Emma stopped taking notes. She suspected this was it; she was about to get to the real core of the interview.
“By the time Larry and I split up, both my parents were gone, so I was pretty much on my own. I realize now that I was searching for a way to deal with the pain, although God knows the marriage was dead. That’s where the fruitcake came in.”
“The comfort factor,” Emma said with a nod. “How long were you and Larry together?” she asked.
“Sixteen years. It’s a shame, you know. We never had kids and it was real lonely after he left.”
“What happened to him?” Secretly Emma hoped he was miserable. In some ways Earleen reminded Emma of her mother.
The woman sighed. “Larry married the floozy he’d taken up with, and the two of them got drunk every night. It only took him a few years to drink himself to death.”
“How sad,” Emma said, and she meant it.
Earleen shrugged. “I was single for nearly ten years. I thought I’d learned my lesson about marrying the wrong man, but obviously I hadn’t.”
“What about the other two husbands?”
“Morrie courted me for a long time before I agreed to marry him. He didn’t have a roving eye so much as he did a weakness for the bottle.” She paused. “Of course, Larry had both. The thing is, and you remember this, young lady, you don’t meet the cream of the eligible-bachelor crop working in a tavern.”
Emma scribbled that down so Earleen would think she’d given due consideration to her words.
“Morrie died of cancer a couple of years after we were married.” She shook her head. “I never should’ve married Paul after that.”
“What happened with Paul?”
A dreamy expression came over her. “Paul looked so much like Larry they could’ve been brothers. Unfortunately, looks weren’t the only trait they shared. We were married only a year when he suffered a massive stroke. He had a girlfriend on the side but he really loved my fruitcake. I think if Larry had lived, he would have, too.”
“Do you have anyone to share your good news with?” Emma asked. “About being a finalist?”
Earleen shrugged again. “Not really, but it doesn’t matter.”
“Of course it matters,” Emma insisted. “Your recipe was one of only twelve chosen from across the entire United States. You should be kicking up your heels and celebrating.”
“I will with friends, I suppose.” Earleen opened her cutlery drawer for a knife and sliced through the loaf. “It’s time I started baking again,” she said. “This close to Christmas, I’ll bake my mincemeat pies. People are already asking about them.”
“When do you bake your fruitcakes?”
Earleen sipped her coffee, her fingers sparkling in the light. All ten of them. “I usually bake up a batch every October and let it set a good two months before I serve it. The longer I give the alcohol to work, the better. Then, before Easter, I bake another version that’s similar but without the dried fruit.” Earleen moved the slice onto a plate and brought it over for Emma to taste.
Although she wasn’t a fan of fruitcake, Emma decided it would be impolite to refuse. Earleen watched and waited.
Emma used her fork to break off a small piece and saw that it was chock-full of the dried fruit to which she objected most. She glanced up at the older woman with a quick smile. Then she carefully put the fruitcake in her mouth—and was shocked by how good it tasted. The cake was flavorful, moist and pungent with the scent of liquor. The blend of fruit, nuts, applesauce and alcohol was divine. There was no other word to describe Earleen’s fruitcake.
“You like it, don’t you?”
“I do,” Emma assured her, trying not to sound shocked. “It’s excellent.”
“I’m sure Larry would’ve thought so, too,” Earleen said wistfully. “Even if he’s the reason I started baking it.”
“You still love him, don’t you?” It seemed so obvious to Emma. Although she’d married twice more, Earleen Williams’s heart belonged to a man who hadn’t valued her. Her mother had been the same; Pamela Collins had loved her ex-husband to her dying day. Emma’s father had never appreciated what a wonderful woman she was. For that sin alone, Emma wanted nothing more to do with him. He’d been a token husband the same way he’d been a token father.
When she spoke, Earleen’s voice was resigned. “I’ve been over Larry for a long time,” she explained. “Much as I loved him, all I can say is that it’s a good thing he left when he did. Larry was trouble. More trouble than I knew what to do with.”
More trouble than Earleen deserved, Emma reflected.
“Is there anything else I can tell you?” Earleen asked. She seemed eager to finish the interview. “I didn’t mean to talk so much about my past. I never could figure out men—but I know a whole lot about fruitcake.”
Emma scanned her notes. “I think I’ve got everything I need for now.”
After snapping a picture of Earleen and collecting the recipe, she asked, “Can I call you later if I have any questions?”
“Oh, sure. Since I retired from The Drunken Owl, I’m here most of the time.”
“Would you mind if I used your phone book?” Emma stood and gathered up her things. “I want to call a taxi to take me back to the airport.”
“You don’t need to do that.” Earleen shook her head. “I’ll drive you. It’s not far and I have errands I need to run, anyway.”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course I am. It’s my pleasure.”
Emma smiled her gratitude. She already knew that Walt wasn’t going to reimburse her for any taxi fare, and it was too close to the end of the month for unnecessary spending on her part.
Earleen backed her twenty-year-old Subaru out of the garage and Emma got inside. The contrast between the interior of Earleen’s vehicle and the furnace company van was noteworthy in itself.
Ten minutes later, Earleen dropped Emma at the airport and after a few words of farewell, drove off.
As soon as Emma climbed out of the Subaru, Oliver came from the building next to the hangar, with Oscar trotting behind him.
Emma nodded absently, wondering how to structure her article on Earleen. Start with her childhood or her wedding or—
“How’d it go?” he asked, interrupting her thoughts.
She stared at him, eyes narrowed. “In case you didn’t know it, men can be real scum.”