A Shout-out to Young Chefs

An okay cook would best describe my culinary skill level, one earned through no particular effort on my part, but rather a process of elimination, one born out of necessity eons ago—as in feeding five active offspring. Plus an equally active husband who worked six days a week and in his spare time, officiated sporting events. Cooking was never on his radar; nor did I ever think of looking for it there.

I did, however, make sure all the offspring knew how to survive on a few basics—scrambled eggs, hot dogs, hamburgers, French toast, mashed potatoes, sliced tomatoes and cottage cheese among others. As for desserts, Lucy’s Lemon Squares from the Peanuts Cookbook still reigns supreme at our empty-nest household. Over the years and with marginal help from me, said offspring increased their cooking repertoire to include roast turkey/dressing, grilled steaks, and pork loin roast. For the more ambitious—ravioli with a variety of fillings. And for the more adventurous who required no help from me—prime rib, lobster, beef tongue, venison, and elk.

All of which leads to my ongoing fascination with TV cooking competitions, especially those that have expanded to include young chefs. For example, MasterChef Junior. From all over the country, hundreds of kids between the age of 8 and 13 try out for a revered spot, one of 20, as I recall. Some of these courageous cooks are so short in stature, they have to stand on stools to comfortably access the counters and stoves. Many of them aspire to be restaurateurs when they grow up and consider MasterChef a stepping stone to achieve certain goals in the culinary world. Most of them started out with help from one or both parents. Even grandparents—it’s all about family, traditional or today’s version of modern.

The MasterChef Junior judges are led by producer Gordon Ramsey, along with Joe Bastianich, both known for their devastating critiques of adult cooks on other shows. On the softer side of the junior version is Christina Tosi, who specializes in pastries but knows all aspects of cooking. And on occasion, the affable Graham Elliot. Although he’s lost a ton of weight, this hasn’t compromised his love of good eats. Each week all of the judges excel in teaching these young chefs, critiquing their work, and most importantly, sending the losers home with gentle words of encouragement. Never one loser—at least two at a time, which makes the going easier. After turning in their aprons, these brave chefs leave with heads held high, hugging each other amidst the sincere applause and good wishes of peers who have survived to cook another week. Toss in a few understandable tears but no back-stabbing, no grumbling, no whining. And with the exception of only one chef destined to earn the coveted trophy and $25,000, what good losers all these kids eventually become—which make them all winners in my book.

Now I ask you: how can an 8-year-old possibly compete against a 13-year-old? Incredibly well, thank you. In fact, MasterChef Junior’s latest winner is a 9-year-old girl from Chicago. Who, in the finale, cooked a fantastic 3-course meal; as did the other two finalists—an 11-year-old boy and an 8-year-old girl. These were restaurant-quality meals, produced using techniques most home cooks wouldn’t even attempt.

Which brings me to the crux of my message. Teach your kids to cook. You won’t be sorry, I promise. Simple or complex, whatever it takes to get them started and to hold their interest. Even if it means first teaching yourself. Don’t have time? Sure you do. Just catch a few episodes of MasterChef, MasterChef Junior, Top Chef, Top Chef Junior, or Worst Cooks in America.

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Farewell, My Not-So-Secret Garden

Eons ago when we moved into our current residence, one section of the backyard had a brick fireplace surrounded by a large American elm, two dogwoods, and a redbud that set off a burst of spectacular blooms every spring. After a few years D and I brought in a professional landscaper who added three 8-foot Austrian pines to the area, finishing it off with a ground cover of red mulch. The Park, we named our private refuge.

We soon added a wood and wrought iron bench and on either side of the bench, arum italicum, a bulb plant that produced rich, green foliage followed by spikes of red berries. I pictured myself sitting on the bench, alone in my solitude to read or to contemplate the mysteries of life. Over the years a roadside fence across half of our backyard further contained what I eventually considered my not-so-secret garden. Along the fence an existing lilac thrived—the old-fashioned variety that produced fragrant flowers every spring. At some point a volunteer spruce popped up. No problem letting it stay. We added peonies that came from a property Offspring #2 owned at the time.

