This isn’t exactly an excerpt. It’s a scene that was cut from the end of The Baker’s Apprentice for reasons of length. Then it became the prologue to Baker’s Blues, but it didn’t seem to fit there, either. I’ve always felt it was an important scene that adds to the understanding of the story, so here it is. For those who haven’t read The Baker’s Apprentice, the set-up is this: Mac has sold his first book and is going to New York to meet his editor. He wants Wyn to go with him, and she agrees, on the condition that he takes her to meet his mother, whom he has steadfastly avoided talking about. This scene is called “Dinner with Suzanne.”
Long Island, NY 1991
Suzanne McLeod would be the woman people turn to watch, even while they’re thinking her nose is too big or her chin too pointed. My first overall impression was tall and slender. Later I’d realize that she was actually neither, but the solid sweep of black pants and long black sweater gave the illusion of height, and the dramatic splash of red lipstick, dark eyeliner, and a thick fringe of blond hair drew your eye up to her face, away from the slightly thickened middle.
Mac moved awkwardly towards her almost as if he would hug her, but then apparently changed his mind. “Suzanne, this is Wyn. Wyn, my mother.”
I said, “It’s nice to meet you.”
She smiled and pushed the door open wide. “I hope you’re hungry. I made lasagne.”
It seemed an odd choice for a muggy summer night.
The living room where she led us was dry and cold, thanks to air conditioning; the glow of at least a dozen candles burnished the caramel-colored leather couch and polished tables. It was an interior of winter. Art covered the walls—landscapes, a collage, a grouping of miniature portraits.
I said, “This is beautiful.”
“Mac said you work at the Metropolitan.”
“Yes. I’m in Decorative Arts. Sort of like working in an upscale department store.” Her laugh came, throaty and deep. “And you’re a baker?”
“That’s an interesting profession.” She poured two glasses of red wine from an open bottle and set them on the coffee table. I briefly considered telling her that it was a craft, not a profession, but then Mac asked if he could have a beer and she said,
“Sorry, I don’t keep it around. So you’re in Seattle now? I can’t keep track of you.”
“I’ve been in Seattle for the last seven years.”
“We’re moving to L.A. as soon as we get back,” I piped up.
A pause flickered and I had the sense that she was pondering the “we.” Deciding what it meant. At that point I didn’t yet know what it meant, and I was certain Mac didn’t either.
I sat forward on the couch. “Suzanne, what do you do exactly? At the museum.”
“I’m curator for American textiles.”
“Does that mean you get to choose what gets into exhibits?”
She set down her wine and clasped her hands around one knee. “Yes, I’m involved in acquisitions. Exhibition and storage —which is sort of like being a glorified housewife. I do some grant writing and even publicity. And some outreach and education. Kind of a mixed bag.”
“It must be fascinating work.” As soon as I said it, I realize how dorky it sounded.
“It’s a living.” She smiled. “It wasn’t my first choice. I was a painter. Before I met Dennis. Mac’s father.”
“That looks like one of yours.” Mac was looking at a landscape hanging next to the fireplace. Dark mountains and bruised looking purple storm clouds formed the backdrop for a winter-barren field with a stark, leafless tree and broken fence. I don’t know much about painting, but the mood was unmistakable.
She lifted her glass. “Good eye, Mac. I painted that one about three years ago. Up in the Catskills.”
“Your style hasn’t changed much,” he said.
“Neither has yours, my dear.” She turned back to me, picking up her train of thought. “I was supposed to study painting in Paris. Instead I fell madly in love.”
From another room a buzzer went off, and she stood up abruptly. “Dinner will be ready shortly.”
“What can I do?” I started to get up.
“Nothing, thanks. I’ll call you in a minute.” She glided out of the room, the black silk trousers whispering after her.
If you cook, you know there’s an art to the picture-perfect rusticity of the browned and bubbling casserole in the blue Emile Henry gratin dish, the well-chosen bitter greens with toasted pine nuts and goat cheese. Even the garlic bread, which too often comes from the grocery store freezer case, was perfect with its combination of butter, olive oil and crisp-chewy nuggets of garlic.
