Teasers & Deleted Scenes
Silver Spring, MD, February 2009
You can't get a decent chicken pot pie in the state of Maryland. Or at least not like Esther Falkner grew up with in St. Louis.
Even in the seventies, when the Jews and the Irish and the Blacks and, God help, the Italians still didn't have each other's kids over for supper, you picked up where you lived. Jenny Petrelli from two doors down still makes the Liebowitz family schnitzel, and Esther Falkner and her sister both can be bought and sold three times over with an authentic, gravy-and-peas, flaky-crust chicken pot pie.
Most of the year, it doesn't matter. The ATF's caseload doesn't leave a lot of time for cooking anything that's not out of a box, and Rebekah's been eating vegetarian since she came back from summer camp last August. Anything Bekk will do Deborah will do better or die trying, and it's impolitic to cook a meal neither of your children will eat when one's still too young for free rein with the stove. But today the kids are safely stashed at Ben's parents' for the traditional Quality Time and her administrative leave looks to drag on through the weekend, so Esther Falkner's driven down to the supermarket with the shopping list in her head, because she hasn't had a good chicken pot pie in forever.
The kosher poultry section is a blinding sea of squeaking saran-wrapped meat, bright-lit, almost reflective. A good place to sneak up on a person, what with the esoteric posture she has to accomplish just to bend over and get her hand down into the cooler properly. But habit is strong and too-recent experience stronger; she notices the man by the brisket pause oddly. Turn to watch her.
White, she notes, automatically. Thirty-five to forty years old, works a blue-collar job. No telling from inside the Safeway if he drives an American-made car.
That's all she gets through by the time he shuffles up to her and goes, "Esther?"
"Sorry," he says, licks his lips, starts again. Nerves, or performance anxiety; an average guy faced with the potential embarrassment of misrecognizing someone in a public place. Or an enemy combatant working themselves up to the kill.
She carefully gets the shopping cart between them and steps back from it, loose.
"It is Esther Liebowitz, right?"
And then she stops, and runs a reverse-aging program on the face, slimming its rough lines down into nothing in the back of her head until the profile hits a match. "Oh. Dave Feldman," she breathes out.
You didn't date at West Point. You didn't do anything that, even though nobody let you forget you were a woman, marked you out as a girl. So along with her Pixies and Sex Pistols tapes and the small cache of stud earrings that fit the second hole in her right ear, Esther Liebowitz left her high school boyfriend in storage in St. Louis and neglected to reassume the habit after graduation. It's an old guilt; the kind that's almost a comfort. I should have written. I should have broken it off properly. Home sweet home.
Old guilts are not supposed to resurface, five-o'-clock shadow and safety-pinned jacket, across multiple state lines.
"What're you doing here?" she asks. Rude question. Her mother and her drill sergeant both would make her drop and give 'em fifty.
He doesn't notice. His colour's still kind of high. "Isabel lives around the corner," he says. Izzy is his younger sister, last glimpsed circa 1984 applying for refugee status from Flashdance. "I'm visiting her and the kids. You?"
Her and the kids, Esther notes. No spouse there. And no way of knowing whether that's an I'm sorry or a congratulations. "I live here," she says.
He looks around, exaggerated. "Nice digs. Can't complain about the selection."
She almost swats him, playful, pure reflex. Back from those days when violence was something funnier. Her hand twitches and she keeps it firmly on the shopping cart. "Makes up for the parking, yeah."
"Yeah, we got out of DC after my oldest girl was born. That's...almost fifteen years now. Geez."
"What?" he says, half-smile.
"Fifteen years," she replies, and then she's smiling a bit too. "And you?"
"Still in St. Louis," he says. "Most of the time." He shifts feet, moving weight; people do that to move the topic, move themselves physically away from a conversation. "We should grab a coffee sometime. Izzy'd love to catch up too."
"Sure, yeah--" she fumbles in her purse, digs out a card and hands it over: Bureau e-mail address, Bureau phone number. He blinks at it, turns it over, back.
"So you never got out to Israel," he says, with a funny tinge to his voice.
Right. Dave Feldman. One of the few people who now knows, in her adult, neatly-organized life, that the most prestigious military academy in America was her second choice, the compromise. The thing she took so her parents could keep her safe in the continental US, where there weren't any war zones, until she quietly aged out of Mahal program eligibility.
She'd had the forms all the way up to her 21st birthday. They lived in a box under her bed, ready to go in case she finally snapped and decided to run away.
After her 21st birthday party, she'd taken them out back behind the barracks and burned them.
"No. Closest I got was Iraq," she says.
Apparently this was not the right thing to say.
"Well," he says. "I should get going."
She should too. Ben will be waiting at home to start supper, and St. Louis chicken pot pie takes at least two hours door to door.
His leather jacket creaks, and he's still head tilted, staring; studying her face.
"What?" she can't help asking.
"Nothing," he says, flips the card over in his hand. Pockets it. "Funny old world, that's all."
A full minute passes after they shake hands and go their separate ways - too many years have gone by for even an awkward hug - before Esther notices she's standing differently: one hip cocked out, weight on her right leg. Sassy. Provocative, like someone looking for a fight. Like a teenager. It hurts her back.
She straightens up.
