Somewhere between the half-price Valentine’s Day candy and the new Easter cards on the special occasion rack that, not so long ago, had held a Christmas assortment, Katherine realized she had no life. Other than the seasonal treadmill, there was not much to mark the laps around the months.
She didn’t regret coming back home to the Midwest eight years ago, Katherine told herself. Who else could have cared for her parents until her father died five years ago and her mother three years after that? What she hadn’t counted on, though, was re-rooting herself in the place from which she’d escaped thirty years ago. After twenty years in corporate HR back in Rhode Island, the part-time “get-me-out-of-the-house” job at Schneider’s Pharmacy had become a full-time position. This morning, the embroidered name on her blue smock felt as final as an epitaph.
Katherine closed her eyes and pictured a field of daffodils, their yellow heads bobbing in assurance that all will be well. But it was the 18th—no, the 19th—of February, her rational mind argued; no one had daffodils yet, not even Sharon, the Flower Lady next door. Then a voice on the intercom paged her to aisle seven for customer service, and the field of flowers became the too-bright drugstore with its gray tile floor and displays of cold medicine and adult incontinence products.
At home that evening, Katherine stared at the television she put on for noise and company. Disappointment, that unwelcome dog, rooted around her mind, tipping over the garbage of regrets. What if Burt and I had stayed married, or had kids? What if I’d asked Dad for money so Burt could start that restaurant he dreamed about, the one I told him was a pipedream because he didn’t have any experience? What if I hadn’t left Rhode Island…?
Slapping her palms against her thighs, Katherine stood and contemplated the safe beige of the walls and wondered how they’d look in yellow. She plucked the crimped and brown leaves from a potted ivy, then ferreted out the dust from under the refrigerator. Up above was a cupboard so high, Katherine had to drag over a stepstool to reach it—the extra effort explaining why she hadn’t ever looked inside. There was a large soup tureen with a lid and a fondue pot she couldn’t imagine her parents ever using. In the back, four bottles of wine lay on their sides. She pulled one out, read the label: Chateau Elise, 2004, Fine French Claret.
Since neither of her parents were big wine drinkers, Katherine imagined them receiving the bottles as a gift, then tucking them away. At least they had been stored properly, although after a dozen years the cork was probably dry and the wine turned vinegary. Setting the bottles on the counter, intending to dump them out in the morning, Katherine went upstairs to take a shower and get ready for bed.
She was five-eight now, having shrunk a bit from almost five-nine.
Over the next two weeks, Katherine launched into spring cleaning: hauling out overstuffed closets and airing the two unused bedrooms. In early March, the weather teased warmer, and Sharon, the Flower Lady did have daffodils in her shop. Katherine bought a large bunch for the kitchen table where she ate salads for dinner in hopes of shedding some of the winter weight she’d tried to hide with long sweaters and her height (she was five-eight now, having shrunk a bit from almost five-nine).
The unopened bottles of claret on the kitchen counter gave Katherine an idea. Before she had a chance to change her mind, she called Nelly and announced her plan even before she said hello. “I’m having a party—a dinner party—two weeks from Saturday.”
“Oh, nice! No, wait. That’s Palm Sunday weekend. Lots of folks go to church on Saturday night, and it’s still Lent. I gave up dessert, although I did cheat a little, but just a brownie …”
As Nelly rattled on, Katherine looked through the archway into the dining room, unused like so much of the house. The old, dark table with the clawed feet had scared her as a small child. Now, the thought of filling its ten straight-backed chairs petrified her, but leaving that table empty like the rest of the house—and her life, for that matter—was a far worse terror. “Two weeks,” Katherine announced. “I’m tired of waiting. And God doesn’t care if you eat dessert.”
“Then cheesecake it is,” Nelly said. “Everybody likes cheesecake—especially Chet, and that will get him to come. Not that he wouldn’t come just for you, Katherine, but he really loves cheesecake.”
Katherine made a list of who to invite and got on the telephone the next evening. Her cousin and his wife, whom she had counted on, said they were leaving that day on spring break. A couple she knew from church were going to Florida. At this rate, it would only be her, Nelly, and Chet. The next day, she asked Peggy, who worked the cosmetic counter at the pharmacy, even though they weren’t close friends outside of work. Peggy said she and her husband could come, and asked if she could ring her sister, Gwen, who’d just had foot surgery and might want to get out of the house.
Six, Katherine counted; she could have a party with six.
After three declines, Katherine asked Sharon the Flower Lady, who seemed surprised by the invitation, but said she and her husband would be there. That made eight, including three men, who wouldn’t feel so outnumbered. Then, on Monday morning as she was leaving for work, Katherine saw Oscar, the mail carrier, driving his little white postal jeep down the block. He knew all the neighbors, and was known to check on a few. When her parents died, Katherine remembered, Oscar attended their wakes, which in her desperation to fill the table made him a close family friend.
“When’s the last time you gave a party? Celebrate! Make ‘em dress up.”
Katherine flagged him down and yelled her invitation from the open window of her Ford Focus.
