This is a good day. Though it began as gray and sluggish as simmering oatmeal, it has steadily grown into an energizing, high-speed puree, ever since noon, when I got the phone call from Jo.

"Can you handle a dinner for five?"


"My boss and his entourage."

"Let me get my calendar."

"I mean tonight," she said.

"Tonight! You mean five hours from now?"

"I'm sorry. Can you do it?"

"Of course I can do it."

"Are you sure?"

"Of course I'm sure."

"I really can take them out, Lincoln, but it's Jerry and his group, and they always prefer a home-cooked meal. And they like your cooking."

"I can do it," I said.

On the drive to the grocery store, with Violet listening to a tape of Sesame Street songs in her car seat, I decided on an Indian chicken masala, which, after being thrown together, could simmer for hours with an occasional stirring while I cleaned the house. I'd serve it with basmati rice and some kind of cool, astringent salad that would cut the curry.

Jo had said the house was already clean, that it wouldn't take much to get it ready for guests, but she doesn't understand these things. It wasn't dinner-party clean, it wasn't clean like a fresh hotel room, everything aligned and pulled tight and poofed up, all the collapsed fibers standing up-right once again.

So, with my masala simmering on low, I launched into tornado mode, like the Tasmanian Devil on the Bugs Bunny videos. I've learned that housework, done well, is impossible with a single-task mind-set. It's best to dart about like a hummingbird, tangential but still focused, conquering as you go, racking up little victories that accumulate and form something larger and significant. I began zipping from room to room, multitasking, occasionally peeking into Violet's bedroom where she played with paper dolls.

As the Lysol steeped in the toilet bowls, I watered all the plants on the main floor, stopping midway to make the bed in the master bedroom and pick up from the floor two pens and Jo's calculator, which I stowed in the pocket of my cargo shorts until I passed through Jo's office on my way to transfer the red load from washer to dryer.

Which reminded me: Heat of a dryer.

Which reminded me: Dry heat.

Which reminded me: Dry heaves.

Buy Mylanta for Jo.

Atlanta Braves.

Play date.Violet needs more friends.

As I dusted an end table, I glanced at my watch. Would there be enough time for the wine to sufficiently chill? I pushed three bottles of chardonnay into the ice bin of the freezer then set the oven timer for forty minutes. Before leaving the kitchen, I washed the floor in the main cooking area on my hands and knees, because damp mops simply redistribute the dirt into fuzzy lines.

I shook the foyer rug outside and draped it over my shoulder, then pulled out my pocket knife and snipped enough daisies and snapdragons and rosemary sprigs for a dining-room-table centerpiece.

Passing through the kitchen, I stirred the masala and called to ask the electrician to return on Friday to correct that flickering fluorescent bulb that made the laundry room look like an old black-and-white movie. The electrician reminded me of the light he fixed in the bathroom, which reminded me of the bathroom-wall bulletin board where we display clippings that amuse us. Since one of these guests tonight was Jo's boss, I found and pinned up the story from the Rochester Business Journal that featured Jo in the "Twenty Young Executives to Watch" issue.

All the while, I performed house-cleaning triage in my mind: The sandy front stoop-critical. I did not have to soak the knobs on the stove in ammonia water, not until tomorrow, but the backdoor throw rug with dried banana pudding either needed to be laundered or tossed into the closet. I could ignore the master bedroom if I shut and locked the door, but what if they wanted to see the house? They'd know we'd only lived here a year. Out of courtesy, women would request a tour, men wouldn't, but I couldn't be certain the group would be all male.

Make bed.

Cover Violet's pee stain with throw pillows from living-room couch.

Remember to call man to come shampoo couch.

New couch?

Property taxes paid first.

Call CPA.

C-3PO.Was Violet too young for Star Wars?

By five-thirty, I'd set the table and made the salad.Wine was back in the refrigerator, rice simmering in the steamer. I had time to pick five innocuous CDs that would allow for conversation but still convey to the world that we are eclectic and current.

At five to six, I was dressed and sipping a glass of cabernet. I dimmed the lights and lit the candles. This was the first time all afternoon I'd slowed down enough to notice my breathing and the beating in my chest. Though I'd taken a shower, my head was warm and flushed, fresh sweat beading on my forehead. I had that lingering glow from a full day of aerobics. Maybe I'd lost a few pounds.

Join a gym?

Buy birthday card for Jim, Jo's CFO.

Get Violet's portrait taken.

Check with dentist to make sure baking-soda toothpaste is okay for children's teeth.

I knew Jo would remember the evening as a success, though the details that created it would escape her. She wouldn't realize that a meal from scratch takes at least six hours, and that I'd magically done it in three. She wouldn't know that I vacuumed the seats of the dining-room chairs or oiled the squeaky hinge of the front door or played the CDs in random mode to help stimulate anticipation, but these things are important to me because this is what I do, and I do it very well.
Serves six

This is a good dish to try on people who are wary of Indian food. It tastes more like a cross between Indian and Mediterranean cuisine.

1 /2 cup vegetable oil
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 /2 stick cinnamon
7 cardamom pods (Any variety is fine, but I like the large black pods; they have a deep, smoky flavor.)
1 /2 teaspoon peppercorns
8 ounces onions, chopped
9 cloves of garlic, chopped
3 tablespoons minced ginger
3 big tomatoes, chopped
3 pounds skinned chicken thighs (Don't even think of using white meat; it's dry and tasteless in this and most other recipes.)
1 /3 cup plain yogurt
Salt and pepper to taste

1 teaspoon garam masala (This can be bought, already made, in any Asian market. It's not a critical ingredient, but it does add some life to the sauce.)

Heat the oil in a big pan over medium heat. Put in the cumin, cinnamon, peppercorns and cardamom and stir a few seconds before adding the garlic, ginger and onions. Stir a few more minutes, then put in the tomatoes and chicken. Add a few shakes or pinches of salt and fresh ground pepper. Mix together and bring to a boil, then cover, reduce heat to low and let simmer for an hour. Add the yogurt and garam masala, stir and serve over basmati rice.