The concept was simple, the benefits myriad. Deacon Hinkle’s wife, Peggy, made eye contact in the produce section, and Agatha Kroesch, a recent convert three weeks sober, felt emboldened to proselytize. “Dry January,” she declared, “has changed my life. I may never drink again.”
It was predawn at the Rocklin Safeway. A Tuesday. The cabbages encased along the wall were undergoing a misting. Peggy set a sack of mandarins in her cart, and said, “Dry January,” as if the two words didn’t belong together. “Where’d you hear about this?”
“One of the talk shows,” said Agatha. “The celebrities are doing it.”
“I’m skeptical of newfangled health trends — ”
“Me too, but I’ll tell you. I have such energy now. Not that I’ve ever been a heavy drinker.” Agatha was careful to contextualize her lifestyle change. “Maybe a hot toddy on a rainy night. And I didn’t indulge over the holidays.” She had to distinguish herself further from the sots who could use a month’s sobering up. “But I power walk every morning — ”
“Wonderful — ”
“And I sleep like a log. Of course, I’m making better choices all around. I told my husband when I retired, no more frozen meals — ”
“You retired. Congratulations.”
“Well, thank you.” Agatha sensed in Peggy’s praise the conferment of a stamp of approval she had been, up to now, routinely denied. Peggy and her fellow “caped women” — a flock of well-to-do ladies from St. Gertrude’s who, as Agatha’s husband observed, were never without their shawls — tended to ignore her.
Peggy gave the canned goods on a stock clerk’s dolly a once-over as the misters cycled onto the radishes. “When did this happen?” she asked.
“November,” said Agatha. “It was time. Time for something different.”
“You mean a different job, or — ”
“No, I was ready to be done. I am done,” Agatha laughed, grateful that her tenure at the credit union had ended.
Her foot started spasming then, bad enough to make her pause; her new Skechers, on clearance at Stein Mart, were more than a smidge too tight. “As I was saying,” she rallied, “we’ve cut out frozen meals. No more fast food. I’d love for us to go vegetarian. Casper just won’t give up meat.”
“It can be hard to change habits,” Peggy mused. “My father was so rigid with food, it drove Mom batty. My brother’s the same way. Fortunately, Ken’s pretty adventurous.”
“Consider yourself lucky.” Casper’s capriciousness at the dinner table was a thorn in Agatha’s side, one of the recurring themes of the Kroesches’ now thirty-nine years of marriage. The orthopedic shoe salesman had been finicky from the start, a griping critic (“Nothing weird” was his standing, blanket request), and Agatha, through patient trial and error, had developed a basic weekly menu that satisfied his preferences without completely insulting her own. Over the last few decades, Agatha had been able to expand her offerings to include roasted beets, which Casper hitherto abhorred; but too much experimentation — kale, for instance — was typically met with a harsh review that inevitably brought her back to serving the same old fare, which was carb-heavy by design and incorporated, when work-life got hectic, the conveniences of Rice-A-Roni, Ore-Ida, and the occasional Jumbo Jack. Now that Agatha was home full-time, and free from the strictures of the nine-to-five, she felt compelled to eat healthier, and Casper, who’d packed on the pounds in middle age, and who lacked any know-how in the kitchen, could, in Agatha’s proposal to him, either acquiesce or starve (his gut chose the former). In exchange for Casper’s compliance, Agatha pledged to fix him a French dip once a week, with plenty of au jus sauce for dipping; the rest of the time, she would dish up plant-based confections, select cuts of poultry, and, on tonight’s menu, seafood.
“So, what are your plans for retirement?” said Peggy. “Any big trips on the horizon?”
“I wish,” said Agatha. “But no. Not at the moment.” The question of travel, the sly way she’d phrased it, made her think — worry, really — that Peggy had misjudged her and Casper’s finances. Did Peggy surmise that the Kroesches were in austerity mode, and Agatha’s commitment to dry January was not a voluntary choice but rather a necessary, cost-saving measure? Was Agatha not a lush in recovery, but simply too poor to buy alcohol?
Agatha had never been one to flaunt what little wealth she and Casper had amassed — it paled in comparison to that of the Hinkles, single-income Bay Area transplants who’d sold their four-bedroom in Los Altos for ten times the original price — and yet she couldn’t help but want for others to think well (and accurately) of her. She wanted, if at all possible, for Peggy to like her. “We’re waiting for our renovations to be finished,” said Agatha.
“Oh, really?” said Peggy.
“We’re having our master suite redone.”
This was a partial lie. In December, Agatha had contacted a local handyman to demo their master bath’s vanity and shower and build anew from the ground up. Brent had completed his work over the weekend. She and Casper would leave the bedroom alone for now.
“You’ll have to invite me over to see it,” said Peggy.
“Come by any time.” The Hinkles’ door, windowed and maroon, was only an eighth-mile up the hill from theirs. “I’m just tickled by the way it’s turning out.”
“Well” — Peggy looked pleased — “if you’re on the hunt for things to do in retirement, I should let you know that a spot just opened up in my book club. We meet every Thursday at a cute wine bar in Loomis.”
“Oh — ?”
“We read two books a month, which can be daunting, I admit, but it’s a fun group of girls — quite a few are from the parish, actually — and I think you’d make a superb addition.”
