For today’s Tea Time excerpt, Art Taylor joins with a scene from his short story “Parallel Play,” which was recently named a finalist for the Agatha Award for Best Short Story. I love Art's short mystery fiction and hope you do too. Here’s Art himself, introducing the tale:
When the folks at Mystery Playground invited me to take part in the Tea Time series, they asked specifically about my novel On the Road with Del & Louise, but I suggested instead focusing on my story “Parallel Play”—primarily because it has a scene specifically focused on tea, a ready excerpt. The story itself starts with a simple dilemma: Maggie, a young mother taking her son Daniel to a toddler play session, realizes she’s forgotten her umbrella as she watches the storm clouds gather outside. And the solution to her problem arrives quickly enough: the father to one of the other children has an extra large umbrella, and he offers to escort her to her car. But little is quite as it might seem, and a gallant gesture ultimately proves not entirely altruistic. Chivalry here comes at a cost.
The scene below is from the middle of the story, and in cutting and pasting it, I realized that readers without the full context of the story might find it mostly a pleasant exchange, when really it’s anything but. In fact, only one line in this small excerpt suggests clearly the central cause of the tension between Maggie and Walter. But perhaps that’s for the best; after all, what’s unfolding on the surface of any scene should really be only the tip of the proverbial iceberg, and I hope the true depths of the situation and these characters keep revealing themselves right up until the final lines of the full story, which can be read for free here.
As for the tea: I chose Harney & Sons Lapsang Souchong, a black tea whose leaves are smoked over pine fires. My wife originally gave me a box of this tea as part of a gift, and even though she ultimately didn’t care for it herself— the smokiness marks the divisive point—it has become one of my own favorites. For me, the aroma and the taste conjure up memories of a smoldering fireplace on a cold, wet day, some warmth in the midst of a persistent chilliness, and there’s a dose of nostalgia at the core of it, nostalgic both for things I remember and perhaps for things that may never have existed—but then isn’t much of nostalgia that way?
The tea has strength behind it, and an edge to it, and somewhere in the middle of all that—the smoldering and the chilliness, the nostalgia for things that may never have existed, the strength, the edge—Lapsang Souchong seems the perfect accompaniment to this story of a woman struggling to find her way out of a dark, dark spot.
Here’s the excerpt from “Parallel Play,” originally published in Chesapeake Crimes: Storm Warning and now a finalist for the Agatha Award for Best Short Story:
“Delicious,” Walter said, taking a sip with his left hand, keeping the other one between them as before. “And such a beautiful set.”
She’d brought out the complete tray: a full pot, cups and saucers, a sugar and creamer, a pair of ornate spoons. A small plate of crackers too, which the boys were enjoying with their sippy cups. “Here’s your favorite,” she’d said to Daniel, touching his hair—some small comfort in the midst of all this uneasiness before Walter had patted the couch for her to join him again.
“You know,” Walter said. “This is what I’d imagined really, when I pictured being a parent. Kids playing on the floor, my wife and I sitting on the couch—doing the crossword or reading a book or having tea like this.” He held up the cup in his left hand, a little awkwardly. “But my wife these days, she’ll make a cup of coffee for herself and never even think I might want one, never even think.” He laughed, ugliness behind it. “Do you and your husband ever do things like this?”
She shook her head. “It’s tough to find time.”
“You have to make time.” A sudden sharp edge underscored his words.
Maggie sipped her tea. She’d loaded it with sugar, but it tasted bitter.
“And isn’t time what it’s all about?” Walter said. “I’d thought we were lucky, my wife and me, with our situation. My schedule had always been pretty flexible—project management over at MicroCom—and since most of us telecommuted anyway, I figured I’d stay home with Jordan, work at nap time and then nights after my wife got home. Keep him from having to go into day care immediately, you know? But it was so much harder than I’d expected, especially since Jordan has never been a good sleeper. Sometimes, you know, I wanted to shake him. Don’t you know I’ve got emails to answer? Don’t you know there’s a deadline looming, and the boss is waiting? Why can’t you go to sleep?”
He smiled at Jordan, who had glanced up at his name. “Isn’t that right, little fella?” he said, but his son just stared back at him with another dull expression.
“And then my wife, the way she’d come home sometimes too tired to take over like we’d agreed. Too tired for him, for me, for anything, it seemed like, and all of a sudden it’s falling back on Mr. Mom again, right? Me pushing back those emails and those deadlines, her pushing me away.” His fingers drummed against the cushion, his palm against the box cutter, the blade catching and cutting lightly into the cushion. “Sometimes I wanted to shake her too, shake all of us up, shake everything loose. I’ve been so tired.”
“I know.” Maggie forced a small laugh. “I feel like I haven’t gotten a full night’s sleep since Daniel was born.”
“That’s not what I mean,” Walter said. “It’s more of an . . . existential tired.” He shook his head. “I feel like I’m disappearing bit by bit.”
The children had moved onto wooden blocks now. Daniel had built a small tower of them, and as he put a red triangle on top, Jordan calmly and deliberately pushed a pickup truck into it, toppling the pieces.
“Play nicely, boys,” Maggie said, unsettled by Jordan but trying not to seem like she was reprimanding him alone. Walter didn’t seem to notice, and neither of the boys responded to her, but Jordan did pick up the blocks and begin to help Daniel rebuild.
Daniel smiled. Maggie felt relieved. If it weren’t for the circumstances, she’d have felt grateful her son had found a friend.