(If you’re here for the first time check out excerpts 1-41 in earlier Blogs )
Half an hour later John was in the den, methodically flipping through channels with the remote control. It was a magnificent room, a perfect blend of plaid, leather and wood. The walls were festooned with African art. He was smart enough to know it was an impressive collection.
Maddie came down the steps and entered the den. “Is this your idea of fun?” she asked. He looked up at her words, even though he had sensed her presence in the room before she spoke. He caught his breath and swallowed hard. She was gorgeous in a fresh creamy-colored dress.
“No, but it beats grinding leaf samples.”
She smiled at the lame joke. “By the way,” she asked, “how was your interview in North Carolina?”
He shared details of his seminar and the interview process. She seemed very interested but he couldn’t tell if it was in him or in the information about interviews.
Then she said, “Well John, you should get the job, you’re a very good scientist.”
“Oh, I’m just your average Joe,” he said, brushing it off.
“No, I’m not kidding,” she insisted, “I’ve always looked up to you, you know. You’re my role model.”
She was genuinely smiling, but with a hint of mischief in her eyes. His were glued to her face; he couldn’t quite draw breath. What kind of a woman was this, he thought, that could torture a man by the careless uttering of a few kind words. She was so unconscious of her effect on him. He was sure she didn’t have any double meaning behind her words.
Maddie’s mother, entering the room, rescued him from the intensity of the moment. “Can you kids set the table for me?”
When Craig and his mother arrived, there was a general flutter. John hung back a little to survey things from a distance. Entering ahead of her handsome son was a beautiful woman, tall, fair skinned, and with a commanding presence. She came in like a gust of warm bayou wind, her soft Louisiana drawl wafting through the air. She kissed George, who had opened the door, and then stepped toward Mrs. Hawkins, both arms extended, kissing her on both cheeks.
“What, is that heavenly fragrance, darling?” she said.
“Jambalaya, Yvonne. I cooked you some good Creole food,” Mrs. Hawkins answered.
“Oh, you’re so good, darling, to be doing this. You know me. Without the caterers, I’m nothing.”
She then moved on to Maddie, fawning over her like one would over a favorite lapdog.
“Oh, Maddie, there you are, you beautiful girl, just look at you.” She stepped back, holding Maddie’s arms out and actually examining her whole figure. “And so smart, too. Doing your Ph.D.! Craig has been telling me all sorts of wonderful things about you for the longest time, darling. So I had to come and see you for myself.”
“Craig exaggerates, I’m sure.” Maddie disclaimed.
“Oh no, darling, he does not. You are perfection, my dear. Tell me Maddie, when are you going to marry my son and make me the happiest woman in the world?” she asked.
He watched Maddie blink. God, the woman was brazen. Maddie’s mouth was slightly open. Craig came to her rescue.
“Mother, here’s Louis and Julie, you remember her, don’t you?”
Mrs. Berry turned obediently to where she was being shepherded and shook Julie’s fingertips. “Yes, how do you do?”
Moving on to Louis, whom she kissed, she gushed, “Louis, my dear, how is your business? You know darling, since I turned my financial affairs over to you, I have slept so soundly.”
“Have you now?” Louis answered with an amused smile.
“Yes, I have, darling. George, do you know this boy has made a fortune for me, with his, eh, mutual funds?” She fumbled for the word. “A killing, to be more exact. He is such a smart boy. If only Craig had his head for business, instead of having his head filled with cobwebs and quantum theories and all that nonsense.”
Despite her deprecating words, there was something in her tone to indicate she was quite proud of her son. Maybe it was the fact that he could busy himself with such trivialities as quantum theories.
Craig noticed John standing in the background and gravitated toward him.
“Hey there, John.”
“How are you, Craig?” John extended his hand. It was a handshake of titans; each of them was wondering about the other, each standing his ground. But John was pretty freaked out at this point, because of Mrs. Berry’s marriage question.
Mrs. Hawkins approached them, “Yvonne, this is John Pitts, Maddie’s friend from the university.”
Mrs. Berry seemed to consider this information, then gave him her limp hand, like she expected it to be kissed. “How do you do?” She said, sedately. John felt dismissed.
This feeling continued throughout dinner, which turned out to be an animated affair. She never once addressed a comment to him or acknowledged his existence. She talked of her latest trip to Paris, of the Philharmonic, of New Orleans, and of her son. In fact, she talked more of the latter subject than any other. She wasn’t subtle; John felt she was showcasing his accomplishments for Maddie’s benefit. He developed a strong dislike for the woman, but was fascinated by her, nonetheless.
