile on my face and attempted to listen to the anchor's question. But all I could think about was that my milk had begun to let down. On television. Live.

I knew what I needed to do to stop the inevitable flow. Put firm pressure on my breasts. Unfortunately, my training from the La Leche League didn't cover how to gracefully do this when in front of a live television audience.

The anchor's voice interrupted my panic. "It looks like there's a lot of celebrating down there, Liz. I assume they are pretty happy with the returns."

Instinct kicked in as I finished my report, including an uncomfortable interview with the campaign manager, who seemed intent on staring over my shoulder. When the red light on the camera finally clicked off, Andy sheepishly pointed out the reason for the man's unusual behavior: two wet ovals decorated my blouse. I did the next report in my overcoat and turned in my resignation the next morning . . .

But back to the question of maintaining sanity as a stay-at-home mom. Believe it or not, I am able to make it through most days without trying to coax a verbal response from the family dog. However, to be brutally honest, a regular dose of what I've fondly come to call FAC is crucial to helping me walk the narrow path of pleasant wife and mother without falling into the abyss and emerging as "the hateful hag."

Although the hateful hag cleverly hides from the outside world, all mothers know how she strains to break her carefully woven leash. For some of us, the hag may rear her loathsome head while trying to arbitrate a battle between siblings over a toy, computer time, or-in the case of teenagers-the car keys. As outlined in our parenting classes, we have taken several cleansing breaths in an effort to keep our composure. But before we know it, the leash snaps! We find ourselves with hands clamped tightly over our ears, shrieking, "Stop it! Stop it! Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!"

Not a pretty picture . . . and certainly one not covered in the Positive Parenting curriculum.

For other moms, the hateful hag may show up in response to what her family considers a simple question, such as, "What's for dinner?" Unfortunately, family members have asked the mother in this situation this same question every night for the last fourteen years. Without even realizing hag has slipped out, this characteristically pleasant mother whirls around with a wild look in her eyes and responds with something like, "Why are you asking ME what's for dinner? Do I look like I know what's for dinner? Am I a walking menu? Do I have pots hanging from my belt? A roast around my neck?" Stunned family members slink from the room, whispering among themselves that it might be a good night to pick up pizza.

Although we hate to admit it-often denying the fact to our graves-every mother struggles to keep her hag in check. But when that wicked witch does break free, even for a few moments, we quickly regret our tirades and assuage our guilt by spending hours baking "make-up" cookies or doing chores previously assigned to the kids. FAC is my secret weapon against the hateful hag.

Have I piqued your interest yet? Are you wondering what in the world those magic letters FAC represent? Could it be a secret elixir? Some new form of therapy? Perhaps a relaxing spa treatment? Better yet, a box of decadent dark chocolates with macadamia nuts?

Not quite. FAC-short for Friday Afternoon Club-is a group of women (Lucy, Jessie, Marina, Mary Alice, Kelly, and me) who get together on Friday afternoons for that vital shot of "girl time" that all women need but too often sacrifice. There's no agenda. No projects. No menu. Just a couple of hours to relax, recharge, and reconnect at the end of a long week.

At one time we tried to come up with a clever name for the group. But because the demands of our small children left us little energy for creativity, we stuck with FAC. As the years have gone by, we've noticed the name has a definite advantage. Think about it. We never have to ask when our little group is getting together. The meeting time is contained in the name. My mother tells me I won't truly appreciate this stroke of genius until menopause.

FAC began about ten years ago as a way to help moms in our neighborhood remember that there are people who are interested in what we have to say-aside from what's for dinner, the location of a sippy cup, if a soccer uniform is clean, and most importantly, why our tomatoes can't talk like the one on the VeggieTales DVD. Not that these aren't pressing questions. It's just nice to have a little variety.

Today our group is much more than a source for adult conversation. We "get" each other the way only other women can. In spite of the arguments of radical feminism, the female species is very different from the male. We are extremely relational and nurture this need through communication . . . lots of communication. In fact, we can easily wear our spouses out with the desire to-as John, my sweet but always tactful husband, puts it-"discuss anything and everything."

