This is the first of three posts where I wrangle an unsuspecting Pfister guest into a short story project.
Pt 1. – The Beginning (this one)
Pt 2. – The Middle
Pt 3. – The End
Today, I asked for random details to shape the beginning of a story.
Jeff / Milwaukee/ Writer & Producer
- A fire you had to put out this week? Deciding on whether to spend a lot of money on a rug.
- Where do you go for peace? Lynden Sculpture Garden
- Favorite relative? My Aunt Vanda. She reminds me of my mother, who’s no longer with us. She’s wise, not book smart. And she’s curious. I think that’s important.
- Best gift or surprise you’ve given? I teach. I think passing along information and knowledge is like giving a gift.
- A food you won’t eat? Onions, because I’m allergic.
- A city you’re curious about? Istanbul
- As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? Lawyer
- Something you have that’s broken? I can’t think of anything that’s bugging me. I usually fix everything.
- Describe your favorite boss. In college, I waited tables. This boss was not like most other restaurant owners. She was actually kind to her employees and took interest in us. We were part of her family.
- Describe your least favorite teacher. My gym coach. He was… well… we just didn’t mesh well.
- What does this character want? Peace of Mind
Okay! Here we go…
Corinne shrugged the coat from her shoulders and stood on the ribbed floor mat to stamp the snow from her boots. She would still have to remove the boots before entering the kitchen. Aunt Vanda had often scolded that “mud room” didn’t mean “make as much mud as possible.”
Corinne pushed open the door, the familiar chimes tinkling above her head. Aunt Vanda stood at the stove, swallowed by a cloud of steam. The windows, usually framing a view of wildflowers or snow sculptures, were opaque and sweating. Aunt Vanda peered into an enormous, grumbling pot. As she stirred, her signature swag of silver bangs was pinned back with a glittery barrette. Corinne remembered when the edgy auburn bob had boasted only one thick streak of grey. They all loved this full head of platinum and smoke.
Aunt Vanda greeted Corinne without looking up from her pot. Corinne walked to the cabinets and pulled down a coffee mug. She never had to ask if there was coffee made. Aunt Vanda always had coffee.
She sat at the tall wooden table in the center of the kitchen, sipped her coffee and watched Vanda at the stove. Corinne hadn’t met many people who also appreciated silence. She and Aunt Vanda had shared powerful moments that hadn’t included a single spoken word. The best was when Aunt Vanda had introduced her to the Lynden Sculpture Garden and they’d strolling the grounds in exquisite and soothing quiet. Corinne was grateful to find someone that finally understood her non-language.
After a few more minutes of tantric stirring, Aunt Vanda lifted the long-handled spoon to drain a dark strip of fabric.
“Is that the teal?” Corinne asked.
“No, this’ll be more of a smoky blue once it dries,” Aunt Vanda said. “I think she’s making a dress with this one.” Corinne watched Vanda transfer the dripping fabric into a bowl of cool water. Whether it was cooking or creating, they could often push open the kitchen door to find Aunt Vanda floating about her vast kitchen, peeking into cabinets, lifting lids from multiple large pots, kicking closed the oven door, grinning to herself.
The first time Corinne entered this space, she was arrested with thick aromas of cumin, mint, figs and lamb. Aunt Vanda was fascinated with Istanbul at the time, and her menus reflected that passionate curiosity. She’d even splurged on an expensive Turkish floor rug, once she’d learned that their artistry rivaled that of Persia and Egypt. Morocco was Vanda’s next fantastic study. Later,Vienna .Singapore. New Orleans. Aunt Vanda couldn’t treat herself to much travel in those days, but she gifted herself with knowledge, as she put it, learning everything she could about the culture or city of the moment. Anyone who spoke with her would’ve thought that Aunt Vanda had lived in locales around the world when, actually, she’d never traveled further than 100 miles beyond this farmhouse in her entire life.
As a child, Vanda watched her family’s farm waste away after her father died and her mother had taken to the drink. Vanda protected her six siblings from most of their mother’s violent tirades, but not all of them. They each carried a constellation of scars and dark memories. Vanda’s siblings fled the farm and the small town, one by one, and never came back. Not even after their mother died and Vanda was alone on the farm. Vonda didn’t fault them. She had simply learned to live with the ghosts howling in the shadows.
Then she met her truth. Jim showed up on her doorstep like an angel dispatched from the clouds. He was passing through town and decided he might stay for a while. He asked if he could earn a few dollars by helping repair things around the property. Vanda had thanked him, but told him that she usually fixed everything herself. Whenever Vanda retold the story, her eyes always twinkled at the part where Jim had asked her if she planned to spend her life always doing what she’d always done.
They were wed in seven months. The marriage had, indeed, been tumultuous but Aunt Vanda said she would always think back to their first date when Jim had ordered for her and instructed the waiter not to include onions. She hadn’t even remembered telling him about her allergy, but he’d obviously remembered some passing mention of it. If he could care for these small parts of her, she decided, they could manage the big parts together.
In fact, Jim was integral in opening the World Café & Inn. He converted the old barn into a restaurant, scavenging the entire region for scrap parts and used equipment. The farmhouse rooms were even converted into a boarding house. Jim loved her fiercely and completely until his passing. That’s when Vanda had the idea to change the inn from a boarding house for adults to a transitional home for teens.
When Corinne came to the Inn, she’d been braced for another tooth-and-nail, survival-of-the-fittest foster home. She was aging out of the system and was relieved learned to be placed in a group home where she would work at a restaurant in exchange for room and board. Most foster kids found themselves homeless once they turned 18 and were released from the state’s care. Corinne had barely survived her foster homes; she wasn’t cut out to make a life on the street. Her social worker had been a childhood friend of Vanda’s and said she only placed her most promising kids at the World Café. Corinne had listened to the warm endorsement but couldn’t help rolling her eyes at the words “treats you like her family.” The social workers always said that. They’d always been wrong.
It had been seven years since Corinne lived at the Inn, and she was one of several “World Kids” whose heart never moved away. Vanda had become their family, which is why they called her Aunt Vanda. There were nearly three dozen of them breathing out there in the real world. A handful had perished, but most of them had been refortified after lifetimes of abuse, neglect, rage and fear. They’d become musicians, gym teachers, lawyers, mothers, soldiers, sous chefs. They’d become whole. Corinne worked at a jewelry store. She liked dressing up and being surrounded by beautiful things and loved the serenity.
She lived in the city now, but found her way back to visit Aunt Vanda at least once a month. She liked observing the new Kids as they stocked the silverware trays or carried fresh greens to the barn. They were doing more of the cooking now, since the nearby culinary school had taken an interest in the Café and its mission. Vanda still set the menu (apparently, she was all about Serbia these days) but she filled her cooking time with creating hand-dyed fabrics for a designer in the city.
Corinne stood to refill her coffee mug. She could feel Aunt Vanda’s eyes on her this time. She knew. Vanda always knew.
“So,” Vanda said wiping her hands on a rag and taking a seat at the high wooden table. “What’s eluding you, kiddo?”
Corinne let the warm coffee rest on her lip while she thought. “Peace of mind,” she answered. “I can’t seem to get any peace of mind.”
Read parts 2 & 3 here:
Pt 1. – The Beginning (this one)
Pt 2. – The Middle
Pt 3. – The End