Here and there around the garden we planted a variety of hostas, some of which I bought through a local garden club. Others came from Uncle J who has since passed, and from J our catering friend, whose Hostas multiply faster than my weeds, which says a lot. Mustn’t forget my favorite flower—columbine, both volunteers and special varieties I ordered from plant catalogues. Add to the columbine, old-fashioned geraniums and on the far side, goldenrods which didn’t hang around for long because they made me sneeze. And Larkspur that came back year after year. Oregano that came from another Offspring #2 property filled in the gaps. A nice hydrangea didn’t do as well as the original located on the north side of our house. Somehow clumps of coneflowers took root, but due to lack of direct sunlight, a much lighter shade than those growing elsewhere in the yard.

Contemplating life on the park bench didn’t work out too well. Every time I sat there, I noticed weeds that needed pulling, plants that needed trimming. Twice, we, as in Hubby D and at least one other offspring of our offspring, replaced the weed barrier and ground cover—a huge undertaking. Then lightning struck the American elm, leaving a huge gap in the trunk. D wanted the whole tree gone. I insisted on calling in an arborist who trimmed away all the dead wood. The tree came back, reasonably well for a few more years.

Last spring, one of the two dogwoods didn’t bloom. Nor did the redbud. It had gasped its final breath. The Austrian pines, now thirty-feet tall, had more needles turning brown than green. The restored elm finally gave up its fight. Time to re-evaluate.

In the fall we called in a tree removal expert who confirmed what we already suspected. Within a matter of hours, my not-so-secret garden was totally obliterated. Well, ninety percent of it, leaving the brick fireplace and one dogwood, plus a number of plants surrounding what once had been a thriving area. Eventually, we will relocate the homeless plants to needy areas throughout the yard. The not-so-little Spruce will stay where it is, having reached a height of 30 feet.

This spring we hired a terrific yard guy to remove the weed barrier and ground cover for the last time. What a chore! The whole process of pulling out was much more time consuming than that of putting in.

Farewell, my not-so-secret garden. Nothing was meant to last forever. Except maybe the gingko tree in our front yard.

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Done! Done. Done.

Some years ago our family sold our comfortable condo at Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks in order to acquire an actual house, a fixer upper located in a quiet cove off the lake’s main channel. By mutual agreement the family named our place Casalago. That’s Italian for Lake House.

The former owners had shared the property with a menagerie of five dogs and as many cats, all of which left behind so much hair and fur and dander that we had to have professionals extract the nasties from the a/c and furnace vents. More animal hair covered the dark wood paneled walls.

There were three bedrooms and two bathrooms on the main level—all livable, as well as a galley kitchen and somewhat cramped living/dining area. The main feature in that area was a large, space-consuming fireplace that extended to the lower level. In addition to a second living area, that level had a decent third bathroom as well as two dark bedrooms accessible by an even darker hallway.

We, the new owners, along with a few time-generous friends, put hearts and souls into making Casalago a comfortable retreat, one that required somebody with construction expertise. Fortunately, Offspring #2, P, the only person with an architectural/construction background, took on the role of Casalago project manager. The rest of us, including P, contributed via a ton of sweat equity. The removal of an awkwardly placed staircase made way for a spiral staircase in a new location. Every dark paneled wall got cleaned and painted the color of creamy milk. Every interior and exterior door—thirty-two or so—given a coat of paint over the prime. Cathedral ceilings were cleaned and polished to show off their tongue and groove knotty pine.

In the lower level walls came tumbling down, sort of. The two lower level bedrooms were relocated, on either side of a new Jack and Jill bathroom. (Just thinking about that plumbing, my male offspring drilling through rock-hard Ozark clay makes me cringe.) A new L-shaped wet bar and swivel stools filled one corner and a new wall in the lower living room separated it from the laundry and utility area.

Other than the upper level bedrooms with hardwood floors, new carpeting and ceramic tile on both levels replaced old linoleum or concrete floors.

Five months later, just in time for the summer season, we were done. Or so we thought.

If only the entry off the carport wasn’t so uninviting. During the next year or so three new doors and two side windows and a ceramic tile floor made a world of difference to create a cozy sunroom that gave us more space. As did an additional boat slip, making room for three boats used by five families plus an existing swimming dock and high sliding board aimed at the water.

At some point the main bathroom need a new ceramic floor and countertop. A job for a professional, you bet.

Then P decided the privacy fencing around the upper deck and lower seawall had to go. Why? I argued to no avail in defense of privacy. P got his way and rightly so. The wire fencing opened up the upper and lower level views to our dock and others lining the cove.

