Sunday, August 14, 2011

The key to a good escape strategy is a deep breath.

Maisie interrupted the very spirited conversation she was having to effusively welcome Stella and Arthur to the buffet line.

"Arthur? Is that you? I swear I haven't seen you since Johnson was president!" Maisie had a way of making an old friend she hadn't seen for decades feel like they'd had coffee yesterday afternoon. It  was if no time had passed, and Maisie punctuated her excitement at seeing Arthur with a generous hug.

Some people react to effusiveness by matching the energy and joining in on the happy incredulity of seeing a familiar face after a long stretch of time. Other people become highly uncomfortable.

Arthur was uncomfortable and unsettled, first of course with the loss of his brother-in-law, then by having seen Stella, now by running into Maisie. But he was obligatorily polite, and pasted on a wide smile while Maisie continued to fuss over this chance gathering at the Open Arms.

Stella reacted out of shock, first at having seen her first love Arthur, then by the presence of this person Maisie seemed to know very well.

"Stella, you know Charlie, don't you? He was my neighbor in Portland - what was it, Charlie? - 25 years ago? How did that happen? And of course we haven't aged a day!"

Considering they were at a funeral luncheon, Maisie seemed extremely happy with this reunion.

This odd quartet had been slowly shuffling to the front of the buffet line, and the distraction of taking plates and flatware provided a break in the mounting tension.

All the stress was making Stella very hungry.

She filled her plate with slices of ham, au gratin potatoes, green beans, a home made roll and two big scoops of cheesy macaroni hamburger casserole.

Maisie led everyone to a table with four vacant chairs.

From the time she noticed Charlie among Bob Engelbright's mourners to when they sat down for lunch, Maisie had learned that Charlie worked with Bob at the Portland Seed Company while she was living across the street. Their relationship seemed very friendly, even in the recounting.

Eventually, between bites of fabulous, grief-conceived home cooked dishes, the question came to Stella and Maisie from both Charlie and Arthur. Both had different reasons for asking the question, but the question came to each of their minds almost as a simultaneous idea.

"So, how do you know Bob?"

It was Charlie who asked it first, because between him and Arthur, Charlie was the affable, inquisitive one.

That's what Maisie loved about him.

Maybe this reminiscent melancholy was what generated the pause in conversation. Or maybe it was because someone needed to quickly manufacture a story from scratch.

Not an easy recipe.

"We're headed to visit the kids on the coast," Stella eventually said. "We grabbed the local paper this morning, and Maisie recognized Bob's name immediately. We really had to come. To pay our respects."

Then, all eyes turned to Maisie. The ball, as they say, was in her court.

"Bob and I had a complicated relationship.

I'd like to leave it there," she said, as she gently daubed the edges of her eye with a non-compliant napkin.

Both men were confused, but content with the minimal information they'd received.

"Why ask a follow-up question?"

Each of them thought it, but of course they didn't say it. That would be prying.

"We need a diversion," Maisie thought.

"Oh, Stella, I'm feeling faint...." Maisie said it with conviction. "Where did you put my inhaler? I've felt off my game since we crossed the Wyoming border."

She added a flourish by fluttering a very compliant paper plate in front of her face, thereby generating a dramatic breeze.

"I think it's in the car, Maisie."

Stella was in.

The paper plate was flapping as they headed to the car.

"Let's get out of here. Now."

The keys were jangling in Stella's hand.

Maisie settled into the passenger seat.

Maisie took a deep breath.

It was easy.

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