Book Club: Sweet Caroline

By

November 3, 2010

by Rachel Hauck

All her life, Caroline has been the responsible, dependable one. She’s taken care of everyone but herself, and what does she have to show for it? An old car that’s earned her the nickname “Breakdown Sally” and a job as a waitress at the down-on-its-heels Frogmore Café. So when her friend offers the “opportunity of a lifetime” job in Barcelona, Caroline takes a deep breath and says “yes.”

But before she can head off to sunny Spain and a new life, Caroline inherits the café where she works—along with its decrepit wiring, ancient plumbing, and unpaid bills. Now what? If she refuses to take on the café, what will happen to its long-time employees, place in the community, and buttery biscuits? And what about handsome Deputy Sherriff J.D. Rand?

At least Caroline doesn’t have to worry about her first love, local boy turned country music star Mitch O’Neal. He’s back in town, but it’s not a problem―because she’s over him. Totally over him. Totally.

Will Caroline take the job in Spain? Or will she put everyone else first (again) and stay home? You’ll have to read the book to find out. Hint: to really get into the story, read it with a plate of hot biscuits and a glass of sweet tea close by. It’ll almost be like sitting in a booth at the Frogmore Café.


Excerpt

June 4

Beaufort, South Carolina

The sun rises in a pinkish-blue spring sky over the Beaufort River as I exit the old drawbridge and turn left onto Bay Street. My rusty red ’68 Mustang jerks and shimmies, threatening to quit on me—again—while from the radio, Tim McGraw sings when the stars go blue.

The old girl’s carburetor sputters and chokes. Mimicking Dad, I bang the dash. “Don’t die on me, Matilda. I’m late for work.” I mash the clutch and gun the gas, desperate to keep her alive. Matilda rattles and clanks in defiance.

Last month, while waiting for the drawbridge to swing closed, Matilda shot a plume of black smoke out her tailpipe and stalled with a kerplunk. What followed was a lot of car-horn swearing, then being pushed across the
bridge by angry drivers who’d as soon shoot me as help me. The car is giving me a rep.

But today I make it over the bridge in spite of Matilda’s rattle trapping. Paul Mulroney of Mulroney’s Bistro glances up from sweeping his walk as I rumble down Bay Street. He shakes his head, shouting something I can’t quite make out. I smile and wave, doing my part to enhance community relations.

At seven thirty in the a.m., downtown Beaufort wakes up with a slow, sleepy feel. By midday, the streets will flow with tourists and tanned retirees looking to buy a slice of lowcountry life. If only people would make their way down to Jones McDermott’s—may he rest in peace—little Frogmore Café on the corner of Bay and Harrington.

“A town treasure,” the Beaufort Gazette called the Café in a story about Jones the day after his funeral. More like forgotten treasure. If it wasn’t for the regulars—most of them senior citizens over sixty—the Café would be sunken treasure.

Making the light at Church Street, I swerve into the Café’s graveland- crushed-shell parking lot. Stopping in the shade of a thick, ancient live oak, the Mustang’s motor chokes and, at last, dies. “Ho, boy.” When I try to restart, the engine refuses to fire.

“Fine, swell, great. Be that way.”

Anointing the moment with a few soap-worthy words, I fish my cell phone from the bottom of my backpack and autodial Dad. While it rings on his end, I study the back of the Café. The paint is faded and peeling from a thousand afternoons of baking in the hot South Carolina sun. One side of the porch leans and slopes.

Since Jones’s sudden death from a heart attack a few weeks ago, I’ve been managing the place with the rest of the crew—Andy, Mercy Bea, and Russell—trying to make a go of things. Business is slow. Money is almost nonexistent. Unfortunately, the heyday of the Frogmore Café echoes in the Valley of Time alongside beehive hairdos and eight-track cassettes.

Daddy’s phone rings for the third time. Come on, pick up.

Mercy Bea Hart, the Café’s senior waitress, steps through the kitchen door, lighting a cigarette, indicating to me with a jab at her watchless wrist that I’m late.

