Alexandra was never late.
Well, hardly ever.
Her mother had had five children. Three of them boys of all things, although her mother said Alex and her sister were each more trouble than all three boys combined.
But Alexandra Williams was a responsible adult now. And she was never late.
Well, you know, hardly ever.
Fortunately, her commute was across the parking lot from the first floor furniture making business her husband was making a go of and her family’s large apartment on the second floor above it.
And, too, Sophia and Chris were the soul of understanding.
But there was a penalty and one she was disappointed to see, as she walked into Sophie’s Cove, she was going to have to pay.
Chris had beat her to the Eugene Register Guard. She immediately stopped at the rack beside the front door of the store and bought herself her own copy of the Register Guard and an Oregonian and a Willamette Week, which had just come out.
Taking them to the front counter she plopped them all down with enough force that one of the pages of the paper Chris was reading nearly turned on its own.
Chris continued turning the page as if grateful for the assistance and said, “That can’t be because I beat you to the paper. What’s eating at you?”
“Three kids, that’s what. Four, if you count my husband.”
“Well,” said Alex, ‘I can see I’m not going to get any sympathy here. I might as well just make myself useful. Hand me the duster, will you, Chris?
Without taking his eyes off the article he was reading, Chris placed the duster on the counter. He knew better than to hand the duster to Alex when she was in her current mood.. She snatched it from the counter and held it aloft as if it were a sword. She turned toward the display aisles with a snap that would do any drill sergeant proud and, weapon held high, went forth to do battle with any particle of dust that dared to show its face.
The front door of the store swung open with enough force that the chimes hanging from the handle hit the glass hard enough that Chris winced.
“Smoked paprika, really? Who uses horseradish and smoked paprika with deviled eggs. And, how, pray tell me oh mighty son of mine, why are you attempting to reinvent a dish that housewives have, for generations, been doing a better job of making than you ever will?”
“Because, Father, it is called creativity. Something that you were quite good at years ago.”
“Don’t kid yourself, Pete. I still am. And I’ve been doing a better job of it for longer than you’ve been alive and the one thing I know for sure is that you don’t mess with the lady of the house’s pride of hearth and table.”
Chris watched as the two men disappeared down the aisle with the sign over it that read Chef’s & Gourmand’s. Then he pressed his knee to the switch mounted on the side wall of the under counter cubby. His cell rang seconds later.
It was a challenge but Chris managed to make out the sleepy, half mumbled words of his wife when she said, “You do know how late I was up on the phone with Jan, right?”
“Yup. How’s she doing, by the way?” Chris asked.
“It was just a rough patch. The three of us, including her counselor, are getting there. Good night, Chris.”
“Wait, hon. Don’t hang up.”
“Chris, so help me.”
“You might be mad at me for insisting, hon, but you’d never forgive me if I didn’t tell who just walked in.”
“Better hurry if you want to wait on J. Philip Carrington and son Peter.”
“Both of them? No way. You’re kidding me! I just bought the son’s new book. I love his deviled egg recipe.”
“Yeah,” Chris said, “you may not want to bring that up. Hello? Hon? Sophia?” Chris smiled as he imagined his wife stumbling around in their upstairs apartment looking for something suitable to wear.
Sophia exited the apartment stairway and entered the store wearing her newest pair of NYDJ jeans and a simple cotton blouse. She paused a moment to straighten the small, antique brooch that had been a gift from her great grandfather to his bride and passed down to Sophia. As she approached from an adjacent aisle, she soon picked up a conversation being conducted in semi hushed voices.
“Of course, this older copper cookware is better. It adds a certain intangible something to the food. Something that develops over many years when in the hands of someone who loves good food and has the skills to nurture it.”
“I agree, dear boy. I agree.”
“So why, Father, the big deal about how it is displayed?”
“Because it is an instrument of the kitchen warrior and should be displayed in a manner befitting its high status. Would you not display King Arthur’s armor with a display meriting his exalted status?”
“Oh brother. Dad, sometimes . . .”
“Hello, dear lady!”
Sophia was appalled to realize how miserably her display of the antique copper cookware had failed. Now that she thought about it, it was obvious that she could have done so much better. After all, the man himself had said so. Thus absorbed, she had lost track of her approach and was standing only feet from the master. Another mistake. There was now no way to slink back to her apartment and lick her wounds.