We ate quietly, politely, the way you do with strangers, hearing every clink of fork against plate, the sounds of ice cubes settling in water glasses. I lost myself in the food, letting Mac and Suzanne discuss the weather—a cool, wet spring. The neighbors—the Stavros’ younger daughter got busted for cocaine possession. Millie Davis passed away right before Christmas, and the Kelly twins had both graduated from Yale. Their voices receded into the background, until I heard Suzanne say,
“So, Mac, you still haven’t told me what brings you to New York? You said business, but you didn’t say what kind.”
I looked at him without turning my head.
“Actually, I wrote a book.” He mashed a piece of goat cheese against the rim of his salad plate, making hatchmarks in it with the tines of his fork. “It’s been bought by Drummond Publishing. I was here to meet with my editor yesterday.”
“A book?” She smiled. “Really? That’s fabulous. Well, you always did like to scribble in notebooks. What kind of book?”
“What’s it about?”
He almost smiled. “I guess you’ll have to read it.”
“Well.” She tapped the table with her fingertips. “It’s wonderful. Kevin would have been floored. His baby brother, an author.”
There was a silence—that heavy kind of silence that begs to be broken. I took a deep breath. “This a great neighborhood. How long have you lived here?”
“Oh, forever. Since the boys were little. The house used to be just a cracker box; I added the second story after Mac’s father died.” She paused. “He actually designed the addition, but never got around to doing anything about it. He was talented that way. I always thought he could have been an architect.”
“What was he like?”
“Dennis?” She gave a surprised little laugh. “Well, then. So much for polite chitchat. He was intelligent. Possibly even brilliant if he’d had more than a five-second attention span. He could be sensitive, intuitive, and occasionally so coldly objective you wanted to bash him with a blunt object. He was gorgeous. More handsome than either Mac or Kevin.” A reluctant sigh. “We met at an art exhibit. I was young and romantic. And stupid. So we got married. Actually, if we’re being brutally honest, I got pregnant and then we got married.”
She took a sip of wine, then sat back and folded her arms. “It was a disaster. For me, anyway. He was gone all the time. I was stuck at home with two kids and a pile of bills. When you’ve given up everything you wanted and everything you thought you could be…you sort of expect some kind of…recompense. But there was none. If he hadn’t been killed, I certainly would’ve ended up divorcing him—” She laughed too brightly. “Well, you’ve probably gotten a little more acquainted than you bargained for, hm?”
After dinner she shooed us back into the living room where we sat side by side on the couch. I wanted to apologize to him for insisting on this exercise in dysfunctional family dynamics, but I was afraid she’d hear me and, anyway, it was too late.
In a few minutes Suzanne appeared with a tray.
“I hope decaf’s okay. What time is your flight?”
“Ten-twenty,” Mac said.
“We should leave here about 8,” she said. “Just to be safe.”
“We can call a taxi,” he said.
Her benign gaze settled on him. “Of course you can. But I said I’d take you to the airport, and I will. It’s really no trouble.”
Dessert was lemon sorbet and a plate of cookies that were so delicious, I had to ask about them. It seemed to steer us into safer conversational waters.
“I’m glad you like them,” she said. “They’re from my favorite Italian bakery—Parducci’s. Remember, Mac?”
“Sure.” His voice sounded muffled, as if he were in another room. “I remember their cassata. At Easter.”
“That’s right.” She seemed to take satisfaction in naming each type of cookie on the plate. Pinolate, studded with pine nuts. Pastine da The, tea cookies. Buranelli, butter cookies; Lingue di Gatto, cat’s tongues. “And these filled ones are called Garibaldi. My favorite.”
“We used to make those at the bakery.” I took a bite, and the buttery pastry crumbled in my mouth; the filling was perfect, chewy and not too sweet.
“You don’t make them anymore?”
“We actually…” My voice trailed off and my own sense of loss suddenly overwhelmed everything that was strange and sad about this meeting.
“Wyn and her partner just lost their lease,” Mac said. “They had to close the bakery.”
“What a shame. It’s hard to lose what you love.”
She and Mac looked at each other. Her expression was carefully pleasant; his was a blank wall. When he stood abruptly, excused himself and headed for the foyer, I had a moment of irrational panic that he would walk out the front door and leave me alone with this woman.
His footsteps faded down the hall.
Suzanne topped off my coffee, even though I’d drunk less than half the cup, and settled back in her chair.
“Do you know Candace Wheeler?” she asked. It felt like a trick question.