Thirty-some years ago, Mercy Bea had her fifteen minutes of fame when she won a Jayne Mansfield look-alike contest. Got her picture in a Hollywood magazine and appeared on The Mike Douglas Show. Ever since, she’s maintained her once-won image—dyed-blonde bombshell hair, curvy figure with just the right amount of cleavage, red lips, and long, lacquered fingernails.

“Yeah, Caroline, what’s up?” Dad’s crisp question is accompanied by the grind of heavy equipment.

“Matilda.”

“Again? Caroline, it may just be time to get rid of that thing.”

We’ve had this conversation. “Can you tow it to CARS? Please?” I glance at my watch. Seven thirty-five. While I take care of the Café books, I also wait tables, and my regulars arrive at 8:02.

“Where are you?” Dad asks.

“The Café parking lot.” Hitching my backpack higher on my shoulder, I lean against the car door. The morning is muggy but breezy, fragrant with the sour scent of the dark, soft pluff mud of the river marsh.

“At least you made it to work this time.” A chuckle softens his tone.

Kudos for Matilda. “See, she isn’t all bad.”

“Keep telling yourself that, Caroline. I’ll be along after this job. I’m down in Bluffton, and we’re having trouble with the equipment.”

“Thank you a thousand times over, Daddy.”

“You’re welcome a thousand times over.”

Pressing End, I stuff my phone into the front pocket of my backpack and head for the Café’s kitchen door. Mercy Bea snuffs out her cigarette in a stained-glass ashtray. “You’re late.”

“What are you, the time-clock gestapo? I was caught in bridge traffic.”

“Can’t be running in here late, Caroline.” She settles the ashtray on the windowsill and follows me inside. “And you best get rid of that broken-down heap. Half the town’s push-started you. Growing tired of it.”

“How lucky I am to live in such a warm, friendly place. How’s business this morning?” In the office, just off the kitchen, I flip on the light and unzip my backpack.

“Slow. I cleaned the bathrooms for you.” Mercy Bea leans her shoulder against the doorjamb and picks at her brilliant-red fingernails. “Land sakes, I’ve got to get my nails done.”

“You cleaned the bathrooms? For me.” Tying on my apron, I gaze over at her.

“Don’t act all surprised.” She pops and cracks her gum. “You covered for me a few times when my young-sons got into trouble.” Mercy Bea is a single mom of two teen boys she affectionately refers to as “young-sons.”

“So . . . anything new from Jones’s lawyer?”

Aha. This is why she cleaned the bathrooms—to butter me up for information. Not that I’m keeping secrets. “Not since he called last Wednesday. He’s still tied up with an estate case in Charleston. Said he’d be down as soon as he was free.”

“Well, you let me know if you hear from him, now.”

“Don’t I always?”

Even though I’m not the senior Café employee, Jones’s lawyer, Kirk Harris, deals directly with me. My guess is because I’ve been handling the business side of the Café for two years. It’s the reason Jones hired me.

“I could use your help around here, Caroline. Someone to teach the Café ropes,” Jones said to me one afternoon when I stopped by for some Frogmore Stew.

Learning the Café ropes wasn’t high on my list of life goals, but between Jones’s aged puppy-dog eyes and a mental picture of my Granddaddy Sweeney looking down from heaven, whispering, “Be sweet, Caroline; help out my old friend,” I couldn’t say no.

Jones started me out waiting tables, then added on bookkeeping and ordering. Turns out everyone at the Frogmore Café wears multiple hats. Though I’m not allowed to cook. All on account of almost burning down Beaufort High when I took home ec. But that’s another story.

Exchanging my flip-flops for my black work clogs, I glance at Mercy Bea. “So, how’d your date with Ralph Carter go last night?” Mercy Bea responds with a Cruella Deville cackle. “Oh, dear girl. He was a loser with a capital L-O-O-S-E-R.”

“You mean L-O-S-E-R.”

“That’s what I said.”

“You added an extra O.”

“Caroline, I can spell loser.” Her exhale is edgy. “I’ve certainly acquainted myself with enough of them.”

Whatever. “So, all your great hair dye and makeup went to waste?” I retrieve my pen and order pad from the desk, then stuff my backpack into the bottom drawer.

