The Mutual Friend: Inimical (episode fourteen)
They made her a grave, too cold and damp,
For a soul so warm and true;
And she’s gone to the Lake of the Dismal Swamp,
Where, all night long, by a fire-fly lamp,
She paddles her white canoe…
The Lake of the Dismal Swamp
Mrs. Branstadt having taken the liberty of telephoning, Doris Kohler had agreed to an afternoon of cards and coffee. Doris had a story to tell about her own. She wasn’t used to the new phone, but thought the reception was better. Did you call it reception? Mrs. Branstadt didn’t know. Doris spoke, just as Mrs. Branstadt remembered her doing, in a voice that quavered, an audible cringe, a habit of ending every sentence on a down note.
Yet she seemed eager for company; Doris questioned nothing, recalled, even, that she too had thought of Mrs. Branstadt…not long ago…wasn’t it funny…she didn’t mind at all, she said, if Mrs. Branstadt liked to bring along a friend. Doris would have to shop. She began to prolong the conversation, worriedly listing tasks that occurred to her.
“Nonsense. I’ve really invited myself. I will bring a cake. You’re very kind, Doris.”
Mrs. Branstadt had asked Greta to please leave her hotel early, to stop by the Branstadts’ for twenty minutes before Al would drive them to Doris’s. She had a few words of instruction to impart.
In the neutral phrasing she’d selected for the occasion, she told her protégé: “With these types of conversations, it’s good to keep theatricality to a minimum. The message should be remembered, not the source of the message.”
“Hmm…yeah…I see what you’re saying.”
The pace of Greta’s speech slowed to a standstill. It accelerated. “You want me to give you a little warning, change the subject or something, if I don’t think you’re putting it across.”
Mrs. Branstadt sighed. “Will you help me with the cake, dear?”
Among her clubs and civic groups, Ethel Branstadt enjoyed an authority in the arena of competitive baking. People looked forward to one of her cakes. She had promised Doris a cake. A free one, in the balance of things…still of course up to standard…creole chocolate, frosting forked in a basket-weave design, piping swagged around its upper edge. Teamwork and careful handling were needed to negotiate plate and lid into the pasteboard box.
(2014, 2018, Stephanie Foster)