Agatha, fairly dumbstruck, found herself blushing; her pinkness rivaled the floral department’s cyclamen display. “Superb?”
“Is that a yes?” said Peggy.
“It is.” The invitation was more than what Agatha bargained her leaving the workforce, coupled with her modest home improvement project, would garner. But it was nice, quite nice, to have made such a favorable impression; and anyhow, the book club appealed to her. For one thing, she could be reading more; for another, regular visits with the caped women might open doors for her socially and otherwise give her something to look forward to each week. Aside from cooking and power walking and organizing closets and cabinets around the house, Agatha had precious little to fill her days with. She used to think by this stage in life she’d have a grandbaby to care for, a stroller to push, and diapers to change, but Darcy, her daughter, a publicist by profession, seemed in no rush to get pregnant, despite her near-midnight biological clock and Agatha’s nudges; and even if Darcy and her podiatrist husband were ready for children, they seemed committed to staying put in Ben’s native Kansas City, and Casper would rather die a grim death than relocate to Missouri, so Agatha could either sit around feeling resentful or accept Peggy’s life-giving offer. “That’d be lovely,” Agatha added.
“I’ll let the girls know.” Peggy freed her phone from her leggings, punched in the passcode. “The wine bar serves tea, too, in case you were wondering.”
Peggy scrolled through a group text. “And I have one other suggestion for you, related to retirement.”
“Focus groups. Otter Ormond? I’m sure you’ve heard of them.”
“Sounds familiar,” said Agatha, pretending like the suggestion hadn’t, in fact, thrown her for a loop.
“They’re in Sacramento, downtown. The focus groups — they call them studies — they’re in the evenings. They compensate you for your time.” Peggy typed up a message; her French-tipped index finger clacked against the screen. “Not that I do it for the money. But I was there only an hour and a half, and they paid me two-hundred — cash.”
“I’ll text you their info.”
Agatha gave Peggy her number, and Peggy sent her the contact.
“Call them up,” said Peggy. “If you like giving your opinion on things, it’s easy money.”
“I’m so glad I bumped into you,” said Agatha, and Peggy leaned in to plant an air kiss near her cheek.
The real estate agent who’d sold the Kroesches their forever home — a charming single-story on a corner lot within shouting distance of St. Gertrude’s — had brought it to their attention. The small, square, almond-brown tiles were fractured in places, and the grout was vastly discolored, but the main issue with the master shower, in the long term, was noncosmetic: the two precariously high stair steps one had to mount before setting foot inside the stall. These steps hadn’t much bothered the Kroesches in their youth; Agatha had observed during the agent’s showing that the steps lent a palatial quality to the space. But if she and Casper wished to safely remain in the residence well into their golden years, it was the agent’s recommendation that they eventually optimize the home’s accessibility. The steps, a trip to the emergency room waiting to happen, would need to go.
Casper, like his wife, had been happy to leave the shower as-is, although not for aesthetic reasons. A parsimonious man, Casper possessed abiding respect for his bank account and didn’t care to spend money on fixing things unless it was urgent. Removing the steps was, thirty years ago, the proverbial can he could in good conscience kick down the road of life so long as everyone’s health allowed, and until recently, the fates had favored the Kroesches; no serious injury or illness had befallen them. Then November rolled around, and Casper slipped on the ladder while cleaning the gutters, taking a tumble that, in his words, “banged me up pretty good,” and the old miser accepted that perhaps his sense of balance wasn’t what it used to be, that it most likely wouldn’t improve; that the proverbial can could be kicked no further.
Agatha, as it turned out, had been hoping to redo the shower, if not the whole master bath, within the first few months of her retirement. As much as she’d admired the steps, she was ready for an update, and Casper’s accident, while unfortunate — she told him not to go up on that ladder in the rain! — rendered the steps a liability and thus any argument over ripping them out ludicrous. She no longer needed Casper’s blessing to obtain from the soccer mom up the court the number of her contractor — honest, dependable, unlicensed Brent — and swiftly schedule him for work in the new year. On an unaccompanied trip to Ace Hardware, Agatha picked out fresh tiles — “mermaid tail” was the sales associate’s fanciful term for their shape — as well as a new showerhead and a frosted glass door to replace the existing bar and curtain. Casper, to Agatha’s surprise, urged her over the phone while she was at Ace also to buy a new (albeit discounted) vanity. The shoe store had been doing extraordinary business as of late, thanks to the near-simultaneous opening of three assisted living facilities in South Placer County, and Casper felt that a reasonable splurge was in the budget. “Throw in the fixtures while you’re at it,” he offered. Agatha was only too eager to capitalize on Casper’s generosity; she made her selections and not ten minutes later was out the door.
The materials alone had cost the Kroesches a pretty penny, so it came as a relief that Brent was both efficient and affordable. The demo took about a day with clean-up. The installation, a long weekend. Now his job was finished, the tile had cured, and the bathroom was, as of this morning, ready for use.
Or it had been until Casper got a hold of it.
The sight of him standing in the dewy shower stall wearing nothing but plain white briefs and a look of profound consternation, manipulating with a pair of needle-nose pliers some component inside of the showerhead, which he’d detached from the wall, reminded Agatha of Casper’s recent vacuum disassembly after he had accidentally sucked up one of her diamond earrings. The Hoover had to be shuttled in pieces to a local repair shop where a kid named Erik put the machine back together to the tune of twenty-five dollars. The earring he salvaged for free.
