The Mystery Guests
A tussle over the farmer’s market’s last rabbit leads to a dinner invitation — and mounting anxiety over who’s coming to supper.
By Sharon L. Hobson
Illustration by Patrick Corrigan
While enjoying a bowl of oatmeal at the Bristol Diner a dozen years ago, I noticed a large stranger step out of the kitchen to write lunch specials in a rounded script: Southern Fried Chicken with Lyonnaise Potatoes and Sautéed Greens $7.50.
Retired fishermen nursing their coffees shook their heads in amusement. Exotic at the Bristol Diner was Wednesday afternoon’s turkey chili.
“You’re new,” I said to the woman. Her name was Beverly, and she might have been from Boston, or New York, or from down South; it seemed to change during the three months I knew her. We became friends and, within a few weeks, she moved into the guest room of my little cabin.
I was managing the seasonal Coveside Restaurant in Christmas Cove. Beverly was cooking breakfast and lunch at the diner. We shared a passion for food and soon concocted a plan to try our hand at a secret restaurant. I knew people, and she already had a reputation as a larger-than-life woman who could really cook, so we relied on word-of-mouth.
Beverly took care of the food, and I ran the front of the house. The living/dining room of my cabin was emptied and set up for ten diners. Guests were instructed to leave cash in an envelope for the meal. We sold out for our experimental Saturday night.
Cooking began days in advance. Aromas from slow-simmering braises filled the air as Beverly hummed in the kitchen. I ironed linens, arranged flowers, washed windows. On Friday, we drove to the Damariscotta farmer’s market to purchase local salad greens.
As I blissfully buried my nose in a box of locally foraged mushrooms, I heard an argument developing. I was shocked to see Beverly in a disagreement with a much shorter and older lady.
“But I just bought it!” I heard the woman say.
“Beverly, what’s going on?” I asked.
“This woman just bought the last rabbit and I want it!” Beverly complained.
“Rabbit is not on our menu.” I reasoned.
“But I want it! It would be perfect.” Beverly enthused.
With narrowed eyes, Beverly looked down at the woman and said, “I am going to pay you for this rabbit. You are going to come to Sharon’s cabin on Sunday evening and eat rabbit with us.”
It was difficult to say no to Beverly.
“Okay,” said the woman, “what can I bring?”
“Dessert,” replied Beverly.
I grabbed a piece of scrap paper from the mushroom guy and tore it in half. We exchanged names and phone numbers.
As we walked to the car, the woman cried after us, “Oh, I have a husband!”
“Is he nice?” I yelled.
“Yes,” came the reply.
“Then bring him along.”
Saturday night’s secret restaurant was flawless. Amazing food. Good wine. Candlelight. The guests were charmed. At night’s end one guest asked what was happening the following evening. I explained we were cooking dinner for a woman from whom Beverly had scammed a rabbit. She was bringing her husband. The man wanted to know who, so I went to my bedroom and pulled the crumpled paper out of the pocket of my discarded jeans.
“Her name is Esta,” I stated.
“Esta Kramer?” he asked.
“Don’t know. I just have Esta.”
“What’s the phone number?” he persisted.
I gave it, and he said, “So you are cooking dinner for Hilton and Esta Kramer.”
“Oh my God! No way. That’s impossible.” I stammered.
“Yes. They live in Waldoboro.” He sounded very certain.
I ran back to my bedroom throwing myself on the bed. I screamed into my pillow. I could not believe it. Not the Hilton Kramer. He lives somewhere else. Probably New York. He cannot live in coastal Maine just a few minutes from here.
Absolutely no way.
After the guests left, I explained to Beverly who Hilton Kramer was.
“He is one of the most important art critics ever! I read his books in art school. He writes for the New York Times,” I blathered on.
I couldn’t sleep. I reasoned that this was a mistake or perhaps there was another Hilton Kramer. The Hilton Kramer could not be coming to my humble cabin for a rabbit dinner. Just in case, I cleaned obsessively. Everything had to be perfect, even though it wouldn’t truly be him.
Mid-morning the phone rang and a voice said, “This is your new friend, Esta Kramer. I’m just calling to make sure we are still on for this evening and to get directions.”
Kramer? Did she really say Kramer?
I assured her we were definitely on and that the rabbit was being prepared. I gave her driving directions and then, as innocently as I could manage, asked, “Esta, what’s your husband’s name?”
Running outside I yelled to the world, “Hilton Kramer is having dinner with me! Hilton Kramer!” I called two artist friends. Even as I was telling them, I thought it might not be true.
The afternoon was an intoxicating mix of euphoria, fear, and disbelief, with an edge of nausea. I giggled a lot. Beverly was getting annoyed.
I didn’t hear the car drive up but I did hear a car door shut. Looking out my bedroom window, I saw Esta Kramer reach into the back seat of her white Volvo and hand Mr. Hilton Kramer her stunning fresh fruit tart. He was dressed as I knew he would be — pants perfectly pressed, Oxford shirt, tweed jacket, and very handsome shoes that might have been handmade just for him by a wrinkled and weathered personal cobbler.
My mind was narrating, “Hilton Kramer is walking to my deck holding a fruit tart. Hilton Kramer is walking up the steps. Hilton Kramer is at my cabin door.”
The four of us sat on the deck chatting and drinking the white Burgundy they brought. I didn’t know what to do with this moment. Should I reveal I know who they are? That I have an art background? That I had been an art critic in Indianapolis before moving to Maine? It would be too embarrassing. I couldn’t.
Details of the meal elude me. Our conversation and the nuances of the moment do not. Hilton, who claimed to not like dogs, holding Sadie, my Welsh terrier, on his lap. Esta enthralled with Beverly’s current version of her life. As details of their world unfolded — house for sale in Connecticut, apartment in New York City — Esta leaned in and confided, “You don’t know this, but my husband is a well-known art critic.”
Beverly gave a deep, rich laugh and said, “Yeah, we know. That’s why Sharon wore rollers in her hair all day.”
As is the custom at my cabin, Esta and Hilton each signed their names on the back of my closet door. Their names are squeezed between friends’ scrawls, children’s careful printing, family’s Spam references, and my husband’s love notes.
After that evening, I occasionally saw the Kramers. Hilton and I went to an exhibit at Bowdoin College. Esta made me lunch at their place. I sent Christmas cards. For a while I would see an immaculately dressed Hilton strolling Main Street. A few years ago Esta and Hilton came to a party at our home where he warned me not to paint my new shed’s barn-style doors red. “You’ll regret it,” he promised.
Hilton Kramer died at the age of eighty-four on March 27 of this year. Esta Kramer continues to live in Damariscotta.
Raised as a Hoosier, Sharon L. Hobson has lived in Maine for fourteen years. She is an author of Jiggelo: Inventive Gelatin Shots for Creative Imbibers and is wine director for a pair of midcoast restaurants.