Earleen Williams lived on a street called Garden Park in a brick duplex. The van dropped Emma off and drove away before she had time to thank the driver. He was apparently glad to be rid of her and she was equally thankful to have survived the ride. She’d worry later about getting back to the airfield.
Straightening her shoulders, Emma did a quick mental survey of her questions. She’d reviewed her class notes about interviews and remembered that the most important thing to do was engage Earleen in conversation and establish a rapport. It would be detrimental to the interview if Emma gave even the slightest appearance of nervousness.
Emma so much wanted this to go well. She didn’t have a slant for the story yet and wouldn’t until she’d met Earleen. If she tried to think about what she could possibly write on the subject of fruitcake, it would only traumatize her.
Knowing Oliver was probably pacing the pilots’ lounge, Emma walked onto the porch and pressed the doorbell. She stepped back and waited.
“Oh, hi.” The petite brunette who answered the door couldn’t have been more than five feet tall, if that, and seemed to be around sixty. It was difficult to tell. One thing Emma did conclude—Earleen wasn’t at all what she’d expected. She wore a turquoise blazer and black pleated pants with a large gold belt and rings on every finger. Big rings.
“I am.” She unlatched the screen door and held it open for Emma. “You must be that Seattle reporter who phoned.”
“Emma Collins,” she said and held out her hand. “Actually, I’m from Puyallup, which is outside Seattle.” There was a difference of at least a quarter-million readers between the Seattle Times and The Examiner—maybe more. The Seattle Times hadn’t sent her a circulation report lately.
“Come on inside. I’ve got coffee brewing,” Earleen said, smiling self-consciously. “This is the first time anyone’s ever wanted to interview me.”
They had a lot in common, because this was Emma’s first interview, too, although she wasn’t about to mention that.
Earleen looked past her. “You didn’t bring a photographer with you?”
Actually she had. Emma would be performing both roles. “If it’s all right, I’ll take your picture later.”
“Oh, sure, that’s fine.” Earleen touched the side of her head with her palm as if to be sure every hair was neatly in place, which it was. She smelled wonderful, too. Estée Lauder’s Beautiful, if Emma guessed correctly. Just as well Oscar wasn’t around or he’d be sneezing on her pant leg.
“I thought we’d talk in the kitchen, if you don’t mind,” Earleen said as she led the way. “Most folks like my kitchen best.”
“Wherever you’re most comfortable,” Emma murmured, following the older woman. She gazed around as she walked through the house and noticed a small collection of owl figurines lined up on the fireplace mantel, among the boughs of greenery. The Christmas tree in the corner was enormous, and it had an owl—yes, an owl—on top.
The kitchen was bright and roomy. There was a square table next to a window that overlooked the backyard, where a circular clothesline sat off to one side and a toolshed on the other. A six-foot redwood fence separated her yard from the neighbors’.
“Sit down,” Earleen said and motioned to the table and chairs. “Coffee?”
“None for me, thanks.” After the pill she’d taken earlier, Emma didn’t think she should add caffeine, afraid of the effect on her stomach—and her brain. She took out her reporter’s pad and flipped it open. “When did you first hear the news that your recipe had been chosen as a national finalist?”
Earleen poured herself a mug of coffee and carried it to the table, then pulled out a chair and sat across from Emma. “Three weeks ago. The notification came by mail.”
“Were you surprised?”
“Any reason you weren’t surprised?”
Earleen blushed. “I know I make a good fruitcake. I’ve been baking them for a lot of years now.”
Emma could see this wasn’t going to be as easy as she’d hoped. Earleen wasn’t much of a talker.
“Do you have a secret ingredient?”
“Well, yes. I have two.”
Emma made a notation just so Earleen would recognize that she was paying attention. “Would you be willing to divulge them to our readers?”
Earleen rested her elbows on the table and held the mug with both hands. “I don’t mind telling you, but maybe it’d be better if I showed you.”
Emma frowned slightly when the other woman rose from the table. She dragged out a step stool, placed it in front of the refrigerator and climbed the two steps. Then she stretched until she could reach the cupboard above the fridge and opened it. Standing on the tips of her toes, Earleen brought down a bottle of rum and a bottle of brandy.
“Your secret is…alcohol?”
Earleen climbed off the step stool and nodded. “One of my secrets. I didn’t work all those years at The Drunken Owl for nothing. I serve a mighty fine mincemeat pie, too. That recipe came from my mother, God rest her soul. Mom always started with fresh suet. She got it from Kloster’s Butcher Shop. When I was in high school, I had the biggest crush on Tim Kloster. My friends used to say I had Kloster-phobia.” She giggled nervously.
