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  • Written by Laura Pedersen
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  • Written by Laura Pedersen
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Written by Laura PedersenAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Laura Pedersen

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On Sale: December 30, 2003
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-345-47195-6
Published by : Ballantine Books Ballantine Group
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Having descended from a long line of indomitable, good-humored Scots, Hayden MacBride sees no reason to take his own death lying down. In fact, he now spends his days crashing funerals for the free food and insight into the Great Beyond. Then he meets Rosamond, a nun playing hooky from the Holy Orders. Hayden is smitten the instant her heavy silver cross smacks him in the face when she leaps up to do the wave at a ball game. Luckily, Rosamond has picked the right person to teach her how to live . . . and to love–because nobody does both better than Hayden MacBride.

However, Rosamond’s years in the convent have not prepared her for the oddball characters of Hayden’s world. There’s his ever-fretful, vigilant daughter, Diana, the “Dutchess o’ the Sidelong Glance”; his sweet grandson Joey, struggling to break free of his mother’s overprotective embrace; Hayden’s bagpipe-blowing cronies; the Greyfriars Gang; neighbor Bobbie Anne, a “working girl” full of good advice and tender mercies; and Hank, the sexy architect contemplating the priesthood–a big mistake in Hayden’s book. For Hayden thinks that Hank should be married to his daughter and raising Joey. And he has an elaborate plan to make Hank see things his way. . . .


In an uproariously funny novel of love, laughter, and one man’s final call at the riotous watering hole called life, Laura Pedersen proves that miracles are all around us–when we open our eyes and our hearts to embrace them.

Excerpt

chapter one

Joe-y! Come down here and eat some breakfast,” his mother calls into the hollow tunnel of the antiquated dumbwaiter.

“What are the choices?” shouts back a high-pitched youthful voice.

“Yes or no! Get down here and eat some oatmeal before you leave.”

When Joey enters the kitchen Diana bends to kiss him while at the same time maneuvering her hand across his forehead to check for fever. “You feel warm to me.” She studies his face for unnatural coloring and a runny nose. “It could be the start of a summer cold.”

Her son is a boyish-looking eleven-year-old with wide-set expressive brown eyes and a moon-shaped face that has high ridges hidden just beneath the surface, suggesting that he’ll inherit his mother’s striking cheekbones, straight nose, and generous mouth.

“Eat some oatmeal before you leave,” Diana insists with an urgency suggesting that oatmeal has been officially designated a miracle cure for the common cold.

“I don’t want any yucky oatmeal.” Joey pushes her hand away. “Grandpa’s taking me to a baseball game. We’ll get hot dogs.”

“Based on how late he arrived home last night and the racket he made getting upstairs, we’ll be lucky if Grandpa takes out the garbage. I’m surprised he didn’t wake you up. Or worse, give you nightmares.”

Diana leans over the old-fashioned steel sink to adjust the calico curtains, diverting the glare of the formidable late June sun. The shiny copper-bottomed pots lining the far wall cast flickering circles around the room like a disco ball. From outside in the backyard drift the gentle melodies of summer—the plaintive chirping of young sparrows fidgeting in their nests, shrilling crickets, and the silky ripple of tall grass in the breeze.

The tranquillity of the morning is abruptly broken by an exuberant burst of song. A chorus of “Will Ye Go, Lassie, Go” reverberates throughout the stairwell of the three-story town house in an accent containing a velvety Scots burr, and accompanied by the sound of steps being taken two at a time. On the final “go,” a dynamo of a man with an unruly mop of salt-and-pepper hair slides across the threshold to the kitchen as if tagging home base. Without missing a beat before the start of the next verse he rescues his grown daughter from slaving over the stove and skillfully waltzes her around the room, gaily accompanying them in his lilting baritone:

“I will build my love a tower, near yon pure crystal fountain, And on it I will pile, all the flowers of the mountain.”

