I had expected Cao Richards to tell me a get-together with Carlton Thatcher, owner of Thatchtower Gallery, her boss, and potentially my future boss, would have to wait until I had a sitter lined up. Instead, she had laughed warmly. “Children are like roller coasters to Carlton. They terrify him, but he loves them anyway.”
With rapid fire efficiency, Cao orchestrated a plan for me to meet with Mr. Thatcher. On Mondays, her boss had a standing reservation to dine at Thai 9, a smallish Thai food and sushi restaurant downtown, about ten minutes from Giovanni’s. Cao would call and revise his reservation to two people eating and a sling for Piper. She would send Eddie, Thatchtower’s security chief, to bring us to the restaurant in his Crown Vic, and have him arrive a little early so there would be time to install the base for Piper’s carrier. I had a little under an hour to get ready, and I should wear something sophisticated to impress Carlton.As if on cue, Piper started screaming, bypassing standard “I-want-my-bottle-now” fussiness to go straight into a full-fledged “I-wanted-my-bottle-ten-minutes-ago,-why-am-I-not-already-drinking-it?” tantrum. With an apologetic sigh, I released Cao from the line and plunged into a blur of activity. As I record this after the fact, I have a mental image of whirring into a small tornado like the Tasmanian Devil, my arms reaching out to rock Piper, do my hair, apply lipstick, what have you. Although I barely managed to get ready on time, I actually did it by the expedient of bad parenting. I rushed through my shower, doing my hair, getting dressed, applying make up, and whatever other sundry details were required with Piper screaming hoarsely the entire time while I babbled and begged for her to, “Just be patient, little bucket, Mommy will be there shortly.” Worse, whenever I let Piper have a protracted tantrum, her screams develop a gurgling quantity and I’m left envisioning pneumonia from getting tears into her lungs. By the time I prepared the bottle, she was too upset to drink from it, continuing to wail even as I put the bottle’s nipple into her mouth and blew shushing noises at her. Still, she eventually noticed I had surrendered and let her win the battle of wills. Graciously, she deigned to drain about half a bottle of formula before falling asleep, smiling gently around the bottle still in her mouth.
The doorbell rang as I was easing Piper into her carrier. I didn’t remember ever knowing Eddie’s name, but I recognized the muscular African-American with the shaved head and ill-fitting sport coat as somebody I had seen in Giovanni’s, occasionally with Cao but usually eating alone with some over-the-top paperback for company. It was interesting watching his eyes as I let him into my apartment. His gaze flickered around the room, taking a quick stock of my apartment. Only then did he allow his gaze to travel up and down on me. “Damn, girl, anybody ever tell you that you clean up nice?”
I could have been offended, I suppose. In another context, the line might simply be an under-impressive pickup line. In the context of a company officer bringing a prospective new hire to dinner with the company’s owner, it was probably an actionable case of sexual harassment. Instead, it was just what I needed to hear, someone telling me that even though I felt rushed and frazzled, I looked like I was put together. The line even helped alleviate my guilt a little. I still felt guilty about putting Piper on hold to deal with me-stuff, but there was less guilt about leaving Piper upset and accomplishing something then if I had left her upset while I spun my wheels pointlessly.
Thai 9 was … interesting. I’m not an adventurous eater, and I don’t like a lot of sauces or seasoning. Rather then appear indecisive before Carlton, I admitted I’d never eaten Thai and asked him to order for me, with the caveat that simple was better. His response was to order a broad selection of dishes for us to share. I made sure I tried every thing, but I can now honestly report I’m not a fan. The one dish I truly liked was ‘American fried rice'; it isn’t really an American dish so much as a Thai idea of how an American would make a Thai dish, something invented for American service men during the Vietnam war. Fried rice with ketchup, hot dog, bacon, and fried egg. It sounds weird, but it is weirdly delicious.
Our conversation was mostly innocuous. We started with some ice-breakers to put me at my ease: light discussion of basketball since the tournament was coming up, some discussion about the menu at Giovanni’s. Although Cao and Eddie were both regulars, Carlton had never dined there. He’d eaten- and liked- carry-out, he’d just never made it inside. We then moved into what I thought of as ‘Interview 101′. I often feel like, instead of an angel and a devil on my shoulders, I have a little critic sitting on my shoulder, making a running commentary on the world around me. Even while I was answering Carlton’s questions, the little critic was observing that Carlton must not conduct as many interviews as Cao because his questions tended to be more general and predictable. Questions that could be recycled for any interview for any job. “Where do you see yourself in three years?” “What would you say is your biggest strength?” “How do you think your coworkers describe you?”
Which made it all the more jarring when he asked me the question, “Tell me about your family.” Not in the ice breaker section, but in the middle of the interview. And there’s not much to tell. There’s me. There’s Piper. My dad, who’s a night sergeant for the Dayton Police in 6th district. My brother, Norm, who is a Marine stationed in the deep south. That’s it. I suppose you could stretch a point and mention Norman Landings, my dad’s old partner who went into the private investigations and security business. When Norm and I were growing up, we were encouraged to call him ‘Uncle Norm’ and he is Norm’s godfather. (And unofficially, mine also, since I didn’t get a formally named godparent when I was a baby.) I know Cao had mentioned me not mentioning contacts I had, but my family doesn’t count as contacts unless you need information about guns or police procedures.
