A Summer in Europe by Marilyn Brant

By SMW Staff

It’s not where you go, it’s what you take back with you…

On her 30th birthday, Gwendolyn Reese receives and unexpected present from her widowed Aunt Bea: a grand tour of Europe in the company of Bea’s Sudoku and Mahjongg Club. The prospect isn’t entirely appealing. But when the gift she is expecting — an engagement ring from her boyfriend — doesn’t materialize, Gwen decides to go. At first, she approaches the trip as if it’s the math homework she assigns her students, diligently checking monuments off her must-see list. But amid the bougainvillea and beauty of southern Italy, something changes. Gwen begins to live in the moment — skipping down stone staircases in Capri, running her fingers over a glacier in view of the Matterhorn, racing through the Louvre and taste-testing pastries, wine and gelato. Reveling in every new experience — especially her attraction to a charismatic British physics professor — Gwen discovers that the ancient wonders around her are nothing compared to the renaissance unfolding within.

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From Chapter One:
An Unexpected Turn of Events

“Swear to the sweet Lord child, I’m gonna wrap your head up in an Akan kente cloth, Davis, and twist until your neck snaps!” Zenia hollered, raising her voice with practiced theatrics and standing up to add that extra element of menace.

Zenia Bronson, age sixty-two, was no stranger to emoting. She’d been a local stage actress back in the seventies and was now “A Fiber Artist of the Highest Caliber,” or so said the business cards for her shop—Loominous. The current focus of her wrath was white-haired Davis Whitney because he had the misfortune of being their Mah-jongg dealer or leader or something (they called him “East” for a reason Gwen didn’t understand) in a fierce game against the formidable Youngs.

Alex and Connie Sue Young were a married couple, ages seventy-two and sixty-nine, respectively, who’d both honed their math and gaming skills—and padded their retirement funds—by playing the riverboat casino circuit. One might say that no one won easily against either Alex or Connie Sue. One might also say that Zenia did not accept defeat in any arena without finger-pointing, mild profanity and an onslaught of creative threats.

“You may have won a measly $126,000 on ‘Wheel of Fortune’ once, but until you learn how to pick and discard the damn tiles, you’re as worthless as a pair of circular needles on a jack loom,” Zenia spouted, tugging on a couple of her long braids—dyed strands of jet-black and burgundy, entwined—in a show of agitation and disgust.

Gwen was barely conversant in the rules of Mah-jongg, but she was pretty sure Zenia wasn’t happy with her thirteen-tile hand and wanted to “pick ahead.” Davis, a retired calculus teacher, had apparently thwarted her by citing some rule specific to the version they were playing and dared to call her on cheating for “wanting to look at her future”—whatever that meant. So, the tall, imposing woman huffed, puffed and stabbed her silver-and-purple-glittered index fingernail in the general direction of Davis’s heart, but he just yawned, refusing to budge on the issue. The Youngs ignored her rant and waved Gwen deeper inside the den.

“Your auntie is in the kitchen,” Connie Sue said helpfully. “You go put that tray down and come back and talk to me, you hear?

“Sure,” Gwen said.

Alex patted his wife’s arm affectionately and said to Gwen, “And we wouldn’t be opposed to you bringin’ us a coupla Hester’s lemon squares since you’re headed that-a way.” He shot Zenia a devilish look. “‘Course, the game’ll probably be over soon, and we’ll be able to get up and grab ‘em ourselves.”

Zenia crossed her arms, sat herself back down and glared at Alex. “You got a winning hand already?”

He examined his rack of tiles and the current year’s Mah-jongg card that listed every possible winning combination. “Nope,” he said with a smirk.

“Then you shut your fool mouth and play.”

Connie Sue and Alex laughed, and even Davis broke into a grin. Gwen slid away from the foursome and escaped into the kitchen.

“Gwennie!” her aunt cried when she spotted her. “You got here just in time.” Aunt Beatrice, who’d been chatting with Miss Hester Greenwald over vodka-spiked glasses of Fresca (her aunt’s favorite drink), broke off her conversation and wrapped her slender but wiry arms around her niece. Despite being a head shorter than Gwen and about forty pounds lighter, Beatrice still managed to crush her with the embrace. It was all Gwen could do to keep breathing and to not drop the fruit kabobs.

“Hi, Aunt Bea,” Gwen rasped, sucking in a lungful of air when her aunt let go. “Where would you like me to put these?”

“Oooh, I’ll take ‘em for you,” Hester said, yanking the tray out of Gwen’s hands. “What’cha got in here?” Hester, the oldest member of the group at age ninety, a “lifelong bachelorette,” as she’d say, and a former schoolteacher “from back in the days of wooly mammoths and real liberals,” never hesitated to take charge if she felt leadership was needed.

She ripped the foil off the platter and studied the kabobs. “Very…colorful, Gwendolyn,” Hester pronounced. “And I like the way you worked in all that spatial geometry, too.” She gingerly held up a kabob, studying the watermelon spheres and the cantaloupe cubes.

“Ovals, cylinders and trapezoids, oh, my!” Aunt Bea contributed, making note of the green grapes, banana chunks and pineapple wedges as well. “Very thoughtful of you to go to all this trouble, dear, but it’s your birthday. We’re here to treat you.

Gwen was about to protest that she didn’t need any special treatment when Hester broke in.

“How was your big birthday lunch with that boyfriend of yours?” The old woman leaned forward. “He get’cha anything good?”

Gwen noticed that, even though her aunt was making a show of arranging the kabobs, she was listening. Attentively.

“Yes,” Gwen told Hester. “A very nice pair of pearl earrings.” She smiled warmly at her and tried to sound very upbeat about it.

Nevertheless, Hester blinked her paper-thin eyelids and took a step back. “What?” The elderly lady snorted. “After all this time together, just some li’l pearl earrings? Not even diamonds? Humph.”

Aunt Bea frowned. “No, uh, other jewelry?”

Gwen shook her head and saw her aunt and Hester exchange a pointed glance. Quickly, Gwen added, “But the earrings are really lovely,” hoping to diffuse her aunt’s silent condemnation and defend an absent Richard from Hester’s obvious disapproval, too. She’d made the mistake of bringing him to an S&M gathering once, and Richard had hated every second of it. Although he was unfailingly courteous while in her aunt’s home, once he was out of it, he let it be known to her that “the chaos, disorder and unnatural degree of impulsivity” of the club members made him uncomfortable. While Gwen often felt the same way about them herself, her discomfort was frequently, although far from entirely, tempered by her understanding that they were well intentioned. Even when they were being intrusive and embarrassingly immature.

For example, at that very moment, Hester, who’d crossed her arms like a petulant teen, pursed her lips into a credible sneer, hitched her hip to one side and huffed, “Well, we’ll show him.

Don’t you worry, dearie. We got you a good gift.”

Before Gwen could so much as open her mouth to reply, Dr. Louie, wearing one of his S&M t-shirts and an absurdly festooned sombrero, strode into the room with a massive pan in his hands and announced, “Who wants some smoked-barbeque spare ribs?”

Matilda Riesling, trailing him as usual, carrying a ginormous platter and wearing her rival S&M t-shirt and several bright strands of Mardi Gras beads around her neck, said “Smashed potato pie, people!”

At that, the Mah-jongg players in the other room immediately abandoned their tiles and pushed their way into the kitchen to claim sturdy paper plates for sampling the vast array of rich and tasty dishes decorating her aunt’s table and counters. Only Connie Sue and Davis were adventurous enough to try “one of them healthy fruit kabobs” and, in Davis’s case, it was only because he wanted to show Alex how to construct a model of a water molecule. The melon balls and grapes proved rather helpful.