He moves with the confident agility of an acrobat. His daughter Diana, however, wearing a stiff vinyl cooking apron and brandishing a wooden spoon above her like Lady Liberty’s torch, is a reluctant dance partner. After a turn around the island she glances at the stovetop to signal that the pot may boil over if her attention is diverted for another second, and attempts to pull away. He finally releases her with an abrupt chortle followed by a kiss on the forehead. His flashing green eyes and solid reassuring jaw are softened by a fan of laugh lines, indicating that he’s accustomed to achieving his objectives, even if only temporarily, like this morning’s dance.

“Not bad for a man supposed to be pushing up the heather!” proclaims Hayden MacBride, a square-shouldered man of medium height, medium build, and medium age, all of which are in sharp contrast to his outsized personality. He seizes two spatulas and concludes his grand entrance with a drum roll on the countertop.

Not to be left out, Joey grabs the salt and pepper shakers off the kitchen table and places the matching pewter grinders up to his face as if they’re binoculars and he’s a fan at his grandfather’s impromptu concert. This elicits a merry smile of approval from Hayden and a scowl from Diana.

“Just think how much better you’d be feeling if you hadn’t skipped your doctor’s appointment,” she reprimands her father, thereby informing him that he’d been found out when the medical office called looking for him. “Not to mention take your pills, stop drinking, and come home before midnight.”

“You’re absolutely right,” replies Hayden. “Let’s not mention it!” Having spent a lifetime embracing joy he’s not about to let impending death get in his way.

“Well, I’m making another appointment,” says Diana. “The doctor said you’re a candidate for this experimental treatment that’s just been approved for testing.”

“Oh please, Diana,” replies Hayden. “There’s no cure for this thing and you bloody well know it. They’re just wantin’ to use a bunch of desperate fools as free guinea pigs.”

Father and daughter have had this conversation a hundred times in the past two weeks and both players know their lines by heart. And they’re both well aware that neither will prevail, no matter how many times the scene is performed.

However, with Diana’s attention momentarily diverted by Hayden, Joey sneaks around the corner into the dining room and returns with a brown paper bag that he passes to his grandfather behind his mother’s back. Then Joey moves to distract her by lifting the lid off the pot and licking the spoon so his grandfather can whisk the parcel into the front hall without being observed.

“Joseph!” his mother scolds on cue. “That’s disgusting!”

Joey scrunches his face at the lumpy beige goo. “Gross.”

Hayden returns minus the brown bag and wearing a tan straw hat tilted rakishly over one eye. He peers into the pot. “Double, double toil and trouble; fire burn and cauldron bubble.” Also making a face he asks, “Porridge in summer?”

“It’s called oatmeal here, Dad. And it’s good for you.”

“Well it’s called porridge in Mother Scotland and ’tis favored by the very young, the very old, and the very poor.”

“Stop filling Joey’s head with stories about witches and murders.” You can hear the capital letters as she speaks. “He’s going to have NIGHTMARES.”

“It’s bloody Shakespeare’s Macbeth.”

“I don’t care if it’s Dr. Spock. And don’t curse. And don’t fill up on junk food at the game.” Diana examines the green-and-white-checked dish towel she’s been using to determine if it should go into the wash. She throws it down the chute to the basement just to be on the safe side.

“Hey Mom, how do you get a Highlander up onto the roof?” asks Joey.

“I don’t know,” Diana says distractedly.

“You tell him that the drinks are on the house!” Joey laughs like crazy and a suppressed smile causes the corners of Hayden’s vivid green eyes to crinkle.

Diana’s eyelids flap up like window shades upon hearing the punch line and she peers critically at both father and son with such foreboding that it could earn her a part in Tomb Raider. “Stop letting Joey sit in with your Scottish cronies and their bawdy jokes! And don’t let him race up and down the bleachers in the hot sun.” Diana stresses “hot sun” as if the sun is the enemy rather than the patron of all life. “And make sure you take his inhaler.”

“Do I look like my head buttons up the back, woman?” demands Hayden.

“Did you sign my Little League permission slip?” Joey asks his mother.

“We’ll discuss it when your father picks you up on Sunday. If your father picks you up on Sunday.” Her expression is one not just filled with doubt but impending doom.

Joey can’t stand the way his mother and Hayden are always saying bad things about his father. In fact, this shared hatred seems to be the only thing about which the two of them ever agree. “Mom, there’s nothing to discuss. Dad said it’s fine.”