“May I ask what it is you’re doing?” said Agatha.
“Brent fouled this thing up,” said Casper. “There’s no power. The water just dribbles out.”
“I very much doubt the water’s dribbling out.” Agatha slipped off her sneakers, liberating her aching, imprisoned feet. “Brent tested everything before he left.”
Casper brought the showerhead to his face and closed one eye to inspect it. His rusty gray toolbox lay open on the vanity beside a lukewarm mug of coffee. The TV in the bedroom loudly advertised denture adhesive. “Something’s wrong here, Ag. I don’t know what, but it’s something.”
Agatha had figured her husband would raise a stink over the low-flow fixture the eco-conscious sales associate had advised her to purchase. She just hadn’t counted on Casper’s dismantling it on day one. “You are aware that showerheads use less water these days. That’s how they make them now.”
“Yeah, but you didn’t buy one of those.”
“It was the ethical choice.”
“We live in California, Cas,” said Agatha, unwilling to explain her purchase to someone who should know as well as anyone why conservation was crucial. “Water’s a limited resource.”
“This is the low-flow?”
“Why would you buy a low-flow?”
“Don’t make me repeat myself.”
Casper, still picking at the showerhead’s guts, regarded the appliance with contempt. “I can’t believe you would buy a low-flow.”
“I bought what I bought,” said Agatha. “It was the right thing to do.”
Casper shook his head and scratched his paunch — a pale, hairless globosity that drooped over his skivvies. “I get that you want to be noble and all, but this low-flow thing’s a hoax. Nobody’s helping the birds and the bees with this piece of crap. You think you’re saving water, but really, you’re just using a lot more of it. You have to run the shower longer to get clean.”
“That’s not necessarily true.”
“Sure it is. Dale told me so.”
Agatha found his justification insufferable. It was one thing for Casper not to eat any root vegetables unless they were dolloped with sour cream; quite another to value his pea-brain employee’s opinion over his wife’s. She was smarter than most. Maybe not a genius —she could be reading more — but she wasn’t a dummy, either. She watched the news. She paid attention to icebergs melting, forests burning. No one had to twist her arm to make her believe in climate change. The earth (which Dale believed was flat) was in peril. Unless bold decisions were made at the top, and fast, only the dung beetles would survive.
Casper was going to think what he wanted, though, fact or fiction, and Agatha hated bickering. “Did I mention the environmentally friendly option was also cheapest?” she said.
Casper snickered. “You get what you pay for.”
Agatha ignored his comment and nodded at the naked pipe jutting out of the wall. “You think you could put the showerhead back now?” she said. “I would like to clean up in here.”
Casper grimaced. “Been looking forward to it all morning, I’ll bet.”
“Try all month.”
“Well,” said Casper, screwing the showerhead into place, “problem is, I just broke the damn thing.”
Casper turned the faucet handle, and the showerhead, a once seaworthy vessel, leaked water out its sides.
“Oh, Casper — ”
“I bent one of the pieces in there — ”
“It’s just like with the vacuum — ”
“I can’t seem to bend it back into place. I’m sorry, I…”
All Agatha had wanted after her power walk home from the grocery was to enjoy her shower, then settle in with her cross-stitch and a cup of that flavored coffee she’d been meaning to brew and catch up on her reality shows. She wasn’t asking for the world.
“I need more power, Ag. I just do.”
“Please,” said Agatha. “Please leave this alone. For now. Maybe Brent can come back and undo what you did.”
“I’m not so sure he can.”
“Just call and ask. Do that for me. Please.”
“But the low-flow.”
“You’ll manage. And you owe it to me.”
Casper shut the water off and sighed like calling the handyman was rightful penance for his actions.
“If it wasn’t for dry January,” said Agatha, “I’d fix myself a drink.”
“I said I’m sorry.”
“I’m exaggerating. And let’s not put the toolbox on the vanity.”
Casper exited the shower stall. “Where have I heard dry January before?”
“I’ve cut out alcohol this month.” Agatha lifted the toolbox onto the floor. “Remember?”
Casper shook his head no and eyed the reusable bag Agatha was holding. “What do you have there?”
“Dinner.” After bumping into Peggy Hinkle, Agatha had picked up the few items she needed — parsley, bell pepper, stewed tomatoes — to prepare tonight’s main course. “We’re having Manhattan clam chowder.”
“Manhattan,” Casper repeated. “That’s the red kind.”
“Why not New England?”
“Manhattan’s better for you. Less fat.”
“I don’t like red clam chowder.”
“You’ve never had it.”
“I have. I know I don’t like it.”
“Then you cook, Casper. You cook.” She winced and shifted her weight to one side. The Skechers had fit her fine just days ago at Stein Mart. Had she kept the receipt? “My feet are killing me,” she said, for no other reason than to verbalize her pain.
Casper hiked his briefs with a grumble and set the compromised showerhead on the vanity. “I can find you the right pair of shoes.”
“I’m not wearing orthopedics. I’ve told you many times.”
