When you first start out, you’re going to ask people what they’re looking for. This is a big mistake. Huge. They want the impossible. Every woman wants a Cary Grant with a thick wallet who doesn’t mind if she’s a few pounds overweight. Every man wants a floozy he can take home to Mom. See? Asking their opinions only leads to headaches you could die from. Take it from me, I’ve been doing this a lot of years. Nobody knows what they want. You have to size a person up and tell them what they want. It might take convincing, but you’ll widen their horizons, and they’ll thank you for it. Eventually. Remember, love can come from anywhere, usually where you least expect it. Tell them not to be afraid, even if it hits them on the head and hurts a lot at first. With enough time, any schlimazel can turn into a Cary Grant or a presentable floozy.
Lesson 22, Matchmaking Advice from Your Grandma Zelda
The morning I found out about Randy Terns’ murder, I was happily oblivious. I was too busy to care, trying to make heads or tails of my grandma’s matchmaking business. Nobody actually mentioned the word “murder” that morning. I sort of stumbled onto the idea later on.
That Thursday I sat in my grandma’s makeshift office in the attic of her sprawling Victorian house, buried under mounds of yellowed index cards and black-and-white Polaroid pictures. It was all part of Zelda’s Match- making Services, a business I now co-owned at my grandma’s insistence as her only living relative and what she called “a natural matchmaker if ever I saw one.”
“Gladie Burger,” she had told me over the phone three months before, urging me to move in with her, “you come from a long line of Burger women. Burger women are matchmaker women.”
I was a Burger woman, but I had strong doubts about the matchmaker part. Besides, I couldn’t decipher the business. It was stuck in the dark ages with no computer, let alone Internet connection. Grandma fluctuated between staging workshops, running group meetings, hosting walk-ins, and just knowing when someone needed to be fixed up. “It’s an intuitive thing,” she explained.
I pushed aside a stack of cards, stirring up a black cloud of dust. I had been a matchmaker in training for three months, and I was no closer to matching any couples. To be truthful, I hadn’t even tried. I wiped my dusty hands on my sweatpants and stared at the giant mound on her desk. “Grandma, I’m not a matchmaker,” I said to her stapler. “I’ve never even had a successful relationship. I wouldn’t know one if I saw one.”
I had a sudden desire for fudge. I gave my stomach a squish and tugged at my elastic waistband. My grandmother was a notorious junk food addict, and I had slipped into her bad habits since I moved in with her. Hard to believe I was the same person who not even four months ago was a cashier in a trendy health food store in Los Angeles, the second-to-last job I had had in a more than ten-year string of jobs—which was probably why Grandma had twisted my arm to move to Cannes, California.
I decided against fudge and picked up an index card. It read: George Jackson, thirty-five years old. Next to the note, in Grandma’s handwriting, was scribbled Not a day less than forty-three; breath like someone died in his mouth. Halitosis George was looking for a stewardess, someone who looked like Jackie Kennedy and had a fondness for Studebakers. Whoa, Grandma kept some pretty old records. I needed to throw out 95 percent of the cards, but I didn’t know which 5 percent to keep.
Putting down the card, I stared out the window, my favorite activity these days. What had I gotten myself into? I had no skills as a matchmaker. I was more of a temp agency kind of gal. Something where I wasn’t in charge of other people’s lives. My three-week stint as a wine cork inspector was more my speed.
A man and his German shepherd ran down the street. I checked my watch: 12:10 p.m. Right on time. I could always count on the habits of the neighbors. There was a regular stream of devoted dog walkers, joggers, and cyclists that passed the house on a daily basis. Not much changed here. The small mountain town was low on surprises. I tried to convince myself that was a good thing. Stability was good. Commitment was good.
With sudden resolve, I took George Jackson’s card and threw it in the wastebasket. “Bye, George. I hope you found love and an Altoid.”
I tried another card. Sarah Johns. Nineteen years old. She had gotten first prize at the county fair for her blueberry pie, and she was looking for an honest man who didn’t drink too much. My grandma had seen something more in her. Poor thing. Art school better than man, she had written in the margins.
I tossed the card, letting it float onto George. Matchmaking was no easy task. It wasn’t all speed dating and online chat rooms. Lives were on the line. One false move and futures could be ruined.
The house across the street caught my attention. It had seen better days. A bunch of shingles were missing, leaving a big hole in the roof. I watched as the mailman stopped at the mailbox. He would arrive at Grandma’s in twelve minutes. I could set my watch by him.
Across the street, the front door opened. An elderly woman stepped out and picked up her mail. She glanced at the letters and then stood staring at her front yard. Something was not quite right about the picture. I didn’t have time to dwell on it, though. I had promised Grandma I would pick up lunch for us in town.