After a few years I suggested closing in the carport to create another community space to accommodate our growing family and their friends. Bingo! P to the rescue, again. One week and two weekends later, four of us had enlarged the sunroom to create a 20×30-foot living space with pine paneled walls and sloped tongue and groove ceiling, newly stained to match the adjoining sunroom and main living area.

Once again, we were done. Or so I thought

Then, one day I casually mentioned bumping out the kitchen to create a pantry for storing the monumental clutter of groceries people brought in for long weekends. Just a storage space, I emphasized. No big deal. Right? Wrong. P and some of the other owners saw a bigger picture than Hubby D and I had envisioned.

New construction and improvements meant various permits and approvals that necessitated a larger septic system and updated electrical system. The bumped out storage space I originally suggested soon evolved into a gourmet kitchen plus master en suite on the first level plus a carpeted bonus/dormitory room below that space. D and I sold the old kitchen appliances, a bistro set, outdoor bar plus five stools. Also the washer and dryer to make room for two stackable sets. The old kitchen became a walk-through pantry with counter space overlooking the cove. Minus the dock’s sliding board that P sold to create extra lounging space. Another decision I argued against. Not that I ever slid down the board but you never know.

We were done! Or so I thought. If only the water pipe hadn’t burst in the lower level, ruining the new bonus room carpeting plus that in the lower living room. After getting that bad news from the tile layer who happened to be working that day, D hurried down to the lake to confirm the worst. Three inches of water covered all the new area and part of the old. Thank God for the insurance clean up guys who did the dirty work of pulling out the ruined carpeting and evaluating the damage. Three weeks and more new carpeting later, we were back in business. As in no business. That was two years ago. Since then …

No more projects. No more improvements. We are done! Do you hear me? Done. Done. Done.

How about you? Any projects you’re done with. Or so you thought?

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Repurposing with a Purpose

Yikes! Realizing I think like my mother once did is bad enough, but every now and then I take on the role of her mother, at least when it comes to Grandma D in the kitchen. For one thing Grandma’s soup, unforgettable would be an understatement. Her soup cost next to nothing to produce and never tasted like the one before, a testament to her ingenuity and a delectable plus guaranteed to leave a comforting feeling in the pit of any hungry stomach.

A little of this from Grandma’s fridge—leftover scraps of meat and veggies. A little of that from her backyard—assorted herbs and wild greenery. Maybe dandelions, onions, garlic and chives. I should’ve paid more attention to the ingredients but as a teenager, never thought I’d ever have use for this, much less that. Especially since I absolutely hated to cook and still do—sort of. Hello, Attitude Adjustment, as in marriage and eventually five hungry children.

Empty nesters—that’s what Hubby D and I have been for years. And loving it. If D had his druthers, we’d eat out every day. Which would probably work if, except for the bare necessities, I stayed out of grocery stores, discount stores, and my catering friends’ extensive garden and freezer. But no-o-o. Somewhere out there awaits a bargain too good for me to pass up. Or a freebie—can it get any better? No way.

Take this past Saturday, our noonday meal—not lunch, dinner because it’s our most substantial sit-down, the only one I cook, usually four or five days out of seven. Polenta with three cheeses—ricotta, pecorino, and Grana Padano—plus chicken cacciatore simmered long and slow in a puttanesca sauce. Leftovers, you bet. After all, there’s only so much two people can consume at one sitting. Add to that, the abhorrence one of those two people has when it comes to leftovers.

What would Grandma D have done? Same thing I did. Make soup. Or, as I prefer to say: Repurpose. Whereas Grandma probably repurposed her leftovers in a large, hammered aluminum pot, I repurposed mine in a Le Creuset French (Dutch) oven, a hand-me-down twice over, handed down to me from my catering friend E, who has a vast collection of cookware acquired from estate sales, thrift shops, and elderly transitioning to some type of assisted living.

A thorough sweep of my fridge produced leftover chuck roast with gravy, plus raw celery, carrots, mushrooms, onions, and the indispensable tiny alphabet pasta. Plus olive oil from an emptied can of imported anchovies—perfect for sautéing my soup base. From the freezer came broccoli, peppers, and parsley. After a quick sauté of the fresh veggies in anchovy olive oil, I added the leftovers and cacciatore sauce along with a nice red wine. Last to go in the pot was chicken from the cacciatore since I only wanted a quick warm-up of already cooked meat.