“The least I can do is offer.” He pulled on his robe, which had been slung over the shower door, and cinched the belt under his pooch. “And I can warn you about this coffee you made earlier.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“Tastes like Robitussin.”
Casper grabbed his mug and poured every last drop down the drain. “Trust me. It says vanilla peppermint on the canister, but it’s cough syrup. Bush league. Don’t drink it.”
At her husband’s insistence, Agatha washed up in the guest bath and had a regular cup of Folgers with breakfast. Then Casper washed up and left for work, and with the exception of admonishing him for damaging her showerhead, Agatha spent the rest of the morning as intended. She satiated her appetite for bad television, made a fair bit of progress on her cross-stitch, and managed to stop herself, in a moment of weakness, from spiking a second cup of coffee with Baileys Irish Cream.
Around noon, she rose from the couch and gathered the ingredients for her chowder. The recipe — something a former co-worker had shared on social media — was easy to follow. Dice an onion, a bell pepper, and two ribs of celery to begin. Mince seven cloves of garlic. Sauté the lot of it in a large pot with two tablespoons of butter.
As she poured five cups of clam juice into the mix, her phone chirped.
“Hey there, Ag!” Peggy had texted. “It dawned on me that I forgot to tell you the name of the wine bar for Thursday. Peel Me a Grape, it’s called. In Loomis. We’re meeting at three o’clock. Don’t worry if you haven’t read our latest book. Just come and meet the girls and enjoy some tea! If you want to get a head start on our next read, it’s Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty. Really fabulous so far. Hope to see you!”
Agatha thought it best to let the message simmer lest she respond immediately and appear overeager. Above the message was the contact for Otter Ormond, the market research firm Peggy had recommended. There was a phone number and street address — 11th and S, a few blocks from the State Capitol.
On a whim, she dialed the number and set her knife to cubing a Yukon Gold.
“Otter Ormond, this is Gregory,” answered a male voice. “How can I help you?”
“I’m calling about your focus groups,” said Agatha. “I’d like to sign up.”
Gregory (whose choice not to go by Greg she found refreshing) launched into a questionnaire, asking her everything from her ethnic origin and level of education to her taste in music and total household income before taxes.
“Lastly,” he said, “and this doesn’t happen very often — ”
Agatha bound the parsley sprigs, along with bay leaf and fresh thyme, with twine.
“ — but it appears that we are one person shy of a full house for tonight’s study on wine, and I’m wondering if you might like to answer another set of questions to see if you qualify? The honorarium’s one hundred and fifty dollars.”
Ordinarily, Agatha would have passed on such an opportunity, lucrative as it was, given the short notice and topic — “Did you say wine?” — but the more she thought about Casper’s snafu — the water dribbling (indeed, dribbling) out of that busted showerhead — the stronger she desired an evening away from home amongst people who, unlike her husband, might actually value her opinion. She added the potato to the pot and mentioned dry January, a concept with which Gregory was familiar. “There won’t be any imbibing tonight,” he assured her, and Agatha said, “Fire away.”
First, he asked how many glasses of wine she enjoyed per week. “Zero to one, one to three, or three or more?” Agatha turned up the heat on the stove and answered as best she could. “One to three,” she said, based on her prior drinking habits. Then he asked if she had any criteria for purchasing wine. If price point mattered. “Always, sometimes, or never?” Gregory wanted to know where she purchased her wine — “Raley’s? Costco? BevMo?” — and how much she usually spent on any given bottle — zero to twenty, twenty to forty, or forty and above?
After the survey, Gregory took a moment to tally up her score. The soup came to a rolling boil. The briny scent of the clam juice coalescing with the garlic and zesty bouquet garni played divinely upon Agatha’s nose. Casper’s going to love this, she thought.
“I’m pleased to report,” said Gregory, “that you qualify for tonight’s study.”
“I was hoping you’d say that,” said Agatha. Casper would have to fly solo.
Gregory thanked her in advance for participating and suggested a place to park near Otter Ormond. He encouraged her to check in with the front desk at least fifteen minutes early. “Any later than that,” he warned, “and the honorarium decreases by twenty-five dollars.”
Agatha hung up with Gregory and called Casper at the store.
“You’re going to a what?” he said.
“A focus group,” said Agatha. “It starts at six.”
“You mean tonight?”
“I mean tonight.”
Casper, who was on his lunch break, crunched voraciously into the Granny Smith Agatha had packed for him. “Short notice,” he said. “They’re paying you, I hope.”
“Hundred and fifty bucks.”
“I’ll be darned.” He sounded proud of her. “How’d you hear about this?”
“Peggy Hinkle. You know, one of your caped women.”
“We ran into each other at Safeway this morning.”
A meaty apple bite preceded Casper’s thoughtful chewing. “A focus group’s where you get together with a bunch of random people and give your opinion on stuff — right?”
“Something like that,” said Agatha. “Not entirely sure.”
“Is Peggy going with you to this thing?”
“I’m going by myself, actually.” Agatha, brandishing a wooden spoon, stirred long figure-eights into her chowder. “But I’ll be seeing more of Peggy soon. She told me I’d make a superb addition to her book club.”
“I guess that’ll force you to finish a book for once.”