It takes the rest of the browse through Poultry--Kosher, five minutes in the produce, one illicit trip to the cookies aisle and the full checkout experience to get back into herself; to slowly reassume those years of polish and manners and self-control, tuck herself tightly back into her own skin and zip it up after.
She hasn't said geez in fifteen years, either.
There's traffic on 495 on the way home. Falkner taps the steering wheel, steady and impatient, and tries to remember what it felt like when she had a leather jacket, when she spent mornings at yearbook meetings and evenings at track practice so she didn't have to spend either at home. When her life's ambition was to join the IDF, because fighting for the defense of safe places, fighting wars you could actually win with your hands and accompanying hardware seemed so much simpler than the accustomed kind.
When she walked like someone looking for a fight, someone who was always, always angry.
And if she's honest with herself? It wasn't West Point. It wasn't about being a girl. Esther Falkner has always been good at compartmentalization, and the plain cold fact of it is that when she left St. Louis, she put it, all of it, in a box so it would never touch her again.
The sunlight's slanting across her kitchen floor when she gets home, weighted down but lightly with brown paper grocery bags, and starts putting away her spoils. The house is quiet, an unaccustomed thing. She's rarely home when other people aren't.
"Woman!" Ben calls from the workshop. The smell of sawdust and back-of-the-throat, sweet furniture polish is leaking down the hall. "Where's my pot pie!"
"I fed it to my other boyfriend," she calls back. "He rubs my feet and buys me Uzis." She sounds tired. It's less funny when the girls aren't around to roll their eyes theatrically and sigh like put-upon dogs: Mom and Dad are being weird again. Can't take 'em anywhere.
No. Be honest. Right now that's just less funny.
"Bullshit," Ben crows. "I rub your feet." Something clanks in the workshop--hammer, probably--and then Ben comes out into the hallway, shoes shed and hair sweaty. "Did they have the little carrots?"
She passes him the little carrots. She should probably just turn state's evidence before he asks her what's wrong.
"Speaking of," she says. "Guess who I ran into at the store."
Ben bites into a carrot, even though they're for dinner, and crunches down. "Hmm?" he asks, around it.
And suddenly there's a lump in her throat. Why should this put a lump in her throat? "Dave Feldman. From St. Louis. Apparently his sister lives in town."
"Dave Feldman the one you dated in high school?" Ben asks, and puts the carrots down. Ben knows all the details of her mercifully few pre-Ben relationships. She knows all the nuances of his, recounted over odd sleepless nights in the first six months of their own. They met young enough that there wasn't much to tell.
They don't, with rare exceptions, keep each other in or away from boxes.
"Dave Feldman the very same," she replies.
"No wonder," he says.
"No wonder what?"
"You," he says, and drops a kiss somewhere in the vicinity of her mouth, "look like you either ran into someone from high school or a tactical nuke."
"A tactical nuke I could call someone for," she says, and opens the fridge for the pastry dough.
"So?" he asks.
"So," she says, fishes out the dough's mixing bowl, puts it down a touch too hard on the counter, "I can't even remember the person he was talking to. When I stopped being her. That's--"
A little scary.
"And you may ask yourself, how did you get here?" he says dryly.
She swats him in the chest with an oven mitt. He takes it like a man. "Stop making fun of me." She surprises herself with how plaintive it sounds.
"I'm not," he says, instantly serious, and gives her a squeeze with an arm that smells like cedar and warm skin. "Midlife crisis moment. We all get 'em." He pauses, wraps the other arm around her. Holds her there a few seconds. "Means I have you for another forty-two years."
There's still a lump in her throat. A different one.
"Wash up if you're in my kitchen," she says, a little fainter, and he bobs his head-- "As you wish," --before turning to the sink.
Maybe it's that simple. Maybe it isn't, she thinks, as Ben gets to work with the carrots and the dough warms up under its dishcloth and she picks out a good boning knife to deal with the chicken. Maybe there's something she ought to be paying attention to, there: who she was when she wasn't Mom, or Captain, or Supervisory Special Agent. When she wasn't this bundle of injuries and twitches and cautionary tales that's really all there is to a career officer. Who she was from the beginning, before all the other things got pasted on top.
"So," Ben says from the table, more tentative than before. "You going to see him while he's in town?"
She turns around. He's scraped the chopped carrots into a bowl, placed the knife careful on the cutting board. He's watching her, head tilted. Just watching.
"You're jealous," she says, surprised.
He shrugs. "Sometimes people miss the person they used to be."
She pictures walls crashing into each other, walls crumbling. Carefully mortared walls, built up over a lifetime. It makes her shiver. "No," she says. "I don't."
"Okay," he says, soft.
She breathes in, smells pastry dough and freshly chopped carrots. Breathes out. Picks out an onion, feeling its crackly skin shed into her hand. Dinner in two hours; good old St. Louis dinner.
No, she tells herself. Not its, not theirs, not someone else's. Mine. This is my life and this thing I enjoy is part of it, and I am going to make and eat my pot pie with my husband in my home, which is also mine.
She lets out a shaky breath.
"Ben?" she asks.
"Turn on the oven, will you?"
His hand ghosts over her back on his way to the stove; a touch, firm and fleeting, reassurance.
They met young. She knows what he means, and she doesn't need to reply.