“On him, yes. Though I looked pretty darn hot, if I say so myself.”

“Miss Mansfield would be proud.”

“I had a little bit of a flirt with a Marine pilot when L-O-S-E-R went to the toilet. Turns out he was married. But ”—she jabs the air with her finger—“in my defense, he wasn’t wearing a ring, and the wife was outside on her phone.”

I snap my fingers. “Those darn non-wedding-ring-wearing pilots.”

Mercy Bea whirls away from me with a huff, stopping long enough to point at the clock. “Hurry on out. The breakfast-club boys will be along soon.”

I return to the kitchen. “Morning, Andy.” The exhaust fans over the oven compete with the soulful sounds coming from the mini boom box on top of the reach-in. All I can hear is the bass line. “What’s today’s special?”

The Emmitt Smith–sized cook looks up from pulling a couple of green peppers from the lowboy. “Barbeque chicken with choice of three vegetable sides—greens, corn, fried okra, corn on the cob, fried tomatoes, peas, or mashed potatoes. Bubba’s Buttery Biscuits, of course, and a drink. Choice of dessert. Pluff Mud Pie or vanilla layer cake.”

“I ordered more produce and shrimp Friday. Should come today.”

“What’d they say over at Fresh Earth Produce?” Andy chops peppers for one of the breakfast-club boys’ country omelet. “Rice Dooley is wanting money, I bet.”

“Well, he doesn’t consider us a charity.” I snatch a hot, fresh biscuit from a baking sheet. Steam rises from the fluffy white middle when I pull it apart.

Rice: “We need some sort of payment, Caroline. Look, I know Jones didn’t leave y’all in good shape, but can we see something?”

Me: “I understand, Mr. Dooley. I’ll get a payment to you this week. But we need corn and shrimp or the Frogmore Café is without Frogmore Stew.”

“I know you’re doing all you can to juggle things, Caroline.” Andy whacks an onion in two.

The soft bite of my biscuit melts in my mouth. “Unfortunately, there’s more debt to juggle than credit.”

In the aftermath of kind and compassionate Jones McDermott’s death, I discovered a hard truth: he was a horrible businessman. As a result, I’ve learned how to tap dance around due dates, how to stretch imaginary dollars.

“Any word from the lawyer?” Andy asks, turning to the stove, pouring eggs into a hot skillet.

I’m going to write “Nope” across my forehead and point to it when people ask, “Any word from the lawyer?”

“Nothing new.”

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Andy leans over the prep table toward me. “Mercy Bea is hoping Jones left the place to her?” He grabs a handful of diced veggies and sprinkles them on the cooking eggs. “Why would she want this place?” I gesture to the dingy white kitchen walls and cheap linoleum floor. “It’s a money pit, in need of some serious loving. The old girl needs an owner with deep, generous pockets.”

“Mercy Bea or the Café?”

Brushing biscuit crumbs from the corner of my lips, I laugh softly and head for the dining room. “You’re bad, Andy.”

A guttural um-um-um vibrates from the cook’s immense chest. “This money pit is putting food on my table, paying the bills. Gloria’s been out of work for over a month now on account of her back. I need this job. I’m believing God has a plan.”

The cook’s confidence makes me pause at the kitchen door. “If there is such a thing as an all-knowing, all-seeing All Mighty, He might have a plan for the Café. But Jones? I’m not so sure.”

Andy’s large shoulders roll as he laughs. “Guess you’re right about Jones. Yes sirree. But the wife and I are praying, Caroline.”

“You do that. I’ll wish upon a star.”


Interview

Exclusive Interview with Rachel Hauck

WoF: Tell us a little about yourself. You haven’t always worked as a writer, have you?

RACHEL: No, I haven’t. I worked in the corporate world for 17 years. I was a software trainer back in the days when nobody knew what a PC was. (I don’t want to say too much more―that will date me.) I ended up being a project manager and managing all the people who went on the road.