Soup’s done. Hmm, after one meal for the two of us, and possibly another for me, what should I do with the rest? I could use my stick emulsifier to produce a flavorful cream soup or possibly a sauce for pasta or chicken cacciatore. Or freeze the soup in quart-size freezer bags that will sit alongside my other repurposed items taking up space in the freezer. So what if I do have more than one freezer? That’s the joy of repurposing. How about you? Any ideas for repurposing repurposed leftovers?

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I’m Ba-a-ck

Life gets in the way every now and then, which happened during a longer-than-expected break from my writing last year. First, Hubby D and I got caught up in a bit of traveling—from the Carolinas just for kicks to Central Florida for fresh water fishing to Wyoming and Idaho to visit Offspring #1 and family. Then in January another trip to Florida, this time on the Gulf Coast where D underwent a surgical procedure and required recovery, both of which went very well. Why Florida, you may ask. Don’t. It’s complicated.

While D was recovering, I finally finished Book 3 from the Savino Sisters Mystery Series: Not Worth Dying For. There’s something quite comforting about writing a series, dealing with a continuation of characters I created, but over time have taken on a life of their own. And letting my imagination run away with new characters who want things their way instead of what I’d originally planned for them. For instance, a minor character from Book 2 Regrets To Die For: Mike the Jerk who dumped Ellen Savino years ago when both were teenagers. She erased him from her life but now, twenty years later he wants back in. Although El’s heart tells her no way, her sister Margo takes a more pragmatic approach, what with Mike claiming to have information that could absolve their mother from charges of aiding and abetting her best friend. Ahem, that would be for the murder of a womanizer who’d been dating both of them.

Not Worth Dying For also gave me the opportunity to bring back characters from one of my other St. Louis mysteries, Lethal Play. Detectives Sam Reardan and Guy Winchester, still snarky as ever, now have two amateur sleuths to deal with, Margo and El Savino. What started out as polite give and take soon evolves into a test of one-upmanship—the wannabes vs. the pros.

As for a not-so-miner character from Regrets, I could not leave octogenarian Stefano Rosina back in Italy, pining for his lost love Clarita, El and Margo’s Americanized grandmother. So, I brought Stefano and his son Franco to St. Louis. All in the name of cringe-worthy occasions that promise an abundance of good wine mixed with bad memories, and heartfelt apologies.

Now for the best part. If you’d like a first-hand account of Regrets To Die For and the just-published, Not Worth Dying For, both books are available for a limited time at the bargain price of $.99 each.

For more information, check out Not Worth Dying For at Amazon.com and Regrets To Die For at Amazon.com.

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A lovely review from the Red Headed Book Lover Blog …

From Aimee Ann’s Red Headed Book Lover Blog:

Regrets To Die For is a book that I would define as the perfect escape and a book that will thrill, delight and shock its readers within just a few chapters. The premise of Regrets To Die For is one that hooked me straight away, I love historical mystery novels, and I love even more when they are set someplace exotic. Regrets To Die For is set in beautiful Italy and the descriptions are stunning, but I will expand on these thoughts of mine later! What I want to write is that Loretta Giacoletto has chosen the perfect location for her novel and all of you readers will find out why if you decide to read the phenomenal book that is Regrets To Die For.

Regrets To Die For follows the two female protagonists of the novel who also happen to be sisters. Ellen and Margo are the focus of the story and so is the mystery of their family roots. Ellen and Margo are in Italy and once then they start to investigate some nagging thoughts about their grandmother Clarita, shocking truths will come to light. The result of this is a shocking, sometimes harrowing, thrilling story and if you, like me adore mystery and suspense which revolves around family life/drama then Regrets To Die For will be the perfect read for you.

The story of Regrets To Die For was an unusual read for, and this is because I never usually come across novels such as this one and I will explain why. Regrets To Die For is a mystery novel, however, it revolves around the protagonists family and troubling secrets; family mysteries are hard to discover so when I found this one I knew I had to read it! Regrets To Die For is brilliant for many reasons but one of these reasons is because it combines many themes which would not typically work together unless weaved by an excellent author such as Loretta Giacoletto! Themes such as history, murder, romance, and family are all weaved together flawlessly and the result if a stunning exploration into mystery that will entertain readers for hours.

Loretta Giacoletto is the woman behind Regrets To Die For and she is an incredibly accomplished writer who knows how to thrill her readers. I admit that Giacoletto is a newly discovered author of mine but gosh did I wish I found her work sooner! That is why I am so happy to be sharing her work with you today so do not pass up on reading her excellent work. Giacoletto is clearly an author who is making waves in the literary world because she was named a finalist in the 2015 and 2014 Soon to be Famous Illinois Author Project… what an accomplishment! Either way, I am rambling and need to focus on her literature laced throughout her book!