Casper’s snideness, devoid of mirth, paralyzed Agatha’s stirring hand. “What a jerky thing to say,” she retorted. The dig inspired more confusion than anger; Casper could be brusque, rarely so cruel. “You know I read.”
After a beat, an unfazed Casper said, “Got a hold of Brent.” His tone betrayed bad news. “He’s all tied up this week. The soonest he can take care of the showerhead is Monday.”
Agatha could manage a few days’ wait for the fix. With Brent, she could be patient. “I appreciate your calling.”
“It’s what I get for bungling things up,” said Casper. “So, where’s this hocus-pocus group at?” Another crunch. “Here in town, or?”
“Sacramento. Near the Capitol.” Agatha, still recovering from the sting of his comment, put her faith in a best-case scenario involving some distraction at the store throwing what had been an innocent attempt at humor off-target. Casper’s wariness of Peggy, however, not to mention his lack of apology, debunked that theory. “I won’t be home till late.”
“I’m on my own for dinner, then.”
Agatha tried her best to fake chipper. “You’ll have the soup to eat. In fact, it’s just about done. All that’s left to do is add the clams, tomatoes. Smells amazing.”
“I think I’ll swing by the Colonel instead.”
“What did you say?”
“You heard me. K-F-C.”
Casper’s enunciation of the fast-food joint’s name confirmed for Agatha that the zinger about her reading habits had hit its intended mark. “How ungrateful you are,” she said. “And rude, on top of it.”
“I want food I can eat, Ag.”
Vindicated, she laid into him. “First you break the showerhead — ”
“That was a — ”
“Next, you insult my intelligence.”
“You insulted my intelligence.”
Agatha pulled the phone away from her ear as if the thing had bitten her lobe. “By insinuating that I’m feeble-minded for not reading books when you haven’t picked one up since high school — ”
“That’s right, I haven’t.”
“ — and now you’d rather have crappy fried chicken than my cooking.”
“I told you,” said Casper, maintaining his calm. “I like the white clam chowder. I don’t like the red. You know what I like. Why would you make me something you know I won’t like?”
“Because you’re fat and you need to lose weight. That’s why.” The blurted-out condemnation wasn’t Agatha’s way of getting even. Casper’s spare tire had gotten too big to condone. His life was at stake. “Frankly, Casper, you’re obese.”
He laughed like his heft was something to be celebrated.
“You want to be here for our grandkids.”
“Darcy and Ben aren’t giving us grandkids.”
“Someday they might.”
“When pigs fly.” The store entrance sensor beeped. “I’m having KFC tonight.”
“Oh no, you’re not.”
“I’m having K-F-C, and if you don’t like it, then you can make me something else.”
“What did you say?”
“Make me a French dip, why don’t you.”
“What has gotten into you? Why are you acting this way?”
“I got a customer,” Casper groaned, signaling his need to go.
“You should be glad I make you dinner at all!”
“Jiminy Christmas, Ag.”
“Jiminy Christmas to you.”
It wasn’t Agatha’s M.O. to hang up on anyone, not even a naggingly persistent telemarketer, but by the end of her spat with Casper, the second of the day and worse of the pair, hanging up seemed the only sane thing to do. The righteous thing, really. She knew at the outset of her healthful cooking regimen that it was simply a matter of time before Casper complained (or retaliated). And darn it all if he wasn’t right about her books; the spines of the novels stacked high on her nightstand, impulse buys from Barnes & Noble, had never been cracked. Still, he didn’t need to humiliate her for no good reason, to ambush her like that. Here she was with the chance to endear herself to St. Gertrude’s elite, and why couldn’t he just be happy for her? Fortunately, Casper’s little tirade, upsetting as it was, had neither driven Agatha to drink nor spoiled her appetite; the chowder was an unqualified success.
She rinsed out her soup bowl at a quarter past four. Put her face on. Lipstick, blush. In the closet, she kicked aside her restrictive Skechers and stepped into a pair of black flats. Before leaving the house, she threw on a suede jacket, refrigerated the chowder; Casper could help himself to it or not.
A gnarly mix of cars and semis clogged I-80 East while westbound traffic sailed along undeterred. Ever the cautious driver, she minded the speed limit. The slow lane suited her. It was already dark. Cold, damp. These days she travelled the freeways infrequently. It was commonplace years ago for teenaged Darcy to be her mother’s ready I-80 co-pilot, when Rocklin was considered the boonies, and the mall in neighboring Roseville existed only in blueprint, and the closest department store resided at Arden Fair, seventeen miles away. Back then, almost every outing was, by virtue of where she lived, a journey, and here tonight, south of Roseville, south of Citrus Heights, dwarfed by Suburbans caked with Tahoe snow, captive to billboards promoting concerts at Golden 1, exhibits at the Crocker, Agatha felt that old sense of adventure percolating inside her, diluting the sameness of her life.
In Sacramento, she parked on 12th and S, following Gregory’s recommendation, catty-corner from an imposing Catholic church whose marquee advertised Sunday Mass in Portuguese. She blessed herself as she strode past. Otter Ormond was located just off the R Street Corridor — a formerly industrial district that now played host to artist lofts, trendy eateries — on the second floor of an undeniably drab building that housed, among other entities, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. The staircase inside shot straight up to the market research firm’s lobby, a cramped vestibule packed to the gills with plastic plants and a remarkably diverse cross-section of society. A woman sporting a peridot nose ring checked her in at the front desk. She congratulated Agatha on arriving better than fifteen minutes early; the full honorarium would be hers at the study’s conclusion. She handed Agatha a ballpoint pen and clipboard with paperwork to complete.