“Joey, you have asthma!” Diana states the condition as if it’s already claimed two hundred lives while they’ve been speaking. “Dad doesn’t talk to your doctors. I think you should play golf again this summer.”

“I don’t want to play golf,” whines Joey. “I want to play baseball.” Why can’t his mother see that by treating him like a boy in a plastic bubble she’s not only depriving him of a normal childhood, but preventing him from making any friends in the new neighborhood. In fact, if it weren’t for his grandfather, he’d be spending all his free time playing video games and solitaire. Joey moans and tilts backward against the refrigerator as if he’s just been stabbed in the heart by Macbeth’s dagger. “Golf is stupid. It’s a bunch of old farts talking about the stock market. I want to play baseball.”

“Hey, watch who yer calling an old fart now. I’ve only just turned fifty-five. And mind what you say about golf. It was the Scots who invented it and I daresay I managed to close more than a few deals on the fairway.” Hayden removes a large plastic pasta fork from the rack on the counter and playfully clunks Joey over the head with it. “C’mon now, we’re off like a new bride’s nightie.”

“Dad!” Diana protests what she considers to be risqué speech for the ears of an eleven-year-old boy, and also the mishandling of her cooking utensils. Why not just drop an eyeball in the garbage can rather than go to the trouble of poking it out?

“See you later Di-Di. There’s a copy of my life insurance policy on your dresser. Please look at it and then file it someplace where you’ll be able to find it. After all, you are the principal beneficiary. And there’s some Con Edison stock for you and Joey. Your sister Linda inherits whatever’s left in my bank account, which, believe me, is a lot less.”

“Dad, puh-leeze.” She waves her right hand in the air as if fending off an airborne plague. “I’ve told you that I don’t want to discuss it.”

The older man’s lighthearted manner evaporates like an eclipsed sun, and as his voice rises in frustration the Scottish brogue becomes more pronounced. “Well, if we do’an’ discuss it then who’s goin’ to make sure I do’an’ have Jell-O with teensy marshmallows served up at the funeral and that all me clients who never paid their premiums on time aren’t sit- tin’ in the front row handin’ out their business cards? And who’s goin’ to make sure I get cremated in me pajamas so that a good suit do’an’ go to waste?”

“Dad!”

“Do’an’ Dad me! There’s enough money in that policy for Joey to go to college. Which is about four years tuition more than your ex-husband the sculptor, or rather the sculpture, will ha’ put away when the time comes.”

Joey stuffs chocolate chip cookies into his pockets while his mother is preoccupied arguing with his grandfather. Since Diana and Joey moved from Westchester back to the family home in Brooklyn, grandfather and grandson have become adept at distracting the common enemy so as to provide each other with windows of opportunity to accomplish all the things of which she disapproves. In other words, most everything. They wriggle and scamper about like a herd of ferrets so that she can only concentrate on one at a time.

After just three short weeks of living under the same roof, it’s reached the stage where Diana insists that their combined antics are responsible for her first gray hairs and almost chronic neck tension. This is not at all what she had planned. By moving in with her father it had been Diana’s intention to nurse Hayden back to health, not bring sleep loss and stress-related illnesses upon herself, in addition to raising her son around whiskey, revelry, and bad language.

Hayden turns back to Joey. “Ready to go, slugger?”

“Aren’t you going to take your mitt, honey?” Diana, whose womb doubles as a tracking device, reminds her only child.

“Oh, yeah.” Joey stands on his toes and pecks her on the cheek. “It’s in the car.” He feels faintly guilty about lying to his mother, but on the other hand, if she knew what they were really up to she’d never again let him set foot outside the house with his grandfather.

“It seems as if the two of you have attended a baseball game every day so far this summer.” Diana punctuates her speech by scraping the glutinous oatmeal into the disposal. Then she begins scouring the sink with Comet, the way she does all surfaces, as if the regular application of cleanser can cure her father and son of their respective ailments.

“That’s the wonderful thing about havin’ a bloody awful team. It’s easy to get tickets.” Hayden is not a bad liar so much as his daughter is a good detector of lies, and thus he says this hurriedly and then beats a hasty retreat out to the driveway. In the bright summer sunlight his green-and-red-plaid i brake for highlanders bumper sticker stands out against the rusty chrome.

