It was perfect.
Not that she would have minded less than perfection, but Ms. Latherson was a woman who knew which sets of eyes would be upon her when she entered the gymnasium. She had already planned for her husband to bring the extra sets of folding tables from the garage when he got home (if he got home, she was beginning to think), and they would have plenty of time to get the usual corner where the air-conditioning, lighting and main doors would make her efforts most visible. So, a perfect cake would be just the right cherry on the sundae she had made for the gala (was that mixing metaphors?). Ms. Latherson sat back at the kitchen table, lit a menthol beside an open window and a rotating fan, and smiled. Perfect.
Everyone knew her; they all knew what she would bring. This was one cake to leave at home while the others were carved and sold at the school’s biannual fair. The important thing to remember was to rotate the different types of cakes she made for the two events. Lord knows, she would never forget that one gala where she brought her famous strawberry shortcakes for sale and a new mother had the audacity to also bring the same dessert. Ms. Petran was new; it was forgivable. The other mothers made a note to always keep any potential troublemakers on their list, and a fresh face was not going to ruin their lives. Ms. Latherson had already spoken to as many of the new mothers as she could find in the school’s directory. They knew what to bring.
Ah, the school. She had two of her own there, Beauregard and Tessa, only two years apart and already showing such promise with their grades and social contacts. It was very important to get both of them into the same school and to acknowledge that Middlestow was the best leg-up they could ever have when graduating. Her own husband was an alum and he knew all of the right people. They would have all the benefits of his friends and business partners.
The phone rang.
- Gina! I am so sorry about this. We had an extra-long meeting with a distributor who did not know what colour he wanted and it really…
- Oh, Gene. Just do what you have to do. Everything seems ready here.
- Here? Did you go to the school already?
- I am at home, Gene. I am not driving that car if I don’t have to drive. I have you.
- No, I mean, the school called and said that there were quite a few people there already and I thought you were with them.
- The school called…?
- The new dean.
Ms. Latherson stubbed out her cigarette on the plastic dish by the fan. Dean Forlan was younger than anyone else who held the role in the school’s history and had his own way of doing things. He kept a close call on all of the happenings at the school, and he would often call to let people know the things everyone already knew. Such an interloper…
- Ah, yes. Mr. Forlan. Do be sure that he understands that I will try to be there early.
- He knows. They have already set things up and…
- They have done what?
- The tables, chairs and decorations. They are all up. All we need is…
- But, one moment, dear. How are they aware of anything if I am not there?
- There is a new one on the board. He said that he would tell you all about it when you came. Listen, sweetie, I have to get back to things. See you then. And you should just take the car.
He hung up without her good-bye. The box of methols was empty.
‘A new one on the board?’ A new what? Any member of the board had to go through the whole process of being chosen by the other members of the board before they stepped into the board’s meetings. They only were accepted once they had been with the school for about a year and that would only be approved by…
She stopped and stared at the cakes…
It was a woman. It had to be a woman.
Another housewife? She had not heard any news about a family joining the Middlestow community. That would have been the one piece of gossip that could have prevented her from heading in early. The family must have brought out their children to matriculate and mingle with her own children and…
How dare they!
In a flash, Ms. Latherson picked up the landline and contacted at least three of the other committee members in a row. First, there was Ms. Patel, a charming woman who was trusted to bring in the most exotic savory dishes from her native…India? Bangladesh? Senegal? (she never remembered exactly where their family came from). At least her two girls were well-behaved and volunteered to collect tickets for these events.
-No, my dear. I have not heard a thing about a new family. That dean must be pulling your proverbial leg.
No help there.
Next, Ms. Green, her oldest acquaintance. With a glass of gin in her hand, she asked her if there was any truth in the story. At least she would be aware of such things. Her husband had contributed so much to restore the library and greenhouse. They would owe her the honest truth.
-Ah, Gina. If they did not tell you, they certainly did not tell me.
Again, no help.
So, there was Mme. Flynn (she always assisted on ‘Madame’ when receiving letters, or the occasional phone call). She was the oldest member of the group and did not bring food to the galas. Her late husband’s name was all over the school and it was felt that it would be in the worst taste not to include her in their events. She was, of course, home.
-Mme. Flynn’s residence.
Wonderful. She had to go through the maid.
-Penelope, this is Ms. Latherson.
Was this always going to happen when she had to make a call? Maybe Penelope was doing it on purpose…?
-Silly girl, go and take care of the car. Yes?
-Mme. Flynn. It is Gina.
Ms. Latherson really needed to buy more cigarettes before the day was over.
-Ms. Latherson. I am a part of the committee at…
-Ah, yes, Ms. Latherson. How are you? Will you be attending tonight’s festivities?
-Of course. I just have some questions about…
-Did the dean call you, that Forlap fellow?
-Um, no. That is why I am calling. I heard that they already set things up.
-Yes, he did mention that to me.
-Oh, yes. He called to tell me about this new family that would be introduced to all of us tonight. There was no more information provided to me, you must understand. I guess he likes his surprises.