Agatha squeezed through the crowd behind her and found a vacant chair along the wall beside a woman about her age with hair as fine and blonde as corn silk. The crimson shawl draped over her shoulders reminded Agatha of Peggy’s caped clique and the book club text she was waiting to respond to. She scanned the top sheet on the clipboard, then flipped the page, and must have puckered her lips puzzledly enough to attract the shawled woman’s attention. She touched her fingertips briefly to Agatha’s forearm, and ventured, “I bet you’re asking yourself,” in a kind voice, frayed at the edges, “why they have you answer the same fiddle-faddle twice.”
Agatha looked up at the woman’s receding, scarlet gumline, front teeth a coppery brown at the root. “In fact, I was,” she said.
“Afraid so.” Apparently, the woman was a regular. “Truth be told, I hardly know what I’m doing here.”
“Well,” said the woman, her eyes searching, as if bits of wisdom floated, like pollen, all around her, “there’s a lot of redundancy to this process, but it’s worth tolerating for how easy the money is. And there’s something to be said for just being here. Knowing you’re exactly what they’re looking for. I take a measure of pride in that.”
Agatha had to admit to feeling sort of accomplished when she made Gregory’s cut. She added, “Anything’s better than sitting at home,” to which the woman let out an enthusiastic “Amen.” Agatha introduced herself, and the woman, Deirdre, offered a callused hand. She nodded in the direction of a room off the lobby; a young woman in hot pink pumps (shoes Casper would have deemed frivolous) walked out carrying a chicken wrap. “There’s food if you’re peckish,” said Deirdre, “and best to use the loo now, since there won’t be any breaks.”
“Say honest,” said Agatha. The study was scheduled for two and a half hours. She couldn’t hold her bladder that long.
“It’s criminal, I agree,” said Deirdre, “but time’s of the essence. They might give us five minutes to get up and stretch, but that’s about it. No food, drinks, or cell phones, either.”
Peggy’s Otter Ormond sales pitch, perhaps inadvertently, had led Agatha to believe that focus groups were mainly informal gatherings with about as much structure as lay ministry meetings at the parish. Now it was clear that her morning shift at the credit union had afforded her greater personal freedom. Feeling pressed for time, she raced through her paperwork and hastened to the ladies’ room and back to find everyone in the lobby on their feet, forming a line.
The first thing Agatha noticed about the room into which they filed, adjacent to the one with the food, was the mirrors. Mirrors covering the bottom halves of all four walls from corner to corner, doubling everything in sight: the six rows of six folding chairs, arranged classroom style, with an aisle down the middle; the podium upfront; the video camera on a tripod at the back of the room. The reverse fishbowl effect, magnified by the room’s lack of windows and weirdly bluish overhead lights, troubled Agatha; it made her wonder if the point of the evening wasn’t to ensure that, at every turn, she felt thoroughly trapped and intruded upon.
She nabbed an aisle seat in the second row beside a bug-eyed fellow in a rumpled button-down. On the other side of him sat Deirdre. “Ready?” she said, leaning over.
“Suppose so,” said Agatha.
After everyone was settled, the woman from the front desk ushered in a trim, well-dressed man carrying a briefcase. His evident neatness seemed slightly unreal, as if he’d just emerged from the squeaky-clean universe of a pharmaceutical ad; the guy next to Agatha looked, by comparison, like he’d landed there via cannon blast.
The trim man clicked open his briefcase on the podium and removed from it a three-ring binder. Then he bowed his head in what could have been supplication before buttoning on his mic.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said. “You may call me Sumeet. I will be running the dial session this evening. I ask at this time that you please power down all electronic devices.”
Agatha reached into her purse for her phone and discovered a just-sent message from Casper. “Get there okay?” it read. Quickly she responded “yes” before complying with Sumeet’s direction.
The front desk woman, whom Sumeet introduced as Harleigh, returned while Sumeet was taking attendance to pass out the dials he’d referred to: shiny silver remote controls that, in other contexts, might have operated ceiling fans or communal Jacuzzis.
Once Harleigh had finished distributing the dials, Sumeet addressed the room. “The second part of the study will require you to respond via your dials to a series of statements, which I will read aloud. As such, we will need to test the integrity of our dials now to ensure that the session goes smoothly later. The power switch,” he said, holding up a demo dial, “will illuminate the digital display at the top. The dial, in the upright position, will show the number 50 to indicate a neutral response. The dial, if turned to the right, will indicate an incrementally more favorable response up to 100. Turning the dial to the left will indicate just the opposite, down to zero.”
Agatha switched her dial on and off repeatedly to no avail and pronounced the thing dead.
“Isn’t working?” said Deirdre.
“Could be the battery— ”
“Sumeet!” Deirdre exclaimed. “We got a buzzer on the fritz!”
Harleigh, who’d gone to hit record on the video camera behind them, came by with a spare. “Apologies,” she said, to which Deirdre flashed a thumbs-up.
