Holidays,  Short Stories

The November Mercantile Flour Company

I’m Mandy Rojas, let me tell you about my and Carl’s Thanksgiving adventure.

I needed a new angle to write about concerning Thanksgiving. I had written about the turkey. I had written about the dressing, the parade, the side dishes, the football. Did I mention that I had written about the turkey?

One year, I wrote a series, the 12 Turkeys Of Thanksgiving, with a different article and recipe for each.  That was when I was just getting started as the Detroit Sentinel’s Special Event Expert.  When I had been tricked into agreeing to take that job, I was thinking Weddings, and Museum openings.

Carl Mallory had neglected to mention this included covering every holiday known to man, until the ink was dry.  Why had I taken the job? Because it also came with a weekly column about whatever I wanted to write about. He reminded me quite frequently that, other than the editor, I was the only non syndicated person at the paper to have this.

In the beginning, it had been a big deal.  Now that the Sentinel was an online paper only, I felt little difference from myself and little Suzy Wallace down the street, and her blog about Teen Dating. The problem was, I was too well paid to quit, and to underpaid not to be miserable.

Carl was also quick to remind me that I was not miserable, I was bored.  “Is there a difference?” I replied, a mixture of honesty and sarcasm.

“For sane people yes, and for you. I’ve seen you miserable. Remember the summer in high school when we tried to date? That was misery, right now you’re bored because you don’t know how to slant Thanksgiving.”

“Slant Thanksgiving, how sad is that sentence? It’s always been my one of my favorite holidays. Now I dread it, not because of the article either.”

Carl looked at me again. “This isn’t about the article at all then. It’s about George, or the absence of him. Why don’t you…”

I interrupted him. “As soon as you call Anne Crane. She’d love to cook you Thanksgiving dinner. Want me to call her for you?”

He frowned and walked away. I felt a little guilty, but he shouldn’t have mentioned George. Carl knew better, or at least he did now.

Still the guilt started to get louder, by lunch it was shouting. I knocked on his office door, he waived me away. Carl has never done that before.

I caught him on the elevator as we left for the day. “I’m sorry Carl, I shouldn’t have went there. I’m just sensitive about George.”

He nodded. “Fine, don’t worry. See you tomorrow.” Then hurried out as soon as the elevator doors opened.

I was starting to realize that this was really bad, but didn’t know why. Carl had went on one date with Ann. Before it he had seemed excited about it, but wouldn’t say a word after. The rumor was she dumped him halfway through the date, telling him how boring he was.

The more I thought about it, the more like a buzzard I felt. Yeah, my first thought was turkey, but at least people smile at that one. “I’ll buy him lunch tomorrow, that will help.”

Even after telling myself all of this, I had trouble sleeping. Everything got worse the next day when Carl wasn’t at work. He hadn’t missed a day in years, this was bad.

I headed to his apartment but he wasn’t home. I Hoped I wouldn’t find him at the park, but she did. He was feeding the ducks.

“It’s okay Mandy, I’m not mad. Go back to work.”

“No, not like this. You only feed the ducks when you’re extremely depressed. It’s been the same since high school, you only go here when things are really bad. What aren’t you telling me?”

He went into the story two loaves of bread later. “She didn’t leave halfway through. She got to the restaurant, looked at me, and told me something.”

“She said I wasn’t up to her standards, and there was no point for her to waste her time with me. Then she ran down a quick assessment of what she viewed that was less than stellar.”

“After she was finished I agreed with her last statement, and came here. That was a year ago. I hadn’t dated since.”

“Carl what aren’t you telling me? You’ve been criticized by better than some self centered, apparently shallow person. The book critic slaughtered your first novel in her review, and you’re her editor. You were in her wedding, and you laughed away her critique.”

“That’s because I disagreed with her, and the fact that she hates any book that doesn’t make her sob at the end by the tragedy of it. She’s allergic to happy endings.”

“I agreed with Anne’s assessment, and that made me feel like crying. She said that I was an overworked writer in love with my job. Next she said I’d probably die nursing my 20th book without ever holding my first child. Lastly she said I wasn’t worth trying to change, especially since it was impossible to do so.”

He went back to feeding the ducks. Then he said what I was hoping he wouldn’t. “Sounded a lot like a less snarky version I heard in high school, only then I said that was ridiculous. At 38 not so much, go home Mandy.” I did.

What I had said in high school was that if we were both not careful we’d pursue a writing career at the expense of everyone in our lives. That we were too much alike, and both of us needed to find someone totally unlike us, if we ever wanted to be happy.