Women also have the need to interact without the judgment and petty competition inherent in some women's groups. At FAC I can show up on a bad-hair day with chipped nail polish and unshaven legs and know I won't be the talk of the PTA. And, even though I'm known by fans of my column as a cross between the industrious "Fly Lady" and the unsinkable "Martha," my FAC friends promise to carry the secret of my peeling wallpaper and disorganized drawers to their graves.

Secret keeping aside, investing in friendship with a supportive group of women has produced returns I never could have imagined. As our kids grew up, so did FAC. Now, in the midst of jokes about Botox and drooping derrieres, we stretch and encourage one another. We've also discovered an important truth. It's much easier to wade through difficult times locking arms with those who love you even without lipstick or a great cheesecake recipe.

So, when I picked up the message that FAC was at Jessie's house this afternoon, I knew I'd be there-early. The leash on my hag had begun to unravel even before I'd stepped out of bed that morning . . .

I woke up to the hot, moist breath of the family dog on my cheek. Over the past five years, Daisy has learned that panting in my face is an extremely effective way to get me out of bed. If I don't move quickly, she starts to lick my ear. Just the thought of that scavenging dog's tongue lapping at my ear makes me cringe. Who knows what she's been licking five minutes earlier? Ugh! I still don't understand why Daisy adopted me as her morning pal. I never wanted a dog in the first place. It was John who felt the responsibility of caring for a pet would be good for the kids. I suggested a goldfish. He suggested a hamster. That did it. The threat of a rodent moving into our home made me agree to a dog. I could just imagine the unpleasant dreams that would haunt me with a rodent spinning a wheel in the next room. After all, I had seen the movie Willard.

Today I knew there was trouble, because I smelled cinnamon. Not the good kind of cinnamon from baking bread or rolls but a cloyingly sweet smell, like those little red-hot candies. Daisy's breath may smell like many things-most of which are too disgusting even to mention-but cinnamon has not yet popped up on the list. I opened my eyes to discover that the source of the smell was not only emanating from her mouth but from red goo smeared in various places throughout her white fur. In my postdreamlike state, she resembled some fantasy creature from The Wizard of Oz.

I emerged from under my comforter (now spotted with the mystery substance), gingerly picked up the slimy dog, and followed the path of pink paw prints to the hall bathroom. There I found red toothpaste smeared all over the floor and spied the chewed-up plastic tube behind the toilet.

"Katie! Josh! Hannah!" I shouted. "Upstairs! Now!"

I was definitely using what we refer to in our home as an "outdoor voice." I learned this term as a naive, young mother by listening to Katie's preschool teacher reprimand a student for shouting in class. The scene is somehow set permanently in my memory . . .

"Billy, is that your 'indoor' voice?" Mrs. Stevens asked sweetly that day.

"I don't know," he responded, clearly only interested in continuing his raucous romp through the cardboard bricks of the Building My World discovery center.

"Remember our rules," she persisted. "We save loud voices for outdoors and use quiet voices indoors. You don't want me to write your name in The Book for breaking the rules, do you?"

Just the mention of The Book stopped this wild child in his tracks. "No, Mrs. Stevens," he replied in an apparently repentant fashion.

Wow! I recall the ear-shattering level of noise in my own home. Why have I never heard about this indoor-outdoor voice rule? Maybe getting my own copy of The Book will lower the decibels.

Ever hopeful, I stopped at the stationery store on the way home.

Unfortunately, The Book worked much more effectively in Mrs. Stevens's classroom. The first time I threatened The Book, Katie eyed me quizzically and my husband started laughing. It wasn't long before we began to use The Book as a notepad for phone messages.

Consequently, as I waited in the hall, holding a slippery dog, it dawned on me that I would probably hear about this breach of self-control from my children the next time I brought up the indoor-voice subject. But at that point, with cinnamon toothpaste smeared on the front of my nightgown, I didn't care. I suspected that even the serene, pearl-wearing June Cleaver would employ her outdoor voice in this situation.

Katie was the first to poke her head out of the bedroom in response to my call. "What's the problem, Mom? I'm already late."

