From the Turgid and Tempestuous Chronicles of the Castle at Wildcat Cove:
On a stormy Friday evening in April, in the year of our Lord 2011, Evangeline Conklin (sometime found-object artist and all-time best friend of Peter Fontaine) approached the cliffside residence that Fontaine shared with artist Nick Olson.
Evangeline’s long curling hair, plaited with dozens of ribbons of astonishing variety, now hung bedraggled by rain and wind and dripped water on the entry mat as she exclaimed, “Thank God you’re home. I really need a favor!”
Ever willing to sacrifice for his BFF, Fontaine stepped up immediately with a cry of “How can I help?” only to be rebuffed by Evangeline’s reply.
“Actually, I was hoping for Nick.”
To which Nick, chivalrous to a fault, replied, “It depends on what you want.”
* * * *
Witnessing Nick’s pragmatism in the face of a distressed damsel deflated Peter’s gothic reimagining of the situation. Which was just as well because Evangeline was serious in her anxiety.
Over ten minutes of solid monologue, Evangeline’s tale of woe unfolded. Stymied by the art world’s insistent criticism and overall failure to buy any of her pieces, she had turned to food preparation as a means of personal financial survival. With her boyfriend, Tommy, she had won a coveted food table at the farmer’s market. They sold gourmet gyoza
with fillings both traditional and experimental, three for three dollars. They called their business venture Go-Go-Gyoza.
Their first two weekends had gone well. Despite the spring chill, they’d made more than a thousand dollars on their first day.
Earth Day, April 23, with its large, well-attended events, promised to the stalwart but skint artist a much-needed infusion of funds. But a problem had arisen.
“Tommy is supposed to play Spunky the Squirrel this year,” Evangeline wailed, as though this information should entirely explain her situation.
“Spunky the what?” Peter interjected.
“The mascot! The Farmer’s Market Association owns this squirrel suit that they drag out for special occasions. This year Spunky is going to be kidnapped by thugs--my cashier Shawn actually--dressed in T-shirts that say Big Corporate Agriculture, and we’re going to ransom him back. The money goes to the Whatcom Emergency Farm Fund. So I don’t have anybody to work the stall with me tomorrow.” Tears clouded her big brown eyes. “Please Nick, will you help me fold gyoza tomorrow?”
Nick sighed and crossed his arms over his big, Viking-descended chest. But before he could answer Peter interposed himself between Evangeline and Nick.
“Why are you asking him?” Peter demanded. “I actually have restaurant experience. I used to be a barista.”
“Everybody in this town used to be a barista. And you got fired after two weeks for sassing the customers.” Evangeline wrung additional water from her colorful tresses. The scent of damp patchouli wafted off her.
“They sassed me first,” Peter protested. “I only sassed in self-defense. You believe me, don’t you, Nick?”
A smile tugged at the corner of Nick’s mouth as he said, “Let’s just say I believe you have a gift for all sass, defensive and offensive, and leave it at that.”
“But that’s no reason I can’t help with the gyozas,” Peter said. His best friend’s apparent lack of need of him had wounded his sense of pride enough that suddenly he relished the idea of deep-frying sweet and savory food items in the rain.
“No, you can’t help with the gyoza because you’ve got stupid forceful typist fingers,” Evangeline said. “I need someone with nimble gentle artist fingers.” She eyed Nick hopefully.
“Even if I helped you, wouldn’t you still be down a person?” Nick inquired.
“We’d still need someone to run the cash register, yeah.” Evangeline’s eyes drifted back, uncertainly, to Peter.
“What, suddenly my fingers are too stupid to punch keys on a register?” Peter cried, inflamed by the injustice.
Evangeline cringed, “But you’re so...”
“Sassy?” Nick supplied. Evangeline nodded. Nick continued, “That was a long time ago. I’m sure Peter can behave himself for one day.”
And Peter had sworn on his heart to be the best representative of esoterically flavored gyoza on Earth.
Now that he was standing in a parking lot in the rain on a Saturday morning entertaining himself by mentally penning purple prose, Peter sincerely wondered why he’d thought he’d find working at the farmer’s market fun.
“I have some questions about your spinach gyoza.”
The voice of the woman in the acid-green Patagonia rain shell jerked Peter from his musings. He smiled, stuck his hands farther into his pockets and said, “Sure, what would you like to know?”
“Are they organic? I mean are all
the ingredients organic?”
Evangeline had warned him about the ritual interrogations that would occur if he decided to help her. He just hadn’t truly believed that anyone who was neither a farmer nor a chef--and this woman was plainly neither--could care about the minutiae of food before ten thirty a.m.
“Every ingredient is organic.” Peter spoke confidently. Evangeline had informed him of the specific origin of every ingredient during his briefing the previous night. “And the spinach is local. It comes from that stall right over there. Green Goddess Farm.”