None of this would have shaken me if it hadn’t been for George. Of course if George existed I wouldn’t have minded, but he didn’t. Well, he existed a little, he weighed five pounds. George was a sack of flour.

You want to know the ironic thing? It was from the November Mercantile Flour Company. I had never heard of them, but last year, through no fault of my own, they became my mystery man. It all started with last year’s Thanksgiving article.

I had discovered the bag in a little market I don’t normally go too. Given the name, it seemed the best starting point for a new article on baked goods. My problem was what I told Jennifer.

She tried to get me to go with her and the girls to a party that I didn’t want to go too. She called when I had the groceries in my arms, leaving the store. I had even told her where I was, but the sentence that trapped me was …

“You go ahead, me and George here have a big date. He’s taking me to the Mercantile for dinner.” George was the name of the clerk. I had no idea she’d spin it into what she did.

Jennifer is a nice girl, but a horrible gossip. Even for her though, this was a skyscraper. By the next day she had me head over hills in love. In two weeks time she took my unwillingness to talk as a secret engagement.

I was too embarrassed to explain, but I couldn’t let this go on. That’s when I made the second of three stupid sentences. “George and I are through, he just doesn’t hold as much for me as he did.”

Considering I had baked two cakes, four dozen cupcakes, and three pies, the five pound bag was much lighter. Which meant my statement was technically true. At the time it shut Jennifer up, and I thought my troubles were over, especially after she got another job.

The problem is that Carl cared. He watched out after me and believed the hype. He had decided I needed to be happy. That had been the topic for a while. He had only brought up George directly a few times.

Yesterday was one time to many, which resulted in stupid sentence number three. The one that had sent Carl spiraling. I had been so wrapped up in my problem, I had missed his, and hurt him in the process.

The original bag was long gone, so I went back to the little market, and bought another one. Oh I never did publish the article last year like I had planned. Instead I published an absolutely horrible piece on odd food facts of Thanksgiving.

It was called “A Ripe Cranberry Will Bounce”, and believe it or not, it was a hit, which put extra pressure on this year. I needed to make a mends with Carl, and have an article for this year. Two problems, one bag of flour.

I stuck my foot in the door as soon as Carl opened it. I stuck the bag in his hands, pointed to the flour, said “Meet George”, and walked in. Carl just stood there, holding the bag.

It took me an hour to explain, a half hour to argue, and an hour for the both of us to calm down. We spent the next hour laughing and talking about how pitiful we were. “I wonder if plumbers are as weird as writers?”

“Anne was a plumber, did you know that? I was dumped, on a first date, by a shallow lady plumber.” Then he laughed again, “Your Ex can go down a garbage disposal, and my ex cleans them out.”

I corrected him. “I think you have actually had to be alive once to be an ex in my case.” No, we didn’t fall in love that day. I do think we both realized that we were made for each other, and like the pessimists we were, it depressed us.

We ended up spending a lot of time together after that. He helped me with the recipes for the great Flour Retrospective, and I helped him with a problem he was having finishing up his third book.

It was the best thing he had ever written, but he was stumped twenty pages shy of the ending. We tested different ideas over moo shoo pork, and other take out meals after work the next few days. The kitchen was a dessert factory at my house, and he didn’t even eat at his more than a sandwich, much less cook.

I know we were stupid, but hey, at the time, all we saw was desperation. Had we just met, I think we would have been engaged in two weeks time, without Jennifer’s involvement.

Carl was good looking, tall, dark hair, blue eyes. Back in high school he had liked my green eyes and brown hair enough to date me, so looks were okay. It was the fact that neither thought we had the option of picking that made us miserable.

It’s like picking out produce at a store, you may find the ingredients for a perfectly good apple pie, but if the apples bruised when you get it home, you feel cheated. Or at least I do, normal people just enjoy their dessert. We needed someone to shake us and say, “Have you lost your minds? You’re perfect for one another, go for a coffee!”

If I was casting this, I think I would have picked a Hungarian woman, maybe a Gábor to be our matchmaker, and to rescue us from ourselves. The problem is, it’s easier to write a solution than to live one. I went into work the day before Thanksgiving feeling absolutely miserable.

My guess was, so was Carl. Eva Jameson, the book critic was in his office. I figured I should rescue him, so I barged in. I didn’t expect anything that happened after that.

“Mandy, you know her by reputation, but I don’t think you’ve met my cousin. This is Eva Jameson, and of course you know Mandy. Other than being a word butcher, Eva’s my favorite relative, and I’m fairly fond of Mandy too.”

“A word butcher, if you described the guy in chapter three that way you might get more than Grandma to read your stuff. Hello Mandy, you’re wondering how I know you and you don’t know me right?”

