Vinegar Girl

By: Anne Tyler

Kate Battista was gardening out back when she heard the telephone ring in the kitchen. She straightened up and listened. Her sister was in the house, although she might not be awake yet. But then there was another ring, and two more after that, and when she finally heard her sister’s voice it was only the announcement on the answering machine. “Hi-yee! It’s us? We’re not home, looks like? So leave a—”

By that time Kate was striding toward the back steps, tossing her hair off her shoulders with an exasperated “Tcch!” She wiped her hands on her jeans and yanked the screen door open. “Kate,” her father was saying, “pick up.”

She lifted the receiver. “What,” she said.

“I forgot my lunch.”

Her eyes went to the counter beside the fridge where, sure enough, his lunch sat precisely where she had set it the night before. She always used those clear plastic bags that supermarket produce came in, and the contents were plainly visible: a Tupperware sandwich box and an apple. “Huh,” she said.

“Can you bring it?”

“Bring it now?”

“Right.”

“Jesus, Father. I’m not the Pony Express,” she said.

“What else have you got to do?” he asked her.

“It’s Sunday! I’m weeding the hellebores.”

“Ah, Kate, don’t be like that. Just hop in the car and zip over; there’s a good girl.”

“Sheesh,” she said, and she slammed the receiver down and took the lunch bag from the counter.

There were several strange things about this conversation. The first was that it had happened at all; her father distrusted the telephone. In fact, his lab didn’t even have a telephone, so he must have called on his cell phone. And that was unusual too, because his only reason for owning a cell phone was that his daughters had insisted. He had gone into a brief flurry of app purchases when he first acquired it—scientific calculators of various types, for the most part—and after that had lost all interest, and avoided it now altogether.

Then there was the fact that he forgot his lunch about twice a week, but had never before seemed to notice. The man did not eat, basically. Kate would get home from work and find his lunch still sitting on the counter, and yet even so she would have to shout for him three or four times that evening before he would come to dinner. Always he had something better to do, some journal to read or notes to go over. He would probably starve to death if he were living alone.

And supposing he did feel a bit peckish, he could have just stepped out and bought something. His lab was near the Johns Hopkins campus, and there were sandwich shops and convenience stores everywhere you looked.

Not to mention that it wasn’t even noon yet.

But the day was sunny and breezy, if cool—the first semi-decent weather after a long, hard, bitter winter—and she didn’t actually mind an excuse to get out in the world. She wouldn’t take the car, though; she would walk. Let him wait. (He himself never took the car, unless he had some sort of equipment to ferry. He was something of a health fiend.)

She stepped out the front door, shutting it extra hard behind her because it irked her that Bunny was sleeping so late. The ground cover along the front walk had a twiggy, littered look, and she made a mental note to spruce it up after she finished with the hellebores.

Swinging the lunch bag by its twist-tied neck, she passed the Mintzes’ house and the Gordons’ house—stately brick center-hall Colonials like the Battistas’ own, although better maintained—and turned the corner. Mrs. Gordon was kneeling among her azalea bushes, spreading mulch around their roots. “Why, hello there, Kate!” she sang out.

“Hi.”

“Looks like spring might be thinking of coming!”

“Yup.”

Kate strode on without slowing, her buckskin jacket flying out behind her. A pair of young women—most likely Hopkins students—drifted at a snail’s pace ahead of her. “I could tell he wanted to ask me,” one was saying, “because he kept clearing his throat in that way they do, you know? But then not speaking.”

“I love when they’re so shy,” the other one said.

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