I was, but until that moment hadn’t noticed. “I tried calling you,” I said. “Over and over.”
Nobody seemed to pay me much mind.
I stopped walking and placed a hand on my mother’s arm. “Why didn’t you answer your phone?”
“I turned it off.”
That took me aback. “Why did you do that?”
“We knew you were busy,” she said with a perplexed look, “and we were already here.”
Mrs. Wentworth had tottered over to my kitchen table and was uncovering the dish while Nana looked on. They were two elderly women, separated in age by only a few years, and they seemed to be entirely too comfortable with one another to have only just met.
“How did you get here?”
Nana held a chair out for me, which seemed ridiculous. I was by far the youngest person in the room, I should be holding out a chair for her. But she pointed with authority. “We ate. You make yourself comfortable and we’ll warm something up.”
Mrs. Wentworth settled herself across from me and sampled one of her biscotti. She smiled as the dry cookie snapped between her teeth. “My favorite,” she said.
“More tea?” Nana asked her.
“Somebody please tell me what’s happening here,” I said, exasperated. “I’ve been worried sick about you all day and I’m thrilled to see you here, but . . . how?” I looked to Mrs. Wentworth, who had taken another dainty bite. “Did the super let them in?”
My mom half turned from reaching into the refrigerator. She locked eyes with Mrs. Wentworth and then with Nana. Like a shared joke.
Mrs. Wentworth chewed, then swallowed, as Nana poured hot water over a new teabag. “Why don’t I let your mother tell you?”
With her back to me, my mom shook her head. Her voice was a playful scold. “Why didn’t you tell us?”
I have told them? I’d been debriefed in meetings all morning. But that didn’t mean they hadn’t seen it on the news. “Tell you?” I asked. “You mean about the dead guest?”
The three of them stopped. My mom turned. “What dead guest?”
“The one at the—” I stopped myself. Living with my mom and nana as I had for years before striking out on my own had prepared me for such disjointed conversations. But it had been a long time and I was out of practice. With my fist against my forehead and the other hand raised to halt further talk until my brain could catch up, I grabbed the floor before anyone else could beat me to it. “First things first. Tell me how you got here, and how you got in.”
The alarm in their eyes at my “dead guest” comment hovered a moment, but they read my anxiety and decided to let the matter drop, for now. Their faces relaxed into tiny, conspiratorial smiles.
My mom set a plate of food in front of me, but I didn’t even notice what she’d prepared because her eyes met mine and held tight. “Tom,” she said.
“Tom?” I felt slow and stupid. My mother and nana had never met Tom. I’d mentioned him a few times, sure, but I’d held back on waxing too poetic on our relationship. I’d had serious boyfriends before and sometimes I thought Mom took the breakups harder than I did. I wasn’t about to put her through another one, although I held out hope that this particular relationship would continue to evolve. “Tom let you in?”
Nana settled herself in the chair to my left. She reached over and clasped my forearm. “Why didn’t you tell us he was so tall? And so handsome?” She laughed. “Tommy is a serious beau, isn’t he?”
Heat shot up my face. “Tommy?”
My mom laughed. “Nana started calling him that on the ride over here. I think he likes it.”
“The ride over here?” Again, I tried to stop my mind from reeling. “Start at the beginning,” I asked again. “Please.”
Nana pointed. “Eat.”
I dug my fork into the heaping food on my plate. Homemade meat loaf. Whipped potatoes with a pat of butter swimming in the crater’s center. I used to pretend my mashed potatoes were a volcano and the butter its lava. Green beans. Standard fare in homes around the world, this meal offered a savory taste of memory in every bite. My mom watched me from across my kitchen, beaming.
I forked off another small portion of meat loaf and watched the tender ooze before I took a bite. “Okay,” I said, almost unable to contain my joy at eating favorite homemade foods that I hadn’t prepared myself, “I’m eating. Now, all of you, tell me what’s been happening here.”
Mom set a glass of Pepsi in front of me, and the chilled can next to it. I was usually a water fanatic, but today I needed the treat. I took a long swallow and thanked her.
“Can I get you anything else?”
“Just sit down, please,” I asked. “And talk to me.”