Yvonne Berry, nee Yvonne St. Jacques Prudhom, was a quadroon of New Orleans black high society who had married Craig’s diplomat father with expectations of a first-rate life as an ambassador’s wife. They had lived in Haiti, and later been assigned to Brazil. Although with her light skin she could have aspired to marry even lighter, she had chosen to marry a darker skinned man out of love. Yvonne was liberal thinking in this regard, not adhering to the racial mores of her class, which dictated same shade marriage. However, she was particular in one regard. She believed that, regardless of shade differences, Black should marry Black. Therefore, she looked more for breeding and beauty in her son’s future wife than for color and money. God knew he would have enough of that.
Yvonne thought it a shame, a disgrace actually, that the Hawkins’ two oldest children had chosen to marry outside of their race. But if she had her wish, their youngest would not do so. When her own marriage had broken up fifteen years ago, that love had turned to bitterness and scorn, and from then on all her energy had focused on the future, on forging an alliance for her son which would reflect honor and grace on the Prudhom family lineage.
“So, Yvonne, you’ve definitely settled in New Orleans now?” Cora asked, as she finished serving the praline torte and George poured the coffee.
“Yes dear. I’ll always keep the penthouse here, you know, but I’ve decided I belong in New Orleans. Although God knows it isn’t the same as it used to be. My sister’s tried to keep up Mamon’s house but she can’t anymore. It’s too much for her. Servants are not what they used to be. You can’t trust them. No.”
Cora hastened to ask. “Would you like some more praline torte, dear?”
“Oh my God, yes darling. I still don’t believe you made this. It’s exquisite. I’d ask for the recipe but my cook would not be able to reproduce it. Pierre has become so lazy in his old age. It’s monstrous, really—“
George cleared his throat. “Won’t you be lonely, Yvonne, so far away from your son?”
“Well, I keep telling him, he should come home to Tulane and teach there,” she said, with complete disregard for the fact that Louisiana had not been Craig’s home for over twenty years. She was making a case for Craig taking up his rightful place in society, in the city of his forebearers.
“Mother,” Craig interjected patiently, “I haven’t had any job offer from Tulane University. You can’t just assume there is a position for me there.”
“Why not, darling? Certainly if you have a job offer from Stanford and another from Yale you can have one at Tulane,” Yvonne replied, dismissing his reservations with complete logic.
“It would depend upon many factors, Mother, whether or not they had an opening…” he seemed slightly frustrated, trying to find a way to explain to his mother how the world actually worked. She couldn’t understand that in the academic circles his money and connections were irrelevant to his advancement; only high-caliber work would qualify him.
Mr. Hawkins intervened at that moment to turn the conversation to another topic, saying, “You know, you and John are undergoing similar dilemmas right now, trying to make decisions about a major career move.”
“Oh, really?” Craig looked across the table at John, relieved to have a means of distracting his mother.
John smiled, “Well, my dilemma isn’t as hard as yours. I only have to choose between a few post-docs.”
“Nonsense, John.” George interjected. “What about the North Carolina interview, I thought you said that was an assistant professor position?”
“Well, yes, but that’s a long shot…” He looked across the table to see Maddie’s eyes fixed on him. He reached for his napkin and then put it down and picked up his water glass.
Maddie noticed he was very uncomfortable being the subject of conversation. She was wondering why he was being so humble. She would bet her last dollar that any position he applied for, he would be at the top of the short list. Then it hit her, he was being humble because he was humble. At least when it came to his academic achievements. He never flaunted them; he simply kept his nose to the grindstone.
Suddenly, she decided to cause a little mischief and watch him squirm. “John, what’s your grade point average?”
He choked on the water. “What?”
“Maddie! You don’t ask anyone that!!” Louis chastised her.
“There’s a rumor in the department that you have a four point GPA. Is it true?” she pushed.
All eyes went to John. He hesitated for a brief moment and then said, “Rumors can be highly exaggerated.”
Everybody laughed. “Good one John, keep them guessing!” Louis clapped.
“Goodness! What a to-do over nothing.” Yvonne rose from the table . “Darling, where is your powder room?” she asked Cora.
“You didn’t answer me.” Maddie murmured to John.
For the umpteenth time that evening Maddie’s parents exchanged their “look.”
GLOBAL BOOK CLUB DISCUSSION!
Hey! I’m really interested in your comments.* Please join this global bookclub discussion by leaving a comment below (in the comments box)
DISCUSSION QUESTION 42: What interested you the most in this scene?
*(feel free to post your own question for group discussion)
*(you can also post your comment on facebook and start your own discussion with friends) ____________________________________