Loretta Giacoletto’s literature is magnificent and will flow beautifully from one page to the next at a perfect pace. The descriptions of the events and places laced between the pages of Regrets To Die For are breathtaking and will have readers reading in awe. The descriptions of Italy, in particular, were stunning so if you are a reader who loves to be lost in a mesmerizing place while reading a juicy story, then you will adore this book.

As Regrets To Die For is an impressive piece of fiction that will delight as well as charm and excite its readers with its thrilling content and jaw-dropping moments, I, of course, have to award this wonderful book five stars!

 

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Netflix’s Ozark and My Ozarks

For the past several days Hubby D and I have been binge/cringe watching Ozark on Netflix. What a hoot, especially Jason Bateman’s character, a former financial planner scrambling to stay alive by laundering money or die trying—along with his wife and kids. St. Louisan Bill Dubuque, who as a teenager summered at Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks, has created a dysfunctional mix of characters—from a Chicago drug lord who forces a middle-class suburban family’s relocation to The Lake to a series of displaced locals who’ve already been there for decades and resent catering to highfalutin vacationers and weekenders.

Weekenders—uh, that would describe our real-life family, sort of. Over the past eighteen years we’ve evolved from condo-owners who paid dearly not to lift a single finger to money-pit homeowners who’ve lifted many a finger—mostly the middle one.

In any case, Ozark does bring to mind a horror story I wrote some years ago. It’s about sleazy paparazzo Les Best who’s on the run from a New York loan shark when he hits his stride at Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks where a top model is camping out with her latest squeeze. Once again, or maybe for the first time, I give you …

The Big Shot

On a Friday evening in late June, Lester Best eased his customized SUV across the wooden slats of a swinging bridge spanning the Auglaize Creek in the heart of Missouri’s Ozarks. He kicked up white gravel for another two miles before realizing he’d gone too far. Going too far best defined Les Best, that and an absurd name he regretted not having changed early in his career. Les turned around and retraced his powdery route until he found the campground entrance to the state park at Kaiser. He rattled along under the dense shade of canopied trees, dodging deep ruts and cruising past a hodgepodge of trailers and pop-up campers. After reaching the lakefront area jammed with more weekenders, he selected one of the few remaining primitive sites. No electricity, no water, and no flush toilet: the perfect retreat for a deadbeat fugitive nursing a matching set of splinted forefingers.

Les staked his tent as far away as possible from his nearest neighbors, two wannabe hill people who strolled over long enough for first-name introductions before returning to their beer and makeshift setup. Will, whose white beard overlapped his bib overalls, pressed a harmonica to his lips and played a haunting rendition of Ruby for his own Ruby. She wore yards of calico, chain-smoked, and complained non-stop from an aluminum lawn chair straining under her massive weight. After thirty minutes of the audio assault, Les stifled his urge to suggest that Will muzzle both Rubies, opting instead to utilize the earplugs he’d brought from his Lower East Side apartment.

Although Les Best lived and breathed New York, he’d grown up in Missouri, first in foster care and later on a boys’ ranch designed for discards and the wayward. Les qualified as both, then and now. His temporary return to the Show Me State was not out of nostalgia but to avoid settling a debt of ninety thousand dollars he’d incurred through a series of risky ventures. Joey Plastic, the New York mobster who held the note, had arranged for the dislocation of Les’s forefingers to induce an initial interest payment of five thousand bucks, but Les figured the bastard would never extend his pursuit into the fly-over boonies of mid-America. On that Les Best would’ve bet his mother’s life, if he’d ever had a mother. Still, he must’ve since his many enemies and few friends usually referred to him as ‘that sonofabitch’.

*****

That night Les conked out in the back of his SUV. The next morning found him on the pea gravel beach, pushing a rented johnboat into the Grand Glaize Arm of Lake of the Ozarks. Splinters erect, he paddled from one cove to another until he located the ideal fishing spot, one deserted and edged with brush. By ten o’clock, water smooth as glass reflected the cocky blue of a clear sky and Les hadn’t caught a single crappie. At noon he peeled off his sweat-drenched shirt, dropped his knit shorts, and mooned a parade of skiers and speedboats stirring up the wake. “You can all go to hell!” he yelled, before sending his pricey rod and reel to sleep with the fishes.