“I don’t know them.” A shadow of uncertainty flickered over the customer’s face. Apparently, not knowing the farmer who grew the food was some sort of deal breaker.
Why this lady thought she would or even should personally know all farmers in greater Whatcom County, Peter had no idea. But he’d been prepped for this eventuality as well.
“Green Goddess is a women-centered farming collective. They lease land out in Everson. A portion of their proceeds goes to the women and children’s shelter here in town.”
“I see.” The customer--or potential customer, Peter amended, realizing that he still hadn’t managed to sell her a three-dollar dumpling plate and was therefore failing in his role as front man and puller--nodded. Her gaze wandered the chalkboard menu.
“The spinach gyoza are also vegan and come with a gluten-free dipping sauce,” Peter said. “They’re my favorite.”
“I think I’ll try your banana-Nutella dessert gyoza with caramel sauce,” she said sweetly.
“Do you want those steamed or deep-fried?”
“Oh, deep-fried please,” the customer answered with audible excitement. “Three dollars, right?” She handed over three wooden discs--farmer’s market scrip--and dropped a fourth disc into the tip jar. It plunked down insubstantially.
First transaction completed, Peter looked over his shoulder and said, “One dessert.”
“One dessert,” Evangeline echoed.
Evangeline dropped the gyoza into the tiny, propane deep-fryer. Beside Evangeline Nick, upon whom the job of stuffing and intricately folding the dumplings fell, continued his painstaking work.
Nick seemed to be right in his element. Many local artists and craftspeople had stalls at the market during the summer so it was, in a way, like an open-air version of Nick’s former studio space, the Vitamilk Building. The Spinnin’ Wimmin were there, across the corridor, selling yarn and demonstrating the lost art of spinning clumps of colored wool into thread. Luna sat at the wheel working the treadle like a hot, hipster Cinderella, attracting an odd crowd of onlookers comprised equally of curious grandmothers and young male gawkers.
Next to the Spinnin’ Wimmin’, Roger Hager sold ceramics. Roger was an original hippie from Berkeley who had migrated slowly north as California had succumbed to commercialism and sprawl. Nick adored Roger’s style of glazing so much that he’d commissioned an entire twelve-piece dining set from the man. Peter ate off them every day and liked them, but would have been hard-pressed to explain what Nick found so special about them.
According to Evangeline, Roger spent a great deal of his time away from his stall, not wanting to tacitly pressure his customers by actually being present while they browsed. Roger had ambled over early and spent most of the morning hanging around in front of their table, chatting with Nick and nursing a mug of tea the size of a beer stein.
Beyond Roger’s stall a skinny, pinched woman simply called Beekeeper Jackie sold local honey, honeycomb, and blocks of beeswax.
A couple of minutes later, Evangeline handed up a paper boat of crispy confections drizzled with caramel and doused with powdered sugar, which Peter passed along to the customer with a cheerful, “Happy Earth Day.”
“Happy Earth Day to you too.”
Peter’s first customer left, completely unscathed by any sort of sassing.
He turned back to Evangeline beaming with triumph.
Evangeline said, “I told you the candy sells. Didn’t I say that Nick?”
Without looking up, Nick nodded. His pale blue eyes remained fixed on the circle of dough that he so expertly manipulated into a beautiful bite-sized purse of deliciousness. How Nick could craft such tiny origami-like structures with such big hands mystified Peter. His own efforts, made with skinnier fingers, had yielded nothing but ugly wads of sticky dough unfit for human consumption.
Peter turned away, vexed. And, as was his habit when faced with boredom or vexation or any combination of the two, returned to the calming production of internal prose.
* * * *
A steady drizzle of rain slithers down from the bone-colored sky. Chill winds blow off the cold celadon waters of Bellingham Bay, rush up Cornwall Street, pause briefly to take a right at Chestnut and then gaily bluster through the miserable vendors assembled at the Bellingham farmer’s market.
Farmers, crafters and food vendors hunch against the cruel breeze. They stamp against the numbing cold radiating up from the parking lot pavement. The wind laughs, whips through the tables, blowing up their vinyl tablecloths and toppling carefully balanced sandwich boards.
The vendors moan, jam their hands into their pockets and curse the weather.
And then some jerk starts to play a hurdy-gurdy.
* * * *
Peter fixed the busker with a scowl, hoping to shatter his instrument with the sheer force of his scorn, but it didn’t work.
Go-Go-Gyoza sat dead in the center of the food vendors’ row. To their left, three soft-voiced and exceptionally healthy looking women sold soup and highly elaborate salads with catchy and ironic names such as “Honky in the Andes” and “Red, White, Black, and Blue.” On their right was a smoothie stand, which Peter found annoying for a variety of reasons. First, he disliked smoothies. Second, the proprietor had rigged up his blenders to be powered by stationary bicycles that the customers pedaled themselves. It was gimmicky, borderline pretentious, and loud, but Peter had to admit that the customers loved it.