Hayden takes care as he maneuvers the station wagon through the tree-canopied side streets, past rows of stately old brownstones with stoops framed by wrought-iron railings, and out onto the main drag. “All I need is to have a fender bender. She won’t be able to snatch away my driver’s license fast enough.” He heads down a wide avenue flanked by brick row houses that have green-and-white-striped metal awnings and green shutters with copper eagles nailed to the front. Plastic furniture is scattered to the side of driveways like buckshot and a few large American flags hang at doorways in anticipation of the Fourth of July.

Hayden drives past St. Benedict’s Church and then turns onto the expressway and toward the wealthier neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights, with its nineteenth-century town houses and streets lined with gingko trees. Flatbed trucks rumble past as they haul their loads of scrap metal to the East River junkyards. He makes his way around bright orange cones, big black barrels of gravel, and construction workers waving checkered flags in order to slow drivers down. “Brooklyn will be a great city if they ever finish it,” jokes Hayden.

“It’s amazing that Mom actually believes we go to a baseball game every day,” says Joey. He makes no secret of the joy he gets from putting one over on his perpetually vigilant mother.

“She do’an’ follow sports. Diana will never understand payin’ good money to watch people purposely injure themselves.”

“How many funerals are we gonna hit today?” asks Joey. Most of the time he enjoys them, but after three in a row it can become depressing, all those people crying and blowing their noses and the women with their makeup all messed up, looking as if they’re preparing to head out trick-or-treating.

“I found three that look promising. The newspaper is right in the backseat. Check the death notices. I reckon there’s a fine chance of procurin’ some roast beef and shrimp scampi for lunch today.”
Author Q&A

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Laura Pedersen

Julie Sciandra and Laura Pedersen have been friends and occasionally colleagues
for more than twenty years. They walk each other’s dogs and also bowl
together. Julie usually wins, but Laura insists that this is because Julie’s family
owned a bowling alley in Buffalo, and thus she has had an unfair advantage.

Julie Sciandra: Did you always want to be a writer?
Laura Pedersen: I was a slow starter, basically a turnip in a sleeper the first
few years of my life, and I didn’t come on strong academically until
much later. Just learning to read was a huge accomplishment for me. I
would say the prospect of telling stories first arose in seventh grade. An
only child and pathologically shy I realized I had to do something to facilitate
interaction. So I started telling a few jokes and funny stories,
and found a positive response that led to friendships. After getting
yelled at for talking during class, I was forced to start writing and passing
notes.

JS: When did you first receive recognition for your writing?
LP: In middle school I won an essay contest for writing about Teddy Roosevelt.
And then I won a prize in the declamation contest for a speech
about Carrie Nation. But it wasn’t until high school that I really hit it
big—I was sentenced to community service for a poem I’d written that
contained a hidden message.

JS: How do you set about writing a novel like Last Call?
LP: I hear a lot of writers say they start with the seed for an idea, such as a
character or one particular event, and they don’t know where it’s going
to lead them. That could never work for me. I don’t start a book unless
I have the beginning and the end. Only the middle is something I can
work out as I go.

JS: Do you write every day?
LP: I definitely write checks every day. But I probably work on what will
eventually become a book or short story about four days a week, usually
between 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m., with an hour break for lunch and a
few other breaks for running errands or playing with the dogs. I have a
very short attention span and work best in spurts, then I need to do
something else for a while, like go Rollerblading or play basketball with
the kids.

JS: How long does it take you to write a book?
LP: That’s a real time-motion study, like how long between when a traffic
light in Manhattan turns green and the cab driver behind you leans on
his horn. But I’d say a book takes me a year, while doing other things. I
suppose that if I sat down with a freezerful of burritos and a vat of
chocolate, I could write a novel in eight weeks.

