The Heat Is On
Written by Katherine Tomlinson
Illustrated by Mark Satchwill
Vera Polk was bored. It was such an unusual sensation for her that she almost didn’t recognize it at first and thought it was just another variety of depression. It had been a tough school year and now that it was summer, she should have felt the usual vacation uptick in her mood, but instead she’d been plagued with sleeplessness and a vague sense of ennui.
“Just be glad you’re not teaching summer school,” her friend Moira had said when they met for lunch at City Wok one weekend.
Moira’s husband had been unemployed for nearly two years. She was burnt out on the job of teaching English to disinterested teens, but there was no scenario in which she could afford not to teach during the summer. It was starting to get to her, though. Whenever she and Vera got together, all Moira wanted to do was vent.
“We’re doing a section on Romeo & Juliet,” she said. “I promised everyone I’d give them an A if they could prove they’d watched any of the movie versions.”
She forked in another morsel of the crispy, sweet-hot City Wok Chicken they’d both ordered.
“Poo came in with a screen shot from Romeo is Bleeding,” she added.
Vera raised her eyebrow.
“Joel Silver movie,” Moira explained. “Jet Li. Gangs.” Moira slugged down the rest of her diet Coke. “I gave him a C and he was happy with it.”
Vera shuddered. She taught geometry, trigonometry and calculus. There was no chance that the thuggish Poo was going to end up in one of her classes.
She grabbed the check when it came. “My treat,” she said, as she almost always did.
“I’ll get it next time,” Moira said, as she almost always did.
“It’s on Ms. Math Whiz,” Vera assured her.
Vera was bored with Ms. Math Whiz. She’d turned in a draft of her latest “math for idiots” book in May and was waiting for her editor to give her the final edits. She made a nice side living from the books—almost twice what she brought home from her teaching job—but writing them was getting to be a chore. She enjoyed getting email from enthusiastic geeks who wanted to talk about famous math puzzles and she looked forward to interacting with a couple of her Twitter followers who engaged in lively conversations about subjects ranging from the discovery of the “God Particle” to the science of Prometheus. Other than that, though, being Ms. Math Whiz was about as much fun as teaching remedial math in a vocational school.
She was sitting on her balcony, relaxing with a glass of wine and gazing at the empty parking lot behind her condo when she was suddenly struck with the notion of creating a container garden.
She knew it was too late in the season for tomatoes, but she could try some herbs—chives and sage and dill—and chili peppers. The idea made her happy.
She finished off her glass of wine and went into her home office to tweet a few things before bed. The follower who called him/herself @geekusinterruptus was raving about the new Spider Man movie and wondering if she’d seen it yet. She’d lied and said she had, that she thought it was the best one yet.
The last time Vera had attempted any sort of gardening project, she’d bought all her plants from Stevens Nursery in Studio City. She’d loved browsing there, especially on cool days when the tropical humidity of the greenhouse felt like a lush oasis in the middle of the generally arid LA suburbs.
Stevens had been razed years ago, though, to make room for the ugliest mega-condo/apartment complex in the area.
Vera had found a nursery in Burbank that had a resident cat and good prices. She’d filled a basket with little green and white plastic pots filled with three-inch shoots of aromatic green. She’d been captivated by a square-stemmed plant that smelled like a peppermint patty.
“That’s chocolate mint,” said a guy wearing a dark green polo shirt with the Plant One On Us logo. “It’s great mixed with strawberries, but it’s a little late to be planting it.”
He took the pot out of her hands and put it back on the shelf with the other baby plants. “You’ll want to wait until the fall for it, or maybe early next spring.”
Vera was somewhere between bemused and annoyed as he looked over the other choices in her cart.
“Rosemary and sage but no thyme?” he asked. “How will you ever season a roast chicken?”
“I make roast chicken with garlic and lemon,” she said, not sure why she was trading cooking tips with a total stranger.
“Simple and elegant,” the guy said, “like the cook.”
Vera blushed from the tips of her toes even as she deflected the compliment with a bit of a shrug. “It’s hard to mess up a roast chicken,” she said.
“Au contraire,” the guy said, with a pitch-perfect accent. “At the Culinary Institute of America they ask you to make two things to show off your expertise before graduating.”
“A roast chicken,” Vera guessed, “and what?”
“An omelette,” he replied. “The idea being that if you can create something beautifully simple, you can go on to cook something more complex.”
“You’re a cook?” she asked the guy.
Now it was his turn to shrug.
“I eat a lot of pasta,” he said. “I picked up a cookbook in self-defense.”
Vera casually glanced at the guy’s bare left hand while pretending to tidy the plants in her basket.
“Let me know if you need any help with anything,” the guy said and turned away.
Say something Vera.
“What about chilies?” she blurted, holding out a pot with a couple of the bright red peppers already ripening.
“Good choice for summer gardening,” he said. “Good way to spice things up.”
She smiled at him, charmed.
“I think I’m ready to check out,” she said.
“Right this way,” he said, and without asking, took the handle of her cart and rolled it over to the checkstand.
“Good luck,” he said to her as she walked away with her purchases. “Let me know if you have any problems.”
Vera blushed again as she put her change away. “I will,” she said, and was surprised that she actually meant it.
The owner of the shop looked at her brother as he watched Vera head for her car.
“She’ll be back,” he promised her.
She knew he was right. Business had almost doubled since he’d started working for her.
Seducing the middle-aged customers was like shooting fish in a barrel for him.
She almost felt guilty about it.
As for Vera…she wasn’t bored any more.