Back at camp two Generation Xers had squeezed in between his site and the wannabes, who were making honeymoon racket in their tent—a conjured image amusing enough to make Les forget the fishing gear he regretted sinking. To the X couple, he returned an obligatory wave and howdy that seasoned campers felt compelled to offer each other. Still, he kept his distance, watching the Xers struggle with the pegs and canvas of new equipment. At last they stood back, arm in arm, to admire their saggy abode. It burped once and collapsed into a heap. Male X pushed back his red-orange feather cut and appealed to Les.

“What do you say, mister. How ‘bout some help?”

What the hell, Missouri know-it-alls, even those partially disabled, were supposed to be accommodating. Les ambled over. He offered a few practical suggestions and within five minutes the tent stood erect and operational. The sun-deprived stranger stuck out a soft hand accustomed to professional manicures.

“Much obliged. Sorry about those bum fingers,” X said with a grin of orthodontically enhanced teeth. “I’m Josh. Over there’s Betty Sue.”

Betty Sue, as in leggy and trim, nodded from a distance.

“No problem. Call me … Les.” Their encounter should’ve ended on the handshake but that’s when Les noticed Josh’s tattooed wrist: a pissing gargoyle with folded wings. As in the official logo for heavy metal’s Grotes and Gargs. As in Josh Nolan, lead drummer. The revelation prompted a closer look at Betty Sue, as in trying to fade into the background. No make-up, blonde pigtails, tee shirt and khaki shorts: typical back-to-nature but this chick was no typical camper. Les Best, master of deception, could spot a plain-Jane disguise in the most unlikely of locales.

Les didn’t linger with the Xers but Betty Sue hadn’t fooled him. That face and that body belonged to none other than Ivy Sinclair, last year’s nobody who shot up to become this year’s hottest glitz and glamour TV diva. When it suited Ivy Sinclair, the twenty-something preened for tinsel town’s red carpet. But when she wasn’t hustling the public, she kept her private life way too private: another ploy to fuel the fires of her clamoring fans. And before this weekend Josh Nolan had been nothing more than an unconfirmed rumor. Now the oblivious, sexy twosome belonged to Les, exclusively.

Never in a million years could he have plotted a better scenario: Les Best, New York paparazzo of uncensored privacy, tenting in Missouri next to La-La Land’s newest duo. Les had escaped from New York with his only cameras not in hock: the miniature spy and a Panasonic with 600mm zoom lens. From campsite to wooded area to man-made beach, he devoted every waking moment to cursing his splints and plying his craft. Ivy and Josh kissing, Ivy and Josh necking, Ivy and Josh rolling around—the usual predictable stuff. His best shot thus far: Ivy in a modest bikini, her trademark tattoo peeking out the underside. Nice, too nice: translation, boring.

By Sunday evening the primitive weekenders had packed up and returned to their mundane, air-conditioned lives. Only the wannabes, the celebs, and Les remained, bunched up like yesterday’s pioneers anticipating an Indian raid. Will’s musical switch from the melancholy Ruby to the melancholy Moon River again confirmed he hadn’t succumbed to the evils of pop culture. More Moon River prompted Les to throw out a scrap of unctuous chum to the celebs. “If you folks want to spread out closer to the water’s edge, I’ll help you break camp.”

“Nah, that’s OK,” Josh said. “We’re planning to move on day after tomorrow.”

Damn! Thirty-six hours didn’t leave Les much time. He needed a big shot, the shot to end all shots.

*****

Monday morning brought a stir of gentle lake breezes that rustled the leaves in stately red oaks dominating every clump of trees. While a pot of coffee brewed over his pit fire, Les cracked four eggs into four pats of butter sizzling in the cast iron skillet. He added a can of corned beef hash, leaned back, and waited for it all to make sense. Licking his lips, he sucked in the artery-clogging, woodsy aromas and closed his eyes to savor the moment. Then Josh coughed. Photo op! Les grabbed his Panasonic. Snap, snap: Josh crawling from his tent. Snap, snap: Josh stumbling to the john. Les gambled with the next few minutes. He hurried to the celebs’ tent; the flap was open and Ivy, asleep. Damn, in an oversized T-shirt and on her back. He considered using a long stick to lift her shirt but didn’t want to blow his chance for something better. Instead he located her in his viewfinder and got off two shots before his ears detected a distant rattle from the men’s latrine. By the time Josh came shuffling back, Les was hunched over his fire, scraping burnt glob from the skillet.

