I nodded as if I understood this, although I couldn’t really picture myself leaping out at my mother from behind a door or potted plant, no matter how perfect the opportunity. “I see,” I said.
“Plus,” Wes continued, “there’s just something fun, every once in a while, about getting the shit scared out of you. You know?”
This time I didn’t nod or agree. I could do without scares, planned or unplanned, for awhile. “Must be a guy thing,” I said.
He shrugged, pushing the kitchen door open for me. “Maybe,” he said.
As we walked in, Delia was standing in the center of the room, hands pressed to her chest. Just by the look on her face, I knew something was wrong.
“Wait a second,” she said. “Everyone freeze.”
We did. Even Kristy, who normally ignored most directives, stopped what she was doing, a cheese biscuit dangling in midair over her tray.
“Where,” Delia said slowly, taking a look around the room, “are the hams?”
Silence. Then Kristy said, her voice low, “Uh-oh.”
“Don’t say that!” Delia moved down the counter, hands suddenly flailing as she pulled all of the cardboard boxes we’d lugged in closer to her, peering into each of them. “They have to be here! They have to be! We have a system now!”
And we did. But it was new, only implemented since the night before, when, en route to a cocktail party, it became apparent that no one had packed the glasses. After doubling back and arriving late, Delia had used her current pregnancy insomnia to compile a set of checklists covering everything from appetizers to napkins. We were each given one, for which we were wholly responsible. I was in charge of utensils. If we were lacking tongs, it was all on me.
“This is not happening,” Delia said now, plunging her hands into a small box on the kitchen island hardly big enough for half a ham, let alone the six we were missing. “I remember, they were in the garage, on the side table, all ready to go. I saw them.”
On the other side of the kitchen door, I could hear voices rising: it was getting more crowded, which meant soon they’d be expecting dinner. Our menu was cheese biscuits and goat cheese toasts to start, followed by green bean casserole, rice pilaf, rosemary dill rolls, and ham. It was a special request. Apparently, these were pork people.
“Okay, okay, let’s just calm down,” Delia said, although rustling through the plastic bags full of uncooked rolls with a panicked expression, she seemed like the only one really close to losing it. “Let’s retrace our steps. Who was on what?”
“I was on appetizers, and they’re all here,” Kristy said, as Bert came through the swinging door from the main room, an empty tray in his hand. “Bert. Were you on ham?”
“No. Paper products and serving platters,” he said, holding the one in his hand up as proof. “Why? Are we missing something? ”
“No,” Delia said firmly. “We’re not.”
“Monica was on ice,” Kristy said, continuing the count. “Macy was utensils, and Wes was glasses and champagne. Which means that the ham belonged to—” She stopped abruptly. “Oh. Delia.”
“What?” Delia said, jerking her head out of a box filled with loaves of bread. “No, wait, I don’t think so. I was on—”
We all waited. It was, after all, her system.
“Main course,” she finished.
“Uh-oh,” Bert said.
“Oh God!” Delia slapped a hand to her forehead. “I did have the hams on the side table, and I remember being worried that we might forget them, so while we were packing the van I put them—”
Again, we all waited.
“On the back of my car,” Delia finished, placing her palm square in the middle of her forehead. “Oh, my God,” she whispered, as if the truth, so horrible, might deafen us all, “they’re still at the house. On my car.”
“Uh-oh,” Bert said again. He was right: it was a full thirty minutes away, and these people were expecting their ham in ten.
Delia leaned back against the stove. “This,” she said, “is awful.”
For a minute, no one said anything. It was a silence I’d grown to expect when things like this happened, the few seconds as we accepted, en masse, the crashing realization that we were, in fact, screwed.
Then, as always, Delia pushed on. “Okay,” she said, “here’s what we’re going to do. . . .”
So far, I’d done three jobs with Wish since that first one, including a cocktail, a brunch, and a fiftieth-anniversary party. At each, there was one moment—an old man pinching my butt as I passed with scones; the moment Kristy and I collided and her tray bonked me in the nose, showering salmon and crudités down my shirt; the time when Bert had hit me with another gotcha, jumping out from behind a coat rack and sending the stacks of plates I was carrying, as well as my blood pressure, skyrocketing—when I wondered what in the world I’d been thinking taking this on. At the end of the night, though, when it was all over, I felt something strange, a weird calmness. Almost a peace. It was like those few hours of craziness relaxed something held tight in me, if only for a little while.
Most of all, though, it was fun. Even if I was still learning things, like to duck when Kristy yelled, “Incoming!” meaning she had to get something—a pack of napkins, some tongs, a tray—across a room so quickly that only throwing it would suffice, or never to stand in front of swinging doors, ever, as Bert always pushed them open with too much gusto, without taking into consideration that there might be anything on the other side. I learned that Delia hummed when she was nervous, usually “American Pie,” and that Monica never got nervous at all, was in fact capable of eating shrimp or crab cakes, hardly bothered, when the rest of us were in total panic mode. And I learned that I could always count on Wes for a raised eyebrow, an under-the-breath sarcastic remark, or just a sympathetic look when I found myself in a bind: no matter where I was in the room, or what was happening, I could look over at the bar and feel that someone, at least, was on my side. It was the total opposite of how I felt at the library, or how I felt anywhere else, for that matter. Which was probably why I liked it.
But then, after the job was over and the van packed up to go home, after we’d stood around while Delia got paid, everyone laughing and trading stories about grabbers and gobblers and grandmas, the buzz of rushing around would wear off. As I’d begin to remember that I had to be at the library the next morning, I could feel myself starting to cross back to my real life, bit by bit.