“Except for his writing, Carl talks to me about everything, and he talks about you a lot. I’m inviting my little hermit to Thanksgiving, don’t let him look pitiful coming alone, be his plus one. I know your family are out of town this year.”

She was out the door before I remembered saying yes, and agreeing to bring a couple of desserts. Then I looked at Carl. “What was that?”

“A comet with legs. She is right about being my favorite. An except for her annoying opinions on writing, she’s usually right about most things. Thank you for not letting me go by myself. In a crowd she gets more intense, she scares everyone a little on holidays.”

I filed my story, minus George. We hurried through the duties of the day, and rushed to the grocery store, the day before Thanksgiving!!! We had to make something to bring, I wasn’t going empty handed.”

“If you’ve done it, you know the scars, if you haven’t, bob and weave! After we got back to his car, we just sat there for a minute, recovering. I promise I saw fear in his eyes when that old lady took the can of green beans out of his hand, and yelled “mine!”

We grabbed burgers, then started making the desserts. It took about two hours, during which Carl told me about Eva’s other side. “Until high school I was a very shy kid, and clumsy. It was just Dad and me, so when we moved back to town, his sister watched out for him. Eva pretty much adopted me as her little brother.”

“She would make me laugh when I needed it. Encourage me when I was depressed, and push me when necessary. It’s why she gives me such a hard time over writing, she believes in me. Eva said when I was sixteen that one day I could be another Hemingway if I stopped taking the easy plot points.”

Apparently there was a lot more to Carl than I knew. He rarely mentioned his family, of course, I had never asked. I wondered why I had been so selfish, and if he realized it?

“Caramel Macchiato with marshmallows. You asked me how I liked my coffee when the coffee craze was at its peak, and you’ve never forgotten. Every Saturday when we get together you bring me one. You’re not selfish.”

“How did you know what I was thinking? I know I didn’t say it out aloud this time.” I had this habit of thinking I thought something but muttering it before I realized it, turns out that can be a big problem.

“No, but I know you. If you think you’ve mistreated someone you get this look on your face, half guilt, half pain. The reason I didn’t talk about my family wasn’t because you didn’t ask. I always changed the subject, I love them but we’re crazy, plus I’d have to talk about losing Mom.”

We talked about her for another couple of hours. Her laugh, her sickness, and his Dad, and the years that followed. Then he started talking about my family. He started with, “How’s Ida?”

I gave a quick answer, then started to change the subject, and he laughed. I gave my best dumb look, and he shook his head. “You talk about Ida exactly twice a year, her birthday and Christmas. I know you love her, but you’ve never told why you don’t like her.”

“I like my sister, we just get along better when we’re not in the same room, that’s all. I wish I could say it’s because we have nothing in common, but the cold truth is, we’re just alike. Do you know how annoying it is to be around someone who thinks, acts, and reacts like you do?”

I couldn’t tell him, but I was waiting, half for his answer, and half for the opportunity to kick myself. I realized that, this stupid fear, of being too alike, was the excuse my fear was hiding behind over Carl. Only this one I couldn’t blame on Ida, this was all me.

This time I think I got a way with him not figuring it out. That, or his smart phone ringing distracted him. It was his Dad. He needed Carl’s help with something so he had to run. What did I do, I called my sister. I may not talk about her a lot, but I talk to her a lot by phone.

We seem to get along better when neither can see the other’s face. Like I said, we’re so much alike we know what every expression means, or maybe we’re just thinking it ourselves. Whichever it is, we don’t react the same by phone.

Last year, when we were in the same room having a talk, I tried a trick. Instead of looking at her eyes, I looked at her nose. We talked for three straight hours til she finally said, “What’s wrong with my nose, you’ve been staring at it for hours?”

Ida barely got hello out before I unloaded everything to her about Carl, and George. When I finally shut up, I prepared myself for laughter and ridicule, it’s what I probably would have done. Instead she used the voice she used when I hurt my leg at age 10.

“I’m sorry honey, I’ve been there. Porter went through the same thing before we got married. Only unlike you I wasn’t smart enough to realize it. It took a broken leg for him to get me to the altar.”

“I broke it falling on a piece of ice. After the doctor put a cast on my leg, the next place he took me was the park. He set me down on the bench, and took the crutches away. Porter threatened to leave me there unless I stopped being a scaredy-cat and marry him. At the time it was very romantic, plus it looked like snow, and I was wearing suede.”

“Ida you never told me that. You said he proposed at work in front of all your friends. Why did you leave that part out?”