I was not surprised. Katie, a typical seventeen-year-old girl, was always running late for school. After all, it takes time to choose and discard a minimum of four complete outfits before finding that "perfect" T-shirt and pair of sweatpants in which to roam the halls of her high school. And this doesn't include the lengthy process of straightening her already sleek blond tresses with a flatiron to erase even the slightest hint of a "lump." Every time I got irritated with her habits, I tried to remind myself that, yes, I, too, was once a teenage girl. But was I really that annoying, that self-focused? Or had the years simply wiped away my memory, along with my high-school figure?

Taking a deep cleansing breath to compose myself, I held up our gooey, red-spotted pet. "Explain this, please."

"What?" asked my oldest child as she emerged from her room to cautiously examine the dog. "Oh, that. Josh stepped on the toothpaste last night and-of course-didn't clean it up. Daisy must have gotten into it."

"Don't even try to blame this on me!" hollered my fifteen-year-old son from the staircase.

At six-foot-one and still growing, Josh is like a puppy who hasn't grown into his paws yet. Big and unwieldy, he tumbles headfirst into a situation.

"I only stepped on the toothpaste because she knocked it on the floor with the cord to the blow-dryer," Josh countered, shaking his red head vehemently. "You gotta talk to her, Mom. Her stuff is all over the bathroom and-"

"It is not! And I didn't even know it fell off the counter, bratface!"

"All right, stop with the name-calling," I interjected. "Josh, let me get this straight. You saw the toothpaste on the floor without a cap and decided to just leave it there?"

"No, I already told you. I told Katie to pick it up."

Katie's cobalt eyes narrowed to slits. "Not before I told you to clean it up after you stomped on the tube with your big feet and squirted toothpaste all over!"

"Back off, Barbie doll! There wouldn't have been anything to clean up if you hadn't-"

A horn blared from outside the house.

"Gotta go, Mom! There's my ride!" Josh bounded down the stairs and out the door before I could utter a sound.

"Mommy, the tile was all pink and sticky when I went to bed," said our younger daughter, appearing magically from around the corner. Confident she wasn't in trouble, she added sweetly, "That's why I used your bathroom."

At ten years old, Hannah has mastered the fine art of sucking up. With her deep blue eyes, pudgy cheeks, and cap of strawberry blond curls, she looks like a cherub. Hovering on the sidelines, she listens for an opportune time to jump in with a helpful suggestion or juicy piece of information gathered through surreptitious surveillance of her older siblings. Unfortunately, in this instance, she had misinterpreted the situation.

I took another cleansing breath. "Hannah, why didn't you tell me last night that toothpaste was all over the bathroom floor?"

The startled look on her face showed that she quickly realized her miscalculation. "I don't know," she said and disappeared behind her swiftly closing bedroom door.

I sighed. "OK, Kate." I swiveled to face my older daughter again and held the dog out to her. "I need you to clean up the bathroom floor and give the dog a bath. I'll follow the paw prints and assess the rest of the damage."

"Now? You're asking me to do this now? Right now? This morning? Before school? Without giving me any warning? Mom, you know that's not fair!" she wailed, backing away from me and a squirming Daisy. "This was not my fault, and you know it! Besides, I'm already dressed! I won't have time to change before the first bell!"

"Then you'll be late," I responded, proud of my indoor voice.

"Mom! I can't be late! We have a math test first hour," she continued to wail.

"You'll have to make it up."

"Ms. Murray gives us a zero unless we have a valid excuse."

"I'll write you a note."

"Yeah, like cleaning the bathroom is a 'valid' excuse."

I paused. A chink in my armor.

It must have showed.

"You'd have to say I was sick or something," Katie continued. "Do you really feel it's right to lie to my teacher, Mom?"

"Fine. Just go to school." I sighed again, accepting my defeat-and headed to the shower with the dog under my arm.

Let's just say that a bath of any kind is never in Daisy's plans . . . much less a shower.

And all this was at 7:30 a.m. Before things really started to go downhill.

By ten o'clock I had discovered a mistake in the checkbook register. Our account was in overdraft mode, making it likely that our tithe to the church would bounce. I tried unsuccessfully for ninety minutes to make an online transfer from our savings account to cover the discrepancy. No matter what I did, a warning code popped up on the screen to inform me that I had "entered an unauthorized access number. Please try again."

