Angel Falling Softly

Chapter 13

A lonely person is at home everywhere

Rachel drained the marinade from the chicken breasts. The doorbell rang. “Laura!” she called out. “See who it is!”

A minute later her daughter walked into the kitchen with a curious look on her face. “There’s this lady at the door.”

“What? Oh, that must be Milada. Invite her in.” She shooed her daughter out of the kitchen with dripping hands.

She heard the front door close, footsteps in the hall, Milada saying, “So this is your family then?”

Milada must have noticed the genealogy of photographs on the wall.

“Yeah,” said Laura, with no great enthusiasm. “That’s Grandpa and Grandma, my mom’s parents. When we were in Maine last year. Mom and Dad. Me and Jennifer. She’s seven years younger than me.”

“And the dragon?”

Rachel smiled to herself. Nobody could miss the bright purple reptile crouched over the picture frame. “Barney Junior,” they called him.

“Oh, yeah. Jen’s in the hospital. It’s one of her guardian angels.”

“Her guardian angel? I hope she gets better. And what is your name?”

“I’m Laura.”

“I’m pleased to meet you, Laura. My name is Milada.”

Laura said, “That’s a weird name.”

Her mother winced. Milada answered pleasantly, “It’s Czech.”

“Is that where you’re from?”

“I’m from Romania, but a long time ago.”

They entered the kitchen. Rachel said, “Hello, Milada. I see you’ve met Laura. Sorry I couldn’t come to the door, but my hands are full.”

Milada was holding a broad-brimmed fedora reminiscent of Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca. She was wearing a gray jacket over a blouse and matching slacks. Sensible shoes, gloves, sunglasses. A parasol was tucked under her right arm.

She needed some place to put them.

“You can leave your things on the piano in the living room. Laura—”

Laura showed Milada to the living room. When they returned, Milada had removed her sunglasses and tucked them into the pocket of her jacket. Her high cheekbones gave her face a catlike appearance. Her eyes were the clear color of rain. Her shimmering white hair, cut short and brushed even with her ears, was white down to the roots, as were her eyebrows. The conclusion struck Rachel forcibly: she’s practically albino. Hence her concern about the light, the direction of the yard. The previous evening on the shaded porch of her house, it hadn’t been that obvious.

“Anything I can do to help?” Milada asked.

Rachel was afraid she’d been caught staring. “Why don’t you get that other plate of chicken.” She pointed with her elbow at a glass pan next to the stove. As Milada picked up the pan, Rachel was seized with a vision of marinated chicken spilling down her suit, which she didn’t think came off the rack at Dillard’s.

“Laura, get the back door.” She said to Milada, “Careful, it’s a step down.”

The bishop was holding court with Brent Millington and Tom Forbush at the GrillMaster 550. His apron was illustrated with a silkscreen of a Deer Crossing road sign bent across the hood of a pickup, with the words The buck stops here stenciled underneath. A Christmas present from Carl.

“Ah, the main course,” said David. He was cooking hot dogs for the Millington kids, who were already running low on blood sugar. He picked up the tongs and announced, “All right, who wants one?” A boy and a girl ran over. David plopped a hot dog into a bun for each of them.

Brent Millington said to the boy, “Go ask your brother if he wants a hot dog.”

The kid ran off, chewing the end of the bun. A few seconds later, a pudgy, round-headed kid came shambling over. The whole Millington family was large. Big boned, with big appetites to match. Rachel could not begin to contemplate the Millingtons’ grocery budget.

“Here you go, Andy,” said David, serving up another hot dog.

Rachel and Milada placed the chicken on the table next to the barbecue. David began laying the meat on the grill. “David,” said his wife, “why don’t you introduce our guest?”

“Yes, of course.” He rapped the tongs on the edge of the grill so as not to fling marinade at his audience. “Tom, Brent, this is Milada Daranyi. Milada, this is President Forbush.” He indicated the man on his right, a graying executive type in his late fifties. “And this,” he said, putting his hand on the shoulder of the ox-sized man to his left, “is Brent Millington. And his four kids.” He gestured at the yard.

“President,” she said to President Forbush. She shook his hand.

