Past episodes Reader's Guide to the Nostrum Universe Nostrum Correspondence Corner
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Have you read this week's epistle from Jules?
One can number among the worst things in the world those things one doesn't want that are too attractive to abandon. It is the sybaritic temptations that strand us at the baser rungs of humanity. We may wish to achieve the glories that transcend time and morality, but instead we overindulge in creature comforts, thus never finding the time to climb to the heights. And it is not just the Everymen among us who fall prey to this evil. Even the most intellectually gifted can succumb to the flesh. Witness the following: The trial of Oscar Wilde occurred mere months after the premiere of The Importance of Being Earnest, Jimi Hendrix hasn't recorded a new album for a long time now, and Bill Clinton will not only be remembered as the President who overindulged in fast food.
Speaking of Oscar Wilde, it is he who is responsible for the epigram, "I can resist anything except temptation."
Braun Saxon is about to learn exactly what he meant.
It is the Sunday evening following the Blessed Moly. Braun Saxon is sitting at Cartier Diamond's dining room table, sipping a Puligny-Montrachet, chilled but not cold, that has been served to accompany a quartet of sea scallops baked in a feathery-light pastry with a sauce hinting equally at anise and ginger, although Braun is certain it contains neither.
"I could learn to like Mrs. Bridges' cooking," he says, slicing the little scallop tart with the edge of his fork.
"She is a good cook," Cartier says. "When she's in the mood."
"She's a great cook," Braun replies. "And if tonight is any indication, the woman is definitely in the mood."
Cartier smiles silkily. "I'm glad you like it."
"You're just used to it," Braun says. "You're spoiled."
She shrugs, and takes a sip of her own wine.
"You've been drinking for a long time?" Braun asks.
"Ever since I was a baby. Daddy always said it was good for growth. French babies drink wine in the womb. That's what makes them French."
Braun has not yet recovered from his experience yesterday at the Blessed Moly. Until then, the actuality of Cartier's age was something of a contradictory footnote that somehow denied the obvious nature of the text. The girl sitting across from him now is a woman; there is nothing about her that isn't a woman. Except for that contradictory footnote.
But Braun is beginning to see that the text can be inverted, and the woman can become the contradictory footnote to the girl. Cartier exists in the world of high school. She is a high school student. She has been on the earth for approximately eighteen years. There are certain states where Braun could be arrested for his relationship with Cartier. For all he knows, New York may be one of them.
But … these are the best scallops he has ever tasted.
"I should hear from Yale soon," Cartier says absently. "I applied for early admission, and I am a legacy, not to mention that Daddy contributes enough every year to send an army there if he wants to."
"Do you have the grades for Yale?" Braun asks.
"Of course I do. I'm not stupid."
"I'm not suggesting that you are. But Yale? That's as good as it gets. Lots of valedictorians, sixteen-hundred board scores, that sort of thing."
"So you think I'll get in, but that I won't do well once I get there."
"I didn't say that. I'm just asking. We never really talk about your school much."
"That's because I don't like talking about my school much. Ninety percent of it is so infantile."
"You must learn something."
"Everything I learn, Braun, I learn outside of the classroom."
"I expect things will be different in college, though."
"What do you want to major in?"
"I don't know. Drama, maybe."
"At Yale. Yes." She shakes her head. "What's wrong with you tonight, Braun? You're acting awfully strange."
"Nothing," he says hastily. Or maybe everything, he is thinking. One of the two.
The door to the kitchen opens, and Mrs. Bridges enters carrying two salad plates. She is a short, round woman with bright white hair and a fast, conspiratorial smile.
"Did you enjoy the tart?" she asks Braun. There is more than a hint of a cockney accent in her voice.
"The best I've ever eaten!"
She nods, accepting her due. "Salad is salad," she says, laying his plate before him. "Although I do have a very good source for a very special olive oil. But you'll see for yourself. Right, Miss Cartier?"
"Your salad is a miracle, Mrs. Bridges," Cartier says, sounding as if she's said it many times before.
"What's the main course?" Braun asks.
"Lamb," the cook says.
"How do you prepare it?"
She raises a hand. "All in good time." She takes the first course dishes, and disappears back into the kitchen.
"Do you eat like this every night?" Braun asks.
"When Daddy's home, yes."
"When is he coming home, by the way?" Braun has been living at Cartier's house, temporarily abandoning his digs at the Cozy Cot motel.
Tomorrow. That tears it, Braun thinks. That makes tonight perfect for breaking up with Cartier.
He bites into the salad. "Oh my God…"
"You like it?" Cartier asks.
"It's the best salad I've ever had in my life."
"That's because of Mrs. Bridges' special oil. We get little cases of it delivered from Tuscany." She holds up her hands, indicating a package the size of a six-pack of soda. "About this big. We go through them in a couple of months. I think the olives are harvested by eunuchs or something."