Agatha thanked Harleigh, and Sumeet polled the room for other, unresolved issues. “Hearing none,” he said, “let’s begin.”
The purpose of the first hour was to elicit opinions, preconceptions, desires from the group and identify patterns, themes. Sumeet spoke rapidly from the get-go. Firing off questions, culling information, and synthesizing it on the spot. His skill and energy so spellbound Agatha, the room’s ominous features faded into the background. She felt at ease, finally, by the study’s second half. At ease yet ravenous as a bear. Her stomach began protesting while she dialed up or down in response to Sumeet’s statements (“I enjoy trying new wines,” “When buying wine, the label is important to me”), which he read rather dramatically from his binder. The Manhattan clam chowder, which had sated Agatha only a couple of hours earlier, had failed to curb her hunger for long (the way the New England variety would have). She almost forgave Casper in retrospect for patronizing the Colonel.
The study adjourned at half past eight. Agatha visited the ladies’ room, then checked in vain for any leftover chicken wraps. She collected her honorarium and headed downstairs.
Deirdre caught up with her outside. “You survived,” she said.
“Just barely,” said Agatha, once they were alone. “Sumeet was wonderful, but that room. The lighting and the mirrors. The video camera. I felt so disoriented. Also, I’m starving.”
Deirdre laughed and asked if she might like to join her for a drink at a nearby pub. “They serve hors d’oeuvres there,” she said. Agatha wanted nothing more at this hour than to be at home in her pajamas, but braving I-80 East on an empty stomach seemed imprudent. Better to hazard a snack with a caped acquaintance, she thought, than run on fumes.
Agatha called Casper out of courtesy. Cell first, home phone second. Went to voicemail on both tries. At the pub, she ordered a soft pretzel with mustard and a Shirley Temple. Deirdre ordered a Harvey Wallbanger and applauded Agatha’s restraint after all the talk about wine. Agatha was prepared as always to testify to the benefits of dry January, not to mention the dangers of buzzed driving, but Deirdre had her life story to tell. She was born and raised in Oregon. Moved to Davis for college. Lived alone. Recently retired from state service, forty years. She had one adult daughter who lived in Shingle Springs. Neither of them had been lucky in love, Deirdre especially. She renounced American men. “Bunch of orangutans,” she said. “The last one I dated just sat around in his underpants watching sports all day. I got it in my head one afternoon to strip naked and stand between him and the Giants. He slouched on the sofa, watched the game between my legs.” Eventually she started chatting online with Carlos in Chile — “the only decent man I’ve ever met next to the one who sired my daughter, and he’s dead.” Deirdre shared a picture on her phone of handsome, brawny Carlos, shirtless on a beach and young enough to be her son. “I’m putting tonight’s winnings,” Deirdre confided, “toward a plane ticket.”
The worrisome revelation spurred Agatha to eat faster. Deirdre had dragged their benign, if one-sided conversation into the muck. If Agatha’s reality shows had taught her anything, it was to avoid romantic entanglements abroad. There was nothing decent about what Carlos was doing, much less what he would do if Deirdre flew him here; and it would only humiliate the poor girl if Agatha implored her to write off Carlos altogether. She asked Deirdre if she’d ever been to South America, a diversionary tactic that redirected things just long enough for Agatha to finish her pretzel and pay her tab. She wished Deirdre the best and made a gracious adieu.
Back on the road, Agatha counted her blessings. Deirdre’s dilemma had stirred within her a swell of gratitude. She thought of Darcy, her one-time shopping companion, now an accomplished woman. Maybe Casper was right and she wouldn’t have any kids, but at least she had Ben and his family and a career that sustained her. The cross-stitch that Agatha worked on every day, intended for her first grandchild, would be put to use somehow; the soccer mom up the court was debating whether to try for one more and wouldn’t the cross-stitch make a beautiful baby shower gift. Casper would never leave California for a flyover state, even if it meant seeing more of their daughter, but he was a good father and a good husband — an orangutan worthy of her love in spite of his misguided opinions and aversions to food. She thought of the fall he’d suffered in November. The trip to urgent care in the rain. What if he’d landed on concrete instead of grass? What then? What if he’d broken his neck, and they’d had to demolish those shower steps, not as a safety precaution but to accommodate for his wheelchair? Those darn gutters; this year, Brent could climb the ladder.
She pulled into her subdivision at half past nine. Her lit bedroom window shone through the branches of their side yard’s crape myrtle. Stepping out of the car in the garage, she heard Johnny Horton’s “Sink the Bismarck” roaring from inside. She hung her keys on the laundry room hook, kicked off her flats. “Casper?” she said. Judging by the music, he’d waited up for her.
And he hadn’t lazed about, either. The range hood’s light, on its brightest setting, revealed a shockingly clutter-free kitchen. No bucket of bones, no gravy-coated containers or soiled napkins — all the trash Casper typically left her to deal with — disposed of, like magic. The only evidence of his meal was the pervasive stench of fried chicken and an empty soup bowl.
Empty soup bowl?
She shushed the smart speaker by the stove. She’d stuck her bowl in the dishwasher. This one on the counter had bell pepper chunks garnishing the rim: indelible proof that he’d eaten it — the Manhattan clam chowder, “the red kind” — left here for her to find.