“Call me Tom.”

David said, “Tom’s the president of our stake.” He explained, “A Mormon stake is akin to a Catholic diocese.”

“Also a lay position?”

President Forbush nodded. “I work for FranklinCovey.”

“And Brent here’s a produce manager at Smith’s.”

Milada shook his hand as well. It enveloped her own.

“What brings you to Utah, Milada?”

“I represent Daranyi Capital Management. We are considering some investments in the area.”

“Daranyi . . . ” President Forbush thought about it for a moment. “That wouldn’t be a division of Daranyi Enterprises, would it? Covey did some work for DEI a few years back. Training and orientation for the Blackhaven buyout.”

Milada remembered as well. “Small world.”

Rachel broke in. “Enough shop talk. I’d like to introduce Milada to your better halves.”

That was when Troy Ellis arrived. Rachel had to stop and remind herself that she had invited the elders quorum president the week before. Reluctantly.

“He’s going to think we don’t like him,” the bishop pointed out.

I don’t, his wife thought. She wasn’t sure why. He struck all the wrong chords with her. He was too—something. Too Mormon. Like Hugh Nibley’s quip about people who thought it was better to get up at six A.M. to write a bad book than at nine to write a good one. That’s how Troy struck her: the first one up in the morning with nothing to say.

“Because people like Troy need a calling,” David had explained. “Busy hands, and all that. Besides, he’s good at it. Zeal is preferred to knowledge in some cases. There’s a lot to be said for just getting a thing done on time. He turns in the best home teaching stats we’ve ever had.”

Rachel was glad she wasn’t a home teacher.

She managed to make it to the picnic table with Milada and say hello to Doris Forbush and Charlene Millington before Troy strode up and introduced himself. He couldn’t have helped but notice Milada. Even in the shadowed backyard, she looked like she was standing center stage under a spotlight.

“Hi. I’m Troy Ellis.”

“Milada Daranyi.”

“You new in the ward?”

Milada gave him a bemused look. Rachel said, “She’s renting the Lindstroms’ place.”

“That’s right! Are you moved in okay? That’s great. What brings you to Salt Lake, Milada?”

She didn’t have to answer. The bishop called out, “Troy! Priesthood powwow.”

Troy’s shoulders slumped. “Sorry, I’m being paged. Hey, don’t you go anywhere.” He ambled over to the barbecue pit.

Briefly, across the patio, David caught his wife’s eye and winked. Rachel was sure Milada saw it too. She found herself blushing with chagrin at the obviousness of the maneuver. The four women resumed setting the table. Plastic knife, spoon, and fork, paper plate, paper napkin, paper cup.

Doris said, in as offhand a manner as she could muster, “Forgive me for asking, Milada, but I’m intrigued by your name. It certainly isn’t common around these parts.”

Rachel winced again. She didn’t think uncommon things in New York City provoked such a constant need to be commented on. She said by way of apology, “Doris is the ward genealogy specialist.”

Unperturbed, Milada replied, “I was named after the daughter of a gentleman by the name of Boleslaw the Cruel, a pagan who murdered his Christian brother on the steps of the cathedral.” She went on setting places as she talked. “No little irony that Boleslaw’s son went on to establish the Bishopric of Prague. His daughter became abbess of the Benedictine order of Saint George.” Milada paused. Then she said impassively, as if reciting a lesson learned long ago at her mother’s knee, “And thus do the children atone for the sins of the father.”

Doris obviously hadn’t expected this level of detail. “Well,” she said, “that’s certainly an interesting story! Your parents must have been quite the historians.”

Milada smiled a small, knowing smile. “No, but in their time it was like it had happened only yesterday.”

There certainly wasn’t much more they could add to the subject. Charlene asked Rachel, “So—are you going to teach school this year?”

Milada said, “You teach school?”

“Substitute teach. But not this year.” Not while her daughter was in the hospital, she meant. She called out, “How are things looking over there, guys?”

“Almost done.” David waved.

She said to Milada, “Why don’t you help me get the rest of the food?”