JS: Where do your ideas come from?
LP: From daily life. I live “hard” in the sense that I enjoy being on the go
and having lots of experiences. For instance, I went to the floor of the
stock exchange shortly after I turned eighteen. That environment created
the foundation for my first book, Play Money. Journalism has taken
me to exotic places like Russia, Turkey, and Cuba. If you want to tell a
story but you don’t have an idea, I think it’s best to go out and do something
and then write about it. There are a lot of things I’d love to do
but haven’t had time yet, and so I’ll occasionally imagine a character
doing them and use that in a novel. But at the end of the day, my stories
are always about living, loving, and dying.

JS: Are the characters based on people you’ve known in real life?
LP: I borrow bits and pieces from different individuals and then create new
people, sort of like a medieval dwarf going from house to house in the
middle of the night and stealing the essences of the townsfolk. For instance,
my friend Peter Heffley’s ninety-year-old mother, Mildred, is
the patron saint of worriers and pessimists. We actually look forward to
her negative pronouncements and often attempt to evoke them just for
entertainment. (Hence the catchphrase, “Who put the dread in Mildred?”)
I know if I say, “My, that’s a lovely orchid, Mrs. Heffley,” she’ll
retort, “It’s just about dead.” Or if Pete says he has the Fourth of July
party all organized, she undoubtedly replies, “There’s a storm heading
this way.” So for the character of Diana in Last Call, who is unlike Mrs.
Heffley in every other way, I borrowed the fretfulness along with some
of her best lines. And many of my charaters are built on a small slice of
me that I then exaggerate. For example, in Beginner’s Luck Hallie plays
poker, goes to the racetrack, and trades in the stock market. Gil likes
plays by Tennessee Williams, Craig is an only child, Olivia is a vegetarian,
and Bernard is optimistic and enjoys humor. Those are all based
on my own experiences or personality. Plus, I’m a lazy researcher.

JS: How does being a minister influence your writing?
LP: I’m an ordained interfaith minister (we respect all paths), but I don’t
have a congregation, and I don’t give sermons, except to the teenaged
Michael. In the not-for-profit world it helps to accomplish things if
you’re a minister or a politician. As for organized religion, I’m a lifelong
Unitarian Universalist. Most Sundays you’ll find me sitting in a pew
on the far right over at All Souls in Manhattan, reflecting on the
UU Trinity—reduce, reuse, and recycle.

JS: But there’s a lot of religion in Last Call, especially Catholicism.
LP: I’ve always had an interest in religion, especially since it’s been the
cause of so many wars and so much strife. Also, my earliest childhood
memory is of my mother yelling, “Jesus Christ, is it ever going to stop
snowing?”
One of my favorite stories is how in the late 1300s there were two
dueling popes, Clement VII and Urban VI, both busily excommunicating
each other. Finally, a council was called to decide between
them. Pietro Pilarghi, who helped bring about the council, made himself
pope and told the others to take a hike. Neither did, and so then
there were three popes.
As for making Rosamond a Catholic, when I was growing up outside
of Buffalo in the 1970s, eighty percent of the population was Catholic.
As James Joyce famously said about his faith, Catholicism means “Here
comes everybody!” Catholics live out loud in a terrific way. So every-
where you turned there was a big church, battalions of habited nuns,
outdoor celebrations on feast days, and of course the Friday fish fry.
(Word of the Vatican II council that ended in 1965 apparently
hadn’t yet reached Buffalo. Cowboy comedian Will Rogers once explained
that he wanted to be in Buffalo when the world ended because
it would happen there five years later.) So my friends were constantly
dashing off to Mass, confession, religious instruction, and CYO (Catholic
Youth Organization). Having had so much exposure to that particular
faith, I thought it would be interesting to set up a sort of fictional showdown
between an atheist and a Roman Catholic. Also, if Rosie had
been a Theosophist, I don’t think the story would work as well because
there aren’t the lifestyle constraints and concept of an afterlife to work
with. And worse, I would have had to do research.

JS: I notice you have a pair of snazzy new red-and-blue bowling shoes. Is
there a big game tonight?
LP: Not tonight, but I haven’t given up on my idea of bringing about world
peace through bowling. It’s a sport that allows almost everyone to play,
regardless of race, religion, economic background, and body type. You
can wear a sombrero, burka, kilt, saffron robe, or whatever you like.

