Frank scared the hell out of me on Halloween, and we hadn't even finished breakfast. He accomplished this by looking up over the top of the morning paper and saying some of the most frightening words in the English language: "I'd like for you to meet my mother."
For a minute I hoped he was reading a "Dear Abby" letter out loud, but no such luck.
"What?" I said, not so much because I hadn't heard him, but as a stalling tactic.
"I said I'd like for you to meet my mother. Do you have plans for Thanksgiving? Maybe you could ride up to Bakersfield with me and join our family gathering."
"I don't know. I'll have to check with Barbara. She may be counting on me showing up at her place."
He put down the paper and made a who-are-you-trying-to-kid face at me, and said, "You'd rather spend Thanksgiving with Kenny?"
He had me there. "Well, no, I wouldn't." Barbara is my older sister, recently reunited with her ex-husband, Kenny O'Connor. Kenny's dad and I had been the best of friends, even after my sister and Kenny had their messy divorce. His dad, affectionately known simply by his last name, O'Connor, had been my mentor and confidante at the Las Piernas News Express, the newspaper I work for. But O'Connor had been murdered that last summer, and in the aftermath of that event, Kenny and Barbara got back together.
O'Connor's death also led to my being reunited with an old acquaintance, the man who sat across the breakfast table from me. Frank Harriman is a homicide detective with the Las Piernas Police Department. Neither of our employers were too nutty over the idea of a cop and a reporter getting together, but we decided we could survive a little criticism, given some of the other things we had survived that summer.
Initially, I had been afraid that our relationship was just a reaction to all of the violence of that time. But those fears had proved unfounded over the last few months.
Fear of thy lover's mother is another thing altogether.
For some women, this would probably have been a moment of victory. They would read it as kind of promotion, a step up the prenuptial ladder. I remembered when Alicia Penderson, an old rival of mine, ran around bragging that her premed boyfriend was taking her home to meet the family over Christmas. She had started pricing rings the next day. She wanted, as they say, "a rock." Gibraltar wasn't available or she would have had a setting made for it.
But I have never been much like the Alicia Pendersons of this world, and so I anticipated meeting Frank's mother with much the same enthusiasm as a mallard awaits the opening day of duck-hunting season.
Out of the bag of assorted misgivings I had about being introduced to her, I pulled my question to Frank that morning.
"Why do you want me to meet your mother?"
"Don't you want to meet her?"
"Of course I do," I said. Some might say I lied when I said that, but what I meant was, someday I wanted to know his mother, and have the meeting part all over and done with.
He had put the paper aside now and was studying me. Frank is unfortunately very good at this, and I can seldom hide my feelings from him. Those gray-green eyes were alive with amusement now.
"She'll like you," he said, once again proving his knack for getting to the core of things. I suppose it's a good skill to have in his line of work.
"How do you know she'll like me?"
"Frank, I am so comforted by that."
"Too early to be snide, Irene."
"Too early to think about meeting your mother. You're right, I'm afraid she won't like me."
"I like you. She'll like you when she sees how much I like you."
"For a cop, you have a very optimistic outlook on life."
He shook his head. "I thought you'd be happy about it."
"It's nice for you to invite me. I'm flattered. But for starters, why don't you see if your mom wants another mouth to feed on Thanksgiving? She may just want to be with her family."
"She won't mind," he said. More optimism.
He stood up, taking the breakfast dishes with him. Concerned that I had insulted him with my lack of enthusiasm, I got up from the table and went over to him as he reached the sink. I stood behind him and wrapped my arms around him. He's so tall, this put my head somewhere between his shoulder blades. He set the breakfast dishes in the sink and turned around to face me.
"You worry about the damnedest things, Irene. But I'll call and ask her today. Want to get together for dinner?"
"Sure, but it's Halloween. Do you get many kids trick-or-treating over here?" Frank lives near the beach, and I hadn't seen many young families in his neighborhood.
"No, not really -- just two or three families with kids on this block. I'm not often home from work in time to give them anything, so Mrs. Fremont usually hands out treats for me." Mrs. Fremont, his next-door neighbor, was about eighty years old. She had lived in that house for most of those years. Mr. Fremont had gone to his reward long ago, and while she still talked with fondness about their marriage, she seemed quite content with her life alone. She lived simply, but was actually very well-to-do. The ocean air must have been good for her, because you would never have guessed her to be over sixty. She was a real live wire.
"How about coming over to my place after you get off work?" I asked. "I don't have a Mrs. Fremont, so I'll be on candy-duty."
"Okay. I'll take you out for a late dinner."
"You've got a deal." I looked at my watch. "You're going to be late, Frank. Want me to take the stuff over to Mrs. Fremont for you?"
"That would be great." He walked over to the freezer and pulled out a bag of miniature Snickers.
"Frozen?" I asked.
"It's the only way I can keep myself from powering down a bag of them myself. It's been driving me nuts just knowing they're in the house. They'll thaw by tonight."
"Why, Frank Harriman, I never would have thought of you as a man with a sweet tooth."
He leaned over and kissed me good-bye, saying, "I don't know why not," and scrambled out the door.
Thinking about my own need to get to work, I made sure his house was locked up and then gathered my purse and overnight bag. Nabbing the cold bag of Snickers as well, I fumbled my way out of the house, then set the deadbolt. Frank had let me park my old '71 ragtop Karmann Ghia in the driveway the night before, and as I was stuffing my overnight bag into the trunk, I saw Mrs. Fremont returning from her morning jog.
"Good morning, Irene!" she called. "When are you going to come running with me again?"
I smiled at her, remembering my surprise the first time I heard this proposal. We had gone running together several times since, and I found I didn't have to make concessions to her pace. "Soon, I hope. I haven't been able to do much running this week."
"All that election coverage," she said knowingly. She spied the bag of Snickers clenched in my right hand. Her bright blue eyes sparkled. "Did Frank leave those for me to hand out tonight?"
"Yes, I was going to come over with them as soon as I got my overnight bag put away." For some reason, I felt myself blush.
She laughed. "My dear, I hope you don't worry about my judging your relationship with Frank. You've been very good for him. Couldn't stand the last one -- that was years ago. It's about time that man had a woman in his life again. And as for your spending the night with him -- don't forget, I was a teenager at the height of the Roaring Twenties. We could teach you kids a thing or two."
When you're pushing forty, it's always nice to be called a kid.
"Well, Mrs. Fremont, I'm sure you could," I said, handing the bag of candy over to her. "And I know you don't judge me. I guess I'm fretting over an idea Frank has -- he wants me to meet his mother at the family Thanksgiving dinner."
"Oh, and you're afraid if his mother doesn't like you, that will be that?"
I thought about her question. "I guess so. That, and the fact that I'm not sure what Frank means by bringing me home to his mother."
She gave me a kind look. "Well, Irene, you know I'm not into this role of being some old lady who imparts her wisdom to the younger generations at the drop of a hat. But let me ask you this -- do you and Frank love each other?"
I turned crimson, but answered, "Yes."
"Well then, don't worry about what Frank means by this invitation. Enjoy Thanksgiving -- you've got everything you need in life, with or without his mother's approval. Frank is no fool, Irene."
"Thanks, Mrs. Fremont."
"Go on to work. I've got to get going myself -- I've got to carve a jack-o-lantern. Happy Halloween!"
"Same to you," I said, getting into the car and waving as I drove off. As I made my way down the streets of Las Piernas, I was already turning my thoughts to being with Frank again. I was looking forward to sharing a pleasant evening together.
I was being optimistic.
As it turned out, that Halloween, someone was up to some very cruel tricks indeed.
Copyright © 1994 by Jan Burke