In the house, Laura was sitting on the couch in the family room reading a paperback. Her mother said, “Laura, put down your book. We’re ready to eat. You can take out the punch.”

Laura responded with a groan, but she set aside the book and slouched up the steps to the kitchen. Her mother opened the refrigerator and took out two pitchers of pink lemonade and set them on the counter. She handed one to Laura. “Here you go. Don’t spill it.”

Laura sighed. “I won’t spill it, Mom.”

Rachel glanced at Milada and was relieved to see that she was amused by her daughter’s angst-ridden attitude. After Laura left the kitchen, Milada said, “I have the feeling you wish to keep some distance between Troy and myself.”

“I’m just afraid he’ll try to convert you before the night is through. He can be awfully persistent.”

Milada smiled. “That’s about the least of my worries when it comes to men. Usually all they’re interested in is my phone number.”

“He might want that too.” Rachel handed Milada a green Tupperware bowl, Charlene’s tossed salad. She got the potato salad, tucked it against her hip, and grabbed a bag of potato chips off the top of the fridge.

David rationed out the first round of chicken and threw on a few more hot dogs for the kids. Sister Millington herded her flock to the picnic table. Laura was curled up in one of the deck chairs, reading her book. Her father said, “I guess we’re ready to begin. Laura, put down your book. President,” he said to President Forbush, “could you offer a blessing on the food?”

“Certainly,” said President Forbush. He folded his arms and bowed his head and blessed the food to their health and strength. Rachel silently added: We ask thee to keep the cholesterol from clogging our veins. We ask thee to keep the cellulite from collecting on our thighs. Lastly, he asked a blessing on Jennifer.

These days, if David asked somebody else to pray she could count on the person throwing in a heavenly petition on Jennifer’s behalf. Spiritual pandering, perhaps, but Rachel had long ago determined not to be above it.

They chorused an Amen and sat down and commenced to eat.

Troy positioned himself across from Milada. As he casually deboned a chicken breast, he asked, “So, Milada, what do you know about the Mormon church?”

“Very little, I’m afraid.”

“Well,” he said, “if you want to find out more, this is the place.”

Milada clearly didn’t get the pun.

“You know, Darin Pelton—he lives right around the corner—he’s the ward mission leader. We could round up a couple of the full-time missionaries. You got a free night this week, say Wednesday or Thursday?”

Milada surely had no idea what he was talking about.

“A new sister missionary got transferred into the ward last week. She’s from Finland. Amazing, don’t you think?”

Milada didn’t reply. Instead she did something that Rachel hadn’t expected at all. Troy’s left hand was resting on the table next to his plate. Milada reached over and lightly touched his hand with the tips of her fingers. “We shall talk about something else now. Sports, perhaps?”

Her voice was so low and direct that Rachel wouldn’t have caught it if she hadn’t been paying close attention. It wasn’t a suggestion. Troy didn’t mull it over. He stopped mid sentence—mid thought, even. He said to Brent Millington, “Hey, Brent, what do you think about the Y’s chances this year?

Rachel said to Milada, hoping to help push the conversation onto that track, “Brent was an offensive lineman at BYU.”

“Second string,” responded Brent. “Warmed a lot of bench.”

Milada politely acknowledged the honesty in the qualification and turned to Laura, perched on the end of the picnic table bench. Laura was eating a hot dog with one hand, holding the book with the other. Rachel was about to tell Laura to put the book down, but a passion for reading was something a parent shouldn’t mess with. After all, Laura dutifully read her Bible and Book of Mormon. That her taste in literature had grown more gothic over the past year should have surprised no one.

Milada asked, “What are you reading, Laura?”

“It’s this book by Annette Curtis Klause.” Laura showed her the cover. “It’s about a guy who’s a vampire. But he’s a good vampire, like Angel on Buffy. Except he has a little brother who got turned into a vampire when he was little and never grew up. So he’s evil.”

“It is nice to know that there are good vampires around,” Milada said. “Bram Stoker gave us Carpathians such a bad reputation. And they do grow up. It only takes forever and a day.”

When Laura was sure she wasn’t being made fun of, she grinned.

