Today was my day off. It was also cold and stormy and dark. I woke up late and drank a big cup of coffee and tried and failed to catch up with my emails, my to-do list, and my business stuff.

In the early afternoon, chilled and sleepy, I gave up and spent a few happy hours in a hot bath full of scented bath salts. I read William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, which several of my workshop students have commanded me to read; I discovered, to my delight, that it’s dedicated to Brendan’s grandfather, who was his close friend. Time went by and the sky went from dark to black; hard rain fell against the windows. I was too absorbed in the book to think about anything else. When Brendan got home and fed and walked Dingo, I got out of the bath, opened some wine, and, in my bathrobe and pajamas, threw together a quick, easy vegetable coconut curry with brown basmati rice.

This was a much-needed, very quiet day. Last Friday, we took the Megabus to Chicago to visit our friend Gretchen. We arrived near Union Station at 2:30. Gretchen whisked us to the French Market for lobster and coleslaw, then took us on the El through the Loop and back to her top-floor apartment, whose building abuts the Graceland Cemetery.  Sitting around a table in her cozy treehouse of a windowed porch, we ate four different kinds of cheese and drank autumnal Templeton rye-pumpkin hard cider cocktails we invented and dubbed Leaf Rakers, to the tune of “Goldfinger,” with the intent of “Moonraker.”

Later, with Gretchen’s friends Betsy and Rob, we walked through the cold, windy night to Mixteca, where I ordered the cochinita pibil and ate every bite of it. At Carol’s, the neighborhood bar, we drank nightcaps and danced off our dinner to the live country house band whose “girl” singer, Reba, is 60 if she’s a day and glamorously sultry, showing off her amazing legs in a short skirt and cowgirl boots. I requested “Crazy,” and she crooned it while I burped gently against Brendan’s shoulder like an overfed baby and closed my eyes and let him shuffle me around the dance floor.

The next day, Gretchen took us to Angel Food Bakery for hangover brunch, which gave us the wherewithal to explore the architectural salvage museum, or rather emporium, for a couple of wide-eyed hours–we saw, among 4,000 other wonders, an old autopsy table, prison desks, a papier-mache but convincing human skeleton, a confession booth, an old, rickety Argentinean wooden farm bed whose slats were hairy cowhide and which was obviously haunted by childbirths and consummations and deaths galore, plus a vintage plastic hamburger from an old McDonald’s, eerily lifelike. Then, on a hot tip from the owner’s sister, who just bought a house there, we took a fast drive for several miles down Lakeshore Drive to Jackson Park, home of Jesse Jackson, just to check it out. We gawped at the beautiful houses for a while, driving slowly up and down the quiet streets. Then we took a long, windy walk around the lake and harbor at Montrose Beach, winding up at the Magic Hedge, a former gay pickup hotspot and now a bird sanctuary. Walking back to the car, we passed a dinghy in the harbor called the Flounder Pounder, which sent us all into paroxysms of smutty punning.

After aperitifs at Gretchen’s friend Jeff’s artist pad in the former fruit market, we went to the Honky Tonk for Memphis-style dry-rub racks of ribs (it was a weekend of pork) with black-eyed peas, greens, coleslaw, and sweet potatoes. We drank whisky-lemonade cocktails called Lonely Presbyterians and listened to a terrific, louche band of four young men in zombie face paint (it was Halloween weekend, after all). When the burlesque began, we cut our losses and moved along to the amazing and beautiful Green Mill Jazz Club for a nightcap. We sat in one of the plush little semicircular booths under a mural in the dim light of the torch lamps overhead and listened to a Midwestern jazz band that included two dueling male sax players and an elderly, zaftig, strident female singer in a bright yellow fright wig. As she warbled “My Funny Valentine,” Gretchen showed me the booth where Al Capone used to sit; he could see the front entrance and the back exit at the same time, so from whatever direction trouble came, he could scurry out the other way. No doubt, there was also a secret passage behind the bar.

The next day, we went to church with Gretchen. The 4th Presbyterian Church’s Reformation Sunday service was stellar: the scriptural reading featured apocalypse and damnation; the sermon was about fighting a hard battle; there was a bagpipe player in a kilt who played “Scotland the Brave;” plus we sang “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” with the church’s chorus, who were up in the loft, including a divaesque, statuesque, flamingly redheaded soprano whose voice was blisteringly radiant.

After that, starving and righteous, we repaired to Mojo Spa for mani-pedis and a decadent brunch of egg-and-bacon on a roll (mine was gluten-free and baked in-house) and cranberry vodka cocktails. Then, laden with the vintage black Italian widow dress Gretchen gave me, a beautiful painting Jeff made of Montrose Beach and gave us, and our new spa products, plus a bag of leftover ribs and sides that we ate on the way home, we burbled back to Iowa City on the Megabus, and a new working week began.

Easy Coconut-Vegetable Curry

Put a cup of brown basmati rice and 2 cups of chicken broth into a pot, bring to a boil, cover, and turn down to simmer.

Mince 4 garlic cloves and a tablespoon of ginger and one large yellow onion and add to a heated tablespoon of olive oil in a large skillet. Turn to low and let it all soften, stirring often, for about 5 minutes. Add a can of coconut milk, 1-2 tablespoons of curry powder, 1 tablespoon honey, 1 tablespoon tamari, and ½-1 teaspoon salt (to taste). While the sauce simmers, cut up 2 carrots, one large stalk of broccoli, a small yellow pepper, and a handful of button mushrooms, or any other vegetables of your choice, about 3 cups in all. Add these to the pot, stir well, cover, and simmer. If you need more liquid, add a little chicken broth. Stir frequently and adjust seasonings when the vegetables soften. Toward the end of cooking, add a big handful each of minced cilantro and basil.  Stir well and serve over rice with Major Grey’s chutney.

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