“Just a second,” Oscar replied. He got out of the jeep. “Package for you. Feels like books.”
Katherine accepted the box through the window. “So can you come—Saturday, the 19th?”
Tall and lanky with a gray beard, Oscar pushed back his billed cap. “Yeah, I suppose. So what’d you get—the books, I mean.”
“Historical fiction.” Katherine saw a red minivan approaching in her rearview mirror. “So is that a yes to my dinner party?”
“I guess so. Not much on the calendar.”
The minivan beeped, Oscar waved, and Katherine stepped on the gas. Oscar made nine, ten if he brought someone. She needed insurance, even if that meant risking having eleven—if so, she and Nelly could straddle one end of the table. Dobey. Why hadn’t seen thought of him before? The last time she ran into him, he’d regaled her with a story about a woman who had advertised an “estate sale” to sell off her husband’s memorabilia collections—everything from model trains to baseball cards; except he wasn’t dead, just out of town. The memory of how they’d laughed made her smile all over again.
Taking the long way to Schneider’s Pharmacy, Katherine spied a black SUV parked in the alley beside Forever Antiques. She pulled in behind it, the rear of her car encroaching on the sidewalk, but she’d only be a minute.
“Katherine Fredericks! To what do I owe this honor?” Dobey pushed through the curtains from the back room like he was walking onto a stage. He was neatly dressed in a light-blue jeans shirt and khakis, with a turquoise bolo tie.
“You’re looking at the bolo, right? Wondering if I forgot the ‘Mid’ in ‘Midwest’? The sky looked all Georgia O’Keefe to me today, so I’m in my New Mexico uniform today.” He winked. “Plus I just don’t give a damn. That’s the advantage of being over sixty.”
Feeling encouraged, Katherine blurted out the invitation.
“Of course I’ll come, Katherine dear,” Dobey said. “You know I’ve been meaning to invite you over for drinks. See if I could talk you out of that dining room table.”
Katherine felt a flush from her shoulders to her hairline. She liked Dobey, but considered him part of the country club set, while she was purely library book club.
“Theme for the evening? Luau? Togas? Downton Abbey, perhaps?”
“Well, I was picturing more of a casual—you know.”
“When’s the last time you gave a party? Celebrate! Make ‘em dress up.” Dobey blew her a kiss then hefted a box.
The next day, Dobey called Katherine at work and asked her to come by the shop on her lunch break. Katherine promised to be there in a half hour.
“Forgot all about this dress. Can’t even tell you who brought it into the shop. You would look stunning in it.”
It was no dress, but a wine-red crushed velvet and lace gown with a scoop neck and little cap sleeves. Katherine adjusted the shoulders that were a bit loose and smoothed the fabric over her rather ample hips.
“Oh this is too much—I feel like I’m dressing for Halloween.” Katherine turned in front of an old cheval mirror, swirling a little fishtail train.
“It’s perfect. Get it dry cleaned at Conway’s. Tell them it’s vintage.”
“My gift.” Dobey held up his hand, silencing all protests. “Can’t wait to see you all dolled up in that dress.” His eyebrows danced up and down his forehead.
Katherine sat in her car, the key lingering in her hand. She hadn’t felt this giddy since she was in her 20s, when men still flirted with her. After all this time, maybe it was happening again.
On a whim, she added the four bottles of claret.
On the days leading up to the party, Katherine savored the preparations: cleaning her mother’s old silverware, inspecting the china, washing and pressing the table linen, making and remaking her grocery list. On Friday night, she set the table and put the good wineglasses on the sideboard along with the cabernet she’d bought. The chardonnay was already in the refrigerator. On a whim, she added the four bottles of claret. She’d taste it before the guests arrived in case it was undrinkable.
On Saturday evening, Nelly came early in a black dress and a strand of pearls. She capped her short, curly gray hair with a tiara. “Got it at the dollar store. Thought it made me look like a duchess. Holy cow—what a dress! Dobey gave you that?”
Katherine pirouetted. “Uh-huh. Told me I looked amazing.”
“Where do I put the cheesecakes?” Chet stood in the doorway, wearing dark slacks, a turtleneck and a jacket with elbow patches.
Nelly took one out of his hands. “Couldn’t get him in a tie, so I told him he could be our literary type.”
Katherine accepted a kiss on the cheek from Chet. “Very dashing.”
Chet opened the wine while Katherine checked on the dinner and Nelly fussed with a tray of canapes.
“Hey, this is good,” Chet announced, holding a glass of deep red wine. “Never had claret before.”
Katherine straightened from the oven door where she checked on the roast beef. “Really? I found those bottles in the cupboard. I thought I’d taste them before anyone else tried.”
Chet brought glasses for Katherine and Nelly. The wine was full-bodied and slightly tannic, but not at all bitter. Katherine pursed her lips, trying to dissect the flavors—blackberry and something nutty. Almond maybe.
Nelly’s face reddened. “Oh, my. I think I’m tipsy.”
“You’ve had one sip.” Chet took her glass and set it down.
Katherine felt warmed from within, like sunshine on a stone patio.