Rachel felt the tension oozing out of her neck and back. The chicken was edible—David was demonstrating some real skill at the barbecue. With Troy distracted and her daughter’s attitude on hold, things couldn’t have turned out much better than this. She excused herself and went into the house to get boxes of Popsicles and ice cream bars out of the freezer. Outside she distributed them to the Millingtons, making sure Andy didn’t get anything with milk or soy in it. She sat down and listened as her daughter and Milada talked.

“I was born in Romania,” Milada was saying, “but I grew up in a little town in Hungary called Szeged, on the Tisza River. It’s grown to the size of Salt Lake City by now, or so I am told. I haven’t been back in centuries.”

“You sound like you have a British accent,” Laura said.

“We resided in London for many years. I live in New York now. I’m what New Yorkers sound like when they’re trying to rise above their immigrant roots.”

“New York City, you mean? Wow, what’s New York like?”

It’s a helluva town,” she said, half-singing the Leonard Bernstein melody from the Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra musical.

Laura asked, “Is there really a Transylvania? Isn’t it in Hungary?”

“Hungary and Romania have been fighting over it for the past five hundred years. Since World War II it’s been a province of Romania.” She quipped, “Our loss. Or theirs.”

Rachel asked, “Do you have family in New York, Milada?”

“My father—stepfather—and my two sisters, Kamilla and Zoë. Kammy’s a doctor.” The pride was evident in her voice. “She’s a fellow at Saint Jude Children’s Research Hospital. She’s currently a visiting professor at the University of Utah.” Milada paused, and a distant, fleeting look came to her eyes. Rachel knew that look. Milada hadn’t mentioned her mother or her natural father. She hadn’t said what Zoë did. They do grow up. It only takes forever and a day.

And Rachel said to herself: I could understand this woman.

Everybody was pretty much done eating. They munched on potato chips, sipped lemonade, digested. The men argued sports. BYU versus the University of Utah. Jazz basketball. The long-term viability of the major league soccer franchise. Charlene, her littlest one on her shoulder, chatted with Doris, casting an occasional glance at the three older Millingtons gallivanting across the yard.

“Do you wish the plates left in a certain place?” asked Milada, picking up hers.

Rachel said, “Oh, no, we’ll get that later.”

Laura said, “Meaning she’ll make me do it.”

“We’ll do it together, okay, Laura? Why don’t we sit over here?” Rachel indicated the pair of faux-redwood deck chairs. Rachel took the one on the left, the one with the right arm missing. Laura sat down on her chair sideways, her legs swung over the side, her back against her mother’s shoulder.

Milada settled into the deck chair, her countenance white and ghostly in the falling light. “Forgive my ignorance, but do you deify dragons as guardian angels?”

It took Rachel a moment to realize what she was referring to. She laughed. “It’s got nothing to do with Mormon theology. When Jennifer was diagnosed with cancer, she took to the idea of having a guardian angel, like on the television show. But she felt that her guardian angel should be as strong and terrible as the thing she was fighting. She’s got quite a collection of them.”

Laura said to Milada, “What do you do in New York?”

“I buy things. Companies, mostly.”

“You buy companies? Wow. Like Wal-Mart?”

“Not Wal-Mart. Small-cap, high-tech companies.”

“Is it fun?”

Milada smiled. “For the most part, yes, I do enjoy my work.”

Almost absentmindedly, Rachel drew back her daughter’s hair and began to braid it. Laura didn’t duck or shake her head the way she was wont to do. Perhaps, her mother thought, they should have Milada over more often.

Laura said, “Is your hair like that naturally?”

“It does run in the family.” Another small smile. She was not a woman easily offended by personal questions. Or perhaps not easily offended by children. She had taken to Laura—or was it the other way around?

Just then, Brother Millington bellowed—and the man could bellow like a water buffalo—“Andy!” He stood at the edge of the patio and stared out at the yard and field beyond.

Laura jumped up, the braids falling out of her hair. Her mother stood behind her. Charlene hurried up to them, her eyes full of fear. Rachel said, “Charlene, what’s going on?”

She gasped, “We can’t find Andy.”

previous Copyright by Eugene Woodbury. All rights reserved. next