No more gin was left in her glass.
-Anyway, my dear, I will see you there tonight. Please bring those wonderful cakes. Strawberry, is it not?
Penelope could be heard in the background dropping something heavy and made of glass as Ms. Latherson heard the phone drop on Mme. Flynn’s line.
So, she would have to head out on her own…with that car.
It was her husband’s idea.
- Having a car when I’m not home will save you a lot of time, sweetie. Just do the lessons and see how that goes.
She saw how that went. Three years and two failures to figure out that she really did not like cars or want to even have the option of using one. The Honda Civic was practical, affordable (did that matter?) and was easy to use…if she ever wanted to use it. The last time was a simple visit to Ms. Patel to drop off some flyers for some event. The car ran out of gas and she had the embarrassing experience of having to call her husband to ask about the gas that he should have put in its tank. Since then, no; there was no interest in going out for a ride or for a trip. There was just her work on the committee, her kids, and her home. And she was stuck.
The four cakes stacked neatly in the containers she had used for every event since Ms. Green had her little Tupperware party and invited her friends over for a sale (not a bad hobby, Ms. Latherson thought). They could go in the back (she always did that with her husband). The weather was good; no rain, only sun and a little wind. Temperature was mild for the springtime (why the weather report now?).
And now, start the car.
Any beeps or lights that I should care about?
Clear on both sides?
Anyone on the road?
She looked ahead. Not a single sound.
She pulled out.
And braked hard.
None of the cakes hit her, but the amount of frosting that hit the dashboard made Ms. Latherson feel like she received the full effect. The boy on his mountain bike who saw the mess in the front, side and back seat was no longer scared by the sight of the car appearing around the front hedges. She saw him smile and then, after a thought, rolled down the side mirror very slowly, and stared at him.
- Go home.
What could she do now? She looked around. No other cyclists or children seemed to be around. She opened the door and went into the home, wiping and staring straightforward as much as possible.
Ms. Latherson was in the shower when she considered her choices: stay home and explain the reason why to her husband when he saw the car still out and decorated internally, or call a cab and appear without any food. The water was warm and the massage feature was a true gift (she had to thank her Gene for that). At least it could cover her tears. What would the other women think if she appeared without her strawberry shortcakes? Would it be as bad as appearing not at all? It was not a set of options she had ever faced before and she truly did not know what to do. She sank to the aquamarine tiles of the shower’s floor and wept.
And then she heard her phone ring.
It was interesting how the thought of being naked in her own kitchen was no longer embarrassing to her. She stood by the sink and saw the cream-covered phone flash and buzz on the counter. She did not need to see the name to want to answer it.
- Ms. Latherson?
- Of course.
- It’s Michael.
She tried to establish if she knew the name as she looked at the sink.
- Dean Forlan.
- Of course. Of course.
- Yes. Um, we were just wondering where you were. You are coming to the event, right?
The strange thing about her weeping was that she really thought she could hide it from this phone call. She did not expect the dean to notice that she was losing all sense of composure as she tried to explain what happened to her in the car. And he was listening. That was something she was sure of, even if he did not speak right away as she finished her story and wiped her face.
- Give me twenty minutes.
- What? Wait, why…?
But he had already hung up. She went back to the bathroom, turned off the water and decided to wear something that she could not cringe over for the rest of the night. The car could wait and the bed looked very inviting when she considered it. Shame there was no more gin or cigarettes left…
…And it was a very short nap. By the digital clock on her left, she could see that she only enjoyed about fifteen minutes of it before the doorbell rang. At least she was dressed enough to tell off whomever it was that was disturbing her.
- Are you ready?
- Listen, Dean Forlan.
- Yes, Michael. It has been a very strange day and I think I should just stay here.
- I see. But you are dressed.
- And the car is still in the driveway.
She wondered if there was a point to all of this.
- And they are expecting you. No one knows about the shortcake problem.
- So, let’s go.
It only occurred to her that her car had been moved once they were on the road. The dean had a BMW and several interesting photographs of his family. At least one boy and girl that Ms. Latherson knew were still too young for the school. Charming faces...
- Thank you for the ride.
- I had no choice. They want you there. And I wanted to see this.
- See what?
He smiled and turned into the school grounds. There were many cars on the gravel car lot and not a soul around to see them in. She wondered how well the sales were.
He held the door for her and that was when she knew what she meant.
Clearly, they did want her there. The banner was hanging over the stage and it caught the glittering lights of the gymnasium in its gold and blue (official school colours; very clever):
To the Lathersons, long-time builders of and contributors to the Middlestow community!
It was Ms. Patel who noticed her first. The applause was long and sustained by all the others, including her children and her husband who winked at her as he handed her a glass of gin.
- This was something they had planned for a while. They just wanted to make sure not to forget you and everything you have done over the years. So, I guess you are in…
She did not need the drink, but she smiled as well. They wanted to thank her for all she had done over the years. All that time and they still wanted to make it proper. These tears were different.
And they did not even need the extra tables.