The guests began arriving, dressed for the occasion: Sharon, the Flower Lady, and her husband, Donald; Peggy from the cosmetics counter with her husband, Bill, and her sister, Gwen, who wore a floor-length gown despite the walking cast on one foot and a sneaker on the other. Nelly passed a tray of tiny cucumber sandwiches and miniature crab puffs, while Chet offered red and white wine. Everyone chose the claret.
Katherine’s glass was only half-empty, but she felt oddly outside herself, as if hovering over the crowd instead of mingling with it. Catching her reflection in the oval mirror in the hallway between the staircase and the front door, she barely recognized herself—her cheekbones more prominent, her light brown hair swept up into a chignon. She thought of the woman who’d own this dress before. Or maybe it was just the claret.
Ten minutes later, Dobey swept in with a bouquet of flowers and a light kiss for Katherine. “You look beautiful, my dear. Lovelier than I’ve ever seen you.”
This was really happening, Katherine told herself. Suddenly, she could picture herself going on those antiquing trips he talked about.
When Dobey offered his arm, Katherine handed the flowers to Nelly and let him escort her nto the living room. Peggy laughed and said they looked like royalty.
Sharon made her way over. “Haven’t seen you since the chamber dinner. What’s new?”
“Everything!” Dobey announced. “Business is good. Life is good—and I’m in love.”
Katherine gasped, then smiled quickly to cover up the sound.
“Met him on a trip to Provence. He’s coming in two weeks.”
If only she could leave, go upstairs and put on her bathroom.
Katherine stopped listening and the light in the room seemed to dim. She felt far outside herself, hiding in a corner like she’d done as a little girl when her parents had company. If only she could leave, go upstairs and put on her bathroom. Nelly could serve the dinner; they wouldn’t even know she was gone.
A hand touched her arm; it was Nelly. “Let’s check on the beef.”
Katherine followed her into the kitchen, but couldn’t think of what needed to be done.
“Want me to dress the salad?” Nelly asked.
Katherine nodded, and fumbled for the meat thermometer.
The doorbell rang again, but Katherine let Chet answer it. “I can’t do this,” she whispered. “I’ve made a terrible fool out of myself.”
Nelly’s expression turned from puzzlement to the softness of realization. “Everybody knows Dobey—he’s, well, dramatic. Nobody thinks a thing of it.”
“But I did—I thought. No, I wanted to think.”
Nelly, who was a good six inches shorter, pulled her close. “Hear that? Everybody’s laughing and talking. Your party is a success. Don’t let some silly misunderstanding take this night away from you. Dobey does like you—just not, you know, in that way. And you do look amazing in this gown.”
Katherine heard individual voices and the noise of conversation. People were having a good time—at least she’d done that.
“Can I help in here?” Peggy appeared in the kitchen doorway.
“Nope, we’re coming out.” Nelly shooed her back.
Katherine pictured the lady who’d first worn this dress—the poised and confident hostess. Imagining her, Katherine managed to leave the kitchen with a smile, accepting compliments on the hors d’oeuvres and the delicious smells coming from the kitchen. Everyone’s eyes were bright, and their glasses filled with deep red wine.
An unfamiliar man stood in the living room talking with Chet and Bill. He was clean-shaven and combed his hair straight back; he wore a tuxedo. Then the man spoke. “Sorry I was late, Katherine. Had to work today.”
It was Oscar. “My goodness—didn’t recognize you!”
“Started to trim my whiskers and then—zip—off they came. Feel a little naked.” Oscar rubbed his chin. “Come Monday, people are gonna think they got a new mailman.” He raised his glass of claret to her. “Change is good.”
With their glasses refilled they sat down to dinner. The last chair was at the head of the table, where her father always sat; Katherine slipped into the new, unfamiliar place.
Dobey turned toward her and smiled. “How about a toast, Katherine?”
She took a small sip of claret, feeling its warming effect down her throat, into her chest, and around her heart. She didn’t know what to say exactly, but when she opened her mouth, the words, uncorked, poured out. “I couldn’t bear it, the house, I mean—big and empty. I had to do something. I knew if I didn’t do something different, I’d lose my mind. So I decided to have this party. Planning it has been the best two weeks of my life. I am so grateful for all of you.”
Gwen, whom Katherine had never met before, spoke up. “No, Katherine. Thank you. I know exactly what you mean. Between the cold and this foot cast, I felt like a prisoner. I couldn’t wait for tonight.”
Sharon nodded vigorously. “When you said formal, I went out and bought this dress.”
“She made me wear a tie.” Donald flipped the dark blue paisley, then settled it against his shirt front.
“This is my brother’s tux,” Oscar piped up. “He plays in a band. They do a lot of weddings. When I asked to borrow it, he said I must be going to a prom.” He grinned at Katherine. “I told him, yes.”
Katherine looked down the table: every chair filled, china and silver put to use again. The candles flickered, their light catching in the facets of the crystal wineglass beside her plate. “Here’s to us, to the life we have, the life we missed, and the life we’re making out of what remains.” Then she raised the claret to her lips and drank it in.
Videography by Pat Commins