"Or maybe it's virgins. Virgin olive oil, eunuch olive oil. It's all the same."
Braun smiles. If he breaks up with Cartier tonight, he will never eat like this again.
The kitchen door opens once more, and Mrs. Bridges reappears with a new bottle of wine.
"I opened this two hours ago, so it should be all right now." She takes two large burgundy glasses from the sideboard and places them in front of Braun. She pours a small splash of the red wine into one of the glasses. "Try it," she says to him.
He lifts the glass, and the smell roars into his nose like a wild beast. When the first drops reach his tongue they are remarkably smooth, but after he has swallowed the flavor explodes in his mouth, like the delayed reaction of seeing someone shoot a gun in the distance, and hearing the sound a moment later.
"It's a special bottling Daddy buys," Cartier says. "You'd never know it's Californian. They only make about five cases a year. Daddy tries to buy them all."
"You like it?" Mrs. Bridges asks.
Braun is speechless. "I am in heaven," he finally manages to say.
"Just where you should be at dinnertime," Mrs. Bridges says. She holds up the Puligny-Montrachet bottle. "Want to finish this off first?" she asks. There's about an inch left in the bottom.
Braun shakes his head.
"I'll take it away then, Love." She pours out the red wine into the burgundy glasses, then she disappears again, with the white wine bottle and glasses and the empty salad plates.
Braun takes another sip of the red wine. The pleasure is unspeakable.
"You look like you're in ecstasy," Cartier says, raising her own glass. "We'll have to have you for dinner more often."
He is going to break up with her tonight? And she's offering more meals like this in the future? With Mrs. Bridges' cooking and Daddy's wines?
The door to the kitchen opens yet again. This time Mrs. Bridges is carrying dinner plates. She puts one in front of Braun, then the other in front of Cartier.
"Roasted lamb, marinated in lemon and some of that wonderful olive oil and some spices but I won't tell you which ones," the woman recites. "The potatoes are mashed with a few, oh, secret ingredients. The carrots are plain, because everything else isn't, and I want to make sure you eat your vegetables." She winks at Cartier. "He looks like a boy who eats his vegetables."
Boy? But Braun is a man. How old does Mrs. Bridges think he is? What kind of masquerade is this?
But the woman is gone again into the kitchen. And Braun begins to eat.
Lamb that melts on his tongue like butter.
Mashed potatoes that seduce with shades of earth and garden that shatter the boundaries of the imagination.
Wine that tastes better after you drink it, like a golden memory savored over time.
And plain carrots.
Cartier jumps up from her place. Braun is taken by complete surprise. Daddy? Daddy? Good grief, it's Daddy!
Braun scrambles to his feet. Cartier is hugging a man of about fifty, tall and tan with thick bushy gray hair and a general air of athletic good health and animal strength.
"Daddy, I want you to meet Braun Saxon."
"Braun." Daddy extends a strong hand, taking Braun's and shaking it firmly. "Good to meet you."
"You weren't supposed to be home until tomorrow, Daddy."
"We were done, so why stay? There was a flight, so we took it."
A look of disdain comes over Cartier's face. "And this is Margaret," she says with clear distaste.
A woman has walked into the room, and Braun's heart has stopped.
"Margaret, Braun. Braun, Margaret."
First the food, then the wine, now this. She is the most beautiful woman Braun has ever seen in his life, and she is now gently holding his hand in hers. She is blonde, like Cartier, but blonder. Her eyes are blazing voilet, like Cartier's, but bluer. She is about Braun's age.
"Nice to meet you, Braun," she says. Her voice is honey, like Cartier's, only honeyer.
"Yes," Braun says, at the height of his communicative powers.
"Well, don't let us disturb your dinner," Daddy says. "We wouldn't want to waste any of Mrs. Bridges cooking." He looks at the wine bottle. "Or any of that nice little cabernet franc Francis sends me." He puts his arm on Margaret's shoulder. "We'll talk to you later, Cartier. Good night, Braun."
Braun nods. "Sir." He looks at Margaret. She is smiling at him. "Margaret." He can barely say the word.
And then they are gone.
"Let's eat," Cartier says.
They return to the table, and Braun takes another sip of the wine. The wine Francis sends to Daddy. He looks over at Cartier.
Braun was going to do something tonight. He had come to some sort of decision.
For the life of him, he can't remember what it was.
Will Braun ever break up with Cartier?
Is there something weird about Daddy that we ought to know about?
Are they referring to that Francis?
Do Icelanders really all believe in the little folk?
Is there going to be a natural disaster every debate weekend this year?
All this and moorings in our upcoming nautical episode: "Who put the beans in the sailors' hardtack, or, sit down you're rockin' the boat."
Go to the next episode due Sept 29, 1999.