"You're wrong!" I shouted at the computer monitor. "This is the right access code, you useless box of megabytes! Who else would know the combination of my current dress size and the size I'm planning to be by summer vacation?"

I despise computers when they won't do what I want. I also despise admitting that I can't get the blasted machines to do what I want. But what I truly despise the most is letting my husband know that I can't get the computer to do what I want. I suspect this could be traced to some unresolved "I am woman! Hear me roar!" female consciousness-raising course from my college days.

Thus it took several more minutes of yelling at the computer and pounding on the table before I swallowed my pride and called my husband at his office.

"Oh, by the way, John," I casually mentioned after a few minutes of trumped-up small talk to hide my real reason for the call. "I was trying to make a transfer online, and the bank won't accept our access code."

"What are you trying to do?"

"I told you. I'm trying to make a transfer."

There was a pause on the other end of the phone line, then the puzzled question, "Why do you need to make a transfer?"

"Sweetheart, we don't have time to get into all this now," I said, trying desperately to keep the word overdraft out of our conversation. "Did you change the access code recently?"

"Umm . . . I don't think so. But, Liz, why do you need-"

"Wait! I might be getting another call," I chirped before he had a chance to realize I was trying to avoid his question. "Better go-it could be the kids. Don't worry, honey. I'll figure it out. See you at dinner!"

Once again, saved by the specter of call waiting. Meanwhile our account was still in overdraft and the hag was pulling at her leash.

I wasted another precious thirty minutes attempting to navigate our bank's "timesaving" voice-mail system in an effort to explain my problem to a real person. I finally gave up and drove to the bank to make the deposit. Because it was ten minutes after noon, the cheery teller behind the bulletproof glass in the drive-through reminded me that the transfer would not be credited to our account until the next business day. Monday.

"But what if a check goes through today or on Saturday?" I asked.

"No problem," she reassured me. "You have overdraft protection."

"Wonderful." Relieved, I extracted the deposit receipt from the mechanical tray.

But then the teller continued, "The overdraft fee of thirty-five dollars per check will be automatically charged to your account. Is there anything else I can help you with?"

Before the hag could crane her wrinkled neck out the window and inform the teller (in an outdoor voice) how she felt about the bank's overdraft-protection plan, I stepped on the gas.

It was now 12:30, and any resolve to stay on my low-carb diet was running dangerously low. By 1:15, I'd pulled out of Krispy Kreme, brushing the glistening remains of two glazed "hot and ready" donuts from my sweater.

"Oh no! Today is Hannah's parent lunch!" I exclaim, slapping my forehead and causing the driver in the next car to roll up his window. I'm now convinced my daughter will someday reveal this-and other lapses of maternal care-on national television before a gray-haired Oprah.

Little did I know that Oprah was the least of my worries.

Armed with a double mocha frappuccino, I arrived to pick up Hannah from school promptly at 2:15.

"Hi, sweetheart! How was your day?" I said in that high, overly cheerful voice used by guilt-ridden mothers.

Stony silence.

Undaunted, I pushed on. "I picked this up for you," I continued to chirp, handing her the whipped-cream-topped bribe. "It's a double mocha-and I even had them put chocolate shavings on top for you."

"Katie says chocolate will give me zits," she fired back.

"Hannah, sweetheart, you have gorgeous skin!" I gushed. "You don't have to worry about blemishes. Besides, my dermatologist told me that whole chocolate thing is just a myth."

"Maybe for OLD skin," she said with a pointed look as she climbed into the backseat of the van and put on her headphones-a definite signal that a double mocha frappuccino was not even close to the penance she was planning for me. I'd probably end up making her a whole batch of her favorite cookies, which I have come to call I'm-So-Sorry Snickerdoodles.

After dropping a ticked-off Hannah at dance lessons, I returned home to find that cinnamon toothpaste does not agree with Daisy. I spent the next thirty minutes and half a tub of OxyBooster trying to remove pink vomit from our beige carpeting. The attempt was unsuccessful, so I gave up and covered the spot with a rug. I cringe just thinking about what fans of my column would think if they could see their domestic diva now.

By the time I had put away my cleaning supplies, the hag was seething and more than ready to pounce on the first person through the door. I picked up Jessie's voice mail inviting me to Friday Afternoon Club just in time.