“We were just admiring how tasteful your displays are,” the gentleman continued. “Surely such an exquisite creature as yourself who dresses so elegantly and has the wisdom to plait her hair in a simple braid to better display her naturally beautiful face is responsible for such a charming presentation.”
Now, to be fair, Sophia is a woman of extraordinary intelligence and, under anything resembling normal circumstances, would see her way beyond the obvious and insincere flattery. But who among us, who have ever had the chance to meet one of our heroes, are free to judge her?
True, she had not failed to see the rolling of the eyes of the younger man and she knew there was a large part of her brain banging on every drum and cymbal of common sense to get her attention but she chose to ignore them all. The sudden rush of high school hormones that assaulted her in the presence of the great man himself was simply too much to ignore. Granted, Chris could still . . .
Finally, a loud gong had made its discordant note felt within the inner ear of Sophia’s internal compass.
“Thank you, Mister Carrington,” she said. “Coming from you, such a sincere and heartfelt compliment is far more than anything I could have hoped for.”
Sophia noticed a sly grin making its way across the son’s face but the sparkling eyes of the father was all she needed to know that flattery was the right path to follow with the old fox. Perfect setup, now for the coup d’ grace. “My husband had mentioned to me several times that he thought such beautiful cookware was being slighted to have it displayed as it is. I’m more than pleased that I can tell him that the only true expert on such a matter has given his overwhelming approval.”
At the sound of the word husband, the older man’s eyes had dimmed somewhat and, with a smile that barely made its presence felt, he did his best to make his retreat a dignified one.
“Please do so, dear lady. And please compliment him on his good sense to marry a beautiful woman,” the older Carrington paused and looked Sophia directly in the eye, “of such quick and obvious intelligence.”
“Now,” she said, “what brings such two highly regarded chefs and television personalities into my humble store?”
“Humble?” the younger Carrington said. “It’s hardly that. It’s immense. Do you sell everything in here?”
“Mostly,” Sophia replied. “But nothing, so far, with an engine of any kind. Although if Chris, my husband, gets his way, we’ll end up with an electric car dealership at some point. Is there anything in particular I can help you with or would you like to just look around for a while?”
“Do you,” the senior Carrington said with one eyebrow raised impossibly high, “have anything you can sell us to cure rampant dementia?”
“Dad,” the son emitted a frustrated gasp, “I never used that term.”
“You prefer another word?” replied his father. “Does senility suit your jaded conscience any better?”
“No. Not that word either. The proper word is retirement, Dad.”
“A better word would be death. You can’t wait to stick a fondue fork in me and say I’m done so you can take over my time slot.”
“What are you talking about? I have two shows with my own name on them and my books are selling like hotcakes, thank you very much.”
“The ego wants what the ego wants, Son. And once you’ve savored the intoxicating ambrosia that is fame you can never get enough. Take it from someone who knows. It’s no longer about the art of creating good food. It’s about you.”
The back and forth between father and son occurred at such a rapid pace that Sophia was unable to squeeze a word in anywhere. Meanwhile, Chris walked from the front of the store so that he, unnoticed, stood behind the two jousters as they continued to trade verbal blows. Sophia raised an eyebrow at Chris. He picked up the hint and loudly cleared his throat.
The older man turned to face Chris as if annoyed at the interruption. The younger man about jumped out of his skin.
“What the . . . ?” was all the younger Carrington managed to get out. His father was better prepared.
“My good man, do you mind?” the father said. “We are trying to have a discussion here.”
“Yes,” replied Chris, “I heard from the front of the store and I thought I’d stop by to see if my wife was willing to share refereeing duties.”
Sophia was amazed at how quickly the older man could change facial expressions and body language to fit any circumstance. “Oh, my,” he said. “Are you the splendid fellow who had the good taste to marry this magnificent creature? You must be congratulated, dear boy.”
Chris half smiled as if he had just been offered a often sold bridge over the East River in New York. He looked at Sophia who shrugged. “There has never been a luckier man than I,” Chris said. “And there isn’t a second of any given day that I don’t know that.”
Sophia pursed her lips to offer Chris a kiss over the several feet that separated them before saying, “You both write such marvelous books. I especially like your egg recipes. The dev . . . “ A barely noticeable movement around Chris’s eyes was all Sophia needed to receive Chris’s warning. “Oh! I haven’t offered you gentlemen tea yet. Where are my manners?”
“Tea?” The younger Carrington knitted his eyebrows.