I grabbed my keys and hopped down the stairs. Outside, it was a typical Cannes, California, August day: blue sky, sunshine, and warm. Normally it didn’t turn cool until October, or so I was told. My experience with the town was limited to summers visiting my grandmother when I was growing up.
“Yoo-hoo! Gladie!” Grandma’s high-pitched cry cut through the country quiet. She stood in the front yard, hovering over the gardener as he cut roses. The front yard was about half an acre of lawn and meticulously groomed plants, flowers, and trees. It was her pride and joy, and Grandma supervised the gardening with an obsession usually reserved for Johnny Depp or chocolate. I doubted she had ever picked up a spade in her life. “Yoo-hoo! Gladie!” she repeated, flapping her arm in the air, her crisp red Chanel knockoff suit bulging at the seams and the glittering array of diamonds on her fingers, wrists, and neck blinding me in the afternoon sun.
“I’m right here, Grandma.” I jiggled the car keys to remind her of my lunch run.
“Jose, leave a few white ones for good luck and be careful with the shears,” she told the gardener. “You don’t want to lop off a finger.” Jose shot her a panicked look and crossed himself.
Grandma walked as quickly as she could across the large lawn to the driveway. She had a grin plastered across her face and, no doubt, some juicy bit of news bursting to pop out of her mouth. Her smile dimmed only slightly when she got a good look at my state. I pulled up my baggy sweatpants. As usual, she was immaculately coiffed and made up, whereas my brown hair was standing up in all directions in a frantic frizz, and my eyelashes hadn’t seen mascara in months. I didn’t see much reason to dress up because I rarely left the attic, but standing next to Grandma, I was a little self-conscious about my attire. As a rule, her clothes were nicely tailored. I listened to the soft swish-swish of her pantyhose-covered thighs rubbing together as she approached. I wondered vaguely if the friction of her nylon stockings could cause them to burst into flames. I took a cowardly step backward, just in case.
“I’m so glad I caught you before you left,” she said, a little out of breath from either her run or the excitement over the piece of gossip she was about to blurt out. While Grandma never left her property, she somehow knew everything going on in town.
“I didn’t get much done,” I said. “I can’t figure out what to keep and what to toss. Should I throw out everything older than ten years?”
“Fine. Fine. Listen. Randy Terns is dead. They found him yesterday morning, deader than a doornail.”
I racked my brain. Who was Randy Terns? Was he the new secretary of state? Really, I had to read a newspaper once in a while. What kind of responsible citizen was I?
“That’s terrible,” I muttered, a noncommittal edge to my voice in case Randy Terns was a war criminal or something.
“Yes, yes. Terrible. Terrible.” Grandma waved her hands as if everything was terrible. The sky, the trees, my car—all terrible. She grabbed my arm in a viselike grip and pulled herself close to make sure that I heard every word. “I’m on Betty like white on rice to sell that old run-down excuse for a house. I’d love to get in some people who will fix it up. Look at me! I’m drooling over the thought of waking up, going out to get the paper, and not having to see that dreadful lawn across from my prize-winning roses.” She made air quotes with her fingers when she said “lawn.”
She turned to face the house across the street. “I bet you will be thrilled not to have to stare at that falling- down roof every day!”
Falling-down roof. My brain kicked into gear, and I recalled the woman standing by her mailbox. Randy and Betty Terns were the neighbors across the street. I’d never had much interaction with them. And now Randy was dead. Found yesterday morning, deader than a doornail.
I hate death. I’m scared it’s contagious. At funerals, I feel my arteries start to harden. Medical shows on TV send me into neurotic fits. McDreamy or McSteamy, it doesn’t matter—I only see my slow, agonizing death from a terrible disease. Like Ebola or flesh-eating bacteria. Or a drug-resistant superbug yeast infection. If I found out that poor Randy Terns died of a heart attack, it would only take five minutes or so for my chest pains to start.
“Betty said she would think about it,” Grandma said with disgust. “Said she has a funeral to organize and a houseful of kids. Kids. Huh. The youngest is thirty-seven. Three of them still live at home. It’s time to push those birdies out of the nest, I say.”
She harrumphed loudly and kicked the cobblestoned driveway with her left Jimmy Choo. Gold-tipped. Very fancy.
“Five children. Why do people take things to extremes?” she continued. “Anyway, they come and go like they own the place, moving in and out whenever they want. They’re holding on for dear life. A bunch of losers, the lot of them. I didn’t make an index card for any of them.” She looked at me expectantly, and I nodded vigorously in agreement, even though the most I saw of the “bunch of losers” these days were some faceless figures going to and from various cars.
Excerpted from An Affair to Dismember by Elise Sax. Copyright © 2013 by Elise Sax. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.