He poured a cup of muddy coffee and waited with eyes never straying far from the neighboring tent. Finally, his lovely prey emerged from her shelter, still wearing the baggy tee.

Behold Ivy in the morning, an Ozark wood nymph splashing her face with Evian. Les snapped his mini. She stretched her toned arms overhead. Snap, snap. She jumped Josh, played kissy-face, and wrapped her legs around his lean body to reveal the trail of ivy from her bikini. Snap, snap. Ivy and Josh spun around, fell to the ground, and seeing Les, they giggled like love-struck teenagers. He acknowledged them with a lift of his coffee mug.

“Hey, Les, any idea where we can arrange for some horses?” Josh called out.

Les clenched his teeth. Didn’t these people ever think for themselves? In their showbiz realm agents and managers provided the brainpower. Out here the celebs had latched onto him. He forced a smile. “Check out the info packet you got at the welcome station.”

“Damn, now why didn’t I think of that,” Josh said, shaking dust from his hair. “Thanks, good buddy.”

While Josh and Ivy mulled over the park information with the intensity of first-timers planning a European adventure (snap, snap), Les formulated his own plan. After the celebs pulled away in their Navigator, he drove into Osage Beach, parked at a strip mall, and speed-dialed Emanuel Gold on his cell phone. “Manny, baby. What’s up?”

“Don’t what’s up me, you sonofabitch,” yelled the editor of MORE.

Manny being Manny. Les could almost feel the bastard’s spit blasting through the receiver.

“Where the hell you been?” Manny demanded.

“Something came up. I had to leave in a hurry.”

“You left me with garbage too tame for Mother Teresa’s newsletter.”

“Yeah, yeah, mea culpa. But I’ll make it up to you—a thousand times over. For the right price, that is.”

“You get nothing ‘til I see some skin.”

“How about some of Ivy Sinclair’s?”

“No way, you crazy sonofabitch!”

“Remember her in the February issue of SWEET: beach volleyball in a mini bikini, ivy wandering over those oh-so-firm cheeks. Well, I’m sleeping next to that same tattoo in the same location.”

“Ivy Sinclair dumped her latest squeeze for a sonofabitch like you?”

“Let’s just say the three of us are tighter than a virgin’s ass, if you get my drift. They’re splitting tomorrow but not before I get a piece of her.”

“Just make sure you get the real Ivy and not some pathetic knock-off. By the way, big shot, two scum bags have been inquiring as to your whereabouts, which leads me the obvious question.”

No way, Manny. Les hung up and went shopping for supplies. When he got back to camp, no one was around except a uniformed park employee. The dead ringer for the prison matron in Chicago was leaning against a tree, checking her clipboard. “How do,” he said in his resurrected Missouri twang. “Is there a problem, ma’am?”

“Just making my rounds,” she replied without looking up. “Dogging after the outsourcers hired to sanitize and equip our facilities.”

“As in odor-eaters and toilet paper?”

“You got it.”

“How often you empty them suckers?”

“End of the season, unless they fill up sooner.”

As soon as the latrine queen zipped away in her truck, Les opened up the back of his SUV. He removed a telescopic ladder folded to the size of a small suitcase and covered it with brush in the wooded area. The remainder of the day he spent reading entertainment rags and contemplating a triumphant return to New York, after he squared his debts.

*****

By ten o’clock that night the temperature hovered around seventy degrees, and a star-filled sky and quarter moon provided the primitive area’s only light source. The wannabes finally stopped pitching beer cans, a precursor to ending Ruby’s steady harping and Will’s harmonica Ruby. But after he quieted down, she reverted to soft wailing. Any other night Les would’ve sailed his skillet in their direction, but not this night. Tonight he wanted no disruptions. The celebs were snuggled on a log near their low fire (snap, snap) and discussing some stellar configuration, probably basking in the glory of their own shining stars. For Les, the best was yet to come. After extinguishing his campfire with a pail of water and some dirt, he called out through a yawn, “G’night, folks.”

Inside his tent, Les stripped naked. He climbed into chest waders, donned a plastic rain jacket, and slipped a painter’s mask around his neck. Next, the construction hard hat, equipped with an attached light that Les couldn’t risk turning on too soon. As he crept into the dark woods, sweat beaded his skin and clunk to his eyelashes. He retrieved his ladder and headed to the women’s pit latrine where a swarm of buzzing flies greeted him when he opened the door. The almost tolerable odor evoked his whispered, “Thank you, latrine queen.”