Between the corridors of stalls and tables, buskers--organized by market administration because of a vicious pitch war that had erupted several years prior--sang, juggled, played instruments, and performed sleight-of-hand magic at thirty-foot intervals.
Hence the man playing the hurdy-gurdy six feet in front of him. The dreary drone of it matched the depressing weather too well.
Peter sidled back to his companions, whispering, “I’m not sure I can take listening to that all day.”
“Don’t worry. The buskers rotate through the pitches. At eleven we’ll have somebody else.” Evangeline kept folding her little rounds of dough.
“Neither he nor his hurdy-gurdy will survive if he’s still here after eleven.” Peter cracked his knuckles in the manner of Bruce Lee.
That won a smile from both Evangeline and Roger, who was still avoiding his own stall by loitering at theirs.
“At least you don’t have a hangover,” she said. “Speaking of hangovers, what’s wrong with Jackie?”
Roger glanced across the aisle to his neighbor’s table and shook his head. “One of her colonies collapsed. Then her dog finally died. I don’t think she’s having the best week.”
As far as Peter could tell, the other one hundred and forty-six vendors at the market were all, in some way, not having the best week. Something about agriculture seemed to reward pessimism, and it showed on the faces of the farmers.
Fearsome minutes packed full of hurdy-gurdy tunes ticked by. Then the rain thinned to a drizzle before finally subsiding. Peter sold three orders of spinach gyoza. Roger returned briefly to his own stall to get a stool that he situated near Nick. They chatted about the local ceramics scene. The sun broke through the blanket of clouds just as the hurdy-gurdy man packed up his instrument and moved down to the next pitch. He was replaced by a man who immediately launched into an a cappella version of “Amazing Grace.” Over at the Spinnin’ Wimmin stall Luna stopped her treadle and snipped the thread. Peter turned his attention back to the busker belting out his hymn.
“I’m not sure this is better,” Peter remarked.
Nick smirked. “I dare you to ask him if he knows ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow.’”
“I was thinking more of ‘Mack the Knife,’” Peter said. Roger began to chuckle, then to laugh, and then to cough, as seemed to happen to so many older guys. Acid reflux, that’s what Peter’s dad always told him. He glanced away, not wanting to embarrass Roger by calling attention to it.
But Roger kept coughing. He doubled over, hands on his knees, face reddening.
Evangeline abandoned her work and went to him. “Are you okay?”
Roger shook his head, seemingly unable to catch his breath.
Nick shouldered his way past Peter. “Roger? Can you breathe?”
Roger nodded his head, then suddenly vomited at Nick’s feet. Peter heard a loud exclamation of, “My word!” from one of the fit women next door. Beekeeper Jackie rushed across the aisle, holding onto her sunhat to keep it from blowing away. “Is he all right?”
“Call an ambulance!” Nick commanded.
“I’m already on it.” Peter pressed his phone to his ear. As he talked to the dispatcher, a crowd gathered around Roger. Farmer’s market security forced their way through only to be repelled by Nick, who had plainly decided the situation was his to control. At last, uniformed EMTs arrived. Nick relinquished Roger’s shuddering form to them.
The drama complete, the crowd began to disperse. Custodians arrived with a mop bucket and in minutes erased the evidence of Roger’s illness. Invigorated by sunshine, people poured into the market so that soon the wide avenues between stalls were thick with people.
Nick washed his hands and then stood regarding Roger’s now unattended pottery stall.
“Should one of us go over there?” Peter asked. He had no idea what the etiquette was in a situation like this.
“It looks like someone from market administration is taking care of it,” Evangeline said.
Then a guy who’d plainly just arrived at the market ordered gyoza. He ordered it as though nothing had just happened, which from his perspective was accurate.
For a moment, Peter didn’t know what to do. They’d just seen an old guy of their acquaintance collapse. He could be dead for all they knew. The reporter in him wanted to chase after that ambulance and find out the rest of the story. But that wasn’t what he was supposed to be doing today.
Nick had already resumed his position at the Go-Go-Gyoza prep table with a concerned dedication that no mere snack merited. But that’s what Nick was like--reliably calm and diligent. He kept high standards, always. It’s why Evangeline had wanted him in the first place. Well, two can have high standards, Peter thought.
Oblivious to both Peter’s internal monologue and recent events, the customer said, “Beautiful weather for Earth Day, isn’t it?”
Peter put on his brightest smile and said, “It sure is.”
By the time Spunky the Squirrel got kidnapped two hours later, Roger Hager was far from Peter’s mind.