“What about your mother and her family?”
“I don’t have a mother.”
Carlton frowned at me. “By that you mean she passed-”
“By that I mean she is not a subject of conversation or interest. I was nine years old when mom left. The last thing she ever said to me was, ‘Tell your father I’m sorry,’ and then she walked out of our lives. I don’t know where she went. I don’t know why she went. I don’t know if she is alive or dead. I kind of hope she’s dead, which is a horrible thought, but the alternative is that she never sent Dad and Norm and me some kind of message in over fifteen years.”
I forced myself to stop, because I was raising my voice. Carlton looked like he had just been pole axed. It could have been an awkward moment, but Piper fussed in her sling, disturbed by the tension. As I pulled her out and held her on my shoulder to soothe her, I continued quietly. “I am sure I have repressed mommy-issues to sort out, but I generally just keep that kind of negative, non-useful emotion bottled up and shoved out of the way until I have a better time to process it. There’s a whole painful mix of guilt and doubt and grief and hurt and shame, and bottled up, the mix has a tendency to ferment and distill into anger. I’m actually ok with anger, because anger is a fuel. Anger motivates and drives me to prove I can accomplish something or prove someone wrong, where all that other stuff just bogs me down into a morass of indecision.
“Piper is the single most important thing in my life. If I let myself fear that I’m going to let her down the same way mom let me and Norm down, if I worry she’s going to somehow leave me like mom abandoned me, I’m worthless. When I plug into my anger and my pride, when I’m determined to prove I’m a better mom than my mom was, when I’m demonstrating why I’m the best damn waitress in Giovanni’s, I’m amazing. If I get hired for Thatchtower, I’ll need a little time to get my feet under me, but my ego will drive me both to get my feet under me quickly and to start outperforming my peers once I’m off the bench. That way, I’m both providing and providing a good example for Piper.”
As I spoke, Carlton was tapping something into his phone with a stylus. As I finished, he nodded. “Obviously Conner was mistaken then. The Cathmogha,” He paused, looking skyward as he tried to find the right phrasing, “a family he has worked for in the past, as well as a frequent buyer and seller of folklore related rarities, are a wealthy and reclusive Irish family. Their middle daughter, Primrose, ran away to America almost thirty years ago. I’ve seen pictures, and there is a strong similarity of feature between you and her. The photographer, Elyssa Innes, also has some connections with the Cathmogha, as they have bought some of her pieces that Thatchtower has sold over the years and commissioned her directly from time to time as well. Conner was certain that you were Primrose Cathmogha’s daughter, and I was wondering why you hadn’t mentioned your involvement with the Cathmogha or with Miss Innis in your initial interview.”
Remembering what Cao had said about Carlton liking children but not necessarily being good with them, I offered him the chance to hold Piper now that she had calmed down. “I didn’t have either involvement to mention,” I explained while Carlton gingerly held Piper in the crook of his left arm and made silly faces at her. I’d never heard of the Cathmogha, and I could laugh at the idea that Rose Bowmer Marik of Kentucky was secretly Primrose Cathmagha of Ireland. As for Elyssa Innis, I’d actually met her responding to an ad on Wordout.Com a couple weeks after my interview with Cao. I silently watched Carlton making silly faces for a brief pause. Piper was smiling and drooling back at him, which was definitely a vote of approval on her part. “Miss Richards said babies make you nervous, but you’re doing just fine with Piper. You should relax a little more. You know, Cao said you were looking for someone who already had connections in the world of art and rarities, and I have to confess that I’m not even strictly sure yet what constitutes art and rarities, so I know I have a strike against me. But I work hard and I forge connections to strangers in my station on a daily basis, so I think I can do it. I really hope you’ll give me the chance to prove myself.”
For the rest of the meal, we were back in small talk territory. Carlton told a very funny anecdote about an argument with a customs officer about whether a Victorian bronze butter knife was a weapon or not. I shared some stories about odd or silly customers I had waited on. We both laughed a lot at the silliness of people. Around eight, as Carlton was telling me some of the stranger Egyptian myths he knew about bones and spirits, his phone buzzed. Cao was calling to usher him on to the next step in his itinerary so that he would be ready for his business trip the next day. Eddie had been lurking outside the whole time, and brought me and Piper back to our humble abode. Even as I insisted I could handle Piper’s diaper bag and carrier, Eddie carried them both into our apartment. Again his eyes scanned the apartment before he relaxed enough to make eye contact with me. “Good luck, girl.”
I hadn’t even been home five minutes before my phone buzzed with a text. It was from Cao, and it said “Congratulations! Call me and we’ll work out when you start.”
…To be continued one last time…
…Info about tagged vendors is in my closet…