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“I’m not dead, Charlotte,” Grandpère Etienne said.
“But you are retired, Pépère.” I tweaked his rosy cheek and skirted around him to throw a drop cloth over the rustic wooden table that usually held wheels of cheese, like Abbaye de Belloc, Manchego, and Humboldt Fog, the latter cheese a great pairing with chardonnay. Dust billowed up as the edges of the drop cloth hit the shop fl oor.
“A retired person may have an opinion.”
“Yes, he can.” I smiled. “But you put me in charge.”
“You and Matthew.”
My adorable cousin. If I had a brother, he would be just like Matthew. Bright, funny, and invaluable as an ally against my grandfather when he was being stubborn.
“What does Matthew say about all this?” Pépère folded his arms around his bulging girth. The buttons on his blue-striped shirt looked ready to pop. The doctor said Pépère needed to watch his weight and cholesterol, and I had been trying to get him to eat more of the hard cheeses that contained a lower fat content than the creamy cheeses he loved so much, but he had perfected the art of sneaking little bites. What was I to do?
I gave my grandfather’s shoulder a gentle squeeze. “Pépère, I love this place. So does Matthew. We only want the best for it. Trust us. That’s why you made us partners.”
“Bah! So many changes. Why fix something that isn’t broken? The shop made a good profit last year.”
“Because life is all about change. Man does not live by cheese alone,” I joked.
Pépère didn’t smile.
Fromagerie Bessette, or as the locals in the little town of Providence, Ohio, liked to call it, The Cheese Shop, needed to expand and get with the times. Our proximity to Amish country was driving more and more tourism in our direction. The town was exploding with bed-and-breakfasts, art galleries, candle and quilt shops, and fine restaurants. To take advantage of the boom, Matthew and I decided the shop needed a facelift. We had stowed all the cheeses in the walk-in refrigerator until the renovation was complete. The sign on the door of the shop read Closed.
“Pépère, why don’t you take a walk in the vegetable garden?” The town had a co-op vegetable garden and hothouse in the alley behind the shops on Hope Street. “Pluck me some basil. Maybe some heirloom tomatoes.” I intended to sell homemade basil pesto in jars. For a simple treat, basil pesto ladled over a scoop of locally made chévre and served with flatbread and a slice of a juicy heirloom tomato is an economical gourmet delight.
Pépère muttered something in French. I understood. “Give the horse the reins and the rider is quickly thrown off.”
For a little more than thirty years, I had heard Pépère’s witticisms and grown in the tutelage of his wisdom about all things cheese. Today, I turned a deaf ear. I needed to concentrate. Everything for the reopening of the shop was going smoothly. So far. But if we were to finish by next week, we had to maintain a strict schedule. The decorator was due any minute with the updated kitchen fixtures and lighting fixtures, none of which had been switched out since 1957. Antiques were to be prized in a home, but not in a thriving business concern. The painter was scheduled to arrive at noon to paint the walls and refinish the twelve-foot wood counter at the rear of the store, hence the need to stow the cheese and cover the display tables with drop cloths. The painter would stain the wood a warm honey brown to match the ladder-back stools by the Madura gold granite tasting counter, and then paint the walls Tuscany gold. Yesterday we had installed extra shelving that would soon be loaded with new additions like patés, chutneys, homemade jams made without pectin or preservatives, gourmet olives, crackers, and artisanal breads. I would cluster cheese baskets, gifts, and accessories on the five oak barrels stationed around the shop. My favorite gifts—the olive-wood-handled knives from France, the copper fondue pots from Italy, and the crystal cheese trays from Ireland—would sit on the largest barrel prominently stationed in the middle of the room. Over the last year, thanks to the Internet, I had “visited” many wonderful places and found one-of-a-kind items.
“Where is Matthew?” Pépère said, ending my moment of patting myself on the back for a job well done.
“Seeing to the wine annex.”
Matthew used to be a sommelier in one of Cleveland’s finest restaurants, but a month ago, life struck him a hard blow, and suddenly living in a big city didn’t appeal to him. His wife ditched him and his twin daughters and went back to dear old Mumsie and dear old Dad to live in their thatch-roofed vicarage in dear old England. My grandparents, who never liked the woman in the first place, had urged me to take in Matthew and the girls. How could I say no? When Pépère offered us the partnership in The Cheese Shop, Matthew jumped at the chance. He arrived bursting with new ideas. A must-see place like Fromagerie Bessette should also sell wine, he argued, and Providence didn’t have a wine shop yet. I had agreed wholeheartedly, and we set to work.
For the annex, we leased the empty space next to The Cheese Shop. We cut an archway between, laid travertine tiles on the floor, paneled the wine annex with dark mahogany, installed a bar and stools, and added rows and rows of wine bottle nooks. Voilà. In a short time, we had created an authentic-looking winery tasting room. When word got out, local vintners had clamored to provide samples.
“Progress, bah.” My sweet old grandfather uttered another grumble of disapproval and fled through the rear door of the shop.
I smiled. I had prepared myself for his resistance. After World War II, he and Grandmère had migrated from France and given their life’s blood to The Cheese Shop. Pépère did not like me bucking tradition, but I had such dreams: cheese and wine tastings, a mail-order business come the fall, cooking classes. I even planned to write a cheese cookbook. It would be so popular that the Barefoot Contessa would beg to write the foreword.
One thing at a time, I reminded myself and chuckled. Like cheese, if I set too many slices of life on a plate, the flavors would be indistinct.
The grape-leaf-shaped chimes hanging over the front door tinkled.
“Charlotte, take a look at these beauties.” Matthew bounded across the natural pine floor like a long-limbed Great Dane. He carried two mosaic bistro tables with S-scrolled legs that I had ordered from Europa Antiques and Collectibles, a quaint shop located in the building next to ours. “Très hip,” he said. “You did good.”
The antique shop’s proprietor, Vivian Williams, glided in behind Matthew, carrying a pair of matching mosaic chairs in black matte finish. She reminded me of a clipper ship, aloof and elegant, sails unfurled, her chin-length hair in a flip, the flaps of her Ann Taylor suit jacket flying wide. She said, “Take these. I’ll go get to the other set of chairs.”
I slipped the stools from her grasp, admiring for a second time the way the round mosaic seats matched the table. Definite conversation pieces. I traipsed after Matthew into the annex.
Vivian returned in seconds with two more chairs. “By the by, I saw the girls on their way to school. They’re so adorable.”
Matthew’s eight-year-old twins....