“No, actually I…”
“She’s sometimes called the mother of interior design. After the Civil War, she was instrumental in making it possible—and socially acceptable—for women to work in the decorative arts.”
“Oh, that’s…I hadn’t heard of her.”
“I mention her because I’ve just organized a traveling exhibit of her wallpaper designs and it will be in L.A. next summer. I think you’d find it interesting.” She paused. “Since you two will be in L.A. then.”
This whole scenario was becoming more bizarre by the minute. Did she want to discuss our being together? Our being in L.A.? Candace Wheeler’s wallpaper designs? And why would I find them interesting? It wouldn’t do to blurt out that I hated wallpaper.
I felt her watching me, and it was like being under a microscope. In spite of the air conditioning my forehead was damp. On the wall, an antique clock I hadn’t noticed before ticked relentlessly. All I could think was where the hell is he?
Desperate for something to focus on, I went to stand before the landscapes on the wall, pretending to study them, but my eyes kept straying to the small silver frame sitting on the mantel. A picture of a boy. A young man. Handsome, square jawed. Hair fashionably long, wide sideburns à la the seventies. It was the only photo in the room.
Suzanne walked over, picked up the frame and held it out to me.
“Kevin. Mac’s older brother. He was killed in a car accident.”
“Yes. I’m sorry. It must have been—”
“You expect your parents to die. Brothers and sisters. Even your husband. You never expect to bury your child.”
She took the silver frame out of my hand and replaced it on the mantel, regarding me with Mac’s smoky gray-green eyes, the same opaque expression. “But I expect Mac’s told you about it.”
“Yes, he did. And I—”
An odd smile twisted her perfect red mouth. “Did he tell you he was—”
She stopped, looking over my shoulder. I turned to see Mac standing in the foyer with my jacket.
“We should probably get on the road,” he said.”
She drove us to the airport in her Jag. The volume of a violin concerto on the sound system made conversation impossible. I sat with my knees folded practically under my chin and stared at the back of Mac’s head while Suzanne tapped her manicured fingernails on the steering wheel and the car cut through the low gray mists like an arrow. Back the way we came, past the farms, the neat houses and suburban lawns, and into the older, dirtier, more crowded grid of Queens.
At the terminal, Mac got out and pulled me from the back seat.
“Thanks, Suzanne.” Then to me. “I’ll get our bags out of the locker.” He walked away, leaving me there with his mother.
I heard myself gushing with thanks for dinner, for the ride to the airport, for the chance to meet her. I couldn’t seem to shut up. She let me run on for a few minutes; then she stopped me with a cool hand on my arm.
“I’m glad he found you. You’ll take care of him for me. You’re strong enough.”
“I can’t be his mother.”
“Unfortunately, neither can I.” She opened the car door. “I’ve got to get going. I’m really lousy at this.”
She slid into the driver’s seat, pulling the door after her. When she turned the key, the concerto blared again. She checked her mirrors and merged smoothly into moving traffic.
I stood on the curb watching the taxi drivers smoke and yell at each other in various languages till Mac handed me my carryon and we went over to check our one suitcase. He didn’t remark on Suzanne’s departure or even appear to notice it.
The skycap gave us our boarding passes and told us the gate number and said the flight was on time. Mac bought a copy of Harper’s at the newsstand and we walked down the concourse.
When we were buckled in and the jetway was pulled back, and the plane was beginning its taxi out to the runway, I turned to him.
He said, “It’s not your fault.”
“I shouldn’t have insisted. I thought it would help, and I obviously—”
“It’s okay.” The magazine was open on his lap, but I knew he wasn’t reading.
“What’s going on with you and her?”
“She’s never forgiven me for living. That’s all…”
“No it’s not. Mac, you said you would tell me things, the truth about—”
He put down the magazine and turned in the seat. He was looking directly at me then and it was like seeing all the way to the back of his mind, to that dark place where he kept all the really bad stuff.
He said, “Just being in that house…wasn’t that enough truth for one night?”
Actually, no. That’s what I wanted to say.
I wanted to say there’s no such thing as ‘enough’ truth. There’s just the truth. But in the end, I couldn’t say it.
“We’ll talk about it later,” he said. “Just not now.”
He picked up the magazine and I turned back to the window. The cabin lights blinked and dimmed. When I looked at him a few minutes later, his eyes were closed.