Emma didn’t think it was a good idea to point out that “phobia” was technically the wrong term. She hesitated, unsure how this interview had gotten away from her so quickly. “About the fruitcake…Did that recipe come from your mother, too?”
“Sort of. Mom was raised during the Great Depression, and her recipe didn’t call for much more than the basics. Over the years I started adding to it, and being from Yakima, I naturally included apples.”
“Apples,” Emma repeated and jotted that down.
“Actually, I cook them until it’s more like applesauce.”
“Of course.” Having lived in Washington for only the last eight months, Emma wasn’t all that familiar with the state. She knew more about the western half because she lived in that area. Most of the eastern side remained a complete mystery.
Come to think of it, as Oliver landed she’d noticed that there seemed to be orchards near the airport. Distracted as she’d been, it was nothing short of astounding that she’d remembered.
“Yakima is known for apples, right?” she ventured.
“Definitely. More than half of all the apples grown in the United States come from orchards in Yakima and Wenatchee.”
Emma made a note. “I didn’t know that.”
“The most popular variety is the Red Delicious. Personally, I prefer Golden Delicious. They’re the kind I use in my fruitcake.”
Emma held her breath. “I hope you’ll agree to share the recipe with The Examiner’s readers.”
Earleen beamed proudly. “It would be my honor.”
“So the liquor and the apples are your two secret ingredients.”
“That’s right,” Earleen said in a solemn voice. “But far more important is using only the freshest of ingredients. It took me several tries to figure that out.”
Emma was tempted to remind her that one of the main ingredients in fruitcake was dried fruit. There wasn’t anything fresh about that. But again she managed to keep her mouth shut.
“How long have you been baking fruitcakes?” Emma asked next.
“Quite a few years. I started in—way back now. You see, I was going through a rough patch at the time.”
“What happened?” Emma hated to pry, but she was a reporter and she had a feeling she’d hit upon the key element of her article.
“Larry and I had just split, and I have to tell you I took it hard.”
“And Larry is?”
Emma couldn’t help observing that Earleen seemed more of a conversationalist when she stood on the other side of the kitchen counter. The closer she got to the table, the briefer her answers were. Emma speculated that was because of Earleen’s many years behind a bar. She’d always heard that bartenders spent a lot of time listening and advising—like paid friends. Or psychiatrists.
“The first time I ever tried Mom’s fruitcake recipe was after Larry moved out.”
“Me, too. Have you ever been married?” Earleen asked.
“No…” The sorry state of her love life was not a subject Emma wanted to discuss.
“Larry and I were high-school sweethearts. He went to fight in Vietnam and when he got back, we had a big wedding. It was the type of wedding girls dream about. Wait here a minute,” she said and bustled out of the kitchen.
In a couple of minutes, she returned with her wedding photograph. A radiantly happy bride smiled into the camera, her white dress fashioned in layers of taffeta and lace. The young soldier at her side was more difficult to read.
“Unfortunately, Larry had a weakness for other women,” Earleen said sadly.
“How long have you been divorced?”
“From Larry? Since 1984.”
“You’ve been married more than once?”
“All my husbands were versions of Larry.”
“I didn’t learn from my mistakes.” Earleen turned away. Then, obviously changing the subject, she said, “I imagine you’ll want to sample my fruitcake.” She slid open the bread box and took out an aluminum-foil-wrapped loaf. “Have you noticed that people either love fruitcake or hate it?” she said companionably. “There doesn’t seem to be any middle ground.”
“That…seems to be true,” Emma agreed.
“Like I said, I started baking after Larry left,” she said, busily peeling away the cheesecloth from the loaf-size fruitcake. “I’d never suffered that kind of pain before. I figured if you’ve ever been divorced you’d know what I mean.”
Emma was confused. “I don’t exactly think of fruitcake as comfort food.”
Earleen shook her head. “I didn’t eat it. I baked it. Loaf after loaf for weeks on end. I was determined to bake the perfect fruitcake and I didn’t care how long it took. I must’ve changed that recipe a hundred times.”
She paused as if she’d never put it into words. “I’m not sure. I guess I was looking for the happiness I always felt as a kid at Christmastime.”
There it was again, Emma mused. Christmas. It did people in emotionally, and she wasn’t going to allow that to happen, not to her. She found it easy enough to ignore Christmas; other people should give it a try. She might even see if Walt would let her write an article about her feelings. Emma believed she wasn’t alone in disliking all the hype that surrounded Christmas.
“When I was with Larry and my two other husbands, I felt there must be something lacking in me,” Earleen continued. “Now I don’t think so anymore. Time will do that, you know?” She glanced at Emma. “As young as you are, you probably don’t have that much perspective.” Earleen paused and drew in a deep breath.