“It wasn’t half bad,” said Casper, spooking her. She whipped her head round to see him crossing the living room in his robe. He arched an eyebrow when it seemed she hadn’t grasped the reference. “Your chowder,” he clarified.
Agatha knew what he’d meant. “I’m — taken aback, is all.” She stared again at the bowl. “Very happily taken aback.”
Casper inquired about her evening. The word “fine” sprang from her lips. “Peggy swears by those focus groups, but they aren’t my cup of tea.”
He skidded a barstool out from under the counter.
“The topic was wine,” said Agatha, “if you can believe it.” She handed him the honorarium.
He tore the envelope, thumbed through the cash. “I thought you weren’t — ”
“I’m not. I didn’t drink anything. There was nothing to drink.”
Casper squinted amusedly and pushed the envelope toward her. “What did they have you do then?”
“Answer questions,” said Agatha. “Lots of…” She peeked over his shoulder into the dining room. “What’s that, on the table?”
Casper heaved himself onto his feet. “Not Skechers, I’ll tell you that much.”
He brought over the shoebox, which, thanks to her preoccupation with the soup bowl, she’d overlooked entirely. The brand logo emblazoned on the lid tipped her off to its contents. She opened the box, folded back the tissue on top.
The Dr. Comforts, God help her, were fat and white with neon yellow squiggles down the sides. Casper grabbed one and dug out the paper stuffed into the toe. “What do you think?” he said. “Nice, huh?”
Agatha held her tongue. There was no getting out of it. He’d been a good sport about her chowder. She could try on his shoes.
She took the moon boot from him and laced it up. Traveled to the laundry room and back. To rule out the unthinkable, she asked Casper for its mate.
“They’re dorky as all get-out,” she said on her second round-trip. “But they might just be” — did she dare tell him? — “the most comfortable sneakers ever.”
Casper sighed in good humor. “If only you’d listened to me sooner.”
“I was wrong to doubt you.”
“You can wear them to the bathroom. Follow me,” he beckoned. “I’ve saved the best for last.”
Agatha, in awe of her new footwear, trailed behind Casper as he explained en route how he’d seen the Hinkles earlier on their evening stroll. They’d caught him wheeling the cans down for garbage day. “Peggy said you’d invited her to check out the remodel.” Casper stopped at the shower. “I told her and the deacon I’d give them the tour, only the showerhead’s in pieces on the vanity. Ken asked what the problem was, and we got to talking, and the next thing I know — ”
Casper popped open the frosted glass door, cranked the faucet handle. The showerhead, affixed to the wall, shot water like a firehose.
“Turns out Ken’s a master plumber, and that part I’d bent was the flow restrictor.” Casper reveled in the irony of it. “Peggy loved your new tiles, by the way.”
Agatha stepped forward, speechless. She waved her hand through the deluge; the water, cold as it was torrential, knocked it down.
“Have I redeemed myself?” said Casper.
Agatha dried her hand on her jeans. “That and then some,” she said. “Eating my chowder was redemption enough.”
Casper confessed that Dale, of all people, had engendered the good deed. After overhearing Casper on the phone, the flat-Earther had rebuked him for speaking so callously to his wife. “I knew he was right,” said Casper. “I still picked up KFC, but he was right.” When Casper got home, he put the food in the fridge and nuked the soup. He was still hungry after, so he ate the KFC, too. “But I liked it. The chowder. Minus the bell pepper, I liked it.”
Agatha smiled wryly. Her mouth still tasted of pretzel and mustard. She said, “The soup didn’t fill me up, either,” and Casper nodded like her candor had exonerated him. Even so, he apologized for his book club remark. “I know you read,” he said. “Of course, you read.”
“I know you know that.” Agatha wasn’t sorry for hanging up on him, but she didn’t mind saying, “And I could be reading more. Much more.” She’d return Peggy’s text before bed.
“I’m sorry if I made you feel bad about yourself.”
“You didn’t, Cas. It’s just…” His hat-trick of surprises had delighted her. Still, the underlying issue remained. “It might be a while before I find my groove retirement-wise” — she pressed her hands to his chest — “and it would be nice when I try new things to know I have your support.”
Casper blinked at her. Scratched his belly under his robe. Behind him, steam from the now-scalding hot shower fogged up the vanity mirror.
At first, it looked as if he wouldn’t respond. Then he spoke with conviction. “I support you, Ag. I do. From the top of your head” — he kissed her on the crown — “to the soles of your feet, I do. Whether that means focus groups or book clubs, flying kites, wet January — ”
“What did I say?”
“Doesn’t matter.” If Agatha had one of Sumeet’s Jacuzzi timers, she would have spun it to the right in praise of his flub. She kissed his stubbly cheek, thanked him for what he said.
Casper queued up his nightly mouthwash routine. Agatha tossed her jacket into the closet. “This is incredibly wasteful.” She cooled the water down. “We’ll have to take fewer showers.”
Casper, gargling with his eyes cast ceilingward, missed his wife undressing. He spat into the sink. “Fine by me,” he said. “I don’t like to linger.”
“You didn’t hear me, Cas.” Agatha yanked his belt, then peeled off his robe. “Fewer doesn’t have to mean shorter.”
Photo by Ilya Plakhuta on Unsplash