JS: So what’s next? I’ve seen you scribbling on your jeans, which usually
means a new book is in the works.
LP: After Beginner’s Luck came out people asked, “What happens to Hallie?”
It was open-ended, so I’ve written a sequel called Heart’s Desire.
Hallie has finished her first year away at college and returns to the
Stockton household for the summer, which is in a greater state of chaos
than usual, if that’s possible. Gil and Bernard have broken up, and Ottavio
is pressuring Olivia to marry him. Meanwhile, Hallie is contemplating
that age-old teenage dilemma: Should she or shouldn’t she?

Praise

Praise

“This book will make you laugh and cry and like a good friend; you’ll be happy to have made its acquaintance.”
—LORNA LANDVIK
Author of Angry Housewives Eating Bons Bons

“This book will make you laugh and cry and like a good friend, you’ll be happy to have made its acquaintance.”
—LORNA LANDVIK
Author of Angry Housewives Eating Bons Bons

“A breezy coming-of-age novel with an appealing cast of characters.”
Booklist

“A fresh and funny look at not fitting in.”
Seventeen magazine


Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. Have circumstances driven Diana to become more overprotective and
fretful than she might be if life were easier at the moment—if she had
more money and a nice husband, and if her father wasn’t ill? Have you
ever gone through a rough period when you felt like a person on the
verge of a breakdown due to events beyond your control—when life
temporarily eclipses your true personality, or at least the person you
want to be?

2. Is Hayden a good or bad influence on his grandson? Is Hayden helpful
in counteracting Diana’s coddling of her son, especially now that he’s
almost a teenager? Or is Hayden the one making Diana anxious in the
first place?

3. Does Hayden’s appreciation of the freedom and opportunity he’s found
in the United States, combined with fierce pride for his homeland,
bring to mind the mixed attitudes shared by immigrants you know?

4. Does it matter what religion, if any, Joey becomes when he’s older? Or
have Hayden and Rosamond imparted other valuable lessons?

5. Do you know people who have fallen out over religion, or decided not
to marry because of the issue? Would you agree or disagree that there
are certain situations where the differences and difficulties just can’t be
overcome?

6. Has Rosamond truly lost her faith, or, as a woman coming to the end of
her childbearing years, is she suffering from a vacuum of human affec-
tion? Is it possible to live a rich and full life and not know physical
intimacy?

7. Why does Diana suddenly allow Joey to play baseball after her sister’s
stepson dies in a freak accident? Shouldn’t this event serve to make her
more fearful that Joey will be injured?

8. Is Hayden really an atheist or does he have his own spiritual program
to live a good and full life—perhaps “Haydenism”? Would you say that
you subscribe to all the tenets of a specific faith or that you’ve assembled
your own guidelines?

9. Is it possible that any events in the book were meant to be miracles? Or
are they just life’s typical accidents and coincidences?

10. If you wanted to find biblical equivalents for the characters in Last Call,
who might have the most in common with Bobbie Anne?

11. Being a good parent often involves making difficult choices and personal
sacrifices. What are some real-life examples of this made by people
you know?

12. Rosamond lost her mother when she was young. Hayden lost his father
and had a difficult youth because his family lost their farm. Joey’s parents
are divorced and he no longer sees his father. Do you think such
childhood events forever change the way we see and react to the world?
When you look back, is there anything you experienced early on, good
or bad, that you’d say has had a tremendous impact on later decisions,
or the way you’ve chosen to live your life or raise your family?

13. Diana and her sister, Linda, appear to have had a pleasant childhood,
complete with two parents who love and provide for them. Yet the sisters
don’t get along. Why do family tensions often arise even when
there’s no apparent reason for it? Are there siblings in your family who
aren’t close and it’s hard to determine when or why it all started?

14. By the end of the story has Rosamond converted Hayden or vice versa?
Or are they both able to love in their own way and stay true to opposing
belief systems?

15. Is it possible to overcome some religious differences by focusing on the
similarities?

16. Why does Rosamond return to the convent at the end of the story?

17. What do you think Rosamond and Hayden would say about I Corinthians
13:13: “There are three things that will endure: faith, hope, and
love, and the greatest of these is love”? Is it true that love can transcend
everything, including religion and even death?


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