As my mom took the chair to my right, I again noticed the group’s conspiratorial air. It was disconcerting to sit in one’s own kitchen and to be the only one not in on the whole story. I waited, firmly committed to staying mum until I got the answers that, despite their attempts to be coy, the three of them were clearly bursting to tell me.
“Our plane touched down right on time,” my mom began.
Nana added, “You know we were scheduled for eight fifty.”
Mom took up the story again. “We tried to call you while we were waiting for the plane to unload, but there was no answer. We tried again—quite a few times.”
“My fault,” I said. “I got called in early and forgot my cell phone at home.” Putting my hand up to forestall further conversation, I ran over to my bedroom and rescued the little gadget, noting on my way back that I had seven missed calls and two messages. Undoubtedly all from Mom.
Back in my seat, I dug into my meal again. “Go on.”
She exchanged a glance with Nana before continuing. “We were making our way to the baggage claim when we saw this really handsome young man—”
“In a suit,” Nana added.
“Tom?” I asked.
Mom nodded. “Tom.”
My heart swelled. When I told him my dilemma, he’d gone down to Dulles himself to meet my family. And after being on duty for so long. He must have been exhausted, and yet he still did this for me. What a sweetheart. I bit my lip. What a guy.
“In a suit,” Mom continued, “holding a big white card that read ‘Paras Family.’ As soon as we saw it, we headed his way. It was funny, because even though we saw the sign, it seemed like he’d picked us out of the crowd and he was headed right for us.”
“I must have described you both very well.”
“Or we were the only two women ‘of a certain age’ disembarking together,” Nana said with a wink. “Looking lost.”
“Tom brought you here?”
“He did. Drove us the whole way in a big black car that had a phone and a TV in the back seat.”
Almost finished eating, I sighed, feeling relief settle over me. “I’m so glad.”
Nana tapped my forearm. “I noticed he had keys to your apartment.”
I chanced a look at Mrs. Wentworth, who had grabbed another biscotti and seemed to be in her own little world.
My face flushed again. Having my mother and grandmother know that my boyfriend had keys to my apartment was a small price to pay when that little fact had saved them from being stuck at the airport for several long, boring hours. Mom and Nana had always been go-to-church-every-Sunday-and-sometimes-more-often Catholics. They attended rosary meetings, baked for fund-raisers, and brought casseroles to grieving families. The church—and in particular, our parish—fed their need to be needed. I expected them to chastise me—sharply—for what those shared keys represented. “As a matter of fact . . .” I began.
Nana stopped tapping and now gripped my forearm, hard. “Good,” she said. “I worry about you alone out here. It’s a big city and there are dangers everywhere. I’m glad you have Tom to keep an eye on you.”
I turned to Mom, who gave me “the look.” “Yes,” she said. “I’m sure he keeps a very close eye on you.”
Blood flushed upward into my face, again. “He and I are—”
I couldn’t say we were just friends, because that was patently false. But we were more than just lovers. We’d reached a level of comfort and intimacy that I wasn’t quite ready to share, but felt compelled to defend.
“Ollie,” my mom said, mercifully stopping me, “he’s a very nice young man.”
“You think so?”
Mrs. Wentworth saw fit to chime in. “He knocked on my door and asked if I would mind spending a little bit of time here. He said something about having to get back because of a situation.” She glared at me. “He wouldn’t tell me what it was.”
I rose to his defense. “You know he’s really not supposed to talk about anything that goes on at the White House.”
Nana hadn’t let go of my arm. “Is he really in the Secret Service?”
“Are they all as handsome as he is?”
I grinned. “Just about. And they’re all really, really nice.” I remembered my recent interrogation with Craig, then I thought about the recalcitrant Guzy brothers before amending, “Well, most of them, at least.”
“Any of them my age?”
“I want to know about the dead guest,” Mrs. Wentworth said, interrupting. “I haven’t had the TV on today, and I haven’t been online either.”
All eyes were on me. I took a deep breath. “He was one of our dinner guests at the White House last night. Carl Minkus.”
Mrs. Wentworth slammed her hand on the table. Biscotti crumbs went flying. “I don’t have the TV on for one day and I miss all the good stuff. What happened? Somebody shoot him on the way home?”