Les flipped on his light, secured his mask. He twisted the toilet off its base, extended his ladder down the concrete container, and started his descent along the four-foot width. Five feet down, he stopped to slide the toilet back into the lip of the base. Six inches later he stepped into waste. At eight feet he bottomed out. Whoa! He reeled from the stench. Damn the latrine queen for only going so far with her chemicals. Unlike Les, she didn’t exceed certain limitations.

During his teenage years on the ranch when trucks hauled in cattle, Les usually got stuck with the grunt job of prodding reluctant animals from the trailers. He’d worked in ankle-deep shit then and vowed never again, but Les wasn’t one to keep his word, not even to himself. The greenbacks from these shots would get Joey Plastic off his back, his other cameras out of hock. Maybe garner him some insider celeb tips, a ringside table at some classy watering hole. Most of all, he’d gain the respect of every jerk who ever flipped him off.

Les took pride in catering to an insatiable public who demanded a piece of their adored celebs. Or untouchable royals, even the Queen of England had been fair game. For years the toilet seat she used in one of Chicago’s leading hotels had been displayed on its archive wall of notables. Small potatoes now compared to the recorded affairs of younger royals and the videotaped sex of entertainers and athletes. After tonight Les Best would rank with the best, the most innovative.

Ten minutes passed. Les heard the light crunch of twigs: Ivy, right on schedule. He killed his light, leaned into the splattered wall, and muffled a gag. The door opened, latched closed, and a low, pitiful moan filled the enclosure.

“Heads or tails, which one’s goin’ first,” Ruby said in a voice bordering on baritone. “Okay, lips, you win.”

Ruby’s eyes were squeezed tight as she centered her moon face overhead. That’s when Les directed his face to the wall. After five minutes of gasping and heaving, she turned and plopped her dimpled buns over the toilet, creating a suction that cut off the air supply below. Between her choked-up sobs and torrents of diarrhea, Ruby prayed. She groaned. She shuddered. She went silent.

Down below, Les had prayed too, for the first time in years. His head was spinning; his finger splints got tangled. He lost his grip and fell back into the waste. Still, he managed to hold his camera high. Ruby didn’t even stir when he sloshed to the ladder. Fighting for each breath, he struggled up the rungs. When he topped out, Les poked one splint into Ruby’s sealed posterior. He poked again, this time harder. Finally, Ruby shifted. She wiggled off the seat, allowing Les to fill his lungs before she left.

Les was ready to relinquish his dream for the big shot when he heard footsteps again. This time there was no mistaking Ivy. Her flashlight beam sought out despicable insects and a tidy toilet seat. She planted her sweet tush on the throne. Ever so gently Les switched on his light. The ivy trailing Ivy’s cheeks wiggled as she made a few adjustments. Les held his breath and snapped away, the camera shutter so quiet even he couldn’t hear it as he recorded such delightful anatomical shots: Les Best’s unique contribution to the science of exploitation. Toilet paper fluttered down.

As soon as Ivy lifted her buns, Les killed his light. But instead of the darkness he expected, another flash came from above. The bitch had stolen his image with her own camera.

“You ought to be ashamed of yourself, Lester Best.”

“You knew me before this weekend?”

“Let’s just say your reputation preceded you.”

“Could your turn off that flashlight, Ivy? I can’t see a thing.”

“Not before I get your camera. Just put it in the bucket I’m sending down by rope.”

Damn, she was smarter than he thought. Les had no choice but to part with his Panasonic.

“The film too.” She lowered the bucket again and he gave it up.

“We can make a deal,” he said. “Just you and me and the big shot. I’m not shitting you when I say Les Best has the absolute best connections.”

“Unfortunately, not as good as mine. In fact, my connection made me the star I am today. That’s why he asked me, and only me, to deliver an important message to you.”

Les could see her now, all too clearly—leaning over the opening, a flashlight in one hand and a revolver in the other. He opened his mouth to speak but the last words he would ever hear came from Ivy.

“For Les Best, Joey Plastic sends only his best.”

###

 

“The Big Shot” was first published in the 2007 Horror Anthology Damned in Dixie

and later in the 2010 Winter issue of Allegory Ezine.

 

 

 

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