“Because you weren’t at a point where you wouldn’t laugh then. Besides he proposed before my leg, but I kept delaying the Wedding. He told me on the honeymoon the only reason he proposed in front of everyone was so that I wouldn’t get scared and say no.”

“Look Mandy save yourself a lot of time. You’re scared because you love him. I’m not saying get married tomorrow but, don’t waste a lot of time out of fear of what might happen. Remember might also might not, regardless, you have to try to find out.”

I told her I loved her and hung up. Fear number two was waiting in the wings. Suppose it was one sided? Maybe the feelings I assumed he had we’re just wishful thinking. I decided to go to Thanksgiving with him, but not to get my hopes up.

The night before Thanksgiving was one of the worst of my life. I think insomnia would have been better, instead of a night of weird dreams. In one of them, Carl turned into a statue made out of mashed potatoes.

In the next one I couldn’t talk, but the bag of flour could. Only all he wanted to say was the Gettysburg address, or sing Blue Hawaii. The last nightmare was the one that woke me up, I was drowning in a vat of sweet potatoes.

I was honestly afraid to go back to sleep, but I lost the battle. I dreamed I was in my parent’s house. They had come back from their business trip unexpectedly, and we we’re having a nice family Thanksgiving. Until the dressing exploded like a volcano in my direction. I woke up screaming, and got up.

By the time the parade came on I was into my second pot of coffee. I was so jittery I felt like I could lead the first marching band. Before Carl picked me up at 1:00, I had gone through every outfit in my closet. I finally decided to wear the first thing I had pulled out, a burnt orange sweater, brown skirt, and yellow blouse.

It seemed like a good idea until it was too late to change again. He apparently was thinking fall too. He had a dark red shirt and jeans. He didn’t seem to be as crazed as I was.

When we got to his sister’s, I offered to help in the kitchen. Carl said he was going to watch the football game. I was glad for the break, or what I thought was one. Eva closed the door and looked at me.

“What did you do to my cousin? He’s never watched a football game willingly in his life. Honey you two are going to be very happy for the rest of your lives, provided you both don’t louse up the next twenty four hours.”

“I can help you, if you want me too? I’ve got four successful marriages on my record counting my own. I just need you not to have an independent thought until I tell you it’s allowed, okay?”

I thought of the talking flour, and shook my head yes. She handed me a bag of potatoes and told me to peel them. Then left the kitchen.

Next Carl walked in holding his nose with a handkerchief. He was was bleeding. “Cal, Eva’s boy, threw a toy football, hard plastic can do more damage than I thought. She said she had a first aid kit above the refrigerator, can you help me?”

Later she claimed this caused her to go from plan a to plan b. I half wondered if that was true, but I didn’t ask. Carl was fine, Eva pounced.

“I had a big elaborate day laid out, but I’ll be honest. I’ve been up since 3 working on this meal, I’m exhausted. She likes you Carl, and you’ve been crazy about her since high school.”

“I can’t promise your life will be a greeting card, or that songbirds will wake you every morning. Some days you’re youngest will wake you up an hour before you have to start cooking in the middle of the night.”

“You’ll burn half the meal. You’ll be forced to push Thanksgiving back a few hours, you may even make your husband try to wrangle a decent runner up turkey on Thanksgiving at dawn.”

“He’ll do it too. Oh he may fuss, and who can blame him, but he’ll do it willingly because he loves you. We celebrate Thanksgiving, not just the miracle of friendship, and that they survived, but what they went through to get to the feast. Bumps don’t lessen the blessings, they make them better.”

“Opportunities come with problems. You can both either stay here and have the family watch your every move, or you can risk a horrible meal out, and have a wonderful first re-date. It’s your choice, I think I just burned the rolls, excuse me.”

We found a place. A little diner, you know the kind with an open kitchen? It was a breakfast place, and it was horrible, but we go back for coffee every anniversary.We got into an argument that day, about our last argument when we dated in high school. Only unlike then, we didn’t give up.

He got up. I thought he was leaving, instead he bought something. I laughed when I saw it. It was a bag of flour, from the November Mercantile Flour Company.

“I eyed it when we sat down. Mandy, you’re still angry, and right now, I’m still mad at you. Tomorrow I’ll be over that, but I’ll never stop thinking you’re beautiful. Why don’t we enjoy Thanksgiving, and leave the arguing to those two teenagers who just had to win?”

I kissed him, and he kissed back. Then we went to Eva’s and had leftovers. Carl and I laughed, answered embarrassing questions, and ate too much.

We were married by next Thanksgiving, nothing fancy. We had one requirement of our caterer, my cousin Sarah. She had never been asked this one before. You may have guessed, the cake had to be made with flour from the November Mercantile Flour Company.

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