Since the news of Carl Minkus’s death had brought thousands of reporters to swarm the White House, I had no reservations discussing what I knew. I’d just started explaining how we all had to undergo questioning, when the doorbell rang.
“That’ll be Stan,” Mrs. Wentworth said. “I told him to come around when he was done working.”
I went to the door. “Hi Stan,” I said, letting him in and wondering exactly when I’d lost control of my apartment. Probably just about the time Tom brought my family in and put Mrs. Wentworth in charge.
I followed the elderly electrician into my kitchen, where I offered him my seat. “No, no,” he said, backing up to lean against the counter. “Ladies, sit. I’ve been on my back all day fixing a problem in the basement and I could use a chance to stretch.”
As he passed behind Mrs. Wentworth, he grabbed her shoulders and gave them an affectionate squeeze. The two of them had been an item for a while now, and seeing them together never failed to make me smile. He greeted my mom and nana in a way that let me know they were not strangers either.
“We had lunch together,” Mom told me. “Tom stayed long enough to grab a bite to eat.”
Nana added, “He said he could see where you got your cooking talent.”
“We had a wonderful time,” Mom said. “He really cares about you.”
Were we talking about the same Tom? While I never doubted his affection for me, he’d been Mr. Let’s-keep-our-relationship-low-key from the outset. I was speechless.
Mrs. Wentworth didn’t want to let go of the day’s scoop. “He told us you were tied up today and that you’d be late. Why were they questioning you, Ollie? Did you know Minkus?”
Before I could answer, she boosted herself from the table and grabbed for her cane. Stan was at her side immediately. “What do you need, honey?” he asked.
She pointed a gnarled finger toward my living room. “Turn on the TV. We’ll get the story there and Ollie can fill us in during the commercials.”
Within moments we were tuned into the all-news station and sure enough, beautiful anchor people were providing updates. The White House served as backdrop for their solemn expressions and somber tones.
I settled myself cross-legged on the floor, allowing the elderly folks to take the couch and chairs.
“As we’ve been reporting, Special Agent Carl Minkus died earlier today, of undetermined causes. We are keeping a close watch on the White House, where he was a dinner guest last night and where the investigation into his unexpected and untimely death is being conducted.”
The screen changed to a photo of Minkus and his wife, Ruth. Minkus had been a ruddy-faced, overweight man, fifty-three years old. The picture showed the couple at a recent government sponsored event—Minkus in a tux, with his petite, strawberry-blonde wife next to him. Minkus had his arm around her waist and she smiled up at her husband, apparently unaware of the camera, into which Minkus beamed.
The news anchor continued. “The couple has one child, Maryland State Representative Joel Minkus.”
Stan gave a low whistle. “Look at them. That there’s what’s known as a trophy wife.”
Next to him on the couch, Mrs. Wentworth arched an eyebrow. “They’ve been married for years. She doesn’t count. Anyway, trophy wives are tall. She’s tiny.”
“Trophy is trophy,” Stan said with a shrug. He waggled his eyebrows. “But I’d rather have you on my shelf than her, any day.”
Mrs. Wentworth slapped him playfully.
I focused on the television, where the scene changed again. Ruth Minkus stood behind a gaggle of microphones. I couldn’t figure out where she was until the cameras pulled back enough for me to see the hotel logo on the lectern. She was talking, but we couldn’t hear her. The news anchors were giving updates as a lead-in. “Ruth Minkus has agreed to make a statement and to bring us up-to-date on her husband’s death. She’s speaking to us from a local hotel to keep camera crews and reporters away from the family home.”
Ruth’s voice now joined with her image. “Joel and I . . .” She paused to compose herself. A couple of people behind her placed comforting hands on her shoulders. “We wish to thank everyone who has been so supportive at this difficult time.”
Reporters shouted questions at the weeping widow.
My mom made an unladylike noise. “Vultures.”
Joel Minkus leaned sideways, toward the microphone. The man was about my age and tall, but otherwise took after his mother. From what I’d heard of him, he was a strong proponent of environmental issues, and despite his relatively young age, he inspired cooperation between opposing factions. He was a golden boy, and apparently deservedly so. “Please,” he said. “Can’t you see how hard this is for us?”