“What are we up to, Sophia?” Chris asked. “The letter D, right? That makes this a Darjeeling day.”
“What a perfectly splendid idea,” effused the elder Carrington.
The elder Carrington leant back in the plush chair in the Book Nook and took a sip. After smacking his lips, he said, “Luscious. Bold without being overbearing. You must tell me of the estate in Darjeeling that sourced this nectar, my dear. And, of course, you brewed it with the purest water at precisely the correct temperature. Well done. Well done.”
Sophia and Chris were relaxed in their chairs. The younger Carrington sat on the edge of his chair and said, “I don’t get it, Dad. What’s the problem? It can’t be money. Your legacy is assured for all time. Why not go out at the top of your game?”
“Top of my game,” the elder Carrington scoffed. “You think I don’t know my ratings have been slipping and that senior management has been looking for a way to ease me out. Don’t think me naive, Son. They’ve offered you my spot if you’ll do the dirty work and get rid of me, haven’t they?”
Sophia noticed a flash in the younger man’s eyes before they turned dark and hard. She began to watch him more closely.
“No one is trying to be cruel, Dad. But studio execs are going to pull the trigger one way or another. Why not keep it in the family? You can have the occasional guest spot if that helps. But someone has to save that slot. It’s just business.”
“Really,” his father replied. “Is that all it is to you? It’s all I have left of my life, Pete. And you, my own son, can’t wait to callously sweep me into the dustbin of obscurity. All for the sake of your own ego and career.”
Sophia noticed the skin around the eyes get tighter as the eyes themselves grew darker still. She felt the younger man’s growing impatience.
“It’s just the way it is, Dad.”
“If I may -- “ Sophia met the older man’s eyes and paused. He looked over the rim of his cup.
“Yes?” Senior said.
“We all have to face our mortality,” Sophia said. “There is no doubt that is not an easy thing. But, in your case, this seems to be so fraught, so intensely felt that it goes beyond what might ordinarily be considered normal. Am I missing something?”
Lowering his cup, the father’s eyes bored into Sophia’s as he said, “Have you ever been fawned over, dear lady? Have you ever felt the pleasure of people hanging on your every word as if from the very mouth of God?”
“We’re not unfamiliar with that, are we, Chris?” Sophia said.
“Not at all,” Chris replied. “In a totally different context, of course. But much the same phony nonsense from people who want to brush up against you to see if some of what you have will rub off onto them.”
“Exactly,” Sophia said.
The senior man’s lips curled as if a foul aftertaste from the tea had curdled on his tongue. “I congratulate you on your superior character. I, however, doubt its veracity. I, for my part, admit I found it seductive and oh so sweet upon the ear. I’m addicted now, I admit it.”
“What was that you said about my ego, Father Dearest?” asked Junior.
“Let’s look at the other side of this,” Sophia said. “What is motivating you to push the studio’s agenda so aggressively? Is it for the sake of your ego as your father suggests?
The young man’s were were suddenly granite and all pretense dropped away. The very room was filled with hatred and scorn.
The elder Carrington’s face beamed at Sophia’s words. “It would seem, dear lady, that the answer to your question is in the affirmative.”
“And what of the ego,” asked Sophia, “that is unwilling to make a graceful handoff to the next generation, grateful for all that life has given them? Billions could survive a lifetime on a fraction of what you’ve had. Yet you are willing to sacrifice decades of your son’s happiness for what can only be the tiniest bit of what you’ve already had.”
The son scoffed, “Again, the answer would appear to be in the affirmative.”
“Then we are at an impasse,” Sophia said. “And I deeply regret that such fine tea has been wasted on such shallow excuses for human beings.”
“Agreed,” Chris said.
As Sophia and Chris rose, Chris said, “Please feel free to enjoy the rest of the tea.” Turning to his wife he said, “Hon, would you mind taking a cup with me and Alexandra so we can get the rancid taste of these two out of our mouths?”
As they walked away, Sophia muttered to Chris, “I guess it’s never a good idea to meet your heroes.”
Chris stopped and took Sophia’s hand in both of his. He pressed it to his lips while holding her eyes fixed in his. “Oh, darling, I couldn’t disagree more.”
Sophia swallowed hard. Then she did it again. Still keeping eye contact, she said, “You’re right, of course.”
Putting her arms through his, she said, “We both lucked out, didn’t we? Let’s go find Alex, the other hero in our lives. I’m dying for a cup of tea with the two people I most love and respect.”