Yesterday afternoon, Brendan and I drove back to Portland. I was supposed to give a reading with Cathi at 7 at Books-A-Million in South Portland. I was going to read from my new paperback, and Cathi was going to read from her “stunning, fearless, dazzling” (says me, her greatest fan and promoter) new novel, Gone (Atria, $24.95; website: http://www.cathihanauer.com).
After I finished at the soup kitchen, Brendan and I went to Whole Foods to lay in supplies for the next few days, armed with a list I got in an email from Cathi. At home, we unpacked an unfamiliar array of food: orange-flavored seltzer, an approximation of Cinnamon Life cereal (Whole Foods naturally carries an organic alternative, not the thing itself), half a gallon of 1% milk, watermelon and berries and “pluots,” a carton of Chunky Monkey ice cream and a box of ice cream sandwiches, caramel popcorn, and a box of penne and a jar of pasta sauce in case Phoebe doesn’t like whatever meal is served at any point.
The Hanauer-Jones family arrived just before 5, laden with backpacks, sleeping bags for the kids, plus a bag of enormous cookies, most of which turned out to be gluten-free, tomatoes from their garden, and the wine we had brought to their house 2 weeks ago and didn’t drink.
I quickly wrote an introduction to Cathi’s and my reading, 5 long, sincerely gushing, earnestly admiring and adoring paragraphs; when Brendan proofread it, he asked me if I were really intending to read it aloud in front of an audience.
“I’ll wing it,” I said. “I promise I’ll try to be funny.”
Cathi and I got gussied up in dresses, brushed our hair, and then we all trooped out to the cars. When we arrived at the huge Maine Mall and found the bookstore, a vast chain affair in a low cinderblock building that sprawls over about 100,000 square feet, Cathi’s father, Lonnie, was waiting for us outside, in a bit of a flap.
“Apparently they think you’re just doing a signing,” he said. “They set up a little table with two chairs. There’s no reading.”
I was instantly relieved: this was great news. So Cathi and I sat together at the little table and signed copies of our books for three extremely famous female writers who’d shown up because one of them, Elinor Lipman, is friends with Cathi. Their lovely husbands had come too; they chatted with Brendan and Dan and Lonnie and Bette, Cathi’s mother, while she and I scrawled our signatures in as many of our books as we could find in the store. Everyone there evidently felt compelled to buy one of each of our books; it turns out that signings are a good idea, and stealth signings are even better.
After Cathi and I had thanked the staff, signed the poster with our book jackets and author photos side by side on it, and posed for photographs standing by the poster, taken by Phoebe, Dan, Brendan, and Bette, Cathi’s mother, in a flurry of paparazzi-like clicks, it was time for dinner. Brendan suggested, for convenience’s sake, a nearby seafood restaurant called the Weathervane. “Ahoy, matey!” we called to each other as we walked into the heavily air-conditioned, fish-smelling place. After a bit of a kerfluffle, they seated the eight of us at a long table in back and handed around menus.
“Can I have a kids’ menu?” Phoebe asked. Although she’s 17 and theoretically capable of eating adult food, and the menu is for kids 10 and under, they gave her one, including the box of crayons. After she ordered “Kraft® mac and cheese” with a side of celery sticks, Nathaniel, whose palate is 14 going on 30, asked for the “wicked cheap” Thursday night special of 2 steamed lobsters, which arrived lurid red, splayed on a platter. He began expertly dismantling them with nutcracker and pick while his older sister tucked happily into her neon-orange noodles.
“The best Kraft mac and cheese is at Friendly’s,” she announced. “They squeeze hot cheese stuff out of a bag onto some instant noodles then let it sit for 20 minutes so you think they made it fresh. It’s the best anywhere.”
Cathi, who had been laughing too hard to order when the waitress was making her rounds, had nonetheless bravely managed to squeak out a request for 5 separate plates of food, including a fried seafood platter “breaded with crushed Ritz™ crackers” and “steamed” asparagus, which had been drenched in butter and melted cheese. To my right, she was working her way through most of it, still laughing, as was I, almost too hard to eat my “lazy man” lobster with drawn butter.
“Why do they call it drawn?” we all wondered. No one had an answer.
After we’d finished eating, Dan performed a dramatic reading of my ardent encomium for Cathi, inserting the word “erotic” into every paragraph and accentuating certain especially over-the-top words and lines.
“But I meant every word,” I said weakly.
“You were going to read that aloud?” her father, Lonnie, wondered.
“Maybe I was going to paraphrase,” I said.
Nathaniel had finished with his platter and was now gnawing on a giant gummi bear the general size, shape and color of a lobster. We could almost see his braces dissolving in all the sugar. It inspired a new round of ordering: more Cabernet for Brendan and me, a hot fudge sundae for Cathi, and ice cream pie for Phoebe.
When we got home, there was an email from Lonnie: “It is always fun spending time with two teenagers — and Nat and Phoebe were there too.”
Bette Hanauer’s 1970s homemade version of Kraft Mac and Cheese, as described by Cathi Hanauer
Melt half a stick of butter and stir in enough flour to make a thin paste. Slowly whisk in 2 cups of whole milk to make a roux and stir until it thickens and scalds. Add mounds of Velveeta or American cheese and stir well, then pour this thick, cheesy sauce over 1 lb. hot cooked macaroni elbows, mix, and serve immediately to your 4 kids, all their friends, and the rest of the neighborhood.