That opportunity gave me one of my heart’s desires, which was to travel. Sometimes you don’t know that you have a stupid heart’s desire until you get into it, then you go "What the heck?" I really did want to travel, I loved it, but once I got into it . . . it’s different when you travel for work. I was gone 70% of the time. In hindsight it was a really great place to be because a lot of times it was just me and God. It was a very hard but really good time in my life.

From there I started migrating towards writing because that was something I always wanted to do. I woke up one day and said, "Well, you better start trying or it’s going to be too late."

WoF: How do you begin a book? Are you a plotter/planner or more of a seat-of-your-pants writer?

RACHEL: I’m what they would call "both." I definitely come up with an idea. Like with Caroline, I originally wanted to have a cooking show host who couldn’t cook. (I’m writing that book now, actually.) I try to think about what kind of character, what kind of story am I going to tell? Can I describe the story to you in a single sentence or two? "Low-country girl inherits a broken-down café" was my idea.

I normally come up with a broad-range story idea. Then I start thinking about who’s the character who’s going to carry this idea. What is going to be her journey? I kind of plot the beginning, the opening thing that launches her on her journey. For Caroline it was that she found out she owned this café. Then I had to figure out what’s going to be her dark moment in the midst of this. What’s going to cause her to face her own values and choose? Then I come up with some kind of happily-ever-after ending or some kind of ending that fits the story. I have to have what I call the three large stepping stones: what’s my launch, what’s my big middle (my dark moment), and then what’s my happy ending. Once I get those in place I kind of have a feel for the story and I can start putting the pieces in between.

WoF: We’d love to plop in a booth at the Frogmore Café and order the special. It’s so much more than the setting of the book—it’s really a character in itself, isn’t it?

RACHEL: Definitely. When we have characters in our lives, they force us to recognize things about ourselves. They force us to make decisions that we may not normally make. The Café definitely did that for Caroline. It forced her to make decisions and look at her life in a way she had never looked at it before.

WoF: Many of us can relate to Caroline’s constant struggle of trying to do what’s best for ourselves while also doing what’s best for others. Do you have any advice to share for those in that situation?

RACHEL: I actually had to interview somebody who struggled with that because—I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing—that’s not an issue with me. I definitely want to help people, but I have learned to say no.

What they have to learn is how do I use my gift while also saying "no" and putting up boundaries? For some people that’s going to come naturally. Once you start to say no, I think you get in the rhythm of it. My advice would be either learn how to do it on your own or invite people you trust into your life who will remind you it’s OK to say no sometimes and not overextend yourself. I think Hazel was that character for Caroline; she was always saying, "Hey, sometimes you’ve got to look out for you."

WoF: Given today’s moral climate, it was fairly daring of you to address Caroline’s struggle over whether or not to let J.D. "sleep over." Was that a difficult subject to tackle?

RACHEL: It must have been because I didn’t tackle it in the first pass! After I submitted the book and got input from my editors, I realized I was not broaching that subject. As Caroline was a new Christian and obviously an adult woman with someone who was being passionate about her, it just didn’t seem real to me that she would not be tempted. That’s OK, to be tempted, it’s what we do with the temptation that is ultimately what we are accountable for before God.

That is actually my favorite scene. I loved how it came out, how she handled it. Once I went there, it was not difficult at all. I felt it was the right place to go with her, to have a genuine character. There are so many women who struggle with this, especially in today’s moral climate where Caroline had two friends, one saying "Don’t do it, you’ll regret it." and the other one saying "Hey, you’re an adult woman. Live your life." So I actually was very relieved when I went there; it felt that I reached a depth of the book that I hadn’t gotten to before.

WoF: "Operation Wedding Day" is quite the battle plan for finding a mate. Did you come up with that yourself or do you know someone who actually put it into action?

RACHEL: I just made it up! I was like, what can this crazy girl do? I figured that Elle was the comic relief in this book and she seems so over the top and that seemed like a completely over the top thing for someone to do. Elle was the perfect person to carry it off. In some ways, that’s what you want in a character. You want them to be a little larger than life, where you’re going, oooh, I would never do that but that’s so funny! Or I wish I could do that.

WoF: When the book ends, we don’t necessarily get the feeling Caroline’s story is over. Will we see more of her in the future?

RACHEL: You see her in Love Starts with Elle, her story kind of ties up there. [My new book] is also set back in Beaufort, so we’re going to see more of Caroline through Joy’s eyes.

SPOILER ALERT! NEXT PARAGRAPH REVEALS ENDING.

I have had people say, "I love the ending because it wasn’t typical" and I’ve had people say "What happens?" I felt like if she married Mitch, she never would have gone out to find what God had for her. I felt like the ending was right for Caroline. It wasn’t right for a standard romance novel, but it didn’t seem right for her to say yes to Mitch. I originally had her say yes and they were going to get married, and I thought, no, Caroline really needs to discover God and life on her own, without this man beside her who has really done her wrong over the years. It didn’t feel right to have her get married and stay in Beaufort.

SPOILER OVER—IT’S SAFE TO READ FROM HERE DOWN.

WoF: So what you’re working on next is Dining With Joy?

RACHEL: Yes. It’s about the cooking show host who can’t cook. It’s really going to be fun. It’s going to be set in Beaufort, South Carolina. So again, her friends are going to be—although I haven’t introduced her yet—Elle and Caroline, so she’ll be part of that pack. I’ve tried over the years to figure out how to weave in Beaufort’s film industry. Forrest Gump was filmed there, Prince of Tides was filmed there, a Dennis Quaid/Julia Roberts movie was filmed there. I thought it would be fun to have a cooking show filmed there.

WoF: Is it easier to set a story in a real town?

RACHEL: That’s a good question. It can be easy because you already have street names and places. You don’t have to be a city planner. You can do some fictionalized things―obviously, there’s no Frogmore Café on that corner, there’s a house there―but when Beaufortians read it they’re going to know if I’ve done my homework or not.

If you’re making up a city, you are mimicking something and you have to create all of the restaurants, all of the businesses, all of the streets. You have to create your own visual on top of the visual you’re creating for the characters. It can be a little bit tiresome, but then you can do whatever you want. But even a fictional town has to have the feel of a town set in that state. So if I made up a small town in South Carolina on the water, it would have to have the same feel.

WoF: Is there anything else you’d like to tell our readers?

RACHEL: I always like to remind people that God has a destiny for them. I think a lot of people don’t feel completely in the place God has for them. It’s a subtle theme in most of my books: God has a destiny for you. Be confident that He desires it more for you than you do for yourself.

And you’re never too old. Our church secretary read Caroline and said, "At the end I set a timer and allowed myself to feel sorry for myself for 15 minutes." I’m like, "Why?!" She said, "Because I realized I had missed opportunities." I said to her, "Esther, you’re not dead yet, you’re only fifty-something." God always has something for you. Be confident in that. You can be Caroline at some stage in your life no matter if you’re 20 or if you’re 50. There’s still something God has for you.


Recipe

Bubba’s Buttery Biscuits

3 cups self-rising flour

10 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces and chilled, plus 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted for brushing the tops

1 1/4 cups buttermilk

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.

Place the flour and chilled butter in a medium mixing bowl. Work the butter into the flour with a pastry cutter, a fork, or your fingertips until the butter pieces are a little larger than an English pea, but not larger than a lima bean. If you are using your fingers, work quickly so that the heat of your hands won’t melt the butter.

Pour in all of the buttermilk and, using light pressure, fold the mixture a few times with a plastic spatula until it holds together. Do not over mix. In order to make light biscuits, it is important to work the dough as little as possible.

Turn the dough out onto a floured board and knead it quickly and gently 6 to 10 times or until it begins to be almost homogenized. There will be large pieces of butter throughout. Sprinkle a little flour under the dough so that it won’t stick to the board and lightly dust the top of the dough so that it won’t stick to the rolling pin. Roll the dough out to about 1/2-inch thickness.

Cut the dough into 2-inch rounds, place on an ungreased baking sheet, and bake in the preheated oven for about 15 minutes. I like the biscuits to be crispy and brown on the top and bottom, but not dry in the middle. Remove the baking sheet from the oven and brush the tops of the biscuits with the melted butter. Serve right away.

(Recipe from Louis Osteen)


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